Girls

Girls (Tina Turner, 1986).
Girls (Bowie).
Girls (Bowie, Japanese version).

Tina Turner credited David Bowie with helping to revive her fortunes, as Bowie had recommended that EMI sign Turner, which led to the all-conquering Private Dancer. So it’s a shame that Bowie and Turner’s collaborations are all such duds, whether their somnolent duet on “Tonight,” their Pepsi commercial that was soon yanked, or “Girls,” a dreary song that Bowie co-wrote for Turner’s follow-up record, Break Every Rule, and which he later recorded himself as a B-side.

Was ever there a record more unworthy of its title than Break Every Rule? Replicating the formula of Private Dancer (aptly described by R. Christgau as “the archetypal all-singles all-hits multiproducer crossover”), Turner’s people apparently summoned every sentient MOR hitmaker on Earth to write a song or to play on the record. Bowie, Rupert Hine, Bryan Adams, Mark Knopfler and Paul Brady contributed songs; studio hands included Steve Winwood, Phil Collins and Eric Clapton; Steve Lillywhite and Bob Clearmountain were among the horde who put it all together. The record went platinum, spawned seven singles (all targeted to various regional markets—“Girls” was big in Poland) and was forgotten in a couple of years.

To give Bowie some credit, his contribution “Girls” (co-written with Erdal Kizilcay) wasn’t a blatant Turner retread like Terry Britten and Graham Lyle’s “Typical Male” or uninspired hard rock like Adams’ “Back Where You Started.” Instead, Bowie had the urge to write a Jacques Brel-style chanson again, then passed the thing on to Turner, for whom it was unsuited.

Some of it’s the lyric (a weirdly jejune effort from a 40-year-old man),* some of it’s the music and production, in which a slow, “dramatic” verse is patched to a set of increasingly bludgeoning climaxes.”Girls” finds Turner brooding about the caprices of her own sex, and not very convincingly, as she’s soon forced to jump through a series of hoops (take the ridiculous dead stop at 2:28). Turner was a gifted interpreter, if narrow in her intentions: she knew how to make a song effortlessly frenetic—pinpointing just where a performance could reach the berserk, as in “Proud Mary”—while the best of her later work had a weary, scorched-earth quality. But here she just seems at the mercy of an ungainly song. When she’s finally allowed to just holler at the end, she sounds relieved.

Bowie cut a version of “Girls” during the Never Let Me Down sessions (maybe as a hedge—if Turner’s version had been a hit, Bowie could’ve ridden in its slipstream). The song was far better suited to its author, as Bowie made “Girls” a revival of the cabaret camp of “Time” and “My Death.” And it’s fine enough in its first minutes, with the proceedings dominated by Kizilcay (or possibly Carlos Alomar) playing scales on his guitar, a falling (fretless?) bass and piano. But once the choruses really get underway around 2:00, with backing singers, a garrulous saxophone and a guitar track that might as well be a Fairlight simulacrum, the song slips away from Bowie, as it did Turner. There’s a sense that Bowie’s going through his recent back catalog and lobbing in whatever he thinks might work: a bit of “China Girl” in the rhythm guitar, the bassline of “Criminal World,” an accordion to revive the sense of a Brel pastiche.

By the four-minute mark, the song seems ready to expire out of exhaustion (and there’s thankfully a single edit which pulled the plug around here). But on the full edit, there’s still nearly two minutes to come, including a guitar solo so devoted to wankery that I hope whoever played it got a repetitive strain injury. A composition of moderate potential that was murdered in the making, “Girls” is a preview of coming miseries.

Turner’s “Girls” was released in September 1986 on Break Every Rule, and later issued as a single, while Bowie’s version, recorded at Mountain Studios, Montreux, ca. September-November 1986, was released as the B-side of “Time Will Crawl” in June 1987. (Perhaps driven by market research, Bowie recorded a Japanese vocal for “Girls” as well.) “Girls” later appeared on CD reissues of Never Let Me Down.

*And as Nicholas Pegg noted, some of the lines (“you vanish like tears in the rain”) are near-direct lifts from Rutger Hauer’s death speech in Blade Runner, a soliloquy that Bowie had also quoted on a funeral wreath for his half-brother, Terry Burns.

Top: A-ha makes an in-store appearance at HMV, London, January 1986.

32 Responses to Girls

  1. jopasso says:

    Happy birthday Chris
    Thank for your wonderful blog

    The song? Girls? Ah, yes..I will swallow the “forget-the eighties” pill

  2. speak25 says:

    Big Happy Birthday. May you continue bestowing your superb writing on us for years to come!

  3. david says:

    “…including a guitar solo so devoted to wankery that I hope whoever played it got a repetitive strain injury.” had me choking on my morning brew.

