Starman

May 12, 2010

Starman.
Starman (Top Of the Pops, 1972).
Starman (live, 1972.)
Starman (live, 1990).
Starman (broadcast, 2000).
Starman (live, 2002).
Starman (broadcast, 2002).

“Starman” is David Bowie’s Christmas carol. It offers a promise of deliverance, that the human race has been redeemed by greater powers, with a chorus built for a crowd to sing it. It’s the song that finally broke Bowie, whose performance of it on a July 1972 Top of the Pops made him a nationwide, and soon worldwide, pop star. So while the Ziggy-era Bowie is remembered today for his outrageousness, the song that made his name is warm, reassuring and most of all familiar.

The latter’s key. For the average UK pop listener of 1972, David Bowie was still the weirdo who had had the song about Major Tom back in the ’60s, and suddenly, here he was back again with another astronaut song. It finally connected. And “Starman” seems like a revision of “Space Oddity”—“Space Oddity” had placed a frail human figure against the unfathomable expanse of space and cast him loose to drift into the unknown. It was submission to the void, the human race reaching its limits. In “Starman” the unknown is domesticated: the alien comes to visit us, in our homes, whispering through our radios, speaking softly, promising release. The stoicism of “Planet earth is blue/and there’s nothing I can do” is replaced by “he’s told us not to blow it/’cos he knows it’s all worthwhile.” The human race, or at least its children, turn out to be essential after all—the earth, once again, is the center of the universe.

Variations on this theme were common in the Seventies, from the popular Erich von Däniken theory that mysterious aliens had helped guide the progress of human civilization, to the benevolent star-children of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to even Doctor Who, where in the early ’70s the cosmos-traveling Doctor was exiled on present-day Earth and freelanced for the military.*

“Starman” is also a pop song about pop music. Bowie’s alien appears only as a voice on the radio (he’s basically a cosmic DJ), whispering secrets to a teenager listening late at night—it’s how pop music can instantly create secret societies, break up the tedium of your life, liberate you from your parents. And “Starman” the track seems fused from a pile of old records. The octave-leap opening of the chorus is a lift from “Over the Rainbow” (so much that Bowie cheekily merged the two songs during a ’72 concert at the Rainbow, linked to above), the guitar-keyboard hook linking the verse to the chorus is taken from the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” or The Five Americans’ “Western Union” (Nicholas Pegg suggests Blue Mink’s “Melting Pot”), while the long “LA-la-la-la-LA” outro is pure T. Rex, particularly “Hot Love.” It’s a greatest-hits compilation in a four-minute song.

For all its familiarity, “Starman” begins ominously enough, opening with an eleventh chord and slowly moving through eight bars in which Bowie hums along to his acoustic guitar, all ringing open strings. This intro keeps listeners on edge, getting them to wonder just where the track’s going, until a fill by Woody Woodmansey (just two toms and the snare) kicks off the verse. Bowie sings the two seven-bar verses softly, in a near-whisper in places, keeping to the middle of his range. He barbs a few vocal hooks (the four-note dips in the second and fourth bars (‘were low-oh-oh,” “di-oh-oh-oh”)), while a bar of fast acoustic strumming fills a gap.

The chorus starts with Bowie’s octave leap (F to F), much like the chorus of “Life On Mars,” but listeners were prepared for the “Mars” chorus via the build-up of its extravagant bridge. The “Starman” chorus just erupts after two bars of the “Hangin’ On” guitar-keys hook. Ronson’s solo (which repeats in the long outro) is typically melodic and crafty. I’ll let Jesse Gress, author of “10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Mick Ronson,” describe it: [it's] a perfect example of how to build a strong, memorable melodic line over a simple IV-I-V-I progression (Bb-F-C-F). The idea is to target the 3 of each chord on every downbeat and connect them with adjacent F major scale tones, while “playing” the strategically placed rests and making the melody more guitar-y by adding bends and finger vibrato.

And like “Hot Love” or “Hey Jude,” the song seems unwilling to stop, its outro extended for over a minute while Ronson throws in some additional lead playing and Bowie leads a chorus in a circle.

After ‘Starman,’ everything changed.

Woody Woodmansey, 2008.

In 1972 I’d get girls on the bus saying to me, ‘Eh la, you got a lippy on?’ or ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ Until [Bowie] turned up, it was a nightmare. All my mates at school would say, ‘Did you see that bloke on Top of the Pops? He’s a right faggot, him!’ And I remember thinking ‘you pillocks.’…With people like me, it helped forge an identity and a perspective on things, helped us to walk in a different way, metaphorically…

Ian McCulloch, in David Buckley’s Strange Fascination.

“Starman” wasn’t meant for Ziggy Stardust. Bowie went into the studio in early February ’72 to cut the song as a single, but RCA’s “contemporary music” VP Dennis Katz loved “Starman” so much he mandated its inclusion on the LP (a sign that RCA’s US operations were calling the shots, as American labels always had been baffled by the UK practice of keeping singles off the album). Released in April, “Starman” had a slow journey up the charts but thanks in part to Bowie’s touring, it reached the top 10 by late June. Two television appearances by Bowie and the Spiders to support the single did the rest.

The first was Granada TV’s Lift-Off With Ayshea on 15 June, but the one everyone remembers is the Top of the Pops performance, recorded on 5 July and broadcast the following day. For a generation of British teenagers, it was nothing short of the revolution, televised. Marc Riley, later of The Fall, recalled his grandmother shouting insults at the TV while Bowie performed (“something she usually saved for Labour Party broadcasts” he told David Buckley). The 15-year-old Susan Ballion, soon to call herself Siouxsie Sioux, watched Bowie’s Top of the Pops while in the hospital recovering from colitis; the 15-year-old Gary Numan watched it, stunned, in his East London living room; in Liverpool, the 13-year old Ian McCulloch stared at the TV and “thought maybe I was Ziggy Stardust all along,” as he told Marc Spitz.

