What’s Really Happening?

January 14, 2014

99seattle

What’s Really Happening? (demo with guide melody).
What’s Really Happening? (Internet Tonight, studio footage, 1999).
What’s Really Happening? (Bowie studio vocal takes).
What’s Really Happening?

Being a pop music fan is transactional. You buy the records (well, you used to), and if you like them, you join the fan club: pay your dues, subscribe to the newsletter, and maybe you get an autographed picture in the mail, or an exclusive Christmas record, or first dibs on concert seats. If you’re a member of the fan club in good standing, you could win a contest to go backstage or have lunch with the star, or maybe his drummer. The more time and money you devote, the further you can go into the circle (but only so far). It’s a one-sided relationship seemingly designed for abuse: fan clubs milked for cash by managers; female fans sexually propositioned by roadies, bodyguards and hangers-on for backstage access.

What was hopeful about the first generation of Internet pop music fandoms was that (sometimes) both parties, fan and star, seemed to want a less exploitative relationship. BowieNet was among the brightest of the new worlds: for a relatively cheap subscription, you got a number of actual exclusives and chances to “talk” to Bowie online. And the site was serious, for a time, about keeping up its participatory half of the deal. BowieNet members got to vote on single mixes and cover art; most of all, fans competed to write a lyric for a Bowie song.

This was a gimmick: “What’s Really Happening?,” the first “Cyber Song,” with Bowie singing the fan-written lyrics in the studio while being filmed via webcam and a Lucent 360 “BowieCam.”* The webcast provided “a ground breaking “insiders view” into the studio session,” as per the breathless PR copy.

The contest ran from 2 November to 15 December 1998. Bowie claimed he read through most of the reported 20,000-25,000 entries (“there were a lot of potty ones,” he told Chris Roberts: one wag rewrote “Laughing Gnome” to make it fit Bowie’s melody, another sent in “Wind Beneath My Wings” unaltered). He found many fans contributed work in the vein of the as-yet-released ‘Hours,’ “very soul searching and angst-ridden” stuff. There were some funny contributions too, “so flip they’re almost successful, because they were written with such a lack of responsibility attached. Often things work really well when you don’t feel the pressure of having to make them good. To play at something is often more productive than earnestly striving.”

He (and BowieNet voters) narrowed the entries down to 25, then he picked a 20-year-old Ohioan, Alex Grant, as the winner. “It was impertinent, it scanned well, and it was easy to sing,” he said of Grant’s lyric. Hoping to reduce the number of “Cygnet Committee”-style rants, Bowie had offered as a template to would-be lyricists a wordless top melody rough track: three sets of four lines, mainly seven syllables each (the end phrases shortened to five). Grant’s lyric tightly fit the metrical constraints and shifted from an AAAB rhyme scheme (box/locks/clocks/mind) to an AAAA one (eyes/bye/lie/cry) to an ABAA second verse (glass/sinking/past/last).

Grant wanted the lines to question the medium that created them. “When I first logged on three years ago, [the Web] was this beautiful magic thing but after a certain amount of time I was getting stuck inside of that, my whole life became the Internet,” he said in an interview at the session. So the opening verse is a look at “virtual” life, our personae now grown inside Dell desktops or iMacs, with the natural mechanics of our bodies reduced to “outdated clocks.” This idea went a bit astray in the last verse, with its sinking glass clouds “falling like the shattered past,” though this stanza was the most Bowie-esque, with a clunky mixed metaphor that seemed derived from a cut-up.

For his troubles Grant got a $15,000 publishing contract from Bug Music, the complete Bowie catalog on CD, a $500 gift card to the internet retailer CDNow (in its last year of independent existence), subscriptions to BowieNet and Rolling Stone magazine and the raw envy of other Bowie fans.

wrhh

They’re amazing kinds of people…I’ve been through the fan sites of other artists and I’m really proud of my lot…Because it’s produced a kind of a community feel, that one doesn’t become the focus of everything all the time. It’s amazing how much you get into their lives and find out about what they’re doing and what’s interesting them other than just being part of the BowieNet site.

Bowie, 1999.

