Don’t Let Me Down and Down

T Beyby (Tahra, 1988).
Don’t Let Me Down and Down (Tahra, 1988).
Don’t Let Me Down and Down (Bowie).
Don’t Let Me Down and Down (Indonesian vocal).

Sometime in 1992, Iman went on a trip to Paris and returned home with a CD made by a friend of hers. She played the album for her new husband and suggested that he cover something from it. Aloft in the giddy state of early marriage, he happily agreed. So the most obscure cover of Bowie’s life began as a wedding gift.

Tahra Mint Hembara, the musician, was born in Néma, in southeast Mauritania, in 1959. Often described in Bowie literature as a “Mauritanian princess,” she was more accurately a hereditary griot, a member of Mauritania’s caste of poets and musicians  (her aunt was a revered griot, Lekhdera Mint Ahmed Zeidane). Tahra, who was also strikingly beautiful, did some modeling in Europe, which is how she met Iman and how, one assumes, she got connected with Pathé Marconi EMI, who gave her a record contract.

Her first, and to my knowledge only, album on a Western label, Yamen Yamen, was produced by Michel Pascal and Martine Valmont. It was an album of, in the words of the Rough Guide to West Africa, “Mooro-Tech”: songs derived from the traditional modal system of Mauritania (a five-mode system in which a musician plays each mode via two different scales, often called “black” and “white”*) but which were interpreted by French musicians in state-of-the-art Parisian studios in 1988.

It wasn’t as odd a fusion as one would imagine, as Mauritanian music had been more receptive to outside influences than other traditional North African musics, reflecting its location (Mauritania is the large vestibule between the Western Saharan nations of Algeria and Morocco and the Western African nations of Senegal and Mali) and its population, a mix of Berbers and Arabs, Wolof and Soninke. At the same time Mauritanian griots kept to strict gender roles: men played the tidinit (a four-stringed lute) while women, including Tahra, played a harp variant called the ardin (you can see Tahra playing it here, in a concert earlier this year at the Institut Français de Mauritanie.)

For her album, Tahra wrote a haunting song called “T Beyby” that was sequenced as the LP closer. Built of sparse materials—Alain Caron’s fretless bass, Olivier Hutman’s keyboards and Christophe Pascal’s drum programming—“Beyby” was a vehicle for Tahra’s unique voice, which was as harsh as it was unearthly, seemingly existing outside of its song, an exile’s voice captured in an exquisite net of sound; her voice was also the sonic equivalent to her ardin, which plays a jabbing two-note ostinato in the track’s closing minute. The refrain, the hypnotic “den eden dani den edani,” seems like an ardin line reincarnated as words.**

Taken by the song and convinced it could be a possible single, Tahra’s producer Martine Valmont wrote an English lyric for “T Beyby,” renaming it “Don’t Let Me Down and Down” (an English syllabic near-equivalent to Tahra’s refrain) and radically altered the song’s mood. “T Beyby” was sung by a man who’s learned that the woman he loves has left her husband. “He rejoices and thanks God for the Arab proverb, ‘all things return to their source.’” Valmont’s translation, allegedly inspired by a friend who’d recently died, introduced obsession and fatalism into the song: a woman, trapped in a cycle of despair, begs her lover not to let her down yet again.

So Bowie had a palette of choices when covering the song. He could return to the original version’s sense of divine liberation or delve further into the obsessional qualities of the translation, and he could build on the Western/Arabic fusion of “The Wedding.” Unfortunately he did nothing of the sort, instead condemning the song to a fate of glossy schlock, the unwelcome return of the sound of Tonight at its immaculate nadir, with overbearing backing singers, a glittering wall of keyboards, tasteful guitar fills and an airless production that seemed intent on smothering any sense of mystery in the song.

