You’ve Been Around

You’ve Been Around (live, Tin Machine, 1989).
You’ve Been Around.
You’ve Been Around (video).
You’ve Been Around (Jack Dangers 12″ mix).
You’ve Been Around (Reeves Gabrels, with Bowie and Gary Oldman, 1995).

As “You’ve Been Around” was sequenced as the first vocal track to appear on Black Tie White Noise,* it was Bowie’s first “solo” statement in six years. Unsurprisingly, many took the song to be a pledge to his new wife or his latest self-reassessment, a fresh shareholder’s letter by an absentee owner (“I stay over many years/I should have thought of that,” plus a tossed-in reference to “Changes”). But “Around” was actually Bowie’s drastic revision of his recent past. The song dated to the start of Bowie’s collaboration with Reeves Gabrels in 1988. Tin Machine had even played it once on stage, at the start of their 1989 tour.

Bowie later said “Around” had never worked with Tin Machine, blaming in part his own obstinacy—he had refused to accept what the rest of the band wanted to do with the song, so it was shelved. He wound up holding it in reserve until he had the freedom to rethink the song, using a different cast of players. The BTWN version of “Around” didn’t alter much of Bowie’s cut-up-derived lyric (only a few lines were rejiggered, mainly for better ease of singing). What the remake did was effectively erase the song’s co-composer, Gabrels.

The original “You’ve Been Around,” as evidenced by its sole live recording and demo (the latter recycled by Gabrels on a solo record, see below), was built on one of Gabrels’ best guitar hooks of the period—a grungy ostinato figure that was the meat of the song, which was otherwise an oddly structured piece, with its rambling, barely-melodic verses trailing into brief refrain tags.

Bowie, working with Nile Rodgers, erased the riff from the equation, instead centering the track on a rhythmic base: a synthesizer “bed,” Barry Campbell’s pulsating bassline and a combination of live drums (either Pugi Bell or Sterling Campbell, the latter soon to become Bowie’s main drummer) and drum machine programming. He had Gabrels come in to provide the guitars and then perversely mixed him so low that he’s barely audible in places, while Bowie gave the main solo, which had been a gorgeous melodic run by Gabrels, to Lester Bowie’s elated trumpet. (Further burying Gabrels was Rodgers, who plays classic Chic-style rhythm guitar in the second verse and chorus). In a promo interview for the album, Bowie said: “I had the chance to mix Reeves way into the background. I thought that would doubtlessly really irritate him, which indeed it did.“**

The rethink of “Around” fit Bowie’s apparent overall intention for BTWN, which was to avoid easy pleasures, to the point of perversity at times; a seeming distrust of pop immediacy is all over the record. Here Bowie took a song that easily would have been a highlight of the first Tin Machine record, and one which just as easily could have been a bright, roaring album opener on BTWN, and converted it into a strange piece of art funk, offering a dance foundation for a four-chord drone in B minor (the refrain sinking deeper into E minor, with only a brief escape into F# major (“bad from wrong”)). “What I like about the first half of the song is that there’s no harmonic reference,” Bowie said. “It’s just drums, and the vocal comes out of nowhere—you’re not sure if it’s a melody line or a drone. It’s an ominous feeling.”

The first minute-and-a-half of “Around” seems bent on throwing off the listener (mind, this is after said listener has just sat through a five-minute instrumental). After a faded-in “ambient” synthesizer that occasionally breaks into static, there’s an intro baked out of fragments—ringing percussion, shards of guitar, a laconic bass. This in turn becomes the support of Bowie’s first verse, in which his voice, doubled by a distorted echo of himself, rambles through a series of disjunct phrases, some abruptly sinking by a fifth on the last note (“violent night“), some flat, all building to the tortured “viii-ooo-lin” that Bowie yanks across two bars and lets plummet by nearly an octave. The transition to the chorus comes without warning, the “you’ve been around” tag suddenly appearing in what at first seems to be another verse (the only cue is the now-grooving bassline).

