Big Brother

Big Brother.
Big Brother (live, 1974).
Big Brother (live, 1987.)

A love song to abasement, a fascist hymn, a cocaine song: “Big Brother” apparently was, in the scheme of Bowie’s Nineteen Eighty-Four adaptation, meant as an end piece to accompany the broken Winston Smith’s submission at last to Big Brother. It may well have been intended as the show’s closing song.

“Big Brother” is built like a flowchart, designed to move the listener from doubt (the verses open in B minor, move slowly up to A at the end of the first two lines, a structure repeated in the chorus, though Bowie sings the latter in a much higher register) to desire (the first bridge, “please savior, savior show us”) to, in the choruses, an ecstatic submission to power. Once you move past a certain point, there’s no way back: take how the verse never reoccurs after Bowie sings the chorus. There’s only the four-bar second bridge (Bowie singing alone on acoustic guitar, “I know you think you’re awful square”…) that serves as a final breath before the song completely gives itself over.

Still, submitting to a higher power—a dictator, a president (the chorus promises that the divine ruler will be “someone to fool us, someone like you”), even a line of coke—can be beautiful, “Big Brother” argues. Its final chorus repeats are glorious, soaring with melody (Bowie’s upward leaps at the start of each bar), with each chorus offering something to further the excitement—a new counter-melody emerging on guitar or a great rolling drum fill by Aynsley Dunbar in the final repeat. It’s a stunning resolution to a game that’s been rigged to lead you there all along, from the one-bar gaps between the bridges and chorus that give an illusion of space and freedom, to how the saxophones are present throughout the song, prodding the listener along like warders.

Are there signs of resistance? The scrappy acoustic guitar playing, barely discernible, under most of the track? Bowie’s octave-doubled lead vocal, with his more resonant voice shadowed by a thinner, lower one, like a bad conscience? Or the realization that the “trumpet” whose fanfare opens the track and which gets the solo, is a fraud, a synthesizer in disguise? And is there a sly sense of humor under it all? Nicholas Pegg makes the excellent call that one of “Big Brother”‘s ancestors is The Bonzo Dog Band’s 1969 parody of Charles Atlas ads, “Mr. Apollo,” a track Dunbar drummed on. (“He’s the strongest man/the world has ever seen…follow Mr. Apollo/everybody knows he’s the greatest man!)

If so, they’re wiped out by the efficiency, beauty and power of Bowie’s song, whose three and a half minutes culminate in its final line, a simply-sung “we want you Big Brother,” which immediately segues into the tribal celebration of “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family.” Broken and emptied, the once-human being is brought to his feet and made to dance.

Recorded 14-15 January 1974, a regular during the ’74 tour, revived for the Glass Spider tour of 1987.

Top: Augusto Pinochet and friends, Santiago, Chile, ca. September 1973.

12 Responses to Big Brother

  1. Uncle Arthur says:

    With its changes of tempo and off beat instrumental passages not to mention heavy use of Mellotron Diamond Dogs is a curious bridge between glam and prog. In many ways it is arguably far more radical and experimental than the Berlin trilogy.

  2. Brian says:

    I really dig the horns in this track. It does have an endgame feeling to it.

  3. Anonymous says:

    This is also a Terry song, I think.

  4. Momus says:

    Yes, Terry has to be a reference here. A big brother may “fool” us, but can also “guide” and “save” us. It’s a mixed blessing, an ambivalent set of feelings.

    I think the complexity of the song shows itself most clearly in the bridge line: “I know you think you’re awful square, but you’ve made everyone and you’ve been everywhere”. The first two lines about “dust and roses” recall the Waughisms of Aladdin Sane, and Bowie’s comment about a society tolerating the decadence of people like Jagger and himself being basically lost. This bridge suggests a subculture that’s lost faith in its own forward momentum, its own moral worth; a subculture turning to “squares” with a new-found respect based partly on self-loathing, partly on self-recognition.

    The “squares” (brave Apollos to the subcultural Dionysians) have, it turns out, travelled and screwed around quite as much as the hip have. I think of a similar self-betrayal in David Byrne’s lyrics in the early 80s, when businessmen in suits were suddenly having a much better time than hip subculturals (“Mr Jones, he’s not so square… he’s on our side…”).

  5. Francis says:

    Magpie connections #23: One wonders if ‘Big Brother’ doesn’t carry a trace of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s ‘Mr Apollo’ (from the album ‘Tadpoles’, 1969), which is a spoof of the Charles Atlas magazine adverts of the day. Part of one chorus goes: ‘Follow/Mr Apollo/Everybody knows he’s the greatest benefactor of mankind…’. The rhyme and the theme there would seem to coincide a little too fortuitously with the chorus of ‘Big Brother’.

  6. Francis says:

    I’d add though that the Bonzos’ ‘Mr Apollo’ features a very short burst of what sounds to be Beatlemania-type girls’ screams under the first vocal line, over in the left channel. Which chimes for me at least with the flown-in Faces’ crowd noise in the intro to ‘Diamond Dogs’. I don’t have Pegg’s book – yet – so am not aware if he spotted that too.

  7. BenJ says:

    “Some brave Apollo”? Yeah, it certainly sounds like he’s doing a deliberate homage.

    Any guesses as to which character would have gotten this song in the 1984 musical? I’m thinking O’Brien. I could see it coming out of his line, “It needs an act of self- destruction, an effort of the will.”

    • Anonymous says:

      That sounds appropriate – the sense of growing abasement and constant use of ‘we’ also suggests to me that it could be sung by the chorus, to hymn WInston’s final submission in Room 101.

  8. Matthew says:

    This is the most “1984” of all the songs. It reminds me of the final scene in the cafe where Winston watches a triumphant video broadcast and finally realises he loves Big Brother. In which case the dust and roses could refer to Winston and Julia’s doomed love affair now dismissed as “last years capers”. I see it being sung by Winston ( 1st verse alone) and the chorus together, although the lines

    ” I know you think you’re awful square
    But you made everyone and you’ve been everywhere
    Lord I think you’d overdose if you knew what’s going down”

    (Lyrics as on official DB site although I think he sings ( especially clear on the David Live version)

    “Lord I’d take an overdose if you knew what’s going down”

    which provide such a contrast that I’m not sure whose ‘voice’ this is.
    Beautiful song, one of my favourites and very underrated.

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