God Only Knows

December 20, 2011

God Only Knows (The Beach Boys, 1966).
God Only Knows (Andy Williams, 1967).
God Only Knows (Ava Cherry and the Astronettes, 1973).
God Only Knows (Bowie, 1984).

When you listen to “Smile” now, what words come to mind?

Childhood. Freedom. A rejection of adult rules and adult conformity. Our message was, “Adults keep out. This is about the spirit of youth.”

Brian Wilson, Wall Street Journal interview, October 2011.

Brian Wilson, who is nearly 70 years old, talked recently about the latest salvage of his would-have-been masterwork Smile. He has been asked about this “lost” record for much of his life, and he’s long run out of stories to tell. Never the most articulate of people, Wilson typically recalls half-remembered things that others have said about him. So here Wilson repeated, yet again, the statement that Smile was meant to be “a teenage symphony to God.” But then Wilson kept on that thought. “It’s a teen’s expression of joy and amazement. It’s unrestrained. We thought of ourselves as teens then, even though we were in our 20s….Van Dyke [Parks] and I wanted “Smile” to be a musical tour of America through the eyes of kids—from Plymouth Rock to Diamond Head.

We thought of ourselves as teens then, even though we were in our twenties. A simple statement that has a world in it: the Sixties ideal of the teen, with adulthood now an afterthought, a curse, something to be put off as long as possible. In Wilson’s case, he has permanently put it off—he is a senior citizen who still sings about being a teenager, and his life is a teenager’s idea of an adult’s. He is Bowie’s Uncle Arthur made flesh.

Odd Victorians—butterfly collectors, mathematicians, table rappers, quietly heretical parsons—had idealized children. Somewhere in the Sixties, in California, that cult was overturned, the child was supplanted by the teen, by the beautiful, corrupted child, one pure with appetites. It was a happy usurpation. Adolescence—a brilliant dream-version of it, at least—was now the peak of life. Catalogs of songs were made in its honor.

Wilson’s Smile, intended as a hymnal for the new religion, was never released, although fragments of it have been around since 1967. The record collapsed for a host of reasons—too many drugs; the exhaustion of its composer; the resistance of the Beach Boys’ reactionary wing, led by Mike Love; the fact that some of its songs weren’t that good. And maybe because it was just unnecessary. Wilson had already written a teenage symphony to God in miniature: his and Tony Asher’s “God Only Knows,” his most perfect song.

Recorded in March 1966, when Wilson was only 23, “God Only Knows” is a prayer in a love song. This wasn’t anything new. What was soul music but singers using expressions and phrasings crafted to praise God and pressing them into service for baser ends, to pronounce lust and love? It was a heresy far older than soul: in 1939, The Ink Spots offered “My Prayer,” which wasn’t to commune with God but simply to “linger with you, at the end of each day.”

So “God Only Knows” falls in this line, but what makes it special is its awkwardness, its honesty. Asher’s lyric captures the tumult of an adolescent’s thoughts: the sudden revisions, the stumbling, the defensiveness. I may not always love you, the song begins. What a start! The kid has to back his way into a vow of eternal commitment, but the bluntness of the opening line (Wilson initially hated it, and had wanted Asher to rewrite it) defines the song’s core ambiguity. It’s an eternal pledge made by a kid with a weak grasp on eternity. The second verse even opens with bluster: If you should ever leave me/though life would still go on, believe me! And again, the singer has to work his way back into pledging his love. The lyric, intentionally or no, is bled through with a teenager’s manic narcissism: every line in the second verse ends with “me” (it’s the only rhyme).

Wilson’s music and arranging for “God Only Knows” deepens the sense of love-as-confusion. The song is tonally vague (it’s a sway between E major, the key of the verse, and A major, the apparent key of the refrain), while its instrumentation is a series of blends, of instruments whose tones bleed into each other in the mono mix. The opening melody is carried on a fusion of accordion, French horn and strings; the staccato quarter notes that undergird the track are a motley of sleigh bells, pizzicato strings, organ, harpsichord and slap-echoed piano and bass (the latter sometimes played so high it sounds like an electric guitar).

Then there are the moments of grace. The little instrumental bridge that briefly sends the song off into a new world. The sweet sighing of Brian Wilson’s voice. The extended coda, with its gorgeous, humble polyphony (just the Wilson brothers, with Bruce Johnston as the top voice): it’s a sense of awe inspired by a suddenly imaginable bliss.

Bowie, like many British musicians of his generation, had loved Pet Sounds—Paul McCartney’s infatuation with the record is one of the more shopworn facts in Beatles lore. The sweetness, the teenage grandeur of the Beach Boys’ records, their sense of a paradise effortlessly achieved by young people somewhere on the West Coast, were something alien to the UK. To no surprise, a cult soon formed around Wilson.

I believe you, Mr. Wilson, John Cale sang, I believe you anyway. Because by 1975, when Cale wrote the song, Wilson had become a zombified figure padding about in a bathrobe, writing songs about Johnny Carson, while the California mythland he had authored had gone to seed (already, in the promo film for “God Only Knows,” Dennis Wilson looks dissolute, Manson-like). When I listen to your music, you’re still thousands of miles away, Cale sang. The line was a play on Cale’s memory of being a nobody in Wales hearing Wilson’s Californian exotica for the first time, and on Wilson’s distance from the promises that his own music made.

The distance that McCartney, Cale and Bowie felt from (and in) Wilson—a dreamer who could never fall asleep, so he doled out his dreams to others—gave them a better vantage to appraise his work. They saw that the Beach Boys at their finest made a modern holy music; religious music for a generation that never thought it would die, one that would never grow old.

Bowie recognized that “God Only Knows,” one of his favorite Wilson tracks, was at heart a soul song. His first attempt to cover the song, with Ava Cherry and the Astronettes in 1973, got it half-right. Cherry was a marvelous singer who never got the chance to really prove it, and here she gives a fervor to the lyric yet doesn’t lose the sense of happy bewilderment and humility. But Bowie’s arrangement, with an odd mandolin accompaniment in the verse and a garrulous saxophone solo that nearly flat-out kills the song, was an ill omen.

A decade later, making Tonight, Bowie seemed to have lost everything that had once made him—his tactical intelligence as a singer, his innate good taste, the precision of his performances, his easy way of reconciling styles within himself. For whatever reason, he decided at last to cover “God Only Knows” himself. He sounds like a man lost in a cathedral who begins to deface the walls in panic.

