Modern Love

November 17, 2011

Modern Love.
Modern Love (single edit, video).
Modern Love (live, 1983).
Modern Love (Live Aid, 1985).
Modern Love (live, 1987).
Modern Love (live, 1990).
Modern Love (broadcast, 2004).
Modern Love (live, 2004).

Here comes my Chinese rug!

Iggy Pop, “Success.”

EMI’s (reported) $17 million contract with Bowie was one of the last good bets that recently-dismembered label ever made, as Let’s Dance repaid EMI’s advance within the year. It moved some six million copies (reportedly EMI’s fastest seller since Sgt. Pepper), hitting #1 in the UK and #4 in the US, and spawned three global hit singles.

Then Bowie went on tour for eight months. On a single night in San Bernardino, for his appearance at the US Festival, he made $1.5 million; he made nearly another million for four concerts in Chicago, $1.2 million for a single Edmonton concert. Bowie reportedly netted between $25 million to $35 million for the entire tour. He commissioned a private Boeing 707 for transport (so much for the old fear of flying). Every night, according to his backing singer Frank Simms, the crew and musicians drank and dined like emperors. By the end of 1983, Bowie had likely earned at least $50 million in a single year (inflation-adjusted, $108 million).1

So the former Beckenham oddball now had a net worth comparable to some of the Windsors. (Charles Shaar Murray: “I saw the footage of Bowie in Singapore ['83]. And I suddenly thought, he’s turned into Prince Charles. In a suit, with an old-fashioned haircut like a lemon meringue on his head, talking in this posh accent.” As per Paul Trynka’s bio.)

“Modern Love,” released in September 1983, was Let’s Dance‘s clean-up hit.2 And in its video form, “Modern Love” was a recapitulation of recent triumphs, the promo consisting of shots of Bowie working an adoring audience (in Philadelphia, Bowie’s go-to city for live recordings/footage). It was a rock video as tour commercial—don’t miss the giant inflated crescent moon! the horn section wearing pith helmets! Coming to your town next month!

But the actual song was more compromised. The ebullient lead-off track of Let’s Dance, “Modern Love” is a Bowie cultural doom-piece like “Five Years” recast as a boogie, nihilism in the high key of Little Richard. Bowie said the track’s call-and-response vocal arrangement “all comes from Little Richard,” Tony Thompson’s drumming seems like a gated update of Charles Connor’s barrage on “Keep a Knockin‘,” and Rob Sabino’s piano, though unfortunately sunk in the mix, is indebted to both Little Richard and Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry’s pianist.

“Modern Love” is a brightly-mixed pastiche of retired genres, with its early rock & roll kick beat and its soul-inspired vocal harmonies, while its instrumental verse, a tenor sax solo by Robert Aaron, owes more to a Fifties R&B honker like Earl Bostic than anyone post-Coltrane.3

The Kinks’ “Come Dancing,” released a month before Let’s Dance was recorded, has some affinities with “Modern Love,” not just in its throwback sound. “Come Dancing” recounts how rock & roll killed off the light pop jazz of postwar Britain—how the liberated Sixties buried the Forties, for good or ill. In “Modern Love,” now rock and roll is the old, endangered music, coasting on past glories, recreating itself in lesser forms. Whatever transcendence the music once offered is gone, leaving just fading colors and noise, the false consolations of memory, revivalists shining up the relics of an emptied kingdom.

Lyrically, “Modern Love” seems a revisit of “Soul Love.” In the earlier song, Bowie considered “love” as an abstract force (in his wonderful line “sweeping over cross and baby“), one that consumes lovers, priests and mothers, a force as delusive as it is powerful. “Love” in “Modern Love” has an even more astringent quality—there’s something sharp and cold in Bowie’s use of it here.

In “Modern Love”‘s circular 24-bar chorus (repeated three times in all), with its equally cyclical chord progression of the first four degrees of C major (C, D, Em, Fmaj7), Bowie starts out trying out “modern love,”4 finds it wanting, and takes solace in traditional marriage (“church on time”). But tradition’s just as empty, so he puts his trust in humanist religion (‘God and man!”) and finds that equally barren. (These moves are echoed harmonically by the fall back to the tonic, C major, with each new disappointment). The chorus closes with an echo of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and “God,” Bowie checking off everything that’s failed him—no religion, no confessions, no love. Nothing means anything, nothing works anymore. So the chorus ends back where it started, on “modern love,” because it’s the most appealing of the false gods.

Yet while the first verse opens with another image of empty circularity, Bowie buying a newspaper that only tells him there’s no real news, there’s also a weak sense of effort, of pushing back, if passively: standing in the wind, lying in the rain. But I try. I try. Bowie’s spoken opening lines are the only real counter-force: I know when to go out. I know when to stay in: get things done. It’s like a condensed shareholder’s letter. This was Bowie recasting himself, yet again: here as a dedicated counterfeiter for a debased time (“it’s not really work, it’s just the power to charm,” he smiles—how others must see the faker), as a man bled clean of his former vices and now ready to go to work.

“Modern Love” opens (in 6/8 time) with Nile Rodgers’ stuttering guitar riff, like someone trying to tug a motor into life, and it’s soon echoed on Tony Thompson’s drums. Thompson’s excellent on this track, with his subtly alternating patterns on every other bar. Carmine Rojas’ bass mainly holds the low end, with a few murmured commentaries at the end of verses, while the horns, as if they’ve been penned up, start chugging to go as the second verse ends.

Bowie’s vocal is one of his strongest on the record—he never doubts himself, despite what he encounters; he’s determined to sell you through it. And for once the Simms brothers and David Spinner, who sound like a demented glee club on most of Let’s Dance, are put to good use, here serving as audience surrogates, chanting back whatever words Bowie feeds them, being driven along before him.

“Modern Love” soon became Bowie’s encore set piece, with Bowie using the “never wave bye-bye” line literally, and he began to sing the entire piece in an excited, agitated manner. But the studio version slowly builds, with Bowie holding back until, having gone through his circle of disappointment yet again, he finally accepts the inevitable—that when there’s nothing of value left, one must accept nothing, and work at it. “MODERN LOVE!” he starts yelling, fully caught up in it at last. “WALKS BESIDE ME! WALKS ON BY!” (yet another old song churned up in the mix). Everyone’s borne along: the manic singers, the frantic horns, Tony Thompson crashing his cymbals. The fade comes while everyone’s still dancing in the circle. The bright communal joy of “Modern Love” masks a spiritually empty view of life, in which work is the last religion standing. As such, it was a song made for its times.

Recorded ca. 1-20 December 1982, The Power Station, NYC. Released as a single (EA 158, #2 UK, #14 US) in September 1983.

1 These estimates are from George Tremlett, the Bowie biographer most keen on the money angle. Tremlett noted that since Bowie was a Swiss resident at the time, he likely paid a mere $10,000 in taxes on his alleged $50 million haul.

2 Pop albums once had quickly diminishing returns: the first or second single was the big hit, while the third, if one was even released, was usually a chart-placer at best. Then it was time for a new record. But around 1983, labels realized that they could just milk one album for years, Epic leading the way with Thriller (seven charting singles from a nine-track LP, over a 16-month period). Recall how many mid-Eighties hits were third or fourth singles: “Borderline,” “Beat It,” “Delirious,” “Hello,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Walk of Life,” “She Bop,” “Born in the USA,” etc. This practice reached its peak in the Nineties, when labels harvested albums so relentlessly that no one ever wanted to hear anything else the artist did again (Alanis Morissette, the Spin Doctors, Hootie and the Blowfish, etc.)

