“Yassassin” is a motley of alleged Turkish music, reggae and funk. The funk is kept at a distance; it’s courtesy of George Murray, who plays a crafty bassline that front-loads each bar, leaving spaces for the chorus singers to fill. The song itself is simply a vamp between E7 and F7, similar to “Fame,” whose opening riff turns up in fragments here.

The reggae took more work, as Murray, Carlos Alomar and Dennis Davis weren’t familiar with it (no surprise, as reggae was far more popular in the ’70s with white British musicians than it was with black American musicians). So it’s actually Tony Visconti playing the standard “Jamaican ‘up-chop’ rhythm guitar” throughout the track. Visconti also said he and Bowie had to coach Davis in how to play reggae, putting the kick drum, rather than the typical snare, on the second and fourth beats.*

Bowie, inspired by the Turkish workers that he had seen in Neuköln (Bowie saw “yassassin,” a phrase meaning “long life,” scribbled on a wall), set his lyric from the point of view of a migrant worker from the provinces (he’s still got vitality, walking “proud and lustful” though his woman is “afeared”). The worker’s trying to keep his head down, avoiding confrontation. He’s quietly full of scorn for his adopted land of sun and steel, but he accepts that it’s his future, the only life he’s going to have. The main “Turkish” strands in “Yassassin” are Alomar’s game attempts at imitating a bouzouki, Simon House’s violin (House mainly does fills in the verses, bridges verses and choruses with a few bars, then gets the outro to play out) and the proud and lustful chorus refrain, sung by everyone in the studio, which opens with an octave jump (“Yas-SAS-in”) and then compresses, in its third and fourth repeats, to a seventh, then a fifth interval. It’s a deflating pride, a grudging compromise.

While Bowie’s vocal seems inspired by Arabic singers in places (he gamely tries to ululate on “resonant world” in the first verse), on the whole it’s as abstracted and stylized a vocal as “African Night Flight.” The rhythms are exacting and controlled, from Bowie’s staggered phrasing in the chorus (each phrase starting on one note (“I’m not a”) and then slightly expanding in range (“MOO-dy guy”)) to the undertow of his later verses (“if there’s someone in charrge, then listen to meeee“) that’s deepened by House’s violin. Still, any search for authenticity here is pointless, as “Yassassin” owes as much to Bowie’s Fiddler On the Roof-esque “Revolutionary Song” as it does any actual Turkish music. It’s a hothouse plant.

Recorded September 1978 in Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland, and March 1979 at Record Plant Studios, NYC. An edited version was released as a single in July 1979 in Turkey and Holland (it’s not clear what the Turks made of it). While Bowie said he was considering reviving “Yassassin” for his Outside tour in 1995, it remains yet another Lodger song never performed live.

* A story to take with a grain of salt: Davis had been playing Bowie’s reggae version of “What In the World” throughout the 1978 tour without any apparent difficulty.

Top: The Thatchers prepare to move house. Soon Mrs. T. will introduce herself to the new neighborhood: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth…,” 4 May 1979.

27 Responses to Yassassin

  1. Jeremy Earl says:

    Yassassin is my least favourite track on lodger, however I still find myself liking it. I love the violin work on this track, it’s pretty wild. I only just realised last year that Simon House was from Hawkwind, a band that my girlfriend teases me about liking.

    I actually have the picture sleeve 7 inch Turkish release of this track. It has a shot from the DJ video on the cover – looks great. Found it in a shop in Melbourne.

    Great write up once again.

  2. Brendan O'Lear says:

    This was the song that got all the airplay in order to promote Lodger. Bowie did a radio programme on the BBC to promote the album, playing some of his favourite music and this was the Lodger song he played. (If my memory is letting me down, please don’t point it out.)

    >* A story to take with a grain of salt:
    Aren’t all stories from that particular source to be doused with a bucket of industrial strength salt?

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Really, Wow, that was brave of Bowie. People must have been weirded out when the they heard the single Boys Keep Swinging – nothing like Yassassin.

    • Jaf says:

      I remember him doing a programme on Capital Radio (or maybe BBC London) where a bunch of fans ‘intervewed’ him and he played tracks from Lodger. He told the story about German pilots influencing African Night Flight and I think he introduced Boys Keep Swinging as a song that had ‘a lot of problems’.

      Around the same time he played a load of his favourite records on a BBC show. I remember he played Love St by the Doors, a gospel record by Little Richard and Inchworm by Danny Kaye. Oh, and 20th Century Boy by T Rex and Where Were You by the Mekons.

      It was a great show actually, I had it on cassette for a while

    • David L says:

      Wow, can’t believe that. Definitely my least fave track on the album, not unlike fingernails on a chalkboard for me.

