The Prologue, in Heaven*
In the heart of the Eighties, the mime-trained theatrical musician released a long-anticipated album. It found the artist, who had sometimes gone lost in their hall of mirrors, sharply reengaged with the world: it offered a view of contemporary life as refined through the artist’s intelligence and bloody imagination. A generation of the ambitious young have since stolen from it. From its mastery of the synthesizer to the intricate beauty of its compositions to its brilliant sequencing, which made it both a compelling whole and a compilation of top-shelf singles (its run of interlinked videos are as good as the medium ever got), the album was, is, and should be, revered.
The Prologue, on Earth
My nadir was Never Let Me Down. It was such an awful album. I’ve gotten to a place now where I’m not very judgmental about myself. I put out what I do, whether it’s in visual arts or in music, because I know that everything I do is really heartfelt. Even if it’s a failure artistically, it doesn’t bother me in the same way that Never Let Me Down bothers me. I really shouldn’t have even bothered going into the studio to record it. [laughs] In fact, when I play it, I wonder if I did sometimes.
David Bowie, 1995.
The man didn’t want to go into the studio to record an album. When you let the political agenda of a record company infiltrate your mood, there’s no inspiration.
Carlos Alomar, to David Buckley.
Never Let Me Down lies in the valley of the “worst-evers”: it’s Bowie’s equivalent to Ishtar, Gigli, the Zune. And like many of these wretched sinners, it doesn’t quite merit such condemnation. That’s not to say Never is any sort of lost classic. The album is by any account a failure: a botched record with some awful songs on it. But you could say the same about a few other Bowie releases— Tonight comes to mind, obviously. Why did Never get the brickbats?
Its critical savaging was gradual, as its first American reviews were mild, some even glowing: Glenn O’Brien in Spin gave it a rave (“an inspired and brilliantly crafted work”). Never was framed as that deathless critical cliché—the “return to form” (Billboard), with Bowie going back to his roots, back to rock and roll, back to real music, not the poncing pop stuff. Never was what his core audience supposedly craved: a hard “rock” record from a refreshed Bowie, who was now addressing Important Issues like prostitution, homelessness, war, environmental degradation, and so on.
Its timing was acute: in an era of Boomer revivalism, Never bluntly trafficked in Sixties nostalgia, with Bowie imitating John Lennon, Smokey Robinson and Neil Young on various songs. And it was the work of a man fully awake. Unlike his previous two records, there was no lack of new material, and Bowie was far more engaged in the project, even playing some of the guitar solos.
The backlash started in the UK, especially once it was obvious that Never wasn’t selling: its lead-off single only hit #17 and soon fell off the charts, while Never itself peaked at #6, the worst performance of a Bowie album in the UK in over two decades. The smug cross-Atlantic promotional junket Bowie and EMI had devised to sell the album didn’t help things. The whole enterprise—album, global mega-tour, the latest edition of Bowie with his crescent-moon haircut—seemed like an extravagant product launch for second-rate goods. So the late Tom Hibbert, who in Smash Hits had been baiting Bowie for years, giving him the nickname “The Dame,” saw Bowie stumbling and went in for the kill: “If Dame David Bowie is such a bleeding chameleon, why, pray, can’t he change into something more exciting than the skin of an ageing rock plodder?”
Bowie’s new music wasn’t offering a lost future, it wasn’t forging a past, it wasn’t even trying to be pleasant pop; it was just loud and pointless. He wanted to be taken seriously again, but he wasn’t making serious music. Never‘s commercial failure wasn’t a surprise—I was there at the time, and the record (at least to a 15-year-old), seemed tired and exhausting, a hyped-up response to a question no one had posed. Bowie seemed stranded out of time, yet seemingly unaware of it.
The Nineties begin in 1987: it’s the year of the first major Happy Mondays, Pixies, NWA, KLF, My Bloody Valentine, Guided by Voices, Soundgarden, Stone Roses and Public Enemy records; the early peak of house; it was when everyone from Prince to the Cure to Husker Du to Game Theory issued their end-of-an-era 2-LP summaries. What did Bowie have to offer? Peter Frampton and a glass spider.