3 In Bowie’s later live versions of the song, especially the Earl Slick guitar-heavy incarnation from the last tour, the “Lust for Life”/”You Can’t Hurry Love” beat is pretty obviously there too.

4 The concept of “Modern Love” itself is a bit of a joke, as it’s as old as “modernity” itself (see George Meredith’s 50-canto poem of the same title, from 1862).

Top: “ChuckP,” “Toga, 1983.”


Criminal World

November 10, 2011

Criminal World (Metro, 1976.)
Criminal World (Bowie.)

I’m gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones.

David Bowie, Melody Maker, 22 January 1972.

The biggest mistake I ever made [was saying] that I was bisexual. Christ, I was so young then. I was experimenting.

David Bowie, Rolling Stone, 12 May 1983.

In the early Eighties, there was a collective denial of bisexuality/homosexuality among a generation of rock musicians. Lou Reed put out a few occasionally uxorious records, one of which had a song whose chorus was “I love women.” Freddie Mercury and Rob Halford kept to their closets. Elton John even married a woman.

Then there was Bowie, who, in the notorious Rolling Stone “David Bowie Straight” interview in May 1983 (coinciding with the release of Let’s Dance), denied that he had ever been gay. He said much the same to Time two months later, calling his admission in 1972 “a major miscalculation.” It was the end of Bowie’s “gay” years. Never mind “John I’m Only Dancing” or “Rebel Rebel”: the new Bowie was pure hetero, a ladies’ man.

This betrayal, if one could call it that, came at a cruel time. By 1983, AIDS, wreaking hell through gay communities, had become the source of lurid speculations and lunatic theories. I was an 11-year-old boy in the South at the time, and I recall what was said, by adults, not just kids: that you could get AIDS from doorknobs and toilet seats, that angry gay waiters were spitting their AIDS-tainted sputum into your food, that homosexuality was inseparable from filth and disease. Kushner’s Angels in America comes out of this period, as does James McCourt’s wonderful Time Remaining, an elegy for a culture annihilated.

So Bowie, a man who once worn dresses on his LP covers, who once sang to a cross-dressing kid “hey babe, your hair’s alright,” now seemed to repudiate a culture that had once revered him, and at its bleakest hour. As I’ve written before (see the “John” entry), Bowie apparently wasn’t gay, rather being a mild bisexual who exclusively chose women for long-term relationships. As early as the Young Americans era, he had stopped playing, as the Melody Maker described him in 1972, a gorgeously effeminate boy…camp as a row of tents, with his limp hand and trolling vocabulary. And as I’ve said before, I don’t care to delve into the gossip of who he slept with.

But what did Bowie owe to gay men? He had trafficked in their culture, had pretended (even claimed) to be one for several years, and gays had been some of his oldest and most loyal fans. Had he just always been an opportunist—and, to bluntly put it, being gay in 1983 was no longer “cool,” but rather something to be avoided?

For Bowie, it was a cold, commercial decision. He felt that he had been defined in America for his entire career as a bisexual first, artist second. In 2002, he told Blender: “America is a very puritanical place, and I think [being known as a bisexual] stood in the way of what I wanted to do…I had no inclination to hold any banners or to be a representative of any type of people.” Camille Paglia, interviewed by Marc Spitz for his Bowie bio, agreed: “Bowie, in my view, had no obligation to say “I’m gay.” His obligation is only to his imagination. It’s the extreme view but I think, quite frankly, it’s the authentically gay view.”

But go back to Let’s Dance. Tucked away on the B side was cover of a gay (or at least bi)-themed song from 1976, “Criminal World.” Was this a communique of sorts, a “psst–I’m still here” note from a converso? Or just one last twist of the knife?

I was really turned off by [Bowie]. I didn’t like him at all. Because of that bullshit. “Experimentation.”…I didn’t feel betrayed. I just felt like he was a product. But then he lost his touch, didn’t he? For many people it was a betrayal. You can’t take that back. “Oh, no, I really am cool. I really am on your side.” At a time when Reagan was in office and AIDS was rearing its head he decided he was going to cash in on his white, male privilege and put a distance between him and his stigmatized fans and by doing that, he basically said, “Okay, I am the dick that you love hating. I am Rod Stewart.”

Justin Bond, to Marc Spitz.

Metro was a band formed in 1976 by two journeyman British musicians, Duncan Browne and Peter Godwin (the guitarist Sean Lyons soon joined them). Inspired by the first generation of glam acts like Bowie and Roxy Music, Metro’s debut album is a forgotten transition piece, fusing early Seventies glam into new shapes, and creating the sound of much early Eighties pop in the process (Browne and Godwin really sound like Tears for Fears in places). The timing was nearly right (Metro almost had Stewart Copeland as their drummer) but not right enough: their records didn’t sell and Browne soon left.*

A half-decade later, Bowie reclaimed “Criminal World,” which the BBC had banned at the time for its bisexual overtones, and on the surface its inclusion on Let’s Dance seems like a typical bit of subversion, Bowie sneaking a transgressive song into a platinum record that grandmothers bought. But it wasn’t quite the same song. Bowie excised half of the first verse, which originally went:

I’m not the queen so there’s no need to bow,
I think I see beneath your mink coat.
I’ll take your dress and we can truck on out…

and replaced the lines with some weak phrases, apparently his own. Then, in the second verse, Bowie changed “I saw you kneeling at my brother’s door” to  “you caught me kneeling at your sister’s door.” He turned a gay-themed line into one that Vince Neil could’ve written.

There was no excuse for this. A decade before, Bowie had written “Sweet Head” and “Velvet Goldmine,” had put out “John I’m Only Dancing” as a single. Now he’s bowdlerizing a mild, vaguely-bi obscurity, cutting out any language that could possibly upset some square in Dubuque?

The “Criminal World” remake is a pretty solid track. Nile Rodgers did a variation of his “China Girl” riff, a little bouncing movement on the the high strings of his guitar, and after the chorus the stomping riff of the Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” sneaks in. Tony Thompson is solid as always, while Carmine Rojas’ bass, with its low, drooping slides, is the lead instrument whenever Stevie Ray Vaughan is absent. Vaughan gets two typically exuberant solos (though they seem staid compared with the wild, abrasive guitar on the original Metro track). It’s the best track on a mediocre side.

But why is it even there? As with “Ricochet,” there’s a sense that Bowie is including some domesticated versions of his past work in his new all-ages record. It’s subversion turned to mummery, it’s a formerly fearless man bluntly hedging his bets. It’s a mistake, an insult, one of his least noble moments.

Recorded ca. 1-20 December 1982, at the Power Station NYC.

* Both Browne and Godwin had bigger hits as solo acts in the Eighties: Godwin’s “Images of Heaven” and Browne’s “The Wild Places.” Browne died of cancer in 1993.

Photos: Helga Paris, “Pauer” and “Gabi,” from the series “Berlin Youth,” 1982.


Ricochet

November 7, 2011

Ricochet.
Ricochet (portion of tour film).

