Bang Bang

Bang Bang (Iggy Pop, 1981).
Bang Bang (Pop, live, 1981).
Bang Bang (Bowie).
Bang Bang (Bowie, live, 1987).

Iggy Pop and Ivan Kral wrote “Bang Bang” in 1980 as a potential single for Pop’s album Party. After the initial sessions for Party had petered out due to Pop’s self-sabotage and uninspired performances, his exasperated label Arista brought in Tommy Boyce (who had co-written “Last Train to Clarksville”) to make something useable out of the material. Boyce allegedly spent much of the time scoring drugs with Pop (the pair once even locked Kral in a closet when he tried to hinder them), but he liked “Bang Bang” and turned it into a passable New Wave single by reducing it to a collection of hooks: the repeated title phrase, coming down like two hammer blows; the ominous descending organ/bass line; the strings; the strategically-placed tambourine.

The result sounded as if Pop had joined some Satanic incarnation of the Cars. Released as a single in the summer of 1981, “Bang Bang” had potential to be a left-field New Wave hit in the vein of “Turning Japanese” but it lacked the sharpness and punch to hit on the radio and it flopped (it did make the lower reaches of Billboard’s club chart). There was even a video made for it, though the result was so creepy (see first link above) that I wonder if even the starved-for-content MTV of 1981 aired it.*

Kral (a Patti Smith Group veteran, who played organ on the track) had originally written the lyric, which he later described as being “a song about the emancipation of women.” Pop rewrote it to address his usual themes—underage heartbreaker girls; TV as corrupter and comforter (“I keep a good friend on videotape“); insatiable greed and pride as core American virtues. “Bang bang! I got mine!…Bang bang! that’s all it means, man…/here, have a glass of wine.”

Five years later, Bowie cut a version of “Bang Bang” and made it the album closer for Never Let Me Down. It was an odd choice to end the record, if an understandable one: given the pileup of disasters on Side 2, “Bang Bang” at least had hooks and some energy. Still, this made for the third record in a row in which Bowie had padded things out with a Pop cover, and journalists were calling Bowie on it. Bowie’s response was basically ‘Eric Clapton regularly covers Robert Johnson, so I cover Iggy Pop.’ “I always try to do my bit, do something of his,” he said. And he was assuming that he would work with Pop again soon—Bowie talked vaguely about another collaboration in 1988 or 1989, after both of their tours were over.

“Bang Bang” should’ve been a hit single in the first place, Bowie said, so all he was doing was giving a lost gem more exposure. But his interpretation coated the song in glitz and forced arena-rock posturing, starting with how Bowie replaced Pop’s sullen intro, in which Pop sounds like he’s being dragged into the song against his will, with peppy holiday-camp instructor banter: “Wow! This ain’t the right thing to do! So…let’s…so let’s…so let’s GO!” For much of the song Bowie sings higher than Pop’s baritone, with some odd emphases and phrasings—the pipped “weee’ll have a hot time,” the sorta-country twang on “you all oughtta be in pic-shuhs,” whatever the hell he’s going for on “I wander lonely to the sea.”

Bowie didn’t alter much of the song’s structure, retaining its cycling descending three-chord sequence (Em-D-C) in G major for both verse and chorus, only tweaking the lyric here and there, and dutifully repeating nearly every Pop aside. But every alteration he made to the arrangement lessens the song in some way: replacing the organ during the guitar solos with a chorus, who sound like they’re singing the backing vocals of the Eagles’ “Already Gone”; having Erdal Kizilcay overwork the pizzicato string line that’s kept spare and intriguing in Pop’s version; throwing in a rising “sitar” riff in the verse (I think it’s Frampton on electric sitar); using synth horn fills for punctuation; and as usual for Never Let Me Down, dragging the song out a minute longer than it should’ve run. While “Bang Bang” is more an overworked disappointment than disaster, it’s a shame that it marks the Pop/Bowie partnership’s tombstone.

Recorded ca. September-November 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux and the Power Station, NYC. On Never Let Me Down and a regular part of the Glass Spider tour, featuring a routine in which Bowie pulled a “random” girl (one of the dancing troupe) from the crowd, danced with her, then groped her.

