Blackout

Blackout.
Blackout (live, 1978).

In one story, a man is thrown off his motorcycle after colliding with a car. As he’s sliding across the road, perhaps to his death, he hears his helmet bouncing against the asphalt. The sound has a catchy rhythm, he thinks, and he finds himself composing a little ditty to it in his head

…”The question is: do drummers have different brains from the rest of us?” Eno said. “Everyone who has ever worked in a band is sure to say they do.”

Burkhard Bilger, “The Possibilian,” The New Yorker, 25 April 2011.

Time again to praise Dennis Davis. Davis’ drums, distorted by Tony Visconti’s Harmonizer (see “Breaking Glass”), are the sonic trademark of much of Low. By contrast, Visconti used the Harmonizer sparingly on “Heroes,” and only at the mixing stage, so Davis’ drums were mainly cut live, with few overdubs. “Heroes” is the sound of Davis playing to the room.

It helped that it was a colossal room, Hansa Tonstudio 2, which had been built to house a 150-person orchestra. Rather than using a drum booth, Davis set up his kit on a riser that, in a past life, had been used for choirs. At one end of the room, sitting about five feet off the floor, Davis could see George Murray down to his right (whenever Davis used his kick drum, Murray felt like he was being hit in the face), Carlos Alomar to his left, and Bowie, on piano, directly in front of him. Everyone but Davis used “gobos” (isolation panels); Davis’ drums instead were meant to fill the room. At the far end of the room was another microphone, intended to pick up the aftershock of Davis’ drumming. It’s easy to see what happened: Davis soon became the bandleader, conducting with his wrists and his feet.

Davis also had expanded his kit. He found a set of congas in the corner of the studio, hauled some timpani up on the riser. There are times on “Heroes” when Davis sounds like a percussive orchestra, or his fills seem a painstaking series of drum overdubs. But it’s just him, most of his drumming cut live, like the series of crazy fills Davis does twice on “Blackout” (cued by Bowie’s “get me to the doctor!” at 1:01 and 2:02), where he spins like the second hand of a clock, moving from toms to congas back to toms. There’s the little fills Davis throws in throughout, as if providing regular infusions of oxygen, or his move to what sounds like cowbell on the “get me off the streets” verse. And during it all Davis keeps perfect time. A human jazz metronome, Visconti later called him: playing flawlessly, yet never the same way twice.

“Blackout” is as abrasive as “Heroes” gets—the track seems to have been battled over by waves of armies. The verses are a series of assaults, with something resembling a chorus appearing only a minute-half in. Robert Fripp’s guitar, which early on calls back to his solo on Eno’s “St. Elmo’s Fire,” later approaches dog whistle frequencies; it seems bent on undermining Bowie’s vocal. Eno’s synthesizer burbles in the right channel. The backing vocals are conscripted to keep the lead from disintegrating (Bowie seems to falter while singing “kiss me in the rain,” as if he’s so drained he can barely form the words—the backing singers (Bowie and Visconti) keep at him, but he stumbles, finally inching out “in…the…rain.”) Pieces of old Bowie songs are churned up—Alomar’s guitar (kept to the left channel, he sounds like the only sane man left in the room) offers a riff that seems a marriage of “Suffragette City” and “Boney Maronie,” while the “chorus” section reworks “Stay.”

Bowie sings long, meandering lines that he severs with shouts and mutters. It’s an even more bizarre and mannered performance than “Joe the Lion”—there’s the ranted-out “I’m under Japanese influence and my honor’s at STAKE!” or, even crazier, the lines where Bowie seems to be attempting a New York accent: “I’m getting some SKIN EXPOSHUH to the BLACK-OUT!”

“Blackout”‘s lyric was another live-at-the mic production, though the lines are so deliberately random that it’s likely Bowie did some cut-up experiments to get a few of them. The lyric is said to be inspired by all sorts of disasters, like Bowie, agitated after the appearance of his wife Angie, passing out from drink and being hospitalized in late 1976. Bowie, perhaps mischievously, later said the song was a reaction to the New York City power outage of July ’77. And “Blackout” feels like an urban song, all crowds and paranoia, with the streets of Berlin subbing for the purgatorial Los Angeles of Station to Station or “Always Crashing in the Same Car.”

Still, delving too much into the ways and means of the lyric seems beside the point. In the final mix, Bowie’s vocal, often harried by Fripp’s guitar, is just another contributor of incidental noise, the equivalent of one of Eno’s synthesizer lines; it’s one more signal in an overloaded frequency.

Recorded July-mid-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin. The version from Philadelphia, May 1978, collected on Stage, is arguably the definitive version of the song: Bowie’s vocal is tremendous and Davis sounds like a monster.

Note: most of the information on the recording of “Heroes” is from various interviews Tony Visconti has given over the years (particularly one with Sound on Sound in 2004) as well as his autobiography.

