Shades

Shades (Iggy Pop).
Shades (Iggy Pop, single edit, video).
Shades (Iggy Pop, live, 1986).
Shades (Iggy Pop, live, 1987).

He sees me as a character. Probably an American beatnik who survived, Kerouac thirty years later. And I see him as one of the only representatives of the enfranchised world that understands me or that I can stand.

Iggy Pop, on David Bowie, 1987.

Bowie’s last public act of goodwill for Iggy Pop was to make him a hit record, which Bowie did with economy, selecting some Pop demos, writing a few other songs with him and recording the lot over three weeks with a skeleton crew. Kevin Armstrong provided the guitar, while the jack-of-all-trades Erdal Kizilcay essentially made the rest of the album: playing bass, synths, keyboards and drums, writing a string arrangement and, along with Armstrong, singing backing vocals. Co-producer David Richards programmed the Linn Drum. Bowie and Pop were the roadies, hauling gear in and out of the studio.

Blah-Blah-Blah was intended as Pop’s own Let’s Dance—a contemporary-sounding album with a sure-fire single (in this case, Pop’s cover of Johnny O’Keefe’s “Real Wild Child”).* And Pop was a willing partner in his rehabilitation. “I wanted to write stuff people would hum,” he told Peter Antony in 1986. “[The album] sounds real good and I know it. It sounds good enough to be played on the radio.”

Blah was shopped around to labels, including Virgin and A&M, which started a bidding war.”[Blah-Blah-Blah] came in pretty much finished, and it was almost like a David Bowie record that, as a record company, you wished you’d had but never got,” said Nancy Jeffries, A&M’s talent head at the time. A&M got the record, reportedly for $500,000, including a good-sized producer’s fee for Bowie (his work wasn’t entirely altruistic). Its promotion staff, in a savvy bit of counter-Christmas programming, pushed “Wild Child” in the UK in December 1986 and it hit #10, the best chart performance of Pop’s life.**

In the years since its release, Blah has fallen into some critical neglect, its status not helped by Pop’s occasional public grousing about it (he once said “it’s not my favorite record, but it got me some hits, so maybe it should be“) while its echt-1986 sound, especially Kizilcay’s synthesizers and gated drums (and the Linn on loan from Queen’s Roger Taylor), has dated it. But Blah finds Pop in strong voice, dedicated to melody in a way he never had been before, and with a solid collection of songs. For once on a Pop album, there are no half-assed covers, no sloppy studio improvs, and at its best, Blah‘s a document of a hard-won middle age (Pop was 39 when he cut it).

And Bowie’s six co-contributions, while no classics, are still some of his best songs of the period. As with his soundtrack material, Bowie seemed liberated by having someone else’s name on the label, and the challenge of making Pop commercial seemed to shake him out of his torpor. Excited by what he’d accomplished with Pop and feeling creatively renewed, Bowie went on a writing binge, soon assembling a stack of material for a new record of his own, which he planned to make via the same efficient, minimalist method as Blah. It didn’t quite turn out that way.

After his chaotic early Eighties (drugs, voodoo), Pop was at a happy standstill. Living with his wife Suchi in a small Greenwich Village apartment, he spent his days “staying very straight”: reading novels, doing chores and writing. He clipped newspaper articles for cut-up verses, brought a portable typewriter to Washington Square Park. He took acting classes (and auditioned for parts, landing a cameo in Scorsese’s Color of Money), went to the gym. After Pop felt he’d written enough top-shelf material, he got in touch with Steve Jones, the former Sex Pistols guitarist, who, like Pop, was now sober. In LA, in the summer of 1985, Pop and Jones wrote two dozen songs and cut demos for nine (including Blah‘s “Cry for Love,” “Fire Girl,” and “Winners and Losers,” while “Beside You,” eventually recorded for American Caesar, also dates from this period).

Bowie and Pop met up in November 1985, when Bowie was in New York finishing the Labyrinth soundtrack (most likely doing the “Underground” vocal sessions). While initially skeptical when he learned that Pop had been working with Steve Jones, Bowie was impressed with the 8-track demos. But he feared that as they were all mid-tempo songs, it would make for a dull record. “You’ll need some fast ones and some slow ones,” he told Pop, and volunteered to write them. And Pop recognized that Bowie would provide a needed counterpoint to the very “basic guitar, drums and vocal” tracks that he and Jones had demoed.