The “What’s Really Happening?” contest was reminiscent of Todd Rundgren’s No World Order, a 1993 Rundgren project in which fans were producers and engineers: you could alter the tempo of tracks, choose different mixes, make bars a capella or dub in guitar lines. You could make Rundgren’s record your own, veto his decisions. This was the Nineties’ idea of 21st Century pop: you, the fan, would help make the music; you would become an aesthetic minority shareholder of sorts.

Yet by encouraging fan participation at a lyric-writing or mixing-stage level, was the artist consigning her work to communal mediocrity, making it a slush of good intentions? Would you want to hear Something/Anything, the work of one weirdo locked in a studio playing nearly every instrument, or No World Order? Was the artist giving away too many magic tricks? The night Bowie and Grant recorded “What’s Really Happening?” BowieNet fans had a real-time comment thread as they watched the session: “Bowie’s drinking a Zima!” “What a boring song!” “Reeves is a Teletubbie” “Whoever wrote Shinin’ Star wasn’t an experienced songwriter either :)” “Coco [Schwab]: how did you get the nickname Coco?” “you haven’t missed anything except David wailing the same line incessantly“). (It’s archived here.) Imagine a live thread while Bowie and Eno cut “Warszawa” (“wtf is this in Portuguese?” “I MISS RONNO”) (cf. the Sermon on the Mount scene in Life of Brian).

It’s telling that “What’s Really Happening?” was a dead end: never again would Bowie offer this degree of fan participation. As I wrote in the BowieNet piece, Bowie now uses the Internet as a one-way distribution hub: putting out product, letting fans respond to it and hype it as they will. Where the creative fan impulse went, where the sense of community went, are the Bowie fansites on Tumblr. Occasionally something from my site gets reblogged 100 times, sending the quote or photo off into this seemingly endless run of Bowie fans, who make GIFs of his various incarnations, who write poems and limericks about him, who annotate and snark at and love him. This, as it turned out, is 21st Century fandom: not artists ham-handedly trying to make their fans Official Contributors, but fandom on its own branching off into thousands of bottle universes, forming and breaking off like atoms. It’s about as happy an ending as one could hope for.

wrh

“What’s Really Happening” as a composition and recording gets lost in these sort of discussions. So a brief consideration: it’s a basic G Dorian song whose verse melody is a Sixties mingle (2 cups “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” 1 cup “Pictures of Matchstick Men”) and whose main guitar riff comes off as a tribute to late Britpop (see Space’s “Female of the Species” or Suede’s “She’s in Fashion“). The hectoring chorus, with its glum accumulation of major chords (D-C-B-A), was among the dreariest he’d written in a decade, with Bowie reduced to recycling a line from Tin Machine’s “One Shot.” (It’s ironic that while Bowie likely kept control over the chorus to ensure his “Cyber song” at least had a hook, one wonders if Grant could’ve improved it).

Some backing tracks had been cut in Bermuda, while during the “Cyber” session in New York Reeves Gabrels cut some lead lines and Mark Plati, producing the session, did some bass overdubs (Grant and a friend, Larry Tressler, sang some backing vocals). Comparing the demo version to the final cut shows a decision somewhere along the line to clutter up the mix, perhaps in the hope of distracting from the fact that the song’s basically over at the two minute mark, with Bowie having to repeat half of the first verse and the intro (there’s a brutal cut at 2:36, suggesting they just looped the original intro) before we get to Gabrels’ outro shreddings.

Initially Bowie said “What’s Really Happening?” was going to be a Web exclusive (the contest rules didn’t specify that the track would appear on the album), but he later chose to include it on ‘Hours,‘ and fairly prominently (it was the lead-off track of Side 2 for the dwindling number of cassette buyers). Its tempo and guitars served as a good dividing point between the somber “Side 1″ songs and the “Side 2″ rockers. A time-stamped curio, “What’s Really Happening?,” more than any other Bowie track, is also the product of noble intentions.

Recorded (backing tracks) Seaview Studio, Bermuda, April-May 1999 and Looking Glass Studios, New York; (guitar and bass overdubs, lead and backing vocals) 24 May 1999, Looking Glass.

* Everything under the moon in 1997-1999 apparently had a “Bowie” prefix; you wonder if Looking Glass Studios had a “BowieLoo.”

