The Secret Life of Arabia

The Secret Life of Arabia.

The sequencing of “The Secret Life of Arabia,” an album-ending track that comes as a baffling tonal shift, the song incompatible with everything else on “Heroes,” works if you consider “Neuköln” the true album closer and “Arabia” a trailer for Bowie’s upcoming “exotica” LP (the song could’ve been titled “David Bowie Will Return In Lodger“). For listeners at the time, lacking the benefit of retrospect, the appearance of the goofy “Arabia” served as a tasteless mood-killer or, for some, a happy respite from the somberness of “Heroes”‘ instrumental side.

Mainly assembled during the early “Heroes” band sessions, “Arabia” is a throwback to the improvised funk workouts of Young Americans and Station to Station, with Carlos Alomar getting his only songwriting credit on the record (the two main guitar riffs, the harshly-strummed opening and the disco riff that makes the choruses swing, are classic Alomar: concise and rhythmically incisive). “Arabia” also has one of the LP’s best grooves, with George Murray in particularly inspired form (the Clash’s “The Call Up” sounds like a sped-up variation of the backing track).

It’s a D minor vamp that mainly consists of a pair of choruses colliding together, while two six-bar verses with Bowie in self-mocking form (“I walk through the desert song when the heroine dieeees“—it foreshadows Mick Jagger’s equally bizarre Bedouin reverie in “Emotional Rescue”) are stranded in the middle. “Arabia” ends with a shameless bit of padding, a four-bar refrain repeated nine times (with handclaps and sometimes a vocal hook) and then what threatens to be nearly the entire song replaying again, only faded out at a random moment.

Bowie’s vocal seems a checklist of past affectations, from the out-of-nowhere Cockney “uh-RY-bee-uh” to the sub-woofer vocal line mixed under some phrases (like “secret life ever green”) to the calisthenics of his opening lines, Bowie stringing out the title phrase over an octave jump (“the-SEE-CRET”) and fall (“life” to “bia”). There’s an infectious goony joy to much of it, helped when Antonia Maass (and possibly Eno and Visconti) turns up on backing vocals, somehow keeping a straight face.

Recorded July-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin. Covered by Nina Hagen and Billy Mackenzie, who admirably out-camps Bowie.

Top: Fassbinder, In a Year With 13 Moons, 1978.

26 Responses to The Secret Life of Arabia

  1. Jeremy Earl says:

    “In a year with 13 moons” ? Where do you get this stuff man?

    I have no problem with this track – I love it because I love Bowie’s melodrama ( “You must see the movie…”) No one does melodrama like Bowie. I also believe that it’s a necessary contrast to the preceding instrumentals. In the context of melodrama it is indeed a proper link to Lodger as Bowie outdoes himself in terms of melodrama on that album!

    • s.t. says:

      I too am curious about the use of photographs for the blog. Are they just images you happen to associate with aspects of the songs?

      Love the reference to 13 Moons, though this to me would have been a better fit for Neukoln. The feeling of intense despair almost perfectly matches Erwin’s harrowing slaughterhouse soliloquy.

      • col1234 says:

        hey there–

        the photos don’t really have set associations besides hailing from the year (or thereabouts) of the song’s creation. sometimes they’re symbolic of the song, more often they’re just illustrative of something else going on in the world at the time, or they’re just a striking picture I found from the era in question.

  2. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I imagine there are a lot of people out there still digesting your “Heroes” epic.

    I hated this song at the time because it completely destroyed the mood. Now I think it’s one of my favourites -anything with Carlos Alomar at the forefront gets my vote -and shows Bowie as a master of the LP format. Of all the ‘bookends’ that appear on his albums – Five Years/Rock’n’roll Suicide, STS/WITW, It’s No Game (1)/ It’s No Game (2) – I think the pairing of Beauty and the Beast with this beats them all.

  3. diamond dog says:

    Its odd but I like this though it is obviously in the wrong place , I’ve always thought this. It is an irresistable groove and another superb vocal lift this from a throw away piece which it is , into something quite special. Arabic funk a new genre ?

    • David L says:

      Arabic funk, ha ha. That piano-fueled section (Arabia!) toward the end of the song is one of the best dance grooves in the Bowie oevre. Reminds me a little of the disco song “More More More.”

      • Anonymous says:

        …..funny you should mention that, David, as “More, More, More” was co-written by Gregg Diamond – who also collaborated with Jobriath, referred to sometimes of course as, ‘the American Bowie’…..

