Zeroes

Zeroes.
Zeroes (live, 1987).

Bowie’s Sixties pop tribute “Zeroes” is the ambition, creative anxiety and bungled execution of Never Let Me Down in microcosm. Bowie considered “Zeroes” one of the album’s major songs, sequenced it to close the first side and labored over it, crowding the track with everything from Peter Frampton’s electric sitar to a 10-person vocal chorus whose members likely included his son Duncan and his assistant Coco.* It’s telling that Bowie kept “Zeroes” at its full length (just shy of six minutes) on the LP release, where he’d trimmed a majority of the other cuts.

Bowie described his intention for “Zeroes” as “stripping away all the meanness of rock and coming back to the spirit with which one entered the thing. It’s the ultimate happy-go-lucky rock tune, based in the nonsensical period of psychedelia. So it’s a naivete song about rock, using a lot of cliches.” It’s always a mug’s game to accept a composer’s description of his/her work as gospel, and this quote is such a misreading that it seems like a deliberate feint, much as how Bowie regularly knocked “The Bewlay Brothers” for being gibberish. Because there’s little that’s “happy-go-lucky” in the song, which opens with demonic, distorted screams in lieu of actual audience noises, and whose first verse and chorus is a sharp self-assessment of Bowie’s battered aesthetic condition and where he stood in regard to “The Sixties.”

The latter, by 1986-1987, had been cast into a hollow, brightly-colored tomb, a ceremonial contrast to the political and cultural mood of the era. “The Sixties” was an opposition party happily exiled to the past. And while a number of underground bands were exploring the legacy of “nonsensical psychedelia” and appropriating pieces of it for their own ends, the official “Sixties” narrative was used to shame the allegedly frivolous and/or derivative pop music of the Eighties. There was a sense, pushed by the “classic rock” radio stations and the major rock magazines (blessedly not Spin, the oasis of the era), of Sixties music as being a perfected strain of rock & roll, the High Canon, to which no music afterward could be compared. All that was left for younger musicians was to pay homage, and for Sixties survivors to occasionally reunite and demonstrate “real” music to kids.

In “Zeroes” Bowie tries to position himself, shiftily as usual, as someone who had been both part of the era and yet always outside of it, and one who was trying to escape the decade’s long shadow while simultaneously exploiting it. The first verse is the lay of the battlefield: all the bright young heroes are dead, their memories a curse on the survivors, who are stuck between an unknowable bleak future and a “toothless past” that still has a wounding power. And the chorus begins as a self-flagellation, an aging musician acknowledging that while his muse and his youth have deserted him, his audience hasn’t, and they still have lists of demands: another tour, yet another record (“don’t you know we’re back on trial again today?” he sings later, drawing out the sharp vowels of “trial”).

The chorus builds to a refrain, the singer gamely making a go of it, singing cliches: it’s all for you, tonight I’m yours, this music was meant for you, everybody is a star. That the band on stage is called the Zeroes is one of Bowie’s better jokes: the rock band reduced to a cipher that holds no value. The Spiders from Mars were a holy conceit, a “fake” band that had more life than the bluejeans- and drum-solos groups of the early Seventies. The Zeroes are faceless, nameless; they are no ones, place-fillers for memories.

“Zeroes” finds Bowie pushing back against the official media narrative of the Sixties. He’s trying to recapture the frivolity and gimcrackery of the era, the lost Sixties of “Laughing Gnome” and “Green Tambourine,” as opposed to the solemnized hippie New Testament with its songs of revolution and freedom. So when Bowie references Prince in the lyric, it’s in the context of Prince as a fellow Sixties pastichist, another musician raiding the era for a few shiny trinkets. (Bowie wrote “Zeroes” while Prince was at the peak of this, with Around the World in a Day and Parade). And Bowie tries to turn the Beatles back into pop merchants, plastering the track with shards of their songs (helped by Erdal Kizilcay, whose “knowledge of rock music begins and stops with the Beatles,” Bowie said),** with Dylan also getting a few nods (Bowie tweaks lines from both “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Ballad of a Thin Man”).

