Look Back In Anger

Look Back In Anger.
Look Back In Anger (live, 1983).
Look Back In Anger (remake, 1988).
Look Back In Anger (broadcast, 1988).
Look Back In Anger (live, 1995).
Look Back In Anger (live, 1996).
Look Back In Anger (live, 2002).

“Look Back In Anger” reflects Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”; each is the clouded mirror of the other. Like “Man,” “Anger” is the record of a visitation, one that, in “Anger”‘s case, ends with a death (or at least a proposed one). If Lodger and Scary Monsters are Bowie finally considering the prospect of decline and tearing himself up, sampling and dispersing himself, “Look Back In Anger” is at the heart of these records. It’s a dry, weird farewell to a muse, decades before Bowie (apparently) stopped recording and performing.

Bowie had written the lyric of “Man Who Sold the World” as he sat in a studio reception room, under pressure to get a vocal on tape so the album would be finished. With no time to second guess or overwrite, Bowie seemed to transcribe lines straight out of mind: it was a pop lyric as dream journal. Writing “Man” triggered something, it freed Bowie from the stiltedness and strain of much of his late ’60s work, and reconnected him to what he had first touched with “Space Oddity.” It was, in retrospect, the start of Bowie’s mature songwriting—in the months after he wrote “Man” suddenly came “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Quicksand,” “Life on Mars,” “Bewlay Brothers,” “Moonage Daydream.” “Man” was the key that fit the lock.

So on the far end of a decade that Bowie, in part, had authored was “Anger,” which sets the stage for the even grander renunciation of “Ashes to Ashes.” In “Man” the singer passes someone on the stair. They’ve already met, or they will one day. “I thought you died alone, a long, long time ago,” the other marvels. “Look Back in Anger” is, perhaps, when he died; it’s the same encounter, as seen from another perspective; it’s the second meeting of the two at a later time. It’s funny, too: an archangel appears and no one pays him any mind. So he flicks through a magazine and waits, bored, for whatever cataclysm he’s come to presage or deliver.

Bowie’s best lyrics can seem like fragments of overheard conversations with himself. The verse and refrain of “Anger” are some of the strangest, though they’re in simple and clear language:

“You know who I am,” he said.
The speaker was an angel.
He coughed and shook his crumpled wings, closed his eyes and moved his lips.
“It’s time we should be going.”

It’s recitative: no rhymes, no rhythms, a disjunct melody. The pacing is also off: there’s a two-bar gap between the first and second lines, enough time to make you wonder if “you know who I am” is the only line in the verse, then there’s a sudden tumble of words. Bowie’s performance hangs between the sublime and the ludicrous. As with “Station to Station,” Bowie is the only rock singer who could sing lines like these with a straight face and not, somehow, seem like a buffoon. He sounds like he’s trying to do the voice of Yahweh, then croaks out “angel” (an echo back to “Golden Years”) and “going.”

The eight-bar refrain is a statement: Bowie placed it within quotation marks on the LP lyric sheet. But who says it? Only the angel has spoken so far. If the chorus is his, then the refrain commands the singer to assess the ruins of his life before departing it. Look back in anger—see how much you’ve wasted, look what never came to be. But the refrain could equally be the narrator’s fervent response, the words of someone who’s long awaited death, who seems to have craved it since birth. The title phrase becomes a dark joke, a dying man indignant at ever having been alive.*

Fittingly, the refrain’s a duet. Tony Visconti’s backing vocals open the chorus: plaintive, narrow in range, sounding like John Lennon’s sped-up backing vocals on Sgt. Pepper tracks like “She’s Leaving Home.” Then in the fourth bar Bowie sweeps on stage, almost an octave higher than Visconti. Bowie’s part is a long fall to earth. He sings the title line as a descending triplet (“look-back-in“, G#-F#-E) then strangles out “anger,” which again falls over three notes; he breaks the pattern with the upward push of “driven by the” (or “see it in my“) that sags on its last note (“night” or “eyes”), and he ends the chorus with another descending triplet, now an octave lower than his arrival (“till-you-come“), coming to a stop on the root note, F#.

