Sister Midnight

Sister Midnight (Bowie, rehearsal, 1976).
Sister Midnight (Bowie, live, 1976).
Sister Midnight (Iggy Pop, 1976).
Sister Midnight (Pop and Bowie, Dinah!, 1977).
Sister Midnight (Pop and Bowie, live, 1977).
Sister Midnight (Pop, live, 1996).
Sister Midnight (Bowie, live, 2003.)
Sister Midnight (Bowie, live, 2004).

I went on about Iggy and Bowie, and [Lou Reed] surprised me with a totally unexpected blast at the Pop. “David tried to help the cat. David’s brilliant and Iggy is…stupid. Very sweet but very stupid. If he’d listened to David or me, if he’d asked questions every once in a while…I’d say, ‘Man, just make a one-five change, and I’ll put it together for you. You can take all the credit. It’s so simple, but the way you’re doin’ it now you’re just making a fool out of yourself. And it’s just gonna get worse and worse.’ He’s not even a good imitation of a bad Jim Morrison…

Lester Bangs, Creem, March 1975.

Iggy Pop’s first solo record, The Idiot, is equally a David Bowie album with a guest singer/composer; Bowie co-wrote all of the songs, played many of the instruments and produced it (rather chaotically, requiring Tony Visconti to try and salvage the often over-modulated tapes at the mixing stage). Though once considered a footnote (it gets dismissed in one line in the ’90s Bowie bio Living On the Brink), it’s an essential piece of Bowie’s ’70s work, and I’d argue that the real “Berlin” trilogy is The Idiot, Low and “Heroes,” with Pop’s Lust For Life as a supplement and Lodger as an afterword.

Pop was a guinea pig. Bowie was tired of writing songs, of coming up with the next narrative or mask, so he used the guise of making an Iggy solo record as a means to start tearing things apart. Pop and Bowie worked well as a team, with Iggy playing the id to Bowie’s super-ego. There’s a risk in oversimplifying the relationship, though, as Bowie could be just as erratic as Iggy, while Iggy’s wild man persona could be as much of an act as Ziggy Stardust was (Bowie’s touring musicians in ’76 would sometimes find Iggy at breakfast, wearing glasses, drinking coffee and reading political columns in European newspapers).

Bowie and Pop had first tried to record together in Los Angeles in spring 1975, a period when neither of them were fit for human company, even by their own standards. Pop was addicted to heroin while Bowie was at the height of his coke-inspired estrangement. The sessions fell apart after a day or so, as Pop stopped showing up, and it yielded only a few half-finished songs, including Bowie’s never-released “Moving On,” “Sell Your Love,” which Pop reworked for Kill City, and “Turn Blue,” later resuscitated for Lust For Life. Later in 1975, Pop went into a LA mental institution to help dry out, with Bowie and Dean Stockwell among his few visitors. Broke and needing distractions to keep clean, Pop joined Bowie’s “Station to Station” tour, in part because Bowie had played him a cassette demo of a song he was writing, proposing that Pop cover it after the tour.

This was “Sister Midnight,” which began as a Bowie and Carlos Alomar sequel to “Fame”—another one-chord vamp built on an Alomar guitar riff. “Fame” had swagger and coiled precision; while cold, it could move a dance floor. “Sister Midnight,” with its bludgeoning rhythms, its murky production and sense of confinement, seems intent on keeping you locked in place. The track suggests what a possible post-Station to Station LP would have sounded like, had Bowie had remained in Los Angeles—funk reduced to brutality.

Bowie was listening incessantly to Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity at the time (he played it in his car for Pop during drives around the US), and there’s a sense in “Sister Midnight” that Bowie was attempting to ape Kraftwerk’s man-machinery: the guitar riff that mirrors the vocal line, the barely-changing drum pattern, the bassist playing two alternating lines throughout the entire song (only playing six notes in all), while waves of guitar overdubs come and go (a typically snappy Alomar riff at :35 in, a shearing two-chord riff (likely Bowie) in the last verse). When it was played on the ’76 tour, “Sister Midnight” featured as a centerpiece an extravagant guitar solo by Stacey Heydon, but the solos on record are minimal and struggle to be heard in the mix. The song itself is just a single verse-refrain, built entirely on the G7 chord, the feeling of endless repetition broken only by the guitar solos and Pop’s slowly-building vocal.

“Sister Midnight,” sequenced to kick off The Idiot, is a summoning; it’s Bowie invoking a muse, though with the intention of snaring it, pinning it down and dissecting it. Much of what Bowie would record over the following three years would uproot the act of making music, querying inspiration, reducing a melody to a child’s initial perceptions of organized sound, making instruments speak in tongues, finally erasing “Bowie” from the equation completely, with Low and “Heroes”‘ nearly-instrumental sides. (“Bowie was never meant to be. He’s like a Lego kit. I’m convinced I wouldn’t like him, because he’s too vacuous and undisciplined,” Bowie told People in 1976.)

