I’m Afraid of Americans

cheer

I’m Afraid of Americans (first version, Showgirls OST).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Earthling remake).
I’m Afraid of Americans (video, Trent Reznor Remix V1).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V2).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V3, Ice Cube).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V4).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V5, Photek).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V6).
I’m Afraid of Americans (50th Birthday concert, w/ Sonic Youth, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (GQ Awards, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Howard Stern Show, 1998).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Musique Plus, 1999).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Live at the BBC, 2000).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Live By Request, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2004).
I’m Afraid of Americans (NIN, live, 2009).

I never said, “The superman exists, and he’s American.” What I said was,”God exists, and he’s American.”

Prof. Milton Glass, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen.

“I’m Afraid of Americans,” made and remade over the course of two years, has no definitive version. It’s an Earthling album track, a soundtrack obscurity and, in its most popular incarnation, a Trent Reznor single remix, which was a minor US hit in 1997. Slot it as another of Bowie’s “stateless” songs, in the company of “Holy Holy” and “Strangers When We Meet.” Originally called “Dummy” (a Portishead nod?), the song came out of the final sessions for Outside in January 1995, its initial mix a fairly rote Brian Eno concoction of drum, synthesizer and distorted vocal loops, a few of which—a monotone laugh hook and a synth hook that pinged around an E-flat octave—persevered through most subsequent revisions.

Its first lyric hinted at Bowie’s renewed interest in David Byrne (see “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town”), its chorus calling back to the Talking Heads’ “Animals”: “I’m afraid of the animals!” Bowie howled, with an apparent vocal improvisation turning “animals” into “Americans” by the close of the track. Not making the cut for Outside, “Dummy” was quickly slated for Johnny Mnemonic, a Keanu Reeves-starring adaption of a William Gibson short story, which opened in May 1995.* But allegedly Eno told Bowie to rescind the offer, as the film sounded bad (one ill omen: Bono had been offered a role and turned it down). So instead “Dummy,” by now retitled “I’m Afraid of Americans,” wound up on the soundtrack of Joe Eszterhas’ and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls.

This was the version of “Americans” that I first heard, as Showgirls, at least in New York in the winter of 1995-1996, quickly evolved from first-run flop into a cult film playing the midnight circuit. Given the ludicrous nature of Showgirls, (“I’m erect. Why aren’t you erect?” “Only people I know got pimp cars are pimps.” Only Road House has better lines), Bowie growling lines like “dummy wants to suck on a Coke” seemed appropriate—its lyric is basically poor Elizabeth Berkley’s plotline in the film. The Showgirls soundtrack, an uninspired collection of mild Goth and pop industrial, was released around Christmas ’95 and went into rotation, well at least in a few West Village and Upper East Side bars I frequented, more for its connection to the revered film than for any merit of its own.

I mention this because “I’m Afraid of Americans,” from my perspective, was the last Bowie song that had any purchase in America, the last song of his (chronologically-speaking) that I can recall hearing in public, Bowie’s voice intoning in a club or piping out through car speakers (mainly the track’s Reznor mix incarnation). In the US at least, “Americans” is the last Bowie song that rattled around in a wider culture, existing outside of Bowie fandom: its paranoid video was part of the TV compost of the late Nineties.

shwgirls

Maybe he was embarrassed that a song of his wound up on the Showgirls soundtrack, or he might have been looking for workable material in the time-tightened Earthling sessions. In any event, Bowie revised “I’m Afraid of Americans” in August 1996, changing the lyric’s protagonist to “Johnny” (a callback to Mnemonic, or perhaps to Bowie’s own “Repetition.”)

He kept the structure of the song, a one-chord vamp in F major,* mainly intact: spare verses sewn through with loops and hooks and given a near-conversational phrasing, Bowie keeping to a two-note range; choruses where multiple-tracked guitars kicked in and Bowie moved to his higher register, his phrases now spanning fifths (“afraid of the WORLD,” “afraid I can’t HELP IT”). For Earthling, he transposed and rewrote verses: the Showgirls version’s opening verse became the Earthling version’s third, while he put in a new opener that incorporated the “laugh” hook.

The remake was bright and “current”: its arrangement was a stew of everything from Nine Inch Nails to favorites like Underworld and Photek (the new opening line sounded like “Photek’s at the wheel”), its mix was in line with the post-Pixies, post-Nirvana “alternative” rock template of volleying between sonic extremes for verses and choruses. But the new mix was also cluttered, with seemingly every bar affixed with baubles: a keyboard gurgle, a feedback whistle, assorted static, twinging high synth note loops, a synth line in the chorus that sounded like “Macarena,” various Reeves Gabrels pull-offs and bent notes. For ballast it had its main hook, a riff sounding root and fifth notes of the F chord, carried first on keyboard and then, in the chorus, thundered by Gail Ann Dorsey’s bass.

