Something In the Air

99riotponcho

Something In the Air.
Something In the Air (Omikron sequence).
Something In the Air (Jools Holland, 1999).
Something In the Air (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1999).
Something In the Air (Musique Plus, 1999).
Something In the Air (live, 1999).
Something In the Air (American Psycho remix, 2000).

I haven’t given that up, but it’s a dream; a dream that can come true. It came true once and it can come true again…And all the time I wander round this plot of land, and I still keep the dream…We all move on, all of us. You, you should have taken your chances, made the most of it—always make the most of it, never let go, it might be the only one, ever…I’m in another city. And it’s wonderful. It might be the last. It might be the only one. Any road, I’m not letting go. Make the most of it. I’m not letting go, not ever.

Ray Gosling, Sum Total, 1962.

I don’t think people take much time to look back these days. They don’t look back anywhere near as much as we used to, as I used to. History has receded into the distance, and so has the future.

Bowie, Uncut interview, 1999.

Ray Gosling died last month, a lifetime after he wrote an autobiography at age 22, Sum Total. As the title said, it was a short life tallied up, biography as a few jottings on a map. The moves and wanderings of the Me towards some point of definition, some lines of discipline. Gosling would spend his life chronicling movements, making films and radio documentaries, a life that he foreshadowed in the jittery staccato rhythms of his prose. The England I love is an England of constant change.

And in 1956 and 1957, in lorry driver caffs and in shabby pubs in shabby corners of towns, he felt a new change coming on. When he saw Rock Around the Clock in a Northampton cinema, when he heard the first Elvis singles at a “Yank pub” on its great German-made jukebox, it was the start of something. Everyone felt this—the start of the teenage thing. It was like the start of a revolution; coming in with the big noise right at the beginning of the whole thing.

It was a revolution that worked, he wrote. Pop, for lack of a better word, offered a new way of living that worked–primary passions, primary colours. The idea that the world could be new again, or at least that you could be; that the new was something actual, something real, something coming, unexpected. That tradition held no power over you anymore. That you weren’t fated to be your parents; you weren’t a serf. I don’t want to be ground down, Gosling wrote in 1962. Don’t drag me down. And when the bastards get their hands on you, you’ve got to fight them.

gos

Bowie was a student at Bromley Tech when Sum Total came out. Seven years later, when Bowie was running an Arts Lab in Beckenham whose aim was to “turn on” kids and convert their parents, a #1 hit of that summer was Thunderclap Newman’s “Something In the Air,” a fragile pop record that called for mass insurrection—block up the streets and houses, hand out the arms and ammo (“we’re going to blast our way through here!“)—with a Goon Show arrangement: its brass band and “Lonely Surfer” horns, its temporary cease-fire for a barrelhouse piano solo. (It was a Pete Townshend solo record in all but name: he assembled the band from his ex-chauffeur (John “Speedy” Keen); a post office engineer and Dixieland pianist whom Townshend had idolized since art school (Andy “Thunderclap” Newman) and a 15-year old guitarist, Jimmy McCulloch.)

As the revolution that Gosling had seen in its cradle seemed about to push over—a dusty world swept away for a clean one—there was a fatal lack of nerve. Or perhaps those doing the pushing woke up in time. “Something In the Air” captures the feeling of imminence that suffused the late Sixties, as Dave Marsh once wrote, but it also knows that nothing will ever arrive. “You know it’s right,” Keen sang, sounding like he couldn’t convince himself anymore, that he was more desperate to believe again than he was in the rightness of the cause. Time was tight. Pretty soon you’d have to start rationing it. “We have got to get it together…now,” a line echoed by Mick Jagger on stage at Altamont that December: “let’s get it together, people. Who’s fighting, and what for?” A girl in the crowd yelled back: “Everybody!”

the-limey

Bowie said of his “Something In the Air,” recorded three decades after the year of the Arts Lab and Major Tom, of Thunderclap Newman and Altamont, that “there’s a terrible conflict there…it’s probably the most tragic song on the album.” The song autopsied a relationship. A man tells a woman that he wants to love her but he doesn’t know how to do it anymore. He’d worshiped his life with her; now he’s an unbeliever. Bowie summarized the man’s plight to Gil Kaufman: “‘I can’t believe I’m asking you to go, you, my entire life. I imbued you with so many future inspirations.’ It’s terrible.”

