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.”