China Girl

China Girl (Iggy Pop, 1976).
China Girl (Pop and Bowie, live, 1977).
China Girl (Bowie, 1983).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 1983).
China Girl (Pop, live, 1986).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 1987).
China Girl (Pop, live, 1991).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 1996).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 1999).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 2000).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 2002).

It began when Iggy Pop and David Bowie were drunk one summer night. “Politely drunk, after-dinner drunk,” Pop recalled. One glass of wine too many. The two stumbled into a room at the Château d’Hérouville, the haunted Val-d’Oise castle in which they were making Pop’s record. Pop sat down behind a child’s drum kit and Bowie at a toy piano. They started playing, hit upon a groove, got it on tape; they called the piece—barely a riff—“Borderline.”

Pop kept the tape, tried to craft a lyric. He was having an affair at the time with another guest at the castle, Kuelan Nguyen, the girlfriend of a French actor/singer, Jacques Higelin. Nguyen spoke no English, Pop no French, so the two communicated in gestures, expressions and pidgin reductions of each other’s language. Pop would grow frustrated trying to get through to Nguyen in sign language and brutalized French; she once put a finger to her lips and shushed him.

Pop spent days working out the vocal (he would improvise much of the final lyric while standing at the mike, Bowie recalled). As with “Dum Dum Boys,” Pop was working in a pop tradition: here, a song with language as an obstacle hindering lovers, like the Beatles’ “Michelle” or Chuck Berry’s “La Juanda,” where Berry asks a Mexican girl to dance, but neither understands the other (or pretend not to—she may be a prostitute, he may be negotiating).

Yet in “China Girl” broken communication is besides the point; it’s what happens when the two manage to connect that ruins the singer. Pop was using stereotypes older than Victoria, casting “Nguyen” as the mysterious, sensual Orient and himself (“Jimmy”) as an unwilling agent of the corrupt West. In the song, there’s a decline from natural elements—the falling stars, or heartbeats as “loud as thunder,” which Pop sings softly and slowly, letting space in between each note—in the first verses to the modern effluence in the bridge and final verses: Marlon Brando1, swastikas (another Eastern symbol perverted by the West), television, cosmetics, even juice boxes (see Bowie’s video).

“I’ll ruin everything you are,” Pop sings. Yet he can’t avoid doing so—his passion’s too addicting and consuming—and it’s not clear what’s he ruining. He’s more in love with his own depiction of her than whatever reality she offers; he’s the man who fears he’s poisoning his dreams, and spends his days raking through half-memories of them for impurities. The wordplay of the title line—with “china” also being pure heroin, as well as being a reference to the girl’s fragility (though she seems far more together than Iggy is)—muddies things further, and a widening of the lens finds Pop playing on the West’s views of China itself (a stand-in for “the East,” as Nguyen was Vietnamese): a mirror reflecting its own flaws, a canvas on which it can project its own fantasies2.

As with many of The Idiot‘s tracks, “China Girl”‘s vocal, a twisted nerve of a performance, is set against a dense, distortion-filled musical backdrop, and it’s the variable element in a circular, minimal song structure—the song’s mainly built on a trio of repeating 4-bar chord progressions, and sometimes the chords (G6, E minor and Em7) are the same set of notes, just arranged in different sequences. The track erupts more than it starts, with Pop suddenly lurching into view a beat into the song, his singing drenched in distortion and submerged in the mix as if it was one of Phil Palmer’s guitar overdubs. Pop’s voice finally becomes distinct at the moment he goes mad: I stumble into town, just like a sacred cow (yet another Eastern holy object debased), building to the scream on “it’s in the whites of my eyes!” which blows out the mike preamp.

