Never Let Me Down

Never Let Me Down.
Never Let Me Down (video).
Never Let Me Down (Top of the Pops (US), 1987).
Never Let Me Down (dub/”a capella” mix).
Never Let Me Down (live, 1987).

Written and recorded in little over a day during the mixing sessions for Never Let Me Down, the last-minute title song* was spontaneous where much of the album was labored and was lyrically and emotionally blunt by Bowie’s standards, which may have helped “Never” be the last Bowie single to chart higher in America than in the UK. (It’s also Bowie’s last US Top 40 single.)

Bowie said in contemporary interviews that his vocal was meant as a tribute to John Lennon, and the track’s harmonica solo and the whistling in its coda also both work as Lennon shorthand. But of which Lennon? Lennon’s son, Julian, had a uptempo hit in 1985, “Too Late For Goodbyes,” which shares with “Never” a vocal line that darts up to falsetto, a mild, bouncing rhythm sparked with bass flourishes, and a harmonica solo in place of a verse.

While displaced as Lennon’s heir presumptive once Lennon and Yoko Ono had had a son of their own, Julian Lennon suddenly emerged in late 1984 with a debut record on Atlantic. Its timing was perfect (its singles seemed like follow-ups to the last, posthumous John Lennon hit, “Nobody Told Me”) and it had a pedigree: recorded at Muscle Shoals Studios, produced by Phil Ramone, with a cast of top session players including Michael Brecker and Toots Thielemans (who played harmonica on “Goodbyes”). Its videos were directed by Sam Peckinpah in his dotage. The full press worked: Valotte went platinum and produced two Top 10 hits. But Julian’s fame was only of a moment. His next three records sold weakly. By 1990 his career, barely begun, seemed that of a fading songwriter twice his age.

Much of the hullabaloo around “Valotte” at the time was that it seemed like a generic public conception of a “John Lennon song,” that Julian sounded like Mind Games-era Lennon and that in the video he looked like a softened, newly-hatched version of his father. As Ben Greenman wrote recently, Julian ably served as a “psychic replacement” for his father, just when the public had begun to accept John was gone.

So if Bowie was slightly referencing Julian, some of it was a mercenary’s sense of knowing where the action was: Julian was getting hits in ’85-’86, and Bowie had intended “Never” to be the lead-off single. But it’s also nice to imagine that the old faker Bowie appreciated the odd mimicry that Julian had pulled off, and that he was taken by the idea that the post-Sixties generation had demanded their own toy edition of John Lennon—a Lennon who was fresh, young and single again, but also neutered: no weird political stunts, no screaming about his mother, no feminist broadsides, no public embarrassments. (A letter to Rolling Stone at the time came from a Boomer mother who lovingly recounted what her teenage daughter had told her: “Mom, you had John Lennon and now we have Julian.” (“Good luck kid, I thought,” Greil Marcus spat in response. “What kind of life can you make out of these pathetic little Family Favorites tunes about nothing? It made me sick to read that letter, not because Julian Lennon is corrupt, fake or dishonest, but because he probably worthy, sincere and true…when Julian sings badly, emptily, which is all he does, you hear success.“)

On the surface, “Never Let Me Down” is transparent enough: a tribute to John Lennon musically, a tribute to Coco Schwab** lyrically. But if the Lennon being homaged is an echo of the “real” Lennon, can the lyric be read so directly either? The singer traffics in a shared nostalgia (with the subject of his song, as well as his audience) as a means to sell his pleas, and the song seems sentimental because it’s in part playing with our memories of sentimental songs. So while the last verse finds the singer pledging that it’s his turn to return the favors, there’s a sadness more than a reassurance in his voice (it doesn’t help that Bowie sings “never let me down” as a run of ascending stepwise notes until he falls on “down,” and so not quite selling the commitment). While it would be foolish to dismiss the apparent heartfelt sentiments that inspired the song, “Never” is also guarded and contradictory: that is, classic Bowie.

“Never Let Me Down” began as a discarded drum track from the album’s earlier Montreux sessions. Bowie was mulling writing a new song during its mixing at the Power Station (given some of the material he was mixing, that’s not surprising), so while Bob Clearmountain mixed “Zeroes,” Bowie and David Richards found another open studio and soon built up a track, with Bowie doing much of the synth work, and quickly writing and cutting a vocal. The three-verse lyric moves from distant recollection (in the first verse the singer refers to “her” and “she” helping him out) to close by making of direct pledge of his own (the last verse has him singing to “you”). It’s sung and phrased well: in the pre-chorus a bobbing run of notes buoy “dance a little dance,” which also is the start of a long fall down an octave, though Bowie’s attempts at a Lennon (pater or fils) falsetto sound strained at times.

