Beat of Your Drum

Beat of Your Drum (LP edit).
Beat of Your Drum.
Beat of Your Drum (live, 1987).

“Beat of Your Drum” uses the template of many Never Let Me Down songs: an ominous verse and a giddy chorus that seem to exist in different dimensions, with an awkward bridge/pre-chorus as adhesive to bind them together. But it just works better here, as the two incongruous elements in this case—sepulchral verses about desire, youth and ambition and a big dumb sex chorus that nicks a riff from Bruce Springsteen—complement each other, with the sordid mumblings of the verse exploding into the garish lust of the refrain.

The verses find Bowie in a nightclub, cast as an aging fashion photographer ogling a new model/conquest (Bowie’s sole description of the song was that “it’s a Lolita Number! Reflection on young girls…Christ, she’s only 14 years old, but jail’s worth it!“). Sounding inspired (perhaps he was familiar with the material), Bowie manages some of his best lines on the record, like “prison can’t hold all this greedy intention,” and for once he keeps a coherent theme going, with multiple references to film—negatives and colors fading—until he ends the second bridge with “bright light destroys me,” a play on ruining a developing photo as well as the idea of the singer as a vampire.*

Subtlety was never in the cards here: the track starts with a Morse Code synth pattern that’s drowned out two bars later by “clanging chimes of doom” synth percussion (likely all Erdal Kizilcay’s doing—he was primarily using a Yamaha DX7 with a Casio MIDI Controller for the sessions, though supplementing it with an Emax sampler). Then Bowie appears, keeping to his lower death-croon register, offering an odd, fragmented melody composed of short, three- or four-note phrases. He’s doing Scott Walker again but also seemingly parodying Peter Murphy at the same time, wrapping his influence and his influenced into a single gargoyle vocal. (Bowie liked the combination so much he soon used it again for Tin Machine’s “You Belong in Rock ‘n’ Roll.”)

Suddenly the Goth trappings fall away, as the chorus (midwifed by an all-over-the-place bridge which ends with Bowie barely holding on a high A (“TAAAME”)) is as bright and relentless as a Def Leppard refrain. The lyric’s beyond dumb, the refrain’s barely melodic (it’s just Bowie keeping mainly to one note until his closing run of fifth-dropping interjections: “I beat it! Can’t beat it! I feel it!“) and you realize soon enough that the chorus is going nowhere, just happy to stand there and applaud itself. But everyone’s so bloody eager to please: the horn/guitar riff stolen from “Glory Days,” the handclaps, the fairground saxophone, the keyboard with its nagging barrage of 8th notes. And after the second go-round of the chorus leads directly to a cheeseball Peter Frampton guitar solo, the only viable option is surrender. If only the whole album had been as tasteless as this.

Recorded ca. September-November 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. On Never Let Me Down. Again, the LP edit is tighter, as it cuts a superfluous third chorus to get to Frampton’s guitar solo faster (starting at 3:13 on vinyl, 3:32 on CD) then trims another two choruses before the sax solo.

* Always thought the line from the Mekons’ “Club Mekon” (“Late one night the club was heaving/I saw a vampire move across the floor/old and white, with a silver cane/lusting for youth in the mirror”) was possibly a dig at Bowie, though Jagger or Rod Stewart seems a more accurate target.

Top: Kristine Ambrosia, 1987 (via Continuo, originally from the Leonardo Music Journal.)

33 Responses to Beat of Your Drum

  1. fantailfan says:

    A solvent dissolves, it doesn’t connect; think acetone. I’m trying to find a good antonym for it, but the web isn’t much help. It insists the only thing that solvent means is financially solvent. Which should be a good intro to Bowie Bonds. However, since they were issued in 1997, we turn to the first vehicle for making Bowie solvent: the Sound+Vision reissue program by Rykodisc. Which itself became insolvent when it paid way too much for Frank Zappa’s catalog.

    Okay, I have a word now: to cement, “cements to bind them together.” Unfortunately, we can go to another meaning for cement, which, when used as a weight, drags that to which it is attached to the bottom of the ocean. The ethereal chanson of desire is dragged down by the dumb sex song: the 40s meet the 80s.

    It didn’t have to be this bad, David.The eighties were not all gated snares and synths. Peter Gabriel proved you could be an old git and still make wonderful AND danceable music.

    • col1234 says:

      ha! i realized my goof just as I posted it. used “adhesive” instead. though cement works better, as you say.

  2. MC says:

    Definitely the second best track on the album. If the arrangement had been more restrained, it could even have been a Rebel Rebel of the 80’s (as the Spin reviewer seemed to claim).

    Interesting analysis – never picked up on the Lolita aspect at the time (which makes it a looot creepier).

  3. humanizingthevacuum says:

    My favorite song on the album, and, yeah, we’re definitely on the same track re Springsteen and the effectiveness of “prison can’t hold all this greedy intention”

  4. giospurs says:

    The chorus is fun. Definitely the best thing I’ve heard from Never Let Me Down so far. The transition from verse to chorus is definitely awkward though.