The lyric, while clunky in places, was cold and precise about life in a dead marriage: We smile too fast/then can’t think of a thing to say. Mark Plati’s bassline, twinned with a synthesizer, paces the couple through their last days as one, ticking away the cold seconds and minutes. In a 1999 interview, Bowie said the future now seemed far away to him, that the world had a “present sensibility now.” The couple in “Something In the Air” live in this airless present tense, with no hope of movement. The song’s chord progressions are sets of arguing couples: a C minor moves to a C minor ninth and back, a D minor to an F major and back, an F#, reduced to an F major, sharpens again. Scraps of melody from “The Motel,” another Bowie purgatory, turn up in the pre-chorus.

You could stay, if you’d like, with this faceless couple, with Bowie playing his hand at being a “faux novelist,” in his words. A Bowie take on John Updike: middle-aged people having middle-aged crises. But there’s all this other information in the song: what to do with it? How its title references a long-failed revolution (“Something In the Air” wound up used for an ad in the late 2000s, the “revolution” now a faster mobile service). How Reeves Gabrels’ guitar calls up another languid ghost of 1969, Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross.” How Bowie sings the opening line, “your coat and hat are gone,” so that it sounds like “you’re cold and had a gun.” How buried in the verses is the jabbing guitar riff of “Straight to Hell” (“we can’t avoid the Clash,” Bowie regrets in the second verse), a song by another band of failed would-be pop revolutionaries.

tn

Or how its coda references Annette Peacock’s “I’m the One.” Back in his Beckenham days, Bowie had loved Peacock’s music; he’d had her signed by MainMan, he’d wanted her to to support him on the “Aladdin Sane” tour. She spent two decades making brilliant, uncompromising records and supporting radical movements. But even she, by 1989, was done with any hope of societal change: I used to be extremely optimistic. Now I’m more realistic about man’s ability to transcend his basic nature, or his basic conditioning,” Peacock said. “Unless people start becoming active, in terms of doing what they can actually do in their own sphere of activity (within their family, socially, within their circle of friends, whatever), yeah, there is no hope.

A failed marriage, a failed revolution, a failed world: they nest within each other. Ray Gosling’s revolution, the shiny liberating promise of Mod and Pop, was supposed to be fun. When the promise reached Thunderclap Newman, when it was caught up with the barricades and letter bombs, it was already too far gone, too weighed down by the muck of history. It was already a beautiful failure. But what did Bowie have to mourn? He’d never been much of a hippie and the counterculture’s collapse had been the best thing for his career: his public image in the Seventies was of the man who came after everything went south.

Perhaps having invested so much in the future, having been the future’s champion, or at least its logo, for so long, he was tired of it. The future hadn’t been worth it, after all. Let me go. Let me go back into history, let someone else for once offer some alternatives. His “Something In the Air” is a goodbye to failure dressed as a goodbye to a dead marriage; it’s a goodbye to the future and all its oppressive what-could-bes. Danced with you too long, Bowie sings. Nothing left to save. Let’s take what we can.

Bowie sings the song, especially its latter half, in a scraping, brooding performance. He seems to be singing under the melody that he wrote; he distorts his voice on some lines via a ring modulator, making him sound like a radio signal cutting out. He sounds deflated, mopey, spent: he’s the sad Pierrot again. It’s a happily married man mourning a fictional lifeless marriage, it’s a reflection on a lost revolution by someone who kept far away from the barricades: fittingly it’s one of the songs his band of video-game rebels performs in Omikron. It’s a song carved out of old dreamers’ songs (recall how much Bowie uses “dreamers” as a motif on this record) but it has no dreams in it. Goodbye 20th Century.

Recorded April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios and Chung King Studios, NY. A Mark Plati remix appeared on the American Psycho soundtrack. Performed live only twice, in 1999.

