The shore at Pett Level, near Winchelsea, is steep; and covered with shingles. There is no bathing machine here; and a man should be an expert swimmer to venture in, excepting in calmer weather.
Baker Peter Smith, A Journal of an Excursion Round the South-Eastern Coast of England, 1834.
The shore at Pett Level has been a forest, a feeding ground for dinosaurs, a graveyard for ships; at the time of the Roman conquest, it slept underwater; during the Napoleonic wars and for some time afterward, the beach had eight manned, brick-built Martello towers, each a quarter-mile apart, each with a gun on its roof and a small window facing seaward. During the Second World War, the government evacuated Pett, whose population at the time was greatly holidaymakers and beachcombers.
One morning in late spring 1980 (no one recalls the precise day, and while May is the consensus pick for month, it may not be so*) a thin man in a clown costume walks along this beach.
He’s accompanied by a ballerina, two space nuns, and a gothic bride. Not far behind them rumbles a JCB bulldozer.
This is David Mallet’s video for “Ashes to Ashes,” a song that its creator, David Bowie, had only recently completed at Tony Visconti’s studio in London. It was his most expensive video to date (£25,000–some say more) and would be his most memorable, despite it pre-dating MTV. (MTV feasted on it, though: “Ashes to Ashes” was core to its rotation during its lean first months in 1981.)
Mallet suggested the location for a practical reason (see below) and because “I’d known [Pett Level] since I was a little boy. One of the very rare places you can get right down to the water and there’s a cliff towering over you.” The dreamscape was Bowie’s.
I think video is there to be used as an art form as well as a sort of commercial device for illustration and promotion. In fact, I fell in love with video in the early Seventies when I got a Sony reel-to-reel, black-and-white thing and videoed everything and whatever. I got a small editing machine…and developed some scenarios for Diamond Dogs. I worked with miniature sets and cut video animation techniques which I’ve never seen used since. A dreadful but interesting failure.Bowie in “David Bowie—Plus Five,” 1981.
By 1979, Bowie had sensed that music video, those cheap promos you sent Top of the Pops and label conventions if you were touring or couldn’t be bothered, was becoming more central, that songs would need visual accomplices. For Lodger, he made three with Mallet: “D.J.” was recluse DJ/ extrovert DB; “Look Back in Anger” was an artist plagued by art, a mix of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Image, a short film Bowie had done in the Sixties; “Boys Keep Swinging” was a farewell to glam and ambiguity.
As opposed to the Lodger videos, which Mallet had shot from Bowie concepts, for “Ashes to Ashes” “I story-boarded [it] myself, actually drew it frame for frame,” Bowie told the NME‘s Angus MacKinnon. “[Mallet] edited it exactly as I wanted it and has allowed me to say [adopts Edward Heath voice] publicly that it is my first direction. I’ve always wanted to direct and this is a great chance to start—to get some money from a record company and then go away and sort of play with it.” (Over the years, Mallet has described a more collaborative effort, with his suggestions having equal weight.)
One image dated back more than a decade. A Pierrot consoling an elderly woman is part of George Underwood’s illustration for the back cover of David Bowie (1969), an illustration Underwood had done based on a Bowie sketch. Recall that Bowie’s father had died that August, leaving an estranged, bereaved son tied to his bereaved mother.
“Ashes to Ashes” began when Bowie remade “Space Oddity” in September 1979, stripping down the latter in the vein of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. “That came about because Mallet wanted me to do something for his show [Kenny Everett, where the two had first met in April 1979], and he wanted ‘Space Oddity.'” Doing the remake led Bowie to wonder where Major Tom would be a decade on: home at last, strung out, craving the high he’d had in space. Making Scary Monsters early in 1980, Bowie took a track titled “People Are Turning to Gold” and made it his sequel song.
In the “Space Oddity” remake that Bowie and Mallet did for a Kenny Everett special (aired on New Year’s Eve 1979), there were two scenarios reused in “Ashes to Ashes.” One was Major Tom at home, reading the paper while sitting in a spaceship chair in a black-and-white “Fifties” kitchen (it became more of a dentist’s chair in “Ashes”). Trash bins and ranges explode around him while his nurse? director?—in the Everett video, she’s shown filming him—calmly does the dishes.
