#408: Ashes To Ashes by David Bowie
David Robert Jones was born in 1947 in Brixton, a suburb in the southern part of London, UK. From an early age he demonstrated talent as a singer and especially through dance and movement. When he was nine years old his father brought home some 45’s by Elvis Presley, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, Fats Domino and others. When David Jones heard Little Richard sing “Tutti Frutti” he later said in an interview that he “heard God.” Growing up, David learned to play the recorder, ukulele, piano and baritone saxophone. In 1962, at the age of 15 he formed a band named the Konrads. In 1964 he formed a band named David Jones and the King Bees. They appeared on the variety show Ready Steady Go! to sing their debut single, “Liza Jane”. Jones briefly moved on to join the Mannish Boys before being the front man for Davy Jones and The Lower Third. They released a single in 1965 titled “You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving”. Due to the growing popularity of another English recording artist named Davy Jones (who went on to become lead singer for The Monkees), David Robert Jones decided to change his professional name to David Bowie. He chose his surname after a 19th Century American pioneer named James Bowie who invented the Bowie knife.
In 1966 the first single released credited to David Bowie was with his backing band, The Buzz. However, Bowie continued to be met with a string of commercial failures with each single release and his debut album in 1967. He enrolled in the London Dance Center in the fall of 1967. Bowie added mime to his repertoire and was an opening mime act for a tour with Tyrannosaurus Rex in 1968. David Bowie also appeared in a TV commercial for Lyons Maid ice cream. But it was in 1969 with the release of “Space Oddity”, that David Bowie had his first commercial success as a recording star. The single climbed to #5 on the UK singles chart. It was a commercial failure in North America until it was re-issued in 1973 and became a Top 20 hit nationally in the USA and Canada, and peaking at #4 in Vancouver.
In 1972 Bowie launched a ground-breaking tour billed as the Ziggy Stardust Tour with the Spiders from Mars. The tour promoted his album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Aladdin Sane. Between January 1972 and June 1973, David Bowie and his band performed at 191 concerts across the UK, North America and Japan. During this time Bowie had a number of Top Ten hits in the UK including “Starman”, “Suffragette City”, “The Jean Genie”, “Drive-in Saturday Night”, “Life On Mars”, “Laughing Gnome”, “Sorrow”, “Rebel Rebel” and “Knock On Wood”. While some of these had local radio market chart success in Canada ~ for example, “Rebel Rebel” climbed to #8 in Ottawa. But most were only known as tracks from albums played on FM stations in Canada (and the USA).
But in 1975 David Bowie’s Young Americans album produced a minor hit with the title track and a number one hit in the USA with “Fame”. He made the Top Ten again that year with “Golden Years” as his debut single release from Station to Station. But after his chart-breaking year in the USA in 1975, Bowie again struggled to attain chart success across the Atlantic. In the UK he had several Top Ten singles in the late ’70’s: “Sound And Vision” in 1977 and “Boys Keep Swinging” in 1979. But these best chart runs in the UK did no better than #69 on the Billboard Hot 100. And Low, Heroes and Lodger each failed to crack the Top Ten on the Billboard album chart.
In 1980 “Ashes To Ashes” became his second #1 single in the UK. The song was given airplay in Vancouver.
“Ashes To Ashes” was the debut single from David Bowie’s 14th studio album, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Bowie told New Music Express in a 1980 interview, an “ode to childhood, if you like, a popular nursery rhyme… about spacemen become junkies…. very much a 1980s nursery rhyme. I think 1980s nursery rhymes will have a lot to do with the 1880s/1890s nursery rhymes which are all rather horrid and had little boys with their ears being cut off and stuff like that.” Bowie cites his lyrics, “I’ve never done good things, I’ve never done bad things, I never did anything out of the blue,” as his own sense of “a continuing, returning sense of inadequacy over what I’ve done.” Bowie wrote “Ashes To Ashes” as a sequel to “Space Oddity”, his first #1 hit single in the UK. Bowie added in his 1980 interview “when I originally wrote about Major Tom I was a very pragmatic and self-opinionated lad that thought he knew all about the great American dream and where it started and where it should stop. Here we had the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space, but once he gets there he’s not quite sure why he’s there. And that’s where I left him. Now we’ve found out that he’s under some kind of realization that the whole process that got him up there had decayed, was born out of decay; it has decayed him and he’s in the process of decaying. But he wishes to return to the nice round womb, the earth, from whence he started.” Bowie added “I was wrapping up the seventies really for myself, and that seemed a good enough epitaph for it – that we’ve lost him, he’s out there somewhere, we’ll leave him be.”
In North America RCA released a 12 inch promo disc containing both “Space Oddity” and “Ashes To Ashes”. They gave the promo disc the title “The Continuing Story Of Major Tom”. The final line in the song, “My mother said, to get things done, you’d better not mess with Major Tom,” was a riff on a British skipping nursery rhyme song: “My mother said/ that I never should/play with the gypsies in the wood.” The nursery rhyme had previously been popularly referenced in the 1961 London stage play/musical Stop The World I Want To Get Off with Anthony Newley. While not in the lyrics to “Ashes To Ashes”, the song’s video contains a further riff on the nursery rhyme: “I went to see, no ship to get across/Sally tell my mother I shall never come back.” When Bowie drafted the song he left out these opening lines “And I hear the Clash and I don’t react/All this music’s so strange… and I can’t clean up my act.”
“Ashes To Ashes” climbed to #2 in Ottawa, #5 in Vancouver (BC) and Montreal, and #8 in Toronto. But in the USA it missed the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #101.
In 1981 Bowie had a #1 single in the UK, featuring Queen. The song also reached #1 in Vancouver. The following year Bowie had a #1 hit in Sweden and Norway with “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”. But it was his 1983 album release of Let’s Dance which sent him to the top of the album and singles charts. His singles “Let’s Dance”, “China Girl” and “Modern Love” made the top ten internationally, the first of these topping the charts in over a dozen countries. To support the album, Bowie performed in 96 concerts across 15 countries for his Serious Moonlight Tour.
During the rest of the ’80’s, David Bowie had three notable international hits: “Blue Jean”, “Dancing In The Street” with Mick Jagger, and “Absolute Beginners”. In 1987 Bowie had another international tour. And in 1990 his Sound + Vision Tour exceeded his personal best with 108 concerts across 27 countries. In 1997 Bowie was a featured artist in the #1 hit “Perfect Day”, for the fundraising single for Children In Need. Bowie made the Top Ten internationally for the last time in 2013 with “Where Are We Now?”, breaking into the Top Ten in 13 countries.
In 2016 David Bowie died on January 8. He was 69 years old. His twenty-fifth and final studio album, Blackstar, was released to critical acclaim. The album climbed to #1 in 23 countries.
June 12, 2020
“About David Bowie,” David Bowie.com.
Nicholas Pegg, The Complete David Bowie, (Titan, 2011) 30.
Sophie Heawood, “David Bowie has Gone from New to Old – and What a Beautiful thing it Is,” Independent, January 8, 2013.
Mick Brown, “David Bowie interview from 1996: ‘I Have Done Just about Everything that it’s Possible to Do’,” Telegraph, January 10, 2017.
“Rolling Back: David Bowie’s infamous 1976 interview with Cameron Crowe,” Rolling Stone, Steve Pafford.com, January 2018.
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