Bowie’s performance, while not dissimilar to how he originally sang the piece, is channeling Scott Walker, the not-so-hidden muse of BTWN (we’ll get to “Nite Flights,” which will be a much-too-long look at Bowie and Walker’s three-decade conversation, towards the end of our survey). As with a few other tracks on BTWN, Bowie seems intent here on out-Walkering Walker here: the sepulchral crooning, the near-recitative top melodies, a sense of hermetic grandiosity. It’s crafting a sort of alternate-universe pop, one that speaks a dialect of pop but one which fundamentally seems cut off from its everyday conversation. “Around,” like much of the record it opened, is a strange private music in the guise of a public one.

As for Gabrels, he made his reply in 1995, refitting the original “Around” demo with some new guitar tracks, and, in a fine tit-for-tat, he replaced Bowie’s vocals in the second verse with the actor Gary Oldman (sounding a bit like Bono).

“You’ve Been Around” was played once on the first Tin Machine tour, at the opening show at The Globe, NYC, on 14 June 1989. The studio version was recorded ca. summer-autumn 1992, at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or The Power Station, NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise. A remix of “Around” by Jack Dangers (Meat Beat Manifesto) was issued as the B-side of “Black Tie White Noise”; a longer edit of the remix is on the 2-CD/DVD 2003 reissue of the album. The Bowie/Oldman/Gabrels version is on Gabrels’ Sacred Squall of Now, 1995.

* BTWN opens, as we’ll soon see, with the instrumental “The Wedding,” although on the LP version, “Around” is the lead-off track, with “The Wedding” deleted for presumably space reasons (open Q: was anyone still buying new vinyl in 1993?).

** This was Gabrels’ only appearance on the record. While he’d also cut a solo for “I Feel Free,” it was wiped once Bowie recruited Mick Ronson for that track.

Top: Ed Newman, “Jolly Bunch Parade,” Treme, New Orleans, 1992.

50 Responses to You’ve Been Around

  1. A fabulous song: the best on the album. Coming after the instrumental “The Wedding,” its melismatic, distorted cool augured great things….that, sadly, the record didn’t live up to.

    • gnomemansland says:

      Not sure about fabulous but aside from the OTT Morrissey cover yes the best thing on the LP (which I did buy on vinyl). The write up makes it sound a lot stranger than it is.

    • David L says:

      Agreed, htv. Great track with that Bowie mystery. And I love what they did to reeves guitar, fits the song perfectly.

  2. Momus says:

    I’d never heard the Jack Dangers remix, it gets pretty good from about five minutes in, reminds me of Digable Planets or Deee-Lite or something.

  3. Remco says:

    That double tracked robot voice really annoys the hell out of me.

  4. mike russell says:

    I bought Black Tie White Noise on vinyl in ’93. Still in pristine conditiion.

  5. tin man says:

    Well written (again) Chris, this reference to Scott Walker: “… the sepulchral crooning, the near-recitative top melodies, a sense of hermetic grandiosity.” Not far from Schönberg’s Erwartung…; Reeves’ “you’ve been around” features Hunt Sales on drums.
    I thought it was important for Gatherers to know that…..,
    thank you Chris

  6. col1234 says:

    another open (and admittedly odd sounding) question: anyone ever go to (or work near) the St Pancras branch of the British Library, or the George IV Reading Room of the National Library of Scotland? if so, you may be of great help to me, so please let me know: judgeparker@yahoo.com

    or: in Denmark, the Roskilde Bibliotekerne, the Vejle Bibliotekerne or the Aarhus Kommunes Biblioteker.

  7. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    If Bowie’s intention with this song was to “avoid easy pleasures” and “throw off the listener”, as you say, then it worked spectacularly. I’ve never been able to get into this odd, meandering song at all.
    The tracks that work for me on this patchy album are:
    The Wedding (great instrumental alternative to the dreary Here Comes The Bride) – Jump They Say- Nite Flights-Pallas Athena- Miracle Goodnight (mushy sure, but a beautiful melody and middle 8 – is that the right term?) -Looking For Lester – and Lucy Can’t Dance.

