Dead Against It

93etienne

Dead Against It.

When we meet for a while, Tuesday morning ten a.m…
Everyone’s dreaming of all they’ve got to live for.

Saint Etienne, “Mario’s Cafe.”

I couldn’t yet see how the city worked, but I began to find out. London seemed like a house with five thousand rooms, all different; the trick was to work out how they all connected, and eventually to walk through all of them.

Kureishi, Buddha of Suburbia.

Getting free of the suburbs is just the half of it. In Buddha, Karim’s first encounters with London are riddled with insecurities (“We could have been from Bombay. We’d never catch up,” he says of himself and a friend, when compared to the sharply-dressed city kids “who walked like little gods“), and he soon beats a retreat to his Bromley home.

As did Bowie, who in the Sixties mainly knew London as a Mod commuter (see “The London Boys” or “I Dig Everything,” the latter the fantasy of a kid going home on the train and wishing he was waking up in Chelsea instead) and who had to set up house in Beckenham to mature as a songwriter. Hunky Dory is a suburban record; only on Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs did Bowie really move to the city. (He once described his dystopia Hunger City as the place that “Ziggy comes from.” So Ziggy Stardust was an exile in suburbia, a hipster who’d fled the city to bring the message to kids in Orpington and Croydon.)

The wonderful “Dead Against It,” with its whirligig instrumentation (a battery of synthesizers, sequencers and thin-sounding drum machines and, after the first chorus, dueling guitars), its trebly mix and caffeinated tempo, could soundtrack a suburbanite first set loose in the city, overwhelmed by the bounty of available actions and unable even to keep on the sidewalk (recall the scene in Murnau’s Sunrise when the country couple first comes to town and get nearly mowed over by cars, trams and pedestrians). It’s a throwback in sound, both to the “Mod Sixties” and, in its tangle of synth/keyboard lines, to the madcap organists of the New Wave, like Steve Nieve, Barry Andrews and Jimmy Destri (a keyboard hook in the chorus has a taste of the one in Blondie’s “Dreaming”).

Mod and punk were urban movements; the latter a retort to the rural pretensions of early Seventies rock, all the back-to-nature records, all the weary songs about life on the highway (disco and hip-hop were other answers). Bowie, by reviving this line of attack, was in sync with some young groups of the early Nineties. The latter were raiding the same jumble of Sixties pop “trash” and punk novelties, retrieving a few shiny bits from the wreckage (often the “square” records mocked by the hipsters of the period, the Lee Hazelwood and Herb Alpert LPs that their parents had owned) and they remade the Sixties from fresh aspects, offered editions of the decade that never were. A Sixties where France Gall and Serge Gainsbourg had been as central as Bob Dylan. Or where the Soixante-Huitards had heard Neu! (see Stereolab’s “Jenny Ondioline,” which tapes over “Hallogallo” for a decade in which revolution seemed beside the point. “I don’t care if the fascists have to win/I don’t care democracy’s being fucked,” Laetitia Sadier sang. “The world is exciting.”)

Or “Cool Britannia.” This would soon enough calcify into a subject for in-flight airplane magazines, but the movement began as a re-engagement with the city: Jarvis Cocker’s Sheffield, or the London of Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, with its barely-hanging-on bedsit dwellers getting a reprieve by going to Primrose Hill. Or Saint Etienne’s “Mario’s Cafe,” with its characters buzzing on the prospects of London life, catching a free hour to grab a bite, compare notes and make plans, trying to top each other’s suggestions. (As one ILX poster wrote recently, “The really specific references in ‘Mario’s Cafe’ and ‘London Belongs to Me’ gave me such a potent sense of who [Etienne] were and the life they led—that spring-like sense of arrival in London from the suburbs and the sheer joy of gigs and cafes and meeting up with friends—and it felt like a life that was potentially accessible to me.“)

dbdead

Of the Buddha tracks, “Dead Against It” especially sounds like its creation: the product of Bowie and Erdal Kizilcay, camped out in their Montreux studio for a week, eating hamburgers and listening to Prince CDs while dashing out odd little tracks. But the cheap-sounding synthesizers, the tinniness of the mix, the no-frills Kizilcay drumming all fit here. “Dead” is pop seemingly made from cast-off instruments, rock and roll played on whatever Bowie had found in a toy store.