Much of “Zeroes” is able mimicry, with Bowie using Frampton’s Coral electric sitar as a curtain-raiser between verses and choruses (the sitar, which had Danelectro pickups, had an impeccable Sixties pedigree, as it was formerly owned by Jimi Hendrix. Frampton got it from the owner of Electric Lady Studios), or having Crusher Bennett play what sounds like a tabla during the droning “psychedelic” outro. And Bowie churns up his own classics as well, adding them to the broth. He was an old hand at this by now: what was Scary Monsters but a rummaging in the cupboard, twisting old discarded folk and soul songs into brutal new shapes? So the song’s opening, with its vampirish screams and applause, calls back to the start of “Diamond Dogs,” while “Zeroes” seems a diminution of both the Spiders and of “Heroes,” a song that offered, in Bowie’s words, the sound of a bright future which would never come to pass. Now the future had come, “Zeroes” suggests, and it’s a broken mirror.

It soon becomes overwhelming: the denseness of the mix, its claustrophobic clutter of sounds, makes Bowie seem like he’s suffocating in a compost of old songs.

At the center of this was one of Bowie’s knottiest compositions in over a decade, a return to the tortuous structures and harmonic ambiguities of his early Seventies works. Each section of “Zeroes”—verse, chorus, coda—is in a different key. The keys themselves (A major, F major, D-flat major) are isolated from each other, sharing few common chords, while Bowie’s transitions between them sound abrupt, even disturbing. (A dense and possibly faulty musical theory section follows, so feel free to skip to the next section.)

“Zeroes” begins (intro and verse) in A major, with a fairly standard progression, A-B-D, repeated three times in the verse. Then as the verse closes, Bowie sets the stage for a key change in the chorus. A common move, when a change is approaching, is to use a pivot chord: a chord that fits both the current key and the upcoming new one. This helps your ears subconsciously process the change, so that it sounds “right” (much as how, when watching a film, the mind will accept a cut from a man settling his bill at a bar to a shot of him entering his apartment. The cut works on a subconscious level—we fill in the narrative gaps).

So at the end of the verse, instead of the expected D chord, there’s an E-flat diminished seventh chord (right after “how it feels”). There’s a building tension, as the chord, which is a weird, dissonant one, needs to be resolved—i.e., it needs to “go” somewhere. But instead of what you’d expect—a move into a key in which E-flat fits—the song instead shifts to F (whose only flatted tone is a B-flat). It’s an odd move, and it sounds “wrong.” And while we’re solidly in F for the chorus, immediately afterward comes another harsh transition: a four-bar solo break that veers out of F major (the chords are E-flat again, now followed by G-flat). Again, you expect this to lead somewhere, but no, instead it’s a hard landing back to A major for the second verse. The sequence repeats.

Only at the end of the second chorus, with a run of D-flat chords in the last three bars (on the last, long-held “you”) is there finally a “logical” transition, as the song’s closing section (a long coda) is in D-flat. So D-flat is already establishing itself in the expiring moments of the chorus, so that when the coda officially begins with a G-flat chord (the subdominant of the new tonic chord, Db), the move finally makes “sense,” the progression soon resolving to Db (on “to dooo”).

However, as often with Bowie, there’s a method to the apparent madness. The Eb chords at the end of the verses, and the Eb and Gbs in the solo? They all fit into the song’s ultimate key, D-flat (II and IV chords, respectively). So all along, “Zeroes” has been hinting at its ultimate destination, twice nearly leading you there, each time yanking you back. So when the sitar-heavy coda appears, it feels like a happy return home at last, and works with the lyric’s final collapse into submission and acceptance.

So “Zeroes” is ambitious enough, but you can’t escape the sense that it’s a flawed reduction of a song that sounded far grander in Bowie’s head. It seems compromised, overworked, and it’s an exhausting listen (despite being (or perhaps because it was) mixed by Bob Clearmountain), a victim of Bowie’s conflicting impulses—to make a dead-on parody of Sixties pop, to pit his old songs against each other, to undermine the idea of a holy Sixties crowding out the present, to feel diminished when placing yourself against the past.

And Bowie also faced the limitations of his collaborators. He no longer had Tony Visconti or Eno to play against and to use as interpreters; Carlos Alomar was no longer at peak fighting strength (and was hamstrung in the sessions anyhow); and he’d long disposed of the rhythm section of George Murray and Dennis Davis, who’d put in the pocket anything that Bowie had thrown at them. Instead Bowie mainly had Kizilcay, Frampton and David Richards: an admirable set of secondary translators.