  4. Gnomemansland says:

    Funny the Youtube video has the Low cover picture which is quite disconcerting for anyone who grew up with the LP artwork and for whom music and image are inextricably linked. Heroes will always be B&W and Low colour – though arguably Secret Life is indeed a splash of pigment at the end…

  5. snoball says:

    I think it works precisely because it is completely out of place. One of my favourite album closers by any artist.

  6. ian says:

    Despite the self-serious reputation these albums have, Bowie & Co. prove once again that all they really wanted to do was dance.

    • Adhesive says:

      I love this album so much that I could never accept the idea that this song’s placement was arbitrary. There’s certainly some poignancy to your explanation.

  7. sekaer says:

    This is maybe the first time I’ve disagreed with this brilliant blog. I LOVE SLOA…I quite enjoyed the Bowie Under Review 76-79 even though it had no interviews with the key players (though great interviews with Krautrock guys), and the Brit talking heads like this one too. Maybe you said this above, but they talk about how it bridges Heroes and Lodger conceptually. Anyway, the funk on this one slays me, and the cinematic feel, and how it ends the album on a “upbeat” note after the beautiful but subdued instrumentals in side 2

  8. Should have been a single shouldn’t it?

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Makes more sense as a single than Beauty and the Beast – great song that it is, but it’s an album track. Never thought about that before, but yeah….

  9. Precinct says:

    I love this track and think it’s perfect where it is.

    Although it may be at odds with the rest of the material on side two it remains, somehow, unobtrusive and kind of bookends the LP nicely. That little synth tinkle over the opening guitar riff (before the band kicks in) always gives me a little shiver.
    Best appreciated if you’ve listened to ‘Heroes’ during the early hours and this begins just as the sky starts turning blue.

    I always imagine the ‘Heroes’ credits rolling as it plays.

  10. Zaleski says:

    The title may derive from the book “The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia” by Philip Knightley & Colin Simpson (1969). It was controversial in the Seventies for the claims it made about T E Lawrence’s sexuality.

  11. postpunkmonk says:

    As much as I love this song, I have to admit, the B.E.F./Billy MacKenzie version takes it up to perfection. Between MacKenzie’s fearless vocals that leap like a gazelle without breaking into a sweat and the thunderous Linn drum attack, the later version is the song’s apotheosis for me. You have a great blog, by the way.

  12. rufus oculus says:

    I remember John Peel played the whole album on his radio show without interruption. Imagine anyone doing that now.He loved the album but made a comment that DB had obviously run out of steam with SOTSA and its repeated lines.

  13. rufus oculus says:

    Btw, the song is surely a steal from Eno’s Sky Saw on Another Green World.

  14. rufus oculus says:

    I meant to say this song in an earlier post not Sons of the Silent Age.

  15. tedmills1970 says:

    For a lonnnnng time I felt like many did, that it was totally out of place, and I hadn’t even considered it for years. But out of nowhere in the last week it’s been bubbling up in my consciousness, and each listen has made it more and more of a favorite. The quality that i like about it now is that it hints at a world beyond the song–a tactic Eno liked to use a lot (like the fade ups and fade outs on Fear of Music). It’s made of so many parts that any number of them could be recombined and turned into another completely different version of the song. What else? I love how Bowie comes in a full bar ahead of the chord change on the first line. Magical stuff!

  16. dm says:

    Bowie’s vocal here is very Alex Kapranos in parts

  17. Don’t really see how SLOA is out of mood with Sons of the Silent Age. I always found it jarring, for about a second, and then I love it–agree that it’s an awesome half of a bookend.

  18. It’s really a brave closer. First time I ever heard it, I could only hear its terrible kitsch-iness as an unpleasant clash with the instrumentals…really shocking given Low’s completely somber finish. ‘”Secret life of Arabia”? What is this…some awful colonialist fantasy-exotica reductive melodramatic void?’ Well…yes, and therefore self-satirical. Thanks Zaleski for mentioning above that it also refers to (Lawrence of)”Arabia,” the Englishman…and the ridiculous double entendre works, DB poking fun at himself, the sacrosanct legend of Lawrence, and Bond, too…these facets of English (colonial) masculinity, in the name of the need for an unholy funk get-down.

  19. Gb says:

    Love this song…despite this being recorded in Berlin, every time I listen to it I get a “late 70’s walking through seedy Times Square at dusk” vibe from it…it just sounds so “hip” for lack of a better term.

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