    The tracks I can do without are:
    You’ve Been Around – I Feel Free (bloodless cover version) – Black Tie White Noise (Slightly less embarrassing than Ebony and Ivory) – Don’t Let Me Down and Down (With the exception of Yassassin, I’d have to conclude that Bowie can’t play – or in this case sing -reggae.) I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (Theoretically good riposte to Morrissey ripping off Rock’n’Roll Suicide, but the joke falls flat in the over-wrought delivery.) …and speaking of over-wrought- The Wedding Song is just cringe-inducingly bad.

    • Roman says:

      Sky-Possessing Spider sums up exactly how I feel about this CD. Except I like Don’t Let Me Down and Down. And I’ve a soft spot for The Wedding Song. I think that would’ve been a HUGE lead off single if released with a treacly video with Iman in it. Though I’m guessing most of the hardcore fans would have been physically ill if that had happened! But I would’ve gladly lived with that had it hit #1.

  8. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Chris will have more to say eventually, but for the record I love what Bowie-Rodgers do to Ronson’s solo in “I Feel Free.” It’s mixed to sound like sheet metal squeezed through a press. So is Bowie’s vocal.

    • col1234 says:

      i won’t! sadly. the “feel free” entry, already written 2 yrs ago, hails from a more innocent time in this blog’s history, when about 100 people read it and when I spent about 40 minutes writing entries. but the revised version will dig a lot more into the remake.

  9. david says:

    This and Jump were the songs that convinced me Bowie was back doing what he does best-strange off kilter art rock dressed as a pop song. He looked killer too.
    Love the Gary Oldman version, although was always under the impression that it was done for the shelved Berkoff project, so its odd that Reeves brought him on board several years later-maybe he still had hopes that Bowie would revisit the idea.

  10. Mike F says:

    I mostly like this one. I wouldn’t mind if the album was more like this. Two things that annoy me: 1) the bassline is featured so prominently and is quite dull. 2) Saying “You’ve Been Around” about your wife is odd and not complimentary.

  11. BenJ says:

    This is much more like it than the Cool World song, and seems to engage Bowie much more as a vocalist. Not sure what issues he and Gabrels were going through, but Reeves would be all over the next three albums.

  12. Brendan O'Lear says:

    BTWN was my first new Bowie music after Let’s Dance. I’d heard Let’s Dance still a kid who’d hardly ever set foot outside Manchester but came to BTWN turning 30 having lived all over the world. There was a poster promoting BTWN outside my place of work in central Tokyo and I honestly felt embarrassed; it was like a friend from my teens showing up at work and asking if I was up for sniffing glue, or something equally juvenile. But somehow I was eventually compelled to buy the CD and I loved the first track, but then I got to You’ve Been Around. … Needless to say that when I made the transition to iPod, this song didn’t.
    It had never occurred to me that this was Reeves Gabrels’s only appearance on the album. Probably one of the reasons I still find it listenable.

  13. This was the first Bowie album I ever bought. It doesn’t hold up all that well these days, but some of the tracks are pretty good, and it still holds a certain nostalgia for me.

    I hadn’t heard the Reeves Gabrels version of this song. I think I like it better than the Bowie version… it’s more accessible, anyway, and the production sounds less dated.

  14. Andrew Tucker says:

    “much-too-long look at Bowie and Walker’s three-decade conversation”….couldn’t be too long for me. I think there’s a whole book to be written about the Bowie/Eno/Walker cross-fertilisations.
    Just finished “No Regrets” a collection of essays on Walker put together by Rob Young. The longest piece by Ian Penman about Scotts wilderness years is compelling, if typically Penmanesque.
    I was just hugely relieved when I first heard BTWN that it didn’t all stink. “You’ve been Around” vocally at least wouldn’t be totally out of place on Lodger or indeed Heathen.
    Andy.

  15. gcreptile says:

    The synthesizer gives me shivers… one of the best tracks on this album. But then, I also like the psychedelic Miles Davis, so a “strange piece of art funk” is perfectly fine for me. I didn’t realize how excluded Gabrels was from this album.