It’s tempting to consider the closing minute of “Zeroes”—Bowie sinking into a trance of “doesn’t matter“s—as an exhausted surrender, Bowie unable to reconcile his narratives and admitting it’s all been just wasted effort. But making “Zeroes” had pushed Bowie, had made him struggle again, and while the track is a lesser version of what the Bowie of 1974 would have done, it still has a sense of moody life and grand intention. As with “Glass Spider,” it’s a testament that Bowie was finally willing to fail again.

Recorded ca. September-November 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. Played on the Glass Spider tour.

* I agree w/Nicholas Pegg that the “Joe” and “Coco” credited on the LP sleeve as part of the “Coquettes” chorus are likely to be Mr. Jones and Ms. Schwab.

** These include: the “Eight Days a Week”-inspired opening (Bowie copped to this in a Musician interview); in the first chorus, “the world is spinning round” (“Fool on the Hill”); in the second chorus, “yes they were” (very Lennonish, esp. Lennon’s phrasing of the climactic “Yes It Is” in that song’s bridge); also in the 2nd chorus, the last “singing for you” (same as the penultimate notes of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”); the swaying aaahs in the coda (cf. how Lennon sings “KNOW-ING” or “SHIN-ING” in “Tomorrow Never Knows”); and of course the sitar, which suggests every Harrison-penned song of the mid-Sixties, esp. “Within You Without You.”

Bowie also said the chord changes at the end of “Zeroes” “are real derivative” of Beatles songs, but I couldn’t find any direct parallels. That said, “When I’m Sixty Four” is also in D-flat major and has a similar progression in its verses as the coda of “Zeroes.”

Top to bottom: George Harrison at 44 (John Livzey), 1987; at 33 (unknown photog.), 1976; at 24 (Terry O’Neill), Paris, December 1967; at 15, with McCartney and Lennon, Liverpool, 30 December 1958.

23 Responses to Zeroes

  1. Jeff in Tarragona, Spain says:

    I have to say I absolutely love this song!

    Saw the Ziggy tour when I was 15 and was a massive fan of everything up to Let’s Dance, every album seemed to capture the mood of the times in some way.

    Tonight disappointed big-time, with the exception of Loving the Alien, and by that time, as reflected by so many comments here, Prince seemed to be the 80’s zeitgeist genius.

    By the time of NLMD I’d moved to Spain and the music scene seemed irrelevant anyway. The album sounded really dense and messy, Carlos Alomar not working his magic or just mixed way down, the whole thing felt like a Bowie tribute band trying too hard.

    But I love Zeroes, the dippiness, the energy, chord changes, sitar and cosmic drone fade still does it for me.

    And I went to see the Glass Spider tour in Barcelona, with my Spanish wife, who was completely bemused by the whole thing. Too big, too much going on, no feeling, could have been Foreigner playing Bowie songs. Best moment for me was Sons of the Silent Age with Frampton, seemed to bring some magic back.

    For me, some of Buddha of Suburbia and Outside marked a return to some kind of form, and Heathen is maybe his best since Scary Monsters. Would be nice to think there would be some more, maybe a crespuscular jazz album Mr Bowie?

    Can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying this blog, the writing is superb and the images spot-on. It’s not doing much for my productivity though!

  2. Diamond Duke says:

    Even though I would have to say that Time Will Crawl is probably more effective because of its (relative) simplicity and directness, Zeroes is probably not just my personal favorite from Never Let Me Down but probably one of my all-time favorite David Bowie “deep cuts”! From a mixing and arranging standpoint, I suppose you could say it’s a tad too much, but I still think it’s a wonderful psychedelic-era Beatles pastiche.

    One thing that occurred to me recently about this song is how much it reminds me (lyrically) of Quicksand and Sound And Vision. True, all three of those songs are very different, but in one way or another the lyrics serve as an acknowledgment of Bowie’s fear of an ailing muse, his notion that he has “nothing to say” or that he “ain’t got the power anymore”. With Zeroes, he acknowledges that his “little red Corvette has driven by” (his nod to Prince), but for the time being he seems accepting of the fact that it “doesn’t matter what you try to do”, that he’s not going to be working or operating in the same way or on the same level that he used to.

