Ashes to Ashes

People Are Turning to Gold (fragment of studio demo).
Ashes to Ashes.
Ashes to Ashes (video, single edit).
Ashes to Ashes (The Tonight Show, 1980 (5:00 in)).
Ashes to Ashes (live, 1983).
Ashes to Ashes (live, 1990).
Ashes to Ashes (broadcast, 1999).
Ashes to Ashes (broadcast, 2000).
Ashes to Ashes (live, 2002).
Ashes to Ashes (A&E Live By Request (thanks George!), 2002).
Ashes to Ashes (live, 2004).

Scary Monsters for me has always been some kind of purge. It was me eradicating the feelings within myself that I was uncomfortable with…You have to accommodate your pasts within your persona. You have to understand why you went through them. That’s the major thing. You cannot just ignore them or put them out of your mind or pretend they didn’t happen or just say “Oh I was different then.”

David Bowie, Musician, July 1990.

Two nuns, a priest, a pretty girl in a party dress and a sad clown walk abreast in a funeral procession. The sexton drives a bulldozer a few paces behind them. It’s only a procession; there’s no burial, for there’s no body (but there will be a grave). The clergy slap the ground as they walk, as if consecrating the beach. The clown clasps his hands in prayer, half-smiling. The clown’s mother arrives late, nags at him as he dutifully walks with her along the strand. For a hymn, the mourners chant a children’s bogeyman song. My mother said, I never should/Play with the gypsies in the wood.

It’s the dream of a man in a padded room. He was once someone else: a black-and-white memory comes, framed like a ’50s coffee commercial, of him sitting at breakfast in his spacesuit, ready for his commute. She packed my bags last night, pre-flight. Protein pills, helmet on. Then the memory catches fire: the kitchen explodes, the mourners from the beach appear in periphery, singing to him. Maybe he’s still in space, floating alone in the deep. Or he came home after all but was never allowed to return, instead kept stowed away in a basement. All of these the papery visions of an aging junkie, dreams nested within dreams like matryoshka dolls.

Somewhere in Ground Control, in a room entered only by custodians and lost interns, an ancient Telex machine rumbles to life. A single line: I’M HAPPY HOPE YOU’RE HAPPY TOO. A pause, as if the machine draws a breath. Then: I’VE LOVED ALL I’VE NEEDED LOVE SORDID DETAILS FOLLOWING. But nothing else follows.

On 6 February 1969, on a Greenwich soundstage, David Bowie dressed up as an astronaut. He was making a promotional film for a song that no one had heard, one he had recorded only a few days before. The grips and cameramen chuckled when they saw his costume (the film was a self-funded vanity project, a last attempt by his manager to revive a stalled career). But when they heard “Space Oddity” in playback, the stagehands began to hum the lines, as if they were recalling a schoolyard chant. As Bowie walked off the set, a crew member saluted him and called him Major Tom. Bowie was delighted: he had finally become someone else.

“Space Oddity” is the beginning of David Bowie as “Ashes to Ashes” is his end. “Oddity” opens the tale, expanding outward, with infinite space as its backdrop; “Ashes” closes it, collapsing on itself, compressing itself, sounding at times like a store’s worth of music boxes were opened together at once. “Oddity” took a stock character, Bowie’s idea of the all-American GI, and set him against the sublime, letting him fall into the deep and leaving room for us to follow him. “Ashes” brings him home, now deranged and offering only shards of riddles, jonesing for utopia. “Ashes” is the song that eats itself, Major Tom’s death song.

When I originally wrote about Major Tom, I was a very pragmatic and self-opinionated lad that thought he knew all about the great American dream and where it started and where it should stop. Here we had the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space, but once he gets there he’s not quite sure why he’s there. And that’s where I left him.

Bowie, NME, September 1980.

Bowie revised “Space Oddity” in late 1979. With a small band that he and Tony Visconti cobbled together, Bowie stripped “Oddity” down, reducing it to the folk song it had always been beneath its trappings. “Space Oddity” was recorded as a theater piece, following Bowie’s cryptic narrative rather than any typical song structure, with its various parts (the eerie Stylophone, the parade-ground snare drum, the soaring Mellotron) characters in a revue. Now Bowie clarified “Oddity” down to the vocal melody, a harshly-strummed 12-string guitar, a basic bass-drums rhythm section. Instead of a countdown, silence. Instead of the measured back-and-forth of Major Tom and Ground Control’s interplay, a pained solitary vocal.

The remake (played on Kenny Everett’s New Year’s show and issued as a B-side soon afterward) led Bowie to consider a sequel to “Space Oddity.” He was in a retrospective mood already, reusing Astronettes numbers and old demos for the tracks he was working up for Scary Monsters, and the timing seemed right: the start of a new decade, one that would be the obverse of the Sixties. Still, when Bowie began working on a song called “People Are Turning to Gold,” he only had a melody line, no lyrics. The idea to use the track to revive Major Tom came months later, during overdubs.

