David Bowie in Space: star's extra-terrestrial output reimagined for Hebridean Dark Skies Festival

An electropop version of Born in a UFO? Hallo Spaceboy translated into Gaelic? As part of this year’s Hebridean Dark Skies Festival at An Lanntair in Stonoway, four musicians will perform alternative takes on space-themed songs by David Bowie, writes Andrew Eaton-Lewis

If you had to try and sum up David Bowie in a dozen songs, maybe you’d be best to simply pick all the ones he wrote about one of his favourite subjects, space. For a start, this would give you a decades-spanning career retrospective. You’ve got 1970s classics (Space Oddity, Starman, Ziggy Stardust, Life on Mars?), music from the 1980s (Ashes to Ashes), the 1990s (Hallo Spaceboy), the 2000s (New Killer Star) and some of the last music he ever made. The Next Day, his penultimate album, has four space-themed songs, The Stars (Are Out Tonight), Dancing Out in Space and, if we’re counting bonus tracks, Like a Rocket Man and Born in a UFO. Then there’s the extraordinary, ten minute long Blackstar, released just two days before Bowie’s death in January 2016.

This has been on my mind lately because of David Bowie in Space, a concert at An Lanntair’s annual Hebridean Dark Skies Festival on the Isle of Lewis, for which musicians Josie Duncan, Scott C Park, Michael McGovern and I are “reimagining” (ie. taking liberties with) Bowie’s space-themed songs. Like Space Oddity itself, the idea began as a bit of a gimmick, but the metaphor has become richer than anticipated.

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Bowie’s career effectively began and ended with songs about space and death. Space Oddity, his breakthrough 1969 hit, was timed to coincide with the first Moon landing and was used in the BBC’s TV coverage of that event, but what an odd, potentially jinx-like choice that was, a song in which an astronaut becomes fatally lost in the void. The unsettling video for Blackstar, premiered in November 2015, begins with the corpse of an astronaut. Some Bowie fans (including the video’s director) think it’s the same astronaut, Space Oddity’s Major Tom. Bowie had already revived Major Tom once in the 1980 song Ashes to Ashes, or twice if you count the Hallo Spaceboy/Space Oddity medley he performed with the Pet Shop Boys in 1996, so why not a third, poignantly final time?

David Bowie: 'endlessly intriguing'David Bowie: 'endlessly intriguing'
David Bowie: 'endlessly intriguing'

In the video for Blackstar, a woman finds a mask made of jewels in the dead astronaut’s helmet. It becomes an object of worship, carried away while the astronaut himself is left behind. It was a hauntingly evocative image even before the shock of Bowie’s death just a few weeks later. Bowie was forever wearing masks: the personas of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke and others. The most famous of them, Ziggy Stardust, was both a satirical comment on celebrity – rock star as decadent but inscrutable alien – and a convenient disguise for a man who shared very little of his personal life with the world. It was only after his death that it emerged he had liver cancer; almost nobody outside of his inner circle knew. The funeral was an equally private affair. Most of us only got to see the jewelled mask, not the astronaut himself.

Bowie’s love of space was boyish at times – there is a great story about him trying to persuade NASA to launch Mick Jagger into space for Live Aid – but another obvious reason why he repeatedly returned to the same metaphor is that he kept finding new meaning in it as he got older. The songs listed above touch on alienation, celebrity, religion, love, sexuality, addiction and mortality, from ever shifting perspectives. Put them together and it’s striking how each one keeps shining a light on the others. The Stars (Are Out Tonight), for example, is a tale of multiple, modern Ziggy Stardusts, alien-like celebrities “soaking up our primitive world”. In the video, David Bowie and Tilda Swinton are a middle-aged couple tormented by younger, more glamorous versions of themselves. It’s quite the contrast with the giddy, youthful excitement of the alien encounter in Starman (“If we can sparkle he may land tonight!”). Born in a UFO, by contrast, is curiously timeless – a 1970s glam rock take on 1950s-style sci-fi novelty hits, which Bowie apparently began working on in 1978 before finishing it in 2012 when he was in his sixties.

It's possible to overplay Bowie’s love of space, to assume a cosmic metaphor where none exists. Interviewed by Q magazine about his 1984 song Loving the Alien, Bowie waspishly commented that “any twat who thought the song was about ‘little green men’ would definitely have a problem with the concept”. Indeed, read the lyrics and the song is clearly about clashes between organised religions.

The trouble with this is that many of Bowie’s lyrics are much more oblique. It is part of what makes him endlessly intriguing, but it also makes sequencing a show called David Bowie in Space tricky. Reluctant to fall into the same trap as the Q interviewer, we ruled out some songs which only had fleeting references to space, such as Love You Til Tuesday and Lady Stardust, ultimately settling on ten which seemed to fit the bill and – in the spirit of a famous musical chameleon – coming up with completely new arrangements for each one. Born in a UFO went from glam rock to electropop, for example, and Hallo Spaceboy got translated into Gaelic. Major Tom is no longer contactable from ground control, but we’ve tried our best to do his songs justice.

David Bowie in Space is at An Lanntair, Stornoway, on 10 March, as part of the Hebridean Dark Skies Festival. Tickets available via www.lanntair.com. The festival also includes a screening of The Man Who Fell To Earth, starring Bowie as an alien, on 14 March.

Hebridean Dark Skies Festival 2023 highlights

Lass O’Pairts Street theatre company Mischief La Bas debuts a new show inspired by eight female space pioneers, 11 March

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You Are Here An interactive map of the stars above the Hebrides, designed by Edinburgh studio Ray Interactive, until 1 April

Planetarium weekends Edinburgh science attraction Dynamic Earth visits the Isle of Lewis for the first time, along with regular festival visitors Cosmos Planetarium, 11 and 18 March

The Hebridean Dark Skies Festival runs from 9-21 March at An Lanntair and across Lewis and Harris, www.lanntair.com/darkskies