    But with the middling-to-withering reviews he would receive for Never Let Me Down and the Glass Spider tour, there seemed to develop within Bowie a new urgency and a desperation to get back to that creativity and vitality of his ’70s work. The Tin Machine song I Can’t Read (about which more later) strikes me as a far more despairing, angst-ridden example of the type of Bowie lyric I’ve mentioned above. The lyric “I can’t read shit anymore” sounds an awful lot like “I can’t reach it anymore” (as he indeed sings during the 1999 Storytellers performance), and though it may just be “The Actor” in him, his screams of “Nooooooo!” (Mark Hamill would be proud!) would seem to convey a decisive change of heart: Like hell it doesn’t matter

  3. Pierce says:

    Superb review and an interesting dissection of the key changes. It does feel a bit awkward at times, and overly busy, but a decent if over-reaching track. I am revaluating this album and it’s plusses thanks to this blog.

  4. sunray jahchild says:

    Another excellent post. Like most of us I’ve long had a problem with NLMD. Gave it a few listens some years back to see if there were any hidden gems, and this is the stand out track for me. As you say, with George and Dennis this could have been so much better, but overproduction like this was expected in the late 80s. Still a lovely song. Two expat DB admirers in Catalonia following the Dame! The Camp Nou gig was piss poor, but Bowie still the Messi of pop.

  5. algeriatouchshriek says:

    This was the one that I’d mime along too, deodorant can in hand as a stand in mic, as I pretended to take the stage at a mind-blowing concert. At 17 I was still secretly hoping to be a pop star. Now I appreciate I can’t sing, read music or play an instrument those dreams have faded … but not gone, it’s one I still swagger along to in private moments. Never strapped wings on my back though.

  6. Maj says:

    For some reason I always thought Zeroes was a play on Heroes. Anyhoo….
    Listened to it twice now but still can’t remember much from it. I suppose it’s not a BAD song but it just seems so cluttered, with no real melody. I’m a Beatlefan but I wouldn’t have found any Beatles references in there hadn’t I read about them here. It’s not exactly the sort of song that makes you pay attention to what it’s about and what are its intentions.
    Overall Zeroes is halfway between bad and great…maybe re-recorded with a big band it would be more interesting?😉

    But a great write-up, Chris – thanks!

  7. Amonduul says:

    I think I agree with Maj’s assessment. It’s not a bad song and I like when it on, but it doesn’t stick very well. At least your review is a good as they usually are.

    Indecently, any particular reason George gets to be the photo guy for this post?

    • col1234 says:

      no real reason: George had a big 1987, so lots of shots of him from then (“Cloud Nine”). also Harrison actually visibly (and gracefully) aged, unlike the Dorian Gray McCartney of this and later eras.

  8. diamond dog says:

    Prince finally makes it into a Bowie lyric and its no wonder he resigns and bows down 1987 was the year of sign of the times which could not be ignored. I got into prince at a serious moonlight gig 1999 was played in full before Bowie came on stage I think. As a song zeroes does touch many bases but is far too much of a pastiche and is not memorable enough…the coda of it does’nt matter is resignation and again I feel is wrongly placed it would have made a better closing track. Its ok nothing more.

  9. Joe the Lion says:

    On the strength of this blog, I listened to Zeroes for the first time in over 20 years today. It isn’t terrible, I’ll say that.

  10. Jeremy says:

    You know what, I love this song! It really connect with me. Still don’t like the drum sound so much but love the epic arrangement. Didn’t know know what it was about before so thanks….

  11. Anonymous says:

    I always thought this song was an a tribute to Japanese rock concert audiences … the electronic screeches in the beginning sounding like the frenzied Japanese fans who (at least in the 80s) seemed to go absolutely batshit when anything remotely resembling a Western rock band would start playing (Cheap Trick at Budukan, etc.) The Zeroes referencing the kamikaze war planes, of course, “the fabulous sons who crashed their planes in flames.” And the innocence of the japanese reception in general recalling the innocence of the first days of the Beatles. And so this was Bowie’s love letter to those fans, wherein he invented some fictional Japanese band playing for their adoring guileless fans. But who knows. The only part that works for me at all is the “Tomorrow Never Knows” dreamy bit near the end.

