Fantastic Voyage

Fantastic Voyage.
Fantastic Voyage (live, 2003).
Fantastic Voyage (live, 2004).
Fantastic Voyage (live, 2006).

David Bowie will likely never tour again, may never even sing live again. If so, the last song that he ever performed on stage was “Fantastic Voyage,” a neglected song from a neglected record. It’s a fitting choice. “Fantastic Voyage,” though sequenced as Lodger‘s lead-off track, could have easily served as its closer, and it also works as Bowie’s final statement, a cranky humanist manifesto.

In “Voyage” there’s a striking change of tone from the other Berlin records or Station to Station: Bowie’s no longer at a remove. He’s on the ground, restored to humanity, admitting his powerlessness, reduced to observing and making asides. He sounds both warmer (the slow, generous phrasing of the opening lines) and less calculating; he lets scattered, volatile emotions overrun his song.

Bowie had once seemed to welcome the apocalypse, as it held the potential for transformation. Now in “Fantastic Voyage” he seems older and generally pissed off (“think of us as fatherless scum“), with such delusions drummed out of him. He’s grasped a peasant realism: we are largely governed by killers and fools, our lives hang on their arbitrary mercies.

What apparently roused Bowie out of himself was the renewed threat of nuclear war (’79, the year of Afghanistan, was in retrospect the start of the final innings of Cold War madness—the MX missiles, Reagan’s “we begin bombing in five minutes” joke, the Korean airliner downing, etc.) So “Fantastic Voyage” was the harbinger of the run of early ’80s Cold War answer records, youth against homicidal statesmen: The Young Marble Giants’ “Final Day,” XTC’s “Living Through Another Cuba,” Prince’s “1999,” the Fixx’s “Stand or Fall,” Alphaville’s “Forever Young.” Even “99 Luftballoons.”*

Bowie’s lyric is ironic from its opening lines: “We never get old” is normally a lovers’ wish in a song, but here it’s the fact that we might die, horribly, en masse. There’s something akilter in Bowie’s singing as well—the formality, even stilted delivery, of certain lines (“dig-ni-ty is val-u-a-ble“). As the song builds it sways from resignation to anger to resignation, never losing its sense of absurdity. It’s a criminal world, it’s a very modern world.** The backing vocals (Bowie and Tony Visconti) try to rouse the singer (“They wipe out an entire race! It won’t be forgotten!”) but all he can do in the end is write a few lines down, make a pop song out of it.

And an odd pop song at that (while it’s in the same key and uses nearly the same chord sequence as “Boys Keep Swinging,” the latter seems much more conventional). While “Voyage” is basically two verses and two choruses, the verses barely scan and hardly rhyme, while the chorus soon goes off the rails. Bowie begins with a bouncy refrain (“We’re—/learning to live with somebody’s depression”) but then seems to give up, repeating the line and making it a dry joke, then meandering, discarding the opening melody while the song stalls, harmonically: the band stays on an A major chord for the rest of the chorus. Bowie and the backing vocals overlap, spur each other on, until a final release of tension—the piano, bass and drums speeding up while Bowie, after a slow ascent of nearly an octave, holds the last note for two bars.

The song is held together by Sean Mayes’ piano and George Murray’s bass: Carlos Alomar and Dennis Davis’ drums (whose fills are often panned right to left) are supporting players. “Voyage” has a three-mandolin arrangement that Visconti wrote one night over a bottle of Tequila (Bowie had to send his driver around Montreux looking for mandolins to borrow). The mandolins, played by Visconti, House and Adrian Belew, were each tracked three times, making nine mandolins in all. Perversely (deliberately?) the final arrangement is all but buried in the mix, its intricacies only audible in headphones.

Recorded September 1978 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and March 1979 at the Record Plant, NYC. Released as the B-side of its twin song “Boys Keep Swinging” in April 1979. Played during Bowie’s tours of 2003-2004 and in the final (to date) Bowie performance at the Black Ball in NYC on 9 November 2006. (I believe a duet with Alicia Keys on “Changes” was the last song Bowie did.)

* It seemed for a moment that the world was unraveling in 1979. Two great calypso records of the following year—Mighty Sparrow’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” and Explainer’s “Table Turning“—document the near-simultaneous falls, by coup or assassination, of Idi Amin, Park Chung-Hee in South Korea, Eric Gairy in Grenada, Bokassa in the CAE, the Shah, Somoza in Nicaragua. Explainer: The table turning, sir/Now the oppressor/is the oppressed one. Yet there was no sense that the new rulers would be any better. Sparrow: The Shah have a short time to live/Because the Ayotollah don’t forgive/When you see church ruling state/with pure vengeance and hate/situation must be explosive!

** “Criminal World” was a 1977 single by Metro that Bowie would cover on Let’s Dance, so it’s possible he’s already name-checking it here.

Top: John le Carré and Alec Guinness on the set of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 1979.

Off to the UK, so that’s all for a while. Other potential summer reading: some of my old thoughts on three fine songs: “After You’ve Gone,” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” and “Body and Soul.”

17 Responses to Fantastic Voyage

  1. David L says:

    Nice post. His most overtly political song, no?

  2. Bill S. says:

    Every time I hear that final line (“‘Cause I’ll never say anything nice again, how can I?”), all I can think of is that Bowie is actually summoning Morrissey from some alternate dimension. The line itself, as well as Bowie’s melodramatic delivery, just makes me think of him.

    Love the song, in spite of (or perhaps because of) that.

