Apollo 11 at 50: A history of David Bowie's Major Tom character

18 July 2019, 14:51 | Updated: 16 January 2024, 11:33

Ashes to Ashes
Ashes to Ashes. Picture: RCA/YouTube

This week not only marks 50 years since the Apollo 11 moon landing, but also the 50th anniversary of David Bowie's seminal 'Space Oddity'.

The song introduced the world to Bowie, and also to his sci-fi Major Tom character.

So, who exactly was Major Tom and when did he return? Here's a beginner's guide:

  1. 'Space Oddity' (1969)

    David Bowie – Space Oddity (Official Video)

    Major Tom first appeared in the song 'Space Oddity', from the album David Bowie.

    In it, Major Tom leaves Earth is successful and everything seems to be going according to plan. During the flight, ("past one hundred thousand miles"), he says that "he feels very still" and thinks that "my spaceship knows which way to go", before saying "Tell my wife I love her very much."

    Control then tells him: "Ground Control to Major Tom: your circuit's dead, there's something wrong", and they attempt to get back in touch with him.

    Tom's final words in the song (which are possibly not heard by Ground Control) are: "Here am I floating 'round my tin can, far above the moon. Planet Earth is blue, and there's nothing I can do."

    In the film that came with it, David Bowie plays Major Tom, Ground Control, and the Countdown Announcer.

    Two women appear as either angels or aliens, or maybe both. At one stage, the two women take off Major Tom's helmet and spacesuit.

    Tom can then be seen spinning around in space, before the video ends with Tom sitting in his tin can, with the two women by his side.

  2. 'Ashes to Ashes' (1980)

    David Bowie - Ashes To Ashes (Official Video)

    A sequel was released 11 years later, from his LP Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).

    While the song actually doesn't reveal much about Major Tom, the song calls him a "junkie," someone with a heroin addiction or other habits.

    The lyrics appear to describe Bowie's own soul searching, rather than an actual continuation of the Major Tom story.

    With Bowie's own struggles of drug addiction, it has been noted that the "Major Tom" line could actually be autobiographical.

    However, the song could also be interpreted to reveal more information on Tom's story. The song may refer an event happening years after 'Space Oddity'.

    Ground control receive a message from the "Action Man" (Tom), and he says: "I've loved all I've needed to love. Sordid details following...".

    He then talks about how "the shrieking of nothing" is killing him, how all he has is his pictures of women to keep him company, and how he now doesn't have money or hair.

    The song refers directly to Tom at the end, revealing that he has become something of a legend, but sadly not for his heroic feats. He has now become a nursery rhyme with the public, with mothers warning their children about drug use ("to get things done, you'd better not mess with Major Tom").

  3. 'Hallo Spaceboy' (1996)

    David Bowie - Hallo Spaceboy (Official Music Video) [HD Upgrade]

    Bowie then released this song on his album 1. Outside.

    While this song doesn't mention Major Tom in its original form, there are some references to the character in the remixed version that he released with the Pet Shop Boys.

    The remix features cut-up lyrics from 'Space Oddity', that are sung by Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant.

    "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'," Tennant told NME years later.

    "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?'."

  4. 'Blackstar' (2015)

    David Bowie - Blackstar (Video)

    The music video of Bowie's song 'Blackstar' - from the album of the same name - was released in 2016 just two days before his death.

    In it, a dead astronaut is shown. His skull is taken by an alien woman who takes it back to what might be a a cult which now worships the relic.

    Director Johan Renck later said of the astronaut in question: "to me, it was 100% Major Tom."

  5. An unofficial sequel (1983)

    Peter Schilling Major Tom (Coming Home) (Video Oficial)

    In Peter Schilling's song 'Major Tom (Coming Home)', Tom sends one more message: "Give my wife my love...", before transmission stops.

    People on Earth now mourn Tom, not realizing that he is actually still alive. He then declares "Now the light commands / This is my home / I'm coming home", maybe referring to the afterlife.

    The song reached number one in Germany and Austria, and the English-language version peaked at number 14 in the States.

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