As Genesis evolved from a progressive rock theatrical troupe into Phil Collins’ off-year backing band, the remaining trio of Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks offered a meager recompense: each new Genesis record, no matter how much schlock it contained, still had at least one “prog” track for old times’ sake. These mainly served to irritate new fans and disappoint old ones.

“Ricochet” has a similar sense of obligation, as it’s the only song on Let’s Dance to suggest Bowie’s art rock past. If “Shake It” is a trailer for Tonight (thanks Maj), “Ricochet” seems like a “previously on” recap reminding you of characters last seen five years before. (“Hi, I’m David Bowie. Do you remember me? I wrote “Joe the Lion” and “Subterraneans.“) The portentous”Ricochet” was one of Bowie’s favorite tracks on the record, though he later regretted turning over some of its creation to Nile Rodgers. “The beat wasn’t quite right. It didn’t roll the way it should have, the syncopation was wrong. It had an ungainly gait; it should have flowed,” Bowie said in 1987.*

That Rodgers, a man who likely blows his nose in perfect time, was flummoxed by “Ricochet” shows how awkward a composition it is. As no demos or outtakes from the Let’s Dance sessions have surfaced, it’s hard to guess at how the track developed in the studio (it seems like it was a struggle—the singer Frank Simms recalled “Ricochet” having the most difficult vocals to master). The final track’s bass and drums are locked in place, as if cast in iron. The drum pattern, nearly unchanging throughout the track’s five-minute-plus length, is a snare hit on the first beat (+ a crash cymbal on every other bar), two bass drum hits on the third beat and four triplets played on the hi-hat. The bassist generally plays four quarter notes per bar: low root, octave jump, two more low roots.

Yet there’s no weight or presence in this repetition. The beats quickly dissipate in the mix: the bass drum, altered and probably gated, is nearly interchangeable with the gated snare and the combination of the two sounds more like arcade game incidental music than any grim “march of time” that Bowie may have envisioned. (Only later in the track, with the appearance of Sammy Figueroa’s bongos and an occasional needling Rodgers guitar part, is there any variation). The rest of the musicians are colliding or turning up at odd moments: the saxophones seem to have wandered in from a jazz fusion session in an adjacent studio, Stevie Ray Vaughan ducks in only at the fade and the Simms brothers (and David Spinner) on backing vocals repeatedly go over the top, from the choral harmonies in the last refrains to the Manhattan Transfer-esque “RI-co-chet it’s-not-the-end-of-the-WURRLD” free-time tag.

Its title a possible play off Marc Bolan’s “Spaceball Ricochet,” the lyric is Bowie’s most ambitious on the record, though leaden and awkward in parts, especially the spoken lines (“Modern Love” is far more disturbing and cutting). A take on unemployment, the callousness of late capitalism or some jumble of the same, it offers either surrender or a vague humanist hope as a resolution. The title suggests that Bowie’s main theme is collateral cultural damage—a ricochet, after all, is what happens when someone misses a target, and there’s the sense that the beaten-down men in the song are just drive-by casualties of some broader game.

Bleak enough sentiments for 1983. But as with “Repetition” and some other upcoming “topical” songs of the Eighties, Bowie seems to have no clue as to how ordinary working people live, and so draws on plays, novels or newspaper articles for stock footage (“dreaming of tramlines, factories, pieces of machinery, mine shafts, things like that”). There’s more at stake in Bowie’s songs about aliens and supermen, more heart in the lines that Bowie pasted together via cut-ups. An artist whose primary muse and subject was himself, Bowie often went missing when attempting to plumb the common world, though this growing (and at times desperate) need for connection would drive much of his later work.

A fairly standard composition that travels through the basic stops of D major, its long bridge/refrain muddies things slightly with a suggested move to A minor. But “Ricochet” plods more than it develops, not helped by the identical chord progressions of the 8-bar bridge and the refrain and a two-minute draggy coda stalled in A minor. The nursery rhyme-like refrain (“march of flowers, march of dimes,” etc) is a simple three-note descending phrase, while Bowie’s vocal on the verses mainly keeps to his lower register.

I’ve no clue who did the Scottish [edit: Welsh?]-sounding muttered vocal cycling through the track—it’s possibly Bowie’s voice altered beyond recognition, but it’s more likely a backing singer. The closing line “who can bear to be forgotten” is a near-steal from WH Auden’s “Night Mail,” as are a few others (compare Bowie’s “Men wait for news while thousands are still asleep” to Auden’s “men long for news“). “Night Mail” seems key to the whole track, as “Richochet”‘s refrain’s meter is the same as Auden’s verses, and the former’s ungainly rhythm seems an attempt to imitate the sound of a juddering train.

Recorded at the Power Station, NYC, ca. 1-20 December 1982. Fitting  for its outsider status, it was the only Let’s Dance track not to be released on a single. “Ricochet” also inspired a series of sculptures by the artist Ray Rapp in the mid-Eighties and it titled an odd promotional short film, directed by Gerry Troyna, that documented Bowie’s Asian tour in late 1983 (in which he never performed “Ricochet” live—in fact, he’s never done it on stage). A highlight of the film was Bowie being ritually spit on in Bangkok (see here.)

* Bowie, throughout the Eighties, would promote a new record by first admitting the previous few had been crap. This 1987 interview in Musician, where Bowie tore apart Tonight and didn’t have much good to say about Let’s Dance, was done to promote Never Let Me Down, a record that Bowie subsequently disowned. See also: Mick Jagger.

Top: Alan Denney, “Stoke Newington High Street,” 1983.


Shake It

October 28, 2011

Shake It.
Shake It (12″ mix).

The Man Who Sold the World and Let’s Dance seem to have been recorded on different planets, but their creations were similar, with Bowie in a passive role. While Bowie has denied that Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson did most of the work on MWSTW, he’s admitted to ceding much of Let’s Dance to Nile Rodgers. Bowie didn’t play a single note on the record (“this was a singer’s album,” he said at the time) and was often in the Power Station lounge while Rodgers worked up the backing tracks.

So “Shake It,” far more than the rest of Let’s Dance, seems like the product of an out-to-lunch composer whose producer was gamely trying to guess what he wanted. It’s a troubling precedent of Bowie’s worst moments in Eighties: the genial indifference to quality, the sense of broadly playing to a generic public of his imagination. A filler track that closes out Let’s Dance, “Shake It”‘s not knowing enough to be a parody, not compelling enough to be a good dance song.

With its lyric occasionally attempting a cool ennui (“talking to a faceless girl,” “you’re better than money“), “Shake It” seems like a cheerful vandalism of a half-remembered Sixties, with the spiritualism of an earlier era reduced to catch phrases and pick-up lines; it’s a song for former hippies dancing awkwardly at some corporate function. So Bowie’s lyric calls back to the Beach Boys’ “‘Til I Die” (the Brian Wilson tributes would only get worse), “Twist and Shout” again and even John Lennon’s “Mind Games.” (The dreadful “I could take you to heaven/I could spin you to hell/But I’ll take you to New York/it’s the place that I know well” is pure Bowie, though.)

