Pretty Pink Rose

Pretty Pink Rose (instrumental mix).
Pretty Pink Rose.
Pretty Pink Rose (live, 1990.)

If Bowie’s work on Tin Machine II seems maddeningly uneven, with the likes of “Shopping for Girls” matched with dreck like “You Can’t Talk,” it was in part because making the record was a sideshow for him. At the same time, in the fall of 1989, Bowie was consumed with readying his past for show, planning an elaborate re-issue of his back catalog and a world tour that would serve as its epilogue.

In 1988, compact discs had outsold LPs for the first time1 and by late 1989 vinyl was all but kaput. But the first wave of catalog CDs, churned out simply to get albums into stores, were slipshod, tinny-sounding, with artwork which rivaled that of cassettes (cropped, blurred photos; often no lyric sheets). The first Beatles CDs, which at least standardized US-UK album sequences,2 were primitive if passable, but the majority of Sixties bands’ catalog CDs were dreadful: vastly inferior, sonically, to the LPs they were supplanting. These discs only sounded “good” because for many people the contrasting item was an old, scratched, finger-smudged LP.

Bowie’s catalog was scarcely available on CD. RCA had put out an initial run of discs that by 1987 had all but vanished, as the rights to the albums had reverted back to Bowie. Rather than dump another batch of cut-rate CDs into the market, Bowie envisioned a series of high-end reissues, for which he could charge a premium, rather than the reduced prices that catalog issues usually merited. Essentially, the plan was to market a record that many people already owned (say, Ziggy Stardust) as a new release. It was rock & roll entering its archival, collector’s edition phase, a gambit aided by a booming economy, a new shiny recording medium and a clever strategy like Bowie’s, which baited fans with the promise of, at long last, new old songs.

Bowie was inspired by Frank Zappa, who had used Rykodisc, an independent CD label based in Salem, Massachusetts, to issue his back catalog. Zappa had loaded the CDs with extras, and sometimes re-recorded old tracks (a path Bowie blessedly never followed). Bowie signed an agreement with Rykodisc in March 1989,3 allowing Ryko to selectively raid his vaults for potential extras (with Bowie retaining veto power). These outtakes, demos and live cuts, provisionally around 50 tracks, would be added to various reissues and as well as to a career-spanning boxed set that Ryko issued in September 1989 to kick off the series.

[A brief aside on Sound + Vision. I have a soft spot for it, as I received it for an Xmas present in '89 and it served as a great entry into Bowieland. But it's a frustrating compilation, mainly intended to hook you into buying the other reissues, so it often uses a live or demo version of a classic song. Using the Stage version of "Station to Station" was inspired, but substituting "Helden" for "Heroes" was a bridge too far.]

The Sound + Vision plan was tripartite: unveil the boxed set; stagger-release the CDs (the last batch wouldn’t come out until 1992—above is the aluminum “Tech Unit” that Ryko issued as the official holding case for one’s complete Bowie reissues); go on a six-month tour that would be billed as the last time Bowie ever played the hits. For the latter, Bowie needed a lead guitarist who had stage presence, who was familiar with his back catalog and with whom he had a good camaraderie. At first, Bowie assumed he would use Reeves Gabrels.

Gabrels balked, in part because he thought doing the tour would’ve meant bad blood with the Sales brothers, who were definitely not invited. But Gabrels also instinctively knew that he was the wrong choice for the gig, as the audience for this tour wouldn’t tolerate any of his deconstructionist assaults on classic Bowie hits. So instead he recommended one of his inspirations: Adrian Belew.

Belew had last worked with Bowie on Lodger. He had spun through the Eighties: as a counterpart and possible replacement for David Byrne in the Talking Heads (during a low period for band morale, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz asked Belew to consider taking over as lead singer/guitarist); playing “David Byrne” in a revived King Crimson; forming an indie band (the Bears); closing the decade with a solo record, Mr. Music Head, whose goofy father-daughter duet, “Oh Daddy,” was a modest hit.

Belew was sitting by a swimming pool with the band America (now there’s a story untold) when he got Bowie’s call. He was intrigued by the idea, and he and Bowie began mapping out plans for the tour, which songs to include, how to arrange them with a stripped-down band. But Belew also had a solo contract with Atlantic, and in late 1989 he was making Young Lions, the follow-up to Mr. Music Head. So becoming Bowie’s lead guitarist for much of 1990 would mean putting the promotion of his own album on hold. As a lure, Bowie offered to sing on and provide new songs for Belew’s album, which could be performed during his “greatest hits” concerts.

