He sees me as a character. Probably an American beatnik who survived, Kerouac thirty years later. And I see him as one of the only representatives of the enfranchised world that understands me or that I can stand.
Iggy Pop, on David Bowie, 1987.
Bowie’s last public act of goodwill for Iggy Pop was to make him a hit record, which Bowie did with economy, selecting some Pop demos, writing a few other songs with him and recording the lot over three weeks with a skeleton crew. Kevin Armstrong provided the guitar, while the jack-of-all-trades Erdal Kizilcay essentially made the rest of the album: playing bass, synths, keyboards and drums, writing a string arrangement and, along with Armstrong, singing backing vocals. Co-producer David Richards programmed the Linn Drum. Bowie and Pop were the roadies, hauling gear in and out of the studio.
Blah-Blah-Blah was intended as Pop’s own Let’s Dance—a contemporary-sounding album with a sure-fire single (in this case, Pop’s cover of Johnny O’Keefe’s “Real Wild Child”).* And Pop was a willing partner in his rehabilitation. “I wanted to write stuff people would hum,” he told Peter Antony in 1986. “[The album] sounds real good and I know it. It sounds good enough to be played on the radio.”
Blah was shopped around to labels, including Virgin and A&M, which started a bidding war.”[Blah-Blah-Blah] came in pretty much finished, and it was almost like a David Bowie record that, as a record company, you wished you’d had but never got,” said Nancy Jeffries, A&M’s talent head at the time. A&M got the record, reportedly for $500,000, including a good-sized producer’s fee for Bowie (his work wasn’t entirely altruistic). Its promotion staff, in a savvy bit of counter-Christmas programming, pushed “Wild Child” in the UK in December 1986 and it hit #10, the best chart performance of Pop’s life.**
In the years since its release, Blah has fallen into some critical neglect, its status not helped by Pop’s occasional public grousing about it (he once said “it’s not my favorite record, but it got me some hits, so maybe it should be“) while its echt-1986 sound, especially Kizilcay’s synthesizers and gated drums (and the Linn on loan from Queen’s Roger Taylor), has dated it. But Blah finds Pop in strong voice, dedicated to melody in a way he never had been before, and with a solid collection of songs. For once on a Pop album, there are no half-assed covers, no sloppy studio improvs, and at its best, Blah‘s a document of a hard-won middle age (Pop was 39 when he cut it).
And Bowie’s six co-contributions, while no classics, are still some of his best songs of the period. As with his soundtrack material, Bowie seemed liberated by having someone else’s name on the label, and the challenge of making Pop commercial seemed to shake him out of his torpor. Excited by what he’d accomplished with Pop and feeling creatively renewed, Bowie went on a writing binge, soon assembling a stack of material for a new record of his own, which he planned to make via the same efficient, minimalist method as Blah. It didn’t quite turn out that way.
After his chaotic early Eighties (drugs, voodoo), Pop was at a happy standstill. Living with his wife Suchi in a small Greenwich Village apartment, he spent his days “staying very straight”: reading novels, doing chores and writing. He clipped newspaper articles for cut-up verses, brought a portable typewriter to Washington Square Park. He took acting classes (and auditioned for parts, landing a cameo in Scorsese’s Color of Money), went to the gym. After Pop felt he’d written enough top-shelf material, he got in touch with Steve Jones, the former Sex Pistols guitarist, who, like Pop, was now sober. In LA, in the summer of 1985, Pop and Jones wrote two dozen songs and cut demos for nine (including Blah‘s “Cry for Love,” “Fire Girl,” and “Winners and Losers,” while “Beside You,” eventually recorded for American Caesar, also dates from this period).
Bowie and Pop met up in November 1985, when Bowie was in New York finishing the Labyrinth soundtrack (most likely doing the “Underground” vocal sessions). While initially skeptical when he learned that Pop had been working with Steve Jones, Bowie was impressed with the 8-track demos. But he feared that as they were all mid-tempo songs, it would make for a dull record. “You’ll need some fast ones and some slow ones,” he told Pop, and volunteered to write them. And Pop recognized that Bowie would provide a needed counterpoint to the very “basic guitar, drums and vocal” tracks that he and Jones had demoed.
