Don’t Look Down

Don’t Look Down (Iggy Pop, 1979).
Don’t Look Down (Bowie, 1984).

At its worst, which is often, Tonight is wearying to listen to, with its frenetic overstuffed mixes; its lack of space or depth, with everything smeared together in the foreground; the sheer trebleness of it all. It’s like a revue in which everyone is hamming it up, even the stagehands. (See “Neighborhood Threat.“)

So to be fair, Bowie’s version of Iggy Pop’s “Don’t Look Down” sounds better than the average Tonight track. Whoever was responsible for the mix—Hugh Padgham or Derek Bramble—captured the low end well, giving Bramble’s six-note basslines a nice snap, and there’s a clean precision to much of the mix: take the way Sammy Figueroa’s blocks crisply accent the beat, and you can hear every breath the saxophonist draws. That said, this is an awful cover, a mild variation on the genteel vandalism Bowie did to Pop’s “Tonight.”

“Don’t Look Down” was a brooding, weird track on Pop’s underrated New Values (it was co-written and produced by former Stooge James Williamson): it’s a louche piece of nightlife, Pop muttering a survivalist’s credo for himself, something scrapped together late one night in a club he didn’t remember entering: don’t look down, because you’re standing over a pit. The bleary sentimentality is kept in check by Scott Thurston’s guitar; the Alfono Sisters are sympathetic sirens; the saxophonist’s looking for clues, or at least a way out of the room.

Bowie seemed at a loss as to how to interpret “Don’t Look Down,” settling on sub-Bryan Ferry world-weariness set to a Carnival cruiseline reggae beat. He told Charles Shaar Murray (in an interview in which Bowie seems to writing off Tonight while he promotes it) that he tried out “everything”—jazz rock, a “march”—until he chose a light reggae groove. Having Bramble in the studio, who could play “proper reggae lines” for once (uh, remember George Murray??), was an inspiration, Bowie said, adding that he found “taking energy away from the musical side of things reinforced the lyrics and gave them their own energy.”

Taking the song out of its vampirish setting, cleaning up its cocaine squalor, Bowie was left with a set of empty reassurances, polite cocktail hour murmurings and even pantomime (take Bowie’s quasi-“Jamaican” phrasing of lines like “Central Park to shanty town” or the cheery band signoff in the last bar). A limp, pointless performance, “Down” is sequenced poorly, too, as it’s a baffling segue between “Loving the Alien” and “God Only Knows” on the A side.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec.

Top: Billy Bragg, one-angry-young-man-band, New York? (see comments), 1984.

26 Responses to Don’t Look Down

  1. Maj says:

    Well if this were anyone else and it wasn’t a cover of a great Iggy song I a) wouldn’t even listen to it b) wouldn’t find it offensive.
    It is a bit Ferry does reggae and while I normally like a lot of Roxy/Ferry stuff…Avalon which is the album Tonight reminds me of a bit works for me the same way Let’s Dance album does: a few good songs + boredom. Tonight is like a much cheaper version of Avalon.
    I don’t hate Don’t Look Down (if I forget abt its origins) but I might have to get stoned before I want to listen to it again.

  2. Jason says:

    Pretty sure that’s Billy in NYC, not London. Can’t find a source for me thinking that at the moment, though (beyond the cars, lamppost, traffic sign, etc.).

    I’ve been enjoying listening to many Tonight tracks for the first time ever alongside your commentary. I’ve always avoided it, but this is a good way to take the plunge!

    • col1234 says:

      hey, I think you’re right. The photo had no location ID, and just assumed it was London as it was still early days in Bragg’s career. But definitely looks more like America.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Not the best cover Bowie’s ever done, but hardly the worst. As far as his Iggy cover versions are concerned, I still think this holds up pretty well. In fact, I’d rank it almost up there with China Girl.

    (BTW, col1234, did you get my message? I just need confirmation that it went through. Reply at your leisure… ;))

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Uh, that was my message. Why am I Anonymous?? Did I forget something? (Rank amateur I am sometimes…) 😦 πŸ˜‰

      • Diamond Duke says:

        Oh yeah, I guess I did forget something! πŸ˜† Never mind, never mind, I just forgot to type in my name… :tongue:

  4. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    To me these shitty reggae songs really illustrate the difference between Let’s Dance and Tonight. Let’s Dance is Bowie embracing black pop and creating music to equal it, just as he did on Young Americans and Station to Station. It’s music that truly crosses boundaries: “Golden Years” and “Let’s Dance” both fit comfortably on the dance floor, regardless of who’s doing the dancing.

    But Tonight? Tonight is music for a middle class, white audience, and it really shows. This and the title track are black musical forms whitened robbed of any power. This is music to be played through a yacht radio.