Top: “Go Jake,” “Riot Police with Ponchos,” Seattle (during the WTO protests), 30 November 1999; Gosling’s Sum Total; Terence Stamp, The Limey (Soderbergh, 1999).

37 Responses to Something In the Air

  1. crayontocrayon says:

    The ring modulation under the vocal also is a call back to ‘The Motel’ where a similar effect is used albeit far more subtly and combined with a delay. The Jools Holland performance was the first time I can remember not seeing Gabrels on guitar, instead a new white haired guitarist. I’m sure we we hear more about him in the future…

  2. fantailfan says:

    This may sound ignorant, but whatever happened to the 3 minute song?

  3. fantailfan says:

    Speaking of “Albatross,” here’s a song released a couple of months before it was: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lw27fX-NYck

  4. MC says:

    Fascinating piece; host of connections I hadn’t picked up on. I find the ongoing take on Hours’ theme of middle-aged romantic failure and regret as a (partial) camouflage for meditations on artistic frustration to be quite brilliant, and the linkage here with failed 60′s dreams of revolution – great stuff. Puts the album in a whole new light. Well worth the wait.

    For me, this song is one of Hours’ high points. I found it extremely off-putting at first, particularly the distortion-heavy vocal, but I grew to find it extremely powerful. It somewhat belies the album’s easy-listening reputation, doesn’t it? Incidentally, the song is also used over the closing credits of Chris Nolan’s film Memento.

    • BenJ says:

      Oh wow, I had forgotten about it being on Memento, although I finally saw American Psycho a few months ago and the song was the perfect coda to it. It’s amazing how Bowie looks at the song this one takes its inspiration and name from, and goes in the opposite direction in terms of mood.

  5. This is probably my favourite song on the record but I think I prefer the remix (and its subsequent live performances).
    I remember this was also featured on the end credits of Memento. Got around quite a bit considering it wasn’t ever a single.

  6. CosmicJive says:

    At the time of release I didn’t care much about this track. Then I heard him perform it with so much power on the Jools show and the song won me over. I absolutely love the track now. It’s a really sad sad song.

    The album version, I think, sums up the good and bad of ‘hours…’ It’s a beautiful composition, but the production really drags it down (though the lifeless album version fits perfectly in the context of the Omikron city populated with lifeless souls).

    The remix partly recaptures some of the live versions magic and it’s my favorite version of the song also.

    The guitar is (though I have to check the patches on the VG-8) the same sound Reeves uses on ‘Seven Years In Tibet’ (the ‘Albatross’ sound) and indeed the vocal effect seems to be the same as the one David used at the end part of ‘The Motel’ during the early Outside Tour.

  7. gcreptile says:

    It’s a song the 15-year old me didn’t like, but the 31-year old me likes it very much. Thanks for this great article. It seems the song is a real treasure trove, even if your punchline – Bowie’s “act” of mourning – is all too true.

  8. Anonymous says:

    As an aside, Ray Gosling was a gay activist and lived long enough to see many of his dreams for equality in the UK achieved such as gay marriage. So not all dreams are left unfulfilled. And he kept his Gene Vincent quiff to the very end bless him. RIP.

  9. s.t. says:

    The “artistic philosophy as failed relationship” interpretation of the song makes a lot of sense. A line like “I’ve danced with you too long” sounds like empty cliche in a romantic context, but works well as a cold dismissal of his bright-eyed genre-hopping (which, at the time, included dance music).

    Musically, I feel as if “Something In the Air” is sort of a sequel to “I Can’t Read.” It’s Reeves and Bowie using guitar rock to brood and seethe. And considering your interpretation of the lyrics, this also seems of a piece with ICR. As the original slow burner paid bitter tribute to Bowie’s creative floundering in the albums before Tin Machine, “Something” could be another moment of Bowie looking back at his discarded skin with horror as he finds his way in his new coat.

    This is one of the few songs on Hours that is not a problem for me in terms of production. Aside from the vocal distortions, it’s a fairly minimal track. I think the American Psycho remix is too busy, but the fact that it’s the most Outside-sounding release of the new era (ah, that 90′s electronic beat and Mike Garson’s cracked keys) nonetheless grants it a special place in my heart.