Yet Pop, when he recorded “Sister Midnight” for The Idiot, undermined this sense of cloistered withdrawal. He put bile and blood into the song, as he did for much of The Idiot, combating the sonic alienation with odes to teenage lust, violence, drugs, junkie camaraderie. For “Sister Midnight,” Pop sharpened Bowie’s barely-there lyric, which was basically just the opening lines and yet another reference to The Man Who Fell to Earth, inserting daggers of phrases like “I’m a breakage inside” or “you put a beggar in my heart” or “what can I do about my dreams?” At the heart of the song, Pop offered a Oedipal sequence where he sleeps with his mother, then dodges his father’s gunshots (this was based on another disturbing Pop dream (see “TVC 15″)).

Pop’s vocal begins with him seemingly trying to out-basso profundo Bowie (singing even lower than Bowie’s opening lines on “Sweet Thing”), then he steadily builds up until, when the father aims his gun at him, Pop finally reaches his “normal” voice (all the while, Bowie’s been piping in on occasion with a demented-sounding falsetto). It culminates in the final “can you hear me at all,” the last three words one long string of sound, dragged over three bars and eventually plummeting an octave. Again and again on The Idiot (see “China Girl”), Pop would start quietly and build up to a howl that nearly blew out the microphone pre-amp: it’s the man thwarting the machine.

“I love noises”

When you’re making records, you’re looking to distort things, basically. That’s the freedom recording gives you, to fuck around with the sound…Hey, this is a nice mike, but if we put it a little closer to the amp and then take a smaller amp instead of the big one and shove the mike in front of it, cover the mike with a towel, let’s see what we get. What you’re looking for is where the sounds just melt into each other and you’ve got that beat behind it, and the rest of it just has to squirm and roll its way through.

Keith Richards, Life.

Something similar’s at play in Bowie’s “Berlin” records—a sense of trying to warp sound, to deaden or coarsen the tones of instruments, to make vocals sound like the work of mad computers. “Sister Midnight” is an early experiment. The piano barely sounds like one, though according to Laurent Thilbaut, who engineered the sessions, it’s a standard Yamaha Acoustic piano, albeit miked into a Harrison console* and equalized and distorted. The guitars (Alomar, possibly Phil Palmer, possibly Bowie) are also processed through various effects pedals and amps, including a Leslie speaker. And the thick, dead drum sound is the work of a severely dampened kit: the hi-hat sounds like synthetic percussion and, as the musician Bradley Banks noted, whenever the drummer hits the crash cymbal, there’s almost no reverberation, as if the sound is eaten up at once (Banks wondered if someone’s job in the studio was to grab the cymbal immediately after each hit).

The mix also included its share of  happy accidents. While Bowie was recording a piano track, Thibault hit an equalization button on the console, which created a ‘bip’ noise that delighted Bowie when he heard it during playback (it’s at 1:05 in). Bowie told Thibault not to remove the bleep:  “It’s nice! We’ll keep it. I love noises,” Bowie reportedly said (as per Banks’ blog). In the mix, the bleep works perfectly, as a second later a burst of guitar feedback comes like an answering note.

Bowie rewrote “Sister Midnight” as “Red Money” in 1979, even using the same backing tracks as the Pop recording. The symmetry is too much to be accidental. “Sister Midnight,” the very first “Berlin” song completed, is the lead-off track on The Idiot, while “Red Money,” its regeneration, is sequenced as the last song on Lodger. It’s the last Bowie song of the ’70s, and the “Berlin” era  as well, a period that opens with an invocation of dark, animal spirits and ends with panic and surrender, the sound of an aborted liftoff.

Debuted on stage in Seattle on 3 February 1976 (the only other extant concert recording is from the 15 March ’76 Philadelphia show). “Sister Midnight” was recorded in Château d’Hérouville, France, in July 1976 and/or Musicland Studios in Munich, August ’76 (though Alomar and George Murray may have dubbed their parts later, in Hansa Studios). The live ’77 recording linked above was recorded by a Chicago radio station on 23 March 1977, in the empty Mantra Theater, with Bowie, Pop, and the Sales brothers. Pop’s sung it live for decades and Bowie revived “Sister Midnight” for his to-date final tour in 2003-2004.

A couple of years ago, Bradley Banks started a blog detailing The Idiot, track by track, a project that he unfortunately seems to have abandoned halfway through (I sympathize, brother!). Still, the technical details he unearthed via interviews with Laurent Thibault, as well as his own insights, are excellent. Here’s hoping he completes the blog one day.

* Possibly the same 3232 Harrison desk on which Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” was recorded.

Top: Bowie and Iggy agree on the terms of their alliance, Moscow, April 1976.

