Aug 27, 2012

Monday Music Duel #10: Ashes to Ashes

Thanks to all who voted in last week's dreamy showdown: it seems high radio rotation has destroyed Fleetwood Mac for many; while Van Halen keeps flying high with Dreams.

Onto this week's battle, and it's another epic. Make sure to leave your vote in the comments, as that's how the winner of each week's Monday Music Duel is determined!

Ashes to Ashes by David Bowie

Poor Major Tom. Shot up in space in 1969's breakthrough hit Space Oddity, his journey beyond the stars seems to end in despair in 1980's Ashes to Ashes. But what discordantly entrancing despair it is.

After a decade spent in decadent glam rock territory, with a length side trip to cocaine city, Bowie took a lot of the lessons learned in some of his more experimental works and adapted them for bigger commercial success. The result was the Space Monsters (and Super Creeps) album, and it's smash hit first single. Ashes to Ashes is a synth masterpiece, a key foreteller of the emerging New Romantic movement, and bloody catchy to boot. It's key riff is instantly recognisable; it's message from the Action Man "I'm happy, hope you're happy too" sung in a dramatically deep-voiced fashion by many people over countless jugs of beer.

Regarding its central character, the once-hopeful spaceman of the 60s has gone, replaced by a needy junkie, "strung out in heaven's high, hitting an all-time low". I'll admit I'm not sure what "pictures of Jap girls in synthesis" really means, but there's no mistaking lyrics like "Time and again I tell myself/ I'll stay clean tonight/ But the little green wheels are following me/ Oh no, not again" are pretty clear about the dire situation the astronaut has gotten into.

My favourite part is the heavily-reverbed final bridge: "My mother said, to get things done, you'd better not mess with Major Tom". I once heard that "Major Tom" was a euphemism for "a shitload of drugs", and hell, that's quite possibly the case.  But I think it has a secondary and character-based meaning - to continue his rock music journey, Bowie has to move beyond the trappings of what Major Tom and Space Oddity brought him. Drugs is surely part of that; but so is fame, and wealth, and his changing musical styles and personalities. The message is to reclaim that moral ambiguity ("I've never done good things/I've never done bad things") that those too will pass, like ashes returning to ashes.

The film clip was the most expensive ever made at the time of its release, and is still a little bit freaking terrifying. That Pierrot clown costume is the stuff of nightmares. It's also strangely prescient, with Bowie seguing to clips of himself in a padded room and as Major Tom in some sort of pod through a vaguely iPad-esque tablet screen. If there's one thing you can say about Bowie, it's that he was always ahead of the pack.

Ashes to Ashes by Faith No More

I'm going to admit having a very cursory mid-90s knowledge of Faith No More, when their biggest radio hit was a cover of The Commodores' hit Easy. I didn't even realise they were a heavy metal outfit until I read an article in Smash Hits (or TV Hits or Smash TV or Music for Daggy Teenagers or whatever crap-tastic publication I used to read) about how band members could often be seen urinating in their shoes at concerts. That was a world away from the Spice Girls, my friends. I don't recall Posh or Ginger cracking a number one into their Jimmy Choos during a rousing rendition of Stop.

Anyway, it turns out by 1997's Album of the Year (in fact their last studio album before breaking up), they'd become radio-friendly enough to have Ashes to Ashes firmly implant itself in my ear as what "heavy metal". I loved the rampaging guitar riff, and the contrast between the slow and steady verses with the ramped-up, high voltage  It showed me, along with Sound Garden's Black Hole Sun, that "heavy metal" could still be musical, not just pounding drums and screeching voices.

Speaking of voices, doesn't Mike Patton have an impressive set of pipes? His sound is a rich, deep, throaty thing, like a mudcake with a microphone. But he can belt it out with the best of them as well; "Smiling with the mouth of the ocean/And I'll wave for you with the arms of the mountain" seems like a love ballad in his hands, more than the slightly stalky tone the lyrics alone imply ("Give it all to you, then I'll be closer").

The song actually doesn't mention the phrase "Ashes to Ashes" at all, so if anybody knows why that is the title, please fill me in. I'm always interested when that happens. Ditto for Bizarre Love Triangle, while I'm thinking about it.

The video clip features the band in smart suits complete with natty lapel flowers, playing their instruments in a series of dingy rooms in what appears to be a concert hall. It seems like they're a wedding band; but then as the chorus swells there appears to be a maelstrom of nude people behind them. So maybe an orgy band.

Verdict: I'm going to have to go with David Bowie, because, well, I don't want glam rock enthusiasts beating me up in the street.


  1. This is easily the highest quality match-up in these columns so far... but I really can't go past Bowie. That song in particular is a favourite of mine.

  2. You cannot make me choose. I will not turn from either love.

  3. Maybe it's just my mood, but these songs bored me equally this morning.

  4. Faith No More. By a mile. This is purely personal. I really like most of Bowie's work (but really, it all pales in comparison to his turn in Labyrinth) but Faith No More is a step above most bands. And Patton is one of my favourite singers.

  5. Bowie's cool but FNM by a length on this one.

  6. Another great match up, though wasn't Bowie's album titled 'Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)' not 'Space Monsters...'

    my vote is for Bowie's, and you re spot on "and is still a little bit freaking terrifying".

    When are the ABC going to get you to program Rage?

  7. Never vote against the Thin White Duke. One for Mr Bowie

  8. The vocalist from FNM looks like a weird combination of Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr and Keanu Reeves. Their song has a great solo and is very catchy and the clips is a bit Giger-esque. But despite all my teenage angst I couldn't get into Faith No More. It probably also didn't help that when they split up I was only 14 (although Kurt Cobain did kill himself a few years ago I did manage to get into Nirvana).

    Ask me 10 years ago and I'd probably have preferred Faith No More. But it's Bowie all the way now.

  9. Couldn't listen to all the FNM song. Perhaps it is not a surprise there is FNM in the house. I like Leonard Cohen, some Nick Cave, all sorts of metal. But the combination in FNM (at least what I have heard and not just this song) does nothing for me.

    Ashes to Ashes is perhaps my least favorite Bowie song. I am much more a Rebel Rebel.


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