TVC 15

TVC 15.
TVC 15 (rehearsal, 1976).
TVC 15 (live, 1976).
TVC 15 (live (video fragment), 1976).
TVC 15 (live, 1978).
TVC 15 (Saturday Night Live, with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, 1979).
TVC 15 (Live Aid, 1985).
TVC 15 (live, 1990).

The strange thing about television is that it doesn’t tell you everything. It shows you everything about life on Earth, but the true mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s in the nature of television. Just waves in space.

Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), The Man Who Fell To Earth.

And, in her living room, her husband sat before the TV set, an enraptured child, listening to, following with devout attention, the nightly report from Whale’s Mouth. Watching the new, the next world.

Philip K. Dick, Lies, Inc.

“TVC 15” is an avant-garde novelty song, a joke delivered in a series of abrasions. Bowie’s mordant sense of humor hasn’t been this visible since Hunky Dory. Inspired by Iggy Pop’s dream of a TV devouring his girlfriend, “TVC 15” also likely came out of Bowie’s work on The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie’s extraterrestrial character fills rooms with televisions, sometimes a dozen, and sits watching them all, each on a different channel (an image lifted by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons for Watchmen a decade later).

Despite the references to quadraphonic sound and hologramic televisions, “TVC 15” is at heart a parody of the ’50s-’60s teenage death ballad, with the same scenario as “Teen Angel,” “Endless Sleep” or “Last Kiss”: the narrator recalls how his girl perished, usually in some horrible, inexplicable way, and now he’s all alone, wondering whether or not to join her in death.

So in “TVC 15” the singer brings his girlfriend over to watch his new TV set, which at first bores her, then transfixes her, then consumes her: she crawls in through the screen, and he’s left with the choice of mourning her forever or “jump[ing] down that rainbow way” himself. The teen death song usually offers some reassurance from the afterlife—the dead girlfriend calling the boy’s name, etc.—but here the TVC 15 “just stares back unblinking.”My baby’s in there someplace,” is the singer’s meager hope.

Bowie, playing the revivalist, outfits the track in early rock ‘n’ roll trappings, from the I-IV-V chord progression of its verses (with F minor swapped in for F in a bar, when Bowie first sings “TVC 15”) to Roy Bittan’s piano, seemingly airlifted from ’50s New Orleans (Robert Christgau once described “TVC 15” as Huey “Piano” Smith & the Clowns crossed with Lou Reed), to an opening “oh-OH-oh-OH-OH” line nicked from the Yardbirds’ “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.”

The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right…It grows you any shape it wishes. It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is the truth.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451.

Television as a malevolent artificial intelligence, offering a more compelling reality than the actual one, is nearly as common as UFOs in postwar science-fiction—take the four-wall TV “parlors” and their besotted viewers in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or the demagogic/theocratic TV talk show hosts who populate Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron and Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Dick’s work in particular is full of associations of TV with grotesque evil, such as the gruesome passage in Lies, Inc. where a politician on TV transforms into a monster who consumes a series of eyeballs.)

Sure, some of it was just SF novelists belittling the new competition, but these books generally predicted how the 20th Century would play out. Before few others, writers like Bradbury sensed that television, far from being a modest evolution from radio and film, was a radically new creation, one that would rewire the human brain (though TV seems, in retrospect, to have just been pre-op for the Internet’s more aggressive surgery), would erode the old verities and would remake society in its own circus-house image. This transformation is what the human race, apparently, had always wanted, like our age-old dreams of flying. For many years now, television has been fairly indistinguishable from the alleged “real” world. The leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 is campaigning by starring in her own reality TV show: this is completely unsurprising, and is likely setting a precedent.

Bowie, born in 1947, had seen television evolve from the genteel incarnation of his childhood, where TV was a glorified wireless set—a large wooden box with an 8″ black-and-white screen that showed only one government-run channel a few hours a day (there even was a “toddlers’ truce” of no programming aired during the hour that young children were typically put to bed)— to become, by 1975 and especially in the U.S., an omnipresent box in every home and hotel room, a unblinking electric eye, offering a visual compost heap, churning old Hollywood films, riots, images of man and animals in nature, kung-fu exhibitions and cereal ads into a ceaseless stream of images and noises. So “TVC 15” is just Bowie expanding the map—of course the TV of the future would be even more compelling, more intoxicating, have more channels, be more diabolical; its reality would be finer and purer.