The performance isn’t just about Bowie, though he’s striking with his copper-colored mullet, his leotard and his effortless charisma (twirling his finger at the camera while singing “picked on you-ooh-ooo”, and connecting with every susceptible kid in the UK). The essential moment comes when Bowie starts to sing the first chorus and Ronson tentatively approaches the mike. Bowie notices him and sweeps his arm over Ronson’s shoulder, pulls him to the mike. It’s a sweet moment of inclusion, the alien embracing the rocker, and, by proxy, all of the nation’s misfits. “Starman” left community in its wake; its promise came true.

“Starman” was recorded on 4 February 1972 and released in April (RCA 2199) c/w “Suffragette City.” It hit #10. “Starman” wasn’t a regular feature of the Ziggy tour; Bowie stopped playing it by the end of 1972 and there are some other signs (such as its odd exclusion from the greatest hits LP ChangesOneBowie) that Bowie didn’t think much of it at the time. He wouldn’t play “Starman” live again until his greatest-hits tour of 1990, though it became a standard in Bowie’s early 2000s shows.

* An indulgent, long footnote on Bowie and Doctor Who. Bowie’s career has many parallels with the history of the UK’s finest SF show (let alone the fact that Bowie’s best chronicler, Nicholas Pegg, is a Dalek operator in his spare time). Bowie’s recording career begins soon after the start of Who in  late 1963, and the odd psychedelia of his late ’60s work is something akin to the whimsy of Patrick Troughton-era Who (cf. “The Laughing Gnome” with “The Mind Robber”). Bowie’s glam era coincides with the Pertwee years (the back cover of Ziggy Stardust even has Bowie standing in a police box!) (well, no, this is a cock-up of a statement—see comments), his most ambitious, influential work with the Tom Baker years (Low and the great Baker Season 14 are synchronous), Bowie’s MTV-era reign with Peter Davison’s. And Bowie’s fall into mediocrity is matched by Who‘s own descent into the pit (and cancellation) in the mid- to late-’80s. Oddly enough, Bowie’s current exile from performing and recording started just as Who was successfully revived in 2005.

Top: Jon Pertwee banters with Nicholas Courtney while an engrossed Katy Manning pays them no mind (Day of the Daleks, January 1972).


Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide

May 9, 2010

Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (live, 1973).
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (live, 1974).
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (live, 1978).
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (live, 1990).

The preposterous finale to Ziggy Stardust, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” is an exotic forced marriage of theater pieces. It begins as a pastiche of Jacques Brel, then erupts into a grandiose Judy Garland finale that feeds its audience’s narcissism at the expense of its performer’s.

“Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” isn’t much of a rock & roll song, either. As with much of Ziggy Stardust, “rock ‘n’ roll” happens off-stage, like naval battles in Shakespeare plays. Bowie first envisioned “Suicide” as a chanson, and the track was something of a last-stage replacement for a cover of Brel’s “Amsterdam.” For “Suicide,” obvious inspirations include Brel’s 1964 “Jef,” which begins “Non, jef, t’es pas tout seul,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (esp. Garland’s version), while the opening verse, in which time takes cigarettes and pulls on your fingers, seems a poor translation of the Spanish poet Manuel Machado‘s “Tonás y livianas”: “Life is a cigarette…some smoke it in a hurry.”

Bowie saw “Suicide” as the ember stage of a rock singer’s life, a plastic rock star wandering, burned-out, through the streets, realizing he’s suddenly no longer young; he’s discarded, and destroyed, by his audience. This idea survives in the song’s three verses, then collides head-to-head with the need for a rousing final number for the Ziggy LP, and his wife Angela’s suggestion that he write a piece to stoke an audience, with lines like “give me your hands, ‘cos you’re wonderful!!” So Brel is dethroned by James Brown, whose Live At the Apollo gave Bowie cues in how to bait and break an audience to his will.

After two somber guitar-based verses in 12/8, the push begins. Drums and horns come in on the third verse, while a five-bar interlude finds the singer moving from cool sympathy to reassurance and flattery (“oh no love, you’re not alone/you’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair”). The singer’s been on the street, but the camera pulls back to reveal it’s merely a backdrop. The key leaps from C to D flat (on the second “no love, you’re not alone!!”), the accompaniment swells with brass and strings, a low chorus repeats a three-note motif (“won-der-ful”) to balance Bowie’s manic vocal.

Even as it started with Ziggy abandoned by his audience and his muse, the song ends with him in gaudy triumph, and it’s as cheap and ridiculous as it is moving. He’s resurrected before he dies. A brief dalliance of Mick Ronson’s guitar and strings, and a final descending sweep of strings on D-flat, end the track (and the LP) in a stolen moment of grace.

Recorded 12-18 January 1972. It was the Ziggy Stardust tour’s usual closing piece (Bowie’s announcement at the last Spiders show at the Hammersmith in July 1973, where he politely killed off his Ziggy character before his disbelieving fans, naturally preceded it); even more florid versions have come in the years since. RCA, grubbing for money, released it as a single in 1974; it did poorly.

Top: Vin Miles, The Reading Festival, 13 August 1972.


Suffragette City

May 5, 2010

Suffragette City.
Suffragette City (BBC, 1972).
Suffragette City (live, 1972).
Suffragette City (live, 1973).
Suffragette City (rehearsal, 1976).
Suffragette City (live, 1978).
Suffragette City (live, 1990).

