Battle for Britain (the Letter)


Battle for Britain (the Letter).
Battle for Britain (50th Birthday Concert, 1997).
Battle for Britain (live, 1997).
Battle for Britain (GQ Awards, 1997).
Battle for Britain (live, 2004).

Many music celebrities simply chose to leave Britain, and it wasn’t all about tax; American was the main global market for music and, after all, the country where rock ‘n’ roll began. I had considered moving to America myself, but I didn’t want to leave home. Everything I am and have done for myself, all my artistic work, was rooted in the British way of life, the two world wars and the hidden damage they had done to four generations. I knew I’d never leave Britain. My roots were too deep.

Pete Townshend, Who I Am, 2012.

Taking an ocean liner to America in the spring of 1974, leaving as a soiled goodbye note Diamond Dogs, Bowie never came back to Britain. Sure, he’d get the occasional flat or lodge in a London hotel for some project or other, but he rarely recorded in Britain again* and when his tours played the UK, they were revivals, a traveler stopping by a town he’d grown up in, showing relations (estranged or worshipful) what he’d found out in the world, eager to get moving again.

If Townshend felt he needed Britain, that his work would wither if he was away from it, Bowie had been itching to leave by the mid-Seventies. It was as if he’d spent himself out of his home. Out he went: Los Angeles, Berlin, Java. He had a pleasure dome in Mustique. Most of all, he spent a long, comfortable isolation in Switzerland. Once he’d been among the most deliberately “British” of British pop singers, taking cues from Anthony Newley and Ivor Cutler and Peter Cook. His records up to Diamond Dogs are a world in which the United States is only a rumor, a radio broadcast or an LP test pressing. His records after it are a British exile’s.

He never downplayed his heritage in his music: take the Mockney accent that would turn up seemingly on every record, like a photo watermark. Even while filming in Australia or Polynesia he came across more as a genteel Englishman in the tropics than any stateless world traveler. Yet statelessness, the sense of being an artistic embodiment of global capital, was his apparent aim in the Eighties: if not wished for, achieved anyhow.

Then he had a homeward arc in the Nineties, starting with an impromptu bus tour of Brixton one night in 1991 with Tin Machine and ending with him sporting a fashionably-shredded Union Jack frock coat on the cover of Earthling (echoing Townshend, predicting Geri Halliwell), where he stood, back to camera and hands clasped, like an alien surveyor assessing the fields of Kent. The center of it was Buddha of Suburbia, a project that had sent him back to his past, making him become, for a moment, the aging Beckenham hippie he could have been. He seemed in love with his home country again. At least he told reporters this.

There’s so much energy there. It’s as if we’ve finally understood that we don’t have the rest of the Commonwealth, or the world, to support and comfort us, that we have to do things on our own now to prove who we are,” he said to Andy Gill. Britain has “the greatest architects in the world…In the fashion world, we’re taking over; in the art scene, there’s nobody to touch us and the best music is coming out of Britain now. In every aspect of world culture we are leaders. Quite rightly! The whole thing will all fall down in a year or two when we realize that, once again, we have no idea how to market it, and all our original ideas will run off to Italy and America, and we’ll get all whiney about it.”

This effusion reads like ad copy for “Cool Britannia”: Swinging London redux, with Britpop and Damien Hirst, culminating in an election in which Tony Blair played a slimmed-down (in various senses) Harold Wilson. It’s not surprising that Bowie wanted to align himself with what he considered a renaissance in the UK. Being a tax exile in Switzerland was a bit played out by 1996.

But despite Bowie’s belief that British pop music was on an upswing, his connection to it seemed more tenuous than ever. He talked up Tricky, A Guy Called Gerald, Prodigy, but his own works seemed tributes to their sound at best, never rivals or viable contemporaries. And Cool Britannia was a world of A-list Sixties revivals: Beatles, Stones, Kinks, not oddballs like Bowie who’d come along in their wake. By 1996, the young musicians who’d been most inspired by him (Suede and the Auteurs come to mind) were being obscured in the music press by the likes of the Gallagher brothers, who seemed to hail from a Britain in which David Bowie had barely existed. Bowie’s 50th birthday was even an occasion for fresh scorn.

