I Want My MTV: Ashes To Ashes by David Bowie - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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I Want My MTV: Ashes To Ashes by David Bowie

You better not mess with Major Tom.
On August 1st 1981 MTV officially began broadcasting. Initially the original US cable channel was only available to households in the New Jersey area but it soon becoming a global cultural phenomenon and inspired many musical acts of the day to produce elaborate video promos for their songs in the hope of gaining valuable airtime and promotion. Many people go to tracks like Bohemian Rhapsody as an example of the first music video, but a decade before that 1975 Queen release several other British acts like The Moody Blues and The Beatles were producing short promotional films to accompany their singles. Of course, none of those acts could ever had imagined a channel that would be dedicated to just playing music videos 24 hours a day.

When MTV began the average promotional video was produced incredibly cheaply, as little more than an afterthought to the recording of the single itself. But slowly, through the growing popularity of pop-music based TV shows like Countdown in Australia, Top of the Pops in the UK and PopClips in the USA, music videos had begun to be taken more seriously by both the artists performing them and their creators. A generation of up and coming wannabe movie directors found an exciting new medium to experiment within. Among them was Russell Mulcahy, who had begun his career compiling clips to accompany pop songs which didn't have a music video (using stock footage and repurposed video scenes) when he was working for the Australian Saturday morning show Sounds Unlimited. After relocating to the UK, Mulcahy co-founded MGMM, a company created with the intention of seeing just what could be done with this new and exciting music video format. Mulcahy went on to later big-screen success with Highlander and through MGMM directed the first video shown on MTV, Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles. The name for the company, MGMM, was taken from the four co-founders initials, four of those aforementioned exciting new directors: Mulcahy, Brian Grant, Scott Millaney and David Mallet.

David Mallet directed music videos for the likes of Queen, Blondie, Peter Gabriel, The Rolling Stones, Billy Idol, Tina Turner, AC/DC, Erasure, Diana Ross and many, many more big name acts. He was also David Bowie's director/co-director of choice from 1979's Boys Keep Swinging through to Bowie's 1985 collaboration with Mick Jagger on Dancing in the Streets. The pair first met when Bowie guested on The Kenny Everett Show where Mallet worked at the time as the show's director. Bowie performed a remake of his 1969 hit Space Oddity, which led him to ponder what Major Tom might be up to 10 years later. After penning a new track, which was recorded in Tony Visconti’s studio in London, Bowie and Mallet created what is arguably their most successful and memorable collaboration, one which took place primarily at the shore at Pett Level, near Winchelsea, East Sussex. The result was the stunning Ashes to Ashes music video...

Coincidentally released on August 1st, although one year earlier than MTV's 1981 launch, not only is Ashes to Ashes one of the most iconic music videos of the 1980s, it was the most expensive to have been produced at the time (a record it held from its 1980 release for three years, until being bested by Michael Jackson's Thriller). With production costing £250,000, or $582,000 (yes, the £ to $ exchange rate was really that high, on August 1st 1980 1 GBP = 2.3335 USD) which would be equivalent to about $1.84 million in 2021, every penny is visible on-screen. A complex production and a quantum-leap forward in the evolution of the music video, it was made using polarized color effects contrasted against stark black-and-white scenes, and unlike just about any other music video of the day Ashes to Ashes was filmed in multiple locations, including a padded room and that aforementioned rocky shore.

The video featured Bowie in the gaudy Pierrot costume that became the dominant visual representation of his Scary Monsters phase. It was a design he'd originally drafted many years earlier, and most of the ideas for the video came straight from Bowie himself, going as far as properly storyboarding the promo. As he explained some years later when discussing the video for his 1987 single Day-In Day-Out,
"I started working this way on the 'Ashes to Ashes' video with David Mallet. It was my first real big attempt and it won awards at the time for being a new way of doing videos."
But when it came to the location for the shoot, Mallet knew just the perfect spot - a place where he'd previously shot a promotional clip for Justin Heyward's performance of Forever Autumn, again for The Kenny Everett Show, in July 1978...

Although Bowie was full of creativity and very hands-on, working as co-director for the Ashes to Ashes video shoot, do not overlook David Mallet's contributions. As you can see above, not only is it the same East Sussex location but Mallet employs very similar colour tones. Created using a precursor to the popular 1980s graphical tool Quantel Paintbox, Mallet was well-versed in using the incredibly expensive computer graphics workstation (costing at the time in excess of $250,000 per unit) and enhanced the beach shots with solarizing effects.

Also, when Bowie appeared on The Kenny Everett Show, Mallet had filmed him performing in a padded room (below left) which was recreated for Ashes to Ashes (below right). And given that the song first originated from that idea of what Major Tom might be up to now, these scenes of Bowie in a padded room, and also in a space suit (with suggestion of a hospital life-support system attached), make reference to both Major Tom and to Bowie's new, rueful interpretation of him. All inspired from that first May 1979 collaboration on The Kenny Everett Show.
Appearing alongside Bowie in the music video were Steve Strange (Visage) and other members of the London Blitz scene, including Judith Frankland (who also 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.
Bowie described the shot of himself and the Blitz Kids marching towards the camera in front of a bulldozer as symbolising "oncoming violence". Although it appears that Steve Strange is taking a bow as he walks behind Bowie, he was actually trying to pull his gown away from the bulldozer in an effort to avoid it getting caught!
At the time of release, Bowie said about Ashes to Ashes,
“There’s an awful lot of cliched things in the video, but I think I put them together in such a way that the whole thing isn’t cliched. The general drive of the sensibility that comes over is some feeling of nostalgia for the future. I’ve always been hung up on that; it creeps into everything I do.”
As Bowie noted above, the music video to Ashes to Ashes did indeed win awards. Record Mirror readers voted Ashes to Ashes and Bowie's next single, Fashion, the best music videos of 1980. Some years later in 1999, MTV ranked the song's music video at number fifty eight on its 100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made, and along with Fashion rotated it on heavy play during those first few months on the air back in 1981. But not everyone was a fan...

Some years later, on the set of the music video for Bowie's 1993 single Miracle Goodnight, the assistant director Michael Dignum took the chance to ask Bowie what was the biggest moment in his career. He shared the story after David's passing, and the reply he received was quite unexpected....
"The biggest moment in my career? Well let me tell you about it. I had quite the attitude as a young pop star, its easy to get caught up in the hype. It changes you. So I was on the set of the music video Ashes to Ashes, [and] we're on the beach shooting this scene with a giant bulldozer. The camera was on a very long lens. I'm dressed from head to toe in a clown suit. Why not?

I hear playback and the music starts. So off I go, I start singing and walking, but as soon as I do this old geezer with an old dog walks right between me and the camera. Well knowing this is gonna take a while [to reset the shot] I walked past the old guy and sat next to camera in my full costume waiting for him to pass.

As he is walking by camera [David Mallet] said, excuse me Mr do you know who this is? The old guy looks at me from bottom to top and looks back to the director and said....

"Of course I do! It's some cunt in a clown suit."

That was a huge moment for me, It put me back in my place and made me realise, yes I'm just a cunt in a clown suit. I think about that old guy all the time."

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