Still, Bowie’s “Don’t Let Me Down and Down” would have been comfortably banal but for his vocal. For whatever reason, Bowie decided to sing the first verses in a cod-patois, some baffling attempt at a vague Jamaican or French-inspired accent (“steel I keep my lurve for youuu,” he begins) that hovers between his lower register and a croaking somnolent timbre. As though shamed by Lester Bowie’s fluttering beauty of a trumpet solo, by far the finest thing on the track, Bowie corrected course in the latter half of the song, lunging into his high register, riffing against the ghastly backing singers and impressively flailing away in an attempt to make the song seem like a Young Americans outtake. It was too late: the mix of a crass arrangement and a bewildering, schizophrenic vocal made “Don’t Let Me Down & Down” one of Bowie’s most disappointing covers.

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise. Planned as the third single from the record until the bankruptcy filing of Savage Records in late 1993. Bowie’s Indonesian vocal (which is preferable to the English one) was released on Indonesian pressings of the album and later included on the reissue of Black Tie White Noise.

* The “black” and “white” scales reportedly have no racial connotations; unfortunately I couldn’t find much information as to their differences. (Tahra and/or her producers translated “Don’t Let Me Down” into an A-flat tonality, with the song built of rich augmented chords—the verses and solo sway between an F minor eleventh and an Ab major seventh (vi11-Imaj7) while the chorus moves from dominant (E-flat) through Ab and Fm11 to close on a D-flat major 7th (V-I-vi11-IVmaj7). The presence, if muted, of “black and white” scales fit symbolically with Bowie’s own “Black Tie White Noise.”

** Though presumably Bowie had the lyric sheet, at times he seems to have learned the song phonetically, singing along to Tahra’s oddly-accented English. Hence he sings “you jog-jog in my memory” instead of “judge and jury in my memory,” among a few other clunkers.

Some recent footage of Tahra is on YouTube: an apparent backstage performance of “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” and some fantastic ardin picking here.

Top: Mikael Colville-Anderson, “Kazghar Chicken Express,” Xinxiang Province, China, 1992.

37 Responses to Don’t Let Me Down and Down

  1. humanizingthevacuum says:

    You identified its strongest suit: the L. Bowie solo. I’m also fond of Bowie’s final DONNNT LET ME DOWNNN N DOWNNN N DOOWNNNN. The rest is caca – the album’s nadir.

  2. Patrick says:

    A weird one. It’s a bit too slick and smooth to start with, but aside form the trumpet, the DB cover definitely improves when he drops that silly accent suggesting what might have been.
    Yet listening to the original , her vocals just aren’t up to it, so that partly reminds me of a dodgy American Idol type cover of what again might have been a better received song if someone other than Bowie decided to cover it.
    Also the YT link to the DB cover ends rather abruptly?

    • col1234 says:

      yeah “beyby” is much stronger than “down”—Tahra was a bit out to sea singing English (she apparently is fluent in French, so it’s bizarre that she sang in the former, again suggesting the producer smelled cross-Atlantic commercial potential)

  3. tin man says:

    “some baffling attempt at a vague Jamaican or French-inspired accent (“steel I keep my lurve for youuu,” he begins)”… i just imagine a guy like Louis Jouvet singing this song, weird French people !
    just listen to Roxy’s “A song for Europe”… Bryan sounds like a Johnny Hallyday cartoon !
    i am the frog of the Blog & i do like Mr. Ferry a lot…., Hallyday is not my “cup of tea” (i am an amateur de thé (Earl Grey…, Thin White Duke!, English Label)

  4. Remco says:

    He sounds like he’s reprising his role as the Elephant Man in the first half. Absolutely dreadful. Spot on analysis.

  5. Teenwildlife says:

    Well researched Chris.Haven’t heard the original to compare but I love this song.A guilty favourite.
    Speaking of Ne Me Quitte Pas – saw the excellent documentary on Jacques Brel recently on BBC4.Always liked Scott Walker’s I You Go Away but the original sung live was astonishing.

  6. MrBelm says:

    To me this one always sounded like a Scritti Politti outtake.