[“Battle for Britain”] is another cut-up, but it probably comes from a sense of  “Am I or am I not British?’, an inner war that wages in most expatriates. I’ve not lived in Britain since 1974, but I love the place, and I keep going back.

Bowie, 1997.

“Battle for Britain” is a letter from a man in exile, intended for no one in particular, as though its author had dropped it, addressed to ENGLAND, in an airport mailbox somewhere. My my, the time do fly, he begins, when it’s in another pair of hands. (In the second verse, he puns on “fly,” tweaking the last phrase to “pair of pants“; Gail Ann Dorsey responds with a slow, descending bassline as if she’s elegantly backing away from him.) He’s back home again, scuffing around the old neighborhood. He pops pills to manage his imaginary ailments, he’s broke and shabby. He doesn’t regret leaving. Better a beggarman on the shelf than be in a two-up, two-down here, he sniffs.

He recalls an old song from when he was young here. First heard it on the Carousel record every mother in his street seemed to have, then sung by Gerry Marsden (and a Bromley kid onstage at the Marquee Club). When you walk through a storm…don’t be afraid of the dark… Now with a sneering guitar goading him, he curdles the memory. Don’t be so’s just the payoffit’s the RAIN before the STORM! In “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” Marsden promised a golden sky after the rain; the expat here just promises more rain. It is England, after all.

Yet just when the song is teetering into spite, the last bars of the pre-chorus shift to a bright A major, pivoting to a refrain where the old man makes amends. Don’t you let my letter get you down, he sings, sounding remorseful over a resounding C major progression that’s guided by steady waves of Reeves Gabrels’ guitar. No one cares that he’s back; no one seems to remember he was gone. By the second verse, he’s boring himself, cutting off a line with a weary la-di-dah.

In all its seeming unfairness, what Britain is very good at is keeping people re-evaluating their own standards in a hostile and quite cruel fashion.

Bowie, 1997.

Like “Looking For Satellites,” “Britain” began as one of producer Mark Plati’s experiments. Here Plati was trying to create “a jazz-tinged jungle track,” as he told David Buckley, which eventually entailed Zach Alford playing “live” in half time against programmed double-time jungle figures. It’s Alford’s best performance on the record: take how he pushes his way into the track with a staggered artillery barrage, starting out with hissing ride cymbals, thundering a few tom fills, and finally settling on the snare pattern that becomes the track’s jumpy heartbeat.

Bowie heard a rough version of the rhythm track and soon scrapped Plati’s original chord sequence in favor of a constellation of B major (verses), G major (pre-chorus) and C major (refrain) progressions.** Plati was elated: “I felt this could be our first real ‘Bowie’ song,” he said, a sign that the sessions were creating an album rather than being a few odd jungle experiments. Bowie improvised a lyric from his Verbasizer, cut his vocal with the usual dispatch. For a finishing touch, Plati added a “Benefit of Mr. Kite”-inspired carousel of sound culled from his collection of studio scraps, capped off by a skipping Bowie vocal (at 3:33) seemingly intended to make a listener wonder if the CD’s scratched.

For the solo, Bowie gave a typically impossible brief to Mike Garson: play a piano solo like Stravinsky’s wind octet (unfamiliar with the piece, Garson had to walk up Broadway to Tower Records to buy the CD). Garson complied: thin-sounding atonal chords with a brass feel, spiky runs across the treble end of the keyboard, spidery traces of melody. The fresh element here is Alford, who starts challenging Garson halfway through, somehow slipping in snare fills between Garson’s notes, unsettling Garson’s runs with a rolling tom fill and finally bludgeoning the solo to a close.

“Battle for Britain” is a tight, sparkling group performance of a solitary exile’s song; it’s the community the singer has to replace what he’s long abandoned. Bowie’s return to Britain didn’t take. It was like an attempted reconciliation of a long-dead marriage: some lofty sentiments, some earnest attempts to reconnect. But too much time had flown by, in other pairs of hands (or pants). Instead, he chose the city where he recorded his last letter home. By the start of the century, Bowie was a New Yorker and has lived there, for the most part, ever since.

Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Debuted at the 50th birthday concert in Madison Square Garden, January 1997, and played in the Earthling and Reality tours.

