Scary Monsters at 40

October 8, 2020

Scary Monsters was released on Friday, 12 September 1980 in the UK, where it was a smash: hitting #1 and having four Top 40 singles, Bowie’s best chart showing there since Diamond Dogs. Released sometime in the following week in the US, sales there were more in line with Bowie’s withered chart performances of the late Seventies. In the US, it peaked at #12 on Billboard and didn’t produce a single chart pop hit, though it got decent album rock airplay.

Reviewers (mostly) praised it at the time and would keep doing so; the cliché “best since Scary Monsters” would appear in assessments of Tin Machine, or Black Tie White Noise, or Outside, or Heathen. Scary Monsters became an end-stop. The Last Great Bowie Album, Until Maybe This One (Well, No).

Scary Monsters is dressed as a finale, one of several in Bowie’s life. The last album that Bowie made for RCA, concluding a sequence that had begun with Hunky Dory. The last Bowie album in the 20th Century produced by Tony Visconti—their friendship frayed soon afterward; they didn’t speak for years. The last Bowie album with Robert Fripp, the last with the magnificent rhythm section of Dennis Davis and George Murray.

There was its recycling, its sense of recurrence. Major Tom returns, as does Lindsay Kemp’s Pierrot. Much like the Rolling Stones’ contemporaneous Tattoo You, Scary Monsters refurbished older, abandoned songs: six of its ten tracks derive from or reference late Sixties-early Seventies Bowie compositions. It’s a rummage through an estate sale, finding a “Laughing Gnome” single, an Astronettes demo. Edward Bell’s album cover illustration (see below) includes a Berlin Bowie retrospective, the LP cover characters now blurred, shrunken, distorted. Bowie’s role as a clown was a nod to his time “in the circus” with Kemp in the late Sixties — his costume was designed by Natasha Korniloff, who had worked with him and Kemp in those years. But there are two clowns on the album cover: the dignified one who looks straight at you, and the disheveled one behind him, casting a long shadow.

Is it possible, given all of this baggage, to hear the album fresh today? To hear it as listeners in 1980 did? Though, of course, they had seen Scary Monsters via a prism of impressions and perceptions that we, forty years later, can only guess at. A punk kid who considered Bowie an old vampire, looking to steal what he can. A woman who loved “Fame” and “Golden Years” in her teenage years, getting the new album as part of an RCA Record Club 10-LPs-for-a-penny batch, dropping the needle on “It’s No Game (Part 1),” soon yanking it off (“this sounds awful—why is he screaming all over the place?”) and filing the album away, never to be played again; it’s eventually bestowed upon a library or a cousin.

Monsters was meant to sound fresh, contemporary, to be more commercially-minded than the “experiments” of the so-called Berlin era. Eno was gone. Bowie seemed “more serious,” both Fripp and Chuck Hammer noted. The album would remain contemporary as it aged, with its near-future always near; it would be Bowie’s perpetual New Album. This summer of pandemic and mass conspiracy, of depression (economic, spiritual) and street actions, of increasingly authoritarian and chaos governments, is a world that Scary Monsters would recognize, as it’s already there in its grooves.

Tracks

Bowie and Visconti at the Power Station, ca. February 1980

Scary Monsters was made in two blocks: tracking sessions with guide/sketch vocals at New York’s Power Station, in February-early March 1980, and overdub and vocal sessions at Tony Visconti’s Good Earth Studios in London, ca. April-May 1980. Somewhere along the line, a set of rough mixes and/or alternate takes were bootlegged—the most likely scenario is that someone dubbed some tapes in the last days of recording in New York, before Visconti shifted operations to London. The original “mass release” bootleg of these tapes was, apparently, Vampires of Human Flesh, ca. 1994.

Along with the bootlegged Leon tapes from 1994 and the Young Americans session tapes housed at Drexel University, the “Scary Monsters roughs,” for lack of a better term, are the only documents that we have of Bowie’s in-progress studio work. While not that revelatory—rhythm tracks are mostly the same as those on the album, nor do Bowie’s lyrics differ greatly from final versions—it’s still invaluable. Scary Monsters, a hard-crafted, punchy album, as seen before the last layers of paint were applied. The energy pulsing through the roughs is such that sometimes I’ll choose the bootlegs over the mastered tracks. 

Scary Monsters sounded good in part because of where it was made, the hottest new studio in New York. Originally a Con Edison plant on West 53rd St. and 10th Avenue, the Power Station (hence the name) had opened in 1977, owned by Tony Bongiovi (cousin of Jon) and Bob Walters. Among its first users were Chic, who would book its Studio B for months. Bowie cut Scary Monsters at the same time Springsteen was cutting The River (hence Roy Bittan’s appearance). Decades later, in 2007, Bowie went back to the studio, which at the time was known as Avatar, to cut backing vocals for a Scarlett Johansson record. Chris Moore, who recorded him then, told me that Bowie “said it felt weird to be back there.”

Power Station Studio A, as it looks today

The band was the trio which had supported Bowie on tour in 1976 and 1978 and which had been his albums’ supple backbone from Station to Station to Scary Monsters. I’ve written enough over the years on the brilliance of Carlos Alomar (heard on backing vocals on the roughs, a role that he often played on tour), Murray and Davis. Their departure after this album (Alomar occasionally returned to the Bowie orbit; Murray would retire completely) was inevitable and tragic.

The roughs are the sound of three musicians at work, one establishing something, the other two ratifying it, as they had when they’d made Station in LA and Low in France and “Heroes” in Berlin and Lodger in Switzerland, this magnificent team of movers, each time setting up in a new studio, in a new country, doing mike checks and then leaping off again, ever so easily, Davis to Murray to Alomar, in telegraph bursts, in long, animated conversations in dynamics and rhythm, always keyed into this great joyous connection they had. The roughs give us a Scary Monsters freed from Robert Fripp’s lead guitar, Andy Clark’s synthesizers, Visconti’s effects and processors (Pete Townshend’s lead is already there in the earlier version of “Because You’re Young,” as he’d cut his parts in New York); it’s the album exposed at its thick roots, David Bowie singing over a New Wave R&B band.

Listen to the instrumental outtake that bootleggers mistakenly titled “Is There Life After Marriage?“—it was, in truth, yet another Bowie attempt at covering Cream’s “I Feel Free.” A trio in a New York studio one evening in February 1980, in a world that now seems as far away as the Napoleonic wars. Alomar parries, Murray rumbles, Davis settles matters. Then they do it again.

Words

Years ago on a blog comment thread, Momus wrote about trying to parse Bowie’s lyrics in “Aladdin Sane,” which he accurately described as “eccentric doggerel.”  

“Passionate bright young things /Takes him away to war (don’t fake it)/ Saddening glissando strings / Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh (you’ll make it)”. The verbs and the nouns don’t even agree! And how could you fake being taken away to war? Where’s the orchestra? It makes no sense! “They’re atmospheric,” Bowie once said of his lyrics. But actually, what I’ve underestimated is that the vagueness is tactical….There’s a kind of negative capability in not being too intentional, too specific, too narrative.

Bowie’s lyrics on paper rarely resemble “verse,” even by the loose standards of rock musicians. They’re meant to be sung, in his voice, and, sometimes, to be obscured in the mix. One line is a garble, the next a fragment, the subsequent one a sharp phrase that lingers in the memory. This tactical vagueness, as Momus called it, was key to Bowie’s aesthetic. Ziggy Stardust has no comprehensible story but the one that you, listener, choose to give it. In the Seventies, Bowie strove to make his lyrics ever more disjunctive, jarring, abstract: using William Burroughs/Brion Gysin-style cut-up was liberating for him. Meaning would be found, should one wish to find it, in the spaces between the lines, in the note that Bowie used for a particular word, in how he phrased a closing line.

You can take this argument too far (a very Bowie thing to do). There are times where he’s writing lucidly about a particular person or emotion or scenario, and his lyrics are often colored, as he’d agree, by the time and place in which he wrote them. See Scary Monsters, whose lyrics were written from possibly late 1979 to, in a last revision burst, March-April 1980, and in jumps from New York to Japan to London.

We’re lucky, as with the album’s bootlegged rough mixes, to have a window into Bowie’s lyric-writing process for Scary Monsters. The David Bowie Is exhibit included two “sketch pages” on graph paper, invaluable documents of how he compiled phrases, quotes, ideas, stage/production concepts, jokes, and queries, and then began to piece together songs from them. The first is below:

It’s like a transcript of Bowie’s mind. Apparent ideas for covers (“Try Some Buy Some,” “Suzy Q,” “Green Tambourine,” “She’s Not There”), which offers the prospect that Bowie was considering a record similar to Heathen and Reality: three-fourths originals, one-fourth covers (“I Feel Free” got as far as the tracking stage—who knows about the others). “Zow[ie]’s Kids List”—his son’s suggestions? Musical and/or production references abound—Wagner, “Clapping Song” (Shirley Ellis, possibly Steve Reich), James Brown’s “Please Please Please,” Stan Kenton’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Philip Glass organ sound,” “Lollipop harmonica solo,” “helicopter sounds.”

On the upper half of the page, you see Bowie assembling “It’s No Game” from a disparate set of lines, a few later discarded (“gradual pagan” and “big head and drum” are in the early vocal take); on the lower half, he does the same for “Up the Hill Backwards,” including a line that Bowie pilfered from Hans Richter’s Art and Anti Art (a Nicholas Pegg discovery from a few years ago):

The other page, whose smuggled exhibit photographs are harder to read (Leah Kardos did her best to transcribe it), is more dense. It’s less a set of prospective lyrics than a word-pile of agitations, observations, rants (“RCA is richer than you’re [sic] whole country”), aphorisms, fears, phrasing/mixing ideas (“get on top of D.D.’s drum,” “Joy Div/ those terrible cockney accents” (see the title track)). Reading it through, however, you find more songs being formed, including “Ashes to Ashes” and, most of all, “Teenage Wildlife.”

Let’s write about society and events of international import… who’s going to lead the working clash? It ain’t me buddy. Over the page Bowie keeps circling back to the idea of an impending crisis (“won’t stop with Iran”). There’s going to be war… there’s going to be chaos…you’re not gonna turn away. Pricks will write songs about it and tell you ‘it’s the truth’. A few lines down, he becomes the prick: it’s not strange it happens every day… It’s the truth. (The working title of “Teenage Wildlife” was “It Happens Everyday.”)

Bowie kept paring and revising lines, sometimes to obscure an image, to make things less obvious. In “Ashes,” “little green dealer” becomes “little green wheels,” while “every day my reason is ebbing” is scrapped. “Fashion” was stripped of more overt lines that equate dance moves to street violence (“shake a fist, start a fight/ if you’re covered in blood, you’re doing it right”).

There’s a harshness in the lyrics of Scary Monsters, in part because of its paucity of rhyme (with notable exceptions—the hooky refrains of “Ashes to Ashes” and “Scream Like a Baby,” for instance). Bowie instead often uses consonance. The album opens, after Michi Hirota’s barrage of Japanese, with him using hard esses and ens to end his phrases, applying the occasional “oh” and “ev” sound as mortar within a line:

or “Scream Like a Baby,” whose verse’s phonic links are a hard traffic of ens, eds, gees, and uhs:

Or the Buddy Holly-esque “Ashes,” in which Bowie uses a three-note pattern as a rhythmic hook, while varying Major Tom’s message in meter or phrasing or length. Again, there’s nearly no rhyme in the verse, only a series of “ings” and one quick “in/syn.” It’s similar to the verses of “Changes,” another maze of phrasings that seem more akin to recitative in opera than standard pop singing. Further, in “Ashes,” Bowie’s lead vocal is interfered with by layers of mumbled, whispered counter-lines, as if one radio station is breaking into another’s airspace:

Half of me freezing, half of me boiling, I’m nowhere in between, Bowie wrote on his sketch sheet. A reactive person…too much data, possible events. Scary Monsters has recurring themes. A powerless rage at a collapsing world—it’s why Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come” fits into the set: life as being sentenced to a prison farm, an armed guard always at watch from the tower. The streets are dangerous, the rooms are traps; he doesn’t know any hallways. A sense of entropy, of energy ebbing, of structures fraying and eroding. Major Tom falls to earth. Skylab falls from the sky, sneakers fall apart. 

There’s the inability of art to provide answers, alternatives, anything of value, and the question of whether the concept of artistic progress was a cruel illusion. He’s never done anything out of the blue, nothing good, nothing bad. The kids keep at it, but they don’t stand a chance. “Teenage Wildlife” is Bowie watching his imitators and successors fighting over a kingdom already lost. “One flash of light but no smoking pistol” came from something he’d said about glam rock to a TV interviewer at the end of 1979—that while “in the beginning of the Seventies when it was sort of a bit dull, there was the idea of creating a flash of some kind. And the flash was created, but nobody was really found holding the smoking pistol. So [rock] sort of went off at tangents after that.”

When Scary Monsters plays in the background, so that you’re only hearing bits and scraps of lines, it seems as if the album is but one song, that it’s telling one story. It’s a horror film. More precisely, a horror documentary. 

The word is that the hunted one is out there on his own. They do it over there but we don’t do it here. To be insulted by these fascists—it’s so degrading. One flash of light, but no smoking pistol. We’re legally crippled. They’re people I know, people I love, they seem so unhappy, dead or alive. She had a horror of rooms, she was tired, you can’t hide beat. I feel like a group of one. I know too well what’s keeping me here. He jumped into the furnace, singing old songs we loved. 

Images

This photograph is of an LP that I bought thirty years ago, for about four or five dollars, at In Your Ear, a used record store on Commonwealth Ave in Boston. It’s been with me ever since.

The album is slightly more than a foot in length and width. Its outer sleeve is still solid, if the spine has frayed by a thumb’s breadth at the center; the inner sleeve is in more parlous condition, being long engaged in a slow process of tearing in halves. The disc, over time, has nudged through substantial lengths of the sleeve’s bottom and sides. When I pull out the inner sleeve now, a black half-circle of vinyl will appear somewhere along an edge, reminding me that the natural state of things is entropy and that each year, this record’s resale value on Discogs diminishes. 

A late developer, late in discarding teddy bear and comics (and to be honest, neither yet fully relinquished), no good at sports and an academic failure, sanctuary was sought in the art room at school, the harmless pursuit of the cissy.

Edward Bell, 2003, on his youth.  

The cover and inner sleeve were designed in 1980 by Edward Bell. He’d studied graphics at Chelsea, photography at the Royal College of Art. “I started life as a photographer, but I found the medium limiting, so this fact led me to various manipulations: photo montage, over painting or even just using the photo as inspiration for a painting,” he told David Bowie News this year. As Bell said in 2003, “I was impatient with the technicalities of producing the perfect photograph; if a shadow fell in the wrong place, rather than adjust the lighting, I would airbrush, tint and montage. “

A photographer became an illustrator. This illustrator, having done a series of portraits of friends, got his first show at the Neal Street Gallery, in Covent Garden, London. It was attended by someone introduced as “an important client” and who wore, in Bell’s recollection, “an insipid yellow short-sleeved shirt and bright red trousers, but most damning of all, he wore dark glasses to examine the pictures.” This, of course, was David Bowie, who’d been told about Bell’s work by the photographer Brian Duffy.