So over three months, including trips to Mustique and Gstaad, Pop and Bowie wrote the remainder of Blah-Blah-Blah (while it’s not confirmed, they likely resuscitated some pieces begun during Pop’s visit to the Tonight sessions). Pop was determined that the new songs had to be demoed just like his and Jones’ earlier tapes, so Bowie went to the NYC musician’s haven Manny’s Music and bought a 4-track recorder, some Ovation guitars, a Roland drum synth, a Casio synth and a Boss digital sampler. He took the haul back to their rehearsal space, where he and Pop then spent hours reading manuals to try to figure out how the gear worked.

The album sessions, at Montreux’s Mountain Studios (conveniently near Bowie’s home), were run with brutal efficiency, as if by a team of Deutsche Grammophon engineers from the Fifties. According to Paul Trynka’s Pop bio, Bowie was full of “jittery intensity,” thanks to his incessant smoking and endless cups of espresso, and he walked around with a clipboard that held each day’s recording schedule, which Bowie would follow meticulously, checking off each successful take.

As Steve Jones couldn’t get a visa in time for the sessions, an element of potential chaos was eliminated (Jones’ lead solo on the demo of “Cry for Love” was used in the final mix), letting Bowie give the reins to Kizilcay and Armstrong. Bowie was already working with Kizilcay on some soundtrack material, and he had met Armstrong in the Absolute Beginners/”Dancing in the Street” sessions. Pop called Armstrong, who had played with Alien Sex Fiend, a “dedicated worker,” and one morning took him rowing on Lake Geneva. Armstrong recalled Pop matter-of-factly pointing out the Villa Diodati, where Mary Shelley had started Frankenstein.

Of the Bowie/Pop collaborations, “Shades” is mostly Bowie’s work, as he wrote the music and a good chunk of the lyric, including the entire first verse. Reportedly inspired by Bowie watching a delighted Pop give a present to his wife Suchi, and playing off the guitar riff of Jones/Pop’s “Cry for Love,” “Shades” is Bowie writing in the voice of Iggy the character: a humble, broken guy who’s stunned by a small act of human kindness, here his girlfriend giving him a pair of sunglasses.

Bowie kept the song simple, just a pair of melodic verses that easily link to a two-tiered, lovely chorus, where Pop’s baritone is tracked over an octave higher by Armstrong and Kizilcay’s vocals (it’s possible Bowie’s in the mix, too, but I don’t hear him). The accompaniment is mainly Kizilcay in a dozen guises—a bubbling synth pattern that, along with a unobtrusive bassline, serves as the bedrock of the track; the little organ riff that appears in the left channel, starting with the second verse, and which slowly gets more prominence in the mix; the “foghorn” sounding synth in the chorus; the wildly-compressed drum intro and the regular fills throughout the track.

Pop liked Bowie’s idea of doing “one of those ‘reformed guy’ kinda songs,” (it’s sequenced as a delayed response to “Real Wild Child”) and he sang it well, taking his time with the melody, building confidently to the peak at the end of the chorus. That said, Pop had to trim some of Bowie’s lyric to better fit his persona. Bowie originally wrote the chorus as “I know what kind of man I am/I’m not Saint Francis of Assisi or Baudelaire’s son,” which Pop felt would sound dubious coming from his mouth. Bowie “tends to be a little grand in his allusions,” Pop told an interviewer in 1987.

Recorded late April-May 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland. First released on 23 October 1986, on Blah-Blah-Blah, and in February 1987 as a single (AM 374, c/w “Baby, It Can’t Fall”) which got a slight edit (“it makes me come in the night” was too much for radio, evidently) and was given a dime-budget video in which Pop mimes the song while filmed through a chain-link fence in what looks like a batting cage.

Of great help for this entry was Paul Trynka’s essential Open Up and Bleed (it’s the source of the Jeffries quote and a few of the Pop ones). The rest of the Iggy quotes are from the various radio interviews he gave in promoting Blah, including a 30-minute 1986 interview on Radio Luxembourg and this amazing interview, taped in Japan in April 1987, which becomes Pop’s rambling but trenchant evaluation of his life and philosophy of music. “If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s some asshole singing a song describing his version of society in some crappy metaphor…like ‘The Windmills of Your Mind.’

* Also known as “Wild One,” it was recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis, whose version rivals O’Keefe‘s. Jerry Allison cut a punk rock single of it in 1958.

** While selling modestly in the UK and the US, Blah went gold in Canada, giving Pop his first-ever gold record. There’s a clip of a beaming, awkward, suit-wearing Iggy receiving the award at a Vancouver hotel. It’s oddly touching—it would be the final scene in the Hollywood biopic of his life (starring Johnny Depp).

Top: Paul W. Locke, “Suffolk Downs, East Boston, MA, 1986.”