  3. Remco says:

    What annoys me about this one, and ‘Move On’ as a matter fact, is the utter lack of poetry in the words. He’s obviously trying on a different writerly style here, or maybe he’s parodying something I don’t know.
    Whatever he’s attempting to do here lyrically, it just doesn’t work for me. On top of that the chorus with all the guys singing along is just plain silly.
    The only thing I always liked about this song is what I thought was a really cool Carlos Alomar riff……..shows how much I know.

  4. Roquairol says:

    * A story to take with a grain of salt:

    Re: Dennis Davis. This reminds me of another Bowie quote in an interview with the NME in 1984 discussing Ashes To Ashes and how most Americans can’t play reggae to save their lives:

    “I’m sure Dennis Davis won’t mind me saying this but when we did ‘Ashes To Ashes’, that beat was an old ska beat, but Dennis had an incredibly hard time with it, trying to play it and turn the beat backwards, and in fact we worked through the session and it wasn’t turning out at all well, so I did it on a chair and a cardboard box and he took it home with him and learnt it for the next day. He really found it a problem. I’ve found that with American drummers, more so than with bass players.”

    Apart from the muffled mix, I’ve got to say the Lodger album is one of my favorite records in his oeuvre, it’s so underrated.

  5. diamond dog says:

    This ridiculous track is the living end of awful, it does raise a smile as surely they could not be serious. Its horrendous , he never was any good at reggae he went on to do some on tonight. Leave it alone it does not suit you. Totally agree about the lyrics ..well said no poetry.

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      I think I remember reading somewhere that Bowie said that reggae was the only music form he did not understand ( although going by the comments above that may not be true). Perhaps that’s why the reggae tinged tracks on Tonight are so god awful! We’ll have fun when it gets to Tonight.

  6. diamond dog says:

    You can never have too much fun at the expense of tonight.

    • David L says:

      Yes. Tonight still owes me money.

      • Diamond Duke says:

        I don’t know. I’m rather looking forward to Never Let Me Down! 🙂 That’s always been my big guilty pleasure of the Bowie canon, and I’m always eager to speak up in its defense whenever an opportunity presents itself! 😉

  7. Joe the Lion says:

    Hmm, I always liked Yassassin – definitely one of my favourite Lodger tracks (and I really rate Lodger) and it’s on my 66-track iPod Bowie playlist.

  8. diamond dog says:

    Along with chilly down Lol.

  9. diamond dog says:

    And magic dance (which due to his piss poor output I thought was ok…utter desparation )

  10. Joe the Lion says:

    Wow, so you’d put Yassassin with Labyrinth soundtrack songs?

    Yes, 66 tracks. Along with the 500+ I have on my iPod, I occasionally listen to my absolute favourites on a separate playlist. 66, so I keep it ‘vital’, y’know?

    It gets updated regularly, but I think Yassassin has been there from the start.

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Personally I wouldn’t! I like Yassassin. The thing to remember with Labyrinth is that its a kid’s movie and essentially the supporting soundtrack is for kids too. Labyrinth won Bowie a lot of new fans and I’ve met some that have traced their fascination with Bowie to that movie. So although I made that joke I have nothing major against the Labyrinth songs, although they are just about the only bowie songs I don’t own on physical media.

      Could he have used Yassassin on Labyrinth? ” Yassassin, I’m not a moody puppet!”

      Now that’s ridiculous.

      • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

        Labyrinth is alright. The darker, stalker-ish songs really kick ass, though my judgment there may be influenced by the film itself.

        “Magic Dance” is silly fun. “You remind me of the babe….”

  11. Joe the Lion says:

    Ha ha!

    I like the Labyrinth songs, but they’re not ‘top drawer’ in my mind. I probably like them because I was a kid when I first heard them. (Although why don’t I still like U Can’t Touch This?)

    It could all have been very different if he did just re-write existing songs for the soundtrack. “Well don’t lean on me man cos you can’t afford the ticket, back to Goblin City!”.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Incidentally, his pronunciation is terrible. It should be something more like yash-ash-un.

    • It’s possible his pronunciation is a mistake, but it seems just as likely that it’s deliberate, just lime the “African” chanting on Night Flight is only kinda sorta African. I tend to think a lot of the Lodger tracks are Bowie “havin’ a laugh.”

  13. Rufus Oculus says:

    Yassassin is hilarious. It should have been a single.

  14. Robin Parmar says:

    It’s another song about being a transnational, a lodger in a foreign country (“Don’t want to leave, or drift away”). The Turkish workers are similar to Bowie himself, out of place, with their head down, struggling to survive. And yet Bowie is not a physical labourer (“such a life I’ve never known”) and reminds us that he is no judge of men. It’s a very human picture, like only Bowie could paint. Musically unusual, it all adds up to a fantastic song.

  15. todd says:

    I’m not a moody guy, er, yes I am, tres moody, love lodger, low too, what in the world should I do, er, slip away on powder and blue’s, coo cool world, er, we want u big brother, todd

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