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Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie song)

"Ashes to Ashes"
One of UK artwork variants
Single by David Bowie
from the album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
Released8 August 1980
Format7" single
RecordedThe Power Station, New York, February 1980; Good Earth Studios, London, April 1980
Length3:35 (7" single edit)
4:23 (Full-length album version)
LabelRCA Records
Songwriter(s)David Bowie
David Bowie singles chronology
"Crystal Japan"
"Ashes to Ashes"

"Ashes to Ashes" is a song written and recorded by English singer-songwriter David Bowie. It was the lead single from the 1980 album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and became Bowie's second UK No. 1 single. It is also known for its innovative video, directed by Bowie and David Mallet, which at the time was the most expensive music video ever made.

The lyrics revisit Bowie's Major Tom character from 1969's "Space Oddity" in a darker theme, which he referenced once again in 1995 with "Hallo Spaceboy". The song's melody was sampled in a remix of his 2013 single "Love Is Lost". The song's original title was "People Are Turning to Gold".[3]

Interviewed in 1980, Bowie described the song as "very much a 1980s nursery rhyme. I think 1980s nursery rhymes will have a lot to do with the 1880s/1890s nursery rhymes which are all rather horrid and had little boys with their ears being cut off and stuff like that."[4] Years later, Bowie said that with "Ashes to Ashes" he was "wrapping up the seventies really" for himself, which "seemed a good enough epitaph for it."[5]

AllMusic critic Dave Thompson described the track and its accompanying music video as "a very deliberate acknowledgement of the then-burgeoning New Romantic scene."[6] It was ranked as the 5th best single of 1980 by NME magazine.[7]

Music and lyrics

The musical style of "Ashes to Ashes"[8] has been characterized as art rock and new wave.[1][2] The song is notable for its delicate guitar synth string sound, counterpointed by hard-edged funk bass, and its complex vocal layering. Its choir-like textures and theme were created by guitarist Chuck Hammer with four multi-tracked guitar synthesizers, each playing opposing chord inversions; this was underpinned by Bowie's dead-pan, chanted background voices.[9] The rhythmic chordal theme originated from a guitar synth composition by Chuck Hammer. The resulting track has been described as "one of Bowie's greatest studio moments".[10]

Melancholic and introspective, "Ashes to Ashes" featured Bowie's reinterpretation of "a guy that's been in such an early song", namely Major Tom from his first hit in 1969, "Space Oddity". Described as "containing more messages per second" than any single released in 1980,[11] the song also included the plaintive reflection:

I've never done good things
I've never done bad things
I never did anything out of the blue

Instead of a hippie astronaut who casually slips the bonds of a crass and material world to journey beyond the stars, the song describes Major Tom as a "junkie, strung out in heaven's high, hitting an all-time low". This lyric was interpreted as a play on the title of Bowie's 1977 album Low, which charted his withdrawal inwards following his drug excesses in America a short time before, another reversal of Major Tom's original withdrawal "outwards" or towards space.[11]

The final lines, "My mother said, to get things done, you'd better not mess with Major Tom", have been compared to the verse from a nursery rhyme:[12]

My mother said
That I never should
Play with the gypsies in the wood

Bowie himself said in an interview with NME shortly after the single's release, "It really is an ode to childhood, if you like, a popular nursery rhyme. It's about space men becoming junkies (laughs)."[13]


"Ashes to Ashes" debuted at No. 4 in the UK Singles Chart in its first week of release, rising to No. 1 a week later, making it Bowie's fastest-selling single to that point in time.[12] It was issued in three different sleeves, the first 100,000 copies including one of four sets of stamps, all featuring Bowie in the Pierrot outfit he wore in the music video for the song.[14] The B-side, "Move On", was a track from his previous album, Lodger (1979). The US release had "It's No Game (No. 1)" as the B-side. In the US, the single peaked at No. 79 on the Cash Box Top 100 chart and No. 101 on the Billboard Bubbling Under the Hot 100 chart.[15]

Critical reception

Writing in Smash Hits, reviewer Deanne Pearson remarked that it was a "strange choice for a single" and "should have been left in the middle of an album", concluding that as a single it was "not a hit". [16]

Music video

Solarised colour in the music video

The music video for "Ashes to Ashes", directed by Bowie and David Mallet, was one of the most iconic of the 1980s. With production costing £250,000, it was at the time the most expensive music video ever made and remains one of the most expensive of all time.[12] It incorporated scenes both in solarised colour and in stark black-and-white and was filmed in multiple locations. The video featured Bowie in the gaudy Pierrot costume that became the dominant visual representation of his Scary Monsters phase. Also appearing were Steve Strange and other members of the London Blitz scene, including Judith Frankland who had designed clothes for Strange's Visage videos[17] and Darla Jane Gilroy, forerunners of (later participants in) the New Romantic movement that was heavily influenced by Bowie's music and image.[12][18] The complexity and high production cost of "Ashes to Ashes" makes it one of the most significant in the evolution of the music video.

