Leah is a Senior Lecturer at Kingston University and a musician, writer and the Project Leader at Visconti Studios, from where she runs the Kingston University Stylophone Orchestra. Leah’s book ‘Blackstar Theory’ on the last works of David Bowie is available to preorder here.

The 1960s was the decade when synthesisers emerged as new musical instruments of popular appeal – no longer was synthesis the sole remit of experimental composers and fodder for lab experiments, instruments like the Buchla (BEMI) (1963), and the Moog synthesiser (1964) introduced modern ears to the sounds of analogue synthesis – notably with 1968’s Switched On Bach, a bestselling album of Bach pieces arranged for Moog by Wendy Carlos. However, these new instruments were impractically large, complicated to operate and prohibitively expensive. By contrast the Stylophone was accessible and cheap – allowing anyone to access the sounds of the future with an instrument that was easy to play and could fit right in your pocket.

The Stylophone sound – a square wave that can be modulated with a vibrato control – has a strange and unique appeal. In the late 60s, it’s voice emerged just as the space race captured the world’s imagination, a sound both futuristic and fragile. It was picked up by a few musicians of the period – it appeared on a Small Faces B-side in 1968 (“Donkey Rides, A Penny, A Glass”), and was also spotted in the hands of John Lennon at a Beatles rehearsal in 1969. But the most famous of these early adopters was David Bowie, who featured the instrument on his breakthrough hit ‘Space Oddity’ (1969). From this moment on, Bowie’s legacy would be linked with the instrument and its signature warbling square wave buzz and a glissando across printed metal strips. ‘Space Oddity’ helped to establish the Stylophone in the popular consciousness, fusing its sound with associations of science fiction and space exploration, lonely melancholia and kitschy naivete.

To celebrate Bowie’s 75th birthday, as well as the recent release of the limited edition Bowie themed Stylophone, here is a run-down of all of the times Bowie featured the Stylophone on record.

‘Space Oddity’ (Space Oddity 1969)

Written by David Bowie

Recorded: 20 June 1969 at Trident Studios (London)

Produced by Gus Dudgeon

When Bowie composed ‘Space Oddity’ he didn’t have a record deal. Dropped by his label Deram in 1968, Bowie had spent that year exploring other performance avenues outside of pop music – physical theatre with his troupe Feathers, and developing a solo mime show, which he performed as the support act at a number of Tyrannosaurus Rex/T.Rex gigs. A popular apocryphal tale claims that it was Marc Bolan who gifted Bowie his first Stylophone instrument, however longtime co-producer and friend Tony Visconti confirmed that Dubreq sent an instrument to Bowie’s manager in late 1968; a marketing ploy by Dubreq to popularise the instrument amongst the cool kids, many emerging pop stars in the UK received similar gifts that year.

In late ’68 Bowie was asked to submit a handful of new demos for a prospective project with Mercury Records. One of these was ‘Space Oddity’, it’s title and themes inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out in the UK earlier that summer. The Stylophone was a crucial ingredient on the demo arrangement of what would become Bowie’s breakthrough hit, adding sci-fi strangeness and a sense of fragility to the music. Mercury saw potential in the track to capitalise on timing a release to coincide with NASA’s Apollo 11 launch to put the first men on the moon.

Early demo versions of Space Oddity, along with the other compositions Bowie submitted to Mercury in 1968, were made available in 2019 with the Spying Through a Keyhole box set, and you can hear Bowie’s innovative and musical approach to playing the Stylophone on ‘Space Oddity (Demo – alternative lyrics [with John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson])’. You can even hear Bowie cupping the speaker to control the dynamics, and flipping temporarily into vibrato mode for expression.

‘Space Oddity’ became a minor hit in 1969 (when it was re-released as a single in 1975 it gave Bowie his first UK No.1), but it put Bowie on the map as a musical star with potential. He performed the song with Stylophone in-hand on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops in October 1969, (the tapes of the performance were wiped by the BBC). Bowie became the pop star ‘face’ of the Stylophone brand and, from that moment, both legacies were entangled; the song, and its unique sound, forever be associated with the optimism and isolation of space, and by metaphoric extension, the human condition in the late twentieth century. In 2013, Commander Chris Hadfield recorded a cover version of ‘Space Oddity’ on board the International Space Station. The video was posted to YouTube with Bowie’s permission and has since been viewed over 50 million times.


‘After All’ (The Man Who Sold the World 1970)

Written by David Bowie

Recorded: April–May 1970, Trident Studios (London)

Produced by Tony Visconti

Bowie used the Stylophone again on his next album, The Man Who Sold the World. The song ’After All’, has the echoes of some of Bowie’s earlier childhood-themed songs from the ’60s – such as ‘When I’m Five’ and ‘There Is a Happy Land’ only with a much darker mood: a sombre minor-key waltz around a gloomy, somewhat cryptic, lyrical theme. The Stylophone appears at the end of each chorus with a familiar glissando flourish, a shiver running up your spine.

‘Pictures of Lily’ (Substitute – The Songs Of The Who 2001)

 Written by Pete Townsend

Recorded: October 2000, Looking Glass Studios (NYC)

Produced by David Bowie & Mark Plati

The next time we hear a Stylophone on a Bowie track is some 30 years later, on this cover of The Who’s ‘Pictures of Lily’. The song was created for a compilation album released in 2001, and was also included in the recent Brilliant Adventure (1992–2001) box set (2021). You can hear the Stylophone in the choruses from 1:30 onwards, a trumpet-like fanfare. At 2:24, Bowie creates a siren-like effect by twisting the tuning dial up and down.

