“Black Country Rock” was the provisional title Mick Ronson and Tony Visconti gave to a riff-happy jam they had worked up in the studio, and Bowie, facing a deadline, dashed out a single verse and chorus based on the title.
Recording his vocal, Bowie decided to parody his friend/rival Marc Bolan, who was readying to become a pop star (T. Rex’s “Ride a White Swan,” their first top 10 hit, was recorded a few months after this), delivering a merciless imitation of Bolan’s singing voice (especially in the last chorus repeat, where Bowie bleats out “fond adieuuuuuuuuuuu”). Visconti, amused, thinned Bowie’s vocal track with an equalizer so that it sounded even more like Bolan’s (the “my friend” in the last chorus is so on the money you’d swear it was a Bolan vocal overdub).
“Black Country Rock,” straight-up album filler, is of interest mainly for Ronson, who makes the track a primer on how to economically arrange a song, deploying four guitar riffs as motifs. The first riff, a vault from his low to high strings in E, and the second (a needling little hook ending back in E) appear in Ronson’s intro, then serve as motifs in the verse, with riff 2 reappearing on every other bar, while riff 1 links each eight-bar verse together.
The chorus has the other two—the low-end riff 3 appears at the end of the first line, while riff 4 (mainly just two notes over and over again, sometimes bent) closes out the chorus and twice extends into a 16-bar solo (with riff 2 reappearing to transition back to the verse). For a throwaway track, it’s impressive enough: a number of mediocre ’70s rock bands would build whole careers out of this sort of thing.
Recorded ca. 12-22 May 1970; on side A of The Man Who Sold the World and issued as the B-side of “Holy Holy” in 1971.
Top: Mickey Finn, Marc Bolan and their jawlines practice LP cover poses, summer 1970.