The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell

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The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Omikron: The Nomad Soul (Stigmata mix)).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (TOTP, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Late Show with David Letterman, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (live, NetAid, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Musique Plus, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (TVE 2, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (live, 1999).

Then there’s “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.” That’s not a song, that’s a CV.

Ha ha! That was really dangling a carrot, wasn’t it?

Bowie, Q interview, October 1999.

Rock as put-down or stand-up, “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” began as a guitar riff that Reeves Gabrels cut in 20 minutes in February 1999, then earmarked the developing track for his solo album. In May, during the ‘Hours’ sessions in Bermuda, Bowie came up with a vocal; soon afterward in New York, Mark Plati added what he called a “boneheaded” bassline. Soon enough Bowie claimed the song, considering it a likely single, a good fit for a section of the Omikron video game “where they want[ed] something more rambunctious” and a potentially hot live piece.

He could have called it something like “The Dirty Things Are In Your Face” and let the track sink or swim by its own merits. Instead he impishly made it a reference/homage to (take your pick) the Stooges’ “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell,” the band the Pretty Things, the Bo Diddley song which named said band, the two Pretty Things songs that Bowie covered on Pin Ups, Tin Machine’s “Pretty Thing” and his own.

Upon the album’s release, Bowie kept throwing out scenarios: it was like he was playing a game of charades with his song. In interviews (and on stage at the Roseland in 2000) he called the song a take-off (or “put-down”) of the early glam era. And talking to Chris Roberts for an Uncut feature, Bowie said he’d been inspired by Evelyn Waugh’s “bright young things” from Vile Bodies, itself the impetus of “Aladdin Sane.” “I think their day is numbered,” Bowie said of Waugh’s lovelies. “So I thought, well, let’s close them off. They wore it well but they did wear themselves out, y’know, there’s not much room for that now. It’s a very serious little world.” So “Pretty Things” was a coda for the pre-millennial blues of Outside: a world, hardening and shrinking, that has no space left for the glamsters and assorted fops who’d made the 20th Century remotely tolerable.

The interpretation Bowie offered that struck closest to home, though, was that “Pretty Things” was a comedy song: rock ‘n’ roll as a creaky burlesque. It was a dig at his current status and what had become of a once-”revolutionary” music at the end of the century. Picking through his career in a SPIN interview at the time, Bowie said “I wasn’t sure if I was doing songs or stand-up. Not that I minded. There’s a British thing where rock singers and comedians are envious of each other’s careers.” (True, that: how many rockers wished they were as cool as Peter Cook?).

Bowie complained to Addicted to Noise‘s Gil Kaufman that reviewers had bungled his favorite pun in the song, writing that he was moaning “life’s a bitch and then you die” when he actually was singing “life’s a bit and sometimes you die.” It’s stand-up! I wrote a song about stand-up! he snapped. You can go further on this line: what’s a stand-up routine but a man standing center-stage, trying to convert an indifferent, even hostile crowd of strangers to his side? It was a reminder that Bowie’s greatest achievement of the Nineties wasn’t the would-be concept albums or the hip collaborations. He had remade himself into a formidable live performer, and without using the crutch of nostalgia. “Pretty Things” may have been a spoof, but the few times he played it on stage in 1999 and 2000 it had a pushy, boisterous life in it.

pt

What would have furthered the sense of “Pretty Things” being a dark comic send-up is if Bowie hadn’t scrapped its Dom & Nic-helmed video, shot in September 1999. Bowie hired Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to design four puppets (allegedly for £28,000): the dress-wearing neo-Pre-Raphaelite of Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and the Scary Monsters Pierrot (the latter two just turned up in the “Love Is Lost” video). In the video, the “current” Bowie was stalked and battered by the puppets of his past lives. In an on-line chat in October 2000, Bowie said he killed the video because “the puppets wound up looking like puppets” and thus failed to achieve the intended “Eastern European” vibe that Dom and Nic rather tediously had wanted. Admitting that parts of the video were “downright funny,” Bowie said he expected the video to leak: so far, it hasn’t.

