The King of Stamford Hill

April 19, 2012

The King of Stamford Hill.

If you do what I do—play out of tune, stretch time signatures, make noise—people assume you’re an idiot. Because no one would want to play out of tune, right? So I needed the firepower to say, “OK, this is what I could do if I wanted to wear a Lacoste shirt and chinos like you.” If I wanted to play on baked bean commercials, that’s what I’d do. I’m already past that. I’m working on my vision, dammit. It might not be a good one, but it’s mine.

Reeves Gabrels, 2000.

Has anyone ever had a hard word to say about Mick Ronson? Who has ever knocked Carlos Alomar? Even Tony Visconti remains generally unimpeachable. Not so Reeves Gabrels, the last major Bowie collaborator, who has never shaken the reputation in some quarters as being a garish usurper.

Gabrels worked with Bowie, off and on, for eleven years: his tenure is nearly as long as Alomar’s and Gabrels’ influence on Bowie’s work is arguably greater. No other Bowie “sideman” co-wrote two entire records with him (Earthling and Hours). Gabrels embodied Bowie’s desperate Nineties, whether dressed in Prada suits or kilts and boas. Brought in as a professional agitator, he stayed on throughout the decade, shrouding Bowie albums in noise, eviscerating classic Bowie guitar riffs on stage. For solos, he played his custom-made guitars with a vibrator, he smeared cake icing on their strings. Sometimes he’d unplug his guitar and screech together a solo via the jackplugs.

He was outrageous, he was indulgent, he was loud, he was vital, he was tasteless. He was Bowie’s liberated id, throwing sonic tantrums on stage; he was Bowie’s cold-blooded intelligence service, forever keeping abreast of the trends. He saved Bowie from a life of middle-aged mediocrity, he made Bowie look ridiculous. More than anything else, he was an unknown: his future bandmates the Sales brothers, during the first Tin Machine rehearsals, wondered aloud who the hell the guitarist was. Gabrels was indisputably a latecomer, and there’s always a measure of scorn reserved for those who arrive when the show’s past its prime (see Tara King or John Major). But Gabrels took pride in where he fell. Irreverent, aggressively dedicated to his sonic obsessions, he acted like a man who had no sense of, no use for, history.

In Bowie’s pre-Tin Machine work, Gabrels’ closest analogue is Robert Fripp, whose skronking guitar work on”Fashion” can seem a curtain-raiser for the Gabrels years. The comments for that entry demonstrate how Fripp’s playing on “Fashion” can still irritate, three decades on. Did the guitar noisily ruin the track, or did it give it frisson, turning a basic dance-rock song into something more disturbing, with bite and piss? It’s the fundamental question of the Gabrels era.

Gabrels was born on Staten Island, NYC, in 1956. His father worked on tugboats, his mother was a typist. While self-taught on the guitar, Gabrels considered himself a visual artist, enrolling in the Parsons School of Design in 1974. Studying painting just made him want to play music. So he left Parsons for Berklee, then dropped out in 1981 to make a go at being in a rock band.

It was the height of Boston’s punk scene, the era of The Neighborhoods, La Peste, the Lyres, the Nervous EatersMission of Burma, The Dark, Rubber Rodeo (Gabrels would play in editions of the latter two). It was that rare bird, a viable local scene, in which Boston indie musicians could hack out a meager living by playing a solid regional circuit which included the still-standing Paradise or the late, lamented Rathskeller, which my old university conquered and razed, then built a swank hotel over its bones.

Gabrels soon got notice for his drive to constantly, radically alter his guitar’s tone. He recalled how once he was rehearsing in someone’s kitchen when electromagnetic interference from the refrigerator motor began channeling through his Stratocaster’s pickups and chorus pedal. It was a revelation. Another time in 1984, opening for the Neighborhoods, Gabrels had forgotten most of his gear except for a single distortion pedal, and spent his set wringing dissonant tones from his guitar via pull-offs and distorted harmonics. His bass player complimented him afterward for his new effects and harmonizer programs. (“I thought, “Why am I carrying all this stuff around if I can fool my own bass player without it?” Gabrels recalled in 2000.)

Gabrels began to favor newer-make guitars, arguing that when a guitarist plays a Fender or a Strat, it’s a constant battle not to be mired in nostalgia. (“Playing instruments that don’t have cliches defined on them keeps me from playing licks from 1952,” he once said). In the late Eighties, Gabrels’ main guitar was the “headless” Steinberger, while in the Nineties he favored the lightweight Parker Fly.

So Bowie saw Gabrels as an advocate of the New, a man apparently oblivious to musical history and to “good taste,” and at times seemingly disinterested in the interplay of a band. As he would with the Sales brothers’ truculence and lack of nuance, Bowie considered Gabrels a raw, disruptive force that he could channel. Bowie wasn’t looking to form a band as much as he wanted a set of inspired, violent competitors.

Gabrels met Bowie on the American leg of the Glass Spider tour. Gabrels’ wife, Sara Terry, was a journalist at the Christian Science Monitor. After writing a grueling series of articles about child prostitution, she needed a break and so became Bowie’s press agent for a few months. Gabrels accompanied her on the tour, and Bowie came to enjoy his company. Though Gabrels had been in a Bowie cover band in high school, and while only a few months before Glass Spider he’d played in the Bowie-besotted band Life on Earth, he didn’t even tell Bowie that he played music. Instead he kept Bowie’s magpie mind occupied, whether arguing about painters or watching Fantasy Island with the sound switched off so that Bowie and Gabrels could make up their own dialogue.

