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"Ashes to Ashes" is a song by David Bowie, released in 1980. It made #1 in the UK and was the first cut from the Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) 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 1969's "Space Oddity", which he referenced once again in 1995 with "Hallo Spaceboy". The song's original title was "People Are Turning to Gold."[1]

Interviewed in 1980, Bowie described the song as "a nursery rhyme. It's 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...".[2] Years later, Bowie 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[edit source | editbeta][]

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,[4] 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.[4]

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:[5]

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)."[6]

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 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]

Music video[edit source | editbeta][]

[1][2]Solarised colour in the music video

The music video 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.[5] It incorporated scenes both in solarised colour 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 Frankland who had designed clothes for Strange's Visage videos[8] and Darla Jane Gilroy, forerunners of (later participants in) the New Romantic movement that was heavily influenced by Bowie's music and image.[5][9]

Bowie described the shot of himself and the Blitz Kids marching towards the camera in front of a bulldozer as symbolising "oncoming violence".[10] 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.[9] 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.[3]

Record Mirror readers voted "Ashes to Ashes" and Bowie's next single, "Fashion", the best music videos of 1980.[11]

Release[edit source | editbeta][]

"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.[5] 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.[12] 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 #101 in America.

Track listing[edit source | editbeta][]

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

Production credits[edit source | editbeta][]

Charts[edit source | editbeta][]

Chart (1980-1981) Peak


Australia (Kent Music Report)[13] 3
Austria (Ö3 Austria Top 40)[14] 6
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)[15] 15
Canadian RPM Top Singles[16] 35
France (SNEP)[17] 14
Germany (Media Control AG)[18] 9
Irish Singles Chart[19] 4
Netherlands (Dutch Top 40)[20] 11
Netherlands (Mega Single Top 100)[21] 15
New Zealand (Recorded Music NZ)[22] 6
Norway (VG-lista)[23] 3
Sweden (Sverigetopplistan)[24] 6
Switzerland (Schweizer Hitparade)[25] 11
UK (Official Charts Company)[26] 1
U.S. Billboard Hot 100 101
U.S. BillboardHot Dance Club Play[27] 21
U.S. Cash Box 79

Alternative versions[edit source | editbeta][]

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.[3] A 12:55 version that appeared on the bootlegFrom a Phoenix... The Ashes Shall Rise was a fake, repeating the song's instrumental breaks to achieve its additional length.[28] Similarly, an 11:44 version on bootleg albums such as GlamourVampires of the Human Flesh andMonsters to Ashes was again nothing more than the original track with segments repeated and looped.

Live versions[edit source | editbeta][]

Other releases[edit source | editbeta][]

  • 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.[12] 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[edit source | editbeta][]

Cultural reference[edit source | editbeta][]

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".[29] They also borrowed the famous Pierrot iconography from the video of the Bowie single as part of the programme's visual design.[30] In the first season's finale, a car bomb goes off at the line "One flash of light".