Modern Love

Modern Love.
Modern Love (single edit, video).
Modern Love (live, 1983).
Modern Love (Live Aid, 1985).
Modern Love (live, 1987).
Modern Love (live, 1990).
Modern Love (broadcast, 2004).
Modern Love (live, 2004).

Here comes my Chinese rug!

Iggy Pop, “Success.”

EMI’s (reported) $17 million contract with Bowie was one of the last good bets that recently-dismembered label ever made, as Let’s Dance repaid EMI’s advance within the year. It moved some six million copies (reportedly EMI’s fastest seller since Sgt. Pepper), hitting #1 in the UK and #4 in the US, and spawned three global hit singles.

Then Bowie went on tour for eight months. On a single night in San Bernardino, for his appearance at the US Festival, he made $1.5 million; he made nearly another million for four concerts in Chicago, $1.2 million for a single Edmonton concert. Bowie reportedly netted between $25 million to $35 million for the entire tour. He commissioned a private Boeing 707 for transport (so much for the old fear of flying). Every night, according to his backing singer Frank Simms, the crew and musicians drank and dined like emperors. By the end of 1983, Bowie had likely earned at least $50 million in a single year (inflation-adjusted, $108 million).1

So the former Beckenham oddball now had a net worth comparable to some of the Windsors. (Charles Shaar Murray: “I saw the footage of Bowie in Singapore ['83]. And I suddenly thought, he’s turned into Prince Charles. In a suit, with an old-fashioned haircut like a lemon meringue on his head, talking in this posh accent.” As per Paul Trynka’s bio.)

“Modern Love,” released in September 1983, was Let’s Dance‘s clean-up hit.2 And in its video form, “Modern Love” was a recapitulation of recent triumphs, the promo consisting of shots of Bowie working an adoring audience (in Philadelphia, Bowie’s go-to city for live recordings/footage). It was a rock video as tour commercial—don’t miss the giant inflated crescent moon! the horn section wearing pith helmets! Coming to your town next month!

But the actual song was more compromised. The ebullient lead-off track of Let’s Dance, “Modern Love” is a Bowie cultural doom-piece like “Five Years” recast as a boogie, nihilism in the high key of Little Richard. Bowie said the track’s call-and-response vocal arrangement “all comes from Little Richard,” Tony Thompson’s drumming seems like a gated update of Charles Connor’s barrage on “Keep a Knockin‘,” and Rob Sabino’s piano, though unfortunately sunk in the mix, is indebted to both Little Richard and Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry’s pianist.

“Modern Love” is a brightly-mixed pastiche of retired genres, with its early rock & roll kick beat and its soul-inspired vocal harmonies, while its instrumental verse, a tenor sax solo by Robert Aaron, owes more to a Fifties R&B honker like Earl Bostic than anyone post-Coltrane.3

The Kinks’ “Come Dancing,” released a month before Let’s Dance was recorded, has some affinities with “Modern Love,” not just in its throwback sound. “Come Dancing” recounts how rock & roll killed off the light pop jazz of postwar Britain—how the liberated Sixties buried the Forties, for good or ill. In “Modern Love,” now rock and roll is the old, endangered music, coasting on past glories, recreating itself in lesser forms. Whatever transcendence the music once offered is gone, leaving just fading colors and noise, the false consolations of memory, revivalists shining up the relics of an emptied kingdom.

Lyrically, “Modern Love” seems a revisit of “Soul Love.” In the earlier song, Bowie considered “love” as an abstract force (in his wonderful line “sweeping over cross and baby“), one that consumes lovers, priests and mothers, a force as delusive as it is powerful. “Love” in “Modern Love” has an even more astringent quality—there’s something sharp and cold in Bowie’s use of it here.