Rodgers does what he can with a dull composition (the six-bar bridge starts out promisingly, with Bowie sinking into his lower register, but it’s soon dispatched with another “shake it!”) and the track’s pleasant enough. Sure, the twirpy synthesizer ostinato is irritating and the backing singers should be shot, but Carmine Rojas’ bass offers a solid groove in compensation (he’s often starting each bar with an octave drop), while Rodgers’ two-bar rhythm guitar fills and Sammy Figueroa’s percussion add some welcome distractions. Brightly mixed and fairly shameless, “Shake It” shines like plastic.

Recorded ca. 1-20 December 1982, Power Station, NYC. An extended mix was issued as the B-side of the “China Girl” 12″ single in May 1983.

Top: Andrew McDonald, “Drunk Man with Cast and Cigarette,” Perth, Australia, 1983.


Without You

October 25, 2011

Without You.

Every single Chic record is exactly the same, so to speak. The concept of a Chic album is that we’re the opening act for a really big star, and we’re unknown. No one has ever heard of us, we’re brand new, and we’re a live band coming out on stage to tell everybody who we are.

Nile Rodgers, 2005.

Let’s Dance is a front-loaded record, with the hit singles back-to-back-to-back on the A side, leaving the rest of the album a bit weightless by comparison (it works to consider the flip side a Bowie sampler EP, with a (relatively) “avant-garde” track, a punk cover, a dance track and the “Cat People” remake). Still, the non-hits aren’t all filler by any means, but sometimes odd genre twists and seeming parodies.

“Without You,” which closes out the A side, is Bowie guest-starring on a Chic ballad, with both Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson* assisting Nile Rodgers here. As Rodgers said in a recent interview, Chic had always portrayed themselves as “the backing band,” with Chic’s singers Norma Jean Wright, Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin as faceless as the musicians. The idea was that the “star” the band was supporting never appeared, so Chic had to command the stage themselves: theirs was a music of absences (the formula didn’t work when Edwards and Rodgers produced an actual star, Diana Ross, with Rodgers’ mix for Diana eventually scrapped).

Bowie was more amenable to the idea than Ross, turning in an unreadable, almost blank performance for “Without You,” a mid-tempo soul ballad that’s both heartfelt-sounding and a seeming mockery of Bowie contemporaries like Bryan Ferry (the track seems like Rodgers’ and Bowie’s dead-on mimicry of Avalon) and would-be inheritors like Martin Fry.

Lyrically it’s barely there—a pair of three-line non-rhyming verses and a four-line refrain that includes the deathless “there’s no smoke without fire” and shamelessly mates “without you” with “what would I do.” The lyric seems a deliberate throw-away, a tiny set of place-fillers, in keeping with the singer’s theatrical exhaustion with life. Bowie’s falsetto is also fragile, as he often slides down midway through a phrase, as though he can barely keep standing at the mike (the last refrain line falls a sixth as it expires).

Edwards’ bass, assuredly moving from root note to root note, provides the swing that Thompson’s tricky, dancer-thwarting three-against-two beat (usually two snare hits against three bass drum beats per bar (sometimes w/a 16th note 4th beat on the bass drum)) seems bent on undermining. (Thompson’s one-bar fill, after “take another chance,” (1:54) is his one brief moment of liberation). Thompson’s aided in his task by Bowie’s disjointed phrasing—none of Bowie’s lines ever start on the first beat of a bar, and he’s often singing “through” bars, as with the title line. A sedated Stevie Ray Vaughan, in keeping with the track’s sense of restraint, offers only a few tasteful fills (mainly high B notes) throughout the verse/refrains as well as the minute-long outro.

Recorded ca. 1-20 December 1982 at the Power Station, NYC. In the US, EMI went back to the well once too often, releasing “Without You” as Let’s Dance‘s fourth, flop single in February 1984 (EMI America 8190 c/w “Criminal World,” #73) .

* Rodgers deliberately didn’t list on which Let’s Dance tracks Omar Hakim and Tony Thompson drummed (Rodgers’ theory was that it helped session players to have a communal credit, so each could take credit for the whole record). Rodgers has only publicly confirmed that Thompson was on “Modern Love.” Conjecture is that Thompson did most of the drumming with the exception of the title track and “China Girl” (which he may still be on anyhow), but as Hakim was Thompson’s disciple, their styles are fairly similar and it’s hard to tell the two apart on this record.

Top: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Madonna Louise Ciccone, Crosby St., NYC, fall-winter 1982 (Stephen Torton).


Let’s Dance

October 20, 2011

Let’s Dance (single edit, video).
Let’s Dance (LP).
Let’s Dance (rehearsal w/Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1983).
Let’s Dance (live, 1983).
Let’s Dance (live w/Tina Turner, 1985).
Let’s Dance (live, 1987).
Let’s Dance (live, 1990).
Let’s Dance (live, 1996).
Let’s Dance (live, 2002).
Let’s Dance (Live By Request, 2002).
Let’s Dance (live, 2003).

It begins in hysteria. A mass of singers urge each other upward, moving in thirds, pursued by a brittle-sounding guitar; the drums, bass and horns convulse in eighth notes. It’s a collective explosion, one you’ve heard before—it’s the climax of the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout,” a rave-up to drive audiences mad. For “Let’s Dance,” it’s just the intro.

“Let’s Dance” is a mutant hybrid of a pop song, one bred to conquer. Bowie and his producer Nile Rodgers crafted the track to “pop” when heard on the radio (“It’s got a hard cut, very high on treble—it sears through,” Bowie said at the time) but also made the beat heavy enough to command the dance floor. The seven-minutes-plus version (on the LP and the 12″ single) is expansive: as it goes on, it becomes a series of set pieces (percussion solo, brass solo, guitar solo), as if a DJ is shuffling through dance instruction records. The single edit is remorseless, all economy and punch—Stevie Ray Vaughan’s early appearance is truncated to a single note, his later solo kept within bounds and faded out quickly.

Even in its long version “Let’s Dance” seems streamlined—it starts mid-leap, stays in the air. The verse and refrain are fused together (the falling “let’s dance!” phrase alternates with every verse line), while the hook-filled bridge could double for the chorus, and it ends with the track’s dramatic peak: Bowie, singing over the “Twist and Shout” buildup, makes two aborted attempts to move up (“if you should fall“…”into my arms…”)—he’s just baiting the listener now—until finally breaking out with the fifth-spanning “trem-ble like a FLOW-ER!

A still-reliable way to get a hit is to write a song that calls people out to dance, sets them spinning, the song celebrating its own power. “Let’s Dance” follows that script, but it’s still weird, in a Bowie way: it’s not quite comfortable as an emcee. The refrain chorus vocals sound hectoring; Bowie croaks out the second verse like he’s still in character from his vampire movie The Hunger; there are odd phrases in the lyric that read like poor translations (“serious moonlight,”1for fear your grace should fall“); the mainly “acoustic” instruments sound like synthesizers. There’s a severity to “Let’s Dance,” from the imperative mood of the refrain (a set of commands from one lover to another) to how the instruments are recorded (sharply, massively) and mixed: often separated, kept in their own worlds, each threatening to dominate the track. Listening to the final mix is like spinning past row after row of iron sculptures.

That said, “Let’s Dance” still works on the dance floor (I saw it first-hand the other weekend) and it fit the key of its time: few songs scream “1983” like it does. It’s arguably the most popular Bowie song, more than “Changes,” more than “Young Americans” or “Life On Mars” or “Rebel Rebel” or “Space Oddity.” A few bars of it herald Bowie’s cameo appearance in Zoolander; it could stand for Bowie’s entire canon, easily reduced to a ringtone. The biggest single of Bowie’s life, “Let’s Dance” hit #1 in the UK, #1 in the US, #1 in Canada, Ireland, Holland, Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway. It made him, at last, the colossal celebrity that he had always intended, had always pretended, to be.

