Nov 08

DAVID BOWIE – “Ashes To Ashes”

FT + Popular106 comments • 5,859 views

#464, 23rd August 1980

One metatextual break-up record succeeds another: but here David Bowie is breaking up with himself, and pop is breaking up around him, its structures fragmenting and sickening as the track lurches on. The music is a patchwork – snips and echoes of riffs or phrases jabbing across each other, somehow resolving into a song. Bowie himself starts to sing unsustainably high, his vocal line tumbling down and melting on re-entry – “Do you remember a guy that’s been” sounds like “Duhyuh remember agatherspear…”. Where you can decipher them the words are paranoid cut-ups or just nonsense playground rhymes like the chorus – “funk to funky”?

Though actually something does smell bad round here – this isn’t spectral pop, it’s zombie pop, shambling and corpse-cold. In the most horrible sequence, Bowie sounds like he’s broken out of the song, like he’s confessing something true, even if that’s only paralysis – “Never done good things, I never done bad things, I never did anything out of the blue”. But behind him the backing vocalists are zombies too, zombies of himself, and when he ends his phrase with a soulful “Whoa-oh”, the zombie Bowie echoes it hollowly: the most basic gesture of rock meaning reduced to a lifeless parodic twitch.

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. “Ashes To Ashes” is as self-conscious as records get, of course, but still hits hard outside its solipsistic context – its portrait of a crack-up is abstract enough to mean something, something indistinct but grim and real. Helps that it’s studded with great lines and moments: “WE GOT A MESSAGE FOR THE ACTION MEN!”; “Sordid details following…”; and the creepy nursery rhyme coda, as the song tucks itself into foetal position and tries to shut the inner enemy out. One of those records that could have, maybe should have, brought the curtain down on a career.



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  1. 91
    heather on 13 Jan 2016 #

    Bless the boy.
    I like the early thread of ‘My favourite Bad Era song’. I’d like to put a word in for ‘Blue Jean’, which has an appalling 80s sax solo but oh, the internal musing way he sings “One day, I’m gonna write a poem in a letter, one day I’m gonna get that faculty together” (and there’s a great list to be made of Great Verse, Ordinary Chorus songs somewhere). Oh but nobody sings like he does.

  2. 92
    Lazarus on 15 Jan 2016 #

    A surprisingly low placing at 62 in today’s great Bowie chart invasion (singles and albums, of course). Best of the singles was ‘Heroes’ which halved its previous chart peak at 12, then Life on Mars at 16, Starman (designated a new entry for some reason) at 18, Space Oddity at 24 (you can see the appeal of those last three, with the Tim Peake connection), Under Pressure at 43, Lazarus (ahem) at 45, Changes at 49 and the 10 minute epic Blackstar at 61. I imagine the most recent two haven’t been available as physical purchases. In the album chart Blackstar was a shoe-in at the top spot, which it might well have claimed anyway, with a recent compilation Nothing Has Changed at 5, Best of 69/74 at 11, Hunky Dory at 14, Ziggy at 17, 2002’s Best of Bowie collection at 18 and his last release, The Next Day at 25. I did wonder if Never Let Me Down or one of the Tin Machine albums would sneak in, but no. It’ll be interesting to see how they all fare next week.

  3. 93
    Paulito on 16 Jan 2016 #

    Those chart placings suggest to me that people are turning to the more anthemic and singalongy of his hits, for comfort or celebration. I doubt that Ashes To Ashes has lost its place in the pantheon of Bowie classics, but I suspect that it may be a bit too gloomy for grieving fans right now.

    Interesting to see Hunky Dory emerging as the most re-purchased of his original albums…again I’d say that it’s probably the one best equipped to meet the present emotional needs of his fans. Obviously it’s one of his most accessible collections but, more to the point, it’s got a fistful of rousing anthems and emollient ballads (notwithstanding that the gorgeous arrangements and melodies of ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Life on Mars’, and the sheer exuberance of ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, are all (quite brilliantly) deceptive, masking some pretty dark and occasionally dubious lyrical content…)

  4. 94
    AMZ1981 on 16 Jan 2016 #

    A more interesting omission from the Bowie songs dominating the singles chart is current single Lazarus; the video to which we now know features a man frail and close to death, but also every inch an artist and performer. Given that Elvis Presley and John Lennon both soared to the top with a relatively uninspired song following their death (solely because it was the most readily available item for people taken a renewed interest in their work) Lazarus must have been a surefire chart topper in the pre download era and it’s one of downsides of the download era that strong new music by classic artists gets so easily overlooked.

