When the Wind Blows

When the Wind Blows.
When the Wind Blows (video).
When the Wind Blows (extended mix).
When the Wind Blows (film).

The decisions made by the powers that be will get to us in the end.

Jim Bloggs, in Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows.

Bowie’s last Eighties soundtrack song was for Jimmy Murakami’s adaptation of When the Wind Blows, a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs. In its various incarnations (it was also adapted as a play and as a radio broadcast), Wind Blows is a haunting artifact of the late Cold War. (While the film debuted in January 1987, when Gorbachev was in power and the first signs of thaw were visible, Briggs’ novel, published in 1982, is the child of the more fraught turn-of-the-decade (see “Fantastic Voyage”)).

Recorded around the time of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in late April 1986,*”Wind Blows” was intended to be one of several songs that Bowie would cut for Murakami’s film (Bowie had first worked with Murakami and Briggs on The Snowman, for which he had shot an introduction). However, under pressure from EMI and feeling the need to focus on his own record, Bowie pulled back from the project, with Roger Waters asked to fill in.

Briggs, born in Wimbledon in 1934, was, like Bowie, a lower-middle-class London suburbanite. While Briggs’ mother had been in service and his father was a milkman, he was able to attend art college; in his case, the Slade School of Fine Art in the late Fifties. Briggs became a freelance illustrator and cartoonist, first known as a children’s author, writing such perennials as Father Christmas (1973) and The Snowman (1978).

Briggs had always tended towards the tragic and the grotesque: he was part of a bilious generation of British illustrators, like Ralph Steadman, the chronicler of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Gerald Scarfe, who drew the cartoons for Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The Snowman offers that the magic of childhood can be seemingly over in a night; his Father Christmas is a grumbling sot, while his Fungus the Bogeyman is a repellent troll conscripted into serving as a monster. But Thatcher radicalized Briggs. A man of few political interests, Briggs felt compelled to join the CND after doing research on nuclear war for When the Wind Blows, while his 1984 The Tin Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman was a flat-out screed against the Falklands War, with both Thatcher and the Argentine Junta depicted as murderous automatons.

The plot of Wind Blows is as simple as it’s harrowing: the Bloggses, a retired couple that Briggs had introduced in his Gentleman Jim, hears of an imminent nuclear war, and the two set about making do in the old Blitz spirit: following government pamphlets to make a lean-to shelter out of wooden doors. When the holocaust comes, they’re as helpless as children, going through the motions of their former life (teatime, sweeping up the shattered house). Soon enough they get radiation sickness and as the film ends, they’re about to expire in pain and ignorance, all the while still attempting to Keep Calm and Carry On. As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists wrote in a review of Briggs’ book, “Following government safety guidelines is of course useless; common sense is useless; good cheer is useless; optimism and bravery are mere self-delusion…Like all cartoon figures, [the Bloggses] have the seeming innocence of animals.” In this case, animals led to the slaughter by their indifferent owners.**

What makes Wind Blows so compelling is its suburban sensibility, its quiet and steady annihilation of everything that allegedly symbolized middle-class England. It documents how radical and anti-human the Cold War, with its mutual death pacts and its militarization of nature itself, truly was. Bowie caught this feeling in his theme song, with his lyric using images and phrases associated with comfort and calm—childhood lullabies and nature—and making them ominous. The chorus is simply a repetition of “when the wind blows,” which Bowie sings lovingly but coldly, as it’s now a death sentence, the wind bringing fallout with it.

It has one of Bowie’s most memorable vocal melodies of the era, especially in the verses, which have a trace of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” in them (in the book, it’s the song that Jim Bloggs murmurs as he’s dying). “Wind Blows” was co-written by Erdal Kizilcay, who played all of the instruments on the track: the synthesizer accompaniment is fine, though the zippy opening guitar riff seems a bit out of place, a bit of showboating at a funeral. Bowie found Kizilcay to be an ideal partner when writing about London suburbia, as the two would reunite for The Buddha of Suburbia a few years later.

