On ‘Ashes To Ashes’, David said he wanted to be a clown on a beach with a bonfire and wanted to include all the New Romantics, all these characters from the Blitz Club. I said great, but I can improve on that, because I’d recently done something where I found a process which made the sky turn black and it made the whole thing look like some hallucinogenic dream. Great, says David, we’ll do that. The norm for a video in those days was a day, but ‘Ashes To Ashes’ broke the record at three. There was a beach, there was a studio, there was a building site, you know, on and on. It was epic.
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones
Bowie was heavily involved in the ‘Ashes To Ashes’ shoot, creating the storyboard and directing the edit.
NME: The ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video is very striking. Did David Mallet direct that?
That’s my first direction. Well, no, I’ll cross with him there. The other three that were done for Lodger were co-directions inasmuch as I gave David complete control over what I wanted put in there. But this one I storyboarded myself, actually drew it frame for frame. He edited it exactly as I wanted it and has allowed me to say (adopts Edward Heath voice) publicly that it is my first direction. I’ve always wanted to direct and this is a great chance to start – to get some money from a record company and then go away and sort of play with it.
NME: Those recurring images of the astronaut they’re very reminiscent of HR Giger’s sets for Ridley Scott’s Alien film.
Yes they are, and intentionally so. It was supposed to be the archetypal 1980s ideal of the futuristic colony that has been founded by the earthling, of what he looks like – and in that particular sequence the ideas was for the earthling to be pumping out himself and to be having pumped into him something organic. So there was a very strong Giger influence there: the organic meets hi-tech.
There’re an awful lot of cliched things in the video but I think I put them together in such a way that the whole thing isn’t cliched – at least inasmuch as the general drive of the sensibility that comes over is some feeling of nostalgia for a future. I’ve always been hung up on that; it creeps into everything I do, however far away I try to get from it. It does recur and it’s something I have to admit to and I can’t … and that’s obviously part of what I’m all about as an artist (this said with uncharacteristic assertion).
Now I tend to go with it rather then escape from it because it’s obviously an area that, even if I refuse to face it, does interest me. The idea of having seen the future, of somewhere we’ve already been keeps coming back to me.
NME, 13 September 1980
His Pierrot costume was designed by Natasha Kornilof, with whom Bowie had collaborated occasionally since the 1969 stage production Pierrot In Turquoise. His makeup was by Richard Sharah, who had worked on the previous month’s Scary Monsters cover shoot.
The Pierrot figure and the old woman were both references to the 1969 album David Bowie. The back cover of the album featured a painting by Bowie’s former schoolfriend George Underwood, titled ‘The Depth of the Circle’. Bowie confirmed the connection during a BowieNet exchange with a fan.
Ulysse99: Hello Mister Jones, David Did the inspiration for the ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video come from the artwork on the album ‘David Bowie’ (latter released as ‘Space Oddity’), as the pierrot and the old lady in the bottom left hand corner look rather familiar.
David Bowie: Absolutely correct. The original artwork was drawn by my old friend, George Underwood and already I had adopted the inner persona of clown as being part of the great lexicon of storytellers.
David Bowie: It was always very hard to conceive of a clown having a mother. I had empathy with this in those days.
David Bowie: But that imagery has been reoccuring [sic] all my life.
BowieNet live chat, 27 April 1999
David Mallet used the then-new Paintbox graphics workstation to change the colour palettes in the video, allowing him to make the sky black and the ocean pink. Although now dated, the effects were groundbreaking in 1980, and became widely imitated.
Bowie recruited his co-stars following a visit to the Blitz Club, a fashionable night held on Tuesdays in London’s Covent Garden. The so-called Blitz Kids were among the founders of the New Romantic movement, which was heavily influenced by Bowie. Appearing in the video was Visage frontman Steve Strange, the band’s costume designer Judith Frankland, Elise Brazier, and Darla Jane Gilroy.
