Bowie Top Six #4: Ashes To Ashes, 1981

‘The end comes when the infinites arrive.’

When I nominate Ashes To Ashes as number four in my Bowie top six, I really mean Fa,Fa,Fa,Fa,Fashion, too, of course. Conceptually, Ashes To Ahes is a great song, you know, frightfully fun-2-funky and we are all well aware that Major Tom is on junk,  but Fashion brings the funk (as well as the Goon Squad). Both are singles drawn from Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)David Bowie’s last album as a ‘cult,’ albeit a ginormous, trans-Atlantic cult. As Jon Savage concluded in The Face, November 1980, ‘the mystique is still deadly strong.’

It was the moment when Bowie harvested the seeds he’d sewn as Ziggy Stardust a decade earlier, when he recruited extras for the video from the regulars at The Blitz Club, ran by a pair of Bowie fanaticsRusty Egan & Steve Strange. Their Bowie Nights at Billy’s Club have been called, ‘the birth of the London club scene‘ and now they were at the heart of a new scene, headquartered at a Blitz-themed wine bar on the fringes of Covent Garden. Bowie’s visit, to select extras for his Ashes To Ashes video, was enshrined in pop mythology as a key scene in Worried About The Boy a TV drama from 2010 about Boy George before he was famous and worked in the coat room at The Blitz.

In his autobiography, Blitzed! Steve Strange shares his memories of that evening: ‘Word soon spread like wildfire that David Bowie was there. He was probably the reason most people at the club had got into pop music in the first place. Travel back to the childhood bedroom of most Blitz Kids and you’ll find a David Bowie poster on the wall. He had changed his look and his sound so many times, there were more than enough images to go round. The alien from Low and The Man Who Fell To Earth. Aladdin Sane. Diamond Dogs. Ziggy Stardust.
“Hello Steve, David Bowie here… would you like to be in my new video? You’ll have to get your own clobber together. I’ve already got my outfit sorted, it’s a bit Joseph Grimaldi!”
He was the one person that everyone there would cite as an influence, even more important than punk. Everyone wanted to go upstairs and see him. We had to have extra security to keep people back. He said it was a great scene and asked me if I would like to appear in the video for his next single.’

Rusty Egan, who had another job as a drummer, was absent, so he didn’t get to be in the video, which was shot the very next day – meeting at 6am outside the Kensington Hilton after a night on the tiles! – and featured Steve, plus three fashion students who frequented the club: ‘This was the most important moment of my life,’ recalled Steve Strange.  ‘I rushed around and found Judith Franklin, Darla Jane Gilroy and another girl for the video. As soon as the club closed, I rushed home and sorted out my outfit.  We had quickly agreed that we should all dress as gothic, ecclesiastical priests, in black an white topped off with heads and crucifixes. The  Vatican always was a great source of inspiration.  I had a long gown on and a kind of meted beekeeper’ hat designed by Stephen Jones and was all ready to be jetted off to a glamorous location.  Barbados ? Spain ? Paris ? The coach arrived and we were told where we were going. Southend.’

The ensuing three minute film, which now looks cheap and rather nasty, was at the time the most expensive music video ever made, although The Blitz Kids who appeared in it were happy to get fifty quid each for a full day’s filming. Co-directed by David Mallet, who had shot several other videos for Bowie over which he had complete control, Bowie story-boarded Ashes To Ashes himself, actually drew it frame for frame. Mallet edited it exactly as Bowie wanted it and allowed him to say publicly (pretentiously) that it is his 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,” the dilettante rock god later told the NME.

According to this abandoned blog,  Ashes To Ashes is the second best pop video ever, but this bloke sometimes also thinks, ‘this is the best song ever made,’ which it certainly is not. Likesay, it’s not even the best track on Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). In fact, the title track is better, featuring as it does David’s last credible Anthony Newley inflection, which is far from saying it was the last time Bowie channelled Newley, but as Mark Saunders makes clear in his compilation of Bowie’s impersonations, the next time Bowie gave us his Tony Newley, darling, it was in the context of Absolute Beginners – ‘Ebsoloot Beginnahs!’ as we hardened old Bowie boys derisively sang. That was the precise moment that Bowie got away from us and completed his ultimate transformation, into The Dame.

Absolute Beginners was one of the most over-egged cinematic productions of the decade. It was directed by Julian Temple, who had collaborated with Bowie the previous year on a 20 minute ‘experimental’ video single, Jazzin’ With Blue Jean. Blue Jean was the single from Tonight, the album that came after Let’s Dance and, by common consent, the single worst Bowie album in his discography.