I was thinking of how I was going to place Major Tom in this 10 years on, [with] what would be the complete dissolution of the great dream that was being propounded when they shot him into space. The great technology [was] capable of putting him up there, but when he did get up there, he wasn’t quite sure why he’d been put there…We come to him 10 years later and find the whole thing has soured, because there was no reason for putting him up there…[So] the most disastrous thing I could think of is that he finds solace in some kind of heroin-type drug, actually cosmic space feeding him: an addiction. He wants to return to the womb from whence he came.

David Bowie, promo disc for Scary Monsters, 1980.

“Ashes to Ashes” seems composted from old records, stitched together out of discarded rhythm tracks and random overdubs. Deep in its bones is a song Bowie had loved since childhood, Frank Loesser’s “Inchworm,” as sung by Danny Kaye.”Inchworm’s” semitonal moves between F and Eb are echoed in “Ashes,” which moves from F to Eb at the end of its verses, with Bowie also inspired by the way Kaye’s lead vocal rises and falls against a equally wavering choral counter-melody. (The vocal line of “Ashes” is also a reverse image of “Life on Mars,” whose legendary octave leaps in its chorus are countered by, in “Ashes,” verses filled with octave drops.)

But its most direct ancestor was a sequel song, too: Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue Got Married.” Rock & roll began as an overnight fad, its forefathers quick to exploit whatever sold. So hit songs bred follow-ups. “Johnny B. Goode” led to “Bye Bye Johnny,” “The Twist” begat “Let’s Twist Again,” “Louie Louie” was followed by “Louie Louie Go Home” (covered by an 18-year-old Bowie). Still, “Peggy Sue Got Married” isn’t quite that blunt—there’s a sad self-consciousness in it that you also find in “Ashes,” the sense of a song chewing up another song.*

Like “Ashes,” “Peggy Sue Got Married” opens with Holly asking if you recall his older hit (Bowie sighs “it’s such an EARLY song”), but then he equivocates—he’s heard something, he may be wrong, who knows, he’s just the messenger. “I just heard a rumor from a friend,” Holly sings, teasingly (“I heard a rumor from Ground Control,” Bowie answers, 20 years later), then strings you along with little three-note loops: “I don’t say…that it’s true… and culminates with the roller-coaster rise-and-fall of “I’ll just leave that up to you.” And Holly’s trademark vocal fills, his oohs and moans, are mirrored by Bowie’s interjections in “Ashes”: “oh no—don’t say it’s true” or “oh no, not again!” and especially the “who-oh-oh-oh” after “out of the blue.” It’s the sound of Holly’s ghost.

Rock & roll sequels have nowhere to go but home: they’re not fun, they expire in respectability. Johnny B. Goode goes to Hollywood to make a decade’s worth of bad movies. Louie Louie goes back to his wife and child. Wild, irresistible Peggy Sue gets married, moves into a prefab house and has kids. Bowie’s playing with this conceit in “Ashes to Ashes”—what else is there for Major Tom but a fall from grace, Dan Dare becoming a tired old junkie? I ain’t got no money and I ain’t got no hair, he laments, like a kid’s parody of a blues song.

[“Ashes”] is also a nursery rhyme. It’s very much a 1980s nursery rhyme, and I think 1980s nursery rhymes will have a lot to do with 1880s-1890s nursery rhymes, which were all rather horrid, with little boys with their ears being cut off and things like that. I think we’re getting round to that again, the idea of the Sesame Street “nice” nursery rhymes being possibly outdated—unfortunately.

Major Tom was also a boy’s adventure hero, one abducted from Eagle comics and cast into the void (remember how much of “Space Oddity” uses child’s words instead of “official” ones). “Ashes” sends him back into a storybook, only now tainted, diseased, embittered. The song’s two refrains—the chorus and the outro—are twisted children’s rhymes, chants for “the awful Eighties,” as Bowie called the decade before it hardly had started. Creepy, suggestive of some old horror bricked up in rhymes, Bowie’s lines echo the chants in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, the latter written in the broken language of a post-nuclear-holocaust Kent reduced to a second Stone Age.

For “Ashes,” Bowie wrote one of his finest, most extravagant and taxing melodies, one that seems to work against the song at times (Bowie’s often landing against the beat, or singing “through” bars). But through force of will, Bowie keeps the song whole: it’s as though the conductor of an opera is also the lead tenor.

The first verse starts with Bowie in flight, swooping from a high A-flat down to an A-flat deeper in his range. He sings a trio of sudden collapses (“do-you-re-mem-ber-a-guy” is all high notes, the quick fall comes on “that’s-been; same for “in-such-an-ear-ly (high) sooong” (low), etc.). Then comes a line with a much shorter range, almost conversational (“oh no, don’t say it’s true“). The high, falling lines are fanciful, the retorts are flat and short. “They got a message from the action man” stays almost entirely on one note, like a newscaster breaking into the song.

(Again, this is pure Buddy Holly. As Theodore Gracyk wrote in Rhythm and Noise: “Holly’s dips and swoops embroider the beat and thus bind rhythm and melody together, dissolving the typical division between vocal and rhythm section…[Holly] exploits the peculiarities of his own voice.”)