Top: The Burger Bistro adapts to the New York City power outage, 13 July 1977.

26 Responses to Blackout

  1. Jeremy Earl says:

    “…sounds like a monster.”

    Great description of the whole track!

    Another “black” sounding song to my mind as well. You are right to praise Dennis Davis – what a freak! Thank god that rhythm section played on as many of Bowie’s albums as they did and a pity they didn’t play on Lets Dance. Great to know how they set up in the room. Bowie must have been so inspired by those guys.

    • Hikikomori says:

      Unlike Low where ‘a new career in a new town’ indicates that side 2 will be instrumental: the production and the instrumentalism washes out the vocals from Blackout onwards to a place where angels fear to tread

  2. Remco says:

    The live performance is amazing. I never really had much affinity for this track but once again your insights have changed my earlier opinion.

    Eno is right by the way, drummers definitely have different brains from the rest of humanity.

  3. diamond dog says:

    Great insight into the studio set up makes me go back to an album I considered to be the start of the slide in quality in my opinion with a few tracks I think are a bit of padding. Like joe the lion they have parts in them which don,t quite work for me , don,t get me wrong they are good but just slipping in quality. Compared to Low the changes of pace and frantic style within a song just don,t work for me. I remember at the time. Only enjoying certain tracks and as the continuing albums came out the tracks I did not like became more with each one. Lodger had songs I would just skip which was unthinkable in the past. Mediocre I feel it is you have pointed out the best things about Blackout so well done.

  4. Gnomemansland says:

    The lyrics and vocal performances on Heroes are inspired. Fripp’s guitar is exceptional if only at times because he plays like he hasn’t heard the tracks before but otherwise HMMNNN. Yes the band’s playing on the songs has a wonderful live sound and is incredibly tight in a way few contemporary bands could manage but Davis really isn’t doing anything that exceptional on the drums – he probably doesn’t need to as aside from the Frippery the chord progressions, timings etc are all bog standard – never more so than on the title song which has to be one of Bowie’s most overrated numbers a real blues plodder tarted up by ENO (a hint of what he would do in later years to make U2’s dull songs sound fresh) . Then there are the instrumentals which are even more ‘experimental by numbers’ than on Low and break up the sequencing on both sides. This all sounds rather damning but the lyrics and vocal gymnastics are superb and make the LP.

  5. Remco says:

    “a real blues plodder tarted up by ENO”
    You make it sound like that’s a bad thing….

  6. Marion Brent says:

    There’s some truth in the idea that “Heroes” is a blues plodder tarted by Eno, but as Remco says, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In someone else’s hands it COULD have been a boringly earnest, first-pumping stadium rock number, but Bowie’s vocals and general force of character, coupled with the fact that it’s an ironic take on romanticism rather than rock romanticism itself, makes this song the extraordinary thing that it is. You can see how easily it could have been something altogether lesser when you hear it in the context of an ad – there was a while there when Bowie licenced it to Microsoft, and every time I heard the “we could be heroes” refrain at the end of the ad, shorn of all its irony, the song became something else, something much smaller. (But I guess I should have been saving this up for the actual “Heroes” entry!)

  7. diamond dog says:

    Yea let’s get back to blackout…which for me is a little under par with this being a collection of very mannered deliveries and some Bowie showboating his voical skills and a some good musicianship but as a song a bit dar away from being first class.

  8. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Getting back to Blackout, reading this entry – and listening to the live version -almost changed my mind about the song. I think that Blackout was the first Bowie song that I could take or leave. I think the diamond dog hits the nail on the head in that there’s not much of a ‘song’ behind it all.
    For me, Heroes marks the point where Bowie has learnt a lot about who is both as an artist and as a human being; there’s not much left for him to do but to play around with the form. That’s not to say there’s not some great stuff here, but he no longer needs to write to understand himself and the world; he’s reaching a point where he needs self-imposed obstacles to keep it interesting.

  9. ian says:

    Blackout is my favorite Side A track on “Heroes.” The song sounds like a nightmare, and when Bowie’s shouting “Get me off the street!”, you realize that’s where we’ve been the whole time— the drums pounding, people crowding you up, Fripp’s guitar, sirens blaring. The whole thing is built perfectly to make such a feeling of manic dread.

    It must be something about the tracklisting, because every time I think about one of these songs on their own, I think “good christ, another masterpiece.” But taken as a whole, I’m less-plussed by it. Things to think about.

  10. diamond dog says:

    I just think Blackout is a bit of a mess I used to hate the liv e version with the effect on Bowie’s voice just not good I prefer the studio version. Don,t get me wrong I’m not a hater of joe and blackout but as we are being critical I feel impelled to say I think its weak it relys opn tempo changes and mannerisoms to create interest in what is a pretty dull song with lyrics which don,t touch any nerves with me. Its still a classy piece of work but from the guy who brought us station to station a bit of a treading water.

