When we meet for a while, Tuesday morning ten a.m…
Everyone’s dreaming of all they’ve got to live for.
Saint Etienne, “Mario’s Cafe.”
I couldn’t yet see how the city worked, but I began to find out. London seemed like a house with five thousand rooms, all different; the trick was to work out how they all connected, and eventually to walk through all of them.
Kureishi, Buddha of Suburbia.
Getting free of the suburbs is just the half of it. In Buddha, Karim’s first encounters with London are riddled with insecurities (“We could have been from Bombay. We’d never catch up,” he says of himself and a friend, when compared to the sharply-dressed city kids “who walked like little gods“), and he soon beats a retreat to his Bromley home.
As did Bowie, who in the Sixties mainly knew London as a Mod commuter (see “The London Boys” or “I Dig Everything,” the latter the fantasy of a kid going home on the train and wishing he was waking up in Chelsea instead) and who had to set up house in Beckenham to mature as a songwriter. Hunky Dory is a suburban record; only on Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs did Bowie really move to the city. (He once described his dystopia Hunger City as the place that “Ziggy comes from.” So Ziggy Stardust was an exile in suburbia, a hipster who’d fled the city to bring the message to kids in Orpington and Croydon.)
The wonderful “Dead Against It,” with its whirligig instrumentation (a battery of synthesizers, sequencers and thin-sounding drum machines and, after the first chorus, dueling guitars), its trebly mix and caffeinated tempo, could soundtrack a suburbanite first set loose in the city, overwhelmed by the bounty of available actions and unable even to keep on the sidewalk (recall the scene in Murnau’s Sunrise when the country couple first comes to town and get nearly mowed over by cars, trams and pedestrians). It’s a throwback in sound, both to the “Mod Sixties” and, in its tangle of synth/keyboard lines, to the madcap organists of the New Wave, like Steve Nieve, Barry Andrews and Jimmy Destri (a keyboard hook in the chorus has a taste of the one in Blondie’s “Dreaming”).
Mod and punk were urban movements; the latter a retort to the rural pretensions of early Seventies rock, all the back-to-nature records, all the weary songs about life on the highway (disco and hip-hop were other answers). Bowie, by reviving this line of attack, was in sync with some young groups of the early Nineties. The latter were raiding the same jumble of Sixties pop “trash” and punk novelties, retrieving a few shiny bits from the wreckage (often the “square” records mocked by the hipsters of the period, the Lee Hazelwood and Herb Alpert LPs that their parents had owned) and they remade the Sixties from fresh aspects, offered editions of the decade that never were. A Sixties where France Gall and Serge Gainsbourg had been as central as Bob Dylan. Or where the Soixante-Huitards had heard Neu! (see Stereolab’s “Jenny Ondioline,” which tapes over “Hallogallo” for a decade in which revolution seemed beside the point. “I don’t care if the fascists have to win/I don’t care democracy’s being fucked,” Laetitia Sadier sang. “The world is exciting.”)
Or “Cool Britannia.” This would soon enough calcify into a subject for in-flight airplane magazines, but the movement began as a re-engagement with the city: Jarvis Cocker’s Sheffield, or the London of Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, with its barely-hanging-on bedsit dwellers getting a reprieve by going to Primrose Hill. Or Saint Etienne’s “Mario’s Cafe,” with its characters buzzing on the prospects of London life, catching a free hour to grab a bite, compare notes and make plans, trying to top each other’s suggestions. (As one ILX poster wrote recently, “The really specific references in ‘Mario’s Cafe’ and ‘London Belongs to Me’ gave me such a potent sense of who [Etienne] were and the life they led—that spring-like sense of arrival in London from the suburbs and the sheer joy of gigs and cafes and meeting up with friends—and it felt like a life that was potentially accessible to me.“)
Of the Buddha tracks, “Dead Against It” especially sounds like its creation: the product of Bowie and Erdal Kizilcay, camped out in their Montreux studio for a week, eating hamburgers and listening to Prince CDs while dashing out odd little tracks. But the cheap-sounding synthesizers, the tinniness of the mix, the no-frills Kizilcay drumming all fit here. “Dead” is pop seemingly made from cast-off instruments, rock and roll played on whatever Bowie had found in a toy store.
It likely began as an instrumental, as three lengthy instrumental stretches bookend and break up the two sets of verses and choruses, and there’s some development in them, as an arpeggiated synthesizer line in the opening section is echoed later by electric guitar (the track closes with intertwining guitars, calling back to the end of “A Hard Day’s Night”). Bowie’s vocal sounds as though it began as a lark. His verses are collections of four-note phrases, mainly ascending (dropping only when the lyric turns dour, like “begins to sigh” or “my words are worn”), to which he set a cut-up derived lyric clotted with internal rhymes. It’s a love letter to the basics of the English language, its vowel sounds, alliterations and phonemes. Take how Bowie reverses where a “dee” plosive sound lands in one barrage, using it to both start and close rhymes:
She is the a-
-ple in my eye
She talked to God
I couldn’t cope
or’d hope eloped
a dope she roped
This salty lie
The moody, distracted girl in question is a sister of those in “Bus Stop” or “What in the World.” She has a long pop history: the girl who doesn’t give the boy the attention he feels he deserves but who escapes to an imaginary world, likely to avoid him (“Western Movies,” “She Watch Channel Zero?,” “Books About UFOs,” etc.) Is there something menacing about the singer in “Dead Against It,” his need for control, the way he seems to stare at her while she sleeps? There’s desolation in him, too (take how sadly Bowie sings “salty lie”), the testimony of someone trying to communicate to a lover who’s just as happy to talk to random strangers on the phone. Their drama, oblique and unending as it is, is inconsequential; it’s just what’s happening in one room of the city that Bowie and Kizilcay jerry-rigged. Soon enough the lovers are forgotten, lost in the waves of sound that close out the track.
Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux. Issued as a B-side of “Buddha of Suburbia.”
Top: “John A-P,” Saint Etienne at the Cardiff Students’ Union, March 1993.