So Belew sent Bowie a few tracks he was working on. Bowie sent back a tape with a song that he had recorded as a studio demo in 1988, “Pretty Pink Rose.” This hailed from a session in Los Angeles produced by Bruce Fairbairn, and cut with Bryan Adams’ backing band (see “Heaven’s In Here”).4 Years later, Belew was unsparing as to what he thought of the demo:

David’s office sent a cassette. Excitedly I opened it and played it. “Oh gawd,” it was awful! Imagine how I felt. Here I was on the verge of touring for a year with David Bowie and thinking we might produce a duet of perhaps a “hit” song of David’s, only to be confronted with something which sounded lifeless, limp, and plodding. I didn’t know quite what to do.

So working alone at a studio in Wisconsin, Belew tried to salvage the song. First he jump-started the plodding rhythm track. Recalling an old Beatles trick in which Paul McCartney played what sounded like straight 4/4 while Ringo Starr played a shuffle (or vice versa), and so creating a “pulling” rhythmic sensation that felt like half-time, Belew used a sampled “growling” bass and played variations against it on a 1955 Ludwig drum set.

Then he tweaked with the song’s structure. He made a tongue-in-cheek grandiose intro out of a play on the chorus melody, a brooding quasi-classical synthesizer musing that’s suddenly upended by a wailing guitar. He replaced a keyboard ostinato that had run under the chorus vocal on Bowie’s demo with a double-tracked guitar line. For the verses, Belew found that the way Bowie’s vocal melody “sat” allowed for him to write a series of responses on guitar: this created an volleying dialogue between guitar and singer, an effect further heightened in the final mix when Bowie and Belew traded off vocals.

As for the guitar tracks, Belew said: I was using Stratocasters equipped with Kahler tremolos at the time. I discovered you could adjust the tip of the Kahler tremolo arm downward facing the strings and then play the strings using the tip itself. Like “tapping,” only using the tip of the tremolo arm instead of your right hand fingers. It was the perfect bit of “flash” I was looking for. And it just happened! I had never seen it done before (or since).”

The finished track shifted between 16-bar uptempo verses driven by propulsive rhythm guitar and moody choruses that sounded more like bridges and were well suited for a classic Bowie croon. It was punchy, full of hooks, a ready-made piece of guitar pop. Bowie, stunned that Belew had made a possible hit single out of a song that hadn’t been good enough for Tin Machine, wrote an inspired lyric in response.

Bowie and Belew cut their vocals in a raucous session in NYC in January 1990, just before Bowie unveiled the Sound + Vision tour. The original vocal intro, Bowie intoning “she had tits like melons…it was love in the rain,” was sadly discarded, but an uncorked joy remained in the final lyric, a gonzo kiss-off to the waning Cold War. She’s just been to Russia and they’re dying their faces, the song begins: capitalism gaudily triumphant at last, the funfair finally heading East, streaking across the broken borders. They’re dying over there, is the subsequent pun, which Bowie sings with a smirk. The video took the idea further: Bowie and Belew, two louche representatives of the West, cringe before and court Julie T. Wallace, cast as a dominatrix in traditional Russian garb.

And where Never Let Me Down and the Tin Machine records had their wearying share of heartbreaking, ball-breaking women, here Bowie made his obsession into a force of nature (Belew’s whinnying, goading guitar solos also seem like a parody of Gabrels at his most excessive; it’s a master mocking a pupil). She’s the poor man’s gold, she’s the anarchist crucible!, Bowie hollers. She upturns civilizations wherever she spins, tearing up Paris looking for Tom Paine, who’s slipped loose from the jails, heading for the Finland Station. For a moment around 1990, it seemed like the world could be reset, and the optimism of the time echoes in “Rose.” But in its second verse, Bowie growled out a premonition of what the next two decades really would hold: the left wing’s broken, the right’s insane.

“Pretty Pink Rose” is a brief taste of glam élan during Bowie’s bilious mid-life crisis. It’s also frustrating. Belew’s surgical repairs to the song showed that, in the hands of a musician with something at stake, Bowie’s sub-standard material could be restored to life. It makes one wonder how much of the banal music that Bowie released in the late Eighties had finer, if unborn incarnations. “Pretty Pink Rose” easily could have been a throwaway. Instead it was Bowie’s best single since “Absolute Beginners.”