  7. Jasper says:

    I go in and out of liking the album, sometimes it’s just great and sometime I think it could be played in some hotel lobby, a problem for a lot of jazzy pop, that goes for this song too. Lester Bowie does lift the hole record. When the album arrived after Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine it was as sent from heaven, Bowie was finely trying to make music again, without being pathetic running after other peoples trends, might off course just be me not noticing where he got his inspiration from at the time. The jumping someone else’s train was of course a problems of the next records to come, thou they all had some very good songs on them.
    Hearing the original version, was a fun first for me, I don’t think he did that bad cover job, thou there was an oblivious greater potential in the song.
    I try not to weigh him against what he did in the late 70’s, my favorite Bowie period, I know it’s not fair and they were off course over a long time by then, and if he had done Heroes and Low many times over I’m sure I would have stopped listening a long time ago, I would rather hear him fail than being stuck doing the same.

    • tin man says:

      “When the album arrived after Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine it was as sent from heaven, Bowie was finely trying to make music again…,” sorry Jasper…, perhaps i’m too naive but i really thought Tin Machine made music. How can you say that? the first time i’ve heard “i can’t read” in may 1989, i immediately fell it was an extension of Bowie’s work with Fripp.
      BTWN is one of the weakest Bowie work…
      BUT… that’s (just) my opinion.

      • Jasper says:

        Hey, Tin Man
        I liked Tin Machine, even went to see them live, and I loved it, a concert that had my ears ringing still the day after. But I also knew of all the noisy rock going on at the time, and did not find Tin Machine to be innovating, I had a feeling that they wanted to be something or somebody else. My guess is that Bowie wanted to be an updated version of the Stooges. As in Bowie with more noise and less brains. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t do some great songs, but for me listening to a hole record today is not easy to get thru.
        What I meant with my comment was that with BTWN I thought he was no longer running after someone else’s thing. But then again I know very little of jazz pop, both then and now. I don’t think BTWN is among his best records, but I do think that it’s a record where he seems more free/playful in what he does than in the records preceding it.

  8. david says:

    As close to Celine Dion as Bowie has ever gotten without standing next to her. I suppose one has to remember this was a gift for the missus, but apart from the gusto vocal at the end, its an aberration best forgotten by the rest of us.

  9. King of Oblivion says:

    I bet Bowie uses that accent during his pillow talk with Iman. She giggles and giggles. It’s the only explanation.

  10. Maj says:

    I never noticed the weird accent at the beginning…until you pointed it out. Now I definitely hear it.
    This must be the most 90’s song Bowie’s ever recorded, if you know what I mean. It just sounds SO 90’s. It is definitely one of his worst covers…but the trumpet solo is great and Bowie’s wailing in the 2nd half of the song is pretty good…at least it sounds convinced – and convincing.

    Maybe the weakest part of BTWN nevertheless.

  11. Momus says:

    The strange accent is easily explained; there must be an Oblique Strategies card which reads “How would your wife sing it?”

  12. sigmata martyr says:

    I love love love this warts and all. I used to mimic that accent when I would sing this to my newborn, a kind of Bowie “momese” The back up singers were very Anita Baker. Young Americans profits from having groove R&B at its peak to draw from. I think BTWN draws from the R&B of its time- part “smooth jazz” and plagued with synths. He’s a good study but the source material was lacking.

    (And, clearly, he made this record blissed out on oxytocin)

    There’s an overarching, sentimental romantic syrup all over BTWN and I bought it hook, line and sinker. Still do.

  13. Diamond Duke says:

    Granted, this sort of thing isn’t normally my cup of tea. It really is a bit on the glossy side, isn’t it? And I see I’m not alone in thinking Bowie’s accent in the first half of the song was rather cheesy! But as for the song itself? It’s really quite good, all things considered. Tahra’s original is really quite lovely. I like the vulnerability of her voice, and I think the song actually works better in triple meter, whereas the more conventional 4/4 of Bowie’s cover actually straightens and flattens out the emotion somewhat. I actually love when he belts out at the top of his range in the last part of the song, after Lester’s trumpet solo! If my memory serves me correctly, he’s hitting a high G#! One thing’s for sure, all those years of chain-smoking haven’t quite caught up with him at this point…😀

    BTW, Bowie’s cover version actually gains quite a bit of poignancy if you listen to it right after A Better Future from Heathen (2002), in which he pleads with a seemingly apathetic (if not absent) deity or higher power. I actually sequenced them together in one of my Bowie mixes…😉

  14. tin man says:

    I miss Lester & the AEC Trip; this LP seems to be David’s own “Doo Bop” record (ref. to the posthumous Miles Davis album feat. Easy Mo Bee as producer… not my kind of Miles stone when compared to what he has done before… MD: one of the greatest Artist ever !)

