Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family

Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family.
Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family (live, 1974).
Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family (live, 1987).

Brutish and short, “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family” was the only way Bowie could have ended something like Diamond Dogs. Segueing from “Big Brother,” the track could be Winston Smith’s complete, joyous submission to power, or it could just as well be the return of the Diamond Dogs, dancing around a bonfire on some skyscraper roof in Hunger City.

“Chant,” almost purely a rhythm track, is something of a rhythmic puzzle. Nicholas Pegg wrote that “Chant” is in alternating measures of 6/4 and 5/4, which doesn’t seem right. Rather “Chant” seems to begin with alternating bars of 2/4 and 3/4 and then, in the six “choruses” (1 chorus = 1 set of “brother,” “ooh ooh,” “shake it up” x2, “move it up” x2), it moves completely to 5/4 [edit: no, it doesn’t.]. Further accents–three beats on a tambourine every three measures, a cowbell coming in on the second chorus (hit either two or three times), what sounds like a guiro on the third—seem intended to muddle the sense of time.

[An earlier version of this entry said the track’s end repeat was a lock groove, which isn’t accurate: thus the perils on relying on 25-year-old memories. Still, I’ve retained the info on lock grooves, if that sort of thing interests you.]

The track, and the LP, end in a pseudo-lock groove, the first syllable of Bowie singing “brother” repeated in a stabbing loop of sound. The idea of a repeating lock groove on a record was an avant-garde experiment, its main innovator Pierre Schaeffer, a co-founder of the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète. By the mid-’60s lock grooves had begun to appear on pop/rock LPs like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and The Who Sell Out (the latter’s lock groove was an endlessly-repeating advertisement for Track Records). There the lock groove was often intended as a joke, meant to startle stoned people who were unwilling or unable to get up and change the record (Paul McCartney said the Beatles were inspired after many parties where everyone sat listening to the ticking of a record’s end groove for 20 minutes).

Recorded ca. January-February 1974. Performed during the Diamond Dogs tour of summer ’74 as well as the 1987 tour, in both cases as part of “Big Brother.” Essential cover: The Wedding Present, 1992.

Top: Try convincing your parents to let you go to this concert.

25 Responses to Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family

  1. Andy says:

    Excellent piece, but I must add that ‘Chant’, in its vinyl format, never actually ended in a locked groove, and so the coda on those subsequent CD reissues is authentic.

  2. col1234 says:

    damn, my memory completely wronged me. I could swear one of my friends had a Diamond Dogs w/a locked groove but perhaps it was just a skip! will correct that: thanks.

  3. spanghew says:

    Hmmm. The key is to listen to the guitar: that pattern of six eighth notes (I’m hearing it always on “1”) alternates every five beats and every six beats – so I’m inclined to go with Pegg on this one. You’re right that the percussion doesn’t follow that pattern, though. But unless I messed up, if you just count along with the guitar, and do every other bar as 5/4 and 6/4, you’ll never lose your place.

    • Anonymous says:

      I realise I’m very late with this, but the trick to the time signature of this song is to divide it up into two alternating sequences:

      The first section, right at the beginning of the song goes 5/4, 6/4, 5/4, 6/4;
      then when the drums come in (around 10 seconds), the second section starts, which moves from 6/4 to 5/4;
      and then it endlessly alternates/repeats: one way to spot the different sections is that, although the riffs may appear identical, the first section always starts on an E major, whilst the second always starts on a D.

  4. Joe The Lion says:

    I’ve heard from other sources about the locked groove ending too – and because I first discovered Diamond Dogs on cassette in 1990, grew to assume that I wasn’t getting the full experience of Chant. I’m kinda heartened that I’ve been getting the real deal all along!

  5. snoball says:

    Try convincing your parents to let you go to this concert.

    Since my mother thought Bowie was “that Alvin Stardust man”, I probably would have managed it.

  6. Rod says:

    Great blog mate! I always thought that the track ended with a loop of Bowie shouting “Rock!” rather than the first syllable of “Brother”?

  7. bewley brother says:

    Didn’t know about the Wedding Present cover – nice find.

    The site is always great reading, keep it coming.