Bowie described the shot of himself and the Blitz Kids marching towards the camera in front of a bulldozer as symbolising "oncoming violence".[19] Although it appears that Steve Strange is taking a bow as he walks behind Bowie, he was actually trying to pull his gown away from the bulldozer in an effort to avoid it getting caught.[18] Scenes of the singer in a space suit—which suggested a hospital life-support system—and others showing him locked in what appeared to be a padded room, made reference to both Major Tom and to Bowie's new, rueful interpretation of him. Contrary to popular belief, the elderly woman lecturing Bowie at the end of the clip was not his real mother.[20]

Record Mirror readers voted "Ashes to Ashes" and Bowie's next single, "Fashion", the best music videos of 1980.[21] The video was filmed at Pett Level, East Sussex, halfway between Hastings and Rye.[citation needed]

MTV ranked the song's music video at number fifty eight on its "100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made" list in 1999.[22]

The stage set from the music video is also used for the song Space Oddity as shown on the Kenny Everett Show in 1979. [23]

Bowie would later use the same method of putting the video together, including storyboarding the visuals, for his 1987 video for "Day-In Day-Out". He said of that video, "I started working this way on the 'Ashes to Ashes' video with David Mallet. It was my first real big attempt and it won awards at the time for being a new way of doing videos."[24]

Track listing

  1. "Ashes to Ashes" (Bowie) – 3:34
  2. "Move On" (Bowie) – 3:16

Production credits


Chart (1980-1981) Peak
Australia (Kent Music Report)[26] 3
Austria (Ö3 Austria Top 40)[27] 6
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)[28] 15
Canada RPM Top Singles[29] 35
West Germany (Official German Charts)[30] 9
Irish Singles Chart[31] 4
Netherlands (Dutch Top 40)[32] 11
Netherlands (Single Top 100)[33] 15
New Zealand (Recorded Music NZ)[34] 6
Norway (VG-lista)[35] 3
Sweden (Sverigetopplistan)[36] 6
Switzerland (Schweizer Hitparade)[37] 11
UK (Official Charts Company)[38] 1
US Billboard Bubbling Under the Hot 100[15] 101
US Billboard Disco Top 100[39] 21
US Cash Box Top 100 Singles[15] 79

Alternative versions

There have long been rumours of an extended unreleased version of the song, allegedly some 13 minutes long and featuring additional verses, a longer fade-out and a synthesizer solo.[40] A 12:55 version that appeared on the bootleg From a Phoenix... The Ashes Shall Rise was a fake, repeating the song's instrumental breaks to achieve its additional length.[41] Similarly, an 11:44 version on bootleg albums such as Glamour, Vampires of the Human Flesh and Monsters to Ashes was again nothing more than the original track with segments repeated and looped.

Live versions

Other releases

In popular culture

For the 2008 sequel to their 2006 BBC TV series Life on Mars, the writing team of Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah decided to transplant the characters from 1973 to 1981, and chose the title Ashes to Ashes because they thought of it as "that year's big Bowie track".[43] They also borrowed the famous Pierrot iconography from the video of the Bowie single as part of the programme's visual design.[44] In the first series's finale, a car bomb goes off at the line "One flash of light".

Covers and samples

The song has been covered by many including Tears for Fears, Warpaint, Scarce, The Mike Flowers Pop, Happy Rhodes, LB and Twilight Clone.[citation needed]

Samantha Mumba’s second single Body II Body heavily samples Ashes to Ashes.[citation needed]