    • Tin Man says:

      I’m with you with your appetite for the Electric Miles Era (esp. the 69-75 trip). Ornette’s Prime Time is also fantastic, also are… his sidemen with a huge “S” (like for the Sales Bros.), i mean James Blood Ulmer, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Bern Nix… . Lester Bowie from The AEC brings some freshness to an album (just?) conceived to make people dance, an ideal soundtrack for fashion shows.

  16. Diamond Duke says:

    I also think this is one of the best tracks on BTWN. You could say this song is what one might call a “grower.” It may come across as meandering on first listen, but after a couple listens it really starts to sink in. And that’s kind of how I feel about Black Tie White Noise as a whole. The art-funk groove of the song is kind of alienatingly glossy and chilly at first, and its lack of pop immediacy is also a tad off-putting. But in this day and age, we somehow seem to expect everything to automatically service our entertainment needs without having to make any reach or effort to grasp the more subtle, hidden pleasures. We often carry the baggage of expectation with us when we hear a piece of music, and are quite often disappointed by what something isn’t rather than what is actually going on. Usually, that’s because our notion of what it’s supposed to be is based on surface. And if you think about it, Bowie’s entire musical career is something of an object lesson in the fallacy of this line of thinking…

    But I got onto a bit of a tangent there, didn’t I? (Ha, ha, ha…)😀 Anyway, back to You’ve Been Around…I actually have no real preference for the album version or the TM/Gabrels original arrangement. I think both incarnations are valid, and while I like the eerie, spacey groove of the BTWN version, I also like the rockier, more guitar-driven original take.

    As far as the Scott Walker comparison goes, the track it reminds me the most of is Fat Mama Kick from Nite Flights (although it’s not quite as audaciously strange as that number). A lot of that has to do with the fact that, as Bowie himself pointed out, in the entire first verse there’s no harmonic reference and the vocal melody just kind of floats above without any establishing context. In the case of Walker’s Fat Mama Kick, it sounds even more extreme, because the vocal melody outright clashes with the backing in a really dissonant way, as you can hear…

    • Remco says:

      I’m not sure I agree with your “people-are-used-to-instant-gratification” theory. I for one have no problems with ‘difficult’ music, it’s a Bowie album, nobody expects ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’.
      My problem with this song is that there’s no gratification whatsoever. Bowie was either unable or unwilling to write a melody that’s pleasurable to listen to but he doesn’t really offer anything else that makes it rewarding to listen to this song. Or if there is, I certainly don’t hear it.

      • Diamond Duke says:

        I was speaking in very general terms, and I wasn’t attempting to put anyone else down. But sometimes to achieve gratification, a certain effort is required to meet the music halfway. I mean, no matter how advanced each of us thinks our own tastes are, we inevitably hit a wall of sorts, right? We all inevitably come up against the limits of our sense of taste and aesthetics. The question is, do we even try to break through? Do we ask ourselves, “All right, now then…What exactly was the author/writer/creator thinking when he/she thought this was a good idea?” And sometimes we just don’t break through that particular wall at all. And that’s certainly fair enough. To appropriate a line from Shakespeare, is the fault in the stars or in ourselves…?

        I know, I know, I’m drifting beyond the scope of the present discussion. Hey, I’m not saying that You’ve Been Around is necessarily the greatest thing Bowie’s ever done, but it’s just not something which gives any quarter, y’know? I admit, it’s slightly alienating in its effect, and requires more than one listen. But while I wasn’t necessarily all that impressed with it when I first heard it on the Sound + Vision box set (expanded 2003 version), I’ve grown quite fond of it over time. I made an effort to meet the song halfway, and I was quite handsomely rewarded.

        But hey, that’s just me…😉

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        I’m with you on this one Remco, regarding this particular song. While I agree with Diamond Duke’s assertion that there are a great many albums and songs which can be referred to as “growers”, (1.Outside is one that readily springs to mind), it’s not as if I’ve hit the skip button past “You’ve Been Around” everytime I’ve listened to BTWN over the last 20 years. But the song still leaves me with the same -meh-impression it did when I first heard it.
        I must say that the Reeves Gabrels/Gary Oldman version (which I hadn’t heard before) is a preferable interpretation.

