Up the Hill Backwards

Cameras in Brooklyn (early studio take, rough mix).
Up the Hill Backwards.
Up the Hill Backwards (live, 1987).

“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.

31 Responses to Up the Hill Backwards

  1. Brendan O'Lear says:

    A fantastic song that, like a lot of Scary Monsters, leaves something to be desired in the final mix – no room to breathe. (The demos/ early takes seem more powerful than the final version.)

    Wasn’t this song supposed to have something to do with his divorce?

    If there’s anybody out there who hasn’t yet read the Angus McKinnon interview cited in the entry, it really is worth reading. It’s the one album-promotion interview that I have read where Bowie actually seems engaged and not just flattering the interviewer. If I remember rightly – and I don’t do that very often these days – it was an interview conducted around the time of his Elephant Man run.

    And the Legs and Co ‘interpretation’ …

    • col1234 says:

      yes, it’s one of the best interviews DB ever did. Meant to link to it: it’s here: http://www.bowiegoldenyears.com/articles/8009-nme.html

      • Jaf says:

        Thanks for the link to that interview (and for the continually brilliant blog), I kept that copy of NME for years but one house move too many meant it got lost.

        Has anybody apart from DB ever read The Origins Of Consciousness In The Dawn Of The Bi-Cameral (?) Mind? Doesn’t sound like a typical holiday read does it

    • lonepilgrim says:

      Yes, that Angus McKinnon interview seemed to catch Bowie in a particularly open state of mind.
      I’m pretty sure that Eno made reference to ‘The Origins Of Consciousness In The Dawn Of The Bi-Cameral Mind’ as an influence on ‘My life in the book of ghosts’

  2. diamond dog says:

    It was a poor choice as a single (I still have the cassete single which were popular way back then) but I love its placing on the album it Was nice to hear it ressurrected on the glass spider tour. The cover of this and scary monsters single I never cared for. Not sure I understood em and why they did not mirror the album art as fashin and ashes had?

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      It’s not bad for a fourth single from the album. I would guess that the reason for uncoordinated covers was similar to the reason there was no video for these singles: they hadn’t planned/budgeted on releasing more than two singles. And if they’d made a video, we wouldn’t have had the Legs & Co interpretation.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Your mention of saṃsāra points the way to an explicitly Buddhist reading of this song. You point out the cyclical nature of the melody. The way in which Bowie submerges his vocal identity and the “it’s got nothing to do with you” refrain suggest anatta – the idea of “not-self”. The structure of the song, with the recycling of the verses without much significant musical development, followed by the escape into the Fripp solo suggest a pattern of reincarnation followed by escape to Nirvana.

  4. Jeremy Earl says:

    So why didn’t Legs and Co be in every Bowie video? They could have been in front of the bulldozer in the Ashes to Ashes video for example….

  5. Ken Houghton says:

    Jaf,

    You must be very young, or not American. From the late 1970s to near the end of the 1980s, it was difficult (in the Brooklyn area, at least) to find anyone who hadn’t read The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

    Or, perhaps more accurately, who didn’t insist that their inability to do something–strangely, the “something” was almost always maths, and nothing more severe than basic Algebra–was because of the superiority of the other half of their mind.

  6. ethan says:

    I’m very gratified to see Bowie talking about The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind in that interview, and especially to find that interview linked from this post, because it just adds to (and semi-confirms) some thoughts I’ve been having recently.

    I just recently read Gabriel Josipovici’s fantastic What Ever Happened to Modernism? (if you’ve seen any of the silly literary-world controversy about it, ignore all that, it’s completely missing the point of the book), and in it he quotes Kierkegaard, in Either/Or, talking about ancient Greek tragedy:

    …the peculiarity of ancient tragedy is that the action does not issue exclusively from character, that the action does not find its sufficient explanation in subjective reflection and decision….The reason for this naturally lies in the fact that the ancient world did not have subjectivity fully self-conscious and reflective. Even if the individual moved freely, he still rested in the substantial categories of state, family and destiny. This substantial category is exactly the fatalistic element in Greek tragedy, and its exact peculiarity. The hero’s destruction is, therefore, not only the result of his own deeds, but it is also suffering, whereas in modern tragedy the hero’s destruction is not suffering, but is action.

