Kingdom Come

Kingdom Come (Tom Verlaine, 1979).
Kingdom Come (David Bowie, early take, rough mix, 1980).
Kingdom Come (Bowie, 1980).
Kingdom Come (Verlaine, live, ca. 1984).
Kingdom Come (Verlaine, live, 2006).

The great New York band Television broke up in 1978 due to the standard reasons: drugs, egos, money (lack of). Tom Verlaine, the band’s singer, lyricist and co-lead guitarist, soon got a record deal with Television’s label Elektra and in the fall of 1979 released his first solo album.

Bowie was a fan, calling Verlaine one of “New York’s finest new writers…I wish he had a bigger audience.” Verlaine’s solo albums, which he released at a regular clip in the ’80s, document a career that never had the audience it deserved. He was a critical middleweight. In the Village Voice “Pazz and Jop” year-end polls of the era, Verlaine’s albums consistently fall in the 20 to 30 range: he was respected, not revered or even disliked. His albums didn’t sell well and he eventually moved to the UK, where a few more people bought his records.

Verlaine had started as a poet, and his best songs were full of casual epiphanies, words like an inspired run of notes on his guitar: Broadway looked so medieval. I fell sideways laughing. I remember how the darkness doubled, I recall lightning struck itself. I’m uncertain when beauty meets abuse. She put on her boxing gloves and went to sleep. The standout on Tom Verlaine was “Kingdom Come,” his purgatorial song, with the daily business of life like being on a chain gang: breaking rocks, cutting hay, all while watched from a tower by a man with a gun. The only hope of escape is death, or judgement day, whichever comes first.*

Carlos Alomar suggested Bowie cover “Kingdom Come,” which would be the first cover on a Bowie record since Station to Station. Bowie asked Verlaine to play guitar on his song but things apparently went awry, as little, if any, Verlaine is on the final record (Robert Fripp instead does the lead guitar work on Bowie’s “Kingdom Come,” mainly keeping to the margins). Tony Visconti recalled Verlaine showing up at the Power Station looking “a little down on his luck and lugubrious.” Verlaine said he had some ideas for overdubs but needed the right sound first, so he began to try out every single amp in the studio, playing the same phrase on over 30 of them. Visconti said he and Bowie had lunch, watched TV and ultimately left Verlaine in the studio, still auditioning amps. “I don’t think we ever used a note of his playing, even if we recorded him,” Visconti wrote.

Bowie’s “Kingdom Come” is an attempt to give the song grandeur, with layers of guitars and, first in the chorus and then in the verses, call-and-response backing vocals by a quartet (Bowie, Visconti, Lynn Maitland and Chris Porter).** Some of the changes work well enough, like transferring Verlaine’s drum hook to George Murray’s bass, freeing Dennis Davis to pound on the beat while doing fills to lighten the track’s monotonous tendencies. Other changes seem either sloppy (Bowie weirdly made “the face of doom” the “voice of doom,” while still keeping the next line about the voice “shining”) or perverse, like Bowie removing the title line hook from the chorus and not singing it until 3:15 in, almost as the song starts to fade out.

It all seems like a great misreading of the song. Verlaine’s “when the kingdom comes” refrain, which Bowie discarded, is unchanging and barely melodic, suggesting the ceaseless labor of being. Instead Bowie’s vocal is an over-the-top vibrato-heavy extravagance that seems deliberately unhinged; it’s fascinating and kind of awful. Verlaine, even when he approached the cosmic, had a penitential tone in his singing, the sound of someone consistently being humbled and delighted by the oddness of life. Bowie just savages each line he sings—placing long, brutal stresses on the end of each phrase (“well i wa-haw-haw-alllked in the pouring ray-hay-hay-hayn”) building to the note-killing agonies of the bridge—“wall’s a miiiiile HII-yi-i-IIGH,” singing “hoping I’m gonna die-ay-ay-ay” like Ronnie Spector. A bewildering cover, “Kingdom Come” seems the primary inspiration for Bowie own, finer “Up the Hill Backwards.”

Recorded February 1980, Power Station, NYC, and April 1980, Good Earth Studios, London.

* Verlaine’s song reused the title of an unreleased Television song, but the two “Kingdom Comes” are otherwise unrelated.

** It was a random collection of amateur singers: Maitland was a mutual friend, while Porter was Visconti’s assistant engineer.

Top: Ann Summa, “Tom Verlaine,” ca. 1979-1980.

17 Responses to Kingdom Come

  1. Portsmouth Bubblejet says:

    Very interesting write-up. Verlaine didn’t appear to have been particularly enamoured of the cover version. He said in an interview in 1981: “I didn’t go along with the Bowie version of “Kingdom Come” myself, but it’s always a thrill to hear someone else interpret your work even if you don’t like what they do with it. I’d love to hear Ray Charles do that song – I bet he’d do a great version.”

