Fashion (single edit, video).
Fashion (live, 1983).
Fashion (live, 1987).
Fashion (live, 1990).
Fashion (live, VH1 Fashion Awards, 1996)
Fashion (live, with Frank Black, 1997).
Fashion (live, 1997).
Fashion (Jonathan Ross, 2002).
Fashion (live, 2002).
Fashion (live, with Damon Albarn, 2003).

“Fashion,” the last song completed for Scary Monsters, kicks off Bowie’s Eighties: a dance song with bad intentions. Though Bowie later took pains to say the song wasn’t about neo-fascism, lines like “we are the goon squad and we’re coming to town,” the double-meaning of “turn to the left, turn to the right” and even the way Bowie sings the song’s title as a near-homophone of “fascism,” suggest otherwise.

Bowie instead said he had intended “Fashion” as a sequel to Ray Davies’ “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” with the idea of being hip as a wearying, conformist full-time job (although Bowie was writing about that as early as 1966, see “Join the Gang” or “Maid of Bond Street“). “When I first started going to discos in New York in the early ’70s, there was a very high powered enthusiasm and [the scene] had a natural course about it,” Bowie said on a promo disc. “[It] seems now to be replaced by an insidious grim determination to be fashionable, as though it’s actually a vocation. There’s some kind of strange aura about it.

Using as a starting point another Astronettes song, “People From Bad Homes,” which turns up in the verse lyric, Bowie also nabbed the “beep-beep” hook from his lost goofball gem “Rupert the Riley.” Like “Ashes to Ashes,” “Fashion” began life as a reggae number (and the clicking sound of Andy Clark’s sequencer, the first sound you hear, works as the equivalent to a guitar upstroke throughout the track), with Bowie originally singing the title hook as “Jahhh-MAI-ca!” Bowie didn’t know what to do with the song at this point, and was about to scrap it until Visconti, correctly sensing that the track was a potential hit single, allegedly implored Bowie to write a lyric. The next morning, Bowie turned up with his complete lines, got them quickly on tape, and mixing on the record began the same evening.

A groove piece built around a handful of augmented chords (G7 and Fadd9 in the verse and a flatted B 7th in the chorus, with a swerve to D minor in the six-bar bridge), “Fashion” was Bowie’s most straight-on dance track since “Golden Years,” which it partially rewrites.* Unlike the vocal calisthenics of other Scary Monsters performances, Bowie here keeps to a narrow, comfortable three-note range for the verse, his vocal one long insinuation. His rhythms are sharp, too: Bowie opens the verse with three short descending notes (“brand-new-dance” or “brand-new-talk“), then offers a longer, equally drooping line to balance it out (“but I don’t know its name,” etc.). Then there’s the wonderful way that Bowie takes what seems like a lyrical misstep in the second verse, his words not really fitting the meter (“shout it while they’re dancing on the dance floor“), and makes it a miniature performance: he puts weight on “the,” drags it up an octave and extends it far beyond its means, suggesting the image of someone trying to foot their way onto a crowded dance floor.

Robert Fripp, seemingly channeling the Gang of Four’s Andy Gill in the intro, gets two vicious skronky eight-bar guitar solos, along with his various shrieking outbreaks throughout the song (the one erupting at 2:43 threatens to consume the track whole). While Fripp later called his performance “blues-rock played with a contemporary grammar,” it’s more like a run of dissonant tones that occasionally threaten melodies. Fripp seems to have been recorded by Visconti first across the studio room (the cavernous sound of the opening) and then closer-miked with a flanger applied, with Fripp also possibly using his favorite fuzzbox, the obscure WEM Project 5 that he’d had since Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire.” Fripp cut the solo at 10:30 AM in London after a long drive back from Leeds, where he had played the previous evening. “There’s nothing you feel less like in the world than turning out a burning solo—fiery rock and roll at 10:30 in the morning– just out of a truck. But it doesn’t matter much how you feel, you just get on with it,” Fripp later said. (Graham Coxon allegedly was so intent on trying to capture the sound of Fripp’s “Fashion” solo on Blur’s “London Loves” that the song’s working title was “Fripp.”)

“Fashion” marks the last stand of the great Bowie rhythm section. While Carlos Alomar will be a central character for a while longer, this is where we part company with George Murray and Dennis Davis. They go out blazing: take the way Murray’s bass plays the “fash-ion” two-note hook well before Bowie sings it, or the two chicken-scratch Alomar guitar tracks parked in the left and right channels, or Davis’ hissing disco hi-hat mixed left. Davis was playing to a drum machine pattern for the first time ever in his work with Bowie—Visconti had intended to keep the synth beat in the mix as well, but Davis was so tight that Visconti just used his drum track, only digitally treated and fattened with handclaps.

