If There Is Something (Roxy Music, Peel Session, 1972).
If There Is Something (Roxy Music, 1972).
If There Is Something (Roxy Music, live, 1974).
If There Is Something (Tin Machine, 1991).
If There Is Something (Oy Vey Baby, 1991).
If There Is Something (live, 1991).
One of the great strengths of the early ’70s was its sense of irony; Marc Bolan was an extremely funny, witty man. There was a very strong sense of humour that ran throughout the early British bands: myself, Roxy Music, Marc. We really thought a lot of it was a jest, and I think that hadn’t happened for a few years in rock. Whatever came out of early ’70s music that had any longevity to it generally had a sense of humour underlying it. Like The Sweet were everything we loathed; they dressed themselves up as early ’70s but there was no sense of humour there.
David Bowie, International Musician interview, December 1991.
In the summer of 1972, the arriviste pop star David Bowie offered a supporting slot on his Spiders from Mars tour to a band that had been around for less than a year. So Roxy Music opened for Bowie at the Greyhound, in Croydon (where Bowie met Brian Eno for the first time). But by a month later, when Roxy was opening Bowie’s showcase Rainbow Theatre shows, Bowie apparently had cooled to them—denying them soundcheck time, snubbing their sets.
It’s not surprising: Roxy suddenly had become competition. By the time of the Rainbow shows in August, “Virginia Plain” was on the charts, reviving their debut album’s sales, and the band had become an intoxicatingly strange live act, whether trading fours on “Remake/Remodel” with synthesizer babbles and saxophone quotations of “Deutschland Uber Alles,” or offering a love ballad to an android that opened as a fusion of Xenakis and Debussy on a synth-altered oboe: it was meant to sound like the lunar landing.
Roxy Music was in essence what Bowie never quite had: a fully integrated band of autonomous brilliant musicians, with a central figure, Bryan Ferry, serving as ringmaster but also, especially on stage, as a supporting player. While Ferry wrote most of the songs and directed the band’s visuals, he had enough confidence to cede control of performances to his bandmates—Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay, the fantastic drummer Paul Thompson—who kept him honest, or at least funny. There had been a limit—Eno, who made a claim to Ferry’s authority, was soon gone—but Roxy in the early Seventies was an ironist collective that could swing harder than any other glam band.
For Bowie, this was a golden ideal of a band—calling the shots, yet being constantly challenged by your collaborators—and in a perverse way Tin Machine seemed Bowie’s subconscious attempt to finally attempt this scenario. The difference would be, as Bowie admitted in the last days of Tin Machine, humor.*
Roxy had begun as a Pop Art project, with Ferry (who had studied under Richard Hamilton) taking an ironic, parodic approach to pop music. “If There Is Something,” off Roxy’s debut LP, is quintessential Roxy. It begins as an apparently straight-faced attempt at country music, with Ferry drawling and Manzanera offering sprightly asides on slide guitar. Things start to go “off” soon into the second verse—the lyric, which began in sentiment, becomes increasingly abstract, and echo is applied to Ferry’s voice as he starts constricting his phrases. A 18-bar solo follows in a “Southern rock” style, Ferry and Manzanera still wearing their cowboy hats, but with the arrival of a new, worrying motif (carried on sax and guitar) the song molts into a torch ballad. “I would do anything for you, I would climb MOUNTAINS,” Ferry wails, applying ludicrous vibrato to the ends of his phrases (“oceans BLLLLUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUE”) to match the gigantism of his lyric: he’ll swim oceans, climb Everest, and most wonderfully, he’ll plant potatoes BY THE SCORE (it’s a sudden reversion to the country song, now sung by Gargantua).
Eno’s synth takes up the guitar motif, Graham Simpson’s bass rambles chromatically, and without realizing it you’re suddenly in the middle of a massive 40-bar prog rock solo. When Ferry finally returns, it’s as yet another character, a jaded lover recalling an expired romance, a wasted soul man supported by an all-male chorus, a singer who threatens to pole-vault into an unexpected pitch at any moment. Again, the lyric is a series of one-up laments, the gigantism of the second section still here: the hills were higher, the grass was greener (when you were young, the singers keep noting, not anymore). “Something” expires with nothing resolved—youth is over, accept your fate—and a few mocking squiggles on Eno’s synth.
It’s an amazing song, a heartfelt and icy mockery of the conventions of a set of genres (it’s in part Ferry ridiculing the art rock scene that Roxy was part of, as the main solo seems like a parody of King Crimson), treating low art (country music) as a revered genre, while burlesquing academy-ready progressive rock music; it was funny, ridiculous and spectacular. In 1989, having assembled his own band of rivals, Bowie decided to cover it.
Their cover of “If There Is Something” is where a central weakness of Tin Machine was most obvious—the band could have a collective witlessness when they performed, despite the singer and guitarist both being intelligent men with a deep grasp of irony (Bowie even publicly said he loved Reeves Gabrels’ playing because of its irony, where Stevie Ray Vaughan, by contrast, “had meant every note he played.”). Covering a genre-parodist masterpiece like “Something” was an invitation to go anywhere—turn the song into a series of colliding sonic spectacles; rope in further and more outlandish genres; just play it completely straight and do the whole song as a country & western piece.
But no, Tin Machine just did what it always did: crank up the amps, speed up the pace, pound through it, leave the song for dead. Tin Machine was like a fully-equipped Maserati Gran Turismo which only had two gears—fifth and reverse. The allegedly anarchic band was here dull and reverent, even efficient: they streamlined “Something,” gutting most of the prog-rock mid-song solo.
The result, in the studio and on stage, was a fine, competent hard rock song, with Gabrels even introducing a hooky guitar riff in the latter section, while he and the Saleses abashedly sang the “when you were young” harmonies (the Machine had retained the song’s tripartite structure, but it was like a team assembling a Calder mobile with a set of Ikea instructions). Bowie sang the lyric straight-faced throughout, and when he tried to match Ferry’s insane vibrato in the middle section, he only sounded, like the whole performance, soured and ordinary.
Recorded ca. September-October 1989, Studios 301, Sydney (w/overdubs throughout 1990 and at A&M Studios, March 1991). Performed throughout the 1991-1992 tour, with a version on Oy Vey Baby.
* Bowie had considered covering “Ladytron” on Pin Ups, a record which itself was direct competition to Ferry’s These Foolish Things. Ferry, like Pete Townshend, would prove to be an influence that Bowie never could get the drop on—Ferry did the world-weary rake far better than Bowie did in the Eighties, for example.
Top: JG Santos, “Grau de Castellon,” 1990-1991.