In the evening Bowie and Richards brought in Crusher Bennett for percussion and Carlos Alomar for guitar dubs, including some of his trademark percussive fills in the choruses. And fitting for Bowie’s “thanks for the memories” song, “Never Let Me Down” became the last Bowie/Alomar co-composition. When Alomar arrived, Bowie asked him to spice up what he later called a “funereal” chord progression, with Alomar ransacking a discarded piece of his own, “I’m Tired.” It’s hard to determine who wrote what, though if I were to guess, the F major ninths, sevenths and sixths in the intro and pre-chorus (which culminate in a pounded-home G seventh chord) feels like a guitarist’s doing, while the B-flat in the chorus that pulls the song out of C major towards a vague but inconclusive F major seems a typical Bowie move.

Alomar’s work with Bowie didn’t end here: he was a major part of the Glass Spider tour, perhaps too major, as Bowie’s unhappiness with that tour led him to cut ties with nearly everyone involved with it. Alomar turned up next (after once again being snubbed for a Nile Rodgers-produced Bowie record) in 1995, where he played a minor role on Outside and its subsequent tour, apparently to his frustration. Thankfully, like Tony Visconti, he and Bowie seemed to have made up by the end of the century, with Alomar’s contributions to both Heathen and Reality adding to those albums’ feel of recapitulation and finality.

But in the future, Alomar would always be a sideman, a second-tier player; he would no longer be a translator or a voice for Bowie to sing in. “Never Let Me Down” inadvertently became a document of Bowie and Alomar parting company, and so the knowledge of this can’t help but add to the sense that Bowie’s eternal pledges of the last verse won’t come true. The song’s a bittersweet thank-you, a dismissal in a kiss.

Recorded ca. September-November 1986, mainly at the Power Station, NYC. On the album that it titled and also released in July 1987 as a single (EA 239 c/w “’87 and Cry,” UK #34, #27 US). The video, with its dance marathon setting, was directed by Jean-Baptiste Modino and was by far the best of the lot from Never Let Me Down. Performed live during the Glass Spider tour.

*A Bowie tradition by this point (see “The Man Who Sold the World”).

** Schwab was of course Bowie’s longtime assistant, who had helped take care of his son, had paid the bills, had arranged transportation and housing and had generally served as the representative of sanity in an often insane life.

Top: Ted Barron, “Jesus Saves, New York, 1986.”

26 Responses to Never Let Me Down

  1. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Worth noting: Bowie’s last Top 40 hit in America.

    • col1234 says:

      was noted: see 1st graph, man!

      meant to say a great moment in that TOTP clip is when DB starts vigorously miming the harmonica solo (but it’s the synth harmonica of the tour) and then stops halfway through to mug to the audience.

  2. Frankie says:

    Perhaps he’s paying homage to Julian who pulls out a clearly non-existent harmonica, just like magic, to mime for his solo in his Too Late video!

  3. humanizingthevacuum says:

    It’s interesting how Bowie gets keyboard credits for applying the faintest of synth ooze over the top of Alomar’s guitars. Also, this is one of the few tracks on the album not overcome by zealous guitar/keyb overdubs.

  4. giospurs says:

    Talking of mimicry by children did you see this story about the Beatles’ kids forming a band (Sean would be John’s “psychic replacement, not Julian apparently) :
    I’m sure it won’t actually happen, just thought it was funny to see the story coinciding with this post.

  5. princeasbo says:

    This is a relatively light counterpart to Lennon’s genuinely anguished “Don’t Let Me Down” (the similar titles, no accident), with the verses recalling, if anything, the man’s later, gentle but still desperate Ono peans, “Hold On”, “Oh Yoko!”, “(Just Like) Starting Over”, etc. Also, the much earlier Beatles’ song, “I Call Your Name”, may have been on DB’s mind.

  6. Diamond Duke says:

    Looked at another way, you could say that this was the greatest song that Ron Nasty never wrote! Ha, ha, ha… (See the Rutles movie, All You Need Is Cash) Or perhaps not, because it’s not quite irreverent enough to be in the same league as Neil Innes’ satirical Beatle pastiches.

    All the same, however, it’s a very lovely song. The fact of its being an eleventh-hour songwriting brainstorm is pretty obvious, since the song has an airy breeziness to it, whereas much of the other material on Never Let Me Down (even the good stuff) tends to be a bit on the overcooked, overworked side. In my opinion, it’s right up there with Time Will Crawl and Zeroes, and somewhat better than Glass Spider.