  2. Maj says:

    I have to confess I’ve never bothered to listen to the original of this song up until now. I really don’t like Verlaine’s voice tho I’d agree I’d prefer his style of singing to Bowie’s histrionics. For once. Still I like this song – and Bowie’s version of it – in the context of the album.

  3. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    I meant to post this on “It’s No Game”, but I was too late. I was wondering – did any of you old-timers ever get to see Bowie perform The Elephant Man?

  4. Remco says:

    I’d say ‘Because You’re Young’ isn’t the weakest track on ‘Scary Monsters’, this is.
    I quite like the alternate vocal though, which I’d never heard before. It’s quite refreshing compared with the overacting on the album version.

  5. David L says:

    I dig the “overacting” on this one, for me, it’s Bowie really letting it all out. I like the raw emotionality of it, like he’s really getting tortured, like he’s really out there in the sun, cutting those rocks. When you’re out there, sweating in the sun, the last thing you are is reserved and controlled. You’re fucking exasperated.

    After Bowie’s version, the Verlaine version sounds like a demo to me, a guide vocal. Bowie put the proper passion and emotion into it. It’s my favorite track on side two, right up there with Teenage Wildlife — another emotional delivery.

    And I’d always wondered how that voice of doom was shining in his room, thanks for explaining that!

  6. ofer says:

    For me it’s like that almost untraceable “seinfeld” moment when kramer just slips over the invisible line between over the top and plain overacting. You barley notice it when it happens, because it isn’t that different then what he did before, and to an extent it’s still loveable, but but in a way things aren’t the same afterwords. The rest of the album has some wonderful vocals, and bowie obviously had more restrained (and masterful) moments after this song, but he also had annoying vocal takes in spades, and this song for me is the first of them.

  7. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I defer to nobody in my love for Marquee Moon. It had almost equal time on my turntable to Low and “Heroes” in 1977 and it was the first CD I bought. But as a ridiculous and immature 14-year old, I was well placed to recognise ridiculous and immature lyrics. Unfortunately, the ‘poet’ Verlaine couldn’t write a pop lyric to save his life.
    The idea of covering this song makes a lot of sense, but the above post hits the nail on the head in identifying an invisible line after which the vocals become annoying. I think the invisible line is simply the raw material he’s working with; the weaker the material, the greater the need for histrionics. It happens elsewhere on Scary Monsters.

  8. Jeepster says:

    I love your phonetic renderings of Bowie’s “epic” voice

  9. Jeremy Earl says:

    I love Bowie’s vocals on this cover, love the over the top singing. Certainly not the best track on the album though, it’s not that great a song. Still, as someone above mentioned, in context on the album it works quite well.

    Absolutely love the story of Verlaine endlessly trying out all the amps for the right guitar tone whilst Bowie and Visconti break for lunch. Fantastic! and he doesn’t even get recorded properly or at all, now that could be in an episode of Seinfeld. Talk about bathos…

  10. diamond dog says:

    I quite like this but as its a cover I can,t get over excited I too like his delivery and actually after I heard the orig could not see why he wanted bother? Surely it would have a stronger b side had he added something of his own. Even the alleged life after marriage from the bootleg release from the session.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I think “redundant” is the word that comes to mind. The memorable Bowie covers for me are those where the very fact that he’s the one performing them add an extra layer of meaning – Let’s Spend the Night Together or Wild Is the Wind, say. This seems part of a set with If There Is Something and Nite Flights – work by original artists of a similar sensibility to which Bowie has little to add.

  12. Gnomemansland says:

    Ah shucks this is by far the best track on the LP

  13. The Ronnie Spector comparison is right on – worse, it’s LATE Ronnie Spector, the one Eddie Money recruited for “Take Me Home Tonight.” I hope you’ll bring up this connection again with “Try Some, Buy Some” in 2003.

  14. crayontocrayon says:

    Whenever I hear this on SM I can’t help but think that the Fripp parts were very much leftovers and the prime meat was used on Teenage Wildlife. As such the opening leaves me a little fatigued with that sound. If I hear it on its own this is less of a problem. Overall I prefer the original but Bowie certainly leaves his mark on the song with that vocal.

  15. […] another story about Verlaine turning up at a studio in a weird mood and freaking people out, read this from Chris O’Leary’s incredible Bowie blog Pushing Ahead of the […]

  16. ge says:

    i prefer TV’s Waterloo to K Come
    [woulda made a better Bowie cover too!]
    it’s on a later solo album but would have fit nicely replacing say ‘Foxhole’ which ruins Adventure in my est.
    Waterloo: so spare and pithy bare-minimal catchy
    kind of a pure drug NYCity blue sky cleanness to it
    True: I saw Tom in an ice cream parlor alone around the release of SM, smiling madly not waving
    drinking not milkshakes cold and long but scarfing some fresh pastries.

    the too too-too vocals of Dave on this album grate against my taste
    as some others’…
    youre not alone

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