“Let’s Dance” was also coronation music for Bowie’s latest incarnation, the hipster CEO figure seen on stage throughout 1983 and starring in Let’s Dance‘s run of hit videos—the blond bouffant, the lockjaw, the designer suits with the dangling, unknotted neckties, the golf gloves, the modest dancing. As one of Tom Ewing’s commenters said, this was Bowie as “an avatar of pure fame,” becoming an international trademark of his own music, like the Apple logo or the Nike swish. The Man Who Sold Himself to the World, which bought him.

Bromley’s Billy Idol was an inadvertent parent. Late one night in the autumn of 1982, in the drafty VIP section of a New York club called The Continental, an inebriated Idol was babbling to Nile Rodgers until he nearly vomited on him. Dodging Idol’s spew, Rodgers escaped from the table and spied Bowie sitting alone in a corner of the room.2 The two began to chat and spent hours talking about everyone from Henry Mancini to Louis Jordan, swapping Iggy Pop stories (one of Rodgers’ early bands had opened for the Stooges in the late Sixties). Soon afterward, Bowie asked Rodgers to produce his next record, dumping Tony Visconti, who had already booked time to work with Bowie in December—an irked Visconti wouldn’t produce Bowie again for nearly 20 years.

Visconti’s ouster wasn’t a surprise. Bowie, looking for a new record contract and wanting hits, wanted to work with an entirely new cast. He already had broken up his classic rhythm section. Now even Carlos Alomar was gone (temporarily), with Bowie’s people refusing Alomar’s customary request for a raise and instead just offering him scale: Alomar, insulted, walked.

In Rodgers, Bowie saw a proven hitmaker and also a hidden classicist: someone who had kept black popular music traditions alive within a contemporary sound, first with the coiled precision of Chic (whose records seem like a jazz trio’s interpretation of disco, with Bernard Edwards’ bass as the saxophone) and then with a harsher, “post disco” minimalist sound that Rodgers had developed on Debbie Harry’s Koo Koo, Material’s “Come Down,” and his own Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove (recorded just before Let’s Dance). The latter records, however, hadn’t sold: Rodgers was coming off a string of flops before Bowie enlisted him. And Rodgers was at first disappointed to learn Bowie wanted him to make hits, because Rodgers thought he’d have the chance to make an avant-garde rock LP, a “Scary Monsters 2,” as he later said.

Bowie, spending much of 1982 making The Hunger and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, had brought along on his travels mix tapes of Sixties soul records: Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Marvin Gaye, Etta James. The immediacy of these records, their collective insistence, their open air of simplicity masking stark emotional depths, appealed to Bowie, who had spent the past half-decade writing gnomic parables, prying apart his old songs, trying to erase himself. Bowie wanted a public again, so he set about writing public songs—exhortations, common causes—keeping his lines (relatively) simple, writing words meant to be sung back at him.

Bowie being inspired by black music wasn’t anything new, of course. He began by slavishly imitating R&B (“Liza Jane,” “I Pity the Fool,” “And I Say to Myself“) and again a decade later with the Philly Soul Young Americans. And apart from his folk-plagued late Sixties, soul had been the continual undercurrent of Bowie’s music. The core of the Berlin records is the doings of a mysterious funk band; Station to Station is apocalypse disco; Bowie sang James Brown songs onstage as Ziggy Stardust; Diamond Dogs owed as much to Isaac Hayes as it did George Orwell. Let’s Dance was just exposing the foundation again.

In late 1982, Rodgers flew to Switzerland to hear Bowie’s new material. Bowie played him “Let’s Dance” on acoustic guitar: it was a folk ballad, a Byrds-like piece, which it remains. When stripped down to its melody and chords, “Let’s Dance” is a somber song, one tinged with melancholy. Its verse/refrain is mainly built on the dark, ominous sound of B-flat minor,3 with only a few fleeting escapes to Gb major (by contrast, the bridge is centered on the steadier Db major). Pried out of the metallic casing that Rodgers devised for it, “Let’s Dance” can seem fragile, prematurely regretful. The singer hopes that the dance he’s asking for, the moment that he’s devising, will cause his lover to finally commit to him, to give him the life he’s always wanted, but he fears that even if his plan works, it will only be for a moment. There’s a jittery impermanence in “Let’s Dance,” a desperation beneath its imperious tone; it’s the song of a man trying to cheat fate, to make his own luck. Bowie returned to this original vision of the song in his later years, turning “Let’s Dance” into a mood piece.

At the time, though, Bowie told Rodgers he thought “Dance” was a potential hit. Rodgers just shook his head. How could you have a song called “Let’s Dance” that you couldn’t dance to? For Rodgers, this paradox was a sign of white privilege. Black artists, Rodgers later contended, are usually forced to work far more literally—if a black band has a song called “Let’s Dance,” it has to be a dance song, he said. “It’s not because there isn’t interesting intellectual subject matter for black artists to delve into, it’s the fact that you won’t get played,” he told David Buckley.

So Rodgers got to work in Switzerland, making a studio demo of “Let’s Dance” with Erdal Kizilcay, who first played a florid, Jaco Pastorius-inspired bassline. Rodgers, trying to beat the song into a single, reportedly told Kizilcay “don’t play that shit—it’s not your solo album, it’s David Bowie’s.” The two worked out a more restrained bassline, a set of alternating hooks: a four-note stepwise descent, and a more static five-note pattern that either fell a step or stayed on the same note (first heard at 0:15 and 0:11, respectively, on the LP). On the studio “Let’s Dance,” the line’s played by Carmine Rojas, whose Fender bass is mixed with a synthesized one (an old Bowie trick—Visconti’s bass on The Man Who Sold the World is often echoed by a synth bass.)

While Rodgers was in Switzerland, Bowie kept showing him things: jazz album sleeves, Little Richard photographs, Bowie’s enormous LP collection that dated back to his teenage days in Bromley. Rodgers later told Paul Trynka that it was like being offered “a snapshot of Bowie’s brain” at the time; it was Bowie, subtly, getting Rodgers into the state of mind that Bowie required, leavening Rodgers’ contemporary music knowledge with a revisionist’s deliberate perspective.

“Let’s Dance” is the fruit of this approach: it’s an Eighties pop song that “organically” samples Fifties and Sixties hits (even the title calls back to the old Chris Montez hit Bowie had played with the Kon-Rads). There’s not only the “Twist and Shout” raveup, but the main horn riffs are inspired by (almost taken wholesale from, actually) Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn soundtrack. And Stevie Ray Vaughan, after taping his guitar solo, admitted he was straight-out playing Albert King licks. Rodgers thought Bowie’s hiring of Vaughan was a mistake, but Bowie, who had seen Vaughan weather a poor reception at the Montreux Jazz Festival in the summer of ’82, had a veteran stock-picker’s sense of a future winner. Vaughan’s blues guitar solo is in keeping with “Let’s Dance”‘s sense of being a sampler of American musics, a catalog in jumps: electric blues, funk, Hollywood jazz, rock & roll, Latin (the highly-mixed presence of Sammy Figueroa‘s woodblocks).

