Sorrow

Sorrow (The McCoys, 1965).
Sorrow (The Merseys, 1966).
Sorrow (Bowie).
Sorrow (Bowie, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
Sorrow (Bowie, live, 1974).
Sorrow (Bowie, live, 1983).

A few weeks before Bowie began recording Pin Ups in France, Bryan Ferry made a covers album in London. It would be Ferry’s first solo record; he cut it as he was reconfiguring Roxy Music into its less anarchic second edition (minus Brian Eno). When he learned Bowie was doing his own covers LP, Ferry grew paranoid. “It’s a rip-off,” he allegedly said, and wanted his label, Island, to file an injunction against RCA to prevent Pin Ups from being released before his record.*

Ferry needn’t have worried, as These Foolish Things is what Pin Ups should have been. Bold where Bowie’s record was timid (Ferry took on the heavyweights: Elvis, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones), brilliantly arranged where Pin Ups was often flat, These Foolish Things is most of all superior in the scope and execution of its ambitions. Ferry considered his covers “readymades”: he interpreted each song in a similar glam rococo style, delivering the lyric in what Greil Marcus called his “Dracula-has-risen-from-the-grave voice,” bolstered by a female chorus who sounded like they could have backed Andy Williams. However, the aim wasn’t cheap parody. Ferry strove to keep each song’s dignity intact within its new glitter casing, and often made the songs more pathetic and moving than they had been in their former incarnations. (Ferry’s “It’s My Party” seems tragic.)

‘A Hard Rain’ being a three-chord folk song, Ferry not only saw the possibilities of pounding it into a three-chord rock song, but the opportunity to add all the touches so characteristic of his work at that moment: grand camp gestures that the song just had to lie down and take.

Robert Forster, “Bryan Looks Back,” 2007.

Ferry’s treatment leveled pop hierarchies, elevating “trashy” songs like “I Love How You Love Me” and lowering “serious” rock songs (so “Sympathy for the Devil” becomes a Vegas revue number, exposing the lyric’s silliness). He sang “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at a gallop, his croon highlighting the surrealism in Dylan’s lyric, making the case that “Hard Rain” was far more aligned with “Tombstone Blues” or “Visions of Johanna” than it was with traditional folk; he placed “Don’t Worry Baby” deeper inside the singer’s head, where Brian Wilson had intended it to be. He closed the record with a cover of Maschwitz/Strachey’s standard “These Foolish Things,” which served as the legend to his map: how the ephemeral contains the essential. “The smile of Garbo and the scent of roses/The waiters whistling as the last bar closes/The song that Crosby sings…”

These Foolish Things made Pin Ups seem scatter-shot. One of the latter’s main failings is Bowie’s inability or unwillingness to settle on a coherent vocal style, even within a single song (Bowie was notorious for only doing one- or two-take vocals, which didn’t serve him well in these sessions). The overall feeling is that Bowie is just throwing out whatever he can think of at the moment, and it’s not surprising that the best Bowie managed was to match a few of the hard rock songs in attitude and volume (mainly the Pretty Things tracks).

The exception is “Sorrow,” a series of reflections and removes—Bowie, who seems to be channeling Ferry, is covering a cover. It’s the only enduring piece of music to emerge from the Pin Ups sessions.

“Sorrow” was written in 1965 by the team of Richard Gottehrer, Bob Feldman and Jerry Goldstein, who had written hits like “My Boyfriend’s Back” and, in the guise of their fake Australian group The Strangeloves, “I Want Candy.” It was the B-side of “Fever,” the follow-up single for the McCoys, an Indiana garage band (led by Rick Derringer) who had had a smash with “Hang On Sloopy.” As a composition, it’s not much—a cliche-filled lyric over mainly two chords (the song mostly stays on G, only venturing briefly to C on the title line, which is also the four-bar chorus). Derringer sang reservedly, swallowing the word “sorrow” like a pill, while the track, anchored on harmonica and a twining guitar line, hinted at despair but mainly kept on the surface.

