The harmonica, in Sixties British pop music, usually signified something: the North, earthiness, a connection (imaginary, anticipated) with America, an allegiance with folk music (or at least Dylan). The sound of the early Beatles was partly that of John Lennon’s harmonica* and Mick Jagger and Keith Relf’s harp thickened Stones and Yardbirds tracks. On “A New Career In a New Town,” the footbridge between the “rock” and “ambient” sides of Low, Bowie played harmonica for the first time since “Jean Genie”; keeping to custom, he used the harmonica as a symbol as much as sound.
“New Town” is both arrival and departure gate; it’s a merger of two fragmented songs, of two musics. The track opens with 20 bars of an electronic-centered piece—call it “Section A”—reminiscent again of Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity. The thudding, metronomic drumbeat seems an offshoot of “Geiger Counter,” while the harmonized layers of synthesizers suggest the title track (there’s also the influence of the Neu! spin-off band La Düsseldorf (see “Silver Cloud”): “New Town” is Bowie pitting Kraftwerk against Neu!). The 4/4 ur-house beat (with a brief “fill” on the sixth bar) is likely from a real kick drum, as sampled and distorted by Eno’s “synthetics,” and four distinct synthesizers are panned across the mix. In the right channel, one serves as the track’s exosphere, providing a high, hardly varying tone, similar to the “choir” setting of Kraftwerk’s Orchestron. The two synthesizers in the left channel offer riffs and counter-rhythms, while the one mixed in the center slowly plays a lovely descending melody.
Then, about thirty-five seconds in, we shift to “Section B”: it’s the sudden return of Dennis Davis’ processed drums, George Murray’s walking bass (the low end supplemented by Roy Young’s piano chording), the dueling, crackling Carlos Alomar and Ricky Gardiner guitars, and Bowie’s harmonica, substituting for the intended vocal that Bowie never recorded. This section is far more conventional—a progression from C major to F and G over three 8-bar movements, the first two identical, the last a variation.
It’s easy to consider “New Town” a study in contrasts, whether it’s the “America” of Section B versus the “Europe” of Section A, or the past (harmonica, piano) set against the future (synthesized drums, repeated loops rather than tonal progressions). Yet the two sections also seem to influence and bleed into each other—the yearning synthesizers seem more human, at times, than the players on their processed instruments (Bowie’s harmonica stands out in part because it’s the least-treated, and so the most “organic,” instrument in the mix). The second appearance of Section A offers new variations—a different lead melody and an even more fragmentary structure (only 8 bars now)—while Section B, upon its return, descends into a loop in the coda, with three bars repeated again and again, only a Davis drum fill breaking the pattern just at the fade-out.
Bowie named the track a while after he recorded it, likely when finishing Low in Berlin, and “A New Career In a New Town” is a self-conscious title, of course—it’s as if Bowie was offering his biographers a ready-made chapter heading. As Hugo Wilcken wrote, “Bowie in Berlin” is as much a fictional construct as The Thin White Duke or Ziggy, and it’s arguably Bowie’s most enduring role. In “New Career” Bowie is in character despite not singing a note: he invokes a past he never quite accepted and marries it to a future he helped create.
Recorded September 1976 at Château d’Hérouville. B-side of “Sound and Vision,” February 1977. Performed on the Heathen and Reality tours, 2002-2004.
* Lennon’s loud, blunt harmonica playing (while Lennon played a chromatic harmonica, he generally treated it as a one-key blues harp) is central to the early Beatles records, from their first singles—“Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me” and “From Me To You” (the latter at the insistence of George Martin, who by then considered the harmonica central to the Beatles’ sound)—to album cuts like “Chains,” “Little Child” and “I Should Have Known Better.” There’s a sudden drop-off in 1964, with Lennon’s Dylan-tinged “I’m a Loser” marking the end of the line. The harmonica only returned once more, as pastiche: Lennon added it to McCartney’s “Rocky Raccoon.”
Top: Fritz Getlinger, “Joseph Beuys, 1976.”