Bowie’s inspiration seems to be Andy Williams’ version of the song, from 1967 (Bowie’s schmaltzy version of “Imagine” from 1983 seems an initial run-through). But Williams was respectful, cool: he lets himself sink into the song, letting the melody occasionally slip away from him, and whenever he moves to the grandiose, he quickly checks himself with his awed, quiet phrasings of the title refrain. Williams and Ava Cherry had known that the song was bigger than them, and wandered happily within its confines.

At first, Bowie’s version on Tonight seems adequate. He sounds somber and restrained in the opening verses, if seemingly doing a parody of Scott Walker, though the croaking begins to irritate after a time—the lyric is meant to be sung by someone bewildered by love; Bowie seems to be serenading a corpse. A few warning signs come: the grotesque way Bowie sings “stahhhrs,” like he’s gargling, or how he gets snagged on “sure,” rolling the word around on his tongue.

Then Bowie decided that the performance needed to build, that some act of professional grandiosity was required on the record, a contractual obligation that EMI had slipped in. So he and Hugh Padgham (and maybe Derek Bramble—no one’s claimed ownership, unsurprisingly) start to trowel things on. Strings, which had been part of the communal sound world on the Beach Boys’ version, just playing sustained chords and mixed with organ, are used on Bowie’s cover as offensive weapons, soon followed by the horns. One saxophone gets a little solo phrase that’s utterly hateful in its insipidness. Then the singers come in, up to no good. The thing is, everyone sounds so damned pleased with themselves. They’re vandals with delusions of artistry.

But the worst crimes are left to Bowie. Too much of an egoist here to share the vocals, he has to carry the coda by himself. He starts singing the title phrase in a hectoring tone, souring the pleasures of the long vowels—the way “OHN-lee” and “KNOWS” are warm sisters, a communal reassurance following the initial hard, short vowel of “God.” Instead Bowie places his weight upon “God” and rushes through the rest of the phrase, letting it expire in a sickly gasp on “with-out you.” The last repeat, in which Bowie brutalizes each word, wringing whatever effect he can from each syllable, is the apex of the dreadful performance. It’s astonishing in its tastelessness.

The story goes that Bowie was too young for the Sixties, he was always outside of it. But maybe, as this terrible record shows, he was just always too old.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec.

Top: Steve Kagan: Anthony Michael Hall, John Hughes and Molly Ringwald on the set of The Breakfast Club, filmed 1984; Molly Ringwald in Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984); Eric Fischl, The Brat II, 1984.


Loving the Alien

December 14, 2011

Loving the Alien.
Loving the Alien (single remix, video).
Loving the Alien (live, 1987).
Loving the Alien (remix, “The Scumfrog vs. Bowie,” 2002).
Loving the Alien (live, 2003).
Loving the Alien (live, Tibet House Benefit, 2003).

“Loving the Alien” is a deliberate “Bowie masterpiece” that aims for the heights of “Station to Station” and “Heroes” and misses. “Alien” obviously meant a great deal to its composer, as he worked to hone the song throughout the Tonight sessions, he led off the record with it, he spent a chunk of his most substantive interview in 1984 trying to make sense of it and he later refitted the song with a simpler arrangement that better suited it. But in all of its incarnations “Alien” seems ultimately a failed promise: it yearns to be more substantial than it is.

On the album, the sheen of the track’s production and its somnolent tempo smothered the song, but “Alien” also had some fundamental flaws that its later, tasteful arrangements couldn’t disguise, either. As a song it doesn’t quite hold together: it feels padded and its joins are shaky, while its frustrating lyric ranges from banality to brilliance in the course of a line.

“Alien” began as a full-band demo that Bowie cut in Switzerland before the Tonight sessions. Known as “Demo No. 1,” cutting a releasable version of it became a focal point of the Tonight sessions. Bowie realized that “Alien,” obviously one of the better-quality pieces on the album, would have to serve double duty—not only the Epic Bowie Song of the record (“Ricochet” had this role last time around), it also had to be a potential single. So the version of “Alien” that wound up on Tonight is, in its somber way, compromised. It can seem like a down-tempo remake of “Let’s Dance” in places—Carmine Rojas’ near-identical descending bass hook is there, and the guitar solo that closes out the track sounds like an outtake from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s work.

Bowie wrote the song out of anger, he said. He had worn a crucifix since his chaotic days in Los Angeles and had come to believe the cross held some beneficial power over him—not as a religious symbol (Bowie wasn’t a Christian except in the nominal sense) but as a good-luck charm, a tangible piece of white magic. Musing on this, he began to piece together a vague theory on religion: that much of it, from Judaism to Islam, had been built on a consecutive series of mistranslations.

“Loving the Alien” is Bowie’s last Los Angeles song, as he later admitted. Its lyric is a pulp of a variety of crackpot religious “hidden history” books popular in the Seventies and Eighties—Hugh Schonfield’s The Passover Plot, Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail and, most of all, Donovan Joyce’s The Jesus Scroll, which Bowie mentioned in his interview with Shaar Murray. The common thread of these books (from which Dan Brown cherry-picked conspiracies for his Da Vinci Code) is that the official Christian Gospel is a lie, with Jesus Christ having not died on the cross but having fake-engineered his own death for political reasons (Schonfield) or having lived in obscurity until 80, dying a forgotten mortal (Joyce), his descendents still around today (Baigent –> Brown).

One of Bowie’s consistent themes, from the start of his mature work, was the allure and abuses of power. So he took from this jumble of religious hearsay the idea of a Church holding dominion over the dreams and desires of countless generations of human beings, despite its teachings being at heart false, or based on botched translations. For Bowie, the Church is the ultimate Saviour Machine, having the same contempt for the people that it’s allegedly serving (remember that Bowie’s super-computer in that song was called “The Prayer”).

The existence of extra-terrestrial intelligences would have a profound impact on religion, shattering completely the traditional perspective on God’s relationship with man. The difficulties are particularly acute for Christianity, which postulates that Jesus Christ was God incarnate whose mission was to provide salvation for man on Earth. The prospect of a host of “alien Christs” systematically visiting every planet in the physical form of the local creatures has a rather absurd aspect. Yet otherwise how are the aliens to be saved?

Paul Davies, God and the New Physics.