Then comes Major Tom’s message, which begins as two quick jolts upward (“I’m HAPPY,” “hope you’re HAPPY“) and then, again, falls back to earth (“too-ooo-oo“). The message (and the verse) end by repeating now-established vocal patterns: one line is a near-octave fall (“I’ve loved all I’ve needed love“), the other is narrow and low (“sordid details following“). The second verse (starting with “time and again“) repeats the formula, though the falls are less severe—“stay clean tonight” is only an Ab to C drop, for example.

By contrast, the two bridges are a series of arcs, with Bowie’s vocal leading the backing band as if in a choral round. Typically Bowie will start low, rise to a high note and descend in the same breath: so on “the shrieking of nothing” line, he starts on F, goes up to a D natural and falls down to B-flat. He also creates the sense of a quickening pace via a run of triplets (“Jap-girls-in” “syn-the-sis” “and-I-“). Along with Dennis Davis’ intricate drum patterns and various Visconti tweaks and flanging, the sensation is that the song is slowly falling out of time, although it stays straight 4/4 throughout.

In the bridges a set of zombified voices mutter curses beneath Bowie. While in the first bridge the voices are so submerged in the mix that they’re audible only as a menacing rumble, in the second the “zombie” voices are mixed higher, delay-echoing the lead vocal with utterly no emotion. It culminates in the eerie/hilarious way that the zombie voice flatly repeats Bowie’s “who-oh-oh,”: it’s a rock & roll vocal fill reduced to flat, lifeless syllables, music drained of its blood.

And in his eight-bar nursery rhyme refrain, Bowie again sings a series of falls: the last line, all half notes, is a descending sequence (Eb-Db-C) that ends, appropriately, on Low. The song expires with its cycling four-bar chant, a move from Eb minor to Ab minor, each line again finished off in a three-note descent (“ma-ma said,” “get things done,” “not mess with” “ma-jor Tom“). Major Tom, returned to the cruel world of children, is consumed by them.

So Major Tom thought he was starring in an Arthur C Clarke story and found himself in a Philip K Dick one by mistake, and the result is oddly magnificent. Why is Bowie doing this? To kill off the 1970s, like everyone else was trying to. And by that he meant his 70s, because Bowie’s pop was always strongest when it was just him in his hall of mirrors.

Tom Ewing, Popular: “Ashes to Ashes.”

“Space Oddity” was horizontal, carefully assembled in stages. Though its lyric’s questions were left unanswered, the structure of the song, its staggered arrangements (written on a piece of paper by producer Gus Dudgeon as a series of squiggly lines and streaks of colors), made “Oddity” a one-way flight, continually moving forward. By contrast, “Ashes” is vertical, organic, a deliberate mess. There’s a density to the mix; it’s like a black hole absorbing whatever sounds approach—the percussion mixed in the left channel (often a shaker, but a stick hit off-beat appears briefly in the verses), Carlos Alomar’s ska guitar, George Murray’s popped bass, a synthesizer choir, a synthesized guitar solo, Davis’ intricate hi-hat work, the muttered backing vocals, and the little noises that you only hear once or twice (a sprinkle of piano notes, Bowie’s groans during an instrumental break, a few piercing guitar chords).

And unlike “Space Oddity,” which Dudgeon had planned like an invasion by sea, “Ashes to Ashes” came together in pieces, Bowie and Visconti relying (as usual, by this point) on a series of happy accidents.

Roy Bittan’s opening Wurlitzer pipe organ line (there’s a trace of the piano opening of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in it) is actually a grand piano fed through one of Visconti’s new toys, the Eventide Instant Flanger. Bowie had requested an actual stereo Wurlitzer, but after it arrived, Visconti found that only one side of the organ worked “and even then not very well.” So he ran Bittan’s piano through the Flanger until he “got a decent moving stereo image to emulate a Wurlitzer.” But of course Visconti couldn’t stop toying with the Flanger, winding up with the shaking, wobbly sound you hear in the final mix.

Chuck Hammer’s guitar synthesizer treatments (which he called “guitarchitecture”) were also a random element, as Hammer had essentially showed up at the Power Station to give Bowie and Visconti an exhibition of his technique and tools (which included a synthesizer that gave Hammer an “infinite” sustain on his guitar). He wound up as “Ashes”‘ last mourner, ushering out the song (Andy Clark’s synthesizer, which serves as a high chorus in the bridges, appears as well) by dueting with himself, a performance that Visconti recorded in the stairwell of the Power Station (& it winds up sounding like a Theremin).

The foundation, as always, was the old gang of Alomar, Murray and Davis, their time now almost at an end (they’ll go out dancing, though, in the last Scary Monsters song). If “Ashes” is a funeral, they are its second line: Alomar plays a cryptic reggae, his guitar rasping out breaths,while Murray pops his bass throughout, as though bent on making such an ungainly song swing (and he pulls it off). Davis had to cope with one of the hardest challenges of his time with Bowie, forced to play what Bowie later called “an old ska beat.” It’s like a guitarist having to play lead and rhythm lines at once**—Davis has to master the intricate off-kilter beat while also keeping time while using his hi-hat to link together the bridges and verses. Bowie said that Davis struggled throughout the session until Bowie played out the pattern for him on a chair and cardboard box. Davis went home, practiced all night and finally got the track down the next day.