Although Duffy was taking photos for use on Scary Monsters, Bowie decided that he wanted Bell to do the sleeve artwork, which would incorporate some of Duffy’s pictures. Instead Bell would deface them, covering one up with his own illustration, reducing other photos to postage-stamp size (others literally became postage stamps, in a sheet included with early issues of the album).

After Bowie was photographed in the Pierrot outfit, Bell asked him to muss his hair, smear his makeup, look disheveled. Become a clown scowling backstage after the show, looking cranked off and sour. Then Bell sketched him.

“This was an image no longer wistful, pretty, safe or fey, but a glimpse of glamour in its dangerous extremity; decadent and blatantly seductive,” Bell wrote in his memoir. Bowie told Bell to design the cover however he’d like, only asking for his hair to be tinted red in the illustration (it was a dun color in early to mid-1980—see, below, the photograph used for the “Fashion” sleeve, which was the first shot taken of Bowie at the Pierrot session). “In America I’m known as the red haired bisexual,” Bowie explained to Bell—he apparently needed to maintain the brand for a bit longer.

The cover and sleeve design went through various drafts. I’d wager a guess that Bell may have drawn on two sources as a starting point. Derek Boshier’s cover design for Lodger has a muted, off-white color as its foundation and a similar set of jumbled images, meant to signify something opaque.

And Gerald Scarfe’s design for Pink Floyd’s The Wall (as with Lodger, a recently-issued album at the time). Again a white backdrop, again a series of images—here, cartoon grotesques— “breaking through” the backdrop to catch the viewer’s eye.

Perhaps most obviously, the use of hand lettering, in bold strokes in black ink, for the lyrics on the inner sleeves of both albums.

The brilliance of Bell’s cover design is how it illustrates the mood of the album, its feeling of resurgence and collapse, the concept of a long-running circus shuttering for the winter, maybe forever. David Bowie, throughout the Seventies, was always on the cover of his latest album in the center of the frame: displaying a fresh look, a new haircut, a new caprice. Pre-Raphaelite decadent sprawled on a couch. Tragic silent movie star. Glam icon in an alleyway and phone box. 22nd Century pinup. Freakshow attraction. Hollywood glamour queen. A Man who has Fallen to Earth. An emissary from a lost future.

And here, the sour Pierrot. But something’s not right. The Bowie photograph that should be here has instead been torn in two, the smaller half confined to the back cover. Overlaid upon much of the photo is a haughty-looking cartoon figure, which stands off-center, confined to the left half of the front cover. While one’s eye is still drawn to Bowie’s face, there’s so much “empty” space on the cover that Bowie’s usually definitional image becomes unsettled—you’re as much looking at a shadow of his profile, or wondering what his face looks like in the photograph you will never see. (Again, Lodger is a starting point, as the record buyer only saw Bowie’s splayed legs on its front cover).

On the back cover, more substitutions—Bell’s illustrations supplant Sukita’s “Heroes” photograph, Duffy’s Lodger shot, the Low profile. The past becomes a faded, distorted cartoon of itself (Bowie as the Scary Monsters and Super Heroes of his inspiration). “David Bowie” is a set of postage stamps or miniaturized Polaroids. It has the look of a child’s scrapbook, especially when seen as a two-sided whole.

Like many others who saw the David Bowie Is show, I was stunned by how large Bell’s painting is. Having only known it as an album sleeve for much of my life, I found its true form astonishing. I’d never imagined it was such a physical presence—it seemed to take up a fourth of a museum wall. The LP sleeve itself is a reduction, a substitution, a diminishing of an original grandeur.

Bell and Bowie became friends, in the way Bowie was friends with many people: he’d vanish for years, then appear without notice. He gave Bell (who also did the Tin Machine II cover in 1991) a postal address in Switzerland—Bell would mail the occasional letter or postcard, to no response. Then a call would come in.

“Instead [of writing] he would, completely out of the blue, telephone,”  Bell said in his memoir. “Years might even pass, then I’d be shopping at Tesco, or digging a vegetable patch on the west coast of Ireland, or sitting on a Welsh hilltop painting a sky, when the mobile would ring.” Bowie, calling from Switzerland or Japan or New York, usually at the dead of night of whichever timezone he was in. They’d talk for hours about anything under the sun, then another year or two would pass. It was Bowie as a lighthouse keeper, a harbor master, making his solitary rounds over the years, but mostly existing in his absences, as he does on the cover of Scary Monsters.

Press

Talking with Bowie makes me more than unusually aware of the manifest absurdities inherent in the interview process. Why should Bowie tell me anything at all? He has little to gain and much to lose by doing so. We’re total strangers compelled by our respective positions and professions to confront each other for a ludicrously short time.

Angus MacKinnon, 1980

The promotion of Scary Monsters was relatively modest by Bowie standards. He wasn’t touring the album; his only TV performance for it was on The Tonight Show, which few in his home country saw at the time; he acted in The Elephant Man throughout what, typically, would have been his album’s promo cycle.

In a handful of late 1980 interviews—with the NME and Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles and London Times, some TV and radio spots, Radio One’s Andy Peebles—Bowie talked through the album he’d made the previous spring (an eon ago, by his Seventies standards) and sketched where he’d go in the Eighties. Whether by circumstance or design, he was particularly open (or, at least, apparently so) and retrospective.

Angus MacKinnon, NME (interview conducted early August 1980; published 13 September 1980).

Angus MacKinnon worked at the NME in the punk end of the Seventies, becoming close friends with Public Image Ltd’s Jah Wobble (MacKinnon had reviewed Lodger, saying it felt like Bowie was “ready for religion”). In August 1980, the NME sent him and photographer Anton Corbijn to Chicago for a week to interview Bowie during the run of Elephant Man there (RCA footed the bill, booking journalists in the high-end Whitehall Hotel—a truly lost era). Conducted over two days, it’s among the high-water marks of Bowie interviews, a credit to MacKinnon’s skill and to Bowie’s receptive frame of mind. As fascinated by his life as anyone was, Bowie precisely and coolly assessed his Seventies, which seemed like a science fiction novel in retrospect.

Later, MacKinnon said he thought he got what “the interview” meant for Bowie—an opportunity to play a character (see his coke-freak Nosferatu performance for the benefit of Cameron Crowe in the mid-Seventies) but most of all, to do “an intensive form of self-therapy.” Bowie appeared to live in a state of “continual reassessment and often comprehensive rewriting of his past…although one of the more profoundly amoral people I’ve ever met, Bowie is nonetheless hamstrung by an acuity of self-awareness that constantly threatens to bemuse or even overwhelm him.” 

That said, Bowie the son of a PR man, had been adept at media manipulation since he was a teenager. He could, in a flash, discern who an interviewer was, what their likely angle would be, how they could be flattered, their likely status in the publication they worked for. Most of all, what role they wanted him to play. Bowie is “uncannily adept at telling you exactly what he thinks you want to hear,” MacKinnon wrote. His charm, his wit, his knowledge of what made for a great quote—how a line would play if blown up, marquee-style, in a subhead, or if used as a tart caption to a photograph—his ability to quickly draw you into his confidence: these were his weapons, an armory so colossal that as a reporter, MacKinnon said, you were constantly scrambling to determine if Bowie was contradicting something he’d said only a few minutes before. It was exhausting to challenge his routine habit of blaming “characters” for “his own more irresponsible, or inexplicable actions.” 

MacKinnon begins with basic questions—Bowie’s concept of John Merrick in The Elephant Man, cutting to thoughts on Man Who Fell to Earth (Bowie: “Newton is a far better person at the end of the film…when he first comes down, he doesn’t give a shit about anybody”) and Just a Gigolo (“that film was a cack”). MacKinnon then strings a line from MWFTE to Station to Station, inspiring a Bowie mea culpa for the Thin White Duke “England needs a Hitler” period. (M: I was there and came away thinking you were sort of fascist maniac. B: “I was out of my mind, totally crazed”). “This whole racist thing,” Bowie swears, was because “I was in the depths of mythology. I had found King Arthur.” He attests that he’s worked “with black musicians for the past six or seven years, and we’d all talk about it together….about the magical side of the whole Nazi campaign.” (One can only imagine poor Dennis Davis genially nodding through these sessions.) And a wild bit of psychological legend:

All that stuff was flying around, buzzing around the skies. I could see it. Everywhere I looked there were these great demons of the past, demons of the future on the battlegrounds of one’s emotional plain…Mixed up too, of course, were my own fucking characters.

Bowie jumps around the chessboard. Praise for Berlin, place of restoration; a ritual curse on Los Angeles (“the fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth. To be anything to do with rock and roll and to go and live in Los Angeles is I think just heading for disaster. It really is.”) MacKinnon pushes him to start talking about the Scary Monsters songs at last. A few lines of thought begin here. The idea of “the future” being another Sixties trick. A detaching from Fripp and Eno, whom he describes as being “intellectuals” as compared to his more instinctive type of songwriting. Thoughts on the “grimness” of contemporary fashion, with a dig at the Blitz Kids he’d recently seen in London (and hired, for the “Ashes to Ashes” video). 

They resume talking a few days later, on the stage of the Blackstone, The Elephant Man’s theater. This time, thanks to MacKinnon’s choice to burn through “simple, factual questions” first and free-style for a half hour, a compelling back-and-forth develops. Bowie admits that “he can’t write young” anymore, that rock music is a dead end for him, and wonders what will he, in the end, really be remembered for? MacKinnon later said he felt like he’d gotten through, finally got Bowie to say something real, only to consider that this was possibly another conversational trick of Bowie’s, and furthermore, what does “real” even mean? Why do we, as journalists, as readers, expect this from pop singers, when we don’t offer it ourselves?

M: Those lines from ‘Ashes To Ashes’ spring to mind: “I’ve never done good things/I’ve never done bad things/I’ve never done anything out of the blue.” You seem to be saying that you’re not prepared to judge your own achievements. Do you feel any—how shall I put it?—guilt about having helped propagate the sort of delusions we’re talking about?…

B: Those three particular lines represent a continuing, returning feeling of inadequacy over what I’ve done. (Bowie absently traces a finger around his mouth then proceeds, choosing his words very carefully) I have an awful lot of reservations about what I’ve done inasmuch as I don’t feel much of it has any import at all. And then I have days when of course it all feels very important to me, that I’ve contributed an awful lot. But I’m not awfully happy with what I’ve done in the past actually.

M: So what would you include amongst your positive achievements?

B: The idea that one doesn’t have to exist purely on one defined set of ethics and values, that you can investigate other areas and other avenues of perception and try and apply them to everyday life. I think I’ve tried to do that. I think I’ve done that fairly successfully. At times, even if only on a theoretical level, I’ve managed that. As far as everyday life goes, I don’t think so… I have this great long chain with a ball of middle-classness at the end of it which keeps holding me back and that I keep sort of trying to fight through. I keep trying to find the Duchamp in me, which is harder and harder to find (laughs)….

And a coda, where Bowie considers old age from the vantage point of 33.

Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone; interview, early August 1980; 13 November 1980 issue.

One sign of Bowie’s diminished commercial presence in the US is that he didn’t get the cover of Rolling Stone for this interview—Mary Tyler Moore did, for her role in Ordinary People.

Bowie’s still apparently content to accept being a famous second-tier artist, commercially. “More and more, I’m prepared to relinquish sales…by sticking to my guns about the kind of music I’m going to make.” More differentiation from Fripp and Eno. “They’re out there cerebrally, you know? And I’m just not out there. I sort of bludgeon along through their strange ways and paths and articulate to the best of my ability what the fuck I’m tryin’ to put on a record.” Again, the idea of the future being humbler, dirtier, more brutal than the Sixties thought it was going to be. “Forget your high-tech. We’re not gonna be prancing around in silver suits or anything like that. It’s all blood and guts from here on out.”

Good Morning America, 3 September 1980.

With a few exceptions, Bowie was charming and intriguingly vapid in his post-Seventies American TV interviews, rising to the challenge of the medium. No exception here: some Lodger-era guff about being a perpetual traveler (“Mombasa, Berlin and Kyoto…are my main ports of call”) and praise for his Elephant Man cast. The visual—Bowie looking like a rockabilly Eloi in a purple turtleneck before a backdrop of potted ferns—is exquisite, though.

Robert Hilburn, LA Times, interview 5 September; 21 September 1980 edition

Conducted in an LA dressing room during a Tonight Show rehearsal, this interview is perhaps most notable for one of Bowie’s first, ugly repudiations of his bisexuality—a preview of his 1983 press strategy. For an LA paper, Bowie provides a new variation on his usual escape-from-LA narrative. “I may have been living through a breakdown and not knowing it…In Berlin, I lived quite the reverse style of life that I’d been living. It was designed as a positive step to make myself learn how to relate back to the real world.” The Low era as a purging, “throwing everything out and starting over again.” Yet another sign that despite his protestations, his declining commercial fortunes concern him. “I never tried to define my audience and exploit it like a tobacco company…I just hoped the audience would come along.”

10 October 1980, Friday Night, Saturday Morning, with Tim Rice.

The best of the TV interviews of the period. Bowie offers his story of how he got his album’s title from a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box notice of “Scary Monsters and Super Heroes” (“Supermen and Nosferatus….as I was writing a New York album, it seemed the perfect collective title for the bits and pieces I was writing”). On regular Broadway theatergoers: “they had heard of me but had some kind of really corrupted idea of what I was about. I suppose they’ve got a different impression of me now: little do they know.”

Gordon Burn, Sunday Times Magazine, interview 2 October 1980; 30 November 1980 issue.

A dishy look at Bowie, thespian (“he looked eager, the way contestants often do on quiz shows when they think they’ve got the answer…David was wearing a cowl-neck sweater, possibly a lady’s…he has eye-teeth like fangs”) and someone apparently bracing for future conformity.

“I have so many streaks of sensibleness that it’s frightening. I keep getting drawn back to such a logical, conservative me but it wears me out trying to fight it. Fighting it used to lead me to that very rough, drug-oriented, forceful kind of lifestyle which makes one on edge all the time. Now, having beaten that back, I’m confronted with the basic facts of where I came from and who I am…I am still, as you can see, fighting.”

20/20, broadcast 13 November 1980 (presumably filmed ca. October). 

A bog-standard “This Is David Bowie” bio intro (DB was apparently “born on the other side of the tracks in Brixton”) leads into footage of Bowie drawing (“he’s produced a gallery full of paintings”), It comes off as a butchered 10-minute reduction of a scrapped documentary, in which Bowie occasionally appears to say little of import.

