Personas: Chasing Major Tom – David Bowie’s Other Egos

Bowie Major Tom Persona

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.

Discover more in our Persona series with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

The Golden Age of Cybermen Part 2: From The Tombs to The Invasion

Golden age of Cybermen Tomb, Wheel and Invasion

Hey, it’s the 49th anniversary of the first broadcast of the second episode of The Moonbase! So when better for Jokerside to conclude its epic look at the Cyber-legion’s best days that began on the Doctor’s 52nd birthday. Having quickly assumed a dominant position these implacable foes marched through the late 1960s with an offensive of classic stories and iconic sequences. Jokerside stands in awe at the close of the Golden Age of the Cybermen between 1967 and 1968.

THERE WAS NO STOPPING THE CYBERMEN ONCE THEY’D STARTED. They’d found their nemesis in the Doctor’s second incarnation and were determined to defeat him. Or rather, repeatedly fail to factor him into their plans until he inevitably turned up to disrupt them. Part of the problem was that the species had clearly splintered into different nomadic factions before the destruction of Mondas in 1986. That’s the narrative angle, but in terms of the production, few alien races in the vast history of science fiction television had change built into their every appearance like the Cybermen. While the fundamentals remained, designers altered, amend and enhanced the design with every story. Sometimes they strove to make further allowances for long-suffering actors, sometimes they incorporated new materials or techniques. That’s a nice nod to the nature of the Cybermen but also a neat reflection of the change built into Doctor Who itself – could the Doctor have found his ultimate villain? If he had, he soon lost them as they dwindled to sporadic appearances after the 1960s.

Golden age of Cybermen The Tenth Planet and The MoonbasePart of the problem was that much like their cybernetic upgrades their appearances were more frequent than they were evolutionary. That’s in stark opposition to the Daleks, where each of the Pepper Pot’s early appearances scaled up the plot and threat in true sequel style. While the fiends of Skaro were first encountered by humans during the their hugely successful invasion in the latter years of the 21st century, human’s first contact with their cybernetic cousins took place a century earlier – the late 1960s or mid-1970s based on your UNIT dating conundrum perspective. And wonderfully strangely, that chronological first contact was the fifth time that viewers at home had encountered them in just over two years.

1968’s The Invasion was the Cybermen’s greatest adventure, an epic eight part serial that finally elevated them to the level of sprawling adventure that the Daleks had grown accustomed to. So perhaps there’s little surprise that it concluded their golden age, retiring them off to infrequent nemeses presumably without so much as a gold watch. From the start the Cybermen had lurked in the background, and come their Invasion they relied on human accomplices to delay their appearance for four episodes. Before that, we and the TARDIS crew had already seen them hatch devious schemes to take control of Earth in the future, even discovered them in a last stand hibernation on their adopted planet of Telos. It’s an odd and fractured timeline eminently irresistible to science fiction fans. And within less than three year’s they’d made enough of a pest of themselves, and posed ironically wherever they could, to ensure they’d joined the top line of Doctor Who foes. In fact, so thick, fast and irresolute was their onslaught that they quite reasonably accelerated the rate they reached retirement rate even quicker than the Daleks.

And what an exit strategy. After skulking, tomb building and space walking, 1968 finally found them, taking on the military might of institution-in-waiting UNIT. But first, things were going to have to get a lot darker before that dawn.

The Tomb of the Cybermen (Season 5, 1967)

Golden age of Cybermen 2 - Tomb of the Cybermen“We will survive”

Tomb of the Cybermen is a inversion of the classic base under siege story seen in the metal militant’s previous two two. For once, we’re on the Cyber terrors’ territory, although they’re hardly at full strength. This four part serial really finds them on their back cyber boot for the first time, with the events of The Moonbase revealed to be part the cyber race’s long decline. It wasn’t simply their previous encounters with two Doctors, although those are mentioned– these Cybermen are once again familiar with him – but their other intergalactic conflicts and significant losses which drive them into hibernation. It’s proves an illogical move.

Fortunately, this base under siege story finds different dynamics at play. First the Cybermen have laid a delicate trap, one that adds terror to the early tension while providing a logical route to their reanimation. Secondly, it’s the human blend of archaeologists and logicians (and TARDIS crew) who are the invaders. It’s immediately obvious that the logicians aren’t seeking the lost Cyber races for an article in New Scientist and the human fascination with their master race cousins who quickly fell to myth would provide fodder for Cyber stories all the way up to Big Finish’s recent The Last of the Cybermen. Crucially that story featured companion Zoe Heriot, akin to a human calculator her entrance would be closely linked to the Cyberman, but that was for a future adventure. First there was the tomb that the BBC managed to banish to a tomb for many years…

Silver chic

“You belong to us. You shall be like us.”

