Nite Flights

November 14, 2012

Scott Walker, Message to David Bowie on his 50th Birthday, 1997.

I see God in the window.

David Bowie, after hearing it.

See the dwarfs and see the giants. Which one would you choose to be?

Scott Walker, “30 Century Man.”

I. Engel and Jones

I suppose he had made some slight noise of some kind or other. It would have been miraculous if he hadn’t at one time or another. And yet, haggard as he appeared, he looked always perfectly self-controlled, more than calm—almost invulnerable.

Joseph Conrad, “The Secret Sharer.”

Start by placing them across the board from each other: two queen’s bishops, rows of squares ahead of them. One is Noel Scott Engel, born in Ohio in 1943, an American who went to Britain for fame and who stayed there; the other is David Robert Jones, born in Brixton on the day before Engel’s fourth birthday, who scrabbled for fame in Britain and, once he finally got it, left for good. Jones became David Bowie, Engel became Scott Walker. Each was precocious, ambitious, beautiful. They first met around 1966 at a London nightclub, The Scotch of St. James, when Walker was a pop star and Bowie nothing but polite aspiration.

The Walker Brothers were cool, handsome Californians who sang maudlin, shabby pop. Their hit singles were all dirges. Britain, more than any other country, took them to heart, a hint that beneath the shine of Carnaby Street and the “classless” glamour society pages of David Bailey’s Box of Pin Ups there was still a weary nation that had never gotten over the war, a Britain for whom the glum fatalism of “Make it Easy on Yourself” and the doom-struck “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” rang more true than “All You Need is Love,” whose promise seemed extended only to the beautiful and young. The Walkers, though they looked like surfer gods, lived in darkened rooms: they suffered breakups, desertions and morning-after regrets, their albums were lonely hearts columns. The somber flavor of their songs suggested there was still a war on (and of course, there was—one reason the Walkers had left the US was to avoid the draft).



Like the spider-egg memory cruelly programmed into the replicant’s memory in Blade Runner, the Walker Brothers felt real but did not actually exist in any recongisable reality.

Anthony Reynolds, “The Hollow Men.”

Years before Bowie would create a “plastic” rock star, there was the Walker Brothers (not brothers, none of them really named Walker), who didn’t play on their records, who used different backing bands for touring and TV appearances (live, Gary Leeds used paper sticks, the actual drummer parked backstage). As Reynolds wrote, the only “real” Walker Brothers were Scott and John’s voices, “two solo singers sharing a b(r)and name…[whose] LPs were the works of a mythical beast, spawned and constructed under the laboratory conditions of Philips Studios.

Not that it mattered. By 1966, the Walkers’ UK fan club was larger than the Beatles’ and the Stones'; Mick Jagger, sizing up the competition, tried to start a feud by flicking cigarette butts down on Walker at a nightclub. Lulu, besotted with Scott herself, recalled being unable to sleep while on tour with the Walkers because shrieking girls had the hotels under siege. The Walkers’ mid-Sixties was a reenactment of Beatlemania in miniature, more ritualized and more violent, with Walkers shows condensed to a half-hour of screams and gutter battles. One night Leeds saw a girl covered in blood from head to foot—she had crawled through a shattered window to get into the club—and he remembered another girl who wouldn’t let go of John’s hair even after being punched in the face.

It had happened by chance. John Maus and Scott Engel, who’d met in the early Sixties, got a minor hit in America and were working clubs on the Sunset Strip. John sang lead; Scott, his gloomy baritone suiting his role as bassist, was second string. Recording a new song, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill’s “Love Her,” that had been written for the Righteous Brothers, the producer Nick Venet suggested a deeper-voiced lead for the Bill Medley role, and Scott became the front man. Leeds, a drummer that he and John knew, came back from a British tour with PJ Proby with UK contacts and a proposition. The three, christened the Walker Brothers, flew to London in February 1965. Four months later, they had a manager, a record contract and hits, starting with “Love Her.”

Scott had worked in professional music since his boyhood: he was making demos and singles in his mid-teens and had been a protege of the singer Eddie Fisher. It was a life of pointed ambition, reminiscent of another boy in Bromley who started cutting singles at age 17. But unlike Bowie, Walker had only a professional interest in R&B and rock ‘n roll (with the exception of the disco-tinged Nite Flights, Walker’s oeuvre is an alternate history in which “white” popular music had almost zero African-American influence). His idol was Frank Sinatra. Hearing that Sinatra had built up his lungs by staying underwater for minutes, Walker would try to hold his breath for a block when walking in London.

His was a wary fame. He never had a period like Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era when he savored the absurd peak of his celebrity. Instead he escaped whenever he could, enisling himself in movie theaters, where he’d watch four films in a row, or turning up at nightclubs at 1 AM and sitting by himself; he took Valium to bring himself down, uppers and vodka to get him through sessions and shows. Encouraged by his manager to write B-sides for some publishing royalties, Walker found his ideal form of escape: his songs, from the start, fabricated worlds for him to hide away in. In December 1966 he had a breakthrough, with “Archangel,” built on a Bach-inspired pipe organ figure that Scott recorded at the Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square (a moviegoer’s whim indulged), and the kitchen-sink drama of “Mrs. Murphy.” In these two songs, a B-side and an EP track, was the breadth of his imagined, inherited London: the gossipy flavor of life in a two-up two-down, where angels sometimes appear at the windows.

Walker became a dedicated expatriate: Sixties London, he later said, really was the London he had dreamed of in America, the London of Ealing Studios films, of eccentricity and “making do,” with vaguely Continental daydreams as its mild opiate. He became a British citizen in the Seventies, though living in Holland much of the time, and his attitude towards his native country has been coldness tinged with contempt. An idealized, affected “British” sensibility colored his music. Even the Walker Brothers albums were structured like provincial pantomime revues: a Matt Monro-style ballad followed by a back-to-the-Sunset Strip rocker like “Land of 1,000 Dances,” a country-style number leading into one of Scott’s compositions (a bizarre piece of sequencing on Images sandwiches Walker’s “Orpheus” between anemic covers of “Stand By Me” and “Blueberry Hill”).

Much of the music, even the #1 singles, sounded slightly off, inaccurate translations. “Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine” was producer Johnny Franz and a pack of British session players (including Alan Parker, who later played on “Rebel Rebel”) going for the full-bore Phil Spector sound, with Hal Blaine style “on the four” drums, “Holland Tunnel” reverb and instruments stacked upon each other like folding chairs. But they didn’t quite pull it off: “Sun” has so much blear and murk that Scott drowns in the mix, but the track’s also thin-sounding in places; it’s a drywall of sound.

Still, even echoes have echoes. Some of Bowie’s 1966 Pye singles, with their Tony Hatch productions, seem crafted to mimic the gimcrack cathedral tone of the Walkers’ singles. He and Walker were in different worlds: you can imagine Scott’s face on a magazine cover at the Clapham cafe where Bowie once wrote a bitter little jibe called “Join the Gang,” which he couldn’t. Where Bowie was a footnote, Walker was getting enseamed in British pop legend. When the gangster Ronnie Kray shot a rival at the Blind Beggar on Whitechapel Road, one bullet from Kray’s Mauser hit the jukebox, causing the record playing to skip: the sun ain’t gonna shine…sun ain’t gonna shine…

II. Billy Balloon and Major Tom

Scott Walker, Amsterdam.
David Bowie, Amsterdam.
Scott Walker, My Death.
David Bowie, My Death (live).

Contrary to public opinion, I hated cabaret. In the course of four years, I mentioned it to David once. That was when he was broke and unable to feed himself. Cabaret? Not likely. It killed Scott Walker.

Kenneth Pitt, David Bowie’s former manager.

Caller: Is ["Plastic Palace People"] about what I think it is?

Scott Walker: Uh, yeah.

Capitol Radio interview, 1978.

It’s a well-established arc in pop: the teen idol grows (cracks) up. Idols are a savvier lot now, and managers have gotten far better at handling the transition, but it remains a treacherous crossing, one that usually demands some sort of declaration of independence. Scott Walker’s was extremist. Consider if Justin Bieber put out a record where he sang about losing his virginity in an “mobile army whorehouse,” recalled “the queer lieutenant who slapped our asses as if we were fags” and “my first case of gonorrhea” and closed with “one day I’ll cut my legs off or burn myself alive.”

Walker went to the Playboy Club one night in 1967 and met a German woman who worked there. Back at her place, she drank Pernod and played Jacques Brel records for him, translating the songs as they played. He fell in love, not with her. By chance, soon after that evening Walker’s friend Andrew Oldham told him that Mort Shuman had just made a translation of Brel songs for a stage revue, some of which had been recorded for a promo disc. Walker found this acetate, which had “Amsterdam” and “Jackie” and “Mathilde” on it, and, in his words, “ran with it.” Brel was his liberator, giving Walker cover, some exotica and notoriety.

So began the “shabby ’60s solo epics: fantasias of crumpled velvet” (Tom Ewing) that were the four Scott records: fervid Brel covers, MOR schlock, occasional country/folk forays and the Walker-penned songs, the latter increasingly more “lieder” than pop, with Walker disdaining hooks and choruses in favor of wandering through his endless, spiraling verses. His songs, sometimes literally art movies remembered in music (“The Seventh Seal“), were split-screen compositions (“Plastic Palace People”), flashbacks, slow-motion reveries. He peopled his lyrics with children and angels (and one in the same), tramps and toy soldiers (there was a touch of the black velvet painting in Scott’s songs of the period), squandered dreamers rotting away on fire escapes and terraces. His characters, refracted through his own brooding persona, seemed poisoned by memories, left motionless (the first side of Scott 1 is a set of remembered lost girls—Mathilde, Angelica, Lucy Brown, Joanna—that naturally concludes with ode to death). The Scotts are singular, as much out of their time as they reek of it: Scott 2 remains one of the stranger #1 albums ever released.

Late Sixties Scott can seem a schizophrenic character, hosting a lite-pop TV revue for the BBC while singing about prostitutes and archangels on his gnomic records. For some he was a tortured artist, packaged by his label and manager as a reluctant version of Englebert Humperdinck, who slipped in a few subversive masterpieces on records marketed to middle-aged bourgeois. For others he was a teen idol with bad taste, a ghastly poseur who took a sniggering adolescent pleasure in singing Brel’s bawdy lyrics. (He was easy to detest: Nik Cohn called Walker “top heavy and maudlin” in 1968 and Robert Christgau later threw up in print: “purely godawful…Anthony Newley without the voice muscles…a male Vera Lynn for late bloomers who found Paul McCartney too R&B.”)

Sure, Walker’s records are the sort of thing the couple in Paul Simon’s “The Dangling Conversation” would have on their hi-fi, and his lyrics can easily venture into Rod McKuen waters. He seemed an older man in spirit, a throwback whose main vices, booze and pills, were classic Hollywood’s, and whose interests were those of a graduate student ca. 1957: Camus, Bergman films, Bartok. The Scotts are the refined sound of the aspiring middlebrow of the Sixties, a tragic figure easy to mock today. A lost world of Cabernet, mime, mild Buddhism, poetry readings, “action” theater. Which, as it happens, was also the world of Bowie and his girlfriend, the dancer Hermione Farthingale, in 1968.