Countdown, broadcast 16 November 1980 (filmed ca. October).

Bowie, filmed in an NYC Japanese restaurant, gives off the vibe of a charming civil servant being asked to justify some questionable expense account statements. The bit where the interviewer asks about Bowie’s 1967 debut album, to DB’s “what in the hell are you bringing this up for?” expressions, is a joy. 

Andy Peebles, Radio One, taped 7 December 1980.

The last great interview of the period, parts of which were used for a promotional LP, with Bowie going into each song on Scary Monsters.

On Major Tom in 1980:

What would be the complete dissolution [of] the great dream that was being propounded when they shot him into space…When he did get up there, he wasn’t quite sure why he’d been put there and…now we come to him 10 years later and we find the whole thing has soured, ‘cos there was no reason…the technological ego that got him up there…was a potpourri of technological ideas. The most disastrous thing I could think of is that he’d find solace in some kind of heroin-type drug, the cosmic space itself is feeding him an addiction and now he wants to return to the womb from whence he came…

Peebles had flown to New York to talk to Bowie and, seizing opportunity, talked to John Lennon and Yoko Ono the day before. Little more than a day after Bowie talked with Peebles, he’d be standing before a TV set, watching news reports about his friend’s murder.

Stage

Scary Monsters was a greatly unrealized album on stage, as Bowie would never perform half of its songs. It’s in part because the tour on which he would’ve likely sung them, a proposed 1981 venture, never came to be.

An alleged “spokesman” said in late 1980, while Bowie was promoting the album, that Bowie planned to devote three months in 1981 to “live work” while Bowie told MacKinnon “next spring—I want to play smaller places.” The tour was barely in the sketch stages, apparently, when DB pulled the plug after John Lennon’s murder. Given that he was also talking about doing an exhibition of his paintings and video work in 1981, and was in negotiations for film and TV roles, there’s a strong likelihood that a 1981 tour wouldn’t have been on the scale of, say, 1978. More something like a month of shows in the UK and Europe, a month or two in major markets in North America, maybe a Japanese coda.

When Bowie did return to live work in 1983, he was now promoting Let’s Dance to a new, broader audience, one with less of a taste for oddity. The emphasis was on new hits, old hits, a few obscurities for the die-hards. Scary Monsters was represented only by its charting singles.

Songs Never Performed, Apparently Never Rehearsed

“It’s No Game (Pt. 1 & Pt. 2).” The Bowie film archivist Nacho proposed a dream 1981 setlist not long ago, in which Bowie would open and close sets with the two “It’s No Games.” It’s a great idea, but given that “It’s No Game (Pt. 1)” sounds utterly brutal to sing, the idea of Bowie opening with it for months seems a bit unlikely.

“Kingdom Come.” Not a shock: a song that audiences mostly wouldn’t have recognized, and as with “It’s No Game,” another wear-and-tear of a vocal.

Songs Rehearsed, Never Performed

“Scream Like a Baby.” Rehearsed for Glass Spider in 1987; didn’t make the cut. The rehearsal tapes show that the band had the song down well, if Bowie sounds borderline camp.

“Because You’re Young”: As with “Scream,” a reject from the Glass Spider set; as with “Scream,” it likely would’ve worked well enough. Though the idea of Bowie’s gang of theater-kid “street” dancers interpreting this song makes me grateful it didn’t make the cut.

Songs Sort-of Performed

“Up the Hill Backwards.” Used as part of the opening sequence for Glass Spider: Bowie didn’t sing it, his dancers lip-synced it. The Legs & Co. interpretation from Top of the Pops in 1981 is superior and more weird.

Songs Performed

“Teenage Wildlife.” Debuted in the Outside tour in 1995, and a highlight of those shows—sung as Bowie watched teenage Nine Inch Nails fans pack up, leaving behind empty rows, it had a fresh poignancy. Carlos Alomar provided continuity, Reeves Gabrels did a fine American art-weirdo’s take on Robert Fripp.

“Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).” Debuted in 1983 on Serious Moonlight, but its definitive live versions were Bowie’s duets with Trent Reznor in 1995. A Scary Monsters track tailored for the following decade.

“Fashion.” The “Fame” of Scary Monsters songs—debuted in 1983 and performed in nearly every tour afterward. Had the potential to be irritating on stage, and sometimes was. Its live peak was 1996-97, as it suited the Earthling era well.

“Ashes to Ashes.” Like “Fashion,” often found in his 1983-and-afterward setlists, though Bowie put it on ice in the Nineties after Sound + Vision. For me, he’d never manage on stage to rival the studio version—he tended to grapple around the song and do an approximation. Something was always off: the bassline, the keyboards, his vocal. If I had to choose a performance, I’d go with its slightly-shambolic Tonight Show debut in 1980, in which a pick-up band (GE Smith! Steve Goulding!) and Bowie punch into the song, one still so new that Bowie bungles a verse lyric. They advance, stumble back; something keeps evading them but they keep scraping away at it. There’s a beauty in the effort.

Crystal Japan Epilogue

“Crystal Japan,” for a while during the Scary Monsters sessions, was intended as the album’s closer. Yet after Bowie decided instead to end the LP with a reprise of the opening track, he cast “Crystal Japan” loose. It first appeared as a Japanese single in 1980, then as the B-side of “Up the Hill Backwards” the following year; it’s likely, however, that many Bowie fans first heard it as a bonus track on the 1992 Ryko reissue of Scary Monsters—that’s where Trent Reznor, who nicked its melody for his “A Warm Place,” discovered the song. (Reznor confessed this to a cracking-up Bowie during an MTV interview.) 

Had it closed Scary Monsters, “Crystal Japan” would have changed the album’s tone, brightened its aspect. “It’s No Game (Pt. 2)” is cyclicality—the album ends as it began (furthered by Tony Visconti adding a tape spool-out sound to parallel the “roll tape” intro of Pt. 1)—and exhaustion, with the rage of “Pt. 1” cooled to a weary acceptance of daily horrors. “Crystal Japan,” had it capped off a hard, brutal album, would have offered a respite, an exit, a future. Something akin to “Radio 4,” the closer of PiL’s Metal Box in 1979—an epilogue that, at last, lets in the sun.

Who knows why Bowie pulled the track. Perhaps if it couldn’t be a finale, it just didn’t fit in anywhere else. Maybe he wanted to put the “Berlin” era firmly behind him, and so yanked an instrumental that might remind listeners of “Moss Garden.” Or he felt that a respite and an exit weren’t what was needed at the time.

Bowie had agreed to do a TV ad for a Japanese shochu manufacturer (he needed the money, he said, adding that he thought the track would get more airplay than his singles would on radio). So he had to come up with an instrumental for a 30-second bit in which he’d appear to be a visiting extraterrestrial a) on holiday at a Kyoto temple or b) relaxing in the mothership, which, nicely, has a piano and a wet bar. 

During the Scary Monsters sessions, Bowie assembled the track himself on synthesizer (no idea which models—he may have still been using the Low/”Heroes” set, which included an ARP Solina, ARP Pro Soloist and a Chamberlin M1), with Visconti’s only contribution being a treated falsetto vocal. It’s unknown whether DB wrote the piece after filming the ad in Japan (during the break, March 1980, between the LP’s New York and London sessions), or if he’d been working on it for a while, perhaps as far back as “Heroes” or Lodger.

With its yearning melodies and placid feel, it’s a quiet world tucked away within a greater, turbulent one—the sound of a warm place, as Reznor might say. The exiled ending of Scary Monsters, “Crystal Japan” was fated to forever be alone, a beautiful fragment.


Nuts

June 29, 2020

Nuts!

Not long ago, the musician Tim Burgess hosted, for one of his COVID-era Listening Parties on Twitter, a song-by-song collective listen to Bowie’s Earthling. Reeves Gabrels chimed in from quarantine, adding facts and color.

During it, I was struck by how so many taking part seemed wild about Earthling—saying that they’d overlooked it at the time, or they’d never heard it before, as they’d assumed it was some embarrassing attempt by Bowie to stay fresh in the mid-Nineties. They were surprised by how good it was. Maybe Earthling‘s day has finally come.

If so, a shame that any potential mid-Nineties Bowie box set is apparently on ice, at least for now, whether due to the plague wreaking havoc on release dates and production schedules, or whether the Bowie estate has decided to shift their reissue program to focus on the more lucrative “50th Anniversary” market for Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, etc. Still, mid-Nineties Bowie is getting better archived, if digitally. A 1995 concert recording is coming soon, and earlier this year some Earthling-era odds and ends were slipped into circulation via the Is It Any Wonder? collection, at present only available via download or on streaming sites (with very-limited-edition CD and vinyl versions).

“Nuts,” one of the never-before-released IIAW tracks, is that rare bird—an actual Bowie studio outtake. We haven’t seen much of these since the Rykodisc era, nearly thirty years ago. It’s been termed a “semi-instrumental,” which translates into Bowie mumbling or whispering a few lines (“what would you rah-thuh be doing?…. in time…”) and exclaiming “nuts!!!” on occasion. The rest of it’s Mark Plati and Gabrels going to town on guitars, computers, keyboards, and samplers in a New York studio in late 1996.

Recorded in the last Earthling sessions in November 1996, after Mike Garson, Zachary Alford, and Gail Ann Dorsey had finished cutting their parts, “Nuts” was the sister track of “The Last Thing You Should Do.” Both pieces were instrumentals made by Gabrels and Plati at Looking Glass; both had improvised Bowie performances—he’d popped into the studio, heard the new tracks, did some vocals on the spot, bang, done. Both were intended to be bonus tracks or B-sides.

Then Bowie altered the character of Earthling at the last minute. He’d intended to waltz remakes of “newer-older” compositions (“I Can’t Read,” “Baby Universal,” “I’m Afraid of Americans”) into new ones (“Little Wonder,” “Looking for Satellites,” “Seven Years in Tibet,” etc.) But right before mixing, Bowie, with Gabrels’ blessing, decided to skew the record more towards the future, or at least the present. So he deep-sixed the Tin Machine remakes and gave “The Last Thing You Should Do” a battlefield promotion to album track. Poor “Nuts” was confined to the vault, or at least someone’s hard drive, for over twenty years.

Hearing “Nuts” at last, it’s no grand mystery as to why it didn’t make the grade. “Last Thing You Should Do,” with its hangover melancholy, added a new, somber mood to the album. “Nuts” is more a quintessential CD Bonus Track From the Nineties: goofy, slightly ambitious, packed full of “period” sounds. (By CD-era standards, Earthling was a slim 49 minutes, so Bowie easily could’ve thrown in “Nuts” as a mid-sequence break, his equivalent to “Fitter Happier.” Probably good he didn’t.)

It’s a “drum ‘n’ bass” track in the way that Earthling is “drum ‘n’ bass”—a gleeful fraudulent. Plati and Gabrels use jungle-esque snare patterns as a shiny color in an otherwise mostly “modern rock” pallete. It’s a homemade, off-brand jungle, cooked up on a desktop by a couple of New York musicians and an amused London expatriate.

Someone during Burgess’ Twitter party was saying Earthling showed that Bowie was off his game, that he really should’ve been doing jungle in 1993, nabbing the best young London producers, taking the choicest bits from the underground. But that was rarely Bowie’s tactic. His Philadelphia Soul record comes a year or two after that genre’s peak, and was made mostly by New Yorkers; one of his “krautrock” albums was created by American, Scottish, and English musicians in France; his big Eighties pop record has more allegiance to Little Richard than it does Duran Duran. A gimcrack knock-off version of jungle, done far past peak, holds true to the Bowie ethos.

Highlights: Bowie retrieving character voices from Leon and Outside, muttering lines while sounding like Algeria Touchshriek; the tug of war between whistle and “saxophone” late in the track; and of course, Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn-nuts!, Bowie’s more restrained equivalent to the Iggy Pop Tarzan yell that ends “Funtime.”

Recorded: November 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. First release: 7 February 2020, as part of the Is It Any Wonder? digital/streaming set.

Top: Patrick Burgler, “St. Patrick’s Day parade,” NYC, March 1997.


The Shore at Pett Level

June 11, 2020
ashes

The shore at Pett Level, near Winchelsea, is steep; and covered with shingles. There is no bathing machine here; and a man should be an expert swimmer to venture in, excepting in calmer weather.

Baker Peter Smith, A Journal of an Excursion Round the South-Eastern Coast of England, 1834.

The shore at Pett Level has been a forest, a feeding ground for dinosaurs, a graveyard for ships; at the time of the Roman conquest, it slept underwater; during the Napoleonic wars and for some time afterward, the beach had eight manned, brick-built Martello towers, each a quarter-mile apart, each with a gun on its roof and a small window facing seaward. During the Second World War, the government evacuated Pett, whose population at the time was greatly holidaymakers and beachcombers.

One morning in late spring 1980 (no one recalls the precise day, and while May is the consensus pick for month, it may not be so*) a thin man in a clown costume walks along this beach.

He’s accompanied by a ballerina, two space nuns, and a gothic bride. Not far behind them rumbles a JCB bulldozer.

This is David Mallet’s video for “Ashes to Ashes,” a song that its creator, David Bowie, had only recently completed at Tony Visconti’s studio in London. It was his most expensive video to date (£25,000–some say more) and would be his most memorable, despite it pre-dating MTV. (MTV feasted on it, though: “Ashes to Ashes” was core to its rotation during its lean first months in 1981.)

Mallet suggested the location for a practical reason (see below) and because “I’d known [Pett Level] since I was a little boy. One of the very rare places you can get right down to the water and there’s a cliff towering over you.” The dreamscape was Bowie’s.

I think video is there to be used as an art form as well as a sort of commercial device for illustration and promotion. In fact, I fell in love with video in the early Seventies when I got a Sony reel-to-reel, black-and-white thing and videoed everything and whatever. I got a small editing machine…and developed some scenarios for Diamond Dogs. I worked with miniature sets and cut video animation techniques which I’ve never seen used since. A dreadful but interesting failure.

Bowie in “David Bowie—Plus Five,” 1981.

By 1979, Bowie had sensed that music video, those cheap promos you sent Top of the Pops and label conventions if you were touring or couldn’t be bothered, was becoming more central, that songs would need visual accomplices. For Lodger, he made three with Mallet: “D.J.” was recluse DJ/ extrovert DB; “Look Back in Anger” was an artist plagued by art, a mix of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Image, a short film Bowie had done in the Sixties; “Boys Keep Swinging” was a farewell to glam and ambiguity.

