464. ‘Ashes to Ashes’, by David Bowie

Hot on ABBA’s heels, here’s another triumphant return to the top of the charts for a seventies icon.

Ashes to Ashes, by David Bowie (his 2nd of five #1s)

2 weeks, 17th – 31st August 1980

Unlike ABBA, however, this is only David Bowie’s second visit to the #1 spot, and his first with a new song (his earlier chart-topper being a re-release of his debut hit ‘Space Oddity’). It seems that Bowie could score his very biggest hits only if he was singing about Major Tom.

Do you remember a guy that’s been, In such an early song…? The fourth wall is broken in the first lines, while a woozy, harsh riff plays out on an instrument I am completely unable to name. It’s very new, quite avant-garde, the most eighties moment yet in this countdown. There’s also a reggae-ish feel to it, in the beat, and in the singer’s delivery.

It’s a bit of a hotch-potch, really. As with a lot of Bowie’s work, I wish I liked it more than I do. The verses are where my attention wanders the most. The lyrics and the beat trip over one another, and you’re left a bit lost. For the most part, though, I come down on the side of not caring if music is a bit beyond me, as long as it’s catchy. Luckily, this record has a killer chorus.

Ashes to ashes, Fun to funky, We know Major Tom’s a junkie… Is David Bowie Major Tom, and this record a look back at his struggles with drugs in the late seventies? Is he the Starman turned addict? Is Major Tom actually heroin…? The repeated closing lines… My mama said, To get things done, You better not mess with Major Tom… would perhaps bear this out.

The sinister music video – the most expensive ever made at this point in time – does little to clarify: it features Bowie in a clown suit, being followed by a bulldozer, releasing doves and rocking in a padded cell. (But I did find a great story from the making this video… On location, an elderly dog-walker refused to get out of one shot, and when the director asked if he knew who this man – pointing at the David Bowie – was, the old bloke replied: ‘Yeah, it’s some cunt in a clown suit.’ Bowie wore the insult with pride, apparently, for years after.)

I had a friend growing up who was obsessed with David Bowie, and with this song in particular. He was a bit of a pretentious arse, and perhaps I’ve always unfairly associated ‘Ashes to Ashes’ with him. Except… listening to it properly now, over and over, I’m not sure I wasn’t right all along. It is arty, and clever, and perhaps pretentious. Though both feature Major Tom, the shift from ‘Space Oddity’ to this is huge: perhaps the biggest change in sound between chart-toppers by any act so far. Which is fine. Good, even. Some people have to push the envelope, and Bowie did it better than anybody else, but sometimes it’s beyond me.

That doesn’t mean I don’t love a lot of his music. It’s just frustrating that the Bowie I enjoy most never made the top of the charts. Of his five #1s, four are from the eighties, while the seventies’ #1 was actually from the sixties. Hey ho. It’s becoming apparent that very few acts are best represented by their chart-toppers. At least he won’t have as long to wait for his next one…

14 thoughts on “464. ‘Ashes to Ashes’, by David Bowie

  1. badfinger20 (Max)

    Here is where the 80s kick in too much. Many people love this song and that is cool…I’m just not a fan of that sound. I did like his later eighties work but this I never cared for…I know I’m in the minority…I like revisiting the character in the lyrics…just not the music.
    I LOVED the Ashes to Ashes TV show though!

    1. Yes, this definitely felt to me like the eighties truly started with this one. I didn’t realise that the TV show was named after this… (edit – I didn’t even realise it was the sequel to ‘Life on Mars’ – now the title makes sense…)

      1. badfinger20 (Max)

        I think Life On Mars was the best show in the 2000’s hands down…the UK version of course. Ashes to Ashes is fun but John Simms is missing.

  2. Whilst others will remember this for the tv series which took its title (and its predecessor), this song will always remind me of the pub we sometimes visited on a Friday lunchtime in those days, if work was quiet, and of their stripper who ‘danced’ to it 😉

  3. This was an event. I adored and still adore this record. Bowie was pcts tard king overroving he could sell big ahead of jumping ship to EMI, and also spearheading the New Romantic movement ahead of the Blitz club acts taking over the charts. The record sound was like nothing before it, the video was state of the art special effects and featured Steve Strange before Visage and Ultravox broke big. Adam Ant, spandau and human league were waiting in the wings for the New Wave synth breakthrough and Bowie was a towering influence over them musically and they on him visually. His next big hit wasnt called Fashion for nowt!

    I love all phases of Bowie, i love space oddity, i loved Major Tom being back on top of the chart as a junkie, and i equally adored Major Tom by Peter Schilling, a crafty Kraftwerk inspired cash in, and Pet Shop Boys insisting and creating the Major Tom bits on their remix of bowies fab mid 90s hit Hallo Spaceboy. For Bowie off the boil have a listen to Tin Machine. EMI must have been peeved by then and RCA not so fussed as they still owned the bulk of his essential work 🙂

    1. Yeah, I wouldn’t say it’s off the boil… I just compare it to his earlier stuff that never made the top of the charts.

      I can well imagine it being an event song, though. That’s the benefit of living through it, rather than coming to it decades later, with years of familiarity having dulled the impact. Sigh.

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    1. I love the idea of this old man, just wanting to walk his dog, not giving a hoot as to who or what David Bowie was… In the UK, the c-word can be used almost affectionately, so it’s perhaps not as aggressive as it might sound to an American.

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