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Major Tom is a fictional astronaut created by David Bowie, heard in his songs "Space Oddity", "Ashes to Ashes", and "Hallo Spaceboy" (particularly in the remix by the Pet Shop Boys). Bowie's own interpretation of the character evolved throughout his career. 1969's "Space Oddity" depicts an astronaut who casually slips the bonds of the world to journey beyond the stars. In the 1980 song "Ashes to Ashes," Bowie reinterprets Major Tom as an oblique autobiographical symbol for himself. Major Tom is described as a "junkie, strung out in heavens high, hitting an all-time low". This lyric was interpreted as a play on the title of Bowie's 1977 album Low, which charted his withdrawal following his drug abuse in America. A short time later, there is another reversal of Major Tom's original withdrawal, turning 'outwards' or towards space.
In 1983, Peter Schilling continued the story of Major Tom in his hit single "Major Tom (Coming Home)". Other artists who have subsequently made substantial contributions to the Major Tom story include K.I.A. and The Tea Party, among others. Due to some similarities in Elton John's "Rocket Man", there is a possible connection between the Rocket Man and Major Tom, a connection notably made by Bowie himself, who while singing Space Oddity in concert would sometimes call out, "Oh, Rocket Man!".
In "Space Oddity", from the 1969 album David Bowie (later retitled Space Oddity), Major Tom's departure from Earth is successful and everything goes according to plan, but he then cuts off contact with Ground Control. His last transmission is "Tell my wife I love her very much", with the frantic response from ground control: "She knows!"
In 1980, Bowie created a sequel entitled "Ashes to Ashes". The song was a Number 1 hit single and also appeared on his Number 1 LP Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). The song doesn't actually say much about Major Tom, except to call him a "junkie" (slang for a person with a heroin addiction or other compulsive habit). The context of the lyrics seems to indicate that the song is mainly about Bowie's own soul searching, rather than a literal continuation of the Major Tom story.
In Peter Schilling's 1983 song "Major Tom (Coming Home)" Tom sends a final message, "Give my wife my love..." with no transmissions back to Earth from that point. He then declares that he's "coming home", being commanded by the light, which can be taken to refer to the afterlife. The associated music video also shows an object falling back through the atmosphere, presumably either Major Tom or his ship. In this song the word "light" in "now the Light commands" is often heard or transcribed as "life" but the liner notes of the Error In The System LP (and the original German) confirm the word "light." The German-language version "Völlig losgelöst" is contained in Schilling's 1983 German LP Fehler im System. Both albums also contain a different song without lyrics entitled "Major Tom, Part II". In 1994, Schilling teamed with Bomm-Bastic to record a sped-up Techno-Trance Mix of "Major Tom (Coming Home)" that was released in English and German versions under the EP title of Major Tom '94.
Also in 1983, Schilling's song was recorded in French by Plastic Bertrand, but with slightly altered lyrics, in which Major Tom prefers to stay away from Earth and its selfishness and danger of nuclear war.
Additionally from 1983, the song "Why Me?" by the Planet P Project, also about an astronaut, may be indirectly referencing Major Tom with the line, "The last man to leave here was never heard from again. He won't be back this way till 2010," though this more likely references the character David Bowman (coincidentally similar to Bowie's name) in 2001: A Space Odyssey, who next reappears in 2010 (2010: Odyssey Two).
The title track of Matthew Wilder's 1984 LP Bouncin' Off the Walls tells a similar story of an unnamed character having a personal crisis while piloting a spacecraft: "Tell my family I love them.... I can't handle this at all.... May Day, I'm fallin'." The connection to Major Tom is otherwise not stated.
In 1995, Bowie released a song entitled "Hallo Spaceboy" on his LP Outside. While this song itself does not directly reference Major Tom, references to Major Tom do appear in the remixed version that Bowie released with the Pet Shop Boys in 1996. The 1996 remix contains lyrics from "Space Oddity" that are sung by Pet Shop Boys vocalist Neil Tennant.
At the Drive-In's 2000 song "Cosmonaut" was sometimes introduced at live shows by a recorded "final message" from Major Tom before he dies in space. The message does not appear in the recorded version of "Cosmonaut", which itself has no apparent connection to Major Tom.
In 2002, K.I.A. created a song entitled "Mrs. Major Tom" on his Adieu Shinjuku Zulu album, where the song is sung by Larissa Gomes. Here the story is told from the perspective of Major Tom's wife left at home. The song was also sung (solo) by Sheryl Crow in a new arrangement on William Shatner's 2011 album Seeking Major Tom.
In 2004, The Tea Party created a song entitled "Empty Glass" on its Seven Circles album. The song is written from the perspective of an unnamed person who is questioning Major Tom intensely about the purpose of life. The song also references ground control and the Bowie phrases "star man" and "diamond dogs".
In 2011, Jimmie Fallon appeared on the "Piers Morgan Tonight" television program, playing a guitar and singing a broad parody of "Space Oddity" along the lines of: "This is Tim Tebow to Jesus Christ", using a Bowie-esque vocal style.
