When the BBC Grounded Major Tom

David Bowie needs no introduction — he was simply one of the greatest recording artists in modern history. He wasn’t an overnight success, though. He released his first solo single, titled “The Laughing Gnome,” on April 14, 1967, and it was widely considered a dud at the time. His debut album, titled “David Bowie,” came out a few months later and failed to make the UK music charts. Bowie, then 20-years old, disappeared from the music scene for almost two years, not that anyone really noticed.

But in the summer of 1969, Bowie released a new song — one that still gets radio airplay today. “Space Oddity” came out on July 11th of that year, and the timing was no accident. A few days later, the United States’ Apollo 11 mission — the first manned mission to the moon — was to launch. The world was abuzz with all things space, and Bowie took advantage of the moment.

It was a great plan — and one that almost backfired.

If you’re unfamiliar with “Space Oddity,” please take a moment and fix that. This email will be here when you’re ready. Okay, good, let’s move on. Space Oddity’s lyrics tell the story of “Major Tom,” an astronaut off to space, having a conversation with “Ground Control,” the people back on terra firma. The tale starts off fine — liftoff goes without a flaw and Major Tom becomes instantly famous. (At the time, the UK space program had yet to launch a person into space. And, it still hasn’t.) But ultimately, things go wrong. As a 2019 BBC article recounts, “Space Oddity was not an ode to success. The song is a bleak tale of an astronaut – Major Tom – getting into difficulties on his mysterious mission to the stars. Ground Control can do nothing to save him as he spins into the inky darkness.”

And for BBC radio back in 1969, that was a problem. With Apollo 11 about to soar into the great unknown — and with astronauts about to leave the capsule if they dare — the state-run network found the lyrics a little too real, and the outcome a little too scary. Perhaps out of superstition or perhaps in fear of backlash if the Apollo mission went poorly, BBC radio banned Space Oddity from its airwaves until the Apollo astronauts returned home on July 24, nearly two weeks after Space Oddity came out.  For Bowie, almost doomed his song’s chances. For a British artist, getting airplay on the BBC was (and still is) a critical element of success, and not getting airplay at his song’s launch (pardon the pun, I couldn’t resist) was bad. Without airplay, the song struggled. It failed to make the UK charts that summer.

Thankfully for music fans and Bowie alike, the song was popular enough even without the BBC’s support on the radio, and despite the slow start, it had more staying power than Major Tom did. Space exploration remained buzzworthy throughout the year and the catchy song’s popularity crept upward. With the BBC’s ban now lifted, the song finally debuted on the UK charts — at #48 — on September 6, 1969. It fell off for a week and returned again on September 20th (at #39). Space Oddity had finally broken through; it remained in the top 100 for a dozen more weeks, peaking at #5 in November

Bonus fact: While BBC Radio banned Space Oddity temporarily, pending the moon landing’s results, their cousins at BBC TV didn’t. In fact, they went in the opposite direction. Per another BBC report, Space Oddity “was used by the BBC in its coverage of the moon landing.” 

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