I’ve never done good things,
I’ve never done bad things,
I never did anything out of the blue…

“Ashes to Ashes” was a smash, Bowie’s second UK #1 (the first, of course, was “Space Oddity”). It was a surprise return to commercial form, as many (including RCA) had written off Bowie as a hitmaker. (The single’s brisk sales were helped by a gimmick: the initial run of 45s included a set of collector stamps.) Bowie’s masterpiece of a promo film, directed by David Mallet, dispatched the past (Bowie wore a Pierrot costume designed by his old collaborator/lover Natasha Korniloff (see “The Mime Songs“) with emissaries of the future (four Blitz kids recruited as mourners). The video created the language of MTV as it disposed of Bowie’s past selves, auctioning them off in a series of images.

Bowie’s timing was acute. Ziggy Stardust had helped end the Sixties by parodying the decade’s excesses, its grand claims and public spectacles, but Bowie, while moving from face to face throughout the late Seventies, had remained, in his gnomic way, a believer, a child of the summer’s end. Now he could taste winter. “Ashes to Ashes” seems like a public abdication; it’s a man summoning his powers once more to twist a world into his own, flickering image—for the last time. It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for, as Tom Baker, another colorful Sixties remnant, would say as his last words on Doctor Who, a few months after “Ashes to Ashes” hit #1.

In our survey, Bowie has many more years to run, and there are many more songs to come—the commercial triumph, the fall into weariness and slack, the desperate, at-times amazing effort to reconnect with his muse and his audience in his fading years. Bowie may still release more songs. But “Ashes to Ashes” is his last song. It’s the final chapter that came midway through the book. Bowie sings himself offstage with a children’s rhyme; eternally falling, eternally young.

Recorded February 1980, Power Station, NYC; Good Earth Studios, April 1980. Released as a single c/w “Move On” in August 1980 (RCA BOW 6, #1 UK). Performed on the Tonight Show on 5 September 1980 with Bowie’s band-that-never-was, assembled for a possible 1981 tour: including Alomar, G.E. Smith and Steve Goulding (the Tonight Show was the band’s only public performance, though they’re in the concert filmed for Christiane F as well as in the “Fashion” video). Played live throughout Bowie’s subsequent career, though rarely that well.

Sequels and adaptations: Major Tom returns once more in the Bowie story in the Pet Shop Boys’ remix of “Hallo Spaceboy,” which we’ll get to next year. However, there’s a notable piece of Apocrypha: Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home)” (1983), which is the 2010 to Bowie’s 2001. Though “Ashes to Ashes” seems uncoverable (it’s like “The Ballad of John and Yoko” in its sense of being tailored for its writer alone), several have tried: Tears for Fears, the Sneaker Pimps, Warpaint, the Commodore 64, the Shins.

* Holly only recorded “Peggy Sue Got Married” as a demo, as he was killed before he took it into the studio. With glommed-on lead guitar, bass and drums, it was a minor hit in the early 1960s.

** An insight by my drummer girlfriend, who likes the Tears for Fears version as much, if not more, than the DB version.

Top: David Bowie, Self Portrait (ca. 1980); “railroadweasel”, “Self Portrait–DMK 1980”; Robert Mapplethorpe, “Self Portrait,” 1980; Suzanne Poli, “Self Portrait,” 1980; Jonas Mekas, Self Portrait, 1980; Andy Warhol, Self Portrait in Drag, 1980.

64 Responses to Ashes to Ashes

  1. Wow.
    This piece is flat-out wonderful. And listening to Holly’s acoustic-only “Peggy Sue Got Married” while reading it is heart-breaking. You have outdone yourself.
    Get published and I’ll buy the book. Heck, I’ll buy three, for gifts.

  2. jopasso says:

    Indeed, the last great chapter of an amazing catalogue.
    In following decades there were a bunch of very good songs to come, but “Ashes to ashes” , for me is his truly great last one, and what a last one.

    From then on, he went from being an enigmatic cult star to a big stadium rocker.

  3. And where do you get those era ephemerata, like “self portrait DMK 1980”?

    • col1234 says:

      Bowie sends them on to me. No, seriously, just precise (and then random) use of Google, really

      • They are inspired choices. The DMK self-portrait has the photographer’s comment, “[I was a] hard core scuba [diver]. Eventually I became afraid of the lake [Superior], or perhaps I realized how easy it would be to be taken by it.”

  4. Gnomemansland says:

    I recall reading somewhere that the squiggly intro sound was made by using an old musique concrete technique whereby you put a little bit of tape in one place on the gearwheel of the tape recorder soevery time the drive belt hits the bump you get the warble.

    And on a completely different note – agree totally with your line about Ashes being Bowie’s last song – a full stop. It feeds into a wider argument that western popular music as a whole in some ways grinds to halt in 1980/81 as well.

