Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise)

Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise).
Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise) (live, 1974).

The rotten heart of Diamond Dogs; a triptych where prostitutes are the only lovers left, where street hustlers double as politicians.

Tony Newman, who drummed on most of the record, recalled Bowie switching off all the lights in the studio save those directly over his microphone. So Bowie sang “Sweet Thing” in a spotlight, the musicians around him mere shadows.

During the summer ’74 Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie sang the “Sweet Thing” suite from a catwalk above the stage. He preened, writhed as though being electrocuted; he looked like Baron Samedi gone Hollywood.

It’s Bowie on guitar (and sax), Mike Garson on piano, Herbie Flowers on bass, Tony Newman on drums. Bowie coached his players like actors. For the first 32 bars of “Candidate,” up until Bowie smells “the blood of les Tricoteuses,” he told Newman to play his snare rolls as if he was a French drummer boy watching his first guillotining during the Terror.

The suite opens with thirty seconds of a slowly-emerging wash of backwards tapes. It closes, after the “Zion” mellotron line and Garson playing a bar’s worth of “Changes”, with a minute of musical violence.

It’s safe in the city/to love in a doorway. “Sweet Thing/Candidate,” an urban debasement, is part of a long English tradition of city nightmares. So Thomas Hardy, describing an 1879 Lord Mayor’s Show: As the crowd grows denser, it loses its character of an aggregate of countless units, and becomes an organic whole, a molluscous black creature having nothing in common with humanity, that takes the shape of the streets along which it has lain itself, and throws out horrid excrescences and limbs into neighboring alleys.

In the two verses of “Sweet Thing,” Bowie’s voice rises from the depths (the basso profundo of the opening verse), settling first on a conversational tone (“isn’t it me”) then vaulting to high, long-held notes, starting with “will you see.” There’s the cartoon New Yorkese voice he uses in the first bridge (“if you wannit, boys”) and he nearly laughs when he sings the cut-up-produced nonsense of “turn to the crossroads and hamburgers.” (Or is it “of Hamburg”?) This isn’t the step-by-step graded elation of something like Carol Douglas’ “Doctor’s Orders,” where the song seems to be willing its singer to keep moving higher. It’s more a menagerie of voices that Bowie barely can keep under control.

George Gissing, on Farringdon Road, in The Nether World: Pass by in the night, and strain imagination to picture the weltering mass of human weariness, of bestiality, of unmerited dolour, of hopeless hope, of crushed surrender, tumbled together within those forbidding walls.

There’s a funereal tone to the suite, fitting for its year of creation. Nick Drake, after recording hisfour last songs” in February, died in November. Duke Ellington died in May. Archigram closed. Candy Darling died, age 25. Gene Ammons recorded Goodbye and departed. It was the year of Shostakovitch’s last quartet, Syd Barrett’s last-ever studio session. All that came out of the latter were a few brief guitar pieces. One, known as “If You Go #2,” (3:00 in the preceding link) is a jaunty hint of a song, incidental music for an impossible life.

Bowie’s guitar keeps to the margins until “Candidate,” when begins to cut into the vocal, like an increasingly belligerent drunken party guest. Crude and insistent, possessed by an appalling truth. At first confined to the right speaker, the guitar starts bleeding through. Bowie’s vocal starts matching the guitar’s tone, his phrasing mimicking the riffing.

Making bullet-proof faces, Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay. 1974 was the wake for the Sixties. Everyone came wearing tatters or suits: they dressed as the person they pretended they once were. Bob Dylan and the Band, touring North America early in ’74, played songs that had earned boos and jeers in ’66, but the songs had become, blessed by time, victory anthems. Dylan sang in a bellow: he might as well have used a bullhorn. He played “All Along the Watchtower” in Boston as if he meant to roust Hendrix from the grave.

Bowie tugs and tears at words, particularly in “Sweet Thing”‘s first verse (“see that I’m scared and I’m lonely“), while he tumbles out other phrases in a bushel (“where the knowing one says” is muttered over three beats). In “Candidate,” the hustler starts out all business, with Bowie sounding confident, even wry, but as the verses keep coming, and he’s not closing the sale, he grows more desperate. He sounds as though he’s suppressing screams: his vocal becomes a run of slurs, colliding syllables, forced marriages of words not meant to rhyme (he mates “shop on” with “papier”). The “Sweet Thing” chorus returns, now only four bars long and taken at a hurried, less alluring pace—time’s running out. When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad I go to pieces. The merchant at the mercy of his customer.

Margaret Thatcher, in 1982, was Lent to the past Carnival: We are reaping what was sown in the sixties…fashionable theories and permissive claptrap set the scene for a society in which old values of discipline and restraint were denigrated.

Holly Woodlawn to the dying Candy Darling: “It’s okay, hon…you don’t have to talk. I know you’re tired.”

Candy: “Yeah. Putting on lipstick…it really takes it out of me.”

