I Feel Free

I Feel Free (live, 1972).
I Feel Free (backing track, 1980).
I Feel Free (Black Tie White Noise, 1993).

Cream’s “I Feel Free,” a staple of the early Spiders From Mars shows, was both a crowd-pleaser (it was a hit song in a set mainly consisting of unreleased material) and a means to let Mick Ronson solo like a madman (“Width of a Circle” later filled this role). “I Feel Free” was a memory chain for Bowie, as his half-brother Terry had suffered an attack during a Cream concert in Bromley, as well as for Ronson, who had worshiped Cream as a teenager and who, in The Man Who Sold The World, had made a tribute album to them.

Bowie made a habit of almost covering the song on record. “I Feel Free” nearly made the cut for Pin-Ups, while another attempt during the Scary Monsters sessions in 1980 survives in bootlegs as an instrumental track. In 1992, Bowie finally cut “I Feel Free” for Black Tie White Noise. By then it had become an elegy for Terry Burns, who had killed himself in 1985, and a tribute to Ronson, who was dying of cancer and whose guitar solo on the track was among his last-recorded performances. Ronson died at age 47, a few days after the record was released.

The “I Feel Free” performance from Kingston Polytechnic on 6 May 1972 was later collected on RarestOneBowie, a semi-official bootleg released in the ’90s by Bowie’s estranged former management company. The Black Tie White Noise recording, an attempt at contemporary R&B as perpetuated by Nile Rodgers and with Bowie intoning the lyric in his lowest register, was cut ca. autumn 1992 and released in April 1993. The video features a 46-year-old Bowie at the height of his Dorian Gray period and a motley backing band that includes the Manhattan Transfer’s stunt doubles, an eyepatch-wearing man apparently hired to gyrate in place, and a Jimi Hendrix impersonator who mimes Ronson’s guitar solo.

Top: March by the Schools’ Action Union and the National Union of School Students, Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park, 17 May 1972.

4 Responses to I Feel Free

  1. Diamond Duke says:

    I recently obtained a copy of the 2-CD + DVD edition of Black Tie White Noise. Overall, I can’t honestly say that I’d rank it among my all-time favorite David Bowie albums. I dunno…there’s something about Nile Rodgers’ production ethic that files down the rough edges of Bowie’s style a little too much for my liking. Granted, both Let’s Dance and Black Tie White Noise are classy, professional pieces of work. I must admit, I actually like BTWN a little bit better, possibly because it’s a tad less obviously commercial in its intent. And I thought it was a valiant attempt by Bowie to create a hybrid between his R&B/dance influences and his more European, ambient electronic side. Think “Low meets Let’s Dance“! And overall, I think the album must be considered a qualified success in that regard. However, more than almost any other track on BTWN, this dancefloor remake of Cream’s I Feel Free took quite a while to grow on me. I’m a big fan of the original, and when I first heard what Bowie had done to the song, it almost felt sacrilegious in a way. (This was actually a good many years before I had actually purchased a copy of BTWN itself.) But this may have been more the rockist purist in me, which was far more to the fore back in the grunge ’90s. I’m still a rocker these days, mind you, but much less of a rock-ist. Hey, when you get as seriously into David Bowie as I have since the spring of 2011, believe me, you learn to jettison a lot of unnecessary baggage! 😉

    It was also really cool to hear Mick Ronson play guitar on a track with Bowie one last time before his death. Still, I must say that Ronson’s solo, however cool, strikes me as relatively anonymous compared with his best work with the Spiders (Moonage Daydream being perhaps the ultimate example). But still, I can’t really complain too much. I mean, what can you say? Ronson was one of the all-time greats.

    Also, having more recently heard the instrumental outtake version from the Scary Monsters sessions, I was struck by how similar the arrangement is to what eventually became the Black Tie version. Obviously, it’s something that Bowie had been keeping on the backburner for a while. It definitely has a similar dance groove to it. And it’s even got the same mysterious chord change sequence approximately two minutes into the song! (It’s on the repetition of “I can walk down the street, there’s no one there / The pavement is one huge crowd / I can drive down the road, my eyes can’t see / But my mind wants to cry out loud / My mind wants to cry out loud”). You can hear it from 2:15-2:35 on the Scary Monsters instrumental version, and from 1:49-2:09 on the Black Tie White Noise version.

    Granted, I Feel Free isn’t necessarily my favorite David Bowie cover version (that would be Tom Verlaine’s Kingdom Come), but like the Black Tie White Noise itself, it’s definitely got class. (And the OTT factor of something like God Only Knows is thankfully absent this time…)

  2. col1234 says:

    This entry is about ten times better in its revised version in the book, folks. or at least it’s not as lame.

  3. Maj says:

    I have to confess I didn’t know the song before I bought BTWN (which was 9 years ago). I’ve heard the original many times since then (I think I’ve mentioned my local oldies radio here before 🙂 ) so I do have to say…is more energetic and young. Swinging 60’s and all that stuff. Bowie singing this is kinda Ferry-esque, and I can’t help myself, but it’s just very cool. I like that he’s using his lower register – which is quite change from the original. So is the sax solo – but that I personally could do without.
    Also I love the Scary Monsters outtake, I have it, somehow, and listen to it from time to time.
    It’s a great song, pretty hard to fuck this one up completely.

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