Betty Wrong

Betty Wrong (original mix, The Crossing OST, 1990).
Betty Wrong (TMII).
Betty Wrong (Oy Vey Baby, 1991).

The first track to publicly emerge from the Tin Machine II sessions, “Betty Wrong” turned up on the soundtrack of the 1990 Australian film The Crossing, starring a young Russell Crowe. Given further overdubs for TMII (mainly two Bowie saxophone cameos and some woodblocks in the verses), the track was mooted as a possible single but instead wound up buried midway through the album.

“Betty Wrong,” like a few other TMII tracks, is evidence that Bowie was trying, if indifferently, to write more commercial material again—its hooky chorus could have been incidental music for a Coke commercial, and as such was well suited for the sub-Rebel Without a Cause scenario of The Crossing. Its intro, which seems slightly in hock to Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning,” suggests a more energetic track than its rather sickly verses delivered, though the chorus comes around quickly enough to keep the wheels rolling. Bowie’s lyric is in the vein of “Amazing,” a fallen man transported by love and pledging his faith in a broken time, though its decent lines (“nurtured on grime, good will and screams“) are overpowered by its duff ones (“the kiss of the comb/tears my face“).

During the last Tin Machine tour, Bowie and Reeves Gabrels put their composition on the rack, extending “Betty Wrong” over ten minutes with introductory and climactic guitar* and, especially, saxophone solos. The latter are some of Bowie’s most extravagant recorded performances on the sax, in which Bowie fulfills a teenage dream and tries to pretend he’s Eric Dolphy for a few minutes, though Bowie was far better at the R&B stylings of the big-toned tenor men of the Fifties, like Earl Bostic. At its best, Bowie’s sax added a swagger to “Betty,” particularly its intro, where the Machine now sounded like a bar band ripping into the Peter Gunn theme.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, Studios 301, Sydney, and first appeared in October 1990 on The Crossing OST (Regular Records TVD 93336). Two other versions of “Betty” are circulating on bootleg: one’s just a slightly different mix of the released track, the other is an early instrumental take at a slower pace, with Gabrels still working out his solo ideas.

* Gabrels, in Musician, said of his closing blues solo “the chords are C#min7 to Amaj to G7 to G#min—I wondered what it would sound like if you had Otis Rush playing over something other than I-IV-V. The difference is to move one note in the right direction. The strongest statement that you can make is often the shortest distance: just a half-step away from the note that’s ringing. That’s hardest to hear.”

Top: “Visit to Moscow by Secretary General Manfred Wörner,” 14 July 1990 (NATO archives—who knew NATO was on Flickr?).

6 Responses to Betty Wrong

  1. col1234 says:

    post amended to include a piece of Gabrels guitar nerdery at the end.

    also, the title is likely a play on the name of the R&B singer Betty Wright.

  2. Maj says:

    Hm. this sounds like a Never Let Me Down leftover. Nice chorus, but the rest of the song…and the production is a very generic soft rock sort of thing (the TMII version at least). Meh.

  3. Roman says:

    I think this is the first sign that an album like Outside lay in the future. The lyrics, such as “I was carved from a hand
    Nurtured on grime, goodwill and screams”, are very 1995-ish. This and Nite Flights seem a direct line to songs like The hearts Filthy Lesson (lyrically at least).
    Betty Wrong is terrific live and I think that without a shadow of a doubt is Bowie’s finest sax playing of his career (on stage). Compare this to the squeaks on TVC15 in ’76! And unlike his live guitar playing or the few times he’s handled keyboard duties, his sax playing on stage with Betty Wrong is right up front and forceful.

    I love Betty Wrong – my fav Tin Machine song. There’s a song on every Bowie album that just screams at me why I like him in the first place – and this is the one on TMII.

  4. Mike F says:

    Bland Machine does it again. Ho hum.

  5. Diamond Duke says:

    I hear you loud and clear, Roman, and I gladly concur! This is another Tin Machine track that I think is particularly strong, and probably tends to get overlooked. Another really good example of the David Bowie/Reeves Gabrels songwriting team in action. For me, it’s almost the exact opposite of Maj‘s assessment above. I actually really like the chord changes on the verse section, and I think they contribute to a wonderfully eerie and unsettled mood. The chorus perhaps feels a bit more tuneful and conventional, almost Beatlesque (check out the background “la-la-la-la”‘s), but it’s definitely warmer and makes for an effective contrast with the chilly verse section.

    The lyrics are also quite disturbingly apocalyptic, with imagery such as “Till the sun blisters and sprays / And every lamb ceases to graze / When the kiss of the comb / Tears my face from the bone”. In this context, I find the chorus, “I’ll be your light / When the shadows fall down the walls / Then life will be done / And it just won’t matter at all”, to be rather moving. Ultimately, I have no real idea what the song’s really about, or what David had in mind, but it serves as yet another wonderful example of how his mind can go to some rather unnervingly scary places, even within the confines of what’s otherwise a relatively conventional rock song.

  6. amylovesgd says:

    I love this song. My all time favorite from Tin Machine. 🙂

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