29 Responses to Shades

  1. Frankie says:

    I’m glad you’re covering this album. What a treat. I always thought this was a great Iggy Pop song, but now I’ve learned that it’s mostly Bowie’s. Another personal fave is Hideaway. Both songs are strangely moving, and the shimmering/flanged guitar-picking on Shades reminded me of Carlos Alomar on Stage.

    But Kizilcay ruins it for me, unfortunately, because he tends to make things like they’re all just coming from a single Casio organ, where there’s no depth of field to the sound. And there’s a certain kind cheapness to that suggests something rushed. It’s all just coming out of the same little Casio speaker, played by an impressive subway busker perhaps. But its all too flat and overlapped.

    And the hollow sound of Iggy’s voice and the drum machine through an amp in an indoor public pool, makes the the music sound all too synthetic, which buries Iggy’s humanity. It is strange how that alienating parking lot pop song aesthetic persisted until Tin Machine, where it was evidently relinquished for something more gritty, wild and meaner.

  2. giospurs says:

    hey, a good song on the blog! it seems like it’s been a while😛

    nice entry mate

  3. PH says:

    The video was shot at an indoor cricket centre. GBC is painted on the wall (Great Britain Cricket?), and you can see the stumps in the background.
    It’s jarring that the word “cum” is replaced with “swim” in the single edit, because we were still subject to silly censorship laws back then.

  4. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Graceless production but a lovely melody and a solid set of lyrics for once, which Iggy handles with professionalism. I’d rather hear his gargoyle baritone than Bowie’s.

    • David L says:

      One can certainly criticize Bowie’s song-writing, production, choice of co-conspirators, etc. in the 80s, but I find it hard to criticize his voice. That’s the one constant that’s always great, IMO. He sings the hell out of Underground, for instance. And Iggy’s voice is always interesting, so as far as voices go, why choose? We can have them both.😉

  5. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Bowie’s vocals are what I must make the most allowances for these days. He sings the hell out of a lot of songs (“Time,” “Kingdom Come”) and sounds terrible. He found his voice, pun intended, on STS and the Berlin trilogy.

    • David L says:

      I was using the phrase “sing the hell out of” to mean that he nailed it, sang it as well as anyone could have. But if you’re using “sing the hell out of” as another way of saying he’s oversinging, I can’t agree with you about those two you listed. I think they’re fine and understand what he was trying to do with “Kingdom Come.” But I’d offer that “God Only Knows” and “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” from Black Tie would qualify as rare instances where he turned his trumpet up to 11.

      • I think it says a lot more about how jaded some of us are than it does about Bowie’s talent that “oversinging” is even considered a valid criticism. One may dislike his particular embellishments but it is simply undeniable that he does things with his voice that very few talented singers can do. On Underground, for example, we take it for granted that he can seemlessly shift from chest voice to head voice (NOT falsetto) in seconds on the “daddy daddy get me”s without considering that most theatrical or classical singers would have to train extensively to pull that off. Bowie does it without, as far as I know, any formal training.

        There are people who find, say, Judy Garland overindulgent or histrionic, but serious people would never say she “oversings.” You either sing or you don’t.

    • Pierce says:

      Time? You’re joking. His performance is colossal on that.

    • Pierce says:

      I love his Kingdom Come voice. Wish there was more of it.

  6. Pierce says:

    Great review of a great track. Blah Blah Blah doesn’t get enough love, so many other wonderful numbers: isolation, fire girl, cry for love, hideaway. A better album than most of Bowie’s output from the time. This may the only Bowie-penned track though..

  7. algeriatouchshriek says:

    Shades. I remember Mary Whitehose getting all uppity about that and having it banned from TV … I think The Tube played an edit of the video. Blah is my favourite Iggy album. I like it when cult artists make that first move toward the mainstream, it often produces some really interesting work; their creativity alliding with some commerical necessity … it can however derail a career.

  8. Jeremy says:

    Hey – great write up as per usual! Great song, I really liked it at the time and it pleased me to see Pop getting some action. It’s a really touching song – manages to shy away from sentimentality. Love his vocals.

    As pointed out – the production values are just sooo eighties! Man, what a bad decade for production.

  9. david says:

    You really can’t hear Bowie’s vocal? The whoops are trademark Bowie-Drive in Saturday, Absolute Beginners. Great song, great Bowie album that never was. I remember thinking when Never Let me Down came out that Bowie must given Iggy all his best cuts.

  10. diamond dog says:

    Its a fantastic album , the album Bowie should have made. What a friend ! Throwing these tracks to iggy so generous, iggy is rather ungracious about it as a body of work. I must say I like the massive drum sound reminds me of julian copes on st julian and does date it but I like it. Its a great song however it was produced let’s face it you cannot polish a turd. It would have sounded great played on a banjo and cardboard boxes. Saw iggy at the apollo theatre manchester promoting the album iggy was great though I remember being disapponted he was not as ‘dangerous’ live as he once was.