* The only instances that come to mind are his remakes of “Space Oddity” and “Panic in Detroit” at Tony Visconti’s Good Earth Studios in London, summer/fall 1979, and the “Absolute Beginners”-era soundtrack material in the mid-Eighties, at Abbey Road.

** Most of the sequences use a flatted VII chord for a feint before moving back to the tonic—take the verse, which is I-V-VIIb (“(B) and a loser I will be, for I’ve (F#) never been a winner in my (A) life…”) or the I-V-VIIb-IV chorus ((C)”don’t you let my letter get you (G) down (Bb) (F) don’t you…”)

Top: “wcher,” “London, 1996.”

58 Responses to Battle for Britain (the Letter)

  1. Paul Kelly says:

    If only there could be a way of hearing this song as if it had been recorded during the ‘Man Who Sold The World’ sessions…

  2. 87Fan says:

    One of my favorite songs from the album. Sadly I always thought it was lacking live – I’ve never heard a live version that was superior to the album’s arrangement. Listening to it again I wonder why Bowie didn’t get more notice for the song. Good stuff.

  3. sinj says:

    I’ve studiously worked my way through 99% of your blog and it has kept me sane on my daily commute.

    This song exemplifies everything I love about Bowie from ’93 onwards. Each song *may* be a bland, conventionally structured ballad, or it might be a skittering random jukebox of jungle smelling industro-tech-pop with kinksian overtones that your friends wo
    When I first heard Earthling, I didn’t “get” this one. As the years have passed I’ve gradually realised it is the killer tracko the album.

    I saw Bowie unveil this stuff at the Hanover Grand *in 97 and it was clear a) he loved it and b) he didn’t give a shit what we thought. And that’s what I love about it.

    So, more specific about BFB. You mention the unsettling track skip. I find the whole track unsettling as it playfrom childish ditty to frowning anthem, while the instrumentation , for me, is the main track that flicks the (winston) vs at the music press to say “i’ll use whatever toys I want to, I’m DAVID BOWIE”.

    After Earthling I feel he stops caring whatt the outside** world thinks (a bit) …..

    I can remember sitting in the Cinema in Chatham to see independence day (sorry) and this came on the PA, and I considered what else on earth it sounded like. Nothing.

    *to note, Gary Oldman is tiny
    **d’ya see what I did there.

    Loving your work.


  4. Reba says:

    I’d argue that “Aladdin Sane” was his first “American” album… his “Ziggy Goes To America”, as he put it.

    • Maj says:

      yes, but it was still an “English lad in America” kind of thing, while after Dogs he’s more of a man without nationality…

      • Reba says:

        I can see that.

        By the way, this is my favorite track on Earthling. I can see why he stuck with it on the Reality Tour.

  5. sinj says:

    P.s. Apols for comments entered via phone & associated typos.

    Still loving your work. 😉

  6. twinkle-twinkle says:

    Yeah – killer track. I love the live ‘Reality’ version too, where the dueling piano/drums never fail to amaze.

    The sound of distance explosions is reminiscent of ‘The Bob Medley’, from the first Roxy Music album.

    • twinkle-twinkle says:

      Ha-ha-ha!! I should have checked this before my first post – it’s even better than I remembered.


      “The Bob (Medley)” is a song written by Bryan Ferry and recorded by Roxy Music, appearing on the eponymous debut album. The song’s title is an acronym for Battle of Britain. The sound of gunfire and explosions from the battlefields can be heard throughout the instrumental refrain.

      • Maj says:

        Brilliant. That’s really cool.

        And me mentioning I’d want to hear Ferry’s take on this song. Haha. Coincidences?

      • s.t. says:

        Wow, I never knew that about The Bob. And I had never associated it with anything concerning Bowie, but I do think of it as a blueprint for Kate Bush’s general approach to production in her classic years. The first time I heard Roxy’s debut LP, I felt like I got to know teenaged Kate quite a bit.

  7. Maj says:

    Always thought it was “time to fly”, since it’s, you know, grammatically correct. Oh well.

