Suffragette City

Suffragette City.
Suffragette City (BBC, 1972).
Suffragette City (live, 1972).
Suffragette City (live, 1973).
Suffragette City (rehearsal, 1976).
Suffragette City (live, 1978).
Suffragette City (live, 1990).

HEY man” is the first thing you hear after the engine-revving intro. It’s not the singer, but his friend or his roommate or his lover. It’s a flat, stoned-sounding, but insistent request—it disrupts the singer’s flow, gets him flustered. (The line pans from left to right speaker, as if the ‘roommate’ is buzzing around the singer.) The needling is just one of the singer’s problems. “Suffragette City” is a ball of agitation, the frenzied thoughts and speech of someone who’s sure he’s going to get laid if only things would work out for him, if his deadbeat roommate would just get the hell out of the house for once, or if his boyfriend wouldn’t mind if he just brought this chick over for a bit. “She’s a total blam-blam!” he pleads, realizes how ridiculous he sounds, and keeps going.

Bowie first offered “Suffragette City” to Mott the Hoople (Ian Hunter: “I didn’t think it was good enough” (?!?)) and then reclaimed it for the last Ziggy Stardust sessions in early 1972. While “Starman” replaced Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round” in the LP’s final sequence, “Suffragette City” is the latter’s true substitute—it’s a simulacrum of 1950s rock & roll, from the Jerry Lee Lewis piano line to the synthesizer subbing for a saxophone section (see below) to the fake ending that erupts in “Wham! Bam! Thank you ma’am!”, a line Bowie stole from a Charles Mingus record.

But I wanted it back home on my stereo to slooshy on my oddy knocky, greedy as hell. I fumbled out the deng to pay and one of the little ptitas said: “Who you getten, bratty? What biggy, what only?” These young devotchkas had their own like way of govoreeting…Then an idea hit me and made me near fall over with the anguish and ecstasy of it, O my brothers, so I could not breathe for near ten seconds….What was actually done that afternoon there is no need to describe brothers, as you may easily guess all.

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange.

Bowie and Mick Ronson saw A Clockwork Orange soon after it opened in London in mid-January 1972, and while Bowie already had written “Suffragette City,” Stanley Kubrick’s film influenced the final track, which was completed in early February, as well as the imagery of the Ziggy concept. Bowie would open most of his “Ziggy Stardust” shows with the film’s Moog rendition of Beethoven’s 9th, while the droog-wear of Malcolm McDowell and friends inspired the Spiders From Mars’ stage outfits—what Bowie called in 1993 a “terrorist we-are-ready-for-action look.”

I liked the malicious kind of malevolent, viscous quality of those four guys [in ACO] although the aspects of violence themselves didn’t turn me on particularly…Even the inset photographs of the inside sleeve for Ziggy owed a lot to the Malcolm McDowell look from the poster—the sort of sinister looking photograph somewhere between a beetle, not a Beatle person, but a real beetle and violence.

(So “Suffragette City” continues the Kubrick/Bowie parallels (2001/“Space Oddity”), though the pattern ends here. However, I’ll give a no-prize to anyone who finds a link between Barry Lyndon and Young Americans.)

The whole idea of having this phony-speak thing—mock Anthony Burgess-Russian speak that drew on Russian words and put them into the English language, and twisted old Shakespearean words around—this kind of fake language…fitted in perfectly with what I was trying to do in creating this fake world or this world that hadn’t happened yet. (Bowie, 1993).

Burgess’ nadsat dialect in Clockwork Orange turns up in Bowie’s lyric (“say droogie don’t crash here!”), while another influence is the hard-boiled SF patois of William Burroughs novels like Nova Express and Naked Lunch (the whole concept of a “Suffragette City” is very Burroughsian). I wish the lyric was even more nonsensical—when I first heard the song, many years ago, I figured Bowie was just making up words out of whole-cloth, so it was a shame to realize “mallofied chick” was really “mellow-thighed chick.”

“Suffragette City” is a sex comedy more than it’s any sort of incitement to violence, while any glamour it has is second-hand, courtesy of the guitars. Rather than being a menacing, smooth figure like Alex in Clockwork Orange, the singer is an adolescent mess (he stammers in the first verse, repeating “I gotta,” and can’t finish his thoughts) and he’s at the mercy of everyone around him—his roommate/lover (“Henry”?) and most importantly, the woman who’s bewitched him, a woman who’s happy to toy with the singer and, best-case scenario, to use and dispose of him in an afternoon. (The “wham! bam!” ending suggests she did just that.) To the flustered singer, she hails from “Suffragette City,” suggesting a brave new world of liberated women who exist purely to torture him.

“Suffragette City” is in A major, and it’s mainly built around ascending chord sequences (A-F-G in the verses, A-D-F-C-G in the chorus) over which Ronson rules. His opening riff is another of his classics, brutal in its simplicity (mainly sliding along the D string, further guitar wankery here) and relentless in its power. The guitars are bolstered by the piano, which drums out eighth notes for nearly the whole track, and Bolder and Woodmansey’s rhythm tracks, which Woodmansey later said were tailored to be as streamlined as possible, a clean contrast to the vocal’s desperate sleaze.

Bowie had wanted a massive saxophone sound to work against the guitars, a design thwarted by the limits of Bowie’s playing. Rather than hiring a brass section, Ken Scott got a hold of an ARP 2600 synthesizer, “fiddled around until we got the closest sound to a sax as possible” and let Ronson do the rest. (The BBC performance cut on 16 May 1972, with Nicky Graham on piano, offers an analog version of the song).

