In March 1974, David Bowie left the UK for a tour and never returned. While he came back to London throughout the next 15 years, his home and his work were always elsewhere: Los Angeles, Berlin, New York, Switzerland. His music reflected the move, affecting new regionalisms: the American funk-necromancy of Station to Station, the “European” Berlin albums. By the Eighties, Bowie’s albums were stateless products of global capitalism. Take “Let’s Dance”: a record made in New York by a British singer, a Texan guitarist and (generally) NY-based black and Latino musicians, and whose video featured Australian aboriginals.
So it’s odd to find Bowie writing about Britain again, if vaguely, in “’87 and Cry.” It’s the beginning of a renewed interest in his home country that Bowie would develop further on his first songs with Reeves Gabrels and in his soundtrack to The Buddha of Suburbia. Much had changed in his absence. The Britain of 1974, despite the strange costumed figures appearing on Top of the Pops, wasn’t radically different from that of Bowie’s childhood in the late Fifties. The Britain of 1987, eight years into Thatcher’s reign, seemed to be another world: a cruder, flashier, more atomized place.
Of course, some of this was the jaundiced perspective of a 40-year-old exile griping about how things had gone sour back home, though Bowie thankfully avoided the reactionary tone of the Rolling Stones’ “Hang Fire” (“in the sweet old country where I come from/nobody ever works, nothing ever gets done”). And his second verse deflates his argument with a run of exhausted nostalgia: those were the days, boys, when men wore blue ties and women “dressed down for the enemy,” an oblique reference to the War. The lyric’s diffuse sense of anger and disgust, its provisional UK setting, may have come from personal irritations as well. Bowie’s half-brother Terry had killed himself in 1985 and Bowie was lambasted by the tabloids for not attending the funeral, while in 1986 the Sunday Times was serializing portions of Alias David Bowie, the first biography to fully excavate Bowie’s life in Bromley and Beckenham, loaded with interviews with relatives and friends who Bowie had long left behind.* The past was coming back, making claims on him.
Bowie, talking about the song during press interviews, downplayed its British qualities. While “Cry” began “as a kind of indictment of Thatcher’s England,” he said, “it took on all these surreal qualities of a pushy person eating the energies of others to get to where they wanted and leaving the others behind [hence "it couldn't be done without dogs"]. It was a Thatcherite statement made through the eyes of a potential socialist, because I always remained a potential socialist––not an active one.“
“Cry” was one of the hotter tracks on Never Let Me Down, with its running guitar interplay like a harder revision of Robert Palmer’s “Looking for Clues,” while the percussionist Crusher Bennett was finally put to good use, spicing the track up with cowbell, chains and shakers. Bowie contributed the brutal guitar solo centerpiece, an 11-bar whining between G and C. Things only go astray on the bridge, which manages the trifecta of being lyrically inane, gruesomely sung and harmonically jarring: the B-flat major seventh chord Bowie uses here (on “nothing looked good on you“) makes strategic sense, as it’s establishing F major as the song’s new key, but it makes for a grating transition to the G major-centered guitar solo.
Recorded ca. September-November 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. On Never Let Me Down and also as the B-side of “Never Let Me Down.” I find yet again that LP edit, which trimmed 30 seconds of guitar wailing, is a more enjoyable cut. A regular during the Glass Spider tour.
* Nicholas Pegg was the first to suggest this theory. The authors of Alias, Peter and Leni Gillman, allegedly claimed that Bowie originally agreed to cooperate with them on the bio until he withdrew his support midway through the project.
Top: Noddy Guevara, “JEZ Flies! De Grey St. [Hull, UK], 1987.”