Tumble and Twirl

Tumble and Twirl.
Tumble and Twirl (12″ dance mix).

Full of the rewards he received for his work, and seemingly without noticing, he exchanged passion for sentiment, the romance of sex for a tease, a reach for mysteries with tawdry posturing and was last seen parading his riches, his fame and his smugness, a sort of hip Englebert Humperdinck…Perhaps it makes sense. When Rod Stewart was learning the game, Simon Frith has said, the goal of show business was not to become a great artist, but to spend money and fuck movie stars. If it was necessary to become a great artist in order to get the money to spend and the stars to fuck, well, Rod was willing.

Greil Marcus, on Rod Stewart.

The first thought was a live album: Serious Moonlight. Take a breath, sell a souvenir record of a bank-breaking tour, recharge. Instead, five months after going off stage, Bowie was in a ski resort in Canada, making arguably the worst album of his life.

Tonight is perhaps the least-loved #1 pop record of its era. Its popularity was momentary: front-loaded in orders and going platinum in six weeks, the record’s sales cratered once it hit the shops and people had the misfortune to hear it. Producing a Top 10 single (“Blue Jean”) and a complete flop (the title track),1 Tonight is like the scrapbag albums that labels issued in the Sixties for their second-tier acts: a hit single buried in a mire of uninspired covers and bottom-drawer originals.

Bowie later called it a “violent” sequel to his cover album Pin Ups, but that’s revisionist history: Tonight is so scatter-shot, so lacking in coherence, so impeccably rancid, that Pin Ups is a brilliant concept LP by comparison. Created, if there was any discernible reason, to sate a vague commercial demand, Tonight was conceived, recorded and issued as pure product: a Bowie record as a software upgrade, or a new edition coffee maker. Unlike any Bowie record in the past, there was utterly no reason for its existence. But Bowie, now in Rod Stewart territory, was following a clearly-burned path—put out a new record, grind a hit off it, make a flashy video, get on the cover of Rolling Stone again; sell, sell, sell again; repudiate your sins at your leisure.

The Tonight sessions were desultory by Bowie standards, dragging out for over five weeks and producing only nine releasable tracks. As with Let’s Dance, Bowie outsourced much of the music to his producers and studio guns, showing up at Le Studio to record a vocal or to throw the I Ching to determine whether a mix was finished.

Keeping to the Rod Stewart formula, Bowie had decided from the start to replicate the sound of his most recent hits, as it was what fans were expecting. But while retaining much of the Let’s Dance crew (one Simms brother, the “Borneo Horns,” the rhythm section of Carmine Rojas, Omar Hakim and Sammy Figueroa), Bowie dispensed with Nile Rodgers. Bowie had never been enamored with sidemen who got a substantial share of the credit, and more than one article had described Let’s Dance as the sound of Rodgers making Bowie relevant again.

To replace Rodgers, Bowie recruited Derek Bramble, the bassist of the British disco group Heatwave.2 Bramble was an inventive bassist but a neophyte producer—Tonight would be his first major album. As insurance (which he would need to use), Bowie got Hugh Padgham, who had just produced the Police’s massive Synchronicity, to engineer the sessions, and hired back Carlos Alomar as a sous-chef of sorts.

Bramble compensated for his lack of experience by covering his bases and second-guessing himself and his crew, asking for retake after retake of perfectly usable vocals and rhythm tracks (this was especially irritating for Bowie, master of the one- or two-take vocal). Alomar was blunt when interviewed by David Buckley: Bramble “was a nice guy, but he didn’t know jack-shit about producing.” By halfway through the sessions, Bramble was gone, with Padgham getting a battlefield promotion. Bowie asked him to salvage the record and mix it.

But by then, Padgham was frustrated by Bowie’s apparent indifference to his own material. Bowie had showed up fairly prepared for the sessions, having demoed about eight new songs (Alomar was stunned—this was the most prep work he’d ever seen Bowie do for an album), some of which were just known as track numbers. But as the sessions went on, Bowie seemed less and less inclined to work off the demos, which Padgham described as being bluesy and “raunchy” roughs, instead doing a series of covers that ranged from the explicable (the various Iggy Pop songs) to the left-field (“I Keep Forgetting”) to the baffling (“God Only Knows”).

