This is a song about my girlfriend who’s dead! (audience cheers)
Iggy Pop, Detroit, 25 March 1977.
This entry and the next will require some time-skipping, as the songs are both Lust For Life tracks and cover versions on Bowie’s Tonight (1984), a minor record in a meager decade for him. If anything demonstrates the decline in Bowie’s judgment and taste in the mid-1980s, it’s his reworking of “Tonight,” where he turned a junkie lament into a light reggae cocktail-lounge duet with Tina Turner.
Iggy Pop’s “Tonight” seems to have come out of a stray line in “Turn Blue,” though where the latter was a rambling stream of extravagant consciousness, “Tonight” is a set of simple, common words, a eulogy in a diminished language. In the 16-bar prelude, Iggy comes home, finds his girlfriend dead, falls to his knees and cries out a song. “Tonight,” developed on stage as a climactic number during the Idiot tour, was a performance piece with a taste of the ridiculous—Pop’s opening dramatics, Bowie and the Sales brothers’ wailing wall of backing vocals. But it wasn’t camp, either: in the Detroit ’77 performance, as Pop sings the opening, Hunt or Tony Sales is caught up in the story and yells out “hey!” as if he can’t quite believe what’s happening.
The chorus, which builds from E flat to A flat via the relative minor (Cm), has the loveliest melody on Lust For Life: a repeated phrase and then a four-bar, slowly descending vocal line (“no one moves/no one talks…”) that ends on a B-flat (the last “night”). The lyric begins in shock, becomes an ode to death. There’s even the hint of a dark joke: Pop sings that he’ll love the girl to the end, which is right now, so “Tonight,” perversely, is a breakup song too.
Bowie’s primary roles on Lust For Life were as keyboardist (proud of his work on Pop’s tour, Bowie played all the piano/synthesizers himself, and there’s some charmingly shaky synth work here) and backing singer, often appearing as a distantly-mixed, octave-higher echo of Pop’s baritone. On songs like “Some Weird Sin” and “The Passenger” and here, Bowie shadowed Pop’s voice, keeping his bad dreams company, sometimes sounding like a battered conscience. On “Tonight” he (and the Sales brothers) sing the second verse along with Pop, but at a vast distance away from him, offering no consolation, just witnessing.
Bowie remade “Tonight” seven years later. He cut out the prelude and bled the song of all its nuance and desperation. The symbolism is ridiculous: Bowie, cleaned up at the height of Thatcher and Reagan, remade a song about dead junkies by quietly disposing of the body and turning the song into a dessicated reggae come-on, suitable to be piped over the PA system at a Club Med resort.
Bowie’s Tonight is essentially Pin Ups II: a record rushed out to capitalize on an uptick in Bowie’s stock, and it’s filled with uninspired cover songs (three Iggy Pop songs, Chuck Jackson’s “I Keep Forgettin'” and the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” along with a handful of new originals).
He named the record after his reworking of “Tonight,” but even at the time, interviewed by Charles Shaar Murray, Bowie all but admitted that his remake was a travesty, a concession to common tastes. Calling the original “Tonight” “such an idiosyncratic thing of Jimmy’s that it seemed not part of my vocabulary,” Bowie said he had decided to “change[ ] the whole sentiment around,” he said, adding that he’d managed to preserve a “barren feeling” in his new version.
Bowie said he ditched the dead girl in the opening because he had wanted Tina Turner to sing it with him, and suggested to Murray that Turner might have balked on singing the full lyric (which was a bit insulting to Turner, who was of built of sterner stuff: she had just covered Paul Brady’s“Steel Claw”, which has lines like “sometimes I’m contemplating suicide” and opens with a “rich bitch lying by the swimming pool”).
Worse, the new “Tonight” manages to make Tina Turner superfluous. In the Pop original, Bowie and the Sales brothers flit in and out of the song like ghosts, howling over Pop’s baritone. But Bowie sings the remake with a soft, easy croon, leaving Turner no natural entry point, so she just winds up singing over him.
The rest of the remake is just dross. The original Pop recording is fervid and tense, the band holding it together seemingly by luck and sheer force of will, with Ricky Gardiner’s guitar runs appearing like small moments of grace. In the Bowie version, Gardiner’s guitar solo is replaced by a marimba reverie, a wretched brass section, known as the “Borneo Horns,” do what they can to worsen things and even Carlos Alomar, the sole holdover from the original record besides Bowie, is a whisper of his former self.
Around the time Pop and Bowie recorded the original “Tonight,” the Kinks put out a record called “Juke Box Music.” It seems like the last Kinks song, where Ray Davies dismisses his life’s work in a few minutes. A girl sits alone listening to pop records, ignoring the boors that hit on her in a bar, and Davies calls her out as a dreamer and fool. “It’s only music,” he says incredulously, over and over again. It’s only there to dance to. The words mean nothing. It’s not real. Introducing the song on The Old Grey Whistle Test, Davies said of the song’s subject that “people like me write a lot of lyrics, and she believes it.” Sure, the scenario called back to some of Davies’ earlier dreamers, like the girl in “Oklahoma U.S.A” or the old man in “Waterloo Sunset,” but in “Juke Box Music” there’s no sympathy given to the dreamer: she’s just a figure of ridicule, as are the songs that give her her only comfort in life. The song is as bitter as it’s compelling, and heralds the Kinks’ move into boorish hard rock.
Bowie’s remake of “Tonight” has a similar combination of exhaustion and cynicism, but unlike “Juke Box Music,” it’s also flaccid. Bowie baldly had repeated the “China Girl” formula of shining up an old, weird Iggy song and trying to make it a pop hit, but “Tonight” didn’t crack the Top 40: it arguably killed off Bowie’s commercial resurgence in the US and didn’t do him any favors in the UK. (In the summer of “When Doves Cry” or Turner’s far sharper “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” it sounded old and lame.) Bowie once had played regularly for stakes. With “Tonight” he tried to scrape out a cheap score, and he failed.
Debuted ca. 1 March 1977, recorded 4-20 June 1977, Hansa, Berlin; on Lust For Life. Bowie’s remake was recorded ca. May-June 1984, Le Studio, Morin Heights, Canada. Issued as a single in November 1984 c/w “Tumble and Twirl” (EMI EA 187, #53 US, UK, though a #1 hit in Poland). Bowie sang it with Turner on 23 March 1985, in Birmingham, UK (a performance later included on Turner’s Live In Europe).
Top: Jean Penders, “East End, London, 1977.”