Then there’s the song itself, a rock ‘n’ roll dunce-show where everything’s kept at meathead level: the barely-there C major progression that nods out on an F major chord for the entire verse and pre-chorus (the only spice is an A-flat chord swapped in from the parallel minor in the chorus (“don’t know why,” “just can’t tell”)); Gabrels’ lead riff is essentially a bend and release of a single string, tarted up with various artificial harmonics, while his thudding verse power chords are panto heavy metal—it’s like a shiver of sharks traveling in formation. His two solos are confined to corners of the mix, scribbles in the margins. Plati described his bassline as being “low and ugly and simple—and perfect” (“it’s harder to do than you think—it’s always easier to play loads of things,” he told David Buckley.) Only Mike Leveseque, under the influence of a Keith Moon biography he’d read recently, isn’t playing in quotations. His drumming, agitated with tambourine in the choruses and by cowbell during Gabrels’ breaks, keeps the track honest, punishing each beat. When he sneaks in the occasional fill, it’s like getting a punch in the ribs.

As a studio track, “Pretty Things” goes on far too long (the single edit mercifully crops a bridge repeat) and its mix grows progressively cluttered and wearying on the ear, especially once Bowie starts double-tracking his lead vocal with zombified, distorted voices. There are some subtle puns and occasional wit in the lyric (the singer’s looking for a dance partner on a wild Sunday night) but there’s also some portentous hooey (“I am a dragon, I am the sky…what is eternal, what is damned“). Back in his glam years, Bowie had said he made “plastic” rock ‘n’ roll and soul music, but his bands had been too alive, too irreconcilable, to merit the label. Here, making a hard rock preset track for video games and horror movies, he made as good on the claim as he ever would.

Recorded February 1999, London; May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass and Chung King Studios. A different “Pretty Things” (essentially the same track given a dreadful, murky mix, with an occasional sub-Nine Inch Nails loop for variety) was issued on 24 August 1999 on the Stigmata soundtrack, though perversely another mix (jacked up in tempo) was used in the actual film (both tracks are on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours’); the Omikron: Nomad Soul “performance” is the Stigmata soundtrack version. An edit of the “Hours” “Pretty Things” was issued as the album’s lead-off single in Japan and Australia, and as a promo-only CD single in the US. The live NYC version linked above (from the Kit Kat Club, 19 November 1999) was included on the “Seven” single. (Bless the Illustrated DB Discography for making sense of this one.)

Top: Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998-1999; “Pretty Things” US promo CD.

47 Responses to The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell

  1. humanizingthevacuum says:

    “boneheaded” is exactly what this song is

  2. Mr Tagomi says:

    I found this song annoying and boring until I realised that it’s essentially a comedy song. After that I started to like it to an extent.

  3. James Harben says:

    I am pretty sure I have seen the video to this a few years back in some obscure corner of the internet. It involves Bowie hammily performing alone on stage to an empty auditorium with occasional cutaways to the puppets which, given their quality (I love Jim Henson stuff and am thus quite biased), are grossly underused. The thin white puppet even smokes! To be honest, given Bowie has a generally high calibre collection of music videos this one is pretty barrel scraping, which fits with the song quite well as it is rather awful. Due to my disinterest I never kept it which was, probably, a mistake. The best I can offer is I found it quite at random on a site that was in Japanese. Anyone out there who can shed any light on this?

  4. Momus says:

    If David Bowie had always made music like this I would never have been interested in his career. I would have ignored him the way I ignored Oasis.

    In fact, I think I’ll blame this lapse on Oasis (clearly responsible for the round Lennon shades Bowie took to wearing at this point) and on the bald prima donna himself, Reeves Gabrels. What an idiotically banal riff to come up with in 1999!

