Blue Jean

Blue Jean.
Blue Jean (alternate video).
Jazzin’ For Blue Jean.
Blue Jean (12″ remix, Jellybean Benitez).
Blue Jean (live, 1987).
Blue Jean (live, 1990).
Blue Jean (live, 2004).

You can’t take me on my own. You can only use me as a form of reference.

David Bowie, interview, 1984.

“Blue Jean,” the only track to escape the morass of Tonight, was written off as a cheap score by its creators. Hugh Padgham regretted that of all the promising demos he’d heard, “Blue Jean” was one of the handful that Bowie developed. It was Padgham’s least favorite of the lot. Padgham had always wanted to work with Bowie; cruel fate assigned him Tonight (it’s like a lifelong Hitchcock fan collaborating on Topaz).

And Bowie didn’t think much of “Blue Jean” either—it was the single, it got him on the radio again and let him do a slapstick extended video. It was a vehicle: he used it, he had no love for it. Bit of a sexist rock & roll thing, he later said. Music for picking up girls.

Bowie seemed mired in vague nostalgia at the time of Tonight, pining for the London of his teenage years. He liked working on the “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” video with Julien Temple because he got to play-act being caught up in London life again (he hadn’t lived there for over a decade now), and he felt Temple was part of a fresh pack. Temple, along with Alex Cox, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh, was waking up the moribund British film industry, so working with him made Bowie feel contemporary again. (Bowie soon had a role in Temple’s Absolute Beginners.)

Missing what he called the vitality of the Sixties, the smartness in dress, the sudden dominance of youth, Bowie found in Thatcherite London at least a simulacrum of it. After all, there was money, fashion, swinging parties, respectable drugs. But Sixties London also had taken its savor from working-class life and provincial imports, creating, if for a moment, a “classless” society of the young, wild and hip. Not quite the case in aspirational Eighties London, an after-hours playground for young professionals.

So “Blue Jean” is a throwback in a period of throwbacks. It’s even more retro than “Let’s Dance,” taking cues from Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else,” Sam Cooke (“somebody send me“), Sixties rock & roll (Carlos Alomar’s arpeggiated guitar in the verses has echoes of “If I Needed Someone”). Bowie’s low-pitched word-tumbling vocal in the verse suggests an uptempo Jacques Dutronc, the alto saxophonist sounds like a Georgie Fame player who’s been given a slightly longer leash. Taking Robin Clark out of the vocal chorus alters its sound, making the now-all-male backing singers sound conspiratorial and even slightly lustful.

“Blue Jean” herself is an exotic temptress out of a Frankie Laine song, or, worse, a Tom Jones track (she’s got “Latin roots”). If she has an ancestor in the Bowie catalog, it’s the original manic pixie hippie girl “Janine.”

A basic workout in D major (the slight tension in the early bars of each verse is owed to a wavering between D and a D suspended fourth), “Blue Jean”‘s chorus moves between the dominant, A major, and the mediant, F# minor—so the song is mainly keeping to the basic tones of the D chord (D, F#, A); there are no real surprises except swapping in a natural C (on “police bike”) for a sharp one. Two verses, three choruses, no bridges or solos save a four-bar Alomar riffing transition. “Blue Jean” ends just when you get sick of it.

There’s a lot of small pleasures to be found: take how Omar Hakim slightly varies the climactic drum fill at the end of each verse—first hard on the snare, then quick on the bass drum. Or Alomar’s typically crafty rhythm playing (there’s the sweet way that he lags against the beat midway through the verse (as on “always let you down when you need ’em“)). And the marimba player Guy St. Onge makes the track, accenting Alomar’s guitar in the verses, meshing with the drums to build up to the chorus, where it plays counter-melodies to the vocals. “Blue Jean” is fun, catchy, flash; it moves well, it does its business quickly. One of the best second-rate Bowie hits.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec. Released as a single in September 1984 (EA 181, #6 UK, #8 US). The Temple-directed 20-minute “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” promotional video used the age-old “doppleganger” formula where the star plays both nerd and cool kid (for a more recent example, see Taylor Swift). Look for the Right Said Fred guy playing Bowie’s bassist, though the highlight for me is “Screamin’ Lord Byron” applying his makeup while listening to “Warszawa.”