So dedicated to spectacle, the Earthling “Americans” could fumble the drama: the climactic “God is an American” section began with Bowie singing over Mike Garson’s keyboards, a sense of lightness and unease (slightly suggesting Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” which Bowie would play live during the subsequent tour). But the mood died when Bowie then up-shifted to another chorus, singing, in strained voice, over jacked-up drums. Still, the tasteless shifts in tone and the over-the-top mix fit what Bowie intended: the singer was afraid of Americans, but his song was meant to cater to their debased tastes.

trentmix

Where the song’s first lyric had Bowie afraid of the natural world, in later versions his paranoia found richer territory. “Americans” were an easy target. By the mid-Nineties, with the Cold War wound down and the virtues of Yankee capitalism unquestioned, the public face of the United States, to some, was a bloated, drunken fan celebrating his team’s victory well after the game had been called. God is an American, as Bowie sang.**

As much as Bowie had been fascinated by America as a kid, as much as commercial success there had consumed him in the early Seventies, he never shook his view of the country as being fundamentally crass, incoherent and violent (he loved to describe his first visits to the US in 1971-2 as a time when there were “snipers on the roofs”). He explained the lyric of “Americans” to journalists by saying he was referring to the public face of America, the one that everyone else in the world has to see: its gaudy advertisements, its junk food, its all-conquering franchises, its action films. “I was traveling in Java when [its] first McDonald’s went up: it was like, “for fuck’s sake,’” he said. Meanwhile the “real America” of blues musicians and Beat poets (“the aspects of America that are really magical to us,” Bowie said) remained hidden, even (or especially) at home.

There was a bit of Gnosticism here: while the visible America is a false, fallen world, the true “magical” one is accessible only to those who learn to see it. What most of us see is just surface America, the backlot that “Johnny” walks through in the song while eating, driving, screwing, preening in the mirror. Even the false God (again, pure Gnosticism) who created the world is an American, and he’s busy drowning out any murmurs of resistance with Entertainment Tonight and the OJ Simpson trial.

But Bowie’s “real” America was just as tainted: blues musicians and Beat poets are just as commodified as Pepsi, as are “outsider” artists, punk rockers, skateboarders, rappers and any other potential subversives. They’re just less-attended wings of the same carnival tent. The fact that “I’m Afraid of Americans” became a minor US hit (like “Young Americans,” another jeremiad turned into a good-time song by the country it belittled) showed how the carnival endures: piss on the tent, and you get brought in and made into a fresh act.

afraid

Its video was a European tourist’s nightmare of walking in an American city. Some thuggish American will single you out for your weird clothes and accent, and chase you down; everyone’s armed; the street people are jabbering and menacing; the cabbies are lunatics; the whole place is overrun by machine guns and Christian fanatics. (Trent Reznor, looking like a Manson Family member and wearing Travis Bickle’s jacket, plays a convincing heavy).***

The video used Reznor’s first remix of the song, which was issued as the radio single. In it, Reznor scrubbed the track of much of the Gabrels/Eno jiggery-pokery, instead staggering new loops and riffs for ominous effects (a static grinding noise mixed right builds to swamp the first chorus). The bassline is held back until the second chorus, where it’s delivered via harsh, distorted guitar. Later choruses are shaken by jackhammer synth beats; “God is American,” chanted over a chanted loop that’s shadowed by an murderous bassline, is the last word: the song never returns to the bravado of its chorus again, instead just muttering its way to the fade.

For me, it’s the best version, but other spins of the wheel turn up equally appealing/appalling faces: the fledgling version trapped in the high trash of Showgirls; the geegaw-filled Earthling take; the Ice Cube remix, where Cube chases Bowie’s voice through the track as Reznor did in the video (“shut up and be happy!” he yells. “Superbowl Sunday!“); the various live versions that rely on the muscle-flexing chorus for effect. A hydra-headed song, “Americans” is Bowie’s last bitter populist moment.

miss america

Original version recorded ca. January 1995, Record Plant, NYC, and released in December 1995 on the Showgirls OST (Interscope 92652-2). The remake, recorded at Looking Glass Studios in August 1996, appeared on Earthling, while Reznor’s various remixes were issued on a US-only CD single (Virgin V25H-38618, #66 US), issued October 1997. Performed live throughout the remainder of Bowie’s tours.

* Most of the time the song stays on a F7 chord, but the guitars shift to F5 power chords to beef up the choruses. A C minor (the dominant chord of F’s parallel minor) makes a cameo appearance in the “God is an American” section.

