Teenage Wildlife

Teenage Wildlife (earlier studio take, rough mix).
Teenage Wildlife.
Teenage Wildlife (live, 1995).
Teenage Wildlife (live, 1996).

Only last summer, a group was on the stage of a more liberal Manchester club; called Spurtz, they featured two girls who knew what they were doing and one chap who didn’t really. They weren’t much—noisy and atonal—but what struck me was that the lead singer, banging around in a lurex mini-dress, was drawing entirely from a vocabulary invented by Bowie. And people stood and took it.

Jon Savage, “David Bowie: The Gender Bender,” The Face, November 1980.

Around 1976, a few London clubs began having “Bowie nights,” where DJs would play Bowie records and clubgoers would come dressed as an edition of him. For some kids, it was the pupal stage before they became punks; others kept at it. By 1978, the main Bowie night in London was at Billy’s, where former Rich Kid Rusty Egan was the DJ and Steve Strange worked the door. As the Eighties began, the scene shifted to (and culminated at) the Blitz Club in Covent Garden. By then Bowie nights had gone from being an impulsive collective tribute to a competitive pose-off. Doing a variation on Bowie had become work. New bands were literally recruited off the Blitz floor, like Spandau Ballet and Visage, which Egan and Strange formed.

Bowie recognized his heirs, using Strange and three other Blitz kids one night in May 1980 to serve as mourners in the video of “Ashes to Ashes.” But his thoughts on becoming a influence weren’t always as noble, and understandably so. After all, paternity means that your genetic purpose is fulfilled: now you can shuffle off and die. There was Bowie’s notorious slagging-off of Gary Numan in the press, while he led off the B-side of Scary Monsters with “Teenage Wildlife,” the first Bowie midlife crisis on record.

Ironically, the lyric is something about taking a short view of life, not looking too far ahead and not predicting the oncoming hard knocks. The lyric might have been a note to a younger brother or my own adolescent self,” Bowie wrote of the song many years later, and in its most generous interpretation, “Teenage Wildlife” is Bowie’s bequest to his successors—be true to yourself, or at least to your favorite illusion; know that the crowd will mock your ambitions and will hunt you down if you have the bad taste to fulfill them.

Is fame even worth it, though? A kid with “squeaky clean eyes” is desperate for fame but he becomes a toy of commerce, just another ugly teenage millionaire, “a broken nosed mogul,” with nothing new to say. The “same old thing in brand new drag comes sweeping into view.” After that, all that remains is the fall: it’s a world of pop stars as a succession of Jane Greys, queens crowned and dispatched in a week. It’s a lurid, violent lyric, with its “midwives to history” in bloody robes, or the teenage millionaire left to bleed out on the floor and howl “like a wolf in a trap,” while his friends scamper past him, whispering to each other “he was great, yeah, but it was time, you know?” Or take the song’s title, a play on healthy adolescent abandon and the image of teenagers as feral beasts.

“Wildlife”‘s lyrical harshness is echoed by its structure. Much of the song is built on sharps: the opening verses first shuttle between G# and C# (e.g., “its promise of something hard to do,” “break open your million-dollar weapon and push your luck) then expand to F# (“blue skies above”) and D# (“new wave boys”). There’s a brittle, wavering feel to the track; nothing is stable, everything is on the verge of change.

You’ll take me aside, and say “well David, what shall I do?
They wait for me in the hallway.”
I’ll say “don’t ask me, I don’t know any hallways.”

The presence of Roy Bittan, recruited from Bruce Springsteen’s The River sessions in the adjacent studio of the Power Station, heightens the sense that “Wildlife” is in Springsteen waters, indulging in and undermining adolescent myth-making. As with Springsteen epics like “Jungleland” (which Springsteen was moving away from—The River was a mix of frat house anthems, re-imagined Four Seasons songs and the occasional quiet prediction of Nebraska), “Wildlife” has a loose, improvisatory structure; it’s as though Bowie is leaving enough space for whatever last-minute inspirations come to him. There’s not really a chorus, just meandering verses which only end when punctuated by the title phrase and a Robert Fripp solo.

