No Control


No Control.

“No Control” came together quickly, at the tail end of the last Outside sessions in New York: it was possibly the last track completed for the album. In his diary, Eno said much of the track was done in an hour, including a Bowie vocal that left him in awe: “Watching him tune it to just the right pitch of sincerity and parody was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen in a studio.”

Bowie starts with an octave-doubled vocal for the verses; it’s a warning to a collective “you” from someone already condemned, the melody confined to a handful of notes and tethered to the song’s basic harmonic progression (A major moving to its flattened VII chord, G, on “deranged“). He shifts to a wider-ranging, ascending melody in the bridge, with a loftiness in his now-single-tracked intonation (“If I could control…tomorrow’s haze“), over the same progression in G major (a move to F on “darkened shore“).

But in the second bridge, Bowie introduces what Eno had noticed him fine-tuning: a blend of camp and “realism.” You’ve gotta have a scheme, You’ve gotta have a plan! It’s as if a minor character from Oklahoma! has turned up in Oxford Town, trying to impart some homespun common sense (is he exhorting the likes of Leon Blank or Ramona Stone to plan their murders more thoroughly?). Repeating this move in the final bridge, which extends into the coda, Bowie concludes in a run where he scrapes out every vowel he comes across: “I caaan’t be-lieeeve…I’ve noo con-trool…it’s all de-raaaaaanged, DE-raaaaaanged.”

This was an old Bowie trick, going back to “I’m Not Losing Sleep” and “London Boys”: setting up a lyrical scenario (often a “street” scene) and then pulling back to reveal the stage lights and scrim, ending with a Judy Garland moment in the coda. (Garland’s version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” an interpretation of which Bowie used to close sets in 1966, was the godmother of all of this.) The arrangement of “No Control” at times parallels Bowie’s vocal strategy—the purling synthesizers in the intro and verse are disrupted by Reeves Gabrels’ distorted, singing guitar and a squalling keyboard that crops up in the bridge, eats into the following verse and finally gets an eight-bar solo. Bowie’s move to “Broadway” vocalese in the second bridge comes during a feeling of dislocation in the music, as the harmonic “pad” on keyboard vanishes, leaving only Carlos Alomar’s rhythm guitar to tack things down.

The closing “I’m deranged” line suggests that “No Control” came out of that slightly-older composition. As with his other last-minute songs for Outside, Bowie sharpened his writing by ditching his Verbasiser cut-up lyric generator and, in most cases, his art-murder “narrative.” Instead he trusted his instincts, free-associating lyrics, even at times in the vocal booth: lines like “stay away from the future” or “don’t tell God your plans” have the aphoristic oddness of the best of his Seventies songs. “No Control” is one of the Bowie tracks that sum up his career in miniature (which is also to say if you hate Bowie, it will remind you why). But it got lost in the over-heaped platter that is Outside, Bowie never played the song live, and “No Control” became a footnote.

Recorded 20 January-February 1995. An instrumental mix appeared on a Dutch promo CD in 1998.

Top: Ted Sherarts, “March 29, 1995, Berlin.”

22 Responses to No Control

  1. MC says:

    A fine tribute to one of the finest unsung Bowie deep cuts, and for me, the end of the album’s “good half”, as for me Outside suffers from the same “Side 2” problem that afflicts most of DB’s nineties albums – namely a paucity of tunes and a surplus of somewhat torturous experimentation. (I know this makes me sound like a Melody Maker writer from the 90’s, but so be it.)There is one glorious exception to this towards cd’s end which we haven’t covered yet; suffice it to say that No Control is shamefully neglected, and could have anchored a much shorter version of the album. There is more than enough great material here to make me wish Bowie-Eno had abandoned the art-murder narrative and just concentrated on an album of great songs, unimaginative though that might have been.

  2. s.t. says:

    It took me a while to discover this modest gem amidst the “louder” moments on the album. The vocals here really are great, and the song had an effortless charm to it. There’s just enough dark drama to fit within the Outside narrative, but (like We Prick You) it offers listeners some readily accessible grooves and melody.

    The electronic arrangement here really resembles Faith & Devotion era Depeche Mode to me; almost like a combination of Rush and Walking in My Shoes. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. Maybe Wilder and Gore were also getting into Massive Attack when they made SoFaD. In any event, very 90’s sound to it.

  3. Diamond Duke says:

    I’ve always liked this song. I always felt it was one of the more “conventional” songs from Outside, but for me it’s a highlight all the same. The double-tracked vocal melody of the verse carries an engaging sense of latent menace, or at the very least an undercurrent of unease and mild paranoia. And Bowie’s vocal performance during the coda is just magnificent.