    I can only assume Bowie went along with this because a part of him is a canny commercial creative who likes to second-guess his audience, and assumed they would be queuing up to buy this microwave-defrosted bilge at Tesco along with their copies of Q magazine.

  5. Sinj says:

    bizarrely I’ve seen it by chance just in the last couple of weeks – can’t find it now, but *without* the puppets. Him gurning away on an empty stage with no audience, which is quite fitting for a song like this.

  6. Sinj says:

    although *live* it did rock, a bit – thinking Astoria ’99.

  7. Huh. Never got that this song was a joke. I think I like it a lot more now. “Life’s a bit and sometimes you die” is a really clever line when you consider it in that context.

  8. Diamond Duke says:

    Again, as with the ‘hours…’ album overall, this is adequate, but hardly sensational. It definitely livens the album up, which up to that point had been rather on the mellow side. Still, by Bowie’s standards, this is perhaps a bit too “dumbed-down,” comedic intent or no.

    (P.S. I admittedly was able to make effective use of this in my epic Bowie mega-mix, sandwiching it rather effectively between Rebel Rebel and Boys Keep Swinging. Believe me, it does work… ;) )

  9. s.t. says:

    Taken with the album, this song livens things up a bit, as Diamond Duke mentioned. But standing here naked and on display, yes, it’s a bit embarrassing. I didn’t realize that it was intended as a glam send-off, but thinking about it, I guess the riff is trying for something along the lines of 20th Century Boy and Cracked Actor. Just with with metal chug and fret histrionics in place of stomp and swagger.

    I always liked the lyrics, and found them to be silly, though more in a Tin Machine way than, say, Eddie Izzard. The line “I am the best jazz you ever seen” is classic Bowie jive talk.

    Yes, yes, it’s a stiff and stodgy reanimation of something once exciting and alive, but at least it’s moving around a bit! It was mentioned in an earlier comment that at least they were trying with with thing, far from the mark though it may be. It’s one of the last dashes of 90′s irritant Bowie before the wave of restraint and resignation totally overcame him.

  10. MC says:

    I’m with S.T. on this one. In fact, I’m going to be a complete contrarian and say that the track is the sole highlight of the album’s dour second half. Chris, I agree with your reading to a large extent, though I would second David Buckley’s opinion that the riff is the most infectious one Reeves ever came up with. (I don’t always share Buckley’s views, but I find him pretty astute on Hours.) As far as dumbass rock&roll goes, Pretty Things pales next to Sufragette City or Rebel Rebel, but it way surpasses a lot of the Tin Machine songs (which may sound like faint praise but it’s not really for me.) The key is Reeves and the consummately witty lyric. This and Survive may be Gabrels’ finest hour, in fact, which leads me to another thought I had. Could the song be a somewhat mockingly-veiled goodbye to the Gabrels partnership? Did DB and Reeves wear it out, but wear it well?

    Pretty Things also seems to me Hours’ sole attempt to pull in the kids. (I remember DB bemusedly performing this in front of an audience of teens at the Muchmusic Video Awards in Toronto.) I think somebody (HTV possibly) likened it to Nu-metal. Bowie’s ambivalence about going this route (which is more than understandable)is suggested by the ignominious burial of the video, which certainly always sounded like fun.

    • col1234 says:

      “I remember DB bemusedly performing this in front of an audience of teens at the Muchmusic Video Awards in Toronto.”

      yes, tried to find this one on YouTube but no dice. I also thought the video had leaked (& evidently some have seen it) but again no luck.

    • Maj says:

      oh good, somebody else doesn’t hate the riff then!

    • AB says:

      I played ‘Hours…’ a lot at the time, and cannot for the life of me recall the guitar riff of this from memory, the way ‘Fashion’ or ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘TVC 15′ or ‘Fame’ instantly jump to mind. Hell, I can even remember such lesser ones, such as ‘Loving The Alien’ and ‘Time Will Crawl’.