That’s all the song is, really, barring the four-bar bridge (“no one seemed to hear him“) that passes in a flash, and Carlos Alomar’s 16-bar guitar solo (see below). “Anger,” in E major, follows a basic progression of E/D/A/F#m/C/G, used for both verse and chorus, while the bridge is simply the last two chords of the sequence severed from the original progression.

“Anger,” cerebral and odd, could’ve expired on the heights but it’s invigorated by a strong, propulsive rhythm track—Sean Mayes pounding the bass end of his piano, Alomar’s guitar darting and jabbing around Dennis Davis’ drumming (George Murray’s bass seems to have gone missing, though, a victim of one of the muddier mixes on the album).

When Bowie asked him for a guitar break to fill a chorus, Alomar, weary of the lead guitar acrobatics that defined much of Bowie’s’70s records, instead thought “if I’m going to take a solo, I’m going to take a rhythm guitar solo,” as he told David Buckley, adding that his inspiration was Lennon’s rhythm work on Beatles’ records. Another influence or, more directly, challenge was Nile Rodgers, who by late ’78 was making his name with Chic. Alomar and Rodgers were the same age and had been friends as teenagers in New York, and both had cut their teeth in session work and journeyman R&B bands. Rodgers’ guitar style—building riffs out of a set of syncopated chords with shortened tones, as he tended to only strum three strings at a time (see here)—echoed Alomar’s, and “Anger” can seem like Alomar translating Rodgers, or going him one better: Alomar’s solo is a volley between two contrasted, but fairly similar, lightning-fast riffs. Again, a pairing in a song full of them.

Davis doesn’t drive the track as much as he ferments it: ringing the bell on his ride cymbal throughout, playing a rolling fill that matches Bowie’s sudden run of words. He annexes whatever spaces he finds open, using every type of fill imaginable, hi-hat, snare, toms. Davis kicks off the track a beat before the rest of the band, similar to how he had punched in “What in the World.”

Eno’s contributions are smears of sound, giving the track an ominous, gauzy backdrop. Sifting through Mountain Studios’ brass collection, Eno had found a huntsman’s horn (called “horse trumpet” on the sleeve) and a French horn that he renamed the “Eroica horn,” referencing the horn’s prominence in Beethoven’s 3rd.** Each horn is so processed and distorted they could as well be guitars or synthesizers. There’s also a theremin (a real one, or a simulation?), first appearing at 2:30 in the video linked above, just after the final refrain ends.

Bowie and David Mallet filmed a promo for the song in 1979, where Bowie, in an artist’s loft, paints himself as an angel and then, reverse-Dorian Gray style, transforms into a grotesque with paint- and clay-encrusted skin. In the final shot, Bowie drags himself up the stairs and crawls under his bed. It’s as though he’s been made leprous by his art, and he’s sickened by himself.

It’s one resolution, at least—the song itself offers none. The narrative just stops, as there’s no second verse after the bridge where the angel, bored, seemed indifferent to how the encounter played out. Bowie’s singing, however, adds a last piece of drama, as the final refrain finds him breaking the descending vocal pattern, instead willing himself to push upward: look BACK in AN-ger! Feel it in my VOICE! with the final “till you come” a slow, final surrender.

“Anger,” one of Bowie’s major songs of the late ’70s, never got the attention it merited, so it’s similar to “Man Who Sold the World” in that regard (though it never had a revival like Nirvana gave the latter). Released as a single only in the US and Canada, it went nowhere.

Bowie went back to it in 1988, revising “Anger” for a series of concerts and, soon afterward, he cut a new version of the song, extending it over seven minutes. The attempt seems to have been to make the song more epic but it just seems longer, with Bowie not altering the vocal line in any substantive way, leaving Erdal Kizilcay on drums and bass to add some flash, though his metronomic drumming suffers when compared with Davis’ exuberant performance. The revised “Anger” is also the first appearance on a Bowie record of Reeves Gabrels, and it previews Gabrels’ work with Bowie over the next decade—Gabrels offers a mix of go-for-broke adventurism and a lack of restraint.