(And in turn, Bowie’s scenario of someone who, by turning on the TV, lets inside his home forces that destroy his life, would inspire, perhaps subconsciously, two films of the following decade—David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (one notorious scene, when James Woods makes out with Debbie Harry via a pulsating TV screen, is pure “TVC 15”), and Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, where, coming full circle to Iggy Pop’s nightmare, a girl is claimed by a TV set.)

“TVC 15″‘ sets its hooks against its disturbances. Four sets of eight-bar verses* offer noise experiments in miniature, with each bar of each verse sounding as if it’s starting the song anew: it’s like a series of first takes spliced together in a run. Bowie starts each bar on the same note, while guitars grind and lurch upward but are set back in place four beats later, their efforts like an engine failing to get in second gear (Carlos Alomar later described it as a drone: “the music would stay in one place and just keep going”). Yet over this Bowie’s vocal is generally buoyant, even loopy, as if he’s telling you the best story he’s ever heard, and maybe it is. Finally breaking free of its verses’ orbit, the song moves into its earworm of a chorus, a mild disco “tran-sition!….trans-mission!” sequence over eight bars of F7 and A7 that, once it falls back home to C major, becomes a chanted “Oh my TVC 15! oh-oh! TVC 15!,” Bowie’s mantra/ad jingle, set against first a vicious guitar riff and then a cascading Bittan piano figure. The title line, hinting at the future “I want my MTV” slogan, is so enticing that all thoughts of the vanished girl disappear—this is a valentine for a television set, and a passionate one.

The mix, with the standard Station to Station layout of two guitars set in opposing channels, is murky and dense in places, suggesting radio signals eating into each other’s airspace. The backing vocal beneath Bowie’s lead sometimes echoes him a beat late, or hums a different tune, sometimes whispers a barely audible line; multiple saxophone overdubs (Bowie and producer Harry Maslin) bay through the chorus like foghorns. It all makes a happy chaos, suggesting that Bowie’s recounting his tale after having been swallowed up by his television; he ends his terrestrial life in a flux of sound.

Recorded September-November 1975. Released on Station to Station and also as a single c/w “We Are the Dead” in April 1976 (RCA 2682, #33 UK). Performed on the 1976, 1978 and 1990 tours, and an inspired choice to kick off Bowie’s Live Aid set in 1985. Bowie’s “TVC 15” with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias for Saturday Night Live in late 1979, with Bowie wearing a tight pencil skirt and high heels, and featuring a pink toy poodle with a television monitor in its mouth, remains one of the odder musical performances ever shown on American television.

* In most subsequent live performances, Bowie broke up this long run of verses, usually moving the chorus to after the second verse.

20 Responses to TVC 15

  1. post it says:

    Always thought the “tran-sition!….trans-mission!’ part was a nod to Kraftwerk and the Radio-activity LP especially the track Antenna with its…
    ‘I’m the antenna catching vibration, You’re the transmitter give information
    I’m the transmitter I give information, You’re the antenna catching vibration”

  2. ian says:

    It took reading this entry to finally go look up what the exact lyrics to this song were— because, and this is in part due to Station to Station never having been a consuming favorite of mine— I never knew at what point in the song the girlfriend was eaten! It turns out I was looking way too late in the song. It’s pretty funny how the supposed “meaning” of the song is more or less treated as an afterthought— funny, and realll clever.

    The rest of the song seems like a fight between finally switching off love and turning into a TV-tuber. That one little line of “love’s final rating in the sky” is a great one— it’s both the final attempt at retaining emotion, and the first step of total television immersion.

  3. mike says:

    Brilliant commentary on a loopy favorite. Jesus, you’re good….

  4. Deacon Lowdown says:

    Brilliant analysis, as usual. It’s also worth noting that this is by far the least “soul” track on Station to Station, and (perhaps as a result) the song least related to the “Duke” concept, at least on first listen. I know that on my first listen, it struck me as an anomaly.