During the Scott years, Bowie was in the wilderness. His one LP had flopped and Deram stopped releasing his singles. And in 1968, a year when he didn’t release any music and nearly abandoned pop music, he discovered Walker. As with Walker and Brel, a woman was the ambassador. The songwriter Lesley Duncan had dated Walker and later briefly took up with Bowie, and Bowie found the latter’s records in her flat on Redington Road. Bowie was irritated at first, Walker seeming to mock him with his glamorous brooding Philips LP covers, but when he finally played the records he was entranced.

At first, mainly with Brel (Walker had chosen Brel wisely, as a carnival barker to get potential listeners into the tent). Bowie soon tried to make “Amsterdam” and “My Death” his own, singing them accompanied only by his 12-string acoustic guitar, but all he managed to do was cover Walker. The actual Brel, an agitated Fleming who expectorated his songs in performance, is hardly to be heard in Bowie’s various versions—Bowie’s Brel is just a shadow of Scott’s. Seeking to evade Walker, he only channeled him.

Then, through Walker’s own songs, Bowie began to craft a new persona to inhabit. He had forgotten he’d ever been a Mod and, in the words of his then-partner John Hutchinson, was now “into softer things.” Scott’s songs are in the sediment of Bowie’s late Sixties: in the bedroom of “hessian and wood” where Bowie and Hermione once stayed; in the paper-strewn rooms of the scholar who lives above an Austrian in “Conversation Piece”. And in the song that finally made Bowie? Is there some of Walker’s growing isolation and coldness in “Space Oddity,” in Major Tom’s desire to slip free from the world’s tether and just float off somewhere, like a balloon?

It’s easy to go too far in this game. There were other competing influences at work on Bowie, and Bowie’s arrangers/producers Gus Dudgeon and Tony Visconti were of a different cast than Walker’s, who were generally of an older generation. Dudgeon and Visconti were more pop-oriented, working in service to the song, favoring moody sweeps of ‘celli, using strings and horns to underscore top melodies, and while open to innovations like the Mellotron and Stylophone, kept them as secondary players in the mix. Nowhere on a Bowie record of the period is there anything like Wally Stott’s coagulation of strings, a semi-tonal quivering between G, G-sharp and F-sharp, that hangs like a storm cloud in Walker’s masterpiece “It’s Raining Today.”

It was this sound—a suspension between tonality and atonality, release and tension, fear and longing—which Walker had sought since he began making records (Derek Walmsley: “each instrument is locked into a hovering circle of vibrato, like bees moving in swarm formation“) and he would reuse it for decades to come, building and coloring his songs with variations on these shifts, with strings phasing in and out of key, players rolling out strings of harmonic and ghost notes that suddenly cohere into great clumps of sound. (On Tilt, three decades later, Walker would try to create “new chords” by having his players play major and minor chords simultaneously, aiming for “a yin and yang thing,” he said.)

The sound of “Raining Today” suggested that Scott was delving further inward. His lyrics grew more obscure, his art movie songs were increasingly meant for him alone, as if he was screening dailies of his dreams. After the triumph of Scott 3, Walker even discarded Brel, disposing of one last crutch. He went off the map as his audience fell away. There’s a telling moment in the Walker documentary 30 Century Man, when, as part of a transition montage, there’s a cut to a late 1969 issue of Melody Maker. On the right-hand side of the two-page spread is a photograph of a beaming hippie Bowie in an article about his hit single. On the opposing page, a dour Walker illustrates a piece about the poor sales of Scott 4, which Philips would delete in a year. Sun (machine) rising, sun setting.

You’ve been a wonderful audience. Now it’s time for me to go away.

Scott Walker, at the end of his first BBC TV show, 1969.

III. Ziggy and the Moviegoer

It bothered me that I couldn’t write a record. Sure. But I felt…it’s just as important to exist as write…Existence is worth everything. So I wasn’t dead, you know?

Scott Walker, interview, early 1990s.

Had my double vanished as he had come? But of his coming there was an explanation, whereas his disappearance would be inexplicable….

Conrad.

In the early Seventies, David Bowie finally became a star. You likely know the story: Ziggy Stardust, Ronson, the Spiders, Angela, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Tony Defries, Mike Garson, “Starman”, “Jean Genie.” Bowie still sang the Walker-Brel songs on stage but he’d long since dispensed any Scott-inspired production cues and lyrical influences, as though he’d stuffed away Walker in a box of teenage memorabilia when moving house.

As for Walker, he was hiding in plain sight. He still put out records, sometimes twice a year. The Moviegoer, Stretch, Any Day Now, We Had It All. These albums seemed intended to be remaindered, meant for dusty afterlives in charity shops and garage sales and church basements. One wonders who bought them (there weren’t many—none of the albums really sold). A fan from the Walker Brothers days, now married with children, who spied the still-handsome face on a LP in Debenhams and bought it out of some weak nostalgic obligation? A cultist, poring through the liner notes, looking for clues? Your grandmother?

Walker was blocked, creatively, and pushed by his manager to only do covers, so he grubbed out albums to meet his contracts and support his family, sometimes cutting all of his vocals in a single day, going through a bottle or two of vodka in the booth. He sang anything that he was given, sang it professionally and at times even beautifully, but with little artistry, little trace of his own interpretation. It was though he was demoing songs for other singers to do something with. Amanda Petrusich argues that Walker’s move into country music came as he was renouncing his citizenship, at the height of Watergate, and that singing country was a way for Walker to make some sort of reckoning with his past (he said in an interview that most of his family back home had voted for Nixon). It’s a solid enough theory as any. What’s more unnerving is the idea that Walker simply had no motives, had no strategies, but was just using music as a base currency. As @Discographies said of these records, “their emptiness is startling.”

The connection could have been severed here: Walker drifting off into genteel nothingness, Bowie far off on his own path. But the line was still open on Bowie’s end. In late 1973, with the Spiders gone, with Bowie forced back onto himself and clawing his way out of a trap he’d made (he was trying to salvage at least three failed musicals), Bowie found himself listening to Walker again.

The first evidence on Diamond Dogs is a parody of Walker’s “Any Day Now” that briefly surfaces in the murk of “Future Legend.” Then, a few tracks later, comes “Sweet Thing/Candidate.” The ghoulish basso profondo that Bowie used to open “Sweet Thing” sounds like some resurrected, blighted Walker, Walker as some croaking Baron Samedi figure, pacing through Bowie’s Hunger City, looking for rough trade. It was a Walker that had never existed, one that seems instead to have been generated in Bowie’s shadow-memory of Scott’s old songs, and it’s a more frightening, vivid figure than Scott ever managed to play on his Philips LPs: a Scott purged of his middlebrow crooner affectations, clarified to base instinct and dark camp. The zombified Walker crops up again, as a lesser flavor, in some of Bowie’s other mid-Seventies songs (“Station to Station” comes to mind). It’s one possible ending: Walker ending up as one of Bowie’s characters, yet another influence absorbed. Instead, one day Walker woke up.

IV. The Electrician and the Lodger

David Bowie, he’s a very smart guy. He comes up with the goods and he makes sure of delivery right down the line. I thought, ‘Shit, if he can do it, so can I.’

Scott Walker.

Nite Flights (The Walker Brothers, 1978).

The Walker Brothers reunited in 1974, for lack of anything else to do. They got a minor hit, a cover of Tom Rush’s “No Regrets,” and stalled out. Their label GTO collapsed but there was enough money for one last record, so the Walkers figured they’d cut some of their own songs for once, using the budget to bring in some top session men (including Alan Parker and the guitarist “Big Jim” Sullivan, who’d played on hundreds of British rock records, including David Bowie).

So far, this has been a one-way tale: Bowie watching, interpreting, coveting, acquiring Walker. Now Walker, at last, was listening to Bowie, sifting through Station to Station, Low and especially the just-released “Heroes,” which Walker brought to the studio, playing it for his partners and the studio musicians (he also wanted everyone to subscribe to Gramophone magazine). The engineer Steve Parker told Anthony Reynolds that “Heroes” was “the reference album when we were making Nite Flights…we could have been more adventurous, maybe. If we’d had an Eno character in there, it would have been even more stunning, I think.”

What did Walker get out of Bowie’s “Berlin” albums? They were records of a man, pushed to his limits, who broke himself up and tried to piece himself together again, one who seemed intent on killing his former personae; Walker, after years of acquiescent mediocrity, of self-imposed artistic silence, was trying to write again, trying to make the step he felt he should have made after Scott 4. The Bowie records are also an exile’s albums, their creator roaming from Los Angeles to France to Berlin, which a fellow expatriate like Walker could appreciate. And more cynically, as Walker’s quote above suggests, he saw in Bowie someone to whom it had seemingly come easily, a man who dabbled in art rock but still got hits, one who seemed to have stolen the freedom to go where he willed. Remember that Walker wasn’t the mysterious avant-garde figure in 1978 that he’s since become. He was a pro singer who’d put out a lousy record for nearly every year of the Seventies, and whose vaunted Sixties LPs had more than their fair share of songs that could have been a Blood, Sweat and Tears album. He could still think in commercial terms, and he likely did here.

Nite Flights was front-loaded with Scott’s songs (though his fingerprints are everywhere on the record—as Reynolds wrote, the phased tubular bells and harmonized snare on Gary Leeds’ “Den Haague” are very Bowie/Eno/Visconti-inspired), which are sequenced perfectly. The opener “Shutout” is a first shot at Bowie, a reconsidering of “Blackout” with a taste of sharp violence, while “Fat Mama Kick” seems to be Walker taking Eno’s measure, writing a song that Eno could’ve fit on Taking Tiger Mountain or Here Come the Warm Jets. It’s a dark, extravagant goof, with Walker again, as with “Archangel,” busting the budget to record a colossal pipe organ (in this case, the Royal Albert Hall’s). “Nite Flights” (see below) is a maneuver where Walker met Bowie head-on.

He closed the quartet with “The Electrician,” where he pushed beyond Bowie and Eno, opening an avenue they had never considered. It begins with Walker’s favored dissonant string chords, with Walker, when he appears, groaning and bellowing as if he’d heard Bowie’s incarnation of him on “Sweet Thing” and thought, “oh, you think you can do this?“. Then, with the chorus, Walker strangles his professional voice. Considering his moneymaker baritone suspect, that it lulled the listener to sleep, he altered his phrasing and timbre, now singing lines in a straining, desperate tone that, like his love of consonant/dissonant strings, hung between being sharp and on the note. It suited the lyric, a love song about American complicity in Central American torture regimes.

There was nothing of its like in 1978. Brilliantly released as a single, “The Electrician” proffered a future that no one dared to take (Eno, decades later, groused about the cowardice of young bands who never went beyond “The Electrician,” but were just content to imitate him or Roxy Music or Bowie.)

In late 1978, Eno brought Nite Flights to Montreux, where he and Bowie had started recording Lodger. Bowie was stunned. One can’t blame him. Imagine if a great stone face to whom you’ve been making offerings for years suddenly rumbles up a response, in an approximation of your voice.

So Lodger was, in part, Bowie scrambling to acknowledge a revived Walker, from the obvious reference “African Night Flight” to “Look Back in Anger,” a song full of cold angels (at a time when Walker no longer seemed interested in them) and whose phrasing had a trace of Bowie’s old Scott imitation. But this was superficial. Bowie stewed, considered new responses. “The Electrician” proved such a challenge that Bowie played it for nearly twenty years, then all but rewrote it as “The Motel.” (But that’s a story for later.)

V. Nite Flights

Nite Flights (Bowie).
Nite Flights (Bowie, video w/introduction).
Nite Flights (The Tonight Show, 1993).
Nite Flights (Moodswings Back to Basics Mix).
Nite Flights (Bowie, live, 1996).

