The Width of a Circle

The Width of a Circle (Man Who Sold the World).
The Width of a Circle (live, 1972).
The Width of a Circle (live, 1973).
The Width of a Circle (live, last Spiders gig, 1973.)
The Width of a Circle (live, 1974).

The devil has the most extensive perspectives for God; on that account he keeps so far away from him.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: “Apothegms and Interludes.”

Circumference: Much of David Bowie’s ’60s music was weak (compared to his contemporaries), partly because Bowie was young and unformed, partly because he lacked a creative equal as a collaborator. Sixties Bowie can seem isolated, his records the work of an autodidact. In the first months of 1970, Bowie finally found, to quote Charlie Parker, a worthy constituent.

Mick Ronson was from Hull. As a child he played piano, violin and recorder until settling on the guitar (one reason, he later said, was that you got grief for walking around Hull with a violin case). He had played in local bands in the ’60s, but at the start of the ’70s he was working as a groundsman for the Hull City Council, marking rugby pitches. One of his old bandmates, Bowie’s drummer John Cambridge, told him that Bowie was looking for a new lead guitarist. Ronson came to London and met Bowie again (the two had first crossed paths at a 1969 recording session); two days afterward Bowie and Ronson first played together at a concert taped for the BBC. One song was a new Bowie composition, “The Width of a Circle.”

Bowie likely wrote “Circle” in late 1969, as its first draft is a surreal folkie excursion (centered on Bowie’s 12-string acoustic) in the vein of Space Oddity LP tracks like “Cygnet Committee” or “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed.”

On the BBC track, the first recorded version of “Width,” you can hear Ronson thinking aloud—filling in spaces, working out angles. He would turn “Width of a Circle” into a high mass for the electric guitar, leaving Bowie a bystander in his own song. By 1973 Bowie was letting Ronson solo for ten minutes on “Width” while he went backstage for a costume change.

Diameter: Ronson broke and reassembled “Width,” opening it (and The Man Who Sold the World LP, as it turned out) with an ominous, sliding guitar riff. Ronson loved Led Zeppelin, the Hendrix Experience and Cream, and took from their records how to anchor a track with a titanic riff. While Ronson’s opening “Width” riff appears in the first BBC recording, it emerges tentatively after eight bars of Bowie’s strumming, and soon is lost in the sprawl of the ramshackle performance (the under-rehearsed players seem to be running through ideas and using whatever they can remember: a riff from “Unwashed” flashes by at 1:25).

By the time the studio take of “Width” was recorded two months later, Ronson had made his riff the cornerstone of the track. After a brief squall of feedback, Ronson slides along his A string to his fifth, fourth and second frets. He repeats the riff, now mirrored by Bowie’s acoustic guitar, now shadowed by Tony Visconti’s bass, now with the entire band hitting on it.

The riff only appears once more (after the third verse, just before the “second half” of the song), but Ronson’s guitar dominates the rest of the track by various means. In the first three verses, Ronson repeatedly uses another motif, a bit of fast riffing (E-E7-E), to fill in after Bowie’s pauses and to rev up the ends of lines. Most of all, there’s his first solo, a 40-bar series of staggered explosions that begins with Ronson bending a G string as if he intends to snap it off. Loud, fleet (Ronson plays the same lick nine times in five seconds) and magnificent, the solo is Ronson’s grand debut: nothing of its like had ever been on a Bowie record.

Secant: “Width of a Circle” lacked an ending. Bowie’s original version petered out after two verses (listen to the first BBC recording, where, after a Ronson solo, everyone trudges along for a minute-plus of aimless guitar). Ronson and Visconti, who did much of the arranging, mixing and playing on The Man Who Sold The World, decided that “Width” needed a second half. On one take, they played what Visconti described as a “spontaneous boogie riff,” which they liked so much they appended it to the song and asked Bowie to come up with melodies and lyrics for it.

So Bowie, faced with a suddenly-elongated song, had to write a batch of fresh lyrics. And where his original verses are odd and nightmarish (the two opening stanzas, which are filled with dreamscapes, Nietzchean steals (“the monster was me”), a few striking lines (“God’s a young man, too”) and hip references (Khalil Gibran, whose A Tear and a Smile was standard-issue for a hippie’s library, along with Brautigan poems and Watership Down)), the newer ones grow increasingly ridiculous. The quartet of verses Bowie wrote for the “boogie riff” section—in which his narrator has rough sex with a demon (or a god, or himself, or all of the above), with lines like “his tongue swollen with devils’ love” or “I smelled the burning pit of fear”—are worthy of Spinal Tap.

