His fate remains shrouded in jewel-encrusted mystery, but David Bowie’s first significant creation had staying power. The enigmatic Major Tom remained his constant if infrequent companion through accidents, addiction, life…
“There’s Old Wave. There’s New Wave. And there’s David Bowie.”
SO RAN THE CATCHY RCA ADVERT FOR HEROES IN 1977. FOR THE TIME IT WAS A STRANGELY ASTUTE SENTIMENT, NOT JUST FOR BOWIE’S SKILFUL DODGING OF PUNK, BUT FOR THE LEGEND THAT WOULD GROW OVER THE FOLLOWING THREE DECADES. As January 2016 proved, record-label sanctioned as that slogan was, it remains one of the best descriptions for the unique space that Bowie carved for himself in rock, pop, and popular culture.
It wasn’t surprising that the news of David Bowie’s death early in 2016 overwhelmed fans. An outpouring of shock and grief surged quickly as if to stem the news and force it back to a dusty, neglected channel where it could be quietly ignored. But the truth was out, and the collective response gained a life of its own. From the shock of friends, admirers and those who were just lucky enough to coincide with him on Planet Earth, sentiments of grief and respect emerged and merged as people sought to explain the unexpected, if not inexplicable.
Whispered through the streets of Brixton where Bowie was born. Under the ladder rungs of the letterists and signwriters, clipping their messages of solidarity to the front of bars, venues and cinemas. Carried across the Atlantic to the sidewalks of New York where Bowie spent his final years. Past the doorways of Lower Manhattan and the Magic Shop studio that had done so well in keeping Bowie’s secrets during his final years.
How could David Bowie, the chameleon, the popular king of reinvention, have gone? It was a ruse, a natural, supernatural, extension of his transformative personas, an exploration of identity… Bowie was always more than the music. Any glimpse of mortality while he was alive led to a quick collective pinch, reaffirmed in a fandom that stretched across patchwork decades. Yes, even the 1980s. As Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne once put it: “That’s why it’s never occurred to me, ‘oh he’s just a man’ – and that’s cool.” But the news that hit Bowie’s birth town around 7am on 11 January wasn’t cool. Coming just two days after the release of his 25th album, there was a bundled mystery to unravel as the cold news settled in. A final gift, even if it wasn’t.
If it was true…. If Bowie really was just a man who could succumb to something as banal as death, then surely this was just part of an immaculately laid act of exquisite art? Almost 20 years ago Bowie played an artist straining to transform death into the ultimate artistic statement in the Scott brothers’ anthology series The Hunger. A concept derived, but not following Tony Scott’s film of the same name, where Bowie had taken one of his more prominent roles as a doomed, used and abused vampire. Life wasn’t imitating art in 2016 even though death was a recurring element of Bowie’s music and performance.
When the recently re-monikered David Jones broke the charts amid the zeitgeist of the 1969 moon landing, an ambiguous death was at the heart of it.
Major Tom’s Launch
The tallest of tales
Major Tom wasn’t David Bowie’s first character, but he proved to be his most enduring. He was there when Bowie broke, after a good few years of chancing his hand across various bands and solo performances. The mesmerising, conceptual and punning masterpiece Space Oddity was recorded in February 1969 and featured on Bowie’s promotional film Love you till Tuesday. But it was when the song was re-recorded in late spring and released over the summer that saw Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon that it soared to number five in the UK charts.
The tallest of tales, spaceman Major Tom was launched into space only to fall victim to an accident beyond his control, possibly. It rolls out against a psychedelic, intriguing song structure that’s as catchy as the fate of the astronaut is uncertain. Folk, pop, rock, prog, it’s all there, simmering in a way that couldn’t possibly be so predictive of the decades that followed. From the song’s title to its musical references, it was easy to imagine Tom’s fate was the same as that of his near-namesake David Bowman in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But while Bowie’s Major Tom may have been trapped in similar ambiguity, he proved to have greater, inextricable links to his creator.
Major Tom’s Intervention
A different Bowie emerged in the 1980s, ready to reference himself as he entered the decade that would bring him the greatest commercial success.
Bowie would fail to trouble the charts for the two years that followed his imperiling of Major Tom. By that time he had morphed into the glam, androgynous alien Ziggy Stardust and found success with a new Starman. But Bowie never forgot his original extra-terrestrial. In the midst and on the back of his new success, Space Oddity was re-propelled to the top spot of the UK charts in 1975.
