“Take Off to European Rock”: The saga of Peter Schilling’s (and David Bowie’s) lost astronaut Major Tom

By on April 30, 2016

Night Flight Take Off to European Rock ” — which originally aired on April 14, 1984 — begins with Peter Schilling’s 1983 hit song “Major Tom (Coming Home),” which revived the lost astronaut David Bowie had created for his hit “Space Oddity,” recorded on June 20, 1969, exactly one month before the Apollo 11 moon landing.

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Peter Schilling

The lyrics Bowie wrote describe how Major Tom was sent on his space mission and still had contact with his NASA counterparts below, called Ground Control, but he ended up getting disconnected, and lost (“Here am I floating ’round my tin can / Far above the moon …”).

As far as we know, the name “Major Tom” was purely a fictional character Bowie came up with, although there were two Apollo astronauts named Tom, but neither were Majors and both returned home from space safely (Thomas P. Stafford was on Apollo 10 and Thomas K. Mattingly served aboard Apollo 16).

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Just a few years later, when “Space Oddity” landed on the UK charts at #5, the track was played on British TV as background music for the historic Apollo 11 moon landing. It also scored Bowie a hit on the U.S. charts too, reaching #15 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, but not until 1973, when Bowie was a bona fide hit machine touring the U.S.

At the time, Bowie was asked by the UK music papers about his Major Tom and about the title of the song at the time, he pointed out that the song’s title was a tribute to, or at least alluded to, Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had come out just a year earlier.

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Bowie also said he was pretty stoned when he wrote the song, and in 2013, told Performing Songwriter magazine:

“In England, it was always presumed that it was written about the space landing, because it kind of came to prominence around the same time. But it actually wasn’t. It was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”

There has always been speculation that the song was actually a metaphor for a drug overdose, and when Bowie revisited the character for his #1 hit song “Ashes to Ashes,” he seems to confirm this in the song’s lyrics.

By the time Ground Control receive Major Tom’s message, it’s assumed that he’s been missing a long, long time, and their fears seem to have been confirmed by the message they receive from their wayward astronaut: “I’m happy, hope you’re happy, too. I’ve loved all I’ve needed to love.”

They fear he’s lost to drug abuse: “Ashes to ashes / funk to funky / We know Major Tom’s a junkie / Strung out in heaven’s high / Hitting an all-time low,” the chorus goes.

You can see how it can be presumed that “Major Tom” could actually have been a metaphor for a junkie lost to a world he finds in his high state, and he’s not coming down, not ever.

That “all-time low” lyric has also been interpreted as a play on the title of Bowie’s 1977 album Low, which charted his withdrawal following his drug abuse in the United States. (Read more about Bowie’s Low album in our post on his Berlin Trilogy here).

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In 1983, German pop singer Peter Schilling adopted a techo rock beat for his song in which he, too, revisits the idea of an astronaut sending love back to his wife as he blasts off into space and then gives us, the listener, a sort of play-by-play in which the haunting chorus tells us what he sees:

“Earth below us, drifting, falling, floating weightless, calling, calling home.”

Schilling, who may or may not have wanted to accept that the songs Bowie had written about Major Tom were actually veiled references to drug abuse, as his song doesn’t really tread on that oft-trod terrain, and instead, he sends Major Tom back into space, counting off the lead-in to the chorus (“four, three, two, one…”) before blast off.

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Just as Bowie had done, “Major Tom (Coming Home)” sends the astronaut of Bowie’s creation back into space and its deep isolation, although there may still be problems with the major’s drug use (“Time and again I tell myself I’ll stay clean tonight”).

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This time Schilling comes up with his own conclusion as far as the concluding “Coming Home” part of the song goes: just as he’s about to enter Earth’s atmosphere once again, he tells them to give a message to his wife back home:

Across the stratosphere, a final message
“Give my wife my love.”
Then nothing more

We can’t know for sure what happens, but it appears to us that Schilling’s Major Tom is likely dead, cut off from Earth, returning to Space, which he now considers his “home.”

Some interpret the song as having a much more positive ending than Bowie’s (“Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”), but we’re not exactly buying it, especially since that line in Schilling’s song — “Then nothing more” — seems rather conclusive.

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The song rocketed up the charts, scoring one position higher than Bowie’s had, #14 on Billboard‘s Hot 100. It also reached #8 on Billboard‘s Mainstream Rock Songs chart, and the song’s video — which was played on Night Flight and various MTV shows throughout the 80s — no doubt had a big part in that.
“Major Tom (Coming Home),” from his album Error in the System, would prove to be Schilling’s biggest hit, and the German-language version “Völlig losgelöst” is contained in Schilling’s 1983 German LP Fehler im System, and was an even bigger hit in Europe.

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Also featured on Night Flight Take Off to European Rock are videos from Nena (“99 Luftballoons”), Nina Hagen, the Scorpions (“Rock You Like Hurricane”), George Kranz, Golden Earring, Taco (“Puttin’ On the Ritz”), Telephone, Chagrin d’Amor, Yello, and Krokus. Watch it now, in its entirety, on Night Flight Plus.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.