In “Modern Love”‘s circular 24-bar chorus (repeated three times in all), with its equally cyclical chord progression of the first four degrees of C major (C, D, Em, Fmaj7), Bowie starts out trying out “modern love,”4 finds it wanting, and takes solace in traditional marriage (“church on time”). But tradition’s just as empty, so he puts his trust in humanist religion (‘God and man!”) and finds that equally barren. (These moves are echoed harmonically by the fall back to the tonic, C major, with each new disappointment). The chorus closes with an echo of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and “God,” Bowie checking off everything that’s failed him—no religion, no confessions, no love. Nothing means anything, nothing works anymore. So the chorus ends back where it started, on “modern love,” because it’s the most appealing of the false gods.

Yet while the first verse opens with another image of empty circularity, Bowie buying a newspaper that only tells him there’s no real news, there’s also a weak sense of effort, of pushing back, if passively: standing in the wind, lying in the rain. But I try. I try. Bowie’s spoken opening lines are the only real counter-force: I know when to go out. I know when to stay in: get things done. It’s like a condensed shareholder’s letter. This was Bowie recasting himself, yet again: here as a dedicated counterfeiter for a debased time (“it’s not really work, it’s just the power to charm,” he smiles—how others must see the faker), as a man bled clean of his former vices and now ready to go to work.

“Modern Love” opens (in 6/8 time) with Nile Rodgers’ stuttering guitar riff, like someone trying to tug a motor into life, and it’s soon echoed on Tony Thompson’s drums. Thompson’s excellent on this track, with his subtly alternating patterns on every other bar. Carmine Rojas’ bass mainly holds the low end, with a few murmured commentaries at the end of verses, while the horns, as if they’ve been penned up, start chugging to go as the second verse ends.

Bowie’s vocal is one of his strongest on the record—he never doubts himself, despite what he encounters; he’s determined to sell you through it. And for once the Simms brothers and David Spinner, who sound like a demented glee club on most of Let’s Dance, are put to good use, here serving as audience surrogates, chanting back whatever words Bowie feeds them, being driven along before him.

“Modern Love” soon became Bowie’s encore set piece, with Bowie using the “never wave bye-bye” line literally, and he began to sing the entire piece in an excited, agitated manner. But the studio version slowly builds, with Bowie holding back until, having gone through his circle of disappointment yet again, he finally accepts the inevitable—that when there’s nothing of value left, one must accept nothing, and work at it. “MODERN LOVE!” he starts yelling, fully caught up in it at last. “WALKS BESIDE ME! WALKS ON BY!” (yet another old song churned up in the mix). Everyone’s borne along: the manic singers, the frantic horns, Tony Thompson crashing his cymbals. The fade comes while everyone’s still dancing in the circle. The bright communal joy of “Modern Love” masks a spiritually empty view of life, in which work is the last religion standing. As such, it was a song made for its times.

Recorded ca. 1-20 December 1982, The Power Station, NYC. Released as a single (EA 158, #2 UK, #14 US) in September 1983.

1 These estimates are from George Tremlett, the Bowie biographer most keen on the money angle. Tremlett noted that since Bowie was a Swiss resident at the time, he likely paid a mere $10,000 in taxes on his alleged $50 million haul.

2 Pop albums once had quickly diminishing returns: the first or second single was the big hit, while the third, if one was even released, was usually a chart-placer at best. Then it was time for a new record. But around 1983, labels realized that they could just milk one album for years, Epic leading the way with Thriller (seven charting singles from a nine-track LP, over a 16-month period). Recall how many mid-Eighties hits were third or fourth singles: “Borderline,” “Beat It,” “Delirious,” “Hello,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Walk of Life,” “She Bop,” “Born in the USA,” etc. This practice reached its peak in the Nineties, when labels harvested albums so relentlessly that no one ever wanted to hear anything else the artist did again (Alanis Morissette, the Spin Doctors, Hootie and the Blowfish, etc.)

3 In Bowie’s later live versions of the song, especially the Earl Slick guitar-heavy incarnation from the last tour, the “Lust for Life”/”You Can’t Hurry Love” beat is pretty obviously there too.