      This is why I don’t rate Reeves Gabrels. There’s simply 10 years of songs with guitars that are ‘clever’ and intellectually-interesting, but fail to be memorable, exciting or emotionally-engaging, and I say this as a fan of some very abstract, un-pop guitarists.

      In the Buckley Bio, Carlos speaks about the role of a guitarist setting the stage for the arrival of the vocalist, and that you can work an audience into a thrilled state before that happens. I never got the feeling Reeves cared about connecting with the audience once way or another.

      Dunno, just my take on thing.

  11. Maj says:

    In the context of Bowie’s whole body of work it’s definitely not one of the best songs but back in my walkman days I rarely skipped it, I liked it, did not love it. I still like it nowadays but I rarely choose to listen to it. So that’s about it.
    Never thought much about the “meaning” of the song, so good to know all this time I didn’t take it too seriously was in line with Bowie’s, umm, vision for the song. Ha.

  12. Roman says:

    I’ve tried but I just don’t ‘get’ the line – “Life’s a bit and sometimes you die”. It’s meant to be funny, but I’m just not seeing it. Could someone explain it to me? Thanks.

    • humanizingthevacuum says:

      Generally speaking if I have to explain lyrics they’re not particularly good.

    • col1234 says:

      a “bit” can be a routine on stage, say a comedian like Louis C.K. doing a riff on modern relationships or something. And “sometimes you die”: sometimes your act is a flop and you get no applause/booed

      agree that as far as wordplay goes, it’s not DB’s finest hour

  13. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I misread the opening sentence as “Reeves Gabrels” cut a 20-minute guitar riff. Probably because that’s how the song feels as a listener. The sound of bone-headed barrel-scraping of the microwave… If only there weren’t more barrels in there.

  14. Mike F says:

    Like John Lennon’s “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”, the most interesting thing about this song is the title. The actual music is instantly forgettable like something a third rate bar band came up with. I find it a bit sad to see clips of Bowie performing it on various TV shows like its a great single.

  15. Ididtheziggy says:

    I don’t mind this song and have absolutely nothing to say about it, which really kinda sums it up. It’s obviously a bit of a lark and I guess he Bowie had to give Reeves something to rock out on. Oh well, on to the next one.

  16. audiophd says:

    This one has always seemed like “rocking-Bowie-by-numbers” to me. Ticks all the boxes but fails to become more than the sum of its parts…rather likes bits of ‘The Next Day’, actually.

    In retrospect, out of all of Bowie’s post-80′s output, ‘hours…’ seems like the one album that everyone was expecting the man to deliver and he gladly obliged. Unfortunately what resulted is an overly safe, fairly forgettable album that I play less and less as years go by.

  17. gcreptile says:

    When I bought “hours…” the CD package had a sticker on it: “contains Thursday’s Child and The Pretty Things are Going to Hell” I always assumed that the latter would become the second single, and that Bowie told me that this is the second best song of the album. So I kind of forced myself to like it, and it was the closest thing to the wildness of Earthling. But in hindsight, it just wasn’t that good. Nothing stands out.

  18. Charlie S. says:

    I really like the riff but to me it seems wasted and repetitive in this song. I also really hate the boneheaded verses, I’m sure the combined talents of Gabrels and Bowie could have conjured up something more imaginative.

    It is kind of fun, but in the context of the mellower style of the rest of ‘Hours’ it feels like filler, although so do quite a few of the tracks on the album.

  19. Ramzi says:

    It’s a thoroughly okay song, but it is everything that is bad about Hours; none of the sincerity of the first half, none of the vaguely interesting stuff of the second half, just a mediocre song that belonged to a musician of his age but lesser talent.

  20. Mother says:

    Nice review.
    I actually like this song, and find it one of the more pleasurable moments on an otherwise forgettable album.