** One ancestor to this song is Jackson Browne’s “Lawyers in Love,” a vicious late Cold War satire in a cheery pop package, complete with doo-wop breaks: it’s the US fulfilling its Manifest Destiny at last (“now we’ve got all this room! we’ve even got the moon!“), with God sending spaceships down to blessed America in time to watch us watch the six o’clock news, and where even the layabout Jesus Christ has to get a job. Browne’s prediction that “I hear the U.S.S.R. will be open soon/As vacation land for lawyers in love” was pretty much how it turned out.

*** Recall that around this time the papers were playing up a “wave” of German tourists being mugged and killed in Florida. Also, the ill-fated 1996 revival of Doctor Who opens with Sylvester McCoy walking out into a San Francisco street, immediately being shot by thugs and dying on an operating table thanks to American surgical malpractice.

Top to bottom: “Streetpix,” “Cheerleaders, New Year’s Day Parade, London, 1996.”; various fearful or fearsome Americans.

48 Responses to I’m Afraid of Americans

  1. Ramzi says:

    I love how the video is shot in Greenwich Village – the beginning looks like it could be out of a segue shot from Friends, the sitcom representation of evil American imperialism.

  2. I’ve never much liked this in any version, but I DO like “Lawyers in Love.”

  3. Brandon says:

    Earthling was the first David Bowie album to come out after I became a fan and had become familiar with albums like Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust, Low, and Station to Station. I was a teenager and, looking back, I consider myself lucky to have encountered Bowie for the first time at this stage in his career. I particularly like Little Wonder, Looking for Satellites on Earthling, and Battle for Britain, and, though I like I’m Afraid of Americans, I’ve always felt it was trying too hard. Like what was said in the article, it always feels like a remix, without really having a central version. Catchy riff, certainly not a bad song, but not the core of the album for me.

  4. Between 1995 and 1997 Bowie suddenly and irrevocably recovered his cachet. I had friends who’d never owned a Bowie album buying Earthling.

  5. s.t. says:

    …”seemingly every bar affixed with baubles…”

    That’s Earthling in a nutshell. And this is one of the album’s more “song-like” tracks!

    I’ve always liked this one, though I originally preferred the Earthling version and now have switched to the NIN remix.

    Like Brandon, Earthling was the first new Bowie release since I had become a fan (in ’96). It was exciting for me to hear him try out new sounds, although I knew a lot of hipper-than-thou people who were embarrassed that I would even bring the album up in conversation (“We don’t speak of new Bowie..”).

    I never even noticed the mix that’s in Showgirls, even though I adore that movie. It also has some great late-period Banshees songs on the soundtrack, though perhaps that’s the mild goth you mentioned. Less embarrassing than Cool World, at the very least!

  6. gcreptile says:

    I didn’t know the song had such a complicated genesis. I only know the album version and the video version. The latter sounds like a Reznor song to me. That repeated melody at the end was a typical Reznor trick that was also used at the end of “Closer” and “The Perfect Drug”. I prefer the album version though, it gets straight to the point.
    I remember watching the videos of the previous singles at the time, but missed this video completely. It just didn’t matter in Germany. Only several years later, around 2001/2002 I think, at the peak of my interest in NIN, did I get to know this. The little research I did then gave me the impression that the song really mattered in US alternative circles.
    Oh yeah, Bowie’s image of America at the time… I still remember a cover of Germany’s most important weekly magazine at that time, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Stephen Spielberg as oversized comic figures waving the flag and surrounding planet Earth. It must have been around 1997/1998. America won the Cold War and the Clinton government ruled the world as a benevolent hegemon. Bowie’s insinuation probably was that this hegemon could turn vicious at any moment, and indeed, in the run-up to the Iraq War it did…

  7. mikehoncho1992 says:

    This isn’t my favorite song on Earthling, but ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’ certainly isn’t without merit. I like the cluttered sound of the album version personally. I think if you were to clean it up, you would not be left with much. The chorus is surely its biggest strength, however I do happen to enjoy the last repeat of the chorus on the album version. The ‘jacked up’ drums work well in conjunction with it I think!

    My favorite version of the track might actually be the Showgirls version. Honestly, at the end of the day, I couldn’t tell you the definitive reason why I prefer it over the album version or the Reznor V1 mix. Good call on it not really having a definitive version. I guess it just sounds more….’unhinged’ to me. The laughing hook sounds wonderfully demented!

    I really enjoyed the Outside write ups and can’t wait to get to the rest of the Earthling tracks now! Safe to say this album won’t take as long to get through as Outside haha! I imagine after the 9 album tracks, it will just be the ‘O Superman’ live cover and maybe an entry on the Tao Jones Index live stuff? Either way, will be a great read I’m sure.

  8. Mr Tagomi says:

    I always felt is was the odd one out on Earthling without having any clue as to its origins. It just seemed less interesting than the other songs.