As opposed to the Lodger videos, which Mallet had shot from Bowie concepts, for “Ashes to Ashes” “I story-boarded [it] myself, actually drew it frame for frame,” Bowie told the NME‘s Angus MacKinnon. “[Mallet] edited it exactly as I wanted it and has allowed me to say [adopts Edward Heath voice] publicly that it is my first direction. I’ve always wanted to direct and this is a great chance to start—to get some money from a record company and then go away and sort of play with it.” (Over the years, Mallet has described a more collaborative effort, with his suggestions having equal weight.)

One image dated back more than a decade. A Pierrot consoling an elderly woman is part of George Underwood’s illustration for the back cover of David Bowie (1969), an illustration Underwood had done based on a Bowie sketch. Recall that Bowie’s father had died that August, leaving an estranged, bereaved son tied to his bereaved mother.

Detail: Bowie sketch (l), Underwood illustration (r) for David Bowie (1969)

“Ashes to Ashes” began when Bowie remade “Space Oddity” in September 1979, stripping down the latter in the vein of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. “That came about because Mallet wanted me to do something for his show [Kenny Everett, where the two had first met in April 1979], and he wanted ‘Space Oddity.'” Doing the remake led Bowie to wonder where Major Tom would be a decade on: home at last, strung out, craving the high he’d had in space. Making Scary Monsters early in 1980, Bowie took a track titled “People Are Turning to Gold” and made it his sequel song.

In the “Space Oddity” remake that Bowie and Mallet did for a Kenny Everett special (aired on New Year’s Eve 1979), there were two scenarios reused in “Ashes to Ashes.” One was Major Tom at home, reading the paper while sitting in a spaceship chair in a black-and-white “Fifties” kitchen (it became more of a dentist’s chair in “Ashes”). Trash bins and ranges explode around him while his nurse? director?—in the Everett video, she’s shown filming him—calmly does the dishes.

Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980?, filmed 18 September 1979

The other concept was a figure in an asylum, a large padded wall behind him as a backdrop. In the Everett “Space Oddity,” Bowie commits himself to the ward, walking in, sitting down to sing about Major Tom. In “Ashes to Ashes,” he no longer has a guitar and seems to be more of a prisoner, a feeling heightened by new shots of Bowie shackled to a wall in what looks like the asylum’s basement, with tubes and hoses attached to his torso (“a nation hides its organic minds in a cellar, dark and grim,” as he’d sung in “All the Madmen”).

The two asylum sets, with slight differences: Kenny Everett (1979), “Ashes to Ashes” (1980)

As Bowie told MacKinnon, this latter shot (directly above) “was supposed to be the archetypal 1980s ideal of the futuristic colony that has been founded by the earthling [emphasis mine] of what he looks like—and in that particular sequence the idea was for the earthling to be pumping out himself and to be having pumped into him something organic. So there was a very strong Giger influence there [specifically, Giger’s work on the just-released Alien]: the organic meets hi-tech.”

But Pierrot-on-the-beach would be the video’s central image—it’s easy to forget its other sections. The David Bowie Is exhibit had one of Bowie’s sketches for it. As with the 1969 David Bowie illustration, the Pierrot walks with a woman, though here it’s at night, under the moon, and she’s a shabbier figure. By the filming, the woman had resumed the “middle-class mum” appearance of the David Bowie illustration, with a long-standing rumor that she was played by Peggy Jones.

“We went down to the beach, and I took a woman there who looked like my mother,” Bowie said in 1993. “That’s the surrealistic part of making movies.” (The actress was reportedly Wyn Mac, wife of British comedian Jimmy Mac.)

Bowie wanted to stage the Pierrot sequence on a shore, somewhere in England. “A clown on a beach with a bonfire,” Mallet recalled of the brief that Bowie gave him.

As Nicholas Pegg discovered a while back, a long-missing piece of the puzzle is a Justin Hayward performance of “Forever Autumn” on the Kenny Everett Show in July 1978—Hayward sits on the Pett Level beach, with the cliff behind him seen at roughly the same angle as in Bowie’s video, and with similar video distortion effects applied to land, water, and sky. It seems obvious the Pett location came quickly to mind for Mallet when Bowie said he needed a beach.

In keeping with how Scary Monsters, and in particular “Ashes to Ashes,” was Bowie “eradicating the feelings within myself that I was uncomfortable with…you have to accommodate your pasts within your persona,” as he later said, the three Bowie figures in the video all hail from his turn-of-the-Seventies: Major Tom, the urban spaceman; the asylum dweller of “All the Madmen” (the unluckier of the Bewlay Brothers); and the sad Pierrot of Bowie’s mime years, whose persona Bowie would use as a narrative voice from “An Occasional Dream” to “Thursday’s Child.”

The shore is the line between solidity and liquidity: it is a border that’s forever eroding, broadening, receding, secreting and revealing objects like a magician, never to look the same upon your next visit. The site of evacuations and invasions, it is permanent transition. I wonder if the opening of Michael Moorcock’s An Alien Heat (1972) came to mind for Bowie, too:

The Iron Orchid and her son sat upon a cream-colored beach of crushed bone. Some distance off a white sea sparkled and whispered…[later] Jherek noticed that the sea had turned a deep pink, almost a cerise, and was clashing dreadfully with the beach, while on the horizon behind him he saw that two palms and a cliff had disappeared altogether…

This is an Earth of the far distant future, at the tail end of time, where humanity is reduced to a decadent few who loll about in their glorious collapsing cities and freak pleasure gardens. As Moorcock wrote in his introduction to his trilogy (Alien Heat is the first book of his Dancers at the End of Time), “even if these inhabitants were not conscious of the fact that they lived at the end of time…their schemes—often grandiose and perverse—were pursued without obsession and left uncompleted without regret.”

transition, transmission

While the other parts of the video—Major Tom in the asylum, or sitting anesthetized in his stage-set “home”—suggest that the Pierrot sections are Major Tom’s hallucinations or dreams, it’s the Pierrot figure who has the control. He’s the only Bowie character in the video who moves, who exists outside of a set, who’s directing the action. He performs acts of purification—a sacrificial bonfire, the release of a white dove—before his dissolution. First, in spirit: he winces in pain when a snapping photographer takes his soul; later in body, as the Pierrot sinks into the ocean. (Aileen Dillane, Eoin Devereux and Martin Power delve more into the symbolism in their essay on “Ashes to Ashes”).

There’s a funeral march along the shore. The Pierrot walks with the children who will succeed him; he is their divine mother. The sexton machine grumbles behind them, loud and impatient, but it will bury nothing—the clown will be taken by the sea. Walk five abreast, strike the earth, recite the old rhyme (“my mother said, to get things done…”), clasp hands. Do this in memory of me. I will soon be nothing but old lies and air.

For a funeral, one needs mourners, if only a handful, and Bowie knew where to find them.

Blitz, Covent Garden, 1980. © Dick Scott-Stewart Archive (Museum of London)

The making of that video was the death knell for the Blitz and in my mind for Bowie as an innovator. It was my first peek beneath the veneer of public perception and its contrast with reality. Bowie was actually a pilferer and a follower stylistically – finger on the pulse but a follower nevertheless.

Christos Tolera, artist and ex-Blitz Kid, to David Johnson, 2010.

Around 1976, London clubs began having “Bowie nights,” where DJs played Bowie records and clubgoers dressed as an edition of him. By 1978, the big Bowie night was at Billy’s in Soho, where Rusty Egan was the DJ and Steve Strange worked the door. By the turn of the Eighties, the scene had shifted to the Blitz Club in Covent Garden, where Bowie nights became competitive pose-offs. Egan and Strange would form Visage, later described by Simon Reynolds as “a confederacy of punk failures looking for a second shot at stardom” (so, very Bowie).

Bowie was naturally intrigued and visited the Blitz one night, slipping through the back door and being ensconced in an upper room, like slumming royalty. Each party had reservations about the other. Strange, like other Blitz Kids, regarded Bowie as a skilled operator, someone “allowed to get his ideas across quicker than up-and-coming bands. He’s always in the right place at the right time, checking out ideas. When he was in London he was always at the Blitz or at Hell.” And Bowie bottled his thoughts into “Teenage Wildlife,” his early midlife crisis song.

For “Ashes to Ashes,” he wanted some Blitz Kids, his spiritual and sartorial children, on the beach with his clown. So he and Coco Schwab went on safari at the club for the most intriguing-looking numbers (it suggests the opening scene of The Hunger). Strange, who was an operator himself, was an obvious pick. As Strange wrote in his biography, Bowie told him, “’Look, I’d like you to pick the clothes you are going to wear, and to choose three other extras for the video. But there is only one snag. We have to meet tomorrow morning at 6 AM outside the Hilton to leave for the location shoot.’ I rushed around and found Judith Frankland, Darla Jane Gilroy, and another girl for the video.”

The “another girl,” the ballerina of the set, is the mystery of the group. Her name, reportedly, was Elise Brazier and nothing has been heard from her since, as far as I know.

Some stills appear to predict Bill Sienkiewicz’s work on The New Mutants

The other Blitz kids in the video were a pair of brilliant young designers: Judith Frankland, a recent graduate of Ravensbourne College of Art, and Saint Martin’s alum Darla Jane Gilroy.

“I was invited, as was Darla Jane, over to the table where David Bowie and his PA Coco were sitting, and offered a glass of champagne,” Frankland wrote in 2011. “Darla and I were both dressed in a similar ecclesiastic style and were asked to take part [in the video] for what at that time was a decent sum of money for penniless, decadent students.” This was £50—not bad for 1980.

Frankland was the costumer for the Blitz quartet. She had gotten attention for her Ravensbourne graduation collection, which had a show at Cafe Royal in London. Her style was once called “Romantic monasticism” and “Balenciaga hears The Sound of Music” (the latter was dead-on, as it was Frankland’s favorite film as a child—the evening-gown habits that she designed came from her memories of it).

Frankland’s 1980 graduation collection show (Niall McInerney, via The Swelle Life).

Frankland’s designs (in “Ashes,” she and Gilroy wore her nun’s habits, while Strange was in her black wedding gown, whose veil and hat had been made by their friend Stephen Jones) tapped into an eerie key at the end of the Seventies. A sort of neo-medieval formality, as if in homage to a future that was never going to come. Court clothes for a lost extraterrestrial aristocracy, whisked together from scraps across the centuries. A look that, again, calls to mind Moorcock’s decadents at the end of time:

Lord Jagged…concocted for himself a loose, lilac-colored robe with the kind of high, stiff collar he often favoured, and huge puffed sleeves from which peeped the tips of his fingers, and silver slippers with long, pointed toes, and a circlet to contain his long platinum hair: a circlet in the form of a rippling, living 54th Century Uranian lizard.

An Alien Heat
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parallels, variations, echoes: Frankland’s 1980 “nun” collection in Viz; Ylla and Yll in The Martian Chronicles (1980; designer: Cynthia Tingey); Alia Atreides in Dune (1984; Bob Ringwood)

The making of the video was a touch less romantic. Frankland recalled waking up in her bedsit in South Kensington and wondering if meeting Bowie and Schwab the previous night had been a dream, until the communal phone rang and she got instructions (presumably from Schwab). She was to wear what she’d had on at the Blitz, and the same makeup, and to be outside the Hilton “at some ungodly hour…to get on a coach to a secret location,” which turned out to be Pett Level.

The four Blitz Kids arrived at the beach to be greeted by Bowie already in costume. “He coached us for a few minutes on the words we were to mime and then the day was spent in sinking sand and mud,” Frankland wrote.

Happenstance and accidents played their parts. Bowie had noticed an idle bulldozer, property of the local government, parked down the beach. Struck by the idea of having the bulldozer as a “symbol of oncoming violence,” Bowie wanted it in the shoot. A few phone calls later (no doubt Schwab on the case again), a local driver was rolling the machine behind Bowie and the kids.

Blitz Kids take five at Pett Level (from a now-defunct? Blitz Kids website)

It was difficult for everyone to keep the same pace. “If I was too fast, I caught David up; if I was too slow, the bulldozer kept catching the robe I was wearing,” Strange wrote. “There’s a famous moment in it where it looks as if I am bending forward to bow. What I was actually doing was moving the hem of my robe to avoid getting pulled over by the bulldozer, but they decided to keep it in.”

A perfect example of how Bowie could seize upon a chance accident and expand it—he had Gilroy do the ground-slapping gesture as well, so that the two “wings” of the group seem to perform acts of consecration. And he’d turn the gesture into a dance move in his subsequent video for “Fashion.”

The original idea was to have the Blitz Kids only in the beach sequence, but Bowie, happy with how things were turning out, asked them to come to Ewart Studios in Wandsworth, where interiors were being shot. They would be a Greek chorus during the Major Tom “kitchen” scene.

“The scene we were to do at the studio involved an explosion and I was at the back,” Frankland wrote. “In fact if you look at the video you can see my crucifix swing in. We were told to duck out and run after we had mimed our piece or we could be hurt. This was difficult in a hobble dress, so I hoisted it up as high as I could and got ready to run. Quite a sight for the superstar sat behind me.”

And that was it. The Blitz Kids were driven back to London and spent the night clubbing at Hell. Mallet enhanced the beach shots with solarizing effects from the brand-new Quantel Paintbox. The video set the topsy-turvy colors of the outdoor shots against the high-contrast black-and-white of the “kitchen” ones, with the asylum shots as an intermediary.

What did Bowie and Mallet have with it? It’s too much to say they’d invented the grammar of MTV (Kate Bush was doing similar stuff at the same time, for instance) but “Ashes to Ashes” certainly provided a template. First, it just looked cool. Fantastic-looking weirdos on a candy-colored beach, leavened by explosions. There was nothing remotely like it on American television, at least.

Bowie managed, for the first time, to convey on film the sort of jump-cut, indirect narrative of his best songs—he was overdubbing a dense layer of new information upon an already-complex set of tracks (the Visconti-produced master). The sensation, watching the video, was something like the Choose Your Own Adventure books—a set of scenarios and decisions, some leading you deeper in, some killing you off.

“There’s an awful lot of cliched things in the video, but I think I put them together in such a way that the whole thing isn’t cliched,” Bowie said in 1980. “The general drive of the sensibility that comes over is some feeling of nostalgia for the future. I’ve always been hung up on that; it creeps into everything I do.”

It’s the visualization of a cusp song—an old world is falling away, the edges are blurring, but the new world that it shakes into view is still unclear. The careerist fabulousness of the Blitz Kids? A return to a falsified Fifties? A time when dreams need to be repressed, stowed away in the cellars and asylums? Bowie was winding down his Sixties and Seventies, disassembling his past, with a sense of foreboding as to what would take its place: could he have foreseen Tonight and Glass Spider? No, directly ahead of him was respectability, class, nuance—The Elephant Man, Baal, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. The Eighties were going to be a serious time.

The past will be burned and buried: toll the bell, pay the private eye, as Bowie later sang. Only a few exiles will be left to recall it. The future is to be found on the shore at Pett Level, near Winchelsea. It is steep, and covered with shingles.