    This song has a lovely, ear-wormy melody. But it gets mucked up by all the noise. Dead Man and Tibet profit from the sound but Battle…while it works like this…I can’t help but feel it would sound better without the frenetic jungle core of the song. I’d quite like to hear Bryan Ferry’s take on this song. Plus him covering it would be a bit ironic…

    • Patrick says:

      Extract the vocals , add acoustic melody and it probably could have come from his 60s Deram years.

      • col1234 says:

        yes, good point (and the argument of our next-to-come entry)

      • s.t. says:

        For me, this song always seemed like a sequel to Hunky Dory’s Quicksand, just with some cacophonous electronics grafted on.

  8. Mike F says:

    “Battle for Britain” is typical of Earthling. Lots of disparate elements thrown together but not synthesized into a cohesive whole. Bowie has always been a cut and paster but the stitches are more visible than ever. In the 70s, when Bowie wanted to mix this with that, he had to have musicians playing together to create the song. With 90s digital technology, Bowie could literally paste loops of one thing onto another unrelated thing. The result is Earthling.

    “Battle for Britain” has furious Jungle beats, hard rock guitar, and on this track a weary vocal that reminds me of “When I’m Five” (or perhaps “When I’m Fifty Five”). The vocals seem out of place in this context. Throw on some avant garde Garson plonking and we’re done. But what does it add it up to? An odd collage but not a satisfying listening experience.

    (I’m not commenting much these days because all those embedded You Tube videos slow down the virtual machine I use for browsing. )

    • s.t. says:

      I’m ambivalent about Earthling’s Frankenstein approach. On one hand, I can appreciate the exciting sacrilege of wanton genre-mixing. He got a lot of flack for being a bandwagon jumper at this time, but in a sense, Bowie’s approach here paved the way for the mashup craze that dominated clubs in the mid-00’s. It eventually became cool to obliterate taste and good sense for the sake of a thrill and a good beat.

      But on the other hand, I often find myself tuning out the background gimmickry and trying to tap into the hidden core song. Unlike Seven Years in Tibet, which is a tad too sparse without the thunderous guitars in the chorus, I think Battle for Britain would really shine in a stripped-down acoustic setting…it sounds like a classic Bowie folk ballad remixed by some hip late 90’s producer (maybe Alec Empire?).

  9. twinkle-twinkle says:

    ?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!? Lol – I’d say it was one of the most satisfying listening experiences on the album… and of his 90’s.

    Also, is it just me, or am I hearing something akin to the Santa Monica ‘Supermen’ bass intro around the ‘BFB’ lyric, ‘My, my the time do fly… another pair of pants…’? It sounds eerily like it.

  10. Peter Ramsey says:

    Fave track on the album. Absolutely ecstatic.

  11. Neu 75 says:

    Don’t forget much of “Scary Monsters” -vocal tracks/overdubs – were recorded at Good Earth in spring 1980…

  12. MC says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this one: my favourite song on the album, and one whose lyrics were always almost entirely opaque to me. A fascinating explication, and I can’t believe I never noticed the Bob Medley quote before!

    I differ slightly on DB’s relationship to Britpop. It’s true that there is very little Bowie in Oasis’ DNA, and they did garner the majority of column inches and popular acclaim in that period, but Suede had their biggest-selling album out just before Earthling (96’s Coming Up), and there is a lot of Bowie in Blur (97’s M.O.R) and Radiohead (97’s Paranoid Android always struck me as an updated Width Of A Circle). Come again, didn’t Noel Gallagher lift the chords of All The Young Dudes for Don’t Look Back In Anger (and could the title be a DB reference as well). I think, as much as Cool Brittania was uncomfortable with Bowie’s art-damaged 90’s persona, there was a sort of acknowledgement of DB’s place in the Great English Songbook even for the artists you would not call Bowie clones.

    • s.t. says:

      Yes, I think Blur had to give Bowie songwriting credit for M.O.R. because it’s so close to Boys Keep Swinging.

    • s.t. says:

      Also, Pulp has been known to conjure Bowie (e.g., Mile End). I’m not sure if James or Spacehog count as Brit Pop, but they are clearly indebted to the Dame.

