Fashion (single edit, video).
Fashion (live, 1983).
Fashion (live, VH1 Fashion Awards, 1996)
Fashion (live, with Frank Black, 1997).
Fashion (live, 1997).
Fashion (Jonathan Ross, 2002).
Fashion (live, 2002).
Fashion (live, with Damon Albarn, 2003).
“Fashion,” the last song completed for Scary Monsters, kicks off Bowie’s Eighties: a dance song with bad intentions. Though Bowie later took pains to say the song wasn’t about neo-fascism, lines like “we are the goon squad and we’re coming to town,” the double-meaning of “turn to the left, turn to the right” and even the way Bowie sings the song’s title as a near-homophone of “fascism,” suggest otherwise.
Bowie instead said he had intended “Fashion” as a sequel to Ray Davies’ “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” with the idea of being hip as a wearying, conformist full-time job (although Bowie was writing about that as early as 1966, see “Join the Gang” or “Maid of Bond Street“). “When I first started going to discos in New York in the early ’70s, there was a very high powered enthusiasm and [the scene] had a natural course about it,” Bowie said on a promo disc. “[It] seems now to be replaced by an insidious grim determination to be fashionable, as though it’s actually a vocation. There’s some kind of strange aura about it.“
Using as a starting point another Astronettes song, “People From Bad Homes,” which turns up in the verse lyric, Bowie also nabbed the “beep-beep” hook from his lost goofball gem “Rupert the Riley.” Like “Ashes to Ashes,” “Fashion” began life as a reggae number (and the clicking sound of Andy Clark’s sequencer, the first sound you hear, works as the equivalent to a guitar upstroke throughout the track), with Bowie originally singing the title hook as “Jahhh-MAI-ca!” Bowie didn’t know what to do with the song at this point, and was about to scrap it until Visconti, correctly sensing that the track was a potential hit single, allegedly implored Bowie to write a lyric. The next morning, Bowie turned up with his complete lines, got them quickly on tape, and mixing on the record began the same evening.
A groove piece built around a handful of augmented chords (G7 and Fadd9 in the verse and a flatted B 7th in the chorus, with a swerve to D minor in the six-bar bridge), “Fashion” was Bowie’s most straight-on dance track since “Golden Years,” which it partially rewrites.* Unlike the vocal calisthenics of other Scary Monsters performances, Bowie here keeps to a narrow, comfortable three-note range for the verse, his vocal one long insinuation. His rhythms are sharp, too: Bowie opens the verse with three short descending notes (“brand-new-dance” or “brand-new-talk“), then offers a longer, equally drooping line to balance it out (“but I don’t know its name,” etc.). Then there’s the wonderful way that Bowie takes what seems like a lyrical misstep in the second verse, his words not really fitting the meter (“shout it while they’re dancing on the dance floor“), and makes it a miniature performance: he puts weight on “the,” drags it up an octave and extends it far beyond its means, suggesting the image of someone trying to foot their way onto a crowded dance floor.
Robert Fripp, seemingly channeling the Gang of Four’s Andy Gill in the intro, gets two vicious skronky eight-bar guitar solos, along with his various shrieking outbreaks throughout the song (the one erupting at 2:43 threatens to consume the track whole). While Fripp later called his performance “blues-rock played with a contemporary grammar,” it’s more like a run of dissonant tones that occasionally threaten melodies. Fripp seems to have been recorded by Visconti first across the studio room (the cavernous sound of the opening) and then closer-miked with a flanger applied, with Fripp also possibly using his favorite fuzzbox, the obscure WEM Project 5 that he’d had since Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire.” Fripp cut the solo at 10:30 AM in London after a long drive back from Leeds, where he had played the previous evening. “There’s nothing you feel less like in the world than turning out a burning solo—fiery rock and roll at 10:30 in the morning– just out of a truck. But it doesn’t matter much how you feel, you just get on with it,” Fripp later said. (Graham Coxon allegedly was so intent on trying to capture the sound of Fripp’s “Fashion” solo on Blur’s “London Loves” that the song’s working title was “Fripp.”)
“Fashion” marks the last stand of the great Bowie rhythm section. While Carlos Alomar will be a central character for a while longer, this is where we part company with George Murray and Dennis Davis. They go out blazing: take the way Murray’s bass plays the “fash-ion” two-note hook well before Bowie sings it, or the two chicken-scratch Alomar guitar tracks parked in the left and right channels, or Davis’ hissing disco hi-hat mixed left. Davis was playing to a drum machine pattern for the first time ever in his work with Bowie—Visconti had intended to keep the synth beat in the mix as well, but Davis was so tight that Visconti just used his drum track, only digitally treated and fattened with handclaps.
Dennis was so open. He was almost orgiastic in his approach to trying out new stuff. He’d say, ‘Yeah, let’s do that new shit, man.” I told him about a Charlie Mingus gig that I saw where the drummer had polythene tubes that would go into the drums, and he would suck and blow to change the pressure as he played. Dennis was out the next day buying that stuff. Dennis is crazy, an absolute loony man, but he had a lot of his own thoughts on things, and he would throw us all kinds of curve-balls.
David Bowie, Modern Drummer, 1997.
Davis, Bowie’s finest drummer, would keep working as a session and touring musician (he’s on some of Stevie Wonder’s early Eighties albums, and Davis would return to collaborating with Roy Ayers in the Nineties and Aughts), as well as a teacher: among his students was Sterling Campbell, who played on some of Bowie’s later records. He’s still playing today (here’s a drum solo from a performance with Yukari in 2007 and Old Soul in 2010), and he recorded an album called “The Groovemaster” at some point (as per his now-deleted website).
George Murray is a more mysterious case. As far as I can determine, Murray only cut one more album, Jerry Harrison’s The Red and the Black,** in 1981, and then apparently retired from session work and touring. He has, basically,vanished: I’ve found no reference to him in the past three decades. Often described as a reserved man, Murray likely was tired of the rock & roll life and just got out of it (a move that perhaps inspired Bowie around 2005). Still, the man who was the support beam of Station to Station and Low, of the ’78 tour and Scary Monsters, deserves far more recognition than he gets. Raise a glass to a master.
Recorded February 1980, Power Station, NYC; April 1980, Good Earth Studios, London. Released as a single in October 1980 (RCA BOW 7, #5 UK). A live favorite, especially in the later tours, where it often was a duet with Gail Ann Dorsey. Sung with Frank Black at Bowie’s 50th anniversary party and with Damon Albarn in 2003 (Albarn seems either hungover or flu-ridden: what a half-assed performance).
* Nicholas Pegg wondered if Bowie was possibly inspired by the Boomtown Rats’ “Rat Trap” for the “listen to me, don’t talk to me” lyric in the bridge (Bob Geldof singing “walk don’t walk/talk don’t talk” ) but I don’t really hear it. I also really hate “Rat Trap,” so there’s that too.
** This is a fine record, but Harrison had the misfortune to release a solo album in the same year when his Talking Heads colleagues put out “Genius of Love” and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. He wound up looking like the Ringo of the group.
Top: Eddie Woods, “Roberto Valenza, San Francisco, Summer 1980.”