  3. Jeremy Earl says:

    I love Bowie’s melodramatic songs and this is one of his finest and perhaps in my top 20 Bowie songs. He totally nails the vocals and it’s one of the oddest album openers around. My girlfriend has a theory that all the political musings are in fact metaphors for personal relationships. Could be….

  4. swanstep says:

    No shit about the final 1979-1984 spasm of Cold War madness (Gorbachev was 1985, tho’ Thatcher met him at the end of 1984, and was impressed). Google Fukuyama’s 1981 paper The soviet threat to the persian gulf to understand just how people were gaming out the fricking end of the world during the period. Things like Threads then just played this what-was-expected-to-happen stuff straight – no exaggeration necessary. Good on Bowie for being on the big story early (it was a time of massive recession and attempting to stay cheerful in the face of that at home, so it was easy to not care about the broader picture). I’d add Frankie’s Two Tribes to your list of ‘answer’ records.

  5. LondonLee says:

    Glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks this is one of his favourite Bowie songs. A wonderful, underrated gem.

  6. Carl says:

    Musically, I’ve always felt that this song was the slightly twisted sister song to “Word On a Wing”.

    Also: does the title have anyhting to do with the Raquel Welch-movie with same name?

  7. Remco says:

    It’s probably the long note at the end of the chorus that does it for me but I’ve always had a particular fondness for this song. Defenitely top twenty and probably even top ten. Not a bad way to end a career of performing, not bad at all.

  8. diamonddog says:

    Perhaps the stand out vocal performance and track on the album, it is in the wrong place on the album it would have closed the album more satifyingly than red money …a big mistake has always been the track placement. It would have closed a difficult album with great dignity ..but alas it limps to an end with 2 weak tracks which should have been buried.
    The ryko bonus of i prey ole’ would have been a nice opener but is it from that session?

  9. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I like the Word on a Wing comparison … so much so that I played both songs back to back a few times. Unfortunately Fantastic Voyage doesn’t come out too well. Partly because it sounds like it was mastered on a C-120 cassette, perhaps with Boys Keep Swinging on the other side. It’s a great vocal performance – especially the ‘and the wrong words make you listen’ bit – but it’s crying out for the songwriting craft of Station to Station and the simplicity of that album’s arrangements – you can’t imagine nine mandolins anywhere on Station to Station or anybody suggesting such nonsense still being in a job.

  10. Maj says:

    Well this is interesting. I honestly thought, for years, that Fantastic Voyage is only among *my* Bowie Top 10. Sometimes when I was pressed to disclose my favourite Bowie song, I named this one.
    Then Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters fame named it as *his* favourite Bowie song…saying that he has no idea what the message of the song was supposed to be but that he loves it anyway. I can only second that.
    It was only when I joined Twitter over 2 years ago that I started using a different online nick (1outside) but if I remember it correctly the username FantasticVoyage was already taken at that point…so apart from Tiwtter if you see this one, it’s probably me. :o)
    Anyway, it’s great to see I (and Jake) are not alone in liking this song.
    I think it makes a great opener on the album, it *would* also make a great closing song but to be brutaly honest I very rarely get to the end of the album…as far as I am concerned it end with Boys Keep Swinging. ;o)

  11. robthomas says:

    Love this song. And the recent ‘Where are we now?’ seems to share its tone, world-view and the odd chord change.

  12. crayontocrayon says:

    Re: the mandolin, Visconti recently went on record as saying they were playing a refrain of Love Me Tender influenced by Jackie Gleasons interpretation of Mantovani’s Charmaine. I can’t hear it personally but it is very low in the mix so could be there.


    Love the song, he has a pretty good knack of opening albums with absolute stonkers.

  13. Michael says:

    I adore this song and have only really quite recently discovered it, being a Lodger late bloomer.

    There can be few lines ever delivered that are better nailed than the:

    ‘Cause we’ll never say anything nice again, will we?


    ‘Cause I’ll never say anything nice again, how can I?

    The rhythm of the latter, the volume, the note, the control of the vibrato is so just stunning, I love it.

    Must admit, I’d never really noticed the ‘muddy’ production until reading of it here so can gladly report that it hasn’t detracted from my enjoyment of the song and this album.

    I’d agree with others above, this does seem to be a largely undiscovered gem in catalogue; I’ve never heard this on the radio or played by friends, so Bowie still succeeds in amazing (me), some 30 plus years on.

  14. Robin Parmar says:

    This song more than any other summons up the despair of living under the nuclear threat, and is one of Bowie’s most political. The “fantastic voyage” is that of life itself, and the chance that we might “never get old” is that we get annihilated. The line “‘Cause I’ll never say anything nice again, how can I?” puts me in mind of Adorno’s comment, that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz. For an artist at least partly in love with the Romantic tradition, this is a conundrum beyond any easy resolution. Bowie solves this in two ways. First, by making the global personal, linking the depression of those who might push the button with his own. Second, by pushing against the challenge with the power of his own voice. This is a brilliant song.

  15. Jasmine says:

    FV is one of my favourite songs on Lodger. I’ve recently started playing the album a lot.
    Thinking of people’s worries of the time, as well as nuclear war, a real concern was Skylab breaking up, a theme Bowie was thinking of when writing Scary Monsters. But the public was aware of it in early 78 and I’m drawn to the New Killer Star video years later where that seems to appear again. Was this a perpetual Bowie theme from that time?

    The lines
    ‘But I’m still getting educated but I’ve got to write it down
    And it won’t be forgotten
    ‘Cause I’ll never say anything nice again, how can I?’ stand out to me on the Lazarus video.

    Finally I can’t unhear ‘I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all’ from Bohemian Rhapsody in that last line and it’s driving me crazy.

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