One of my favorite musical microgenres is foreign language versions of pop songs that were first done in English. Usually, this means something like Spanish singer Sonia’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off Of My Cloud.” However, sometimes it’s the original singer reworking their own song. This was a common practice in the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, the Beatles famously cut a German version of “She Loves You.” From time to time here at Devise, we’ll look at both of these kinds of cross-cultural recordings in a series called “The Universal Language.”
So, all of this brings us to David Bowie. Bowie released several notable foreign language versions of his own songs, a practice that went back to the start of his career. In 1969, Bowie’s sci-fi ballad “Space Oddity” was climbing the charts around the world. Success naturally spawns imitators and in Italy two different bands, Equipe 84 and The Computers, released their own versions of “Space Oddity” in Italian. Bowie’s record label felt these covers could threaten the future superstar’s success, so they hatched a plan: Bowie would record his own Italian version.
Thus “Ragazzo solo, ragazza sola” (“Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl”) was born. The label brought in famed Italian lyricist Mogol to translate the song, as Bowie was not fluent in Italian. As you might have guessed by the title, Mogol did not retell the story of Major Tom. Instead, he wrote entirely new lyrics that turned the song into a love song about two lonely youths wandering the streets of a quiet town at night. Bowie recorded the new vocals on top of the original “Space Oddity” backing track in December 1969 and the record became an Italian hit the next year. This wouldn’t be the last time Bowie would sing in a foreign tongue, but we’ll save that story for another day.