Dennis was so open. He was almost orgiastic in his approach to trying out new stuff. He’d say, ‘Yeah, let’s do that new shit, man.” I told him about a Charlie Mingus gig that I saw where the drummer had polythene tubes that would go into the drums, and he would suck and blow to change the pressure as he played. Dennis was out the next day buying that stuff. Dennis is crazy, an absolute loony man, but he had a lot of his own thoughts on things, and he would throw us all kinds of curve-balls.

David Bowie, Modern Drummer, 1997.

Davis, Bowie’s finest drummer, would keep working as a session and touring musician (he’s on some of Stevie Wonder’s early Eighties albums, and Davis would return to collaborating with Roy Ayers in the Nineties and Aughts), as well as a teacher: among his students was Sterling Campbell, who played on some of Bowie’s later records. He’s still playing today (here’s a drum solo from a performance with Yukari in 2007 and Old Soul in 2010), and he recorded an album called “The Groovemaster” at some point (as per his now-deleted website).

George Murray is a more mysterious case. As far as I can determine, Murray only cut one more album, Jerry Harrison’s The Red and the Black,** in 1981, and then apparently retired from session work and touring. He has, basically,vanished: I’ve found no reference to him in the past three decades. Often described as a reserved man, Murray likely was tired of the rock & roll life and just got out of it (a move that perhaps inspired Bowie around 2005). Still, the man who was the support beam of Station to Station and Low, of the ’78 tour and Scary Monsters, deserves far more recognition than he gets. Raise a glass to a master.

Recorded February 1980, Power Station, NYC; April 1980, Good Earth Studios, London. Released as a single in October 1980 (RCA BOW 7, #5 UK). A live favorite, especially in the later tours, where it often was a duet with Gail Ann Dorsey. Sung with Frank Black at Bowie’s 50th anniversary party and with Damon Albarn in 2003 (Albarn seems either hungover or flu-ridden: what a half-assed performance).

* Nicholas Pegg wondered if Bowie was possibly inspired by the Boomtown Rats’ “Rat Trap” for the “listen to me, don’t talk to me” lyric in the bridge (Bob Geldof singing “walk don’t walk/talk don’t talk” ) but I don’t really hear it. I also really hate “Rat Trap,” so there’s that too.

** This is a fine record, but Harrison had the misfortune to release a solo album in the same year when his Talking Heads colleagues put out “Genius of Love” and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. He wound up looking like the Ringo of the group.

Top: Eddie Woods, “Roberto Valenza, San Francisco, Summer 1980.”

46 Responses to Fashion

  1. In the video, they slap the floor too. David Mallet’s idea?

  2. David L says:

    “it’s more like a run of dissonant tones that occasionally threaten melodies.” Yes. I really dislike Fripp’s work on this song. It’s so grating, and unnecessary, the song would have benefited from it being cut out altogether. I think it prevented it from becoming a much bigger commercial hit, like another “Fame” or “Let’s Dance”.

    • I like it, though it does grate.
      I believe Bowie and Visconti did know what they were doing. Imagine Scary Monsters known best not for the awesome “Ashes to Ashes” (and the rest) but for the new! dance! sensation! “Fashion.” I think they Fripped it on purpose so that it would fit with the rest of the album. A pure dance song would have been out of place.
      Also, from the text above it looks like Visconti kept nudging Bowie until a song came out, and then they subverted it with a Fripp overdub. Evil geniuses.
      Since “Let’s Dance” came out later, Bowie didn’t need anyone to tell him how to do a bitchin’ dance song. He just needed the right crew with which to do it.

    • col1234 says:

      They did cut one of the Fripp solos in half for the single edit (the second one, i think)

      • Maj says:

        @col1234 yeah, and I hate it. I tend to dislike most radio edits of Bowie songs, regardless of which version I knew first.

      • David L says:

        Yes, I just checked out the single edit video and I much prefer that edit. They cut out a ton of Fripp and I think the song is better for it. Wish they had put that edit on the album.

        What a funny video. GE Smith doing his emotionless stare. And I’m pretty sure that’s Alomar standing next to Bowie. Who’s the buy in between Alomar and GE Smith?

    • Maj says:

      I think Fripp’s guitar is exactly the reason why I like Fashion over Let’s Dance as far as Bowie dance songs go. BUT I have to say it took me a while to get used to it & grow to love it…so I see your point.

