This Is Not America

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.

** It was still novel for Bowie to write a lyric for another’s music:  he had hardly done so in his life (see “Pancho”, “Even a Fool Learns to Love” and “Music Is Lethal”/”Hey Ma, Get Papa”).

Top: Ray Mortenson, “Untitled,” South Bronx, NYC, 1983; Christopher Boyce’s second arrest, 1981.

25 Responses to This Is Not America

  1. diamond dog says:

    A great song truly haunting and the delivery perfects his mannered style taking it to new peaks. It sens a shiver down the spine during the NOOO , I remember at the time it displayed a glimmer of hope that he still had something ….never understood the lyric and must confess never seen the film thought I shook the directors hand when he came to my town to make yanks.

  2. lonepilgrim says:

    I’ve always liked this. I bought the single, which must make it the last Bowie music I bought at the time of release – everything since has been previous releases

  3. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I seem to remember an excellent review of this single by Tony Parsons. The gist of the review was that the song was both good and bad in that it clearly showed how Bowie had been great in a way that few other people in pop music ever had been. (could be a false memory)
    I clicked on one of the Pat Metheny links at the top and loved one of the You Tube comments. It said something like ‘this song was featured by the Weather Channel’, and that seemed to be meant as a form of praise.
    Listening to ‘No Jacket Required’. That really is above and beyond the call of duty!

  4. Gnomemansland says:

    Sha la la lalaaaaaa

  5. Jeremy says:

    A great piece of sophisticated pop. I also bought the single when it came out. Love the atmosphere of the song and the dramatics, but it never made me want to see the film. Songs like these help make the eighties not seem as bad for Bowie. It’s a pity that it is so easily ignored by biographers and the such as it really is class. Quality tracks that are hidden away in a discography like this one is help make Bowie an even more tasty proposition – I love it.

    For some reason I remembered Absolute Beginners coming before TINA – the song, not the girl, but obviously I’m wrong.

  6. Maj says:

    A great song. I have to say I had no idea Bowie didn’t write the music, let alone which film it accompanied & who was the director (now that I know I’m actually tempted to watch it some time).
    I digressed. Didn’t know Bowie didn’t write the music but now that I know it makes a lot of sense. It doesn’t quite sound like his musical signature, does it. But at the same time it could easily pass for his composition. This was the 80’s after all, a decade in which Bowie didn’t quite sound like Bowie.
    I mostly know and listen to the 2000 version. And love it. But the original production is not too bad either, I actually don’t mind for the key change to happen earlier in the song. Knowing the 2000 version first the early key change trew me off at first but over time I’ve actually became quite fond of it… 🙂
    I’m ashamed to say I never listened to the lyrics properly. Let’s face it, the key lyric everyone remembers is sha-la-la-la-laaa. 😉

  7. David L says:

    After the Tonight album I pretty much tuned out/was unaware of Bowie until Never Let Me Down, so this is fascinating reading for me. A very good song that I only became aware of a few years ago. Now I’m wondering if Bowie’s choosing to team up with the jazzy Metheny was inspired by Bryan Ferry’s solo outings around this time, which have a similar “cool AOR” vibe to them. Stuff like “Don’t Stop the Dance,” etc. Those two seemed to be trading shots for much of their careers.

    • David L says:

      Just checked wiki, apparently the Ferry album I’m thinking of came out in ’85 — so perhaps it was Ferry who was inspired.

    • Maj says:

      You made a great point. This Is Not America and even Never Let Me Down (song) are very Ferry-esque and it is indeed Bowie copying Ferry, for Ferry always had these leanings.

  8. Remco says:

    Funny how some songs just slip through the cracks of ones attention, this is certainly one of them. Even though it was a big hit in my country (I’m Dutch) I remember finding it very boring at the time ( I was nine). Afterwards I never really listened to it either since it wasn’t on any of the albums and it was from the evil period.