“Let’s Dance,” the first song recorded for the album that it named, was crafted in the Power Station. Bowie already had recorded Scary Monsters there, but by 1982, the Station had developed its trademark drum sound: gated snare reverb. It was the crushing beat of Let’s Dance, as well of the Eighties. While Visconti’s Harmonizer-altered drums on Low was a predecessor of the sound,4 the “classic” Eighties gated snare was developed concurrently at the Power Station by engineers like Bob Clearmountain, and at London’s Townhouse, where in 1980, on Peter Gabriel’s third album, Hugh Padham developed the sound for Phil Collins’ drum tracks.5

Engineers were always trying to better record the “snap” of a snare drum being hit. It’s an endless task, as a recording never quite captures the exact sound when heard live. Attempts at miking the snare in a reverb-heavy room like the Power Station wound up with the mike also picking up all of the echoes of the snare hit, and so muddying/dissipating its power. Power Station and Townhouse engineers hit upon the same solution: place a close mike (to capture the actual hit) and then a pair of stereo “ambiance” mikes above the kit, the latter using high compression and equipped with noise gates (so the mikes would capture the reverb of a stick hitting the snare for a half second or so, then snap off). This way engineers could get the hard “snap” of the hit with a dose of explosive reverb, yet without any secondary echoes.

So the snare hit became abstracted—it became a block of pure force, as precise and as alien-sounding as a drum machine but with more power. This sort of inhuman precision, an acoustic instrument turned into a synthetic giant of itself, defines “Let’s Dance”—not just Omar Hakim’s drums but even Figueroa’s percussion sounds like a mechanical rattlesnake. That’s not to downplay the brilliant workings of Rodgers’ arrangement: the way the horns and the bass play off each other, Hakim’s intricate bass drum pattern, which only repeats every eight bars (Duran Duran later admitted stealing it for “Union of the Snake”), the wide use of space in the mix, so that every instrument’s appearance seems like an event.

The single mix boiled all of this down to an ultimatum; the extended take allowed some room to breathe, letting Rodgers do a Chic-style “breakdown,” gave Vaughan his first moment in the spotlight, and a few oddities slipped in, like the cacophonous 22-bar brass solo that sounds more like the World Saxophone Quartet than any contemporary R&B horn section.

The producer Tony Bongiovi had wanted his Power Station to replace the intimacy of the Seventies “dry” sound (which he compared to that of a doctor’s office) with a hotter, more “live,” more communal sound. (It didn’t really turn out that way—many Eighties records sound far less “live” today than their Seventies counterparts.) “Let’s Dance” is metaphorically Bowie attempting a similar move, exchanging mystery for mass connection. Bowie songs tend to be from fractured individual perspectives: even “Changes” or “Rebel Rebel,” songs that audiences have taken for themselves, are at their core weirdly personal songs, still unknowable. “Let’s Dance,” is Bowie trying to be communal: it seems intended to be shared, with its lyric’s emphasis on the plural (even “they” are playing music on the radio), how its chorus is like a pep cheer. It’s open, expansive, a song meant to be flung out to a crowd.

But go back to that day in Switzerland, when Bowie played his sad, fragile song to Rodgers. Was he sacrificing it?  Bowie knew that Rodgers, a brilliant arranger, could make a wallflower ballad into a shining dance anthem, could case its insecurities in a dazzling set of mirrors. He gave the song away to be corrupted: wonderfully, as it turned out. “Let’s Dance” finally made Bowie. But what had it made of him?

Recorded ca. 1-20 December 1982, The Power Station, NYC. Released 17 March 1983 (EA 152, c/w “Cat People,” #1 US/UK). David Mallet and Bowie made another iconic video, with the “red shoes” of the lyric serving as a corrupting symbol of modern capitalism. It’s best remembered for a few random images: an Aboriginal boy dragging a machine down a Sydney street, the boy and his girlfriend painting a snake on the wall of an art gallery, an immaculate Bowie playing his song in an outback bar.

1: “Serious moonlight,” according to Rodgers, was Bowie referencing Rodgers’ habit of calling a particularly good groove or track “serious.” Bowie once called the phrase as his attempt at an “Americanism.” However, Nicholas Pegg offered the mad and quite possibly accurate theory that Bowie was referencing an Aleister Crowley poem, “Lyric of Love to Leah,” whose lines include “let us dance beneath the palm/moving in the moonlight” and later “come my love, let us dance/to the moon and Sirius!” I.e., the Sirius Moonlight.

2: This is the most colorful and hence my favorite version of the meeting at the Continental (Rodgers told it to Buckley). The reality may have been more prosaic: there are other stories where Bowie and Rodgers sit side by side, silently, for hours until Rodgers gets the courage to say hello, or where a less-drunk Idol graciously introduces Rodgers to Bowie.

3: According to the official sheet music, it’s A minor/F major for the verses, G/C/D  for the bridge. However, a Japanese full band score puts the song more accurately (IMO) in the key of D-flat, with Bb minor/Gb for the verse/refrain, and Ab/Db/Eb for the bridge.

4: In 1983, Bowie described the Low drum sound as “that “mash” drum sound, that depressive, gorilla effect set down the studio drum fever fad for the next few years. It was something I wish we’d never created, having had to live through four years of it with other English bands, until it started changing into the “clap” sound we’ve got now.

5 Collins fell in love with the gated snare. Besotted, he dedicated his work in the Eighties to its worship: cf. the Collins-produced “I Know There Something Going On” by Frida, in which the former ABBA singer fights for her life against a set of all-devouring drums.

Greg Milner’s excellent Perfecting Sound Forever was key to understanding the development of the gated snare. Thanks to Lance Hoskins for sending me the Let’s Dance full band score some time ago.

Top: Martin Scorsese, The King of Comedy (1983); Aboriginals witness the nuking of Sydney in the “Let’s Dance” video; Nile Rodgers at the Power Station, ca. 1984; Let’s Dance, LP, 12″ single front and back (the latter illustration either predicting or ripping off Keith Haring).


Cat People (Putting Out Fire)

September 21, 2011

The Myth (Giorgio Moroder with David Bowie).
Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (single).
Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (LP remake).
Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (live, 1983).
Cat People (single edit, Inglourious Basterds, 2009).

The plan was for a tour, possibly, in 1981, with Bowie’s new band—anchored by Steve Goulding and featuring the battling guitars of G.E. Smith and Carlos Alomar—burning through the Berlin records and Scary Monsters and reviving standards, the way Bowie had already transformed “The Man Who Sold the World'” and “Space Oddity.”

The Lennon murder ended any chance of that. Bowie fled New York soon after the New Year, returning to Switzerland. There, in Coursier-sur-Vevey, Bowie hired an ex-Navy SEAL bodyguard and took classes in self-defense for celebrities, learning how to identify potential stalkers (he was advised to move, as some fans had found his address—this would be his last summer in Vevey). He skied, entertained Charlie Chaplin’s son and widow, doted on his 10-year old son. With the exception of a brief trip to London to accept an award, Bowie stayed in his Swiss exile, living like a well-apportioned hermit.