Recorded at Royal Recorders in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, on 11 November 1989, with vocals cut at Right Track Recording in NYC on 15 January 1990 (info via Belew’s website, from which I also took the history of “Rose”‘s restoration). You can purchase the instrumental version directly from Belew here. Released in May 1990 as Atlantic A7904, c/w “Heartbeat” (only #89 UK, though it hit #2 on US “Modern Rock” charts). There’s an alternate mix released on the promo CD single: it’s about thirty seconds shorter, has less lead guitar and even has a different second verse (I’ve not heard it). The video, filmed in a day at an abandoned German railway station, was never officially released.

1: The market leader until 1993 was the cassette, mainly because it was cheaper and cars didn’t have CD players yet. The transition happened earlier in the UK: by 1990, CDs had a greater market share than cassettes.

2: It’s nice that for everyone under, say, 35, Revolver has always had “I’m Only Sleeping” on it, Rubber Soul has always had “If I Needed Someone,” and Help! is where you find “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “Yesterday.”

3: This was only for the US. Bowie finally struck a UK licensing agreement with EMI in 1990.

4: It’s possible that the outtake “I Pray Ole” was either an early or alternate version of what became “Pretty Pink Rose.” The closing “take me to the heart, to the heart, to the heart” chorus melody fits over some of “Ole.”

PS BUT HEY WAIT THERE ARE MORE TIN MACHINE SONGS. Yes, yes! As the last two TMII songs were recorded in 1991, we’ll get to them after these few Belew/Sound + Vision posts.

Top: “Reconstructing Light,” Bowie and Belew at the Point Depot, Dublin, 9 August 1990.

30 Responses to Pretty Pink Rose

  1. Mike says:

    Ah, those Rykodisc reissues! With the pale green cases! Sigh…

    PPR rocks — it’s Tin Machine without the douchebaggage. I’m gonna go play it right now!

  2. I have fond memories of that Sound + Vision set, too. The CD issues were my introduction to Bowie in middle school, and many of the extra tracks remain favorites to this day. I can’t listen to Low without “Some Are” attached, which is blasphemy to some, but attachment for me. I just recently got ahold of the vinyl editions of the box, Young Americans, and Man Who Sold the World- would love to find Low/Diamond Dogs someday.

    As for PPR, I often forget it exists, but have always enjoyed it, a lot more than most of the Tin Machine tracks.

  3. Jasper says:

    I really liked Pretty Pink Rose when it came out and i guess his strategy worked, since I bought Adrian Belew’s album, cant say I’m a big fan listening to the song today. The album I haven’t listened to in many years.

    The Sound + Vision box set was like a gift from heaven, having a lot of songs on it It I had never heard before, or even heard of, all those great gems from Bowie’s vault. My only real disappointment was that Helden was a 1989 remix and not the full original version of Heroes/Helden or just the single version of Helden. My favorite version of my favorite Bowie song. At the time I could not find Helden on cd. It was before everything was flowing on the internet or if it did I would not know, It was before I had my own computer. Buying all the Ryko Bowie cd’s was for once a time when re buying an artist works made sense, because of all the bonus songs on them. In general I prefer hearing the records like the were intended without anything added, but having bonus material released separately does not seem like a thing Bowie is into ;-)

    The Sound + Vision tour was the first time I saw Bowie live, I was absolutely ecstatic finely seeing him live.

  4. Roman says:

    The first time I heard Pretty Pink Rose or indeed heard of its existence was at the two Bowie gigs at the Point Depot in Dublin. It was an incredible experience, hearing a brand new Bowie composition for the first time, sung live by the man himself. I loved it and even during the first night, when I didn’t know the lyrics I was still ad-libbing along at the end; “Pick me a petal la-la of the la-la Pink Rose”.

    Of course I bought the cassette of the album the next day. Loved the two Bowie tracks – the rest, meh!

    Incidentally, I loved the S&V tour. It was the second time I’d seen him after Slane in 87 which was a bit anticlimatic.

    In those pre-internet days, and before any video collections, all the background footage used on stage was mostly brand new to me too. I’ll never forget the giant Ziggy/Aladdin video during Life on Mars. It was awesome (for once an appropriate use of the most abused word in the English language).

    • Jasper says:

      Unless my memory is going bad, my recollection is that for some reason, they were not using the back projections in Copenhagen where i saw S+V. I would have loved to see that. At the time I only knew that there was supposed to be projections of the dancers, like the one that was in the Fame 90 video. The (Queen Latifah’s Rap Version) is a great example of how to kill a great song fast.

  5. philT says:

    i’d basically given up on bowie by this time so this terrific little track is a great surprise for me. thnx

  6. Momus says:

    Wow, I’d never seen that video! I wonder why they nixed it?

