Bus Stop

Bus Stop.
Bus Stop (video, fragment).
“Country Bus Stop” (live, 1989).
“Country Bus Stop” (live, 1991).

“Bus Stop” hailed from Bowie and Reeves Gabrels’ stillborn attempt to write a musical of Steven Berkoff’s West, but the song was lively enough that they kept it in the mix for Tin Machine, on which it served as an oasis of wit and brevity. It helped that as the song pre-dated the “first take” rule, “Bus Stop” had a polished lyric, with some of Bowie’s funniest and sharpest lines in years (the “shrieking and dancing till four AM/another night of muscles and pain” could refer to a number of activities, some spiritual, others not). A young East End man tries to reconcile his skepticism about God with his lover’s fervent belief, which seems to work for her; he’s on his knees with her at the bus stop, grunts out a muffled “hallelujah” at the end of it. It’s a spiritual song that’s almost entirely centered on the body, from the feet to the grumbling stomach.

Set firmly in D major, “Bus Stop” is just three chords, two 12-bar verses and two 8-bar refrains, with a brief outro.The version cut for Tin Machine was built on a tension-release guitar riff that calls back to the Damned’s “New Rose.” With Hunt Sales again dedicated to bludgeoning his snare four times a bar, his brother mainly provides fills on bass, like the fifth-spanning arc of notes to cue the move to G major in the verse (0:30, 1:03). The song spins to an end with a brief guitar battle between Gabrels and Kevin Armstrong—Armstrong holding his ground, Gabrels trying to outflank him.

When Tin Machine went on its 1989 tour, Bowie turned “Bus Stop” into a country music parody (an apparent inspiration was Mick Jagger’s country burlesques: “Dear Doctor” and “Far Away Eyes.”)  Of all the popular music genres, country had been the one no-go zone for Bowie: the closest that he’d ever come to it was “Bars of the County Jail,” a 1965 demo, which was more an English folk ballad with a few lines borrowed from imported TV Westerns. Still, working-class British culture had had a storied relationship with country music, with the likes of Jim Reeves and Slim Whitman getting #1 albums in the UK at the height of the counterculture (Marcello Carlin recently wrote an incisive piece on a Whitman LP that hit #1 in 1976). The countrified version, while fun, slightly oversold the joke.

The original “Bus Stop” was cut ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. “Country Bus Stop” was unveiled at the Machine’s first official concert in NYC on 14 June 1989 and a live version from Paris the same month was included as a B-side of the “Tin Machine” CD single. Bowie kept the countrified “Bus Stop” around for the Machine’s 1991-1992 tour, then never played it again.

Top: “Mikey G Ottawa,” “Boom Box, Montreal, 1987.”

23 Responses to Bus Stop

  1. Gnomemansland says:

    Been plugging it for a while – but the best song on the LP

  2. Gnomemansland says:

    …and maybe the reason Bus Stop is such a success is it was already written. Arguably a problem Bowie and many other established acts encounter in the 1980s is they try and wing it in the studio. At the start of their careers Bowie, Eno, Roxy Music, Queen (?) all went into the studio with fully worked out songs and even arrangements. As the 1970s wear on they all start going into the studio with less and less. Maybe just a few chords, a line or two of lyrics. At first this works and they conjure great things from nothing. But by the 1980s the results of this on the hoof approach become less and less viable.

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      Completely agree about Bowie and the recording process. I think the tension of going into the studio with the bare minimum and the perfect sideman in Carlos Alomar brought out the very best in him for a while. But the limitations of this approach first start to appear around Heroes and gradually become more intrusive; it’s almost like an actor going on stage without knowing his lines. It seems that it is much more stimulating for him to work like that – and that’s understandable – but it doesn’t always work out for those of us listening.
      Queen in that list?

      • Gnomemansland says:

        Yes sorry about that Queen reference – it was only from seeing a recent documentary on Queen saying that they too were trying to wing it in the studio in the 1980s.

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Well, you know what they say: A band or artist has already spent much of their musical lives writing their first album before getting signed, so by the time they go into the studio for the first time, all they have to do is get it down on tape! But once they’re several albums deep, they have to come up with new material from scratch – and if they’re honest, it’ll be from a completely different, more mature perspective than the blazing young guns who first burst from the starting gate. However, a lot of artists would be lucky to have so much as a chance to get around to writing good quality material, what with the constant cycle of touring and enjoying the fruits of their labors…

  3. Maj says:

    The intro reminded me of Green Day, hell, the whole song is very Green Day-ish, except for Bowie’s singing…which is very Bowie-ish (it actually reminds me of the way Bowie sings on Buddha or Earthling, similar detached, monotonous vocal). Thinking about it the melody and harmonies do remind me of Buddha and Earthling a lot too…can’t quite put my finger on it.
    Green Day formed in ’87, so even though I honestly have no idea what they sounded like at the beginning (I’m a casual fan of the last two albums at best), it’s possible the bands got influenced by the same things at the same time…or maybe it’s just me hearing things.
    Short and sweet song. Might add this to my iPod.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Worth noting: I think this was the first Bowie album to be called “his best since Scary Monsters”, the caveat which would haunt him for the next 15 years.