Over Laurent Thibault and Michel Santangeli’s bass and drums tracks, Bowie and Pop overlaid stabs of Palmer’s guitar buttressed by Bowie’s distorted Baldwin piano, while synthesizers, serving as a string section, drone through the final minutes, while at least two dubs of Bowie’s saxophone appear in the last verses (at times, it sounds like Andy Mackay’s work on early Roxy Music records). The chirping riff that Bowie had played on toy piano (owned by Thibault’s 8-year-old daughter) is prominent in the final mix.

Of course, “China Girl,” for most of the world, is a David Bowie song. The Bowie single’s popularity has made the original “China Girl” into a successor: Pop’s recording now sounds like a bizarre sequel to Bowie’s, a piece of sonic vandalism done to an ’80s classic.

Bowie’s “China Girl” was one of his trio of MTV-fueled hit singles in 1983, the glossy new testament appended to his knottier early work. And where “Let’s Dance” was a rousing call to the floor and “Modern Love” cloaked its paranoiac sentiments with a call-and-response chorus, “China Girl” was slick anomie. The track’s sonic perfection, a feeling that all impurities had been refined away, furthered its cold sense of irony, its deliberate invocation of stereotypes, from Nile Rodgers’ “Chinese” guitar riff that opens the song, to the way Bowie mocks how the girl says “mouth,” to its high-end video, where Bowie, dressed like an Old Etonian, pats the head of his pyjama-clad “Chinese” girl as if he had bagged her on safari (while also making a disturbing visual play on Eddie Adams’ “Execution of a Vietcong Guerrilla” photograph); the girl has dragon lady fingernails, Bowie courts her by slanting his eyes, and it culminates in a scene shot in Sydney’s Chinatown district, where Bowie hurls a bowl of rice into the air.

Bowie cut “China Girl” in part to help Pop, who was broke and barely recording in the early ’80s, and he’d record a half-dozen more Pop compositions or co-compositions over the next five years. It wasn’t just altruism: Bowie’s frequent recycling of Pop collaborations, and increased use of covers in general, suggested a vicious decline in the pace and quality of Bowie’s songwriting in the ’80s, a decade Bowie spent in comfortable indifference, shot through with occasional bursts of midlife anxiety.

In 1982 Bowie, with a newly-signed EMI contract, recognized in “China Girl” a potential smash that he and Pop had obscured in the studio. Even the live versions of the song the two had played in 1977 sounded far more commercial, driven by Hunt Sales’ frenetic drumming and Bowie’s organ playing, more “96 Tears” than Krautrock drone. (Bowie had intended “China Girl” to be the lead-off single of Let’s Dance until Rodgers convinced him to go with the title track).

Where Pop sings the original in a building frenzy, Bowie’s vocal in the remake is cool, assured, even playful (the lilting run of high notes on “wake up in the mor-ning,” the repetition of “she says…” ), while the build to the “whites of my eyes” bridge is more a demonstration of power. Everything fits, everything has its place, from the way Carmine Rojas’ bass lags the beat (and moves to a staccato sequence in the last verses), to the precise drum fills (either Tony Thompson or Omar Hakim) imbued with the Power Station’s trademark ambient sound, to the placid wash of synthesizers and keyboards that suffuse the track. Bowie and Rodgers layered the track with a string of hooks (the new ‘oh-oh-oh-OH-oh-oh” intro, Rodgers’ “Chinese” guitar riff, echoed on keyboards3, and two Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar solos to close it out).

Was Bowie’s remake was a desecration of Pop’s desperate original? Did it turn Pop’s self-evisceration into “a cheesy pop song” (as Hugo Wilcken wrote)? Or was it somehow closer, via its mandarin disco sound, to what Pop had been trying to get at? Bowie, talking about the song at the end of the last century, said “China Girl” was about “invasion and exploitation,” and if so, Bowie was by far the more adept exploiter. His perspective was wider, his sense of self-loathing, though far more cloaked than Pop’s, was possibly greater. Pop was too much in his own shadow; Bowie saw the rot, the sense of love as corruption, as being just a lesser form of cultural toxin, far more clearly—he shone it up, he sold it well.

