In the beginning, there was David Bowie’s 1969 hit “Space Oddity,” the tale of Major Tom, an astronaut left stranded in space. Bowie followed with “Ashes to Ashes,” a sequel of sorts in which Major Tom’s vices are exposed.
In late 1983, German pop star Peter Schilling cemented Major Tom’s pop culture status with “Major Tom (Coming Home).”
It was Schilling’s only U.S. hit, but as one-hit wonders go, it’s a stellar one.
The music begins with the synth pulse of a passing satellite, but almost immediately dissolves into a chaotic keyboard intro that finally takes hold with a burst of percussion and electronic guitar. The rhythm bed is the synthesizer equivalent of a choogling Credence Clearwater Revival backbeat of bass and syncopated guitar. Listen closely during the choruses, and you’ll hear drums that mimic an adrenaline-fueled heartbeat.
The music is calculatedly cold and airy, but before each verse, it takes a few-second pause before revving up, as if giving the listener a chance to catch up before the relentless synth-guitar-drum kicks in again.
Schilling’s lyrics here are brilliant, and tell a multi-layered story that is worth studying.
At first, Schilling seems to foreshadow a breakdown caused by technological hubris: “All systems are go/Are you sure?/Control is not convinced/But the computer/Has the evidence/’No need to abort’.”
But there is an immediate shift of blame back to human error: “Watching in a trance/The crew is certain/Nothing left to chance/All is working.”
Why on earth is the crew “watching in a trance”? That’s not the state of mind you want your ground control crew in at countdown. But snug in the capsule, Major Tom is unaware that something is amiss: “Send me up a drink,” he jokes.
From Schilling’s brief sketch, we can surmise that someone at Ground Control could have taken him something they’d been hitting.
With dramatic import, Schilling echoes his vocal for the countdown: “4-3-2-1.”
More ominous tones are conveyed in the chorus. It would be natural for Major Tom to think of his trip as a rising, soaring flight, but that’s not how he describes it: “Earth below us/Drifting falling” From Major Tom’s perspective, he’s already in a fixed, permanent place; it’s the Earth that is moving, “falling” away.
The chorus contains another interesting angle: Major Tom says Earth is below “us,” indicating other people are about share his fate. Bowie never hints at company, but Schilling immediately reinforces the idea: “Second stage is cut/We’re now in orbit.”
Not “I’m” in orbit or “he’s in orbit,” but “we.”
Major Tom is not alone, but that is not a comfort; it’s about to make things more horrible.
Even before he knows his fate, Major Tom has doubts about the risk he is taking.: “Starting to collect/Requested data/What will it affect /When all is done?”
As if responding to Major Tom’s lack of faith in his mission, the rockets fail, and Ground Control smells trouble: “Hello Major Tom/We’re standing by.”
What Schilling sings next in his halting English shouldn’t surprise us, because we know how this story ends. But the next three words are phrased so perfectly, with such haunting resonance, that the listener is still chilled: “There’s no reply.” Schilling slides the syllables together as if they are one word: “Theresnoreply.”
Then, again, the countdown: “4-3-2-1.”
Now, “falling” and “drifting weightless” are not poetic descriptions; they are panicked reality.
Like Bowie’s astronaut (and, in the interim, Elton John’s Rocket Man), Schilling’s Major Tom’s last known thoughts are about his spouse: “Give my wife my love.”
Then, again, three more haunting words, sung as one: “Thennothingmore.”
As an epilogue, Schilling shows us that while the Earth below mourns, Major Tom has moved on. But to where? “No one understands/But Major Tom sees /Now the life commands/This is my home/I’m coming home.”
Major Tom seems resigned to his fate, accepting that this is what “life” wants. But an alternate printing of the lyrics, on the back of the 45 sleeve, read, “Now the LIGHT commands”, which seems to imply a more spiritual or religious destination.
Either way, Major Tom and his crew have a new home.
Schilling takes a deep breath as if to start one last countdown, but aborts it, as one is not necessary; there’s nothing for Major Tom to countdown to, nowhere for him to go.
The already racing music picks up a notch for Schilling’s final run through the chorus, as behind him, wordless vocals build with tension.
As he bursts into the final, anthemic series of “homes,” the background voices overtrack with Schilling9s, creating the effect of a celestial chorus to envelop Major Tom and accompany him as he journeys into the life, or light, waiting for him.
“Major Tom (Coming Home)” was a worldwide smash, and the video was played often on MTV, but Schilling could never duplicate its success.