Coda: In 1993, Michael Dignum was working on the video for Bowie’s “Miracle Goodnight.” “We had a change that was gonna take 10-15 mins to complete,” he later said. So he struck up a conversation with Bowie, his childhood hero, and asked him what he thought the biggest moment of his career was. “His reply was EPIC. And it went like this:”

“I was on the set of the music video ‘Ashes to Ashes,’ do you know the one?…So we’re on the beach shooting this scene with a giant bulldozer…I’m dressed from head to toe in a clown suit. Why not. I hear playback and the music starts. So off I go, I start singing and walking, but as soon as I do this old geezer with an old dog walks right between me and the camera…

As he was walking by the camera, the director said, excuse me, mister, do you know who this is? The old guy looks at me from bottom to top and looks back to the director and said…’Of course I do!!!! It’s some cunt in a clown suit.’ That was a huge moment for me. It put me back in my place and made me realize, yes, I’m just a cunt in a clown suit. I think about that old guy all the time.”

Michael Dignum, Facebook post, 11 January 2016

Ashes to Ashes.” Directors: David Mallet, David Bowie; Concept: Bowie. Starring: Bowie, Steve Strange, Judith Frankland, Darla Jane Gilroy, Elise Brazier, Wyn Mac? Costumes: Natasha Korniloff (Pierrot suit), Frankland (Blitz kids outfits), Stephen Jones, Fiona Dealey, Richard Ostell (hats, veil); makeup: Richard Sharah. First release: 19 September 1989, Sound + Vision (on a VCD likely unplayable today).

Sources: [background] the (velvet) goldmine that is Shapers of the 80s; Roger Griffin, Golden Years; Nicholas Pegg, Complete David Bowie; Kevin Cann, A Chronology; [quotes] Bowie, to NME (13 September 1980), to Musician (April 1990), in “David Bowie Weekend” on MTV (4-5 April 1993), A&E Biography (“David Bowie: Sound and Vision”) (2002); Mallet, to Marc Spitz (Bowie, 2009) and Dylan Jones (Bowie: A Life, 2017); Strange, in autobiography (Blitzed!, 2002) and to Spitz; Frankland, in “Frankly Frankland: The Blitz, David Bowie and Ashes To Ashes” (The Swelle Life, 22 February 2011). Dillaine, Devereux & Power’s essay “Culminating Sounds and (En)visions: Ashes to Ashes and the Case for Pierrot” is collected in David Bowie: Critical Perspectives; on the history of Pett, sources inc. Christa Cloutier’s “The Blessed Little Sea Shanty,” (Guardian, 30 Sept 2009), Michael Foley’s Martello Towers (2013) & description of latter comes from BP Smith’s Journal (1834). Most of the Pett towers had to be abandoned due to beach erosion by the end of the 19th C.

*Most Bowie references (Pegg, Cann, Griffin) note that the video was shot in May 1980, but Strange once said it was in early July. Given the English climate, it’s impossible to determine by sight if the beach shoot is in summer or no (Brazier, who has the only skimpy costume, is wearing an overcoat to cover herself in one “off-stage” photograph, seen above—but again, this proves nothing, as it’s a beach near Hastings). It would make a bit more sense if the video had been filmed later than May, given that Bowie had just completed “Ashes” that month—a shoot a few weeks later, which still left enough time for post-production before the single’s release in early August, is perhaps more likely?


Killing a Little Time

May 4, 2020

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Killing a Little Time (Bowie).
Killing a Little Time (Lazarus, Michael C. Hall).

Most of Bowie’s Blackstar/No Plan songs accept death or dismiss it; they regret having to leave and grumble about doing the packing. And then there’s “Killing a Little Time,” a rage at death in a would-be heavy metal/jazz fusion piece: a strange, garish anomaly among Bowie’s last works.

Take its opening guitar riff, F and E notes played over E minor and A minor chords, with a descending A-G#-F tag. Perhaps this started off as Bowie considering some sort of Bill Frisell or Marc Ribot-inspired accompaniment, but the end result is more chest-puffed-out adolescent riffing, with another guitar even harmonized two steps up in a classic cheesy Eighties metal move.

Donny McCaslin recalled that “it was always this angry, pissed off-song.” A labored-over composition, “Killing a Little Time” was first cut in the January 2015 Blackstar sessions, its initial arrangement having prominent synthesizer parts. When recut in March, the instrumentation was simplified, with McCaslin scoring new horn parts and “harmoniz[ing] them in this dark way,” he told Mojo. Its highlight is the drum track, one of Mark Guiliana’s master performances in the sessions. While technically in 4/4 (as emphasized by his clanging cymbal pattern), Guiliana sounds as if he’s doubling time on alternating beats in every measure, which, along with Tim Lefebvre’s syncopated bassline, makes “Killing a Little Time” lurch, sway, rumble. It feels punch-drunk—one comparison, and a possible influence, is the similar time distortion in “If You Can See Me.”

As often, Bowie had a sharp eye when watching his collaborators. “Killing a Little Time” sounds as if he’s processing what he’d taken from his composing sessions and small group workshops with Maria Schneider in 2014. He (and McCaslin) drew from her “Sue” arrangement (see how McCaslin scores his woodwinds in the second verse of “Killing a Little Time”) and, for organizational and tonal ideas, Bowie’s favorite of Schneider’s compositions, “Dance You Monster to My Soft Song” (1994), a piece that McCaslin said helped him “get inside of [“Killing”] a little bit.” (Henry Hey’s arrangement for Lazarus keeps close to Bowie/McCaslin’s, with a few minor changes such as substituting horns for keyboard chord support in the intro, while the lead-up to the refrain lacks McCaslin’s ascending woodwind line.)

Lyrically, the song also took a long path—Bowie kept revising lines and cut his final vocals at the very end of the sessions (a key difference between the Blackstar songs and the ones consigned to Lazarus/No Plan is that the latter were far more reworked in the studio, McCaslin said, with tracking sessions spread out over months and various arrangements tried out).

Tim Lefebvre said in 2018 that “Killing a Little Time” began as a song originally reported as an outtake, “Black Man of Moscow,” whose title subject was a) an undisclosed medieval czar, perhaps along the same lines as the unnamed medieval villain of “The Next Day” and/or b) the nineteenth-century Russian poet Pushkin, who had African ancestry. “I lay in bed/ the monster fed/ the body bled/ I turned and said” isn’t quite a Pushkin sonnet, though.

In Lazarus, Michael C. Hall sings “this tidal wave” as “thees tidal waaave,” and treats the long notes as if they’ve done him harm. It’s his most Hedwig and the Angry Inch moment in the play. In his recording (which predates Hall’s), Bowie hangs back more, although he expectorates “fuck you over” and bites into his blood-sponge words (“sym-pho-neeee,” “fyur-ious raaaaaaain”) with as much relish as Hall does. 

No surprise that “Killing a Little Time” didn’t make the cut for Blackstar: it would have been tonally jarring in the LP sequence and had perhaps too many similarities to “Sue” and the title track (compare its refrain to the “Blackstar” coda). The most overlooked of Bowie’s final compositions, “Killing a Little Time,” if a bit leaden, is also sharp and fresh. It’s a launching point for a scrapped mission: it could have led to somewhere interesting, had Bowie been granted some more years to write.

It was used in Lazarus as a piece for Thomas Jerome Newton to sing when his deranged assistant Elly and the killer Valentine invade his apartment. Until the outtake “Blaze” is released (will it ever be?), “Killing a Little Time” is Bowie’s last-ever studio vocal: a petulant rant whose core demand is that of his 1969 “Cygnet Committee”I want to live! If he can’t, he’ll bring the house down with him.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 23 March 2015, Magic Shop; (overdubs) ca. April 2015; (vocals) 19 May 2015, Human Worldwide. First release: 21 October 2016, Lazarus: The Original New York Cast.

Top photo: Juan Salmoral, “103rd Street, New York”, 11 September 2015.


Diamond Dogs at 33 1/3rd

April 16, 2020

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Glenn Hendler is a professor of English and American studies at Fordham University and author of the just-published 33 1/3rd book on Bowie’s Diamond Dogs. This is the second book in the 33 1/3rd series on Bowie’s albums—the previous one is Hugo Wilcken’s Low, now nearly 15 years old (!).

Given that Glenn’s book promotion was hit by the ongoing pandemic nightmare, I wanted to interview him in depth to give you a sense of what his study of Diamond Dogs is about. You can buy the book directly from his publisher here. He and I exchanged a series of emails in early April, which I’ve edited into the following conversation. Hope you enjoy.

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CO: Let’s start with the writing of the book. When did you pitch the idea to 33 1/3rd, and was Diamond Dogs always the LP you wanted to do? It’s the first in the series since Wilcken’s Low. One might have thought that 33 1/3rd would have gone with a warhorse like Ziggy or Scary Monsters as the next Bowie volume, so I was delighted when I saw they’d picked you.

Glenn Hendler: At least since I became someone who writes about culture—studying film history and theory as an undergrad, going to grad school and becoming an English professor—I’ve long fantasized about writing about David Bowie. Decades ago, I even sketched out an article about Lou Reed and Bowie, and their related but different ways of addressing their listeners (probably the only thing it would have had in common with the DD book is that it would have included the word “interpellation”). Somewhat more recently, I jotted down some notes about an article I wanted to write about singing “Kooks” to my kid from the time he was a few days old (I still do, most nights). But I kept writing about the 19th Century, which wasn’t going to lead me back to David Bowie.

Then two things happened. By sheer coincidence, I ended up sitting next to then-33 1/3 editor Ally-Jane Grossan on a plane, noticed that she was reading interesting-looking things about music, and engaged her in conversation. She asked—as I’m sure 33 1/3 editors always do when they encounter a chatty fan of the series!—what album I’d want to write about. I said that while the most obvious album would be Ziggy Stardust, I might have more to say about Diamond Dogs…and that there were lots of other options, too! She was politely encouraging, said there was only the one Bowie book in the series and they’d be open to doing another if the proposal grabbed their interest.

I kept that idea percolating for a long time. Then Bowie died, I took those notes about “Kooks,” and—very quickly, especially for an academic—pulled together an article that was published on the Avidly blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books. That got some positive responses…including from one of the then-new four-member editorial team at 33 1/3, Kevin Dettmar (who also wrote the volume on Gang of Four’s Entertainment). I just submitted a proposal in response to an open call, and was thrilled that it was accepted.

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CO: So, our first hearings of Diamond Dogs are rather different. You first hear it in 1974, at age 12, which seems like the perfect age! I was 18, in late 1990, buying the Ryko CD reissues in rough release order.

And I didn’t really like Diamond Dogs. I listened to it the least of the batch between Man Who Sold and Station. I’m trying to recall why. Something about it bugged me then—the “cabaret” songs like “Sweet Thing” and “We Are the Dead” didn’t connect at all and I even found them grating. I was into “Big Brother” and “1984” (in part because I already knew them from the Sound + Vision comp) and “Rebel Rebel” was, of course, the hit—the only song you’d hear on Connecticut classic rock radio then. Whereas you describe DD as “the first album that challenged me to study it.” Did it hook you immediately, or was there a period similar to mine where you had to really work to get into it? I feel like I failed the test, back then.

GH: So you grew up in Connecticut, too? When you say, “Connecticut classic rock radio,” I think WPLR—is that right? That’s what I grew up listening to…though my first radio listening came before FM had really caught on, and everyone listened to Top 40 AM radio because you didn’t have a choice.

CO: WPLR, yes, but more WCCC and WHCN, which were the two classic rock monoliths of the late 1980s in Connecticut. These were very canonical-minded—would often do Top 250 Best Rock Songs Ever Blah Blah weekends, etc. (“Stairway to Heaven” always #1). My best friend and I would call them up and ask them to play Husker Du or Fishbone & the DJs would get mad (“that’s not a real group, stop messing around” one said).

GH: I remember WHCN, vaguely. My Bowie listening started when he was mostly just not on the radio at all, at least not the radio I heard. It was totally word of mouth and all about who bought vinyl albums. I remember playing not Diamond Dogs but David Live; that was my real first exposure. It was the guitar on David Live that hooked me first (at the same time, I got into Lou Reed because of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal; I can still reproduce in my head every note of the long guitar duet at the beginning of “Sweet Jane” on that album).

It was right about then that I got my first stereo and record player, and gave my parents a list of records to get me for my birthday. From that list I got most of the early Bowie albums. I think I liked Man Who Sold the World first—more macho guitars—and a lot of Aladdin Sane. For the same reasons I liked the guitar-heavy songs on the other albums, such as “Suffragette City” and “Ziggy Stardust.” As an indication, the other albums on that initial list included the first two by Bachman-Turner Overdrive (lots of crunching guitar chords; I heard them as similar to “Ziggy Stardust”). Plus: Elton John, who at first vied with Bowie for my affections. I got Caribou and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. There was some hard guitar there (“Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting”), but Bowie and Elton John both mixed the guitar rock with more piano-based, cabaret-like songs, and I guess that combination stuck with me.

While Diamond Dogs wasn’t the one that hooked me first, at the same time—for those last reasons—I didn’t find the non-rock stuff grating. In fact, because my first exposure was to David Live, and that documented the Diamond Dogs tour, there were more familiar songs on DD than on any other album. I suspect, in retrospect, that it mattered that the David Live version of “Sweet Thing” was more guitar-centric than the original on the album. But—as the book explains—I was really into the lyrics, and that’s what at first challenged me. It just annoyed me that there was no lyric sheet, and so I wanted to figure them out. That led to me listening to the songs with headphones on, over and over, putting the needle back over and over again till I got what I thought were the right lyrics. Since I found myself doing the same thing with headphones on decades later when I was writing the book, it really brought that time back.

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CO: The book opens with the 1980 Floor Show, which remains among the more bizarre things Bowie ever did. You describe Diamond Dogs as an album of transition: would you agree that the Floor Show is the true prelude to it?

Because the Floor Show jumbles everything: the Marquee Club (where DB had a “residency” as a Mod in the ‘60s), Mick Ronson, Marianne Faithfull, the Astronettes, Ziggy, with “1984/Dodo” as a warning sign to fans of what was coming next. Is there a premonition in how Bowie’s tearing down and churning up the past here? And it’s so wonderfully garish and ugly—the lighting is school-theatre quality at times. Did you have the Floor Show as the opening from early on, in the writing of the book?

GH: Yes, from early on. It was such a formative moment for me as a kid, seeing it on TV [it first aired in the US in November 1973 on The Midnight Special]. If anything in the book I understate how much that blew me away, and how much it stuck in my mind for all the decades between the one time I saw it and when finally YouTube came along and I could see bits of it again. I had trouble figuring out how to frame the book with it (especially when I realized I’d seen it in 1974, on its rebroadcast, which kind of ruined the idea that I was among the first to see Bowie on TV in the US).