  21. Bruised Passivity says:

    Always considered this song to be a satirical tearing down
    of the rock star icon so the idea that it’s comparing rockers to comedians explains a lot. After reading this entry I now consider it as a thematic prequel to The Stares (Are Out Tonight). I have a love/hate relationship with this song. Love – the energy of Reeves’ guitar and the sarcastic lyrics : Hate – the repetitiveness and over processed quality of the mixing. I think this is a case where less would have been more. A solid track that somehow misses it’s potential greatness.

  22. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Over the years, I’ve wondered far more than is healthy about the various song-crediting arrangements on Bowie songs. I’ve never understood ‘Hours’ … perhaps until now. I was leafing through a magazine while waiting to get my hair cut and there was an article about film credits and how they should sometimes include a ‘but’ to help us decide whether to part with our money or not. So you might see a film announcing “Starring ‘Somebody Good’ but ‘Nicholas Cage’”, for example. If we regard the hyphen in a ‘Bowie-Gabrels’ credit as a cautionary ‘but’, then everything’s falling into place.
    Reluctantly listened to the song again today. ‘Boneheaded dunce-rock’ implies a lightness of touch this song just doesn’t merit.

    • CosmicJive says:

      Can’t say I agree with your Bowie-Gabrels credit thing. I would never see it as a cautionary thing. I think most of the composition they did are fine and interesting songs. In fact if a new Bowie album would be announced with only Bowie-Gabrels songs I would be a very happy fan and preordering it right away.

  23. jopasso says:

    Well, in my opinion this is Bowie rocking by numbers. I don’t like it, but then I listen to (You will) set the world on fire, and The pretty things are going to hell sounds like prime Bowie to me

    • Mr Tagomi says:

      Isn’t the rocking by numbers aspect of it part of the joke though?

      I think this is a minor DB work as it stands, but it is quite catchy, and if packaged a bit differently, and released in maybe 1988, I think that it might have been a significant hit.

  24. Yes, I saw the video on Youtube a few months ago but I guess it got taken down at some point. Odd.

    I’m not a particularly big fan of this song, but it’s far from the worst on Hours. It’s a bit naff (purposely, apparently) but it still holds together better than a few of the other tracks on the album. It’s like a “good Tin Machine song”, basically.
    The production here doesn’t do it favours (too clean when it sounds as if it’s supposed to be crunchier). As a few people have mentioned the live performances tend to be somewhat more enjoyable.

  25. Kikouyou says:

    You’ll set the world on fire is a far better rocking song than this imo. This is one of the worst Bowie song ever, unlistenable utterly bad.

  26. Eder R. M. says:

    I love it! One of my fav Bowie song, because, you know, the 70′s are all well and good but too many Bowie “fans” (or 70′s fans should i say) are quite.. rigid in ther “appreciation”.

    And honest, fun, rocking moment. Nothing classic, but nothing wrong. Just good fun. You know, music occasionally can be *just* some good fun.

  27. crayontocrayon says:

    The deep gravelly vocal doubling on this always reminds me of a couple of songs by Thin Lizzy who were regularly produced by Visconti. Not that I can imagine Bowie sitting down and listening to Chinatown but I like to dream that this is the portent of the Bowie/Visconti reunion.

  28. s.t. says:

    I finally got to see the other songs that Bowie performed on SNL in 1979 aside from Man Who Sold the World. Here are all three on Vimeo:

    http://vimeo.com/69749870

    When watching Bowie’s puppet gimmick for Boys Keep Swinging (at 6:33), I couldn’t stop thinking about the gyrations of his nearly naked avatar in the Omikron bonus song sequences, particularly for the rambunctious “Pretty Things…” Not only do they demonstrate how quickly flashy techno-tricks can become dated, they both charm wit their goofiness.

    The goof of the digital “performance” perhaps was planned, perhaps not…just like the song, actually. Regardless of intention, both provided some direly needed yuks. Life’s 8 bit, and sometimes you wiggle in the middle yeah.

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