Under the God

Under the God.
Under the God (video).
Under the God (live, 1989).
Under the God (live, 1991).

Bowie wrote “Under the God” about the alleged rise of neo-Nazism in the Eighties, and he took pains to be precisely understood. As he had with “Crack City,” Bowie said he wanted to speak bluntly, without metaphor or high-flown language. He told Melody Maker that “I wanted something that had the same simplistic, naive, radical, laying it down about the rise of a new Nazi so that people could not mistake what the song was about.”

Was neo-Nazism on the rise in 1989, though? Sure, there were the likes of Skrewdriver, a first-generation UK punk band that, under the lead of Ian Stuart Donaldson, eventually aligned itself with the National Front and various white power groups (Donaldson, killed in a car crash in 1993, also co-founded in 1987 “Blood and Honour,” a neo-Nazi/white-power music promotional network). And there was an uptick in West German neo-Nazis in the late Eighties, a movement again abetted by fascist punk groups like Endstuffe (sample lyric: “Dr. Martins, short hair, that’s Aryan, no doubt about it!/Down with mixed-blood, because that doesn’t do the fatherland any good!”).

Still, compared to the fascist gangs of the Twenties and Thirties who took over governments, the neo-Nazis of Thatcher and Helmut Kohl’s era seemed a hapless, marginal lot (although given the current precarious economic state of Europe, one wonders whether they’ll find more receptive soil in the 2010s). As Timothy S. Brown wrote in 2004, “the resulting [skinhead] identity [was] expressed in terms at once threatening and pathetic, full of bravado yet highly pessimistic.” This didn’t mean they were harmless—a number of immigrants were beaten and killed by these thugs—but they lacked the numbers, the dedication or the strategy to build the nightmare neo-fascist dystopia predicted in “Under the God.”

And as with “Crack City,” in “Under the God” the target seems too broad, its anger too justified. How much courage does it take to “speak the truth” about crack dealers, Nazi skinheads (“right-wing dicks in their boiler suits,” “white trash picking up Nazi flags“) or, in “Tin Machine,” “the guy who beats his baby up“? It’s not quite on the same level of audacity as, say, Sinead O’Connor ripping up the pope’s picture on stage on live TV. Further, as the punk movement had been self-policing against fascist skinheads for a decade (see the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” from 1981), “Under the God” seemed both overblown and yesterday’s news.

I agree with Nicholas Pegg that the visceral disgust in Bowie’s vocal seems more self-directed, that where “Crack City” was Bowie lamenting the wasted years of his addiction (still, as he made three or four classic LPs during that period, it wasn’t that wasted), “Under the God” is Bowie rebuking his past Nazi flirtations. There’s also a sense of irritation that rock & roll was being used for anthems and as a messenger service by neo-fascist thugs, particularly as punk, their genre of choice, had descended from the Mod scene that Bowie had grown up in. Taking the verse guitar riff from the Pretty Things’ cover of the bluesman Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would” (which Bowie had covered on Pin-Ups), and so showing that rock & roll is at heart an African-American music, was the subtlest political message in the whole track.

“Under the God” (it was chosen as the lead-off single for Tin Machine, and flopped in both the UK and the US, failing to even chart in the latter) verges into self-parody at times, whether in the cheery repeated “white trash!” backing vocals from the Saleses, or Bowie’s ludicrous singing on lines like “ten steps over the CRAZY CRAZY.” Cheers to Reeves Gabrels, who realized early on that he was playing on a secret Billy Idol track, and turned in a fittingly garish performance—the stepwise descending notes that harry Bowie’s vocal in the bridge; the wagging, mocking tone of his brief solo; the tea-kettle-whistle feedback at the close. The muddy mix didn’t do the track any favors, either; “Under the God” fared far better live—the 1991 performance on the Oy Vey Baby video, for example, is faster, tighter and more convincing than the studio take.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. Released as a single in June 1989 (EMI USA MT 68 c/w “Sacrifice Yourself,” #51 UK).

Top: Taizo, “Prospect Park, 1988.”

12 Responses to Under the God

  1. m lewis redford says:

    I never have anything to say about these – don’t know much – but they are fascinating to learn from and about. Especially during this period of Bowie which is so … lost.