Recorded September 1978 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and March 1979 at the Record Plant, NYC. Released as a single in the US and Canada in August 1979 (RCA PB 11724, c/w “Repetition,” didn’t chart). The 1988 studio remake first appeared on the Ryko CD issue of Lodger in 1991; it’s currently out of print. Played during the 1983 tour, in 1988, the mid-’90s tours and in 2002, including a BBC Radio 2 special on 18 September 2002 (eventually issued on An Evening With David Bowie).

* Of course the title is also referencing John Osbourne‘s classic 1957 play, though as one commenter said, the lyric of “Repetition” is far more a reference to Osbourne’s work than “Anger” is.

** Especially the French horn’s “mistaken” early theme recapitulation in the first movement (around 5:40 in Bernstein’s performance of it here).

Top: Alan Denney, “Michael Ferreira Funeral,” Stoke Newington, December 1978.

29 Responses to Look Back In Anger

  1. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Definitely a ‘major’ Bowie work. Funnily enough this was slated as being a low point at the time by Charles Shaar Murray in the NME; it’s funny that such a major Bowie supporter seems to have missed the point on so many occasions.
    There’s so much that is good about this but Carlos Alomar’s ‘solo’ deserves a special mention. (Listen to the 1988 remake and that version sounds like someone trying to play along to an internet guitar tab.)
    The rhythm section were taken for granted on Lodger. Listen to George Murray on Yassasin; that’s on a par with ‘Stay’ but it’s buried way down in the mix. The same happens here.

    • Toby says:

      totally agree on the underrated playing on Lodger but I have to say I really like the 1988 version. I think it’s epic and I really like Reeves’ guitar on it: some wonderful clanging chords hanging over each other creating nice tensions

  2. Jeremy Earl says:

    Bravo! Epic write up. Yes, it is one of his great songs of the late 70’s – sheer brilliance in fact. You mention that only Bowie could get away with singing lyrics like these, true, but also no one could get away with such melodrama. He makes melodrama a strength. Carlos Alomar – what a dude, one of the great rhythm guitarist ever, period. Never thought of any connection between MWSTW and Anger – interesting insight.

    I believe Bowie opened most 83 gigs with this song and I really like the 83 version. Don’t really think much of the 88 version, sounds too stilted and its length doesn’t help.

  3. Portsmouth Bubblejet says:

    Guess I’ll be on my own on this one then. Although ‘Lodger’ is one of my favourite Bowie albums, this is the only song that I’m ever tempted to skip. Its melodrama (the angel narrative sounds like a clumsy Scott Walker pastiche) makes the track seem out of place somehow on an album full of understated experimentation and would have fitted in better perhaps on ‘Station to Station’. I fully agree with the praise for Carlos Alomar’s guitar work though.

  4. In 1979, I was 18, and picking up the latest Bowie album was the furthest thing on my mind, since I didn’t have any in the first place. The enduring purchases I made that year – Armed Forces, Fear of Music, The Clash (US), leavened with the evanescent (The Fine Art of Surfacing, Candy-O, Joe Jackson’s two, Replicas, Damn the Torpedoes, Reggatta de Blanc, Cool for Cats) and the gloriously fading (Manifesto, Wave, The Wall) left no room for someone I had never followed.
    Little did I know then that Bowie would eventually be #3 in my canon – behind R.E.M. and The Beatles.
    Lodger is a difficult album at best, and I’ve never really taken to it. Listening to it now I hear a precursor to Discipline (no surprise there) but it is all planes and angles.
    Which leads me nicely to Robert Fripp and Exposure, a 1979 album I didn’t get until 2006, which led me to Parallel Lines. “Fade Away and Radiate” and “Look Back in Anger” somehow fit together. How odd.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I’d love to know what Chris’ opinion of the new bio is!