    • Marion Brent says:

      You’ve got a point. Unlike Bowie’s previous musical appropriations, his appropriation of reggae is third hand, coming at the tail-end of a trend for commercialising reggae by white rockers. By 1984 we’d had years of the Police doing it, we’d had UB40 etc.

    • The musicians are all professional and give a clean performance, but it’s soulless at the conceptual level. Elevator music. Or, as Pinstripe Hourglass put it even better, “yacht radio.”

  5. diamond dog says:

    Hard to believe the coolest guy in music made the truly awful promo jazzin for blue jean which this track is used. Awful cheap reggae beat like a crappy holiday camp band. It is unbelievable when you consider this man wrote station to station …awful. Its hard to say anything constructive so really find these the most interesting of your articles congrats on them as its easy to discuss good material but you have kept the same level of dissection even on material I can only say is awful.

  6. Remco says:

    The fact that the original is actually a pretty good song (which I hadn’t heard before) makes me hate Bowie”s version even more. There really should be laws against this kind of thing.

    I’d say Tonight is music for a middle class, white audience with severe brain damage

  7. Carl says:

    Oh my god, I do love this song on Iggy’s New Values. Not having listened to the Tonight record that much (I ussually skip a lot of tracks), I haven’t caught the DB version yet! The Bowie version is utterly a downer compared to the original. Why try to improve something, that’s already impeccably executed! I’m quite outraged actually.

    I’m glad he didn’t cover “I’m bored” of the same album. That would be really boring.

  8. Jeremy says:

    God awful!!! That’s all I have to say. Wait though – the only good thing about it is that it would have made Iggy some money and he deserves that.

  9. algeriatouchshriek says:

    Sigh – it was such a disappointment and remains so. There’s remix on the B-side of Loving The Alien that’s quite nice, but ‘nice’ seems so wrong doesn’t it?

    It’s twenty seven years since Tonight came out and obviously a lot of us are still struggling with the psychological consequences. Daft that a record should have such an impact isn’t it?

  10. Bri says:

    I borrow from Dickens: “If there is any person in the town, who likes Bowie’s ‘Don’t Look Down,'” said Scrooge quite agonised, “show that person to me, Spirit, I beseech you.”
    I am a huge Iggy fan, but I have always loved (since its release) Bowie’s version more.
    While I’m here- I love “Loving the Alien” also. I played the “Tonight” album to threads when it came out, and while I could skip over the title track and “God Only Knows” forever, I loved the rest of it. Even “Tumble and Twirl!”

    This is a great website.

    • col1234 says:

      thanks! It’s very good to have a Tonight defender (of sorts) on board—we needed the balance.

  11. Frankie says:

    Enjoyable to read, insightful, with many great nuggets. I’ve been an avid enjoyer of Iggy’s New Values ever since it came out and I thought Bowie managed to remove every trace of the song’s mumbling charm and turn it into Holiday Inn Muzak with keyboards and drum machine and a lounge singer named Marlon Blando who doesn’t know reggae one bit, so he tries to sing just like Sting. I don’t know why. Perhaps he was trying to emulate his beloved Scott Walker’s blander orchestrated terrain, both enamored and fatefully deaf to the shmaltz factor.

    Bowie was also likely competing with Sting and Peter Gabriel for the same ‘thinking man’s pop star” spot and they all have the weird videos to prove it. Also, Phil Collins and Rod Stewart were vying for a supremely homogenized version of the thinking man’s musician persona, something Art Garfunkel deeply coveted but thankfully could never achieve. But Bowie likely tried to outdo those guys too, and so that’s why you get this kind of music. It’s designed to hit too many bases, and therefore gets weakened and watered down. Perhaps only David Byrne and Peter Hammill managed to retain their artistic integrity during those coiffed hair years. Thank god Captain Beefheart had the prescience to quit music on the cusp of the 80s, with its blandness that was safe as milk.

  12. J.D. says:

    Must disagree here. Always thought the Iggy version had a little too much ‘late lou reed’ flatline involved, never good. DB actually did a bit of a backspin on the noblesse-oblige thing of the lyric, and has the more interesting production overall. (kind of pulling back the old 10cc Dreadlock Holiday into view … “I don’t like cricket, oh no ..” etc)

    Seems to me the reason that both Tonight and Let’s Dance take such abuse is that in the Catalog Think of overviewing the work, those ones are nowhere near the peaks of say, Station To Station or Hunky Dory. In anyone eles’s catalog, they’d be monuments of achievement. Too-clever often, certainly dead moments, production driven to be sure, but interesting toy songs from the brow of the superbrain.

  13. P.H. says:

    Sorry Chris, I can’t agree with your comment that “Don’t Look Down” is better than the average TONIGHT track. It’s as bad as any of the horrendous covers of Iggy songs that you correctly called “embalmings” on this bloodless nadir of an album. The original version on “New Values” swings and swirls jazzily, while this just limps along in a cod-reggae miasma. Yassassin it definitely aint.