    I much prefer that two-note foghorn-like hook on later versions to the 10-note synth thing on the Earthling version.

  9. Momus says:

    It’s perfectly reasonable that David Byrne should be the go-to reference when Bowie is doing something New Wave-y, but I’d like to put in a plea for Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh too. It’s hard for me to imagine this song without the pre-existing landscape established by the songs Mothersbaugh wrote for Devo.

    Only three years younger than Bowie, and vociferously championed by him and Eno when Devo emerged in the mid-1970s, Mothersbaugh certainly influenced some of Bowie’s later lyrics. In Mothersbaugh’s songs we get apes, uncontrollable urges, mongoloids who nevertheless function normally in American daily life, characters pastiched from 1950s songs called “Jonnee”, “the truth about de-evolution”, and so on. In this Bowie song we also get animals, compulsive fear of the-animal-in-humans (“I’m afraid I can’t help it”), a violent “mongoloid” character called “Dummy”, later “Johnny”, and, in the video, a weird, atavistic cult-like religious procession.

    I think what Mothersbaugh and Bowie have in common is not just the fact of having lived through the post-war Cold War period, it’s also a common rejection of the hippy dream with its romantic assumption about the basic goodness of human nature, or, for that matter, the benignity of nature itself. I think Byrne is basically a lot more romantic, tender-minded and “hippyish” (see the Naked album for his take on nature).

    The problem both Bowie and Mothersbaugh run into is that the tools they use to distinguish themselves from the naivete of the 1960s hippy movement (notably an ironic embrace of semi-fascistic Cold War propaganda, operant conditioning, televangelism and the free market ideology of people like Milton Friedman) align them (at least in the eyes of the irony-challenged) with some of the strands of right-wing ideology which would dominate the neo-liberal period starting in the early 1980s, an ideology which stressed a certain inherent darkness in the human soul, the idiocy of the masses, the need for control via advertising and marketing playing on instinctual urges, acceptance of born-again religious cults, and so on.

    Sure, Devo were satirising this mindset when they used titles like Duty Now For The Future, New Traditionalists and Freedom of Choice, just as Bowie is satirising American values in this track. But, as Chris points out, satire walks a fine line: “the singer was afraid of Americans, but his song was meant to cater to their debased tastes”.

    I’d say that this Janus-faced quality is perhaps the reason that this was “the last Bowie song that had any purchase in America”; sadly enough, it had purchase because it was, if not misunderstood, then at least “differently understood” by people on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Three years after the song charted, Floridian hanging chads ushered in an administration whose stance on the world stage was basically (in the words of Lucius Accius) “oderint dum metuant”: “let them hate, so long as they fear”.

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Re: Mark Mothersbaugh. Seeing your hippy friends shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard might make you a bit cynical and bitter.

      • Magnus says:

        Nothing to add here, except that Mark Mothersbaugh is a fascinating man, through and through. More than just a musician, also as a critical thinker of culture. Perhaps even as a witness and commentator to American history. He deserves far more credit than he gets.

    • s.t. says:

      I think David Byrne probably has a lot in common with Mark Mothersbaugh and Bowie (Fear of Music reflecting the height of his paranoia) but more often than not, he tries to overcome his natural distance and distrust of various aspects of humanity. He seems to develop, instead of paranoia or cynicism, a detached fascination that allows him to accept what he observes (“Ive seen sex, and I think it’s okay”) on his own terms, from a safe distance.

      So, perhaps more like a scientist than a hippy?

  10. Roman says:

    A side-note to the Trent remix single, was that it led to the sacking of a high-up record label executive. The executive was a female and apparently she was accused of being too close to Bowie and one other major league star who I can’t remember. She was the one who bankrolled the push for IAOA and the video long after the album’s release – plus she had previously given a large budget to Earthling in America – much bigger than his track record deserved. Her argument was that if Bowie secured a big hit, the knock-on effect with his catalogue etc, would be massive. The boardroom disagreed after IAOA didn’t storm the upper reaches of the charts and had to reignite Earthling sales. And so she was sacked.
    I can’t remember where I read about this. But it wasn’t a music mag. I think it was a business report.

    • Roman says:

      With regards my post of the sacking of the executive – the article did emphasise that she was personal friends with Bowie (and the other star) and that her judgement had been coloured by this.