Top: Miami police officer Tina Hicks in simulator training, November 1984. (via the fantastic If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger… blog).

30 Responses to Blue Jean

  1. ian says:

    “Fun, catchy, flash.” That’s it in a nutshell. “Blue Jean” doesn’t try to be anything else, and I can’t fault it. Plus, I really think the “one day, i’m going to write a poem and a letter / one day, i’m going to get the faculty together” line is gold (I’m choosing to read ‘faculty’ in the ‘mental’ sense, which might be giving it too much credit, but oh well).

  2. MC says:

    I’ve always been a fan of “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean”, “Bryan Ferry” cameo and all – it arguably shows more intelligent craft than the whole frickin’ album does. But in the context of the music DB put out at the time, the self-mockery shades into contempt, both for himself and the audience. Maybe it was just the wrong time for Bowie to “take the piss” out of Warszawa and his 70’s personae.

  3. Maj says:

    Next to Modern Love this is another 80’s song I love to dance to and after a period of denial I had to admit to myself I do like this song. A lot.
    Unlike Modern Love the lyrics are not worth a ponder and it all sounds very 50’s to me, rather than 80’s. Fun 50’s stuff.
    I for one don’t hate the video…it’s hilarious – can’t decide if it’s hilarious because the slapstick works or if it’s so bad it’s actually hilarious…plus one has to appreciate Bowie was taking the mickey out of himself in that video.

  4. raweix says:

    Is that Scarlett Johansson in front of the stage in the alternate video?

    • Ingrid says:

      This song Came out in 1984…… Scarlett Johansson was born in 1984….. So unless that was an infant you saw in front of the stage…….NO!!!

  5. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    It’s a fun song, but not a whole lot more.
    It’s interesting and disheartening to learn that Bowie was paying such little regard to his own material. I had always thought Tonight was the result of the creative wells starting to dry up, something that’s more or less inevitable after two decades in rock’n’roll. But it seems that the bigger cause was Bowie’s inattentiveness and apathy about his music. It’s a shame, who knows what those unworked song ideas could have turned into? Maybe somewhere along the way the world lost another “Modern Love”.

  6. ofer says:

    I think that with “Tonight” being a “Lets Dance” rehash all in all, one can draw lines between several tracks and see which was meant to be which. So “Tonight”, the song, is obviously “China girl” for being the classic Iggy tune turned into single material; “Loving the alien” is “Modern love” – the one song that actually means something and stands as the only reminder of Bowie’s lyric sensibilities; And “Blue jean” is clearly “Let’s dance” for 1984, with some of the parts actually sounding very similar.. “Tonight” being a failed rehash, all the songs are just not quite as accomplished as their ancestors (“Tonight” is Iggy being butchered, not just sanitized; “Loving the alien” is not merely philosophy hidden in a brilliant pop song, it’s philosophy hidden in a badly produced brilliant pop song), but still, just like it’s parallel in “Let’s dance”, this is the second best song in the album.

  7. Diamond Duke says:

    Not much to say about this one, I’m afraid, other than that it’s probably the second-best song on Tonight. (And for my money, Dancing With The Big Boys has got more of a spike to it.) I guess that what makes it effective is its simplicity and directness. It’s a bit of a retro throwaway, but a reasonably fun one. And, as usual throughout the album, Guy St. Onge’s marimba adds a welcome splash of colour and kick to the proceedings.

    And I’ve got to say I love the full-length Jazzin’ For Blue Jean video film! In fact, I daresay that the film pretty much nails David Bowie’s personality in a way, because to a certain extent he actually kind of is the nerdy bloke Vic and the neurotic superstar Screamin’ Lord Byron rolled into one! (Absolute gutbuster of a line: “You conniving, randy, bogus Oriental old queen! Your record sleeves are better than your songs!” All the funnier because at the time it was definitely true… ;))

  8. diamond dog says:

    Blue jean is as you said is a 2nd rate hit an ok track with little to say but dazzle with its fast paced fun. Must say I hate the extended promo its annoyed me how he felt he must take the piss out of himself , it ruined the mystique he had and the acting was god awful. I prefer the alternate straight run through instead of the (jean) genie outfit sillyness. In terms of cool it was an alltime low. It does for me reveal that all this funny cockernee geezer business dated quicker than the production job.
    Although maligned gotta say the album is very nicely reproduced on vinyl it actually dare I say sound quite nice.
    The whole album bar threat and big boys lacks live sound the best tracks stand out with the thumping drums and band strutting save bowie from utter meltdown. I don,t hate tonight as much black tie white noise which for me is way too slick.