Of the handful of original songs written for Tonight, the oldest was “Tumble and Twirl,” a collaboration between Bowie and Iggy Pop, their first in five years.

Pop had been in freefall since last encountered in this survey (“Play it Safe”). The twin commercial disasters of Soldier and Party had finished off his Arista contract; Pop seems to have intentionally ruined Party, for which he recorded bizarre dreck like “Happy Man” and covers of “Sea of Love” and “Time Won’t Let Me” (in retrospect, this really seems like the template for Tonight).

His commercial prospects shot, Pop took to the road whenever he could (Alomar joined a Pop tour in late 1981, and even by his jaded standards, Alomar was shocked at the debauchery on display (“at one point, I think [Pop] took a shit on stage right behind the speakers,” he told Paul Trynka). Things calmed briefly in 1982 with the completion of a half-decent record, the Chris Stein-produced Zombie Birdhouse, and Pop and his girlfriend Esther Friedmann went to Haiti on vacation. There Pop antagonized a local voodoo priest by dancing during a ceremony; the pair lost all of their money (Pop giving most of it away to locals), forcing Friedmann to work as a back-alley dentist’s assistant; they were nearly killed in a car crash; menacing strangers kept showing up at their house. Friedmann tried several times to get an ailing Pop off the island, with the pair failing to catch their plane in increasingly strange ways. (More in Trynka’s Open Up and Bleed).

Then in 1983, the cash began to come in. The success of Bowie’s “China Girl” brought in hundreds of thousands in royalties to Pop, who was even starting to get money from the Sex Pistols’ cover of “No Fun,” and Bowie’s excessive covering of Pop songs on Tonight (five out of nine tracks have a Pop credit), is Bowie generously extending a line of credit with no desire to be paid back.

“Tumble and Twirl” came out of a trip to Bali and Java that Pop and Bowie had taken (with Coco Schwab and Pop’s future wife, Suchi Asano) in Christmas 1983. It was a celebration of a commercial jubilee year for Bowie, a luxurious recuperation for Pop.

Described as a 50-50 composition between Bowie and Pop, “Tumble and Twirl”‘s lyric owes far more to Pop (only Iggy would’ve rhymed “dusky mulatto” and “nylons and tattoos“), while the chords suggest a typical Bowie swerve—while “Tumble” starts firmly in E minor (the only chord in the verse besides D major), the bridge unsettles things with the appearance of a G# minor (swapped in from the parallel major), and the tumbling/twirling chorus is a constant churn of D-Em-C-G.

It could have worked. The idea of pampered Westerners in a corrupted paradise, a genial visit to a Club Med in Hell, was an inspired idea for a song and had a host of worthy ancestors, from Graham Greene to the Clash’s “Safe European Home.” And a few sharp details remain in the final lyric—the locals in their Playboy and Bob Marley t-shirts, the magnate’s mansion on a Borneo hill that pipes raw sewage down to the beach, the sense that the singer, safe in his first-class seat flying home, really has seen nothing at all: “Let me rise through the cloudy above with a book on Borneo.”

You could argue “Tumble,” as a track, is a broad, exuberant parody, the producers and players bouncing off the Jimmy Buffett trademarked “island” sound, swathing the lyric in self-conscious gloss and cheer. But as “Tumble” goes on and on, it feels that few people involved in the record are really in on the joke, and that there may not be a joke at all, with the track becoming a chamber of minor horrors: the “Bor-ne-oooh” vocal tag, the badgering horns, the supper-club singing on the bridge, with Bowie showing up eight bars in, as if he’d been visiting the john. Only Alomar’s tugging, nagging rhythm guitar lines and Mark King’s bass come through with any dignity.

Recorded May 1984 at Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec.3 Released in November 1984 as the B-side of “Tonight.” The “extended dance mix,” released on the 12″ single, is a more endurable version, as some of the backing vocals are wiped.