  15. Jeremy says:

    Just terrible! Sorry David….

  16. MC says:

    I have to second Jeremy: lameness personified. The track definitely seemed at the time to be the second coming of Tonight, but the likes of God Only Knows at least sounded like Bowie was taking the piss, while here, Bowie’s outsize sincerity plus the terrible accent totally sink the thing. Gets my vote for worst song on a Bowie album post-Tin Machine. He.aring the original is an eye-opener, however; at least now I can see what potential the song might have had

  17. princeasbo says:

    Chris says: The presence, if muted, of “black and white” scales fit symbolically with Bowie’s own “Black Tie White Noise.”

    ..and the marriage of a “white” person to a “black” person.

    I wonder, too, if, as he does regularly, Bowie selected the song as an, admittedly oblique, allusion to “Never Let You Down”.

  18. jopasso says:

    Not only one of his worst covers, but one of his worst songs.

  19. algeriatouchshriek says:

    I thought it was a welsh accent! How on earth was this even considered as a single? It’s just terrible. I remember DLT (UK Radio DJ) playing this and fading out just as the ‘secondary’ vocal came in. I was embarrassed.

  20. Maj says:

    Am I the only one who doesn’t like the original song either?

  21. gnomemansland says:

    Oh dear

  22. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Processed Cheese……

  23. David L says:

    This chaos is killing me

  24. The things pop stars do for their wives- Billy Joel let his paint an album cover (and she still left him), John and Paul both let theirs “sing” on their albums. George Harrison gave his to his best friend. So, in a way, David got off easy. Funny how it never seems to work in reverse- thankfully Barbra Streisand has never felt compelled to let James Brolin duet with her.

  25. Jyo says:

    Thanks for an informative page. I knew this was a cover, but didn’t know anything at all about the original.

    I’m surprised at how little love this song gets, though. I *like* it. 🙂

  26. crayontocrayon says:

    I honestly think this is Bowie’s worst ever vocal. I like Tahra’s version, it has a kind of weariness to it that in theory Bowie would be well suited to sing -had he recorded this at the time of Hours I think there would be potential for it to be a real gem. But what we have here is a baffling performance.

    BTWN is the 90s ‘Tonight’. Instantly dated production, a few good tracks that obviously got the bulk of Bowie’s attention and some grossly overblown or pitifully underblown cover songs.

    • StoweTheLion says:

      I have to agree that the down and downfall of BTWN is the dated production. Something about the bass and the drum loops that do it.

  27. Kikouyou says:

    I think the exacte opposite, the production has not aged at all. It was not an instantly dated production imo, the music was like nu-jazz from a later period (97-2004). Listen The Nu-Jazz deluxe comps and you will know what I mean. I think myself that BTWN is a great album,, his best from the 90’s with Outside. The multi layered sounds and details gave a masterful case for his crown. This abum s’got soul… It’s far better than BOS, except South Horizon…Vastly underrated record, each song has something to offer…

  28. Iam Robes says:

    I loved this song the first time I heard it and still do…without apology.

  29. Peter says:

    Oh come on – he’s taking the mick with the vocals in the first half of the song. It’s one of my favourite tracks and like the previous poster I make no apologies either.

  30. Gb says:

    Bowie manages to cover yet another musical genre with this song…muzak. Not his finest moment.

  31. StoweTheLion says:

    Bizzare! The only defence you can have for it is how obscure a track it is, is that it shows DB was always trying something odd. Would be interesting to see what people thought when this came out.. I wasnt even born

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