In the early Eighties, when Bowie pieced himself out to the world, Walker, after the promise of Nite Flights, seemed to leave it. It was here, not in his workingman’s Seventies, when he truly began to vanish. He had ceased to exist in the music press. None of his records get a mention in the Rolling Stone Record Guide of 1983, or in the Trouser Press record guides of the era; he merits a single line in a two-graph Walker Brothers bio in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of 1983 and isn’t mentioned at all in RS‘ 1986 History of Rock & Roll. Nite Flights, rather than marking some startling rebirth, instead seemed his last roll of the dice before leaving the room.

Then Walker put out another record, Climate of Hunter. This would establish the pattern of his late work: silence, oblivion, then a new album. Released in spring 1984, a few months before Bowie’s Tonight, Climate made Bowie’s corporate nadir LP even more appalling. Climate was an actual adult pop record, Walker working with contemporary musicians and producers (Billy Ocean and Mark Knopfler, among others), but keeping his own counsel, to the point of perversity (the Ocean track, the most pop-appealing song on the record which even got a video, didn’t get a title).

For the rest of the Eighties, when Walker was nowhere to be found, Bowie endured his own public set of lost years, reduced to making records for the sake of it, losing himself, trying to purge his way back with Tin Machine. Finally, in 1992, looking for some anchorage, casting about for fresh influences or just any means to move ahead, he finally decided to take Walker on. He covered “Nite Flights.”

As with his take on Morrissey’s “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” there was a touch of vanity in Bowie’s choice: “Nite Flights” is the closest that Walker was ever influenced by Bowie’s music, from the “Heroes” callbacks in the lyric (“we could be gods“) to its production and arrangement, which has the taut fluency of Bowie’s great Murray-Alomar-Davis band (the hi-hat, mostly played by Peter Van Hooke (and Frank Gibson here) is the unsung hero of Nite Flights, mixed as prominently as the lead vocal).

Bowie’s cover took the fractured disco of the Walkers and smoothed it out, deepening the song, gave it a steadier foundation (with Nile Rodgers’ fine rhythm guitar, starting in the second chorus, providing some friction). Just as with their Johnny Franz Sixties singles, the Walkers record, despite its pedigreed cast, had a feel of being scraped together at short notice, trying to approximate a sound they’d heard elsewhere. Bowie made “Nite Flights” a thick curtain of music, lessening the dramatics (Walker makes the out-of-key change to B-flat on “blood-lite” seem to portend something awful, while Bowie just breezes by it). Where Walker strains, gasps, acts as though he’s only got a few moments before something terrible happens (is he the air, about to crash? both he and Bowie shared a fear of flying), Bowie sings the bizarre, violent lyric (“the dark dug up by dogs!…the raw meat fist you choke!…broken necks!“) as if it was a love song, making it even more surreal, delivering each phrase with a poise that makes Walker seem like a madman. Bowie takes the first octave leap—“it’s so COLD!“—without blinking, where Walker seemed to bleed while doing it.

Covering Walker shook something loose in Bowie, reset his ambitions, made him commit to one last push into the avant-garde, to try to give audiences not what they wanted but what they didn’t know they needed. And in 1995, as Bowie was putting the final touches on Outside, a record that Reeves Gabrels has said was made under the influence of Walker, Walker popped out of the void with Tilt, a record so abrasive and baffling and ahead of its time, that it made Outside seem like a pop record. (Again, more later.)

VI. Walker and Bowie

I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.

Conrad.

Starting with Nite Flights and on through Tilt and The Drift (and, from what I’ve heard of it, Bish Bosch), Walker eradicated himself, exiled his past lives. There remains some continuity of sound (the dissonant/consonant strings, while a ghost of the flugelhorn in “Orpheus” appears in “Cue”, and a few basic lyric images: he’s still obsessed with the movies—“Clara” began with his memories of seeing Mussolini’s corpse on a newsreel as a child) but otherwise Walker has, more than anyone else of his generation, hived off his past, has made it of no relevance to him. He’ll never revisit his former work, nor flog it on stage nor give it deluxe CD/DVD reissue treatments (Walker has said he’s never listened to any of his records since he’s made them). The tremulous Anglophile of the Scott records, the jaundiced pop singer of Climate of Hunter, are well in the grave. The Walker of today keeps to the edges, looking for margins within margins. The Drift, in 2006, found him hiring top percussionists to punch slabs of beef and rub thimbles across wooden blocks. He sings his inscrutable lyrics, hinting at future fascisms, ethnic cleansings, plagues, in a voice that he seems to keep purging and bleeding; he’s become increasingly medieval.

Bowie, after his last trek into the attempted unknown in the mid-Nineties, fell back into his past. At the turn of the century, as we’ll see soon enough in this survey, he revived some of his oldest songs, remade them, like an older man reading aloud some faded letters; he drafted wills, put old debts to right, arranged his estates, then went out by playing his old music with fervor, as though he was a young man again. And he praised Walker effusively, again and again, his fandom ripening with age. Hearing Walker merely wish him a happy 50th birthday left Bowie close to tears. Whereas with Walker, whenever he mentioned Bowie (not often) there was simply gracious reserve, the quiet complementary manner of an artist to his occasional patron.

So add up the sums. Walker, apart from a few Walker Brothers hits, has never produced work that a mass audience has loved, in the way that they have loved “Changes” or “Life on Mars?” or “Heroes,” or will still run to a dance floor whenever “Blue Jean” or “Let’s Dance” comes on. Bowie, despite his best intentions, was a populist at heart. As Lloyd Cole wrote about Low, there was always too much with Bowie, too much melody, too much love of pop, too much need to be heard, so that he never could cram himself down into being just an “artist” (it’s akin to how Bowie never could make a coherent “concept album,” as much as he hinted at it). Walker began standing in the center, a treasured photograph on a teenage girl’s bedroom wall, and wormed his way out, seeking nothing, throwing away everything that he once carried, occasionally sending some new transmission from somewhere far off the grid, seemingly not caring whether it even gets heard.

Consider two planets in the same system. One has been more favored by the sun, a rich world with a host of lesser satellites that wheel around it. The other is a smaller, less hospitable, furtive planet, which goes on long elliptical orbits, vanishing for years then appearing again in the sky without warning. Sometimes the two have been in sync, pulling on the other, eclipsing each other. But their dance is over. The larger world has stopped moving; it just hangs suspended now, having become a preservation of its better days. The lesser orb goes on its way.

In the next two months, Scott Walker will turn seventy and will release a new record, one which appears to be as weird and ominous as his other late works, while David Bowie is out of the game. His name only surfaces in quickly-disproven rumors of a return, to the stage or studio (a deluxe boxed set of Low is about all we can hope for). It’s a shame that their story, which had run for so long, through so many editions, is over, but all stories end: you know that. It was fine while it lasted. Secret partners, rivals, sounding, sounded, carriers, receivers, exiles, electricians. Engel and Jones, Bowie and Walker.

The Walkers recorded “Nite Flights” in February 1978 at Scorpio Sound, UK. Bowie’s version was cut ca. summer/autumn 1992 at the Power Station and/or Mountain Studios, Montreux. A remix by Moodswings was released as a UK promo 12″ single (Arista HOME 1) and later included on the reissued Black Tie White Noise.

Sources: The Wire‘s recently-issued essay compilation No Regrets: Writings on Scott Walker (edited by Rob Young) was essential. I’m particularly indebted to Derek Walmsley on Scott 3 and 4, Amanda Petrusich on Walker’s wilderness years, Ian Penman’s meander through Walker’s befuddled early Seventies and Damon Krukawski on Climate of Hunter. Anthony Reynolds’ The Impossible Dream is a first-rate bio: many quotes and facts are taken from it, as well as from the Bowie-produced 30 Century Man documentary (Kijak, 2006). Thanks to @Discographies for entertaining theories and offering insights and music.

Top to bottom: Scott Walker in 1966, 1969, 1972, 1984, 1995, 2006; Bowie in 1966, 1969, 1973, 1977, 1984, 1994, 2006.


Jump They Say

November 2, 2012

Jump They Say.
Jump They Say (video).
Jump They Say (Arsenio Hall Show, 1993).
Jump They Say (Rock Mix).
Jump They Say (Leftfield Remix)
Jump They Say (Dub Oddity).
Jump They Say (Brothers in Rhythm 12″ mix).
Jump They Say (Club Hart Earth mix).
Jump They Say (live, 1995).
Jump They Say (live, 1996).

On the morning of 16 January 1985, during a snowstorm that had left the Cane Hill Hospital in Coulsdon understaffed, a patient left the asylum grounds. He went across the road, into the Coulsdon South train station, and walked to the end of the platform. When the express train, which had run late, appeared in the distance, he jumped down onto the track. He lay his head upon the rail and turned his face away from the train, which killed him a few seconds later. He was Terry Burns, David Bowie’s half-brother.

As with many suicides, the final act wasn’t a surprise. Burns had laid on the same track the month before but had pulled away from the rail at the last minute. He had thrown himself out of a window in Cane Hill in 1982. These are just the documented attempts.

Most of us are fortunate in that our family tragedies don’t become the sport of tabloids. The Sun attacked Bowie for his alleged mistreatment of Burns, calling him out for ignoring his brother and for not attending the funeral (which he didn’t attend because he thought he would make it a press circus). The papers gave a platform to an aggrieved aunt to lambaste him. The following year Peter and Leni Gillman’s biography, Alias David Bowie, was published, with the aunt as one of its key sources and which offered as a central premise that the Bowie family was riddled with insanity and that Bowie’s tortured relationship with his mentally ill half-brother, and his fear of going mad, inspired many of his songs. Except for a note included with the flowers he sent to Burns’ funeral (paraphrasing a line from Blade Runner), Bowie kept silent.

Certainly Terry Burns had been essential to Bowie’s development; there’s little question as to that. Burns, Bowie’s elder by ten years, had helped turn David Jones into “David Bowie,” having introduced his younger half-brother to everything from Tibetan Buddhism to jazz. And the period in which Bowie and Burns had last had regular contact, the Haddon Hall days of 1970-1971 (when Burns would sometimes stay with the Bowies on weekends) coincided with Bowie’s quantum leap in songwriting—he would introduce himself to guests as “Terry’s brother” and then go off to write “Quicksand” and “Life on Mars?”

There was Cane Hill on the cover of The Man Who Sold The World, and there were the songs: “All the Madmen,” “After All,” “Five Years,“* “The Man Who Sold the World,“The Bewlay Brothers.” Songs about doubles and brothers and shadows, about lost children, madness and isolation. But songs about “Terry” the imago, not Terry the troubled man who would take his own life at age 47. Bowie had made a doppelganger of Terry, had used it for his own ends, as a vessel into which he could channel his fears, a muse he could eventually discard. In 1993, promoting his new album, Bowie said he’d really never known his half-brother, who in his youth would disappear for years and then turn up at the house in Bromley seemingly just to upset his mother. “I think I unconsciously exaggerated his importance. I invented this hero-worship to discharge my guilt and failure, and to set myself free from my own hang-ups.

“Jump They Say,” released eight years after Burns’ death, was “semi-based on my impression of my stepbrother,” Bowie told the NME. But “Jump” was no eulogy (how could it have been, as Bowie had already written “Bewlay Brothers”?), and there was little sentimental or maudlin about it. It was a somber, desolate song, built on a steady mid-tempo rhythm track and which only erupted into brief spasms of cold anger—even the usually buoyant Lester Bowie sounds aggrieved in his solo. Oddly enough, it was a hit: Bowie’s last-ever UK Top 10 single.