Bowie sings the opening verse slowly and somberly, wringing whatever effects he can get from each phrase (the sudden swoop upward on “BLIND-ed”) but keeping within his bounds. Then, triggered by a brief Fripp interlude, Bowie unravels as he sings, summoning a different personality for each new line (he seems to be imitating/inspiring Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs on the first bridge), placing stresses helter-skelter on his words, forcing and suppressing rhymes. His bite sharpens, the song seems to feed off of him: the players drive at each other, the backing singers swirl out of time beneath him, until Bowie finally breaks the fourth wall, turning to the audience in exasperation when faced with the desperate vanity of youth. “David, what shall I do?” the kid asks. It sets Bowie off on an agitated monologue, as snarky as it’s paranoid (“I feel like a group of one–no-oh–they can’t do this to me!”),  spinning and spinning until he finally kills the verse off by howling the title phrase. The Fripp guitar solo that follows comes like a blessing.

Bowie said he wanted the guitars on “Wildlife” to be “a splintery little duel” between Fripp and Carlos Alomar, but the third element is Chuck Hammer’s guitar synthesizer (used to even greater effect in “Ashes to Ashes”), which adds an eerie choral tone; at times it supplements the chorus of Tony Visconti, Lynn Maitland and Chris Porter. Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis mainly keep their heads down, the latter two keeping a steady eighth-note pulse. And Fripp, in his most glorious appearance on Scary Monsters, essentially rewrites his lead work on “Heroes.” If the yearning, straining sound of Fripp’s “Heroes” playing suggested an unattainable perfection, his reworking of the line for “Teenage Wildlife” humanizes it, providing the comfort and strength that Bowie’s manic, badgering vocal denies.

“Wildlife,” the longest track on Scary Monsters, is a series of hard demands on the listener (Visconti said it took him years to like the song, having first considered it a misstep), and it can be wearying. It sounds as though two decades of pop music cues were pulped within its vague confines—the Ronettes vocal hooks, the guitar heroics, the pseudo-Japanese melody in the second bridge. If “Wildlife” was a bequest to Bowie’s successors of the time, it’s a poisoned one: there’s a vicious challenge in its grudging transfer of power, a cold judgment on a lesser future. It ends with the godfather chuckling as he walks past the corpse of his would-be inheritor: “the fingerprints will prove that you couldn’t pass the test.”

Recorded February 1980, Power Station, NYC; April 1980, Good Earth Studios, London. Played as one of the few oldies on Bowie’s 1995-1996 tours, a gibe to the latest heirs apparent. “I’m still enamoured of this song and would give you two “Modern Loves” for it any time,” Bowie said in 2008.

Top: Boy George and Steve Strange at the Blitz Club, London, 1980.

53 Responses to Teenage Wildlife

  1. Jeremy Earl says:

    My favourite Bowie song – just everything about it, its angst, the lyrics the guitars and overwhelming melodrama. Perfect. Thanks for highlighting my favourite lyrics from the song:

    You’ll take me aside, and say “well David, what shall I do?
    They wait for me in the hallway.”
    I’ll say “don’t ask me, I don’t know any hallways.”

    Indeed.

  2. Maj says:

    You’ll take me aside, and say “well David, what shall I do?
    They wait for me in the hallway.”
    I’ll say “don’t ask me, I don’t know any hallways.”

    Brilliant, isn’t it. seems very buddhist. One of Bowie’s best lyrics, IMO.

    I remember translating the lyrics to this song for myself one Saturday or Sunday afternoon (dictionary in hand) while War and Peace played on our TV in the background. For some reason this memory has stuck with me.

    I love the song. It is a bit vicious but everything about it just falls into place. For me one of Bowie’s best songs (along with Ashes & to a certain extent also Fashion) and one that’s proven quite timeless despite (or maybe because) its subject matter.

  3. fantailfan says:

    I like the idea of using a Springsteen theme, which Springsteen no longer used and twisting it, Bowie-wise. Springsteen really had exhausted that idea, being too far from teenage-hood to be realistic about it. Leave it to Bowie to abandon realism altogether. Neat trick.
    I will have to give “Teenage Wildlife” some more listening, given that my usual response is (was) to dismiss it as a catch-all for sound and words and fury, ultimately leading nowhere; a for-real teenage world, filled with wasted hours and metaphorical (and real) suburban culs-de-sac.