Major Tom also has had and continues to have passing references in other popular songs, such as: Five Star's 1986 song "Rain or Shine", Def Leppard's 1987 song "Rocket", Marilyn Manson's 1997 song "Apple of Sodom, Lorraine Bowen's 2002 song "Space", The Mars Volta's 2005 song "Cicatriz: Part III", Cold's 2005 song "Happens All The Time", Alphabeat's 2007 song "Fantastic 6", and The Cab's 2011 song "Angel With A Shotgun".
Australian "spy-chedelic" indie band Major Tom & The Atoms take their band name from David Bowie's fictional character. The band's primary singer and songwriter, 'Major' Tom Hartney claims to be working on "a continuation of the ongoing Space Oddity saga in which Major Tom is lost in space after the Earth's destruction." However, to date no recordings of such a project have appeared.
The British a cappella group The Flying Pickets recorded a cover of "Space Oddity" which appears on their 1985 album The Flying Pickets Live.
The rock band Saigon Kick covered "Space Oddity" on their 1993 album Water.
Natalie Merchant covered "Space Oddity" during her 1995 Tigerlily concert tour.
A cover of "Space Oddity" appears on the second disc of the special edition of Star One's 2002 album Space Metal, a collection of science-fiction and topically related songs.
The American rock band I Hate Kate included a cover of "Major Tom (Coming Home)" on their 2007 CD Embrace The Curse. This cover does not include the verses after the second chorus, which would include the message from Major Tom.
French singer Émilie Simon covered "Space Oddity" for the tribute compilation BowieMania (Une Collection Obsessionelle de Béatrice Ardisson) in 2007.
Also in 2007, Norwegian progressive metal band Pagan's Mind released a cover of "Hallo Spaceboy" on their fourth album God's Equation. This version is comparable to Bowie's solo recordiing, with no direct references to Major Tom.
Singer Cat Power recorded a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" for use in a commercial for the 2009 Lincoln MKS. Later, The American band Shiny Toy Guns recorded a cover of Peter Schilling's "Major Tom (Coming Home)" in 2009 for use in a commercial for the 2010 Lincoln MKZ. It reached No. 36 on the iTunes Top 200 Songs chart, causing it to debut at No. 97 on the Billboard Hot 100.
William Shatner released a space-travel themed album in 2011 entitled Seeking Major Tom, which included covers of "Space Oddity", Peter Schilling's "Major Tom (Coming Home)", K.I.A's "Mrs. Major Tom", and Elton John's "Rocket Man".
There are several references to the character and the songs in the video game Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. A character otherwise known as Major Zero briefly used the codename Major Tom (although the character in-game describes his name as a reference to the movie The Great Escape). At one point in the game however, whilst Major Zero is using the Tom codename, calling him by codec causes Snake to recite the "Can you hear me Major Tom" section of lyrics from the song. An enemy boss known as The Fury was a former cosmonaut, and wears a protective uniform that resembles a space suit in battle. His final words upon his defeat are "I'm coming home.", a reference to Peter Schilling's song. The director of the game, Hideo Kojima, has mentioned these were intentional references, and originally planned to have "Space Oddity" and "Ashes to Ashes" play in the end credits of the game. Space exploration was intended to be one of the major themes early on during the development of the game, most of which was eclipsed in the final product, save for the prior mentioned Major Tom references and several lesser story elements.
Major Tom, and his partner 'The Action Man', are used as the names of two minor characters in the television program The Venture Bros. Major Tom (and later his ghost) play an important role in the episode "Ghosts of the Sargasso" where a flashback reveals he was killed in the crashlanding of an experimental rocketship). A large part of the dialogue in the flashback scene is taken from the lyrics of "Space Oddity" and "Ashes to Ashes". Also, it is later revealed that The Action Man had gone on to marry Major Tom's widow.
In the television show Chaotic, a character has the name Tom Majors, and his username in the show is MajorTom. In the American remake of the television show Life on Mars, in a twist, Gene Hunt in 1973 turns out to be astronaut 'Major Tom' Tyler – Sam's father – in the conclusion.
In the British television show Red Dwarf series VIII, prior to lifting off in a space craft, Cat is asked to identify himself and gives the name "Major Tom".
Animal puppeteer group "Fluff & Such" has created a puppet video version of "Major Tom (Coming Home)".
In an episode of Animaniacs, Wakko Warner used part of the lyrics.
In the TV sitcom Friends, "Space Oddity" is referenced in "The One Where Ross Can't Flirt", where Chandler is seen performing the opening lines on a home video, and also in "The One After Vegas", in which Joey sings it to Phoebe after they have argued with each other.
In the TV drama series Breaking Bad during Season Four the leads find a recording of the character Gale (David Costabile) singing a camp karaoke version of Peter Schilling's "Major Tom (Coming Home)."
In the 2010 video game Alan Wake, the character Thomas Zane appears in a deep sea pressure diving suit, and Space Oddity plays during the credits for the second DLC episode for the Game.
In the popular video game "League of Legends" the character Corki says in one of his lines:"This is Major Tom to ground control." in a reference to a line in the song "Space Oddity"
In the TV show "Defying Gravity", Major Tom is the name of the astronauts bar.