DwDunphy: It almost seems unfair that Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom” should go up against David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” “Major Tom” is a pleasant enough piece of ’80s fiddle-dee-dee, but come on! Let’s review the facts here. First, Bowie’s song is about an astronaut as metaphor for a smack junkie. Schilling’s song is about an astronaut. Sure, it’s an astronaut lost in space, but so what? All kinds of crap gets lost out there. Second, Bowie is starting to get his freak on as this song arrived just before the Ziggy Stardust juggernaut. Schilling’s delivery makes Kraftwerk sound like Disco Tex and the Sexolettes. Third, Schilling’s keys sound like a Casio on sale at Wal-Mart. “Space Oddity’s” mellotron part? Rick goddamn Wakeman.
Zack: Sheesh, you aren’t going to make this easy, are you? Obviously there would be no Schilling song without Bowie’s original concept (or would there? The story of Major Tom bears a surprising similarity to the plot of the Asimov short story “Does a Bee Care?”), and “Major Tom (Coming Home)” only reached #14 on the American singles chart. That’s way worse than “Space Oddity,” right? Actually, no, it’s not. Even after Bowie’s record label attempted to buoy “Space Oddity’s” popularity by releasing it to coincide with the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, the original release, failed to chart in the U.S. Yeah, but who cares about the U.S.? How much did the hometown fans in the U.K. like it? The original version only reached #5 in the U.K. It wasn’t until 1975, six years later, that a third release of Bowie’s song managed to reach the top of his home market, something that Schilling accomplished in about six minutes when he released “Major Tom” in 1980 in his native Germany.
DwDunphy: Hmm. That’s another thing I’m not too fond of when it comes to “Major Tom” – those English lyrics. Look, it’s not like I’m expecting some scholar to take time off from translating the most recent Umberto Eco book to do a dust-off for a pop song, but these tunes just barely get by on that broken-English charm. The same goes for “Rock Me, Amadeus” and “99 Luftballoons.” And as for the song as it stands, you poll at least twenty strangers on the street. At least seven of them will tell you to piss off and two will think you’re hitting on them. The remaining nine, when asked about “Major Tom” will go to Bowie and not Schilling. Hits, schmitz. The guy has a legend on his side.
Zack: Here’s the thing – Space Oddity is boring. A countdown ought to build excitement, but Bowie somehow manages to make it duller than listening to John McCain read a bunch of baseball box scores. For each number that drags by at about 2/3 the speed that it ought to, I feel like grabbing his highness the Goblin King, shaking him until the glitter falls out of his hair, and screaming “GET ON WITH IT ALREADY, YOU MINCING SISSY!” By contrast, Schilling’s song is crisp and optimistic, and makes a space launch feel the way it ought to – exciting. Schilling’s translated lyrics are just fine – and I can’t believe you’d have the gall to suggest that “Major Tom” and “99 Luftballoons” have anything in common with that godawful Falco abomination. I think when you throw a song that uses words like “stratosphere” and “stabilizers” (in situations where they actually make sense) into the ring with Space Oddity, which contains such lyrical bombs as “planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do…” it can hold its own with little difficulty.
DwDunphy: That’s because the junk in Bowie’s system is causing decreased bloodflow. Planet Earth is clearly a blue balls inference. Okay, maybe not clearly. Okay, maybe I pulled all that out of my ass, but still! “Space Oddity” is pretty. “Major Tom” sounds like anything else that came out at the time, stabilizers included.
Zack: Sometimes it’s just fine for a song to be about what it sounds like its about – in the case of “Major Tom,” an intriguing story about a creature who manages to escape from Earth’s gravity well. Is “Space Oddity” about drugs? Is the astronaut a metaphor for Bowie himself? The followup “Ashes to Ashes” certainly suggests this, and once again we’re led down the tired path of drug tales. Woo hoo. At least Schilling has the guts to share an original story.