1 In the UK and in some of Europe, “Loving the Alien” was released as Tonight‘s third single; it charted passably (#19, UK).

2 Even by the standards of Seventies rock bands, Heatwave had a lurid, violent history. Their first rhythm guitarist was stabbed to death, their original bassist was also stabbed (by a girlfriend) and left temporarily blinded and paralyzed, and the lead singer was paralyzed from the neck down after an auto accident.

3 “Le Studio” was an “environmental” studio opened in 1974 with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall (Rush cut most of their records there—footage of Rush doing “Limelight” at Le Studio was used in the promo video). Today it stands abandoned and empty, a near-forgotten casualty of indifferent time, as is much of the record industry.

Top: Brendan Haley, “Me and Dad in the Mirror, Salamanca, Spain. Summer 1984.”

37 Responses to Tumble and Twirl

  1. Brian Busby says:

    The very last Bowie album I bought on its release date, I remember liking the cover (as opposed to the covers) and thinking that he was being clever in having his name written over what looked to be a falling bomb.

    Listened to, filed away and forgotten… I didn’t even remember that it had been recorded not far from my Montreal home.

    • Remco says:

      Funnily enough ‘Tonight’ is my most recent Bowie purchase, I bought it on second-hand vinyl last week (that’s how dedicated I am to this blog). I haven’t listened to ‘Never Let Me Down’ in years but I’m pretty sure ‘Tonight’ is his nadir, because it’s impossible to get any lower than this.

  2. Carl says:

    I think this song stands out as one of the few listenable ones on this album (along with like Blue Jean and This is not America), and that’s an achievement in itself!

    • Jasper says:

      This is not America is not from Tonight, it was added as a bonus to the CD version of the album at some point. It was a single from the film by the same name, that and Absolute Beginners that came out after Tonight, and before Labyrinth, are both better songs, than most on Tonight, but i don’t think they would have fit on Tonight

  3. Fawn says:

    This is cool! I wish someone did this for Garth Brook’s music.

  4. Maj says:

    Not even sure if I ever heard this one before. and I do have the album…also one of the last ones I got, a few years back.
    Since this song is on side 2 it’s pretty plausible I never actually got that far while trying to listen to Tonight, so I might actually never heard it.
    It’s listenable…not that bad…works well as background music…the sort you wouldn’t rush to skip if it popped on your player while cooking.
    Oh, and I have to say I quite like the cover…definitely better than the cover for Let’s Dance. Not sure why.

  5. Frankie says:

    I agree that the cover art is very good, it has a very nice vibe for the sleeve, but Pop or not I think it’s gotta be one of the top most disliked songs of his, in my book. It sounds too much like a Club Med jingle to my ears. Usually I go to the john during commercials but evidently The Man arrived in the nick of time.

  6. Jasper says:

    I like this album more than Never Let Me Down, Bowie’s worst in my eyes, thou it seldom hits my turntable. I still like I Keep Forgetting, Loving The Alien, Blue Jean and I have a thing for God Only Knows in all it’s cornyness, I know I should dislike it, but I don’t lol. Tumble And Twirl I don’t really need to hear again.

    I recently bought Bryan Ferry’s two first solo albums, they consist almost only of covers, especially on These Foolish Things he shows how a good pop cover can be, if it is taken seriously.

  7. Marion Brent says:

    Also the last Bowie album I bought on release, and I didn’t really get back on board until Earthling (which I’m still quite fond of). At the time, I sort of persuaded myself that I liked it, although it did get abandoned pretty soon after. In the interview Bowie did for Tonight with Charles Shaar Murray, Murray gives the album the thumbs-up – this from the man who gave Low a bad write-up. How can one man be so wrong!

    Tumble & Twirl is not as awful as Tonight, but it’s forgettable veering towards annoying. Let’s Dance has an interesting cold distance to it, but all these Tonight songs are just so bland and hollowed out of any sentiment, and not in a good way.

    The cover art for Tonight is interesting in that it’s clearly inspired by Gilbert & George, ie Bowie in some way just about keeping his hand in with the art side of art rock, even as he puts out his most calculatedly shameless commercial cash-in of an album. Then again, there’s also the use of Warszawa in the Screaming Lord Byron bits of the Blue Jean video (I think, can’t be bothered to check), which I guess is a send-up of himself as an art-rocker.

