Baby Can Dance

Baby Can Dance.
Baby Can Dance (live, 1989).
Baby Can Dance (live, 1992).

I have moments of great frustration with this project, none more than when facing the paucity of information on Bowie’s later years. Ian MacDonald, for his song-by-song Beatles study, had as his Virgil Mark Lewisohn, who had annotated every single Beatles studio take. And various Dylan tomes by everyone from Greil Marcus to Michael Gray were nourished by the four-decades-long labors of anonymous bootleggers, who have distributed outtakes and demos from every Dylan period.

Not the case with Bowie, who has tried to keep every trace of his creative processes locked in a vault, and has generally succeeded. Even essential quasi-authorized reference works like Kevin Cann’s are spotty at times when it comes to studio data and, most of all, demos and outtakes, many of which are referred to by title alone. And that’s for the Sixties and early Seventies, an era when there actually are some circulating studio bootlegs. The post-Young Americans period is barren ground. Determining how songs developed becomes an inspired bluffwork. Everything I write at this phase of Bowie’s career is simply me squinting through a murky glass into a locked room, trying to make out shapes.

Which brings us to “Baby Can Dance,” for which Bowie has a sole songwriting credit and which allegedly was written and demoed before the Tin Machine sessions. Hearing the demo version of the song or its various studio run-throughs would be of immense help, as all we have is the murky final mix. Did Bowie decide on having the tempo clunkily shift between cut-time and 4/4, or was this an impulsive decision of the Saleses? Who came up with the jaundiced Bo Diddley-esque guitar riff that shags through the verses? Did Bowie have the lyric in place before the session, or did he dash out the Sixties-callback lines on the spot (referring back to his own “shadow man” and “Jumping Jack Flash” too)?

“Baby Can Dance” appears to have been earmarked for an album closer early on (maybe because of the long, strangled coda in which Bowie screams “it’s ooooover”), and bonus tracks on cassette/CD were sequenced before it, preserving its full-stop status. It was well-chosen, as “Dance” is a monstrous performance that would make anything following it seem anemic.

An oddly-structured piece that begins with an eight-bar chorus curtain-raiser and a 12-bar group solo (which appears again after the first chorus, then in a more elongated form after the second), it’s Bowie and Gabrels further developing the curtain-of-feedback idea they had crafted for the revised “Look Back in Anger” and which they would follow with the long, squalling metamorphosis of “Now” into “Outside”. The solos have a droning, circular feel, in part because the chord progressions keep on the same bass note, E (so the pre-verse group solo is E/F-E/E while the post-second-chorus solo is E/C-E/D-E).

Throughout the various solos, Gabrels annexes a section of the mix and howls to himself, though in the climactic solo he eventually builds to a run of piercing, feedback-laden notes that provide a sense of drama, while Bowie moans and the Saleses thunder around him (another nice Gabrels moment is the descending line he clashes against Bowie’s vocal melody in the chorus). Tony Sales’ walking bassline is a secondary hook to the Bo Diddley riff, while Hunt, though typically unsubtle and not quite mastering the various tempo shifts, is gargantuan—even the occasional thwack on a cowbell during the solos sounds as though he’s striking an iron support bar.

Bowie’s lyric, which riffs on a faceless heartbreaker who appears on a few other Tin Machine songs (though as Ian wrote, it’s Bowie playing with “classic” rock ‘n’ roll sexism as a signifier), builds to the chorus vocal hook, the whining stepwise push of “bay-bee can FLOAT….bay-bee can DANCE,” which is memorable if (intentionally) irritating. I prefer Bowie’s lugubrious, vampirish vocals on later live recordings of “Dance,” (such as the Osaka recording linked above, from 30 January 1992—one of the last Machine shows) which also have a more ominous “it’s over now” section, a “Flight of the Bumblebee”-esque Gabrels guitar solo and, bizarrely, better-mixed Tony Sales vocal harmonies than the studio track. The hell-for-leather coda, with Gabrels needling his way into the crushing, climactic group thud, slammed the door shut on Tin Machine Mark One as well as anything could have.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. Performed during both Tin Machine tours, 1989 and 1991-92. A live version from Paris in June 1989 was used as a B-side of the “Prisoner of Love” E.P. while a Hamburg recording from 1991 appeared on the ambitiously-titled 1993 compilation Best of Grunge Rock.