      I don’t actually hear much Bowie in Radiohead. In their 90’s stuff I primarily hear U2, R.E.M., Jeff Buckley, Pink Floyd, Roxy Music, the Velvets, and the Beatles. I always said that Paranoid Android is their take on “Happiness is a Warm Gun” or “If There is Something.” Of course, their approach to art rock was very much in debt to people like Bowie—and their more stream of conscious efforts on Kid A rightly merit comparison to the Berlin era—but I just don’t pick up tributes or nabbings of specific songs.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        I think the title track to Radiohead’s ‘Bends’ is ‘Ziggy’ title track guitar lift.

        Liam Gallagher was ejected from BBC’s ‘Later… with Jools Holland’ after allegedly taking a swing at our Dame. Apart from the ‘Dudes’ lift, and possibly others, Noel was bigging-up Bowie at the opening of the V&A exhibition, saying he wanted to see him live and that Bowie had better songs than Led Zep.

        Damon Albland was dismissive of ‘Outside’ period Bowie, saying something along the lines of, ‘what’s the point of making music with no tunes.’ Of course, Bowie was mates with Damon’s arch rival Brett of Suede at the time.

        Later, Damon duetted with Bowie around the ‘Reality Tour’, and claims that for 24hrs he thought he was going to be doing a musical with Bowie and Ray Davies. And of course, ‘Boys and Girls’ is a Bowie song in all but name.

        Pulp are clearly a Bowie/Roxy Music band; you don’t have to ‘sound’ like Bowie to be a Bowie inspired band, you can just sense they have his influence.

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        Whenever I listen to Girls and Boys, I can’t help thinking of Scary Monsters. I’ve always felt that the guitar on it must be a deliberate allusion to that Fripp sound from Scary Monsters.

        And I seem to remember Coxon said something somewhere to back up that notion. Sorry I can’t be more specific.

        I love Battle for Britain. One of the best on the album..

        One trivial anecdote:

        You’ll notice that DB introduces this song on the Reality Tour live album, recorded in Dublin by saying “This one’s called… [slightly sheepishly] The Letter.”

        Not Battle for Britain. It’s as though he remembered he was in Dublin and momentarily feared that the crowd might somehow be the sort of idiots who would be offended by a mention of Britain.

        There are people like that in the country, but very few of them, and I’ll warrant there would be none at all at a DB concert.

      • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

        Just on your assertion that James are clearly indebted to Bowie, I would have to agree. There’s a song called “Johnny Yen” on their debut album “Stutter” whose title and lyric not only references the main character in Iggy’s “Lust for Life”, but also “the Jean Genie on his highwire act”.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        Hi Spider. I was at the Manchester gig where James supported db and Morrissey first met Bowie afterwards in 1990. I seem to remember Tim Booth saying that Bowie’s music never meant much to him, (despite the Johnny Yen reference, which seems more of an Iggy tribute).

      • s.t. says:

        Actually twinkle, relistening to some old Pulp albums, I’d say they out-and-out “sound” like Bowie and Roxy quite a bit. That sepulchral croon on “Party Hard” is unmistakably Bowie. Mr. Tagomi, I can definitely hear Scary Monsters in that G & B guitar. Not surprising, coming from Blur.

        Yes, it seems that glam was an important musical touchstone for most of the Britpop bands, even Oasis. This makes sense, since the movement was a bit of a “greatest sounds of Britain” approach to rock. Like Morrissey, they shunned a lot of the theatrical aspects in favor of something more stripped down, but they kept the edginess and the great melodies.

      • Patrick says:

        If anyone did, it was Suede who took the songbook of Aladdin Sane and made it their own at least for a short while.

        As an aside, am also reminded of this from the wiki entry on Station to station “Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray wrote in 1981, If Low was Gary Numan’s Bowie album, then Station to Station was Magazine’s.”[3] However, Stylus declared in 2004 that “just as few had anticipated Bowie’s approach, few copied it … for the most part this is an orphaned, abandoned style”.

        Perhaps there are hints of STS’s title track (as the other songs are structurally fairly conventional) in the work of RadioHead . the heavy, often ponderous krautrock electronica but perhaps it’s superficial and pushing the link too far. Not sure.

      • Patrick says:

        Though thinking more about it , Weeping Wall, from Low could almost be a Radiohead composition, in one of their more melodic moods.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        s.t. – god, yeah, I had forgotten about how Bowie-esque ‘Party Hard’ was, you’re right. Cheers.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        What I meant about not every Bowie influence band having to sound like Bowie was, as with Bowie’s own work, it sounds like a Bowie record, but not necessarily like any of his others.