  8. Marion Brent says:

    By the way, I think the stuff about Rod Stewart makes for an interesting parallel. Although there is the image of Bowie in the seventies being ahead of the times – and clearly in many respects he was – there’s also an aspect in which he slots in perfectly in the seventies, an era where unconventionality was something of a convention, whether you were working in music, film or whatever. When unconventionality was prized, Bowie was unconventional. When conventionality gets the upper hand in the blanded-out AIDS-era culture of the eighties, Bowie goes with the current.

  9. ian says:

    I really do think Never Let Me Down is better than this. I think the songwriting is better by far (the lyrics are another matter), it’s just bogged down by overcrowded production. Tonight is shoddy all the way through— bad songs, bad sound, bad ideas/no ideas. Though I think “Blue Jean” is great, as a single and as a song.

  10. ian says:

    In any case, I’m excited for the rough road ahead. Excited mainly because we’re all going to have to become sifters, endlessly sifting through silt to find the gold within. Fool’s gold or no, it still shines in the sun.

    (Bizarre analogy = Bowie’s 80s bad, but they can be enjoyed sometimes despite the faults).

  11. Joe the Lion says:

    I’ve first heard tonight on the same day I first heard Station to Station – my mum picked them both up for me during the early 90s re-releases. I *thought* I was doing my chores for Young Americans and Station to Station, but because YA hadn’t arrived at the shop she got me Tonight instead.

    I’m not sure Tonight sounds good after anything, but after Station to Station it’s completely irredeemable. I think the title track is the only one I can listen to with any enjoyment. Years later, I bought a second copy of Tonight but only for the extras now included – it’s worth it for the full length version of Absolute Beginners alone.

  12. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I’ve never heard this. I’m not sure I really want to click on that link and find out what I’ve been missing.
    I had no idea Tonight had sold well; I’ve never met anybody who owns it. Or at least admits to owning it!

  13. algeriatouchshriek says:

    I love the way the 12″ goes ‘…everything stops with a thud…’ and then does! the following cler-littering and ker-lattering of percussion is hilarious and so eighties it ought to be wearing burgundy lofas and shoulder pads.

    Yes ‘Tonight’ is my least favourite Dave album too, its so insipid. Though he could have had another hit if he’d released ‘Neighbourhood Threat’ which at least has some attack and commercial appeal.

    The 12″ remix of ‘Tonight’ is also rather lovely and Tina Turner is acutally audible in the mix. Why it never had a supporting video is a mystery.

  14. Jeremy says:

    I’m pretty much in agreement with most people. Tonight is his worst record. At least on NLMD it sounds like he’s trying and the songwriting is better. Insipid is a good word for this LP. Like Marion Brent I tried to convince myself that I liked it at the time, but by then I’d heard most of his 70’s albums which rammed home how disappointing Tonight was.

    The cover is great, I agree – way better than the music inside! Some tracks I don’t mind but I’ll get to those when they are written about. Tumble and Twirl is jaunty in all the wrong ways – sorry Dave, just terrible! But, you know, everyone has off days and this album was it. Maybe I’ll get it out on vinyl and ‘treat’ myself. I have all of the 12 ” singles from this album too but don’t know whether I’ll go that far!!!

  15. Remco says:

    I’ll go with ‘listenable’ on this one. While they are few and far between it does have its moments and there’s far worse on this album: ’Don’t Look Down’, ‘God Only Knows’, ‘Tonight’,
    ‘Neighborhood Threat’, ‘I Keep Forgetting’ and ‘Dancing With The Big Boys’ spring to mind.

  16. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    I like that we’re all talking about the album cover at least as much as the actual music (probably because it’s more pleasant subject matter).

  17. Gnomemansland says:

    Bowie really had some kind of talent bypass round this time.