Top: Matt Weber, “Port Authority, [NYC], 1988.”

21 Responses to Baby Can Dance

  1. tankboy says:

    I assume you’ve read Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, right? It has loads of info about Bowie’s recording processes, even on later years. And a new edition just came out (I just ordered it) that even covers the leak of Toy last year.

    • col1234 says:

      oh, of course. but even Pegg generally hits the wall at some point when it comes to song development, esp. during the TM period (it gets better when we hit Black Tie, as Nile Rodgers is always a good, generous interview, and Outside is pretty well documented.)

  2. Anonymous says:

    Reeves is on Facebook. You could try sending him some questions. I’ve no idea how approachable he is.

  3. Ian McDuffie says:

    Tin Machine is hard. I always want to say “Oh, it’s just easier to write it off because it has all the baggage of a side-project and if it was just a ‘David Bowie’ album it’d be okay.” But then the only claim to fame it’d have would be “not as bad as Never Let Me Down.”

    In any case, I do really really believe in “Baby Can Dance” as an actually good song. It’s one of probably three songs on TM that’s more fun than it is a slog.

  4. Maj says:

    What a surprise. I actually quite like most of the song. It reminds me of the work DB&RG did later on in the 90’s, esp Hours… (an album I used to listen to a lot years ago, and still like, though we’ve grown apart).
    The ’92 version is good, indeed, though I’d have to gave it and the studio version a few more listens to determine which one I like better.

    • tankboy says:

      Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only person who genuinely enjoyed the first Tin Machine album!

      (The second one though … eep.)

      • PH says:

        Nope! I love it too, and I ‘ve never understood all the negativity and derision that’s constantly levelled at it. Was it because people couldn’t accept the idea of Bowie, the quintessential solo artist, being in a band? Was it the collective squawking of the new “fans” that he’d picked up during the dreadful Let’s Dance era recoiling in horror? Either way, it would be nice if it received a critical re-evaluation somewhere down the track, though I’m not holding my breath…

  5. Gnomemansland says:

    Well at the time thought Tin Machine was if not a return to form then the best thing since Scary Monsters and prompted by your write ups I dug out TM 1 & 2 and they are pretty fine. Yes the drums are way too loud, the guitar too squealing and this tires one as you listen but but the lyrics and tunes are pretty good and the singing is well up there. If Visconti had mixed these….

  6. Diamond Duke says:

    This was actually the first Tin Machine song I ever heard – just a little over a year ago, when my almost total immersion into the world of David Bowie truly began. My brother had gotten me a copy of the 2003 update of the Sound + Vision box set, which featured six Tin Machine tracks on Disc 4 – one from each album. (Prior to that I had only copies of Hunky Dory, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust, Outside – because I liked the songs I heard on the Se7en and Lost Highway soundtracks – The Best Of 1969-1974 and The Best Of 1974-1979. And after Sound + Vision, that was when my mad fanboy period really got started! But I digress…)

    In retrospect, it’s truly interesting to have first heard the Tin Machine tracks out of context, as just simply one part of the overall arc of Bowie’s work from 1969-2003. At the time, I was only aware that Tin Machine was a band that Bowie had been part of for a couple of years. (I was also fortunate enough to have caught them when they played Saturday Night Live back in ’91 – I think they played Baby Universal and the cover of Roxy Music’s If There Is Something, if I’m not mistaken.) I had no idea just how truly controversial the band was – or how divisive Reeves Gabrels’ guitar-playing style was – within the David Bowie fanbase. But remember, until recently I had been simply just a casual admirer of Bowie’s work, only really familiar with his most well-known hits. So I feel like I’m in a really fortunate position to be able to look at the expanse of Bowie’s work with a certain degree of objectivity, not having any sort of attachment to any one period (Ziggy, Berlin, Serious Moonlight, etc.).