4 The concept of “Modern Love” itself is a bit of a joke, as it’s as old as “modernity” itself (see George Meredith’s 50-canto poem of the same title, from 1862).

Top: “ChuckP,” “Toga, 1983.”

45 Responses to Modern Love

  1. Maj says:

    I love dancing to this song. Together with the title song & China Girl this was the one I was always able to listen to off the album. It’s a good pop song: danceable, with lyrics betraying the music and the overall mood of the song. I like pop songs like this. I wish more of the album sounded like Modern Love does…but with Bowie it’s never a full commitment, he’s always “one foot elswhere”…

  2. lonepilgrim says:

    It sounds pretty relentless – Little Richard’s numbers usually lasted only a couple of minutes but this goes on a bit too long for comfort. The ‘Church on time’ line always seemed like a steal from ‘I’m getting married in the morning’

  3. Anonymous says:

    For me, Modern Love is the album’s pop marvel, more than the title track. I think the reason I’ve always been so taken with it is because, like many a great pop song, it’s ebullience is countered by a yearning quality in the vocal, lyric, and melody. This song has always had a pleasing melancholy for me, more than LD. I’m also particularly fond of the 2004 live version; with the sped-up tempo and the driving guitars replacing the horns, it also sounds like The Buzzcocks!

    I wanted to thank you for another great post, and I look forward to your writing on the terrible mid-80’s as it’s a phase not usually examined that closely. One other observation about the album; it has seemed to me that it had a big influence on Bowie’s contemporaries as a model for how to navigate the 80’s. Artists like Sting, Steve Winwood, and Peter Gabriel maintained commercial relevance by getting streamlined and shiny, utilizing the new production sounds while hearkening back to traditional 60’s soul and r&b. Arguably, some of these managed to update their sound and go commercial with more taste and conviction than Bowie did. (I’m thinking especially of Gabriel’s So.) Still, I think, for good and bad, LD probably stands as one of DB’s most influential records.

    Looking forward (somewhat perversely) to the entries on Tonight. Cheers (and I’m glad to hear your cousin is back safe.)

  4. Roger L says:

    Another great dissection/analysis – keep up the good work, as previous commenters say, into the more troublesome LPs to follow. Thanks for pointing out Bowie’s somewhat perverse “calculated” sincerity that is often overlooked, something that makes him more enigmatic than many pop stars (and is there anyone more pop?). This quality in his songwriting makes his songs resonate and seem more ageless to me, appealing to the heart, the mind, and the feet in turn, and coloring their impact depending upon my mood, age, level of drink, and outlook.

    They end up being old familiar friends.

    Best, R

  5. Frankie says:

    This song always worked for me on a musical level and energy-wise. I enjoyed the Philip Glass-like sax orchestration buried in the mix, whilst listening to it on headphones. I was in the midst of a religious crisis during that time. I was in the process of quitting the Mormon church ( I didn’t know the great Mick Ronson was a Mormon at that point. Good thing too: That might have delayed my departure), and so the lyrics had a particular resonance for me. But I must have misheard his blurb at the start of the tune all these years. I was convinced that he said, “I don’t want to go out. I want to stay in, get things done.” I thought his introverted attitude was funny for a dance song message. Soul Love is a fitting precursor to the lyrics. I enjoy considering your histories to previous pop tunes, a-la The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom. But Love You Till Tuesday might be more fitting. After all, that love affair began on a Sunday, perhaps even at church. Could that explain why he dumped her so soon?

    • col1234 says:

      That’s just my final guess at the opening lines, which aren’t included either on the LP sleeve or the official sheet music. For a long time I thought it was “I don’t want to go out” too, but I think, after listening to the damn thing for ages on headphones, that it’s “I know when to go out”. Am i wrong? anyone else?

      and yes, if Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” theory applies to any rock star, it’s DB.