  2. Roman says:

    A few years ago I was watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a Germany skinhead gang who were also a trash metal type of band. It included lots of interviews with the members, especially the leader. Naturally they were racist violent morons, but a fascinating programme nonetheless.
    Anyway, near the end, the leader and his gang donned their instruments for a gig for an audience in a dingy club full of psychopaths. And what did they play? Under The God! It was totally uncredited to Bowie. The pronunciation was slightly off here and there but they did a good job. And they certainly understood the lyrics – as when the line came about “beating on blacks with baseball bats” – the lead singer was all fists in the air triumphant.
    It was fascinating listening to the song played and sung completely out of context. I don’t know if they changed any of the lyrics, but their version certainly sounded like a perfect hate anthem. I’ll have to play it again now and see if the song can be read like that.

    • col1234 says:

      that is a fantastic and disturbing anecdote, so thanks.

    • Maj says:

      Wow.

      Born in the USA springs to mind as another case of being adopted by those against whom it was targeted. Anything’s possible…

      • David L says:

        That’s a fascinating story. What a bunch of idiots. And yeah, I was also thinking of the Born In the USA story. Another song that often gets misused is “Every Breath You Take.” I’ve heard of couples using it for their first dance song or on their wedding videos, without realizing that it’s basically about some guy stalking his ex.

  3. sigmata martyr says:

    Anyway, near the end, the leader and his gang donned their instruments for a gig for an audience in a dingy club full of psychopaths. And what did they play? Under The God!

    Eeew! That’s so creepy!

  4. Diamond Duke says:

    Regarding Roman‘s story:
    That’s definitely unsettling, but the sad truth of the matter is that artists rarely have any real direct control over how their music is used, or how it resonates with people. Primarily, that’s because music (or any art, for that matter) functions best as a visceral, as opposed to intellectual, medium. Witness, for example, the way people often interpret Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A. as a fist-pumping, jingoistic, patriotic anthem – when in fact it’s anything but. This doesn’t mean that artists shouldn’t attempt to address social problems, and it’s absolutely necessary for any art to have an intellectual dimension, but that they should be more wary of those who would attempt to subvert the message.

    As far as Under The God is concerned, it’s actually one of my favorite Tin Machine tracks – musically speaking. Granted, its lyrical Achilles heel is probably the fact that on one hand the lyrics consist of an unsubtle broadside against its subject, and yet affect an often ironic tone that often confuses the issue. It’s not terribly surprising that Bowie’s attempt to convey the horror of racism with such simple-minded brutishness would be so easily subverted by simple-minded brutes. Especially since lines which Bowie intended ironically (like “You’re dead, you just ain’t buried yet”) can be read perfectly straight by racist thugs, and it probably goes without saying that such people are probably tone-deaf with regard to ironic intent.

    But musically, Under The God is a righteous, thundering rock ‘n’ roll firestorm, as problematic as the lyrics might be. (And the lyics are still nowhere near as numbingly didactic as the dread Crack City!) The band is certainly firing on all cylinders here, Hunt Sales’ merciless hammering and Reeves Gabrels’ screaming guitar packing a serious visceral whallop upside the cranium. True, subtle it’s not. But there’s no denying the energy.

  5. Portsmouth Bubblejet says:

    “Was neo-Nazism on the rise in 1989, though?”

    As you mentioned Germany in the piece: yes, it definitely was, on both sides of the border, and not just thanks to repugnant bands such as Endstufe (note the spelling!) who were from Bremen in West Germany.

    One of the saddest experiences I had just before the Wall came down was watching friends patiently put together a cassette of (left-leaning, I guess) punk songs to take over to some kids they’d met in East Berlin. When they gave them the cassette, however, all they wanted was right-wing Oi! trash such as Skrewdriver. The SED socialist government in East Berlin turned a blind eye to neo-Nazi groupings as they weren’t dissidents, thus fomenting the rise of far right groups in the East which only became visible after the Berlin Wall came down and remain a problem to this day.

    On an entirely separate note, is “Beating on blacks with a baseball hat” a sly subversion by Bowie of the Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat” (with a baseball bat)?

    • col1234 says:

      thanks for the perspective. I didn’t mean to downplay the actual thuggish reality of such groups at all.

  6. Maj says:

    Well. When I don’t pay attention to the lyrics I quite like this one. It sounds like a punk rock song…something I’d play in the car if I even bought one and learned to drive.
    Racism and right wing extremism keeps scaring me more and more these days…so I’m not against the message. I’m not sure if I prefer Bowie pseudo-intellectulising or trying to put stuff in a blunt language…well he hasn’t done much of the latter and way too much of the former…something in between would be nice. Anyway using the musical language TM did on this track plus using the language they did, it made it a bit of a over-kill. This is Bowie, there should have been some contrast there.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Awful track awful ridiculous lyric. Wtf was his intention with this ?

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