Bowie would spend the Nineties trying to beat his way back in, trying to learn a new tongue. So he quickly began downgrading Never, publicly disparaging it as early as the Tin Machine days, and by the end of the decade he’d all but deleted the album from his catalog (he’s never performed anything from it after the Glass Spider tour.) Still, at the time, he was proud of Never: it was solid, real work again, a renewed commitment to craft after years of indifference. “I am really happy with the songs I’ve written,” he said in one of his press conferences, and he sounded humbled. Sure, it was a sales pitch. But Never Let Me Down was meant to be a record far better than it was. There’s no sadder evidence of Bowie’s decline as a composer and a performer. It’s a hard, demoralizing album to listen to.
Never Let Me Down is Bowie’s ugliest, most chaotic-sounding record since Diamond Dogs, and I think Dogs is the best way to interpret Never—Dogs is the parallel minor to Never, its secret sharer. In both albums there’s a sense of a frustrated Bowie with something to prove (down to playing the guitar solos), each album inspired Bowie’s most over-the-top theatrical tours, and each held clues for the direction Bowie would soon take: the Shaft-inspired “1984” presaged Young Americans, while some of Never seems like first-draft Tin Machine.
But the difference was that Bowie cobbled together Dogs out of the ruins of three failed projects, and filled it with blood and cracked grandeur. He saw Marc Bolan foundering, saw glam collapsing, and he fought his way out of the corner. Never lacks any sense of desperation, of anything being at stake—it’s just a man rummaging through a box of tricks one last time. Freed of his demons and addictions, spiritually exiled from his time, lacking any real creative partners, living a comfortable life in tax exile, Bowie was left with spectacle, which had served him well enough in the past. But his tricks weren’t working anymore.
Worse, whatever ambitions he had for the record were soon compromised. Bowie’s original intention for Never was to cut a set of quick-and-out hard-edged pieces in the style of Iggy Pop’s Blah-Blah-Blah. But this ran straight against Bowie’s responsibilities as one of EMI’s marquee artists. And EMI had had enough of him. It had been two years since he’d cut an album—and he hadn’t toured to support Tonight, either—and much of his soundtrack work had been for other labels. The last straw was Bowie writing and producing a relative hit record, Blah-Blah-Blah, for a rival, A&M, while on EMI’s dime.
Christopher Sandford’s bio quotes from some internal EMI documents in 1986—one worries about “the declining prospects of a viable product” from Bowie. With Absolute Beginners and Labyrinth both flops, Bowie’s reputation was in freefall, so EMI wanted a new record in the can by Christmas and for Bowie to do a global tour to promote it in 1987. And Bowie diligently obeyed. For the last time in his life, he would be a good shareholder.
So Never Let Me Down wound up over-thought, over-produced and qualified at all corners. It was an album warped by waves of overlapping tensions and confused motives. Bowie designed songs to suit a theatrical tour with a dance troupe, but yet he also wanted, he said, a “stripped down” set of material fit for a five-piece band—and then he took his fairly spartan initial tracks and crowded them with horns, percussion and backing singers. Bowie wrote some of his most ambitious top melodies in years, some which he struggled to sing, and then set them to uninspired chord progressions and at times appallingly poor lyrics. And there was frustration for some of the musicians: Carlos Alomar came in expecting to play his usual role—to work out songs with Bowie in the studio, to sound out and add depth to Bowie’s ideas—only to find that Bowie mainly wanted him to re-record Erdal Kizilcay’s guitar lines from the demos (Alomar’s understandable reaction was: you hire a dude to play like me, then you want me to copy him?).
And once the sessions moved from the isolated Mountain Studios to the Record Plant in New York, the bloat really began: the Borneo Horns returned; session singers came in to fatten up tracks; a master funk percussionist, Crusher Bennett, was hired to enliven a set of supremely unfunky songs; Mickey Rourke did a guest-rap. Few of Never‘s songs were allowed to breathe, so they died.