** Bowie cracked to Roberts that “I can now nick 25,000 songs over the next few years. It’s all done for me, no prob. It’s all fitted out, I got it in a big store room. Change the odd word, nobody’ll ever know, who cares?” When Roberts joked that the songs would all have the same chorus, Bowie replied: “So what—all this shit is up in the air. Intellectual property? Don’t make me larf!

Note: I tried to track down Alex Grant for this entry, as he’s never been interviewed for any Bowie bio or magazine piece, and I thought he’d provide some fresh perspective. Given his relatively common name and a lack of Internet footprints (BMI lists him only as the co-composer of “What’s Really Happening?”) I had no luck. Mr. Grant, if you by chance read this, please contact me and I’ll put up any response/recollections you’d like to make (even if it’s “wow, your site sucks”).

Top: “Doctors With Patient,” Seattle Municipal Archives, 1999; “What’s Really Happening” BowieNet page, 1999 (captured via Wayback Machine).


We All Go Through

January 9, 2014

99japan

We All Go Through.
We All Go Through (Omikron end credits).

“We All Go Through” and “What’s Really Happening?,” particularly when heard back-to-back, can seem like Bowie’s Pepsi challenge: which is the “real,” which is the “impostor” song? Each track could be the work of an outside lyricist writing in the voice of Bowie; each feels like a synthetic recreation of “the Sixties” as processed through the late Eighties.

“We All Go Through,” with its sturdy E major structure, its skip-rope verse melody and easy rhymes, is the happier-sounding of the pair. Even Reeves Gabrels, who plays the most restrained solo of his recorded life with Bowie, seems in gentle spirits (Gabrels later claimed he’d written much of its music as a potential instrumental track on his solo record). The grim “lunarscape” of the verses, cities of Mammon and noise, bows to the communal bliss of the choruses, with their confident strides up from C major to E major (“right in the noooooow”).

It worked as the payoff song for Omikron: the Nomad Soul, a victory lap for gamers who’d knocked off all the villains and got to return home to their world. Lifted out of the game narrative, the lyric became more troubling: the shuffle of words in the refrain turned the cliche rock lullaby of “we’ll be all right” into “we’ll ALL be right”: no compromise with or acceptance of another’s view needed—we pass into heaven as our righteous selves. “We are the morning song,” Bowie promises, a possible nod to Lucifer, “son of the morning,” which makes one wonder just exactly we’re all going through to become. (“‘Dog’ (a scrambled God) is in every word,” Bowie also offers.)

It’s one of the ‘Hours’-era tracks most hobbled by the relative cut-budget production (“Sowing the Seeds of Love“-era Tears for Fears did this stuff better): the synthesizers masked as a string section make the “faux psychedelic chantin’ drone” (Bowie’s description of the song) a bit watery. There are pleasures in the mix: the jabbing Bowie harmony vocals in the later verses (“hooouur by hoouuur” he tolls like some distorted bell), the little bass hook Mark Plati develops in the outro, the crisp acoustic work (by either Bowie or Gabrels). But “We All Go Through” comes off as being trapped in an interim state: there’s a grander song in here somewhere.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs (Plati’s bass) at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Released 20 September 1999 on the “Thursday’s Child” CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96265 2 0) and later included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours.’

Top: Toshichika Goto, “Tokyo, 1999.”


The Dreamers

January 2, 2014

99paris

The Dreamers.
The Dreamers (instrumental).

Of all the closing tracks of all the Bowie albums, “The Dreamers” is the most cynical: it’s a finale as if scripted by a committee of fans. So you have Bowie in his imperious croon for essentially the entire track, dropping references to old obscurities (“Shadow Man“) and old classics (“Sweet Thing,” in the “these are the days, booooys” line) in a lyric—a sky is both “flame-filled” and “vermillion”—that comes off as a gross approximation of his old apocalyptica.