    • Anonymous says:

      Oh, damn. That was PinstripeHourglass, for the record.

    • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

      Oh, damn. That was Pinstripe Hourglass, for the record.

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Yeah. I don’t that Tin Machine really quite cuts it in comparison with Scary Monsters. I think that both 1995’s Outside and 2002’s Heathen are the two major contenders for that particular distinction. (And I’m sure some would add 1997’s Earthling to that list, as well. I think that one’s really good, but for me it’s ultimately just a tad bit trendy to qualify as one of Bowie’s best more mature works.)

      I do think that comparisons between Scary Monsters and Tin Machine are rather interesting in that both albums could be compared – albeit in different ways – to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band (and not least of all because of the cover of Working Class Hero). All three albums represent a form of purging, or “exorcism” for their creators. Scary Monsters as a whole is sort of Bowie’s equivalent of an end-of-the-’70s “the dream is over” statement, while Tin Machine attempts to emulate Lennon’s attempt at a raw, gut-level, “honest” musical and lyrical statement. If Tin Machine is ultimately less effective than Scary Monsters, it’s that with the earlier album Bowie was still making a quintessentially “Bowie” record, and his methods of expressions were theatricality and artifice, whereas Tin Machine just strips everything away, down to a relatively simplistic “garage” level. And the problem is, as brilliant as Bowie is, he’s ultimately not Lennon. If Scary Monsters can qualify as Bowie’s genuine equivalent to Plastic Ono Band, it’s because he’s better at the former, while Lennon is more effective at the latter.

      • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

        Oh, I wouldn’t dare to say this was as good as Scary Monsters (or even his best since Scary Monsters – I sincerely think Let’s Dance fits that description). Definitely agree with you about Heathen though, it’s fantastic.

        What I was pointing out there was that with Tin Machine I and the birth of “since Scary Monsters” we enter a new phase in Bowie’s career. By this time there is an established “Bowie Canon”, generally his run of albums from Hunky Dory to Scary Monsters, usually minus Pin Ups, Lodger, and Young Americans, sometimes with TMWSTW included. His work is being judged in relation to his “classic” work, not his most recent work. It’s a subtle but very significant change in how he is perceived as an artist by the pop world and by the public as a whole.

  5. Diamond Duke says:

    As far as this particular song is concerned, Bus Stop is actually pretty good. It’s extremely short, but you know what somebody once said about brevity being the soul of wit (or something to that effect – perhaps I’m misremembering it). Short and to-the-point would be a good way of describing it.

    And yeah, I thought of Mick Jagger’s country-singer parody voice as well when listening to that live version! Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Bromley’s favorite son shout “Hallelujah!” in a mock-Southern drawl…

  6. diamond dog says:

    Short , punchy nice big riff …familiar Bowie mockney vocal ……like it. Played the vinyl today and have been listening to the cd all week. Bus stop is fun and that’s what is missing from much of the album , most of the albums lyrics are awful and embarrassing …roll on crack city.

  7. col1234 says:

    Let’s have a round of applause for Pinstripe Hourglass, who posted this blog’s 3000th comment.

    • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

      Thank you! Thank you! I couldn’t have done it without all of you out there – the little people.

  8. Jeremy says:

    Hurrah!

    Great little song and I agree that it’s a breath of fresh air on the album. I’ve been listening to in the car and the impact of the album diminishes with repeated listens – still there’s some great songs on there, with BS being one of them.

  9. Frankie says:

    I really appreciated the humor here, having been a Former Mormon and I thought it was a brilliant depiction when I first heard it. And such a surreal metallic musical environment perhaps TM was channeled from an asteroid deep in space?

  10. David L says:

    Any idea why the character in the song is “praying at the bus stop?” Are they praying for the bus to come? Is it late? Is this what people do in London? Hey, here in America we pray in football end zones, so praying at the bus stop could make sense …

    But seriously, is there a bus stop in “West”? Or is it a reference to some obscure historical event?

  11. Stefan says:

    Well, he sings “I don’t pretend faith never works, when you’re down on your knees, praying at the bus stop”, isn’t he? So…that’s the main issue here for me. Praying sure does work, when you are at the bus stop, praying for the bus to come. Of course the bus will eventually come, so praying for something that will eventually happen is a sure thing….praying works…sometimes.

    • David L says:

      Ah, ok, thanks. So it’s kind of a patronizing dig at his girlfriend, eh?

      Hm. Don’t think this relationship is going to work out.

      • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

        Maybe I have a dirty mind, but when a man and his girlfriend are described in a rock song as “down on our knees”, I assume there’s more than just praying going on.😛

  12. Tin Man says:

    Did the whole of you have listening to the first ever Iggy solo tour (march, april 77)? “Iggy Pop & his band” (David Bowie, Ricky Gardiner, Tony & Hunt Sales ) used to introduce their shows with “Raw Power”. I’m a great “gatherer” (as Killing Joke’s band members use to call their followers & fans) of that period & i can feel lots of similarities between the two songs which featured the same rhythm section. Try to imagine Iggy singing “Raw Power” on the “Bus Stop” instrumental version & vice versa… i find it a real remarkable experience !

    (sorry for my “approximate way” of writing in English…, i’m a French guy)

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