In a 2002 interview for BBC Radio 4’s Front Row programme, John Wilson asked him about the reappearance of the Stylophone during this later period. Bowie explained:

“… we did this song ‘Pictures of Lily’ and on there I used I dragged the Stylophone out – somebody had sent me one. I wish I could say it was my actual original but somebody from England sent me one with the original boxing on it… and I was absolutely delighted. I hadn’t seen the thing since 69/70 whenever it was. So I used it as the solo instrument for ‘Pictures of Lily’ with, I thought, great results! Haha! But it was tremendously impactful, and so I said ‘I really should start using this again on something’. So I put it in my collection of old synthesisers. I got a lot of old stuff that I’ve kept over the years that I really dragged out for [Heathen].”

Link to interview: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/entertainment-arts-35278805

[Quote from around 6:20 mark]

 ‘Toy (Your Turn to Drive)’ (Toy 2021)

Written by David Bowie

Recorded:  July–October 2000, Looking Glass Studios (NYC)

Produced by David Bowie, Mark Plati

The ill-fated Toy project was meant to revive some of Bowie’s more obscure, pre-fame songwriting with fresh new arrangements. Intended for release in 2001, the album ended up being shelved, not surfacing officially until 2021’s Brilliant Adventure (1992–2001) box set. A few tracks were polished up and included on 2002’s Heathen, mostly as downloads and B sides.

Feeling reflective at the passing of the millennium, and creatively spurred by the arrival of his daughter Alexandria, Bowie’s work around this time dealt with the power of nostalgia and looked to the past. After previously having stated he would never again perform his ‘greatest hits’, he went back on this promise, reprising older material with his VH1 Storytellers special in 1999, continuing the trend with his 2000 mini-tour and, culminating with the famous Glastonbury headline set in July. In this context it feels appropriate that Bowie is recording with the Stylophone again. In ‘Toy (Your Turn to Drive)’, one of the new compositions created for Toy, the instrument brings a sense of familiar cute bombast in the solo sections. Check out the layered solos at 1:50, it’s like reaching back and touching a memory from ’69.

‘Safe’ aka ‘(Safe in This) Sky Life’ (Heathen bonus track, 2002)

Written by David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels

Recorded variously August 1998; August-October 2001; January 2002 (various locations)

Released version produced David Bowie & Tony Visconti

Originally titled ‘(Safe In This) Sky Life’, ‘Safe’ was included as a bonus track on some editions of Heathen. The composition was developed in early 1998, originally intended for the soundtrack of The Rugrats Movie (1998). Visconti was brought in to create the string arrangement – reuniting the pair who hadn’t worked together since the Baal sessions from 1981. The early version of ‘Safe’ was never released; it emerged four years later having been subsequently reworked by Bowie and Visconti during the Heathen sessions.

Even though this is a dense and full-textured rock song, you can hear the Stylophone leading the top line with its unmistakable clarion tone. It returns for the second verse, providing counterpoint against Bowie’s voice. It brings a touch of nostalgia to proceedings, and with it, Bowie demonstrates the instrument’s capability to handle grand and sweeping musical gestures, holding its own against Visconti’s huge and sumptuous string orchestra.

’Slip Away’ (Heathen 2002)

Written by David Bowie

Recorded: July–September 2001, Allaire Studios, New York.

Produced by David Bowie & Tony Visconti

‘Slip Away’ began its life as a slightly different song. ‘Uncle Floyd’, slated for inclusion on Toy, was another new piece developed for the retrospective project. In the lyric, Bowie namechecks characters from The Uncle Floyd Show, a low-budget children’s TV programme that was broadcast from the mid-70s and throughout the ’80s in New Jersey and New York. It was apparently a favourite TV show of Bowie’s, recommended to him by John Lennon. In both version of the song the Stylophone features prominently, delivering a strong hit of retro-futuristic melancholy and child-like magic. The poetic solo at the end of the song (‘Slip Away’ from 5:05) was a melody composed by Visconti, a moment that showcases the large emotive power of this simple little instrument.

On subsequent tours and live performances, Bowie could be seen playing a special edition white Stylophone S1 live on stage during ‘Slip Away’.

Never Get Old (Reality 2003)

Written by David Bowie

Recorded: January–February 2003, Looking Glass Studios (NYC)

Produced by David Bowie & Tony Visconti

The last time the Stylophone serves a prominent role in a Bowie song is in ‘Never Get Old’ from 2003’s Reality – you can hear it during the breakdown section between chorus and verse at around 2:13. The song draws attention to Bowie’s shifting star image at the time, as remarked upon by Chris O’Leary: “Singing ‘Never Get Old’ was part of a growing cheekiness, a lack of reverence for his legend. Bowie had become grand enough of a monument that he could scrawl on it”.

Here the Stylophone functions as a quotation from Bowie’s lexicon. A deliberate reference to his first hit song back in 1969, a reminder of humble beginnings, bringing the length and breadth of Bowie’s catalogue into view. ‘Never Get Old’ became an anthem for what would turn out to be Bowie’s final world tour.