  8. David Jones says:

    Love the Alvin Stardust anecdote – oddly enough Alvin’s man in black leathers act owed something to Vince Taylor who Ziggy was based on

  9. ian says:

    This is my favorite cover. For some reason, I’m quite enamored of this song. I guess it’s because the images I think of when putting it on are awesome and terrifying. It’s also pretty much the only way such a bizarrely unique record could have ended.

    Plus, it’s a great title! Musta been why I <a href="http://circlingskeleton.tumblr.com&quot; named one of my blogs after it.

  10. martyn watson says:

    I seem to remember Tony Visconti saying that they’d wanted to repeat ‘Brother’ but that the unit that they were using (a first generation Bell digital delay with ‘locking’ facility) could only capture the first syllable. Love on ya. M

  11. Tavo says:

    Nice blog, good info. though i must add that this song is the is an attempt from david bowie to musicalize the “Two Minutes of Hate” from 1984. Sorry for my bad english, it’s not my first language.

    • BenJ says:

      Interesting. Two minutes hate translated into orgiastic dance music is pretty brilliant, as well as being a good find.

      Know you posted this comment a few years ago, but your English seems fine.

    • Matthew says:

      Just dug out my USB turntable and vinyl to check, it just fades off into echo way before the runout groove.

      Two Minutes Hate

      At this moment the entire group of people broke into a deep, slow, rhythmical chant of ‘B-B! ….B-B! ….B-B!’ – over and over again, very slowly, with a long pause between the first ‘B’ and the second – a heavy murmurous sound, somehow curiously savage, in the background of which one seemed to hear the stamp of naked feet and the throbbing of tomtoms.
      George Orwell 1984

  12. AnonymousBosch says:

    1984 describes the party members chanting ‘buh-buh-buh’ (for Big Brother).

  13. sidthecat says:

    Do you really think I’d show that picture to my parents?

  14. Sean Willard says:

    “Try convincing your parents to let you go to this concert.”

    And that’s the *censored* version. Compare: https://monolithcocktail.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/ten-awesome-gatefolds-03-diamond-dogs-outer.jpg

    As a matter of fact my dad (and his girlfriend) took me to my first Bowie show, the Isolar tour.🙂 The Diamond Dogs cover wouldn’t have put him off, far from it.

  15. postpunkmonk says:

    Actually, my wife did get manage to convince her parents to let her go and attend her first rock concert which was Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour. Even though she would only turn 16 shortly after the concert. Of course, she was disappointed because by Cleveland, Bowie had radically changed it to the Philly Dogs tour format. Though I was just listening to “David Live” and finding new wonders in its radical shifts in tone and form as he was hurtling towards “Young Americans.” The Latin jazz-slash-Tito Puente version of “Aladdin Sane” was an amazing balancing act, considering that Garson’s solo was fairly intact.

  16. wytchcroft says:

    i hear the end as an echo of the (Big?) “Brothers!” on the Stooges TV Eye.

  17. Greg Evans says:

    “Try convincing your parents to let you go to this concert.”

    I did, and they did. Granted I was 14, so wasn’t a baby, but I remain grateful that I was allowed to go (June 24, Dayton Hara Arena). And I still have that exact ad, from Circus magazine, and just seeing it on this site gives me the same chill I had all those years ago, when I saw “Bowie,” “Hara Arena” and that upcoming date on the page of my then-favorite magazine…

  18. Alex Reed says:

    The phrases in the song group into threes, if you count the vocal interjections as downbeats.

    [(6+5) + 11 + 11]

    Repeat six times.

    The trick is that behind it all is a kick/snare alternating backbeat, meaning that it takes two cycles through the larger period before you get an actual repeat. Sixty-six beats. Numerology ahoy.

    None of this is even really getting into the guitar…

    BTW, this rhythmic phasing is not far from what he did more famously at the end of “Ashes to Ashes.”

  19. Matthew says:

    Trivia.
    Going through some of my vinyl and digitising them (slow project), this morning I played Eno’s 1974 album ‘Taking Tiger Mountain By Stratagy’ and side 1 ends in a lock groove!
    I knew something I had had a lock groove but couldn’t remember so with DD out of the running it was great to find out what.

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