HEY man” is the first thing you hear after the engine-revving intro. It’s not the singer, but his friend or his roommate or his lover. It’s a flat, stoned-sounding, but insistent request—it disrupts the singer’s flow, gets him flustered. (The line pans from left to right speaker, as if the ‘roommate’ is buzzing around the singer.) The needling is just one of the singer’s problems. “Suffragette City” is a ball of agitation, the frenzied thoughts and speech of someone who’s sure he’s going to get laid if only things would work out for him, if his deadbeat roommate would just get the hell out of the house for once, or if his boyfriend wouldn’t mind if he just brought this chick over for a bit. “She’s a total blam-blam!” he pleads, realizes how ridiculous he sounds, and keeps going.

Bowie first offered “Suffragette City” to Mott the Hoople (Ian Hunter: “I didn’t think it was good enough” (?!?)) and then reclaimed it for the last Ziggy Stardust sessions in early 1972. While “Starman” replaced Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round” in the LP’s final sequence, “Suffragette City” is the latter’s true substitute—it’s a simulacrum of 1950s rock & roll, from the Jerry Lee Lewis piano line to the synthesizer subbing for a saxophone section (see below) to the fake ending that erupts in “Wham! Bam! Thank you ma’am!”, a line Bowie stole from a Charles Mingus record.

But I wanted it back home on my stereo to slooshy on my oddy knocky, greedy as hell. I fumbled out the deng to pay and one of the little ptitas said: “Who you getten, bratty? What biggy, what only?” These young devotchkas had their own like way of govoreeting…Then an idea hit me and made me near fall over with the anguish and ecstasy of it, O my brothers, so I could not breathe for near ten seconds….What was actually done that afternoon there is no need to describe brothers, as you may easily guess all.

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange.

Bowie and Mick Ronson saw A Clockwork Orange soon after it opened in London in mid-January 1972, and while Bowie already had written “Suffragette City,” Stanley Kubrick’s film influenced the final track, which was completed in early February, as well as the imagery of the Ziggy concept. Bowie would open most of his “Ziggy Stardust” shows with the film’s Moog rendition of Beethoven’s 9th, while the droog-wear of Malcolm McDowell and friends inspired the Spiders From Mars’ stage outfits—what Bowie called in 1993 a “terrorist we-are-ready-for-action look.”

I liked the malicious kind of malevolent, viscous quality of those four guys [in ACO] although the aspects of violence themselves didn’t turn me on particularly…Even the inset photographs of the inside sleeve for Ziggy owed a lot to the Malcolm McDowell look from the poster—the sort of sinister looking photograph somewhere between a beetle, not a Beatle person, but a real beetle and violence.

(So “Suffragette City” continues the Kubrick/Bowie parallels (2001/“Space Oddity”), though the pattern ends here. However, I’ll give a no-prize to anyone who finds a link between Barry Lyndon and Young Americans.)

The whole idea of having this phony-speak thing—mock Anthony Burgess-Russian speak that drew on Russian words and put them into the English language, and twisted old Shakespearean words around—this kind of fake language…fitted in perfectly with what I was trying to do in creating this fake world or this world that hadn’t happened yet. (Bowie, 1993).

Burgess’ nadsat dialect in Clockwork Orange turns up in Bowie’s lyric (“say droogie don’t crash here!”), while another influence is the hard-boiled SF patois of William Burroughs novels like Nova Express and Naked Lunch (the whole concept of a “Suffragette City” is very Burroughsian). I wish the lyric was even more nonsensical—when I first heard the song, many years ago, I figured Bowie was just making up words out of whole-cloth, so it was a shame to realize “mallofied chick” was really “mellow-thighed chick.”

“Suffragette City” is a sex comedy more than it’s any sort of incitement to violence, while any glamour it has is second-hand, courtesy of the guitars. Rather than being a menacing, smooth figure like Alex in Clockwork Orange, the singer is an adolescent mess (he stammers in the first verse, repeating “I gotta,” and can’t finish his thoughts) and he’s at the mercy of everyone around him—his roommate/lover (“Henry”?) and most importantly, the woman who’s bewitched him, a woman who’s happy to toy with the singer and, best-case scenario, to use and dispose of him in an afternoon. (The “wham! bam!” ending suggests she did just that.) To the flustered singer, she hails from “Suffragette City,” suggesting a brave new world of liberated women who exist purely to torture him.

“Suffragette City” is in A major, and it’s mainly built around ascending chord sequences (A-F-G in the verses, A-D-F-C-G in the chorus) over which Ronson rules. His opening riff is another of his classics, brutal in its simplicity (mainly sliding along the D string, further guitar wankery here) and relentless in its power. The guitars are bolstered by the piano, which drums out eighth notes for nearly the whole track, and Bolder and Woodmansey’s rhythm tracks, which Woodmansey later said were tailored to be as streamlined as possible, a clean contrast to the vocal’s desperate sleaze.

Bowie had wanted a massive saxophone sound to work against the guitars, a design thwarted by the limits of Bowie’s playing. Rather than hiring a brass section, Ken Scott got a hold of an ARP 2600 synthesizer, “fiddled around until we got the closest sound to a sax as possible” and let Ronson do the rest. (The BBC performance cut on 16 May 1972, with Nicky Graham on piano, offers an analog version of the song).

Recorded 12-18 January, 4 February 1972. Released as the B-side of “Starman” and as a reissued single in 1976 (to promote the hits compilation ChangesOneBowie, which included “Suffragette City” but oddly enough not “Starman”). “Suffragette City” was a staple of most ’70s Bowie concerts and returned in his 1990 and 2003-2004 tours.

Top: A Clockwork Orange: droogs on the town; young Alex (Bowie: “instead of just having one eyelash I went the whole hog and had two eyelashes”); Kubrick shoots the Korova Milk Bar sequence.