      • Maj says:

        I think you’re right. I also Ilways thought it’s “don’t wanna” but listening with headphones it does sound more like “know when”. :)

      • David L says:

        I always thought it was the way Frankie said, too, and it makes more sense that way. Has he ever said it in a live recording? Often the best way to discern murky lyrics.

        Great, great write up.

      • col1234 says:

        it’s the lack of the initial plosive “t” sound (on the record) that convinces me. seems much more “kNO-wen-to-go-OUT” than “donT-wan-to-go-OUT”. but then again, he could be slurring the words

      • David L says:

        Just had a listen with earphones — I agree, it’s “know when to go out.”

      • Jasper says:

        I too thought it was “I don’t want to go out” until reading this, and then listening again today. I prefer the now not existing “I don’t want to go out”, as a contrast to the upbeat song, but It’s a great song, with good lyrics.

        Thanks to scarymonster for linking to the The Last Town Chorus cover, I like the way they have slowed the song down.

      • Gnomemansland says:

        Definately “I know when to go out – know when to stay in – and get things done…”

      • KenHR says:

        “Know when to go out,” definitely.

        Those words, the first uttered by the singer on the album as a whole, might well be a mission statement for the LD album:

        I know when to go “out” (i.e. do the avant-garde thing)

        Know when to stay in, get things done (i.e. color inside the lines, do what’s needed to get one’s business in order; LD was in part a move to make Bowie solvent)

  6. MrBelm says:

    I saw the Serious Moonlight tour at one of its stops in Madison Square Garden in July of 1983. The touring band included Earl Slick, Carlos Alomar, Tony Thompson, Carmine Rojas, and Lenny Pickett. From the opening “Station to Station” to the closing “Modern Love,” I’ve never experienced a more carefully tuned live performance, probably the zenith of Bowie’s performing career.

    Not surprisingly, the set list included more songs from Station to Station (everything except “Word on a Wing”) then Let’s Dance, and a surprise cover of “White Light/White Heat.”

    • David L says:

      Wow. I am jealous. That must have been amazing.

      Why do you say “not surprisingly”? I would have thought he’d be pushing the new stuff more than anything else.

      • MrBelm says:

        “Not surprisingly” because the S to S stuff had already been tour tested. And when you can open with a tear-the-roof of version of “Station to Station,” you had better serve up “Golden Years,” “Stay,” and “TVC15.” “Wild is the Wind” was probably included for pacing rather than completeness.

        For me the only disappointment of the entire set was Alomar’s anemic solo in “REd Sails,” a song that should have been omitted if Belew wasn’t the guitarist.

      • David L says:

        Interesting. I thought Alomar’s solos for the Glass Spider concert I saw were lacking as well.

        Lucky for him he kicks ass in the studio!

    • LondonLee says:

      Well, the Serious Moonlight tour was another part of the new audience-friendly Bowie so it was part LD promo and part greatest hits show. The show I saw at Wembley he did everything you’d want, even Life On Mars and Space Oddity (and White Light/White Heat)

  7. Remco says:

    “The bright communal joy of “Modern Love” masks a spiritually empty view of life, in which work is the last religion standing. As such, it was a song made for its times”…..wonderful writing, but then I’m used to that by now. What I’m not used to is having my opinion of a song changed as a result of one of your posts. Well, you kind of ruined ‘Time’ for me by pointing out how infantile the lyrics are but this time you’ve actually redeemed an entire song I used to hate. I guess I was fooled by the bubbly poppiness and never bothered to really listen to the words since I didn’t figure they’d be worth the effort [when I got into Bowie he’d already disowned this entire period, and the first time I heard this song I was eight and therefore didn’t understand any English]

    You make a very convincing case for this song as a bleak, disappointing portrait of the times. As such it’s a fantastically subversive song. Never would’ve thought ‘Modern Love’ would turn out to be a hidden gem for me.

  8. Gnomemansland says:

    Really Modern Love is everything the rest of the LP should have been – tight, punchy – a throwback to the 50s which Bowie had been doing since the 60s but here with the 80s super compressed drum sound. Elton John’s ‘I’m Still Standing” from the same year is pretty similar though this might just be coincidence…..