He didn’t want to record new material, either. Bowie had soured on RCA, which he blamed for poorly promoting his late Seventies records* while flooding the market with repackages like ChangesTwoBowie. Also, he still had contractual obligations to Tony Defries that wouldn’t expire until October 1982: Bowie hated that his old manager was still owed a piece of his mechanical royalties (it’s one reason Queen put out “Under Pressure,” a song he partially wrote, on their label and with a headline credit—that way Defries wouldn’t get a cut of it). Having only one more album on his RCA contract and almost clear of Defries, Bowie determined to wait everyone out. 1981 would be a deliberately lost year.

Well, not entirely. Paul Schrader had asked Bowie to work with Giorgio Moroder on the title song for Schrader’s garish remake of Cat People. In the summer of 1981, Bowie went to Mountain Studios in Montreux to meet Moroder, whose music he had enjoyed since Moroder’s Donna Summer productions. Moroder played him a moody three-chord piece he had worked up for the title theme, a slow builder that would have Bowie sing the opening two verses in his lowest register, then suddenly vault up to spark the refrain.

Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) is an eerie, wonderfully weird picture in which the (generally) off-screen monsters are shadow metaphors for frigidity, repression, xenophobia (an “all-American” guy marries a foreign girl whose “Old Country” past is dark and potentially lethal). It was far too nuanced for 1981. Schrader, taking the title and a handful of plot details and scenes from the original, turned Cat People into a bloodfest that he shot like a fashion spread. Cat People was an excuse for Schrader to shoot Nastassja Kinski, with whom he was infatuated, as often and as naked as possible, these scenes occasionally punctuated by gore-pieces, like Malcolm McDowell (Kinski’s cat-brother, who wants to mate with her: “we are an incestuous race,” he intones in a dream sequence) tearing off Ed Begley Jr.’s arm in a spray of blood.

Bowie crafted a ridiculous lyric that suited the film’s pretensions (Schrader said Kinski and McDowell’s relationship was a reworking of Dante and Beatrice—if Dante could transform into a panther). Paralleling Schrader’s own loose adaptation techniques, Bowie only vaguely referred to the cat people of the title, instead offering groaning banalities as “Fill this pulsing night/a plague they call the heartbeat.”

It didn’t matter, because the sound-picture Moroder created for Bowie gave him the license to go gloriously over the top. Bowie’s sepulchral croon in the opening verses (it seems like a near-parody of Jim Morrison at times) plays against Moroder’s minimalist percussive tracks—a repeating cymbal pattern, clattered sticks—and droning, yearning synth lines. And the sudden octave-leaping explosion of “putting out fire….WITH GAS-OH-LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINE!” that triggers the “full band” entrance is a magnificent moment, giving Bowie such presence that everything that follows, everything stupid and campy about the song (and there’s lots), is just burned away—Bowie rips into lines like “it’s been so long” or “you wouldn’t believe what I’ve BEEN THROUGH” as in a fever. The track goes on far too long, the backing singers eventually try to defuse Bowie, but there’s a lurid, pulp power to the track—the film it’s scored for seems unworthy of it.

Nearly two decades later, “Cat People” found its true role, used by Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds for a sequence that reveals the plans of the Jewish avenger Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) to condemn and massacre a cinema full of Nazis. Used here, lines like “it’s been so long” or “judgement made can never bend” suddenly sharpened, gained bloody, righteous purpose. “Cat People” now seems written for Laurent, who was born two years after it was recorded; in her, the song finally found its muse.

Moroder’s soundtrack for Cat People (he performed all tracks solo save Bowie’s theme song, which only appeared in the end credits) followed the formula Moroder had perfected in his American Gigolo soundtrack—have a hit single as the centerpiece, then write variations around it (like the various incarnations of Blondie’s “Call Me” in Gigolo). So Cat People opened with a brooding instrumental version of the title theme, called “The Myth,” featuring some ominous Bowie humming.

Due to rights issues with MCA, Bowie couldn’t include the Moroder “Cat People” on his first record for EMI, as he had wanted, forcing him to remake the song with Nile Rodgers in New York. A collective lack of enthusiasm is audible on the second “Cat People,” which at times seems a deliberate ruination of the song, with Bowie and Rodgers botching everything great about the original (Bowie’s initial vocal leap is way too rushed here, while the drumming, by either Omar Hakim or Tony Thompson, kicks in far too early, and mixed in the stadium-ready gated sound of the Power Station). Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar overdubs seem superfluous compared to the minimalist work of Moroder or whichever anonymous session musician played on the original.

Recorded July 1981, Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland (Moroder seems to have played much of the track, though the saxophonist David Woodford said he played on some of the Cat People material). First issued as a single in March 1982 (MCAT 770, both 7″ and 12″ versions, #26 UK) and on Moroder’s Cat People original soundtrack. The remake was cut at the Power Station, December 1982; on Let’s Dance, and also a B-side to the title track. Played live only during the Serious Moonlight tour, 1983.

*RCA, in turn, had never forgiven Bowie for abandoning the sound of Young Americans. Hearing that Bowie was working with Moroder initially raised their hopes until they discovered the partnership had resulted only in a single put out by another label. According to Christopher Sandford’s bio, one RCA executive, in a memo to a colleague, sighed that “it would be nice if DB went into the studio and recorded a real album.”

Top: ‘interieurblue,” “Sunglasses Mirror,” Paris, 1981.


China Girl

January 26, 2011

China Girl (Iggy Pop, 1976).
China Girl (Pop and Bowie, live, 1977).
China Girl (Bowie, 1983).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 1983).
China Girl (Pop, live, 1986).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 1987).
China Girl (Pop, live, 1991).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 1996).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 1999).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 2000).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 2002).

It began when Iggy Pop and David Bowie were drunk one summer night. “Politely drunk, after-dinner drunk,” Pop recalled. One glass of wine too many. The two stumbled into a room at the Château d’Hérouville, the haunted Val-d’Oise castle in which they were making Pop’s record. Pop sat down behind a child’s drum kit and Bowie at a toy piano. They started playing, hit upon a groove, got it on tape; they called the piece—barely a riff—“Borderline.”

Pop kept the tape, tried to craft a lyric. He was having an affair at the time with another guest at the castle, Kuelan Nguyen, the girlfriend of a French actor/singer, Jacques Higelin. Nguyen spoke no English, Pop no French, so the two communicated in gestures, expressions and pidgin reductions of each other’s language. Pop would grow frustrated trying to get through to Nguyen in sign language and brutalized French; she once put a finger to her lips and shushed him.

Pop spent days working out the vocal (he would improvise much of the final lyric while standing at the mike, Bowie recalled). As with “Dum Dum Boys,” Pop was working in a pop tradition: here, a song with language as an obstacle hindering lovers, like the Beatles’ “Michelle” or Chuck Berry’s “La Juanda,” where Berry asks a Mexican girl to dance, but neither understands the other (or pretend not to—she may be a prostitute, he may be negotiating).

Yet in “China Girl” broken communication is besides the point; it’s what happens when the two manage to connect that ruins the singer. Pop was using stereotypes older than Victoria, casting “Nguyen” as the mysterious, sensual Orient and himself (“Jimmy”) as an unwilling agent of the corrupt West. In the song, there’s a decline from natural elements—the falling stars, or heartbeats as “loud as thunder,” which Pop sings softly and slowly, letting space in between each note—in the first verses to the modern effluence in the bridge and final verses: Marlon Brando1, swastikas (another Eastern symbol perverted by the West), television, cosmetics, even juice boxes (see Bowie’s video).