  4. My favourite too. That bit where the piano comes in and he sings

    ‘You fall to the ground like a leaf from the tree / And look up one time at that vast blue sky /
    Scream out aloud as they shoot you down … no no I’m not piece …etc.

    That gave me teenage goosebumps everytime I heard it. Thrilling.

    I ind of equate if with ‘Battle for Britain (The Letter)’ though I would struggle to explain why.

  5. David L says:

    Great write-up, as usual.

    I’m with Visconti on this one. I was slow to warm to this rambling, seemingly unfocused song. But I always liked the nod to Heroes in the opening riff, and having usually skipped the song in the past, it now feels new and satisfies my new Bowie-material craving. He clearly put a lot into this song and for that reason alone, it is easily appreciated.

  6. timspeaker says:

    Wow, yet another great write up of one of the truly greatest Bowie songs of all time. You never cease to impress.

    One thing bugged me though; I’m not sure that Springsteen has ever seen the inside of a frat house. Otherwise, superb work as always from easily the finest Bowie-themed site on the internet.

    Keep them coming!

    • col1234 says:

      yes “frat house” was probably too low a blow. just was referring to the party songs on The River (“Sherry Darling” “You Can Look But You Better Not Touch” “Crush on You” etc) that I’ve never liked that much.

      • David L says:

        No no — “frat house anthems” is a perfect way to describe much of Springsteen’s output. Having lived in a frat house in the 80s, I can personally attest to Springsteen’s ubiquity in Frat party mix tapes.

  7. mike says:

    Genius song! So many great phrases (lyrically and musically). Like Tony V., it took a long time to sink in for me due to its rambling nature….but it seems too short now!

  8. diamond dog says:

    Congrats on another great write up. It is the epic of the album and I have to say I did not like it at all at the time. Nowadays I feel it is the jewel in the crown of the album. It grows with every lesson , Fripp is superb on it as are the other players and Bowie for the first time brings himself into the story without any masks in as others have said the great above quoted lyric. I must try the live links above as I was not aware of a live version. Its a great piece about a star truly aware of himself finally at peace with being an influence but grudgingly offering more hollow riddles than answers…..middle age hit him hard it seems. Youth is wasted on the young.

  9. ofer says:

    The most incredible thing for me is how bowie is completely aware of being personally cruel to this younger version of himself in the song, therefore blurring the lines between a personal bio song and a viciously impersonal and critical one. On one hand, he describes with great empathy, as a man speaking to (and of) himself, the way this guy is being chased all around like a wild animal; but after he built the poetic image world, his own character in the song denies it. When the protagonist comes to him for advice, saying “they wait for me in the hallway”, bowie pretends he doesn’t know what the guy is talking about. “Don’t ask me, I don’t know any hallways”, as if saying “Have you lost your mind? Nobody’s after you”, then he abruptly leaves the song, allowing the protagonist to be eaten by the predators.

  10. I love this song so much that I recorded a cover version of it last week! It was a daunting challenge, as the original is such an epic, but I had fun with it.

    I actually wasn’t aware, until reading this, that there was guitar synth used in the original song (I just assumed it was a synth or heavily processed guitars) but it makes me feel a bit better about using synths processed to sound more like guitars in my version (as I don’t actually play guitar!)

    I suppose I should include a link to my version in case anyone is curious. It’s nowhere close to approaching the genius of the original, of course, but I tried to do justice to the song, at least!

  11. jopasso says:

    With Lodger and Scary Monsters, and Low, Heroes and STS still fresh, I always wonder how magical a Tour 80 would have been.

    • Maj says:

      Yeah if there is one thing that pisses me off abt Bowie’s career more than some of his output in the 80’s is the fact he didn’t tour Scary Monsters.😦

      • jopasso says:

        And seeing his astonishing performance in the John Carson show, it even makes it more frustrating.

      • Jeremy Earl says:

        Yeah, I’ve often thought about that. I think Lennon being killed put a stop to that.

      • col1234 says:

        I’m going to make a brief mention of this in “Ashes to Ashes”–about Bowie’s touring band that wasn’t (GE Smith was in it, as was Steve Goulding of the Rumour, later the Mekons)…i think the plan was to do a ’81 tour, but as jeremy said, the Lennon killing changed everything…

        instead DB holes up in Switzerland, skiing, recording Brecht songs & working with Queen and Giorgio Moroder. But we’ll be getting to that odd period soon enough…

      • Maj says:

        So sad, on so many levels…

    • Joel Anderson says:

      That performance on Carson was one of the finest vocals Bowie has ever done. It sounds like the board is clipping! That band was quite good as well.

