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It’s Just A Cheesy German Synthpop Record. (And It Became The Most Important Song In My Life.)

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The Song That Changed Everything:

The Scene:
40 years ago.

A cold, dark morning in Ohio, late January 1984. I have just turned 14 years old.

I’m in the middle of a lonely freshman year of high school, having skipped a grade and have left most of my friends behind in junior high.

I didn’t know what I could do to be more popular. But I figured knowing what music the other kids were listening to couldn’t hurt.

Pop music was certainly not my area. I had taken piano lessons for many years, but I did not own any records…

…Unless you counted the old copy of The Sesame Street Singalong that was probably still in some forgotten closet somewhere.

We did not have cable, so I had never seen MTV. As amazing as it seems now, I’m not sure I even knew who Michael Jackson was, in spite of the fact that he was probably the most famous person on the planet.

What I did know was Mellow 70s AC.

For some reason that is now obscure to me, my clock radio was permanently set to Akron’s WKDD, the local soft rock station.

So I knew lots of Carpenters and John Denver. I remember “Chiquitita” and “The Gambler” (both 10s), “We’re All Alone” (a 7 that I never knew the name of until it came up on TNO), “Torn Between Two Lovers” (yecch!).

And from my parents I knew plenty of Kingston Trio and Peter Paul & Mary (“Leaving On A Jet Plane” is another 10, and I like “Tom Dooley” a good deal more than Stereogum reviewer Tom Briehan does.)

But clearly: none of this was cool in any way.

So one Sunday evening before going to bed I decided:

It was time to learn more about pop music.

I changed the tuner to (I think) WMMS, and went off to sleep. At 5:50 the next morning (I had to get up early for my paper route), the radio woke up: and on came the opening notes of Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom”.

I was instantly smitten.

How could I have not known about this for my whole life?

Within a few weeks, I was listening to and writing down Casey’s Top 40 every Saturday morning, and making my own Weekly Top 30 charts (where “Major Tom” was #1 for five consecutive weeks… before being displaced by “Here Comes The Rain Again.”)

My year-end top 10 for 1984:

10. “Twist Of Fate”
Olivia Newton-John

9. “Come Back And Stay”
Paul Young

8. “Automatic”
Pointer Sisters

7. “She Bop”
Cyndi Lauper

6. “Here Comes The Rain Again”
Eurythmics

5. “Drive”
The Cars

4. “They Don’t Know”
Tracey Ullman

3. “Major Tom”
Peter Schilling

2. “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go”
Wham!

1. “Time After Time”
Cyndi Lauper

I pretty much agree with this list even now, although I would probably swap #2 and #4, and move “Automatic” a few notches higher.

As far as I can tell, compiling all of this didn’t make me any cooler.

And it certainly didn’t help me find a girlfriend -that was still years away. But it was the beginning of a lifelong love for pop music that I’m sure the other readers here will understand.

Admittedly, it probably would have happened anyway.

But this was a great way to start it off.

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cstolliver
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January 22, 2024 4:45 am

Great debut, SR! And you’re right — 1984 was an ideal year to get hooked on pop music. Not a loser in your list! And it’s not even counting Prince, Huey Lewis, Tina Turner and loads of other artists and songs I’m sure our friends will suggest.

JJ Live At Leeds
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January 22, 2024 4:46 am

Welcome along Shadow Rat. Nice Top 10, especially Tracey Ullman.

When I saw the article title my first thought was Da Da Da by Trio or 99 Red Balloons by Nena – it was a good time for German language synthpop with Falco around as well. Major Tom (Coming Home) missed the top 40 here in Britain so it’s not as well known as those others. I was aware of it without knowing it too well until it was used as the theme to German tv series Deutschland 83 (and the follow ups 86 and 89 – cold war thriller set on either side of the Berlin wall in the 80s – highly recommended) that was shown here from 2016. I’d normally forward through the credits but the edited version that cut out the verses and leapt straight to the 4-3-2-1 and swirling chorus was too good not to listen.

I’m not so keen on the verses which feel clunky to me and drain the energy but I guess they work as delayed gratification for when it gets to the countdown.

LinkCrawford
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January 22, 2024 8:22 am

Ha! That’s funny. I really love those verses. It’s where the quirky, electronic nature of the song really shines through. For me.

JJ Live At Leeds
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January 22, 2024 10:29 am
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Between us its the perfect song!

rollerboogie
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January 22, 2024 7:00 am

Very nice to read your pop origin story, ShadowRat! My pop awakening happened between ages 5-7, when I first started realizing what was on the radio, circa 1970-72. There wasn’t one song that did it, just everything from Motown and soul to Carly Simon, Badfinger, and Loudon Wainright III.