  9. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    http://pinstripehourglass.tumblr.com/post/11749941786/the-first-in-a-series-possibly

    I made this a few weeks ago as a laugh, but I think it helps capture something about the song – there’s a real sense of panic to the chorus. Bowie can’t seem to keep up with his own thoughts, for example. And he’s never quite sure if Modern Love is good or bad or what – just look at how fast he changes his mind.

    “Modern Love gets me to the church on time which makes puts my faith in god and man who don’t believe in modern love which gets me to the church on time which puts my faith in god and man who don’t believe in modern love which…”

    Isn’t “God and man – no religion – God and man – no confessions” an odd lyric for a hit pop song? No religion? And what’s this about going to church on time – it terrifies you but makes you party? (That part almost seems to call back to Diamond Dogs and Bowie’s rock’n’roll apocalypse).

    And then all of a sudden Bowie is standing out in a field somewhere, barraged by the cold wind and rain and searching desperately for some sign of life, but without luck.

    Modern Love isn’t a love song, it’s a song about love, as written by a paranoid schizophrenic. Look at the verses:

    I catch the paper boy BUT things dont’ really change I’m standing in the wind BUT I never wave bye bye BUT I try, I TRY!

    His thoughts are flowing faster than he can possibly sing them and it’s all terribly, terribly desperate.

    The most human song on the album, I’d say.

  10. Brendan O'Lear says:

    That flowchart really is something! And all for ‘Modern Love’, a song I’ve never bothered to listen to properly. Never been able to get past those opening drums.
    I remember seeing him perform this live while kicking huge inflatable globes into the crowd – a la mid-seventies Rod Stewart – and repeating the phrase “Bye bye.” It was bye-bye from him and bye-bye from me too.
    I’m definitely in the ‘know when to’ camp.
    Interesting to see the ‘fear of flying’ forgotten about. Another Mainman-era interview soundbite bites the dust.

  11. Jeremy Earl says:

    I’m suprised, particularly owing to all the controversy about his comments about homosexuality and Criminal World, that no one has mentioned anything about the theory that Modern Love is about gay love.

    The theory I heard was that the term “modern love” is slang for gay love, hence the lines “Modern love, walks on by, walks beside me” – “never wave good bye, but I try.” “modern love, gets me to the church on time etc” are Bowie struggling with the temptations of gay love, that he can’t completely move away from it despite him wanting to (hence his comments in the media) I don’t know whether I subscribe to this theory but when I read about it it was a convincing argument (better than mine) and it made me think.

    So, what do people think?

    Great write-up again, by the way.

  12. jopasso says:

    What happened between this natural link that in my opinion form Modern Love and Absolute Beginners?
    The answer is Tonight. Nowadays I still don’t understand it. And the several biographies I’ve read don’t throw much light at this.

    Anyway, I remember how frustrated I became, when I knew the S.M.Tour didn’t visit my country. For a 15 year old kid it was almost the end of the world.

  13. scarymonster says:

    I began to loathe this when the live version was released on the b-side of the single way back in 1983. BBC Radio 1’s Simon Bates was a particular fan of it, if I recall, which simply confirmed it’s ‘to be avoided at all costs’ status.

    I continued to avoid it until 2007, when this breathtaking interpretation made me re-evaluate and re-discover the quality of the song itself:

    I still prefer The Last Town Chorus’ version, but wouldn’t it have been fantastic if, in one of those late 90s ‘unplugged’ acoustic moments, Bowie had excised the forced jollity and reconnected with Modern Love’s inner bleakness?

