Can you hear the sound of future so far back in the past?
Do you remember a guy that’s been
In such an early song?
I’ve heard a rumour from Ground Control
Oh no, don’t say it’s true
“Ashes to Ashes” was not the first Bowie song that I ever heard. I remember lots of the Ziggy era singles being played constantly on Radio 1 for what seemed like years and years, and many of his “plastic soul” period songs like “Young Americans” also seemed to achieve a fairly consistent rotation across what seemed like forever back then to a young boy. Possibly the Bowie song that I had loved most up until the release of Ashes was “Sorrow”, a cover of a 60s song by The McCoys, that had been recorded for “Pin Ups”, an album of cover versions that was intended to satisfy the demand for Bowie material in 1973. I was only 5 back then but the song stayed in the charts for 15 weeks so I must’ve just heard it so often on the radio (which always seemed to be on in our house when I was little) that it possibly just seeped into my soul. I also particularly remember “Sound and Vision” which was the obvious single release from his Berlin era, art orientated “Low” project and collaboration with Brian Eno, who was an original member of one of my favourite bands, Roxy Music.
“Ashes to Ashes” was different. It sounded to my young and inexperienced ears like the sound of the future. Whereas all the previous music that I liked, particularly the new wave that had offered a slightly more polished and commercial variation of the punk energy that provided such a strong early musical influence in my early musical explorations, had still been based around the traditional drums / bass / guitar / vocal set up that dominated the music charts ever since The Beatles. Yes, piano and keyboards may have sneaked in the offer additional support, and if you really wanted to go epic then you’d probably go for ELO style orchestral overload. Probably the most musically stretching thing I’d heard up this point was Tubular Bells by the multi-talented Mike Oldfield (as my eldest brother had the album). I hadn’t heard much prog rock up until this point as I only listened to the radio because I didn’t have the money to get into the chin-stroking mentality of the album orientated prog rocker. Nah, it had been early 70s Glam Rock and then I managed to move through a quick flirtation with Punk before settling into New Wave as my music of choice. However, none of this seemed to belong to my generation.
“Ashes to Ashes” sounds so familiar now but it really sounded so alien back in 1980 due to its extensive use of synth sounds to create an usual (and some would say ethereal) swathe of sound behind the main melody. The use of four multi-tracked guitar synthesizers to create these layers of luscious and ever so slightly discordant chords created a sound that sounded utterly futuristic. At the forefront, is a sound that reminded me of an echo location sonar ping mixed into the sound of drops of water on the surface of a pond – I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it sounded like, but it certainly didn’t sound like a guitar. Even the funky base line sounded more alive than the baselines I remembered from before. Slap bass playing has now become the much derided preserve of jazz funksters of the likes of Level 42 but, back in 1980, it just sounded so damn unusual. Had I ever heard a sound like the synth solo towards the end of the end of the song? I must have spent hours just trying to decipher what Bowie is saying in the spoken vocals that seem to echo in such an ominous manner in the background, thanks to the joy of taping off the radio (hey, remember the “Home Taping is Killing Music” campaign?). The descending quality of Bowie’s melody also seemed to work against the traditional song-writing rules of Beatle-esque melodic craft, and this transfers across to the almost drone-like chant of the chorus which echoed the most sinister the schoolyard nursery rhymes, amplified even further by the repeated mantra towards the finale of the song.
My mother said to get things done
You’d better not mess with Major Tom
This was a musical wow moment, and I loved it. I loved the nature of the very sounds that were used, kick-starting my love for unusual sounds and unusual voices (and my general fascination with the musically unusual in general). It is a song which (in combination with a few others) has directed me towards finding music which sounds just interesting and different rather than just plotting a course through one genre (or indeed specialising in an even more specific and focused sub-genre. No, I could never become a dedicated hair metal expert). I suppose the influence of Bowie upon me was so great that I adapted a similarly kookie approach to listening to a greater variety of music. My music collection features a considerable number of bands and individuals who have taken an off kilter, road-less-travelled approach whether it is ragged indie punks like The Fall or full-on eccentric divas like Bjork. However, you can also find a considerable collection of full-on mainstream pop adventurers like Abba or Erasure. I believe that you find the music to match the mood.