  18. Diamond Duke says:

    Whoa! “Impeccably rancid”? Now that is a pretty darn straightforwardly brutal assessment! 😀 But I’m forced to agree that “scatter-shot” is as generous a way to describe this particular Bowie album as any. And in my own personal ranking of the man’s officially-released studio work from 1-26, I’m afraid Tonight ranks right at the very bottom of my pile. But the big problem with Tonight is that it’s the one Bowie record that’s ultimately far less than the sum of its parts. While you can take almost any individual track on this record and it’s at least halfway decent on its own, all nine of them thrown together sadly don’t amount to very much at all.

    First, on the plus side…
    I think Loving The Alien is actually one of Bowie’s minor masterpieces from this particular era (although I think the stripped-down, revamped live version from 2003 is far superior, as well as more affecting), and Blue Jean is quite the groovy bit of fun (albeit something David could have conceived in his sleep). The brutally minimal closer Dancing With The Big Boys, one of the two fresh collaborations with Iggy, actually shows a healthy sign of restlessness with newly-minted pop superstar status and is the first baby step on the road to Tin Machine and beyond (which will also take us through Never Let Me Down, which IMHO is at least thrice the record Tonight is, and whose only crime is in not going far enough). And say what you will about God Only Knows – and yeah, David’s vocal is waaaaaaayyy OTT beyond the call of duty – the brutal truth of the matter is the song is quite simply bulletproof and can’t help but work no matter what dubious stylistic choices are made in performing it! The reggae arrangement of Iggy’s Don’t Look Down is also quite tasty. And if there’s one thing that actually comes pretty darn close to actually making the record cohere in any way (although ultimately not), it’s the sound of the marimba, which adds an interesting touch of faux-exotic spice to the proceedings, and helps to at least give Tonight a sense of individual personality, whatever else it may be sorely lacking in.

    But on the down side…
    Like God Only Knows, Iggy’s Tonight is actually a great song, but unlike the Beach Boys classic, it’s not bulletproof enough to resist the bland, MOR arrangement given here (not to mention that Tina Turner’s voice is mixed way too low). And even though Bowie may not have related to Iggy’s original overdose-lament monologue at the beginning, eliminating it kind of robs the song of its context and just leaves us with a mushy ballad. (And yeah, that line about not “inflicting” it on Turner is just lame. Tina’s made of sterner stuff than that…) Neighborhood Threat was far superior in its slower and more menacing original incarnation on Lust For Life, and Bowie’s souped-up hot-rod treatment here simply robs the song of what originally made it so effective. (And yeah, the original did have a bit of a Blue Oyster Cult vibe about it, but so what? I like BOC! :D) And as quite eloquently stated above, Tumble And Twirl is a true case of unfulfilled potential. In the short term, it’s actually a quite entertaining track, but its charms recede after repeated listenings. Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the case for the entire Tonight album itself. Say what you will about Never Let Me Down, and much can be said, but I personally believe that this is the nadir of Bowie’s recording career… 😦

    • Your insight that Tonight is “less than the sum of its parts” is right on the money. I find it curious that, even though a majority agrees this is one of Bowie’s worst (if not the worst), everyone seems to have a different song he considers the “good one.” That tells me there is potential in the individual songs.

  19. Anonymous says:

    It’s just hit me listening to that dreadful bridge – he’s trying to do Donald Fagen, isn’t he? Compare this to “The Goodbye Look”, for example (it compares poorly.)

  20. Marion Brent says:

    Interesting that it’s the very nadir of the Bowie experience that gets the most – and the most insightful – comments here. I guess when something’s fantastic, there’s not necessarily a lot to say about it, but when something awful, it’s interesting to pick apart just went wrong.

    The journey from the art experiment that is Lodger to the irredeemably bland Tonight remains something of a mystery to me. I guess they both have reggae on them!

  21. Jeremy says:

    After listening to the track on you tube last night parts of the song kept on appearing in my head while I was at work today and it wouldn’t let go! A bit torturous but at least it was Bowie. The main parts were – “I’ll send you a letter!!!” and “They creep from the jungle!!!” and the damn back up vocals wouldn’t let my brain go. It may be dangerous for me to listen to the whole album.