Five Years

April 30, 2010

Five Years.
Five Years (The Old Grey Whistle Test, 1972).
Five Years (live, 1973).
Five Years (Dinah!, 1976).
Five Years (rehearsal, 1976).
Five Years (live, 1978).
Five Years (live, 2003).
Five Years (with Arcade Fire, 2005).

The cycle of the Earth (indeed, of the universe, if the truth had been known) was nearing its end and the human race had at last ceased to take itself seriously. Having inherited millennia of scientific and technological knowledge it used this knowledge to indulge in its richest fantasies…An earlier age would have seen the inhabitants of this world as ‘decadent’ or ‘amoral,’ to say the least. But even if these inhabitants were not conscious of the fact that they lived at the end of time some unconscious knowledge informed their attitudes and made them lose interest in ideals, creeds, philosophies and the conflicts to which such things gave rise.

Michael Moorcock, An Alien Heat, 1972.

Our planet’s stock of minerals and fossil fuels, for instance, is already sadly depleted, and it is only a question of time before it is totally exhausted. Once this occurs, that already tottering technological superstructure—the “technosphere”—that is relentlessly swallowing up our biosphere, will collapse like a house of cards, and the swarming human masses brought into being to sustain it, will in turn find themselves deprived of even this imperfect means of sustenance.

Edward “Teddy” Goldsmith, editorial, inaugural issue of The Ecologist, July 1970.

I don’t see much of a future for the human race. I think we’ll probably disappear in the next fifty years.

Goldsmith to Andy Beckett, 2005. (Goldsmith predeceased the human race last year.)

Of all of Bowie’s dystopic and apocalyptic songs (and we’ve many to go), “Five Years” is the most unsettling. The key’s in the details, what Bowie discloses and, more importantly, what he doesn’t—that is, why the world is going to end. It’s as though the planet has received a terminal prognosis and has to get its affairs in order. And Bowie also wisely keeps his perspective on the street, on the masses who, having gotten the news (the same news that “all the young dudes” are carrying, Bowie later said), despair, collapse, debase themselves.

Yet there’s a joy in the refrains of “five years!!” that ring out the song. It’s a final jubilee, a celebration that the miserable struggles of the human race are finally over. The singalong chorus, which Bowie withholds for over half the song, comes as a relief after the string of despairing verses after despairing bridges. All of it is anchored by Woody Woodmansey’s unchanging drum pattern* (Woodmansey said he tried to put “hopelessness into a drumbeat”) and Mick Ronson’s piano chords.

In “Five Years” Bowie tapped into a current of pessimism and resignation that would define 1970s Britain, in novels, films, music and even newscasts (like a 1976 episode of the BBC’s The Money Programme that predicted a 1980 Britain in which “capitalism is but a fond memory”). It wasn’t a solely British phenomenon, of course. US science fiction of the early ’70s was chock full of societal collapses, whether the Planet of the Apes movies or The Omega Man, or novels like Wilson Tucker’s Year of the Quiet Sun, in which time-travelers discover that 20 years is all it takes for America to fall into utter barbarism. An iconic image of the early 1970s is a man standing alone, holding a gun, in a litter-strewn, gutted and empty downtown street.

The millennial fear (hope?) that Western civilization was on the brink of collapse came from all corners, from disillusioned hippies and embattled Leftist sects, from population-boom Cassandras and anti-urbanists (like Robert Allen, an associate editor for The Ecologist who in July 1975 wrote admiringly of the Khmer Rouge, as they were cleansing the cities and taking Cambodian civilization back to nature—“they deserve our best wishes, our sympathy and our attention”), as well as those on the Right who regarded such a collapse as the inevitable end to an indulgent, weak society. Take a film like Dirty Harry, whose contemporary San Francisco setting—a cesspool of muggers, perverts and killers, and the weak government that enables them—already seems post-apocalyptic.

Plus time was running at a Benzedrine pace. It was quite imaginable that human civilization could end in five years, as it seemed as though an age already had expired during the preceding five. To some in 1972, 1967 looked like a lost childhood while 1957 seemed to have occurred on another planet. The future was coming, mercilessly and quickly, to dispatch the present.

The buspeople, and there were many of them,
were shockedandsurprised and amused and annoyed, but when the
word got around that the world was coming to an end at
lunchtime, they put their pride in their pockets with their bustickets and
madelove one with the other.

Roger McGough, “At Lunchtime–A Story of Love,” 1967.

For “Five Years,” along with the novels and films that had inspired earlier songs like “We Are Hungry Men” or “Oh! You Pretty Things,” Bowie drew from a 1967 Roger McGough poem, “At Lunchtime—A Story of Love.” (Bowie had recited it during his cabaret audition in 1968.) The poem’s set on a bus whose riders, learning the world will end at lunchtime, start having random sex. There’s a funny twist at the end, which I won’t spoil.

In “Five Years” the world also turns upside-down upon hearing the news—policemen kneel to priests, teenage girls try to kill children. Bowie’s narrator makes his way through the wrack covering the streets, trying to chronicle whatever he sees (“my brain hurt like a warehouse”), and only despairs when he remembers seeing a friend (or a former lover) in an ice-cream shop, a moment of insignificance now made unbearably poignant. He joins in the chorus with the rest of the crowd, and sings down the world.

As with other Ziggy Stardust tracks, Bowie uses American slang (“news guy” and “TV” rather than “telly”) in the lyric. Even the clunky phrases (“all the fat skinny people” etc.) work, as they read as the discombobulated thoughts of an overwhelmed kid. Another Ziggy staple is the song’s diatonic chord progression, with G often set against E minor (James Perone pegs it as the “Heart and Soul” chord progression (I-vi-ii-V), the “harmonic core” of the 1950s.)