It was also pretty clear to me that I could use The 1980 Floor Show as a way of concisely getting Bowie’s history before Diamond Dogs into the book. I couldn’t assume that readers knew all that, after all. I think you’re exactly right when you say Bowie was “tearing down and churning up the past” in that show: his own past, the history of rock and pop music, everything. The Troggs represented one weird version of the past (and also stood in a way for Iggy Pop and Bowie’s own (re)discovery of the primitivism of rock music); the songs from Pin Ups on the show represented another. Carmen—I want to research and write more about Carmen! I consulted with some of the major experts on rock and Spanish-language music in Los Angeles, and none of them knew anything about Carmen!—seemed to point toward a future. There’s so much more to be written about that show, and Amanda Lear, and Bowie’s recurring interest in Octobriana, and all the things converging at that moment. The photo book about that show came out as I was writing, and I came across Madeline Bocaro’s really useful blog…but there’s still more to be said.

CO: I forgot about Carmen! And yes, Lear and Octobriana. What could’ve been. Bowie is churning up so much stuff in those months after the last Ziggy show. He’s both liberated and I think rather terrified—he’s ended the thing that’s finally gotten him famous, and only after a year or so. So ‘where to go next?’ consumes him in late 1973. Managing the Astronettes and working with Lulu (at the exact same time he’s making Diamond Dogs!—it’s understandable his coke period reportedly starts around now) suggests he still thought he’d be a songwriter/producer for other acts, too, as a sideline to occupy him if his other projects bombed out.

GH: Yet another never-written chapter would have been about The Astronettes, and had a lot about Ava Cherry as his connection to black music. If my book release party had actually happened—just one week earlier and we wouldn’t have been under quarantine (though I fear we instead would have been unknowingly spreading the virus!), one of the singers was going to be Raquel Cion, who does a Bowie Tribute show called Me and Mr. Jones. Raquel actually knows Ava Cherry—I’d like to have developed that connection and found out some stuff from her! Anyway, I think that’s a good reading of Bowie’s state at this point; liberated but directionless and a little panicked.

Oh, and one other thing: The 1980 Floor Show was a useful way for me to foreground my status as an American writer writing about an artist who was still very British. And to do so unapologetically. It allowed me, essentially, to argue that while the earlier albums had been for a UK audience, at the time of Diamond Dogs Bowie was now playing for me.

CO: I find Diamond Dogs being a UK #1 album fascinating, because it shows how Ziggymania was still red-hot there and how different the cross-Atlantic markets were for Bowie in the 70s. Bowie doesn’t really start moving LPs in the US in substantial numbers until Young Americans.

GH: Yes—another thing cut from the book was a lengthy piece on the difference between the UK and US audiences, including the way radio worked. All that remained was the thread that was about him trying to make it in America in different ways, and that’s pretty undeniable. I am guessing that my rather jaundiced view of the song “Diamond Dogs”—even though it matches Charles Shaar Murray’s—is the thing in my book that would most distress many UK readers, since that song was a pretty big hit there. I’ve always wondered how the world would be different if Bowie had released either “1984” or even “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me” as the follow-up single to “Rebel Rebel.” Would he have moved from the AOR niche he carved out with “Rebel Rebel” onto black (or rather interracial) radio earlier, before “Fame”? Would “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me” have put him in competition with Elton John for the piano ballad mainstream? It really is an Elton John song in some ways. “Diamond Dogs” was just a terrible choice for a second single.

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CO: I liked your argument that while Diamond Dogs has three main tributaries—-the stillborn George Orwell adaptation, a Ziggy Stardust cut-up musical, and the William BurroughsWild Boys-inspired Hunger City/Halloween Jack stuff—there’s so much more blurring and interweaving between the concepts within the individual songs. Looking back, I think I pushed the “three albums” idea too hard—I now see DD’s far more of a conceptually murky album than I first considered. Is the power of DD in part because it’s so difficult to get a sense of where Bowie’s coming from?

GH: All I can say to this is “yes.” I think this was the aspect of my book that could have most easily been framed as building on you but also arguing with you—but also with so much other writing about Diamond Dogs that splits it up into parts. And yes, that’s the challenge of the album. I think it’s both more “murky” and more cohesive than it’s been made out to be. I know there’s always a risk of a critic imagining more cohesiveness in the object of analysis than the artist ever imagined, and so I’m sure that some of what I’m doing in the book is making it more cohesive. But even if that’s so, I think that in a way hearing it as more cohesive makes it more interesting to listen to.

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CO: You note how the Diamond Dogs lyrics are often an “I” character that’s addressing a “you,” and that this sort of design isn’t in the service of love songs but more, as you say, along the lines of a policeman yelling “hey, you!” to someone on the street. Was this something you noticed while writing, or had this been something you’d been aware of as a listener, years before? I thought it was an insightful observation. Is there a sense that the whole album is a dialogue between DB and his fans, in this cracked way?

GH: Definitely. If you’ve gotten to what I say about “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” (a song that I always found kind of dull, but came to see as a major part of the record), I think Bowie is kind of explicit about that. I don’t actually think the I/you structure is that unusual for Bowie; I think that’s something he used—selectively but importantly—throughout his career. (That’s what my “Kooks” piece is about, too.) And I think he often thinks about his relationship with his fans. I mean, the whole plot (such as it is) of Ziggy is imagining himself into a character who’s literally torn apart by his fans’ fanaticism. That he wrote and performed this before he really had many fans—that he made it come true through his own performance of it—is part of his brilliance. And that he could make fans (including me) feel that Blackstar was a parting gift to his fans (aren’t those Tony Visconti’s words?) without, this time, actually thematizing his fans (except, a little, in “I Can’t Give Everything Away”) is a sign, to me, that thinking about the performer/fan relation was one of the projects of his career.

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From the Terry O’Neill photo session, 30 January 1974

CO: I’ve called this record “diseased” and “rotten”-sounding before, which you seem to agree with. What do you suppose creates this kind of aural sensation? The distorted instruments? The use of doubling (the bass/harpsichord figures that you mention in “1984”)? Bowie’s scrungy lead guitar lines? The sort of seemingly rough edits in “Big Brother,” as you note? In line with how Bowie was ripping off the Stones openly on the title track and “Rebel Rebel,” I now wonder if it was his take on the sound of Exile on Main St.

GH: I do agree, so long as you meant “diseased” and “rotten” in a good way! And yes, all those factors play into the rottenness it conveys. I’d love to have a conversation with Tony Visconti sometime about what it was like to mix that album. He talks in his book about the brilliant work Bowie had already done in the studio, but it’s also clear that the tapes Bowie brought him were kind of a mess, and I suspect that some of the decisions he made (to accentuate the distortion) probably cover over some badly recorded or deteriorated tracks. And yes, I think the doubling of sounds, and of vocals, is crucial, not just for the general creepiness it produces, but that it also fits the paranoid themes of 1984. I think I say at one point that the second vocal track in “We Are the Dead” is like the state or the Party always watching, always knowing what was happening. [And on ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me’: “You (the Party) always were the one that knew.”] I’m not even sure I quite believe, myself, the claim that the pre-echo of the piano line in that song deliberately refers to that aspect of 1984, but I think it works that way, that it has that effect.

CO: While I haven’t been much of a fan of the new mixes of DB’s old albums, I wouldn’t mind hearing substantially different versions of Diamond Dogs tracks. Feels like there’s so much buried—I wouldn’t be surprised if there were all sorts of backing vocals, saxophone, Mellotron lines that were turfed in the final mix.

GH: Even the minor remixing that’s reproduced in the Who Can I Be Now? collection that I now listen to the most—because I like The Gouster better than Young Americans—clarifies some instruments. The acoustic guitar strumming under “Rebel Rebel,” for instance. My sense is that Mike Garson is the player who lost the most due to the muddy mix on Diamond Dogs. When his piano emerges from the muck for a few moments, it’s either a gorgeous set of chords, as in “Sweet Thing,” or furiously wild playing that does not deserve to be way in the background, as in “Candidate.” I wonder, though, if a better mix might oddly decouple some of the instruments that are so closely mixed that you can’t hear them separately, like the two instruments locked together in “1984,” or whatever interlocked combination of Mellotron and guitar that is playing in “Chant” (I have little idea what the main instruments are there!).

And yes, there’s more to say about the Stones and the “anxiety of influence,” as (if I recall correctly) you call it. I can’t recall if it got into the book or was cut, but I read “Diamond Dogs” itself (the one song on the album I’ve never liked) as Bowie’s effort to create the kind of loose rock band sound that is epitomized on Exile on Main Street, but to do so by splicing a lot of tapes together rather than by gathering a band together in a big old house and recording the jamming together. That’s part of what’s so interesting about the album, is how Bowie hit a set of paradoxes here. Rather than trying to solve the tension between the ideology of authenticity that Simon Reynolds talks about in the 1960s, and the obsessive constructedness that was his method, he just stages that as a contradiction on the album, in song after song.

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CO: That’s a great point. Using a clip of a live Faces recording to kick off the album is part of that, too. “Sampling” rock ‘n’ roll in a way, making his own weird model kit version of it—akin to all the scale models and video clips he was making of Hunger City at the time.

GH: Looking at it that way, it makes perfect sense that he’d go from this to an immersion in the Gamble and Huff Philly sound, and soul music in general, because in that context, there just is no contradiction between authenticity and expressiveness, on the one hand, and a well-constructed and crafted studio album, on the other. I feel like those videos of him orchestrating the intricate call-and-response of “Right,” and then leaning back with a smile as Luther Vandross et al just do it, with feeling, show an artist who has come to a completely different resolution to the conflicts staged in the making of Diamond Dogs. Does that make sense?

CO: Yeah, the usual 180 degree move for Bowie? Young Americans is meant to be communal, live, made “on location” with American Latino and black musicians, with his fans camped right outside the studio while he works (though of course he tinkers with the tapes as much as he did on Diamond Dogs). Tin Machine, 15 years later, is another variation on this.

GH: It is a 180 degree turn in a way, but I think I read it more as a resolution to the problems he staged (fascinatingly) but couldn’t solve on Diamond Dogs. To get a bunch of musicians to work intimately together, but then to work with the tapes and do complex things in the production and mixing process, was not to do two antithetical things in the Gamble & Huff world; that’s just how the music industry worked. It’s only in the rockist (to use a word that wouldn’t have been used at the time) world shaped by people like the Rolling Stones that this would seem like a real problem. I think it’s all tied to Bowie’s shifting understanding of black American culture. The rock version of the ideology of authenticity—which (pace Simon Reynolds) he was still tied to even after the glam years, had to do with the white British vision of a cultural authenticity grounded in the blues. When Bowie started listening to soul and early disco, and the sound of Philadelphia, that kind of gritty authenticity started to seem irrelevant, and studio manipulation wasn’t in tension with spontaneity any more.

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CO: The use of stasis and repetition often gets overlooked on DD: I liked how you showed what “Rebel Rebel” owes to this, how “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” becomes a loop of refrains halfway through. But I’m intrigued by how you came to decide Steve Reich was an influence on “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”—I’d thought that was probably too early, but you make a very good case for it (also congrats on nailing the time signatures of that track better than anyone I’ve read—it’s a nightmare!) [I’m not going to spoil it—buy the book.]

GH: That part of the book was me just asking lots of smart people what they thought, and pulling together what they said until I had a synthesis that I thought was right. I put out a general call on Facebook to listen to “Chant” and help figure out the time signature; I asked colleagues in the music department here. And I got lots of technical and other advice that I incorporated.

I started trying to figure out the time signature of “Chant” when I was about 16 or 17. I was at a boarding school in Connecticut, and generally very unhappy there as a semi-local surrounded by rich kids. But my senior year there I got as a roommate a guy named Matt Brubeck, son of Dave Brubeck. He taught me to appreciate a much wider range of music (including jazz, which up to that point I hadn’t listened to, but when you’re spending weekends at the Brubeck home and going to his concerts, you learn to appreciate it). I also tried to convince Dave to appreciate Bowie, without a lot of success. He was an avid listener to all music, so he was patient. The one song he was fascinated by, as I recall, was “Sons of the Silent Age.” Make of that what you will.

At any rate, Matt and I would sit and figure out time signatures of rock and jazz tunes, and specialized in identifying rock songs that were other than 4/4. It’s the only musical concept that I’ve ever really internalized. And I remember sitting with Matt and trying to figure out “Chant,” to no avail. It stumped even him at the time. (I don’t think we ever played that for Dave; I wish we had).

CO: Oh, the idea of Brubeck covering “Chant.”

GH: Anyway, almost 40 years later, when writing the book, I got in touch with Matt and asked him to listen to it again. In the meantime, he’s gotten a Ph.D. in musicology; he is on the faculty at York University in Canada. He’s the one who first suggested Steve Reich-influenced phasing on the song, explained to me how it might work, and pointed me to some basic readings that would help me understand it. (Coincidentally, I also went to hear some Reich performed live at about this time). I took what he told me, wrote it out in a way I could understand it, and sent it back to him; he made a couple of suggestions and corrections, and said he thought I’d got it right. A few of the other people who’d commented on Facebook also agreed. So that’s how I got there—using other people’s brains and knowledge! What I don’t have is a smoking gun, something showing that Bowie was aware of the phasing technique. But there’s Reich music using that technique that Bowie could easily have heard. Here’s another place where I think talking with Tony Visconti could be useful; I bet he’d know more about how that song was put together.

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Bowie and Garson at Olympic Studios, 14 January 1974 (Kate Simon)

CO: When you were revisiting DD for the book, did you revise any opinions you’d long had about it? Did you listen to it in a different way? One trick I used when I was doing my thing was to completely rearrange LP sequences to try to hear them fresh—I often listened to The Next Day in its recording order; same with Blackstar. Curious if you did something similar.

GH: I’ve already mentioned that I never thought much of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me.” In writing the book, I came to appreciate what he’s doing there (and to like some live versions of it much better than the original; the backing vocalists produce much more dynamism in relation to the song’s repetition). I didn’t so much listen to the songs in a different order, as you did. Mostly I listened to them in isolation from one another, and wrote about them separately. I also initially wrote about them in order, which resulted in a manuscript about twice as long as what Bloomsbury wanted. They assigned me a content editor, who bluntly, though politely, told me what I should have already known: that 33 1/3 books that go in order, track-by-track, rarely work. So she helped me reorder the chapters, which made it much easier to pare down the length. Sometimes when I reread it I think the order works really well; sometimes it seems a little random to me. But I am reasonably confident that it’s much better now that there aren’t 100 continuous pages about “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)” (OK, slight exaggeration), and that I deal with different aspects of that—my favorite Bowie piece ever—in different places in the book.