  9. Jeremy says:

    “One of the best second-rate Bowie hits.”

    That pretty much sums it up for me. Great throw-away pop song without being too inspiring. You are right Diamond dog, a lot of Tonight does sound good on vinyl. I have Blue Jean on a 7″ bought when it came out and it sounds great. Interestingly enough the album production always sounds like the cover to me – blue and vibrant but ultimately superficial.

    A think the extended video is just great – very clever and fun. I don’t mind him satirizing himself at all.

    Wonder if we’ll ever get to hear those mostly abandoned demos? sounds like some lost songs there – or did they become Blah Blah Blah?

  10. Remco says:

    A nice little pop song, not one of his greatest achievements but a breath of fresh air among the awfulness that surrounds it .

    I also have the album on vinyl, still sounds horrible in my opinion.

  11. Anonymous says:

    That’s him from Right Said Fred on bass in the video (before he lost his hair).

  12. diamond dog says:

    At the time blue jean gave him a lot of publicity and also vhs sales as it was released as a vhs promo (still have it) and gave him lots of front covers. Just had a lisen to the extended mix. First time in many many years ….what a waste of time. Gotta disagree on vinyl sound. It is a great pressing and sounds very nice loving the alien is full of depth and punch. I think tonight ain’t as badly produced as black tie. That has dated really badly a very dull album indeed full of crap covers and uninspired playing. Listening again after many years I think its saved by some of the production. Loving the alien and blue jean sound excellent.

  13. Brendan O'Lear says:

    The first time I heard this was in a bar in Spain. It was playing on what passed for a giant video screen in those days. I looked up and then as soon as I saw those trousers and that band I turned away. It was a bit like seeing an ex-girlfriend who had once meant a lot and then pretending not to notice her.
    Point of interest from the video. The ‘Vic’ character has a Crystal Palace scarf in his room. Bowie also mentions Crystal Palace in his description of ‘Some Are’. Is this some childhood allegiance coming out?

  14. Frankie says:

    Speaking of trousers and clothes… there’s a Captain Beefheart album and song called Bluejeans and Moonbeams, and there’s also the Beefheart song called Dirty Blue Gene. Could it be purely coincidental that Blue Jean has a similar title? Could there be a mysterious connection between the two singers and songs? Is it a Marimba Conspiracy perhaps?

    Considering conspiracies of fate, Bowie and Beefheart are both Capricorn, as well as Elvis, Scott Walker, Syd Barrett and Adrian Belew -and all these guys have found a place in Bowie’s musical heart. In terms of astrological coincidence, perhaps that makes a pretty good blue jean argument too, or at least it makes a nice list of influential January-based rock musicians to ponder over and wonder. Hmmm…..

  15. Marion Brent says:

    I remember there being quite a hullabaloo about the Jazzin’ for Blue Jean film. Perhaps the extended promo film was something of a novelty then. It was screened at the cinema as a first feature, I think with the Company Of Wolves although I may have got that wrong.

    Now I find it rather sad that he felt obliged to satirise his art rocker persona, as if it was a rejection of that side of him. And yes, the doppelganger theme is a rather hoary old cliche. As for the song itself, I don’t find it excuciating in the same way that the Iggy songs on Tonight are, but it’s a rather bloodless, soulless track nonetheless and lacks any sense of invention. Run-of-the-mill fare I guess.

  16. Marion Brent says:

    (Having just checked on Wikipedia, I was right, it was indeed a support feature for The Company of Wolves.)

  17. Probably the only Tonight track that wasn’t worsened by the production. Still holds up for what it is: a lightweight pop-rock song.