“Loving the Alien” “had to do with Major Tom,” Carlos Alomar once told David Buckley. This was an error—the lyric has nothing in it to suggest a follow-up to “Space Oddity,” and there’s no evidence that Bowie had intended “Alien” to fall in the sequence after “Ashes to Ashes.” But Alomar hit home indirectly, as “Alien” does seem like an apocryphal sequel to “Space Oddity,” in which a transformed man (a Major Tom come home) is misinterpreted as a savior, Bowie drawing on various cod-mythic histories in which Jesus Christ was said to literally be an alien being worshiped by an ignorant population—a Starman waiting in the sky.

Bowie sets his lyric in the Holy Land, with Crusaders and Saracens, and their counterparts in Israel/Palestine a millennium later, battling to hold a place that may not have been holy at all (in the Murray interview, Bowie also said he was reading a “historian” who claimed that Ancient Israel was actually in today’s Saudi Arabia—I couldn’t determine who he was talking about). If the verses are a jumbled historical narrative, actors caught up in an endless cycle, time folding into itself, the chorus offers escape: salvation by collective delusion. But if you pray, all your sins are hooked upon the sky, Bowie sings, in his best line of the song. Pray away your enemies, pray away your sins, by loving something you don’t understand, even something false, he sings. Then again, prayers sometimes work. Bowie didn’t get rid of his crucifix, after all.

Bowie had always had a soft spot for conspiracies and wild, speculative cod-histories, with “Quicksand” and “Station to Station” being compendiums of the strands of thought that the books had generated in his mind. But the strength, the uncanny power, of those earlier songs is their interiority—they are more dream journals and stream-of-consciousness fictions than they are any valid speculations on life. They are, in their gnomic ways, true, because everything is true in the mind.

Where “Alien” goes astray is its attempt to impose this sort of dream-speculative scheme upon a real, bloody political situation, especially in its weak second verse—the Middle East of 1984, with the Lebanese Civil War raging and the First Intifada only a few years away. Doing so brings Bowie’s muddled thoughts out into the sharp air, where they expire—his speculations seem trite, his viewpoint that a privileged, rich man idly wondering why people act the way they do, with the abstracted air of someone watching the convulsions of an anthill. The sympathies he has in the chorus, the way Bowie joins with the desire for prayer and release, removes some of this coldness, but there’s still a slight condescension in it.

It’s a fortunate thing in music that so much of the subconscious comes through with the melody and the placement of a particular word on a particular note. For better or for worse, the information is inherent in the song, not in the writer or his intentions or even in the lyrics. It’s probably my strongest point that I write evocatively in terms of musical and verbal expression.

Bowie, Rolling Stone interview, 1984.

“Loving the Alien” was intended as an epic, so it opens with an extended 20-bar intro sequence broken into three stages—an assembling of players, then a brief vocal hook of repeating “ah ah ah”s—inspired by Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach via Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” a song Bowie covered on stage a decade later.* Then Guy St. Onge plays the opening riff on marimba (a bit suggestive of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” from two years before), and the song coalesces with Alomar’s arpeggios set against Rojas’ bassline.

After two albums of fairly basic chord progressions, here Bowie offers a murky one worthy of Space Oddity. “Alien” has an indeterminate key. While the sheet music sets it in G major, its tonality is much vaguer—the verse fits in with G major (Bm/D/Cmaj7/D6, which is III-V-IVmaj7-V6 in G), but the chorus ranges far outside that key, with the arrival of a B-flat, a C minor and an F minor 7th, all of which suggest a move to C minor. The change fits Bowie’s lyrical shift from “earth” in the verses to “heaven” in the choruses.

Bowie’s vocal is also crafted well, with his verse lines often starting with hopeful slight ascents and then descending whenever he hits a piece of reality, a Saracen or a telegram. Or take the way he slightly lowers the high note with each repetition of “pray” or “prayer” in the chorus, as if dialing down expectations—the initial “if you PRAY” has Bowie hitting a high G (the dominant note in the C minor chord the band is playing), the subsequent “PRAY and the heathen” falls to a natural F, and “PRAYERS they hide” falls to an E. And he sings his lines well and passionately, ripping his voice on “SKY.”

But there’s a real strain in “Alien’s” construction at times: take the brutal way the pre-chorus is dragged to the chorus, with three bars of upward jolts in quintuplets. Or how the extended coda sequence, which drags on for two minutes, goes nowhere at all, just recycling the intro sequence and eventually throwing in an uninspired guitar solo.

Of course, there’s much to admire in “Alien”: it’s cryptic in the best Bowie way, and it sounds good, with Arif Mardin’s strings tasteful by the standards of Tonight, and the vocal chorus, usually a catastrophic force on the record, is put to fine use here, with the choir-sounding backing vocals. But there’s something off about “Alien”: there’s a sense of misfiring, of the song pushing for a grandiosity it doesn’t quite earn. It’s a magician not quite pulling off an old trick, though believing that the cards are still speaking to him.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec. Released as a single in May 1985 (EA 195, #19 UK)—its video, with its mix of surreal imagery (the backing band out of de Chirico paintings) and Eighties cheese (Bowie’s outfit and ur-Rick Astley dancing) sums up the song’s muddled impact. Performed during the Glass Spider tour and, in a somber reincarnation, in some of the Reality Tour shows.

* While Bowie took pains to dismiss “O Superman”‘s influence on “Alien,” saying that Glass was the only inspiration, this seems a bit too Anxiety of Influence, as “Superman” has obvious lyrical affinities with “Alien” and plays with the same themes of faith and power. Anderson’s opening lyrics (“O Superman, O Judge, O Mom and Dad”) are her play on Le Cid’s aria “O Souverain, O Juge, O Pere.” “In the opera, these words are uttered as a prayer of resignation, the hero putting his fate in God’s hands. In the Anderson song, the three O’s change meaning. First, she prays to Superman (Truth! Justice! The American Way!) but by the end she longs for Mom and Dad.” (Isaac Butler, “Here Come the Planes.”).

Top: Sibylle Bergemann, “Ohne Titel (Gummlin, Usedom),” 1984; from the series Das Denkmal (A Monument), 1975–86. (Reportedly statues of Marx and Engels, East Germany).


I Keep Forgettin’

December 9, 2011

I Keep Forgettin’ (Chuck Jackson, (prod. Leiber/Stoller) 1963).
I Keep Forgettin’ (The Artwoods, 1966).
I Keep Forgettin’ (Topmost, 1967).
I Keep Forgettin’ (The Checkmates with Sonny Charles (prod. Phil Spector), 1969).
I Keep Forgettin’ (Procol Harum, (prod. Leiber/Stoller), 1975).
I Keep Forgettin’ (Michael McDonald, 1982).
I Keep Forgettin’ (Bowie, 1984).

