Ashes to Ashes

September 13, 2011

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 (TOTP2, 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.