    The theory about I Pray Ole does sound entirely plausible: you can imagine Bowie listening to those descending chords at the end, being reminded of Red Sails (“The hinterland! The hinterland!”) and deciding impishly to fake a Lodger outtake.

    It opens up a parallel world of master self-forgery in which new material in the style of any given year could be generated at will via some kind of Bowie Self-Parody program, a bit like the Cut-Ups program he had made for him. But Bowie’s sarcastic response to Ricky Gervais’ request for “something a bit like Life on Mars” for the Extras song Little Fat Man suggests the time-travelling software no longer existed by 2006, if it ever had: “Oh, you want me to just knock off another one of those, do you?”

    • Momus says:

      Further thoughts on the “faking Lodger a decade later” issue: http://mrstsk.tumblr.com/post/29523871197

    • sigmata martyr says:

      Did they nix the video? I saw it on MTV…and Belew hosted the “Modern Rock Countdown” special, ahh the good old days…

      • Momus says:

        Oh, maybe Chris just meant “never officially released” in the form of retail package media. (Ugh, horrible marketspeak, sorry!)

      • col1234 says:

        yeah, sorry for the confusion—I meant to say that it’s never been commercially available–the first time you could’ve seen it outside of 1990 was on YouTube.

    • Steve Mallarmy says:

      I do like the idea that I Pray Ole is a fake outtake. I think it underlines something essential about Bowie’s career which is that it has always been about fabricating the past. Back in the 60s when Bowie was starting out, when his contemporaries were getting into psychedelic rock, Bowie was doing this whimsical vaudeville act which seemed wildly out of time. Glam rock was a kind of postmodern 50s rock, plastic soul was a harking back as well. And then by the time Bowie gets into the 80s he’s no longer cannibalising past eras he’s cannibalising his own past, which he more or less continues to do with greater and lesser success until his retirement. Various forms of nostalgia even from his very earliest years get to the heart of what Bowie has always been about.

      • col1234 says:

        I probably should append this to the “I Pray Ole” entry, but there’s more evidence that it’s a ringer. In his most recent revision, N. Pegg contacted Tony Visconti and sent him an MP3 of “Ole”—Visconti (who produced Lodger) had never heard the thing before. But Tim Palmer (the Machine’s producer) is on record as having never heard it either.

        Visconti’s guess was that “Ole” was something Bowie cooked up in Switzerland in the early 80s and kept monkeying with throughout the decade.

      • If Ole is a fake Lodger/Tin Machine forged track, then certainly it must be the best Tin Machine song, no? I’ve always had a soft spot for that one, even though it sounds mildly unfinished.

  7. fantailfan says:

    My first Bowie album was Ryko’s Changesbowie, bought around 1993. I didn’t buy my next Bowie CD (“Heroes”) until early 2005–and then I got them all. Even Fame ’90.

  8. Anonymous says:

    This review was spot on. “PPR” really highlights TM’s deficiencies. TM couldn’t come up with arrangements like this that are engaging and interesting to listen to all the way through. Bowie also sounds more vocally confident on “PPR” than on the TM tracks. It’s as if he is excited to be singing instead of feeling obligated to sing something.

  9. Momus says:

    The verse part of Pretty Pink Rose sounds a lot like Iggy’s Real Wild Child (1986). That kind of Elvis All Shook Up rhythm / chord change thing that’s going on.

  10. Tin Man says:

    Good song from Belew’s young lion lp. I rather prefer the song “Gun Man” which end the album.

  11. tin man says:

    I remember seeing Bowie live in April 90. When performing “Stay”, Bowie sat a moment drinking a glass(of what?) exactly as he did with Tin Machine when playing “Heaven’s in Here” before the public (mainly showbizz people & “stars”) of the International Rock Awards.

  12. Diamond Duke says:

    A very good song. I actually don’t have the Young Lions CD yet, but one of these days I’ll have to for the sake of completism! :D Matter of fact, come to think of it, I don’t have Heaven And Hull (Like A Rolling Stone), The Sacred Squall Of Now (The King Of Stamford Hill) or Zig Zag (Isn’t It Evening), so I have yet to snap up any of Bowie’s collaborations with his guitar players. (Although I do have the two Ronson records from ’74-75).

