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The Story Behind The Song: David Bowie's return to earth, 'Ashes To Ashes'

Today marks the 41st birthday of one of David Bowie‘s most unmistakable hits. Four decades on, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ is a futuristic masterpiece that still blows minds today. Whether it be the lyrical content, vocal melody or the funk of the offbeat bassline, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ remains an enduring high-point of Bowie’s trailblazing and eclectic career. It pulled his career from the mire of the mid-late 1970s and sent him on course to become a true icon.

Produced by historic Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti, the song remains sonically innovative. This is not all though, the iconic music video was equally groundbreaking upon its release. Directed by Bowie and esteemed director David Mallett, at the time it was the most expensive music video ever made. 

The song’s original title was ‘People Are Turning to Gold’ — a much less fitting name when we note that Bowie saw ‘Ashes to Ashes’ as him “wrapping up the seventies” for himself. The new title, ‘Ashes to Ashes’, was plucked straight from the Christian Book of Common Prayer, as it “seemed a good enough epitaph for it”.

The song is also interesting as it has an obscure and loose connection to everyone’s favourite Christmas crooner, Bing Crosby, with whom Bowie collaborated in 1977. As well as making a timeless 1941 hit out of Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’, Crosby also starred in the 1954 film of the same name. His co-star in the festive monochrome classic, Danny Kaye, an established singer in his own right, provided the inspiration for the vocal melody ‘Ashes to Ashes’.

Inspiration can come from anywhere, as they say. Bowie’s sinister futurism on the 1980 hit took some of its cues from Kaye’s version of the famous lullaby ‘Inchworm’ performed in the obscure 1952 musical, Hans Christian Andersen.

In a 2003 interviewthe ephemeral Bowie revealed: “Something like ‘Ashes to Ashes’ wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t have been for ‘Inchworm,'”. He continued, “there’s a child’s nursery rhyme element in it, and there’s something so sad and mournful and poignant about it. It kept bringing me back to the feelings of those pure thoughts of sadness that you have as a child, and how they’re so identifiable even when you’re an adult.”

Given the mesh of ideas and influences that Bowie embodied, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to note that the vocal melody was inspired by a nursery rhyme. There is a mysterious allure to Bowie’s vocals as they bounce around in the synthetic music, providing a dreamlike element to the song. After all, a nursery rhyme is an effective and catchy method of vocal delivery. To heed this, one only has to note the extensive use of these sorts of melodies in the Syd Barrett-era of Pink Floyd as a thinly-veiled conduit for hallucinogenic discussion.

The brilliantly alien feel of ‘Ashes To Ashes’ was also underpinned by some excellent musicianship. Regular Bowie partner George Murray provided the iconic high-end bassline, and E Street Band member Roy Bittan provided the cold swell of the synthesiser. By the climax of the track, Bittan’s modulated surge develops into an industrial-sounding drone that is matched by Bowie’s own nursery rhyme: “My mother said, ‘To get things done/You’d better not mess with Major Tom.'”

The song’s climax is augmented by the innovative layers provided by experimental extraordinaire Chuck Hammer, best known for his Guitarchitecture recordings. He also provided the choir-like sound of the layered guitar synthesisers that prop up ‘Ashes To Ashes’.

The song is also significant as it reintroduces one of Bowie’s most canonised characters, Major Tom. The central character of 1969’s ‘Space Oddity’, Bowie’s reintroduction of Major Tom positions ‘Ashes To Ashes’ as somewhat of a sequel to his intergalactic classic.

The opening lines, break the fourth wall by dragging listeners back into Tom’s journey: “Do you remember a guy that’s been/ In such an early song.” This line is typical Bowie, playing on the audience’s investment in his lyrical stories, a modus operandi he had regularly undertaken since 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. This would not be the last time Bowie visited Major Tom either — he would do so again on 1995’s ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ and 2015’s ‘Blackstar’.

After the opening lines reminding us of Major Tom, who Ground Control had lost contact with in ‘Space Oddity’, they receive a message from the lost cosmonaut and their reaction is understandably one of shock, “Oh no, don’t say it’s true”. 

Typically Bowie, Tom’s message is vague: “I’ve loved all I’ve needed, love/ Sordid details following.” Readings of this line posit that Bowie infers that the public preferred to see him in a drug-addled tumult rather than happy and sober. After all, Bowie was putting to bed the ’70s, a significant decade for him, where he hit his stride artistically but was engulfed by fame and drug addiction. He made one or two rather “glib” comments regarding race relations that he attributes to drug abuse. We will let you dig into that yourself. The “sordid details” have been taken as expressing these sorts of incidents that Bowie produced in the mid-’70s.

In this sense, like with all of Bowie‘s characters from the ’70s and onwards, Major Tom is a semi-autobiographic representation of the man behind the songs. 

In ‘Ashes To Ashes’, Tom describes himself as having somewhat of a mid-life crisis: “I ain’t got no money and I ain’t got no hair”. He longs to return to his native habit of Earth, but his new planet has an addictive hold over him: “Time and again I tell myself/I’ll stay clean tonight/ But the little green wheels are following me.”

Not only a literal representation of drug use, these lyrics are indicative of Bowie regretting fame and wanting to return to normal civilian life, but he knows that that is easier said than done as all the trappings of stardom such as drugs and money (note the colour green) make an irreversible mark. 

This is where the use of the nursery rhyme comes back to the fore. Major Tom shouts in self-defence, accepting all he’s done wrong but not accepting total blame. The sadness is childlike as it flows from Bowie’s lips: “I’ve never done good things/I’ve never done bad things/ I never did anything out of the blue.”

These intergalactic pleas are met by a captious public, which speaks for itself. “Ashes to ashes, funk to funky/ We know Major Tom’s a junkie/ Strung out in heaven’s high/ Hitting an all-time low.” Strung out in heaven’s high infers that, at points in the past, Bowie had forgotten where he came from, lost in a cloud of excess. This oxymoron is effective in demonstrating the hypocrisies and personal jeopardy inherent to stardom. 

The use of the word “low”, is Bowie being meta before meta was even a concept. It has been taken as referencing his 1977 album Low, which centred around his mental withdrawal following the indelible drug excesses he undertook after the success of breakthrough album The Rise of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and its supporting American tour of 1972. In this sense, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ represents Bowie, through the guise of Major Tom, coming back to Earth and finding himself again.

The first single from Bowie’s 14th album Scary Monsters (and Super Freaks), ‘Ashes To Ashes’ defied all the odds and became a UK number one. Given the song’s compositional aspects, this is an incredible feat. It is also credited as being a huge influence behind the burgeoning New Romantic scene. However, Bowie’s metaphorical classic outlives his New Romantic peers. ‘Ashes To Ashes’ is a triumphant return to form for Bowie, for whom the ’80s would bring about an unprecedented level of success and newfound respect.

Revisit the classic music video, below.

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