  10. Maj says:

    Great post, Chris. Never even heard of Gosling until now *hangs head in shame*. Also had no idea that that song I sometimes hear in films or on the oldies radio is also called Something in the Air. So, very educating, this. :)

    Bowie’s Something in the Air…it depends on if I’m on the right wavelength. Sometimes it can get annoying, sometimes it’s grand. Mind you, ages ago I somehow acquired a live mp3 of this song & pretty much swapped it for the studio version on my comp & players. Dunno which one of the linked above it is, and too lazy to figure it out. Anyway, I suppose I prefer the song sounding more “organic” rather than the vocoder (?) treatment.

    This post shifted the meaning of the song for me a bit. I always thought it was about a couple that has um…chemistry but the relationship doesn’t quite work/is not “good for” the protagonist. Not far from the ending/ended relationship POV but still a bit different.

    I don’t think I ever actually read the lyrics though, it’s not unusual I get a certain meaning from a song while just listening to it but when I read the lyrics by themselves I realise the meaning (at least for me) has changed.

    Anyway, I guess I mostly like the song, but have to be in the right mood for it. The chorus melody is quite cool. There’s something about it that’s very glam Bowie, even. If that makes any sense.Or rather, like something out of the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack. Had it been produced differently, it would fit right in. (Hell, even with its subject matter.)
    And hey, with the Annette Peacock connection (well spotted!) my VG angle even makes sense. :)

    • Stolen Guitar says:

      Don’t worry, Maj, there are a great many people in this country who have no idea about Ray Gosling and his lifelong devotion to fighting any and all inequalities and God knows, we’ve got plenty of ‘em here! He remained true to his broad socialist principles and was quite content to stand outside the margins of the broadstream and, sadly, wider success.

      Very impressed, once again, by your research, Chris. I’m always learning new stuff here…but still struggling to play this record! Just goes to show that you can’t have everything!

      As an aside, the recent BBC Bowie blanket coverage this year has resulted in a lot of younger people of my acquaintance enquiring of me about which records to start with. I, of course, reply ‘anything from the ’70s’ but they are surprisingly tolerant of the more recent recordings, too, citing Bowie’s adventurous experimentation and willingness to adapt as positive indicators. Now, if we could only get them into Ray Gosling…

  11. Galdo says:

    I’ve been waiting for every single article on this site since I discovered it a few months ago (when I started to discover the man himself). I’m addicted to here. This is the first time I’m gonna post an opinion. First time I’ve heard ‘hours…’, this was the track which impressed me the most. At the beginning, the song did nothing for me, but in the end I was completely blown by Bowie’s performance. I really like the deliverance at the end. Best song on its album. For sure. I could hardly wait for its article here.

  12. Mother says:

    Excellent review. Always thought Reeve’s guitar was somewhat reminiscent of Albatross. Good call.

  13. Diamond Duke says:

    Really quite a lovely song, actually. As with much of the album ‘hours…’, however, I find the production sound a little bit dry, and the vocoder effect on the vocal I find a bit abrasive. I much prefer the American Psycho Remix (and the end credits for the film are where I actually first heard the song), not least of all because of Mike Garson’s Romantic-style piano flourishes (very much in the Lady Grinning Soul/Sweet Thing/The Motel tradition, and hence one likely reason for comparisons with the latter).

    I think it’s quite interesting that even though most critics seem to have found Bowie’s ’90s output something of a mixed bag at best, many songs from then have proved to be popular with filmmakers of that era. (For example, David Lynch, David Fincher, Paul Verhoeven, Mary Harron, Christopher Nolan, I’m probably missing one or two… ;) ) Interestingly enough, two songs from 1997′s Earthling share their titles with ’90s films!

  14. TW says:

    Love this song and am pro-Hours in general. I remember a horrible, ‘how can my life go on’ day in London in late 1999 when I realised there was a new Bowie album out that day. Bought it on cassette and walked around all day listening to it on my Walkman. Even if not exactly cheered up by the album’s downbeat mood, at least I was comforted by having a fellow wallower in misery.