Yet, the joy of “Ashes to Ashes” is not just limited to the incredible invention and imagination in the musical sounds that it employed. I loved trying to understand the layers of meaning in the lyrics. This was not a simple “Boy meets girls and shit happens” kinda song lyric. This was something deeper, and I wanted to understand what it meant and how it was connected to “Space Oddity” through the character of Major Tom.
The shrieking of nothing is killing, just
Pictures of Jap girls in synthesis and I
Ain’t got no money and I ain’t got no hair
But I’m hoping to kick but the planet it’s glowing
I have read theories that suggest the song is a dialogue between the Bowie of 1970 (the Major Tom of “Space Oddity” who wanted the escape the confines of the establishment, as epitomised by the authority of Ground Control, and escape into the freedom offered by space) and the Bowie of 1980 (who has learned by bitter experience that freedom has consequences and wishes to return to the safety of Earth, but fears he will be rejected by the establishment that Major Tom so firmly rejected just over ten years previously). Listen to the references that are littered throughout the song: when Bowie sings “fun to funky”, isn’t that a clear link to the controversial transformation from his glam “fun” phase through the obsession with American funk and soul that was evidenced on both “Young Americans” and “Station to Station”? Others see the line where he sings “Ain’t got no money / Ain’t got no hair” to the situation where his management company lost significant amounts of his money through poor decisions whilst also referencing his cinematic debut in “The Man Who Fell to Earth”. Surely the line “Hitting an all time low” is an obvious reference to what was considered to be his artistic highpoint with the release of “Low” despite the drug problems that he was experiencing at that time? Or are we falling into Bowie’s trap of simply reading too much into it?
Is it simply as a meditation of Bowie’s addiction to hard drugs (whilst others will argue this to be inaccurate as they say Bowie was never addicted to Heroin) which perhaps he is finally ready to bury and start afresh – hence the funeral ceremony reference of the “Ashes to Ashes” title? Is it perhaps an even simpler meditation on a lost character who simply wants to find a way home?
You could probably write an entire blog entry just on the various theories concerning the meaning of the song, and whether Bowie actually was saying goodbye to a past that he saw as troubled and perhaps unfulfilling. Feel free to shout opinions at me in the comments section attached.
However, we must mention the video that accompanied the song – at the time, one of the most expensive video recordings produced. There are many touches in the video that seem to echo the theory that “Ashes to Ashes” is the act of Bowie burying his past so he can concentrate upon creating a totally free vision for the future. What is the evidence? Many see the Pierrot costume as a reference to Bowie’s time learning mime, which harks back to the time when he seemed to be searching for the stylistic trick that would make him famous. The spaceman in the kitchen is an obvious reference to the Major Tom character of “Space Oddity” whilst the section in the padded cell is thought to be a reference to his brother who experienced significant mental health difficulties (which he would return to again many years later via “Jump They Say”). The bulldozer following him buries his past whilst he walks away from it (whilst simultaneously almost burying the young pretenders to Bowie’s throne, the New Romantics, who seem so obsessed with and influenced by his past at the same time). The character in the padded cell also wears green Ziggy style boots, which many see as a clear reference to how Ziggy’s unprecedented and giddying success almost sent Bowie mad. Watch the video below and see what else you might be able to pick out to support this theory:
Without a doubt, whatever the truth behind it, “Ashes to Ashes” remains a startlingly original and memorable piece of work in both audio and video formats.
It confirmed my lifelong love of Bowie’s music – through the rather disappointing “Never Let Me Down” album (and associated Glass Spider Tour), though the Tin Machine years (which I actually loved) and all the way up to Blackstar. Bowie, like all my other favourite bands and solo artists, was always pushing the envelope (which is a curious phrase, but I hope that you know what I mean). He could’ve spent his career creating carbon copies of Ziggy. Lots of bands have made incredibly long and successful careers out of doing exactly the same things again and again (hello AC/DC as an example) and sometimes this is exactly what you want out of some bands – consistency. However, consistency can be dull. Sometimes you have to dare to grow a little goatee and do some drum ‘n’ bass inspired rock. That was Bowie.
And I miss him.