  11. Samizdat says:

    “I mention this because “I’m Afraid of Americans,” from my perspective, was the last Bowie song that had any purchase in America, the last song of his (chronologically-speaking) that I can recall hearing in public, Bowie’s voice intoning in a club or piping out through car speakers (mainly the track’s Reznor mix incarnation). ”

    Ah, not so in the UK, where Heathen and particularly Everyone Says Hi, re-established him on radio. I was very surprised to wander into Sainsburys this morning to hear The Stars Are Out Tonight drifing out from the in-store Starbucks. (Whoever does the music programming there – assuming it’s not some corporate playlist – has too downbeat a taste to be working for Starbucks – (s)he was giving Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas a serious workout last year.) Outside and Earthling did nothing, culturally, in the UK – it was seen as being a false turn. Why listen to Bowie faking it when you could listen to Prodigy? Still, at least he avoided the safe option of putting out Britpop influenced records

  12. I have a bit of a Goldilocks And The Three Bears reaction to this one. The original soundtrack version sounds disorganized and unifnished (too cold!), the album version sounds cluttered and overproduced (too hot!), but that Reznor mix is juuuust right.

  13. Michael says:

    I’m happy to report that the song “The Next Day” was playing in a gay bar in Berlin last night. So “Americans” might not be the last song to get that bar-play/radio-play distinction. I love a good comeback for a great artist!

  14. Roman says:

    Thursday’s Child and – surprisingly – Seven, got a lot of radio airplay here in Ireland.They used the rock edit of Thursday’s Child in the bars and some clubs.

    Everyone Says Hi got a little airplay. And I never heard anything from Reality on the radio or the clubs/bars.

    Where are we Now was briefly in heavy rotation.

    • Maj says:

      Yes. The Same Here. I discovered Bowie with Heathen but I had heard his songs on the Czech radio before – especially Seven. Since then I only heard Where Are We Now, but only on non-music stations or on rock stations.

    • col1234 says:

      it’s really interesting, and something i’m going to bring up when get to the “last” records of the early ’00s: DB becoming almost entirely a “European” (& Asian) artist. In the US, those records didn’t exist, basically, unless you were a fan.

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        Sadly that’s the case in Australia too. I don’t think much has made a dent on the wider public here since Absolute Beginners, ironically.

  15. MC says:

    I’ve always found this song perfectly mediocre, in any version, but there’s no question it works live: the last few times I saw DB on tour, it got an extraordinary reaction from the crowd. Of course, the song’s sentiments resonate particularly for the Canadian audience; I don’t know about chart placing, but it certainly felt like it was a big hit here. (Incidentally, a great moment at the Earthling show I attended was in the “God is an American” section, when a photo of the then recently-deceased William Burroughs flashed behind the band.)

    Apropos of Young Americans (the album), I thought I was going to be all ingenious and say that Earthling is the YA of the 90′s before D. Duke more or less beat me to it. :) Critics at the time tended to liken it to Low as an updated electronica album, but I always saw it as an extended genre experiment analogous to the earlier forays into blue-eyed soul. With that in mind, IAOA could be like the 90′s Fame, with its staccato hook, and to the degree it stands apart from its host album. Personally, as someone who finds the second half of Earthling a bit of a morass, this track at least has a certain punchiness compared to the rest.

  16. Maj says:

    Never listened to so many version of anything ever. My brain has turned to mush. ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-I knew there were several versions and mixes of this one but had no idea it was this many!

    Well since the album version is the one I listen to the most (& the 2000 BBC one) I suppose I still prefer it over the rest but I agree all of the versions have their merits. On one hand ending the song the way the first TR remix does is really cool…chant chant chant BUT at the same time I just miss the point when Bowie erupts into one more chorus. And judging from the live versions he loved that point too. :)

    “its lyric is basically poor Elizabeth Berkley’s plotline in the film” – now that I think about it I think that about sums it up. :D Great write-up, Chris! (Esp. mentioning the Doctor Who TV film! good point! :) )

    As a non-American I sympathise with the song. Ha.

    Last note: I like Earthling. I don’t listen to it often. But whenever I play it, I play it LOUD. The album practically begs for it.

    And RIP Alexander McQueen.

    • s.t. says:

      Hey, I’m from the US, and I sympathize with the song too!
      There is a crucial difference between Americans and AMERICANS(!!!).* The latter type is the one to fear.

      * also known as MURKANS.

  17. Magnus says:

    I too dig the “Earthling.”

    I don’t know why Bowiephiles tend to overlook it. Very little filler on that album, lots of killer. “Scary Monster’s” ecstasy-pumped twin, it produces greater thrills than “Outside” in certain listening environments. Gail Ann Dorsey and Zack Alford give Mr. Jones quite a kick up the backside and, in doing so, propel “Reeves Guitar on Gabrels” to his strongest performances and best arrangements. I agree that “Americans” is one of the weaker tracks, but the disc’s overall aggression has aged well.

    I’m looking forward to the rest of these reviews to see if our friendly blogger agrees.

  18. Pierce says:

    Horrible song, horrible period for Bowie, still somehow fascinating. Great write up as always.

