Peter Schiling’s career might live on in the playlists of 1980s music and New Wave compilation, and rightly so: his singular hit, “Major Tom (Coming Home),” retold David Bowie’s hit “Space Oddity,” had a terrific electronic melody, and a catchy-as-hell chorus. Yet the song—and Peter Schilling’s American presence—would come and go in a flash, flying off into the outer reaches of space alongside Major Tom.
“Major Tom” started its journey onto the airwaves in early 1983, becoming a hit across continental Europe. In spite of its success, the language barrier proved quite problematic; it was assumed that no American record label or radio station would be interested. So Schilling rerecorded the song in English, and would do the same for the entirety of his debut album, Fehler Im System. It was a gamble, but it paid off; the song would rise to #14 in the Billboard charts, and would chart higher in other English speaking countries. His English is superb; if you weren’t aware that it wasn’t his first language, you’d never have guessed.
Error In The System, released in 1983, would contain the single, but “Major Tom (Coming Home)” feels very much like an anomaly. Whereas the song is punctuated with a cold yet catch New Wave rhythm, the rest of the songs found here aren’t nearly as compelling. Most have the electronic rhythms and are synth-heavy, but they feel more like a rock band that’s discovered the novelty of a synthesizer. “Only Dreams” is fun, bouncy Power Pop, while “Lifetime Guarantee” is a seven minute reggae number that is five and a half minutes too long. “The Noah Plan” and the title track are sci-fi minded, but feel more like quickly produced numbers to cash in on the success of “Major Tom (Coming Home).” That song, smack dab in the middle of the album, is followed by “Major Tom Pt. 2,” a gorgeous, melancholic instrumental that builds on the theme in a very touching way. The final three songs, “(Let’s Play) U.S.A,” “I Have No Desire,” and a bizarre and unrecognizable cover of “Silent NIght,” are largely forgettable.
But this expanded reissue offers the listener an added bonus; here, you can hear the original Fehler Im System in its entirety. Hearing these songs in Schilling’s own language restores the original vision and dimension of the compositions; it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that irrespective of Schilling’s English-singing abilities and compositional skills may be, something undefinable and intangible was lost in the translation. The remixes of “Major Tom” are interesting but not particularly revelatory, though it was nice to finally have the “Special 12” Extended Mix”—one which deftly blends both English and German into the song—as it was a staple on the college radio station I listened to.
Two years later, Schilling would try to cross over again, this time with Things To Come. It wasn’t a success, and Schilling decided to take a break, and to eschew trying to cross over into the American market. It was a wise choice; with his efforts focused on his homeland, he would return to making music shortly after the turn of the millennium, this time building on his previous success while continuing to make innovative European electronic music, which was his true calling in the first place. Error In The System might have been flawed, but the song that brought him fame was and is a unique number that hasn’t aged at all in thirty-three years.
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Categories: Album Reviews