Nov 08

DAVID BOWIE – “Ashes To Ashes”

FT + Popular105 comments • 3,350 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. 76
    Tom on 13 Feb 2015 #

    It’s done the rounds on social media but here’s the very quick piece I wrote last night for the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2015/feb/13/steve-strange-pop-secret-architects-visage-new-romantics-blitz

  2. 77
    Tommy Mack on 14 Feb 2015 #

    Beautiful piece of writing, Tom. I’ve never heard Visage (though I knew who Strange was, more as club promoter and new romantic helmsman than musician) but I’m definitely going to listen now.

  3. 78
    Tommy Mack on 19 Feb 2015 #

    Bloody hell, they (Visage) were ahead of their time: I’ve actually heard Fade to Grey loads of times and assumed it was a late 90s pop-dance track.

  4. 79
    swanstep on 19 Feb 2015 #

    @Tommy Mack, 78. ‘Fade To Grey’ is an absolutely classic single, but from my (early teens at the time) perspective it sounds exactly like late 1980: it’s half-in the ‘Numan-Early-Ultravox-we-are-becoming-machines’ camp that was banging around for the previous 18 months and half in the ‘Early-Spandau-we-want-to pose-and-dress-up-and-be-in-Tatler’ camp and it’s a mile away from ‘Soft Cell/Human League-we-wanna-be-pop-stars’ camp that was ascendant by the end of 1981. Things (both sounds and attitudes to the charts and success) were evolving and changing very fast during this period and FTG is date-stamped is what I’m saying.

    For my money, nothing else Visage did was anywhere near as good as FTG (I mean, e.g., honestly, try to compare ‘Mind of A Toy’ with Siouxsie’s lyrically similar ‘Spellbound’ from the same time – S is streets ahead). And beyond that there was no getting around the problems with the whole scene Visage and Steve Strange came to stand for: (i) an emphasis on exclusiveness (on bars and clubs that kept people out) based on looks alone, (ii) an emphasis on posing which meant dance music without dancing without sweat without disturbing make-up, (iii) a creepy synergy with Tatler/Brideshead Revisited and other icons of whiter-than-white Eurotrash aristocracy. For these reasons the half-life of the scene was shorter than most, and most people were happy to move on. (Genuinely out of time and much more fiercely musical stuff would arrive at the end of 1981 with Japan, i.e., as an alternative to the New Pop eminences.)

  5. 80

    a creepy synergy with Tatler/Brideshead Revisited and other icons of whiter-than-white Eurotrash aristocracy

    in passing somewhere* meltzer tosses out a distinction that’s interesting i think: he contrasts what he calls rock’s (or proto-punk’s) “come as you are” spirit of self-presentation with glam’s performative elitism, with the implication that the latter is at odds with something valuable and easily lost in the former

    anyway while the dichotomy is easily established and easy to grasp, politically, i think it’s more obvious and compelling from a distance than it is close up: for example, the visible, eloquent blitz kid disciple i can think of is mr simon price, world’s leading manics fan and undying welsh socialist — i don’t imagine SP in any sense recognises a synergy between this kind of visual flamboyance (he still reps for boy george, for example) and brideshead (i would be astonished if he EVER rapped for this)

    i’d say nor do i recognise it, but this isn’t really true** — visage were pretty much persona non grata at NME in the late 70s/early 80s, for a variety of reasons***, which reasons then bunched together into this kind of political shorthand, and the shorthand has stuck around because it seems to make sense in a handwavey way (politics went in this direction so pop must have done too: new romantics = anti-punk = pro-tory blah blah); i don’t think it makes sense on the ground tho — first, there’s already a strong working class culture in the UK of dressing up to go out which flirts with toff trappings as a cheeky wind-up raspberry at sumptuary laws (e.g. teds began in the 40s as Edwardians wearing the posh shmutter of 2-3 decades previously) (very interesting exploration of this in the little BFI book on Kind Hearts and Coronets); secondly, the sense in which e.g. blitz was exclusive was — initially — that you got in for making a exceptional sartorial effort; there was a dress code in order to dissolve the more standard (and unadjustable) kinds of social code (which would blocked entry by class standing or colour or sexuality)

    *i’ll go dig out the actual quote in a bit, as i know i’m mangling both it and the point in respect of its original use/meaning — the way it’s stuck in my head is not the way it’s down on the page
    **and at that time i absorbed the nme line on things very deeply, and still find elements of it sticking to my judgments: i have been as much astonished as moved (and pleased) at the recent groundswell of sadness and admiration at strange’s death — i had him pegged as a far more minir figure than he actually is, it turns out (and this is bcz i still sometimes run on old-skool nme time)
    ***one of them is certainly that strange was very briefly active in a punk rock shock outfit who called themselves the moors murderers, which offended the politically puritan wing of the nme junta*** — tho so actually was chrissie hynde, so the excommunication was apparently negotiable
    ****i mean jvlie bvrchill, who has of course ended up far more toxically reactionary and thatcherite than many of those she casually anathematised back when everyone imagined she was the very image of the perfect feminist ultra-leftie (everyone including her tbf: it wasn’t a pose) (nevertheless, she was neither)

  6. 81
    Tom on 19 Feb 2015 #

    Yeah there were a couple of comments on the Guardian piece which made me wish I’d (had time to) talk a bit about “elitism” – the comments were along “this was horrible proto-Thatcherite stuff”. I think it’s a bit different though – the ideas of ‘meritocracy’ and ‘entrepreneurialism’ as disruptors of the establishment order (both the old prewar establishment and the consensus postwar one) were put in play by Thatcher. But to experiment with those ideas in an artistic sense – eg in the Blitz dress code, where the professed idea was that anyone could get in of they made an effort – doesn’t necessarily mean endorsing their political consequences.

