Saturday, January 16, 2016

David Bowie "Ashes To Ashes"

Even though I've already written about David Bowie this week, I couldn't not have one of his songs as my track of the week.  I was in the midst of revisiting his work in the week before he died, and since his death I have been listening to his music non-stop.  I've come away with two conclusions: that he was truly a unique genius, and that I want "Life On Mars?" played at my funeral.

"Ashes to Ashes" is an interesting song because although it was the first single from Bowie's first album of the 80s, it was the curtain closer for his "long seventies" between 1969 and 1980.  This was a truly brilliant run where he jumped from peak to peak in stunning fashion.  His first truly great song from 1969 was "Space Oddity," and so it was fitting that the character of Major Tom from that song would be brought back by Bowie at the end of that time in his career.

Of course, this is not a happy return.  "Space Oddity" came out in the midst of the first lunar landing, when the optimism of the sixties had not yet died out and human possibility seemed limitless.  In 1980, after years of economic stagnation and the long hangover from the sixties, the conservative blue meanies were back in full force in Thatcher's Britain while Reagan was poised to sweep into power.  In the song, it's revealed that Major Tom is now a junkie, "Strung out on heaven's high/ Feeling an all time low."  The hippie dream had given way to cold harsh reality in the starkest way possible.  Bowie was never much of a hippie, part of the reason that he was able to thrive in the 1970s.

During the song he seems to be looking back on his own life, "I've never done good things/ I've never done bad things/ I've never done anything out of the blue."  The invocation of "ashes to ashes" implies death, of course.  It seems to be in retrospect a straightforward announcement on Bowie's part that the shape-shifting and wild experimentation are coming to an end, that he has said what he needed to say.  His next album, Let's Dance, would not come until three years later, quite different from the 1969-1980 period, when he put out thirteen studio albums.  Let's Dance would also mark a period where Bowie was making pop music responding to the trends of the time, rather than setting them himself.

In the meantime, "Ashes to Ashes" still to this day sounds strikingly fresh.  It is layered, intricate, and edgy all at once with synthesized noises that I've never heard replicated elsewhere.  Critics have noted how influential this all was on the "New Romantic" New Wave acts like Duran Duran and Human League, who through MTV would bring together the marriage of sound and vision pioneered by Bowie into the living rooms of America.  It is a telling fact that "Ashes to Ashes" was a number one song in the UK, but didn't crack the top 100 in America.  Bowie had a towering influence on the bands coming out of England, Americans were impacted by him in a more second-hand fashion by the wave of British New Wave hitting American shores in the 80s.  By that time Bowie had figured out how to assault the American charts, and it was with "Modern Love," not "Ashes to Ashes."  For that reason, I think it's Americans my age, who went back to Bowie's 70s work after being curious about his impact on the British stuff we liked in the 80s, who have been the most saddened by the man's death.


Oblio said...

Thanks for this... 'Ashes To Ashes' was a real fave of mine, although no one else I knew seemed to understand my affinity for it, they all thought it was
New Romanticism' dreck before that whole genre even had a name. The death march in front of the bulldozer was a rather powerful image for me, steeped in symbolism for scraping away the then and now and replacing it with the soon-to-be. Really great stuff. For myself, the first song that pooped into my head the morning I'd heard David had died was 'Lady Grinning SOul', another tune that left may fans frustrated because it was so lovingly tart and beautiful, Mike Garson's manic piano playing almost classical in nature... except for the manic part.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

This song actually had to grow on me. I first heard it when I was enamored of his glam stuff, and wanted something more "rock." Nowadays I can appreciate how far ahead of its time it was. If only he had kept it up in the 80s.

Oblio said...

Yeppers to that... I must say that 'Let's Dance' was an 80's fave that resonated with my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I, because we went out dancing A LOT during those halcyon years. Plus, Stevie Ray Vaughan!

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Since I was born in '75, "Let's Dance" and "China Girl" hit the charts right at the time I was really listening to popular music. "Let's Dance" and "Cat People" are great pop songs, and I credit that to the great Nile Rodgers producing Bowie at this point. But his sound is very "now" circa 1983. People will listen to "Sound and Vision" and "Heroes" in thirty years and not think them dated. But yeah, "Let's Dance" is a great song to dance to, and better than a lot of the other pop circa 1983.