In England, Tony Crane and Billy Kinsley had formed a duo, The Merseys, out of remnants of their old group The Merseybeats, which, like the Mojos, had formed in Liverpool during the first stirrings of Beatlemania. Their 1966 cover of “Sorrow” transformed the song. Opening with a bowed bass intro (originally played by Jack Bruce), the Merseys’ version combines aggression—the insistent four-to-the-bar guitar and piano—and longing. Crane and Kinsley let the last syllable of “sorrow” hang in the air, and center the song around two phrases, the title line and “your long blonde hair,” which they circle back to, obsessively, as the song ends. The Merseys also used delayed echoing vocals in the last verse, while their instrumental middle eight pits horns against guitars (the earlier version not only has Bruce’s bass intro, but likely has Jimmy Page doing the guitar solo and John Paul Jones on bass).

It hit #4 in the UK, and was a favorite of a number of bands, particularly the Beatles. George Harrison sang its opening lines in his “It’s All Too Much,” while Ian MacDonald suggested that the “rolling swing” of the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” was possibly based on the tempo of the Merseys’ track.

Bowie’s version is a further refinement of the Merseys’ cover, which had already changed the song from mumbling teenage blues into a more florid piece of romanticism. Now Bowie turned “Sorrow” into a grandiose, DeLuxe-colored production, where a sudden sweep of strings erupts in the last verse, while Bowie seems to be imitating Ferry in his swooning, over-the-top vocal—he nearly weeps out “sorrow” towards the end. He made the Merseys’ echoing vocal into a hall of mirrors and used Ken Fordham’s melodic saxophone solo as the calm heart of the track. And Bowie extended the song with a thirty-second ruminative outro over F chords, where Mike Garson on piano struggles to piece together a new melody as the fadeout slowly silences him.

Recorded July-early August 1973, and released as a single in October 1973 (RCA 2424 c/w “Amsterdam,” it hit #3 in the UK). On Pin Ups, it was oddly sequenced between the garish “Friday On My Mind” and the brutal “Don’t Bring Me Down” (whose opening guitar riff kills off “Sorrow”‘s fadeout) . Bowie performed it in his “1980 Floor Show” (with Roxy Music cover model Amanda Lear playing the heartbreaker) and in his 1974 and 1983 tours.

* This account is only mentioned in Christopher Sandford’s biography. By contrast, David Buckley’s bio depicts Ferry (who Buckley interviewed) as being far less combative, quoting him as saying he was only “apprehensive” when hearing about Pin Ups, with Ferry recalling that Bowie had phoned him first to settle any potential problems. Another bio, Stardust, claims Bowie told a companion he wanted “to get a jump on Ferry” after learning about the latter’s album.

Top: Bryan Ferry in blue silhouette, back cover of These Foolish Things.

8 Responses to Sorrow

  1. diamonddog says:

    Fantastic cover and head and shoulders above anything on the ferry lp.

  2. Rufus Oculus says:

    I recall disappointment that Sorrow was the lead single as it was seen as a bit wet. I love Ferry’s TFT and agree you can imagine him singing this. I do not agree that TFT is superior to PU. The approach is just different with Bowie restricting himself mainly to a narrower pool of songs. Both albums somewhat condescend to some of the artists covered though.

  3. Mike says:

    Just listened to shiny new remaster on Nothing Has Changed. I forgot how much I like this track!

    (Odd there are so few comments in the seventies’ songs)

  4. Anonymous says:

    The first time I ever saw Bowie was ABC’s airing of the 1980 Floor Show, and it was this track, along with its visual presentation, that sparked my Bowie interest. Still think this cover holds up really well, there’s such an elegant “sashay” when Fordham’s sax solo steps in. Not sure that it beat anything Ferry did (always cracked me up that he sang “It’s My Party” gender unchanged) but it’s a very good version in my book.

  5. nakedputz says:

    I believe at the time of recording, Visconti had left the band. Does anyone know who did the string arrangements? Was it Ronson?

  6. Yeah, the opening guitar on Don’t Bring Me Down was a huge buzzkill after the Sorrow fadeout.

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