  11. Maj says:

    Shades is a lovely song. Touching, humorous, sweet. I don’t listen to Blah very often as I find the combo of Iggy & synthy sounding drums a bit weird but Shades aren’t that far off Iggy’s 90’s stuff, some of which I love, so I might get back to it more often from now on.
    That Japanese Iggy interview truly is brilliant, isn’t it. I loved how after the bit you quoted the interviewer pretty much caught Iggy’s bullshit pointing out the lyrics to Search & Destroy are a metaphor too (though a good one). But Iggy’s quotient of contradictory statements is still pretty low compared to Bowie’s.😉
    I know they grew apart and once Iggy got sober he wanted to make stuff on his own & not be in Bowie’s shadow but it’s a bit sad these two are not close any more. Bowie & Lou Reed see each other from time to time, if I understand it correctly but these two…they’re my favourite rock star friendship, dammit. *wipes tear*
    It’s interesting Bowie worked better when it wasn’t his arse on the line. Blah might not be among the most amazing stuff Iggy has done but still from my impression of it & from my impression of Tonight (recently refreshed by this excellent blog) Blah Blah Blah > Tonight as far as Iggy’s & Bowie’s 80’s collaborations go.

  12. Darth Pazuzu says:

    I must confess, I still don’t have a copy of Blah-Blah-Blah yet! The only other two tracks from that album that I’m at all familiar with are Real Wild Child and Cry For Love. The funny thing is, I don’t have Brick By Brick, either – meaning that I don’t have either of Iggy’s two most commercially successful albums. But I do have his later, more abrasive-sounding work: American Caesar, Naughty Little Doggie, Avenue B, Beat ‘Em Up, Skull Ring the Stooges’ reunion record The Weirdness and also the more recent Les Preliminaires (interesting, but not really my cup of tea). As far as Iggy’s earlier stuff, I have the 2-CD special editions of The Stooges, Funhouse and Raw Power (as well as Iggy’s own ’97 remix of the latter), the remastered Kill City, The Idiot, Lust For Life and New Values.

    I must say, this is a really nice song – musically and lyrically. I don’t think it represents either Iggy or David at their absolute best (although it arguably ranks among their ’80s best), but while it’s certainly a softer pop song it’s not generic by any stretch. It actually does remind me a great deal of Bowie’s later title track for the When The Wind Blows soundtrack from the same year, particularly with its mildly dissonant riff. It’s definitely positive proof that Bowie was more than capable of writing decent, distinctive and dramatic pop tunes. I certainly think Bowie’s own albums from the ’80s would have been much better if he’d had more songs in the vein of Absolute Beginners, Shades and When The Wind Blows – and felt less obliged to kowtow to blander notions of what was considered commercially acceptable at the time.

  13. Rufus Oculus says:

    I always saw this song as Bowie’s Bret East on Ellis like take on 80s consumerism. I love my……..shades. I found it really funny.

  14. I don’t have much to say about the song, but I am shocked to see that Iggy does, in fact, own a shirt.

  15. rob thomas says:

    I’ve just played this for the first time. Awful 80s production tropes aside, this sounds like something from a dodgy musical (like some of NLMD).

    Sentimentality and simplicity are fine (e.g. Absolute Beginners) but they’ve got to be done *well*.

    I’m genuinely amazed that contributors like Maj like this song.🙂

    • Anonymous says:

      Well, Rob, I’m a bit of an Iggy fan girl, you know. He amuses me. I like being amused. I’m one of the few people who enjoy what he’s been doing in the past 15 years.

      I rarely listen to Shades actually, but its better endowed sister Isolation is my jam and I will take it to my grave.

      • Maj says:

        Right. Forgot Chrome decided to un-sign me from everything a few days ago. This Anonymous was me, obviously.

      • rob thomas says:

        I should have guessed you were a person of immaculate sensibility: taking the better-endowed sister to the grave is the only way to go…and feels curiously Bowie-esque (Please Mr. D, Boys, etc…) Will listen to Isolation now.

  16. rob thomas says:

    p.s. Iggy’s mugging it through the fence in the chorus is beyond parody. Hideous.

  17. rob thomas says:

    I meant ‘Please Mr. G’, o’ course.

  18. Ted Mills says:

    One of my favorite elements of this song is the soothing two note descending synth motif at the end of the opening bars. Later, when Nite Flights came out it could hear an echo in that in the buzzy riff after the chorus.

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