The other concept was a figure in an asylum, a large padded wall behind him as a backdrop. In the Everett “Space Oddity,” Bowie commits himself to the ward, walking in, sitting down to sing about Major Tom. In “Ashes to Ashes,” he no longer has a guitar and seems to be more of a prisoner, a feeling heightened by new shots of Bowie shackled to a wall in what looks like the asylum’s basement, with tubes and hoses attached to his torso (“a nation hides its organic minds in a cellar, dark and grim,” as he’d sung in “All the Madmen”).
As Bowie told MacKinnon, this latter shot (directly above) “was supposed to be the archetypal 1980s ideal of the futuristic colony that has been founded by the earthling [emphasis mine] of what he looks like—and in that particular sequence the idea was for the earthling to be pumping out himself and to be having pumped into him something organic. So there was a very strong Giger influence there [specifically, Giger’s work on the just-released Alien]: the organic meets hi-tech.”
But Pierrot-on-the-beach would be the video’s central image—it’s easy to forget its other sections. The David Bowie Is exhibit had one of Bowie’s sketches for it. As with the 1969 David Bowie illustration, the Pierrot walks with a woman, though here it’s at night, under the moon, and she’s a shabbier figure. By the filming, the woman had resumed the “middle-class mum” appearance of the David Bowie illustration, with a long-standing rumor that she was played by Peggy Jones.
“We went down to the beach, and I took a woman there who looked like my mother,” Bowie said in 1993. “That’s the surrealistic part of making movies.” (The actress was reportedly Wyn Mac, wife of British comedian Jimmy Mac.)
Bowie wanted to stage the Pierrot sequence on a shore, somewhere in England. “A clown on a beach with a bonfire,” Mallet recalled of the brief that Bowie gave him.
As Nicholas Pegg discovered a while back, a long-missing piece of the puzzle is a Justin Hayward performance of “Forever Autumn” on the Kenny Everett Show in July 1978—Hayward sits on the Pett Level beach, with the cliff behind him seen at roughly the same angle as in Bowie’s video, and with similar video distortion effects applied to land, water, and sky. It seems obvious the Pett location came quickly to mind for Mallet when Bowie said he needed a beach.
In keeping with how Scary Monsters, and in particular “Ashes to Ashes,” was Bowie “eradicating the feelings within myself that I was uncomfortable with…you have to accommodate your pasts within your persona,” as he later said, the three Bowie figures in the video all hail from his turn-of-the-Seventies: Major Tom, the urban spaceman; the asylum dweller of “All the Madmen” (the unluckier of the Bewlay Brothers); and the sad Pierrot of Bowie’s mime years, whose persona Bowie would use as a narrative voice from “An Occasional Dream” to “Thursday’s Child.”
The shore is the line between solidity and liquidity: it is a border that’s forever eroding, broadening, receding, secreting and revealing objects like a magician, never to look the same upon your next visit. The site of evacuations and invasions, it is permanent transition. I wonder if the opening of Michael Moorcock’s An Alien Heat (1972) came to mind for Bowie, too:
The Iron Orchid and her son sat upon a cream-colored beach of crushed bone. Some distance off a white sea sparkled and whispered…[later] Jherek noticed that the sea had turned a deep pink, almost a cerise, and was clashing dreadfully with the beach, while on the horizon behind him he saw that two palms and a cliff had disappeared altogether…
This is an Earth of the far distant future, at the tail end of time, where humanity is reduced to a decadent few who loll about in their glorious collapsing cities and freak pleasure gardens. As Moorcock wrote in his introduction to his trilogy (Alien Heat is the first book of his Dancers at the End of Time), “even if these inhabitants were not conscious of the fact that they lived at the end of time…their schemes—often grandiose and perverse—were pursued without obsession and left uncompleted without regret.”
