My friend Dave sent me the below video, which is great on a number of levels, not the least of which is, this is another piece of mythology in the life of Major Tom, the fictional astronaut created by David Bowie:

First, it’s an artifact from “Breaking Bad“, which has crept up to become the second best show of all time. Second, it features Gale Boedeker, the dorky would-be meth supercook, who is a lot like the interesting but mildly irritating fifth member of your trivia team with a weird breadth of knowledge. Third, the karaoke video has Thai subtitles.

So yes – it’s funny. The most important element of this song, however, is the content of the lyrics. The song is “Major Tom (Coming Home)” by Peter Schilling, from his 1983 album which also featured a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Odyssey”, where the Major Tom character was first introduced. This is interesting for a few reasons, but largely because a character created by one artist (Bowie) across three of his own songs, has had his mythology colored in by numerous other artists since. It’s like the story of Major Tom (which is itself not that interesting) has become part of modern rock folklore, like it’s an oral history being retold by subsequent generations, despite the fact that all of the songs are available currently.

So what does this mean? Let’s go through the chronology of Major Tom’s service record and see what we can learn, starting with the original song:

David Bowie – “Space Oddity” from the album “Space Oddity” (1969)

“Space Oddity” is the title song from Bowie’s second album, the video of which is just Bowie playing guitar on a stool with some light “space” imagery, including shots of oscilloscopes and things which look like scientific equipment, but are really just random equipment from the studio (in several cases, it’s clearly a studio sound board). This was the 1972 version, shot during the Aladdin Sane sessions. The original “music video” from 1969 is not the most popular version of the song. It’s totally ridiculous, with Bowie miming many of the parts and dressed in a sweater which says “Major Tom” in big letters on the front while cavorting with two blonde spacechicks. Well worth watching.

The song itself is a narrative of an astronaut who prepares himself for a trip into space and subsequently runs into some kind of trouble. Or at least, he reports some kind of trouble, cuts off communication with ground control not before asking them to tell his wife he loves her.  Bowie wrote this song after seeing either one of the greatest or worst movies in modern history (depending on your perspective) the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey” [Weird film interpretation video website here],  clearly a play on the title, and influenced by the 1969 moon landing. (assuming you think it was not a hoax) The BBC apparently featured the song during the in its television coverage of the Apollo 11 launch and lunar landing, days following the release of the song – A strange move since Major Tom’s mission went so badly, although this led to “Space Oddity” hitting #5 in Britain, effectively making this Bowie’s first hit song ever in the UK in 1969 and in the US with the re-release during 1973. Rick Wakeman of Yes plays keys.

What is this song about, really? I couldn’t tell you. Near as I can tell, space is quiet, lacks oxygen, and is pretty scary. Maybe when you’re up there you’re faced with your own personal issues and have to deal with them. Maybe the isolation wreaks havoc on your psyche and you start hallucinating, like in 1968’s Solaris (the original, not the Clooney version). Maybe science fiction is just good fodder for out-there drug-inspired rock and roll (most likely answer, given how we later discuss if there is “Life on Mars”).

David Bowie – “Ashes to Ashes” from the album “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” (1980)

One of the 5 best Bowie songs, “Ashes to Ashes” is the song which puts a bow on the 70’s for one of the artists that defined the decade. The hook is instantly recognizable and creepy, and the video is something else, but we’ll get there in a minute. In terms of tone, it’s very melancholy and has a number of sing-song lyrics, which Bowie calls “a nursery rhyme for the 1980s”.

In this second song about our hero, the lyrics suggest that Major Tom has been in touch with Ground Control again, although he claims to be doing fine – “I’m happy, hope you’re happy too.” He then says a bunch of nonsense, talking about “hoping to kick but the planet it’s glowing”. Ground Control seems to conclude he’s a “junkie, strung out in heavens high, hitting an all-time low”. The telling lyric is “Time and again I tell myself, I’ll stay clean tonight, But the little green wheels are following me.”

Whereas the first song led you to really identify with the character, creating sympathy with the “tell my wife I love her” line, this song kind of sells-out Major Tom. There are two ways to read the narrative: The formerly successful astronaut Major Tom experienced something otherworldly which put him into some kind of psychic tailspin, ultimately leading to drug abuse and ruin. Alternatively, Major Tom never was an astronaut, never went to space, and was just a drug-addict who believed he did, maybe Ground Control was some friend or loved one trying to help him out (I tend to believe this theory). In any case, it’s unclear what happened to the wife which he loved so much or his aeronautical career.

