Major Tom is a fictional astronaut referenced in David Bowie's songs "Space Oddity", "Ashes to Ashes", "Hallo Spaceboy" (particularly in the remix by the Pet Shop Boys) and "Blackstar" (in the music video and interpreted from the lyrics). Bowie's own interpretation of the character evolved throughout his career. "Space Oddity" (1969) depicts an astronaut who casually slips the bonds of the world to journey beyond the stars. In the song "Ashes to Ashes" (1980), 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 album (1977), which charted his withdrawal following his drug abuse in the United States. Additionally, the choked and self-recriminating tone used in the lyrics "Time and again I tell myself I'll stay clean tonight." reinforces an autobiographical and retrospective interpretation. A short time later, there is another reversal of Major Tom's original withdrawal, turning 'outwards' or towards space.
German singer Peter Schilling continued the story of Major Tom in his late 1982 release "Major Tom (völlig losgelöst)", which reached number one in Germany and Austria in early 1983. The English-language version, "Major Tom (Coming Home)", peaked at number 14 in the States in late 1983. Other artists who have subsequently made substantial contributions to the Major Tom story include K.I.A.. 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!"
Major Tom in Bowie's work
In "Space Oddity", from the album (1969, later retitled Space Oddity), Major Tom's departure from Earth is successful and everything goes according to plan. At a certain point during the travel ('past one hundred thousand miles'), he thinks that "my spaceship knows which way to go" and proceeds to say "Tell my wife I love her very much." Control then informs him, "Ground Control to Major Tom: your circuit's dead, there's something wrong" and attempts to reestablish contact with Major Tom. Tom's final words in the song (possibly not heard by Ground Control) are: "Here... am I floating in my tin can, far above the moon. Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do."
In the promotional film from 1969, David Bowie plays as Major Tom, Ground Control (GC), and the Countdown Announcer. When the lyrics "And the stars look very different today" are said, two lovely women appear, portraying either angels or aliens, or perhaps both. The moment "Though I'm past one hundred thousand miles, I'm feeling very still" are said, the two women can be seen removing Major Tom's helmet and spacesuit. Later a still fully outfitted Major Tom can be seen spinning around in space, with a panicked Ground Control attempting to contact him; the spinning Major Tom is either the reality of the situation, or Ground Control's imagination. The music video ends with Major Tom sitting in his tin can, far above the Moon, with the two women by his side in a ménage à trois style.
Bowie created a sequel entitled "Ashes to Ashes" (1980). The song was a Number 1 hit single and also appeared on his Number 1 LP . 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. There is an inclusion of saying "strung out in heavens high, hitting an all time low" referring to him getting high on heroin, while his life is low.