    • DM says:

      I think Fripp’s guitar is genius here – it sounds like it’s speaking – grumbling!

  3. Maj says:

    Whatever the song’s about…fascism or fashion…(those who’ve seen The Devil Wears Prada will know how dangerously close these two are) I always took it to be about people being sheep & herdlike, in general.
    I like the song, a lot, would probably end up in my Bowie top 20 if I ever tried to make one. It works as a dance song (IMO better than anything on Let’s Dance), it’s got “beep! beep!” which might be the best pop lyric ever & it also has a video that though not as conceptually good as Ashes (it’s actually heavily derivative of it) has one imprtant thing for me: probably my favourite Bowie look. Now I think most of the people commenting here are male so excuse me for being a fangirl here for a bit but Bowie in the video for fashion = hot. Amen.
    Great to read about Gra Coxon on this blog. :o) I’m a minor fan of Blur/Coxon/Gorillaz but I didn’t know this. Hilarious. (btw don’t think Albarn’s performance of Fashion is half-arsed, not by his standarts. 😉 )
    Also thanks for writing about David & Murray. Murray in paticular, because I’ve always had a fondness for bass guitar (rather than guitar) & he indeed did a great job on these classic Bowie albums. *raises glass*

  4. Remco says:

    Speaking of Blur, the metrognome intro to Girls & Boys is an exact copy of the one that opens Fashion.

    • Maj says:

      YES! I knew I wanted to write something else here but the whole Fripp thing diverted my attention.
      Unlike M.O.R. I don’t think the Blur guys gave any of Bowie’s team due credit. But then guitar hooks, let alone bass guitar hooks get stolen from band to band so it seems Bowie’s lawyers didn’t intervene in this instance…

  5. mike says:

    “Then there’s the wonderful way that Bowie takes what seems like a lyrical misstep in the second verse, his words not really fitting the meter (“shout it while they’re dancing on the dance floor“), and makes it a miniature performance: he puts weight on “the,” drags it up an octave and extends it far beyond its means, suggesting the image of someone trying to foot their way onto a crowded dance floor.”

    Wonderful? That line grates every time I hear it. It actually ruins the song for me! LOL

    • col1234 says:

      no, i love it. but yes, i can see why someone could hate it too—it’s a mistake that DB just goes with.

    • Maj says:

      It adds to the magic of the song for me, so I’m with col1234 on this one. 🙂

      • Momus says:

        I think this deliberate clumsiness is absolutely key to Bowie’s genius, and one of the things that makes his writing so interesting and so appealing. Here’s a narrator who’s literally wrong-footed by a new dance, who neither has the rhythm nor the information to deal with it. Like so many Bowie narrators he’s an outsider, an observer looking in, even a loser. Yet Bowie is himself the ultimate insider and winner. So a split occurs; think of the two characters in the Blue Jean video, the hapless uncool fellow and Screamin’ Lord Byron.

        What happens is that the uncool fellow’s perspective leapfrogs the trying-too-hard cool tribe to become something even cooler. We see this in the Fashion video, where the deliberately-clumsy phrasing gets expanded into a whole repertoire of deliberately-clumsy gestures which spread memetically — as in a grotesque adult game of O’Grady Says — through a group of New York yuppies consumed by anxiety at the idea of being left out of something new. By ridiculizing the whole process with deliberate clumsiness, Bowie emerges looking over and above fashion — the very line that RCA’s advertising had been pushing for a while (“there’s Old Wave. There’s New Wave. And there’s David Bowie”). It’s a ridiculous game, but if somebody has to be O’Grady, well…

  6. Remco says:

    Also it seems to have been an inspiration for German band DAF who released their hit single ‘Der Mussolini’ in 1981.

    For those of you not fluent in German, the words are (roughly):
    ‘Shake your hips, clap your hands, dance the Mussolini,
    Turn to the left, turn to the right, dance the Adolf Hitler’

    As you see they were a little less subtle in making the connection between dance floors and fascism.

  7. Remco says:

    Oh, and I forgot to raise my glass. Here’s to you mister Murray!

  8. Gnomemansland says:

    After reading the Ashes entry a couple of days ago your enthusiasm and wonderful prose is so infectious I thought lets give Scary another listen. I played it to death when it came out but hardly ever go back to it now – unlike say Hunky Dory or Diamond Dogs. Anyway I soon found myself fast forwarding, quickly reminded how lumpen it all sounds. Then today I was listening to ENO’s Here come the warm jets which is musically if not lyrically so much the blueprint for Scary Monsters and so much better. For example on ENO’s record the Fripp solos all sound dissonant but fresh – leaping from the musical backdrop. On Scary Monsters they sound pasted on and indeed the account of Fripp recording the solo for Fashion at 10.30 sums it up – he knew what they wanted he had done it all back in 74.

