|"Ashes to Ashes"|
|Single by David Bowie|
|from the album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)|
|Released||1 August 1980|
|Recorded||Power Station, New York, February 1980; Good Earth, London, April 1980|
|Length||3:35 (single edit)|
|David Bowie singles chronology|
"Ashes to Ashes" is a song written and recorded by English singer-songwriter David Bowie. It was the lead single from the 1980 album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and became Bowie's second UK No. 1 single. It is also known for its innovative video, directed by Bowie and David Mallet, which at the time was the most expensive music video ever made.
The lyrics revisit Bowie's Major Tom character from 1969's "Space Oddity" in a darker theme, which he referenced once again in 1995 with "Hallo Spaceboy" and in 2015 with "Blackstar". The song's innovative layered guitar synth textures were generated by Chuck Hammer. The song's melody was sampled in a remix of his 2013 single "Love Is Lost". The song's original title was "People Are Turning to Gold".
Interviewed in 1980, Bowie described the song as "very much a 1980s nursery rhyme. I think 1980s nursery rhymes will have a lot to do with the 1880s/1890s nursery rhymes which are all rather horrid and had little boys with their ears being cut off and stuff like that." Years later, Bowie said that with "Ashes to Ashes" he was "wrapping up the seventies really" for himself, which "seemed a good enough epitaph for it."
AllMusic critic Dave Thompson described the track and its accompanying music video as "a very deliberate acknowledgement of the then-burgeoning New Romantic scene." It was ranked as the 5th best single of 1980 by NME magazine.
Music and lyrics
The musical style of "Ashes to Ashes" has been characterized as art rock and new wave. The song is notable for its delicate guitar synth string sound, counterpointed by hard-edged funk bass, and its complex vocal layering. Its choir-like textures and theme were created by guitarist Chuck Hammer with four multi-tracked guitar synthesizers, each playing wide interval chord inversions; this was underpinned by Bowie's dead-pan, chanted background voices. The rhythmic chordal theme originated from a guitar synth composition by Chuck Hammer. The resulting track has been described as "one of Bowie's greatest studio moments". The phrase "ashes to ashes" comes from the Christian Book of Common Prayer.
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 the plaintive reflection:
- 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'd 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)."
"Ashes to Ashes" debuted at No. 4 in the UK Singles Chart in its first week of release, rising to No. 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 music video for the song. The B-side, "Move On", was a track from his previous album, Lodger (1979). The US release had "It's No Game (No. 1)" as the B-side. In the US, the single peaked at No. 79 on the Cash Box Top 100 chart and No. 101 on the Billboard Bubbling Under the Hot 100 chart.
Writing in Smash Hits, reviewer Deanne Pearson remarked that it was a "strange choice for a single" and "should have been left in the middle of an album", concluding that as a single it was "not a hit". Billboard Magazine said that "tight rock rhythms lay the groundwork for the nuance-rich melody" and that the song combines "rock and dance beats."
The music video for "Ashes to Ashes", directed by Bowie and David Mallet, was one of the most iconic of the 1980s. With production costing £250,000, it was at the time the most expensive music video ever made and remains one of the most expensive of all time. It incorporated scenes both in solarised colour and in stark black-and-white and was filmed in multiple locations. The video featured 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 Frankland who also designed clothes for Strange's Visage videos and Darla Jane Gilroy, forerunners of (later participants in) the New Romantic movement that was heavily influenced by Bowie's music and image. The complexity and high production cost of "Ashes to Ashes" makes it one of the most significant in the evolution of the music video.
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 Steve Strange is taking a bow as he walks behind Bowie, he was actually trying to pull his gown away from the bulldozer in an effort to avoid it getting caught. Scenes of the singer in a space suit—which 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 popular belief, the elderly woman lecturing Bowie at the end of the clip was not his real mother.
The stage set from the music video is also used for the song Space Oddity as shown on the Kenny Everett Show in 1979.
Bowie would later use the same method of putting the video together, including storyboarding the visuals, for his 1987 video for "Day-In Day-Out". He said of that video, "I started working this way on the 'Ashes to Ashes' video with David Mallet. It was my first real big attempt and it won awards at the time for being a new way of doing videos."
- "Ashes to Ashes" – 3:34
- "Move On" – 3:16
- David Bowie – vocals, keyboards, producer
- Chuck Hammer – Roland GR500 guitar synthesiser, Eventide harmonizer and multiple analogue tape delays
- Carlos Alomar – guitar
- Andy Clark – synthesiser
- Roy Bittan – piano
- George Murray – bass
- Dennis Davis – drums
- Tony Visconti – producer
|Australia (Kent Music Report)||3|
|Austria (Ö3 Austria Top 40)||6|
|Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)||15|
|Canada RPM Top Singles||35|
|Irish Singles Chart||4|
|Netherlands (Dutch Top 40)||11|
|Netherlands (Single Top 100)||15|
|New Zealand (Recorded Music NZ)||6|
|Switzerland (Schweizer Hitparade)||11|
|UK (Official Charts Company)||1|
|US Billboard Bubbling Under the Hot 100||101|
|US Billboard Disco Top 100||21|
|US Cash Box Top 100 Singles||79|
|West Germany (Official German Charts)||9|
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 synthesiser 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 than the original track with segments repeated and looped.
- The song has been played on several Bowie tours, including the Serious Moonlight (1983), Sound+Vision (1990), Heathen (2002), and Reality (2003–04) tours.
- A concert performance recorded on 12 September 1983 was included on the live album Serious Moonlight (Live '83), which was part of the 2018 box set Loving the Alien (1983-1988) and was released separately the following year. The filmed performance appears on the concert video Serious Moonlight (1984).
- Bowie's 25 June 2000 performance of the song at the Glastonbury Festival was released in 2018 on Glastonbury 2000.
- A live recording from a special performance at the BBC Radio Theatre, London, on 27 June 2000 was released on the bonus disc that accompanied the first releases of the Bowie at the Beeb album.
- A live recording from A Reality Tour, recorded in Dublin in November 2003, is included on the A Reality Tour DVD and the A Reality Tour album.
- 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:
- Changestwobowie (1981) – single edit
- Golden Years (1983) – album version
- Fame and Fashion (1984) – album version
- Sound + Vision (1989) – album version
- ChangesBowie (1990) – album version
- The Singles Collection (1993) – album version
- Best of Bowie (2002) – single edit
- The Platinum Collection (2006) – single edit
- The Best of David Bowie 1980/1987 (2007) – single edit
- Nothing Has Changed (2014) – single edit
- Bowie Legacy (2016) – single edit
- The single edit of the song was also included on Re:Call 3, part of the A New Career in a New Town (1977–1982) compilation (2017).
In popular culture
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 series's finale, a car bomb goes off at the line "One flash of light".
Covers and samples
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