Ricochet (portion of tour film).

As Genesis evolved from a progressive rock theatrical troupe into Phil Collins’ off-year backing band, the remaining trio of Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks offered a meager recompense: each new Genesis record, no matter how much schlock it contained, still had at least one “prog” track for old times’ sake. These mainly served to irritate new fans and disappoint old ones.

“Ricochet” has a similar sense of obligation, as it’s the only song on Let’s Dance to suggest Bowie’s art rock past. If “Shake It” is a trailer for Tonight (thanks Maj), “Ricochet” seems like a “previously on” recap reminding you of characters last seen five years before. (“Hi, I’m David Bowie. Do you remember me? I wrote “Joe the Lion” and “Subterraneans.“) The portentous”Ricochet” was one of Bowie’s favorite tracks on the record, though he later regretted turning over some of its creation to Nile Rodgers. “The beat wasn’t quite right. It didn’t roll the way it should have, the syncopation was wrong. It had an ungainly gait; it should have flowed,” Bowie said in 1987.*

That Rodgers, a man who likely blows his nose in perfect time, was flummoxed by “Ricochet” shows how awkward a composition it is. As no demos or outtakes from the Let’s Dance sessions have surfaced, it’s hard to guess at how the track developed in the studio (it seems like it was a struggle—the singer Frank Simms recalled “Ricochet” having the most difficult vocals to master). The final track’s bass and drums are locked in place, as if cast in iron. The drum pattern, nearly unchanging throughout the track’s five-minute-plus length, is a snare hit on the first beat (+ a crash cymbal on every other bar), two bass drum hits on the third beat and four triplets played on the hi-hat. The bassist generally plays four quarter notes per bar: low root, octave jump, two more low roots.

Yet there’s no weight or presence in this repetition. The beats quickly dissipate in the mix: the bass drum, altered and probably gated, is nearly interchangeable with the gated snare and the combination of the two sounds more like arcade game incidental music than any grim “march of time” that Bowie may have envisioned. (Only later in the track, with the appearance of Sammy Figueroa’s bongos and an occasional needling Rodgers guitar part, is there any variation). The rest of the musicians are colliding or turning up at odd moments: the saxophones seem to have wandered in from a jazz fusion session in an adjacent studio, Stevie Ray Vaughan ducks in only at the fade and the Simms brothers (and David Spinner) on backing vocals repeatedly go over the top, from the choral harmonies in the last refrains to the Manhattan Transfer-esque “RI-co-chet it’s-not-the-end-of-the-WURRLD” free-time tag.

Its title a possible play off Marc Bolan’s “Spaceball Ricochet,” the lyric is Bowie’s most ambitious on the record, though leaden and awkward in parts, especially the spoken lines (“Modern Love” is far more disturbing and cutting). A take on unemployment, the callousness of late capitalism or some jumble of the same, it offers either surrender or a vague humanist hope as a resolution. The title suggests that Bowie’s main theme is collateral cultural damage—a ricochet, after all, is what happens when someone misses a target, and there’s the sense that the beaten-down men in the song are just drive-by casualties of some broader game.

Bleak enough sentiments for 1983. But as with “Repetition” and some other upcoming “topical” songs of the Eighties, Bowie seems to have no clue as to how ordinary working people live, and so draws on plays, novels or newspaper articles for stock footage (“dreaming of tramlines, factories, pieces of machinery, mine shafts, things like that”). There’s more at stake in Bowie’s songs about aliens and supermen, more heart in the lines that Bowie pasted together via cut-ups. An artist whose primary muse and subject was himself, Bowie often went missing when attempting to plumb the common world, though this growing (and at times desperate) need for connection would drive much of his later work.

A fairly standard composition that travels through the basic stops of D major, its long bridge/refrain muddies things slightly with a suggested move to A minor. But “Ricochet” plods more than it develops, not helped by the identical chord progressions of the 8-bar bridge and the refrain and a two-minute draggy coda stalled in A minor. The nursery rhyme-like refrain (“march of flowers, march of dimes,” etc) is a simple three-note descending phrase, while Bowie’s vocal on the verses mainly keeps to his lower register.

