The music video for ‘Ashes to Ashes‘ was one of the most iconic of the 1980s. Directed by David Mallet, with production costing £25,000 ($50,000), at the time it was the most expensive music video ever made. It used the new-fangled Paintbox technique to turn skies black and seas pink. The complexity and high production cost of the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video makes it one of the most significant in the evolution of the music video.
Bowie story-boarded the promo himself, drawing it shot by shot and dictating the editing process. “I brought my drawings to David Mallet and said, look, I’d like to have a crack at this. Some of the images were kind of violent – the plough following the figures is an image of oncoming violence which I find very scary, and there’s something very religious about the other four characters in the video, an ominous quality that’s rooted quite deeply.”
The four characters mentioned above were in fact 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. 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. Bowie then used the same gesture in the video for his next single ‘Fashion‘, and in the video for ‘Dancing In The Street’.
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. This has been interpreted by some as a reaction to the publicity surrounding Bowie’s relationship with his mother Peggy, which was highlighted in 1975 in an interview she gave to NME where she stated that Bowie never visited her. Given Bowie’s drug addition and state of mind at the time it was hardly surprising, and during the intervening years the relationship had been repaired.
“I think the recognition of the frailty of age makes one more sympathetic to earlier strains of the child-parent relationship,” he said. “It’s a shared responsibility and you get more mature about it.”
Bowie said about the video “Although it looked pretty po-faced, it was a riot making it!”
The iconic video was filmed at Pett Level, East Sussex, half way between Hastings and Rye. A bulldozer is still in action every autumn and winter there, moving shingle about (brought from Rye Harbor) to protect the sea wall defenses.
The video featured Bowie in the gaudy Pierrot costume that became the dominant visual representation of his Scary Monsters phase.
Record Mirror readers voted Ashes to Ashes’ and Bowie’s next single, ‘Fashion’, the best music videos of 1980.