Bowie wrote “Under the God” about the alleged rise of neo-Nazism in the Eighties, and he took pains to be precisely understood. As he had with “Crack City,” Bowie said he wanted to speak bluntly, without metaphor or high-flown language. He told Melody Maker that “I wanted something that had the same simplistic, naive, radical, laying it down about the rise of a new Nazi so that people could not mistake what the song was about.”
Was neo-Nazism on the rise in 1989, though? Sure, there were the likes of Skrewdriver, a first-generation UK punk band that, under the lead of Ian Stuart Donaldson, eventually aligned itself with the National Front and various white power groups (Donaldson, killed in a car crash in 1993, also co-founded in 1987 “Blood and Honour,” a neo-Nazi/white-power music promotional network). And there was an uptick in West German neo-Nazis in the late Eighties, a movement again abetted by fascist punk groups like Endstuffe (sample lyric: “Dr. Martins, short hair, that’s Aryan, no doubt about it!/Down with mixed-blood, because that doesn’t do the fatherland any good!”).
Still, compared to the fascist gangs of the Twenties and Thirties who took over governments, the neo-Nazis of Thatcher and Helmut Kohl’s era seemed a hapless, marginal lot (although given the current precarious economic state of Europe, one wonders whether they’ll find more receptive soil in the 2010s). As Timothy S. Brown wrote in 2004, “the resulting [skinhead] identity [was] expressed in terms at once threatening and pathetic, full of bravado yet highly pessimistic.” This didn’t mean they were harmless—a number of immigrants were beaten and killed by these thugs—but they lacked the numbers, the dedication or the strategy to build the nightmare neo-fascist dystopia predicted in “Under the God.”
And as with “Crack City,” in “Under the God” the target seems too broad, its anger too justified. How much courage does it take to “speak the truth” about crack dealers, Nazi skinheads (“right-wing dicks in their boiler suits,” “white trash picking up Nazi flags“) or, in “Tin Machine,” “the guy who beats his baby up“? It’s not quite on the same level of audacity as, say, Sinead O’Connor ripping up the pope’s picture on stage on live TV. Further, as the punk movement had been self-policing against fascist skinheads for a decade (see the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” from 1981), “Under the God” seemed both overblown and yesterday’s news.
I agree with Nicholas Pegg that the visceral disgust in Bowie’s vocal seems more self-directed, that where “Crack City” was Bowie lamenting the wasted years of his addiction (still, as he made three or four classic LPs during that period, it wasn’t that wasted), “Under the God” is Bowie rebuking his past Nazi flirtations. There’s also a sense of irritation that rock & roll was being used for anthems and as a messenger service by neo-fascist thugs, particularly as punk, their genre of choice, had descended from the Mod scene that Bowie had grown up in. Taking the verse guitar riff from the Pretty Things’ cover of the bluesman Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would” (which Bowie had covered on Pin-Ups), and so showing that rock & roll is at heart an African-American music, was the subtlest political message in the whole track.
“Under the God” (it was chosen as the lead-off single for Tin Machine, and flopped in both the UK and the US, failing to even chart in the latter) verges into self-parody at times, whether in the cheery repeated “white trash!” backing vocals from the Saleses, or Bowie’s ludicrous singing on lines like “ten steps over the CRAZY CRAZY.” Cheers to Reeves Gabrels, who realized early on that he was playing on a secret Billy Idol track, and turned in a fittingly garish performance—the stepwise descending notes that harry Bowie’s vocal in the bridge; the wagging, mocking tone of his brief solo; the tea-kettle-whistle feedback at the close. The muddy mix didn’t do the track any favors, either; “Under the God” fared far better live—the 1991 performance on the Oy Vey Baby video, for example, is faster, tighter and more convincing than the studio take.
Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. Released as a single in June 1989 (EMI USA MT 68 c/w “Sacrifice Yourself,” #51 UK).
Top: Taizo, “Prospect Park, 1988.”