    Then it hit me: the songs are all linked not so much by the Duke but by the disconnect from society that he represents. Disconnect is present in the title track (“Who will connect me with love?”, “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love”) the delusions of Golden Years which you pointed out so well in your previous post, the social failures of “Stay” (“I really meant to so badlyyyy this time!”) and the feeling of reclusion that dominates “Word on a Wing” (“and I’m trying hard to fit into your scheme of things”)

    It’s funny how you say Bowie was prescient of the domination of media in this song, because I think this entire album is a prediction of the widespread disconnect from society that so much of my generation feels: look at the phenomenon of the hikikomori in Japan, the rise of the NEET in the UK, and the information overload that so many of us in America feel.

    “Oh so Demonic”, indeed.

  5. diamonddog says:

    Like rebel rebel its overlong and quite annoying for some reason to me it does not fit the rest of the album to me. Its catchy but I find annoyingly so like a cocaine laughing gnome a throw away piece with a thin unfunny joke. I’ve never warmed to it at all the recent reissue has the faintly whispered TVC15 at the start which in 30 years I had not heard as it was buried in the mix. I used to love it as youth but its just seems a bit of a joke track now.

    • Maj says:

      I wanted to write something similar here so I’ll just concur. Glad to know I’m not the only person who is not very fond of this song now (used to like it when I was a teen tho). Allergic would probably be a good description.

      • Patrick says:

        First of all, just started exploring this great blog.
        Agree, I feel TVC 15 while it seemed an appealing confection when I was very early teens when I first heard it as a single in the 70s, now it feels like Bowie on auto-pilot, and the weakest track on STS.

  6. Joe the Lion says:

    Love Bowie’s vocal on this track – a mumbled, twitchy bemusement. Musically, I slightly prefer the live version from Stage, though, particularly for the party atmosphere in the intro.

  7. stuartgardner says:

    Good job connecting the song with the teen death ballads!
    I’ve always wondered if Bowie’s menacing television stems from the telescreens through which Big Brother monitors the citizens of Oceania in 1984, and if his initial ideas for the song might date to his transformation of Orwell’s novel into Diamond Dogs.
    As for his use of “quadraphonic” in the lyric, the album Station to Station was recorded in that process, according to Hugo Wilcken’s book Low.
    TVC15 has always been a great favorite of mine.

  8. sarah_slp says:

    Great analysis; I’ve just discovered your blog and I’m totally in love. I agree with diamonddogs, Maj and Patrick, really. When I first heard the song on StS I was terribly disappointed because it just didn’t fit with the other Duke-y songs. I learnt to tolerate it, though; in fact, I quite enjoy the drunk-and-not-giving-a-shit sound of the verses and the stupid, catchy chorus. For a short while. Then the novelty wears off. The song goes on for about ten years! The length is what stops StS from being my all-time favourite album. 😦 It would’ve worked so much better as a two-minute filler. It really makes me sad!

  9. Elijah2x says:

    I just had to jump in here. IMO TVC15 is one of the best tracks on StationToStation.

    Firstly, you can only ‘get’ this track when it’s played loud. I mean really loud! The same way you only ‘get’ the power of Reggae when it’s heard in a Blues and it’s bouncing out of the speakers on to the walls or Funk when it’s heard in basement. Secondly, it’s a song in which Bowie truly observes America and gives us reportage, ala the title song Young America. He’s an outsider and he knows it. He is no longer trying to sound or act American.
    Anyway, it’s built on Funk, Bierkeller, and Americana; and this is where Murray, Alomar and Davies come into their own, and kudos Roy Bitten. Bowie manages to synthesise all the elements into a seamless whole. I hate all the single cut versions, and just like the more famous title tracks, Let’s Dance, Heroes, and STS, it only works when played at full volume and in its totality.

    Play it again folks and play it loud!

    • Not long before this track was written, Elvis Presley designed a TV room in Graceland where he could watch four screens simultaneously. He did so because he hear Nixon did something similar. Now we live in an era of picture-in-picture television, tabbed browsing, and news channels where 50% of the screen is covered by data crawls unconnected to the main story.

