“Up the Hill Backwards” is a cryptic anti-self-help manual (Bowie mocks the quintessential ’70s life guide I’m OK, You’re OK in the lyric), its central message suggesting a late Dylan line: I was born here and I’ll die here/against my will. Accept that you have no control, that the course that life takes has little, if anything, to do with you, and gain some hard comfort. Whatever you believe, the earth keeps on turning, the witnesses of its endless cycles keep dying off.
That’s what the four verses suggest; the refrain denies them. “Up the hill backwards—it’ll be alright” seems like a booster—keep on keeping on—but it’s a dark form of encouragement. There’s a poem for children that begins, “He walked up the hill backwards/So as not to see how high it was.” That’s how we make do, stumbling blindly towards a future that we can’t (or won’t) imagine, our eyes trained on the ground that we’ve already crossed. Up the hill backwards! A pep talk that tells us to blind ourselves.
The lyric is chanted/sung by Bowie, Tony Visconti and Lynn Maitland, Bowie’s voice submerged in the collective. It’s the first time in his recorded life that Bowie’s truly shared the vocal spotlight; his voice is a flavor, rather than dominating the mix (the vocal sound is close to the David Byrne-Tina Weymouth chorus in the Talking Heads’ “The Good Thing”). Bowie said he intended “Backwards” to be “very MOR voiced,” so as to sound like the “epitome of indifference,” and never more so than in its first verse:
The vacuum created by the arrival of freedom
And the possibilities it seems to offer,
It’s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it.
“Backwards” has a cyclical chord structure to match its lyrical saṃsāra: the song is built of three variations of four-chord groupings. Its 8-bar verses alternate lines of A-D-E-A (I-IV-V-I) “the vacuum created by the arrival of freedom,” and A-F# minor-E-D (I-VI-V-IV), as on “we’re legally crippled, it’s the death of love.” The refrain is the last variant, D-E-D-A (IV-V-IV-I). At times the lyric ironically complements the harmonics, with the “arrival of freedom” landing on the return to the tonic, A major, suggesting retreat rather than escape.
“Backwards” started life as “Cameras in Brooklyn,” though its lyric was nearly the same (Bowie originally sang “Skylabs are falling”—Skylab, the “space hotel” satellite that fell to earth in 1979, was an all-purpose symbol of American decline).*
The raw mix of an early version that escaped on bootlegs documents the contributions of George Murray and Dennis Davis—Murray’s melodic playing in the verses reduces the harshness of the narrow-ranged vocal line (as does the bed provided by the organ), while his funky freer lines in the outro are a counterweight to Robert Fripp’s soloing. Davis, after holding together the tricky rhythms of the opening, drives the verses like a drill sergeant, with calls to order on his snare; as with Murray, Davis is finally free to cut loose during the closing guitar jam. His performance is aided, in the final mix, by an intricate percussion track—what sounds like claves (like the Who’s “Magic Bus”) in the intro, while open spaces in the refrain are injected with what sound like steam whistles or synthesized machine noises (Harmonized cymbals?).
Angus MacKinnon: In ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ on the new album there’s more than a suggestion of admitting defeat, or if not that them implying that there’s bugger all you or I or anybody can do about the state of things.
Bowie: Well, admitting it? I don’t actually agree with that viewpoint, you see. To digress completely for a moment—I still adopt the view that music itself carries its own message, instrumentally I mean…That’s why I’m furious you didn’t get to hear the album because the lyrics taken on their own are nothing without the secondary sub-text of what the musical arrangement has to say…
NME, “The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be,” September 1980.
Bowie bookended “Backwards” with what he called “a high-energy Fripp quasi-Bo Diddley thing,” two guitar breaks, starting in 7/4 time (Visconti, playing acoustic guitar, recalled gritting his teeth and counting “1&2&3&4&5&6&7” throughout the takes). These free the song from its cycles. Fripp’s closing solo, which he described at the time as “a system of echo repeats, fairly fast, on the guitar,” is fairly constrained, melodically, but Fripp’s power, his aggressive tone, expand the song; he won’t let the other players settle.
That was the intention. Bowie later said the Fripp guitar breaks “give [“Backwards’] another kind of switch: it has far more power than it would first seem. In fact it has a very strong commitment, but it’s disguised in indifference.” It’s not just Fripp who offers a way out, as the collective sound of the track—the trio of voices finally relaxing in the last verse and building up together in the refrain; the liberation of the rhythm section—eventually denies the lyric’s fatalism. It’s making common cause against the void, loudly.
Recorded February 1980, Power Station, NYC; April 1980, Good Earth Studios, London. Released as the last Scary Monsters single in March 1981 (RCA BOW 9, c/w “Crystal Japan,” #32 UK); the TOTP interpretive dance performance by Legs & Co. is a marvel—dry ice, Tomahawk chops, writhing; it’s likely the only dance routine ever choreographed to a Fripp guitar solo. Performed live only on the Glass Spider tour of 1987, as part of a medley with the Spider.
* “Skylab could fall on your head right now and you’d go down saying the government had done its best.” Harry tries to picture this happening and agrees, “Maybe so. They’re strapped these days like everybody else.” John Updike, Rabbit Is Rich, 1981.
Dedicated to my friend and neighbor J. Johnson.
Top: Michael Sean Edwards, “Subway, Grand Central Station” NYC, 1980.