The starting point for “Jump” may have been Bowie toying with his old piece “What in the World” with which “Jump” shares a similar shifting two-chord structure, rhythmic base and even lyrical signifiers: a girl with grey eyes in “World” gives birth to the shaking man with a nation in his eyes in “Jump.”

And there’s a taste of Low‘s spiritual deadness in “Jump.” It’s even a far colder song than “What in the World,” which lies on the manic end of Low‘s emotional spectrum. “Jump” feels like it’s going nowhere, a song locked in a box, from the constant two-chord (C/B-flat) shift underlying the verses and bridges** to the looped percussion tracks (a left-mixed synthesized hi-hat and right-mixed tambourine 16ths, which play almost entirely through the track—the hi-hat drops out during Lester Bowie’s solo, while the tambourine gets down-mixed) to the bassline, which until the chorus just alternates between holding on the root note (the C bars) and playing a livelier two-note pattern (the Bb bars).

Bowie’s vocal, which keeps to the range of a fifth except for the soaring bridge, is also locked in this stasis, with Bowie arranging phrases so that “he has” falls at the same place, rhythmically, in each line (Bowie eventually alters this pattern—while he at first does the same with “they say,” using that line to end phrases in the first verse, he starts dragging it across bars in the second verse: “they/say he has/no fear they…“). This strict rhythmic pattern fits the coldness of the lyric, in which the “Terry” figure is observed as though by a scientist in a lab—“Terry” has no inner life, he’s just made up of a series of observation reports. Look at him climb! the researcher notes, with the slightest trace of life in his voice, watching as the man hauls himself up a spire like some sad parody of King Kong. And what’s the chorus but a crowd calling for him to jump? The researcher closes the file. I’d say he should watch his arse, he mutters, as he leaves the room and turns off the light.

Breaking through the song’s permafrost are a few brief interruptions—distorted, “underwater”-sounding trumpets that crop up in the intro and get a brief moment to solo; Lester’s wild spray of notes (in the Outside tour, this section was battled over by Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson); Bowie’s pained-sounding saxophone responses to the crowd calling “jump!,” a melody that Bowie finally put to words in the last chorus. It’s a message of hope and faith (“got to BELIEVE somebody!“) though Bowie and his backing singers only emphasize the last syllable (“LEAVE!”)

While the single went nowhere in America, “Jump” was a hit in the UK, its performance likely boosted by a strong promotional push, the hype around it being Bowie’s first “real” new single in half a decade and by its video, directed by Mark Romanek. The latter was Bowie’s best effort since “Ashes to Ashes,” with which it shared a sense of rummaging through discarded Bowie selves: in “Jump” the stewardesses from Kubrick’s 2001 share the stage with the fallen man of Lodger and the tortured Thomas Jerome Newton of Man Who Fell to Earth.

As for the man who walked into the Coulsdon South station that morning? No one knows him; no one will ever be privy to was in his mind, on that or on any other morning. He remains a secret to us, likely even to his brother. “Jump” doesn’t bring us any closer to him, it answers nothing, it explains nothing, it mourns him only in passing, indirectly, as if in a scientific paper’s abstract; the song’s falling man easily could have been someone Bowie had just read about in a newspaper. “Jump” lets us overhear a man talk to his brother’s shadow, which had always been just as much a reflection of himself.

Recorded ca. summer/fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or Power Station, NYC. Released as a single (Arista 74321 139424, c/w “Pallas Athena,” #9 UK) in March 1993. Performed live in 1995-1996, one of two songs from BTWN that Bowie revived. Again, there were a heap of remixes (see here for the lot). The UK 12″ single included the Hard Hands, Leftfield and Dub Oddity mixes (the latter, also by Leftfield, an instrumental that’s basically a new song, is on the 2-CD BTWN reissue); the Rock Mix (orig. on the Savage CD single, “Rock Mix” = more banal guitar) and the Brothers in Rhythm 12″ mix are also on that reissue. “Jump” was also released in 1994 as a poorly-received CD-ROM in which users could remix BTWN songs, re-edit the “Jump” video and listen to Bowie gas on.

* “I thought of my brother and wrote “Five Years,” Bowie, Rolling Stone interview, 1976.

** Much of the song alternates between B-flat and C major, the chords shifting every other bar. While the ear keeps trying to guess which way the song will go, the pattern seems that it’s never going to break, so there’s a suspension of movement, fitting the uncertainty of the track. Finally, the chorus progression (Dm7-F-Gm7-C5) offers a vague resolution, establishing the song in C Mixolydian mode. (Though you could make a case that the song’s been in F major the whole time, with the dueling Bb and C chords the IV and V chords of F. Or that it’s in standard C major, with Bowie borrowing Bb from the key of F major (as a substitute IV chord—it’s the sort of thing John Lennon loved to do), and portending a key change to F that never happens.)

Epilogue: There was another Bowie half-sibling, one who is often forgotten: his half-sister Annette, born in 1943 (she was his father Haywood’s daughter). Her story ends far happier. As Bowie wrote in the introduction to his wife’s autobiography: “When I was seven or thereabouts, my half-sister, Annette, left England for good. She had fallen in love with an Egyptian and was to travel to his village to marry him. She would write. My father may have received news but if so those letters were not shared. I never heard another thing from or about her…[when] Annette had arrived in Egypt, she had converted to Islam, which had meant undergoing a name change. Being the first Western Christian girl to ever visit let alone live in her husband’s village, the most appropriate name for her was obvious.

If you care to listen I will tell you that I, David Robert Jones, a Protestant Caucasian boy from South London in jolly old England, have a wife and a sister, both called Iman.”

Top: Messrs. Blonde, White and Pink, Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino, 1992; “Jump” single; still from the “Jump” video, Romanek, 1993.


I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday

October 26, 2012

Cosmic Dancer (Morrissey and Bowie, live, 1991).
I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (Morrissey).
I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (Morrissey, live, 1992).
I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (Bowie).
Drive-In Saturday (Morrissey, live, 2000.)
I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (Morrissey, live, 2005).

The Last of the International Playboys are Bowie, Bolan, Devoto and me.

Do you see similarities between yourself and Bowie?

What, the living Bowie or the present dead one? The living Bowie, there are some, yes. Yes, I do see similarities.

Morrissey, NME interview, February 1989.

Morrissey is what would have happened if Bertie Wooster and David Bowie had a son.

Ken Tucker, “Alternative Scenes: Britain,” The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1993.

In the autumn of 1980, Steven Morrissey began exchanging letters with a fellow music enthusiast, a Scot named Robert Mackie. The 21-year-old Morrissey was holed up in his room in Manchester, reading, obsessing over Ealing comedies, Sandie Shaw records and Joan Crawford films, writing letters to the music press. In his letters to Mackie, Morrissey rubbished the former’s musical tastes (Kate Bush is “unbearable,” “all electronic music is a sad accident”) and rebuked him for never having seen David Bowie live. (He conceded that Mackie owned far more Bowie albums, but anyone could buy a record.) Granting Bowie the capitalized pronoun once reserved for gods and kings, Morrissey noted that he’d seen “Him” perform 14 times between 1972 and 1976 alone.

And to Morrissey, Bowie once had been a god or a king. “He was so important to me because his vocal melodies were so strong and his appearance was so confrontational,” Morrissey recalled in 2009. “Manchester then was full of bootboys and skinheads and macho-macho thugs, but I saw Bowie’s appearance as the ultimate bravery. To me, it took guts to be David Bowie, not to be a shit-kicking skinhead in a pack.” When Morrissey bought the “Starman” single in the summer of 1972, he “fell in love with the potency of the pop moment…the pop moment in my life was the only thing that ever spoke to me.”

A decade later, Morrissey met Bowie for the first time in Manchester, backstage at a “Sound + Vision” show in August 1990. By that time, of course, Morrissey had founded and disbanded a group that had played the same role for disaffected Eighties teenagers as Bowie had for Morrissey, and he was becoming a pop star on his own, with four UK top 10 hits. And one night in June 1991, as Morrissey was playing the Inglewood Forum in Los Angeles, Bowie came on stage to sing T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” with him. The crowd went fanatic: you can barely hear Bowie and Morrissey above the din in recordings. It seemed that Bowie was anointing Morrissey as heir presumptive of glam, using a Marc Bolan song as coronation hymn. The succession continued in 1993, when Bowie covered a Morrissey song on Black Tie White Noise, with, again, another glam legend roped into the proceedings. Bowie sang “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” a song originally produced and arranged by Mick Ronson.

There was sly dig in Bowie’s song choice, as “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” was, in his view, Morrissey’s attempt at a Ziggy Stardust-era belter; in particular, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” whose coda saxophone arrangement Morrissey might as well have sampled. “It occurred to me that he was spoofing one of my earlier songs, and I thought, I’m not going to let him get away with that,” Bowie later said.

Bowie repaid the favor by singing “Someday” in a pitch of sustained grandiosity. He said he wanted to do “Someday” as though he was performing it on the Diamond Dogs tour in 1974: decadent, fervent, unhinged, slick (Brett Anderson rightly noted that Bowie was channeling Johnnie Ray again). However, the resulting track lacked the spirit of camp, the bite of parody. It was leaden and forced, its centerpiece a dull guitar solo by Wild T. Springer and its mix accorded great glops of overbearing chorus vocals and horns. Bowie’s vocal didn’t measure up to his intended latter-day Ziggy Stardust: you could hear him strain sometimes, with his vocal fills before the closing “wait, don’t lose faith” especially gruesome. Slowing the song down to a thudding 4/4 instead of the whirling 12/8 of the Morrissey original only served to spotlight the track’s shortcomings.

Bowie intended “Someday” to be high camp, a silly goose of a silly song (in his video, Bowie holds a cigarette lighter aloft and solemnly sways his arms during the guitar solo), and as such it was a cynical misreading. Morrissey’s track begins and closes with long stretches of static and drifting pieces of radio flotsam, with the song proper suddenly appearing over a minute in, briefly shimmering into range and then fading into the void again, as though it was a broadcast sent from behind enemy lines. Its tone is wholly sincere, its message one of constancy and commitment, a pledge to adolescents of any age that they will somehow get through it (it seemed Morrissey’s take on “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as much as it was a Bowie tribute). Like the young Bowie, Morrissey had been a professional fan before he was a star, and his work was one long negotiation with and tribute to his fans. At the end of the “Everyday Is Like Sunday” video, the mousy-haired anomic heroine finds Morrissey through her spyglass and sees that he’s wearing her face on his T-shirt: she’s his idol as much as he’s hers. If “Someday” was absurd, as Bowie seemingly thought it was, it was because pop music itself, the promises it made and the beliefs it offered, was absurd.

Morrissey said he loved Bowie’s cover, and for a time the two kept up their mutual admiration society. This culminated in late 1995, when Bowie asked Morrissey to open for him on a round of UK and European dates. From the start there was tension, from the publicity materials (which touted Morrissey as a “very special guest” but only featured Bowie’s photograph) to sound check times. Morrissey occasionally opened sets with “Good evening, we are your support group” and contended with hecklers: critics found his performances both enervated and desperate-seeming. The Morrissey fans (“a crowd, that is, of precisely 11 rows deep and 20 seats across,” Melody Maker‘s Jennifer Nine sharply noted) would typically pack off as Bowie’s set began, and it didn’t help the atmosphere in the stands that Bowie was playing few old hits and intended to assault audiences with his new industrial-inspired music (as we’ll see in early 2013).

