Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie song)

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"Ashes to Ashes"
One of UK artwork variants
Single by David Bowie
from the album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Released 8 August 1980
Format 7" single
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)
Label RCA
Writer(s) David Bowie
David Bowie singles chronology
"Crystal Japan"
"Ashes to Ashes"
Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) track listing
"Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)"
"Ashes to Ashes"

"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."[3]

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."[4] 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."[5]

AllMusic critic Dave Thompson described the track and its accompanying music video as "a very deliberate acknowledgement of the then-burgeoning new romantic scene."[6]

Music and lyrics[edit]

"Ashes to Ashes"' style has been described as art rock and new wave.[1][2] 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.[7]

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,[8] 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.[8]

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:[9]

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)."[10]


"Ashes to Ashes" hit 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.[9] 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.[11] 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)". The single peaked at No. 101 in America.

Music video[edit]

Solarised colour in the music video

The music video for "Ashes to Ashes" was one of the most iconic of the 1980s. With production costing £250,000 ($500,000), it was at the time the most expensive music video ever made and remains one of the most expensive of all time.[9] 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[12] and Darla Jane Gilroy, forerunners of (later participants in) the New Romantic movement that was heavily influenced by Bowie's music and image.[9][13] 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".[14] 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.[13] 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.[15]

Record Mirror readers voted "Ashes to Ashes" and Bowie's next single, "Fashion", the best music videos of 1980.[16] The iconic video was filmed at Pett Level, East Sussex, halfway between Hastings and Rye. A bulldozer is still in action every autumn and winter there, moving shingle about (brought from Rye Harbor) to protect the sea wall defenses.

Track listing[edit]

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

Production credits[edit]


Chart (1980-1981) Peak
Australia (Kent Music Report)[17] 3
Austria (Ö3 Austria Top 40)[18] 6
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)[19] 15
Canadian RPM Top Singles[20] 35
France (SNEP)[21] 12
Germany (Official German Charts)[22] 9
Irish Singles Chart[23] 4
Netherlands (Dutch Top 40)[24] 11
Netherlands (Single Top 100)[25] 15
New Zealand (Recorded Music NZ)[26] 6
Norway (VG-lista)[27] 3
Sweden (Sverigetopplistan)[28] 6
Switzerland (Schweizer Hitparade)[29] 11
UK (Official Charts Company)[30] 1
U.S. Billboard Hot 100 101
U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Club Play[31] 21
U.S. Cash Box 79

Alternative versions[edit]

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.[32] 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.[33] 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.

Live versions[edit]

Other releases[edit]

Cover versions[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

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".[35] They also borrowed the famous Pierrot iconography from the video of the Bowie single as part of the programme's visual design.[36] In the first series's finale, a car bomb goes off at the line "One flash of light".


  1. ^ a b Lynch, Joe (11 January 2016). "10 Brilliantly Bizarre David Bowie Videos". Billboard. Retrieved 6 August 2016. 
  2. ^ a b Comer, M. Tye (15 May 2000). "Pop Artificielle - LB". CMJ. 62 (666). 
  3. ^ David Currie, ed. (1985). David Bowie: The Starzone Interviews. England: Omnibus Press. ISBN 0-7119-0685-8. 
  4. ^ "David Bowie - Scary Monsters Interview, PART 1 (12" Promo, 1980)". YouTube. Retrieved 2014-03-29. 
  5. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 29.
  6. ^ Thompson, Dave. "David Bowie - Ashes to Ashes". AllMusic. Retrieved 6 February 2016. 
  7. ^ Chris Welch (1999). David Bowie: We Could Be Heroes: p.136
  8. ^ a b Roy Carr & Charles Shaar Murray (1981). Bowie: An Illustrated Record: pp.109–116
  9. ^ a b c d David Buckley (1999). Strange Fascination – David Bowie: The Definitive Story: pp.366–369
  10. ^ Angus MacKinnon (1980). "The Future Isn't What It Used to Be". NME (13 September 1980): p.37
  11. ^ a b "Bowie Golden Years : Scary Monsters". Retrieved 29 September 2016. 
  12. ^ "Balenciaga Hears The Sound of Music", The Swelle Life, 22 February 2011
  13. ^ a b Steve Strange at The Blitz Kids
  14. ^ Steve Malins (2007). "Meeting the New Romantics", MOJO 60 Years of Bowie: p.78
  15. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 30.
  16. ^ Nicholas Pegg (2000). Op Cit: pp.75–76
  17. ^ Danyel Smith, ed. (1980). Billboard 25 october 1980. Nielsen Business Media, Inc. ISSN 0006-2510. Retrieved 24 June 2013. 
  18. ^ " – David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes" (in German). Ö3 Austria Top 40.
  19. ^ " – David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50.
  20. ^ "Ashes to ashes in Canadian Top Singles Chart". Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 24 June 2013. 
  21. ^ "Ashes to ashes in French Chart" (in French). Dominic DURAND / InfoDisc. 24 June 2013. Retrieved 24 June 2013.  You have to use the index at the top of the page and search "David Bowie"
  22. ^ " – David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes". GfK Entertainment Charts.
  23. ^ "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"
  24. ^ "Nederlandse Top 40 – David Bowie search results" (in Dutch) Dutch Top 40.
  25. ^ " – David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes" (in Dutch). Single Top 100.
  26. ^ " – David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes". Top 40 Singles.
  27. ^ " – David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes". VG-lista.
  28. ^ " – David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes". Singles Top 100.
  29. ^ " – David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes". Swiss Singles Chart.
  30. ^ "1980 Top 40 Official UK Singles Archive - 23rd August 1980". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 24 June 2013. 
  31. ^ "Scary Monsters awards on Allmusic". Allmusic. Retrieved 24 June 2013. 
  32. ^ a b Pegg 2011, p. 31.
  33. ^ Altenburg, Ruud. "David Bowie - Illustrated db Discography > Songs: A". Retrieved 29 September 2016. 
  34. ^ Tao of Sound at AllMusic
  35. ^ "Life after Mars", The Guardian, 7 January 2008
  36. ^ "Back in the Day when PC meant Copper" Archived 11 February 2008 at the Wayback Machine., David Belcher, The Herald (Glasgow), 8 February 2008

External links[edit]

Preceded by
"The Winner Takes It All" by ABBA
UK number one single
23 August 1980 – 5 September 1980
Succeeded by
"Start!" by The Jam