Gunman

Gunman.

As Adrian Belew had salvaged “Pretty Pink Rose,” Bowie repaid him by writing a lyric and vocal melody for an instrumental track that Belew was ready to abandon. Rehearsing the Sound & Vision tour in New York, Bowie and Belew went to Right Track Recording one night in January 1990 to cut the vocals for “Pink Rose.” The work quickly dispatched, Bowie listened to a few backing tracks Belew was considering for Young Lions but which he said he didn’t know what to do with. One, an uptempo piece with a guitar hook and a driving tom-centered beat, intrigued Bowie, and he asked for it to be replayed a few times. Then Bowie sat down with a beer and a notepad. He wrote a lyric in under a half-hour and, with his typical economy, cut his vocal in a couple of takes.

The backing track, performed entirely by Belew, was built on a drum track with an up-tuned tom, on which Belew played steady eighth notes, and then added delay (at the end of the track, you can hear the delay taper off, Belew said). The bass is the same growling sample that Belew had used on “Pink Rose,” while for his rhythm guitars he used the Roland GR-50, a guitar synthesizer that, in Belew’s words, “had the wonderful capability of playing a different sound on each string. So I added a harmony note to each string but a different note from string to string. In this way I could make up very unusual chords and patterns for the rhythm guitars. For the soloing guitars…who knows?”

Bowie gave the track, “Gunman,” one of his most bizarre recorded vocal performances in over a decade. “I’m not sure what to do,” Bowie said in the booth before cutting his vocal. “If I should be American or English on this.” Belew, in the control room, replied: “I like your English—it’s one of your better speaking voices.” Bowie theatrically moaned “oh Gawd!” and ran through the first verse in an exaggerated RP: “gunman…my sort of stah…we’re bleeding for you.

On the final take, Bowie’s “English” voice doesn’t appear until his last verse: a sing-spoken set of lines that become what sounds like a vicious lampoon of Robert Smith’s singing voice (“your women are DOGS but they’re braver than youuuuu“). Bowie opened the song in a guttural, hoarse voice, sounding deliberately off-key at times, and first sang the title as though being strangled. Taking his vocal hook from Belew’s two-chord guitar phrases (“gun-man”), Bowie generally sang six- or eight-line verses over this hook while singing four-line “refrains” over the contrasting eight-bar sections with arpeggiated guitars. The pattern broke down by the last verse, which bleeds into the “refrain” section.

The lyric, on paper, had the subtlety of Bowie’s thudding protest songs on Tin Machine. But here it worked, Bowie giving his clunky lines piss and blood by the sheer abrasiveness of his performance. His verses are just repeated, stabbing, three-beat, two-note phrases that strain upward at their close. His voice, sounding toxic, builds to a double-tracked shrieked refrain, at first followed by Belew’s solo, then repeated beneath Bowie’s closing, straight-faced ad-libs in his “English speaking voice”: “you’re more solid than a rock…a rock of coh-cayne or crack…Or ayyce..or death…like a rock o’ death! Like a grayve stone!”

A wonderfully odd track that was tucked away as the closer of Belew’s Young Lions, “Gunman” served, in retrospect, to preview Bowie’s crackpot ambitions in the mid-Nineties.

Recorded at Royal Recorders in Lake Geneva, Wis., on 3 November 1989, with Bowie’s vocal cut at Right Track Recording, NYC, on 15 January 1990. Sadly never performed live.

Top: Didier Ruef, “Poland, Silesia, Kameniec,” 1991. “Sanatorium for children aged 7 to 15. A group of girls are inhaling water vapor with eucalyptus oil. Major polluted area due to heavy metals suspended in the air. Kameniec is a small town, distance 35 km from Katowice.”

17 Responses to Gunman

  1. Diamond Duke says:

    A very interesting track, but it sounds like a bit of a throwaway. I actually like Adrian Belew’s guitar playing a great deal. He’s got a very individual, idiosyncratic style, and I enjoyed his contributions to Stage and Lodger, as well as his work with King Crimson. As far as social protest songs (or “fingerpointing songs”, as Bob Dylan once put it) go, it is much more appealing than something like Crack City on TM1. Although that’s mainly down to the quirkiness of Belew’s music and playing, as well as that of Bowie’s vocal delivery, rather than any lyrical virtues. Overall, though, I like Pretty Pink Rose much better…

    Eagerly awaiting the final two from TM2, as well as the Black Tie White Noise period…and then beyond! (And I trust you’ll be delving a bit into Scott Walker in your Nite Flights entry? ;) Or perhaps during the Outside period? According to Dave Thompson’s Hallo Spaceboy, there’s a great story about the making of that album coinciding with the imminent release of Tilt…)

  2. Tin Man says:

    As i said earlier, i really liked this song much more than “Pretty Pink Rose”. It deals with a Bowie-goes-to-the-bar voice-trip (“DJ”…, “Wishful beginnings”…,) & Belew’s soli seem totally “en roue libre” as we say in France. Gunman is an urgent title & goes fast & faster.

