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"Ashes to Ashes" is a single by David Bowie, released in 1980. It made #1 in the UK and was the first cut from the Scary Monsters album, also a #1 hit. As well as its musical qualities, it is noted for its innovative video, directed by Bowie and David Mallet. The lyrics revisit Bowie's Major Tom character from "Space Oddity", which he referenced once again in 1996 with "Hallo Spaceboy". Bowie has said that with "Ashes to Ashes" he was, "wrapping up the seventies really for myself, and that seemed a good enough epitaph for it".

Music and lyrics

Melancholic and introspective, "Ashes to Ashes" featured Bowie's reinterpretation of "a guy that's been in such an early song", namely Major Tom from his first hit in 1969, "Space Oddity". Described as "containing more messages per second" than any single released in 1980, the song also included plaintive reflections on the singer's moral and artistic journey:

:I've never done good things
:I've never done bad things
:I never did anything out of the blue


Instead of a hippie astronaut who casually slips the bonds of a crass and material world to journey beyond the stars, the song describes Major Tom as a "junkie, strung out in heaven's high, hitting an all-time low". This lyric was interpreted as a play on the title of Bowie's 1977 album Low, which charted his withdrawal inwards following his drug excesses in America a short time before, another reversal of Major Tom's original withdrawal 'outwards' or towards space.

The final lines, "My mother said, to get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom", have been compared to the verse from a nursery rhyme:

:My mother said
:That I never should
:Play with the gypsies in the wood


Bowie himself said in an interview with NME shortly after the single's release, "It really is an ode to childhood, if you like, a popular nursery rhyme. It's about space men becoming junkies (laughs)."

Musically "Ashes to Ashes" was notable for its delicate synthetic string sound, counterpointed by hard-edged funk bass, and its complex vocal layering. Perhaps Bowie's most sophisticated sonic work to date, its choir-like textures were created by Chuck Hammer with four multi-tracked guitar synthesizers, each playing opposing chord inversions; this was underpinned by Bowie's dead-pan, chanted background voices.

Video

Solarised colour in the music video
The video clip for "Ashes to Ashes" was one of the most iconic of the 1980s. Costing £250,000, it was at the time the most expensive music video ever made. It incorporated scenes both in solarised colour (helped by an innovative Quantel Paintbox technique) and in stark black-and-white, featuring Bowie in the gaudy Pierrot costume that became the dominant visual representation of his Scary Monsters phase. Also appearing were Steve Strange and other members of the London Blitz scene, including Judith Franklin and Darla Jane Gilroy, forerunners of (later participants in) the New Romantic movement that was heavily influenced by Bowie's music and image.

Bowie described the shot of himself and the Blitz Kids marching towards the camera in front of a bulldozer as symbolising "oncoming violence". Although it appears that two of the Blitz Kids bow at intervals, they were actually trying to pull their gowns away from the bulldozer in an effort to avoid them getting caught. Scenes of the singer in a space suit - that suggested a hospital life-support system - and others showing him locked in what appeared to be a padded room, made reference to both Major Tom and to Bowie's new, rueful interpretation of him. Contrary to received opinion, the elderly woman lecturing Bowie at the end of the clip was not his real mother, but Wyn Mac, the wife of comedian Jimmy Mac, who was well-known to summer season audiences at the Floral Pavilion Theatremarker, New Brighton, Merseysidemarker.

Record Mirror readers voted "Ashes to Ashes" and Bowie's next single, "Fashion", the best music videos of 1980.

Release

"Ashes to Ashes" hit #4 in the UK Singles Chart in its first week of release, rising to #1 a week later, making it Bowie's fastest-selling single to that point in time. It was issued in three different sleeves, the first 100,000 copies including one of four sets of stamps, all featuring Bowie in the Pierrot outfit he wore in the video. The B-side, "Move On", was a track lifted from his previous album, Lodger (1979).The US release had "It's No Game (No. 1)" as the B-side, while the flip side of the German release was "Alabama Song". The single bubbled under at #101 in America.

Track listing

  1. "Ashes to Ashes" (Bowie) – 3:34
  2. "Move On" (Bowie) – 3:16


Production credits





Charts

Chart (1980) Peak

position
U.K. Singles Chart 1
Irish Singles Chart 4
Australian Kent Report Singles Chart 3
Canadian Singles Chart 35
Swiss Singles Chart 11
Austrian Singles Chart 6
Swedish Singles Chart 6
Norwegian Singles Chart 3
German Singles Chart 9


Alternative versions

There have long been rumours of an extended unreleased version of the song, allegedly some 13 minutes long and featuring additional verses, a longer fade-out and a synthesizer solo. A 12:55 version that appeared on the bootleg From a Phoenix... The Ashes Shall Rise was a fake, repeating the song's instrumental breaks to achieve its additional length. Similarly, an 11:44 version on bootleg albums such as Glamour, Vampires of the Human Flesh and Monsters to Ashes was again nothing more the original track with segments repeated and looped.

Live versions



Other releases

  • To promote the single in August 1980, a so-called medley of "Space Oddity" and "Ashes to Ashes", called "The Continuing Story of Major Tom", was released on 12" in the US. However, this medley was simply "Space Oddity" cross-fading into the 7" single edit of "Ashes to Ashes". The promo's B-side was the full-length album version of "Ashes to Ashes".
  • It has appeared on the following Bowie compilations:


Cover versions



Cultural reference

For the 2008 sequel to their 2006 BBC TV series Life on Mars, the writing team of Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah decided to transplant the characters from 1973 to 1981, and chose the title Ashes to Ashes because they thought of it as "that year's big Bowie track". They also borrowed the famous Pierrot iconography from the video of the Bowie single as part of the programme's visual design. In the first season's finale, a car bomb goes off at the line "I'm happy, hope you're happy, too"

Notes

  1. Nicholas Pegg (2000). The Complete David Bowie: pp.29-31
  2. Roy Carr & Charles Shaar Murray (1981). Bowie: An Illustrated Record: pp.109-116
  3. David Buckley (1999). Strange Fascination - David Bowie: The Definitive Story: pp.366-369
  4. Angus MacKinnon (1980). "The Future Isn't What It Used to Be". NME (13 September 1980): p.37
  5. Chris Welch (1999). David Bowie: We Could Be Heroes: p.136
  6. Steve Strange at The Blitz Kids
  7. Steve Malins (2007). "Meeting the New Romantics", MOJO 60 Years of Bowie: p.78
  8. Nicholas Pegg (2000). Op Cit: pp.75-76
  9. Scary Monsters at BowieGoldenYears
  10. "Ashes to Ashes" at Illustrated db Discography
  11. "Life after Mars", The Guardian, January 7, 2008
  12. "Back in the Day when PC meant Copper", David Belcher, The Herald , 8 February 2008



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