  10. Ramzi says:

    I’ve just listened to the 2010 remaster, and am I the only one who feels very unsatisfied by it? It misses the droning guitar during the verses, which is for me one of the defining aspects of the song.

  11. Toneii says:

    The intro is not borrowed from the Yardbirds – I heard the true original version of this song once. It was an old piano boogie. The piano part you hear from Bowie was lifted note for note from the original song, as was the “Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh”. The music and the melody were exactly the same, but it had regular, typical song lyrics that Bowie replaced with his own. The second and third themes, “Transition, Transmission” and “Oh my TVC15” were not in the original song and were added by Bowie.

    I am surprised I can find no mention of the original on the net. I only heard it because my father had a student who was a big Bowie fan, and she loaned him a cassette of the songs that Bowie borrowed from. Wish I could hear the original again! I am surprised that no one knows about it.

  12. Nervous Ned says:

    Toneii, I think the track you are thinking of is ‘Hey Now Baby’ by Professor Longhair. It’s on You Tube … and yes, give it 5 seconds or so and the resemblance is there … so much so that as the Prof is about to launch into HIS song I was just about to sing ‘Up every evening …’!
    Rip off though? … not so sure … homage, yes homage!

    And, having played STS twice this week I find myself coming firmly on the positive side for TVC15. Novelty, jokey? Hmmm … surely the clue is in the dense paranoid backing of the song. Droning guitars, foghorn sax … a neurotic backdrop to someone finally losing it and becoming the blank of ‘Stay’.
    For me it’s the flipside to ‘Word on a Wing’. One an earnest (?) prayer … the other a bonkers submission.

    .. and first comment on this blog after reading for years; Excellent writing, keep up the good work. This is a fine Bowie resource.

  13. Ryan S says:

    I always loved the wailing sax in the chorus.

    • Dr Z says:

      …then you need to hear the version from Seattle ’76 for some other wailing, almost like a preview of Side 2 of Low.

      At 3’40” someone passes him the sax, and he gets going – listen to the kettle blow at 5’15”……

  14. Klaus Nomi News
    relating to this song as seen on ‘Saturday night live’
    –I was a neighbor and collaborator w/ the Nomester, yet only very recently was when I 1st found out the profound effect his SNL appearance w/ Bowie [1979] had on the teen Mike Myers up in canada—he credits Nomi w/ the inspiration for the character ‘DIETER’ which was his entree on demo reel to his own debut on snl a few years later! where he did the skit series SPROCKETS
    and a movie was laboriously scripted and 1/2 cast etc but was abandoned circa 2000 [boohoo]
    –dieter’s pet b&w monkey was named Klaus…

    I recently came across a copy of the script to Dieter, and it turns out it’s one of the funniest scripts Myers has ever written and if it were made, it might have wound up being the next Austin Powers or Wayne’s World.

    Podcast WTF with Mike Myers
    by M Maron

    at 1130
    i transcribed the essential paragraph:
    [At 18-19 Mike was putting on his own shows having opened for punk bands in Canada performing as 2 adoptive characters: ‘Wayne Campbell’ and ‘Dieter’]

    Mike: ‘Dieter’ comes directly from Klaus Nomi, who was a German performance artist….if you youtube ‘TVC 15’ [the David Bowie song] when he was on SNL he had 2 backup singers and one of them was Klaus Nomi. And I went ‘What the fuck was THAT?! That was fan-TAStic, that was the weirdest thing I ever saw in my life!’ I’d never seen German TV, I thought ‘I bet it’s like THAT…’

    List of SNL episodes featuring Dieter

    [[Mr Chris. am on borrowed unit and been ages since Ive html’d anything! sorry if the honor falls to you to, if you think this post might add to yr blog! Thanks~]]

  15. Stephen says:

    The insightful analysis and unpicking of the song in this post is as astounding and welcome as ever. But it’s the eerie prescience of this passage that stands out now:

    “The leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 is campaigning by starring in her own reality TV show: this is completely unsurprising, and is likely setting a precedent.”

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