  14. For years I assumed this was a Bowie-written track. The section about visitng Valentino’s grave speaks to Bowie’s pepetual preoccupation with old Hollywood. I was shocked that Iggy Pop even knew who Valentino WAS.

    This is another song that is a victim of overproduction and lack of care, but I bet Bowie could do it better. I wonder whether it is a myth that this is all Padgham’s doing, however- Synchronicity was a fantastic album and not very middle-class at all. I would never guess they were produced by the same man.

  15. Phil Obbard says:

    For me… this is easily the second-worst track on Tonight, after “God Only Knows”. Might even be a tie, because at least “God Only Knows” seems earnest. Like “God Only Knows”, “Don’t Look Down” takes a fantastic, atmospheric track (the highlight of New Values, easily) and reworks it for no good purpose into a slushy mess of a track. Next to this, Bowie’s cover of “Bang Bang” is “Heroes”.

  16. J.D. says:

    The vibe of this track– and the whole lp, really– may have been more simpatico if you were living in new York at the time. The wobbly, giddy, cokey tone of the writing, the manic, front-edge-driven production all seemed to mirror the times more than a little bit. (exception, godonlyknows, well, a lapse there, a kind of nod to influences, surf-hymn with philly-soul logo, that .. didn’t work. I’ll take db’s ‘didn’t-work’ items long before those of other cultural icons. Beatles Stones Kinks did naff tracks. Marvin Gaye did whole worthless albums. Clash sucked once or twice on every album. Shocking!)

  17. I’ll make my response before I read any of the other comments because I have a feeling that I might be on my own on this one.
    I have a real soft spot for this tune and I’d forgotten how much I like it until I listened to it again after reading the review.

    (I should declare an interest at this point: I was playing in a reggae band when Tonight was released and I actually met our hero behind the stage just after I’d finished playing a set at the Notting Hill carnival! He was very positive and it’s a fond memory for me to this day.)

    Anyway, Don’t Look Down was of special interest to me because of its reggae vibe and contemporary sounds. It had an eighties sound but also the authentic reggae feel of the seventies. I really like the bed track in its own right for its sense of space and depth but I also find Bowie’s treatment of the lyric infinitely preferable to the original, lugubrious drone.

    I’m not a fan of Iggy Pop and that’s putting it mildly. He’s certainly intelligent and articulate and I’ve often enjoyed his interviews but I’ve always regarded him as a self-promoter who managed to establish himself as the centre of a personality cult rather than as a genuine artist. He’s essentially a prominent representative of a lifestyle choice and his fan base is generally limited to those who identify with that lifestyle. While that is undoubtedly a significant sociological phenomenon, it’s not enough to elevate his work to the status of art, which – in my personal opinion, obviously – is only successful to the extent that it transcends the milieu from which it springs. You don’t need to be a Catholic, for example, to be moved by Mozart’s Requiem. Jazz is quintessentially a product of Black American culture but its universal appeal unquestionably qualifies it as a high art form. Iggy Pop appeals to his own constituency and that’s about it.

    Bowie, by contrast, has numerous artistic gifts which interest and attract those who may well have little regard for his personality. Not the least of these talents is his flair for melody, the lingua franca of music around the world. While this tune is far from being one of his greatest, it’s still several leagues above the perfunctory, barely functional framework from which Iggy hangs his lyric in the original. Bowie is also a truly great singer who can control his pitching, timbre and dynamics with apparently effortless ease, giving himself supreme mastery of the nuances of his instrument. Although he sings well within himself on this track, it’s just what the groove requires.

    I rate Don’t Look Down as a satisfyingly creative and accomplished track and it’s probably the only one on the album which I consistently want to listen to again as soon as it finishes.

    Now I’ll read the other comments and find out just how far out of sync I am with everyone else! πŸ™‚

    • Almost as I feared!
      At least I’m not completely alone though.

      • Anonymous says:

        Dear Mr. Clarson-

        Your fantastic review of “Don’t Look Down” is right on- as is your incisive, sad-but-true assessment of Iggy.

        Didn’t Bowie himself, in an interview sometime/somewhere in the past 10 years, opine that Mr. O had been preaching to the choir for some time now?

        How do I sign up to receive your comments on other songs?

        Well said, Sir!

        Brian Whalen

  18. Brian says:

    WHAT! I loved this song when I heard it on New Values and I had no idea it was on Tonight. While I prefer Iggy’s version of China Girl while preferring Iggy’s, Bowie’s version of Don’t Look Down actually makes me mad! I can finally understand how Iggy fans feel about his mix of Raw Power. What did this song do to deserve this? Bowie’s actually done reggae before on Yassassin and it sounded great. This just sounds instantly dated.

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