I’ve no clue who did the Scottish [edit: Welsh?]-sounding muttered vocal cycling through the track—it’s possibly Bowie’s voice altered beyond recognition, but it’s more likely a backing singer. The closing line “who can bear to be forgotten” is a near-steal from WH Auden’s “Night Mail,” as are a few others (compare Bowie’s “Men wait for news while thousands are still asleep” to Auden’s “men long for news“). “Night Mail” seems key to the whole track, as “Richochet”‘s refrain’s meter is the same as Auden’s verses, and the former’s ungainly rhythm seems an attempt to imitate the sound of a juddering train.

Recorded at the Power Station, NYC, ca. 1-20 December 1982. Fitting  for its outsider status, it was the only Let’s Dance track not to be released on a single. “Ricochet” also inspired a series of sculptures by the artist Ray Rapp in the mid-Eighties and it titled an odd promotional short film, directed by Gerry Troyna, that documented Bowie’s Asian tour in late 1983 (in which he never performed “Ricochet” live—in fact, he’s never done it on stage). A highlight of the film was Bowie being ritually spit on in Bangkok (see here.)

* Bowie, throughout the Eighties, would promote a new record by first admitting the previous few had been crap. This 1987 interview in Musician, where Bowie tore apart Tonight and didn’t have much good to say about Let’s Dance, was done to promote Never Let Me Down, a record that Bowie subsequently disowned. See also: Mick Jagger.

Top: Alan Denney, “Stoke Newington High Street,” 1983.

36 Responses to Ricochet

  1. Homework time during these times was spent listening to Bowie…Thank you for posting.

  2. Maj says:

    Listening to this song as a bit like watching David Lynch’s Inland Empire. If a film or a song are bad, you don’t finish them and never return to them but the worst thing is a bad song or film with good moments. These good moments subsequently make you angry that the rest of the piece is not as good. Ricochet is such song. It’s not full-on bad, it’s not even annoying (like TVC 15) but it’s somehow completely infuriating to listen to. It just never goes anywhere. Guess Ricochet is a fitting title, then.
    I should watch the promo film. Not sure if I’ve seen it or not.
    Good to have you back & thanks for the write-up!

  3. Remco says:

    Yay, you’re defrosted! I’m not sure if having this as the face of the blog is much of an improvement though.
    The only thing I like about it is the weird rythm thing, apart from that it’s very very crappy. Weakest track on the album in my opinion.

  4. Joe the Lion says:

    I’ve always thought I could detect Bowie’s timbre in the spoken sections, particularly the ‘things like that’ line (and is that for effect, or did he just run out of ‘things’?). It’s a Welsh accent, not Scottish. Miners’ Strikes were looming in Britain at this time, under Thatcher’s government, and Wales suffered more than most.

    I read a lot of books about Bowie’s work when I first got into Bowie, many of which recognised Ricochet as a highlight of the album. In my youthful naivety I gave it my best listen, expecting to agree, but never did. Although I do like the choral build up to ‘Ricochet!’

  5. jopasso says:

    Sorry, I prefer Shake it to Ricochet.
    If you make a commercial album to please everybody, from kids to grandmas, go ahead with it. Don’t stop in the middle of the road, with that “Ricochet” thing.

    If you aren’t going to make a “Low”, I prefer you make an album with 8 Let’s dances rather than 8 Ricochets.

    **Glad you’re safe, man

  6. Jeremy Earl says:

    Actually I really like this track. It’s always appealed to me. Rarely does Bowie pull off topical songs and perhaps Repetition and Ricochet are the rare two, although I don’t mind God Knows I’m Good, mainly for nostalgic reasons. It’s better than Shake it ( sorry jopasso)

    I love the enormity of the sound and the rhythm draws me in. It would be perhaps his best dystopian song for some time, which is telling, as bowie does dystopian really well.

  7. mike says:

    Best song on LD (how’s that for damning with faint praise?) 😛

  8. For all that we dismiss this offering (oh yes I do), it was one of Bowie’s two platinum-selling non-compilation albums. The other would be Tonight.

    • col1234 says:

      very true. Though “Tonight” was a classic example of a record that “everyone” bought, few actually liked and many soon returned/sold—you can still find heaps of copies in any second-hand record store. But we’ll be getting into its commercial history pretty soon enough…

  9. diamond dog says:

    I never liked its awkward feel and the backing singing I could not get into , over the years though I’m intrigued by it I do enjoy it now. Its social comment is odd and Bowie is surely doing a Anthony Hopkins impersonation muttering on about dreaming of mine shafts.
    So must say I do like it and it is as you say the token ‘old’ concept track. It would be nice to hear some outtakes or demos as I think it suffers from some bad production choices. The simms are awful on it and I could not stomach them at the gigs they were too over the top. Good to have ya back and glad your safe.