It’s an attempt to twine the two strands of ‘Hours’—video-game dark theatrics and middle-aged life laments. So “The Dreamers” is the name of Bowie’s band of musical insurrectionists in Omikron: The Nomad Soul and could be the title of some photo retrospective of the lost counterculture (although the Bertolucci movie of the same title came out after it). The song refines each strain until achieving a shining mass of dullness. Scott Walker’s in there as well, of course: the way Bowie sings “as the darken falls” is straight Climate of Hunter-era Scott. But this is the thinnest of the Bowie/Walker connections, with Walker here a parody figure, a man embodying his worst affectations (was the whole song a spoof on Walker? Bowie trying, and failing, to exorcise an old ghost?)

If you were to mount a defense of “The Dreamers,” you could offer the song’s acerbic harmonic structure, fashioned almost entirely from flat and sharp chords, and its few subtle musical cues, like the nod to T. Rex’s “Jeepster” in the bridges (and its not-so-subtle ones, like the keyboard/guitar line filched from Genesis’ “Follow You Follow Me.”) And despite generally singing as a carbon of himself, Bowie still manages some striking moments—the final runs of “dreamers” have some blood in them. I tried, but I can’t see this as anything other than a sad failure. It’s the sort of music that one would expect from an art rock singer post-fifty: a piece that relies on its audience’s sunnier memories and indulgences to make up for that fact that, to quote James Brown, Bowie’s talking loud and saying nothing.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. There was a slightly different and slightly longer (just an extended outro) mix used on the Omikron game and later included on the 2004 ‘Hours‘ reissue.

Top: Igor Mukhin, “Paris, 1999.”


If I’m Dreaming My Life

December 31, 2013

rushmore

If I’m Dreaming My Life.
If I’m Dreaming My Life (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
If I’m Dreaming My Life (only live performance, 1999).

“If I’m Dreaming My Life” wasn’t just the longest track on ‘Hours’: it was one of the longest studio recordings that Bowie made in his life. Its contemporaries (length-wise) were epics and scene-changers: “Station to Station,” “Width of a Circle,” “Cygnet Committee,” “The Motel,” “Memory of a Free Festival,” the upcoming “Bring Me the Disco King.” If Bowie songs were comic books, these would be the Jack Kirbys. So when considered in this grand company, “If I’m Dreaming My Life” comes off as aridly grandiose.

On ‘Hours,’ though, its odd structure (four verses broken up by guitar solos, the second and last verses given tagged-on refrains, and a three-minute bloodletting of a coda) and its occasionally disconcerting chord progressions* gave it a presence, if a blank one, on the album: it’s an empty quadrant of the map. “Dreaming My Life” seems half-finished at times—Bowie sings emotive “ooohhhs” in lieu of words; the second guitar solo appears to have started as a parody of “Under the Bridge” and hardly developed further. Nothing pans out; the timing’s off. Lights fade. A father “steps aside/at the wrong time:” a bungled bit of wedding stagecraft—a father giving the bride away too soon—or the bitter thought of an estranged husband: he shouldn’t have given her away at all? Or the line “was it air she breathed?”: it’s a man seeming to fancy, like four hundred songwriters before him, that his lover seems scarcely human. Then he concludes the line with another “at the wrong time.” She wasn’t as much perfect as poisoned.

Though demoed and partially tracked in Bermuda, “If I’m Dreaming My Life” was completely remade once Bowie and Reeves Gabrels returned to New York for overdub and mixing sessions. Former Rollins Band guitarist Chris Haskett was recruited to play rhythm guitar; he’s echoed, in places, by a stabbing keyboard line. Mark Plati and Mike Levesque, perhaps energized by playing “live” on the backing track instead of cutting their typical overdubs, provide one of the more supple foundations on the album. Plati’s bass is the lead melodic voice of the intro, while his roaming fills in the coda are a counter-melody to Bowie’s static refrain; Levesque, charged with flooring life into the song in the refrain verses, serves as a gravity well (for all its faults, ‘Hours’ has some of Bowie’s more dynamic-sounding drum tracks).

The song’s bid for “greatness,” or at least to hold its head up among the likes of “Station to Station,” is Bowie’s performance in the coda. It’s a simple conceit: he tries to complete a single phrase yet hardly seems able to make the effort (often he’ll just get out a “dreaming my….” before stumbling back to the start); it’s a man reduced to his voice. Beginning with keyboards masked as a horn/wind quartet (in the song’s few live performances, this role was assumed by Mike Garson’s “church” organ chords), the coda gains fresh dimensions whenever Bowie manages to finish the phrase: a distorted, chiming guitar; a choir of secondary Bowies; the melodic generosity of Plati’s bass. If it’s a triumph, it’s a barren one. Compared to the imaginative density of a “Station” or “Width of a Circle,” “Dreaming My Life” seems like an abandoned outpost of some crumbling empire.