        So back in the 70’s/80’s when you had ‘Bowie/Roxy Nights’ in clubs, you’d hear The Velvets, Psychedelic Furs, Nico, Krafwerk, Magazine, Human League, etc. All different musical individuals, but part of the same family tree, an attitude, rather than one ‘sound’.

        Elvis Costello and Damon Albarn clearly are influenced by Bowie in the way they move from genre to genre; Almost Blue ‘country’, Get Happy his ‘Young Americans etc.

        But what they don’t have is Bowie’s mystique, his beauty, his fabulous exotic Bowie-ness. So, I think a lot of artists don’t want to talk of his influence, because although they can too can write great songs, they know there is that elusive ‘starry X factor’ they cannot emulate.

        Costello was the new song-writer on the block journos used to beat Bowie with as he entered his wobbly early 80’s, then the quicksand of that decades later period. Someone one said that the reason Costello was so popular with music journalist was because they all looked as geeky as him, lol.

      • s.t. says:

        Twinkle: Ha, you may be right about James. There’s an article from Sabotage Times where Tim Booth gives 50 of his favorite songs. Aside from Under Pressure (listed only as a Queen song), he only names “Lover’s Story” as a favorite Bowie song… which I’m thinking is supposed to be “Kooks.” His included quip (“My teenage years, sigh. He wrote so many great songs”) doesn’t sound like the words of one truly smitten.

        Well, no one’s perfect… 😉

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        I’ve got Tim Booth’s Bowie choices running round my head. ‘Kooks’, lovely as it is, it’s hardly one you’d expect to be chosen over all the others – a-w-w-l-l-l the others.

        And ‘Under Pressure’? By 1981 and an ex-Queen fan, my heart sank at the news Bowie had recorded with them. (I saw them support ‘Mott’ in ’73, but I exited at ‘Night at the Opera’ as their albums became choc-a-block with McCartney-esque Beatle fillers).

        Others at college spoke of losing some respect for Bowie at such a collaboration, and that was before we’d heard a note. I held on to Bowie’s dismissal of it as a single late night messing around and his talk of the lyric being a rough first draft. The instant pop catchy-ness only made it harder to like.

        I’m sure Tim would not choose these two songs simply as a very subtle ironic poke at Bowie, but his choices are peculiar. As I mentioned elsewhere, Paul Weller spent 20-odd years slagging Bowie off before recently admitting Lennon/Macca and Bowie are his song-writing idols, so, boys and their ego’s.

        Of course, Gail and Dave have finally made the song their own and I hardly associate the song with Freddie’s ‘tash and Brian’s poodle-perm anymore… click… click… tinkle… click… plink!

      • Maj says:

        Twinkle, I like your point about the Bowie influence being moving through genres, not about it sounding exactly like him etc.

        I actually think quite a few artists didn’t even know they were influenced by him. Also I like s.t.’s point about glam being a best of sounds of Britain (which is why I find it kind of hard to get too excited about it as a whole from a musical stand point).

        Back to the Bowie Brit-pop influence: Damon Albarn is obvs. a fan (even the critical kind, aka a HUGE fan 😉 ) but Graham Coxon actually is not. Back in January when all the Bowie craze happened he took to Twitter saying he’d finally give Bowie a proper listen, then (what do I know, he might have been turned off him bc. Damon kept blabbering abt him?). And then I remember him tweeting about Low. He said it was obviously a great album but he finds it hard to get as excited about it (& the rest of DB’s work) now that he’s in his 40’s, compared to the stuff he grew up with, which obvs. resonates more (he’s a Beatles fan, also a big punk rock fan). So, whatever Bowie-esque guitar stuff there was in Blur’s 90’s work, it was either Albarn, or Coxon not really realising he was being influenced. Which I find interesting (I just assumed they were all big Beatles and Bowie fans).