In 1963, Smokey Robinson warned Chuck Jackson that his new single, “I Keep Forgettin’,” was too ahead of its time to be a hit. Robinson was right: it only reached #55 in the pop charts. But “Keep Forgettin’ ” was a magnificent track, one of the great later compositions of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and one of their most radical productions. (It’s arguably one of Leiber and Stoller’s challenges to the rise of Burt Bacharach and Hal David).

It wasn’t just Leiber’s typically clever lyric (in the first verse, the subjects of the action are typically passive objects, like feet and fists, with the singer reduced to a set of motor functions) or Stoller’s unusual song structure, with its varying tempos and times (bars of 2/4 slamming into cut-time 4/4 bars) and its wrong-way round construction, with the chorus backing into the verses.* The entire production of the track seemed intended to put the listener on edge. Jackson sings the first half of the song almost entirely over percussive instruments (marimba, tambourine, shakers, toms, timpani, and piano and guitar here serve in percussive roles) with only a few touches of harmonic ones: brief horn responses, barely-heard strings, dashes of accordion. (It’s an ancestor to Amerie’s “1 Thing.”) It makes Jackson sound like he’s standing alone, trying to keep his balance. Sure, the backing singers give him temporary assistance, the horns take over a chorus to give him relief. But the overall feel is of a man unmoored, one at the mercy of random elements.

Leiber was so delighted by what he, Stoller and Jackson had done that he performed a wild dance after the session, with his knees almost coming up to his chin. (as per Ken Emerson’s Always Magic in the Air). But the Jackson version was so singular, so wild and out of its era, that it didn’t reach a mass audience. Essentially uncoverable, “Forgettin’” became a cult favorite among Sixties R&B fanatics.

Not that bands didn’t try to master it: the Artwoods (a rival to the Yardbirds, its lead singer later helped found Deep Purple) put an organ in place of the accordion, giving their version some majesty, while Topmost (from Finland!) seemed a bit flummoxed by the tempo. Phil Spector, who had started out as an apprentice with Leiber and Stoller, bungled his own attempt with a Sonny Charles record that sounds as though it had been waxed onto molasses. (Leiber and Stoller later domesticated their song, producing a Procol Harum cover in the Seventies that turns “Forgettin’” into a weary soul lament—-where Jackson was at war, Gary Brooker has conditionally surrendered).

Bowie had always wanted to cover “Forgettin’.” His memory of it possibly triggered by the then-recent Michael McDonald hit that had inadvertently ripped off the song (forcing McDonald to list Leiber/Stoller as co-composers), Bowie decided to cut a version on Tonight, as he had an adept rhythm crew assembled: Guy St. Onge on marimba, Sammy Figueroa on percussion, the typically solid Omar Hakim on drums and Carlos Alomar’s in-the-pocket rhythm guitar.

The result, though, was a tacky mess. It’s Bowie taking a modernist, even avant-garde song from 1963 and bloodily reducing it to an “oldie,” hoping to create some general nostalgic vibe, having his singers overact as usual and throwing in a guitar solo that sounds like it’s being played by an automaton at a Disneyland “Old Time Rock and Roll” exhibit. Pushing up the tempo from the start and so gutting any sense of anticipation and development, Bowie seems unable to let the song breathe: it’s a party song seemingly performed at gunpoint. And where the Leiber/Stoller production still sounds sharp and fresh (the stereo mix in particular), Bowie, Hugh Padgham and/or Derek Bramble’s version now sounds terribly dated, with the gated tom fills and the usual malice from the Borneo Horns.

Toxic album filler, “Forgettin’”‘s placement on Tonight (the second-to-last song on the B side) made it the last straw for listeners who had somehow endured the record to that point.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec.

*Addendum: Leiber and Stoller’s occasional collaborator Gilbert Garfield is also credited as a writer on “Keep Forgettin’.” Garfield was a singer, a member of the Cheers, and so may have been responsible for the vocal melody and other pieces of the song.

Top: Ted Barron, “Dog Man of the Lower East Side, First Avenue, New York, NY, 1984.” One nice thing about reaching the mid-Eighties in this survey is that I can begin showcasing the work of my friend Ted Barron. Ted has just co-produced a book with Drew Hubner called East of Bowery: it’s very much worth your while.


Blue Jean

December 7, 2011

Blue Jean.
Blue Jean (alternate video).
Jazzin’ For Blue Jean.
Blue Jean (12″ remix, Jellybean Benitez).
Blue Jean (live, 1987).
Blue Jean (live, 1990).
Blue Jean (live, 2004).

You can’t take me on my own. You can only use me as a form of reference.

David Bowie, interview, 1984.

“Blue Jean,” the only track to escape the morass of Tonight, was written off as a cheap score by its creators. Hugh Padgham regretted that of all the promising demos he’d heard, “Blue Jean” was one of the handful that Bowie developed. It was Padgham’s least favorite of the lot. Padgham had always wanted to work with Bowie; cruel fate assigned him Tonight (it’s like a lifelong Hitchcock fan collaborating on Topaz).

And Bowie didn’t think much of “Blue Jean” either—it was the single, it got him on the radio again and let him do a slapstick extended video. It was a vehicle: he used it, he had no love for it. Bit of a sexist rock & roll thing, he later said. Music for picking up girls.

Bowie seemed mired in vague nostalgia at the time of Tonight, pining for the London of his teenage years. He liked working on the “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” video with Julien Temple because he got to play-act being caught up in London life again (he hadn’t lived there for over a decade now), and he felt Temple was part of a fresh pack. Temple, along with Alex Cox, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh, was waking up the moribund British film industry, so working with him made Bowie feel contemporary again. (Bowie soon had a role in Temple’s Absolute Beginners.)

Missing what he called the vitality of the Sixties, the smartness in dress, the sudden dominance of youth, Bowie found in Thatcherite London at least a simulacrum of it. After all, there was money, fashion, swinging parties, respectable drugs. But Sixties London also had taken its savor from working-class life and provincial imports, creating, if for a moment, a “classless” society of the young, wild and hip. Not quite the case in aspirational Eighties London, an after-hours playground for young professionals.

