You can’t take me on my own. You can only use me as a form of reference.
David Bowie, interview, 1984.
“Blue Jean,” the only track to escape the morass of Tonight, was written off as a cheap score by its creators. Hugh Padgham regretted that of all the promising demos he’d heard, “Blue Jean” was one of the handful that Bowie developed. It was Padgham’s least favorite of the lot. Padgham had always wanted to work with Bowie; cruel fate assigned him Tonight (it’s like a lifelong Hitchcock fan collaborating on Topaz).
And Bowie didn’t think much of “Blue Jean” either—it was the single, it got him on the radio again and let him do a slapstick extended video. It was a vehicle: he used it, he had no love for it. Bit of a sexist rock & roll thing, he later said. Music for picking up girls.
Bowie seemed mired in vague nostalgia at the time of Tonight, pining for the London of his teenage years. He liked working on the “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” video with Julien Temple because he got to play-act being caught up in London life again (he hadn’t lived there for over a decade now), and he felt Temple was part of a fresh pack. Temple, along with Alex Cox, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh, was waking up the moribund British film industry, so working with him made Bowie feel contemporary again. (Bowie soon had a role in Temple’s Absolute Beginners.)
Missing what he called the vitality of the Sixties, the smartness in dress, the sudden dominance of youth, Bowie found in Thatcherite London at least a simulacrum of it. After all, there was money, fashion, swinging parties, respectable drugs. But Sixties London also had taken its savor from working-class life and provincial imports, creating, if for a moment, a “classless” society of the young, wild and hip. Not quite the case in aspirational Eighties London, an after-hours playground for young professionals.
So “Blue Jean” is a throwback in a period of throwbacks. It’s even more retro than “Let’s Dance,” taking cues from Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else,” Sam Cooke (“somebody send me“), Sixties rock & roll (Carlos Alomar’s arpeggiated guitar in the verses has echoes of “If I Needed Someone”). Bowie’s low-pitched word-tumbling vocal in the verse suggests an uptempo Jacques Dutronc, the alto saxophonist sounds like a Georgie Fame player who’s been given a slightly longer leash. Taking Robin Clark out of the vocal chorus alters its sound, making the now-all-male backing singers sound conspiratorial and even slightly lustful.
“Blue Jean” herself is an exotic temptress out of a Frankie Laine song, or, worse, a Tom Jones track (she’s got “Latin roots”). If she has an ancestor in the Bowie catalog, it’s the original manic pixie hippie girl “Janine.”
A basic workout in D major (the slight tension in the early bars of each verse is owed to a wavering between D and a D suspended fourth), “Blue Jean”‘s chorus moves between the dominant, A major, and the mediant, F# minor—so the song is mainly keeping to the basic tones of the D chord (D, F#, A); there are no real surprises except swapping in a natural C (on “police bike”) for a sharp one. Two verses, three choruses, no bridges or solos save a four-bar Alomar riffing transition. “Blue Jean” ends just when you get sick of it.
There’s a lot of small pleasures to be found: take how Omar Hakim slightly varies the climactic drum fill at the end of each verse—first hard on the snare, then quick on the bass drum. Or Alomar’s typically crafty rhythm playing (there’s the sweet way that he lags against the beat midway through the verse (as on “always let you down when you need ‘em“)). And the marimba player Guy St. Onge makes the track, accenting Alomar’s guitar in the verses, meshing with the drums to build up to the chorus, where it plays counter-melodies to the vocals. “Blue Jean” is fun, catchy, flash; it moves well, it does its business quickly. One of the best second-rate Bowie hits.
Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec. Released as a single in September 1984 (EA 181, #6 UK, #8 US). The Temple-directed 20-minute “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” promotional video used the age-old “doppleganger” formula where the star plays both nerd and cool kid (for a more recent example, see Taylor Swift). Look for the Right Said Fred guy playing Bowie’s bassist, though the highlight for me is “Screamin’ Lord Byron” applying his makeup while listening to “Warszawa.”
Top: Miami police officer Tina Hicks in simulator training, November 1984. (via the fantastic If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger… blog).