Pop’s “China Girl” was recorded in July-August 1976, in Château d’Hérouville and Musicland, Munich, and was released as a single in the UK in May 1977 (RCA PB  9093). The Bowie remake was cut at the Power Station in autumn 1982 and was issued as a single in May 1983 (EA 157, #2 UK, #10 US), its performance helped by the David Mallett-directed video, featuring the New Zealand model Geeling Ng (who Bowie briefly dated) and an often-censored shot of Bowie’s ass. Bowie and Pop would both play the song regularly on tour, with Bowie performing it alone on acoustic guitar for the Bridge benefit concert in 1996.

1 Neil Young’s “Pocahontas,” which is a lost cousin to “China Girl,” was written around the same time, and also features a cameo appearance by Marlon Brando.

2 This entry appears at the peak of the “Tiger Mother” mania, which is the latest incarnation of “the Chinese will bury us” national death-crisis storyline that’s been a regular feature in the U.S. over the past decade. Oliver Wang’s two-part response is worth a read.

3 Nile Rodgers, interviewed by David Buckley, said he wrote his “Chinese” guitar riff in part because he was flummoxed by the song’s ambiguities. “In black music, if you have a song called ‘China Girl’ it had damn better convey some message about a girl you met in China or something…You call a song ‘Let’s Dance’ you damn well better make sure people dance to it.” While Rodgers feared he was “putting some bubblegum over some great artistic heavy record,” Bowie said he loved the riff.

Thanks to SEP for kicking up some ideas, and to Lance Hoskins for the Japanese band score to the Bowie “China Girl.”

Top: The first meeting of Ambassador Duke and his translator, Honey Huan, in China; Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, 22 January 1976.

14 Responses to China Girl

  1. ian says:

    Bowie had this tendency (or at least he did in the bootlegs I’ve heard and the time I saw him play it) to reaaalllyy up the “funny accent” factor in the “oh jimmy just you hush your mouse” part. It was really kind of harrowing and totally offensive, like, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s kind of thing, “OH JEEMEE JASS YOO HASH YOOR MAAAUUUUOOOOUSSS.” It kind of turned the whole song on a really ugly head. “China Girl” is a slick piece of work because there’s a twinge of remorse in “I’ll ruin everything you are.” Adding the comic-theater accent to it made the whole song seem like an act of grotesque pride in the deed. Interesting that one line’s reading changes the whole sentiment.

  2. spanghew says:

    Yeah, between the cheesy and very clichéd “oriental” riff and the issue of whether the song ends up being *about* exploitation or ends up *being* exploitation, this one’s a hard one to actually like – even though, musically, it’s damned fine. All together, I prefer Iggy’s version…

  3. giospurs says:

    Having read what you have to say about Bowie’s version I respect what he was trying to do with the song (assuming you’re not giving him too much credit) but Iggy’s version definitely trumps it.

  4. Hugo says:

    I’m very much enjoying your blog, but I think I’ll stick by my “cheesy pop song” jibe! It’s certainly a nice irony that Bowie slicked up a song about exploitation for a shot at the charts. But once you get past that level of meta, you’re still left with a deeply conventional arrangement for the period, in which, as you put it, “everything fits”. It’s really a perfect example of the coopting of the alternative for the mainstream, which was one of the leitmotivs of the eighties. Or, as John Lydon put it at the time: “Big business is very wise, I’m moving into enterprise.”

  5. col1234 says:

    Hugo–it’s a fair jibe. It *is* a cheesy pop song, and I’m making a prosecutorial brief for the DB version being more subversive than it probably is.

    & your “Low” is an excellent book. It’s going to be very hard to say something new about that record you haven’t (& it’s my fave Bowie record, too, so objectivity will be tough)…

    • ian says:

      I feel like “Low” being your fave (good pick, btw) is just going to make for more loving posts (not that any posts really are lacking in that). Besides, it might be fun to see how people might argue Low down?