  12. Remco says:

    “I’m still enamoured of this song and would give you two “Modern Loves” for it any time,”….. I couldn’t agree more.

    I quite like the irony in choosing to play this particular song at a time when he was actively seeking out his musical heirs to repair the damage he had inflicted upon his artistic credibility in the eighties.

    • Remco – Note the interview date. By 2008 at least two generations of his musical heirs had come, and most had gone. He hadn’t recorded/released new material since Reality in 2003, and by 2004 had recovered his cred as (he chuckles wickedly) Godfather of Indie Rock.

      • Remco says:

        I did note the date. My appreciation of that quote had nothing to do with the remark about him playing Teenage Wildlife in the mid nineties, which was a period where he definitely needed the extra ‘cred’ Nine Inch Nails and all those people who played at his 50th birthday bash could give him.

  13. David L says:

    Steve Strange’s eyes look like they were photoshopped. Guess he picked the right name!

  14. diamond dog says:

    Well here in the uk Bowie did not need the likes of NIN to to give him extra cred. They and many of the guests he had on his 50th show do not come close to Bowie even at his musical worst….sorry. He is a living legend with a body of work many of his peers would love to have even come close. Even big hitters like Lou Reed pale in comparison …sorry but that’s my view. Let’s face it I’m sure most would agree.

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Yeah, who was there? Robert Smith – the Cure are ok but pretty one dimensional in comparison to Bowie; Frank Black – the Pixies are brilliant but not his solo stuff; Sonic Youth – great band but one dimensional; The Smashing Pumpkins guy – great first couple of albums but couldn’t stand them after that. Lou’s the one that comes close to Bowie in terms of influence but not breadth of musical styles. Who else was there? Can’t remember, been a while since I listened to the bootleg, which is great by the way – it really was a great gig and Bowie did well out of it even though I agree with DD – he didn’t really need the cred, he hadn’t become Phil Collins or anything, although he flirted with it!

      • Remco says:

        Well, I didn’t mean to say any of those guys were better than Bowie but they were considered relevant and exciting at the time, whereas Bowie was in serious danger of being considered obsolete by the larger public. Whether that’s deserved or not is another matter.

  15. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Looks like I’m going to be the odd one out here. I’ve never been able to like this. It seems to come out far less than the sum of its parts. It’s a shame because it contains some great bits, but they never gel for me. It’s a big disappointment; it works until the line ‘worth more than pieces of gold’. Even the legendary rhythm section seem to plod here.
    A candidate for ‘Most Misjudged Backing Vocals on a Bowie Song.’.

  16. diamond dog says:

    Brendan i used to feel the same but have really come to enjoy it as it really is quite a brave arrangement and creeps up on you, the lyric is very revealing and for Bowie quite honest ,especially using himself with no diguises in the song. I do think the parts gel after a few listens.The cd is is very muddy though especially the recent vesrsions, get the rca one or the orig vinyl and crank it up loud (like all the album it benefits from volume) and listen to it soaring on the Fripp licks….superb stuff.

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Good advice.

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      Believe me I’ve tried. Every time I play it, it tricks me into believing it’s going to be great ‘this time’. And then those backing vocals kick in… there are times when it trespasses on MeatIoaf territory. However, I do think there’s a great song in there somewhere.

      • col1234 says:

        It took me a great long time to like the song, too: it took listening to it again for this project to really get me to enjoy it. But as I said, it’s a tough, weird, overlong song. The backing vocals are a good point, a case of a classic DB impromptu decision (hey, why hire professionals? just get the engineer and a friend of yours to sing) not really working. I like the “amateur choir” much more on “Up the Hill Backwards”.

  17. diamond dog says:

    Mmm I quite like the amatuer backing vocals they add a touch of freshness to it if you know what I mean. Meatloaf?…..nah no way. I would now put this as an epic. Its not long enough for me. I soon tired of the hits on here. Wildlife was ok live as well though I’m not fond of gabrels playing. To van halen.