    Anyway…as uneven as I feel the first Tin Machine album is overall (considered objectively, of course), I’ve got to say that Baby Can Dance – despite it being the first Tin Machine track I ever heard – makes for an extremely effective closer. A real piledriver, this one, and it truly packs a mighty whallop upside the cranium! This is one time that all the excesses that the band’s been accused of seem absolutely 100% justified. It’s quite probably the definitive Tin Machine track, in terms of demonstrating exactly what that band was all about.

  7. jopasso says:

    I made a compilation of the two TM albums.
    Obviously I dismissed Crack city, Working class hero, stateside, sorry, a big hurt., and some other ones, you know.
    It makes a pretty 12-13 song decent album. Too loud, too noisy, but I guess it was about that, at those times.

    Great write-up, and casually, you have begun with my 4 favourite songs from TM1

    • Gnomemansland says:

      Ah yes – compiled the same thing at the time on a cassette (and was thinking of doing so again digitally) if you take the best of the two TM LPs you get a pretty fine single album.

  8. Jeremy says:

    Great song – my favourite from the album. Really this should have been a single! I find this song rattling around inside my head for days after I’ve listened to it. Man I love it….

  9. MC says:

    Yeah, I remember the Rolling Stone review at the time singling out this track as a standout. I didn’t necessarily agree at the time, but as time went on, and the album’s “protest songs” began to fall in my estimation (Hello, Crack City.), I really began to appreciate this song’s qualities. (It strikes me as sonically punishing and rather tender and moving all at once – I always feel like the speaker in the song is actually quite fond of the mysterious femme fatale.) The thing is, as you point out, Chris, it’s clearly shaped as an album closer, but coming at the end of all that heaviness (even on the vinyl LP), it’s pretty exhausting. It actually sounds more appealing in some ways out of context, on a mixtape or something.

    A lot of people have suggested that the 2 TM albums can be profitably combined. For me, although a Best Of Tin Machine has a definite appeal, the two records have pretty distinct identities. Part One has this angry impetus which is somewhat diluted the second time around, though I guess we’ll cover that soon enough.

  10. Frankie says:

    Monstrous banging and live-wire squealing make it a menacing lullaby, that I particularly enjoy, just like being awoken in the middle of a huge thunderstorm, full of humongous energy. Perhaps inspired by Baby’s On Fire…. Baby Can Dance, Baby Universal, and Little Wonder – One wonders perhaps if these three songs are links of the same theme: the eternal wonder child? Perhaps the same eternal vitality is referred to on Never Grow Old? Well, you know what they say about Capricorns, they get more youthful with age….

    • Frankie says:

      By the way, great ’89 performance and the production’s better than what I’ve heard on Oy Vey Baby (there goes another baby), which I thought was rather weak.

  11. David L says:

    I don’t know if anyone’s said it yet, but damn, hats off to the Bowie man. The guy is trying. He’s picking himself up off the floor after the disastrous NLMD, and he’s trying to get back to the basics. To the art rock he once knew and killed. And you have to admire that. He may not be hitting a Scary Monsters-level high, but it’s a hell of a lot edgier and more interesting than just about anything he’s done in the last 10 years. speaking from the perspective of 1990, of course.

  12. diamond dog says:

    Sorry , but gotta say I wish he never bothered with tin machine its horrible half hearted constant thump is not what brought Bowie back the fact is he never came close to his 70’s peak. Tin machine was so shockingly silly and musically castrated that I fail to se what good came from it. Buddha of suburbia was where he came close and is an actual return. Until that album we have to suffer baby can,t dance which should have been called Bowie can,t dance …he had lost the funk which was a damn shame.

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