      I’m pretty excited to get into this section of DB, “Heroes” (the album) in particular. Aside from the title track, I don’t see much writing about the album in general, other than the usual “lop it in with the Berlin albums and call it a day.” Exciting frontiers.

  6. Hugo says:

    I’m really pleased you liked my book, and I have to admit I’m keen to see what you have to say about Low! I had a kind of thesis and came at the album from a very particular angle, though, so I’m sure there’s lots more to say from other perspectives.

  7. normanball says:

    There’s nothing wrong with a song operating on multiple levels, as so much of Bowie’s stuff does. My first sense is that this song is reaching beyond the East-West cultural divide (or at least is using that well-acknowledged divide to speak to a larger, more profound one.) There is the corrosive effect of the Rock Star on all things not-rock, sort of an anti-Midas touch. By virtue of hindsight, the reaction to the cultural threat of Elvis et al is made to look ridiculous now. But the evangelical album-burners of the 50’s were not completely out-to-lunch.

    I think of the decades-old Rolling Stones traveling circle where scores of people outside of the immediate vortex (the soon-to-be-late B. Jones having been recently stripped of his insider status via pink slip) die of drugs and various assorted r’n r excesses.

    That china girl is a pure form of heroin serves as even more fortuitous metaphor.

  8. Joe the Lion says:

    I was never a big fan of Bowie’s version, although I think his vocal is excellent. Heard Iggy Pop’s original much later and instantly preferred it. Really nice thought that Bowie’s version ironised the subject of exploitation via its own slickness, but when it’s part of an album where every song is similarly produced, it’s harder to sustain.

  9. diamond dog says:

    I’m in minority here I prefer Bowie’s version its got blinding guitar solo and the band are shit hot. I think its the weakest track on idiot its good but feels like the odd one out.

  10. davidp says:

    I heard an interview with Iggy Pop in the 1980s (he must have been visiting Australia) where he said he really liked the bass line in David Bowie’s version.

    • twinkle-twinkle says:

      I’m sure Iggy enjoyed the royalties too, which was probably part of db’s hope, to help his friend.

      Bowie always reflected things going on around him, and gave them a twist. I always saw ‘Lets Dance’ as his ‘Dare’, (Human League), with guitars rather than synths.

      It was criticised for having guitar solo’s all over it, like Hendrix. The following year’s ‘next big thing’ was Prince and his Ziggyesque ‘Purple Rain’ as played by Hendrix.

      With the ‘Lets Dance’ drum sound appearing everywhere – Duran Duran, the Associates, and on PIL’s next album, which also included Led Zep samples and Ginger Baker on drums, Bowie seems to have been ahead of something, even if it wasn’t always the Bowie we truly wanted.

      I’m as big an anorak as anyone, but I think over-analyzing some of these songs and calling this one racist because of the jokey vocal impression is what the UK’s reactionary rag, The Mail, might call,’political correctness gone mad!’ Oh… just you shu’ you’ mouff, lol.

      If you look at where Bowie was at this time; being bled dry by an ex-manager and mad ex-wife; dead musical heroes and friends; narrowly escaping the bullets that killed Lennon (Bowie was the next target if Chapman had failed to meet John Lennon that night). Bowie had worked his arse off through the 70’s. I think he deserved to give himself a break… and a nice pay-off.

      He probably thought he’d tour ‘Lets Dance’, fill his boots, get rid of the old record label, wife and manager, then get on with ‘art’. Instead he lost direction and found a new albatross, something perhaps much, much worse than he could ever have imagined… Phil Collins fans – cue ‘Psycho’ shower music!

  11. [...] On producing David Bowie’s China Girl, Nile Rodgers famously declared (I am paraphrasing) “if it’s going to be called China Gir… [...]

  12. James says:

    Bowie’s version is off course superior. The original suffers from a lack of sonic cohesion and climax.

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