The frenetically monotonous “Day-In Day-Out,” the album’s lead-off track and single, starts as a catchy song in the vein of “Let’s Dance,” with Carmine Rojas playing a similar descending bass hook in the chorus. Except here it’s Socially Conscious Bowie, so instead of red shoes and serious moonlight we get a prostitute who was “born in a handbag” and who’s in “in the pocket of a homeboy.” And the stiffly “tough” way that Bowie sings the last word makes the song unintentionally comic here, enough to cause the verse to fall apart on him, with Bowie sounding increasingly ridiculous, first with the barked “gonna get a shot-gun….POW!” and the twerpishly-intoned nonsense of “spin the grail, spin the drug.”
“Day-In,” which Bowie said was meant to show the callousness and indifference of society to its caste of undesirables, is dedicated to repetition and stasis, Bowie hammering home how trapped his heroine is, how she has only one path ahead of her. So most of the song is built on two chords, G and F, which gives it an underlying tension, as you’re never sure what key the song’s in—each tonal base is vying to dominate, while the two chords are irreconcilable together.** The problem is that this deliberate stasis—the sense that the song is never going anywhere, can’t go anywhere—becomes deadening after a while. The verse and chorus are indistinguishable, harmonically, and the chorus itself is dull, with its grade-school rhymes and weak call-and-response hook. Worse, it’s inescapable—the chorus opens the song, unhappily returns four more times, then gets a workout in the coda.
Bowie’s in good voice for much of the track, if he’s struggling in places (the last set of ooh! ooh!s, a run of high Cs and Ds, in the bridge nearly defeats him) and unlike other Never tracks, there’s a decent sense of space in the mix here, letting the elements cohere—Alomar and Frampton’s guitars scrap together nicely, Kizilcay’s drumming is as solid as granite (if as stiff); the house-ish piano accompaniment (either Kizilcay or Philippe Saisse) that zips in during the second verse is a welcome novelty; Sid McGinniss’ 16-bar guitar solo helps wake up the song. Still, for a track meant to be an opening salvo, an angry statement of Bowie’s intentions, “Day-In” is more sound than fury.
I always liked pop that had a sense of wonder in it. I mean, would you rather see David Bowie on roller skates—like he was in his “Day In, Day Out” video—or would you rather see David Bowie dressed as a clown, walking along the beach at Hastings with a bunch of New Romantics? I imagine you’d rather see him dressed as a clown in Hastings—I know I would.
For me, “Day-In” is tarred by Julien Temple’s video for it, a piece of urban blight pornography. Shot in Los Angeles with a cast that included actual homeless people, the video’s akin to a Victorian tour of slum neighborhoods—as John Lydon said, it’s a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Bowie serves as the video’s vampirish roller-skating narrator, the earthly counterpart to the angels filming the whole mess on clunky video cameras (you’d think Heaven would’ve sprung for some early 21st Century camera phones to cut the angels a break, but I guess God keeps His celestial tech time-appropriate). In one notorious scene, a prostitute is shown being assaulted by a john, while Bowie zips by on his roller skates and then leers in for some color commentary. Just to emphasize this: Bowie’s lip syncing during an attempted rape scene. In a pop video. Then Temple has the actress run down the street in her underwear, be grabbed by extras arranged in a gauntlet, until she’s arrested by the police, with a last lingering close-up of her ass. This is exploitative horseshit masquerading as social commentary, and worse, Bowie seemed to get off on the video being banned and altered by the BBC and MTV.
Recorded ca. September-November 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland, and the Record Plant, NYC. Released on 23 March 1987 as EMI America EA 320 (c/w “Julie,” #17 UK, #21 US). There’s also a Spanish version, “Al Alba,” that was played once on Spanish radio and which allegedly is circulating on bootleg—I haven’t heard it (translation was courtesy of Alomar). As with most of the Never Let Me Down tracks, the vinyl edition had a shorter edit, which in this case trimmed the last verse. Bowie only performed “Day-In” during the Glass Spider tour, as well as in a few press conferences to promote the tour.
** If “Day” is in G (as the sheet music says) then it should be an F# chord; if it’s in F, it should be a G minor. The bridge, in which the song briefly breaks out of the loop, with a C major and Am7, makes the case for “Day” being in G, but it’s never firmly established.
Top: Set of nine faces-and-hands, assembled from various issues of Watchmen (Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons), 1986-1987.