It likely began as an instrumental, as three lengthy instrumental stretches bookend and break up the two sets of verses and choruses, and there’s some development in them, as an arpeggiated synthesizer line in the opening section is echoed later by electric guitar (the track closes with intertwining guitars, calling back to the end of “A Hard Day’s Night”). Bowie’s vocal sounds as though it began as a lark. His verses are collections of four-note phrases, mainly ascending (dropping only when the lyric turns dour, like “begins to sigh” or “my words are worn”), to which he set a cut-up derived lyric clotted with internal rhymes. It’s a love letter to the basics of the English language, its vowel sounds, alliterations and phonemes. Take how Bowie reverses where a “dee” plosive sound lands in one barrage, using it to both start and close rhymes:

She is the a-
-ple in my eye
She talked to God
I couldn’t cope
or’d hope eloped
a dope she roped
This salty lie

The moody, distracted girl in question is a sister of those in “Bus Stop” or “What in the World.” She has a long pop history: the girl who doesn’t give the boy the attention he feels he deserves but who escapes to an imaginary world, likely to avoid him (“Western Movies,”She Watch Channel Zero?,” “Books About UFOs,” etc.) Is there something menacing about the singer in “Dead Against It,” his need for control, the way he seems to stare at her while she sleeps? There’s desolation in him, too (take how sadly Bowie sings “salty lie”), the testimony of someone trying to communicate to a lover who’s just as happy to talk to random strangers on the phone. Their drama, oblique and unending as it is, is inconsequential; it’s just what’s happening in one room of the city that Bowie and Kizilcay jerry-rigged. Soon enough the lovers are forgotten, lost in the waves of sound that close out the track.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux. Issued as a B-side of “Buddha of Suburbia.”

Top: “John A-P,” Saint Etienne at the Cardiff Students’ Union, March 1993.

14 Responses to Dead Against It

  1. humanizingthevacuum says:

    One of his best minor tracks; its tinniness is part of its charm. Some of my favorite Bowie guitar work too.

  2. Patrick says:

    First hearing. I find it dull and forgettable. Don’t like the production either. Has nothing of the charm of his 60s “London” stuff
    I stayed with it mostly because of the slide show.

  3. Maj says:

    You know, as I was listening to the song while reading this write-up (great as usual Chris!) it struck me how much the mood of the song reminds me of Eno’s Needle in the Camel’s Eye. Is it just me? Maybe it’s the tempo, maybe it’s the key, maybe it’s the “unclearness” of the sound…can’t quite put my finger on it. Or maybe I’m just hearing things after being buried in IT law the whole day. ;)

    This is my favourite song on the album. I never paid attention to the lyrics (so thanks for analysing them) but something about this song just evokes images, memories etc. It reminds me of my early teens when I first dared to go to the very city centre alone to buy music (the historical core of Prague is abt 30 mins of walk from where I live). It reminds me of first visiting England 8 years ago, especially Oxford (where I bought my first Bowie book – Pegg’s Complete Bowie) and London (too huge to even be able to wrap my head around it to this day). We actually stayed in the south of London, in Plaistow, which I remember as full of Muslims and black people (something you just don’t get in my country) – completely new environment compared to living more or less in the middle of a 1.3 million city. I didn’t know this song at that time but for some reason this stuff comes back to me whenever I listen to it.

    • Maj says:

      It was Streatham, actually. Not Plaistow. Got confused (the place of my stay with the place of Bowie’s childhood house, as you do…anyhoo.) Had to go and investigate it using my old diaries. Awww.

  4. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    I love this one, though I’ve always found the mumbled lyrics largely inaudible, except for a few random lines, buried as they are in the clattering mix. The bits I could make out, like “when she’s reading I retreat” sounded so domestic, I just assumed that it was another paean to Iman, coming so hot on the heels as it did of Black Tie White Noise. I no longer think this is the case, however. Having just read the lyrics for the first time on http://www.bowiewonderworld.com I’d have to conclude that while it’s about the comings and goings of a couple under one roof, it’s hardly a picture of domestic bliss.The subject of the song seems to hit the bottle pretty hard, while the man seems to brood silently and resentfully around her, kind of impotent. I’d probably never have dug a little deeper if not for this excellent blog.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Always my favourite on the album and one of His best of the 90s.