While the other parts of the video—Major Tom in the asylum, or sitting anesthetized in his stage-set “home”—suggest that the Pierrot sections are Major Tom’s hallucinations or dreams, it’s the Pierrot figure who has the control. He’s the only Bowie character in the video who moves, who exists outside of a set, who’s directing the action. He performs acts of purification—a sacrificial bonfire, the release of a white dove—before his dissolution. First, in spirit: he winces in pain when a snapping photographer takes his soul; later in body, as the Pierrot sinks into the ocean. (Aileen Dillane, Eoin Devereux and Martin Power delve more into the symbolism in their essay on “Ashes to Ashes”).
There’s a funeral march along the shore. The Pierrot walks with the children who will succeed him; he is their divine mother. The sexton machine grumbles behind them, loud and impatient, but it will bury nothing—the clown will be taken by the sea. Walk five abreast, strike the earth, recite the old rhyme (“my mother said, to get things done…”), clasp hands. Do this in memory of me. I will soon be nothing but old lies and air.
For a funeral, one needs mourners, if only a handful, and Bowie knew where to find them.
The making of that video was the death knell for the Blitz and in my mind for Bowie as an innovator. It was my first peek beneath the veneer of public perception and its contrast with reality. Bowie was actually a pilferer and a follower stylistically – finger on the pulse but a follower nevertheless.Christos Tolera, artist and ex-Blitz Kid, to David Johnson, 2010.
Around 1976, London clubs began having “Bowie nights,” where DJs played Bowie records and clubgoers dressed as an edition of him. By 1978, the big Bowie night was at Billy’s in Soho, where Rusty Egan was the DJ and Steve Strange worked the door. By the turn of the Eighties, the scene had shifted to the Blitz Club in Covent Garden, where Bowie nights became competitive pose-offs. Egan and Strange would form Visage, later described by Simon Reynolds as “a confederacy of punk failures looking for a second shot at stardom” (so, very Bowie).
Bowie was naturally intrigued and visited the Blitz one night, slipping through the back door and being ensconced in an upper room, like slumming royalty. Each party had reservations about the other. Strange, like other Blitz Kids, regarded Bowie as a skilled operator, someone “allowed to get his ideas across quicker than up-and-coming bands. He’s always in the right place at the right time, checking out ideas. When he was in London he was always at the Blitz or at Hell.” And Bowie bottled his thoughts into “Teenage Wildlife,” his early midlife crisis song.
For “Ashes to Ashes,” he wanted some Blitz Kids, his spiritual and sartorial children, on the beach with his clown. So he and Coco Schwab went on safari at the club for the most intriguing-looking numbers (it suggests the opening scene of The Hunger). Strange, who was an operator himself, was an obvious pick. As Strange wrote in his biography, Bowie told him, “’Look, I’d like you to pick the clothes you are going to wear, and to choose three other extras for the video. But there is only one snag. We have to meet tomorrow morning at 6 AM outside the Hilton to leave for the location shoot.’ I rushed around and found Judith Frankland, Darla Jane Gilroy, and another girl for the video.”
The “another girl,” the ballerina of the set, is the mystery of the group. Her name, reportedly, was Elise Brazier and nothing has been heard from her since, as far as I know.
“I was invited, as was Darla Jane, over to the table where David Bowie and his PA Coco were sitting, and offered a glass of champagne,” Frankland wrote in 2011. “Darla and I were both dressed in a similar ecclesiastic style and were asked to take part [in the video] for what at that time was a decent sum of money for penniless, decadent students.” This was £50—not bad for 1980.
Frankland was the costumer for the Blitz quartet. She had gotten attention for her Ravensbourne graduation collection, which had a show at Cafe Royal in London. Her style was once called “Romantic monasticism” and “Balenciaga hears The Sound of Music” (the latter was dead-on, as it was Frankland’s favorite film as a child—the evening-gown habits that she designed came from her memories of it).