* I don’t know what’s more disturbing about the video—Pop having what looks like a 10-year-old girl in his harem of sister-wives or his earring. Or his puffy shirt. Or that he seems to be missing a front tooth. The whole thing looks like a cult initiation ceremony shown on public access cable, and I’m just glad that (to my knowledge) nothing was killed during its making.

Top: Ed Aust, “Elementary School, Zhengzhou, 1986.”

24 Responses to Bang Bang

  1. Jeremy says:

    One of the very few songs that Bowie has done that I actively hate.


  2. col1234 says:

    things i forgot to mention: on the live Pop clip from ’81 (by far the best version of the song, IMO), keep an eye out for Carlos Alomar.

    and the chords are basically the exact same as “Tumble and Twirl.”

  3. david says:

    I forgot how utterly horrible this was- especially given that it conjures memories of him performing it in Manchester with the dance troup preface “we can’t have rock stars, sleeping with normal people” before the hammy way he pulled Melissa from the crowd, made it so bum clenchingly excruciating, that I thought my arse would seal up.

    The sessions for this album must have stank of desperateness. Can’t believe the man himself was so cocky about the album at the time.Still, I’m glad we still have the one decent cut from the set to come-Time will crawl.

  4. Diamond Duke says:

    I must say, this does make for a pretty limp closing number. The thing is, quite frankly, I don’t think Iggy’s original was any great shakes, either. However, Iggy’s original did possess a kind of giddy, screwy charm that Bowie fails to replicate here. And did you notice that Bowie mishears – or re-interprets – the line “I want no intimacy” as “I wander lonely to the sea”? πŸ˜€

    Looking forward to the remainder of the record. Things can only begin looking up from here on out… πŸ˜‰

  5. Gnomemansland says:

    A Bowie fan from 1972 onwards I carried on buying his stuff right up to Earthling. Now I do recall 80s Bowie being bad at the time but see these videos just I’m wondering how I closed my eyes to just how bad. Indeed how did Bowie manage to keep his reputation though this appalling period of dog doo. Guess we all turned a blind eye?

  6. Gnomemansland says:

    Apologies that should read:
    A Bowie fan from 1972 onwards I carried on buying his stuff right up to Earthling. Now I do recall 80s Bowie being bad at the time but seeing these videos I’m wondering how I closed my eyes to just how bad he was. Indeed how did Bowie manage to keep his reputation though this appalling period of dog doo. Guess we all turned a blind eye?

  7. Sport Murphy says:

    Agreed on the Iggy live version, but I also dig Iggy’s video. It has an abundance of one quality Bowie seems to admire in Iggy: where Bowie has a gift for presenting things in an artfully strange way, Iggy lays out things that feel just plain WRONG… it has a critique-proof power. Surrealism vs. Dada, maybe.

  8. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Two disgusting things about this track: (1) the drum sound (2) Bowie’s attempt to out-tough Run DMC or something.

  9. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    For all the stupid posturing, it has some decent hooks, even if Bowie does his best to spoil them. That alone puts it above most of the other NLMD tracks, for me.

    Regarding the Glass Spider Tour: I don’t actually hate Bowie’s hair around this period. I think he’s one of the few rock stars who can pull off a mullet. Something about the shape of his face, probably.

    • snoball says:

      Probably down to his cheekbones and relatively thin face. Another example is the spiked haircut Bowie had during the ‘Outside’ period – by rights there is no was a 50 year old should have been able to pull that off, but he managed it.

  10. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    Did Iggy steal that ping pong ball shower from the set of Captain Kangaroo?

  11. Destroyer says:

    Context is everything, 17 years old and Glass Spider Tour was my first Bowie gig at Maine Road, Manchester. Had never heard ‘Party’ then either & thought this was a great ending to NLMD…coupled with pulling Melissa Hurley out of the crowd in the live setting.

    Surely this was acceptable in the 80s?

