Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master. This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.
David Foster Wallace, 2005.
“Quicksand” is sugar-coated poison: a lushly-arranged, lovely tune about despair and delusion, with Nazi references, and whose chorus tells its listeners to give up all hope. Compare it to another song recorded in 1971—John Lennon’s hippie standard “Imagine,” of which Lennon later claimed “[it's an] anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic [song], but because it’s sugar-coated, it’s accepted.” True enough, but “Imagine” also flatters its listeners by inviting them to be part of the elect, those who have no need of God or countries, those who have transcended the pettiness of life.
“Quicksand” offers no such assurances and has no community. Its singer could be a madman on the verge of total collapse, or someone (like the heroine of “Life on Mars?”) sitting a theater seat and being bombarded with ceaseless, awful images. The lyric suggests that life’s not only an illusion but one whose purpose will never be revealed, regardless of your religion, your guru or your imagination. “Knowledge comes with death’s release” is its only positive statement.
The lyric is also a look into the cluttered mind of David Bowie, age 24, as we get references to Aleister Crowley, The Order of the Golden Dawn, film stars*, Nietzschean overmen, and Buddhism (“you can tell me all about it in the next Bardo“). What’s new, and what seems a natural if unpleasant progression from Bowie’s Nietzsche obsession, is the reference to Heinrich Himmler (and the odd line about “Churchill’s lies”) and the “sacred” Nazi realm of mythology. This will culminate in Bowie’s open flirtation with Nazi imagery in the mid-’70s and in Station to Station, which is arguably his fascist record.
Still, the lyric’s coldness and sense of despair are kept in check by the song’s structure (it moves from G in the first verse up to A in the second, where it stays for the chorus) and the gorgeousness of the recording. Compare Bowie’s studio demo to the finished track, and you hear how much Bowie, Mick Ronson and producer Ken Scott softened the song: Bowie moderated the harsh acoustic guitar strumming of the demo to a quieter, more intricate performance (for example, Bowie now arpeggiates two lines of the verse), while vibes now accompany Bowie’s guitar from the start. Ronson’s string arrangement and Rick Wakeman’s piano alternate in providing counter-melodies in the verse and in linking choruses and verses together.
Hunky Dory was Scott’s first job as a solo producer, and he would stay on to produce most of Bowie’s glam-era records (the two had only a professional relationship, with Bowie later describing Scott as being a “suit and tie” type who went home to his wife every night). Scott was part of the generation of producers who had cut their teeth at Abbey Road under the Beatles and George Martin (along with Alan Parsons, Geoff Emerick, Chris Thomas). He had just come off George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, which he engineered under Phil Spector, and took from that record the Spectorian trick of massively overlaying instruments (both live in the studio and via overdubs)—so there are something like seven acoustic guitars alone on “Quicksand.”
Recorded June-August 1971 (the studio demo was included on the Ryko reissue of Hunky Dory). Bowie played “Quicksand” as part of a medley in 1973, and then retired it for over two decades until 1997, when he recorded a new version for the BBC and began performing it on stage again.
*Like everyone else, I’ve assumed the “Garbo” referenced in the lyric is Greta, but Wikipedia, citing a Mojo article that I’ve not read, says that it’s actually a reference to the WWII British double-agent Juan Pujol, code-name Garbo. If true, this wins the most obscure reference to date in Bowie’s catalog.
Top: Sean Hickin, “Mouth organist, Tottenham Court Rd., ca. 1971.”