Frankland’s designs (in “Ashes,” she and Gilroy wore her nun’s habits, while Strange was in her black wedding gown, whose veil and hat had been made by their friend Stephen Jones) tapped into an eerie key at the end of the Seventies. A sort of neo-medieval formality, as if in homage to a future that was never going to come. Court clothes for a lost extraterrestrial aristocracy, whisked together from scraps across the centuries. A look that, again, calls to mind Moorcock’s decadents at the end of time:
Lord Jagged…concocted for himself a loose, lilac-colored robe with the kind of high, stiff collar he often favoured, and huge puffed sleeves from which peeped the tips of his fingers, and silver slippers with long, pointed toes, and a circlet to contain his long platinum hair: a circlet in the form of a rippling, living 54th Century Uranian lizard.An Alien Heat
The making of the video was a touch less romantic. Frankland recalled waking up in her bedsit in South Kensington and wondering if meeting Bowie and Schwab the previous night had been a dream, until the communal phone rang and she got instructions (presumably from Schwab). She was to wear what she’d had on at the Blitz, and the same makeup, and to be outside the Hilton “at some ungodly hour…to get on a coach to a secret location,” which turned out to be Pett Level.
The four Blitz Kids arrived at the beach to be greeted by Bowie already in costume. “He coached us for a few minutes on the words we were to mime and then the day was spent in sinking sand and mud,” Frankland wrote.
Happenstance and accidents played their parts. Bowie had noticed an idle bulldozer, property of the local government, parked down the beach. Struck by the idea of having the bulldozer as a “symbol of oncoming violence,” Bowie wanted it in the shoot. A few phone calls later (no doubt Schwab on the case again), a local driver was rolling the machine behind Bowie and the kids.
It was difficult for everyone to keep the same pace. “If I was too fast, I caught David up; if I was too slow, the bulldozer kept catching the robe I was wearing,” Strange wrote. “There’s a famous moment in it where it looks as if I am bending forward to bow. What I was actually doing was moving the hem of my robe to avoid getting pulled over by the bulldozer, but they decided to keep it in.”
A perfect example of how Bowie could seize upon a chance accident and expand it—he had Gilroy do the ground-slapping gesture as well, so that the two “wings” of the group seem to perform acts of consecration. And he’d turn the gesture into a dance move in his subsequent video for “Fashion.”
The original idea was to have the Blitz Kids only in the beach sequence, but Bowie, happy with how things were turning out, asked them to come to Ewart Studios in Wandsworth, where interiors were being shot. They would be a Greek chorus during the Major Tom “kitchen” scene.
“The scene we were to do at the studio involved an explosion and I was at the back,” Frankland wrote. “In fact if you look at the video you can see my crucifix swing in. We were told to duck out and run after we had mimed our piece or we could be hurt. This was difficult in a hobble dress, so I hoisted it up as high as I could and got ready to run. Quite a sight for the superstar sat behind me.”
And that was it. The Blitz Kids were driven back to London and spent the night clubbing at Hell. Mallet enhanced the beach shots with solarizing effects from the brand-new Quantel Paintbox. The video set the topsy-turvy colors of the outdoor shots against the high-contrast black-and-white of the “kitchen” ones, with the asylum shots as an intermediary.
What did Bowie and Mallet have with it? It’s too much to say they’d invented the grammar of MTV (Kate Bush was doing similar stuff at the same time, for instance) but “Ashes to Ashes” certainly provided a template. First, it just looked cool. Fantastic-looking weirdos on a candy-colored beach, leavened by explosions. There was nothing remotely like it on American television, at least.
Bowie managed, for the first time, to convey on film the sort of jump-cut, indirect narrative of his best songs—he was overdubbing a dense layer of new information upon an already-complex set of tracks (the Visconti-produced master). The sensation, watching the video, was something like the Choose Your Own Adventure books—a set of scenarios and decisions, some leading you deeper in, some killing you off.
“There’s an awful lot of cliched things in the video, but I think I put them together in such a way that the whole thing isn’t cliched,” Bowie said in 1980. “The general drive of the sensibility that comes over is some feeling of nostalgia for the future. I’ve always been hung up on that; it creeps into everything I do.”