So “Blue Jean” is a throwback in a period of throwbacks. It’s even more retro than “Let’s Dance,” taking cues from Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else,” Sam Cooke (“somebody send me“), Sixties rock & roll (Carlos Alomar’s arpeggiated guitar in the verses has echoes of “If I Needed Someone”). Bowie’s low-pitched word-tumbling vocal in the verse suggests an uptempo Jacques Dutronc, the alto saxophonist sounds like a Georgie Fame player who’s been given a slightly longer leash. Taking Robin Clark out of the vocal chorus alters its sound, making the now-all-male backing singers sound conspiratorial and even slightly lustful.

“Blue Jean” herself is an exotic temptress out of a Frankie Laine song, or, worse, a Tom Jones track (she’s got “Latin roots”). If she has an ancestor in the Bowie catalog, it’s the original manic pixie hippie girl “Janine.”

A basic workout in D major (the slight tension in the early bars of each verse is owed to a wavering between D and a D suspended fourth), “Blue Jean”‘s chorus moves between the dominant, A major, and the mediant, F# minor—so the song is mainly keeping to the basic tones of the D chord (D, F#, A); there are no real surprises except swapping in a natural C (on “police bike”) for a sharp one. Two verses, three choruses, no bridges or solos save a four-bar Alomar riffing transition. “Blue Jean” ends just when you get sick of it.

There’s a lot of small pleasures to be found: take how Omar Hakim slightly varies the climactic drum fill at the end of each verse—first hard on the snare, then quick on the bass drum. Or Alomar’s typically crafty rhythm playing (there’s the sweet way that he lags against the beat midway through the verse (as on “always let you down when you need ‘em“)). And the marimba player Guy St. Onge makes the track, accenting Alomar’s guitar in the verses, meshing with the drums to build up to the chorus, where it plays counter-melodies to the vocals. “Blue Jean” is fun, catchy, flash; it moves well, it does its business quickly. One of the best second-rate Bowie hits.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec. Released as a single in September 1984 (EA 181, #6 UK, #8 US). The Temple-directed 20-minute “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” promotional video used the age-old “doppleganger” formula where the star plays both nerd and cool kid (for a more recent example, see Taylor Swift). Look for the Right Said Fred guy playing Bowie’s bassist, though the highlight for me is “Screamin’ Lord Byron” applying his makeup while listening to “Warszawa.”

Top: Miami police officer Tina Hicks in simulator training, November 1984. (via the fantastic If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger… blog).


Dancing With the Big Boys

December 5, 2011

Dancing With the Big Boys.
Dancing With the Big Boys (extended 12″ mix).
Dancing With the Big Boys (live, 1987).

Iggy Pop was at the Tonight sessions for about a week. Not enough time, the producer Hugh Padgham regretted, as Pop’s presence seemed to shake Bowie’s indifference to his own record. Along with sitting in on some of Bowie’s embalmings of his old songs, Pop also worked up some new material with Bowie, little of which was developed (a number of songs from Blah Blah Blah came out of these sessions, though). But at one point Pop got Bowie into the vocal booth for some free-styling. The two faced off, drank beer, began calling out lines to each other. They went at it for about eight hours while Padgham taped it all.

If there’s ever a Selected Aphorisms of Iggy Pop published, some of these lines would make the cut: Where there’s trouble, there’s poetry. Death to the trees. Nothing is embarrassing. There are too many people, too much belief. Your family is a football team.* Bowie later said it was a chance to burn through a stockpile of discarded lyrics. The underlying theme was a “little guy” overwhelmed by society, and perhaps there’s a Cold War satire buried somewhere in it, but it’s mainly just two old friends trying to trump each other.

The resulting track, “Dancing With the Big Boys,” was the closest that Tonight ventured to spontaneity: a honking, barely-melodic album filler, with Bowie and Pop chants set against the band mainly staying on an augmented A chord** (there’s a move to D major on every fourth bar, adding a slight bit of tension quickly released by the return to A). Carlos Alomar contributed something (I’m assuming the various guitar riffs that serve as a counterpart to the Pop and Bowie vocals), as he’s co-credited along with Bowie and Pop.

The obvious precedent was Pop’s “Fall in Love With Me,” another album closer/filler, another vocal booth improvisation over a static harmony. But “Fall in Love With Me” felt primal, the band seeming to take cues from Pop’s flights of thought, the song slowly growing out of itself. Had “Big Boys” just been Omar Hakim’s drums, Carmine Rojas’ bass and Alomar’s guitar, it might’ve worked as an update—Bowie and Pop’s first attempt at rap, even. Or had Bowie and Padgham gone full-out Art of Noise and stuffed the track with booms, clatters, shrieks and honks, “Big Boys” could’ve at least been a piece of its time. (This happened when Arthur Baker remixed “Big Boys” for the 12″ single, a version I enjoy more.) But there was a loss of nerve somewhere, as the backing singers appear to cheese things up, as do the Borneo horns, and while there’s some fine 1984-vintage jiggery-pokery, like the bass-deepening distortion (similar to Yello’s “Oh Yeah”) occasionally used on the title phrase, there’s far more typical Tonight glitz production overkill.

Still, “Big Boys,” even in its compromised state on the LP, had a vitality that much of Tonight lacked. Bowie realized this, telling Charles Shaar Murray that where he had grown “musical” over the past few years (trying to compose like a Fifties songwriter, he said in a cryptic aside), he was done with it, and a wild stomp like “Big Boys” was closest that he’d come to the new sound he was looking for. He would use “Big Boys” as a roadmap, as his next album would be a protest record, Bowie said.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec. Released as the B-side of “Blue Jean,” with the 12″ single having an extended remix by Arthur Baker. Performed live on the Glass Spider Tour.

* These lines seem more Iggy’s, though “too much belief” and “your family is a football team” could just as well be Bowie’s. In an interview, Bowie claimed “this dot marks your location” as his, referencing a time when he was stuck indefinitely in an NYC hotel and was staring at the fire escape map.
** The sheet music has an A-10 chord.

Top: Frances McDormand in Blood Simple (Coen/Coen, 1984).


Don’t Look Down

November 30, 2011

Don’t Look Down (Iggy Pop, 1979).
Don’t Look Down (Bowie, 1984).

At its worst, which is often, Tonight is wearying to listen to, with its frenetic overstuffed mixes; its lack of space or depth, with everything smeared together in the foreground; the sheer trebleness of it all. It’s like a revue in which everyone is hamming it up, even the stagehands. (See “Neighborhood Threat.“)

So to be fair, Bowie’s version of Iggy Pop’s “Don’t Look Down” sounds better than the average Tonight track. Whoever was responsible for the mix—Hugh Padgham or Derek Bramble—captured the low end well, giving Bramble’s six-note basslines a nice snap, and there’s a clean precision to much of the mix: take the way Sammy Figueroa’s blocks crisply accent the beat, and you can hear every breath the saxophonist draws. That said, this is an awful cover, a mild variation on the genteel vandalism Bowie did to Pop’s “Tonight.”