  5. Maj says:

    You know what, I quite like this. My 1st time listening to this one (like most NLMD songs covered so far). I wish it had a different production…..and…if Iggy sang it. 😀

  6. Pierce says:

    A lousy track, and one of the lowest points of the album. I surrender indeed.

  7. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    Can’t listen now, internet connection on this bus is terrible. But you mentioned Def Leppard which gave me a peculiar thought: what if instead of whatever this stuff is, Bowie had dusted off his lipstick and tried his hand at glam metal? Food for thought.

    • giospurs says:

      haha, I like the “whatever this stuff is”. I’m not quite clear no that either. It seems to be the worst parts of various genres cobbled together.

  8. Jeremy says:

    When I gave this LP a listen a few years ago for the first time since the eighties I thought that this track was one of the better ones. Like two songs joined together, but it works despite itself. Cement?

  9. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    An observation: it seems that with NLMD we each have one or two tracks which we think are good as opposed to the rest of the muck, but there’s a lot of disagreement on which tracks those are. I’ve seen various people here (including myself) describe “Beat”, “Shining Star”, and “Day In” as the album’s highlights while deriding the other songs as crap. I don’t know that I’ve seen this much disagreement about a Bowie album since Lodger.

    • This was the case for Tonight, as well- I think this is a good piece of evidence to suggest that the songs themselves have enough of merit to argue for them, it’s just having all of them at a time with nothing truly being “great” that bogs people down.

  10. algeriatouchshriek says:

    ‘Glory Days’ – gosh thats been bugging me since 1987. Thank goodness I no longer have to wonder what that riff reminds me of. Good spot.

    For me this is another missed opportunity for a hit. Surely it’s more commercially appealing than NLMD (the track) – with a bit of tweaking and a polish it coulda beena contenda.

  11. Frankie says:

    The song sounds like it could have been the man who sold the world remembering when she shook me cold but rebel rebel heard this and grabbed her instead. Perhaps it also the cracked actor looking for something younger and fresher to ram. The ‘edge’ to the sex-consumed lyrics suggests a revisit to scary monsters in wish, but the music verges on pablum pap, and one wonders why his lust made him cling to something like that. The song itself was somehow tolerable (for at least one listen), despite the 80s production drizzle, until that fake dreaded Casio horn kicked in just before Frampton delivered his worst-inspired guitar solo, like sweet elevator music from hell, and I had to jettison myself before it got to the bottom floor because the carriage had a too saccharine smell. I find myself liking Scott Walker’s MOR albums more.

  12. princeasbo says:

    Never Let Me Down’s status as critical pariah is briefly alluded to in this article from Thrifty Vinyl:

  13. Sigmata Martyr says:

    I hadn’t considered the Peter Muphyness of this track at the time and now having read this post, I hear little else.

    This did seem to have all the intentional grooming for a hit eighties single but still showed enough seams to stop it really getting somewhere. The Rebel Rebel-ish undercurrent mixed with the Springsteen color effects feels a little cynical. Oh, give them everything one hears on the charts all at once with that “Bowieness” and the punters will have too go for it!

    Maybe he really believed that.

    • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

      I don’t know that he really believed anything at this time.

      • Sigmata Martyr says:

        Yeah, that’s something to think about. Was he in the wilderness and not knowing it or just flying blind?
        What’s so amazing about Bowie is he produced such different, incredible music for so long and didn’t seem to have a set template for any of it. He would springboard off of a conceptual idea- space,1984,cut ups, Plastic Soul, etc., and come up with music that really worked. I feel that portions of the eighties did work better than others, (and that is down to personal taste) NLMD seems hollow, different to Tonight which seemed off the cuff and detached.I never had a sense that Bowie had much investment in Tonight’s production or release so it being a dud isn’t a big deal to me. NLMD was portrayed in the press and interveiws as a record he really put thought into and that makes its outcome that much more disturbing. Some of the issue might be not striking gold with his collaborators like he did in the seventies.
        The Spiders, Sigma Sound, Eno, Alomar,Davis and Murry, so much of what made the earlier music come together was how it dovetailed together with the people he was working with. He kept changing but he kept having people on board who could bring out what was necessary. In the 80s Nile Rodgers’ job was to let Bowie “sit at the top 40 grown up’s table” and he sure delivered! After that I wonder if he had too many yes people instead of people to bounce off of or add friction.

  14. Diamond Duke says:

    Once again, this may not be representative of Bowie’s all-time best, but it’s definitely one of this album’s standout cuts. It is quite clever lyrically, and I’ve always dug the Springsteen/Glory Days vibe of the chorus. And that weird chord change on the bridge (AC#F, if I’m not mistaken) could be the work of no one else but Bowie! (And I love that high A at the end, pushing lust perilously close to delirium!)

    BTW (apropos of nothing), I just recently purchased Serious Moonlight on DVD. What can I say? It’s a good show! Very representative of Bowie at his ’80s best. I love those “pulling” gestures on Breaking Glass (“I’ll never touch you…”) and that reprise of the “Ziggy finger mask” on the chorus of Scary Monsters was a nice touch. (Although I must say that the accompanying “monster” antics of the Simms brothers were perhaps a bit much.) Granted, Bowie’s tanned and bleach-blond appearance comes across as a bit, well…unnaturally wholesome, to say the least! But say what you will, the man’s always known how to deliver a geat show.