Morrissey said the breaking point was Bowie’s conceit (used with Nine Inch Nails earlier in the tour) that during Morrissey’s last song, members of his group would slowly walk off stage and be replaced by Bowie’s band, until as a climax Morrissey would go into a Bowie song and be joined by Bowie, sweeping in from upstage. Bowie thought it would make for great theater; Morrissey saw it as a diva move that would deprive his fans of a proper closing number. [This story is possibly dubious, see comments.]

So after only nine shows, Morrissey left the tour before an Aberdeen gig, allegedly without informing Bowie. A few years later, Morrissey was still seething, grousing that Bowie was a has-been and a charlatan. “You have to worship at the temple of David when you become involved with him.” In another interview, he said Bowie “is no longer David Bowie at all. Now he gives people what he thinks will make them happy, and they’re yawning their heads off. And by doing that, he is not relevant. He was only relevant by accident.” (Bowie, always the gentleman or at least one more press-savvy, kept mum, only saying that Morrissey had gone to a sound-check in Scotland, then got into a car and left, “and that’s the last we heard of him.”)

It was an ugly end to what had once seemed a graceful dialogue between generations, a volley between fans and former fans and idols. But perhaps the root of the break lies back in Bowie’s grotesque, vain interpretation of Morrissey’s song. The two reportedly never spoke again. While Morrissey seems to have made some sort of peace with Bowie, at least as a “living” memory, as he covered “Drive-In Saturday” on stage in 2000 and 2007, some recent snarky tweets by Duncan Jones suggest there may still be some sharp feelings on the Bowie side of the fence.

Moz sources: John H. Baker, “In the Spirit of ’69: Morrissey and the Skinhead Cult,” collected in Morrissey: Fandom, Representations and Identities; David Bret, Morrissey: Scandal & Passion; the “pop moment” quote is from the Irish Times, 1999. The complete Mackie/Morrissey correspondence is scanned here (there are plenty of DB references to be found, including Morrissey signing off a letter with “I’m unhappy, hope you’re unhappy too.”)

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise.

Top: Les deux dames, in happier days, ca. 1991; Lucette Henderson, moody teenage dream girl and star of M’s “Sunday” video, 1989.


Miracle Goodnight

October 22, 2012

Miracle Goodnight.
Miracle Goodnight (video).
Miracle Goodnight (2 Chord Philly Mix).
Miracle Goodnight (Make Believe Mix).

A happy contrast to the leaden “Black Tie White Noise,” the follow-up single “Miracle Goodnight” is the cleverest and most moving of Bowie’s wedding songs, a minimalist production on an often dense and cluttered record.

Built on a dual-synthesizer riff (allegedly inspired by a frog chorus Bowie had once heard in Bali) that provides the scaffolding for the verses/choruses and the two spoken asides,1 “Miracle” never extends too far outward in sound, with its accompaniment reduced to the synthesizer hook, a few secondary synthesizer colors (like the long-held notes that sing overhead in the second verse), sets of electronic and live bass/drums and a few low-mixed traces of saxophone. “Miracle” is the closest that Rodgers came on Black Tie White Noise to the stripped-down precision of his Chic masterpieces (including his marvelous guitar solo, see below), while other influences ranged from Prince’s Parade to the synth-hook-strewn McCartney II, with Bowie’s frog chorus riff in line with the relentless earworms of “Coming Up.”

McCartney offers a good perspective to view “Miracle Goodnight.” While Bowie’s song isn’t melodically (a near-conversational, & at times actual conversational, vocal that keeps to a three-note range until the choruses) close to McCartney territory, it shares some thematic parallels with the latter’s work. McCartney was one of the few rockers to celebrate domesticity and monogamy, which earned him his share of critical abuse. “Miracle,” a besotted groom’s ode to his wife, is working in the same line, and at times suggests that Bowie’s channeling a distorted memory of McCartney’s public wife-worship.

But as usual with Bowie, there’s an undercurrent of doubt, building on the fatalism of “The Wedding Song.” The singer is in love, but in the choruses he keeps interrogating his senses to reassure himself that she’s real (or is there actually “nobody dancing”?), while occasional hints of doom crop up in the lyric (“haven’t got a death wish,” “burning up our lives,” “ragged, lame and hungry“). The second spoken break is a blunt compromise: let’s agree that we never talk about who we used to sleep with. Even his images of contentment have double meanings: “Iman” is a “morning star,”2 the planet Venus as well as the angel Lucifer, the once light-bringer (she’s also an “evening flower” standing alone3) while the title line is both a man bidding goodnight to a woman he can’t believe he’s with, and the man fearing that the good times will end (don’t want to say goodnight,” Bowie sings towards the fade).

A harmonically spare song in G major (with a climactic E-flat seventh chord swapped in from the parallel minor), “Miracle” has a lightness of touch throughout, whether in its easy transitions between verses and choruses or its occasional musical joke, like an eight-bar keyboard solo in slight hock to Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.”4

And just as the song seems about to close, there’s suddenly a dazzling four-bar guitar solo, a last burst of pure elation. Bowie told Nile Rodgers to play “as though the Fifties had never existed,” Rodgers recalled to Dave Thompson. That is, as if white pop music had never been infused with the sound of black electric blues guitarists. “I don’t want to hear a single blue note,” Bowie told Rodgers. (It’s evidence that Bowie was running variants on Eno’s Oblique Strategies on poor Rodgers throughout these sessions, with Bowie taking the role Eno had played on Lodger). So Rodgers came up with a twangy, spiraling line that suggested early Les Paul (especially in the third bar) and also, defying Bowie’s edict by offering an alternate set of black musical influence, the “dry” guitar style of African highlife and soukous. The solo kicks off with a three-chord phrase that had opened the song (it’s the start of the synth hook), then dances in the air, weightless, as though Rodgers is finally able to indulge a set of roaming thoughts. It’s one of his finest guitar solos on record, and by far his best moment on an album for which he was often a frustrated presence.

Recorded ca. summer-autumn 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. Issued in October 1993 as the third UK/European single from BTWN (Arista/BMG 74321 16226 7, c/w “Looking for Lester,” #40 UK). It was given a Matthew Rolston video in which Bowie revived Pierrot, performed aerobics with himself and finally got a chance to play his old influence Buster Keaton (albeit a Keaton who’s apparently wandered into a Calvin Klein “Obsession” ad.) (There’s an alternate video by David Mallett, on the BTWN DVD, with Bowie miming to the song alone on a studio set.) Remixes included the 2 Chord Philly Mix and Maserati Blunted Dub (on the CD single), and the Blunted 2, Make Believe Mix and Dance Dub (on the 12″ single). The Make Believe Mix later appeared on the BTWN 2-CD reissue. There’s a surprisingly decent mashup of Thom Yorke’s “Black Swan” with the Maserati Dub version of “Miracle.”

1: The riff (three dyads, or two-note chords: G-B, A-C, A#-C#; a falling phrase (a B-D chord) answered by a G note; and tight runs of three G notes) is an intricate thing. It’s opened on Rodgers’ guitar, but it’s mainly played by two synthesizers parked in the left and right channels of the mix. They begin each reiteration in sync, but as the left-mixed synth gets an additional repeat of the tail-end hook (three repeats of the three G notes to the other synth’s two), this creates a constant echoing effect. There are also two basses parked on the ends of the spectrum, both of which hit on the downbeat then trail off across each bar. The riff is constant throughout the song except for the two solos.

2: There’s also a little play on words here, with Bowie calling her a “yellow dime,” or a sun that’s a “perfect 10.”

3: This line is followed by what sounds like “puzzling capiche,” which only makes sense if worded “puzzling, capiche?”

4: More in mood than melody, as Bowie’s sets of 16th notes are jumping upward where Handel’s were regally descending. (The patterns reappears in the coda).

Top: “Espino Family,”  “Moscow Subway Music,” August 1992.


Black Tie White Noise

October 17, 2012

Black Tie White Noise.
Black Tie White Noise (video).
Black Tie White Noise (Arsenio Hall Show, 1993).
Black Tie White Noise (The Tonight Show, 1993).
Black Tie White Noise (3rd Floor US radio mix).
Black Tie White Noise (club mix).
Black Tie White Noise (Here Come Da Jazz mix).
Black Tie White Noise (extended remix).

A week after they were (first) married, Bowie and Iman flew to Los Angeles for some apartment shopping. Their first night in LA, 29 April 1992, was to be marked by a celebratory dinner. Instead, dinner was cancelled and the couple stayed in their hotel, watching from their windows as the city burned. “The whole thing felt like nothing less than a prison break,” Bowie said the following year to Rolling Stone. “By people who have been caged up for too long with no reason.”

The very JG Ballard image of a rich man standing in his hotel suite, watching a riot unfold in the city below and feeling vaguely euphoric about it, would seem ripe inspiration for someone who’d once written “Panic In Detroit.” Instead, Bowie’s L.A. riots song was “Black Tie White Noise,” a track teetering between dark sarcasm and watery humanism. Though saved from complete disaster by its lyric’s occasional self-awareness and harshness, “Black Tie” drowned this acerbity in a glossy jumble of “contemporary” R&B sounds, the backdrop to Bowie’s duet with a mediocrity, Al B. Sure!.

“Black Tie” started as Bowie’s attack on the pop tradition of interracial-brotherhood songs, from “Black and White” to “Ebony and Ivory” to the song it seemed to be directly answering, Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” “Black Tie,” while inspired by a racial crisis, denies any wisdom, its most coherent point being that songs of its ilk (Bowie mentions by name “We Are the World,” “We Shall Overcome” and”What’s Going On” (and he weirdly drags “I Got You Babe” into these ranks)) have nothing to say about such crises, that they’re instead cheap slogans meant to make “white liberals” feel better, as Bowie told the NME in 1993. “[Black people] have their own ideas of how they can improve their lot, and they couldn’t give a fuck what we think. They don’t want our advice.” (This seems like Bowie had just seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which had opened in late 1992.) In another 1993 interview, Bowie was scathing about how such songs strive to find “white sameness within everybody” as a means of racial reconciliation.

This emphasis on chastising messengers suggests that Bowie, having long lost any contact with the street, especially the American street, could only approach life via songs. But he was aware of where he stood. In 1993, Arsenio Hall asked Bowie if he and Iman, as an interracial couple, had ever experienced any hostility. Bowie was blunt: never, because the two of them had been established as celebrities well before they’d married. They already had public personae, so their wedding was more akin to the merger of Warner and Time Inc. than it was the potentially “troublesome” union of an African woman and a white British man. To consider their marriage as a typical interracial one would be, as in Bowie’s opening line, “getting [your] facts from a Benetton ad.”

That said, Bowie was playing with his marriage as a symbol. The song’s title is a vague reference to their wedding gear, as well as a comment on their personae (Iman: elegance, Bowie: abrasive music). As he was envisioning having children with his new wife (and he would), it’s fair to say he was considering the future that his bi-racial child would inherit. He finally had some stake in the game, and he was optimistic in an apocalyptic way, believing that a series of further L.A.-style riots were needed before anything changed. “There’s going to be an awful lot of antagonism before there’s any real move forward,” he told Record Collector. Or as he had Al B. Sure! sing: “there’ll be some blood, no doubt about it.”