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      I think ‘western popular music’ is a little over the top, but I would agree that a particular form of mass, mainstream pop-rock was on its last legs at this time. Hence Bowie’s subsequent loss of direction.

  5. lonepilgrim says:

    A wonderful piece of music and a deserved number one.
    Given Bowie’s earlier interest in Magick I’ve sometimes wondered if this was intended as a ‘working’ or exorcism. It’s like he lost his mojo after this album.
    Some of the alternate takes for Scary Monsters – including an extended 12” mix of ‘Ashes to Ashes’ – can be found here:

    • col1234 says:

      that’s where I first heard most of the Monsters bootlegs. that site is wonderful.

      that alleged 12″ mix of “Ashes” really just sounds like someone looped the instrumental sections over and over again to pad it out. i hear nothing really different in it.

  6. Andy says:

    I was listening to SM again tonight, for the first time in 20+ years. I’ve been following the recent write-ups here and felt I

    badly needing to revisit it. I thought I should check for updates here just as Ashes to Ashes itself started, and I was

    genuinely moved as I read and listened. Maybe I’ve heard this particular song too many times (I remember listening to it over and over and over soon after it came out, as the accapela busking band I was in at the time tried to construct a vocal only version, well vocals and kazoos anyway) and so it didn’t hit me as hard tonight as many of the other tracks which I had allowed myself to drift away from. But the writing here did, and I got a flash of the long forgotten feelings of finality that the

    album evoked at the time. A sense of Bowie’s departure from me and the rest of those who had fallen under his spell after being

    enraptured by Starman, and a sense that it was time for me to move on too, to try and attain some kind of maturity and that a more grown up world was about to impose itself on us all.
    I’m grateful that the quality of writing here has opened up these pathways for me to another time, and allowed me to get past any long buried feelings of abandonment I’ve been clinging onto, and appreciate a truly great album.

  7. diamond dog says:

    The song that made said goodbye to the seventies and introduced joe public to the genius of that is David Bowie. A song that its hard to put a finger on what makes it so good….like the stones gimme shelter or his own life on mars it contains something more than music, it crackles with magik.
    The album for me never lived up to the promise of this epic and gotta say this is the finest piece you have written , quite fitting for one of his finest songs ..thanks so much fella for igniting once again the passion I have for Bowie an artist I’ve loved for nearly 40 years. We are blessed sir to have your writing.

  8. Portsmouth Bubblejet says:

    Yes, a truly excellent piece on an astonishing song. It feels like an ending, not just to the seventies. I’ve often wondered how Bowie would be remembered if he had called it a day after ‘Ashes to Ashes’ – and occasionally, given his swift decline in the eighties, I catch myself wishing that he actually had…

  9. diamond dog says:

    Not sure he did go into a swift decline I think he went GLOBAL then struggled with it. I think we lost the cult artist we had come to love. Let’s dance is a fantstic lp very very up full of great pop songs again like monsters heavily A side loaded with a piece that opens the B side which takes some effort to like. Artistically he stumbled but he was very on top of the world financially and in the public eye.

  10. David L says:

    I agree DD. And then the cult artist returned in ’93, though perhaps no longer cutting edge.

    Great write-up — knew a monster entry was coming for Ashes — and interesting point about this being his last song, the “artist” part of the individual having a shorter life than the individual himself. The artist no longer has anything more to say, but the body continues, and so must the work. Has any artist timed their actual death precisely to their artistic death, I wonder? Mozart?

    • Thomas Howarth says:

      ‘Has any artist timed their actual death precisely to their artistic death, I wonder? Mozart?’

      We know ol’ Bowie was hoping to make more music after Blackstar, but it seems fitting that Major Tom turned up a third (discounting the Pet Shop Boys’ revival) and final time in the video, a skeleton drifting in space, just before Bowie himself passed that way.

      ‘Space Oddity’ – ‘Ashes to Ashes’ – ‘Blackstar’. Perhaps the vital trilogy underpinning a career.

      Blackstar reaches back through the missteps of the ’80s and links with the hand of the supposedly lost David Bowie people were mourning here, even before the man died. His spaceship knew which way to go after all.

      I only read this resounding article today, and it has cast many new lights. An impeccable blog.

      (I do think lots of Outside, Heathen, Reality, and The Next Day are very good, mind. But, with the ideas of this article in mind, I’d say Blackstar really made that proper connection).

  11. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I remember the first time I heard this. It was summer (Thursday?) and in the evening I went to one of those Bowie-night clubs you mentioned in the Teenage Wildlife section. Nobody else had heard it and everybody (all the older/cool Bowie fans) was asking me what it was like. I felt like I was at the centre of the Bowie world, but I probably answered something like, “Not bad.” Thankfully the writing above is as excellent as my own description was pathetic.
    I think there is a limit to how much it is humanly possible to like/admire a song. With Ashes to Ashes you reach that point very quickly, yet you know the song contains so much more. And somehow this piece of writing does justice to such a song – an incredible achievement.
    On the children’s rhyme point, I remember the local children’s playground adaptation: “My mother says to get things done*, you better not mess with grandad’s bum.” Probably the last time Bowie entered the popular consciousness outside the narrow limits of pop music. (*I’m not sure if it was ‘get things done’.) There’s a nice circularity about children working out their own version of an adult’s appropriation of a children’s rhyme.