So over three months, including trips to Mustique and Gstaad, Pop and Bowie wrote the remainder of Blah-Blah-Blah (while it’s not confirmed, they likely resuscitated some pieces begun during Pop’s visit to the Tonight sessions). Pop was determined that the new songs had to be demoed just like his and Jones’ earlier tapes, so Bowie went to the NYC musician’s haven Manny’s Music and bought a 4-track recorder, some Ovation guitars, a Roland drum synth, a Casio synth and a Boss digital sampler. He took the haul back to their rehearsal space, where he and Pop then spent hours reading manuals to try to figure out how the gear worked.
The album sessions, at Montreux’s Mountain Studios (conveniently near Bowie’s home), were run with brutal efficiency, as if by a team of Deutsche Grammophon engineers from the Fifties. According to Paul Trynka’s Pop bio, Bowie was full of “jittery intensity,” thanks to his incessant smoking and endless cups of espresso, and he walked around with a clipboard that held each day’s recording schedule, which Bowie would follow meticulously, checking off each successful take.
As Steve Jones couldn’t get a visa in time for the sessions, an element of potential chaos was eliminated (Jones’ lead solo on the demo of “Cry for Love” was used in the final mix), letting Bowie give the reins to Kizilcay and Armstrong. Bowie was already working with Kizilcay on some soundtrack material, and he had met Armstrong in the Absolute Beginners/”Dancing in the Street” sessions. Pop called Armstrong, who had played with Alien Sex Fiend, a “dedicated worker,” and one morning took him rowing on Lake Geneva. Armstrong recalled Pop matter-of-factly pointing out the Villa Diodati, where Mary Shelley had started Frankenstein.
Of the Bowie/Pop collaborations, “Shades” is mostly Bowie’s work, as he wrote the music and a good chunk of the lyric, including the entire first verse. Reportedly inspired by Bowie watching a delighted Pop give a present to his wife Suchi, and playing off the guitar riff of Jones/Pop’s “Cry for Love,” “Shades” is Bowie writing in the voice of Iggy the character: a humble, broken guy who’s stunned by a small act of human kindness, here his girlfriend giving him a pair of sunglasses.
Bowie kept the song simple, just a pair of melodic verses that easily link to a two-tiered, lovely chorus, where Pop’s baritone is tracked over an octave higher by Armstrong and Kizilcay’s vocals (it’s possible Bowie’s in the mix, too, but I don’t hear him). The accompaniment is mainly Kizilcay in a dozen guises—a bubbling synth pattern that, along with a unobtrusive bassline, serves as the bedrock of the track; the little organ riff that appears in the left channel, starting with the second verse, and which slowly gets more prominence in the mix; the “foghorn” sounding synth in the chorus; the wildly-compressed drum intro and the regular fills throughout the track.
Pop liked Bowie’s idea of doing “one of those ‘reformed guy’ kinda songs,” (it’s sequenced as a delayed response to “Real Wild Child”) and he sang it well, taking his time with the melody, building confidently to the peak at the end of the chorus. That said, Pop had to trim some of Bowie’s lyric to better fit his persona. Bowie originally wrote the chorus as “I know what kind of man I am/I’m not Saint Francis of Assisi or Baudelaire’s son,” which Pop felt would sound dubious coming from his mouth. Bowie “tends to be a little grand in his allusions,” Pop told an interviewer in 1987.
Recorded late April-May 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland. First released on 23 October 1986, on Blah-Blah-Blah, and in February 1987 as a single (AM 374, c/w “Baby, It Can’t Fall”) which got a slight edit (“it makes me come in the night” was too much for radio, evidently) and was given a dime-budget video in which Pop mimes the song while filmed through a chain-link fence in what looks like a batting cage.
Of great help for this entry was Paul Trynka’s essential Open Up and Bleed (it’s the source of the Jeffries quote and a few of the Pop ones). The rest of the Iggy quotes are from the various radio interviews he gave in promoting Blah, including a 30-minute 1986 interview on Radio Luxembourg and this amazing interview, taped in Japan in April 1987, which becomes Pop’s rambling but trenchant evaluation of his life and philosophy of music. “If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s some asshole singing a song describing his version of society in some crappy metaphor…like ‘The Windmills of Your Mind.’“
** While selling modestly in the UK and the US, Blah went gold in Canada, giving Pop his first-ever gold record. There’s a clip of a beaming, awkward, suit-wearing Iggy receiving the award at a Vancouver hotel. It’s oddly touching—it would be the final scene in the Hollywood biopic of his life (starring Johnny Depp).
Top: Paul W. Locke, “Suffolk Downs, East Boston, MA, 1986.”