  22. diamond dog says:

    Comparisons with rod stewart are apt as both the old mods became squeaky clean and bland. Tumble and twirl is utter shit …sorry no analysis from me. The pits …what was he thinking.

  23. Those trills are so cheesy..! Overall a forgettable song more than an offensively bad one, for me. Everyone’s playing seems really spirited, but what a bland track.

  24. P.H. says:

    Funnily enough this is one of the more enjoyable tracks on an otherwise disappointing album for me. It’s kind of catchy, and Bowie is being a raconteur, detailing some events of a holiday in Java. I especially like the bridge which I always felt sounded quite sad, and now that I know it’s in a minor chord (G, apparently) I know why.

  25. Pierce says:

    Love Tonight.
    Bought it when it came out and holds a special place in my heart.
    Flawed, sure. 80s production values, absolutely!
    But it has it’s charms. Don’t look down, dancing with the big boys, this one, in fact there’s not a bad track on it.

    It’s a masterpiece compared to Earthling or Tin Machine.

  26. Tumble and Twirl is an awful, awful track on a mediocre album, but I can’t decide whether it’s an awful SONG. I can’t help thinking that many of the Tonight and NLMD songs could be salvaged if you just got rid of the Borneo Horns and the awful muzak-like backing singers and the cheesy 80s production. If Bowie were younger (and so inclined), on my wishlist would be a Toy-style album revisiting his 80s output with the perspective of a man who is clean and sober and rich enough to actually trust his instincts.

  27. RChappo says:

    Interesting to find out that Derek Bramble was a member of the band Heatwave. Do you think that DB was looking for the same “fairy dust” effect that another ex-member of Heatwave, Rod Temperton, applied to Michael Jackson’s “Off The Wall” and “Thriller” albums?

  28. Kikouyou says:

    T&T has a fantastic melody. I like the album’s production too, one one his best imo.

  29. Brian says:

    Have to say, this song is surprisingly ok…. but it’s not something Bowie should be singing. This song sounds like it belongs to someone else, perhaps some Vegas singer. Perhaps it was a victim of the times and could’ve been something better….

  30. W. White says:

    I must be the only person who has read this blog that has anything other than vitriolic hatred for Tonight. I will not argue that it was the best thing Bowie ever did (because it certainly was not), but it is not a terrible album. Bowie changed personas and styles unlike anyone else. Tonight’s reputation suffers from the fact that Bowie changed into a persona and style unacceptable to most of his die-hard fans – a successful mainstream artist doing commercial music. The most unforgivable sin for many music fans is critically acclaimed alternative (outside the mainstream) artists becoming too popular. This is the same thing that sours many people on Let’s Dance and Never Let Me Down. However, I would rather listen to any of Bowie’s three “nadir” albums over his first eponymous album or Tin Machine. I am not quite sure how anyone could champion “Please Mr. Gravedigger” (one of the most unlistenable things Bowie ever put on vinyl) over “Tumble and Twirl.” The latter is a great critique of “paradise,” i.e. the third world playgrounds of the first world’s rich and famous, and paradise’s vacuous inhabitants. It is the second catchiest thing on “Tonight” (after “Blue Jean”) and the most meaningfully biting (sorry “Loving The Alien,” your second verse is much worse than “Tumble and Twirl”‘s.

    In my opinion, “Tonight” only has two terrible tracks, “God Only Knows” and “Tonight,” both of which are completely unlistenable and without any redeeming qualities. Then there are four good tracks, “Loving The Alien,” “Don’t Look Down,” “Neighborhood Threat,” and “I Keep Forgettin’.” The last three are nice, catchy but present a stage set facade that masks a lack of anything behind. “Loving The Alien” is the opposite, being not the best track to listen to but having enough behind it to reward the experience. Finally, “Blue Jean,” “Tumble and Twirl,” and “Dancing with the Big Boys” are all great tracks. I like all three and feel that, once one gets away from any rockism or other musical biases, they make for repeated enjoyable listening while (with the exception of “Blue Jean”) having the weight of intellect and meaning behind them propelling them forward as much as the horns and hooks.

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