  12. timspeaker says:

    Dear Lord these posts keep getting more an more magnificent. As a psycho/over-the-top Bowie fan, I always get a bit excited knowing that certain songs I especially love are coming soon in your queue. And Ashes To Ashes certainly is one of my top couple songs in the canon, and I have anxiously awaited your breakdown of it.

    Truly you are the best writer about Bowie I know of, and I’ve read most. This is a brilliant endeavor, and this post is your crowning achievement.

    Keep it going – can’t wait to hear your take on things through the 80’s.

  13. MC says:

    Great post, as always; this blog has the finest writing on Db (and some of the best criticism, period) that I’ve ever read. Superlative work. Just want to add the comment that this song probably rivals “Heroes” as Bowie’s finest vocal performance ever – one reason why, as with that epic recording, subsequent live performances pale badly.

    • col1234 says:

      the Tonight Show version is almost as good—there’s a moment when DB is really on, in the first bridge/chorus?, where you think it’s the best thing ever. Then he forgets the words to a verse, and the momentum sorta dies…still, it’s the best live version out there, i think. The not-band was really great too, shame they didn’t tour.

  14. MC says:

    True enough. This version is very good. But 78-80 was probably Bowie’s peak as a vocalist. After this period, his vocals drop sharply in quality. Still some good performances, but the singing (live especially) is a lot more ragged. (Too many Marlboros?)

  15. MrBelm says:

    Tangential to this brilliant post:

    The writers of the cartoon “The Venture Brothers” are huge Bowie fans. They incorporated “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes” as the plot for the “Major Tom” episode:

    In addition, the show’s group of evildoers – The League of Calamitous Intent – are headed by a character known as “The Sovereign,” who is a note-perfect version of Thin White Duke Bowie. His sidekicks are Iggy Pop and Klaus Nomi.

  16. 2fs says:

    Excellent writing. I want to point out another musical element of this song’s controlled chaos: the intro is built on asymmetrical three-bar phrases – and when that material recurs in the outro, it clashes with the four-bar “my mama said…” chant.

    Also: There’s something sort of Talking Heads-ish to my ears about the bass/drums/guitar interplay in the intro. And – like distressingly many songs in ’79 and ’80 – the piano rhythm during the verses is that “What a Fool Believes” rhythm…

  17. ofer says:

    By the way, does anyone know if DB ever said something about philip k. dick? I know dick based characters on bowie and eno in “VALIS”, but I wonder if bowie ever read it, or any of PKD’s works.

    • Portsmouth Bubblejet says:

      From an interview with Duncan Jones in GQ in April:

      “If Ziggy Stardust is your dad, is it a daft question to ask where your interest in science fiction comes from? Duncan Jones (AKA Zowie Bowie) laughs and humours a question it’s possible he’s heard before. “No, that’s fair enough,” he chuckles. “We watched Blade Runner together the first time I saw it and he introduced me to Philip K Dick.”

      And from a French interview with ‘Les Inrocks’ in the same month:

      “Even if my childhood was atypical and nomadic, my father made every effort to be a normal father. If I like science fiction, it’s his fault to an extent. He read me stories just like you give sweets to a child. If I didn’t like them, we changed to another book and it always finished up with Philip K. Dick, George Orwell or John Wyndham.”

    • MrBelm says:

      I posed your question to a rend who is active in the PKD Society (yup, there is such a thing). His response:

      “There’s a character called (IIRC) ‘Mother Goose,’ ‘the real-life rock star’ who stars in the VALIS movie which, as described, is a cross between The Man Who Fell to Earth and Dick’s then-unpublished Radio Free Albemuth. And he has a producer named Brett Mini who is obviously Eno.”

  18. Remco says:

    I was going to say ‘his best song of the eighties’ but you’re absolutely right, this is his last song. Amazing piece of writing, your best one yet, and that’s saying something.

  19. I think the idea of the art finishing before the artist is valid. The most obvious other example I can think of would be Bowie favourite Samuel Beckett, whose ouvre was basically complete after Godot and the trilogy of novels (although I would argue a case for Endgame and perhaps Happy Days). There were of course later works such as Not I but they were minor masterpieces at best, or fizzles, to use a Beckettian term.

    From the musical world, the Rolling Stones post Exile on Main Street death is the most obvious.

    I would also like argue that Dr Who was never the same after Tom Baker regenerated.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Fascinating piece. Loved the Buddy connection. As a late-comer to the later Bowie this makes me wonder: just what are his best post-Scary Monsters songs…?

  21. diamond dog says:

    The thing is surrounded by so many imitators Bowie was lost in a sea of his own influence. He had nowhere to go except become more popular which he did. I have to take myself back to the mid 80’s and remember I enjoyed his output let’s face it he made a couple of vacuous albums but a lot of strong singles and also let’s not forget some ok movies. He became a celeb and rightly deserved it.