The next Bowie-penned Major Tom song will come in the mid-90’s so it’s clear he uses this character to make statements about different major periods in his life, and to speak autobiographically, in this case to talk about his own struggles with drug abuse. Interestingly, this song really says nothing about the experience of drug-abuse, challenges of addiction, or anything else of substance. It’s a brilliant song because it touches on some important or grandiose topics, leaving much of the interpretation to the listener, much like the video does. Speaking of which…

The video for “Ashes to Ashes” cost a quarter-million pounds to make, the most for any video up until this point. MTV had just gotten going and given the lack of a video library, this one got heavy rotation and became an icon for the 80s. It is ridiculous as only 80s videos and Bowie can be. Let’s go through the iconography: In most of the video, Bowie is dressed as a sad clown in the style of Pierrot or Pagliacci; The tone is “Solarized”, meaning the colors are all reversed (e.g. the water looks red); Bowie dressed as himself (something we would finally see a lot of in the 80s videos) in a padded room, suggesting he’s crazy. Walking in front of a bulldozer with some women in black (the trash heap of history?); In a black-and-white 50’s kitchen with a housewife doing dishes as he is seated in a spaceship-type seat which then issues some smoke; Stuck to a wall with tubes coming out of him (life support?); Releasing a dove into the air; and finally as the clown, talking on the beach to an old woman. As videos go, it’s preposterous. Again, it says nothing about Major Tom or his eventual fate.

Peter Schilling – “Major Tom (Coming Home)” from the album “Error in the System” (1983)

This is a strange artistic statement, mostly because it is a new and different song which retells the original “Space Odyssey” story almost verbatim. Major Tom takes off, something seems to go wrong, communication breaks off, and he says something nice to his wife. The last part is confusing, suggesting that no one understands what Major Tom has seen, and both that he is home and he is coming home. Is he at home in space? Is he coming home to Earth? The video ends with something burning up on re-entry into the atmosphere so maybe that’s what happens but it doesn’t end well. The video throws some support to the “all a hallucination” theory, as it shows scenes in a junkyard where Peter Schilling is seated in a tower of abandoned cars, cutting to stock footage of a rocket taking off, and back again repeatedly, pretty clearly implying he’s making this all up. [Aside: The Shiny Toy Guns did a cover song with a cheaply animated video which suggests a narrative: a huge rock hit the space station, leading to a fire and escape in some sort of pod.]

This song is catchy and it’s the entry point for this whole excursion, although nothing is clarified. He’s still just a mysterious, and possibly tragic, spaceman.

David Bowie – “Hallo Spaceboy” from the album “Outside” (1995)

The most popular version is a remix by the Pet Shop Boys, and the lyrics have nothing to do with anything, other than Neil Tennant doing a version of “Space Oddity” lyrics suggesting everything has gone wrong on the original mission. This is basically only included in this analysis because Bowie was involved.

This song is terrible. There are no two ways around it. Bowie’s last enjoyable album was 1983’s “Let’s Dance” and everything spiraled after that. It’s interesting to note this is when he started cranking out Greatest Hits records (three records in 1982, an absurd four in 1983, two in 1984, 24 compilations from 1985-present), the swan song for any artist’s creative period.

Elton John – “Rocket Man” from the album “Honky Chateau” (1973)

It’s hard to not include “Rocket Man” in this discussion. It’s a melancholy story about an astronaut who travels to Mars, misses his wife, and notices that foreign planets are terrible places to raise children. Both this song and “Space Oddity” were produced by Gus Dudgeon. Although this song is very different in theme – it reads more about how being an astronaut is just another job. Your wife packs your suitcase, you go to work, put yourself in danger, but mostly you think about your family. It’s a lot more about the mundane nature of jobs than science fiction. Bowie apparently loved this song, probably because it’s just a great song, but also it lent some mysticism to the legend of Major Tom.

Other Notable References:

  • Def Leppard’s hit “Rocket” mentions a ton of influential songs from their youth, including “Major Tom”, and I suppose it’s about a rocket (1987)
  • At the Drive-In’s song “Cosmonaut” used a final message from Major Tom before he dies as the introduction on the album and in concert (2000)
  • K.I.A. wrote a song called “Mrs. Major Tom”, telling the story through the perspective of the wife, who concludes “You didn’t burn up, you burnt out” [lyrics] (2003)
  • Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, directed a movie about a guy toiling on the dark side of the moon, starring Sam Rockwell, called “Moon” (2009)
  • William Shatner doing a collection of science fiction-themed songs, called “Searching for Major Tom”. It actually could be an interesting collection of songs which could be loosely interpreted as the chronology of Major Tom, if Shatner hadn’t been involved (2011)
  • Every other reference is so oblique, it’s not worth mentioning
Conclusions
Looking back, only “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes” have anything to do with this story. The rest of it is me-tooism and just pop culture references. Bowie created a number of interesting characters (Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, etc) and this was his most interesting. I think that’s about all we can say.
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