However, these were all just public statements. “Black Tie” as a finished song, as a title track, discarded the troubling and contrary notions that Bowie was voicing to the press in favor of an awkward and at times tasteless production, one apparently meant to bury the song’s fatalism in a vein of pop R&B so lifeless that it could have won a Grammy.

“Black Tie” as a composition was already an ungainly bird, alternating between pairs of verses set in a vague E-flat major and a longer pair of bridges (interrupted by an 8-bar break over the verse chords) that establish the song in A-flat (with Eb revealed as the dominant chord). (The only curveball is an out-of-key F-sharp minor seventh chord that transitions verses to bridges and vice versa). Over this Nile Rodgers slathered a paste of sounds: a jawboning wah-wah guitar, Lester Bowie’s ebullient trumpet fills, over-mixed drums, a quavering piano ostinato, washes of synthesizer and Tonight-style supper-club backing vocals (their staccato “black! tie! white! noise!” is the closest “Black Tie” comes to a hook, and it’s preferable to Bowie’s descending croak of “no-oi-oi-se” or his would-be-reggae chant of “cranking out” in the coda).

Then there was Al B. Sure!,* to whom Bowie generously gave the opening verse and who got many of the song’s allegedly dramatic moments (and who handled the lion’s share of the high notes, like the peak A-flat on “Lord Lord” in the bridge). Sure!’s performance is ultimately a blank, with little sense of personality imparted. As Bowie said he spent ages coaching Sure! as to how he wanted the vocals to sound, it’s possible that Bowie just shoehorned him in too tightly. It didn’t help that Sure! was given lines like “I’ve got a face, not just my race.

The latter line is in the bridges, which were apparently meant to be the emotional peaks of the song, with the two singers facing off on a street as though it’s the last minutes of Reservoir Dogs. But whatever nuance and fatalism Bowie tried to impart in his lyric is rubbished by the vocals, which border on the comical (“you won’t kill me! you won’t kill me NO!” or Bowie’s singsong “I won-der WHY, I wond-er WHY“) and was finished off by Rodgers’ production, with its swooning high synth lines and occasional murmurs of Bowie’s saxophone.

The break (starting at 2:29) has the best singing on the track, in service of the song’s apparently straight-faced “We Are the World” moment, the cynicism giving way to a heartfelt plea for togetherness. Bowie said that he didn’t want to make another “Ebony and Ivory,” that his song was meant to be a bitter riposte to such treacle, but maybe that’s all he really had in him.

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or Power Station, NYC. Released as the second single from the record it titled, (Arista/BMG 74321 (#36 UK)). Some 15-plus remixes were made of this song! Please see the Illustrated DB site’s entry for a complete breakdown. Of the mixes linked above, the “3rd Floor” mix was first issued on a promo CD for US radio and later was included on the BTWN reissue; the “club mix,” the Extended Remix and the Here Come da Jazz mixes (the latter uses Bowie’s “crankin-out” coda chant as its central hook) were on the UK 12″ promo (BLACK 1), with the latter included on the BTWN reissue.

* Sure!, a man with one of the more ridiculous stage names in pop history, was an occasional chart presence at the turn of the Nineties, with one top 10 hit (“Nite and Day”) and a few R&B #1s (“Off on Your Own,” “Right Now”). By the time “Black Tie” was released in late ’93, he was cooked: he didn’t release another LP or single until 2009.

Top: Dark Sevier, “Los Angeles,” April 1992.


Looking For Lester

October 12, 2012

Looking For Lester.

Arguments as to its quality aside, Black Tie White Noise is one of Bowie’s most thematically coherent records. It’s sequenced as a set of pairings, all framed within the union of Bowie and Iman (which opens and closes the record): a political reading of his marriage (the title track, again a duet), reckonings with his past (his half-brother Terry Burns, his surrogate brother Mick Ronson, his secret sharer Scott Walker) and with his would-be successors (Morrissey, Madonna). The interlude “Looking for Lester,” Bowie’s duet with the trumpeter Lester Bowie, is another past visitation, if a happy, light-footed one: it’s a boyhood dream of David Jones indulged by David Bowie.

Bowie had met the trombonist Joseph Bowie in London and through Joseph had discovered his brother Lester’s music. Throughout the Eighties, Bowie had wanted to work with Lester in some manner, and finally, crafting a jazz-flavored R&B record in New York, he had an opportunity, hiring Lester to play the trumpet solo on “Don’t Let Me Down and Down.” Lester hung around the sessions at the Power Station for weeks afterward, winding up playing on four other tracks, and his presence inspired Nile Rodgers to gin up a rhythm track for Lester to use as a springboard. This eventually became a full-out improvisatory performance, with lengthy trumpet, saxophone and piano solos, riffing on a theme carried by a set of trumpeters arranged by the bandleader Chico O’Farrill.1

Bowie had been a jazz fan before he’d been a Mod (and recall how much British pop in the Sixties was played by frustrated and diverted jazzmen like Charlie Watts, Alan Price, John Paul Jones and John Entwistle)2 and some of his first singles offer a glimpse of yet another alternate Bowie past, here a light jazz-pop figure in the vein of Georgie Fame (see the Fame-inspired “Take My Tip,” whose vocal melody seems like a transposed saxophone line, or “Good Morning Girl,” which Rosemary Clooney could’ve sung).

Lester Bowie (see here for my look at pieces of LB’s recorded legacy) embodied one branch of late 20th Century jazz. With his satyr’s goatee and his lab coat, Bowie was jazz’s mad scientist, emblematic of jazz’s freewheeling faction that imbibed R&B, rock, funk and pop music in all its mutations, a faction that favored noise, commotion, activism, makeup and spectacle instead of serving as the weary caretakers of “America’s Classical Music.” The likes of Lester were the collective retort to jazz’s New Traditionalists, like Wynton Marsalis, for whom jazz was an orthodoxy with a pedigree (New Orleans-originated blues), a canon3 and a narrow aesthetic, both instrumental (“analog” instruments, no synthesizers or electric guitars) and sartorial (suits on stage, no dashikis or glitter).

Whenever the Traditionalist strand of jazz deigned to recognize contemporary pop, it often produced gassy, self-serious works (Sting’s use of Branford Marsalis comes immediately to mind) in which jazz was the elder in the dance, providing “class” and sophistication to its uncouth partner: it was a boring Henry Higgins. This was an appalling thought for Lester, a musical catholic, who consumed and covered country music, the Notorious BIG and Sade, “The Great Pretender” and “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and who happily traded choruses with the man who’d sung “Fame” and “Let’s Dance.” For Lester, jazz was an omnivorous music, a music that fed the past with scraps of the future: he refused to accept that jazz wasn’t a popular music, despite it having lost its mass popularity decades before.

So “Looking For Lester” (the title was Bowie’s, a play on “Chasin’ the Trane”) is New Jazz Swing, a set of solos over a hammering (and rather harshly-mixed) 4/4 dance beat, with a synth bass and electric bassline and an impasto of synthesizer colors (Mike Garson’s piano crops up from time to time, offering little asides, preparing you for his late-in-the-day appearance). The track breaks down like so:

Intro/Theme 1: (0:01-0:36). Lester enters with a pair of phrases, descending triplets which land on a long-held F# note that he eventually yanks down a tone. The song’s main theme, played by massed trumpets over a constant shift between D and C chords (with an E bass throughout), is fairly simple, vaguely similar to the “Peter Gunn Theme”: an opening seesaw (F#-C#-G) that Lester quickly echoes, and a descending answering phrase.

Chorus 1 (0:37-1:20), (20 bars, Lester). The solo choruses shift to B minor, the relative minor of the theme’s D major (the pattern is Em-D-Bm-A).4 Lester mainly plays riffs and variations on the main theme, finding little pockets of melody and digging into them, closing with a sweet soaring phrase.

Theme 2 (1:21-1:39), 8 bars. An aggressively-played return of the theme, with Lester now doodling in the margins.

Chorus 2 (1:40-2:15), (16 bars, Lester). Lester is freer, casting off allegiance to the theme, sounding like a French horn (1:51) and building to a run of short, punchy phrases that are abruptly choked off by a massed trumpet retort.

Theme 3 (2:16-2:23), 4 bars. Just a tiny rest before the next solo, with the main theme harried by the massed trumpet line that had finished off Lester.

Chorus 3 (2:24-4:00), 44 bars, Bowie). It’s Bowie’s album, so he gets the longest solo, natch. He starts with two long, moaning phrases on his sax (the second one goes a bit astray), changes his tone to make it harmonica-like (3:00) and after a brief time in the wilderness, he finds a sweet spot and digs into a melody he likes, just grooving into it again and again. He closes with a nice bit of skronk.

Theme 4, (4:01-4:18), 8 bars. Stage clearing.

Chorus 4 (4:19 to fade), (30+ bars, Garson): And suddenly Mike Garson returns, back in the Bowie fold after nearly 20 years and acting as though no time had passed at all—he’s the same New York oddball, a fallen Scientologist and joker (if only he’d played with Lester more), who seems on the verge of playing a fresh variation on his “Aladdin Sane” solo just for kicks. Garson spikes out a set of dancing runs up and down the keyboard, rumbling on the bass keys and musing on the treble, and keeps on through the fadeout.

Sure, “Looking for Lester” isn’t entirely removed from those rock fantasy camps at which Baby Boomers spend $10,000 for a weekend spent jamming on guitar with Peter Frampton. It’s a mediocre-at-best saxophone player getting to duet with a master trumpeter and having his producer and record company shine up and sell the results. But if “Lester” is an indulgence, it’s not an embarrassment: Lester’s joie de vivre in turn inspired Bowie to forsake his occasional forays into avant-gardisms and just concentrate on honking out a meaty solo as though he was on a bandstand. With Garson as an added spice, “Lester” transcends its role as album filler, instead testifying to Bowie’s reviving senses of texture and melodicism. It’s a preview of what Bowie would accomplish on Buddha of Suburbia.

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, the Power Station, NYC. Released on Black Tie White Noise and as the B-side of “Miracle Goodnight” in October 1993.

1 The trumpeters oddly aren’t credited on the album, though there’s a photograph of Bowie and three of them in the studio in the sheet music book. There’s no evidence as to who wrote what on “Lester” (which was co-credited to Rodgers and Bowie, after the former raised a stink—he wasn’t credited on the first issue of the LP), but my guess is that Rodgers was responsible for much of the song—the chords, the rhythm tracks and perhaps the main horn theme—while Bowie likely provided his solo ideas, though of course it’s possible the theme was his.

2 Entwistle, for example, played in a variety of Dixieland bands in the early Sixties, while Jones played with John McLaughlin in a jazz collective, Jett Blacks. Bowie’s old bandmates in the Buzz, John Eager and Derek Fearnley, were also former jazzbos.

3 This canon essentially included any type of jazz pre-1960 and allowed a few stringent admissions of free jazz (basically the first Ornette Coleman records and the late Coltrane ones) but drew the dividing line at Miles Davis going electric in 1969. So much of the fantastic jazz of the Seventies was placed outside the pale thanks to this argument, which was voiced and generally unchallenged in Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary, for which Marsalis and his mentors Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray were primary voices and Lester Bowie was a footnote.

4: The choruses generally close with a transition progression meant to ready the listener to return to D major (Gmaj7-F#m7-Cmaj7-Bm7).

Top: Harry Benson, “Bill and Hillary Clinton,” Little Rock, Ark., 1992; Lester Bowie as off-kilter center of gravity, 1992.