  14. diamond dog says:

    Great piece on a great track the analysis is spot on and thought provoking. Its a very underrated track a great opener and has become a classic I think. Again I love the uptempo tune over quite a down lyric., a clever pop moment. It is as you say very influential on the pop heirachy. Take Billy Joel with his uptown girl and lp of backward looking tunes which took it to the extreme. I don,t think Bowie could go anywhere but back in time and at the time with so many copycats and futurists about it was fresh sounding to hear something from the past and it turns out to be very lucrative. Let’s face it lots of glam rock was ripping off doo wop etc.

  15. J.D. says:

    Obvious enough, but the Pygmalion / My Fair Lady nod is worth noting … and yes, it gets him to the Church On Time.
    DB should have skipped Baal and done his own MFL rockopera style. He always was one for a little cockney variety in his voicings … Alright, no.
    But the Tony Newley in him would’ve loved it.

  16. Brendan O'Lear says:

    One more thing … not sure about the ‘posh voice’ bit. Surely Bowie’s greatest posh voice work came in the years between 75-78, perhaps peaking on his Russell Harty transatlantic interview.
    Charles Shaar Murray is an interesting case. One of Bowie’s greatest media supporters and advocates down the years but pretty much wrong in everything he wrote about DB.

  17. Diamond Duke says:

    Personally, I always thought the comparison of his hairstyle at the time with a scrambled egg was the more accurate one! :LOL: Awww, I kid only because I love…

    Anyway, I’m seriously loving this blog, and I’ve been very impressed with the insights brought to bear on Bowie’s work. Cool photographs, as well…

    I have only recently become a seriously hardcore David Bowie fan. To think that only this last spring I only had the “Best Of 1969/1974″ and “1974/1979″ compilations as well as “1.Outside” (being a big fan of ’90s movies like “Se7en” and “Lost Highway” and my curiosity having been piqued by the Bowie tracks I heard on their soundtracks). Now…I have practically every single one of the man’s official releases, including a double-dip for the special editions of “Space Oddity,” “Young Americans” and “Station To Station,” the “Sound + Vision” box set, and almost all of the live albums.

    I don’t have the Tin Machine discs yet, or the live “Stage” and the “iSelect” compilation, and I’m still very interested in collecting all the extra tracks on various currently out-of-print RykoDisc and special anniversary editions (“Bombers,” “Holy Holy,” “Lucy Can’t Dance,” etc.). But I’m gradually getting there, rest assured…

  18. Remco says:

    This has nothing to do with the song in question but I figured you folks might be as amused by this as I am:

  19. princeasbo says:

    “Get me to the church on time”, perhaps best known for its lines “I’m gettin’ married in the mornin’…”, is from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady musical.

    Let’s Dance is a 1950 musical film starring Betty Hutton and Fred Astaire.

    Is it any wonder he went for the Ab. Beg. musical film in such a big way.

  20. justine says:

    I can’t listen to this song without going with my mind to Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang and last images of that movie, that’s Modern Love for me ….http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_ww1rDz4ZI

  21. Anonymous says:

    A+. Full stop. Bowie decides to play pop star and just totally kills it. I really wonder if those folks who say this is some sort of failure even were fans of him to begin with. Perfection.

  22. Pierre says:

    Watching that video only confirms that he was incarnating another well-tuned persona. The media at the times didn’t get it proclaiming that this was the real Bowie. I love the song by the way. If it’d been released as the first single it might have pushed further.

  23. Disappointed that there’s no comment on the Pepsi duet version. :(

  24. Vinnie M says:

    Can I just say – this is one of Bowie’s best. Not best in “Side B of Low” or “The genius of ‘Station to Station'”, but best in what Bowie set out to accomplish in the first place – a pop musician with whit (see, Lennon).

    Play this song loud and you’ll have a good time. There’s no reason not to.

    “Church on time”? Come on, how subversive is that? Just imagine this song recorded without the slickness of Let’s Dance‘s polished production. Make it gritter, give it to Eno during the Berlin period or Visconti on Scary Monsters, and shit, you would still have the same song, but it wouldn’t have been a pop hit.

    If only he would have stopped here and not gone on to Tonight

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