A video featuring Commander Chris Hadfield’s zero-gravity cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity has exploded in terms of online viewership, surpassing the interest in a talked-about video released just last week, that being, of all things, Bowie’s controversial vignette for his current single The Next Day. That religion-themed video was lambasted by the Catholic League as being “strewn with characteristic excess,” from a “switch-hitting, bisexual senior citizen from London.” Turning the other cheek, apparently, is not in the Catholic League’s repertoire.
But if the Space Station-set version of Bowie’s 1969 classic song of orbiting alienation has taken over YouTube, the only one to blame is the star-dusted singer-songwriter himself. “We had no idea the video or the song was even going to happen,” says Emm Gryner, the earthbound Canadian musician who plays piano on the new Space Oddity. “But once we heard from Bowie’s people, that’s when it started to become a reality.”
It was Gryner, currently one-third of the Stratford, Ont.-based roots trio Trent Severn, who made first contact with Bowie. She had worked with him on a tour to support his 1999 album Hours... , and knew him well enough to send him an apprehensive e-mail about the project. “I asked him if I should be scared or or if I should be excited,” Gryner told The Globe and Mail in an interview on Monday. She needn’t have worried; Bowie was hunky-dory with the mission. “He said the idea sounded thrilling, and that we should go for it.”
The song and video took six months to make. The new arrangement is more heartfelt and less far-out than the original, which featured strings scored by the Grammy-winning Paul Buckmaster. The instrumental parts, recorded terrestrially, retain the flowers-and-mellotron vibe of the original, though Gryner’s piano part is marked by an affecting simplicity and elegance. “I’m proud of it,” says the musician, who, like Hadfield, was born and raised in Sarnia, Ont. “I wanted it to be sparse. I wanted a floating sensation.”
Gryner’s relationship with Hadfield stretches back to 2004, when she was commissioned to commemorate the spaceman’s first free float into the interstellar. She goes into detail at emmgryner.com.
Fans of the Bowie original will notice that the lyrics have been tweaked. Hadfield, the Tang-drinking troubadour, adjusted a few lines to reflect Monday’s homecoming to Earth rather than the druggy detachment of Major Tom, who floated in a “most peculiar way.” Where an adrift and helpless Major Tom sighed that there was nothing he could do, Commander Chris proudly trumpets the success and thoroughness of his five-month mission – “nothing left to do.”
Hadfield’s vocals are astonishingly well delivered, given the conditions and equipment (likely GarageBand software and an iPad). The astronaut’s guitar is a Larrivée parlour-sized acoustic model, made in Vancouver.
The most significant shift from Bowie’s original to Hadfield’s reimagination has to do with context. The release of the single in 1969 coincided with the first Apollo moon landing – a Cold War expedition, by any other description. Hadfield’s mission, on the other hand, was a joint one with Russian cosmonauts. Space and superpowers are now shared; and the stars look very different today.