Malleus Bonus: “Space Oddity / Major Tom (Coming Home)” by the 1989-90 Tufts Beelzebubs – the Classic Winter Invitational recording

Malleus Maleficarum German and English Audio ColumnSometime in 1990, I was a pathetic high school student getting my heart slowly and painfully broken during an ill-advised Smith College visit to my first girlfriend. The relationship was clearly dying on the vine, and I was wretched. Things went from bad to worse, and then we went to see a visiting a cappella group, the Tufts Beelzebubs, perform in a campus lounge. A dapper bunch of fellows took the stage and proceeded to rock the house with a polished, harmonious set including Peter Gabriel’s “In your Eyes”. They finished with a stunning medley of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home)”, the final chords of which have haunted me ever since. I was spellbound from start to finish, and for five glorious minutes Major Tom’s dramatic return to earth eclipsed my romantic misery. I searched for a recording for years; it proved damnably elusive.

I found it at last, and although the sound quality is far from perfect, the song still carries the old magic. Even better, I’ve been granted permission to share it with you. Ladies and gentlemen, I present the 1990 Tufts Beelzebubs!
1989-90 ("Winter Invitational MCMLXXXIX" - BWI 1)

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Right click to download “Space Oddity / Major Tom” by the Tufts Beelzebubs!

Read on to learn more about the performance and for some sentimental rambling from yours truly.

“Space Oddity / Major Tom”, an a cappella medley.

Arranged for male voices by Fernandi from the original songs by David Bowie (1968) and Peter Schilling (1983).

Solos by Dancing Knightly and Marty Mahoney, with a duet by Danny Lichtenfeld and John Taber Gifford.

Recorded by Bill Allen at Goddard Chapel, Tufts University, on Dec. 8 & 9, 1989.
Mixed and engineered by Bill Allen at RCA Studios, NYC.

CD Design and layout by Lewis and Clark.

Cover art by Danny Lichtenfeld.

The 1990 Beezebubs performance of “Space Oddity / Major Tom” launched me on my own love affair with college a cappella, which I would eventually pursue as part of a singing group. But although we had some great arrangements and fine performances, and I’ve since heard many other great groups, nothing has ever impressed me quite so much as that Beelzebubs rendition of Bowie and Schilling’s ballads of the lost astronaut.

As is often the way with such things, what you want most is hardest to get. I spent years trying to track down the only published recording of the arrangement, the Beelzebub’s live performance from their first Winter Invitational in 1989-90. (A second studio recording has since been released by the 2000-2001 Beelzebubs and can be found on their album, “Next”.) With a short print run that sold out years before I started looking, in that pre-Internet age it just wasn’t to be had.

But I’m happy to report that persistence finally paid off. I found my copy of that elusive song, and after contacting the current business manager of the ‘Bubs, Eli Seidman, I was graciously permitted to post it here for everyone. I am delighted to present what I consider to be a long-lost a cappella classic. It’s a second generation concert recording so sound quality could be better, and there is very noticeable tape hiss. (Incidentally, if anyone out there has a cleaner copy, send or email it to me and I’ll be happy to put it up.) Despite the recording’s flaws, I think the group’s contagious energy and sophisticated harmony still makes the tune soar into space.

How is this in any way related to audio drama? I confess: it isn’t. This is a genuine indulgence on my part. But the inventive ways in which the ‘Bubs used their voices to recreate the soundscape of a space voyage, from blips and beeps to thrusters whooshing stereophonically from right to left, should be of interest to anyone invested in using the human voice to create sound effects.

What can’t be recaptured here is the visual dynamism of the performance. The entire a cappella group turned itself into an intricate space machine, with each member performing a specific function as a whirling gear, rotating axle, or shifting lever. The movements were executed in time with the music, sometimes for comedic effect, as when a robotic arm mechanically handed Tom a drink after the lyrics requested it. I’ve since seen more sweeping choreography from the gigantic Amherst college Zumbyes, but none so intricate or clever.