    Kierkegaard and Josipovici go on to talk about how the loss of the “fatalism” of Greek tragedy, and the gain of what we now think of as free individuality, leads to the very modern phenomena of anxiety and melancholy–we’ve got freedom, supposedly, but no tradition to turn to to tell us what to do with that freedom.

    To me this sounds remarkably similar to Julian Jaynes’s arguments, though Jaynes takes it from social and literary analysis into the realm of…well, something verging on psychology science fiction (and that’s probably why SF writers like Neal Stephenson and Peter Watts have been so fascinated with Jaynes’s book).

    And it also sounds like the kind of observation to which “The vacuum created by the arrival of freedom/And the possibilities it seems to offer” is a sensible response. In fact those two lines are as good a summary of everything Josipovici talks about in his book as you could hope to come up with.

    I love it when the books and music I love suddenly line up like that.

    • Great! Just pre-ordered What Ever Happened to Modernism? because I just finished Retromania by Simon Reynolds. p. 369 “One of [Portuguese poet Fernando] Pessoa’s major preoccupations as a writer was boredom, or ‘tedio’ in Portuguese. In a passage describing the oppressive ennui that descends upon him during late afternoons, Pessoa writes … “I don’t know what I want or don’t want … I don’t know who I am or what I am.”
      I bring this in because his is a book that includes a whatever happened to Modernism riff as well. If Scary Monsters distills all of Bowie’s work into one album and introduces him to the audiences of the 80s (which would include me), he may very well have been the first to do. The new R.E.M. album, Collapse Into Now, does exactly that, as did the one before it, and U2’s recent efforts (which I will not follow) do the same thing.
      The difference is Bowie leapt over and never went back, a tribute to his maturity and, admittedly, his marked inability to stay with one idea for even a single album may contribute as well.

      • Rewrite last para:
        The difference between Bowie and his successors is that Bowie leapt over and never went back. I suppose he never thought of going back, since no else had before, either. The Stones, despite an acute business sense, have never quite pulled it off at any point.

        You might say this is a tribute to Bowie’s ability to mature and accept change. Or, perhaps, it is just another instance of his marked inability to stay with one idea for even a single album, and by happenstance. we are a grateful (more or less) audience for a restless mind.

      • ge says:

        Readers here may be amazed or amused to know that F Pessoa mentioned– famous for creating multi-author personae and even creating horoscope charts for them!– had known Aleister C, and helped the occultist stage a seeming disappearance into a volcano in Portugal presumably to try & outdo Empedocles

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Great, fascinating stuff. This track now makes sense. I’ll have to check out these books mentioned above. Bowie fans are, on the whole, an intelligent and thoughtful lot, and I think he knows it.

  7. Remco says:

    On a less philosophical note, I think I actually prefer the Legs&Co. performance to the one from Glass Spider tour. I think it would be better for everyone if we all collectively pretended that tour never happened.

    I love the bass on this song by the way

  8. diamond dog says:

    At the time I had only had the pleasure of seeing him live once before so I loved it ,the spectacle , the set and the man himself….brilliant. Looking back it looks cheesy but look at prince his lovesexy tour was over the top as well it was the 80,s he still looked great compared to his pEers.

  9. diamond dog says:

    Also lookin at the footage gotta admit some of the show I watched was lost in boad daylight. The costumes really date it …. In astadium the dancing was lost. Thank god.

