On this installment of Backtracks, producer/director and film professor Lynne McVeigh describes how a lost astronaut landed in her first sound design class. I was a student in one of those early Sound Image courses, and when I asked Lynne why she chose to open our initial meeting with a song about a doomed space mission, this was her response. Listen to her story below:
Lynne found the David Bowie track as sonically cinematic as any film she could have presented to a bunch of budding storytellers. In the excellent blog “Pushing Ahead of the Dame”, Chris O’Leary has been writing about David Bowie, song by song, “in rough chronological order, with exceptions.” You can find his wonderful history of “Space Oddity” on THIS POST. In it, Mr. O’Leary writes:
“Space Oddity” has come to define Bowie, perhaps because it’s as protean as its creator has tried to be. It’s a breakup song, an existential lullaby, consumer tie-in, product test, an alternate space program history, calculated career move, and a symbolic end to the counterculture dream—the “psychedelic astronaut” drifting off impotently into space (Camille Paglia suggested the last); it’s a kid’s song, drug song, death song, and it marks the birth of the first successful Bowie mythic character, one whose motives and fate are still unknown to us.
The 1969 track introduced listeners to astronaut Major Tom, and the song title alluded to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the lyrics, Major Tom launches into space, but soon loses contact with mission control and journeys into the unknown, sending his love to his wife back on earth.
But we don’t completely lose touch with Major Tom, he makes a reappearance in the “sequel” to his story, Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes “single off the Scary Monsters LP, although in this case, Major Tom is a “junkie”, and Bowie is likely referring to his own voyage through inner space.
In 1983, German synth-pop sci-fi aficionado Peter Schilling picked up the story of Major Tom, with the astronaut bidding farewell to his wife and saying “Now the light commands/this is my home/I’m coming home.” But in the music video, the song ends with an image of a fiery object plummeting downward through earth’s atmosphere.
There are numerous references to Major Tom in music and pop culture, including Bowie’s own remix of “Hallo Spaceboy”, which he released with the Pet Shop Boys in 1996. K.I.A. produced the song “Mrs. Major Tom” on his Adieu Shinjuku Zulu album, telling the story from the point of view of Major Tom’s grieving wife, hopelessly scanning the skies for sign of her lost husband. Incidentally, Sheryl Crow covered this song for the album, Seeking Major Tom, by that other iconic space traveler, William Shatner.
ETA: It should be added that Commander Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut who just ended a five month stint aboard the International Space Station, ended his mission with what must be the most stunning entry into the Major Tom mythos. A real-life spaceman singing to us from far above the world.