I had thoughts of using Raymond Williams’s keywords idea to organize my Bowie book, since I’ve spent the past decade-plus coediting Keywords books. But then Kevin Dettmar did that for his Gang of Four book. I do think a Keywords for David Bowie would be pretty fun to put together.

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CO: There wasn’t much in the book on DB’s sketches/video ideas for the album (like the Diamond Dogs living on “mealcaine” and the other bizarro stuff from sketches in the museum exhibit). At some point in the writing were you devoting more space to that angle (“the mutant crap” as John Lennon once called it)? Or were you always focusing more strictly on the music/lyrical interpretations, and found such material to be superfluous? 

GH: I’d intended to write more about that stuff when I planned the book, but then (as mentioned) wrote twice as much as 33 1/3 needed, just writing about the music and lyrics. Part of the reason is that I never got into the Bowie archive (despite corresponding with the two curators of David Bowie Is, who were supportive and helpful), and in any event I realized early on that my contribution here was going to be primarily interpretive, not archival. So no, I didn’t think it would be superfluous; I just didn’t take the time and didn’t have the space. I think a whole book could be written on the Diamond Dogs tour, including Bowie’s imagination of the film, how that translated into sets, etc. And that book should probably get going before more of the people involved pass away. There’s so much interesting stuff to be said, and in the course of my initial research I came across some stuff that’s never been in any of the biographies….but I decided that this book had to be just about the album. Even the 1980 Floor Show opening almost had to be cut for space…but I still thought the reader needed a way in, that reading a claustrophobic book about a claustrophobic album wouldn’t be a pleasant experience!

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CO: Did you hear the studio tape that just leaked of Bowie going through five or so takes of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me”? I found it charming and it made me like the song a bit more.  

[Glenn had not, and listened to the tape.] It is charming, indeed. That’s got to be Garson on piano, right? “Keep it clean, Mike”—trying to get him not to do his trills and frills that he loves so much. It’s so interesting, if this song was early (from the supposed Ziggy musical) that it was still not fully formed at this late date. But “I would take invaders into hand/while tens of millions failed to understand”—those lyrics make more sense in a Ziggy context, not so much in DD. And the shift from “tens of millions” to “tens of thousands” takes it from a global scale to the audience that might be present at a concert. I wonder when he changed the first word from “I” to “you.” That shift almost doesn’t matter: the “I” and the “you” are crucial, by my argument, but also often interchangeable. “Rental heats are counted down?” Yikes.

I guess what’s most striking is the lack of guitar. I wonder if he always intended to add it, or if he meant Garson’s piano to be the lead instrument. I’ve always wondered if Bowie played it himself (as the album credits would indicate) or if it’s another uncredited Alan Parker performance (as in “Rebel Rebel”). From just a few bars in, when the guitar should come in, to the final chords—which were clearly always part of the song but sound so weird just on piano, especially with a Garson trill at the end, as he keeps insisting on doing. Fascinating. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

CO: You didn’t go much into “Alternative Candidate,” the joker in a rigged pack of cards. When I wrote about it for the book, I found it exhausting to interpret—how does it fit in? Was it supposed to, ever? It’s the mystery at the heart of the album sessions for me. Curious if your thoughts on it wound up getting cut for space, since it’s not part of the proper album, or if you hit a similar wall.

GH: Everyone always asks me about “Alternative Candidate.” Someday I’ll have to figure out something to say about it. I never came up with any insights. I am fascinated by its existence, and its small lyrical links to “Candidate,” but I find the teenage boy/mountain-teenage girl/fountain opening just embarrassing, and think that while there are some cool lines (I like the three “I make it a thing” lines, for instance) and as you say in the blog, there are little fragments that either indicate Bowie’s obsessions of the time (the Fuhrerling is a fascinating word. So is the mention of Brylcreem) or would turn up later in other songs. Did you ever hear the unreleased Elvis Costello song “Seconds of Pleasure?” It’s this kind of storehouse of lyrics that later appear in other songs. Seems similar to me. The piano line is interesting—kind of boppy, but a bit ominous at the same time; I can see how he’d want to do something with it.

Ultimately, then, after that free associating, the answer is that I wrote more about the album as I heard it in 1974-5, so no “bonus tracks” come up, as far as I can recall. This is another difference I made consciously from what you did in your book (not to try to be better, but to be different). Yours is structured by Bowie’s creating the music: thus it had to be thorough, and it make perfect sense to write, song-by-song, in the order he produced them. Mine is structured by my listening to the album. No, it’s not in track-by-track order, but it is structured by what I heard then (and how those things seem now, looking back), not by what Bowie did when. I think that’s part of what occasionally makes us hear different things? But I’m not sure about that.

Thanks again to Glenn Hendler. A somewhat lengthier version of this conversation is on the Patreon, for those interested, along with other stuff.


Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me (Again)

April 6, 2020

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Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me (studio takes, 9 January 1974).

A happy surprise in a season of unhappy ones is the recent leak of an Olympic Studios tape of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” from January 1974. The source is, apparently, someone who made a digital copy of the tape, which was auctioned off by Omega last fall. The winning bidder paid £2,100. Now the world has it—who knows, perhaps the bidder was feeling generous.

As per Omega’s description of the session, from 9 January 1974: “The tape features Bowie pausing frequently to direct the musicians – in total there are six different takes with three being complete. The label lists a final version as “MASTER” but this is no longer present on the reel, presumably having been spliced off to be compiled with other album master tracks, possibly for further overdubbing etc.”

This is exactly the sort of thing—a series of studio takes, with Bowie shifting lyrics around, trying out phrasings and tempos, hitting bum notes, cracking up—that he had no interest in ever releasing. “Official” Bowie outtakes are almost always a complete performance, whether it’s a demo, live recording, fully-mixed studio take, alternate mix of a song, or, a DB favorite, a sketch that he monkeyed with years later to create a fake “lost” song (see “I Pray Ole”). Twenty minutes of Bowie running Mike Garson, Herbie Flowers, and Tony Newman through a song that he’d not quite finished: not so much.

So is it worth a listen? I found it pretty compelling—played it twice through. Not quite sure why, apart from its novelty. Maybe just to hear Bowie and his musicians doing a normal act—working out backing tracks of a song in a studio one night—is now comforting, similar to how films with scenes in restaurants or offices or crowded streets have a sudden, painful nostalgia to them. Random shots of life as we’ve known it our entire lives can seem as remote as film footage of a Cossack charge.

Bowie had been working on what became Diamond Dogs for months when he cut these takes in early January. This period at Olympic, with just Bowie, Garson, Flowers, and Newman on the session, was when the album, which had been a loose collection of songs from various prospective theatrical ventures, finally took shape—they cut much of the “Sweet Thing” sequence, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me,” “We Are The Dead,” “Big Brother” and “Diamond Dogs” alone in roughly 10 days (along with an early version of “Can You Hear Me”).

Hearing “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” in a stripped-down, developing state improves the song for me. It was always an odd fit for Diamond Dogs, playing the role that a cover song like “Fill Your Heart” or “It Ain’t Easy” had on Bowie’s earlier Seventies albums. A spot of reassurance on a diseased-sounding record, as I once called it—the brass hinge between the “Hunger City” songs on side one and the Nineteen Eighty Four pieces on the second side.

Co-composed by Bowie’s childhood friend (and 1974 tour vocalist) Geoff MacCormack, who came up with some of the verse chords, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” was apparently first slotted for the sketchiest of Bowie’s mid-Seventies plans: a Ziggy Stardust musical intended for the stage or TV. Talking to William S. Burroughs two months before this recording, Bowie said this musical would be a cut-up performance. He’d write some 40 scenes and then “shuffle [them] around in a hat the afternoon of the performance and just perform it as the scenes come out…it would change every night.”

A precursor of “We Are the Champions” and other arena standards, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” is made of “rock spiritual” timber—a “Lean On Me”/”Let It Be”-esque piano intro, a Garson organ hymn and a Bowie vocal that takes predictable flight: low and confined in the first verse, swoops up an octave for the second, capping it off with roared refrains and scats (“I’m in tears...I’m in tears”). In the rehearsal takes, you can hear Bowie plotting this course out (“the next time it comes around it keeps straight, like a 4/4 thing…that’s right, the high verse: AH la la la lah-dah!”)

What saves the song from sentimentality is its acerbic take on the relations of audience and actor (“they sold us for the likes of you”). “There are two stars in rock ‘n’ roll—me and the audience,” Bowie had said at one of the last Ziggy Stardust concerts in Newcastle, irritated by bouncers hitting some kids. “And if these stewards don’t stop…the stars are going to make this place into a matchbox.” If it’s meant to be the voice of Ziggy, it’s a Ziggy tartly explaining why he broke up the band and was renting a room somewhere in America to get away from his fans (“I’ve found a door that lets me out!”).

Asked in summer 1974 whether his fans considered him as a leader, Bowie said that “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” was his response: “you’re doing it to me. Stop it.” Eventually-scrapped lyrics in the rehearsal takes show how he was playing with this idea: “I would take invaders into hand/ tens of millions fail to understand.”

He could be frustrated by fans who got stuck on a persona he’d discarded. They were content to “adopt the stance of a character that didn’t exist at all, and a life-style that hadn’t been created…they created their own life-style for Ziggy,” he later said, baffled that anyone had taken him seriously. On stage in 1974, he used performances of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” to have gnomic dialogues with his crowds. In Boston, he broke off midway through it to ramble “this one is very much for you, this song…are you people? I’m people.” (“It’s about me and singing,” he said during another performance.) On the Diamond Dogs cut, he gave the last word to his lead guitar.

The rehearsal takes have a lightness and a dedication to them, the latter especially in Bowie’s singing—after being in a fog, he was seeing the way out. Diamond Dogs was a defiant album: the album after Ziggy and the Spiders died, the one that showed that Bowie could stand on his own without a Ronson or Visconti (though the latter helped with mixing it), the one he made after Sonia Orwell turned him down for Nineteen Eighty Four; the last album that he cut (mostly) in England. It was, in many ways, his first true solo album, and it always meant a great deal to him. Now, until the YouTube links dry up, you can hear Bowie singing part of it into being.


No Plan

March 23, 2020

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No Plan (Bowie).
No Plan (Bowie, video, 2017).
No Plan (Sophia Anne Caruso, Lazarus, 2015).
No Plan (Caruso, Lazarus cast recording, 2016).

When he dies, his spirit rises a meter. No music, but there’s sound. Nowhere, but Second Avenue just out of sight. The pieces of his soul—memories, loves and hates, dreams, idle ambitions, all his arable and barren selves—hold together but may soon drift apart. There’s no recognizable street plan anymore. North could now be west, Broadway could cross Avenue D. “This is no place,” the spirit says. “But here I am.” It steps aside into the not-quite-yet.

“No Plan” (called “Wistful (This Is Not Quite Yet)” in one Bowie draft of a Blackstar LP sequence) was always intended for Lazarus, Donny McCaslin believed. And Enda Walsh, the play’s co-author, said Bowie had asked him if Walsh had any lyrical ideas for the song. The most “Broadway” of the Blackstar-era pieces, its melody’s intervals are a bit suggestive of the leaps in Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” or “Something’s Coming.”

It’s unknown if Bowie originally had a woman’s voice in mind for the song, but by the time Lazarus was cast in summer 2015, he wanted a young female singer for it. He found her in the then-fourteen-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso, who once described “No Plan” as “a new song by David Bowie just for my character.” Bowie sent her a card on Lazarus’ opening night to say how much he appreciated her interpretations of his songs (in an act worthy of great karmic retribution, someone stole the card afterward).

In Lazarus, “No Plan” is one of the spotlight songs for Caruso’s character, Marley, known mostly in the play as The Girl, a not-quite-dead murder victim who becomes the guardian angel of the exiled alien Thomas Jerome Newton. Singing “No Plan” is how she introduces herself, stating the terms of her confinement while Newton pours himself another drink.

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Bowie’s recorded version of “No Plan” predates Lazarus by nearly a year—it was among the earliest tracks that he and the McCaslin Quartet cut in January 2015, in the first batch of the Blackstar sessions.

McCaslin recalled to Mojo of Bowie’s “No Plan” “that there was more tinkering with the instrumentation than we did with the others, and more takes… It’s a bit more like a show tune. In fact the second time we approached it, he sent a new demo. First time was David and guitar. This one had acoustic piano [Henry Hey] and a female singer, and she had a dramatic musical theater approach.” McCaslin was central to Bowie’s arrangement, doing multiple overdubs: “I play a bunch of flutes and some clarinet and low-end tenor sax stuff,” he said. Also key is Mark Guiliana, whose drum pattern is a ribbon of tension in the verses—the Lazarus recording sounds weightless by comparison.

(Given the timing (early 2015), the demo singer couldn’t have been Caruso, who was cast the following summer—presumably it was someone with whom Hey worked. McCaslin also recalled the band remaking “No Plan” in the last Blackstar sessions of March 2015, though Nicholas Pegg has that the released “No Plan” was mostly tracked in the January 2015 sessions, including Bowie’s full vocals. Perhaps there was a March retake that wound up being discarded? Or maybe McCaslin was recalling the flute and sax overdubs he did in that period—Ben Monder’s guitar was recorded then as well.)

Sparse in its harmonic structure—the verses often hold on a B-flat major seventh chord, with a few feints, like a move to F# (“I’m lost” “nowhere now”); the refrains move to E-flat minor, now with shifts to F major (“without a plan” “here I am”)—“No Plan” is also subtly clever in its construction, having a five-bar verse that Bowie later extends. As McCaslin said, “he was playing with form, dropping this unusual five-bar phrase, then next time you come round to it, it’s a seven-bar phrase. And this diminished triad he inverts.”

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Bowie’s “No Plan” first appeared as a bonus track on the Lazarus cast recording, then was issued as the title track of the last “new” Bowie EP, on his birthday in January 2017.

Tom Hingston shot a video, in which that deathless YouTube artifact, the “lyric video,” is eerie and moving. Where the “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” videos depict the fall and death of “David Bowie,” “No Plan” is Bowie beyond the veil, turning up for a few minutes in odd corners of the city, an electrical ghost.

“The words of the song do play a central part, of course, but it’s as much about the surrounding situation and setting,” Hingston told Jenny Brewer in 2017. “There is a theme of disembodiment within the track and this sense of occupying another space, which is not of this time, indeed in places the song itself is out of time. So I wanted to create a situation which felt familiar, yet somehow out of place; a recognisable street setting, with its day-to-day rhythms and an otherworldly scene playing out within it.”

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There’s a heap of Bowie references—Newton Electrical, on Foxgrove Road (where Bowie lived in 1969), with its Man Who Fell to Earth-esque rows of televisions with their blue, blue, electric blue screens. (The actual location is a launderette in Brockley.) The first person drawn to the TV screens looks a bit like Leon Blank, from 1. Outside, and wears red shoes; screens show bluebirds and rockets.

