Behind The Song: David Bowie, “Ashes To Ashes”

Everybody knows that David Bowie recorded a famous Christmas duet with Bing Crosby. But did you also know that Crosby’s White Christmas co-star Danny Kaye had an indirect hand in one of The Thin White Duke’s most unforgettable hits?

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It seems that Bowie’s 1980 dark masterpiece “Ashes To Ashes” took some inspiration from Kaye’s rendition of the lullaby “Inchworm.” In an interview with Performing Songwriter in 2003, he explained: “Something like ‘Ashes to Ashes’ wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t have been for ‘Inchworm,’” he said. “There’s a child’s nursery rhyme element in it, and there’s something so sad and mournful and poignant about it. It kept bringing me back to the feelings of those pure thoughts of sadness that you have as a child, and how they’re so identifiable even when you’re an adult.”

Maybe it’s hard to hear the innocence of “Inchworm” within the simmering synthetic tension of the “Ashes To Ashes” arrangement. The elastic funk rhythm conjured by bassist George Davis and drummer Dennis Davis is countered by Roy Bittan, who is clearly a far cry from E Street as he plays icy keyboard lines. Synthesizers overrun everything by song’s end as a haunted Bowie chants his own ominous version of a nursery rhyme: “My mother said, ‘To get things done/ You’d better not mess with Major Tom.'”

The fact that Bowie reintroduces his astronaut character Major Tom makes this a semi-sequel to his breakthrough hit “Space Oddity”; the first lines admit as much: “Do you remember a guy that’s been/ In such an early song.” But Bowie has always used his alter egos both to toy with the expectations of his audience and to explore whatever his own obsessions may be at the time.

“Ashes To Ashes” begins with Ground Control, who famously lost contact with Major Tom in “Space Oddity,” receiving a message from him. Their reaction is less than enthusiastic (“Oh no, don’t say it’s true”) and the message is quizzical: “I’ve loved all I’ve needed love/ Sordid details following.” Perhaps it was Bowie’s way of saying that the public didn’t want to see him normal and sober, preferring the “sordid details” of his past to some sort of contentment and happiness.

Bald and broke, Major Tom wishes to return to Earth’s surly bonds, but his adopted planet’s addictive hold is stronger: “Time and again I tell myself/ I’ll stay clean tonight/ But the little green wheels are following me.” Toward the end of the narrative, our hero shouts out his self-defense, and you can hear a bit of that childlike sadness at the edges of Bowie’s voice: “I’ve never done good things/ I’ve never done bad things/ I never did anything out of the blue.”

But his pleas are met with the indifference of the public, who have likely moved on to their next martyr: “Ashes to ashes, funk to funky/ We know Major Tom’s a junkie/ Strung out in heaven’s high/ Hitting an all-time low.” It’s amazing to think that “Ashes To Ashes”, featured on 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Freaks), became a #1 UK hit, considering the unsentimental subject matter and off-kilter music. The lesson here is that when you’re dealing with an artist like David Bowie, anything is possible, even the conjuring of a metaphor for self-destruction and isolation out of a children’s song.

This article was originally published in April 2015. 

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