Recorded ca. April 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland. Released in November 1986 as a single (Virgin VS 909, #44 UK) and on the When the Wind Blows OST. Later collected on a 1995 CD reissue of Never Let Me Down and issued as a digital EP (with the extended mix and an instrumental version) in 2007.

* Bowie has said he was recording at Mountain Studios when news of the Chernobyl disaster hit on 26 April 1986 (the experience led him to write “Time Will Crawl”). This could have been during the Blah-Blah-Blah sessions, but consensus has much of that album being cut in May. So this means Bowie was either working on Never Let Me Down demos or on this track, so poetic license makes “Wind Blows” the obvious choice.

** Wind Blows can seem like a thematic sequel to Watership Down, except that the rabbits were far craftier, with Fiver and the rest getting the hell out of the warren before the slaughter began.

Top: Nicholas Nixon, “M.A.E., Boston,” 1985.

20 Responses to When the Wind Blows

  1. Diamond Duke says:

    I think this is yet another terrific Bowie song from the ’80s. A wonderfully moving song, and I love the verse melody. Yes, the opening guitar riff does feel ever-so-slightly out of place in its dissonance (not too dissimilar to Iggy’s Shades), but considering the subject matter it’s rather appropriate.

    SIDE NOTE (take it or leave it!): I used this song as the closing number for DISC #12 of my 14-CD Bowie mix set TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME: a non-linear DAVID BOWIE hyper-cycle (1964-2003). I thought it would work quite movingly and effectively coming after My Death (live ’73) and Heathen (The Rays). And although it was the last number to fall into place within the running order, the first track on that particular disc was Running Gun Blues. It started out as something of a makeshift solution, since I had no opener for the disc. But in retrospect, it makes a rather disturbingly appropriate bookend with When The Wind Blows, because of the war theme! For what it’s worth, here’s the running order for DISC #12…

    -1. Running Gun Blues (1970)
    -2. Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (full-length original version) (1982)
    -3. Sweet Thing / Candidate / Sweet Thing (Reprise) (1974)
    -4. Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?) (1973)
    -5. Warszawa (1977)
    -6. The Motel (1995)
    -7. Ashes To Ashes (1980)
    -8. The Loneliest Guy (2003)
    -9. Thursday’s Child (radio edit) (1999)
    10. Golden Years (1976)
    11. Tonight (w / Tina Turner) (1984)
    12. Quicksand (1971)
    13. My Death (live) (1973)
    14. Heathen (The Rays) (2002)
    15. When The Wind Blows (1986)

    Well…you think that works? Rather apocalyptic in its overall effect, I should think… 😉

    (BTW, according to Bowie, the very first song he ever co-wrote with Erdal Kizilcay was actually Too Dizzy, from Never Let Me Down. Perhaps it’s just as well that When The Wind Blows song got released first, since it’s a far more effective demonstration of the man’s songwriting talents!)

  2. david says:

    My favorite 80’s Bowie Composition, post Scary Monsters-this felt like he was back on track when it came out, dark and grandiose, and I was still trying to be an illustrator at that time, so the Briggs tie in was a dream.
    I bought this along with a load of reduced Kate Bush singles I remember, Cloudbusting and Hounds of Love…they seemed well suited on my turntable and I often daydreamed about a collaboration.
    I noted looking at the lyrics on the You tube link that it says ‘you’ll spit and you’ll taunt him’ , when I always thought Bowie was singing ‘you’ll spin a tall tale’. Funny how it totally changes the viewpoint, and I’ve often wondered if he phrases words so that they are open to multi interpretation on purpose.(like he does on I can’t read).

  3. col1234 says:

    question to people who get this blog via email updates—have you found entries winding up in your spam filter? A longtime reader told me that’s happened of late. Please let me know if so, though who knows what I can do to correct it.

  4. Pierce says:

    No entries ending up in the spam filter here. Looking forward to the next instalment. Keep up the good work.