      • Remco says:

        I don’t think what you’re saying is beyond the scope of what we’re talking about here (and I certainly don’t feel offended by your earlier comment).
        You’ve got a point concerning the ‘hitting the wall’ business. This applies to every piece of art I guess, sometimes you’re sympathetic towards the artwork or its maker and it makes you want to look further, makes you want to like it. In this case I’m afraid I just can’t be bothered. There’s probably something about this song I could grow to like if I were inclined to but I’m just not inclined. This isn’t helped by this feeling I’ve got that Bowie himself wasn’t trying very hard either.

  17. Tin Man says:

    I think most of this album is just pleasant… (a certain kind of “easy listening” made for dance floors or lounge bars). I enjoyed the “use” of Lester Bowie & the Scott Walker’s cover. “I know it’s gonna…” seemed to be a real Moz parody of a Morrissey’s imitation of Aladdin Bowie. “Pallas Athena” spreads some real weird tension. Obviously, but that’s my point of view, this album’s got too much in common with George Michael…, not my favourite artist at all.

  18. Tin Man says:

    I repeat myself… but this album is for sure the David Bowie’s ideal OST for… a great fashion show (maybe minus some songs) for famous top models.

  19. joeb says:

    the promo vid for this is SO early 90s…but you can’t deny bowie looks damn cool with his suit & backing band

    honestly i think bowie always looks best in suits…barring that red atrocity he sported circa NLMD

  20. Maj says:

    This song….well it’s not the most accessible song on the album, that’s for sure but at the same time….it’s just quite good. Even such a sucker for actual grand melodies (which this song just does not have) has to admit You’ve Been Around is just….interesting.

    I’ve never heard Gabrels’s version with Gary Oldman – very cool! Thanks for that link, Chris!

    Btw, is the I Feel Free entry still around? I can’t seem to find it.

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      Click on ‘Early RCA Years: 1971-1973’ and scroll about halfway down the page. The page has a lot of covers.

      • Maj says:

        Thanks. I tried searching the site but it didn’t give me any sane results.🙂

      • Brendan O'Lear says:

        The search never works for me either. No matter what I search Station to Station seems to come up first. Perhaps Chris used every word in the English language on that one! … Any excuse to mention STS and go off and listen to it again.

  21. Jeremy says:

    Don’t like this song at all! I always skip it. There’s a an interesting mix of opinions here and I’m glad that the track has some love shown towards it.

  22. Sean says:

    Maybe I should have posted this on the last entry; or maybe I shouldn’t even bother as i doubt my comments add much to the conversation, but as a lifetime fan, this is the only Bowie album I’ve never listened to all the way through. And the few times I’ve steeled myself and gotten ready to do the deed, I’ve still never made it. While his last few albums could maybe be criticized as too slick or too noisy or whatever, BTWN is just plain boring to me. Even the best songs (of which this isn’t one) are dull in a way Bowie has never been. If Nile Rodgers can’t rescue your songs from this level of tedium, that’s a sad statement. In any event, in my book at least, he’ll be on an upswing from this point on.

  23. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Every now and then we get an entry that garners close to fifty comments. They tend to be when we are going through a change. The reactions to this are amongst the most interesting of all. Until now a consensus has emerged with pretty much every song – with the occasional dissenting voice. However, there seems to be no consensus at all here. I’m very much with the ‘BTWN is fine but not this song’ wing, but there seem to be equally as many voices saying ‘I don’t care for BTWN but this song is great’. I don’t think we’ve had that before.

  24. col1234 says:

    “I Feel Free” is here: https://bowiesongs.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/i-feel-free/. It’s also tagged as part of Black Tie White Noise in the categories.

    it shouldn’t be that hard to find a song entry using the search function. The key is to use quotation marks! Quotes around “I Feel Free” easily turned up that entry when I tried the search. On the other hand, searching for “changes” will likely generate a ridiculously high # of returns, unfortunately.