“Don’t Look Down” was a brooding, weird track on Pop’s underrated New Values (it was co-written and produced by former Stooge James Williamson): it’s a louche piece of nightlife, Pop muttering a survivalist’s credo for himself, something scrapped together late one night in a club he didn’t remember entering: don’t look down, because you’re standing over a pit. The bleary sentimentality is kept in check by Scott Thurston’s guitar; the Alfono Sisters are sympathetic sirens; the saxophonist’s looking for clues, or at least a way out of the room.

Bowie seemed at a loss as to how to interpret “Don’t Look Down,” settling on sub-Bryan Ferry world-weariness set to a Carnival cruiseline reggae beat. He told Charles Shaar Murray (in an interview in which Bowie seems to writing off Tonight while he promotes it) that he tried out “everything”—jazz rock, a “march”—until he chose a light reggae groove. Having Bramble in the studio, who could play “proper reggae lines” for once (uh, remember George Murray??), was an inspiration, Bowie said, adding that he found “taking energy away from the musical side of things reinforced the lyrics and gave them their own energy.”

Taking the song out of its vampirish setting, cleaning up its cocaine squalor, Bowie was left with a set of empty reassurances, polite cocktail hour murmurings and even pantomime (take Bowie’s quasi-”Jamaican” phrasing of lines like “Central Park to shanty town” or the cheery band signoff in the last bar). A limp, pointless performance, “Down” is sequenced poorly, too, as it’s a baffling segue between “Loving the Alien” and “God Only Knows” on the A side.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec.

Top: Billy Bragg, one-angry-young-man-band, New York? (see comments), 1984.


Tumble and Twirl

November 28, 2011

Tumble and Twirl.
Tumble and Twirl (12″ dance mix).

Full of the rewards he received for his work, and seemingly without noticing, he exchanged passion for sentiment, the romance of sex for a tease, a reach for mysteries with tawdry posturing and was last seen parading his riches, his fame and his smugness, a sort of hip Englebert Humperdinck…Perhaps it makes sense. When Rod Stewart was learning the game, Simon Frith has said, the goal of show business was not to become a great artist, but to spend money and fuck movie stars. If it was necessary to become a great artist in order to get the money to spend and the stars to fuck, well, Rod was willing.

Greil Marcus, on Rod Stewart.

The first thought was a live album: Serious Moonlight. Take a breath, sell a souvenir record of a bank-breaking tour, recharge. Instead, five months after going off stage, Bowie was in a ski resort in Canada, making arguably the worst album of his life.

Tonight is perhaps the least-loved #1 pop record of its era. Its popularity was momentary: front-loaded in orders and going platinum in six weeks, the record’s sales cratered once it hit the shops and people had the misfortune to hear it. Producing a Top 10 single (“Blue Jean”) and a complete flop (the title track),1 Tonight is like the scrapbag albums that labels issued in the Sixties for their second-tier acts: a hit single buried in a mire of uninspired covers and bottom-drawer originals.

Bowie later called it a “violent” sequel to his cover album Pin Ups, but that’s revisionist history: Tonight is so scatter-shot, so lacking in coherence, so impeccably rancid, that Pin Ups is a brilliant concept LP by comparison. Created, if there was any discernible reason, to sate a vague commercial demand, Tonight was conceived, recorded and issued as pure product: a Bowie record as a software upgrade, or a new edition coffee maker. Unlike any Bowie record in the past, there was utterly no reason for its existence. But Bowie, now in Rod Stewart territory, was following a clearly-burned path—put out a new record, grind a hit off it, make a flashy video, get on the cover of Rolling Stone again; sell, sell, sell again; repudiate your sins at your leisure.

The Tonight sessions were desultory by Bowie standards, dragging out for over five weeks and producing only nine releasable tracks. As with Let’s Dance, Bowie outsourced much of the music to his producers and studio guns, showing up at Le Studio to record a vocal or to throw the I Ching to determine whether a mix was finished.

Keeping to the Rod Stewart formula, Bowie had decided from the start to replicate the sound of his most recent hits, as it was what fans were expecting. But while retaining much of the Let’s Dance crew (one Simms brother, the “Borneo Horns,” the rhythm section of Carmine Rojas, Omar Hakim and Sammy Figueroa), Bowie dispensed with Nile Rodgers. Bowie had never been enamored with sidemen who got a substantial share of the credit, and more than one article had described Let’s Dance as the sound of Rodgers making Bowie relevant again.

To replace Rodgers, Bowie recruited Derek Bramble, the bassist of the British disco group Heatwave.2 Bramble was an inventive bassist but a neophyte producer—Tonight would be his first major album. As insurance (which he would need to use), Bowie got Hugh Padgham, who had just produced the Police’s massive Synchronicity, to engineer the sessions, and hired back Carlos Alomar as a sous-chef of sorts.

Bramble compensated for his lack of experience by covering his bases and second-guessing himself and his crew, asking for retake after retake of perfectly usable vocals and rhythm tracks (this was especially irritating for Bowie, master of the one- or two-take vocal). Alomar was blunt when interviewed by David Buckley: Bramble “was a nice guy, but he didn’t know jack-shit about producing.” By halfway through the sessions, Bramble was gone, with Padgham getting a battlefield promotion. Bowie asked him to salvage the record and mix it.

But by then, Padgham was frustrated by Bowie’s apparent indifference to his own material. Bowie had showed up fairly prepared for the sessions, having demoed about eight new songs (Alomar was stunned—this was the most prep work he’d ever seen Bowie do for an album), some of which were just known as track numbers. But as the sessions went on, Bowie seemed less and less inclined to work off the demos, which Padgham described as being bluesy and “raunchy” roughs, instead doing a series of covers that ranged from the explicable (the various Iggy Pop songs) to the left-field (“I Keep Forgetting”) to the baffling (“God Only Knows”).

Of the handful of original songs written for Tonight, the oldest was “Tumble and Twirl,” a collaboration between Bowie and Iggy Pop, their first in five years.

Pop had been in freefall since last encountered in this survey (“Play it Safe”). The twin commercial disasters of Soldier and Party had finished off his Arista contract; Pop seems to have intentionally ruined Party, for which he recorded bizarre dreck like “Happy Man” and covers of “Sea of Love” and “Time Won’t Let Me” (in retrospect, this really seems like the template for Tonight).