  10. Jasper says:

    I like the song, and yes it is the more arty track on the record. I have a hard time sitting still listening to the Let’s Dance album, it still works for me, thou it has some cheesy parts.
    I’m really curious about the tour film clip, I uses to have the Serious Moonlight on a VHS, and I don’t recall this, it’s a long time since I saw it, and a long time since i had a VHS player. Is it my memory that have gone bad or is the clip from somewhere else?

    • col1234 says:

      it’s a separate documentary, though I think it was included in a later reissue of Serious Moonlight. (http://www.discogs.com/David-Bowie-Ricochet/release/941120) (though I think discogs is wrong about the set list, as “ricochet” wasn’t performed live, to my knowledge.)

      • Jasper says:

        Thanks for the fast answer. I have never seen that. I will try to find it somewhere, properly on the Serious Moonlight DVD.

        I found a little more info on illustrated-db-discography http://www.algonet.se/~earflaps/bowie/or85.htm

        It supposedly runs for 59 min, with four live songs there should be quiet a bit of the kind of footage that is in the clip you linked to, it was a lot of fun watching that.

        I found a set list from Dec 8Th 1983, the date the live recordings are supposed to be from, and there is no mention of Ricochet, but Bowie played Imagine as a tribute to Lennon, this being the 3rd anniversary of his death. My guess is that that is the version of the song that have been on numerous bootlegs, unless he did it on more occasions.

      • I remember hiring “Ricochet” on VHS back in the 80s, and could clearly see that the concert footage allegedly showing Bowie performing this song simply consisted of the album version being played over long shots of the band onstage.

        Which begs the question – why entitle a documentary about the Far East leg of a world concert tour with the name of a song that wasn’t performed on a single night of it?

  11. Marion Brent says:

    Not convinced by this track, I find it rather lumpen and meandering, and if it’s the “arty” track on Let’s Dance, then it only goes to show just how far the author of “Sense Of Doubt” had moved away from artiness as any kind of musical goal.

    By the way, what does anyone make of the Let’s Dance album sleeve? It’s rather odd (but not necessarily in a good way).

  12. diamond dog says:

    I like the cover , I remember he was in ads for levi’s boxing in pale denims so may be linked to him training to get fit for the tour ? Maybe also let’s dance also meaning let’s fight as another commentor said previously …cannot remember who said it sorry.

    • Jeremy Earl says:

      Yeah, apparently Bowie did boxing to get fit for the tour he knew he would do for LD. The theme stuck. It is kind of a weird cover, it looks like it shouldn’t would but it kind of does.

      • Jeremy Earl says:

        “shouldn’t would but it kind of does.”

        wow, what was I on? “work” I obviously meant, but perhaps “shouldn’t would” has its own weird logic – something Jareth would say?

  13. diamond dog says:

    btw richochet film is awful with a slim story of an asian fan ttrying to get a ticket for a gig with a few songs from the far east stripped down tour ..ive time for most Bowie things but it is tiresome and is on the uk version dvd as an extra to serious moonlight. Lots of stills from it in the tour book serous moonlight with him at temples and dancing in the rain? pure tedium im afraid but i suppose if you have never seen it worth seeking out .

    • jopasso says:

      Was the far east part of the tour stripped down?
      I didn’t know it.

      What I recall, is how different sounded Heroes and look back in anger in each DVD (The Seroius Moonlight Tour and Ricochet)

  14. diamond dog says:

    The band wore more casual outfits as did bowie instead of the usual outfits and I think the stage set was paired down. I think the sound difference may be just the mix on the film. It is a fairly dull film but a worthy extra to the concert film.

    • James says:

      Maybe dull but nevertheless, some awkward moments when like he is in a a-gogo bar in Bangkok and talks to a dancer and she looks at him as if she didn’t understand one word of what he said.. it was quite exotic and for Bowie fans it’s a must. The Star is stripped down.

  15. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    That was me who made the earlier comment – I’ve always assumed that the intended pun was Let’s Dance = Let’s Fight, referring to how aggressive the title track is and the album’s general threatening atmosphere (Does anyone else notice this, or is that just me? It’s not an easy listening album by any means). I didn’t know about the Levi’s ad or the preparation for the tour, though! That’s an interesting bit of context. that.