I remember the Peter Schilling song well, because I was in the back seat of a carpool every day senior year and the driver always had the top 40 station on. That song was played quite a bit. I liked it. Good gateway drug.

Your mention of Sesame Street Sing-Along! reminded me of a Sesame Street album we had when I was around 6 that we played a lot. There was a song called “Everyone Makes Mistakes” where Big Bird sings “Everyone makes mistakes so why can’t you?” As a child, I would get frustrated when I messed something up so my dad around that time would say “Remember what Big Bird said”, and quote from the song. Of course I had to find out which album that was just now, and it’s The Official Sesame Street 2 Book-and-Record Album from 1971, from season 2 of the show.

Anyhoo, nice debut and welcome to the writer’s room. Gary makes a great cup of coffee.

Last edited 5 months ago by rollerboogie
LinkCrawford
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January 22, 2024 8:24 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

“Someday Little Children” was a great song off that Sesame Street album! And to this day the “Everyone Makes Mistakes” song still pops into my head.

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 22, 2024 8:12 am

Welcome to the Illuminati!

Some of the details of your story are familiar to me. I skipped 7th grade rather than 8th. And I grew up listening to John Denver and old folk records, as well as Christian Contemporary Music.

But it sounds like you are the eldest, or an only child, if I’m not mistaken? My eldest sister was born when you were. By the time I was around and could remember things, I was listening to stuff from my parents, but also from my older siblings. So I had an early introduction to 80s radio pop, as well as rap and metal.

Because of that, it’s hard for me to think of a similar watershed moment. Around 1992, I switched from a 80s pop radio station to an alternative rock station, and that felt revelatory, though it wasn’t limited to one song.

I’ll pick an earlier find: “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens, which was my first experience of unbridled, rapturous pop delight.

But the mid-80s is one of the very best times for such delights. Some great picks listed here!

LinkCrawford
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January 22, 2024 8:30 am

By the way, I own that “Sesame Street Sing a Long” album on CD, so that shows you the kind of person I am.
.
I never had an awakening like you did, because I was a serious music enthusiast from an early age. (By the way, I think we are about the same age…my birth song is “(They Long To Be) Close to You” by The Carpenters.) I do remember realizing the concept of songs being released, becoming popular, and then fading away with the song “Fly Robin Fly” in 1976. Though I always listened to the kitchen transistor and had my own records (mostly my mom and dad’s collection), I became an intense radio listener around the end of 1979, and found Casey Kasem the next summer.
.
I like your top 10! “They Don’t Know” would likely be my #1 out of that group. I cannot get enough of that song.

JJ Live At Leeds
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January 22, 2024 10:38 am
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Share your love for They Don’t Know – one thing we definitely agree on.

Something I didn’t know about it until today; the high pitched ‘Baby’ isn’t Tracey. They snuck that in from the Kirsty MacColl original for the same label as Tracey couldn’t go that high. Who’d have thought record labels don’t always act with integrity?

LinkCrawford
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January 22, 2024 10:56 am

I love that bit of trivia.

blu_cheez
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January 23, 2024 5:59 pm

Apparently, Kirsty and Tracey were good friends, and the song was an authorized “gift” for Tracey to re-record.

Last edited 5 months ago by blu_cheez
Virgindog
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January 22, 2024 9:44 am

I’d totally forgotten about “Major Tom” and must go give it another listen. I think my pop awaking, or at least the one that comes to mind, is when three 45s showed up in the house. I think someone gave them to my mother but that memory is long since gone. I think one of them was “I Fall To Pieces” by Patsy Cline, and I forget the other one, but I have a clear memory of playing “My Boy Lollipop” by Millie Small over and over again.

That song almost fully explains my taste in music: it’s pop but it swings, it’s ska but it rocks, it’s wholesome but a little naughty, and it’s unabashedly fun. I didn’t realize until just this minute what an effect it’s had on me all these years later.

Thanks, ShadowRat! I appreciate the unexpected trip back to memory lane. Nice debut, keep ’em coming!

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 22, 2024 11:58 am

Also, let’s not forget one of the most charming moments from Breaking Bad:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0v0VR6Kf7KQ

Pauly Steyreen
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January 22, 2024 12:53 pm

That’s a very solid list to be from a 14 year old in 1984! Every one of those songs is at least “good” in my book with many well into “great” territory. “Major Tom” would be my favorite of the bunch.

When I was 14 (in 1989), I also kept top 10 lists every week and compiled a year-end Top 25. While the actual results are lost to time, I’m sure there was a lot of Queensryche, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC on it. That was when I had like a full year+ where “Stairway to Heaven” was my favorite song, so it was really just a competition for slots 2 through 10.

Virgindog
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January 22, 2024 1:02 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

No X-Ray Spex?

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 22, 2024 1:22 pm
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No Polly for me at 14. I am a poseur and I don’t care.

