Let’s do a video today, “Ashes to Ashes” by David Bowie. There is some conjecture as to the true meaning of the song – whether it’s really about Major Tom in space, or drug problems here on earth, perhaps Bowie’s own. I’ll let others hash out all that.
Don’t ask me why he’s dressed as a clown. I think it was just a phase (and goes with the album cover for Scary Monsters – see the bottom of this post).
OK, here’s what I really like about this song. “Space Oddity” certainly doesn’t shy away from pathos and alienation, but for revisiting his first big hit, Bowie doesn’t just try to cash in on it. “Ashes to Ashes” has such interesting sounds (futuristic, spacy… and a particularly woozy guitar line in places) and somehow succeeds in grooving to this ambivalent-to-alienated/depressed funk. But there are a couple things in particular which really sell this song for me.
First, at the climax of the chorus, “Strung out in heaven’s high, Hitting an all-time low” the words “all-time low” are not belted out. Instead they are delivered with some reservation, perhaps with a bit of “it’s a shame” in his voice. And rather than having some musical climax at the end of the chorus, those words are accompanied by a return to the woozy funk from the beginning of the song.
Next, in the section where he sings, “I never done good things, I never done bad things…” he sings (speaks, really) a background vocal which repeats the words in a low and echoed voice. What kills me is that the last “word” is woh-o-oh, and even that little bit of decoration is repeated by the low voice. I love that! I hope after recording that, they all had a good laugh. For all the seriousness in the song, that detail is hilarious.
Finally, here we have David Bowie, one of the hippest stars in the world, who had just spent several years in bohemian Berlin, which was preceded by his glam phase, singing a moody and heavy song to woozy funk. Perfect time to wrap things up with a nursery rhyme, don’t you think? “My mother said to get things done / You’d better not mess with Major Tom.” I read that he got that idea from a Danny Kaye song, “Inchworm,” from the movie Hans Christian Anderson, but still rock and roll stars can pull that off convincingly? If you can think of some other nursery rhymes in rock, please tell me about them in the comments!