This Is Not America (Bowie and the Pat Metheny Group).
Chris (This Is Not America) (Pat Metheny Group, 1985).
This Is Not America (Pat Metheny Group, live, 1995).
This Is Not America (Bowie, broadcast, 2000).
This Is Not America (Bowie, live, 2000).
American Dream (P. Diddy with Bowie, 2001).
This Is Not America (Pat Metheny Group and Anna Maria Jopek, 2002).
This Is Not America (Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, 2005).
As soon as he was done with Tonight, Bowie seemed to regret having made it. He all but apologized for the record* in interviews, and he had no intention of touring to promote it. He was in a trough; he tried to haul himself out of it through soundtrack work.
Bowie had only written the quarter-baked “Revolutionary Song” for Just a Gigolo and the scrapped soundtrack to Man Who Fell to Earth. Now, rather suddenly, he became a minor soundtrack regular in the mid-Eighties, writing and performing songs for four films, two of which he also acted in. A couple of these songs were some of his best material of the decade. It’s as though Bowie found a measure of inspiration in contract work. Given a plotline to work with, a lyrical cue or an incidental music requirement, he was briefly free from his inertia.
The first of these songs, “This Is Not America,” recorded with the Pat Metheny Group in late 1984, was written for the John Schlesinger film The Falcon and the Snowman, about two upper-class kids from California who committed espionage in the mid-Seventies. Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton), a CIA contractor disgusted by his employer—the final break came when he discovered that the CIA had helped cause the downfall of Australia’s Labor Party government in 1975—began passing on secrets to the Soviets. Boyce’s go-between was his boyhood friend Andrew Daulton Lee (Sean Penn), an addict who figured treason was an efficient way to get his cocaine money. They were arrested in 1977. However, as though sent back for revisions by a producer, Boyce’s story grew ever more bizarre. He escaped from prison in 1980, became a bank robber for a time, and intended to fly to the Soviet Union to join the Red Army until he was arrested again in 1981 (both he and Lee have since been paroled).
Falcon was a somber anomaly at the height of the Reagan years, when many films were refighting Vietnam (spoiler: this time, We Win), fervidly imagining Soviet or terrorist invasions of the heartland, or equating the Grenada invasion with Korea and Vietnam. Akin to the weary spymastering of John LeCarre’s Smiley novels, Falcon is a pair of jaded innocents bungling things abroad, two pawns given a few spaces of movement on the board before being swept off. Hutton’s Boyce is an idealist as well as something of a pompous fool; Penn’s Lee is a wretched user whose comeuppance at the hand of the Mexican police is awful and tragic.
John Schlesinger had helped invent Swinging Britain with Billy Liar and Darling and packed it off with Sunday Bloody Sunday. His subsequent work in the US coarsened him, with the gritty promise of Midnight Cowboy devolving into the exploitative dreck of Marathon Man in less than a decade. Falcon, Schlesinger’s last major film, seems like his last thoughts on the Sixties, the bombast and heroics of the decade reduced to the doings of two sad dupes, consumed and deluded by ideology or addiction, used and discarded by all sides. It offers no sense of liberation: the hero of the film is a traitor; his actions, while driven by moral outrage, damage no one in power, just other pawns.
How Bowie and Pat Metheny came to work together on Falcon‘s soundtrack is a bit of a mystery. None of the Bowie biographies offer anything on it, as most dismiss “This Is Not America” in a sentence, if not ignoring it entirely. I assume the collaboration was likely EMI’s doing, the label figuring Bowie could add pop appeal to an otherwise ambient/jazz fusion soundtrack that wasn’t going to rival Beverly Hills Cop‘s in terms of sales.
