Major Tom’s legacy

‘Space Oddity’ was David Bowie’s first UK hit single. The year after its release, he received the 1970 Ivor Novello Special Award for Originality.

Bowie performed ‘Space Oddity’ throughout his career. It was a staple of his Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs, Serious Moonlight and Sound + Vision tours, and he played it during the TV special The 1980 Floor Show on 19 October 1973.

David Bowie performing ‘Space Oddity’ live during 1983’s Serious Moonlight Tour:

Bowie’s 50th birthday concert was held at New York’s Madison Square Garden on 9 January 1997. He closed the show with an acoustic performance of ‘Space Oddity’. He also performed the song, accompanied by the Kronos and Scorchio string quartets, at the Tibet House benefit concert at Carnegie Hall in February 2002.

The last time Bowie performed the song in public was on 5 July 2002 at Denmark’s Horsens Open Air festival, during the Heathen tour.

In 2000, Bowie kept a short diary for Time Out magazine in the lead-up to his appearance at the Glastonbury Festival. Although his performance included hits from across his career, he chose not to play ‘Space Oddity’.

If that many people can travel so far, to skid about in so much dung and mud solution then the least I can do is get the words of ‘Major Tom’ right.

Well, not Major Tom actually. I can’t face doing that one again yet. There are quite a few others too that I really need to lay off from performance for a few more years. It is still extremely hard for me to sing songs that I no longer enjoy because of my over-familiarity with them. But I’m trying really hard to do more than compromise for this Festival. I’ve sorted out around thirty songs that I think cover the last three decades of work and more than a few will hopefully be known by the greater majority of the audience.

David Bowie, 2000, Time Out

Major Tom reappeared in at least two other Bowie songs. Months after his 1979 re-recording of ‘Space Oddity’ for The Kenny Everett Show, Bowie wrote ‘Ashes To Ashes’, the first release from 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), and his second UK number one single.

Do you remember a guy that’s been
In such an early song?
I’ve heard a rumor from Ground Control
Oh no, don’t say it’s true…

The song recast Major Tom as “a junkie/strung out in heaven’s high/Hitting an all-time low”, mirroring Bowie’s own battles with drug addiction. Whereas ‘Space Oddity’ had put the astronaut far beyond Earth’s reaches, by the time of ‘Ashes To Ashes’ he was a hapless addict, mired in mundane problems. This battle between earthly perils and a desire to transcend its limitations would be echoed in the climax of Bowie’s 2015 musical Lazarus.

Ashes to ashes, funk to funky
We know Major Tom’s a junkie
Strung out in heaven’s high
Hitting an all-time low

Major Tom returned in Pet Shop Boys’ remix of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, released on 19 February 1996. Bowie’s original version of the song had just one verse, so the duo’s Chris Lowe suggested writing new lines

When David Bowie asked us to do a reworking of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, that was a career high point. But the song only had one verse and Chris in the studio suggested we cut up ‘Space Oddity’ to make a second verse – ‘Ground to Major bye-bye Tom/Dead the circuit countdown’s wrong’. David Bowie phoned up to ask how it was going and we said, ‘We’ve cut up the lyrics of ‘Space Oddity’.’ Silence. ‘Sounds like I’d better come in.’ We completed the Major Tom trilogy: ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ and suddenly ‘Hallo Spaceboy’. I said to David Bowie, ‘It’s like Major Tom is in one of those Russian spaceships they can’t afford to bring down,’ and he said, ‘Oh wow, is that where he is?’
Neil Tennant, Pet Shop Boys
NME, 17 February 2017

The opening scenes of Bowie’s video for ‘Blackstar’ (2015) depict a woman discovering a dead astronaut. The corpse was widely interpreted as being that of Major Tom, yet the video’s director Johan Renck initially refused to confirm or deny. He later told the BBC documentary Bowie: The Last Five Years: “to me, it was 100% Major Tom.”

In 2013, ‘Space Oddity’ was recorded by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, commander of Expedition 35 to the International Space Station. The video was shot aboard the space station, becoming the first to be shot in space.

Hadfield’s version altered Bowie’s lyrics to allow Major Tom to safely land. Bowie later gave his blessing to Hadfield’s recording, calling it “possibly the most poignant version of the song ever created”, and waiving his royalties.

Hadfield sang and played guitar on the recording, and the song’s piano arrangement was by Bowie’s former backing singer Emm Gryner.

After the song became a hit on YouTube, racking up well over 30 million views, Bowie persuaded the song’s publishers, Onward Music Ltd, to extend the one-year licence that had the company had initially granted. After Bowie’s death the YouTube description was amended to say: “Rest in peace, Starman.”