So here’s to you, Beelzebubs of 1990: John Taber Gifford (President), Eric Valliere (Music Director), Danny Lichtenfeld (Business Manager), Damon Goldstein, Todd Herzog, Dave Kalis, Justin Kline, Dancing Knightly, Marty Mahoney, Geoff Mogilner, Leonard Squibb, Nolan Mondrow, Bert Okpokwasili, Kevin Page, Deke Sharon, and Greg Williamson. You did the impossible and lifted my spirits when I was at my lowest ebb. And here’s to the current Beelzebubs and their business manager, Eli Seidman, who kindly allowed me to bring this lost work back and share it. Why not give them a visit at their homepage? And here’s to you, too, first girlfriend of mine. I hope you’ve found true love and happiness as I have. And while I’m passing around tributes like a happy drunk, here’s to Fred for allowing me to post something with only the most tenuous of links to radio drama. (I’ll be back on track soon, I promise!)

And finally, here’s to any of you who find some enjoyment and inspiration in this music.

  • http://wanderradio.com Jack H

    Excellent find. Thank you for sharing.

  • http://www.myspace.com/melobot MELODY

    gracias!!

  • Heather

    The recent Lincoln commercial with the very pretty cover of Major Tom has caused me to rewind my DVR to listen and remember a similarly striking experience with the Bubs performing this song. It must have been 1996, and the Bubs had performed with my school’s Bandersnatchers. the show was amazing and I had been looking forward to it based on the Bander Boys’ high respect and down-right geekery towards the group. I bought the Beezlebub’s cassette of Gilding that night and went on to the after party at one of the bungalow-like campus houses in a little wooded valley. It was later in the night and after some drinking the Beezlebubs were convinced to perform the (at that point) legendary arrangement/performance of Space Oddity/Major Tom. those remaining at the party assembled outside for the special show. Everything in your description brought back all those details of “visual dynamism”. So, I watched those 12 (?) guys blast us with sound on a cold dark night while we were all standing in the snow. It remains in my heart the most thrilling a cappella performance I’ve ever experienced. I googled “‘major tom’ beezlebubs” and found your post.

    Thank you so much for sharing. I, too wish it was a better recording, but it’s not as bad as it could be. It’s a triumph of beauty and precision.

  • Chris Dueker

    Hi Heather,

    Thanks for sharing your own Major Tom / ‘Bubs encounter. I’m always hoping to share something extraordinary with a kindred spirit when I write these posts, so your story was much appreciated.

    Even if we had a crystal clear CD recording of that historic performance it wouldn’t hold a candle to the experience of seeing them do it live. Or of being that young and seeing them do it live, for that matter. I’m glad you were able to experience that too.

  • Heather

    I agree. a Capella, like improv comedy, doesn’t resonate as much through recording. That being said, is the studio version good? I left this out before, but a few years ago I contacted the ‘Bubs to purchase the album that had this song on it and never heard back and thus forgot about it.

    And, regarding your original post, it’s not Major Tom’s “dramatic return to Earth”, though is it? I’ve always read both songs as a collision with the infinite. The last words being those of love to his wife.

    WHICH! While we’re sharing, please see this wonderful piece I got to be a part of as a singer in choir that was added in later performances: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mpg7zvJYLXA

    It’s a musical performance piece about another traveler into space (the first) who also perished while contemplating the view: The Soviet dog, Laika.

  • Chris Dueker

    Hi Heather,

    Regarding Major Tom, I always thought Schilling’s last phrases were more optimistic than Bowie’s.

    Far beneath the ship,
    the world is mourning.
    They don’t realize
    he’s alive.
    No one understands,
    but Major Tom sees.
    “Now the light commands
    this is my home,
    I’m coming home.”

    But you make a good point, and I like “collision with the infinite”. I’ll meet you half-way and say it’s open-ended.

    Thanks a lot for the link to the Laika piece, too. It brought a lot of things to mind – the Fantasticks (for the pull everything out of the box design), the surreal films of George Melies, Terry Gilliam’s old Monty Python cartoons, an online adventure game from the Czech republic http://amanita-design.net/samorost-2/, and an excellent puppet performance of Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan that Ping Chong produced for the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater in New York (sadly discontinued in 2000). I really wish someone would post a film of the Chong piece on Youtube.

