Queen Bitch

Queen Bitch (first performance, BBC, 1971).
Queen Bitch (Hunky Dory).
Queen Bitch (broadcast, 1972).
Queen Bitch (rehearsal, 1976).
Queen Bitch (with Lou Reed, 1997).

Queen Bitch (with the Arcade Fire, 2005).

“I’m up on the eleventh floor, and I’m watching the cruisers below.” That’s how it starts: the singer unable to sit still, pacing the narrow length of his hotel room, unwillingly returning to the window over and over again so he can watch his lover pick up someone on the street. It could be a transvestite, or a female prostitute—it’s galling to the singer in any case. And what’s most galling isn’t the betrayal, really, but the sort of pickup his man’s descending to—“Oh God, I could do better than that! he snarls in desperation and envy. Is he talking about his own taste in cruising, or that he’s flashier and prettier than the streetwalker? It’s either or both.

It’s Bowie’s Velvet Underground song (the riff’s a bit like “Sweet Jane”‘s, and “sister Flo” is a cousin of “Sister Ray”), but “Queen Bitch” isn’t an imitation of the VU as much as it’s an utter annexation of their sound. It’s as if Bowie had taken a photograph of one of Lou Reed’s urban landscapes and imposed his image upon a corner of it, a vicious face framed in a hotel window. When Reed finally sang it in public, at Bowie’s 50th birthday concert, he looked amused and slightly bewildered, as if wondering whether he had written the song himself.

There’s the riff, of course—a primal progression of C-G-F. Bowie gives it first on his 12-string acoustic, then Mick Ronson zips in and steals it whole, his guitar mixed so that it leaps from right speaker to left, his tone loud and dirty. The riff is all there is (no solos, only a slight variation in the chorus): it’s set at a breakneck tempo, repeated twice with each appearance, and arranged so that the repeat of “C” comes just before the bar, heightening the anticipation, furthering the drive. Bowie’s so enamored with the riff (and he should be) he has it bolster most lines of his verses.

The first verse, only five lines, sets the stage, while the chorus delivers the put-down. But in the second and third verses, as the singer’s indignation bursts, he simply won’t let the song go, pushing out the verses for another three or four lines, the band coming with him—Woodmansey crashing on cymbals, Ronson thrashing his guitar—while the singer pounds his hands against the cheap hotel wall. It ends in a series of jump cuts: “And he’s down on the street! so I throw both his bags down the hall! And I’m phoning a cab, ‘cos my stomach feels small!…It COULD’VE BEEN ME oh yeah IT COULD’VE BEEN ME!”

This blog’s title is taken from “Queen Bitch”: there are days when I think Bowie never bettered it. Debuted at the BBC on 3 June 1971, recorded for Hunky Dory a month or so later. Bowie’s always come back to it, most recently in the mid-2000s.

Top: Helen Levitt, “New York,” ca. 1971.

11 Responses to Queen Bitch

  1. snoball says:

    Bowie’s best New York song. Just has the edge on “Jean Genie”, as “Queen Bitch” really feels like early 70’s NYC. Not that I’d know, being born in 1974. Anyway, I think that a lot of Bowie’s best stuff from this period is when he’s drawing directly from first hand experience of America.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The riff is actually a note for note borrowing from Three Steps To Heaven.

  3. AaronM says:

    Fantastic writeup. Still my favourite Bowie song. When Ronson’s part comes in…oh man.

  4. Steve Ison says:

    Its really funny hearing him do the first BBC version..He’s impersonating Lou Reed so much.Its so much more ‘masculine’ n ‘cool’ than the Hunky Dory one..
    The album version has got so much more vitality n energy ‘cos he changes his phrasing,camping it up to the max..

  5. two cents worth says:

    None of the other versions match the original Mick Ronson signature edge. I’ll take a pass on Arcade Fire and their garbled wall of bland orchestration.

  6. audiophd says:

    R.I.P. Lou

  7. Abby says:

    This is my favorite Bowie song too, but lately I’ve been having trouble with the premise: if David Bowie were waiting for you in your hotel room, would you be down on the street trying to pick up some skank in a bipperty bopperty hat? No, you would not. It’s just not credible.

  8. bzfgt says:

    He really channels Lou Reed on the album version the way he sings “Oh, the cot is so cold…”

  9. Charles Faris says:

    I’ve always felt that mr. brightside was to queen bitch as queen bitch was to lou reed’s vu–not as successful of course.

  10. […] better writers than I have written on this song, and I lack the vocabulary to say why it’s so good, so I’ll just ask you to listen to […]

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