Don’t Let Me Down and Down

October 9, 2012

T Beyby (Tahra, 1988).
Don’t Let Me Down and Down (Tahra, 1988).
Don’t Let Me Down and Down (Bowie).
Don’t Let Me Down and Down (Indonesian vocal).

Sometime in 1992, Iman went on a trip to Paris and returned home with a CD made by a friend of hers. She played the album for her new husband and suggested that he cover something from it. Aloft in the giddy state of early marriage, he happily agreed. So the most obscure cover of Bowie’s life began as a wedding gift.

Tahra Mint Hembara, the musician, was born in Néma, in southeast Mauritania, in 1959. Often described in Bowie literature as a “Mauritanian princess,” she was more accurately a hereditary griot, a member of Mauritania’s caste of poets and musicians  (her aunt was a revered griot, Lekhdera Mint Ahmed Zeidane). Tahra, who was also strikingly beautiful, did some modeling in Europe, which is how she met Iman and how, one assumes, she got connected with Pathé Marconi EMI, who gave her a record contract.

Her first, and to my knowledge only, album on a Western label, Yamen Yamen, was produced by Michel Pascal and Martine Valmont. It was an album of, in the words of the Rough Guide to West Africa, “Mooro-Tech”: songs derived from the traditional modal system of Mauritania (a five-mode system in which a musician plays each mode via two different scales, often called “black” and “white”*) but which were interpreted by French musicians in state-of-the-art Parisian studios in 1988.

It wasn’t as odd a fusion as one would imagine, as Mauritanian music had been more receptive to outside influences than other traditional North African musics, reflecting its location (Mauritania is the large vestibule between the Western Saharan nations of Algeria and Morocco and the Western African nations of Senegal and Mali) and its population, a mix of Berbers and Arabs, Wolof and Soninke. At the same time Mauritanian griots kept to strict gender roles: men played the tidinit (a four-stringed lute) while women, including Tahra, played a harp variant called the ardin (you can see Tahra playing it here, in a concert earlier this year at the Institut Français de Mauritanie.)

For her album, Tahra wrote a haunting song called “T Beyby” that was sequenced as the LP closer. Built of sparse materials—Alain Caron’s fretless bass, Olivier Hutman’s keyboards and Christophe Pascal’s drum programming—“Beyby” was a vehicle for Tahra’s unique voice, which was as harsh as it was unearthly, seemingly existing outside of its song, an exile’s voice captured in an exquisite net of sound; her voice was also the sonic equivalent to her ardin, which plays a jabbing two-note ostinato in the track’s closing minute. The refrain, the hypnotic “den eden dani den edani,” seems like an ardin line reincarnated as words.**

Taken by the song and convinced it could be a possible single, Tahra’s producer Martine Valmont wrote an English lyric for “T Beyby,” renaming it “Don’t Let Me Down and Down” (an English syllabic near-equivalent to Tahra’s refrain) and radically altered the song’s mood. “T Beyby” was sung by a man who’s learned that the woman he loves has left her husband. “He rejoices and thanks God for the Arab proverb, ‘all things return to their source.’” Valmont’s translation, allegedly inspired by a friend who’d recently died, introduced obsession and fatalism into the song: a woman, trapped in a cycle of despair, begs her lover not to let her down yet again.

So Bowie had a palette of choices when covering the song. He could return to the original version’s sense of divine liberation or delve further into the obsessional qualities of the translation, and he could build on the Western/Arabic fusion of “The Wedding.” Unfortunately he did nothing of the sort, instead condemning the song to a fate of glossy schlock, the unwelcome return of the sound of Tonight at its immaculate nadir, with overbearing backing singers, a glittering wall of keyboards, tasteful guitar fills and an airless production that seemed intent on smothering any sense of mystery in the song.

Still, Bowie’s “Don’t Let Me Down and Down” would have been comfortably banal but for his vocal. For whatever reason, Bowie decided to sing the first verses in a cod-patois, some baffling attempt at a vague Jamaican or French-inspired accent (“steel I keep my lurve for youuu,” he begins) that hovers between his lower register and a croaking somnolent timbre. As though shamed by Lester Bowie’s fluttering beauty of a trumpet solo, by far the finest thing on the track, Bowie corrected course in the latter half of the song, lunging into his high register, riffing against the ghastly backing singers and impressively flailing away in an attempt to make the song seem like a Young Americans outtake. It was too late: the mix of a crass arrangement and a bewildering, schizophrenic vocal made “Don’t Let Me Down & Down” one of Bowie’s most disappointing covers.

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise. Planned as the third single from the record until the bankruptcy filing of Savage Records in late 1993. Bowie’s Indonesian vocal (which is preferable to the English one) was released on Indonesian pressings of the album and later included on the reissue of Black Tie White Noise.

* The “black” and “white” scales reportedly have no racial connotations; unfortunately I couldn’t find much information as to their differences. (Tahra and/or her producers translated “Don’t Let Me Down” into an A-flat tonality, with the song built of rich augmented chords—the verses and solo sway between an F minor eleventh and an Ab major seventh (vi11-Imaj7) while the chorus moves from dominant (E-flat) through Ab and Fm11 to close on a D-flat major 7th (V-I-vi11-IVmaj7). The presence, if muted, of “black and white” scales fit symbolically with Bowie’s own “Black Tie White Noise.”

** Though presumably Bowie had the lyric sheet, at times he seems to have learned the song phonetically, singing along to Tahra’s oddly-accented English. Hence he sings “you jog-jog in my memory” instead of “judge and jury in my memory,” among a few other clunkers.

Some recent footage of Tahra is on YouTube: an apparent backstage performance of “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” and some fantastic ardin picking here.

Top: Mikael Colville-Anderson, “Kazghar Chicken Express,” Xinxiang Province, China, 1992.


The Wedding, The Wedding Song

October 4, 2012

The Wedding.
The Wedding Song.

Bowie and Iman were united on one point: that Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” was appalling and wouldn’t be used in their wedding ceremony. Otherwise she was happy to cede all musical responsibilities to her fiancee. So Bowie chose a Bulgarian choir record (“Evening Gathering”) for the bridal entrance, and for the recessional he wrote his own piece, an attempted fusion of Western and Arabic music to symbolize the union of a man from Bromley and a woman from Mogadishu.

Writing what became “The Wedding” (and its subsequent revision as “The Wedding Song”) served as a creative break for Bowie—he later said composing the former renewed him, with most of the self-penned songs for Black Tie White Noise coming soon afterward—and “The Wedding” worked as an album opener, offering an effervescence of spirit, a lightness of touch that seemingly had gone missing somewhere in Bowie’s Eighties.

Wedding songs and pop music are often ill-suited partners. Pop wedding songs tend to be grotesquely comic (“The Big Bopper’s Wedding,” “Dear Doctor”) or bitter and depressing, as someone is often left stranded at the altar in them (“$1,000 Wedding”) or suffers wedding-night blues (“Band of Gold,” “Wedding in Cherokee County”). It’s understandable, as marriage, with its compromises, its implied adulthood, its apparent finality, its sense of an ending, can seem irreconcilable with the ever-unfulfilled promise of pop music. Occasionally you get something as perfect and sweet as “Chapel of Love.” But just as often there’s an ominousness in wedding songs, a sense that the people who are marrying in them are deliberately blinding themselves for a moment, that their bliss will only last as long as the record plays. It’s telling that one of the best wedding songs, Ike and Tina Turner’s “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” happily documents the start of a horrific union.

It’s hard not to compare Bowie’s pair of wedding songs to his “Be My Wife.” The latter has no place in any wedding ceremony, with its abrasive neediness, its irregular rhythms, its empty vocals, although its chorus lyric, excised from its song, could have been written by Dan Fogelberg: stay with me, share my life. “Be My Wife,” written while Bowie was shaking off his addictions and his first marriage, has a cold irony in its depths: it means exactly what it says, that the singer is absolutely desperate for connection, that he wants to escape himself by joining with someone else, but the precise chaos of its arrangement and Bowie’s unreadable blank phrasing denies these attempts. It’s a closed circle.

There’s none of that tension in “The Wedding.” There’s no great depth of spirit, no sense of a settled conflict. It’s meant as a public song, the public face of an (apparently still) happy and successful union, a merger of thriving celebrity ventures, the musical equivalent to the images of the golden, supernatural-looking creatures marrying in the pages of Hello!. Built on a repeating three-chord progression (D-A-Bm-A) in A major, with a brief foray into B-flat major in a eight-bar “bridge” section (starting at 2:33), “The Wedding” is a series of intertwined duets. There are two sets of bells (tubular, played by Michael Reisman) that open the track, the two main keyboard lines, the two-note bassline, jumping between fifth and root notes of the chord (it’s close to a slowed-down version of the hook in Melle Mel’s “White Lines.”)* There’s even a pairing in the chord structure, with a steady A major dancing with a changing set of suitors: D, Bm, Bb.

Most of all, there are Bowie’s twin saxophone lines: an initial “traditional” one, calling back to the days of Davie Jones and the King Bees, with Bowie’s Earl Bostic-inspired playing rich with thick melody (he apparently used the solo lines as the basis for his vocal top melodies) that dances through two choruses, and a second “Arabic” saxophone—Bowie’s tenor sax altered, echoed and distorted, apparently sped-up in places—that’s more discordant and has a more exuberant energy. As Bowie easily could have found an actual Arabic musician to duet with him, his decision to also play the “Eastern” role, for lack of a better word, suggests an attempt to incorporate his wife into himself, reversing the birth of Pallas Athena.

I’m so happy people want to strangle me most of the time.

Bowie on the Arsenio Hall Show, 1993.

At some point in the BTWN sessions, Bowie decided to write a lyric for “The Wedding,” and so following the sequencing of Scary Monsters, he closed the album with a reprise of the opener. He happily admitted that his lyric was just a saccharine ode to his wife, his own extended version of “The Lovely Linda,” though the images he chose again were a reckoning with his musical past. There’s the murmured “I’m gonna be so good/just like a good boy should,” Bowie sinking to a low A on the last three words, which lightens the fatalism of “Beauty and the Beast,” where Bowie had tried to be good but admitted it was a loss. And the central image of Iman as his personal angel revises the indifferent angel of “Look Back in Anger” as a golden spirit.

Returning to how rock wedding songs often have an unresolved conflict in them, that tension is slightly there in Bowie’s “Wedding.” If Iman is his personal angel, she’s also on another plane from him, one which he’s denied entrance to. “She’s not mine forever,” he sings. She’s a temporary embassy from heaven to him, and he won’t be united with her in heaven, because heaven doesn’t exist for him: only the moment, only the wedding. But does it matter? A wedding at its best is a defiance: a public statement that despite age and indifference, despite the ravages of time and chance and illness, two people are taking an impossible stand against their inevitable demise, whether as a couple or as mere humans. “I’ll never fly so high,” Bowie sings, in a gorgeous, slow sweep up a fifth to peak on a long-held E.  But “I’m smiling.”

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992 at Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or the Power Station, NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise.

* An appropriately inappropriate reference, given DB’s history. Melle Mel had taken the bassline from Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern.

Top: Brian Aris, photographs from the Bowie-Iman wedding, 6 June 1992, Florence (Brian Eno looks like a caterer caught in the photo by accident). Complete set of Hello shots here.


Pallas Athena

September 28, 2012

Pallas Athena.
Pallas Athena (Arsenio Hall Show, 1993).
Pallas Athena (Don’t Stop Praying remix No. 2).
Pallas Athena (live, 1997).