Absolute Beginners was a musical adaptation of Colin McInnes cult novel, the cornerstone of his London trilogy (as The Long Firm is to Jake Arnott’s). Though it may not have been quite as bad as contemporaneous opinion suggested, the pantomime analogy is not inappropriate. Saunders’ compilation also refers to the recording, made in 1985, while working with Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley on the title song for the soundtrack, that surely represents the nadir of Bowie’s career; his #1 Worst Song, The Laughing Gnome not withstanding. I mean, of course, his desecration, in cahoots with Mick Jagger, of Dancing In The Street. They did it almost live in two takes, apparently, and shot the awful video the very next day. Repent in leisure. (Still, I read that Martha Reeves loved them for it. She made more money in the two years after that came out than over the previous 20.)

Then came Live Aid, where at least David didn’t go down on one knee onstage and recite the Lord’s prayer. That came later, at the Freddie Mercury tribute in 1992, when our hero wore a pistacchio suit. Bowie is accredited with having the ingenious idea of editing footage of starving Ethopian children to a mournful song by The Cars with inappropriate lyrics about getting a lift home. If not personally responsible, he undeniably truncated his Live Aid set to make time for the tear-jerking video. Still, nothing is worse than the Dame’s lame rendering of Dancing in the Street, accompanied by the campest video ever. ‘That’s the way I shall remember him,’ said a Facebook friend, to my scornful rejoinder, ‘not much of a Bowie fan, then?’ Gorgeous George Galloway – who now co-presents an RT show, Sputnik – also indicated that performance as the way he will remember Bowie, but that’s coming from a geezer who pretended to be Rula Lenska’s pussy.

As it goes, I met Clive Langer once or twice, when I did some work in his house. When Bowie’s name came up, I scrupulously avoided the subject of street dance and reminisced about Earls Court in ’78, which was awesome, compared with the Serious Moonlight tour that visited Milton Keynes in ’82, which was just… ‘showbiz?’ suggested Clive. Indeed. Le mot juste. Once he tasted mainstream success with Let’s Dance, the mystique was gone. Still, back on the shoot for the seminal Ashes to Ashes video, down on the beach at Pett Level in Essex, Steve Strange was wondering, what it was all about?

‘The basic plot for the day involved David Bowie in a pierrot outfit, much like the one I had been wearing at Blitz, walking along the beach followed by me and the girls and then a bulldozer.  Don’t ask me what it was meant to mean, though I’m sure David and the director, David Mallett, were striving for something in particular…’ Bowie apparently once said that the bulldozer symbolised ‘oncoming violence’, but it may just have been co-opted into the production at the last minute. Owned by the local river board and used to repair the sea defences, they probably chucked the driver a tenner to follow them along the sea wall.

‘The difficulty was getting us all to move along at the correct speed,’ Steve remembered. ‘If I was too fast, I caught David up; if I was too slow, the bulldozer kept catching the robe I was wearing. There’s a famous moment in it where it looks as if I am  bending forward to bow. What I was actually doing was moving the hem of my robe to avoid getting pulled over by the bulldozer, but they decided to keep it in. It was a real learning experience about the length of time as video takes, but throughout the day I could not stop thinking that I was actually working with the man I had worshiped as a teenager. I had queued outside a record shop in Pontypool to buy his new album when I was 13 and now he wanted to work with me.’

Michael Dignum from L.A. shared on Facebook his memory of being on set with Bowie more than twenty years later, shooting the video for Miracle Goodnight, released as the third single from Black Tie White Noise in October, 1993: ‘One part of my job is to keep the talent close while we make small changes to lighting and camera positions. While we had a change that was gonna take 10-15 mins to complete, I decided to strike up a conversation to kill the time. Let face it, I was talking to my childhood hero. I asked Mr Bowie what was the biggest moment in his career? His reply was EPIC and it went like this:

David said, “Well let me tell you about it. I had quite the attitude. As a young pop star, its 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?
Me: “Yes I do. (Thinking, ‘boy, if only he knew!’)
Bowie: “So, we’re on the beach, shooting this scene with a giant bulldozer. The camera was on a very long lens. (Camera is along way away, but the artist fills the frame). In this video, I am 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 walks right between me and the camera.
Me: I laugh (seeing this video in my head and thinking what that must of been like on the set).
Bowie: “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, Mr, 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.”
Bowie said, “That was a huge moment for me. It put me back in my place and made me realise, yes I am just a cunt in a clown suit.
I think about that old guy all the time.”

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