Hingston said he also wanted to honor Lazarus, recalling an interview in which Walsh described his and Bowie’s structural idea for the play as “the notion of a stained glass window and how this could be used as a visual metaphor to tell a series of stories through one central image,” Hingston said in 2017. “I thought that was such a lovely point of reference. For me, the shop window and the screens form a device which allows the story to play out, yet viewed through a somewhat fractured lens.”

It was an inspired way to depict the unreality of the days after Bowie’s death in January 2016, the collective disbelief that he was gone, the common response to gather in groups and play his music. That in mourning there could be a new community. From the perspective of March 2020, that’s something else that’s been taken from us now.

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Bowie starts “No Plan” in what Tony Visconti, referring to how Bowie sang “Where Are We Now?,” described as the “fragile” Bowie voice. A weary-sounding voice without authority, one grappling its way into the melody and then, at once, surging with hidden strengths. It’s among the most beautiful of Bowie’s final vocals. His last phrase—a sinking “not…quite…yet,” each note held for a bar (or two, for the last), with the consonance of the “t”s as endstops—is answered by a McCaslin solo that sounds as if a sleeper is considering facing the day and then drifts off again, in bliss.

As Bowie’s humbled, yearning take on “No Plan” was cut before Caruso’s wide-eyed one, listening to the tracks in their recording order reverses the progression of Toy, where Bowie had remade his earliest songs as an older man, imposing the costs of age upon youth. It’s a different degree of tragedy here—Bowie’s “No Plan” assesses a full life at its end, while Caruso’s mourns one that was barely allowed to begin.

Recorded: (backing tracks, vocals) 7, 10 January 2015, Magic Shop; (overdubs, retake?) ca. March-April 2015. Bowie: lead and backing vocal, guitar?; McCaslin: tenor saxophone, clarinet, alto flute, C flute; Ben Monder: guitar; Jason Lindner: keyboards and synthesizers; Tim Lefebvre: bass; Mark Guiliana: drums. Produced: Bowie, Visconti; engineered: Kevin Killen, Visconti.

First release: 21 October 2016, Lazarus: The Original New York Cast.

Top photo: Zara Yaari, “New York, 2015.”


Animal Farm

January 14, 2020

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Animal Farm (demo).

Of the demos included in the Conversation Piece set, most of which were recorded between spring 1968 and summer 1969, “Animal Farm” is among the slightest. It sounds about two-thirds written: over jabbed acoustic guitar chords, Bowie scats through a chorus that’s still in a cloudy state, in which it may well have remained.

What to say about a song that’s barely there in its demo form? Lyrically it’s centered on the idea of some communal “animal farm” whose gates are barred to anyone over 30 years old. The verse has a 43-year-old woman (treated here as high old age) who “drinks the morning papers and reads the tea” and dreams of joining a group of hippies out in the country somewhere. The refrain is, apparently, the voice of the commune rejecting her.

The Kinks’ “Animal Farm” might have sparked Bowie’s title (it would depend on the date of Bowie’s composition, which isn’t known; The Village Green Preservation Society came out in November 1968). Ray Davies is in his usual state of being exhausted and terrified by the modern world and dreams of going off to live with the pigs and sheep and goats (though he wants his girl to come with him)—it’s a dry run for his even more civilization-cursing “Apeman” two years later. There was also the novel Logan’s Run, published in 1967, set in a future Earth where the maximum age is 21 (the film adaptation raised the limit to 30), upon which you commit suicide in the Sleepshop, get dispatched by a Sandman such as the title character, or try to escape to Sanctuary.

But this is all looking too far afield. The key ancestor is Bowie’s “There Is a Happy Land,” a song about the secret factions and legends of childhood, which adults can no longer access. “There is a happy land where only children live/ You’ve had your chance and now the doors are closed sir, Mr. Grownup. Go away sir.” In his songs of the late Sixties and early Seventies, Bowie regarded the counterculture as a desperate and ultimately-doomed extension of childhood.

Recorded: ca. late spring-autumn 1968 (possibly winter-early spring 1969), likely either 39 Manchester Street or 22 Clareville Grove, London. David Bowie: lead vocal, acoustic guitar. First release: 15 November 2019, Conversation Piece.

Top: John Olson: “The Family of Mystic Arts Commune, Sunny Valley, Oregon,” 1969. (LIFE, “The Commune Comes to America,” 18 July 1969).

 


(Still Not) The Last Xmas

December 21, 2019

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Do They Know It’s Christmas? (Live Aid, 1985).
Bowie’s 2013 Christmas “Elvis” Message.
Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy.
Peter and the Wolf.
The Snowman.
Feed the World.

Ace predictions in my past year-end posts:

This project’s final year could be 2014—we’ll see how it goes. Xmas post, 2013.

But barring another Bowie album in 2015, this is the last Christmas post of the blog’s “primary” life. Xmas post, 2014.

2016 should bring…the rollout of a new music blog in the spring (ish). Xmas post, 2015 (for the life of me, I don’t remember what this idea was—it obviously didn’t happen).

It’s an established annual tradition that this blog will run a Christmas post and say, “well, this could be the last Xmas post, as we’re almost done.” And then Bowie would put out some new thing. But this time, I am very nearly sure, is the end. I can’t imagine I won’t get through the last nine songs before Dec. 2017.  Xmas post, 2016.

I’m assuming there’ll be a Tin Machine and/or a “Black Tie-to-whenever” box set in the new year. Xmas post, 2018.

At this point, you should really be betting against me, hard. So here, I’ll try to work some reverse magic: I expect next year that absolutely nothing of remote interest will be released by the Bowie estate. See you in December 2020!

I’d like to wish everyone a very merry Christmas, happy New Year, happy New Decade (or happy New Year Before the Decade Officially Ends on 31 December 2020, for the pedants). All my best, whether you’re a longtime reader or someone who pops in once in a while. The blog will continue, as it has been for some time now, with the occasional new entry on older “lost” songs that are reissued (one will probably be up next month); there’s also my new writing on 64 Quartets and the Patreon.

To everyone who bought Ashes to Ashes this year, thank you; for those who did so and also came to the readings, thank you again. I’m grateful to Bob Stanley, Rob Sheffield, Owen Hatherley and Billy Hough for hosting the readings, and to Rough Trade (NYC and London), McNally Jackson in NYC, and the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, UK. Thanks to Tariq Goddard and Repeater Books. Two friends who were essential to the writing of Ashes to Ashes have books of their own being released next year: keep an eye out for Rahawa Haile‘s In Open Country and Mairead Case‘s Tiny.

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A Bonus: Chapter End (Last). The Best of Bowie: the 2010s

My top 10 favorite songs of David Bowie’s last decade.

1. ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (LP version). The Next Day had shown that Bowie was back; “‘Tis a Pity,” in its wild solo demo or its Blackstar take, showed that he wanted to go somewhere else. One of the loopiest songs that he ever wrote: you can find a world within it, then another one lurking within that. The studio version has a slight edge thanks to Donny McCaslin’s career-topper of a performance and Bowie sounding as if he was back in the Marquee in London, cheering from a crowd of Mods.

2. Blackstar. A counterpart to “Station to Station,” at the other end of the line. A great fake-out of a song, ominous and lovely and strange, shot through with jokes: “I’m the Great I Am” invokes both the Book of Exodus and Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry VIII, I Am.” It’s a joy that Bowie, at age 68, could sit down and say, “well, I suppose I need an epic,” then whisk one together like an omelet.

3. Love Is Lost. The highlight of The Next Day: love as being under house arrest. The harmonies!

4. Dollar Days. Raging against the dying of the light, then sitting down to watch the sunset.

5. Where Are We Now? It was, in retrospect, the perfect way, the only way, for him to return. His last season begins with a notice that it’s going to end, sooner than you think. How Bowie sings “you never knew that, that I could do that,” in a way that suggests he’d never thought he could, either.

6. I Can’t Give Everything Away. As with all the Blackstar tracks, it’s as funny as it’s haunting—there’s a wonderful petulance in the title phrase, along with a deep sadness. The last, inevitably-disappointing box set that the estate releases should have this as its title, with a photograph of the sealed Bowie vault on the cover. It’s Bowie’s “Into the Mystic“—a fading away, a dissolution into sound.

7. Sue (Maria Schneider version). Bowie’s most essential collaboration since the Reeves Gabrels era is one in which he began with fewer chips on the table—the eternal dilettante meets a brilliant composer and arranger with a lifetime steeped in jazz, a genre Bowie would only dabble in. It wound up as a partnership of equals: Bowie’s distinctive presence is central to the track but he’s not allowed to dominate it.

8. The Next Day. Loud, full of piss and vinegar, clipped, blown out—the sound of his early 2000s “rock” style being set afire. An unreconciled life.

9. No Plan. Nothing has changed, everything has changed.

10. Like a Rocket Man. I came to love this throwaway track while writing the last chapter of the book. Utterly shameless steals from all over the place, a possible last dig at Elton John, rewriting the “coke magus Bowie” years as a cartoon serial. It has one of his last great lines buried in it: “Now I wish today that yesterday was just tomorrow.” RIP, DB.

Here’s to the new years.


The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fête on Thatchwick Green)

December 2, 2019

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The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fête on Thatchwick Green).

The release of the five-disc Conversation Piece hammers shut the year of “Sixties Bowie Redux.” The total, in terms of tracks unreleased until now: some 30 home demos, recorded between the autumns of 1967 and 1969.

At last in one place (expect to see more Spying Through a Keyhole and Clareville Grove sets, over-optimistically priced, in used record stores), these demos make a decent pile and give a sharper picture of Bowie’s work life in the late Sixties. How sharp, though? Is it really worth one’s time to sit through these rough drafts, these murky tapes of old songs, many of which didn’t make the cut for Bowie at the time? (You can hear his laugh: “ah yes, a real treasure trove you’ve got for 80 quid.”)

Well, of course I’m interested. And the devoted fan—I’ll define this as someone who’s voluntarily listened to a Tin Machine bootleg—may find some of it fascinating. The “average” fan, whoever they may be? I’m not sure what they’ll make of it, if they’ll even hear it.

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The collected demos* do a couple of things. They further document how the late Sixties were a proving ground for Bowie as a songwriter—his frustrations about lacking a record contract strengthened him as a composer; his songs develop in craft and form. “Space Oddity,” included here in what appears to be every demo ever made of it, no longer sounds like a sudden leap forward but more the culmination of years spent sitting at a reel-to-reel in his manager’s flat or in various bedsits and rented rooms.**

We also have a smoother transition between “psychedelic Mod” suburban Bowie and hippie Arts Lab Bowie of 1969. The Conversation Piece “demo” disc sequence opens with the set’s earliest recordings, in terms of composition: “April’s Tooth of Gold,” “Mother Grey,” “In the Heat of the Morning” and “When I’m Five” (the former two were copyrighted in December 1967; the latter two had studio versions cut in March 1968).

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“The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fête on Thatchwick Green)” (hereafter referred to, for sanity’s sake, as “Rev. Brown”) almost certainly hails from the same compositional period—late 1967 through the first months of 1968. Its earliest appearance is as a title in Kenneth Pitt’s 1985 memoir, where it appears in a list of prospective songs to be recorded for Bowie’s second (and never-recorded) Deram album.

It makes sense: “Rev. Brown” isn’t far removed from Bowie’s Deram debut, in terms of subject matter (another jaundiced look at suburban England) and song structure—there’s still a lot of Ray Davies being processed, along with a newer influence, Syd Barrett, while the outro is all but Bowie saying on tape “and then it ends like a Who track.”

Its lyric is a film sketch. Quick shots of various supporting characters (a nameless milkman and magistrate; Mrs. MacGoony and Grouse and “naughty Fitzwilliam”) build to (in the four-bar refrains) the introduction of the title character: Rev. Raymond Brown, shown leading the band at a village fete, “noting down sin” with a pencil, and guiltily lusting after the “beauty of Thatchwick.” Bowie’s word-choked bridges have similar phrasings as those in “When I’m Five”—here done to imitate the chatter of a “women’s guild” who compare their hats and gossip about a local girl getting pregnant (Sally, perhaps the future/former wife of Uncle Arthur).

Clever but shallow, “Rev. Brown” is apparently among Bowie’s last attempts to do an “Angry Young Man”-type short story in music, as he had done repeatedly on his 1967 album. It feels compromised in tone, as if he was already writing with Peter Noone in mind to sing it—it’s far less weird than the likes of “She’s Got Medals” or “Little Bombardier” or “Please Mr. Gravedigger.” That said, all we have is a rough sketch—perhaps “Rev. Brown” could’ve been transformed in the studio, getting brass or woodwind accompaniment for the refrains.

What I do find a hoot is that the verse phrasings, especially at 1:20 (the introduction of the Beauty of Thatchwick, who seems written for Julie Christie or Jane Asher to play), appear again in Bowie’s work—I hear them in “Little Wonder,” thirty years later. As Earthling is one of Bowie’s “return to Britain” records, so Rev. Raymond Brown, “musical priest” and would-be dirty old man, gets dug up as an ancestor to Blur’s Tracy Jacks and Ernold Same. Whether for “Little Wonder” Bowie went back to his Sixties demos or recalled some traces of a long-abandoned song is something we’ll never know.

Recorded: ca. late autumn 1967-March 1968, (most likely) Kenneth Pitt’s apartment at 39 Manchester Street, London. David Bowie: lead and backing vocal, guitars, bass, percussion. First release: 15 November 2019, Conversation Piece.

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* Collected but far from complete. Still unreleased are “Social Kind of Girl” and “Everything Is You,” “Silver Tree Top School for Boys,” “C’est la Vie,” etc. “Tiny Tim” remains a title. The absence of the 1968 demo of Bowie’s rock opera Ernie Johnson is no surprise—it’s possible the estate no longer owns the tape (one copy was auctioned in the Nineties) and EJ is my guess as to one of the things DB never wanted to become public.

** Despite the track on Conversation Piece sounding like a third-generation cassette dub, “Rev. Brown” appears to have been made on a sophisticated, costly set-up for a struggling musician in 1967. The “Rev. Brown” demo—done to copyright the song, distribute it for potential cover versions and, possibly, as a blueprint for Tony Visconti (who was supposed to produce Bowie Deram 2)—has a complete bassline, tambourine and “drum” track, lead and harmony vocals and possibly two guitar tracks. It’s surprisingly intricate for the period. Maybe Kenneth Pitt got the set-up for a short-term period by a vendor, and Bowie no longer had regular access to it once he moved in with Hermione Farthingale. Later DB Sixties demos sound more like “hit ‘record’ and hope the mike picks it all up.”

Top: Batman (Adam West) in Kennington, May 1967; “St John Vianney Garden Fete, 1967” (Hartlepool Museum Service).