    • col1234 says:

      the Trynka bio? it’s really good, of what i’ve read (mainly ’60s chapters). some good insights, great interviews. up there with Buckley’s.

      • sekaer says:

        Thanks. I am enjoying it too but it sure ain’t a “critical” bio, i.e. nothing really on the music. It’s amazing how much this guy can chart the day-to-day stuff, but would have liked a little more interpretation and less laundry lists!
        P.S. For fans of Cracked Actor, I just came across a deleted alternate ending on YouTube that makes much more sense than the strangely truncated one where it says “then Bowie became a soul singer”…a super-strange, very drawn out peek through a door at Bowie toting a giant bag of coke, drinking milk, and admitting a topless woman into his dressing room. It’s somehow even weirder than the rest of the doc!

  6. Can you delete my entries here (on “Look Back in Anger.” They’re rather puerile. Thanks.

  7. diamond dog says:

    I must say anger suffers from quite a poor mix and I never cared much for the lyric it is too brief and with a lack of resolution ,it seems the music deserves a better lyric. It is saved by the superb guitar break. I love chic and alomar just blows all the juxtaposing and angular melodrama in a few funk filled stabs. The remake is awful but was the backing for a dance routine with la la human steps which I found a bit embarrassing. Never cared much for gabrels playing …sorry reeves.

  8. Carl F says:

    This song is awesome. I love how it really escalates in the second half, first with the Alomar-solo and then after Bowies last “til you come”-scream”. The echoed synthesizer (?) and piano really adds to the sound. The soundscape really becomes dreamy and chaotic – wow!

  9. David L says:

    OT, but with the death of Amy Winehouse, it made me realize how lucky Bowie was (and the rest of us) that he didn’t join the 27 and dead club. At 27 he was making Young Americans and heavily drugged out, though perhaps his nadir wasn’t until a few years later and Station to Station … too bad Winehouse never found her Berlin.

  10. diamond dog says:

    Bowie had more sense ,I’ve no sympathy for winehouse just the family left behind who gave her chance after chance. She bahaved like someone who was abused and did not have the strength of will to get out of the filth she was in…a sad waste. Unlike winehouse bowie was taking drugs he was still able to function with. They fuelled creativity in him whereas she could not function.

    • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

      That’s an awful harsh judgement, dog. Addiction is a powerful thing and escaping it is not easy to do. As for lacking the strength of will… couldn’t you say the same about Hendrix, Morrison and Joplin?

  11. Maj says:

    this has always been one of my fave Bowie songs. it’s a very pop song, considering the album it’s from…
    I for one love melodrama in music, so no problem w/ the lyrics for me. also quite like the video, all the vids from Lodger were pretty good, esp. for their time.

  12. Diamond Duke says:

    [*SIGH!*].😦 Forgive me, but the use of italics and boldface does have its hazards sometimes. Let me try this again…

    FINAL DRAFT! (hopefully):

    Look Back In Anger is yet another one of my all-time favorite David Bowie songs (somewhere in my Top 5, actually!), and much of it has to do with its thundering, momentous groove. Bowie’s lead vocal is one of his all-time acrobatic (and dramatic) best, Carlos Alomar’s rhythm guitar solo is lean, nimble and fiery, and Brian Eno’s electronic “horse trumpets” and “Eroica horn” contribute well to the melodramatic ambience. (And I also must say that the 1998 remake with Reeves Gabrels isn’t half-bad, either.)

    The observation you make about Look Back In Anger being a clouded mirror of The Man Who Sold The World, and your assessment of the former being “a dry, weird farewell to a muse”, is certainly very interesting, and as usual you’ve presented a compelling argument. (Although if it’s a “farewell,” it can hardly be considered a final one, seeing as how Bowie’s muse does tend to wax and wane like the moon’s phases at different times – much to the man’s eternal consternation and frustration.) But I think one can draw just as many links and connections with other Bowie lyrics involving angels, supermen and death – for example The Supermen, Sons Of The Silent Age and the much later New Angels Of Promise (a fave “deep cut” of mine from the under-appreciated ‘hours…’).