  22. Jeremy Earl says:

    Genius song and genius write-up, well done. One of his greatest songs, and lets face it, greatest and weirdest number ones ever. One on the greatest videos as well – all genius. My friend at work said it was like an aria and the only track he ever played on a jukebox!

    I agree with everything said by the other posters pretty much, although I’m glad Bowie didn’t end it after Ashes.

    Ashes and Buddy Holly? Never would have guessed!

    It’s interesting how on the 83 tour he played Ashes before Space Oddity, going in reverse.

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Also, it’s no suprise to me the Bowie is a Philip K Dick fan. Recently read a Dick biography and in the mid 70’s Dick bought all of Bowie’s records and listened, looking for ‘signs’ and ‘messages’ of Bowie’s knowledge of VALIS. Didn’t hear any apparently, which was unusual for Dick!

  23. diamond dog says:

    The Buddy Hooly connection is amazing where the fudge did you get that from???ive just had a listen and although the style is nothing like the Bowies the structure of the lines is there amazing!! Speaking of lines ‘GREEN WHEELS’ ? any idea what this line is about.
    Of all the live versions i feel i like the 83 version best as it brings back memories of actually hearing it live for the first time..i was stunned that such a complex piece could be played so well and the space oddity merge was genius almost as good as the fade from fashion to lets dance .
    If im not mistaken there was a 12 inch single of ashes /oddity mixed?
    One could easily tire of Ashes as its played so much but re-visting it always pays off, ive wish i had all the different 7 inch singles and stamps but at the time it was pot luck , did this marketing work is this what forced it to no 1 in the uk?

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      I think it was the video that got it to no 1 in the UK. It was on Top of the Pops one week then no 1 the next. There hadn’t been a video like that before; I’m pretty sure that when it was introduced on TOTP, the talk was all about the video. (DLT, I think.) I hung around with some extreme Bowie types at the time and I can’t think of anyone who bothered with the stamps.

    • David L says:

      I always assumed “green wheels” was some sort of druggie lingo referring to the drug craving, or the attendant hallucinations …

    • “Green Wheels” comes from a line in a poem by Kurt Schwitters: “Red is the colour of her green wheels.” Schwitters work was undoubtedly familiar to Bowie. Nothing to do with drugs.

      • 2fs says:

        While it’s quite likely that Bowie was familiar w/Schwitters, that doesn’t mean that’s the source of that line – how does it make sense there? And to argue that, therefore, the line has “nothing to do with drugs” really doesn’t follow, given the rest of the song. In a song whose chorus says “Major Tom’s a junkie,” it’s hardly a stretch to interpret lines as relating to drugs in some way…

      • Remco says:

        I agree with 2fs, it’s tempting to see it as an allusion to a Dadaist poem but it doesn’t really make sense in the context.
        The poem itself ( doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the lyrical content of Ashes.
        And of course the line is “Time and again I tell myself I’ll stay clean tonight but the little green wheels are following me” so the drugs option does seem the most logical. On the other hand that still doesn’t answer what ‘green wheels’ are. Some kind of marihuana delivery service? But then that’s hardly the kind of drug Bowie would be writing about.

      • Maj says:

        I always interpreted it as some sort of hallucination representing his craving of drugs.
        I don’t think there has to be just one interpretation, though.

  24. Maj says:

    Great piece!

    Ashes to Ashes…probably the only of Bowie’s songs I can listen to any time, heard it way too many times but still can’t get enough. For Life on Mars, Heroes, Quicksand, Word on A Wing or even Space Oddity I have to be in the right mood to listen to but Ashes…maybe because it sounds so weird but catchy at the same time…I can listen to any time, any place.
    It does sound like the last Hurrah…this article almost made me tear up, to be honest. I was minus 7 when this one came out but even I feel myself mourn for Bowie’s past & future at the time of this record’s creation.
    Since I’m a fan of anything Scary Monsters I’m a proud owner of more than one plate of Ashes stamps. I don’t even know how that happened, I’m not really a memorabilia collector… But the esthetics of the album & especially this song & its video always attracted me for some reason.
    I dunno what else I’d add. Somebody asked me yesterday what my top 3 Bowie songs were (silly person!) & Ashes to Ashes was the first one that sprung to mind.

    • Maj says:

      oh I knew I forgot something. The Buddy Holly connection – superb, would’ve never thought of that myself.
      Also didn’t know of the Tears for Fears cover. It sounds almost exactly the same as the original but it’s not as good… It almost sounds like someone singing at a karaoke bar (not that the singer doesn¨t sound fine but…not really a cover IMO).

  25. DietMondrian says:

    Another great write-up.

    As a fan of Bowie and Philip K Dick, I was delighted to learn about their influence on each other. There are definitely similarities between Major Tom’s fate and that of the title character in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Eldritch returns from an interstellar journey, carrying a powerful, hallucinogenic alien drug.

  26. diamond dog says:

    Thanks folks ..I had an idea it was the craving for drugs but was not familiar with the little green wheels phrase. I remember the video on top of the pops with Dave lee travis also remmeber lulu and him giving an award that year which Bowie collected and said just thank you. Those were the days when the only time you would see a promo vid was on whistle tst or top of the pops. This video was superb once seen never forgotten I remember the promo for oddity on kenny everett which used the same kitchen shots. Just a great visual companion possibly the best ever and far better than anything at the time.

