Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie song)
|"Ashes to Ashes"|
One of UK artwork variants
|Single by David Bowie|
|from the album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)|
|Released||8 August 1980|
|Recorded||The Power Station, New York, February 1980; Good Earth Studios, London, April 1980|
|Length||3:35 (7" single edit)|
4:23 (Full-length album version)
|David Bowie singles chronology|
"Ashes to Ashes" is a song written and recorded by 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". 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."
Music and lyrics
"Ashes to Ashes" style has been described as art rock and new wave. It is notable for its delicate synthetic string sound, counterpointed by hard-edged funk bass, and its complex vocal layering. Its choir-like textures were created by guitarist Chuck Hammer with four multi-tracked guitar synthesizers, each playing opposing chord inversions; this was underpinned by Bowie's dead-pan, chanted background voices.
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". 
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 had 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.
Record Mirror readers voted "Ashes to Ashes" and Bowie's next single, "Fashion", the best music videos of 1980. The video was filmed at Pett Level, East Sussex, halfway between Hastings and Rye.
- "Ashes to Ashes" (Bowie) – 3:34
- "Move On" (Bowie) – 3:16
|Australia (Kent Music Report)||3|
|Austria (Ö3 Austria Top 40)||6|
|Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)||15|
|Canada RPM Top Singles||35|
|ID is MANDATORY FOR GERMAN CHARTS||9|
|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|
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 than the original track with segments repeated and looped.
- The song has been played on several Bowie tours, including the Serious Moonlight, Sound+Vision, Heathen, and A Reality Tour tours.
- A live performance filmed on 12 September 1983 was included on Serious Moonlight (1983 film).
- 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).
- A Perfect Circle – Performed the song on 2001 and 2010 tours, with the latter version released on live box set Stone and Echo (2013)
- Bic Runga – Live recording
- Boise Cover Band (feat. Doug Martsch) - Unoriginal Artists (2003)
- Bojan Z – Xenophonia (2006)
- Charlotte Gainsbourg - Performed the song live in her 2011 Tour to promote the album Stage Whisper(2011)
- Car Seat Headrest – Covered the song for Howard Stern's David Bowie Tribute Special (2018)
- Dana International – Sampled in her "Gotta Move On" song (2002)
- Danny Michel – Loving the Alien: Danny Michel Sings the Songs of David Bowie (2004)
- Happy Rhodes – Rhode Songs (1993)
- Hussey-Regan - Curios (2011)
- jacksoul – mySOUL (2006)
- Jeniferever – Repetition Bowie (2007)
- Keane – Tribute to "Ashes to Ashes" with the song "Better Than This" from the album Perfect Symmetry (2008)
- Lassigue Bendthaus – Pop Artificielle (1998)
- Mick Karn – We Were So Turned On: A Tribute to David Bowie (2010)
- Momus – Turpsycore (2015)
- Northern Kings – Reborn (2007) with lead vocals by Tony Kakko
- Samantha Mumba – Sampled in her "Body II Body" single (2000)
- Sneaker Pimps – ICA Home Taping Cover Set (2000)
- Something for Kate – Live recording released on B-sides compilation CD
- Sunna – Two Minute Terror (2009)
- Tao Of Sound – Ronin (2013) with vocals by Sharlotte Gibson
- Tears for Fears – Released on the albums Ruby Trax, Saturnine Martial & Lunatic and David Bowie Songbook
- Térez Montcalm – I Know, I'll Be Alright (2013)
- The String Quartet – BowieMania: Mania, une Collection Obsessionelle de Beatrice Ardisson (2007)
- Tripod – Live version combined with "Space Oddity" (2006)
- Warpaint – We Were So Turned On: A Tribute to David Bowie (2010)
- The Alpha States & Andrea Chimenti - Ashes to Ashes (2014)
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".
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- "Ashes to ashes in Irish Chart". IRMA. Archived from the original on 9 June 2009. Retrieved 24 June 2013. 3rd result when searching "Ashes to ashes"
- "Nederlandse Top 40 – David Bowie" (in Dutch). Dutch Top 40.
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