  25. Patrick says:

    I probably heard but never kept BTWN at some point so most of this will be relatively fresh to me.
    Having just heard this track. I think it’s mostly a failure but a more interesting failure. I actually played it twice. Doesn’t quite go any where but there at least feels some more urgency and a hint of experimentation compared to say, Real Cool World. Again it doesn’t quite work but it hints at a possible kind of unsettling yet “funkier scary monsters” sound.
    Maybe as said, it could be a grower or a slightly different arrangement will raise the song ( I haven’t checked out all the alternate versions yet)

  26. “oy Vey Baby,” “Black Tie White Noise,” and “Buddha of Suburbia” represent my “lost years”- after spending most of the period between ages 11 and 16, “catching up” via Ryko and EMI cassettes with a musician who had already been recording 14 years before my birth, and finally catching up enough that I could buy my own new releases of Tin Machine and Tin Machine II- I was now at the age of looking at colleges and somehow completely missed Oy Vey and BTWN. If I knew about them at all, they were too hard to find (mind you, I worked at Sam Goody that summer and never saw BTWN ANYWHERE.)

    Later I found out about it from the presence of Jump They Say on the singles
    collection but never bought it until after Outside and seeing the phenomenal tour. I think hearing it for the first time was probably like the experience some of you first had hearing Let’s Dance. I just didn’t see the point. The title track was embarrassing, the production was not only slick but it was now dated, and it just felt leaden. However, this song is the gem. It’s the only one I find myself quoting or humming to myself (other than the Wedding songs). There is something almost sleazy about it, in a good way. It just sticks with me. But overall I probably listen to NLMD and TM2 more often.

  27. You've Been Around says:

    I always saw this song as a “last goodbye” to Tin Machine. You’ve been around, but you changed me. Like “Okay, I’m glad I did this, but now it’s time for me to go solo again. Sorry Pal’s.”

  28. crayontocrayon says:

    probably my favourite track on the album. I like Gabrels mixed in low, jutting and stabbing in the background. The most walker-esque part of the song is the slightly undulating and sinister low synth that runs through the track although it is mixed way down once the song gets going.

    to me it feels like it shares some common ground with sex and the church with the vocoder style echoes and prominent bass. One of the few BTWN tracks I regularly litsten to on its own.

  29. KenHR says:

    I’ve never listened to BTWN, so these are all new to me (well, not really; I’ve owned The Sacred Squall of Now since its release as I like Reeves…but honestly the version on his album never really registered with me).

    What a great track! I’m sad to see many think the album is all downhill from here, though who knows, I seem to be in the minority view on most of DB’s latter-day work.

    These will be great entries to read in the days ahead.

  30. Gb says:

    Rather like this track…it’s just eery enough…though I find the whole album uneven at best.

  31. Njet says:

    Black Tie White Noise has always been a difficult record to get into for me. The length of the songs 5 min. most of them – the electronic groove which sometimes can be very interesting but also outdated and boring in some cases – the low register vocals fighting in the mix with all the loops of dance groove – the songs are not very distinctive from each other… – all the cover songs… I Feel Free is really bad in this context just… oh dear the low vocals the whole approach on that classic song doesn’t work in my opinion…however after getting the double CD with all the remixes and looking at iTunes after the rest of the remixes and that one cool mix of “Real Cool World” – the radio remix with prominent vocals – the vocals were always to low on all the other versions and those looped drums made med reach for the “next” button but with the Radio remix and louder vocals it makes a fine second track instead of “I Feel Free”!

    After a while I got the compilation where I think the best flow of tracks and production and intent of the record (Wedding album) only 5 songs from the original made it – and Lucy Can’t Dance from the bonus tracks… The remixes of Nite Flights, Jump The Say and Miracle Goodnight are so much better than the originals… more dynamic, darker… Would love a remix of Lucy Can’t Dance with better arrangement and shorter…

    You’ve Been Around
    Real Cool World (Radio Remix)
    Jump They Say (Rock Mix)
    Nite Flights (Moodswings back to basics radio remix edit)
    I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday

    Miracle Goodnight (12″ 2 chord Philly Mix)
    Don’t Let Me Down And Down
    Pallas Athena
    Lucy Can’t Dance
    The Wedding Song

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