Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast.
Beauty and the Beat (12″ edit, 1977).
Beauty and the Beast (live, 1978).
Beauty and the Beast (Musikladen, 1978).

I asked them what they thought of Bowie’s interpretation. They said it was not rock n roll. It was cabaret. Behind my shades I can imagine him. There in Berlin. In the abandoned section. I imagine him stumbling through old boxes and props in the street. I imagine him in love with the whole world or totally dead.

Patti Smith, “Heroes: A Communiqué,” Hit Parader, April 1978.

“This song is somewhat schizophrenic in nature,” Bowie quipped before going into “Beauty and the Beast” on a German TV show in May 1978, but a better diagnosis would have been bipolar: “Heroes,” side A at least, is the manic side to Low‘s depression, particularly with its crackpot opening track.

“Beast” opens in grandiosity, like a parody of Roxy Music’s “The Thrill of It All” or Bowie’s own “Station to Station.” There’s eight measures of Bowie playing a simple pattern on the bass end of a piano, just a dyad (mainly E-G) and a single note (usually A), a pattern that occurs throughout the song. There’s a nudge of Robert Fripp’s treated guitar in the third bar (very similar to his work on Eno’s “Sky Saw”). Then George Murray’s bass (and a repeating pattern of octaves on the piano) builds momentum until Bowie’s entrance, an “oooooh!” glissando spanning over five bars and neatly tumbling into the opening verse.

Which is cracked and jittery, sung by a man reduced to a series of broken movements. “Walking down a by-road, singing the song,” Bowie begins, his vocal, though kept to a two-note range, sounding strained. Later verses find Bowie moving to his lower register, running his lines together, building to hysteria (the brief chorus) or mockery, or both.

Patti Smith’s review of “Heroes” for Hit Parader quoted a group of German teenagers who kicked Bowie out of “rock n roll,” calling him cabaret. And sure, “Beast” makes their case: it is cabaret, a piece of avant-garde pop with backing vocals by the Berlin club singer Antonia Maass, who at one point swoons out “Liebling!” and other times sounds like a hawk shrieking. The counterweight is Carlos Alomar, who does what he can to keep “Beast” a dance song, almost against Bowie’s will: there’s a funk riff buried under one of Fripp’s groaning solos, while the sly line that crops up after “Liebling” could have been the central riff of the whole song.

“Beast” mainly keeps to one chord, an A seventh*, with a move to C and C7 only on the “I wanted to believe” eight-bar bridge. It sums up how Bowie, by his “Berlin” period, had rethought his writing methods, moving away from the harmonic adventurousness of his early work. Bowie was a musical autodidact, with many of his early songs coming out of experiments on the guitar or piano, Bowie pitting various chords against each other. Or, while listening to Ronson or Alomar play guitar, Bowie would fasten onto whatever random progression intrigued him, whether it made musical “sense” or no.

So Bowie’s songs from 1966 to 1975 are filled with intricate, at times bizarre structures: a trifle like “Join the Gang” has five key changes; the dippy blues “The Gospel According to Tony Day” has a thirteenth in it; “Changes” is a tumble of altering time signatures; the Space Oddity LP has so many augmented and inverted chords it seems to have been designed as a guitarist’s advanced training module.

By the time he wrote “Beast,” Bowie had discarded this type of songwriting (whether because he couldn’t do it anymore, or was just bored with it) to concentrate on establishing a groove and directing a series of actions to play out over it, whether an odd vocal or one of Fripp’s Eno-fied guitar solos. Bowie’s lyrics had changed as well: no more characters or fractured stories, just a series of non-sequiturs and cryptic jokes that sang well together (Tony Visconti’s regular curse of exasperation during the LP sessions—“someone fuck a priest!”—inspired one of the best lines).

Some, like Thomas Seabrook, argue that “Beast”‘s lyric is an exhumation of the Thin White Duke, Bowie reviving the days of black magic and finally burying his book. I think it’s a bit more random than that, but there’s certainly something cold and malevolent about the track in its final form. “Something in the air,” Bowie sings, calling back to Thunderclap Newman. “Slaughter in the air, protest on the wind.” Despite his dedication to the random, Bowie was still storytelling. Bowie issued “Beast” as the follow-up single to “Heroes” and it flopped: even in a year of portent and noise like 1977, “Beast” proved a bit too much to take.