    About this particular song, couldn’t it also be seen as a ‘I’m sorry, but I am going to have to fire you’ song mourning the end of the Bowie/Gabrels working relationship? Some of the lyrics vividly strike me as being about the involuntary loss of of a job, not the end of a romantic relationship: ‘Get your coat and hat!’ ‘I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to go’.

    By the way, whatever kind of breakup or loss this song is about, Bowie is…crying, isn’t he? So many sad images in the lyrics that I until recently missed the very obvious. The only time someone really says ‘there’s something in my eye’ is to cover up the fact that, really, they are crying.

    • s.t. says:

      I’d say a lot of the lines, especially “We lay in each others arms,” point to a theme of broken romance. And considering that he wrote this with Reeves in the Bahamas, it would have made for some awkward sessions if a severed professional relationship was what Bowie was singing about.

      Still, if Chris is right about the song using failed romance to shed a tear for Bowie’s recent musical past, Reeves is implicated there. He was a significant catalyst for Bowie’s approach to musical trends in the 90s. And we know that Reeves himself was already unhappy with Bowie’s post-Earthling shift from surging ahead with reckless abandon to looking back and sounding pretty. Once they actually parted ways, I don’t think it’s too extreme to assume that Bowie had that severed relationship in mind when he heard or sang the song. Abracadoo, I lose you, Reeves…

  15. Momus says:

    1. There must have been something in my eye in 1999 because I was looking the other way when Hours came out and didn’t realise anything this great was on it.

    2. Suddenly the man from the imperial period is back, the man who wrote symphonic, decadent, histrionic anthems full of scarf-waving moments and voice-ripping moments. In bits of this you want to burst into All The Young Dudes, or Cygnet Committee, or Time, or Sweet Thing, or Heroes.

    3. “Yes, I’m that guy. Wink!” The song approaches self-parody, self-pastiche. Bowie to Ricky Gervais, when asked to “do something quite retro, like Life on Mars”: “Oh, of course, yeah, sure. I’ll knock off a quick Life On Mars?, shall I?”

    4. You can hear that Bowie loved the Thunderclap Newman record because Eight Line Poem references the abrupt key changes in the bizarre Bonzo-Dog middle section.

    5. That Clash reference! One of the most interesting things I saw in the V&A show was the manuscript of the Ashes to Ashes lyric, which contained another Clash reference. Verse 2 was originally going to say: “Every day my reason is ebbing / And I hear The Clash and I don’t react / But the little green dealer is following me”.

    6. “There’s something in my eye” is what British people say when they’re crying but don’t want to let the side down. It’s not tears, there’s something in my eye. It’s a symbol of British emotional constipation, the so-called stiff upper lip. And of course the repression only makes the emotion stronger.

    7. We’re talking about a “failed marriage” here, but is no-one willing to stick a neck out and say “Angie”? I’d like to think that Angie didn’t just get nasty songs like One Shot written about her. Like that other fallen and reviled character Tony Defries, Angie played her part in the Imperial era of Bowie’s career.

    8. “He won’t talk to you,” Angie says, but of course what she really means is “he won’t talk to me”. There’s nothing we have to say, nothing left to say. But it does make sense to me that a decent, debt-recognising Bowie might send a note out to her: “We used what we could / To get the things we want / But we lost each other on the way”.

    9. I was going to write ten points but I’m sorry, I’m going to have to stop here. There’s… there’s something in my eye.

    10. Oh, great post, Chris! Ray Gosling! Annette Peacock!

    • Bruised Passivity says:

      Okay, I’ll bite, I also hear a reference to Angie in this song. I know Bowie claims that his writing is not particularly personal but all art, by the mear fact it’s created through the psyche of it’s creator, always contains something personal. I can’t help hearing this one as a meditation on various severed relationships: family, girlfriends, wife, lovers, bandmates, fans, musical styles, personae, self… This song finds us at the crossroads where the healthy decision to move on has already been made but the feet won’t move until the heart lets them. What is needed is a catharsis through a final, honest moment of reflection. The mental image I often get is of a man in an empty room looking through a box of assorted personal photographs.