  27. Carl H says:

    I love Ashes to Ashes and I love this write up. Thank you, sir. Thank you.

    As for Major Tom, just stumbled in to the The Flight of The Conchords spoof/hommage to Space Odyssey et al:

  28. ethan says:

    Coming along late, and have nothing to add to this excellent, excellent post, but I do have an exception-that-proves-the-rule addendum to one of your asides:

    Rock & roll sequels have nowhere to go but home: they’re not fun, they expire in respectability.

    The Bobbettes shot Mr. Lee. They got tired of his jive.

  29. Momus says:

    This is a brilliant entry on a brilliant record.

    One interesting little tidbit: the line “one flash of light but no smoking pistol” appears first in Bowie’s answer to a question about music in the 1970s during this Australian TV interview filmed in Kew Gardens, December 1st 1979:

    Bowie utters the phrase 2 mins and 14 seconds in: “I think at the beginning of the 70s when it was sort of… a bit dull, there was the idea of creating a flash of some kind. And the flash was created, but nobody was really found holding a smoking pistol. So it sort of went off at tangents after that. There was no real definite thing said at the beginning of the 70s, but it did open everything up for investigation and sort of… sub-avenues of different kinds of music. People started working in different areas of music.”

  30. I remember that Live By Request well. Stayed on hold for an hour desperately hoping I’d get to speak with the man himself and request Ashes To Ashes. Not that I was surprised when someone got there before me.

    On a tangential note, there was also an Annie Lennox Live By Request, and pretty much the same thing happened to me. This time I wanted to request “Must Be Talking To An Angel,” and once again I was beaten to it. But when I was beaten to it by none other than David Bowie I beamed for days that he wanted to hear the same song I did.

  31. “Ashes to Ashes Pushing Ahead of the Dame” really got myself simply hooked with ur internet page!

    I reallywill wind up being back again alot more normally.
    Thanks ,Geoffrey

  32. scottsz says:

    First: love the site… incredible research here.

    Regarding Ashes to Ashes… the characters in the video:
    “Two nuns, a priest, a pretty girl in a party dress and a sad clown walk abreast in a funeral procession”

    It occurred to me that such a group would fit really well in a blue/rose period Picasso painting…

  33. This specific posting, “Ashes to Ashes | Pushing Ahead of the Dame” medvedic was terrific.
    I am impressing out a reproduce to present to my friends.


  34. Karl Jobst says:

    Karl Jobst

    Ashes to Ashes | Pushing Ahead of the Dame

  35. Code 5 Group says:

    Code 5 Group

    Ashes to Ashes | Pushing Ahead of the Dame

  36. goddam this a tremendous synopsis, even by your standards! “it’s the sound of holly’s ghost” – that’s genius. thanks for adding even further to one of the all-time great pop classics 🙂

  37. Jack Soul, a Canadian band, did a fine cover of Ashes.

  38. According to the liner notes of the new TMWFTE box set, after the cocaine fuelled sessions of Paul Buckmaster and Bowie for the movie music came to very little, there was a song called “Wheels” apparently… Ashes to Ashes/n anyone…???

  39. and thinking about it further, Buckmaster had arranged Space Oddity of course, and considering Ashes to Ashes is a sequel essentially to SO… “Wheels” could have been that intended sequel originally, which became A to A eventually (perhaps)

  40. Tyrell says:

    The craftmanship of the songwriting cannot be praised high enough. Someone earlier already mentioned the clash of the three-bar musical pattern vs four-bar nursery rhyme in the outro. Another higlight is the always changing key. Of course the continuous changing of the key played always a vital role in his songwriting since the ’60s but even by his standard is it very well crafted in this song. Three accords (F, B flat and E flat) appear in both form, minor and major and the intro/outro, the verses and the refrain are basically in different keys. They are so seamlessly connected that one does not even notices it but this musical ambiguity surely contributes unconsciously to the strange atmosphere of the song.

    It was interesting to see in the videos that in the live performances the bass was mostly not played by Gail Ann Dorsey but as I guess by Mark Plati. I guess he could do better the slapping bass technic, altough I am surprised because I thought she can play anything on bass on the highest level.

  41. Dbfanbutcynic says:

    Oh well, I still recall waking after a night of good live post-punk music, falling asleep on the floor at a place that is too gentrified for such things now, then dashing to the import music shop with a friend at the time to check the new single. It is alright, but it isn’t great. By that time, DB was already sounding bombastic in the wrong way, and so many acts were doing a better job, and to say that he inspired them all is wrong, there were plenty of other sources of inspiration.

    An article on Velvet Goldmine would not be amiss here (not on this thread), but I think it’s revelant.

  42. […] his excellent David Bowie blog, Pushing Ahead of the Dame, Chris O’Leary wrote that “Ashes to Ashes” is the final Bowie song; that regardless of Bowie’s […]

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