The Supermen

The Supermen (LP version).
The Supermen (1971 remake).
The Supermen (live, 1972).
The Supermen (live, 2004).

I teach you the superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have you done to surpass man?…

Lo, I teach you the superman: he is this lightning, he is this madness!

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra: “Zarathustra’s Prologue.”

His other great inspiration is mythology. He has a great need to believe in the legends of the past, particularly those of Atlantis; and for the same need he has crafted a myth of the future, a belief in an imminent race of supermen called homo superior. It’s his only glimpse of hope, he says—“all the things that we can’t do they will.”

Michael Watts, Bowie profile in Melody Maker, 22 January 1972.

Bowie, who never had the sunniest of dispositions, grew apocalyptic at the dawn of the 1970s. He knew what was coming: neo-fascism, nuclear war, authoritarian cults of personality, decadence, civilization’s end (he gave the human race 40 years to live, soon cut it down to five). Worse, he had started reading Nietzsche, mainly Also Sprach Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil, and took from the former the concept of a new race of overmen who would supplant homo sapiens. For Bowie, this was cause for slight optimism.

“The Supermen,” the first fruit of this new infatuation, isn’t as much future prediction as it is primordial memory, with overmen at the dawn of time on their “loveless isle,” playing and battling (which seem to be one and the same). It’s akin to Donovan’s “Atlantis,” from 1968, but where Donovan had envisioned the few survivors of Atlantis bestowing art and civilization upon the human race, Bowie’s supermen are brutes, nightmare Teutonic demigods. In a 1976 interview, Bowie called the song “pre-fascist.”

Nietzsche wasn’t the only influence: Bowie’s overmen also have (no surprise) some resemblance to the Buddhist monks of his ’60s songs, like the carnival sage of “Karma Man.” Bowie also was likely inspired by the supermen and mutants who populated postwar SF novels and comics, whether The Mule, the superhuman of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, who is the unforeseen variable that alters the predicted path of “psycho-history,” or the mutant children of Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, who discover that together they form a new entity, homo gestalt, a plural form of human being (cf. Bowie’s line: “where all were minds in uni-thought.”)

Even though he is immortal…mankind is affected by mortality…above the cosmic framework, he became a slave in it…He never sleeps because he comes from one who is sleepless. Yet love and sleep are his masters.

Poimandres, the Shepherd of Men.

Bowie’s supermen, however, are locked in the past, once-gods who became mortal. As the very Gnostic lyric says, they are “wondrous beings chained to life.” The song chronicles their fall: the chorus boasts that the perfect men cannot die, but then the overmen dream of murder and rotting flesh; in the last repeat of the chorus, Bowie alters the final word and releases his supermen into death.

Strange games

Jimmy Page allegedly gave Bowie the lumbering riff that opens “The Supermen”—a primal sway between F and G—which on the LP is first played on Tony Visconti’s bass, then Mick Ronson’s guitar. (Page supposedly gave Bowie the riff during the session for Bowie’s 1965 single “I Pity the Fool“—if true, you have to admire Bowie’s packrat sensibilities, stowing away the riff for half a decade.)

For the album cut, Bowie, Ronson and Visconti made, as Visconti later said, an “outrageous sonic landscape.” The track opens with a fanfare on echo-tracked drums, which, like the end of “Width of a Circle,” suggests the tympani of the first movement of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” (This marks the debut of Woody Woodmansey, who Ronson brought in to replace John Cambridge on drums after Cambridge couldn’t master the song’s odd time signatures.) There’s a wordless, moaning chorus soaring throughout, while Ronson offers a solo constructed from three harmonized guitar tracks.

Bowie, for whatever perverse reason, sings his lyric in an exaggerated, nasal, near-Cockney tone (“strAYnge gAYmes thAY would plAY then”), even gasping horribly while he sings “nightmAYre dreams no mortal mind could ‘OLD”. It causes the track to war between self-parody and stone-faced seriousness.

Bowie re-recorded “The Supermen” in November 1971 during the Ziggy Stardust sessions, and gave the track to a compilation LP to benefit the Glastonbury Fair (causing at times the remake to be erroneously labeled as a live recording). The new arrangement suggests a rethink of the song, with the verses now only carried by Bowie’s acoustic guitar while Ronson comes in hard on the choruses. The band would use this arrangement in most of its 1972-1973 live performances (see the 1972 recording from Boston above). Bowie has occasionally exhumed his master race on a few recent tours.

“The Supermen” was first recorded at a BBC session on 25 March 1970 (I’ve not heard it, but Nicholas Pegg writes that it’s close to the studio version, with a few slightly altered lyrics and Cambridge’s “dodgy” drumming); the studio track (sequenced as the final cut on the LP, and so ending the record with the death of gods) was recorded between 18 April-22 May 1970. The remake, recorded on 12 November 1971, was first included on Glastonbury Fayre and is now on the reissue of Ziggy Stardust; the Boston recording, from 1 October 1972, is on the 30th anniversary issue of Aladdin Sane.

Top: Jack Kirby’s New Gods #1; detail from cover of Sturgeon’s More Than Human.

