ASHES TO ASHES revisits Bowie’s character Major Tom from his 1969 track “Space Oddity”. ASHES TO ASHES correlates with many issues David Bowie (1947-2016) struggled with in his personal life throughout the 70s. Bowie’s reference to the religious saying “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” as an allusion to death signifies the death of who he was in the 70s and a rebirth of a new Bowie.
ASHES TO ASHES is the first single off of David Bowie’s eleventh studio album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). ASHES TO ASHES was released on August 10th, 1980 accompanied by B-side track “Move on” from Lodger.
After spending time in Berlin and releasing a trio of albums (Low, Heroes and Lodger) that found little commercial success, Bowie moved to New York City in early 1980 after divorcing from his wife, Angela. Bowie was overcoming a notorious cocaine addiction, and his creative future seemed uncertain. ASHES TO ASHES finds Bowie reflecting on his career and troubled personal life, while it also acts as a closure to all that he had been during the 70s.
ASHES TO ASHES relates to the rebirth of Bowie. As his fame grew during the 1970s, Bowie became severely addicted to cocaine as well as speed. While his ability to create acclaimed albums remained intact, his personal life began to crumble. His addiction reached its peak with the release of Station to Station (1976), and with recommendation from a close friend he relocated to Berlin in hopes of kicking his addictions. He succeeded, although not without a cost. He and his wife of nine years, Angela Bowie, got a divorce and he was put in sole custody of their son, Duncan. Angela had been Bowie’s muse, and their divorce further stressed the importance of Bowie to get his life back together.
Bowie moved to New York City at the beginning of 1980 for a fresh start and in February recorded ASHES TO ASHES at The Power Station in New York.
The music video accompanying ASHES TO ASHES was iconic. The video is a visual interpretation of the song itself and it shows Bowie alternating between the characters of a space man (presumably Major Tom) and a Pierrot. The Pierrot is a narrator of Major Tom’s life; whether the Pierrot exists in reality or a dream sequence of Major Tom’s is unclear, which makes the video exist in a surreal realm. From a cinematography point of view, the video was ground-breaking in its use of visual effects, costumes and general aesthetic. For example, one common transition used throughout the video involves scene transition via various characters holding up small screens showing a video from a different ‘realm’ of the song’s world. The video cost 250,000 pounds to produce, making it the most expensive music video made at that point in time.
ASHES TO ASHES directly correlates with many issues in Bowie’s personal life that he was struggling with at the time. In “Space Oddity” Bowie establishes Major Tom as a spaceman, lost in space with no hopes of coming back to earth. In the first verse of ASHES TO ASHES it is revealed that contact with Major Tom has been restored, but the “sordid details” about him reveal that Major Tom is now a junkie who is unable to beat his drug addiction. From an early age Bowie has seen himself as an outsider, and thus in “Space Oddity” Bowie created a character to channel those feelings in to, and because of this the ‘visitation’ of a character that has been in an early song seems quite apt. The second verse reveals the more day-to-day struggle with his addiction, opening with “time and again I tell myself I’ll stay clean tonight”. It builds until the listener finds Bowie at his most introspective at the end of the verse with the lyrics “I never done good things / I never done bad things / I never did anything out of the blue” being soulfully sung with a low voice (Bowie) quickly repeated after in a distant deadpan. ASHES TO ASHES ends with the mantra-like resolve of “My momma said, to get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom.”
Musically, ASHES TO ASHES opens in A# minor with a spaced-out synth line juxtaposed with funky bass, vamping over a i-VII-iv chord progression. The verse of the song switches to G# major, moving in a common I-vi-IV-V pattern, with the occasion V/IV chord thrown in. The pre-chorus sequences through a I-V pattern, each time stepping down a whole step, leaving the listener uncertain about the tonal center. During both of the pre-choruses, Bowie switches from the role of the storyteller to Major Tom himself, thus the lack of a tonal center aptly reflects the inner feelings of the space man. The chorus finds the return of the same major tonal center from the verse, but with the lines “hitting an all-time low” the song slips back into the intro material, and the accompanying minor tonality. The same verse and chorus structure are repeated again, but this time when the minor tonality returns after the chorus, the three chords are vamped while Bowie chants “My momma said, to get things done, you better not mess with Major Tom” over and over. With each repetition of the chord progression layers of synths get added until all that is left is a looping fade-out that feels utterly lost in space.
ASHES TO ASHES would prove to launch Bowie back into commercial success; the track hit #1 on the UK charts, and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) reached #1 in the UK, Australia, France and New Zealand. Bowie’s trio of albums released while he was living in Berlin only yielded one single that was successful on the charts (the title track from Heroes) and to many ASHES TO ASHES was seen as a comeback for Bowie, like he had finally found the perfect balance of the pop that had risen him to fame and the artistic realm he had explored while in Berlin. In two weeks’ time, ASHES TO ASHES climbed to #1 on the UK charts, making it Bowie’s fastest moving popular song up until that time.
In 2008 the BBC launches a science fiction/drama TV series named after the track, which acted as a sequel to a previous series (Life on Mars). Hence, the said TV production is proof of the long-term cultural impact that Bowie’s ASHES TO ASHES had on the UK.
Vocals, Keyboard: David Bowie
Guitar Synthesizer: Chuck Hammer
Guitar: Carlos Almor
Synthesizer: Andy Clark
Piano: Roy Bittan
Bass: George Murray
Drums: Dennis Davis
Songwriting: David Bowie
Producer: David Bowie, Tony Visconti
Length: 3:35 (single edit), 3:47 (music video), 4:23 (full-length album version)
- David Bowie. “Ashes to Ashes”. On: Ashes to Ashes, 1980, RCA, BOW 6, UK (Vinyl/Single).
- David Bowie. “Ashes to Ashes”. On: Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), 1980, RCA, BOW LP 2, UK (Vinyl/Album).
- David Bowie. “Ashes to Ashes”. On: A Reality Tour, 2010, ISO Records, Columbia, Sony Music, 88697588272, Europe (2xCD/Album).
- A Perfect Circle. “Ashes to Ashes”. On: A Perfect Circle Live: featuring Stone and Echo, 2013, A Perfect Circle Entertainment, none, USA (5xCD/Compilation, DVD-V).
- Tears for Fears. “Ashes to Ashes”. On: Ruby Trax: The NME’s Roaring Forty, 1992, New Musical Express, NME40CD, UK (3xCD/Compilation).
- Warpaint. “Ashes to Ashes”: On: Ashes to Ashes, 2010, Manimal Vinyl Records, UK and US (Digital Media).
- Auslander, Philip: Performing Glam Rock. Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 2006.
- David Bowie: Sound and Vision. Directed by Rick Hull. 20th Century Fox, 2002 (DVD).
- Devereux, Eoin/Dillane, Aileen/Power, Martin J. (Ed.): David Bowie. Critical Perspectives. New York, London: Routledge 2015.
- Pegg, Nicholas: The Complete David Bowie. London: Reynolds & Hearn 2004.
- Artist homepage: http://www.davidbowie.com [01.03.2017].
- Music video: https://vimeo.com/61213949 [01.03.2017].
About the Author
All contributions by Cydney Berlinger
Cydney Berlinger: “Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)”. In: Songlexikon. Encyclopedia of Songs. Ed. by Michael Fischer, Fernand Hörner and Christofer Jost, http://www.songlexikon.de/songs/ashestoashes, 04/2017.Print