See also


  1. ^ a b Lynch, Joe (11 January 2016). "10 Brilliantly Bizarre David Bowie Videos". Billboard. Retrieved 6 August 2016.
  2. ^ a b Comer, M. Tye (15 May 2000). "Pop Artificielle - LB". CMJ. 62 (666).
  3. ^ David Currie, ed. (1985). David Bowie: The Starzone Interviews. England: Omnibus Press. ISBN 0-7119-0685-8.
  4. ^ "David Bowie – Scary Monsters Interview, PART 1 (12" Promo, 1980)". YouTube. Retrieved 29 March 2014.
  5. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 29.
  6. ^ Thompson, Dave. "David Bowie - Ashes to Ashes". AllMusic. Retrieved 6 February 2016.
  7. ^ " End Of Year Lists 1980..." Retrieved 10 March 2018.
  8. ^ the title refer to the English funeral prayer "ashes to ashes, dust to dust". ( The meaning and origin of the expression: Ashes to ashes)
  9. ^ Chris Welch (1999). David Bowie: We Could Be Heroes: p. 136
  10. ^ Chris O'Leary (2019). Ashes to Ashes: The Songs of David Bowie, 1976-2016: p. 159
  11. ^ a b Roy Carr & Charles Shaar Murray (1981). Bowie: An Illustrated Record: pp. 109–116
  12. ^ a b c d David Buckley (1999). Strange Fascination – David Bowie: The Definitive Story: pp. 366–369
  13. ^ Angus MacKinnon (1980). "The Future Isn't What It Used to Be". NME (13 September 1980): p.37
  14. ^ a b "Bowie Golden Years : Scary Monsters". Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  15. ^ a b c Whitburn, Joel (2015). The Comparison Book. Menonomee Falls, Wisconsin: Record Research Inc. p. 57. ISBN 978-0-89820-213-7.
  16. ^ Pearson, Deanne (7 August 1980). "Reviews - Singles (David Bowie – 'Ashes to Ashes')". Smash Hits. 2 (16): 27.
  17. ^ "Balenciaga Hears The Sound of Music", The Swelle Life, 22 February 2011
  18. ^ a b Steve Strange at The Blitz Kids
  19. ^ Steve Malins (2007). "Meeting the New Romantics", MOJO 60 Years of Bowie: p.78
  20. ^ Pegg 2011, p. 30.
  21. ^ Nicholas Pegg (2000). Op Cit: pp.75–76
  22. ^ "100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made". MTV. Retrieved 8 August 2019.
  23. ^ "David Bowie and Kenny Everetts Space Oddity". MOJO. Retrieved 18 March 2018.
  24. ^ "Dave In, Dave Out". Music & Sound Output magazine. June 1987.
  25. ^ "Chuck Hammer". Archived from the original on 31 October 2017. Retrieved 31 October 2017.
  26. ^ Danyel Smith, ed. (1980). Billboard 25 october 1980. Nielsen Business Media, Inc. ISSN 0006-2510. Retrieved 24 June 2013.
  27. ^ " – David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes" (in German). Ö3 Austria Top 40.
  28. ^ " – David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50.
  29. ^ "Ashes to ashes in Canadian Top Singles Chart". Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 24 June 2013.
  30. ^ " – David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes". GfK Entertainment Charts. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
  31. ^ "Ashes to ashes in Irish Chart". IRMA. Archived from the original on 9 June 2009. Retrieved 24 June 2013. 3rd result when searching "Ashes to ashes"
  32. ^ "Nederlandse Top 40 – David Bowie" (in Dutch). Dutch Top 40.
  33. ^ " – David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes" (in Dutch). Single Top 100.
  34. ^ " – David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes". Top 40 Singles.
  35. ^ " – David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes". VG-lista.
  36. ^ " – David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes". Singles Top 100.
  37. ^ " – David Bowie – Ashes To Ashes". Swiss Singles Chart.
  38. ^ "1980 Top 40 Official UK Singles Archive - 23rd August 1980". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 24 June 2013.
  39. ^ "Scary Monsters awards on Allmusic". Allmusic. Retrieved 24 June 2013.
  40. ^ a b Pegg 2011, p. 31.
  41. ^ Altenburg, Ruud. "David Bowie - Illustrated db Discography > Songs: A". Retrieved 29 September 2016.
  42. ^ "A NEW CAREER IN A NEW TOWN (1977 – 1982) - David Bowie Latest News". 22 July 2016. Archived from the original on 8 January 2010. Retrieved 30 September 2017.
  43. ^ "Life after Mars", The Guardian, 7 January 2008
  44. ^ "Back in the Day when PC meant Copper" Archived 11 February 2008 at the Wayback Machine, David Belcher, The Herald (Glasgow), 8 February 2008


  • Pegg, Nicholas (2011). The Complete David Bowie (6th ed.). London: Titan Books. ISBN 9780857682901.

External links

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