In July 1972 Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman came to Miami for the Democratic National Convention, and whenever they went out on the street, a mob of policemen followed them. Rubin and Hoffman expected nothing less: at the 1968 convention, the Chicago police had made a sport of clubbing and gassing protesters outside the convention hall. This time, however, there was a rumor that a camera crew funded by Warner Bros. would be making a film of the Yippies’ adventures, so the police mainly just wanted to get into the movies. Each one hoped to be the cop on screen bashing Abbie Hoffman’s head in with a club. There was no movie crew, so it was a peaceful convention.
“Panic In Detroit”‘s leading man is a revolutionary/sex symbol who “looked a lot like Che Guevara,” as the singer remembers him (Bowie predicting the hipster Che t-shirt, and even better, the Che store). His old group, the National People’s Gang, has been wiped out, so instead he signs autographs, leads a few riots, and finally shoots himself, though he graciously leaves one last autograph for the singer.
The fall of the last revolutionary hipster is set in a post-riot, even post-apocalypse Detroit, with the lyric partially inspired by Iggy Pop’s stories of the 1967 Detroit riots. Yet just as influential was Bowie’s backstage encounter in New York with a former classmate from Bromley Tech, an unassuming, middle-class British kid who had become a drug dealer based out of South America. Bowie was taken with the idea that anyone, through stylish violence, could reinvent themselves into a famous counter-cultural figure. It was the glittering devolution of the American Left, epitomized in the Patty Hearst saga, the greatest show on TV in 1974 (Camper Van Beethoven’s “Tania”:“How I long for the days when you [Hearst] came to liberate us from boredom/From driving around from five to seven in the evening”).
“Panic In Detroit” is also Bowie’s instant snapshot of the America he encountered in depth for the first time, touring through it in late ’72: a country of empty spaces, fallen cities and sporadic violence. He told Musician in 1990 that one image that had fascinated him was of a sniper perched on a rooftop, dispatching random people on the street below him. “There were snipers all over America, on tops of buildings,” Bowie recalled (there weren’t, really, but Bowie was likely remembering Charles Whitman, who killed 14 people in 1966 during his sniper rampage from Austin’s University Tower, or even the “Scorpio” killer of Dirty Harry, who opens that film picking off a woman in her rooftop pool).
For Bowie, this America had validated his imagination—the dystopic worlds he had been describing in song for years had turned out to be real places, filled with glamorous decay and casual murder. “It was really happening,” he said. “Suddenly my songs didn’t look out of place.”
The power and drive of “Panic In Detroit” owes as much to Mick Ronson and the backing singers Linda Lewis and Juanita “Honey” Franklin as it does to any of Bowie’s scenarios. Lewis and Franklin’s long-held notes in the choruses give way to a series of sharp, echoing wails and shrieks in the coda. Ronson opens the song’s 8-bar intro with a fairly simple riff, but that’s not his game here—he shades Bowie’s vocal lines with menace, often pitting two guitar tracks against each other (like the minimalist solo he gets after the bridge), and plays sets of rapid descending scales, like the shift from D to E that ends each chorus. Woody Woodmansey’s Bo Diddley tribute (one of the densest, murkiest rhythm tracks Bowie’s had to date) is bolstered by congas and shakers. Bowie sings long arcs of melody in the verses, culminating in the title phrase—the verses and choruses bleed into each other, separated by a single bridge and a repeat of the intro riff. After Bowie’s last lines, Ronson and the rest of the band descend into madness.
Allegedly composed in Detroit during the Spiders’ first visit there (8 October 1972), “Panic In Detroit” was completed on 24 January 1973. A rarity in the last Ziggy Stardust shows, a regular in the 1974 tour (a live Philadelphia recording was the b-side of “Knock on Wood,” and it’s on later versions of David Live). Bowie remade the song with Tony Visconti, Zaine Griff and Andy Duncan (with a cameo by the Speak and Spell) in December 1979 for Kenny Everett’s New Year’s Eve Show, but their remake of “Space Oddity” replaced it—the revised “Panic in Detroit” later turned up on reissues of Scary Monsters and, currently, Heathen.
Top: “Anarchistische Gewalttäter”: wanted poster for the Baader-Meinhof Gang, ca. 1972. ” Beware! These violent criminals will make ruthless use of guns!” (GHDI).