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.”