For Black Tie White Noise, Bowie in the UK was negotiating with a few labels, including BMG/Arista. During one meeting at Arista, when Bowie was playing DATs of the rough mixes, the Arista team brought in their secret weapon: Martyn Watson, an A&R consultant and a complete Bowie fanatic (among his bona fides: attending all six Wembley shows in 1976). They sat Watson next to Bowie. While the rest of the table was nodding along and deferentially complimenting the music, Watson was actually listening to it, and at one point, he leaned over to Bowie and said “is that something from ‘Heroes’ there?

Bowie reached over and snapped off the tape. The room fell silent. Watson feared for his professional life. Then Bowie smiled, put his arm around Watson and said: “This guy’s got ears!” “I went from persona non grata to top boy,” Watson recalled. “We got the gig.”* He recalls a charming Bowie who occasionally stopped by the office and offered to make coffee for staffers, and a man who seemed engaged in his record, eager to push it as best he could.

Watson proved to be a key piece of Arista’s strategy to promote the record, as he had connections throughout UK clubland and was instrumental in distributing copies of the first track to be released from BTWN, “Pallas Athena.” Arista cut some promo 12″ singles that were only stamped with the track’s title, and Watson and others in the Arista crew delivered them personally to a hand-selected group of influential DJs. The gambit worked in part—“Pallas Athena” was a hit in the clubs—but there wasn’t quite enough time to get out the news that it was David Bowie responsible for the groaning “God…is on top of it all” over a throbbing beat.

The simple goal for Arista, Watson said, was to try to make David Bowie cool again. “I loved him more than my mum,” he said, but he noted that being a publicly identified Bowie fan in the UK in the late Eighties meant to expose yourself to ridicule. So having various remixes of BTWN tracks by the likes of Meat Beat Manifesto, Back to Basics and Leftfield (Watson lobbied for Underworld, to no avail—there was a divide in Arista between mainstream dance pop and the underground clubbers) were in part Arista’s means of wrapping up Bowie in something current, to sneak him past the tastemakers and let him be judged on his own merits again.

“Pallas” was one of the most radical tracks Bowie had made in years. For one thing, it hardly sounded like Bowie at all, with the disassociated voices akin to the clips of televangelist speeches that Eno and David Byrne had used on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. (The big question is: is the “God” voice a sample or is it Bowie’s distorted, down-sped voice? I think it’s the latter, but have not found any concrete evidence either way).

Its structure seemed influenced not just by whatever house and techno records Bowie had heard, but by minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass (see “Weeping Wall”): it’s the link between the second side of Low and Earthling. The melodic material, including the vocal lines, is used stringently and is constantly recycled, subtly changing in the process. Over a bassline that sounds four G notes per bar, a four-note pattern (B-flat-G-A-G) runs throughout the track: it’s carried first via four-bar sets of whole notes on synth and “live” ‘cello, which is then joined by repeating sets of quarter notes on synth violins (triggered by the move to “that’s all”), which in turn is capped by runs of eighth notes on high synth violins (in sync with the drumbeat kicking in), and, lastly, by Bowie’s own distorted “we-are we-are,” singing the same note pattern. The only alteration is the occasional tweak to the bass pattern (changing to Bb-Bb-G-Bb at times).

Over this are the chanted refrains: “God is on top of it all,” “that’s all,” and “we are, we are.” The initial run of “God is on top of it all” sounds definitive, striking, even reassuring; God is in control, relax. But as the chant goes on, the message becomes vaguer, more disturbing: is just a map reference, with God simply located at the top level, far removed from us, indifferent to our pleas? The vocal lines start to bleed together. At times the sequence is “that’s all that’s all we are,” other times “we are praying,” (or is it “ready“?), other times, it’s “we are we are God.” The title adds another element: Pallas Athena was hatched from the head of a god (“from the brow of the super-brain,” see “Song for Bob Dylan”). It gives weight to the vague Gnosticism implied here, that God may be at the top of it all, but we may also be above him. Or it could be a reference to the temple of Athena Nike at the top of the Akropolis, which, if so, then God is an empty ruin standing above a city that no longer worships her.

The only free agent is Bowie’s saxophone, which goes on a series of excursions, its phrases often starting with a rising triplet figure and ending with a downward glissando. In the closing minute of the track, the saxophone is joined by Lester Bowie’s trumpet, forming an island of raucous community in an otherwise chaotic song.

Recorded ca. summer-autumn 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC.  Released in March 1993 as Arista MEAT 1 (the Don’t Stop Praying Remixes #1 and #2 and the Gone Midnight Mix): these later appeared as the B-side of “Jump They Say,” as a bonus track on the 2003 reissue of BTWN, and on the 2003 reissue of Sound + Vision, respectively. These remixes, along with the album version of “Pallas,” were also released as a digital EP in 2010. A live version of “Pallas,” recorded at Club Paradiso in Amsterdam on 10 June 1997, was issued as the B-side of “Seven Years in Tibet” that same August (it’s also on the revised Sound + Vision).

* As Watson noted, it helped that Arista at the time was loaded with money (dropping £10,000 to hold a “rave” promotional party in the summer of 1993), thanks to just having one of the biggest radio hits of all time, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”

Thanks to Martyn Watson, a longtime blog reader and a very nice guy, for his time and his stories. If you have any more questions for him, I’m sure he’ll respond in the comments.

Top: Bastienne Schmidt, “Two Drunk Women, Puno, Peru,” 1992.


Lucy Can’t Dance

September 25, 2012

Lucy Can’t Dance.

Do you accept–or disclaim–any credit for Madonna’s shape-shifting career?

I have to leave that to you guys. But I would get behind it [her career] a lot more if I really felt anything for her music. It’s conventional in the extreme. I guess I’ve seen too much, because I don’t really find her provocative, either.

David Bowie, interview, 1992.

While Nile Rodgers gamely talked up Black Tie White Noise during its release, he later said he’d been frustrated and disappointed with the record. In a long, hilarious rant to David Buckley, Rodgers groused that his hands had been tied throughout the sessions, that Bowie was running away from making the radio-friendly smash that the world expected from a Rodgers/Bowie collaboration (“Star Wars 2,” as Rodgers called it). Instead, Bowie seemingly wanted to make a private album on a platinum budget (“This record is about my wedding,” he said, to which Rodgers replied: “But David, no one cares about your wedding! Let’ s make a hit!“) and kept rejecting the guitar licks that Rodgers played him (“maybe the licks I thought of stank…but I knew they couldn’t all suck!“). Rodgers tried to use Iman, a friend of his, as an intermediary, but she backed her husband.

The problem was that a decade had passed since Let’s Dance, and Bowie had been through the crucible of the Never Let Me Down debacle and the Tin Machine years. He couldn’t make himself commit to a record that pretended the past 10 years hadn’t happened: he couldn’t make Star Wars 2. Compromising his songs, guessing at a sound that a mass audience would find palatable, had only gotten Bowie Tonight. So the intentions of producer and singer had reversed. In 1982, Rodgers, trying to make a name for himself outside of disco, had wanted to make an art-rock record like Scary Monsters: it was Bowie who pushed for a more marketable sound. Now Rodgers, a long-established hitmaker, wanted to have another #1 album to his name, while Bowie wanted a stranger, jazz-influenced, club-oriented record.

Nothing baffled Rodgers more than the fate of “Lucy Can’t Dance” (“a guaranteed number 1 record,” he later said. “Imagine Nile Rodgers and David Bowie come out with a song called ‘Lucy Can’t Dance’? I was already accepting my Grammy“). An easy choice for a lead-off single, “Lucy” instead was nearly shelved, Bowie only relenting by including it as a CD bonus track. Bowie’s never said why he did this. Perhaps the song’s cheery, trebly sound clashed with the rest of the album; perhaps he thought “Lucy” was such an earworm, such a piece of candyfloss, that it offered too easy a pleasure, that he would look ridiculous miming it on Top of the Pops.

Like “You’ve Been Around,” “Lucy” was a half-decade-old composition. Originally called “Lucille Can’t Dance,” it dated to the 1988 Los Angeles session where Bowie had demoed “Pretty Pink Rose.” While the original demo isn’t circulating, so it’s unknown how much the lyric changed in four years, the final “Lucy Can’t Dance”* is Bowie’s vicious take-down of an artist that many at the time considered to be his successor: Madonna.

As with Gary Numan, Bowie lacked his typical generosity of spirit towards his contemporaries with Madonna, to whom he could be cutting, even cruel (making a joke about Madonna getting beaten up by Sean Penn on “Pretty Thing”). Whether it was paranoia, that a younger, hungrier artist was taking some of his best bits, or just an old con artist deprecating an up-and-coming one, as he could easily see the seams and wires that the audience was missing, Bowie’s general dismissal of Madonna is understandable, if petty and regrettable (imagine the music the two could have made together).

So “Lucy Can’t Dance” is a piece of well-aimed snark, targeting Madonna at a time when her cultural presence was inescapable (it was the era of the Sex book, one of the most tedious and expensive pieces of pornography ever released). “Lucy, I know what you’re going to do” (because he’s already done it)…now you’re looking for God in exciting new ways” (as if predicting Madonna’s Kabbalist period). Who died and made you material girl? (a sharply clever line, making the typical play on “material girl” but also suggesting that Madonna only took form when someone else (cough) had left the stage). And the chorus refrain, Lucy can’t dance but she knows what the noise can do, is a pitiless indictment of an artist who has no soul but who approximates the music of those who do.

Of course, all of this could have been said about Bowie as well, and he knew it: Bowie’s lines in the bridge (“So I’ll spin while my lunatic lyric goes wrong“) mock his own penchant for word-salad lyricism and his own cracked ambitions. But all the best put-downs have a taste of self-mockery in them (“Like a Rolling Stone” is arguably about Dylan himself as much as Edie Sedgwick, or whoever the intended target was): it just adds sting to the venom.

A rather shapeless song, “Lucy” was built of long sets of verse/refrains that alternate between A major and G major, and a D major-based chorus, linked by a harmonically-chaotic bridge (rambling up from B minor (“pursuing your frenzy“) to a G major (“sexual noise”)/G minor (“you live and you die“) switch-up to close on a diminished E chord (“eye“)). Its vocal phrases keep to a few patterns: a fourth-descending line in Bowie’s lower register (the opening lines of the verse; the chorus hook), a double-tracked rising-and-dipping line that’s up an octave (“did the world just explode...”) and the nagging “da da da da-da da-DA-da-da” hook.

Rodgers shaped the track to pop on the radio, loading it with hooks: showers of clacking percussion (the opening burst sounds like pencils being rattled in a metal can), his low-mixed, underwater- sounding guitar fills, trumpet blasts, a unyielding synth bass. All for naught: the song slipped out, barely noticed, offering only a suggestion of an alternate 1993 in which “Lucy” fought it out with Madonna singles on the radio.

Recorded ca. summer-autumn 1992 at Mountain Studios, Montreux and the Power Station, NYC. Released as a CD bonus track on Black Tie White Noise, though it was issued as a promo single in the Philippines in 1993.

* “Lucille” suggests Bowie was considering an early rock & roll reference at first (either/both the Little Richard song and BB King’s guitar). “Lucy,” in addition to being easier to sing, may also be a nod to The Linguini Incident, as it was the name of Bowie’s co-star Rosanna Arquette’s character (& in another Madonna tie, Arquette had co-starred with Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan). And of course, Nile Rodgers had produced Madonna’s Like a Virgin soon after he’d made Let’s Dance.

Top: Madonna, still from the “Erotica” video, 1992.


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