64: David Bowie – “Ashes to Ashes” (1980)
Always self-referential and producing work as if it were part of a linear narrative, with “Ashes to Ashes”David Bowie managed to usher in yet another creative era while simultaneously looking back on the song and character that helped literally and figuratively launch his career. By returning to “Space Oddity”s Major Tom, Bowie here is able to use the interceding decade as the basis for his lyrical allusions to both his personal and creative life. When he sings, “I’ve never done good things/ I’ve never done bad things/ I’ve never done nothing out of the blue,” he could just as easily be describing his studied, highly artistic approach to the presentation of his myriad personae.
Having recently completed the so-called “Berlin Trilogy,” Bowie enters the ‘80s as not so much a stylistic revolutionary but as something of a warped mirror reflecting the prevailing musical trends. In “Ashes to Ashes” alone he incorporates elements of funk, the New Romantics (all of whom owed Bowie a hefty debt of gratitude both visually and musically), balladry and the avant garde (just listen to the warbling synthesized strings as they abut the stacked guitar chords that unpin the whole of the song). In this sense, “Ashes to Ashes” is a summation of Bowie’s career to that point, a clear demarcation point marking the end of his golden era in terms of innovative creativity.
And yet it can’t be a coincidence that the single was released exactly a week after the launch of what would become the defining method of music consumption in the 1980s: MTV. The accompanying video is perhaps even more significant from an artistic standpoint than the song itself, employing a number of disorienting visuals and early special effects that would become standard by decade’s end. As the most expensive video up to that point in time, “Ashes to Ashes” shows Bowie’s commitment to sound and vision, as it were – the former complementing the latter and vice versa. Nearly 40 years on, it still manages to inspire awe with its avant garde visuals, symbolism and technological innovations. As always, David Bowie proved himself with “Ashes to Ashes” to be at the vanguard of the future of music. – John Paul
63: David Bowie – “Let’s Dance” (1983)
It’s no surprise that David Bowie managed to survive the ‘80s, unlike his many compatriots who now populate classic rock radio. The pop chameleon had already reinvented himself a number of times by the beginning of the decade, having dabbled in everything from glam to soul and Krautrock. What he hadn’t done, however, was go for mainstream success in an unabashed way. When it did occur, his pop success was seen as something of a fluke, as someone so strange could surely not occupy the public’s consciousness in a serious way. “Let’s Dance” proved that such a line of thinking was dead wrong. One of three singles to propel Bowie up the charts in the early ‘80s, the song showcases Bowie’s pop instinct as well as his skill for melding pop’s past with its future. All it seemed to take was an introduction to Nile Rodgers.
For Bowie, his collaborators are just as important as the man himself. Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson, for example, pushed him away from his folky beginnings and towards a simpler, more rocking sound. Brian Eno, on the other hand, pushed him towards new sounds – and a particularly futuristic sound. With Rodgers, Bowie returned to the soul and R&B he dabbled in during his days in the wilderness, but the paranoia of “Station To Station” and “Fame” was replaced with a buoyant sense of joy. “Let’s Dance” is sleeker and more polished than anything Bowie had done up to that point, but that isn’t to say that it feels forced or labored. There’s little in terms of lyrical depth, but asking that of a song like “Let’s Dance” would be completely missing the point. This is pop through and through, and as it turns out, David Bowie was very good at wearing that particular mask. – Kevin Korber