Recorded ca. May 1999, Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Performed on VH1 Storytellers and once live, at Libro Music Hall, Vienna, 17 October 1999.

* The verses are basically in G minor, though a motivic chord sequence—found in the intro, refrain tags and coda—is Gm-Eb-C-F-D, suggesting a move to the parallel major. There’s a quintessential odd Bowie progression in the first round of the coda, where a C-sharp major chord crops up where the ear expects (by now) C major (the first “dreaming my…”).

Top: Rushmore (Anderson, 1998).


Xmas Grab Bag

December 23, 2013

Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy.
Feed the World/The Snowman.
Peter and the Wolf.

Well, I’d hoped to get through one more song before the new year but it’s likely not going to happen. Christmas has crept upon us rather without warning. This is a suitable end to the slowest-paced year of this blog’s short life. Where in fleeter days, I made it through The Man Who Sold the World through the end of Station to Station in a year, in 2013 I made it from Leon/Outside through…about half of ‘Hours.’ The main culprit has been this brick of pages as shown here, which should be ready for public consumption fairly soon.

Please have a fine holiday and thanks for sticking around. I greatly appreciate, as always, all commenters and anyone who’s had a kind word to say about this project (whose final year could be 2014—we’ll see how it goes. If Bowie puts out another album……)

All best,

C.O.


Something In the Air

December 16, 2013

99riotponcho

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

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

Ray Gosling, Sum Total, 1962.

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

Bowie, Uncut interview, 1999.

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

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

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

gos

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

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

the-limey

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

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

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

tn

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

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

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

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

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

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


We Shall Go to Town

December 3, 2013

tokyo99

We Shall Go to Town.

In spirit (or actually?) a relic from the Outside sessions, the intriguing “We Shall Go to Town” was left off ‘Hours,’ perhaps because its somnolent eeriness didn’t fit the record’s thematic arc (dimness to brightness, like the settings of an oven lamp). Its consignment to B-side status is a shame, particularly as Bowie gave another B-side on the same CD single (“We All Go Through”) a similar title, so that “We Shall Go to Town” can get jumbled up in recollection.*

Built of crablike movements between B-flat major and E-flat minor chords (established via a wavering-sounding keyboard bed), the song overlays sets of competing rhythmic lines: Mark Plati’s fretless bass, singing the same rising eight-note line throughout; Mike Levesque’s agitated shuffle, like a heart murmur conveyed via snare, low toms and hi-hat; the brittle guitar figure played by Reeves Gabrels that appears in the latter halves of verses and in refrains (panned right to left) as if Gabrels is gently interrogating the song. Bowie’s vocal has a physicality in it: he breaks each verse and refrain down to sets of four or five stressed syllables, the last of which he’ll often drag across a bar like a strand of taffy (“deliiiight,” “forgehhhht,” “the foooooool”); for further gravity, he applies phasing to some phrases, giving the sense that he’s singing in slow motion, and double-tracks a few lines at the octave. One starting point for the song could be Bowie’s old sparring partner Iggy Pop, whose “Mass Production” rattles in its bones.

Lyrically “We Shall Go to Town” suggests a reflection on old campaigns in the pop music world (“follow the lights/stay on the outside”); its title line, and a few other scattered phrases, offers that “going to town,” i.e., engaging a wider public, remains a worthy battle, even if it’s with demons. The alternative is stagnation, nostalgia, death: “only the fool turns around.” But the lyric’s vagueness makes any attempt at analysis a rum game. The track’s as much concerned with the flavor of Bowie’s low register, the sonic texture of his alliterations and consonant rhymes (delight/forget, bring your things), how his voice works as a member of a murmuring ensemble.