“I’ll ruin everything you are,” Pop sings. Yet he can’t avoid doing so—his passion’s too addicting and consuming—and it’s not clear what’s he ruining. He’s more in love with his own depiction of her than whatever reality she offers; he’s the man who fears he’s poisoning his dreams, and spends his days raking through half-memories of them for impurities. The wordplay of the title line—with “china” also being pure heroin, as well as being a reference to the girl’s fragility (though she seems far more together than Iggy is)—muddies things further, and a widening of the lens finds Pop playing on the West’s views of China itself (a stand-in for “the East,” as Nguyen was Vietnamese): a mirror reflecting its own flaws, a canvas on which it can project its own fantasies2.

As with many of The Idiot‘s tracks, “China Girl”‘s vocal, a twisted nerve of a performance, is set against a dense, distortion-filled musical backdrop, and it’s the variable element in a circular, minimal song structure—the song’s mainly built on a trio of repeating 4-bar chord progressions, and sometimes the chords (G6, E minor and Em7) are the same set of notes, just arranged in different sequences. The track erupts more than it starts, with Pop suddenly lurching into view a beat into the song, his singing drenched in distortion and submerged in the mix as if it was one of Phil Palmer’s guitar overdubs. Pop’s voice finally becomes distinct at the moment he goes mad: I stumble into town, just like a sacred cow (yet another Eastern holy object debased), building to the scream on “it’s in the whites of my eyes!” which blows out the mike preamp.

Over Laurent Thibault and Michel Santangeli’s bass and drums tracks, Bowie and Pop overlaid stabs of Palmer’s guitar buttressed by Bowie’s distorted Baldwin piano, while synthesizers, serving as a string section, drone through the final minutes, while at least two dubs of Bowie’s saxophone appear in the last verses (at times, it sounds like Andy Mackay’s work on early Roxy Music records). The chirping riff that Bowie had played on toy piano (owned by Thibault’s 8-year-old daughter) is prominent in the final mix.

Of course, “China Girl,” for most of the world, is a David Bowie song. The Bowie single’s popularity has made the original “China Girl” into a successor: Pop’s recording now sounds like a bizarre sequel to Bowie’s, a piece of sonic vandalism done to an ’80s classic.

Bowie’s “China Girl” was one of his trio of MTV-fueled hit singles in 1983, the glossy new testament appended to his knottier early work. And where “Let’s Dance” was a rousing call to the floor and “Modern Love” cloaked its paranoiac sentiments with a call-and-response chorus, “China Girl” was slick anomie. The track’s sonic perfection, a feeling that all impurities had been refined away, furthered its cold sense of irony, its deliberate invocation of stereotypes, from Nile Rodgers’ “Chinese” guitar riff that opens the song, to the way Bowie mocks how the girl says “mouth,” to its high-end video, where Bowie, dressed like an Old Etonian, pats the head of his pyjama-clad “Chinese” girl as if he had bagged her on safari (while also making a disturbing visual play on Eddie Adams’ “Execution of a Vietcong Guerrilla” photograph); the girl has dragon lady fingernails, Bowie courts her by slanting his eyes, and it culminates in a scene shot in Sydney’s Chinatown district, where Bowie hurls a bowl of rice into the air.

Bowie cut “China Girl” in part to help Pop, who was broke and barely recording in the early ’80s, and he’d record a half-dozen more Pop compositions or co-compositions over the next five years. It wasn’t just altruism: Bowie’s frequent recycling of Pop collaborations, and increased use of covers in general, suggested a vicious decline in the pace and quality of Bowie’s songwriting in the ’80s, a decade Bowie spent in comfortable indifference, shot through with occasional bursts of midlife anxiety.

In 1982 Bowie, with a newly-signed EMI contract, recognized in “China Girl” a potential smash that he and Pop had obscured in the studio. Even the live versions of the song the two had played in 1977 sounded far more commercial, driven by Hunt Sales’ frenetic drumming and Bowie’s organ playing, more “96 Tears” than Krautrock drone. (Bowie had intended “China Girl” to be the lead-off single of Let’s Dance until Rodgers convinced him to go with the title track).

Where Pop sings the original in a building frenzy, Bowie’s vocal in the remake is cool, assured, even playful (the lilting run of high notes on “wake up in the mor-ning,” the repetition of “she says…” ), while the build to the “whites of my eyes” bridge is more a demonstration of power. Everything fits, everything has its place, from the way Carmine Rojas’ bass lags the beat (and moves to a staccato sequence in the last verses), to the precise drum fills (either Tony Thompson or Omar Hakim) imbued with the Power Station’s trademark ambient sound, to the placid wash of synthesizers and keyboards that suffuse the track. Bowie and Rodgers layered the track with a string of hooks (the new ‘oh-oh-oh-OH-oh-oh” intro, Rodgers’ “Chinese” guitar riff, echoed on keyboards3, and two Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar solos to close it out).

Was Bowie’s remake was a desecration of Pop’s desperate original? Did it turn Pop’s self-evisceration into “a cheesy pop song” (as Hugo Wilcken wrote)? Or was it somehow closer, via its mandarin disco sound, to what Pop had been trying to get at? Bowie, talking about the song at the end of the last century, said “China Girl” was about “invasion and exploitation,” and if so, Bowie was by far the more adept exploiter. His perspective was wider, his sense of self-loathing, though far more cloaked than Pop’s, was possibly greater. Pop was too much in his own shadow; Bowie saw the rot, the sense of love as corruption, as being just a lesser form of cultural toxin, far more clearly—he shone it up, he sold it well.

Pop’s “China Girl” was recorded in July-August 1976, in Château d’Hérouville and Musicland, Munich, and was released as a single in the UK in May 1977 (RCA PB  9093). The Bowie remake was cut at the Power Station in autumn 1982 and was issued as a single in May 1983 (EA 157, #2 UK, #10 US), its performance helped by the David Mallett-directed video, featuring the New Zealand model Geeling Ng (who Bowie briefly dated) and an often-censored shot of Bowie’s ass. Bowie and Pop would both play the song regularly on tour, with Bowie performing it alone on acoustic guitar for the Bridge benefit concert in 1996.

1 Neil Young’s “Pocahontas,” which is a lost cousin to “China Girl,” was written around the same time, and also features a cameo appearance by Marlon Brando.

2 This entry appears at the peak of the “Tiger Mother” mania, which is the latest incarnation of “the Chinese will bury us” national death-crisis storyline that’s been a regular feature in the U.S. over the past decade. Oliver Wang’s two-part response is worth a read.

3 Nile Rodgers, interviewed by David Buckley, said he wrote his “Chinese” guitar riff in part because he was flummoxed by the song’s ambiguities. “In black music, if you have a song called ‘China Girl’ it had damn better convey some message about a girl you met in China or something…You call a song ‘Let’s Dance’ you damn well better make sure people dance to it.” While Rodgers feared he was “putting some bubblegum over some great artistic heavy record,” Bowie said he loved the riff.

Thanks to SEP for kicking up some ideas, and to Lance Hoskins for the Japanese band score to the Bowie “China Girl.”

Top: The first meeting of Ambassador Duke and his translator, Honey Huan, in China; Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, 22 January 1976.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 601 other followers