Bowie only learned that Gabrels was a guitarist when, at the end of the US leg of the tour, a departing Terry (she and Gabrels were moving to London) handed him a cassette compilation of Gabrels’ various Boston bands. Back home in Switzerland after the end of the tour, Bowie found the tape in a coat pocket, played it and liked what he heard. He began recommending Gabrels for session work, setting him up with Alan Winstanley, who used Gabrels on Sandie Shaw’s Hello Angel and had him play sitar and mandolin on a reunited Deaf School album. And one afternoon in May 1988, Gabrels came home after having walked around London pasting up flyers for one of his few regular sources of income, guitar lessons, and got a phone call from Bowie. He naturally assumed it was a gag until Bowie mentioned Fantasy Island.

Bowie had agreed to be part of a La La La Human Steps dance routine at the ICA in London and to re-record “Look Back In Anger” for the backing music. He’d been listening to Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth and wanted his remade “Anger” to sound as though it had been carved out of a wall of guitars. While Bowie had already recruited his usual go-to team of Kevin Armstrong and Erdal Kizilcay, he wanted a thicker, more violent, massed guitar assault. He invited Gabrels to come out to Switzerland and work on the revision.

As he had with Nile Rodgers a half-decade before, Bowie, once Gabrels arrived at his house in Switzerland, gave him a walking inventory of his current obsessions. These now included: a yen for loud guitar music (Hendrix and Zeppelin bootlegs, Branca and his various offshoots, electric bluesmen like Buddy Guy, and Bowie’s new love, the Pixies); a gorgeous, decadent cookbook co-authored by Salvador Dali and his wife Gala;  and heaps of books on medieval and deconstructivist architecture (the latter had a then-contemporary exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art). Bowie rattled on about flying buttresses and what he considered their descendants, the exposed structures of the likes of Centre Pompidou, and tied this to the “cathedrals of sound” that he heard in Branca and Sonic Youth. In Gabrels’ playing, Bowie said he found something similar—guitar solos that were ornamental, not fitting properly into the harmonics and melody of a song, but still being essential to the song’s support, along with a fascination with breaking down a guitar’s tones into the discrete elements of amplified sound.

Gabrels wound up staying in Montreux for weeks, and he returned after the Bowie/Human Steps “Look Back in Anger” in July 1988 (Bowie would perform the routine once more in the US, in September). He and Bowie drove down to Mountain Studios every morning, worked on demos and sounded out ideas, then went home for dinner and Fawlty Towers. Gabrels had no ties to Bowie’s past, had no connection with EMI, and had seemed disinterested in music when Bowie first met him. He was the first collaborator who Bowie had known as a friend first. So Bowie confided in him. He was lost. He felt obligated to write hits but no longer had the knack for it: he was already regretting Never Let Me Down. He couldn’t imagine ever putting himself through another tour again. He was considering getting out of the game entirely.

Gabrels’ response was essentially: why do you have be in the game at all? You’re David Bowie. Find something that interests you, then go with it. Bowie had loved Steven Berkoff’s play West, which had premiered in London in 1983. A story of a Hackney gang leader who, to avenge a slaying of one of his crew, agrees to take on a rival thug from Hoxton in hand-to-hand combat, West was part of the decade’s fascination with London thugs, from Bob Hoskins’ mob boss in The Long Good Friday to Terence Stamp’s sardonic “grass” in The Hit, from the renewed fascination with the Kray Twins to Alan Clarke’s soccer hooligan study The Firm.

Bowie had considered adapting West as a musical, but thought the material was too obscure. EMI had made it clear there wouldn’t be another Baal on their dime. Who cares if only a few people like it? Gabrels responded. So Bowie and Gabrels began on a few prospective West-inspired songs. One, “Bus Stop,” would be reworked for Tin Machine. Another was a musical version of the gangleader’s climactic fight speech: “The King of Stamford Hill.” Bowie sang it as a cock-crow from a despot, but also with anger and desperation. The core theme of West was spoken by the King’s mother: “not to fight was to give in.” The choice was blood and possible humiliation, or a second-class life calling someone else’s tune.

While it’s unknown how “Stamford Hill” originally sounded, as Gabrels re-recorded all the guitar tracks when he used it on his first solo album in 1995, Bowie’s vocal (taken from the demo) is a vulgar, barely comprehensible garble (Berkoff had some of his characters speak a florid “Shakespearean Cockney”). He begins by walking his turf in Hackney, taking in the sewage. “Smells like DAY-sies,” he sniffs, but his mind’s on his rival. “Ain’t it fucking CUR-EE-OUS some other cunts’ll TRY to DITCH the KING.” A pounding, screaming refrain follows: GONNA BUILD AN ARMY. MARCH ‘EM TO THE MARSHES…SOMEONE’S GONNA LOSE HIS POXY FACE!

It was unreleasable, of course: EMI would have blanched. But Bowie took audible delight in his Mockney accent and savored the prospect of lurid violence. He sounded alive again, even in play-acting the thug. It was a scheme at last. Now all he had to do was build an army.

“King of Stamford Hill” was recorded in Mountain Studios, Montreux, ca. July 1988 (Bowie vocals) and completed by Gabrels at Playtime Studios, Boston, 1995. With Gary Oldman providing “running commentary” and Matt Gruenberg (bass) and Milt Sutton (drums).  On the out-of-print Sacred Squall of Now. (My thanks to Ian McDuffie).

Sources for Gabrels’ early years: Trynka and Buckley, as always, along with a book that’s going to be of great help going forward, Dave Thompson’s Hallo Spaceboy: The Rebirth of David Bowie. Gabrels’ quotes are generally from interviews he gave with Guitar Player (1993), Guitar (2000) and Spin (1989).

Top: Chris Dorley-Brown, “Squatters evicted, Stamford Hill estate,” March 1988; Reeves Gabrels, 1989 (Guitar Player); Gary Oldman in Clarke’s The Firm, 1989.


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