16 Responses to The Supermen

  1. DAVID B says:

    Interesting as ever. I’d love to read that Kirby comic!

  2. spanghew says:

    Bowie also reused that riff years later – although you can barely hear it in the recorded version, apparently it structured the original version of “Dead Man Walking.” In this transcript of a radio appearance on an Atlanta station, Bowie and Reeves Gabrels discuss the riff (scroll down to the bottom). The actual audio is floating around, too – although I couldn’t find a link right now.

  3. spanghew says:

    The link didn’t print – every site’s got its own protocols…

  4. Both Bowie and Pete Townshend (Lifehouse) had this Apokoliptic vision of what the seventies would be in 1970 – the swift emergence of a full-blown brutal neo-fascism empowered by pervasive (and dehumanizing) computer control.
    But leave it to Neil Young, in After the Gold Rush (“look at mother nature on the run in the 1970s”), to find a more palpable image of the future, albeit with spaceships: pollution. Unlike Bowie and Townshend (all British musicians, actually), he grew up in the country (sorry, Winnipeg) and bought the ranch (Broken Arrow) to get away from Los Angeles. Neil’s never been much concerned with the future since then.
    Townshend tried to turn Lifehouse into an ecology trip (Who’s Next as it turned out) before bringing back the Mods and Rockers.
    I think Bowie has never really changed his pessimism about the future, especially as parts of it have come to fruition.

  5. Anonymous says:

    John Cambridge is a top fellow and was an excellent drummer. Comments are un called for and falsely made.

    • Anonymous says:

      It’s thanks to John Cambridge for getting Mick Ronson and David Bowie together.

    • col1234 says:

      You need to do a bit better than be an anonymous person on the Internet and saying I am making false claims.

      The Cambridge references in this post are from several published sources, including Christopher Sanford’s bio and Nicholas Pegg’s Complete David Bowie. The latter was the main source: it includes a quote by Cambridge: “I just couldn’t get [“Supermen”] right and even Mick was saying ‘come on, it’s easy’ which made you feel worse.” Pegg also quotes T. Visconti that “the removal of Cambridge was primarily Ronson’s doing.”

      The reference to “dodgy” drumming was a quote *from Pegg.* Hence the quotes. I don’t happen to agree with him—the drumming sounds fine, though I prefer Woodmaney’s playing–and in retrospect I wouldn’t have used that phrase. It’s not going to be in the book revision and I may well cut it from this one.

      If you have other information that contradicts these sources, you can contact me. Address is on the “about” page.

  6. I just miss the 1997 performances of “The Superman” in your list – for example the one from the acoustic set recorded on 9 January, 1997 or the performance on 14 October 1997 Port Chester Theatre.

  7. these two links, for example:

  8. twinkle-twinkle says:

    I’m starting to get a handle on your likes and dislikes with Bowie vocals. Some I agree with, others… Well, back in the day it was this kind of Bowie vocal that made him seem strange and otherworldly to me. I heard it as his take on very early Bob – a Cockney Dylan; to my ear on the acoustic bonus, ‘Drive in Saturday’, (30th Anniversary ‘Aladdin Sane’), a high nasal early Dylan phrasing creeps in at several points, akin to ‘The Supermen’ vocals, especially near the end of ‘DIS’.

    Given the story of Bowie tricking Eno into believing db’s Dylan impression on the vocals of a ‘Low’ track actually was Dylan, one can’t help but wonder if, purely for his own amusement and ‘quality control’, Bowie may try out new songs in a Dylan style to see if they sound ‘right’ in some way.

    Now I also hear the dispassionate yet sinister voice of HAL, the computer from ‘A Space Odyssey’, mixed with Peter Cook’s vocal delivery from ‘Bedazzled’ in Bowie’s ‘Supermen’. Is this how Bowie imagined the gods? It’s this android side to Bowie that Gary Numan picked up on later.

    Is this a good place to throw in yet another T.S. Eliot quote, lol? I can’t help it if they seem pertinent.

    “Humor is also a way of saying something serious.” T.S. Eliot. Or vice-versa. See below. Enjoy.

    Bedazzled –

    When Bowie finally found ‘his Jeff Beck’ in Ronno, the first thing they(?) seem to have borrowed was ‘Becks Bolero’ on, ‘The Width of a Circle’ intro.

    Jeff Beck –

    As regards this album, you may find this Bonzo Dog track of interest too.

    Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band –

  9. twinkle-twinkle says:

    I’ve just noticed the link above for the ‘Bonzos’ ‘Mr Apollo’ doesn’t seem to work. I’ve tried it again here, also with a second link – fingers crossed. Anyway, just Google it – the version which shows the single on a record player is best quality.

    Rediscovering this recently I was reminded how much it has the ‘sound’ of tracks on ‘TMWSTW’ album. Or is it just me?

  10. twinkle-twinkle says:

    Oh – seems to be working now, lol.

  11. fifa 15 coins prices

    The Supermen | Pushing Ahead of the Dame

  12. cruth01 says:

    Here’s a new interview from 1971 with lots about this song, the “Homo Superior” idea, etc…

%d bloggers like this: