The Myth (Giorgio Moroder with David Bowie).
Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (single).
Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (LP remake).
Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (live, 1983).
Cat People (single edit, Inglourious Basterds, 2009).
The plan was for a tour, possibly, in 1981, with Bowie’s new band—anchored by Steve Goulding and featuring the battling guitars of G.E. Smith and Carlos Alomar—burning through the Berlin records and Scary Monsters and reviving standards, the way Bowie had already transformed “The Man Who Sold the World'” and “Space Oddity.”
The Lennon murder ended any chance of that. Bowie fled New York soon after the New Year, returning to Switzerland. There, in Coursier-sur-Vevey, Bowie hired an ex-Navy SEAL bodyguard and took classes in self-defense for celebrities, learning how to identify potential stalkers (he was advised to move, as some fans had found his address—this would be his last summer in Vevey). He skied, entertained Charlie Chaplin’s son and widow, doted on his 10-year old son. With the exception of a brief trip to London to accept an award, Bowie stayed in his Swiss exile, living like a well-apportioned hermit.
He didn’t want to record new material, either. Bowie had soured on RCA, which he blamed for poorly promoting his late Seventies records* while flooding the market with repackages like ChangesTwoBowie. Also, he still had contractual obligations to Tony Defries that wouldn’t expire until October 1982: Bowie hated that his old manager was still owed a piece of his mechanical royalties (it’s one reason Queen put out “Under Pressure,” a song he partially wrote, on their label and with a headline credit—that way Defries wouldn’t get a cut of it). Having only one more album on his RCA contract and almost clear of Defries, Bowie determined to wait everyone out. 1981 would be a deliberately lost year.
Well, not entirely. Paul Schrader had asked Bowie to work with Giorgio Moroder on the title song for Schrader’s garish remake of Cat People. In the summer of 1981, Bowie went to Mountain Studios in Montreux to meet Moroder, whose music he had enjoyed since Moroder’s Donna Summer productions. Moroder played him a moody three-chord piece he had worked up for the title theme, a slow builder that would have Bowie sing the opening two verses in his lowest register, then suddenly vault up to spark the refrain.
Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) is an eerie, wonderfully weird picture in which the (generally) off-screen monsters are shadow metaphors for frigidity, repression, xenophobia (an “all-American” guy marries a foreign girl whose “Old Country” past is dark and potentially lethal). It was far too nuanced for 1981. Schrader, taking the title and a handful of plot details and scenes from the original, turned Cat People into a bloodfest that he shot like a fashion spread. Cat People was an excuse for Schrader to shoot Nastassja Kinski, with whom he was infatuated, as often and as naked as possible, these scenes occasionally punctuated by gore-pieces, like Malcolm McDowell (Kinski’s cat-brother, who wants to mate with her: “we are an incestuous race,” he intones in a dream sequence) tearing off Ed Begley Jr.’s arm in a spray of blood.
Bowie crafted a ridiculous lyric that suited the film’s pretensions (Schrader said Kinski and McDowell’s relationship was a reworking of Dante and Beatrice—if Dante could transform into a panther). Paralleling Schrader’s own loose adaptation techniques, Bowie only vaguely referred to the cat people of the title, instead offering groaning banalities as “Fill this pulsing night/a plague they call the heartbeat.”
It didn’t matter, because the sound-picture Moroder created for Bowie gave him the license to go gloriously over the top. Bowie’s sepulchral croon in the opening verses (it seems like a near-parody of Jim Morrison at times) plays against Moroder’s minimalist percussive tracks—a repeating cymbal pattern, clattered sticks—and droning, yearning synth lines. And the sudden octave-leaping explosion of “putting out fire….WITH GAS-OH-LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINE!” that triggers the “full band” entrance is a magnificent moment, giving Bowie such presence that everything that follows, everything stupid and campy about the song (and there’s lots), is just burned away—Bowie rips into lines like “it’s been so long” or “you wouldn’t believe what I’ve BEEN THROUGH” as in a fever. The track goes on far too long, the backing singers eventually try to defuse Bowie, but there’s a lurid, pulp power to the track—the film it’s scored for seems unworthy of it.
Nearly two decades later, “Cat People” found its true role, used by Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds for a sequence that reveals the plans of the Jewish avenger Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) to condemn and massacre a cinema full of Nazis. Used here, lines like “it’s been so long” or “judgement made can never bend” suddenly sharpened, gained bloody, righteous purpose. “Cat People” now seems written for Laurent, who was born two years after it was recorded; in her, the song finally found its muse.
Moroder’s soundtrack for Cat People (he performed all tracks solo save Bowie’s theme song, which only appeared in the end credits) followed the formula Moroder had perfected in his American Gigolo soundtrack—have a hit single as the centerpiece, then write variations around it (like the various incarnations of Blondie’s “Call Me” in Gigolo). So Cat People opened with a brooding instrumental version of the title theme, called “The Myth,” featuring some ominous Bowie humming.
Due to rights issues with MCA, Bowie couldn’t include the Moroder “Cat People” on his first record for EMI, as he had wanted, forcing him to remake the song with Nile Rodgers in New York. A collective lack of enthusiasm is audible on the second “Cat People,” which at times seems a deliberate ruination of the song, with Bowie and Rodgers botching everything great about the original (Bowie’s initial vocal leap is way too rushed here, while the drumming, by either Omar Hakim or Tony Thompson, kicks in far too early, and mixed in the stadium-ready gated sound of the Power Station). Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar overdubs seem superfluous compared to the minimalist work of Moroder or whichever anonymous session musician played on the original.
Recorded July 1981, Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland (Moroder seems to have played much of the track, though the saxophonist David Woodford said he played on some of the Cat People material). First issued as a single in March 1982 (MCAT 770, both 7″ and 12″ versions, #26 UK) and on Moroder’s Cat People original soundtrack. The remake was cut at the Power Station, December 1982; on Let’s Dance, and also a B-side to the title track. Played live only during the Serious Moonlight tour, 1983.
*RCA, in turn, had never forgiven Bowie for abandoning the sound of Young Americans. Hearing that Bowie was working with Moroder initially raised their hopes until they discovered the partnership had resulted only in a single put out by another label. According to Christopher Sandford’s bio, one RCA executive, in a memo to a colleague, sighed that “it would be nice if DB went into the studio and recorded a real album.”
Top: ‘interieurblue,” “Sunglasses Mirror,” Paris, 1981.