    However, that won’t be for a while now. Because right now I’m going through a major Scott Walker phase! I just picked up copies of Scott 1-4, Climate Of Hunter and Tilt, and I already had the Walker Brothers’ Everything Under The Sun and solo 5 Easy Pieces box sets, as well as the more recent The Drift (serious scares aplenty there!). Wish me luck in finding a copy of the now-OP ‘Til The Band Comes In! ;)

    (Isn’t it funny how Walker seems to have become a lot more active in recent years, given his reputation for silence and reclusiveness – even as his disciple Bowie seems to have receded into the shadows after a big resurgence in the ’90s and early ’00s?)

    • Dying to find an original copy of Nite Flights, myself.

    • Hi Diamond Duke,

      I bought til the band comes in a few years ago via amazon marketplace for about 15€. My issue is American, on the “Water” label (Water226 – B0011534-02). I suspected that it was a fake, or at least unlicenced, at the time but the label is part of the universal music group, and the disc sounds fine. The music a patch on the first four albums though, although I have a soft spot for “Cowbells Shakin'” I’ve also got a twofer with Stretch and another 70s LP I forget the title of but have yet to come across songs from his TV show.

    • tin man says:

      Scott is the other great One. According to David, “the greatest voice of the western world”.”Tilt” tilted my brain for ever. Same trip with “The Drift”… which drifted my psyche but i still don’t know where. Add to your list “And What Shall Go to the Ball?”… another great stuff, piece of contemporary music & let’s put an ear on the “Pola X” O.S (the Leos Carax film); it have a lot to do with Glenn Branca’s 1st or second Symphony (i don’t remember which one). A funny anecdote about “Nite Flights” (1978): one title is dedicated to “Bertrand-Henri Levy” (in fact Bernard-Henri, the french “new” philosopher. I never took his ideas seriously, i clearly can’t bear him because his concepts are empty: complete imposteur (total cheat). I’m far more into Deleuze & Guattari) & for sure, Bowie was highly influenced by their works (l’ anti-oedipe, 1000 plateaux… )

  13. col1234 says:

    The last word (at least mine) on the Rykos: http://tinyurl.com/ce8ut57

    • Jasper says:

      Thanks, that is a good and very useful list, I have to reorganize a bit after that.
      Would it make sense to include the S+V box in the list or is it already covered in the blog when the songs fit in the timeline? I can’t remember, I have fixed my archive wile reading your blog, it is really a great and interesting help.

  14. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Although Bowie wasn’t on my radar in 1990 (I was fifteen), Adrian Belew was. My top 40 station actually played “Oh Daddy” quite a bit in summer ’89, so when “Young Lions” got good reviews I was ready. I bought the cassette single (which boasted a lovely acoustic bauble called “Shoe Salesman). Like I said, Bowie was little more than a name then, therefore the strange campy voice in which he sang lines like “She’s a poor man’s code/she’s the anarchist crucible” made him sound even weirder than I’d imagined. I loved it.

    So I don’t think “Pretty Pink Rose” will mean as much if you weren’t around at the time or weren’t prepared to accept the degree to which Belew propped up Bowie instead of the other way around. It was enough of an airplay hit that my college station aired it often (It almost hit #1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart) and did its job: it introduced Belew as a decent second-string songwriter (time would reveal his indebtedness to Davids Byrne and Bowie) and gave Bowie a terrific platform from which to launch S&V and the nineties portion of his career. Kudos.

    • Roman says:

      That’s interesting. When I went to S&V in Dublin, I was in the bar at the Point Depot before hand and ended up sharing a table with a middle-aged guy from Texas on his holidays. He said he wasn’t really into Bowie – just knew the odd song etc, and had bought a ticket just for the craic. During the conversation I mentioned Belew on lead guitar and the guy nearly fell off his chair. He was a MASSIVE King Crimson fan and adored Adrian. He literally couldn’t believe his good fortune that Belew was going to be on lead. Bowie just didn’t interest him in the slightest.

  15. Maj says:

    Don’t think I’ve ever heard this before, actually. Fun. Gave it a few listens now, would fancy it in my iPod. Reminds me of Repetition a bit, and not only coz of the Bowie/Belew combo. It’s the rhythm, I guess.
    The intro in the instrumental version is epic. Cracks me up, so thanks for that. :)
    And yeah, I like Belew’s guitar on this even though I’m not necessarily a fan of everything he ever did with Bowie, esp live.

  16. s.t. says:

    This song reminds me quite a bit of Elton Motello’s “Jet Boy Jet Girl.” Adrian’s singing even sounds like Elton’s.

    And, of course, PPR served as the seed for later Bowie works, such as New Killer Star, The Next Day, and How Does the Grass Grow.

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