  5. 95
    Paulito on 16 Jan 2016 #

    But don’t forget that the album from which ‘Lazarus’ has taken has already topped the charts, hence people may not feel the need to buy the single separately (IIRC ‘Where Are We Now’, which reached #6, was released ahead of its parent album). Also, the world and his mother have been checking out the ‘Lazarus’ video online so that may also be militating against purchases of the track itself.

  6. 96
    Lazarus on 16 Jan 2016 #

    I have to confess, as a bewildered oldie, the whole ‘single download’ thing is a complete mystery to me (I don’t understand the difference between downloading and streaming either, but best not to confuse me). I’m fully aware that the vast majority of ‘single’ purchases now are made online and not in shops (indeed the last time I was in HMV, last week, I didn’t see any CD singles). What I don’t understand is why people would pay to listen to a track they could watch on Youtube anytime they want. Anyone care to enlighten me?

  7. 97
    AMZ1981 on 16 Jan 2016 #

    #96 They download it in order to be able to listen to the track on their Ipod and/ or phone.

    And I appreciate there are other factors against the track Lazarus in the download era (Blackstar didn’t score on the top forty despite attracting attention long before the parent album was released). I suppose I’m talking about a parallel universe where all else was the same but the download revolution hadn’t happened and Lazarus was in a similar position to the later singles from Hours.

  8. 98
    Lazarus on 17 Jan 2016 #

    Thanks, that’s pretty much the answer I was expecting – I just wondered if there was anything more to it than that. My daughter, who does her best to keep the old fool up to speed with 21st century technology, has said that I would benefit from having an iPod – I expect I will get one eventually although I’m the tardiest of late adopters.

  9. 99
    Tom on 17 Jan 2016 #

    As far as I can remember, we have a brace of ‘memorial’ number ones on Popular in the near future and then that’s it (there are a few number ones by dead acts, but it’s not the death getting them there). Unless I’m missing one, it’s just not something the current chart setup can really accommodate. The exception might be if a currently popular act without much of a vote-splitting back catalogue died.

    With Michael Jackson, who nearly managed it, there was a level of online co-ordination to push “Man In The Mirror” ahead of everything else – that didn’t really happen with Bowie, and streaming makes such efforts a bit like sieving water anyway.

    (I could be quite wrong. I pretty much pronounced the topical/pressure-group number one dead in the streaming era, and the NHS choir managed it. And as digital sales fall away even more, we might see things change.)

  10. 100
    enitharmon on 17 Jan 2016 #

    The NHS choir might just be exceptional; it’s a big political movement involved rather than a pop fandom.

  11. 101
    enitharmon on 17 Jan 2016 #

    AMZ1981 @ 97 So if they want the track to listen to locally why don’t they just play on Spotify or other streaming source and record using something like Audacity? Why spend good money on what you could get for free? After all, it’s fully in the 1970s tradition of taping your friend’s vinyl copy of Hunky Dory. (What are you all looking at me like that for?)

    I’m guessing that’s exactly what a majority do, but it isn’t reflected in download statistics for chart purposes!

  12. 102
    AMZ1981 on 17 Jan 2016 #

    Enitharmon – I’m afraid I’m going to have to pass on that as I’m a 35 year old who only switched on to Itunes relatively recently (2010). I’m also quite conservative about choosing to pay for music rather than getting it for free. I am in theory old enough to have a pair of Justin Bieber loving daughters but since that’s only in theory I’m not able to ask them where they get their music from.

  13. 103
    Andrew Farrell on 17 Jan 2016 #

    #101 – the answer appears to be that people genuinely don’t mind paying money for physical* copies of songs, if it’s cheap and convenient. I really can’t imagine that the majority of music listeners are ‘home taping’ – for a start I can’t imagine that all that many of them know what Audacity (or similar) is.

    *well, at least as physical as a taped copy of an LP.

  14. 104
    Auntie Beryl on 17 Jan 2016 #

    YouTube is the largest streaming service of them all, doesn’t report to the OCC, and is the next battleground in the monetization war for the music industry.

  15. 105
    Jimmy the Swede on 23 Jan 2016 #

    Late to the tributes for one reason or another.

    May God’s love be with you.

  16. 106
    Gareth Parker on 25 May 2021 #

    David always brought so much to the table when creating intriguing pop singles. 7/10 for me.

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