  9. diamond dog says:

    Raise a glass to the Murray and Davis well said. Gotta disagree with all the dislike towards Fripp he makes a flimsy dance track and gives it Balls as big as space hoppers and treats it to a shredding series of solos. Its a monster tuine and the first 12 inch single I ever bought I think. Its a stonking live fav and the 83 version going into let’s dance is perfect and took my breath away at the time. I love it a great single but I’m not liking the video its poor after ashes.

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      Agree that the video looks poor and dated but is it only me who was reminded of this video the first time they saw ‘Dodgeball’? The gym/dance studio and that funny little dance move?

  10. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I remember an interview with Bowie while he was promoting Let’s Dance and when asked about George Murray he said something along the lines of, “I’ve no idea where he is, he’s disappeared.”
    In the UK at least, Fashion was a huge hit. In many ways its chart performance was even more impressive than Ashes to Ashes. Once RCA adopted a release formula of ‘first single – album – second single’ no second single was a major hit after Drive-in Saturday (I’d hesitantly include Fame in that). Fashion was huge at the time and the recorded version now sounds very much of that time, like a lot of Scary Monsters.
    Some of the stories of the recording of Scary Monsters remind me of The Man who Sold the World, with Tony Visconti being the driving force and Bowie not quite with it, coming up with lyrics at the last minute. Seems like a symmetrical way to begin and end this stage of his working life.

  11. Jeremy Earl says:

    Here’s to Davis and Murray indeed – just brilliant. I have no problem with Fripp on this track at all and it’s actually great that such guitar playing got into the top ten – that in itself it valuable. If you are going to make commercial music make it inspired. However, I don’t like his track as much as some of the other tracks on this album, although it’s really very good. and yes, Blur lifted a lot from Bowie, but I’m an admirer of Albarm Coxon and co – at least they lifted from the best.

    So that’s the end of Scary Monsters already! Seems like only yesterday…

  12. Brendan O'Lear says:

    It’s interesting that there’s a split between those who love the Fripp guitar and those who hate it. Bowie seems to have employed two basic types of guitarists: one as a channel for his own ideas (Ronson, Slick, and perhaps Fripp on Heroes) and the other type of guitarist is there to bring something different, fresh to the recording (Belew, Fripp here, Gabrels). It seems a lot of people find the second type intrusive at times. I’m with Gnomemansland, who I sometimes suspect could be Bowie lurking; why would I want to listen to this guitar if I had a copy of Baby’s on Fire?

    • Maj says:

      Because it’s much shorter. If you’re not into guitars that much in general…you welcome something that’s more to the point. 🙂 I love Baby’s on Fire but I find myself getting bored of the guitar solo after like 30 seconds, every time I listen to it. *ducks again*
      It seems to me there is Fripp for everybody…some like babies, some like fashion…only a testament to what an interesting guitarist he is, really.

  13. MrBelm says:

    Fripp’s work on Scary Monsters was consistent with the guitar sounds he introduced on his own Exposure a year earlier. Compare “Breathless” and “Disengage” to “It’s No Game” and “Fashion” – it’s the same sound.

  14. diamond dog says:

    Fripp is just another tool for Bowie to use and infuse pop tunes with some experimentation. Fashion is a simple classic , the muddy mix is perhaps aleviated by some volume !! play it it loud and rub U2’s nose in their own fascist mess on the carpet…Fripp is given the chance to let a wider audience hear his style distilled in a few mins of pop. i much prefer listening to scary monsters over any of Fripps solo work …sorry . Bowie was using sound alike Belew previously quite a scoop to get the real deal back on these tracks and i personally think he crackles on them , makes me wonder what lodger would have been like with Fripp ??

  15. Bowie got Belew’s service after seeing him with Frank Zappa’s band. I don’t think it had anything to do with wanting Fripp for Lodger.
    Robert Fripp met Belew at a Steve Reich performance. At the time Belew was in Talking Heads’s tour band, and Fripp induced him to play with Tony Levin and Bill Bruford in Discipline, which became King Crimson (again). They are not soundalikes.

  16. diamond dog says:

    Thanks for the info but to my ears they sound similar , obviously not exactly the same , Belew is a superb guitarist and I can reverse my what if to him on Fashion etc. The only guitarist Bowie has used that I’m not keen on is REeves gabrels but he did encourage Bowie to get back to basics.