Then there’s Gabrels. His 16-bar solo, one of the few high-skronk moments he was allotted in his last round of Bowie co-compositions, begins with a crunching bend of strings, then he seems to stall out. Again there’s a tortured-sounding chord, again silence. A wail trails off, then another. You realize the solo is becoming a series of perpetual starts. Once you do, Gabrels finally offers some linking phrases, three consecutive down-shifting chords and a shriek of strings that simulates a machine in the act of pulping itself. Satisfied, he hounds Bowie through the last verse and refrain.

Their interplay in the song’s last minute, Bowie precisely droning his lines, Gabrels sounding as if he’s boring through metal (his old favorite “boiling teakettle” noise returns), is the sound of two men who know each other’s next dream; it’s not a dialogue as much as it’s an acceptance of roles, an interchange of moods. Call it maturity, for lack of a better word; they broke up soon afterward.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs (Plati’s bass) at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Released 20 September 1999 on the “Thursday’s Child” CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96265 2 0) and later included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours.’

* Among those confused appear to have been Bowie’s label (or perhaps even the man himself), which listed the track as “We Shall All Go to Town” on the CD single.

Top: Junpei Yoshimura, “Tokyo, 1999.”


Brilliant Adventure

November 26, 2013

all the way to memphis

Brilliant Adventure.

‘Brill’ is a luverly instrumental, again with koto, that Reeves and I did in the front room in Bermuda,” Bowie recalled in a web chat. Considered as incidental music for an Omikron game sequence, “Brilliant Adventure” wound up sequenced on ‘Hours’ as an ampersand between sturm (“New Angels of Promise“) and drang (“The Dreamers”).

As with other ‘Hours’ tracks, “Brilliant Adventure” is echo-music, here of “Moss Garden,” Bowie’s koto piece on “Heroes” (which itself echoed Edgar Froese’s “Epsilon in Malaysian Pale,” as commenter Gnomemansland noted). “Moss Garden” had ambition (an attempt, successful or not, to interweave “Western” and “Eastern” soundscapes) and fearlessness: it was the work of a man seemingly intent on becoming an inspired amateur again, plucking the strings of an instrument he could scarcely play. The piece kept opening up as it went on, disclosing new perspectives as it wandered.

By comparison, “Brilliant Adventure” is a tiny ship corked in a tiny bottle. It begins with an eight-bar sequence: over a bed of synthetic chimes and a (soon-diminishing) repeating bass note, its only melody is a descending five-note koto and synthesizer “flute” line that, with a chord change, diminishes to solitary koto. First seeming to wane, the koto rallies to tidily close with a four-note rising figure, ending back on the opening note. The synth flute, freed from the shackles of the top melody, indulges a few notes and then quietly seizes control of the piece, whose tempo suddenly slows to a crawl.

At 42 seconds, the track ends; it’s reborn a moment later. The entire sequence repeats, with barely any variation. Again, there’s an ending; again, a stubborn resurrection. This rebirth proves too much: midway through the first eight-bar sequence, the track finally, gracefully expires. Life, as it turns out, isn’t quite worth the effort after a few rounds.

Recorded late 1998, Bowie’s house, Bermuda?; May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda? with overdubs at Chung King Studios and Looking Glass Studios, New York.

Top: “Zerokra,” “Memphis, 1999.”


No One Calls

November 20, 2013

99wallingerecce

Awakened 2.
No One Calls.

Of all the tracks issued under the general ‘Hours’ banner, “No One Calls,” stuffed away on the “Thursday’s Child” CD single, seems the most likely candidate to have emerged from one of Bowie and Brian Eno’s lost Outside sequel sessions. It was as though Bowie assembled the track with the intention of recapturing the dark murmurings of “Wishful Beginnings.”

This could well be true. What’s also true is that Bowie raided the Labyrinth soundtrack for the song: Nicholas Pegg’s argument that “No One Calls” is in part a rewrite of Trevor Jones’s “Thirteen O’Clock” is pretty undeniable (the melodic line of “no-body-calls” is essentially the first synthesizer melody in the Jones piece). And “No One Calls” also appears, in instrumental form, as a piece of incidental music in the Omikron video game, listed in the CD sequencing as “Awakened 2.”