Bowie cut his vocal track in two takes—the first for the verses and bridges, the second for the chorus—because Ken Scott had to reset the sound levels for the throat-tearing chorus. Ronson mainly keeps to piano, while his scoring (a cello-heavy string section) for the track is a typically fine arrangement.

Recorded 8-15 November 1971. A version was cut for the BBC in January 1972,  while the Old Grey Whistle Test TV performance is from 8 February. Featured on Bowie’s 1972-3, 1976 and 1978 tours, along with a stunning performance on the Dinah Shore Show on 3 January 1976. Revived for Bowie’s 2003 tour, while the Arcade Fire duet is from “Fashion Rocks” (if ever an audience deserved an apocalyptic death-curse of a song, it was that one) on 8 September 2005.

Top: Miner’s strike rally in Trafalgar Square, 6 February 1972 (University of Warwick Library).

* Sheet music says 3/4, other sources (the producer Pip Williams) say it’s in 6/8.

Much credit is owed to Andy Beckett’s essential ’70s history When The Lights Went Out, which will be an ongoing reference for this blog.


Soul Love

April 27, 2010

Soul Love.
Soul Love (live, 1973).

Soul Love (live, 1978).

Soul Love (rehearsal, 1983).

I was in love once, maybe, and it was an awful experience. It rotted me, drained me, and it was a disease. Hateful thing, it was.

David Bowie, interviewed by Cameron Crowe in Playboy, September 1976.

“Soul Love,” so sweet on its surface, so often interpreted as a picture of “youthful romance” (as per 1001 Greatest Albums) or as a message of universal peace and brotherhood, is rather clinical at heart. Love, whether that of a mother, lover or priest, is shown as being amoral, delusive, pointless and ruinous. (Love is “sweeping over cross and baby,” as if it was a plague or an infestation.)

The song opens with a mother at her son’s tombstone (the son likely killed in a war, having died “to save the slogan”), with “stone love” suggesting both a resolute, enduring love and a lifeless emotion. The priest kneels at the altar in bliss and in blindness. The teenagers, who are so besotted they believe they’re the first to ever fall in love, are just the puppets of instinct (“idiot love will spark the fusion”).

Blessed with a fine melody and layered with harmonies and, after the second verse, Bowie’s alto saxophone, the track gets unsettled by odd time signatures in the verse—it’s either in 7/4 time or it moves to 2/4 time on every fourth bar (the sheet music says the latter)—while Bowie again pairs major and minor chords (G to E minor and B minor, the same as in “Ziggy Stardust”).

The track begins with Woody Woodmansey’s drum pattern (a contrast to the slower, ominous beat of “Five Years,” sequenced before it), supplemented by bongos and shakers, then by Bowie’s acoustic guitar strumming and Trevor Bolder’s five-note bassline. Bowie’s vocal parallels the arrangement in part, starting as just a sung whole note (“stone”), then two quarter notes in the next bar, then six notes in the third, etc. Mick Ronson keeps to the background until the chorus. He and Bowie each take a solo verse: Bowie gives a passable alto sax solo, Ronson mainly keeps to the vocal melody.

Recorded 12 November 1971. Played in a few 1973 shows, a fixture of the 1978 tour, a rarity of the 1983 “Serious Moonlight” tour. It was the B-side to a re-issue of “All the Madmen,” and the Stage version was released as a single in Japan. Mick Ronson’s 1975 country-ska remake, retitled “Stone Love,” was later included on reissues of Play Don’t Worry.

Top: Alan Merrill and Yoshiko Mandai, Meiji Park, Tokyo, 1972.


Ziggy Stardust

April 26, 2010

Ziggy Stardust (demo).
Ziggy Stardust (LP).
Ziggy Stardust (live, 1972).
Ziggy Stardust (live, 1973).
Ziggy Stardust (live, 1978).
Ziggy Stardust (Bauhaus, 1982).
Ziggy Stardust (live, 1990).
Ziggy Stardust (broadcast, 2002).

You have to start with the riff, right? Two bars long, it repeats four times in the intro, twice after the first chorus, three-and-a-half times at the end. It’s only five seconds in each duration but is perfect and complete: a slammed G chord, a fanfare, then the tough connective tissue leading to the next G chord. To make a riff like this, for guitarists, is like forging a passkey to Valhalla. (That said, the song’s demo reveals that Bowie’s responsible for most of it.) And the riff’s only one of Mick Ronson’s voices on “Ziggy Stardust.” There’s also the motif under “Spiders From Mars” or “the kids were just crass” in the verses, the tonal colors Ronson provides throughout the track, the vicious root chords in the chorus.

“Ziggy Stardust,” theme and title song of its album, is a snapshot keepsake of Ronson and his band (“Weird and Gilly” being Bowie’s sometimes-nicknames for Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey) at the height of their powers, with the first and last words Bowie sings being “Ziggy played guitar.” (The sequencing on the LP is inspired, with “Suffragette City” erupting a second after “Ziggy” ends.)

But “Ziggy Stardust” wasn’t intended as a guitarist’s tribute. It has grandiosity bred into it—it’s a paradox epic (the song that births “Ziggy” also kills him off), a plastic ballad (the verses move from G to B minor and later E minor, transitions that Roger McGuinn, noting the same change in “She Loves You,” described as “folk music changes” pilfered by rock musicians), a eulogy for a phantom.


the riff, anatomized

Even by the meager standards of rock “concept” albums, The Rise and Fall Of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is a thin business. The collected songs are recycled Arnold Corns singles, random covers (Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” and Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” almost made the final cut), and a few Hunky Dory leftovers. Even the last batch of tracks cut for the LP in early 1972 (“Rock & Roll Suicide,” “Suffragette City,” “Starman”) are only tenuously linked. Bowie’s unifying lyrical theme basically consists of using the word “star” in a few songs.