Recorded July-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin. A 12″ single with a longer edit, c/w “Fame,” was released in the US in December 1977, while also released as a 7″ single c/w “Sense of Doubt” (RCA PB 1190) in January 1978. Performed throughout 1978, with a version from Philadelphia on Stage. The live versions are a credit to Adrian Belew, who had to play in one go the various guitar parts that Fripp had overdubbed and Eno and Bowie had pieced together.

*According to the sheet music. Some tabbers have it as a B-flat.

Top: William Newton, “Eeyore’s Birthday Party,” April 1978.

18 Responses to Beauty and the Beast

  1. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Thanks for the Patti Smith link. That brings back memories.

    Beauty and the Beast has elements of everything that is right and wrong with Heroes. The Hansa studio is such an integral part of the Bowie mythology, but I often wonder what this might have sounded like if it had been recorded in France, like Low; imagine George Murray’s bass punching through like on Low, instead of sounding like the recording of a teenage party in a neighouring room coming through at least one wall.

    One thing about Beauty and the Beast is that it reminds us of how well Bowie had ordered the songs on his records in the RCA years. On so many of his major works, the opening track just draws you in and Beauty and the Beast is a great example of this. Those opening bars, until his voice comes in, are perfect; the first time you hear that you have no idea of what is coming. (then there is ian’s great observation that the rest of the track order on Heroes is all wrong and it is this that ultimately stifles the record.)

    *I spent far too many hours as a youth trying to learn to play this. I think it might have been recorded as A, but the recording speeded up so it ends up sounding closer to B flat.

    • col1234 says:

      makes sense (about the speeding up). A7 didn’t sound right, but I’m a fairly crappy guitarist.

    • Craig Campbell says:

      Please, bear in mind that Thomas Seabrook described Warsaw as the capital of the Czech Republic. You have to look at writing on DB with true journalistic rigour before treating it as a serious contribution to discussion of the most important artist of the 20th century.

    • Galdo says:

      I’d like to read the full mentioned observation about the album track order. I always liked the sequencing on the album, even ‘The Secret Life of Arabia’ being the last track.

  2. Deacon Lowdown says:

    There are definitely traces of the Duke on this, making it my second favorite track on the LP. Bowie’s last disco song, perhaps.

  3. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Does he change the lyric from ‘WEAVING down a by-road’ on the LP to ‘WALKING down …’ on the live versions?

  4. Sarah says:

    Excellent photo! 🙂

  5. diamond dog says:

    A fantastic opener after the creepy opening Bowie makes his entrance in grand style. It is without doubt one of the highlights of the album its vocal croon is similar to to something from station and is indeed quite dancable but its disco overtones draw you in to a vicious lyric with slaughter in the air ,someone who’ll get skinned. Nasty.

  6. Jeremy Earl says:

    One of Bowie’s great album tracks. This scared me when I first heard it as a teenager. The Live in Breman version is fantastic. If you haven’t seen that broadcast do it as it contains the best version of Heroes I’ve ever heard.

  7. diamond dog says:

    Bremen tv show is great stay is blinding Bowie is camping up the dancing heroes I agree is great , belew is perfect on guitar he went on to do much the same with talking heads getting great sounds From a beat up guitar . I’m sure I heard a story that Fripp was pissed that he got the same sounds without all the eqipment??

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Yeah, I remember seeing the Live in Breman broadcast as a teenager in the mid 80’s on an Australian multicultural channel called SBS ( soccer bloody soccer we call it…) I recorded it and watched it many times thereafter. I have the broadcast on a really good quality vinyl bootleg. I miss bootlegs on vinyl. Those were the days. Belew was fantastic and I find it interesting that Bowie only ever used him on one album.

  8. diamond dog says:

    Like stacey heydon before him Belew appeared only live I think , Belew like Earl Slick returned to work with him. Bowie always chose very talented guitarists.

  9. diamond dog says:

    Thanks for that I’ve not seen the credits for lodger for many moons.

  10. RChappo says:

    I wonder if the synth solo that occurs at around the 1m 43 secs mark inspired Dr Fink’s synth solo on “Head” from Prince’s “Dirty Mind” album of 1980?

  11. Someone fetch a priest says:

    Great, weird song. Here’s a HQ clip of that Bremen performance someone mentioned above: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czb5GmVU4gA

    That Bremen clip was featured in the BBC Bowie documentary “Five Years” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0214tj1). The doc doesn’t seem to be available online but if I remember correctly that Bremen performance is intercut with an interview with Robert Fripp, who has the bearing of a slightly demented accountant. Fripp’s knowing smile as he confides that “anyone who’s playing Beauty and the Beast…you know they get erections” is among the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television.

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