  10. Diamond Duke says:

    I really like this song quite a bit. It’s not my favorite track from Scary Monsters (that would be a tie between the title track and Teenage Wildlife, with the cover of Tom Verlaine’s Kingdom Come as a very close runner-up), but I do think that it’s a very good example of David Bowie’s unique ability to create a song that’s apparently quite jaunty and breezy on the surface, but with a somewhat barbed and sinister undercurrent beneath it. (Another good example of this would be Oh! You Pretty Things.) I particularly like Robert Fripp’s guitar work on the 7/8 guitar breaks, a quite characteristically dissonant and abrasive soloing style which contrasts with – and perhaps even undercuts – the blithely sing-along verse melody and the sentiments of the lyrics.

    Nicholas Pegg, in his comprehensive volume The Complete David Bowie, floats the theory that the song could possibly be about David’s divorce from Angela (hence the line “We’re legally crippled / It’s the death of love”), and the intrusive press scrutiny of its aftermath. The reference to the aforementioned self-help guide I’m OK, You’re OK, which applies the “transactional analysis” theory to marriage relationships, would also make sense in light of this interpretation.

    However…a thought occurred to me regarding the line “It’s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it”: This actually kind of reminds me of a line from the Soundgarden song Searching With My Good Eye Closed, written by Chris Cornell: “Looking for the paradigm / So I can pass it off / Is it on my side?” I take it as meaning that if one can put something in its right place (and I’m also reminded of the Radiohead title Everything In Its Right Place here), or reduce it to something that fits into our scheme of things, then it becomes less of a personal threat and something which we can feel free to dismiss or dissociate from – even if it ultimately does a disservice to the phenomenon in question, or ultimately to ourselves. I don’t know, I just thought this might be something that could possibly open an alternate avenue of interpretation…although I still have no clue as to what that could possibly be…😉

    • Anonymous says:

      Diamond Duke… It’s telling the press to mind their own business re the divorce: “It’s got nothing to do with you”… “IF one can grasp it”, ie comprehend the simple idea of minding one’s own business…
      The whole album’s brilliant, one of the best ever recorded…

  11. prankster36 says:

    Hey, great blog!

    I’ve never pretended to know anywhere near as much about Bowie as, well, pretty much anyone else who posts here; reading this blog has been the bedrock of my education in Bowie. But this song always struck me as having a subtext of vitriolic sarcasm directed towards the Baby Boomers. The jangling guitar and the chanted vocals all evoke the 60s hippie sensibility, and the parodies of self-empowerment slogans in the lyrics speak for themselves. Just the phrase “Up The Hill Backwards” seems like a brutally efficient summation of the Boomers. And of course this would seem to tie into the themes of the album in general—Ashes to Ashes is another jaundiced look back at the 60s.

    Of course, something Bowie couldn’t have intended, but that tickled me when I first heard it relatively recently, is the way the line “More idols than realities” evokes American Idol and reality TV, and provides a rather astoundingly concise inadvertant commentary on modern culture.

  12. Anyone who insists that Bowie lost all ambition post-Scary Monsters should really look at the Glass Spider tour again with an objective eye. Cheesy? Yes. Irritating? Somewhat. But also daring and ambitious- can you think of anyone other than Bowie who, had the height of his economic power and worldwide popularity, would present an art show complete with spoken word, mime, avant garde dance, and deconstructions of his back catalog? It’s hard for me to reconcile the sheer chutzpah of Glass Spider with the notion that Bowie had become a simple people-pleaser.
    But Up the Hill Backwards was pretty dreadful in the concert. Those kids (one of whom got enaged to Bowie) reminded me of extras from The Warriors.

  13. Someone should do a video edit of Legs and Co. vs. the Glass Spider dancers. It would be very West Side Story.

  14. bootedhoss says:

    Hello, and thanks for the great work.

    I have had a nagging question in my head about “Up The Hill Backwards” for many years…Tony Visconti produced a Boomtown Rats album after he produced “Scary Monsters”, and on the Boomtown Rats album there is a song called “Straight Up” which has a drum freak-out coda – much like “Up The Hill Backwards.” Have you ever heard it? Any thoughts? It seems as though Visconti borrowed from Bowie and gave to Geldof.

    Thanks.

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