These Cybermen are not nearly as modified as the last faction the Doctor encountered. Although they look slightly shabbier, that’s forgivable. Of two main differences to those encountered on the Moonbase, one is that they are repressed to the point of inert and secondly there is the emergence of an authority figure: The Cyber Controller. Noticeably different, he lacks the Cybermen’s typical handlebars, in their place an extended cranium to process and draw strategy from huge amounts of a data. A huge figure, happy to hibernate in a crouched position, he may be larger and have better squat control than a regular Cyberman, but he lacks their chest units. A rather striking and more mobile, athletic sort of figure, or possibly jumpsuit lanky, he seems to be an amalgamation of a Cyberman foot soldier and his race’s earlier Central Processing Machines. Cyber thinking had clearly become more mobile prior to their forced to retreat. Outside the television universe stories such as Marc Platt’s Spare parts would build central committees and controllers into the emergence of the Cyber race, but here the Controller appears to be a direct response to devastating and constant conflict with other races. And in their hives of sleep, his Cybermen swarm not around a Queen but a logician. And they’ve even brought little pets along to wake up to…
Read more…

Batman at 75: Gotham City on Film II – Cracked Actor in the 21st Century

Gotham II Bane

The tale of a paved and cracked actor. As Gotham turns one of the most the famous fictional cities into a television character, a look at how the city that has Batman as its guardian has fared on screen since the tun of the century…

THE FIRST PART OF THIS RETROSPECTIVE TOOK A LOOK AT THE FICTIONAL CITY AS IT WAS PORTRAYED ON THE BIG SCREEN THROUGHOUT THE 20TH CENTURY. With a new century the hero was fast entering his seventh decade, so what could that mean for one of America’s oldest cities? Well, the cinematic adventures of the previous decade had forced the bat glove, with a need to reboot and retune. It was time for something darker, edgier and less comic book. So, Warner Brothers turned to Christopher Nolan.

Batman Begins (2005)

Bruce Wayne couldn’t simply be a creation of his home town

It would be wrong to simply describe Batman Begins as more realistic, but its palette was instantly expanded to include it. No film had really touched the origins of Batman; the nearest stabs being 1989’s freshly minted suit and Forever’s trawling through childhood trauma. Starting with the discovery of the Bat Cave in the grounds of Wayne Manor, on the outskirts of Gotham’s Palisades, Begins then takes us out of Gotham for long swathes. Bruce Wayne couldn’t simply be a creation of his home town.
Read more…

Batman at 75: Gotham City on Film I – Ill Met By Moonlight in the 20th Century

Batman's Gotham City on film

The tale of a paved and cracked actor. As Gotham turns one of the most the famous fictional cities into a television character, the first part of a look at how Batman’s city that has fared on screen, From the Manhattan of the 1940s to the nadir of 1990s excess…

“GOTHAM CITY… CITY OF JUSTICE, A CITY OF LOVE, A CITY OF PEACE, FOR EVERYONE OF US…” IS HOW R KELLY SERENEDED GOTHAM CITY ON THE TIE-IN ALBUM FOR 1997’S BATMAN AND ROBIN. One of the greatest mis-readings in popular music for one of the stupendously misguided films in cash cow history.

A jump to the comics may help. “I’ve forgotten what Gotham feels like… Night after night, hopelessness just tries to beat down anything good”.

That’s more like it. An optimistic analysis from the primary coloured, long-livid and original Green Lantern Alan Scott on a rare occasion he worked with the Dark Knight (Ed Brubaker’s Made of Wood).

From Green Lantern, through Catwoman, Gotham Central, all the spin-offs, contagions, earthquakes, Scott Snyder’s skilful rebooting as a City of Owls in the New 52 through to Lego:Batman, Arkham Origins and the expansive animated portrayals… Gotham has probably been detailed more than any other fictional city. Since it replaced New York as the Caped Crusader’s hometown in the 1940s it’s become a character in its own right, a definitive part of the myth of the Batman.

But on the big and small screens it’s a different story. Read more…

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