  3. fantailfan says:

    Bowie vox: think Lou Reed and Neil Young.
    I love Adrian Belew, but he can be so Frippy sometimes.

  4. PH says:

    Hi Chris. One thing I’ve noticed about your more recent entries is that you delve into the background of the song, ie/ the creative process of how it came about, which is always very interesting. But you don’t seem to spend as much time interpreting the meaning of the lyrics as you used to. I think back as recently as your entries on Ashes to Ashes and even Modern Love, and the themes inherent in the lyrics were dissected in great detail. Perhaps you feel that the lyrics in the Tin Machine era don’t bear up to any great scrutiny, and if so, fair enough. Minor criticism aside, I’m still enjoying this blog very much.

    • col1234 says:

      hey–

      it’s a fair criticism. & to be blunt, yes, I don’t think the lyrics of Bowie’s songs in this era merit that much scrutiny–I think they generally are very weak by his standards.

      that will change! not to give too much away, but I like a lot of the later DB records and will dig into them more.

      • PH says:

        Without trying to pre-empt anything, I’m guessing 1.Outside (my favourite post Scary Monsters Bowie album) will receive a fair bit of interpretive column space.
        Who is the gunman though? Is he literally a deranged killer with a gun, or does he represent advertising perhaps, being all over town on wrappers and cans? I feel there may be more to this song than meets the eye.

  5. Momus says:

    This was new to me. It’s a slight but fresh and interesting work, harking back to Running Gun Blues, but also reminding me of The King of Stamford Hill in some way too. Or a comical-ironic take on Batman (which gives it extra resonance in the light of the recent Batman shootings).

    Bowie has always had an amoral fascination with gun violence, which aligns with his belief that you can give voice to all kinds of libidinal urges and subliminal fears in a song. In the 70s he had a fantasy about a performer being shot on stage. The Lennon assassination obviously appalled him, but he’s not above recommending bullets as a fantasy solution to marital problems in One Shot (coming shortly to this blog).

    The fact that Gunman is deeply sarcastic about the shooter being “my kind of star” seems to have escaped the YouTuber who posted the video, who declares himself pro-gun. But we saw that with the idiots who covered Under The God as a White Supremacist anthem too. Polysemy is a double-edged sword… or do I mean a double-barrelled gun?

  6. humanizingthevacuum says:

    My reluctance to parse anybody’s lyrics notwithstanding, Chris’ focus on process and musicology makes sense for this era, in my view. Like many musicians in his forties, Bowie was entering the craftsman phase of his career. With exceptions the nineties and 2000’s are Bowie vulgarizing (in the best and worst sense) and refining the material of his golden years. We’ll appreciate the arrangement of a guitar lick here, a multitracked vocal there, and caring little about lyrics — as even Bowie himself realized on Earthling.

  7. Mike F says:

    Another fresh, inspired sounding Bowie/Belew composition. I prefer these 2 tracks over 99% of Tin Machine. I wish they decided to co-write an entire album together.

    • Tin Man says:

      For sure Mike, it should have been a good projekct…, but Tin Machine was a major act…, not only for Bowie, a major act for those who saw a certain kind of Light as i; Tin Machine considered by many as just “shit”… cannot definitively be ignored. The pathos of “i can’t read” played live after “Farmie’s farm” during the 1989 tour… just listen to it & you’ll never be the same again!

      • tin man says:

        “The pathos of “i can’t read” played live after “Farmie’s farm” during the 1989 tour…” read Maggie’s farm…, of course !

  8. algeriatouchshriek says:

    Sightly off topic… Anyone have any ideas why Bowie hasn’t benefitted from the ‘Olympic bounce’ like other artists who were featured in the closing ceremony? Kate Bush, The Who, Muse, Elbow, Emile Sande, even ELO have all returned to the top 100 album or singles charts in the UK. ‘Fashion’ was heavily featured in the closing ceremony but hasn’t re-entered and neither has a ‘greatest hits’ compilation. Why them and not him?

    • sigmata martyr says:

      The kids don’t have an interest and the adults have the tracks already.
      The way they used Fashion was played out. Running Up That Hill featured dancers building the platform that would be used for ceremony, Fashion had models traipsing around and didn’t seem to mesh with the rest of thr night. Annie Lennox, though I enjoyed it, did seem shoehorned in as well. Bowie might have gotten a boost if the song had been better intergrated in the show. Something as little as having the models advance from center stage out to the trucks, or having dancers in rows behind them like the final walk of a fashion show might have brought the song forward instead of having it be wallpaper.

  9. Maj says:

    I like this. Obviously never heard it before. Outside/Earthling vibes. with a bit of Lodger mixed in…Agree with Mike F…might have been interesting if these two did a whole album together.

  10. KenHR says:

    This is fantastic, never heard it before. So glad I’ve embarked on re-reading this blog from the first.

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