    • Ang. says:

      It was my first live Bowie as well, and at age 16, his pulling Melissa out of the crowd was compelling, and one of the things that stuck with me from the show. It was more than just acceptable in the 80s. It was wonderful when it happened.

      Granted, I still really dig this song.

  12. Maj says:

    While I have a soft spot for Iggy I don’t like the original, and I don’t care much for Bowie’s version either way either. TBH at this point in Bowie’s discography I’m not even sure I can tell a good song apart from a bad one. If I say I like Bowie’s version better than Iggy’s, does it make me deaf?

    The worst thing is there’s not much to look forward to for me for a while now. the last time I listened to the Tin Machine albums was probably 8 years ago, and I hated it all. Hated. These 80’s mainstream albums don’t interest me much but there are some songs there that I like…but Tin Machine….as somebody said it in the comment section for one of the previous NLMD entries……was some middle-aged rocker posturing, SO not something for a young female! πŸ™‚ But what do I know, maybe I’ll find some good songs there….

    Well, that was a bit off-topic………

  13. PH says:

    This is what Iggy Pop had to say about “Bang Bang” in his biography “I Need More” by Anne Wehrer:
    …”I’m looking for lyric inspiration for Bang Bang. I run up to the Gotham book store, and (see) this book called The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe….the book talks about what it is to have the right stuff, to be able to get there first – the furthest, highest, and fiercest – where you can cast your eyes down over more than any human being has ever looked down on. Having the right stuff is the same in rock. Like, one thing you don’t want to do in rock is get hung up on girls. They’ll f_ up your band. They’ll f_ up your music. That’s part of having the right stuff. Another part of having the right stuff is knowing that unless you’ve got the right girl, you aint gonna get nowhere”.
    Sounds pretty conflicted huh? Anyway, I was a big fan of the film version of The Right Stuff when it first came out, and reading that quote at the time kind of sold me on the song and its’ goofy charm. A charm I hasten to add that Bowie hasn’t managed to capture at all in his version. And what what was up with that silly accent that he sang it in?

  14. Pierce says:

    At last an Iggy Pop cover. This is a relatively pleasing finish to an extremely disappointing side two. A good song off an underrated period of Iggy’s career: New Values, a classic. Soldier, Party and Zombie Birdhouse are all highly interesting & entertaining (if flawed) albums and Bang Bang is a great Iggy non hit single. You summed it up beautifully again. Bowie doesnt bring much to the table except some very dubious and nasty American accent towards the end.

    Great review. I see you’ve left the best till last.

  15. algeriatouchshriek says:

    If I recall correctly there was thought being given by EMI to releasing Bang Bang as a live single or mini-EP from the Glass Spider Tour (Loving The Alien Live was the B-side). I saw a promo copy once at a record fair.

  16. postpunkmonk says:

    A few months earlier, I wrote this “Steel Cage Match” blogpost comparing and contrasting the Pop vs. Bowie versions of this song.

    As much as I love Bowie’s music, almost all of it from ’83-’92 was utterly indigestible. It’s fascinating to read your forensic analysis of why it failed as much as it is to proffer my own from time to time.

    I’ve recently re-discovered this blog and the laser like focus is abetted by writing of a very high caliber. My favorite Bowie book is “The Illustrated Record” and as much as it would focus on the rapid devolution of Bowie’s muse, I always wanted to see Murray and Carr release a sequel. With you blog, now I have it, only with better writing!

  17. Anonymous says:

    Yoy are all full off it… Simple music made by iggy and once again, ruin by bowie.

  18. Brian says:

    First Neighborhood Threat, then Bang Bang. At first glance it may seem like he wanted another China Girl, but I genuinely believe he was motivated by his friendship for Iggy than anything else.

    Since Bowie produced Lust for Life, where NT came from, I wonder why Bowie stopped producing albums. Perhaps we could have been spared of the worst of the 80’s and he simply backed away after Let’s Dance and gave all the Tonight/NLMD songs to a younger act. We’d look back on the 80’s not as the time when Bowie became irrelevant, but as the time when he made some unfortunate choices in fresh-faced bands to produce. What could have been…

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