I was on the door at the club and as usual we were up to full capacity when I saw a black stretch limo go round the corner three times. At the time we had already been given two warnings from the council over fire regulations and the number of people we had in the club…
This time the limo pulls up and this really stroppy French woman called Coco informed me, ‘I’ve got somebody very important in the back of that black limousine’. Because she was so stroppy I gave her quite an arrogant answer. But when she said it was David Bowie I went into meltdown.
I thought oh my God what do I do now. If the kids queuing to get in the club even know he’s in that limo outside, he’ll be mobbed, so I went into overdrive thinking how the hell are we going to get him into the building without causing too much of a fracas.
I called security and we opened up the back level of the club which was the fire exit and got him upstairs and put him into what we thought was a quiet area, away from prying eyes. However, word spread from the queue and we had to get security downstairs to stop people coming upstairs.
Everybody wanted to be near him. It got to one point where his assistant Coco came up to me and says, ‘David wants you on his table’. I wasn’t being arrogant but I said excuse me I have my job to do. I take my job very seriously. This is not a goldfish bowl, the kids that are in this club they’re here because they feel at home. My shift doesn’t finish until 1.30am.
When I finally went up to him he said to me, ‘I’ve been watching you and love what you’ve been doing and the sound that you’re creating musically. I love the way you evolved this whole (New Romantic) movement. You’re a very creative group of people and I’d like you to be in my next video.’ He said, ‘I’d like you to style and choose the extras for my video’. I thought to myself oh my god this couldn’t get any better, this is amazing.
Appearing alongside Bowie and Strange were three other Blitz Kids: Visage’s costume designer Judith Frankland, Elise Brazier, and Darla Jane Gilroy.
The four of us were told to meet outside the Hilton Hotel in London and we were all thinking oh my god we’re got to be going somewhere fabulous, it’s got to be somewhere like Barbados, somewhere hot and tropical.
So we get to the hotel about 6.30am in the morning, then we see this coach outside and we think its got to be a coach taking us to the airport. Then we’re told we’re going to Southend!
The one glamorous thing about it was David did close off the whole beach, but to be honest there weren’t that many people on the beach as it was a freezing cold day. But it was such a joy and a pleasure to work with him.
After that he became a friend. In those days you had each other’s home phone numbers, there was no changing your mobile phone like there is now. If you didn’t move around too much you could stay in touch and we did. He came to my other clubs such as The Camden Palace. When I revived the Café De Paris in central London he came there a couple of times as well.
The video was filmed at Pett Level in East Sussex, midway between Hastings and Rye.
During the shoot, Strange’s long robe repeatedly became caught in the bulldozer on the beach. To release it he raised then lowered his arm to the ground in a bowing gesture. Ever magpie-like, Bowie adopted the move in the videos for ‘Fashion’, ‘Loving The Alien’, and ‘Dancing In The Street’.
According to Michael Dignum, a member of staff on the video shoot for ‘Miracle Goodnight’ in 1993, Bowie recalled a humbling experience while filming ‘Ashes To Ashes’. The tale was shared by Dignum online shortly after Bowie’s death.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype. It changes you. So I was on the set of the music video ‘Ashes To Ashes’, do you know the one? So we’re on the beach shooting this scene with a giant bulldozer. The camera was on a very long lens. In this video I’m dressed from head to toe in a clown suit. Why not? I hear playback and the music starts.
So off I go, I start singing and walking, but as soon as I do this old geezer with an old dog walk right between me and the camera.
Well, knowing this is gonna take a while I walked past the old guy and sat next to camera in my full costume waiting for him to pass. As he is walking by camera the director said, Excuse me mister, do you know who this is? The old guy looks at me from bottom to top and looks back to the director and said…
‘Of course I do! It’s some cunt in a clown suit.’
That was a huge moment for me, It put me back in my place and made me realise, yes, I’m just a cunt in a clown suit. I think about that old guy all the time.