    I’ve always loved how the tables are turned on the archangel character with the line “No one seemed to hear him / so he leafed through a magazine / and yawning, rubbed the sleep away / Very sane, he seemed to me”. And I love the idea that this miraculous angelic visitation is not even noticed or reacted to in any way, and that the banalities of the workaday world seem to take precedence. The man due for his release from earthly cares evidently has more important and pressing matters preoccupying him at the time, and so the angel is the one forced into the disadvantaged position of having to wait however long it takes for them to reach their conclusion! (I’m also thinking of how one of Bowie’s favorite film directors, Stanley Kubrick, passed away only after he had completed his final 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut, and how New York Dolls bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane of the New York Dolls only expired from leukemia after he had finally reunited with his former band in 2004. I suppose it’s the connections with Space Oddity and Time that made make me think of Kubrick and Kane in the context of a Bowie song…)

  13. abdul says:

    i think the 1988 remake may have been done for Bowie’s collaboration with the La La La Human Steps dance company from Montreal, is the author not familiar with that project? That would explain the length.

    look here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y__caH4kdGU

    There are other versions on youtube as well.

    • col1234 says:

      the author is indeed familiar with that project, as the author linked to another Human Steps clip in the entry.

  14. Ramzi says:

    A parallel could be made with (the novel) Frankenstein. Upon creating the Creature – who is both his attempt to subvert God and his doppelgänger (like Bowie’s angel in the video) – Victor is disgusted at the result when the Creature assumes life.

    “The beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart”

    In the video, instead of the product becoming deathly it is the creator, which works with the idea that the Creature is Victor’s doppelgänger.

    As a response, Victor goes to bed (like Bowie) and eventually abandons the creature, refusing to take responsibility and face the consequences of his actions.

    Instead of taking proactive decisions and resolving to take care of the creature as is its desire (“I ought to be thy Adam”, “I will be docile to my Lord and Master” etc.), which would have solved the problems of the story (“I was benevolent and good, misery [as a result of Victor’s and society’s abandonment] made me a fiend”), Victor elects to rue his mistakes for much of the novel – indeed his whole monologue is him doing this to Walton – looking back in anger.

    • wytchcroft says:

      missed this before and it’s a very fine comment;
      you’re right – the creature and his maker (Frankenstein) are the shadow and the artist doing that doppleganger dance that reappears so often in Bowie…
      and the nature of creation as a ‘horror show’ may be why Bowie tripped back to it for Cat People.

      the band on Lodger deserve the plaudits this thread (and indeed the blog whole) have given them. What a cooking little outfit they were.

      i think the ICA re-vamp is a study in sonic archaetexture but the Erdal will curdle alas, as so often. so despite the cold cathedral guitars it sounds weak on its own.

      but after Glass Spider the ICA thing was… an unexpected and welcome gear shift.
      Louise Le Cavalier just rules.

  15. Jasmine says:

    Bowie seemed to reference much of his canon in Blackstar and Lazarus. Only now I’m starting to be able to come out the ‘fog’ of the past 3 weeks and think more about that.
    Look Back in Anger references an Archangel telling the young Bowie ‘it’s time we should be going’. Bowie doesn’t, instead breaks down and crawls under his bed. In the Blackstar loft, whose shape is very reminiscent of the LBIA loft but now old, falling apart and lifeless, the Angel of Death sings ‘Imma take you home’. Bowie can’t hide this time.
    The references in the LBIA blog to TMWSTW ‘I thought you died a long long time ago’, ‘we passed upon the stair’ then the Archangel having to wait in LBIA, now the Great I Am has come to take Bowie home in Blackstar, 3 conversations Bowie seems to be having with a spirit – I can’t help feeling these are linked.
    Bowie’s subject matter hasn’t changed much all his life and he was never afraid of bringing themes out of the woodwork of his past.
    But as with much of Bowie, who knows really? I do miss him.

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