        Radiohead, I can only listen to their early 90’s stuff. The later critically acclaimed albums make me physically sick (that’s not to say they’re bad but they actually make me sick, no idea why). BUT Yorke did a great job on the Roxy Music songs he sang on the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, as part of the Venus in Furs band. As much as I’m not a fan of his whining when he sings his own songs, his voice totally fit the glam stuff. That guy should have been in a tribute band, y’all. 😀 /I apologise to any Radiohead fan reading this, btw./

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        Just came across this sentence on this very blog’s Fashion entry…

        “Graham Coxon allegedly was so intent on trying to capture the sound of Fripp’s “Fashion” solo on Blur’s “London Loves” that the song’s working title was “Fripp.””

      • s.t. says:

        Maj, my writing could have been clearer. I actually meant to say that I think of the Britpop movement as being a “best of Britain” movement, not 70’s glam.

        I think most musical movements, glam included, have a “best of older styles” approach to synthesis. But whereas Bowie melded the Who and the Stones with the Stooges and the Velvets, the Britpoppers seemed to consciously select from the U.K. cannon for their references, in some attempt to revitalize a proud sense of Britishness in popular music. Even Bryan Ferry mixed his British whimsy with the distinctly non-British vibe of 1950’s rock’n’roll.

        While I can appreciate the need to lift a community’s spirits, I think quasi-nationalistic movements of this sort tend to go against what I like most about popular music…the freewheeling cross-cultural hybridization of influences. Thankfully, the ideological purism of Britpop wasn’t serious, and the bands involved split off into their own individual trajectories, as artists tend to do.

        But yes, obviously the biggest influence Bowie had on popular music has been his flippant shedding of sonic skins. Variety entertainment had long encouraged a mixed bag of styes, and so albums before Bowie’s career would often feature songs of a few different styles. But his “wear it for a while then shed it” approach was innovative, and is now found everywhere, even among musicians who are not known to be fans of the Dame’s work.

        As for Radiohead, everyone has different tastes. I much prefer their stuff from Kid A onward (I don’t even own Pablo Honey), but if it’s making you sick then by all means avoid! One thing though, is that I’d say they’ve grow less whiny with age, with the earliest stuff being the whiniest. They’ll never stop dabbling in the dark and cathartic, but in most of “In Rainbows,” Thom and the band actually seem, well, happy. No one would have seen that coming back in 95.

        And Twinkle: Wow, you really love to hate Macca. I’ve always preferred John, but I dig the dandy vaudeville so long as it’s not drenched in self-serious syrup.

        “The Long..and Winding…Roooad…”

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        Ha-ha-ha!! Love to hate Macca, lol? I do, I do, I do. And I can justify every ounce of bile, he-he!! Although a fan of Lennon, the Beatles were never really my cup of tea.

        However, Macca’s chewing-gum blankness and ‘it’s a drag’ comment at Lennon’s death, and his back-stabbing speech for Lennon’s inauguration into the ‘Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame’ are just two youtube available examples of why I loath the man.

        Macca’s attempt over recent years to dis his band mates and be seen AS ‘The Beatles’ just gets on me going for some reason, don’t know why. For me it’s a toss-up who the most disingenuous, self-seeking Brit is – Macca or Tony Blair, lol.

        They say love songs are Macca’s forte, but really, given the choice, who would ever reach for Macca, with or without Wings, when settling down with that special someone and a Chilean Cabernet? Only Cliff Richard could kill my ardor faster, lol.

      • s.t. says:

        Fair enough. Plus, as far as cloyingly saccharine pop ditties go, Bowie’s first album may be all you need.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        Ha-ha-ha! True. But from those teenage ditties Bowie’s trajectory was skyward, lol. Anyway, nothing wrong with saccharine pop ditties, it just depends who’s singing them. Roy Orbison, Gene Pitney, Doris Day – I’m in! Lennon could get pretty syrupy at times too, but from his more honest snarky personality it seemed touching.

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        I am a Macca liker. I think if you take the best 30% of the stuff he released solo and with WIngs, you have a canon that is as good as anyone’s.

        And he was so prolific that that amounts to an awful lot of fantastic music.

        It’s just a shame about all the other stuff. Some of it is cloying, and some of it is just dull and toothless.

        But I do think his more recent albums have had tighter quality control about them. I really love Chaos and Creation.