Bowie seems to have cobbled the Ziggy “storyline” together after he made the record. As Bowie described the story to William S. Burroughs, the world is doomed (“Five Years”) via some sort of Long Emergency scenario and then a black-hole-jumping alien race (or sentient black holes, it’s a bit unclear) arrives on Earth. Bowie called them “the infinites” (nicking from Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Burroughs’ own Nova Express). The infinites make a drugged-out rock singer called Ziggy Stardust their herald, he writes about them (“Starman,” we’ll give ‘em “Moonage Daydream” too) and so becomes a messiah figure for a doomed generation. Then who the hell knows what else happens. The climax, allegedly, has Ziggy ripped to pieces on stage by the black-hole jumpers (“Rock & Roll Suicide”) who then, in Bowie’s words, “take his elements and make themselves visible.”

Despite this nonsense,”Ziggy Stardust” himself is one of Bowie’s best conceits. Ziggy’s ancestry included Iggy Pop, the mad British rock & roller Vince Taylor, the American eccentric The Legendary Stardust Cowboy (and there’s probably a touch of Biff Rose in the mix too), and rock & roll casualties like Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. Bowie pulped them all together. Ziggy’s been described as a “cartoon” rock & roller but that’s not quite right: cartoons have weight and presence, holding fixed positions in your memory (think of the eternal Charlie Brown or Superman). Ziggy is fluid and unknowable, a pictograph whose meaning alters depending on who looks at it.

His existence depends on his audience. By 1972, with rock music falling into nostalgia and self-parody, Bowie was able to paint a rock & roll life in a few broad strokes, taking from listeners’ collective memories (e.g., “he played left hand” references Hendrix), with the track serving another of Bowie’s mime performances. Bowie filled the lyric with pseudo-American slang (“jiving us that we were voodoo”), built Ziggy’s image out of pieces (“like some cat from Japan,” “well hung and snow-white tan”).

It’s unclear who’s narrating. It could be a kid in the audience, remembering Ziggy years later (like the Christian Bale character in Velvet Goldmine), it could be one of Ziggy’s bandmates, Weird or Gilly, or it may be the disassociated memories of Ziggy himself, a fractured perspective through which Ziggy sees (and kills?) himself on stage. It could be all of them, recounting a story that had ended and now needed to begin. If “Ziggy Stardust” was the score, Bowie’ s life over the next two years would be the performance.

The “Ziggy Stardust” demo, recorded ca. summer-fall 1971, is on the Ryko 1990 CD of Ziggy Stardust. (Bowie didn’t give the demo to Ken Scott, his producer, or his band, instead just playing the song to them on guitar in the studio.) The LP cut was recorded 8-11 November 1971. Three versions of “Ziggy” were taped for the BBC during 1972, and it was central to the 1972 and 1973 tours (a version taped at Santa Monica, Calif., was released as a single in 1994). “Ziggy” returned in Bowie’s 1978 tour, with a recording from Philadelphia on Stage; the song also was a regular on the 1990 “Sound + Vision” tour, as well as many of Bowie’s shows in the past decade. Bauhaus’ remake hit #15 in the UK in 1982, and was later collected on David Bowie Songbook.

Top: Ziggy in his youth, ca. March 1972.


Lady Stardust

April 22, 2010


Song For Marc (He Was Alright).
Lady Stardust.
Lady Stardust (live, 1972).

Lady Stardust (remake, 1997).

Bowie was fascinated by his contemporaries—dropping their names, covering their songs, producing their records. He traced their steps, aped their movements; he sought to remake them in his own image, or at least dress them in his own clothes. So Bowie turned Lou Reed into a glam rock icon, while making Iggy Pop an ongoing rehabilitation project. (Whether Bowie’s mix of Raw Power was salvage or vandalism is still a weary topic of debate). Bowie sparked Mick Jagger and was a shadow on John Lennon.

Most of all, there was Marc Bolan, Bowie’s greatest creative rival and, for a time, inspiration. While in early 1972 Bowie was still relatively unknown, Bolan had become a pop star (four consecutive UK #1s in 14 months) and the Ziggy Stardust storyline is in part a weird parody of Bolan’s rise to fame. Bowie watched Bolan as through a one-way mirror, mimicking his voice on “Black Country Rock,” drafting variations on Bolan in songs. A commenter noted that “The Prettiest Star” was likely as much a homage to Bolan as it (allegedly) was to Angela Bowie. “Lady Stardust,” originally called “Song For Marc,” was more overt: at the Rainbow Theater in August 1972, Bowie sang “Lady Stardust” while Bolan’s face was projected on a screen behind him.

“Lady Stardust” has a taste of fatality and loss; the song seems like a faded remnant of a lost era, Bowie imagining the future as a blighted past. The verses begin in A major and descend into the relative minor, F-sharp, while the chorus also has minor chords in its middle bars. “Lady Stardust” himself, whether Bolan or Ziggy, is both an object of worship for the boys and girls in the stalls, and a subject of abuse. In turn, he curses his audience, singing death ballads and imprecations with a smile, then withers into a black memory while still on stage.

As Nicholas Pegg noted, the lyric seems written in an “American” voice, with all its “outta sites” and “awful nice”s (also, Bowie mutters “get some pussy now” at 2:53 on the Ziggy cut). Mick Ronson’s piano playing has the somber, relaxed tone of an after-hours cabaret performance, while Bowie sounds a bit like Elton John.