Perhaps working with a jazz quartet intrigued Bowie, who hadn’t tried his hand at jazz since “Good Morning Girl.” That said, “This Is Not America” isn’t jazz at all—there are no improvisations; Metheny plays rhythm guitar for the entire track, never soloing even in the long outro. The piece is a closed circuit: it’s built primarily on a repeating four-chord sequence (originally Gm-Dm/F-Ebmaj7-Dm/F, or I-IV-VImaj7-IV) with a constant rhythmic pulse courtesy of Metheny’s drummer Paul Wertico. Synthesizer motifs appear throughout: a rise-and-fall fanfare, a somber French horn-sounding counter-melody that begins in the second verse. Metheny said at the time that he intended the track to be mainstream: “It was the first time the group really committed itself to doing a real pop record,” he told Billboard.
Metheny and his keyboardist Lyle Mays had written a piece called “Chris” for the Falcon soundtrack, a tone poem for Hutton’s character. This served as the basic track for which Bowie wrote a lyric,** set to the perspective of the disillusioned Boyce. Bowie’s lyric has its faults: the apparent need to include the film title at some point leads to the leaden doom-laden lines about the falcon spiraling and the snowman melting, while the homophone rhymes of “piece” and “peace,” and, more thuddingly, the near-homophone “America” and “a miracle” (done already by Culture Club) are a bit creaky.
Still his vocal is one of his finest of the era: the way Bowie quietly twists and reshapes his phrasing of “America” in its various repeats; the descending phrases to match lyrical depictions of decay (blossoms failing to bloom, falcons tumbling); his fine, eerie singing on the bridge—the octave leap on “was a TIME,” the run of high Gs and As on “blew so pure.” (There’s a touch of Donald Fagen on “faintest idea“). Bowie deftly handles the jarring key change after the first bridge (to G-sharp minor), a move that puts an edge into the song but also seems like the composers forcing the drama a bit. The problem is that once the key change happens, the song doesn’t go anywhere new, settling into a repeat of the first verse and the entire bridge, plus a minute’s worth of outro. When he performed it live years later, Bowie wisely moved the change to the song’s climax.
The hook—the repeated refrain “this is not America”—is all the drama the song needed, as Bowie begins by softly reinforcing the declarations of his backing singers and eventually makes “this is not America” a mournful, wounding statement in its closing repetitions. There’s a world, an empty generation, within the words, their open accusation. Packaged in a quiet, near-Muzak setting, “This Is Not America” briefly hung in the air in the mid-Eighties, a hummable curse for an unsubtle time, offering no solutions, only one concrete statement: that we live in a fiction.
Released in conjunction with Falcon in January 1985, “This Is Not America” proved a minor hit for Bowie, having the greatest popularity in Western Europe (the Dutch and Germans especially loved it). Forgotten soon afterward, “America” was revived in 2000 for a Bowie BBC appearance. With the song removed from the synthetic precision of Metheny’s arrangement and Bob Clearmountain’s mix, it took on a bit of color, with Bowie playing up the song’s dramatics.
With the election of George W. Bush, the song’s title was irresistible, and it was soon used for blunt ends: P. Diddy, shaken out of his torpor to record a pissed-off rap, “American Dream,” for the film Training Day, sampled “This Is Not America,” with Bowie providing new vocals. The best of the latter-day covers was Charlie Haden’s, who in 2005 made “This Is Not America” a romp, a joyous collaboration that seems set out to disprove the song’s title: Haden’s version is America on one of its better, chaotic days.
Recorded ca. November 1984, Montreux, Switzerland (the backing track was likely cut in London, in September ’84). Released January 1985 as EMI America 190 (#14 UK, #32 US, #1 in Holland) and also on The Falcon and the Snowman OST (EMI America SV 17150).
* After Tonight, Hugh Padgham went to London to record Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required. What’s striking about NJR (which I just listened to for the first time in probably 25 years) is how much it’s a successful revision of Tonight: it has a similar sound, similar vocal treatments, rhythm guitar work that seems like Carlos Alomar outtakes, similar horn arrangements (the “Phoenix Horns” here, rather than the Borneos), Arif Martin string arrangements. But NJR works far better, as it has an internal consistency—its uptempo irritating singles are embedded within a wider set of gloomy pieces, making the former seem like manic flights in a depressive’s journal.
Top: Ray Mortenson, “Untitled,” South Bronx, NYC, 1983; Christopher Boyce’s second arrest, 1981.