It’s an all-time low: a spoken/sung SF-themed track with “spooky” music and which has some of the silliest lines that Bowie ever wrote. I’m talking about “Future Legend,” of course.
“Glass Spider” is not the singular high embarrassment of the Bowie canon, as some have claimed. Along with Labyrinth, it’s the return of a part of Bowie that he had kept in a box for over a decade: the Bowie of “Laughing Gnome,” “The Supermen” and Diamond Dogs, the weird, whimsical, dorky, gloriously juvenile Bowie. The embarrassing Bowie. The Bowie who Lester Bangs once called “that chickenhearted straw man of suck rock you love to hate so much.”
By the Eighties, Bowie had reinvented himself as an aspirational figure, unknowable and cool, existing in a state of otherworldly fame. Then in “Glass Spider,” he suddenly became a clown again, and he got jeered for it. As Steve Pond of Rolling Stone wrote in his Never Let Me Down review, “Glass Spider” [is] Bowie’s most embarrassing moment in years…it’s probably not any dumber than the 1984-inspired excesses of Diamond Dogs, but coming thirteen years later from an artist who’s supposed to be sophisticated and intelligent, it sounds a hell of a lot dumber.”
Elvis Costello once said that his record company (and some of his fans) had hounded him for years to make another This Year’s Model, but when he finally gave it to them in ’86—the bile and wordplay-soaked Blood and Chocolate—they didn’t know what to do with it. There’s something of the same in the general reaction to “Glass Spider.” Isn’t this what everyone wanted? Back to space-age fables and apocalypse? Back to costumes and dark theater? Back to scary monsters? Why was it all so embarrassing now? Why could Bowie dress up like a space pirate in 1974 and be the height of cool, but when he gloomily intoned his parable about spiders in 1987, it was a laughable, pathetic indulgence?
Maybe because Bowie was forty years old in 1987, and this monster-movie doom mongering now seemed beneath him. Bowie, as he aged, was apparently meant to drift into pseudo-Continental adult sophistication, à la Bryan Ferry (who had always done it better than him), not to revive his old pantomime shenanigans. Bowie was making his audience regret their tastes. There was an article I read some time ago in which a woman was driving with her teenage daughter and “Space Oddity” came on the radio. It once had been her favorite song. But as she watched her daughter listen and roll her eyes, the woman realized “what a dumb song it was.” And it is: “Space Oddity” is hokey bubblegum folk-pop. But it’s sublime hokey bubblegum folk-pop, with a world inside it. It didn’t matter: all at once, the woman had grown up and out of it.
There’s a Smiths B-side, “Rubber Ring,” that gets to the heart of this. Morrissey breaks the fourth wall throughout the song, with the record giving a long harangue to its teenage listeners, telling them of their upcoming betrayal. “The most impassioned song to a lonely soul/is so easily outgrown.” These songs mean everything to you now, but soon you’ll grow up and leave them behind, and crack jokes about your mopey Smiths-listening phase. All Moz asks is that from time to time, “when you’re dancing and laughing, and finally living/hear my voice in your head and think of me kindly.” Because you get to move on, you get to grow up to be a clever swine. But I’m staying here at the barricades.
“Glass Spider,” while in no way as self-conscious (or as good) a song, comes from the same position, an artist saying: this is what I do, this is what I’ve always done, ridiculous as it may seem to you now. So it’s fitting that “Spider” is in part a (tortured) metaphor about growing up, of being abandoned by your parents and learning to live on your own. “You always think your mother’s there, but of course she never really is,” Bowie said in ’87.
Bowie’s inspiration was a TV documentary he saw about black widow spiders. He was especially taken by the image of their webs festooned with remnants of their prey, and he played with the idea of an enormous, multi-tiered, corpse-strewn spider web as a housing project (yet another link back to Diamond Dogs) as well as a mythic castle “with a kind of altar at the top.” And like his inspirational black widows, he kept piling things on—the spider became a universal mother figure, one who abandons her children to the cold world, where they have to fend for themselves. The third verse, with the spiders keeping to ground, looking for shelter, fearing nature, is Bowie’s Fall of Man (in a horror comic).
At the same time, Bowie had more practical needs for the song. He wanted it to be the big opening number for his tour (so the spoken prologue was designed in part as mood-setting and to give the band time to get out on stage) and to have a striking image he could build the stage set around. And of course he was playing with his past, too, obviously referencing the Spiders from Mars.*
So “Glass Spider” was a garish, muddled mix of influences and intentions. It begins as a spoken-word parable (56 bars, the first 1:40 of the song) in which Bowie’s echoed voice is set against washes of Mellotron and Moog, with Crusher Bennett’s stick percussion giving occasional punctuation. The spoken section is ridiculous (Bowie’s narrative soon loses its authority because he’s constantly equivocating, as if he can’t be bothered to remember the details: “with almost apparent care,” “one could almost call it an altar,” “its blue eyes [were] almost like a human’s!“) but also has a real creepiness with its wailing synthesizers, some of which call back to “Heroes.”
The latter half of the song, announced by a synth bassline that foreshadows the refrain, works well enough as a horror-movie soundtrack theme, with some of Bowie’s eeriest lines on the album (“life is over you,” “come along before the animals awake“) and there’s a sense of menace in its building momentum, with the “Mummy come back” refrain repeatedly knifing its way into the verses. “Spider” also uses some of Bowie’s favorite compositional tricks, such as backing his way into establishing the key: while the spoken section seems to be in E minor, when the song proper begins, it quickly hammers down into A minor, its verses a I-VI-VII progression similar to “Time Will Crawl” (Am-F-G, with the latter chords keeping A as the root note). There’s also a chromatically descending bassline (used in “Life on Mars?” among a host of other songs) that anchors the climactic “mummy come back” chorus, which climaxes in an a capella bar.
And just as much of it’s a mess, from Bowie’s quasi-operatic bursts in the first verse (“can you HEAAR this wasted CRYYYY”) to the whinnying Frampton guitar solos to Bowie’s irritating tone in the “jah jah jah” refrains. Still, “Glass Spider” alone makes the case for Never Let Me Down—with its air of frenzied desperation, its sense of Bowie being willing to try anything, even if it made him look like an ass—being superior to the pure product Tonight and, arguably, some of his later albums. “Glass Spider,” a bewildering, appalling lapse of taste, is the sound of a man reclaiming himself.
Recorded ca. September-November 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. On Never Let Me Down and, of course, it was performed in the tour that it named.
Jake Brown’s fine article on“Rubber Ring” from 2003 sums up well the song’s many qualities.
* Referencing the Spiders was a canny move, as the mid-Eighties were the height of Ziggy Stardust‘s reign as critical consensus pick for Best Bowie Album (Rolling Stone‘s Top 100 albums list in 1987 had Ziggy in its top 10, with no other Bowie records making the cut except for ChangesOneBowie at the tail end). Low and Station to Station have since usurped it (similar to how Revolver has knocked off Sgt. Pepper.)
Top: Gerhard Richter, Gudrun, 1987.