Mike Garson’s piano gives the second verse of “Sweet Thing” a few moments of grace and levity. The little winking run of notes after “you’re older than me,” the shards of melodies he plays in the spaces Bowie takes to breathe.

Do you think that your face looks the same? There’s pity in Bowie’s voice here.

On the whole there’s only room for two views in this country.

Education Secretary Thatcher’s election-night commentary, 28 February 1974.

“Candidate” is utterly essential to the suite, its centerpiece, and it also could be excised completely and you would never know it had existed. Play “Sweet Thing” and the Reprise back-to-back and it’s a near-seamless transition. “Candidate” is an outgrowth of “Sweet Thing”‘s chorus, as it’s built on the same chords (D minor, A minor, G); it’s also the inverse of the earlier song—mainly two long verses (24 bars), two brief 4-bar choruses.

James Thomson, in The Doom of a City (1857), came to the City of the Dead: The mighty City in vast silence slept,/dreaming away its tumult toil and strife…Within a buried City’s maze of stone; Whose peopling corpses, while they ever dream/Of birth and death—of complicated life/Whose days and months and years/Are wild with laughter, groans and tears/As with themselves and Doom…

My set is amazing, it even smells like a street. Bowie spent some time obsessively but fruitlessly working on test footage for a Diamond Dogs movie as a daytime distraction from his drinking and drugging social circle at the time (Bowie claims that some of the footage features an impatient John Lennon in the background, berating him with the words “What the bloody hell are you doing, Bowie, all this mutant crap?”, as Bowie tinkers with a clay model of Hunger City, the album’s post-apocalyptic setting). John Tatlock, on “Cracked Actor.”

Live, “Candidate” was introduced by Earl Slick’s guitar and David Sanborn’s saxophone, two peacock performances. On record, Bowie’s guitar solo that closes out “Sweet Thing” is far cruder yet more compelling: a hustler with grand ambitions.

To Thomas Hardy, London was a Wheel and a Beast. (George Whitter Sherman.)

The chorus of “Sweet Thing” is sung by a set of typical Bowie grotesques. The somber bass voices overtopped by tenors. The croaking flat voice that seems most prominent when you’re half-listening. A set of gargoyles, arranged as though on the parapet of a cathedral.

Later in the night Thomson returned home to his own city. Its awfulness of life oppressed my soul; the very air appeared no longer free/but dense and sultry in the close control/of such a mighty cloud of human breath.

“Sweet Thing (Reprise)” offers just one verse: it’s one of the loveliest things Bowie ever recorded, and it pays homage to cocaine, submits to the cruelties of the street. The hustler’s closed the deal at last, and the city takes another victim. It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you. The soaring final notes are reminiscent of “Life on Mars,” whose empathy, grace and beauty “Sweet Thing” suggests were all just vicious lies.

We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/then jump in the river holding hands.

Recorded January-February 1974. The entire suite was performed during the “Diamond Dogs” tour of summer ’74, and never again. A new edit of “Candidate” was made for Patrice Chéreau’s 2001 film Intimacy.

Top and bottom: “Bruce,” “Maggie Sollars, Brixton, 1974”; Middle: Ted Heath faces the public, 28 February 1974.

29 Responses to Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise)

  1. David says:

    Interesting. There is also, of course, another song called ‘Candidate’ on the bonus track edition of DD. Although described as a ‘demo’ it’s almost a different song. Will you be writing about this one too?

  2. col1234 says:

    David–just scroll down! got to it a few days ago.

    • David says:

      Oops, I must have missed the twitter link to that, ta!

    • rob thomas says:

      i could only find your reference to a ‘re-edit’ of Candidate for ‘Intimacy’. Having only just discovered the ‘Demo’ bonus track, and absolutely loving it, I’d love to read your thoughts and analysis. Sorry if being dumb, but cannot find it. Thanks as always. Rob

    • rob thomas says:

      hi again
      please ignore my wittering about a Candidate ‘re-edit’ for the movie ‘Intimacy’. I was referring to the ‘Alternative Version’ and somehow missed your notes on this song, which i’ve subsequently found.


  3. Uncle Arthur says:

    Sweet thing is really cabaret but in the best possible sense

  4. ian says:

    It’s pretty amazing what Bowie does with his hacksaw guitar that’s all over Diamond Dogs. It seems to always play against the vocals— he sings one feeling and the guitar plays what’s really happening inside him.

    Great post, too!

  5. Joe the Lion says:

    I really like the guitar on Diamond Dogs, and think the album would be lesser if a fine guitarist such as Ronson had been on it.

    Bowie’s lead guitar reminds me of twisted metal, and it fits perfectly with the atmospheres on this album.

    • paulacoots says:

      Twisted metal. Exactly. Perfect and somehow futuristic. It’s got that strange, high end bite. For an essentially rather harsh (and utterly unique) guitar tone, it’s gorgeous.