  12. Frankie says:

    I’m sorry. to be mean, but here goes. I hate the shiny reverb and the fake Casio sitar weaving its way throughout the entire song, killing it for me every time with its fakeness, and such weak phrases like “Something good is happening, I don’t know what it is” didn’t help to convince my listening pleasure. I could only surmise that the bulk of these lyrics came from various scraps of paper taped together in a random fashion by John Cage fast asleep. I wished there were a few choice Iggy phrases in there, because this tune could pass for a mistaken extension to Dancing with the Big Boys. The music itself maintains such a high pace from the start that the climactic end just sounds like more of the same, except made noisier, “It doesn’t matter” Bowie repeats in what could be dismissed as a long-lost over-the-top outtake from Aladdin Sane with a lame Beatles refrain. It doesn’t matter in the end, except for all of those “zeroes” added to the spectacular sales figures he gained for this insignificant album. In that case, all of those zeroes probably mattered quite a lot! If he had directly sung “If I Had a Million Dollars” at least he would have been straight forward and honest, and the song would have been convincingly sung.

  13. princeasbo says:

    File Under: Not bad at all, but hopelessly over-egged. Those drums, ugh.

    Perhaps Chris unconsciously peppered this post with a George Harrison photo album as the quiet one had his own cute 60s/Beatles homage out around the same time: “When We Was Fab”. Paul’s Beatles recapitulation didn’t come until “The Song We Were Singing” a decade later. Significantly, both backward looking songs feature Jeff Lynne and titular past tense passive verbs.

    Prince Asbo of Thrifty Vinyl
    http://thriftyvinyl.wordpress.com/

  14. ARt says:

    Of all things, the opening screeches summon up the closing sounds of Moonage Daydream…

    Referring to a Little Red Corvette… perhaps it’s just a bit of off-hand fun, in place of name-checking Little Deuce Coupe or Rupert The Riley or a Beetle car…

    xoxoxo..

  15. spanghew says:

    A minor corrective: diminished seventh chords rarely resolve to a chord of the same root name, so that the Eb-dim7 doesn’t resolve to an Eb is unsurprising. What diminished sevenths most often do is “contract” their minor thirds (a dim7 is three “stacked” minor thirds): the top minor third slides down either half a step to another minor third or variably to a major third; the bottom minor third moves upward in the opposite manner. So: an Eb diminished 7th might resolve to to E minor (Eb and Gb to E and G; A and C to G and B) or E major (Eb/D# and Gb/F# to E and G#; A and C to G# and B). The cool thing about dim7 chords, and why they make excellent pivot chords, is that there are only three different ones (you can work that out yourself), which makes them quite versatile (i.e., that Ebdim7 might also work as a Gbdim7, an Adim7, or a Cdim7…)

    Another cool thing: augmented chords have similar traits (there are only three of them)…and…the three chord centers of this song spell out an augmented chord. Not sure if that’s *audible* – I’ll have to listen to the song again – but there ya go…

  16. spanghew says:

    Oh – and that middle minor third? Disappears as an interval by moving, contrariwise, to the same note.

  17. I adore this song. It’s impossible for to consider it a failure because I think it did exactly what Bowie set out to do. And for once during this period what he set out to do was musically and lyrically concrete.

    • rob thomas says:

      hey Christopher- looks like you’re going to be the great 80s-Bowie apologist. Rather you than me…As for being musically and lyrically concrete, well it’s all pretty gray and thick, I agree. (Sorry, couldn’t resist any of that- nothing personal)

  18. Ididtheziggy says:

    I haven’t read any posts from NLMD yet, but through it on the other day and damn, thought that it might be Bowies attempt at a power pop album.

  19. Brian says:

    This album has made me realize something. People praise Bowie for “looking ahead” in the 70’s… but once he got to the era he was supposedly looking ahead at, he lost all credibility. Bizarre, right? Even more strange is how this album strikes me as a man hopelessly stuck in the past. If his music was so great back then, how can being retrospective be so bad? Perhaps Bowie was not so much a “visionary” as he was a man of impeccable taste (at the time, at least).

    As for this song… eh. I have a feeling “Zeroes” was the original title track of the album before NLMD was made at the last minute. I imagine Too bad that ended up being an even funnier album title.

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