Recorded 12-18 January, 4 February 1972. Released as the B-side of “Starman” and as a reissued single in 1976 (to promote the hits compilation ChangesOneBowie, which included “Suffragette City” but oddly enough not “Starman”). “Suffragette City” was a staple of most ’70s Bowie concerts and returned in his 1990 and 2003-2004 tours.

Top: A Clockwork Orange: droogs on the town; young Alex (Bowie: “instead of just having one eyelash I went the whole hog and had two eyelashes”); Kubrick shoots the Korova Milk Bar sequence.

16 Responses to Suffragette City

  1. snoball says:

    I like the idea of “A Clockwork Orange” remade as a 70’s British sex comedy staring Robin Askwith: ‘Confessions of a Droog’.

  2. mark says:

    I was in a band that covered this in the late 80s. I played bass and got the “hey man” line.

  3. andrew says:

    Your blog is amazing. Really enjoy dropping in and out of it.

  4. During the two-chord back-and-forth that takes up whole last third of the song, the piano is basically hammering “96 Tears” by ? and the Mysterians.

  5. twinkle-twinkle says:

    “My collar mounting firmly to the chin…
    but asserted by a simple pin” -T.S. Eliot

    Dressed like a priest he was – A leper messiah – Till there was rock, you only had god

    The link above takes you to a great photo of Bowie in his priestly Angel of Death look from his appearance with the PSB’s and their remix of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’. However, the main reason for this post concerns a possible mis-hearing of a lyric which may have had an influence on Bowie’s creation of Ziggy. (Rather as when some people, including Bowie, may have misheard the Scott Walker lyric, ‘There is no help’, as,’There is no hell…’).

    When I first played the Small Faces song entitled, ‘Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am’, I heard the lyric,

    ‘She was good to those, who took off all their clothes and played guitar,’


    ‘ She was good to those, who took on holy clothes or played guitar.’

    For years I was convinced that was the lyric – it was such an evocative, transgressive image; you had to be a rock god or a priest to enjoy her charms.

    Sadly, that wasn’t the lyric, but if I misheard it as, ‘took on holy clothes or played guitar’, perhaps some kid from Brixton did too. And maybe it created even better images in his mind? He certainly liked the title, which was a popular colloquialism back in the day.

    Songwriters: Lane, Ronnie / Marriott, Steve

    Well she was a lady of charms, A string of young boys on each arm,
    She was good to those, who took off all their clothes and played guitar.
    Love comes, stays grows, anyway your mind blows, Wham Bam Thank you Mam,
    We’ll boogie till the rooster crows his thing. Oh yeah

    He lived alone, love for none, He said ‘Pain never hurt anyone’
    Oh, no no no, surprise surprise, consumption on the floor, stretcher out the door,
    And that was it.
    God forsaken empty shell, forgotten in a bad smell, Wham Bam, look out Sam,

    The devil claims his own to moan in hell.

    Shang a lang a shang a doo lay shang a lang,
    Sa I’d ma moon sa idi ma moon sa idi gris gris

    But hold your breath and close your eyes, turn the corner of surprise,
    Cause there you are,

    Well our lives are run by ego freaks, a walking book of rules who seeks
    To keep you in your pigeon hole and sus you when your soul steps out of line.

    Come on… oh yeah… oooooh ooooh ooooh

  6. sparkeyes says:

    I believe the term “Suffragette City” to be Bowie-coined, bisexual guy-specific hep-speak for the state of being (temporarily) hetero – into girls and not guys (for now).

  7. billter says:

    Interesting that in the reverse of the situation from “ChangesOneBowie,” “Nothing Has Changed” includes “Starman” but leaves out “Suffragette City.”

  8. slring says:

    Excellent post.

    Any chance I could get details for the source of the quote which begins ‘The whole idea of having this phony-speak thing’, please? You’ve accredited it to Bowie in 1993 but I’m hoping you’ll be able to give me a book title or archived article link if that’s possible.

    Thanks in advance. 🙂

    • col1234 says:

      hey there: i think i got that quote from the Ziggy Stardust “5 Years” site, which only had a date, not a source.

      don’t know if I tracked down where it came from (possibly a TV/radio interview, is my guess). am way from the files but will check when i get back home

      • slring says:

        Thanks. Yes, I spotted the quote there as well. Will do a bit of digging around to see if I can get the original source. If I ever find out I’ll be back to let you know!

  9. leonoutside says:

    Book states “Malcolm McLaren’s Alex in Clockwork Orange”. Surely you meant the other British Malcolm, Malcolm McDowell? O Lucky Man…There’s a film.

    • col1234 says:

      yes. that’s what happens when your publisher doesn’t provide a copy editor for your 500+ page book

      • leonoutside says:

        Zeroes! You’ve arrived in the land of a thousand different names. It doesn’t matter (doesn’t matter).

        It’s an utterly great book tho’ Chris. Invaluable actually. Really good work. I get a lot out of it.

  10. grasshopper says:

    Does anyone know why Suffragette City has been omitted from Nothing Has Changed and Legacy. Seems so strange that one of his most significant songs of his entire career is missing from the last two Best Of’s?

  11. […] care A close second to “Moonage” would be the sexually frenzied blitzkrieg “Suffragette City” (thematically not dissimilar to Zappa’s Bobby Brown) but driven by Ronson’s […]

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