“Song For Marc” was taped ca. April 1971 and eventually appeared on the Ryko Ziggy Stardust CD reissue. The Ziggy “Lady Stardust” was recorded on 12 November 1971. Bowie cut two versions of the song for the BBC in 1972, the latter of which is on Bowie At the Beeb. In January 1997, Bowie taped a remake of “Lady Stardust” with bass and backing vocals by Gail Ann Dorsey; it’s on ChangesNowBowie.

Top: Keith Morris, “Marc Bolan arriving at JFK Airport, February 1972.”


Star

April 15, 2010

Star.
Star (live, 1978).

Star (live, 1983).

Rock & roll was born reciting its own myths: take Chuck Berry turning “Johnny B. Goode” from autobiography (changing “colored boy” to “country boy”) into the Elvis legend. Yet cynicism about rock & roll fame was there too, like Bobby Bare’s take on Presley’s rise, “The All American Boy.” (“I picked my guitar with a great big grin/and the money just kept on pourin’ in.”) By the mid-’60s, as rock music became a cash-bloated, multi-national business, the Stones were mocking industry pissants (“Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man”). The Byrds, folkies who saw A Hard Day’s Night one afternoon and decided to become rock stars, offered “So You Want to Be a Rock & Roll Star,” where selling out to The Company is simple, absurd and inevitable.

Bowie’s “Star” is descended from these songs, but something is off—it’s more earnest and yet more false. It could be a number sung by a teenage girl in a Broadway show, it could be a paying-your-dues anthem by a metal band. “Star” has no sense of reality, of rock & roll as a business: rock stardom is a fairyland contrasted to the weary business of politics or art. The singer sees his friends commit to activism or violence (like Tony, who goes off to fight in Northern Ireland) and decides he’s not cut out for sacrifice. Instead he just wants to be a rock & roll star, which seems easy enough. “So enticing to play the part,” the singer imagines, pouting into the mirror.

Bowie wrote “Star” (originally called “Rock & Roll Star”) in late 1970 or early 1971 and offered the demo to a group from Princes Risborough called Chameleon. (Chameleon’s version was never released.) According to Nicholas Pegg, Bowie had forgotten the song until a gig in Aylesbury in September 1971, when someone asked him about his “rock & roll star” piece. Bowie was drafting the Ziggy Stardust storyline (well, what there is of one) and saw that “Star” would fit perfectly. He slotted it between “Lady Stardust” and “Hang Onto Yourself.” It works—“Lady Stardust” is Ziggy as seen on stage; “Star” is Ziggy’s fantasies and ambitions; “Hang Onto Yourself” is what he performs.

Like many Ziggy Stardust tracks, “Star” has echoes of older songs. The intricate multi-tracked backing vocals were inspired by the Beatles’ “Lovely Rita,” Bowie said later. Most of all, it’s in debt to the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”: the opening verses of both songs are populated with characters off in the real world (“Jack, he is a banker/and Jane, she is a clerk” v. Bevan tried to change the nation/Sonny wants to turn the world”) as contrasted to the singer, who’s in a rock & roll band.

The studio take of “Star” is built to be relentless: it’s a series of eight-bar verses, choruses and bridges glued together, underlaid with a hammering piano track (reminiscent of John Cale on early VU tracks) and filled with Mick Ronson’s interjections on guitar. It ends in a long outro, where the tempo slackens, two harmonized guitars briefly appear, and Bowie mutters and whispers, turning the fantasy ominous in its last moments.

Recorded 8-11 November 1971. Bowie performed “Star” during his 1978 tour (a recording from Philadelphia is on Stage, and also was released as a promo single) and in his 1983 shows, where it often was a show-opener along with a snippet of “Jean Genie.”

Top: A flu-ridden Bowie braces for stardom at long last, Heddon St., London, January 1972. Photographer: Brian Ward. (From this page of Ziggy Stardust cover photo outtakes.)


It Ain’t Easy

March 11, 2010

It Ain’t Easy (first performance, BBC, 1971).
It Ain’t Easy (Ziggy Stardust).

“It Ain’t Easy” was written by the American songwriter Ron Davies, who was born in Louisiana and grew up in the Pacific Northwest. At age 20, he was signed to A&M Records and in 1970 released Silent Song Through the Land, from which the song comes.

It’s unclear how Bowie picked up “It Ain’t Easy”; some biographers have claimed Mick Ronson had been playing it with his old band The Rats. It wasn’t that obscure a song, in any event: both Three Dog Night and Long John Baldry had already covered it, and Dave Edmunds soon would. Bowie first played “It Ain’t Easy” in his glam hootenanny BBC session of June 1971, and the song worked well as a finale: the singers taking turns on the verses, uniting in the song’s cavernous, gospel-inspired chorus. The ramshackle performance was in line with the other rock & roll circuses of the period, like Delaney and Bonnie’s groups or Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen Revue.

Bowie went on to cut a studio version of the song a month later, and used it to close the first side of Ziggy Stardust, an alleged concept record in which it has no discernible role. Maybe he just loved Ronson’s fine slide guitar on the track, or thought the song’s simplicity (it’s mainly just two chords, D and A, with a C thrown in during the choruses) and rock & roll cliches (we get “satisfaction” and a “hoochie coochie woman” in the same verse) gave the LP some ballast. Still, the fact that it made the cut for Ziggy while “Velvet Goldmine” and “Sweet Head” were axed remains one of the minor mysteries of Bowie’s career.

Debuted at the BBC on 3 June 1971, while the studio version was cut on 9 July. Never performed live, as far as I know.

Top: Hush Puppies takes a counter-feminist angle to sell shoes, 1971. “When the ‘Libs’ call us names like that it really means they think we’re rugged, masculine, virile.”