  11. diamond dog says:

    Forgive the typos this blackberry so fiddly

  12. David L says:

    I always thought the line was “the Japanese influence of our mothers in Spain,” ha ha. I’m sure someone could fill a book with misheard Bowie lyrics.

    • Sarah says:

      Hahaha re: misheard lyrics: this song was full of them for me! “I’m just like oh my GAWD I’m under Japanese influence”…”The weather’s grim…I suffocated”…”your scarlet face”…”me I’m rock’n’roll and I puff on my cigarette” Oh dear. Blame the fact that the vocal is “harried by Fripp’s guitar”.

      I must add that this is my favourite track from “Heroes”…alongside the title track and Sense of Doubt. If you’ve ever suffered from crippling depression or anxiety it is just perfect.

      • Cap'n Pete says:

        I had a slightly different version in my head, “I’m under Japanese influence and my art is at stake”. Which made some sort of sense to me when Scary Monsters was released (Ziggy’s kabuki makeup and costumes notwithstanding).

        Cannot stop reading this blog, it’s made me go back and listen to stuff that has sat on the shelf for too long. Love it!

      • I always heard “weather’s grim–ice on the gauges.” Made me picture a train with windows shattered, plowing out of control through a freezing landscape. This whole song DOES sound like an imminent train crash.

  13. scarfaceclaw says:

    While I agree that overall “delving too much into the ways and means of the lyric seems beside the point”, I have wondered about the potential significance of the line “I will take that plane tonight”. Perhaps Bowie-as-narrator is feeling so unhinged that he would even travel by air, something that Bowie himself would rather not have contemplated at the time? Or a recognition that most people would take a plane without another thought, and the narrator is feeling such a sense of nihilism (“nothing to lose, nothing to gain”) that he would now do so himself?

    In case you can’t tell from the over-analysis, I am another who rate Blackout as one of my favourites from this LP (possibly because of the abrasiveness)! Love the “human jazz metronome”, George Murray, and all the musicians who contribute to this period of Bowie’s work.

  14. KenHR says:

    This article has a picture of cut-up strips supposedly used to compose the lyrics to “Blackout:”

    http://www.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2013/march/18/david-bowie-is-an-interview-with-the-vanda-curator/

  15. rob thomas says:

    I recall asking Dennis Davis for an autograph backstage of a little bar in Berlin, as he came offstage with Roy Ayers. (sorry guys, a rather different Berlin- 1993). He was stripped to the waist, he stopped, scribbled and walked on. I still remember his face- he really looked like he was on another planet: in the greatest possible way.

  16. Elijah says:

    I’m on a different planet to you guys. Blackout is my Fav track on Heroes. And there is not enough praise for George Murray’s Bass. But the whole rhythm section is awesome on this track. The rhythm guitars sound like glass and David’s vocal goes from surreal to soul and back again. For me it’s one of his finest lyrics because it suggests so much. All the personal turmoil of life at this point and the desire for romance -but oh, someone’s back in town…Just like you wrote on Baal this is avenue David could have travelled it he wanted: A fusion of Jazz and avant-garde…I suspect the rockers on this site miss a lead guitar wailing away. It’s the voice wailing this time round lol

    • Adhesive says:

      Are you, by any chance, a younger Bowie fan? Because I am, and younger people seem to have that opinion on Blackout. It’s both danceable and frighteningly surreal, two things I’ve always enjoyed.

      • Anonymous says:

        No, I’m an old timer. I just don’t live living in that comfort zone etc lol
        I’ve liked the man since 72. Maybe being black and growing up in the UK my perspective is slightly… I tend to see the angles with Bowie. And he is sooo political but most people miss that. I mean he’s culturally very subversive. Anyway, stay sharp!

    • I feel similarly. Love this track. It’s always been a favorite since first hearing in high school. Perfect lyrically and musically. Thanks for your comment.

  17. Elijah says:

    My previous reply came back as Anonymous , but just to clarify Just in case anyone thinks I’m anti wailing guitars, my second favourite track on Heroes is Joe the Lion.
    I also think this LP contains his best and most enduring lyrics. I may be on my own with is one lol But they can actually be read as a collection of stream of Consciousness poems. Not one lyrics fails on this LP – flawless writing – IMO

  18. Mike says:

    I’m sure it’s in the blog somewhere and I missed it, but why is it you think Davis and Murray parted ways with Bowie. Where are they now?

    • col1234 says:

      nothing personal, I think, just a changing of the guards in the early ’80s. Davis still plays & teaches. Murray seems to have completely retired; no one’s apparently spoken to the guy since ca. 1985

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