A curse on childhood, lifted on the flipside.
Greil Marcus, on The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” single.
“After All” offers a similar curse, except Bowie gives no subsequent reprieves: his vision of childhood, now extended into cold adolescence, offers no escape except the void and the grave.
The Man Who Sold the World is a record of extravagance and braggadocio—Bowie wrestles with a devil in “Width of a Circle,” while other tracks are filled with extremities: supermen, serial killers, sex maniacs, master computers. “After All,” by contrast, is quiet (Bowie sings much of it in a near-whisper), withdrawn, a requiem for the defeated. Its verses are built around minor chords—E minor to A minor, wearily rising to F under the “by jingo” refrain—and its rhythm is a somber 3/4 time, which extends into a decrepit fairground whirl during the 16-bar solo.
“After All” seems like an unwanted sequel to the early psychedelic records, the sunshine lullabies of 1966 and 1967, as well as Bowie’s own childhood ballads, “There Is a Happy Land” and “When I’m Five.” In those songs, there was wonder and delight amidst the shadows, but in “After All” there’s little but shadow. Bowie watches from his window as the hippies pass by, those who can’t or refuse to grow up, those who march together in protests without rationale or results, who “paint [their] faces and dress in thoughts from the skies, from paradise,” those who are nothing but taller children, children denied a feasible adulthood.
The curse eventually turns in on itself, as Bowie’s narrator in the final chorus and verse (there are three of each), admits that he holds no answers, that he’s wasted his listeners’ time, that even the music he’s crafted is just built of “impermanent chords” (as he sings the words, the chords naturally shift, either to E7 or E/G#). A prophet who disparages his own predictions, Bowie finally offers a grim perversion of the Buddhism that once had sustained him. “Live ’till your rebirth and do what you will,” he says, taking the latter words from Aleister Crowley. It’s as close to consolation as it comes.
“After All” has echoes of Bowie’s ’60s recordings—the varispeed choir of grotesques moaning “Oh by jingo” is a dark reflection of “Laughing Gnome,” while the Stylophone of “Space Oddity” returns at the end of each chorus, appearing with a flourish and then declining in three-note patterns. The track’s built around Bowie’s acoustic guitar and Tony Visconti’s bass, with Mick Ronson serving mainly as background color. Visconti said that he and Ronson took Bowie’s basic tracks (the acoustic-centered verses and the “oh by jingo” refrain) and overdubbed them repeatedly during the mixing stage, though the result doesn’t feel overdone in the slightest—the track sounds rather like parts of it have been erased.
Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970, the last song on side A of The Man Who Sold The World. Covered by Tori Amos in 2001.
Top: Boyd Lewis, “Girls encounter the hippie vans in Piedmont Park [Atlanta],” 1970.