On Aug. 23, 1980, David Bowie found himself atop the U.K. Singles chart with a song which would - a decade and a half later - turn out to be both a sequel to “Space Oddity” and the middle chapter in a Major Tom trilogy of tunes.
Written by Bowie and co-produced by Bowie and his longtime production collaborator Tony Visconti for the album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), “Ashes to Ashes” was described by its composer at the time as “very much a 1980s nursery rhyme.” Although he wouldn’t come right out and say as much at the time (it took him many years to formally acknowledge it), it’s pretty evident simply from the sound of the song and the look of its accompanying video - the most expensive one ever made up to that point - that Bowie was unabashedly saying “so long” to the ‘70s.
In addition, the song’s lead character, Major Tom, received an upgrade for the ’80s, with Bowie waxing lyrical about the astronaut as a “junkie, strung out in heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low.” Some say this was a reference to Bowie’s own album, Low, which is certainly not an insane premise, but to our knowledge, it’s never been confirmed.
“Ashes to Ashes” proved to be a huge hit in the U.K., but surprisingly was not a hit in America. In fact, the extent of its success was to bubble just under the Billboard Hot 100. It never properly charted! Go figure. You’d never guess as much from the amount of airplay it still receives nowadays.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t clarify that the third and final chapter in the Major Tom trilogy was “Hallo Spaceboy,” found on Bowie’s 1995 album, Outside. Funny thing about it, though: it wasn’t Bowie who decided it was the conclusion of the trilogy but, rather, one of Bowie’s collaborators on the song, Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys fame. "I said to David Bowie, 'It's like Major Tom is in one of those Russian spaceships they can’t afford to bring down,’” Tennant told NME. “And he [Bowie] said, 'Oh, wow, is that where he is?'