Ronson and Visconti mortared in the cracks, trying to make the second half sound like a natural extension of the earlier song. Ronson piled on yet more guitar, whether in his second solo, an elaboration on the dirty D-based blues riff that he used to propel the “boogie” verses forward, or in the way he introduces the new section with a soaring guitar line that Bowie then sings. Visconti’s bass is mixed so high in the track (Ronson’s doing, Visconti later claimed) that at times it’s the lead melodic instrument, hitting against Bowie’s vocal in the final verses, tolling under Ronson’s first solo.

The track ends with a quotation (on drums) from Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Given what’s come before, it doesn’t seem too over the top.

Tangent: On stage, “Width of a Circle” became even more grandiose. In a concert recorded in Santa Monica in late 1972, Ronson is all vicious power chording and shredding; by the final Spiders from Mars show in July 1973, Ronson’s opening solo has become a primer for metal guitarists—one-handed playing, steeplechase runs, often accompanied by Ronson’s classic “guitar face.” It’s as impressive as it is wearying.

After Bowie and Ronson parted company, Bowie rearranged “Width” for his “Diamond Dogs” tour of summer 1974. As if he was trying to reclaim his song, Bowie downplayed guitar in favor of saxophone and keyboards. But Bowie’s new guitarist Earl Slick delivered a squalling solo of his own midway through the performances—Ronson had made the song a guitarist’s feast, and Slick wasn’t one to abstain.

Arc: “Width” was recorded twice in BBC sessions, on 5 February and 25 March 1970 (the former, hosted by John Peel, is on Bowie at the Beeb); the LP cut is from April-May 1970; the recording from Santa Monica, Calif., 20 October 1972, was put out on disc a few years ago; the version from the last Spiders From Mars concert at the Hammersmith, 3 July 1973, is on Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture; the “Diamond Dogs” tour recording, from Philadelphia on 11-12 July 1974 , is on David Live.

Top: Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty,” completed in 1970.

12 Responses to The Width of a Circle

  1. DavidB says:

    Great site. Only just discovered it. Don’t agree with everything, but always interesting.

    On ‘Width’, it’s worth mentioning that the ‘circle’ is (almost certainly) the circle of Dante’s Hell reserved for ‘sodomites’, as this is Bowie’s (rather premature) ‘coming out’ song.

  2. col1234 says:

    Hey, thanks. Keep commenting–any reader insights (or corrections) make this site better.

  3. Gary Brown says:

    “He followed me home mummy can we keep him” Does anyone know who uttered these words on All the mad men

  4. Leigh Walton says:

    Chris, the Feb 1970 BBC recording is down now. There’s this one on YouTube but I don’t think it’s the first one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7MgHkrCSuc

  5. twinkle-twinkle says:

    Just as Zep’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ – a classic song for many – is of it’s time, and could not be written seriously now, so ‘TWOAC’ is very 1970. But ‘Spinal Tap’ is a little harsh for that line surely

    I’d say the second half finishes off the tale/tail of man and god(s) rather well, showing where such a journey might lead a young person with an experimenting, questioning nature.

    I don’t think it matters how or why it was decided it still needed something, it eventually got a suitable ending which suits it’s subject matter. It’s sexy and it rocks.

  6. crayontocrayon says:

    The led zep comparisons are fitting, this track could easily have slotted onto LZIII or IV. I’d read Visconti claim Cream were the big musical influence on this album. That probably rings more true for the bass which is melodic and often at the front, but Ronson is far more Page than Clapton.

  7. Ramzi says:

    The performance at the final Ziggy concert is brilliant. Ronson managing to make Bowie look surplus to requirements at a Bowie concert, at least for a small portion of it.

  8. Farmless says:

    The acoustic part that comes in at about the 4:30 mark of the LP version seems to be a section of Bowie’s Columbine (1:20 in) from Pierrot in Tourquoise.

  9. Is Tony Visconti’s bass playing on this song (and the whole album) just a miraculous feat of flexibility and muscle on that anchor instrument, or am I just making a little extra out of it? It’s something I’m blown away by, but haven’t heard many comment on. Insightful write-up on this behemoth.

  10. I like the David Live version; with the oboe intro and the mellotron choir it sounds more proggy than the original. Slick’s guitar solo is much more coherent and melodic than Ronson’s.

  11. leonoutside says:

    Book entry for this track is exceptional. Truly outstanding. Loved it.. Chris, you ever find yourself over in England…be pleased to buy you a beer…”If there was going to be an arms race, Bowie began to stockpile munitions”.

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