In the studio

The backing track for ‘Ashes To Ashes’ was recorded during the Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) sessions at New York’s Power Station studio in February 1980.

It really was starting to shape up as a kind of Sgt Pepper with each track developing its own persona. Initially they were all wordless songs, with the exception of ‘It’s No Game’. For weeks one song had the working title of ‘People Are Turning To Gold’ until David wrote the lyric for ‘Ashes To Ashes’ over the backing track.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy

The song’s syncopated rhythm caused uncharacteristic problems for David Bowie’s long-term drummer Dennis Davis.

I’m sure Dennis Davis won’t mind me saying this, but when we did ‘Ashes To Ashes’, that beat was an old ska beat, but Dennis had an incredibly hard time with it, trying to play it and turn the beat backwards, and in fact we worked through the session and it wasn’t turning out at all well, so I did it on a chair and a cardboard box and he took it home with him and learnt it for the next day. He really found it a problem. I’ve found that with American drummers, more so than with bass players.
David Bowie
NME, 29 September 1984

Bowie’s core band was augmented in the studio with some key guest performers: synth player Andy Clark, guitarist Chuck Hammer, and pianist Roy Bittan, who was recording with the E Street Band in the next studio.

Since we buddied up with the E Street Band we asked keyboardist Roy Bittan to play an idea of David’s on the studio’s stereo Fender Rhodes electronic piano. The intro and interlude chord changes of ‘People Are Turning To Gold’ (‘Ashes To Ashes’) is based on three bars of three chords, cycled five times. David’s idea was to play a repeating four-bar melody over it played on piano. It was a mind bender; your brain tells you this isn’t supposed to work. Music is mathematics and David was often using odd bar cycles in his songs. To him this was familiar ground.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) book

Bowie wanted to use a Wurlitzer stereo electric piano. A compromise was made to hire a Fender Rhodes, but upon its arrival it was discovered that only one of the stereo channels was working. Due to the limited time available, it was decided that Bitten would play a grand piano, which would be put through an effects unit to create a brand new sound – the distinctive melody heard in the song’s introduction and chorus.

The stage was set and Roy Bittan was ready to go but we then found that the Fender Rhodes had one channel broken. We were relying on a rapid left and right panning for a cool sound. As we worked the part out on a grand piano, I had a farfetched idea to make the grand sound like a Rhodes using the Eventide Instant Flanger. My tweaking did not emulate the Rhodes sound, but it created an entirely new sound instead. Yes, that intro is played on a conventional grand piano.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) book

Guitarist Chuck Hammer had previously played with Lou Reed. Bowie saw them perform together in London in 1979, and Hammer was brought in to the Scary Monsters sessions.

Hammer played on ‘Ashes To Ashes’ and ‘Teenage Wildlife’, using a Roland GR-300 guitar synthesizer put through an Eventide Harmonizer and multiple analogue tape delays. On ‘Ashes To Ashes’, his guitar sound emulated a choir as Bowie sings “I never done good things/I never done bad things…”

Serendipity came in the form of Chuck Hammer. When David and I heard he had a guitar synthesizer, that alone opened the door for us to see and hear this new instrument. Hammer didn’t disappoint. He stunned us with an orchestral string patch for People Are Turning To Gold. In those times it was unreal to watch a man strum a guitar and hear a thick orchestral string chord. It was a stunning sound but it needed something else. It was too in-your-face, strings with no reverb. We were told that the four-storey stairwell had a great reverb so we put Hammer’s amp in the stairwell plus a microphone one floor below and another two floors below. That natural reverb worked for us (shades of Hansa’s Big Hall). We layered the guitar/synth/strings twice. Lush!
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) book

Bowie’s vocals were recorded at Visconti’s Good Earth Studios in London, in April 1980.

After two and a half weeks of backing tracks and about a week of overdubs, we had wonderful tracks but only ‘It’s No Game’ as a finished song with a real title. David asked if I wouldn’t mind waiting a couple of months to give him time to write lyrics. We made tentative plans to reconvene in June, in London. David was a man of his word. He actually wrote songs in the interim, real songs! When I heard him sing the lyrics to ‘Ashes To Ashes’ I got goose bumps. It was the character of Major Tom from ‘Space Oddity’ brought up to the present.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy

Also performing at Good Earth was Andy Clark, who had been recommended to Visconti by drummer Andy Duncan. Clark used a Mini Moog and Yamaha CS-80 on four songs including ‘Ashes To Ashes’ and ‘Fashion’.

Andy Clark was a session keyboard player I used on many projects in London. He had some great keyboards, the very latest (now vintage); he was both an excellent sound designer and player. I knew he would be a perfect fit for the outro of ‘Ashes To Ashes’, where he created deep growls and an Andalusian trumpet motif. Our reference for him was what we had done on the long ending of the re-recorded single of ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) book

Visconti also added some percussion during the London sessions.

I played the fast acoustic guitars on ‘It’s No Game’ and ‘Scary Monsters’, plus the sparse Japanese inspired percussion on Ashes To Ashes.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) book