Whether or not Major Tom’s destiny was to become some kind of Star Child like David Bowman, Space Oddity remained in Bowie’s live performances as the 1970s rolled on and would be re-recorded and re-released further times as the ’80s approached. As he recorded across the world, Bowie’s need for personas lessened just as they had gripped his psyche so tightly during the mid-’70s. A different Bowie emerged in the 1980s, separated from the arch-addiction that had accompanied his critical success and ready to reference himself as he entered the decade that would bring him the greatest commercial success. The preceding 10 years had seen him prematurely retire his most famous alter-ego before reworking and resampling his work between successive albums. But on Scary Monsters he didn’t just pull an unexpected pop tune out of the bag but gave us a surprise update on Major Tom to space-boot. Spoiler: It wasn’t great news. As Ashes to Ashes ominous refrain left us in no doubt: he was now a junkie.
It was quite the comedown from potential Star Child. But he did receive an upgrade in the iconic video for the song. On video, the Major became Bowie, hanging from proto-Matrix life-pipes in one of the piece’s barely-euphemistic references to drug addiction. That’s when Bowie wasn’t heading a beach procession as Pierrot clown.
Less visually, it’s ominous. Even if the lyrics aren’t dredged for drug allusion, there’s a grim account of the “Action Man” in a torrid state. By the end of Ashes to Ashes, Tom’s become a legend, a legend that’s taken a pounding. From orbiting enigma to his creator’s intergalactic fall guy. He’s a warning, related in a fairy tale mantra, far removed from the direct quotes Bowie wrapped Space Oddity around.
Regardless of the tragic turn of events had befallen the Major, he still accompanied Bowie to the top of the UK charts once again in 1980.
Major Tom’s Haunt
Tom wouldn’t return until the following decade when Bowie asked the Pet Shop Boys to remix his industrial track Hallo Spaceboy. As singer Neil Tennant recalled, the song required a second verse and the Boys drew on the cut-up technique that Bowie had helped promote when penning many distinctive tracks in the early 1970s. That was, after all, how we discovered the Moonage Daydream. By randomly reassembling the lyrics of Space Oddity, Major Tom found a stilted way to break into Bowie’s career once again. The garbled lyric gave little away about Tom’s fate, although Tennant thought that the Major had been abandoned in orbit, rather oddly floating in an old Soviet “tin can” they can’t afford to bring home. When put to Bowie, he responded, “Oh, that’s where he is…”
By the 1990s, Bowie was collaborating with the artists he’d inspired. In turn, they were not only influencing him but reintroducing him to his own work. Or unlocking his own work to him in different ways. Tom’s shallow appearance helped Spaceboy‘s collaboration to number 12 in the UK charts.
Pickings were slimmer still for the spaceman in the following decade, although it’s impossible not to see Tom inhabiting the astronaut suit that both comforts a young girl and haunts Bowie in a sound booth during the video for Heathen‘s 2002 track Slowburn. The single’s cover – Bowie striding to camera, his head imposed on a model’s body, holding a baby – reinforces the link.
Slowburn wasn’t released as a single in the UK. As Tom slipped to visual cameos and his chart power waned, it was easy to think that his ghost had finally faded.
Then there was 2015.
Major Tom’s Fate
The lyrics of Blackstar can be flipped to Tom’s perspective.
The lyrics of the title track of Bowie’s 25th and final album Blackstar are opaque, but Tom is there if you look for him. Video director Johan Renck certainly saw him on the periphery, guided by Bowie’s concept illustrations. Unseen since the Ashes to Ashes video 35 years before, we see an astronaut’s body lying on alien world, discovered by a tailed female who takes his inexplicably jewel-encrusted skull to be worshipped a relic.
It’s a beautiful and affecting piece, the visuals posing as many difficult questions as the 10 minute track that backs it. Or should that be the other way around? Again, the lyrics of Blackstar can be flipped to Tom’s perspective, but it’s the video that remains the most compelling tribute to the space adventurer who was there at the beginning. Renck saw this astronaut as “100% Major Tom,” and his reappearance proved to typical of the enthralling ambiguity in Bowie’s final collection of works. And of course, while it appears to offer Major Tom’s story another, possibly definitive, conclusion, it also manages to raise a whole new set of questions of what happened to Bowie’s longest-serving creation after Space Oddity. The longest-serving creation who so often managed to make his presence felt without really being there very much at all.
Bowie spoke fondly of Tom throughout a career that the doomed astronaut had played a considerable part in launching. Perhaps it’s inevitable that he would find a way back at the end, even as other more prolific alter-ego rivals were baying for attention.
So it proved with melancholic irony, even after Tom’s storybook had closed.
Of the wealth of classic Bowie tracks that rose up the charts in the weeks that followed their creator’s death, Major Tom’s original starring slot rose to a hugely impressive 24th position in the UK charts.
But wouldn’t you know: He was second by six slots to the Starman of 1972. Always the astronaut, never the starman. Every time the original.
First published on Niume, with minor changes, on 12 January 2017.
Categories: Music & Radio