  5. I love the Raymond Briggs comic (it’s a harsh, dark comedy, funny and horrible at the same time; similar to Dr. Strangelove, but much more grounded and focused), but never knew there were adaptations to other media, and never heard this song. Interesting to hear it; thanks for pulling out and examining these rarities, and thanks for the link to the film!

  6. princeasbo says:

    I, too was unaware of the song/film, but am a big fan of Briggs in general and Wind in particular, which is so especially upsetting for all its banality.

    More details of his life can be found in Briggs’ touching Ethel & Ernest – A True Story, based on the life of his parents.

    BTW, you didn’t mention Paul McCartney’s early, unofficial contribution to Raymond Briggs’ musical canon, “Bogey Music”, from his uneven McCartney II (1980) Lp, which he states in the “first record made by ‘dry cleaners’ [humans] for the expanding Bogey market.” Mind you, unlike the Bowie number under consideration, the song is absolutely pants.

    see http://thriftyvinyl.wordpress.com/2011/06/17/paul-mccartney-mccartney-ii-1980/ for more information.

  7. Remco says:

    I remember seeing the film as a kid and I remember being completely terrified by it, as all things portraying the nuclear-holocaust-that-was-sure-to- come terrified me in those days.

    I don’t remember hearing the song though and I certainly haven’t heard it since. What a lovely undiscovered gem though. I’m glad Bowie’s eighties turned out to be not nearly as bad as I’d always assumed. There’s lots of dreadful stuff there, sure, but there’s lots of pearls in the mud as well and this is certainly one of them. Thank you for digging them up.

    P.S. I get the updates on Yahoo mail and have had no problems whatsoever

  8. Frankie says:

    I’ve never seen this film nor have I heard the song before this posting was read and listened to. I found it a tad empty-sounding, like it was recorded as a demo or something, but that’s likely my unmitigated aversion to Erdal Kizilcay (with the exception of Buddha of Suburbia -where I think they worked quite well) There was something compelling about this song, but I think it’s just Bowie’s voice. I think at that point in his career he thought he could cash in on his distinct voice and was ready and able to sing almost anything for that recognition alone, no matter how chintzy it got if he thought he could get away with it at the time. Its the man’s voice that got to me more than the actual song did. Thanks for another piece to the puzzle.

  9. Maj says:

    Well Breathing it ain’t… (neither lyrically nor musically)

    though the topic is similar.

    But it’s a pretty good song. I absolutely hate the opening guitar. It represents all that I hate about 80’s…and guitars. While the rest of the song’s production is passable the song would probably be a classic with a different production or arrangement. Because the melody is good & the chorus is haunting.

    I almost never listen to it, maybe because the guitar turns me off instantly and I never seem to be able to get further. What a shame, it’s almost a great song.

    I take it Bowie’s never played this one live? I would benefit from a remake ala Loving the Alien, IMO.

  10. algeriatouchshriek says:

    I think the guitar riff is the best thing about this song, it’s aiming for a level of instant identfiable-ness akin to ‘Rebel Rebel’ or ‘Golden Years’. It never really takes off as a piece for me, only hitting a resonant note with multi-track vocal on the second verse. Then its all over. By bizzarre coincidence I once stumbled across a slowed down version of the 12″ remix being played over a porno film trailer… that put me off my stroke … as it were.

  11. umair says:

    its my favorite song i mostly used to listen this song.

  12. Brian says:

    At last, something from NLMD that could be a contender for Top 10 Bowie songs from the 80’s! Even more lucky for the song there aren’t enough songs to fill the list, so it can fit comfortably somewhere around sixth place. Too bad for NLMD it’s not even one of the songs from the album.

    At least something decent came out of listening to NLMD. I have a feeling if he revived this in the 2000s it could’ve sounded even better.

  13. lapso24 says:

    hi people, the guitar riff nor anything on this song is out of place, that is exactly what makes it so beautiful and unique that the rhythm has a duality that gives it a multi dimentional perspective. They wouldn’t put out something wrong.

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