Friday, 7 September 2012

The Shrieking Of Nothing Is Killing

‘Ashes to Ashes’ may be the greatest ever record to go to number one in this country. Certainly, its arrival at the top in 1980 was a credit to the discernment and taste of the British record buying public – for a week, anyway (in contrast, it didn’t even make the Top 100 in the US). Yes, it’s pretty catchy, but it’s also pretty out there, full of weird sonic touches and disquieting lyrics.

David Bowie has said that this song, with its references to Major Tom and lyrical summation of Dave’s career to date, was his ‘wrapping up of the seventies’, a decade that he had dominated.  1980 marked the beginning of a new era for Bowie, not just a decade: he had left Berlin and was living back in the UK; his longstanding RCA contract was finishing; he was healthy and completely drug-free for the first time in over a decade, and, to his chagrin, he had discovered that, despite eight years of phenomenal success, he was virtually bankrupt. No wonder he started printing his own stamps.

The album the single came from, ‘Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’, was Bowie’s first eighties attempt at selling out, a conscious attempt to take the wilfully experimental sound of the Berlin trilogy (‘Low’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Lodger’) and to streamline it into a commercial proposition: less improvisation, less extemporisation, sharper melodies and more considered lyrics - although the record still sounds as weird as hell and like nothing else released that year.

Although it took the slick, bland ‘Let’s Dance’ to really sell Bowie as a billion dollar brand across the world, ‘Scary Monsters’ did extremely well, as well as serving as a kind of last hurrah to the frightening, experimental Bowie of legend, a blaze of incendiary guitar and theatre that effortlessly put his imitators and pretenders to his throne in place, re-establishing himself as the top dog with a flash of his old snaggle teeth.

‘Ashes To Ashes’ embodies a series of brilliant juxtapositions (a word I learned from Bowie interviews, by the way): an adult nursery rhyme; an uncommercial runaway success; a pretty tune with ugly intent; madness recreated in controlled conditions.  It also contains one of my favourite lines – ‘I’ve loved all I’ve needed to love / sordid details following’ - although almost every lyrical phrase in the song is memorable.      

I think my favourite sound on the record is the tentative, almost amateurish organ that sounds like someone’s prodding it with one trembling finger. It’s not as innovative as, say, the fluid bass, jagged guitar or sheets of synthesised strings that rise up at the coda, but it’s a very human sound in what otherwise might be a song seemingly played and sung by aliens.
For me, the keyboard part provides a clue as to how strange songs like ‘Ashes to Ashes’ get written, i.e. how a fairly standard keyboard vamp is transmuted into a component in something odd and distant and unfathomable. The special ingredient is Bowie’s genius, of course, and his talent for the oblique and unique, the dread and mental instability that lurks beneath the surface of his greatest records. ‘Ashes to Ashes’ frightened me as a boy, but in a compelling, obsessive way, like when I discovered that sticking my finger in the bedside lamp socket gave me a mild electric shock.

As a final note, a word of warning: please don’t do this song at karaoke whilst on a works do, your colleagues will just think you’re unusual.


  1. Not even a huge Bowie fan, but LOVE Ashes to Ashes. The second it kicks in, it takes you somewhere otherworldly, and the outro...amazing stuff, and very hauntingly realized in the video. The liquid-sounding keyboard part over the tautness of the rest of the band does have a very strange, psychedelic effect.

  2. Does the term 'Ashes To Ashes' have an alchemical sub-text here? Not sure, but there's a good article on Bowie's occult involvement here:

  3. still so odd after all these years. naturally held my attention as a 6 year old as it had a spaceman in it but the tune had already piqued my interest due to a series of children's books featuring a spacefaring ginger cat called Major Tom. needless to say the video set that right. enquiries as to exactly what a junkie was were stonewalled. filed under "things to understand when I'm grown-up", much like I did with When Doves Cry a few years later.

    never noticed the organ though! nicely highlighted...