13 Responses to Sister Midnight

  1. martyn watson says:

    I’m with you all the way as to the albums that make up the ‘Berlin Trilogy’. ‘Lodger’ (like most lodgers) just doesn’t fit in and gets in the way. ‘Scary Monsters’ saved the day…the ‘last great Bowie album’.

    • Deacon Lowdown says:

      I know it gets a lot of flack, but I’ll fight for it to the end: “Let’s Dance” is an excellent album in a certain genre: Dance Pop. Not the most sophisticated genre, but Bowie milked everything it had to offer in “Let’s Dance”. Unfortunately, this left him with nothing worth saying in “Tonight” and “Never Let Me Down”.

      (Also I think “Heathen” holds up perfectly well with the best of Bowie’s 70s work, although it isn’t as innovative (how could it be?))

  2. spanghew says:

    Well, I agree re your reassessment of which albums make up “The Berlin Trilogy” – but I disagree w/Mr. Watson here, if he’s saying that Lodger’s a poor album. It doesn’t fit the trilogy, true enough – but I think it’s another one of Bowie’s transitional albums, and a very good one at that.

  3. Deacon Lowdown says:

    I don’t listen to Iggy Pop much – to me, Lou Reed and Bowie have always provided everything Pop could give me and more – but this song is absolutely terrifying. The way Pop’s vocals fade in and out, plus those guitars at the end… I actually shivered the first time I heard it!

    The lyrics crib a bit from “The End”, though, don’t you think?

  4. martyn watson says:

    For the record I think that Lodger is OK but seems to try a little too hard to be cool. Let’s Dance did its thing and I love a couple of tracks but ‘great’? I don’t think so. Soz.

  5. normanball says:

    These ‘best of’ debates make for great cocktail banter and are a lot of fun. But ultimately is a cheetah better than a bear? I dunno.

    It’s an interesting re-worked trilogy idea though. of course you ciuld expand to a quartet and be done with the whole thing.

  6. The music on the Idiot always reminded me a little of the Mike Leander sound for Gary Glitter’s early records including Rock and Roll (parts 1-2). The recording process was even similar with Leander recording nearly all the instruments (just as Bowie piled on the overdubs on the Idiot) and producing that strange almost Lo-F guitar and drum sound.

  7. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Great quote and photo at the top.

    I remember reading somewhere that everybody should find The Doors exciting at fourteen years old but embarrassing at forty. I feel much the same about Iggy Pop – but lower the ages a little.

    Anyway my point. I met (saw in the street) Iggy Pop at around this time. He was probably the first ‘famous’ person I’d seen in the flesh, but perhaps more significantly he was the first adult that I had met who was clearly smaller than me. (I was a pretty small 13-year old in 1977.)

    I’ve often wondered what was in this collaboration for Bowie. Iggy Pop got Bowie at his most prolific giving away his best songs. Looking at this photo, the thought occurred that perhaps Bowie’s reward was that he got to hang out with someone who made him look tall. Just a theory.

    • Marion Brent says:

      Bowie’s 6 foot isn’t he? I don’t think he particularly needs anyone to make him look tall. I think the appeal of Pop (and for that matter Lou Reed) for Bowie is wrapped up in the concept of “authenticity”. For Bowie, his own inauthenticity is something he simultaneously flags up and celebrates, but is also anxious about. Working with Reed and Pop he somehow coopts their “authenticity” as red-blooded American rockers.

      • Brendan O'Lear says:

        Thanks Marion,

        How are things with you these days? Still managing to keep a roof over your head? I’m still as careful with my money as ever.

        A good friend of mine – you may know him, Pat Hewitt – reckons that just as Bowie can be anxious about a lack of authenticity, he has a similar thing about a lack of inches. Is he really 6 foot? Yes, according to early publicity material, but if that’s correct, then his wife must be about six foot three.

        And for what is worth, Iggy Pop really does sing well on most of The Idiot.

      • Ray says:

        No, he is 5’10 (178cm). And I don’t think he’s the type (and neither Iggy, as for the matter of the fact) who would complex on his height. I was surprised for that, because he always looks tall in pictures. Even with people who are bigger than him, he always seems taller than them too. I guess it’s mental superstardom that shows.

        I aggree with Marion Brent. Iggy just was one of Bowies fascinations. Bowie was always searching for something, he could be anything, so he had to have something to hang on to. Iggy already was someone – a fully developed personality, living his life to the full.

  8. giospurs says:

    What’s with all the Iggy-bashing?
    I’ll accept that he couldn’t have made The Idiot or Lust for Life without Bowie but he provides that aggressive quality and some great singing.
    Before Bowie came along Iggy made some great records with the Stooges too so there’s no way anyone can just dismiss him.

  9. Thin White Duke says:

    Sister Midnight was also played in toronto on the 1976 tour – bowie decided to play it, on the spur of the moment, because someone threw a book onstage, a book that Bowie had been trying to obtain without sucess. so he decided to play the song in return.

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