Further, it’s as “plastic” a track as “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” only here the reference book isn’t the glam years or Tin Machine rawk but the tasteful “European” Bowie, the Bowie of Side 2 of Low and “Heroes,” the minimalist of Buddha of Suburbia, with Bowie using a vintage 1980s drum machine, the Roland TR-707, as the track’s chassis.

Not that this is a bad thing: Bowie in austere self-parody mode can still work small wonders. “No One Calls” (an odd title, as Bowie actually sings “nobody calls” throughout) is one of the subtlest and more intriguing pieces to emerge from the ‘Hours’ period. The fragmented lyric, which Bowie sings in his sad Pierrot voice via loose, four- and five-syllable lines (and echoed, per usual, by distorted ghost voices), can be read in a host of ways: as an isolated, depressed person’s internal monologue; as the thoughts of someone facing the repercussions of something horrific they’ve done (why does no one call anymore? why is the singer having to be photographed?). It could even be post-apocalyptic: counting the windows (left unshattered); nobody phones anyone at all (because there are no phones, or people, left).

Built over a twinned eerie repeating keyboard melody, one strain of which seems to have crept out of a Dario Argento horror film, and with a processed Reeves Gabrels guitar, sounding like an Indian esraj, that echoes, then pilfers the top melody (and which soon divides into two competing lines) “No One Calls” seems to be building to a climax but instead loses heart, with Bowie left to repeat his last doleful “not at alls” as the track slowly fades away into synthetic rainfall.

Recorded ca. January-February 1999, London; poss. May 1999, Seaview Studios, with overdubs at Chung King Studios and Looking Glass Studios. Released 20 September 1999 as a B-side of various “Thursday’s Child” CD singles (Virgin 7243 8 96268 2 7/VSCDT 1753) and offered as a freebie to fans who downloaded the album via Liquid Audio; later included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours.

Top: Mark Wallinger, Ecce Homo, 1999 (displayed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square; another angle here).


The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell

November 18, 2013

99eminbed

The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Omikron: The Nomad Soul (Stigmata mix)).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (TOTP, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Late Show with David Letterman, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (live, NetAid, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Musique Plus, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (TVE 2, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (live, 1999).

Then there’s “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.” That’s not a song, that’s a CV.

Ha ha! That was really dangling a carrot, wasn’t it?

Bowie, Q interview, October 1999.

Rock as put-down or stand-up, “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” began as a guitar riff that Reeves Gabrels cut in 20 minutes in February 1999, then earmarked the developing track for his solo album. In May, during the ‘Hours’ sessions in Bermuda, Bowie came up with a vocal; soon afterward in New York, Mark Plati added what he called a “boneheaded” bassline. Soon enough Bowie claimed the song, considering it a likely single, a good fit for a section of the Omikron video game “where they want[ed] something more rambunctious” and a potentially hot live piece.

He could have called it something like “The Dirty Things Are In Your Face” and let the track sink or swim by its own merits. Instead he impishly made it a reference/homage to (take your pick) the Stooges’ “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell,” the band the Pretty Things, the Bo Diddley song which named said band, the two Pretty Things songs that Bowie covered on Pin Ups, Tin Machine’s “Pretty Thing” and his own.

Upon the album’s release, Bowie kept throwing out scenarios: it was like he was playing a game of charades with his song. In interviews (and on stage at the Roseland in 2000) he called the song a take-off (or “put-down”) of the early glam era. And talking to Chris Roberts for an Uncut feature, Bowie said he’d been inspired by Evelyn Waugh’s “bright young things” from Vile Bodies, itself the impetus of “Aladdin Sane.” “I think their day is numbered,” Bowie said of Waugh’s lovelies. “So I thought, well, let’s close them off. They wore it well but they did wear themselves out, y’know, there’s not much room for that now. It’s a very serious little world.” So “Pretty Things” was a coda for the pre-millennial blues of Outside: a world, hardening and shrinking, that has no space left for the glamsters and assorted fops who’d made the 20th Century remotely tolerable.

The interpretation Bowie offered that struck closest to home, though, was that “Pretty Things” was a comedy song: rock ‘n’ roll as a creaky burlesque. It was a dig at his current status and what had become of a once-“revolutionary” music at the end of the century. Picking through his career in a SPIN interview at the time, Bowie said “I wasn’t sure if I was doing songs or stand-up. Not that I minded. There’s a British thing where rock singers and comedians are envious of each other’s careers.” (True, that: how many rockers wished they were as cool as Peter Cook?).

