In December 1977, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones went on holiday to Kingston, Jamaica. Kitted out in their leathers, the two walked from their hotel down to the docks, vaguely in search of the producer Lee Perry’s studio but mainly looking to score drugs. On the streets, they were mocked, called “white pigs” and threatened (“the only reason they didn’t kill us was that they thought we were merchant seaman off the ships,” Strummer later recalled). Shaken, Strummer and Jones spent the rest of their time in Kingston holed up in the Pegasus Hotel, smoking grass and writing songs, one of which, “Safe European Home,” was their self-mocking memoir of the trip.
A punk comes back from holiday (“wherrrre’d you go?” the backing singers keep asking him—it’s like a punk music hall number) and freely admits he was out of his league when he stumbled upon actual Third World poverty. “I went to the place where every white face is an invitation to robbery,” he says, sitting down with relief at his local. He’s happy to be back home, walking the streets in his gear and his sense of contempt, secure in his anti-social privilege. The Clash were never finer then when they rubbished their own legend, as with the London counterpart to “Safe European Home,” “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” where the punk turns up at a reggae show, is upset that the black performers aren’t playing political and insurrectionist numbers (“it was Four Tops all night!“) to rile up the black audience, then turns the blade back on himself and his generation’s own miserable, failed pretensions at revolution.
A decade later, David Bowie, while recording in a luxury resort in the Bahamas, allegedly once walked through a rough part of Nassau. Inspired by the misery, he wrote “Crack City.” “The crack situation down there was just trouble on legs, it was hateful. It may seem like a naive kind of story but it made an impression on me as a writer.”
But while the initial sparks were similar—white British musicians shaken up by encountering a post-colonial Caribbean city—the songs seemed to be from different galaxies. “Safe European Home” had wit, drive and hooks; “Crack City” bluntly nicks from Jimi Hendrix’s version of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” for its riff and shuttling I-IV-I verse chord progression, and features deathless lines like “they’re just a bunch of assholes/with buttholes for their brains” or “like Everest it’s fatal/its peaks are cold as ice.”
There was an opening for a cynical Strummer/Jones-style look at the “crack plague,” which, though an awful reality, had also become (at least in the U.S. in the late Eighties) an easy means to bemoan the behavior of poor, inner-city African Americans, with commentary about crack addiction often descending into racist urban legend (e.g., the idea of a fearsome generation of “crack babies,” which had no medical foundation)—even Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” has a duff verse where a crack mother leaves her baby in a garbage can while she gets a hit.
But “Crack City” just uses crack as a stalking horse for Bowie’s real concerns: his past battles with drugs (and, possibly, Hunt Sales’ ongoing struggles) and the false glamour that rock & roll bestows upon the grubby business of addiction. So Bowie sneers at “the icon monsters/whose guitars bequeath you pain” and throws in some meager wordplay on “Velvet Underground” in the last verse, which he later said wasn’t a dig at Lou Reed but the “lifestyle” that the VU allegedly soundtracked. (Playing the song live in 1989, Bowie was more blunt about referencing Hendrix*, throwing in a “‘scuse me while I kiss the sky” towards the close).
Bowie’s awful lyric, a career low in terms of clumsy/overwrought imagery, shows the strain of having to keep to first-draft inspirations—allowed a revision, Bowie may not have salvaged much, but at least he could’ve done something about lines that didn’t even scan, like “ho-how-hounds of paranoia.” In an interview, Bowie had claimed that most anti-drug songs had been “all intellectual…written for other writers,” suggesting that “Crack City” was meant to be direct and blunt, simple “street” wisdom delivered at a stadium level. And true, if the song had wholly consisted of lines like “don’t look at me you fuck-heads,” he may have had a point. But instead too much of it comes off as fifth-rate Bob Dylan, particularly “Masters of War” (esp. the jeremiad against dealers in the third verse).
The best thing that “Crack City” has going for it is, for once, the Machine, whether the hollered “hit-Crack-Citaaay!!!” chorus vocals by the Saleses, the only hook the chorus was allowed, or Reeves Gabrels’ bloody-minded playing in the verses and his sustain-riddled eight-bar solo, or the usual tight rhythm guitar by Kevin Armstrong. Even Bowie’s singing is far better than his lyric deserves, with Bowie slowly descending a fifth in the verses, building to a hoarse bellow in the last verse and chorus.
Then oddly enough, “Crack City” blossomed live. It helped that Bowie was often inaudible on the mic and that the band re-thought the song’s arrangement, breaking up the monotony by having the players back off in the last two verses. It became a loud, vulgar grind-piece for both Machine tours, with Gabrels becoming particularly inspired in his soloing. In its meat-handed way, “Crack City” ably summed up everything that Tin Machine allegedly stood for.
Recorded at Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. A live version from Paris in July 1989 was a B-side for the 12″ version of “Prisoner of Love.”
* The Hendrix references likely were owed to Bowie and Gabrels’ shared love for the recently-released (November 1988) Radio One sessions; the CD also brought the label Rykodisc to Bowie’s attention.
Top: Matt Weber, “Anti-Crack Mural, Spanish Harlem, 1988.”