Moonage Daydream

February 19, 2010

Moonage Daydream (Arnold Corns single).
Moonage Daydream (Ziggy Stardust LP).
Moonage Daydream (BBC, May 1972).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1972).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1972).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1973).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1974).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1997).

I first heard “Moonage Daydream” when I was 16 years old, which is when you should first hear it. I was in my car, listening to some dubbed cassette of Bowie hits, when suddenly:

BAMMMMM-BLAMMMMMMMMM!!!
I’m an ALLIGATOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
BAMMMMMMMMMM-BLAMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!
I’m a MAMMAPAPA coming FOR YOU!!!

Teenage bliss. I can’t remember what my exact response was, but it was along the lines of “Jesus! What is this?”

I had bought in. “Moonage Daydream” intends to shock, its spectacular opening a battle between power chords (Mick Ronson hitting hard twice on D, then F#) and Bowie’s dramatics (the excitement furthered by the taste of silence between each chord and sung line). But the track quickly settles down into a groove and its choruses are moody and wistful—it delays the fireworks that Ronson and Bowie promise in its first four bars. The first solo isn’t Ronson but a duet between a pennywhistle and a baritone saxophone.

So “Moonage Daydream” can stand for all of Ziggy Stardust, a vaguely conceptual rock LP about a fake rock star whose songs both parody and subsume rock & roll. As Ziggy is pop music about pop music, so the lyric of “Moonage Daydream” is fused from old rock & roll phrases—“I’m an alligator” come from “See you later alligator,” all the “far outs” and “freak outs” are pilfered from the hippie LPs, while a bizarre line like “you’re squawking like a pink monkey bird” sounds like it was lifted from a lost novelty hit of 1960 (as the solo was, see below). It also could be the pseudo-Russian pop music of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, or a botched translation—as if an extra-terrestrial who had been monitoring our radio and TV broadcasts had fashioned an imitation of what it took to be our national musics. Bowie later claimed that was the idea all along.

Bowie wrote “Moonage Daydream” to be the debut single of his “fake band” project, The Arnold Corns, and then refigured it as part of Ziggy Stardust‘s early conception as a West End stage show. So from its inception, the song was meant to serve as entrance music, a character piece for a fraudulent character, whether impostor pop idol (the Corns’ non-singer Freddi Buretti) or plastic rock star (Ziggy Stardust, who Bowie would later claim on stage was the song’s author).

The Arnold Corns project petered out after two singles, only one of which was released, as Bowie focused on designing the Ziggy character and his never-quite-comprehensible storyline (Hunky Dory and Ziggy were recorded back-to-back, with some Ziggy songs preceding Hunky Dory ones, hence the timeline confusion).

What’s missing from the Corns “Moonage Daydream” (beyond Ronson’s guitar) is the sense that anything’s at stake—the Corns single, voiced by Bowie but allegedly sung by the cherubic Buretti (he’s the male equivalent of Chantale Goya in Godard’s Masculin-Feminin), is drearier than much of the music it’s mocking. The Ziggy “Moonage Daydream” works in part because the song was taken out of Bowie’s head and invigorated by Ronson, whose guitar heroics are matched by his string arrangements, bassist Trevor Bolder and producer Ken Scott (who put the phasing effect on the swirling strings at the end of the track).

By the time of the Spiders’ last concert at the Hammersmith in July 1973, teenage girls and boys in the audience were singing along to every word of “Moonage Daydream,” holding their hands to their faces while they sang the chorus, falling in love with themselves as much as they were with Ziggy. Using the strength and delusion of adolescence, the belief that the world somehow has been left open for you, they took the lie and made it sing to them.

Every night you knew that “Moonage Daydream” was going to be the one that really lifted them. Then we’d go and follow on from there to the end.

Trevor Bolder, 1976.

The Ziggy recording is the sum of its players. Bolder doesn’t get that much credit as a bassist, but his work on “Moonage Daydream” in particular is assured and inventive—he starts by anchoring Ronson’s opening chords, then serves as the main melodic voice in the choruses (his descending line, going down the frets from the D string to the A to the E, mirrors the wordless harmony vocals).

And then there’s Ronson. In the studio, Bowie drew a diagram for how Ronson’s guitar solo should sound—it started out as a flat line, grew to form “a fat megaphone-type shape, and ended in sprays of disassociated and broken lines,” Bowie recalled years later. Ronson looked at the chart, went off somewhere (he often wrote arrangements in the bathroom), and came back and performed a solo that exactly followed Bowie’s directions.

The Arnold Corns single version was recorded in April 1971 and released as B&C CB149; the Ziggy Stardust track was cut on 12 November 1971. (Bowie was inspired to suggest a baritone sax/pennywhistle solo from the B-side of The Hollywood Argyles’ “Alley Oop,” “Sho’ Know a Lot About Love,” which featured a fife and bari sax. “I thought that’s the greatest combination of instruments. It’s so ludicrous—you’ve got this tiny sparrow of a voice on top and a huge grunting pig-ox of a thing at the bottom,” Bowie said in 1997.) Bonus note: the solo’s descending minor-chord sequence (Bm/A/G/F#) is cited by Wikipedia as an example of the “Andalusian cadence.”

Bowie debuted “Moonage Daydream” on a BBC session of 16 May 1972, and played it in most shows of the Ziggy tour (the performances linked above are from Dunstable, UK (21 June 1972), Santa Monica, Calif. (20 Sept. 1972) and the final Spiders show of 3 July 1973, which features Ronson’s ultimate version of his guitar solo, all delays and feints). It’s turned up in a few tours (mainly the Diamond Dogs tour ’74, and some of Bowie’s ’90s shows) since.


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