His commercial prospects shot, Pop took to the road whenever he could (Alomar joined a Pop tour in late 1981, and even by his jaded standards, Alomar was shocked at the debauchery on display (“at one point, I think [Pop] took a shit on stage right behind the speakers,” he told Paul Trynka). Things calmed briefly in 1982 with the completion of a half-decent record, the Chris Stein-produced Zombie Birdhouse, and Pop and his girlfriend Esther Friedmann went to Haiti on vacation. There Pop antagonized a local voodoo priest by dancing during a ceremony; the pair lost all of their money (Pop giving most of it away to locals), forcing Friedmann to work as a back-alley dentist’s assistant; they were nearly killed in a car crash; menacing strangers kept showing up at their house. Friedmann tried several times to get an ailing Pop off the island, with the pair failing to catch their plane in increasingly strange ways. (More in Trynka’s Open Up and Bleed).

Then in 1983, the cash began to come in. The success of Bowie’s “China Girl” brought in hundreds of thousands in royalties to Pop, who was even starting to get money from the Sex Pistols’ cover of “No Fun,” and Bowie’s excessive covering of Pop songs on Tonight (five out of nine tracks have a Pop credit), is Bowie generously extending a line of credit with no desire to be paid back.

“Tumble and Twirl” came out of a trip to Bali and Java that Pop and Bowie had taken (with Coco Schwab and Pop’s future wife, Suchi Asano) in Christmas 1983. It was a celebration of a commercial jubilee year for Bowie, a luxurious recuperation for Pop.

Described as a 50-50 composition between Bowie and Pop, “Tumble and Twirl”‘s lyric owes far more to Pop (only Iggy would’ve rhymed “dusky mulatto” and “nylons and tattoos“), while the chords suggest a typical Bowie swerve—while “Tumble” starts firmly in E minor (the only chord in the verse besides D major), the bridge unsettles things with the appearance of a G# minor (swapped in from the parallel major), and the tumbling/twirling chorus is a constant churn of D-Em-C-G.

It could have worked. The idea of pampered Westerners in a corrupted paradise, a genial visit to a Club Med in Hell, was an inspired idea for a song and had a host of worthy ancestors, from Graham Greene to the Clash’s “Safe European Home.” And a few sharp details remain in the final lyric—the locals in their Playboy and Bob Marley t-shirts, the magnate’s mansion on a Borneo hill that pipes raw sewage down to the beach, the sense that the singer, safe in his first-class seat flying home, really has seen nothing at all: “Let me rise through the cloudy above with a book on Borneo.”

You could argue “Tumble,” as a track, is a broad, exuberant parody, the producers and players bouncing off the Jimmy Buffett trademarked “island” sound, swathing the lyric in self-conscious gloss and cheer. But as “Tumble” goes on and on, it feels that few people involved in the record are really in on the joke, and that there may not be a joke at all, with the track becoming a chamber of minor horrors: the “Bor-ne-oooh” vocal tag, the badgering horns, the supper-club singing on the bridge, with Bowie showing up eight bars in, as if he’d been visiting the john. Only Alomar’s tugging, nagging rhythm guitar lines and Mark King’s bass come through with any dignity.

Recorded May 1984 at Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec.3 Released in November 1984 as the B-side of “Tonight.” The “extended dance mix,” released on the 12″ single, is a more endurable version, as some of the backing vocals are wiped.

1 In the UK and in some of Europe, “Loving the Alien” was released as Tonight‘s third single; it charted passably (#19, UK).

2 Even by the standards of Seventies rock bands, Heatwave had a lurid, violent history. Their first rhythm guitarist was stabbed to death, their original bassist was also stabbed (by a girlfriend) and left temporarily blinded and paralyzed, and the lead singer was paralyzed from the neck down after an auto accident.

3 “Le Studio” was an “environmental” studio opened in 1974 with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall (Rush cut most of their records there—footage of Rush doing “Limelight” at Le Studio was used in the promo video). Today it stands abandoned and empty, a near-forgotten casualty of indifferent time, as is much of the record industry.

Top: Brendan Haley, “Me and Dad in the Mirror, Salamanca, Spain. Summer 1984.”


Neighborhood Threat

April 4, 2011

Neighborhood Threat (Pop, 1977).
Neighborhood Threat (Bowie, 1984).

From tragedy to farce. Bowie’s version of “Tonight” is dismal, but there was at least a commercial logic to remaking it: Bowie’s cover could have been a hit, in theory. Bowie’s remake of “Neighborhood Threat,” however, is just baffling. Even by Iggy Pop’s standards, the original “Neighborhood Threat” is a bit of ridiculous street posturing—it’s basically a Blue Oyster Cult song with much dumber lyrics and worse playing. It’s salvaged in part by the dagger-thrusts of the verses’ vocal melody, though it goes a bit dull in the choruses, which end with a shrug.

Bowie’s remake likely was an act of charity. Tonight‘s producer Hugh Padham recalled that during the album sessions Bowie would reminisce about how he had “rescued” Iggy, and the excess of Pop co-compositions on Tonight (five in all) suggest that Bowie was all but sending money to Pop via Western Union. Tonight, dire as it was, was a platinum #1 record, and Paul Trynka estimated it made $100,000 or more in royalties right off the bat, a good chunk of which would be owed to Pop.

Still, Bowie could’ve covered something more appropriate than “Neighborhood Threat,” which he inflated into a wretched spectacle. Gated drums pushed so high in the mix they sound like cannon fire, backing singers who seem to have been recruited from Les Miserables auditions, cliched guitar work by the beleaguered Carlos Alomar, a synthesizer arrangement (likely by Arif Martin) that Laura Branigan would have considered too over the top. Bowie seems torn between singing it straight (and failing) and camping it up (and failing). Arguably one of the worst recordings that he made in his life.

Recorded 4-20 June 1977, Hansa, Berlin; on Lust For Life. Bowie’s remake was recorded ca. May-June 1984, Le Studio, Morin Heights, Canada.

Top: Dennis Hopper and Nicholas Ray in The American Friend, Wim Wenders, 1977.


Tonight

April 1, 2011

Tonight (Pop and Bowie, live, 1977).
Tonight (Pop, 1977).
Tonight (Bowie with Tina Turner, 1984).
Tonight (Tina Turner with Bowie, live, 1985).