Bowie complained to Addicted to Noise‘s Gil Kaufman that reviewers had bungled his favorite pun in the song, writing that he was moaning “life’s a bitch and then you die” when he actually was singing “life’s a bit and sometimes you die.” It’s stand-up! I wrote a song about stand-up! he snapped. You can go further on this line: what’s a stand-up routine but a man standing center-stage, trying to convert an indifferent, even hostile crowd of strangers to his side? It was a reminder that Bowie’s greatest achievement of the Nineties wasn’t the would-be concept albums or the hip collaborations. He had remade himself into a formidable live performer, and without using the crutch of nostalgia. “Pretty Things” may have been a spoof, but the few times he played it on stage in 1999 and 2000 it had a pushy, boisterous life in it.

pt

What would have furthered the sense of “Pretty Things” being a dark comic send-up is if Bowie hadn’t scrapped its Dom & Nic-helmed video, shot in September 1999. Bowie hired Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to design four puppets (allegedly for £28,000): the dress-wearing neo-Pre-Raphaelite of Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and the Scary Monsters Pierrot (the latter two just turned up in the “Love Is Lost” video). In the video, the “current” Bowie was stalked and battered by the puppets of his past lives. In an on-line chat in October 2000, Bowie said he killed the video because “the puppets wound up looking like puppets” and thus failed to achieve the intended “Eastern European” vibe that Dom and Nic rather tediously had wanted. Admitting that parts of the video were “downright funny,” Bowie said he expected the video to leak: so far, it hasn’t.

Then there’s the song itself, a rock ‘n’ roll dunce-show where everything’s kept at meathead level: the barely-there C major progression that nods out on an F major chord for the entire verse and pre-chorus (the only spice is an A-flat chord swapped in from the parallel minor in the chorus (“don’t know why,” “just can’t tell”)); Gabrels’ lead riff is essentially a bend and release of a single string, tarted up with various artificial harmonics, while his thudding verse power chords are panto heavy metal—it’s like a shiver of sharks traveling in formation. His two solos are confined to corners of the mix, scribbles in the margins. Plati described his bassline as being “low and ugly and simple—and perfect” (“it’s harder to do than you think—it’s always easier to play loads of things,” he told David Buckley.) Only Mike Leveseque, under the influence of a Keith Moon biography he’d read recently, isn’t playing in quotations. His drumming, agitated with tambourine in the choruses and by cowbell during Gabrels’ breaks, keeps the track honest, punishing each beat. When he sneaks in the occasional fill, it’s like getting a punch in the ribs.

As a studio track, “Pretty Things” goes on far too long (the single edit mercifully crops a bridge repeat) and its mix grows progressively cluttered and wearying on the ear, especially once Bowie starts double-tracking his lead vocal with zombified, distorted voices. There are some subtle puns and occasional wit in the lyric (the singer’s looking for a dance partner on a wild Sunday night) but there’s also some portentous hooey (“I am a dragon, I am the sky…what is eternal, what is damned“). Back in his glam years, Bowie had said he made “plastic” rock ‘n’ roll and soul music, but his bands had been too alive, too irreconcilable, to merit the label. Here, making a hard rock preset track for video games and horror movies, he made as good on the claim as he ever would.

Recorded February 1999, London; May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass and Chung King Studios. A different “Pretty Things” (essentially the same track given a dreadful, murky mix, with an occasional sub-Nine Inch Nails loop for variety) was issued on 24 August 1999 on the Stigmata soundtrack, though perversely another mix (jacked up in tempo) was used in the actual film (both tracks are on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours’); the Omikron: Nomad Soul “performance” is the Stigmata soundtrack version. An edit of the “Hours” “Pretty Things” was issued as the album’s lead-off single in Japan and Australia, and as a promo-only CD single in the US. The live NYC version linked above (from the Kit Kat Club, 19 November 1999) was included on the “Seven” single. (Bless the Illustrated DB Discography for making sense of this one.)

Top: Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998-1999; “Pretty Things” US promo CD.


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