  17. 2fs says:

    Are we having a poll? I’m on the pro-Fripp side: His sound and note choices here (along with some of the weirder synth noises and effects) are what announce this track (as you say so well) “a dance song with bad intentions.” Without those bad intentions, the song would be just another stomping dance-rock track – a good one, sure – but with Fripp, it’s just nasty-good. Rather than take the obvious tack of shouting all sneeringly, Bowie’s vocal mostly deadpans it – while Fripp’s guitar conveys the scorn, disdain, even danger lurking in Bowie’s lyric.

  18. diamond dog says:

    I really like fripps work on this and on heroes it sets it apart from the pack. What’s after this one ? Baal I suppose which I have mixed feelings about. As I recall we suffered the odd re release then nothing for years.

  19. Rochelle says:

    Great Post! Thanks for it!

  20. Carl H says:

    Clearly the references to “goon-squad” and turn “to the left” is for me an expression of the mindless believers of fashion. If there is a fascism-connection it’s very vague (fashion and fascism is quite similar anyhow – just look at John Galliano).

    Anyway it’s satire over the fashion world in an over the top dance song (well maybe the quite cool Fripp-guitar). The song has quite comic element to it. It’s almost like a percursor to Right Said Fred – I’m too sexy and other fashion parodies.

    Bowie would much later in his life live out his fashion-parodying fantasies by starring in Zoolander.

  21. This is a song, like Lust For Life and Heroes, that has been so misappropriated that it’s hard to remember its meaning. I still can’t figure out whether its use in the Fashion Awards and Fashion Rocks was Bowie slyly sending up those events or whether he just gave up on explaining that the song isn’t an endorsement.

  22. RChappo says:

    First of all – thank you for the great blog. It’s an excellent guide to somebody who is finally working their way through the Bowie catalogue after years of admiring him from afar.
    I’m very much pro-Fripp on this track. Love the contrast between his messy, groaning playing and Alomars rhythmical, funky, clean tone. It definitely elevates the song in my opinion.
    And I’ve always thought that the pulsing synth “click” in the intro to this track sounds very similar to the pulsing rhythm heard at the beginning of “Diamond Dogs” (which sounds like it could be a backwards cowbell or other percussion instrument.)

  23. Ezekiel Benedict says:

    Quite surprised at the amount of comments that dislike Fripp’s guitar work on Fashion, always thought it was great myself…

  24. garax says:

    Hello – late to the party but – yeah the Fripp work just takes an already hard as nails track and just shoots it into outer space for me – I can’t imagine that track without it – it’s a stunning and vital contribution.

  25. jbacardi says:

    I would imagine how you regard the Fripp guitar depends on how much you like King Crimson and Fripp’s own work on other albums. Me, I’m a fan- I usually cite Fripp as my favorite guitarist when I don’t cite Ronson- so I loved the buzzsaw guitar work on Fashion. Added an angry edge to a song that threatened to lapse into a lockstep groove.

  26. Gabe says:

    On the fascism connection, I just noticed in the music video that the side-angled shot of the band (e.g., at 1:02) looks an awful lot like the ever-present Soviet/communist flag of Marx/Engels/Lenin ( Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that was the first thing I thought of when re-watching the video after reading this article…

  27. Rob Thomas says:

    re. col1234’s hating ‘Rat Trap’: you might appreciate this from the brilliant brilliant ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’ by Bob Stanley (which you’ve prob read anyway but…):

    “[The Boomtown Rats] remain one of the few acts, huge in their day, who are now resolutely unlovable. They were ersatz in the clumsiest way…How did they fool us all?” (p.455)

  28. WRGerman says:

    I read a Carlos Alomar interview (in “Strange Fascination” by David Buckley) where he claims credit for the distinctive intro guitars, but that depends on what you mean by “intro”, as Fripp’s abstract lead guitar does come in before the vocal. I can see where some dislike this song for the avantgarde guitar leads, but that was clearly what Bowie and Tony Visconti were looking for, otherwise, the ‘mute’ button would have been judiciously employed…

    Me, I love it, it’s part and parcel with all the other qualities that make it a real ‘ear worm’.

  29. Ed Lucas says:

    Does anyone know what kind of drum machine was in use on this song?

    • Yeah, it’s called Dennis Davis. :p

      On a less glib note, Mr. O’leary makes note in this very post that no drum machine appears on the final track.

      “Davis was playing to a drum machine pattern for the first time ever in his work with Bowie—Visconti had intended to keep the synth beat in the mix as well, but Davis was so tight that Visconti just used his drum track, only digitally treated and fattened with handclaps.”

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