  18. Momus says:

    The Serious Moonlight tour was subsidised by Levis, so Bowie really was “jazzing for blue jean” in 1983. Glam Rock had (according to Bowie himself) been about rejecting blue jeans and celebrating a more exotic artificiality, so this was a sort of self-betrayal. But, the Blue Jean lyric seems to suggest, this was a betrayal in which the whole human race was complicit: “sometimes I feel like the whole human race is jazzing for blue jean”.

    Bowie had joined his detractors, the hordes of Phil Collins fans who wouldn’t have had time for a Peter Gabriel at the height of his wayward inventiveness, nor a Bowie at the height of his own. He had therefore joined the blue-collar masses who worked for The Man, their corporate bosses, then unwound by watching mindless cop shows on TV (the “police bike” connects to the line in “I Can’t Read” about “switch the channel, watch the police car”).

    The upside of this for Bowie (apart from enormous wealth) was that he could finally be the mainstream all-round entertainer (almost Tommy Steele-like) he’d always claimed to be. The disadvantage, as seen from the vantage-point of 1984, is hidden in the line “remember blue jean’s blue”, which recalls the line in Fantastic Voyage “we’re learning to live with somebody’s depression, and I don’t want to live with somebody’s depression”. The denim-clad mainstream culture contains no glitter, no inspiration, no aspiration. It’s monochromatic, depressing, impoverished. In embracing it, our chameleon risks emerging in a single shade of blue — exactly as he’s depicted on the sleeve of Tonight, in fact.

  19. Oddly, this is a song I used to like. Then I got older, and it just started wearing me down. I think it’s harder to defend then, say, “Tumble and Twirl” because it is so clinically constructed. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is exactly what a robot would come up with if he were asked to write an 80s pop song. The video also used to amuse me, but not I note how funny it is that Bowie only waited one album before finding it necessary to play dress up again.

  20. RChappo says:

    I bought a second hand vinyl copy of “Tonight” at the weekend (I had never owned it before) – and “Loving The Alien” and “Blue Jean” are by far the best tracks on the album as far as I’m concerned. I’d pretty much forgotten about “Blue Jean” (I was not really a Bowie fan at the time it was released – but it was a song I was aware of) but I’m pleased to have re-discovered it. I can understand why people refer to it as a decent “second-rate” Bowie single but I really think it just stands as a great little single in it’s own right. It’s catchy, concise, well produced and well sung..and I really like the backing vocals and marimba. It also has a more sprightly tempo than I remember it having. Nothing earth shattering but a nice bit of pop. So, yes, I love it – it’s always nice to re-discover a little gem that you’d forgotten about (I had the same thing with “Modern Love” a few weeks ago when I got ‘Let’s Dance” on vinyl for the first time.)

  21. (First up, my apologies for the format test above but now I know what we’re dealing with.) 🙂

    Okay, Blue Jean.

    As is consistently the case in this blog, the original article is a well-considered, intelligent commentary on the song which provides a number of good points to ponder.

    For my own part, I like the track and I think it’s only real weakness is in its context as an album track, especially when the album in question is a really poor one.

    If this track had existed as a standalone single, it would probably be thought of with greater affection. Back in the 60s, The Beatles happily put out placemarker singles such as Lady Madonna in between major statements such as Pepper and the White Album.  Lady Madonna was never considered to be anything other than a single, a satisfying snack between meals which, nevertheless whetted the appetite for the main course still to come.  Of course, the music industry had changed by the time that Tonight was released and it had become standard for an album to be trailed by a promotional single.

    However, I was quite content to enjoy Blue Jean on its own merits as an enjoyable three minutes of radio or one of the more satisfying choices that one might hear on a jukebox. It’s a decent bit of work whose standing has suffered because it’s just an excellent little pop song which ended up in bad company on a seriously lacklustre album.

  22. Bob Hanson says:

    The Papercranes’ cover version on ‘We Were So Turned On’ is a thing of delicate beauty.

  23. Brian says:

    It’s weird comparing the “hit” of the album to Let’s Dance. Whereas Let’s Dance has aged well, this has not. I don’t know how Bowie was expecting to keep a hold on his Let’s Dance audience with songs like this. It has none of the charm of that track and appeals to neither his old nor new audience.

    The cover above is quite nice, maybe better than Bowie’s song, but even then it still sounds boring.

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