Virgindog
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January 22, 2024 1:34 pm

Aren’t we all?

Pauly Steyreen
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January 23, 2024 11:24 am
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I grew up in rural Kentucky. Didn’t get exposed to real punk until much later in life…

mt58
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January 22, 2024 1:21 pm

Well done, ! This fun article got me thinking about my catalyst record.

I certainly knew about The Beatles and other pop groups, just by not living under a rock. “Teenager music” was everywhere.

But the first record for when it clicked? I saved for three weeks and bought it at Woolworths. This is the one that marked my “entry into in the charts.”

Kick it, Mel and Tim:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cb2hUNW8SDY

lovethisconcept
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January 22, 2024 1:41 pm

Welcome ShadowRat! Your icon actively makes me nervous, but, hey, we all have to learn to deal with something, right?

Great topic today. Music was always around me as a child, with many genres in the mix. The first song that I remember playing on the radio and actively trying to learn the words to was “Can’t Buy Me Love”. It wasn’t really a revelation, like your first pop moment. It was just part of the atmosphere that I absorbed.

lovethisconcept
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January 23, 2024 11:36 am
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I realize that it’s a phobia and completely irrational how much I fear rats and mice. It’s just one of those things that I have had since childhood. Give me a snake any time.

cstolliver
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January 23, 2024 6:48 pm

I guess that’s fitting considering its natural meal.

Zeusaphone
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January 22, 2024 2:14 pm

My parents were all Easy Listening. I grew up with them listening to Andy Williams, Ray Conniff, Nana Mouskouri and others of that ilk. I heard very little current, popular music as a child.

Some time late in 1975 I saw a TV promo for a new show coming on late on Saturday nights. My parents never stayed up past 8:00 so I had been sneaking out of bed to watch Johnny Carson even though I didn’t always understand what he and his guests were talking about. I decided I could add Saturday Night Live to my late night viewing. Like with Carson, the musical acts were mostly forgettable and the poor acoustics in Studio 8H didn’t help.

Somewhere in the middle of that season a man I’d never heard of named Bill Withers appeared and sang a very sad song and actually sounded sad singing it, and that sparked my interest in pop music.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuKfiH0Scao

lovethisconcept
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January 22, 2024 2:31 pm
Reply to  Zeusaphone

What an introduction. An all time great.

cstolliver
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January 23, 2024 6:49 pm
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And you knew, you knew …

mjevon6296
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January 22, 2024 4:19 pm

Great first column! I was a year older and a sophmore in HS but I found a lot of similarities (piano lessons, not being cool…not really being social in any way yet, lots of Sesame Street records as a kid – I may have been obsessed.)

My parents listened to the AC stuff all the time. At dinner, the TV had to be turned off but I was allowed to turn on the 8-track so we had The Captain and Tennille while eating. (“Muskrat Love” with your meatloaf anyone?)

I started listening to pop radio around 7th grade and started taping America’s Top 40 off the radio in eighth grade, but my gateway was before that by watching The Monkees syndicated reruns in 4th or 5th grade I think. While out at that age, I asked if I could buy “The Monkees’ Greatest Hits” with my own money. That caught my mom off guard as I had never done that before and she asked, “Are you sure you want to spend your money on that?” Of course I was sure and I never looked back!

Last edited 5 months ago by mjevon6296
LinkCrawford
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January 22, 2024 5:11 pm
Reply to  mjevon6296

I loved Sesame Street records. The first Sesame Street Book and Record (which I also have on CD) is one of my all time favorite records. “J Jump”, “Somebody Come and Play”, “Nearly Missed”, “Up and Down”…holy cow those are part of my DNA. In another universe, I would love to get to know Joe Raposo.

mjevon6296
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January 22, 2024 6:21 pm
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I had (and just confirmed I still have) several Sesame Street records including the first (I think) Original Cast Recording and one of the “Carry About” 6 Books and (45 RPM) Records set. (Oscar is still yellow on them!)

Maybe I should buy a record player and some LP cleaner…

Last edited 5 months ago by mjevon6296
Virgindog
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January 22, 2024 5:41 pm
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“The Monkees Greatest Hits” was an excellent choice. Good job, young mjevon!

cappiethedog
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January 22, 2024 4:27 pm

Hi, ShadowRat.

You like Tracey Ullman? I like Tracey Ullman, too.

I think she’s Meryl Streep, but Ullman was never given a chance to prove it.

The late great Kirsty MacColl recorded “They Don’t Know”, too, but child me heard and saw Ullman first(I don’t think radio ever played it in my neck of the woods), so the proto-Rachel Bloom(also great) version is still first in my heart.

