We Are The Dead

We Are the Dead.

The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing. All around the world, in London and New York, in Africa and Brazil, and in the mysterious, forbidden lands beyond the frontiers…everywhere stood the same unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing. Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come. You were the dead; theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body, and passed on the secret doctrine that two plus two make four.

“We are the dead,” he said.

“We are the dead,” echoed Julia dutifully.

“You are the dead,” said an iron voice behind them.

George Orwell, Nineteen-Eighty Four.

Of Bowie’s Nineteen Eighty-Four songs, “We Are the Dead” seems to have been the most rewritten after the musical was scrapped, as much of its final lyric is a series of William Burroughs-inspired cut-up lines. This technique, which Bowie used for other Diamond Dogs tracks, entailed writing a lyric on paper, cutting the lines into strips, drawing the strips randomly (say, from a hat), then pasting the rearranged lines together to make a new lyric. The goal was to use blind chance as a midwife, to create bizarre juxtapositions that the conscious mind wouldn’t have considered. So you get lines like you’re dancing where the dogs decay/defecating ecstasy or I love you in your fuck-me pumps/and your nimble dress that trails or the legendary curtains/are drawn round Baby Bankrupt.

This was an outgrowth of a ’60s obsession with the spontaneous, the random prized over the deliberate—a belief summed up in an Allen Ginsberg quote: “first thought, best thought.” For Bowie, using cut-up was a way to get out of a creative hole, and it generally worked well for him. After all, Bowie had never been much of a traditional lyricist, and his lines often sounded better out of context. (It’s telling that Bowie’s cut-up lyrics don’t seem radically different from ones he wrote out start to finish.) The problem was that Bowie was still committed to these conceptual LP ideas, and so was stuck trying to make a narrative out of a set of, in some cases, deliberately nonsensical songs.

“We Are the Dead” is reminiscent of Bowie’s late 1960s rant-epics like “Cygnet Committee” in that it forgoes a verse-chorus-verse structure in favor of a rambling trellis of verses that, only twice in the song, culminate in a weak 4-bar refrain. The song, as all of Bowie’s Orwell pieces are, is a minor key (Gm): it opens with two eerie eight-bar verses, dominated by Mike Garson’s electric piano and sung in a stage whisper by Bowie—these first two verses move through nearly every pitch in the key, from Gm to B flat (III) to D (V) to E flat (VI), back to Gm until they end, unresolved, on F (VII).

Yet just when you assume Bowie will move to a bridge or chorus, he instead keeps going with a new 14-bar verse, spewing lines over a circular harmonic sequence, his vocal mainly accompanied by grating bursts of guitar while, every second bar, the title line sweeps by like a ghost on a stairwell. As if to counter the randomness of his lyrics, Bowie keeps to a fairly strict rhythm, singing a six-beat line for each bar (though as he goes on, his timing gets looser—he starts cramming in more words). A breath, and then the entire sequence repeats again, with the refrain dragged out a bit longer for the outro.

There are only traces left of the Orwell narrative—for instance, “I hear them on the stairs”—but in its way “We Are the Dead” is the truest of Bowie’s Orwell adaptations. Winston Smith, with the Thought Police closing in on him, hopes that revolution lies in the working-class proles, who keep alive the freedom of the body, while Smith’s class will somehow keep alive the freedom of the mind—a belief that Smith’s subsequent conversion shows to be a cruel folly. But as John Huntington wrote in The Logic of Fantasy, a study of the Orwell novel, “to transform a dystopia to a utopia requires discovering a different set of images.” Bowie’s bilious, chaotic lyric, formed by deliberate chance, could also be a passkey.

Recorded 16 January 1974, never performed live.

Top: Erik Van Straten, “London, Thames, 1974.”

17 Responses to We Are The Dead

  1. David says:

    Funny, I’d never noticed that he used the phrase ‘fuck me pumps’ before. First use in a pop song, surely? Acute write up as ever.

  2. bluejean says:

    Yes I always thought it was “fookie pumps” – whatever they might be

  3. sekaer says:

    It’s definitely fuck me pumps, no mistake there

  4. bluejean says:

    You must know the 70s song by the HiLites – “you wanna fookie tonight/cuddle up and squeeze me tight’? OR Perhaps not…

  5. Diamond Dog says:

    I always thought it was ‘funky pumps’ till the internet came along, this one reeks of the paranoia and dread in Orwells book and always sounded creepy .
    Spot on again in bringing together all the references etc a great read…

  6. celiathepoet says:

    I’ve thought a lot about this song, wondering if it could be about vampires or Nazi victims or what. Since it is true there’s little Orwell content here, I guess I’ll keep making up my own story.

  7. Pierce says:

    A true Bowie classic. Underrated too.

  8. Momus says:

    The Leslie cabinet on the electric piano! The guiro that turns into a snarling motorcycle veering past the left speaker! The sex, the doubt, the decadence, the glamour, the disgust! All together in one song that meanders so charmingly! This is absolutely prime Bowie, and stands up amazingly well.

  9. Walter says:

    It’s in 4/4 time throughout — never in 6/4.

    • col1234 says:

      i think it’s often alternating bars of 2/4 w 2 bars of 4/4. i.e.: (2/4) “choking on you (4/4) nightly. they tell me ‘Son we/want you. Be illusive but don’t (2/4) walk far, for we’re (4/4) breaking in the new boys…etc.

      • Walter says:

        Boy, I don’t hear those alternating bars at all in considering the words — just 4/4, when I think about it. But what really makes me hear it in 4/4 is the chord progression, largely suggested by the keyboard part. Granted, the keyboard part is very sparse but one expects full chords there, which, when interpreted classically, convey 4/4 phrasing. Maybe I just have trouble hearing it differently. However, when I play my own keyboard version with full chords and traditional counterpoint, left and right hands, I clearly hear it as 4/4. I do find though that without thinking about it too much and just casually listening with the music in the background, etc. the time signature is not as clear.

  10. Walter says:

    Excuse me, as I was thinking about the opening, which is repeated once. I see what you mean now about the circular verses, although I’m not sure if I hear 4/4 + 4/4 + 2/4 or just five bars of 2/4.

  11. Can anyone tell me who sings backing vox? Is it DB, with tape-trickery? Or the most beautiful woman I have never seen? Spellbinding.

  12. todd says:

    Great songs, great album, I’m 13 again, oh, wish it were now, happy daze, gender bender and pills galore, cool time todf

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