It’s the visualization of a cusp song—an old world is falling away, the edges are blurring, but the new world that it shakes into view is still unclear. The careerist fabulousness of the Blitz Kids? A return to a falsified Fifties? A time when dreams need to be repressed, stowed away in the cellars and asylums? Bowie was winding down his Sixties and Seventies, disassembling his past, with a sense of foreboding as to what would take its place: could he have foreseen Tonight and Glass Spider? No, directly ahead of him was respectability, class, nuance—The Elephant Man, Baal, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. The Eighties were going to be a serious time.
The past will be burned and buried: toll the bell, pay the private eye, as Bowie later sang. Only a few exiles will be left to recall it. The future is to be found on the shore at Pett Level, near Winchelsea. It is steep, and covered with shingles.
Coda: In 1993, Michael Dignum was working on the video for Bowie’s “Miracle Goodnight.” “We had a change that was gonna take 10-15 mins to complete,” he later said. So he struck up a conversation with Bowie, his childhood hero, and asked him what he thought the biggest moment of his career was. “His reply was EPIC. And it went like this:”
“I was on the set of the music video ‘Ashes to Ashes,’ do you know the one?…So we’re on the beach shooting this scene with a giant bulldozer…I’m dressed from head to toe in a clown suit. Why not. I hear playback and the music starts. So off I go, I start singing and walking, but as soon as I do this old geezer with an old dog walks right between me and the camera…
As he was walking by the camera, the director said, excuse me, mister, do you know who this is? The old guy looks at me from bottom to top and looks back to the director and said…’Of course I do!!!! It’s some cunt in a clown suit.’ That was a huge moment for me. It put me back in my place and made me realize, yes, I’m just a cunt in a clown suit. I think about that old guy all the time.”Michael Dignum, Facebook post, 11 January 2016
“Ashes to Ashes.” Directors: David Mallet, David Bowie; Concept: Bowie. Starring: Bowie, Steve Strange, Judith Frankland, Darla Jane Gilroy, Elise Brazier, Wyn Mac? Costumes: Natasha Korniloff (Pierrot suit), Frankland (Blitz kids outfits), Stephen Jones, Fiona Dealey, Richard Ostell (hats, veil); makeup: Richard Sharah. First release: 19 September 1989, Sound + Vision (on a VCD likely unplayable today).
Sources: [background] the (velvet) goldmine that is Shapers of the 80s; Roger Griffin, Golden Years; Nicholas Pegg, Complete David Bowie; Kevin Cann, A Chronology; [quotes] Bowie, to NME (13 September 1980), to Musician (April 1990), in “David Bowie Weekend” on MTV (4-5 April 1993), A&E Biography (“David Bowie: Sound and Vision”) (2002); Mallet, to Marc Spitz (Bowie, 2009) and Dylan Jones (Bowie: A Life, 2017); Strange, in autobiography (Blitzed!, 2002) and to Spitz; Frankland, in “Frankly Frankland: The Blitz, David Bowie and Ashes To Ashes” (The Swelle Life, 22 February 2011). Dillaine, Devereux & Power’s essay “Culminating Sounds and (En)visions: Ashes to Ashes and the Case for Pierrot” is collected in David Bowie: Critical Perspectives; on the history of Pett, sources inc. Christa Cloutier’s “The Blessed Little Sea Shanty,” (Guardian, 30 Sept 2009), Michael Foley’s Martello Towers (2013) & description of latter comes from BP Smith’s Journal (1834). Most of the Pett towers had to be abandoned due to beach erosion by the end of the 19th C.
*Most Bowie references (Pegg, Cann, Griffin) note that the video was shot in May 1980, but Strange once said it was in early July. Given the English climate, it’s impossible to determine by sight if the beach shoot is in summer or no (Brazier, who has the only skimpy costume, is wearing an overcoat to cover herself in one “off-stage” photograph, seen above—but again, this proves nothing, as it’s a beach near Hastings). It would make a bit more sense if the video had been filmed later than May, given that Bowie had just completed “Ashes” that month—a shoot a few weeks later, which still left enough time for post-production before the single’s release in early August, is perhaps more likely?