    (There were also “what about the Moors Murderers?” comments of course – my brief was “explain why he mattered” and forming a punk band with a dickhead name did not qualify)

    As for Fade To Grey, I think a lot of what was happening with it was the rediscovery of Europe as a source of influence which went hand in hand with the Bowie-philia – all these people were starting out in pop when he was in Berlin – and with the explosion in pop video (Strange being in the A2A vid of course) and the sudden realisation that the history of cinema lay open as a toy and costume box, and the equally sudden realisation that Kraftwerk were awesome. The lyrics of FTG – written in third person. from a camera’s eye view – tie up with other Midge Ure stuff from that time – “Vienna”, “New Europeans” – and the line through British pop carries right on through the early 80s to Propaganda (who had the advantage of being actual Germans!).

    Finally I think it’s unwise to overstate the Tatler element – the people latching onto the Blitz Kids were the likes of Peter York, who were fashion/style journalists with a foot in the society press, but the original new romantics were in a bit of a vacuum situation: the style press as the 80s would know it (The Face, i-D, etc.) was only just getting off the ground, and evolved alongside the performative clubland it would document. The Blitz Kids were clearly a story, but there weren’t quite obvious venues for that story, so it’s documentation happened across a range of outlets, some unsympathetic (NME), some gawping (national media), some prone to misinterpret it (the posh end of the fashion press).

  7. 82
    BT on 19 Feb 2015 #

    I was fascinated by the revelation in the Guardian obituary that at one time Prince Andrew had been a frequent guest at SS’s flat. It’s the sort of thing Craig Brown would come up with.

  8. 83
    swanstep on 20 Feb 2015 #

    @80,81. A lot of good points raised, and I think we disagree mainly on emphasis. Kraftwerk and Berlin-period Bowie (and Bowie as image-master) clearly stood behind a lot of this period…. but I guess I see Visage as falling directly in line with a *specific* imagery trend that was all over the place only at this time: perhaps starting with Joy Division’s Closer and Ultravox’s Vienna released in July 1980 suddenly statuary was everywhere. Simple Minds’ Empires and Dance came out in September with this cover; the Skids’ Absolute Game came out the same month with this cover. Something about being frozen in place, posed like a statue (OMD’s second album, Organization arrives October 1980 with ‘Statues’ as a key track) was briefly very attractive to a range of people (In Australia, The Flowers, later to be known as Icehouse, released their debut album ‘Icehouse’ in October 1980.). In sum, there was a lot of fading to grey, icy statuary going on right before Visage’s big single hit as the apotheosis of this mini-trend in music and dress etc.. But very few people want to be statues for very long so the scene had an unusually short half-life and, in any case, its dance music and self-styled elitist elements pulled it apart from within.

    Tom’s right that Propaganda (‘Frozen Faces’) continued this line of imagery with the advantage of being actual Europeans, and there were other Euro-phile, idle-rich-o-phile cultural trends snaking around the early ’80s that carried the candle too, e.g., the French cinéma du look kicked off by Diva in 1981. So, yeah, perhaps The Face and i-D is really where this moment’s torpid energy went once music moved on (that and an eternal coldwave niche).

  9. 84
    lonepilgrim on 20 Feb 2015 #

    I’d also say that magazines like Vogue were a source of the Europhile tendency – I was at art college from 1978-182 and the early adopters for New Romanticism were the Fashion and Graphics students – one of whom was Vaughan Oliver, who, while not a NR, certainly exploited/explored the potential of moody b&w imagery in his work for 4AD

  10. 85
    Tommy Mack on 20 Feb 2015 #

    Swanstep #79: perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I was hearing stuff influenced by this era in pop history and mixing it up with the original stuff (and hearing other 80s tracks I assumed were contemporary)

  11. 86
    Adam on 22 Mar 2015 #

    Yeah though I’ve been rating them above average, the Atlantic Divide is once again rearing its ugly head with the past couple tunes… I blame it on growing up with my parents’ Motown 45s; we’ve been ingrained with different expectations for rhythm’s role in driving the song forward.

  12. 87
    Erithian on 11 Jan 2016 #

    Simply – RIP.

  13. 88
    Tommy Mack on 11 Jan 2016 #


  14. 89
    thefatgit on 11 Jan 2016 #

    What a sad day. RIP.

  15. 90
    Paulito on 11 Jan 2016 #

    I think it’s the first time I’ve been moved to tears by the death of someone I didn’t know personally. David Bowie’s status in the cultural firmament was so immense and so enduring that, subliminally, it seemed like he’d always been around and always would be. Lou Reed’s departure shook me somewhat, but this has really hit me hard. Goodnight, sweet prince.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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…)

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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?

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.)

  25. 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.

  26. 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!

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 105
    Jimmy the Swede on 23 Jan 2016 #

    Late to the tributes for one reason or another.

    May God’s love be with you.

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