      • Anonymous says:

        For me, Sweet Thing/Candidate are the story of Orwell’s 1984, the repression of people no longer allowed to have loving relationships, civilisation suppressed and rotten and destroyed. Beautiful in it’s despair. The twisted guitar is Winston being tortured by Big Brother. I absolutely adore this song.

  6. Diamond dog says:

    The nail in the coffin of glam the last grandoise epic piece Bowie would write till Station to station like a more cohessive Time full of grand sweeping piano pure theatre and the centre piece of the tour> A brave live rendition made somehow sweeter by David Sanborn ..it is in my humble opinion one of his finest.

  7. 7th Labyrinth says:

    The basso profundo voice in that verse you mention is amazing. Could you tell us a bit more about Bowie vocal range? I’d love to know if he is tenor, baritone or bass, two or all of them!

    Thanks and I really love your page.

  8. gary says:

    Yo Ian ‘
    I’ve been listening and loving this song for a loonnng time (nr 30 years) & this explanation
    ‘it seems to always play against the vocals— he sings one feeling and the guitar plays what’s really happening inside him’
    is just spot on & enlightening .
    Thank You

  9. Maj says:

    Another song that ended up in my Bowie top 3 when somebody asked me yesterday. I’m very fond of Diamond Dogs but when I was thinking abt it last week when I was reading your entries for this album, I realized that it’s manly this song that I love.
    Even if the lyrics are all post-apocalyptic prevy ramblings (yay!), the melodies for this 3-in-one are just beautiful.
    And “When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad I go to pieces.” is a classic rock’n’roll line IMO.

  10. Pierce says:

    One of the finest moments in the entire Bowie catalogue and a golden moment in rock history.

  11. J.D. says:

    Nice accumulation of detail; agree this is one of the pinnacles of Aladdin-Sane-Dogs era DB. The strange businesses only hinted at in the Ziggy days are here brought to dystopian earth. Even so, the filth and desultory banality have some kind of thrilling drama at their heart, that desperate poetry found in, say, City Of Night (an influence cited by DB) by John Rechy.

    Your observation is true that the staging (I saw two of the four nights recorded for ‘Live At The Tower’) for this one kept DB enclosed and ill-at-ease, so yes, no end of preening and writhing. But it suited the material, in the sense of a leopard pacing in its cage, yearning to get to its prey or, at least out into the night… No friendly ‘Starman’ was this, waiting in the sky. Much more that creature that “can stare for a thousand years” .. who we would meet later on.

    One thing worth saying, though, is that the hustler/john, cnadidate/constituent pair-offs are possibly meant as a bittersweet reference to the fact that any gay sexual transaction in Britain was also a crime, at least up til the Sexual Offences Act of ’67, well within the DB early era. Point being that any affair between gays was degraded to mercenary or criminal level, and the whole taboo often shaped around that. Fairly poignant for generations of Britons, and Sweet Thing gets to that forbidden romance thing, I think.

    Last, glad to have a name for something that recurs again and again in the Bowie palette: the Gargoyle Chorus of Grotesques. The image suits it well.

  12. apologia pro sua vita says:

    No! I always thought it was My SCENT is amazing, it even smells like the street. And I always thought it was It’s got BALLS, it’s got me, it’s got you. Farewell, then, to two of my favourite DD lines ha ha!

    • paulacoots says:

      I thought the exact same thing for lo these many years. Are we sure those aren’t the correct words? 🙂

      • Matthew says:

        Well DB’s own website lists lyrics for most of his songs, but even there I’m sure there are some differences between the official lyrics and what I hear. Diamond Dogs is full of difficult to hear lines and no lyric sheet but I’m sure it’s ‘set’ and ‘claws’

  13. Rufus Oculus says:

    Has he ever written a better lyric?

  14. s.t. says:

    Simply brilliant, this suite. It’s like Roxy Music’s Wall-of-Sound psalm, “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” but taken to extreme depths of decadence and depravity. Bowie’s songs had been cynical and bizarre for quite some time, but this album is when he finally started to fashion sounds that matched his lyrical visions in their dark theatricality.

    • BenJ says:

      It’s also got something in common with Brian Eno’s “The Great Pretender”, which came out around the same time. Both bad trip songs with sex appeal, both closing out in noise and terror. Bowie and Eno were already thinking in compatible terms.

  15. Brett mathews says:

    It’s a masterpiece, simple as. The sax on this song … My god, brings tears to my eye every time I hear it.

  16. The Ziggurat says:

    Bowie’s best set of songs on Bowie’s best album. Boom. I said it. Diamond Dogs wins the championship in my book for greatest Bowie album. I’d fight over it.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Diamond Dog …just heard Donnt Hathaways song for you which opens with the same piano descent as sweet thing ..

  18. Sean Willard says:

    That “cartoon New Yorkese” voice has always sounded to me like a particularly cheesy Mae West impersonation, very well suited to the lyric.

    • paulacoots says:

      Sounds like Mae West to me, as well. I agree it’s well suited to the theme of this magnificent “song”. It’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite from all of Bowie’s wonderful material, but for me…this is it.

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