    • Michael says:

      I was happy this song made other people happy, happy it’s such a crowd pleaser live, but I never really liked it much. Battle for Britain, Tibet, and Dead Man Walking are where it’s really at on Earthling, in my opinion

  19. Jeremy says:

    I’m a fan of this song and it was fascinating to hear the original version, so thanks. Earthling is underrated – a very strong album in my opinion.

    Great write up!

  20. Stolen Guitar says:

    I haven’t commented for a while as I’ve been too busy listening to all the later Bowie records…and I mean really listening to them! Thanks to this place I’m now going back to songs I’d previously dismissed as ‘not worthy’ and I’m finding out just how wrong I’d been about ‘Outside’ and now, even more surprisingly, ‘Earthling’! Still, in some respects I think I’m quite lucky as I feel that this is all really new stuff to me, in spite of owning these records for years
    (but not, in truth, actually playing them. Well, it’s hard to shift ‘StationtoStation’ off my turntable-ha!)

    I recant from my earlier stated positions about Bowie’s post 80s output and have to say that I’ve found several nuggets that could stand some comparison with his 70s masterpieces. Of course, I haven’t taken complete leave of my senses and so, good as ‘Outside’s ‘ highlights are, they don’t match the majesty of the best of the earlier works. But who else could stand such similar scrutiny, too?

    I’ve expected too much from Bowie, perhaps because he spoiled us so in the 70s, and recognise that I’ve not been fair to the later songs and work. Mind you, I’d defend him to the last where ignorant non-fans are concerned…

    Only Dylan can match his longevity and relative consistency and nearly all of his other 60s and 70s peers have fallen by the wayside in an embarassing melange of cash chasing dross (Rod Stewart, whose last great record was ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’ from 1971. Marcus Greil was spot on when he said of Stewart, “Rarely has a singer had as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart; rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely.”) and MOR induced catatonia (Step forward, Elton, whose last great record, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ is only 40 years old!) So bring it on, Chris, and thanks for rekindling a love that was dying a disinterested death.

    I’m surprised you haven’t connected Dalton Trumbo’s ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ to this song as that expression ‘Johnny Got His…’ is definitively linked to Trumbo’s book and later film. I have no way of proving it but surely Bowie would have been aware of the book and if his lines beginning ‘Johnny got …’ were not taken directly from Trumbo then they were sourced from elsewhere that had been influenced by this book. It’s too similar a line to be coincidental and it absolutely would fit perfectly and approriately into this song. Perhaps there was a copyright issue over the line ‘Johnny got his gun’? Any ideas on this, Chris?

    Other than that, agree with most people here about the lack of connection with this song and its general sense of being marooned betwixt ‘Outside’ and ‘Earthling’. Works live, though, as that ‘quiet into loud’ sonic boom brings out the Pavlovian dog in us all…!

    Saw the ‘Earthling’ tour at a small venue in Manchester and apart from a fabulously evocative ‘Quicksand’ and the fact that we weren’t in a bloody football stadium, it was all a bit of a mess. I was embarassed by the techno-hip-hop tomfoolery in a live context. He played ‘V2 Schneider’, and it’s the one and only time I’ve ever seen him play it in 15 attendances at his shows, but if he hadn’t told us the song’s title in his intro we’d have all been none the wiser, such was the complete transformation of the song. I wasn’t happy about that…Ha-ha! David, if it ain’t broke…

    Great write up as ever and joyously reaffirming to read all the commentators positive critiques of the later records. I’m a fan again.

    • s.t. says:

      Hear hear!

      What else is there to say but, “I’m the boss, this is champagne, Merry Christmas!”

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Oh yeah…Stolen Guitar brought it up! And I didn’t see it until just a second ago. I only saw s.t.‘s quote! Gaaaaaaawwwdd, that’s embarrassing… :( :( :(

      Anyhoo[*AHEM*]…I really love that book and film, but I don’t necessarily see any connection between Bowie and Trumbo. And “Johnny” seems to be a fairly generic name as far as characters in rock and pop songs go. I see more of a connection between the “Johnny” of this song and the “Johnny” of Repetition from Lodger. I like to imagine it’s the same guy – still the same ol’ misogynist knucklehead, no wiser than he was 18 years earlier.