    • Maj says:

      Since I’m not a native English speaker I had no idea the word dance also had this meaning. It definitely makes a lot more sense…especially when you look at the cover of the album.
      And here I was all this time naively thinking he REALLY wanted us to dance or else.

  16. Remco says:

    I really like the image of Bowie as a detached alien trying to connect to the world but I wonder if he’s actually trying here. Apart from the final lines and the reference to mine shafts, I don’t really see much in there that suggests social commentary. Sounds more like a botched cut-up session or an attempted remake of the Auden poem, also botched.
    Every time I listen to this song, I like it less. A line like “Sound of thunder, Sound of gold, sound of the devil breaking parole” would make a younger Bowie weep with shame, I’d imagine. This one is definitely on its way towards a spot in my Top Ten Worst Bowie Songs Ever.

    • Maj says:

      I never listen to the lyrics properly. Well this line really is a gem, isn’t it. Made me laugh out loud. Bless.

    • col1234 says:

      yes, that’s a true groaner of a line. But fun to consider literally. What exactly are the terms of the Devil’s parole (confined to Hell, allowed visits to earth every year for conjugal stuff)? Who’s his parole officer—Michael? Metatron? What exactly is the punishment for breaking it?

    • David L says:

      Yes, I agree, pretentious line. But I love Bowie’s voice on this, especially the stately way he sings that line, surfacing from some instrumental interlude.

      I agree with a lot of the other comments, especially Maj’s comparison to TVC15, and that Ricochet never really quite gels. But I still find it intriguing, this song. It’s a very visual track for me. The repeating, undulating drum/cymbal work evoke (for me at least) a vision of a llightbulb suspended by a cord, swinging back and forth in the darkness over an interrogation suspect, the one speaking strangely in that Welsh accent, as we, the audience, circle him, questioning him. It’s a cinematic track, if nothing else. But I’d still put it as the second weakest on the album.

  17. Frankie says:

    I thought I liked this song very much but couldn’t find any fault in anything that you said. Thanks for dispelling the myth of my enjoyment. And a session of regressive hypnosis showed me that my enjoyment in playing the song loud when the album came out was mainly to make my younger sister cringe.

  18. Diamond Duke says:

    Personally I’ve always enjoyed this song a great deal. But as clueless as this might sound, I’ve never been all that sure about the beat, since it seems to be accented in a very odd way. I always hear it as: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-“March of flowers”-2-“March of dimes”-2-“These are the prisons”-2-“These are the crimes”-2-“Sound of thunder”-2-“Sound of gold”-2-“Sound of the Devil breaking parole”… But, y’know, I could be flat-out dead wrong about that! 😉

    Anyway, while “Let’s Dance” certainly represented a very commercial period for Bowie, I personally think “Ricochet” is a track that really wouldn’t have been that out of place on “Lodger” four years before…or even “1.Outside” twelve years later!

    P.S. I’m just going to do an experiment to see what it takes to use italics and boldface around here:

    [b]Let’s Dance[/b] / Let’s Dance / [i]Ricochet[/i] / Ricochet

    • I’ve always imagined that a remake during the Outside era would have proved interesting; A proper Alomar rhythm, Gabrels drone, and some Eno tinkering might have actualized this song as DB orignally imagined it.

    • Though, considering his interests and headspace in ’95, I can’t imagine much improvement on the lyrics…

  19. Isn’t the spoken word part Bowie doing a TS Eliot impersonation?

  20. James McLean says:

    Fascinating breakdown, though this is one of my favourite Bowie tracks, period. As a kid it fascinated me, it was such a divergence from the Bowie I knew (and on that album) and was pretty much how I came to understand Bowie as a musician who would challenge himself and expectations. It never bored me, it stunned me. It is unnatural, it does lumber, but that, for me, gives it power and a certain uncertainty that fits its topicality. I am surprised it lacks love, but then while I’m not keen on his more experimental era prior, I do have a soft spot for TVC-15 as well. 🙂

    • McCall says:

      James M: You’re not alone here. I think the reggae-like plod and driving repetition definitely give the track a hypnotic weight. The occasional pretension and detachment of the speaker (re: “…mine shafts, things like that…”) depict someone outside it all, a tape-recorded voice of authority who isn’t actually a part of the societal “ricochet.”

      Given a choice, I’d take a couple more “social justice” songs like this one on LD to the yuppie catnip of “Shake It” and “Criminal World” any day.

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