    I liked this at the time because I was going through ‘another’ break up, so it kind of got me through.

    Incidentally, although the ‘tears in rain’ is a direct lift from Bladerunner, Bowie did sing a line very similar in Conversation Piece.

    Happy Birthday-really looking forward to what you have to say about NLMD and the intervening Tin Machine years.

  4. Remco says:

    Happy Birthday!!!!!

    I’ve nothing to say about this song

  5. MC says:

    Happy birthday, Chris. Cheers!

    Ditto Remco’s response to the song. I’m assuming there are no rarities from this period comparable in quality to things like When I’m Five or Velvet Goldmine (or even I Pray Ole), though it’ll be really interesting to hear some of the later obscurities. Sifting through this era should be fascinating.

  6. PH says:

    Yes, a truly dreary song. I didn’t know that Tina Turner had done a version, though somehow it figures. Even “Too Dizzy” ,which as we all know has been expunged from Bowie’s back catalogue would have been a better inclusion on “Never Let Me Down”

  7. Barb says:

    Happy birthday Chris!!!

  8. humanizingthevacuum says:

    I like “Typical Male” quite a bit, especially the bridge (“I confess…”) and its five-note synth line. “What You Get is What You See” too. The album, flawed as it is and no patch on Private Dancer, proves she’s better at both understanding the pop moment and selecting tunes that embody it than Bowie, who during this period sounds like he’s holding his nose.

    • PH says:

      Are you even a Bowie fan?? All you ever seem to do is claim that a load of mediocre artists like Phil Collins and Tina Turner are better at their craft. And in Phil’s case the term “mediocre” is a generous assessment.

      • Brendan O'Lear says:

        It’s certainly not my place to tell people what they may or may not say on this site, but one of the main reasons that I enjoy visiting here is that it remains free from personal insults/attacks. Everybody who’s contributed – certainly myself and I’d even go as far as to include the author – has written some form of nonsense at some point. Best just to laugh it off.

      • humanizingthevacuum says:

        If you’re such a fanboy that you’ve got no interest in reading my comments, then you should grab a couple of pom-poms. All I’ve said — repeatedly — is that in this era, when Bowie decided to compete at the level of Collins and Tina Turner, he was no good at it! He has no talent for that sort of thing. On the other hand, nether Collins nor Turner recorded “Station to Station” or “Low.” I’m pretty sure the creator of this site would agree.

      • col1234 says:

        The personal attacks on commenters end here. I’m leaving this as is, as I felt HTV needed a rebuttal, but let’s call it a day. Next time, the post gets banned; the time after that, you get banned. If you want to do the ad hominem thing, there are literally 10,000 other places to do so on the internet. Capiche?

  9. humanizingthevacuum says:

    and remember: Christgau meant that line you cite as a compliment!

    • PH says:

      Posing the question “are you even a Bowie fan” is neither an insult nor a personal attack. Not everybody is. It just seemed like a fairly reasonable conclusion to reach reading through HTV’s fairly consistently negative comments regarding Bowie’s 80s output. The only other thing I wrote was an opinion on the artistic merit (or lack thereof) of Phil Collins.

  10. Frankie says:

    Happy 40th B-day!

    Is this song pretending to be the female counterpart to Boys Keep Swinging? If so, its portrayal is meaner with none of the humorous edge and it doesn’t sound much like its talking about girls from normal human experience unless he’s singing about Jem and the Holograms.

    Do girls really pretend to break down and cry? Are girls just like spirits that vanish at dawn? Perhaps what makes this song flaky is that it doesn’t portray any girl he’s actually dated or porked. There seems to be absolutely nothing biographical about it, and the repetition of redundant lyrics doesn’t seem to help. Sting might have done something more sexy for Tina, I would have thought.

    • fantailfan says:

      The idea that Sting could do anything more sexy than Bowie is an appalling thought. For this time period, however, you are correct.

      • Frankie says:

        You’re right. I’m sorry. It was wrong of me to say that Sting could do anything more sexy than Bowie. I take that back. Thanks for qualifying it correctly as for this period only!

  11. algeriatouchshriek says:

    Oh Lord. Another guilty pleasure. Despite the fact that the vocal is bathetic, the lyric is trite and the overall confection is plastic, I love this. That whacking great guitar solo on the 12″ is something I acutally look forward too (should I hand in my membership of Dave Fans Anonymous now?). I feel it ought to have been included on NLMD instead of the wretched ’87 & Cry’ .

    The Japanese version is most odd. Was it released as a single over there? Do we know if it was a hit or if he’s had ‘hits’ in Japan?