      And Stolen Guitar, I’m grateful to see that you’re starting to see the virtues of Bowie’s post-80′s work! (I can remember only all too well how you recently raked me over the coals for ranking some of his later albums higher than some of his ’70s albums on my own most-to-least favorite list! ;)) One of the many discs and collections I’ve bought since seriously getting into Bowie’s back catalogue two years ago was a 10-CD set called the David Bowie Box, which features Outside, Earthling, ‘hours…’, Heathen and Reality, plus a bonus disc per each album, with B-sides and remixes, etc. (Interesting how Bowie finally broke his one-word album title streak just recently!) Having had only a casual familiarity with Bowie’s work at best before my recent immersion, I can objectively say without bias that the greater bulk of these last five (now six) albums are excellent, and can more than hold their own against the earlier “classic” stuff. (Okay, my ranking Outside higher than Station To Station and even The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars may raise the eyebrows – assuming they’re not still regularly shaved, ha ha ha! – of longtime veterans such as yourself, but hey, that’s just me…) I daresay that sometimes being a newcomer to the fanboy ranks gives one a fresh perspective…

      • Remco says:

        “But with Earthling, I never felt like he took the sounds he was borrowing anywhere else and that’s why this album still never generates interest for me.” …….that’s ‘Earthling’ in a nutshell for me

    • Diamond Duke says:

      P.S.
      I’m also very familiar with the live techno remake of V-2 Schneider. It’s on the bonus disc of the Deluxe Edition of Earthling, along with the live techno version of Pallas Athena. I personally think it’s kind of neat, but like Stolen Guitar I much prefer the original from “Heroes”!

      Like you, I’m not wholly convinced by Bowie’s late-90′s excursion into techno/jungle/industrial territory. I mean, I absolutely love Outside just because it’s so eccentric and quirky and weird, and its adoption of techno and industrial textures was perhaps a bit less obtrusive. With Earthling, I think the actual songs are much better than the arrangements. It’s definitely got this wired, frenzied energy that is rather bracing, and it actually does warrant comparison with Scary Monsters in this respect (even though that point of comparison has been much over-abused by writers and journalists to the point of cliche over the years). But as an album it just feels a little backdated to me. It’s one of Bowie’s more “time-stamped” records to me. It feels very “1997″ to me, the way Young Americans feels very “1975,” Space Oddity very “1969″ and Pin Ups very “1973.”

      • fluxkit says:

        I agree totally with the “dated” feel. I had liked Outside but I never even bothered with Earthling when it came out, precisely because of this feeling. It felt like a lot of other things MTV was playing on their AMP program (geared to promote the wave of techno-rock that was going to take over the U.S., ala Prodigy, FSOL, etc.) “Little Wonder” sounded fresh in that specifc context… I mean, it had real lyrics and David Bowie’s wonderful voice, so that already lifted it above much of the “drum and bass” competition.
        I guess I blame the machines. So much of that style just seemed to be designed for an audience who were taking very specific kinds of drugs. To me, much of it sounded about as catchy as a Glenn Branca album. Bowie had done well in the past to borrow from styles that lacked a pop sensibility, and to twist them into something catchier (he also had done well to take pop-sensibilities and make them weirder and more interesting.) But with Earthling, I never felt like he took the sounds he was borrowing anywhere else and that’s why this album still never generates interest for me.

        Still, I like the Reznor mix of this song alright. It was fun and I can still listen to it and enjoy it. But funny enough, more than any other Bowie song for me… it feels kinda nostalgic to listen to it. Almost no other Bowie track outside of the Labyrinth soundtrack feels that way for me, not even Let’s Dance which I have strong associations of listening to when I was 4-5 years old.

  21. Remco says:

    I never liked the testosterone chorus on this track but I love the verses and the ‘God is an American’ bits. I always figured the vocals were the problem but I now realize that’s not the problem at all. In remix nr. 5 the chorus sounds wonderfully demented and Devo-like (thank you Momus), it’s the lack of subtlety in the instrumentation, the keyboard figure on “Earthling” and the guitar on Trent’s version, that pushes the song over the top and straight into Rage Against The Machine country.

    • Remco says:

      Actually, ‘Rage The Machine country’ may be a bit harsh, it’s ‘Trent Reznor land’, which is bad enough I guess.

      • Anonymous says:

        Wow remix 5 is a revelation. I’ve also always found this a bit generic and I didn’t realise until hearing that remix how good Bowie’s vocal take is (before he tracked it on the chorus about a billion times and those Industrial guitars crashed in). The song would be infinitely better, IMO, without the bombast, although on other Earthling tracks similar fireworks are half the fun.

        Getting a bit ahead of things, The Next Day shows off some great, more dry sounding vocal tracks for Bowie.

  22. Diamond Duke says:

    I know that I posted two comments above in reply to Stolen Guitar, but it seems that so far I’ve failed to address the song itself! :D I must rectify this now. [*AHEM!*]…

    I must say that I’m Afraid Of Americans isn’t really one of my all-time favorite David Bowie “hits” (in whatever mix, shape or form). I can’t say that I really dislike it, it’s just that it seems overly…simple for my tastes. The aforementioned “testosterone” factor certainly doesn’t bother me at all, being a thoroughly unrepentant longtime hard rock/heavy metal fan from adolescence. But the post-Pixies, post-Nirvana soft-verse/loud-chorus dichotomy is rather basic and there really isn’t enough going on with it melodically to sustain my interest. (As much as I enjoy the hard stuff, I much prefer those artists with a stronger melodic sensibility and have more of an inclination to change up the chords every now and then.)

