Iggy Pop was at the Tonight sessions for about a week. Not enough time, the producer Hugh Padgham regretted, as Pop’s presence seemed to shake Bowie’s indifference to his own record. Along with sitting in on some of Bowie’s embalmings of his old songs, Pop also worked up some new material with Bowie, little of which was developed (a number of songs from Blah Blah Blah came out of these sessions, though). But at one point Pop got Bowie into the vocal booth for some free-styling. The two faced off, drank beer, began calling out lines to each other. They went at it for about eight hours while Padgham taped it all.
If there’s ever a Selected Aphorisms of Iggy Pop published, some of these lines would make the cut: Where there’s trouble, there’s poetry. Death to the trees. Nothing is embarrassing. There are too many people, too much belief. Your family is a football team.* Bowie later said it was a chance to burn through a stockpile of discarded lyrics. The underlying theme was a “little guy” overwhelmed by society, and perhaps there’s a Cold War satire buried somewhere in it, but it’s mainly just two old friends trying to trump each other.
The resulting track, “Dancing With the Big Boys,” was the closest that Tonight ventured to spontaneity: a honking, barely-melodic album filler, with Bowie and Pop chants set against the band mainly staying on an augmented A chord** (there’s a move to D major on every fourth bar, adding a slight bit of tension quickly released by the return to A). Carlos Alomar contributed something (I’m assuming the various guitar riffs that serve as a counterpart to the Pop and Bowie vocals), as he’s co-credited along with Bowie and Pop.
The obvious precedent was Pop’s “Fall in Love With Me,” another album closer/filler, another vocal booth improvisation over a static harmony. But “Fall in Love With Me” felt primal, the band seeming to take cues from Pop’s flights of thought, the song slowly growing out of itself. Had “Big Boys” just been Omar Hakim’s drums, Carmine Rojas’ bass and Alomar’s guitar, it might’ve worked as an update—Bowie and Pop’s first attempt at rap, even. Or had Bowie and Padgham gone full-out Art of Noise and stuffed the track with booms, clatters, shrieks and honks, “Big Boys” could’ve at least been a piece of its time. (This happened when Arthur Baker remixed “Big Boys” for the 12″ single, a version I enjoy more.) But there was a loss of nerve somewhere, as the backing singers appear to cheese things up, as do the Borneo horns, and while there’s some fine 1984-vintage jiggery-pokery, like the bass-deepening distortion (similar to Yello’s “Oh Yeah”) occasionally used on the title phrase, there’s far more typical Tonight glitz production overkill.
Still, “Big Boys,” even in its compromised state on the LP, had a vitality that much of Tonight lacked. Bowie realized this, telling Charles Shaar Murray that where he had grown “musical” over the past few years (trying to compose like a Fifties songwriter, he said in a cryptic aside), he was done with it, and a wild stomp like “Big Boys” was closest that he’d come to the new sound he was looking for. He would use “Big Boys” as a roadmap, as his next album would be a protest record, Bowie said.
Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec. Released as the B-side of “Blue Jean,” with the 12″ single having an extended remix by Arthur Baker. Performed live on the Glass Spider Tour.
* These lines seem more Iggy’s, though “too much belief” and “your family is a football team” could just as well be Bowie’s. In an interview, Bowie claimed “this dot marks your location” as his, referencing a time when he was stuck indefinitely in an NYC hotel and was staring at the fire escape map.
** The sheet music has an A-10 chord.
Top: Frances McDormand in Blood Simple (Coen/Coen, 1984).