Fascination

Funky Music (Is a Part of Me), Mike Garson Band with Luther Vandross (live, 1974).
Funky Music, Luther Vandross, 1976.
Fascination.

The Sigma Sound sessions of August 1974 didn’t produce enough for an album. While there were some obvious winners, like “Young Americans,” other songs hadn’t evolved out of the jam stage, and the sessions, over time, had tended toward the slow and brooding. An album consisting mainly of seven-minute-long soul torch ballads would have been a hard sell, especially for someone still considered a glam rock star by most of the public. So in early December ’74, Bowie and Tony Visconti reconvened most of the original cast (with a new rhythm section) at the Record Plant in New York.

The goal appears to have been to cut some uptempo tracks to leaven the record, especially as “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” a track once slated to start off the LP, wasn’t panning out. Bowie struggled to cut a studio version of crowd-pleaser “Footstompin’,” while another inspiration, rewriting a song performed on tour by his backing singer Luther Vandross, proved easier to execute.

Vandross had sung his “Funky Music (Is a Part of Me)” during the opening set of Bowie’s Philly Dogs tour, as part of “the Mike Garson Band” (basically, Bowie’s touring band minus Bowie). Bowie had first heard Vandross’ song during the Sigma sessions, as Vandross sometimes ran his fellow backing singers through it during studio downtime. When Bowie asked Vandross his permission to record “Funky Music,” the latter was incredulous. “What do you mean, ‘let’ you record it. I’m living in the Bronx in a building with an elevator that barely works and you’re asking me to ‘let’ you record one of my songs.” (From Craig Seymour’s Luther: the Life and Longing of Luther Vandross.)

Bowie had picked up on an incongruity between Vandross’ music, with its snaky bass hook, its volleying choruses and the way it teeters on the ominous, and its simple, goofy lyric. “Funky Music” was one of Vandross’ first compositions, and it reflects that: the writer (and singer’s) love of music lets him escape his everyday life; he indulges in a daydream that ultimately would get him out of the Bronx. “Funky Music” is a sales pitch for himself, a classic New York hustle. The line I do the singing, just give me a beat! is pure George M. Cohan.

Bowie’s thoughts on performing music were, by contrast, a bit jaundiced. He also worried he would seem ridiculous singing something called “Funky Music” (“He said he didn’t want to be so presumptuous as to say “funky music” since he was a rock artist,” Vandross said in an early ’80s interview.) So he rewrote “Funky Music” as “Fascination,” turning Vandross’ infatuation into an obsession: the singer consumed by a passion, as much about cocaine (“I’ve got to use her”) as it is sex.

Bowie’s lyrical edits were a light touch, as Bowie kept much of Vandross’ framework (many of the verse lines are Vandross’ originals). He turned the image of the singer walking down the street, dancing and drawing attention to himself whenever he hears a good song, into a darker scenario in which the singer seems to be prowling around looking for a fix. In the chorus, Bowie replaced Vandross’ sales pitch with the telling “How can a heartbeat/live in a fever?”

The arrangement seems roughly the same as how “Funky Music” was performed on stage, with Carlos Alomar (presumably) coming up with another sharp rhythm guitar riff to spar against the opening descending bass hook. An inspired move was to replace David Sanborn’s saxophone with a clavinet, giving the track a harsher, more synthetic sound. It’s in keeping with the song’s overall transformation: dreams coarsened into ambition, then desperation.

Recorded early-mid December 1974. On Young Americans. Vandross recorded “Funky Music” for his first record, 1976’s Luther.

Top: Harry Caul on sax (Coppola’s The Conversation, 1974).

10 Responses to Fascination

  1. Deacon Lowdown says:

    “An album consisting mainly of seven-minute-long soul torch ballads would have been a hard sell”

    Indeed. No, Bowie would have to wait for his next album to do that.

  2. Deacon Lowdown says:

    Ugh, I suck at HTML. It’s meant to be “next album to do that.”

  3. col1234 says:

    touche, Deacon.

  4. ian says:

    Funny, then, being that the “hard-sell” of seven minute torch ballads would end up being one of the go-to “best Bowie albums.”

  5. martyn watson says:

    I love ‘Young Americans’ but it’s clear that cocaine jamming and associated paranoia was never gonna deliver a filler-free record and that Fascination filled a gap(nowhere near the quality of Win/Right/Somebody etc.). Fame was the fortuitous result of Bowie’s stalking of Lennon and Across The Universe the price paid.

  6. Robb says:

    It sounds to me like there is a Saxophone line which has had a wah wah effect applied in the studio- either that or a wah guitar line that blends with the sax solo perfectly. I guess both are possible but running the sax track through a wah pedal might have been easier. Any info on that?

  7. col1234 says:

    nice call on the sax-wah–that might be exactly what it is. No info really exists though to verify anything–many of DB’s records are sadly lacking in basics, like who played what on what. But you’re my fact-checking cuz in any regard.

    (note: Robb actually is my cousin. If you live near Worcester MA, go check out his band, the Solstice Bears: (http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/group.php?gid=125802204133767)

  8. diamonddog says:

    Not sure what you folks have been listening but fascination is superb stuff its in the right place in the running order and livens the side up on the lp with its up tempo disco funk. The mixes over the years on cd have been odd with ryko discs being a real departure from the original vinyl. With the massive echo in the intro any ideas why?

  9. s.t. says:

    Always loved this one, but now a little disappointed to learn that Bowie stole the song from the young Vandross. Luther’s quote in particular sums up the dark side of Bowie’s vampirism.

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