    I certainly do appreciate the fact that, beyond the title, you couldn’t exactly call the lyrics preachy or didactic. They definitely seem more impressionistic than anything else. One thing that I think a lot of people probably don’t notice about the video is that it seems like Bowie’s character is hallucinating all of the violent attitudes and gestures of the people he passes by. As he runs down the sidewalk in a panic, the viewpoint shifts and these same people we had seen (through Bowie’s eyes) behaving in a menacing and threatening manner toward each other are now looking at each other in puzzled wonderment, no doubt thinking “What the heck is this guy’s problem?” :D So it seems to me that the song (and video) would seem to be skewering anti-American paranoia even as it’s giving voice to it. Well, to me anyway, it seems like it’s cutting both ways, giving voice to this kind of omnipresent sort of anxiety about the looming shadow of America’s influence over the world without really taking sides.

    BTW,
    One of my favorite rock bands from the ’90s was the Manic Street Preachers, from Wales. While they were very popular in the UK (and had hit singles with songs such as A Design For Life and If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next), they never really made a dent in the US. Some of that comes down to the fact that they never really felt motivated to do any serious amount of touring over here, but another significant factor may be the very strong anti-American bent of their lyrics, particularly with such song titles as Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayit’sworldwouldfallapart and Freedom Of Speech Won’t Feed My Children. However, just as with Bowie, this may seem a tad misleading, since so many of the Manics’ influences and heroes are American.

    (P.S. I was extremely fortunate to have caught the Manics when they played at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis back in 2009! They played a really great show, too. I felt like I had caught a glimpse of Halley’s Comet up close or something… :D)

    • s.t. says:

      I guess I’m in the minority here. This isn’t my favorite song, but I think the ultra basic arrangement offers a much needed moment of punchy simplicity to the album. It’s almost like the “We Prick You” moment of Earthling: a welcome bit of contrast. The songs here are nowhere near as dark or sprawling as Outside, but there’s often a fair amount of noodling going on, and so this is a nice counterpoint to all of that. With a good ol’ fashioned riff as a hook rather than some sampled screechy sound!

      On its own, its limitations are apparent, but it really helps the flow of the album. I appreciate this meathead-rock bone that David had thrown us.

    • Samizdat says:

      I saw the Manics twice in ’93 when Richey Edwards was still around. Rather like The Clash in attitude to America (“I’m so bored with the USA”); slag it off while clearly being completely influenced by US rock’n’roll. Unconvincing, if you ask me.

  23. Diamond Duke says:

    P.S.
    Just one more totally irrelevant, stupid little observation: Did anyone else have the same reaction I did to that part of the video where the priest is pretending to aim a pistol at the back of the cop’s head? “Oh, so this is the thanks he gets for kissing your feet?!” Or is it just me…? :D

  24. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    Saw the news about Trevor Bolder this evening. Not sure what to say or think, really.
    I haven’t been commenting much lately, because I’ve been distracted, and because my ability to express my thoughts about this fantastic blog is quite lacking, especially when everyone else here is so eloquent. But when I heard the news, I knew I had to write something about it here.
    Trevor Bolder was the Spider I could understand. When I was a confused, lonely kid, I would watch the “Starman” Top of the Pops video with awe, and dream of being on that stage. But Bowie was a beautiful, androgyne alien, Ronson a dashing guitar hero, and Woody Woodmansey… was a Scientologist. A 14 year old kid in Kentucky could never be any of those things.
    But then the camera pans left, and there’s Trevor, with his giant sideburns and a big dopey grin on his face. And it was possible to imagine that that was me standing there, plucking away while glam rock was born. And so Bolder became the lens through which I understood Bowie and all the things I wished I could be.
    Anyway, rest in peace, Trevor. You and your sideburns are in bassist heaven now.

  25. Americans says:

    I like the song, except the repetitive chorus. The fact that he repeats the lyrics in the chorus one time, makes it very repetitive and disturbing.

    He should have written some more lyrics.

    I’m afraid of Americans
    I’m afraid of the world
    I’m afraid I can’t help it
    I’m afraid I can’t
    I’m afraid of Americans
    I’m afraid of the world
    I’m afraid I can’t help it
    I’m afraid I can’t
    I’m afraid of Americans

    Something like this:

    I’m afraid of Americans
    I’m afraid of the world
    I’m afraid I can’t help it
    I’m afraid I can’t
    I’m afraid of the people
    I’m afraid of the church
    I’m afraid I can’t help it
    I’m afraid I can’t
    I’m afraid of Americans

    Or something like that….. Point given. Point taken.

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