This is a song about my girlfriend who’s dead! (audience cheers)

Iggy Pop, Detroit, 25 March 1977.

This entry and the next will require some time-skipping, as the songs are both Lust For Life tracks and cover versions on Bowie’s Tonight (1984), a minor record in a meager decade for him. If anything demonstrates the decline in Bowie’s judgment and taste in the mid-1980s, it’s his reworking of “Tonight,” where he turned a junkie lament into a light reggae cocktail-lounge duet with Tina Turner.

Iggy Pop’s “Tonight” seems to have come out of a stray line in “Turn Blue,” though where the latter was a rambling stream of extravagant consciousness, “Tonight” is a set of simple, common words, a eulogy in a diminished language. In the 16-bar prelude, Iggy comes home, finds his girlfriend dead, falls to his knees and cries out a song. “Tonight,” developed on stage as a climactic number during the Idiot tour, was a performance piece with a taste of the ridiculous—Pop’s opening dramatics, Bowie and the Sales brothers’ wailing wall of backing vocals. But it wasn’t camp, either: in the Detroit ’77 performance, as Pop sings the opening, Hunt or Tony Sales is caught up in the story and yells out “hey!” as if he can’t quite believe what’s happening.

The chorus, which builds from E flat to A flat via the relative minor (Cm), has the loveliest melody on Lust For Life: a repeated phrase and then a four-bar, slowly descending vocal line (“no one moves/no one talks…”) that ends on a B-flat (the last “night”). The lyric begins in shock, becomes an ode to death. There’s even the hint of a dark joke: Pop sings that he’ll love the girl to the end, which is right now, so “Tonight,” perversely, is a breakup song too.

Bowie’s primary roles on Lust For Life were as keyboardist (proud of his work on Pop’s tour, Bowie played all the piano/synthesizers himself, and there’s some charmingly shaky synth work here) and backing singer, often appearing as a distantly-mixed, octave-higher echo of Pop’s baritone. On songs like “Some Weird Sin” and “The Passenger” and here, Bowie shadowed Pop’s voice, keeping his bad dreams company, sometimes sounding like a battered conscience. On “Tonight” he (and the Sales brothers) sing the second verse along with Pop, but at a vast distance away from him, offering no consolation, just witnessing.

Bowie remade “Tonight” seven years later. He cut out the prelude and bled the song of all its nuance and desperation. The symbolism is ridiculous: Bowie, cleaned up at the height of Thatcher and Reagan, remade a song about dead junkies by quietly disposing of the body and turning the song into a dessicated reggae come-on, suitable to be piped over the PA system at a Club Med resort.

Bowie’s Tonight is essentially Pin Ups II: a record rushed out to capitalize on an uptick in Bowie’s stock, and it’s filled with uninspired cover songs (three Iggy Pop songs, Chuck Jackson’s “I Keep Forgettin’” and the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” along with a handful of new originals).

He named the record after his reworking of “Tonight,” but even at the time, interviewed by Charles Shaar Murray, Bowie all but admitted that his remake was a travesty, a concession to common tastes. Calling the original “Tonight” “such an idiosyncratic thing of Jimmy’s that it seemed not part of my vocabulary,” Bowie said he had decided to “change[ ] the whole sentiment around,” he said, adding that he’d managed to preserve a “barren feeling” in his new version.

Bowie said he ditched the dead girl in the opening because he had wanted Tina Turner to sing it with him, and suggested to Murray that Turner might have balked on singing the full lyric (which was a bit insulting to Turner, who was of built of sterner stuff: she had just covered Paul Brady’s“Steel Claw”, which has lines like “sometimes I’m contemplating suicide” and opens with a “rich bitch lying by the swimming pool”).

Worse, the new “Tonight” manages to make Tina Turner superfluous. In the Pop original, Bowie and the Sales brothers flit in and out of the song like ghosts, howling over Pop’s baritone. But Bowie sings the remake with a soft, easy croon, leaving Turner no natural entry point, so she just winds up singing over him.

The rest of the remake is just dross. The original Pop recording is fervid and tense, the band holding it together seemingly by luck and sheer force of will, with Ricky Gardiner’s guitar runs appearing like small moments of grace. In the Bowie version, Gardiner’s guitar solo is replaced by a marimba reverie, a wretched brass section, known as the “Borneo Horns,” do what they can to worsen things and even Carlos Alomar, the sole holdover from the original record besides Bowie, is a whisper of his former self.

Around the time Pop and Bowie recorded the original “Tonight,” the Kinks put out a record called “Juke Box Music.” It seems like the last Kinks song, where Ray Davies dismisses his life’s work in a few minutes. A girl sits alone listening to pop records, ignoring the boors that hit on her in a bar, and Davies calls her out as a dreamer and fool. “It’s only music,” he says incredulously, over and over again. It’s only there to dance to. The words mean nothing. It’s not real. Introducing the song on The Old Grey Whistle Test, Davies said of the song’s subject that “people like me write a lot of lyrics, and she believes it.” Sure, the scenario called back to some of Davies’ earlier dreamers, like the girl in “Oklahoma U.S.A” or the old man in “Waterloo Sunset,” but in “Juke Box Music” there’s no sympathy given to the dreamer: she’s just a figure of ridicule, as are the songs that give her her only comfort in life. The song is as bitter as it’s compelling, and heralds the Kinks’ move into boorish hard rock.

Bowie’s remake of “Tonight” has a similar combination of exhaustion and cynicism, but unlike “Juke Box Music,” it’s also flaccid. Bowie baldly had repeated the “China Girl” formula of shining up an old, weird Iggy song and trying to make it a pop hit, but “Tonight” didn’t crack the Top 40: it arguably killed off Bowie’s commercial resurgence in the US and didn’t do him any favors in the UK. (In the summer of “When Doves Cry” or Turner’s far sharper “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” it sounded old and lame.) Bowie once had played regularly for stakes. With “Tonight” he tried to scrape out a cheap score, and he failed.

Debuted ca. 1 March 1977, recorded 4-20 June 1977,  Hansa, Berlin; on Lust For Life. Bowie’s remake was recorded ca. May-June 1984, Le Studio, Morin Heights, Canada. Issued as a single in November 1984 c/w “Tumble and Twirl” (EMI EA 187, #53 US, UK, though a #1 hit in Poland). Bowie sang it with Turner on 23 March 1985, in Birmingham, UK (a performance later included on Turner’s Live In Europe).

Top: Jean Penders, “East End, London, 1977.”


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