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      I don’t think it was a single over here. I think it was a b-side or something. But I could be very wrong. He’s had plenty of hits, particularly Ziggy Stardust and Scary Monsters (I think having the opening track and single sung in Japanese was a factor.)

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Hey, I actually like ’87 And Cry! ;)

  12. Diamond Duke says:

    Not really that memorable a song, even by ’80s standards, and Tina Turner’s version is only slightly better. Basically a filler track, although Bowie’s vocal work is exceptional. (Check out that high A note on the repeat of “Girls…” toward the end! I don’t think he would ever be able to hit such heights in later years – one exception of course being that high G# in the final verse of Don’t Let Me Down & Down from 1993’s Black Tie White Noise: Still I keep my love for you…”)

    Also worth considering as a healthy sign is the fact that Bowie came up with two original B-sides! One thing that needs to be pointed out about Never Let Me Down is that – with the exception of the cover of Iggy Pop’s Bang Bang – Bowie had written a total of 12 original songs during the album sessions (including Julie, Girls, and the eventually excised Too Dizzy). Whereas on the earlier Let’s Dance and Tonight combined, he had only written (or co-written) a total of 9 (not counting Iggy remakes or covers). Although, yes, I suppose one could make the argument in favor of quality over quantity

    • PH says:

      Well, yes you could if there actually was any quality in those albums. To me they both sound like lazy padded out affairs. I find it very sad that Let’s Dance for instance is Bowie’s biggest selling album of all time. It says a lot about the taste of the masses. As for Tonight, many people cite Never Let Me Down as the low point of Bowie’s recorded output, but for me Tonight is hands down the absolute nadir of an absolutely stellar career.

      • humanizingthevacuum says:

        I’m not sure I like condescending remarks about the “masses” when the “masses” in the US made Bowie’s best album “Station to Station” his highest peak ever, and in the UK at least Bowie never lost his mass audience.

      • PH says:

        Station to Station may have sold respectably in the States, but Let’s Dance shifted far more units. The fact that it also outsold far more artistically worthwhile Bowie albums like Low, Diamond Dogs, Hunky Dory and even Ziggy is a sad indictment of poular tastes. Sorry if you see that as “condescending”. But to me it’s a tragedy that bands like the New York Dolls, Velvet Underground, Stooges etc. are never appreciated in their lifetime, while people continually buy dreck like Kiss and Bon Jovi en masse.

  13. Maj says:

    Belated happy birthday, Chris!

    Funnily enough I started listening to Bowie because of a-ha (yeah, I wasn’t your average tween…I listened to a couple of 40-somethings singing melancholic pop/rock songs)…so the photo accompanying this entry totally made me smile. :)

    The song makes me wish Neil Tennant wrote some lyrics for it and Pet Shop Boys produced it (for Tina). The tune is not bad (I’m not sure which part of the song is the chorus – the fastest bit is shite, rest is good) but the overall impression one gets from this song is, indeed, dreary.

    Given to craftier hands it could’ve been a good song, it does have some good bits in it….but I swear I’ll never say anything bad abt the guitar on When the Wind Blows because the heap of…you said it, Chris…utter wank in Bowie’s version of this definitely tops it, hands down.

  14. unikorna says:

    I had to stop and tell you how impressing and inspirational your blogging story is. I am a beginner blogger and you have really motivated me to go on. Kisses and hugs :).

  15. Jeremy says:

    This that rare thing for me – a Bowie track that I’ve never ever heard. I must say that I’m pleasantly suprised. It’s not the kind of music a really like but it’s way better than I thought it would be and should have kicked off a couple of horrible tracks off NLMED for sure. I can see how this could be a guilty pleasure despite its glossiness and general absurdness – oh, perhaps that is why.

    Happy birthday oh creator of this great blog….

  16. Marion Brent says:

    I too have never heard this before. I think it belongs to that by now familiar category of “OKish song that mid-70s Bowie might have done justice to, but suffers from mid-80s death-by-production”.

  17. Jaf says:

    Never heard this song and I don’t think i want to. I just wanted to say a belated happy birthday really.

    Happy birthday!

  18. diamond dog says:

    Hardly worth talking about in any artistic sense it is quite forgettable but as was said previously he was fairly prolific with at least not as many cover versions. Its not as bad an album as its said to be its a little over long especially the cd and I think has some good songs on , the production is what drags it down. Live many of the songs sounded pretty good so he was trying though perhaps too hard.
    Glad ya ended the personal stabs before it descends like other forums etc to nastiness.
    Also belated birthday wishes your inspiring muses are welcome relief from dull work and shit about banks. Love on ya !

  19. No comment on the song, but holy cow, Morten Harkett was cute.

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