Isolation

Isolation.
Isolation (single edit, video).

“Isolation” was an Iggy Pop-dominated composition, as Pop pointedly told an interviewer at the time that its melody was all his. During his exile year in Greenwich Village (which paralleled Bowie’s dry-out period in Berlin the decade before, down to Pop speaking about the joys of buying his own groceries and cleaning up his own apartment), Pop had wanted to “work up my sense of melody,” something he felt he’d neglected in his earlier songs. And Bowie had wanted to make Pop “better aware of the qualities of his own voice,” to know that “he didn’t have to be so histrionic in what he was doing physically or with sound, and still have the same kind of weight as a performer and artist.” So Bowie pushed Pop to sustain notes, extend phrases, to expand his range beyond the typical growling baritone.

“Isolation” was a success on both fronts, with a sturdy, steadily-building melody for which Pop gives his strongest vocal on the record. But while Pop declared “Isolation” mainly his doing, it’s arguably one of the most Bowie-sounding tracks on Blah-Blah-Blah, and its origins went back to the start of their collaboration: “Isolation” had been the original title of “What in the World,” a song first intended for The Idiot.

While the dumb-brilliant lyric (“I need some lovin’, like a fastball needs control“) and the song’s no-frills C major-based chord structure seem Iggy’s doing, Bowie took over the song in the studio. He seems the force behind the backing vocals, whose ranks audibly include him and whose staggered responses push against Pop’s longer-held phrases, as well as the gorgeous, grandiose build to the chorus (was Thom Yorke listening? there’s a trace of “Isolation” in the end chorus of “Let Down.”)

And while the saxophone, which first crops up in the chorus and later briefly trades phrases with Pop, is uncredited (and so conceivably is played by the one-man-band Erdal Kizilcay), you know it’s Bowie—it’s one of his most visible fingerprints on the album. “Isolation” is their purest collaboration on Blah, even if both took pains to deny it.

Recorded late April-May 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland. On Blah-Blah-Blah. “Isolation” was released in June 1987 as the album’s second UK single (AMY 397 c/w “Hideaway,” didn’t chart) and given another strange, cheap video.

Top: Hamish Reid, “Hungerford Bridge, London, 1986.”

13 Responses to Isolation

  1. astonishing that it didn’t chart..radio programmers should be ashamed of themselves….imagine hearing that blaring out of a car radio with the roof down on a sunny day,or on a winter day coming home from a bad time at work.

    i wonder if phil spector ever heard it.

    • Maj says:

      that bit about car with the roof down just completely transported me to a different dimension. thanks for that. cheers from a frozen, snow-covered Prague…🙂

  2. Maj says:

    Isolation is a song that for some reason I’d completely ignored until your entry on Shades & I came back to Blah & gave it a proper listen. A very nice discovery! Yep, it’s very Bowie-esque, and when you mentioned What in the World it made me almost weep when I imagined what this song would’ve sounded like in ’77.
    Iggy’s voice sounds great on this, I for one am glad Bowie pushed him like this. Both me & Bowie like our Iggy a bit croony, so thanks, Dave. (But then Jim is a Sinatra lover and he always had some croony tendencies, even in his wildest Stooge scream days. So if he didn’t want to, not even Bowie would make him stretch his vocal abilities.)
    As I said the song would probably be a classic with a different production but even this isn’t that bad. Probably my favourite song on the album.

  3. Gnomemansland says:

    Yep good enough for the Idiot or Lust for Life

  4. Marion Brent says:

    Better than Lennon’s Isolation, but not as good as Joy Division’s…

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      The comments on this track reminded me of the value of this site. It goes without saying that the original entry is excellent, but sometimes the comments can be equally valuable. I defer to nobody in my dislike for Iggy Pop’s music – without Bowie – and there are very few thing less enticing to me than the idea of an 80s Iggy Pop song. However, I read a couple of comments from people whose opinion I respect and gave it a listen. It turns out to be not bad at all … but it does contain THAT lyric.

  5. Pierce says:

    Absolute classic. Interesting about What in the World and The Idiot. One of the great Iggy Pop songs.

  6. Anonymous says:

    A little borrow from a New Career In A New Town is lurking in the melody…

  7. Jeremy says:

    You can’t deny Iggy. You gotta love him,hold him to your bosom and tell him that he’s the one. In a way that’s just what he does for his fans.

    Great song – there’s no doubt.

  8. diamond dog says:

    Great performance by all here cannot believe it did not dent the charts at all. Then again the charts as barometer of classic material has never worked. The backing vocals are stunning and send a shiver down the spine , it works in a way that transports you to better days. The downside is that awful lyric a pity some pruning or re writing was not done as its the only flaw in the diamond.

  9. Frankie says:

    It’s a pretty dramatic song and one of my faves from this album. It might even be good for a film soundtrack.

  10. Diamond Duke says:

    I must confess, I never actually heard that song until now! Really quite nice, I must say. And it’s true, there is a bit of a Low vibe about this one, albeit a bit more ’80s.

  11. Just heard it, track 5, now added to my current playlist. Have you guys every thought about doing a similar blog for Jeff Lynne?

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