    Haven’t seen the Glass Spider DVD, but I hope to get around to it very soon… 😉

    • algeriatouchshriek says:

      If you like Serious Moonlight I’d give The Spider a miss x x

    • col1234 says:

      chords on the bridge are A-G/A-C#m-F, leading to the D major opening of the chorus. not *that* weird if the song’s in A (as it appears to be, at least in the choruses) but still typical Bowie, yes.

  15. David L says:

    – most listenable track on the album, imo

    – listening to it again, it continues to amaze me how different this Bowie is from the 70s Bowie, and not just in terms of musical style. Bowie was always known as the musical chameleon, but in the 70s, he retained his idiosyncratic essence even as he experimented with different styles. Young Americans was Bowie as only Bowie could do it, as was Ziggy. But who is this guy doing NLMD? Starting with “Shake It” on Let’s Dance, he became a completely different performer, no longer recognizeable as David Bowie, but for the sound of his voice. He became, as he said, Phil Collins. And I find the whole thing fascinating. It speaks to the inner tug-of-war that an artist faces between art and commercialism, the risks of purposely “going commercial,” etc.

    – speaking from past experience: blasting this song loud from your college dorm room — a song in which the lead singer belts “I beat it,” dozens of times, and even seems to say “I beat it off in a crowd” at one point — will not endear you to the ladies. In fact, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  16. diamond dog says:

    At the time I thought it one of the best tracks on the album , with the passing years its thinly veiled double entendre and middle aged groin thrusting just sounds desperate and bland. Trying to capture some of the old rebel rebel fire it would have made a good single but its feet are stuck in mud and it awkward and clunky now.

  17. sunray jahchild says:

    It’s just really too awful for words. Tonight made me stop buying/listening to bowie for a long time. NLMD is neither better, nor worse, nor (and this is surely the real crime) different. And the horrible arrangement and production, and the pathetic lyrics, and the smugness, and the springsteen/bono/collins/frampton influence. Bowie’s always so much more interesting when he’s influenced by weirder more obscure stuff. Thank heavens you’re nearly done with the 80’s.
    excellent blog, btw

    • diamond dog says:

      Even when we leave the 80’s we still have some pretty turgid rock god posturing to wade through. Whatever Bowie had in the 70’s he lost only during the last 20 odd years have we seen a flash of his former supreme self. Buddha of suburbia is his best effort since scary monster a thorough quality piece of work with flashes of his best music and great pop sensibilty. Tin machine is a laugh riot of middle aged spread and posturing with some truly awful embarassing lyrical content.

  18. fluxkit says:

    I genuinely like Bowie’s singing in the verses, the first verse definitely. It starts out sounding promising. The lyrics get more obvious and worse in the second verse, but after that point the chorus has already trampled all over the mood.

  19. E. Hennessy says:

    I declare that this song was inspired largely, if not entirely, by Bowie’s experience on Labyrinth.

    -The opening synthesizer blasts have that same “powerful majesty” that similarly adorn key scenes with Jareth (especially the Escher-room confrontation and its collapse immediately afterward).

    -Moreover,in the pre-verse sections, they also have a similar cut-time, free-fall feeling like the synths on “Within You”, one of Bowie’s contributions to that soundtrack.

    -The crazed morse-code ostinato beat sounds very similar to the synthesized fanfare of Jareth’s first appearance in Sarah’s house, only mixed lower and repeated ad infinitum.

    -The lyrics: are they not merely a more-lustful retelling of Jareth’s feelings toward Sarah at the Crystal Ball ball, with the whole setting transplanted into something like a modern dance club?

    -Bowie has called this a “Lolita number”… and did he not say this just after having appeared in a major motion picture acting opposite an underage girl? One in which his character was *infatuated* with said underage girl?

    The evidence speaks for itself. The prosecution rests its case, your honor.

  20. rob thomas says:

    I declare this track to be 32% quite good and 68% cheese.

  21. Brian says:

    A bizarre track. It’s like a conjoined twin and only one of them is charming. The other just kind of stares awkwardly at you while you try to get to know the other twin. The problem is that you keep getting distracted by the other twin staring at you.

    As for the lyrics, how was this written by the same guy who wrote Absolute Beginners? This is like the poor man’s Absolute Beginners mixed with a dab of Scary Monsters.

  22. dm says:

    You know what? The chorus isn’t that dumb. The photographer-as-stalker touch of “I like to look through your things” makes it.

  23. Tyrell says:

    “the template of many Never Let Me Down songs: an ominous verse and a giddy chorus that seem to exist in different dimensions, with an awkward bridge/pre-chorus as adhesive to bind them together. ” – a spot-on description! Totally true.
    Another issue with this album is that because of the different LP/CD versions the outros are overlong, each song is about 1,5-2 minutes longer than they should be.
    Regarding this song I join to the opinion of E. Hennessy: the intro/pre-verse reminds me too very much of the Labyrinth soundtrack. With a different chorus it would have been a really good song.

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