    And did you notice something about the melody of the bridge section? David Bowie has always said that the song Inchworm, as sung by Danny Kaye in the 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen, was one of his favorites, and that it was specifically Ashes To Ashes in which its influence could be most strongly felt. Well, I would submit that No Control is yet another offspring of Inchworm! Just listen once more to the bridge vocal melody…

    • Diamond Duke says:

      I’ll try to link with the Danny Kaye number on YouTube, but just in case it doesn’t work out, Chris can always delete it…

    • col1234 says:

      yes, good call. I think “Inchworm” is like the Hitchcock cameo on DB albums—there’s always at least one reference on all of ’em…

    • s.t. says:

      I think you’re right on the money there. I’ve never heard Inchworm before you linked this. Despite its obviously innocent and saccharine intent, the song is pretty damn creepy, especially the children singing in the background!

  4. Momus says:

    This is a great song and a great arrangement. It pulls off a couple of very effective tricks.

    First of all, as noted above, it takes a chirpy, show-tuney melody and darkens it. For me, that melody is close to Well, Did You Evah from High Society (check Sinatra and Crosby duetting it on YouTube) in the way it slides ascending phrases down a chordal slope.

    Secondly, the arrangement then ironizes the childishly-simple vocal melody by going to unexpected chords and throwing wild cards. Sometimes it’s descending, sometimes climbing, sometimes zig-zagging into goregously glazed strings. The effect is instant dramatic irony. Do we believe the character or not? Even when he tells us he’s mad?

    Bowie seems to be incarnating a Vendice Partners sort of character (his advertising man from Absolute Beginners), but a deranged one simultaneously advocating seizing destiny and crumbling before it. It’s the kind of song you could give an insane Bond villain too. There’s a nice passing allusion to Sir Walter Scott’s line “oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”

    • Diamond Duke says:

      Good points made once again, Momus. And there’s also a reference to “bloody robes, perhaps the ones worn by those “midwives to history” in Teenage Wildlife, perhaps…?

  5. humanizingthevacuum says:

    I love the synth pad (presumably played by Eno) with which it ends.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Almost forgot: the keyboards have always reminded me of the keening synths on Kraftwerk songs like Spacelab and Neon Lights, a glorious reminder of the late 70’s.

  7. MC says:

    Woops, MC here!

  8. Maj says:

    Another Outside song I love love love. The contrast between the vocal and the track. I just love the track underneath it, pulsating. Really cool to my ears. Simple but effective.

    “the right pitch of sincerity and parody” is pretty much what Bowie has always been about, no? At least for me. Whenever I watch the video for Heroes I see him partly being all a sincere crooner and partly just taking the piss.

    • Maj says:

      I’d just add I can’t say this track ever seemed lost to me, within the album. In fact it was one of the first ones I liked right from the start. One of the catchier ones. But I agree it’s underrated and less talked about.

  9. gcreptile says:

    Hmm…I often skipped this track. A typical 90’s synth beat, not quite interesting enough lyrically or thematically, not quite impressive enough melodically. For me, it’s just a filler. And the story of its creation confirms it for me.

  10. David L says:

    You know, I really like this song, but I’m not sure that it has much popular appeal. To test my theory out, I went on a crowded subway car with my earbuds on, and sang along with the lyrics. Real LOUD so I could be sure that everyone could hear. And I do a pretty good Bowie imitation, by the way.
    Well, I can tell you, by the stares I was getting, this song does not have much popular appeal. And when I got to the middle part — you know, the part where he sings “I’m deraannged”, well, people were actually leaving my subway car and going into the next car. That’s how much people do not like this song.
    So, it may be pretty cool to us Bowie aficianados, but the average music fan just does not get this song. I guess they’ll stick to their Taylor Swift and Justin Beiber. Blah.

    • Champiness says:

      You know, there might be other reasons that people were off-put but someone doing a loud Bowie impersonation on the subway…

      • Den says:

        No, I feel that his research was conducted under strictly observed conditions. It’s definitely the song. I used the same method myself to establish that the Outside segues weren’t chart-worthy material.

    • cruth01 says:

      That’s pretty damning, I must say.

  11. Elijah says:

    Imagine if Ian Curtis had lived until he was 50. That’s how glorious Bowie sounds.
    I hear Joy Division and Pill all over the album but in this track in particular. The ending is reminiscent of another Londoner – Mr Lydon

  12. Jack SS: the Blackstar kid says:

    What the hell is Spongebob gonna do with this song

%d bloggers like this: