Regardless of how era defining (which it is) and achingly 'eighties' the video to this track remains (with Blitz Kids 'faces' of Steve Strange and pals tarted up like dog's dinners and Bowie himself no shrinking violet in a pierrot outfit), it's quite startling twenty eight years hence to appreciate just how un-eighties 'Ashes To Ashes' itself sounds. In fact, it barely sounds earthbound at all; as a song it could be broadcasting from a radio on whatever planet Major Tom ended up on, not least because 'Ashes To Ashes' is a sequel of sorts to Bowie's own 1975 number one 'Space Oddity'. This time round though, the 'space' metaphor of a 2001 sensory drug rush, soundtracked by the warm strings and oozing basslines of the former track is replaced by the psychotic ramblings of a burned out junkie "strung out in heaven's high, hitting an all-time low", surrounded by a vacuum packed mental isolation.
Produced by Bowie himself and former collaborator Tony Visconti, it's clear from the get go that somebody had been paying close attention to what Brian Eno had been up to on the previous three Bowie albums. Striking too how, in form, 'Ashes To Ashes' evolved from the same petri dish that Eno and Talking Heads' would produce a year later (on 'Remain In Light') and the family resemblance between 'Ashes' and the wide eyed paranoia of 'Once In A Lifetime'. Incestuous in tone maybe, but in structure it's nowhere close; in stark contrast to the solid foundation of African polyrhythms that underpin Talking Heads' work of this period, 'Ashes' barely has a containing structure to support it. Rather, it sounds like a roomful of computers were plugged in left to generate a series of random pings and squelches to infinity, and the moment they chimed in unison and produced something resembling a tune for a few seconds it was recorded and looped for Bowie to sing over.
Though just as it isn't exactly music, Bowie isn't always exactly singing. At times, he distorts his voice to reach for highs and lows he has no chance of hitting, and at other times he's just plain shouting (either at us the listener or to himself:"I've never done good things, I've never done bad things, I never did anything out of the blue"). And if it isn't exactly singing, then the lyrics aren't exactly lyrics either; Bowie had long since dabbled with Burroughs' cut-up technique that doesn't readily lend itself to creating a strong narrative, but the random confusion of tortured imagery that haunts the song is too consistent; it shows none of the cracks of light you'd expect from a truly random ordering of words, suggesting that the source material did not come from anywhere that was good. Major Tom was clearly not in a happy place in 1980. For many (and I'll include myself here), 'Ashes To Ashes' was Bowie's last credible throw of the creative dice before self aware implosion saw him trying to get to grips with the current pack instead of leading it. Though it seemed to bode well for a decade as interesting as his previous had been, the horrors that were to come showed that it wasn't just Major Tom who could drift into very bad places.