    Listening to it now there’s still something that bugs me about it and I can’t quite place what it is. It’s certainly not a bad song and it’s so much better than the stuff that preceded it but I still don’t feel much love for it. The 2000 version comes close though, It’s a shame that Bowie delegated the “There was a time” line to his backing singers but apart from that there’s an urgency to the Beeb performance that is missing from the studio version. It’s like they’re very close to getting it, just not quite.

  9. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Nothing to do with ‘This is not America’ but there’s a reasonably interesting programme available on the BBC for the next week or so for anyone interested:

  10. diamond dog says:

    Not sure I agree with bowie copying ferry I think they are quite removed from each other in style any similarity is due to 80,s production. Gotta say ferry faired better during the decade he has never lost his style and cool where Bowie sadly lost it totally. Never thought I would see the great dame on roller skates but it happened in 87 cripes what a year. This is not america is a gem I bought the 12 inch must did it out as cannot remember if it is longer?

    • Maj says:

      Oh, I didn’t mean consciously copying Ferry. It should have been “copying”. Though I think it’s funny 2 of the better songs of Bowie’s 80’s output sound a bit like Ferry. Agree Ferry has been more solid with his solo music style. I think Bowie is more obviously dependent on inspiration from without and that’s one of the reasons the 80’s lapse happened…Ferry, I *think* is more inspired by his own fantasy world and has a specific sound he’s searching for but never going to any great extremes to achieve it. That’s the impression I get from his solo career, Roxy Music is a different story…even though after Eno left Roxy was pretty much his project as well…
      I’d better go before I turn this into a Bryan Ferry blog. 😉

      • David L says:

        Agreed … I don’t think either of them would have consciously copied the other, it was more a matter of inspiration — one hearing the other’s stuff and saying, hm, that sounds pretty good, maybe I should try some urban sophisticate-contemporary stuff.

  11. Matt says:

    Article was long but i read it seem to be interesting. I think the topic was truly controversal……this is not america…lol

  12. timspeaker says:

    The strangest part of this article for me was the P. Diddy track…perhaps I blocked this out of my mind, but I have no memory of the collaboration or the song. Perhaps Bowie was on whatever drug Jimmy Page was on when he worked Kashmir with P. Diddy, another musical atrocity from the late 90’s.

    As for the article—top notch as always.

    Happy New Year to my fellow Bowie-philes! Can’t wait for another great year here.

  13. david says:

    I always thought he sounded a bit like Dusty Springfield in the chorus, which seemed oddly prescient when the Pet Shop Boys began working with her soon after wards. Great song though-probably one of his top five in the 80’s (post SS)

  14. Diamond Duke says:

    I actually haven’t seen the movie yet. I really should one of these days. Anyway, the song itself is certainly decent. It’s perhaps a tad lightweight, and perhaps just a bit too much on the smooth side. But otherwise a well-crafted, thoughtful pop tune. Nothing to complain about, really…

    (I did use this song on Disc 4 of a 14-disc “non-linear David Bowie hyper-cycle” I just recently cooked up. I sandwiched it between an 1984 < Panic In Detroit < Day-In Day Out sequence and a Black Tie White Noise < Repetition < I'm Afraid Of Americans < Young Americans sequence! Makes sense, right…? 😉

  15. Fp Cassini says:

    Thanks for the thorough article. Btw, while I think you have the correct chords (Gm-Dm/F-Ebmaj7-Dm/F), that pattern is I-V-VI-V, not I-IV-VI-IV.

  16. Vinnie says:

    I love this song.

    Holy shit: this P Diddy song must have been swept under the rug, immediately after it was finished.

  17. Action Man says:

    A bit of trivia relating to the movie: it was playing when HBO’s signal got hacked by a “Captain Midnight” protesting HBO’s jacked-up rates.

  18. I was listening to the original cast recording from Lazarus for the first time today, and when this song came on, I actually started crying. The new version of this song is just incredibly haunting and beautiful; in fact, if someone can get Sophia Anne Caruso to record cover versions of every single David Bowie song ever recorded, I’d be all in favour of it. Her version of Life on Mars? is gorgeous as well.

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