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Try listening to it drunk, particularly if you’ve just gone through a breakup – it’s great therapy and makes perfect sense. Play it loud and on vinyl of course. I’ve never noticed anything wrong with the backing vocals.

      Once again I agree with everything in the the above post of DD’s

  18. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Looks like I’m on my own on this. I had a few more listens this morning but still the same reaction. (I have to admit that a swimming pool under a cloudless southern California sky is probably not the best place to appreciate this particular song.)
    It’s not the execution of the backing vocals, it’s the conception that annoys me; they’re everywhere.
    If not Meatloaf, then it reminds me of something like Cygnet Committee, where he aims high, doesn’t hold back in his ambition, yet just misses his target. A more detached producer might have helped.
    On the touring point, if you listen to that BBC interview a few days before Lennon is killed, it’s clear that touring does not appeal to him at all.

    • timspeaker says:

      It took me a bit to fall in love with TW too. Now it’s in my top five bowie tracks of all time.

      Yeah, I’d say that setting you find yourself in right now might not be conducive to “getting” it…maybe come back to it at another time, maybe at a time when you are going through a hard time with something.

      Then, all of a sudden, it just suddenly…changes.

      Oh, and Cygnet Committee is brilliant!

    • Carl H says:

      I LOVE the backing vocal on this one. Yes you’re all alone in the world.

      • I adore the backing vocals as well – probably my favourite element of the song, in fact – alongside the Ronnie Spector vocals, the “you take me aside” bit, the ‘Japanese’ bridge, Fripp’s guitar, the…..ahh, it’s just perfect…

  19. diamond dog says:

    Blasphamy sir …cygnet is superb its everthing that is great about Bowie and stop bragging about sunshine in blighty its miserable LOL.
    Its very much in the vein of cygnet,quicksand,sweet thing ambitious and wordy filled with images a case of the words being far more important i feel than the music if you know what i mean.Perhaps one day an acoustic stripped back version will appear.

  20. Liam says:

    Good read. Thanks. I played the track three times whilst I read it.

  21. postpunkmonk says:

    One telling thing for me about this nearly seven minute song was that I was never alerted to its length until I had a car with a CD player that displayed the track time of the cut. I was shocked to see that this song I had been listening to for 27 years was in fact 6:55. It sure didn’t feel like that to my ears. 5:30 maybe.

  22. I was under the impression (mistaken?) that this lyric was specifically yet another shot across Numan’s bow rather than just a sign of Bowie’s general feelings toward his heirs apparent. Pretty much from “teenage billionaire pretending it’s a whiz kid world) on.

  23. Rags says:

    A fantastic creative master piece. Instrumentally and vocally you can not get much more.out of 06: 56 min

  24. StoweTheLion says:

    This is the song which made me get into Bowie more than a casual listener. It is my favourite song of all I think, it is absoloute perfection. It is so clearly full of experiment that it makes it alive with every listen, the lyrcis I find incredibly inspiring, although they make you aware of what Bowie knows can go wrong. Id give you 500 modern loves for it, and Fripp played guitar like a wizard.

  25. Geen Geenie says:

    Wow, comments here are as interesting as the write up on the song itself. I’ve only recently discovered the flipside of Scary Monsters for myself (as a kid my older brothers would only play the A side) and I have to say Teenage Wildlife is a stand out track, as is the cover of Kingdom come. Scary Monsters is a weird album, the second side really feels like a pre-ambient / post- Roxy music Eno record with no Eno, but with Bowie doing crazy vocals (and various impersonations ) instead.

  26. Joel Anderson says:

    It was always my favorite song on the album and one of my favorite albums by Bowie. The backing vocals are brilliant. The alternate mix is fascinating. The places where Fripp was muted leave room for more vocal detail and sounds possibly better to me than the final mix. I bought this record when it first came out and it has aged well. The Berlin period is my most loved material and this seemed like the perfect finish of those ideas- even with Eno elsewhere. This site is fantastic.

    • Paul O says:

      “…always my favorite song on the album…”

      Ditto, and I’ve always preferred it to “Heroes.” In fact, at the time of its release it was my favorite Bowie studio track since “Stay.”

      I’ve caught myself singing this the first lines of this song to myself many times over the years:
      Well, how come you only want tomorrow with its promise of something hard to do/A real life adventure worth more than pieces of gold…

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