      This is the only Bowie song that I don’t have a favourite version of since I find strengths and weaknesses in all three versions. However, I can easily say that Something in the Air is 1 of his 2 strongest on the album and another high point in his 90s repertoire.

      Another fantastic posting Chris, reading it felt like opening an early Christmas present. :-)

    • col1234 says:

      I agree Angie’s in there—had a graph or two about that but they weren’t working, so scrapped ‘em. But “Angie” in the sense that “Terry Burns” is in Bewlay Bros. and “Defries” is in Fame–a person reduced to a symbol DB uses for his own ends

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      Hi Momus. I often suspected this song referred to Angie. The line;
      “We used what we could to get the things we want”, pretty much sums up the “whatever it takes” approach to make Bowie a star that they adopted in the 70s.

  16. Ididtheziggy says:

    Will probably have more to say in the morning, but it’s late and I’m exhausted. This is my favourite track on the album and the one I think would have most benefitted from coming during a Visconti period. Heck of a song. I always imagined that this middle aged couple is what became of the couple from “Heroes”, starts off all flash and heat, but burns out into this. The song even sort of just putters to its end.

  17. Mr Tagomi says:

    I find it easier to admire the craft on this one than to actually love it.

    That gratuitous guitar skreek at the very end has always seemed to me like an strong indication that by 1999 the Bowie-Gabrels creative partnership had run a bit longer than it ought to have.

  18. Ramzi says:

    Brilliant take on the song that would never have occurred to me.

  19. Steven says:

    Nice song. Reminiscent of Love Is Lost on the recent album, not only for the bum-bum-bum-bum eighth-note bassline but also the lyrics, which seem like the same story told from different places. You could easily overlap the “something in the air” and “what have you done?” vocal parts too.

  20. As with most of “hours…”, it’s a frustrating exercise in botched potential. Erase Gabrels’ atrocious lead lines and take that stupid vocoder effect off of Bowie’s voice and you might have yourself a hell of a song there.

  21. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I’m usually a fan of misheard lyrics, but in this case I heard the opening lines as “You coulda had a gun.” This created a very different picture in my mind, with our world-weary protagonist coming up with excuses for the the domestic wreckage he surveyed. I wasn’t convinced, but listening again now it really does hint at – but not quite reach – imperial heights.

    I love the comment above – “Erase Gabrels’ atrocious lead lines …’ If you added an apostrophe – sorry, I have a thing about punctuation – I would just cut and paste that into the comments section of just about every entry for the last year or so.

    Interesting to hear about Ray Gosling. He was just someone who used to pop up now and then on the local evening news programme (the same one a young Tony Wilson used to appear on) when I was young. I didn’t know he had a past.

    • CosmicJive says:

      What a Gabrels hate all of the sudden:) I love all his work with Bowie. I guess I’m one of the few who feel with the departure of Gabrels Bowie’s music lost an interesting flavour that neither Earl Slick, David Torn or Gerry Leonard were able to fully replace.

      • col1234 says:

        early next year we”ll have a Gabrels sum-up post: curious to see what the consensus is after having gone through all of his DB work.

      • AB says:

        Gabrels’ playing: intellectually-interesting, emotionally- unengaging.

  22. Billy says:

    I can’t find it on youtube, but ‘Something In the Air’ was also used in an advert for British Airways in the late 1990s. Just to make sure how much the counterculture was coopted by mainstream business, they got gonzo Rolling Stone journalist turned Republican cheerleader to do the voice over.

    Can’t be sure of course, but it’s possible that Bowie had saw the advert prior to recording it.

  23. Sykirobme says:

    I do have to say that, for someone who is now going through a separation, staring down the possibility of a thirteen year relationship coming to an end, many of the songs on ‘hours…’ have resonance for me. This song, followed in sequence by “Survive” and “If I’m Dreaming My Life,” most especially; to me these are like a mini-suite describing my emotional arc these past few months.

    I am someone who enjoyed the album from its initial release, fwiw. It’s never been at the top of my list, but something about the autumnal feel of the album as an entity really appeals to me. It’s not so much about individual songs for me (tho I do enjoy “Thursday’s Child,” “Something in the Air” and “Pretty Things” on their own very much), but everything taken as a whole.

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