    Back to Laika – great music, and really beautiful design. I thought having the puppeteers act as impartial observers was a nice spin on the Bunraku-style presentation too. I envy you being able to take part in this. Thanks very much for sharing it.

  • Chris Dueker

    Heather –

    Whoops, forgot to get back to you on your question about the studio version of Major Tom.

    First of all, the studio recording is by the Beelzebubs, but not the original group. Second, I’ve heard a clip of it and found it bland, honestly. It’s not easy to get performance-quality energy up in a studio, especially when everyone is too concerned with technical precision. I suspect that’s what happened here. Sometimes even the best arrangements just don’t soar, for whatever reason.

    It’s been a good while since I did an internet hunt for the clip. I remember, though, that it was included on one of the a Capella podcast shows. If you google them, you may turn it up.

    Personally, for all its technical imperfection I find the original concert recording to be much more vibrant.

  • http://www.totalvocal.com Deke Sharon

    Chris,

    Just saw your post, and as one of the guys who is on that recording, I’m honored to hear that our performance has resonated with you for 20 years.

    Indeed, that live recording is rough – the group recorded it in the studio over a decade later, and the results are probably much more what you remember:

    http://www.bubs.com/album2001Next.asp

    I recommend you see the current Beelzebubs should you ever get the chance.

  • Danny Lichtenfeld

    Hi there,

    In May 2008 the Beelzebubs celebrated our 45th anniversary. many of us returned to Tufts for a weekend of festivities, including a lot of singing of old favorites. The link below will take you to a video of a bunch of us performing the arrangement you discuss above. You’ll see that there are about 30 guys on stage. That includes everyone who was at the reunion who had, at one time or another, performed Space Oddity/Major Tom. (We first did it in the spring of 1989, but, because it’s such a great arrangement and crowd-pleaser, it’s been brought back numerous times since then.)

    When you watch the video, please bear in mind that it represents the efforts of a group of individuals who have never sung all together before. Many of us are trying hard to remember our parts, having not sung them in years. I think about 8 of us on stage were involved in the performance at Smith all those years ago.

    Enjoy!

    http://gallery.mac.com/michaelcraigmiller#100338

    Best,
    Danny Lichtenfeld B’93

  • Chris Dueker

    Hi all,

    To those just tuning it, Radio Drama Revival recently switched servers, and somehow this transfer caused a lot of random question marks to be inserted into many of the posts. That included this one until I cleaned it up a moment ago.

    My apologies for any confusion this may have caused.

  • Chris Dueker

    Hello Deke and Danny,

    Thanks so much for writing in, and for your performance those many years ago. Although it’s not the ideal recording quality, I’m grateful that your original group was captured on tape at all. The Bobs or the King’s Singers or whoever is hot on the professional circuit now could perform Major Tom and yours would still remain my favorite. It’s burned in my memory.

    I watched the reunion video, and was surprised and moved to recognize a couple of faces, older now.

    The reunion sing was imperfect as they always are, but as you know that’s not really the point. Or rather, it’s precisely the point – that imperfection marks the eternal subtext of reunions, the bittersweet passage of time. The stories come out: who’s gone to fat, married, divorced, lost their edge, found themselves, come out of the closet, energized, depressive, wealthy, tragic, bald, found religion, lost it, scraping by, successful, middling, failed, gone before their time. There are close friendships, dusty jealousies, and a good many faces known only through the reunions, their toasting and drinking and self-deprecating humor hinting like arabesques at who they really are.

    To sing on those reunion stages year after year is to face mortality with your brothers, singing. And in the white-hot moment of those final chords to achieve the impossible, the paradoxical: stop Time again with the hope of youth.

    I was never a ‘Bub, of course, but I speak from experience as a former member of the Williams Octet. However maudlin, those are the genuine reflections and feelings your reunion video inspired in me. Thank you.

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  • Tracymberry

    Do you know how I can get a copy of the sheet music of this arrangement?

  • finalrune

    I don’t.. Try contacting some of the creators through the links here – or – can someone say how to get in touch?

    Best,
    Fred