    The pulsating motorik rhythm, His close-to-mic unaffected vocal (I never was a fan of the Scott affectation), full of melancholy, the chiming guitars. A masterpiece.

    scarymonster

  6. Momus says:

    There’s something vaguely ee cummings-ish or Joycean about the lyric’s tight playfulness. The four-note ascending vocal melody reminds me of Sell Me A Coat, and I believe Bowie is revisiting his own pop 1960s by way of Blur.

    It’s a pleasant enough track, a little too beholden to gating and sequencers, trying to sound younger than its composers’ years while at the same time whispering to the young Britpop pretenders of London: “I was there first!”

    There’s an odd moment in a pop career when the artist, in his 30s or even 40s, isn’t significantly lined or tired and can still just about jump aboard exciting new juggernauts helmed by ambitious 20-somethings. Bowie managed it with New Wave circa 1977, partly because of the freshness of his experimentation, and partly because there was already a lot of his DNA in the movement.

    There’s also Bowie DNA in Britpop, of course (not so much in Oasis, but certainly in earlier Blur, later Pulp, and all over Suede), but by this point Bowie is really too old to swing with the boys. His attempts are inessential, and he soon abandons Britpop in favour of Industrial and, somewhat desperately, Drum’n’Bass.

    • Diamond Duke says:

      There’s quite a lot of Bowie in Radiohead as well, I think. Lazy-minded journalists tend to compare that band with Pink Floyd a lot, which I suppose is understandable up to a point, but I personally hear a more of Bowie in what they do. (One could even say that Kid A / Amnesiac represents their “Berlin period” – which would make Hail To The Thief their Lodger, I suppose…?)

    • postpunkmonk says:

      I was highly anticipating, then highly disappointed by “Outside.” I didn’t bother with “Earthling” hearing that it was Bowie’s foray into techno, which I hated. It wasn’t until the Earthling tour, when I got tickets for the Bowie date at the Chili Pepper in Ft. Lauderdale, that I figured “maybe I’d better get the new album” a week prior to our trip down there. We went because when did you ever get the chance to see Bowie in a venue that only held 1000 people?

      Suffice to say, I gave the disc a single, pained listening through gritted teeth. I made a cassette to play in the car, and when I popped it in, my wife and friend accompanying us weren’t convinced either. The show on the other hand, was mind-boggling. 36 songs. Everything they had rehearsed for the tour at one go. Bowie 40 feet away clearly having a great time. Three and a quarter hours of Bowie! Like a Springsteen show, only with good music. The techno material was kind of harsh, live, and I still hated what he did to “V2 Schneider,” but damn if I didn’t wake up the next day with songs like “Little Wonder” jammed in my skull on infinite repeat. I listened to that tape in the car for a week afterward and quickly grew to enjoy “Earthling,” apart from “Telling Lies.”

  7. Diamond Duke says:

    I must say that after the title track and Strangers When We Meet, this is my third-favorite track on the record. Nice and breezy, buzzing and vibrant, it’s a little jewel of a Bowie “deep cut.” Chris’ comparison with Dreaming by Blondie never really occurred to me before, but the song definitely has a strong New Wave vibe to it. (And I love those intertwining A Hard Day’s Night-style guitar arpeggios in the outro as well!)

  8. Gnomemansland says:

    Yes we like this one too – almost Maid of Bond Street-ish in a way

  9. Mike F says:

    This song is a pretty, sparkly, jangly package. It looks so appealing at first but when you take it home and carefully unwrap it, there is nothing inside. But still what a pretty little package it is! Perhaps that is enough?

  10. CosmicJive says:

    First of all: good review! Been enjoying this blog for a while. Its great that n overlooked album like buddha finally gets the attention it deserves.

    Did you know btw that during the Earthling sessions this track was considered to be rerecorded? My old band recorded stuff at Plati’s home studio. Plati kept the Earthling work in progress chart for the involved musicians and put it as a souvenir on his homestudio door.Among well known outtakes like Discoking and Baby Universal. This track was also listed. But unlike the other tracks there were no marks in the individual musicians columns… So no music was ever recorded… Wouldve been fun hearring an Earthling era version of this song!

  11. Steve says:

    Lovely song, definitely one of my favorites on “Buddha of Suburbia,” which is a fantastic album. “Dead Against It” seems musically to be referencing Neu! (it’s different, but it reminds me of songs like “Isi”), and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” (Burt Bacharach, Hal David), as performed by Dionne Warwick. Classic Bowie, combining ideas from disparate sources to create something novel.

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