Released: 8 August 1980
Carlos Alomar, Chuck Hammer: guitar
George Murray: bass guitar
Roy Bittan: piano
Dennis Davis: drums, percussion
Andy Clark: synthesizer
Tony Visconti: percussion
David Bowie’s second UK number one single, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ revived the character of Major Tom from ‘Space Oddity’. The first single released from the album Scary Monsters… And Super Creeps, it was recorded under the working title ‘People Are Turning To Gold’.
The song was released in the summer of 1980. In reintroducing Major Tom after 11 years, Bowie simultaneously bookended the 1970s, his most creatively and commercially successful decade, and wiped the slate clean for a new era of music.
The sub-text of ‘Ashes To Ashes’ is quite obviously the nursery rhyme appeal of it and for me it’s a story of corruption. It’s also about as subversive as one can get in popular music terms inasmuch as I would love to get a record played by the BBC containing the word “junkie”. I thought that was quite successful (grins). There’s not much you can do these days; we’re all such a blasé, world weary lot (laughs).
But if one can make anything more serious out of it all other than that it’s The Further Stories Of, it’s that when I originally wrote about Major Tom I was a very pragmatic and self-opinionated lad that thought I 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 and 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 realisation 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.
I guess it’s that simple. I really don’t think there’s anything more insidiously perverse about the thing at all. It really is an ode to childhood, if you like, a popular nursery rhyme. It’s about space men becoming junkies (laughs).
NME, 13 September 1980
When I was thinking of how I was going to place Major Tom in this hence, ten years later on, what would be the complete disillusion with the great dream that was being propounded when they shot him into space ten years ago.
And I got such wonderful ideas. This great technology was capable of putting him up there; when he did get up there, he wasn’t quite sure why he’d been put there. And we left him there but now we come to him ten years later and we find that the whole thing has soured, because there was no reason for putting him up there.
It was an ego, a technological ego which got him up there, for no specific reason, and just added more disaster, because it was a pot-pourri of technical ideas.
So the most disastrous thing I could think of is that he finds solace only in some kind of heroin type drug, actually being that the cosmic space itself was feeding him with an addiction. And he wants now to return to the womb from whence he came.
It’s also a nursery rhyme. It’s very much a 1980s nursery rhyme, and I think 1980s nursery rhymes will have a lot to do with the 1880s, 1890s nursery rhymes which were all rather horrid, and had little boys with their ears being cut off and stuff like that. Well I think that we’re getting round to that again. I think the idea of the Sesame Street nice nursery rhyme is possibly outdated, unfortunately.
The David Bowie Interview promo album
The nursery rhyme quality likely stemmed from ‘The Inch Worm’, written by Frank Loesser and originally performed by Danny Kaye in the 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen. The song was a key influence on Bowie during childhood.
I was seven or eight when that came out. The chords were some of the first I learned on a guitar. They’re remarkable chords, very melancholic. ‘Ashes To Ashes’ is influenced by that. It’s childlike and melancholic in that children’s story way.
Q magazine, October 2003