    (BTW, I actually had a copy of Julian Lennon’s Valotte on vinyl! A rather good record, actually, although Julian is certainly not in the same league as his legendary dad…)

  7. MC says:

    Interesting angle, linking the song to the mostly-forgotten figure of Julian Lennon. Just thought it worth noting that Lennon’s ’89 album had as its initial single a song with a stentorian, Bowie-inspired (or Bowie-parodying) vocal, Now You’re In Heaven.
    Never Let Me Down is one of the better songs on the album for sure, but really suffers for me from too much surface production gloss and pretty clumsy words. (The “danced your little dance” stuff is cloying beyond belief – really, John was generally a lot better at these kind of heartfelt lyrics.) I’m fond of Alomar’s work here, though, the best thing about the track. Kind of a poignant goodbye to one of Bowie’s great sidemen; I never really thought of the song that way.

  8. PH says:

    I think Bowie may have been providing journalists with a red herring when he said that this song was a tribute to John Lennon. The tunes true inspiration seems to come from Sylvia Robinson’s Pillow Talk.

  9. Jeremy says:

    Classy song indeed, but once again I dislike the production. Poor Alomar – how we missed him! I actually met him (along with Bowie) in Sydney for the GS tour and he was really friendly. It was almost as much of thrill to meet him as it was to meet Bowie. Bowie was charming of course and the major thing I remember about Bowie was that his skin was so white you could almost see through it.

  10. Awesome as always Chris. Altho I have no evidence, is Depeche’s Never Let Me Down Again any ref at all, with ‘coming down’? Kinda sardonic by Gore maybe? It was released later that yr. Back to David’s Never Let Me Down, I find it a charming song, with just a dusting of his magic.

  11. klhoughton says:

    “Thursday’s Child” never charted in the US? Or “Little Wonder”? (“I’m Afraid of Americans” would, perhaps understandably, not be in contention to chart.)

  12. scarymonster says:

    Finally reached my favourite track on the album and thanks for omitting any link to the horrendous ‘extended dance mix’ which, even in ’87 made me long for an end to that decade’s protracted love affair with ‘that drum sound’. (Although the unpleasant ‘dub/acapella’ mix performs the same job of bludgeoning the subtlety out of the track).

    Tragic to compare his first appearance on US TOTP with his debut on the UK TOTP.

    Roll on TBOS….

    • algeriatouchshriek says:

      Oh I prefer the remix to the single! I love those daft huge drums and the summery sax solo.

  13. TWDuke says:

    Have always loved your trousers in the video, David! Bugle Boy? Chess King? Oak Tree? Merry-Go-Round???

  14. collisionworks says:

    If you want an even more specific Lennon song to hang this on, I remember my college roommate and I listening to this for the second or third time as it came out, and him picking up his guitar to work out the chords, and then singing the intro to “(Just Like) Starting Over” on top of it — it’s not quite the same, but it’s close enough…

  15. Maj says:

    A great write-up, Chris!

    I always loved this song, and now I know why. I would not make the John/Julian Lennon connection on my own but I can definitely hear it now. The Beatles are my favourite band, and though I’m not a fan of solo Lennon and not really familiar with Julian’s music (I think I’ve heard a few songs of his but can’t remember anything at this moment), I can definitely detect the mellow John Lennon in this song.

    There’s really nothing I don’t like about this song, incl. the production. The video though…it’s a bit sad seeing Bowie as a lounge/after hours singer, no?

    • Maj says:

      watching the TOTP performance now….it’s even sadder than the video. What was he wearing. Combined with the song it made me a bit depressed to be honest.
      The epitome of uncool from where I’m sitting.
      Still, love the song.

  16. Carl H says:

    I’ve always thought the harmonica part was a reference to Stevie Wonder? Allthough I’ve never really listened to any Lennon solo stuff.

  17. I’m sorry, sappy this might be, but it actually escapes the overall “eighties” sound of Bowie’s work at the time making it far less dated, and I still think this is a lovely and worthy part of the canon. Not just among the best of the 80s, but among the best of any of Bowie’s love songs. Years later, Sorry/Grateful Bowie would show up again in “Days,” and I love that one, too. This is the closest we ever get to sincerity from him and it works.

  18. rob thomas says:

    Sorry, I’ve never heard NLMD before (despite being 17 in ’87). Strikes me as cack- belongs in a second-rate musical, and that’s even before the dreadful arrangement. No, no, no…

  19. Ramzi says:

    echoes of word on a wing: when I needed soul revival, I called your name

  20. Brian says:

    The Top of the Pops video opens by describing him as being “known for being on the cutting edge of rock”… and then we get this. This song and the rest of the album pulls off one special fear, however- it puts you in sync with those in the past. In the present, we say these tracks haven’t aged well at all, and those back then said these tracks won’t age well at all.

    I’m starting to understand why 80’s Bowie hasn’t aged well. He’s making homages, not music. I asked myself “Surely there had to be SOME interesting sounds in the 80’s for him to have absorbed?”, but then I realized most of the New Wave were his “heirs”, so perhaps he didn’t want to “copy” them (Although he seems to get over this in the 90’s).

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