It was “Drive” when I knew for certain that The Cars had a second vocalist, Benjamin Orr. That’s definitely not Rik Ocasek sitting at the desk. Previously, I’d listen to “Let’s Go”, wondering if Ocasek was using a different voice, like Tom Waits.

“Time After Time” is a poignant #1. Perfect way to end your list because it comments on the other songs that came before it. Nice.

“C is for Cookie” is a banger. I think Cookie Monster sounds like Tom Waits. Who knows? Maybe Cookie Monster inspired Small Change? I got this idea because somebody synced up Waits’ “Hell Broke Luce” to a montage of Sesame Street clips.

Great debut.

blu_cheez
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January 23, 2024 9:48 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

This is (IMO) the single greatest Sesame Street Cookie Monster Banger:
https://youtu.be/xLHXwC7lkas

rollerboogie
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January 23, 2024 11:00 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

There was a guy at karaoke who would get up on stage completely wasted and rap Eminem songs word for word without even looking at the screen. He was amazing. Sometimes he would switch things up and do something completely different, like the time he sang “C is for Cookie”. Somehow it still felt very on brand.

rollerboogie
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January 22, 2024 7:18 pm
Reply to  ShadowRat

That would make a lot more sense time-wise.

cappiethedog
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January 22, 2024 8:15 pm
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I was four-years-old. Undoubtedly, “linoleum” was the first four-syllable word in my vocabulary.

Ozmoe
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January 22, 2024 8:06 pm

Lovely initial blog, ShadowRat! Major Tom has always been one of my favorite records of 1984, and I remember devouring the video for it on MTV constantly that year.

Like you, I had parents who set our radios to the easy listening station until somehow when I was 12 (at the latest), I learned about the local top 40 station as well. And yes, they carried American Top 40 with Casey Kasem, so it was the perfect aural gateway drug for me. Nowadays that sort of thing doesn’t happen for kids alas. That’s how progress goes, I guess.

ThinkMusicPhilly
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January 23, 2024 6:25 am

My song that changed everything is a bit different.

Growing up in rural south Jersey, I enjoyed music. My dad was purely classical and NPR, but my mom was into rock and blues. From the rock radio station (WMMR iyk), I picked out Genesis as my favorite, full Collins-era. Live:The Way We Walk was my first cassette purchase (I am seemingly a little younger than most of you. Birth song is Bette Davis Eyes.). From there, I followed my peers into grunge and then whatever was going around: classic rock, ska, light industrial (oh boy was Gravity Kills a huge one for me), swing, nu/rap metal, but not pop or rap.

Then I turned 17, and my mom died a week later. Now I had a driver’s license and a car with a radio. Girls Against Boys, a band I had never heard of, released their major label debut. First single was Park Avenue which somehow got on the radio just enough for me to hear it a couple times (if only I had gotten into 120 Minutes earlier, this whole story would be different, but my mom would most likely still be dead [maybe too dark? Eh, leave it in.]). Anyway, I went to my also-newly-discovered music store (first local one not located in a mall), and bought the album. While there, I found out that GVSB had a back catalog. Seems strange now, but I am not sure I had ever gotten into a band that had an extensive one of those (I guess 311 and the Bosstones some older albums to discover after they broke big). So I dug into that, and my music world just opened up. Led to other bands, indie labels, etc. All this music none of my friends and peers were listening to or knew about. I was no longer following trends, but just my own ears.

This is long, so I will stop there.

https://youtu.be/EznT-07NKsY?si=rowtQ9_am07wAGVf

mt58
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January 23, 2024 7:23 am

“ I was no longer following trends, but just my own ears.”

Wow. That’s an empowerment. Good on you.

Thank you for telling us your story, .

Phylum of Alexandria
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February 7, 2024 1:10 pm

Also from the “Bette Davis Eyes” era.

Also from Philly.

And also a big fan of GVSB.

Edith G
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January 23, 2024 1:47 pm

Welcome ! Great selection of songs, the only one that I haven’t heard is Tracey Ullman’s.

1984 was a good year for you to start digging into the pop music. I don’t have a song that specifically introduced me to pop as it happened to you, basically since I was a toddler I heard everything that my parents, uncle and the older brother used to like, as well as what it was on the radio.

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January 23, 2024 5:57 pm

Weird thing about “Major Tom” (in the Los Angeles radio market, anyways) is that the English version was the one that popped and always got / gets played (I’ve heard the German version maybe twice) where the English version of “99 Luft Balloons” never gets played and it’s the German version that stuck.

Also, I remember reading a while ago that Peter Schilling is not actually singing on the English version of the song – it’s a sound-alike.

Americans are weird…

Virgindog
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February 1, 2024 9:33 pm

Late comment: Rob Squad Reactions just did “Major Tom.”

https://youtu.be/OnXKv85mbfU?si=aoplNCsAud0Tabw8

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