We All Know Major Tom’s a Junkie

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The song “Ashes to Ashes” is generally regarded as the sequel to David Bowie’s first hit song “Space Oddity,” but this time instead of a hippie astronaut who casually slips the bonds of a crass and material world to journey beyond the stars, the song describes Major Tom as a “junkie, strung out in heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low.”

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Releases on August 8th, 1980, the song hit No. 4 in the UK Singles Chart in its first week of release, rising to No. 1 a week later, making it Bowie’s fastest-selling single to that point in time. It was issued in three different sleeves, the first 100,000 copies including one of four sets of stamps, all featuring Bowie in the Pierrot outfit he wore in the video. “Ashes to Ashes” was the first cut from the Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) album, also a No. 1 hit.

As well as its musical qualities, it is noted for its innovative video, directed by Bowie and David Mallet, which became one of the most iconic of the 1980s. With production costing £250,000 ($500,000), it was at the time the most expensive music video ever made and remains one of the most expensive of all time. It incorporated scenes both in solarized color and in stark black-and-white and was filmed in multiple locations. The video featured Bowie in the gaudy Pierrot costume that became the dominant visual representation of his Scary Monsters phase. Also appearing were Steve Strange and other members of the London Blitz scene, including Judith Frankland who had designed clothes for Strange’s Visage videos and Darla Jane Gilroy, forerunners of (later participants in) the New Romantic movement that was heavily influenced by Bowie’s music and image. The complexity and high production cost of “Ashes to Ashes” makes it one of the most significant in the evolution of the music video.

The lyric that portrays Major Tom as a “junkie, strung out in heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low” is a play on the title of Bowie’s 1977 album Low, which charted his withdrawal inwards following his drug excesses in America a short time before, another reversal of Major Tom’s original withdrawal “outwards” or towards space.

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The song’s original title was “People Are Turning to Gold,” and in a 1980 interview, Bowie described the song as a “nursery rhyme”: “It’s very much a 1980s nursery rhyme. I think 1980s nursery rhymes will have a lot to do with the 1880s/1890s nursery rhymes which are all rather horrid and had little boys with their ears being cut off and stuff like that”. Years later, Bowie said that with “Ashes to Ashes” he was “wrapping up the seventies really” for himself, which “seemed a good enough epitaph for it.”

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Bowie described the shot of himself and the Blitz Kids marching towards the camera in front of a bulldozer as symbolizing “oncoming violence.” Although it appears that two of the Blitz Kids bow at intervals, they were actually trying to pull their gowns away from the bulldozer in an effort to avoid them getting caught. Scenes of the singer in a space suit—which suggested a hospital life-support system—and others showing him locked in what appeared to be a padded room, made reference to both Major Tom and to Bowie’s new, rueful interpretation of him. Contrary to popular belief, the elderly woman lecturing Bowie at the end of the clip was not his real mother.

Listen to more Outer Space Music HERE and see what happens when you get stuck between rock and a dork place.


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