      • s.t. says:

        I must admit that “Here There & Everywhere” has become a song for my wife and I. During our five-year long-distance relationship, it took on a special meaning for us. And this is despite us actively fighting against the claiming of Beatles songs. What can I say, sentimentality knows nothing of taste or reason.

        I can’t actually speak on Paul’s solo career. I’ve only heard the biggest Wings hits (Jet is decent, that Christmas song is godawful). But his work in the Beatles is enough for me to forgive him of his many foibles.

      • Maj says:

        I’m with you on Macca, Mr. Tagomi. Also on Chaos. I really like the album.

        to s.t.: oops, sorry must have been reading too fast. But I think it was true of glam rock as well. Cheers!

      • Maj says:

        Mr. Tagomi: yes, that’s why his tweeting confused me but it’s also entirely possible he was into Fripp (you can definitely hear his influence in Coxon’s guitar playing – though I’m hardly an expert on that), but not so much into Bowie (as in knew a lot but didn’t love much of it…inconceivable to us here 😀 ). But then influence is one thing and being a mad fan is another.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        Maybe Mr Coxon is just a lying toad, lol. If an influence is very strong, one’s ego will sometimes not allow you to admit it.

        Every aspiring musician with heroes must dream that one day one of those heroes will name-check them. If any hero doesn’t, or worse, is seen hanging out with one of your contemporaries, it must disappoint or even wrangle.

        Also, Bowie wasn’t a name to drop back in the late 80’s early 90’s. And there are many names Bowie has inexplicably never breathed for whatever reasons. It’s all part of the game.

  13. Bruised Passivity says:

    I used to consider BFB a filler track am now hearing it in a new way after reading this great piece. It just struck me that this sing could also be a book-end for “Can’t Help Thinking about Me”. I’m hearing a letter home from the once idealistic, energized teenager who, after experiencing in the wider world for many years, is now a pragmatic (and somewhat bitter) adult. Or am I reading too much into it? 🙂

  14. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    Hiya Twinkle! Just a question on Queen: How would you say they are perceived overall in Britain? Here in Oz I would have to say they are w-a-a-y overrated. There’s a cable TV music channel here that compiles all kinds of best-of lists, best frontmen, 70s Supergroups, British artists etc, and Queen/Freddie always poll highly for some reason, as if they were truly great innovators, rather than the Johnny-come-lately second generation Glam copyists they really are.
    I (kind of) like songs like Bohemian Rhapsody, and a few others, but I can only listen to them in EXTREMELY small doses, as something about the grandiosity/ pomposity of it all, plus Freddie (urgh!) just curls my nostril hairs.

    • twinkle-twinkle says:

      Look how deep and wide this hole is – haven’t I made myself unpopular enough, lol?

      But, seeing as you’re asking and there are witnesses to prove it.

      As a fan I was very disappointed in their Xmas 1976 concert on the Beeb, mainly Freddie’s vocals. Out of curiosity I watched their 1986 concert from Budapest (?) the other night. Ditto. I was reminded of what someone said around 85/86; they were the perfect band with the right type of songs for Live Aid – great for 20 mins, but their schtick quickly paled over a whole concert.

      There greatest hits is one of the biggest selling albums because of Live Aid, and I have to admit their less pompous pop of the 80’s is more enjoyable than ‘Ogre Battle’ or even ‘B. Rhapsody’; for me, it’s not the best song and video of all time, it’s not even their best song or video, but like our old friends ‘Guernica’ and ‘Sgt Pepper’, labels get attached as to their importance and stick.

      Glasgow is/was a notoriously difficult audience to please – described as the comedians graveyard in the past. Bands said it was the UK’s best audience – if they liked you. Support bands usually didn’t fair well,(including Glasgow’s own Sensational Alex Harvey Band who got booed off as support). Although Mott the Hoople was only my second gig, I later realised that Queen’s impressive performance and the audience’s desire for an encore was very rare indeed.(A medley of ‘Big Spender’, ‘Jailhouse Rock’ and their own ‘Modern Times Rock and Roll’, I think, seeing as your asking).

      Alice Cooper commented that Freddie could have been an opera singer, but I’d say his was more limited raspy rock voice – it was Roger who did the high notes. As for frontman status, his air guitar posturing of the 70’s wasn’t that interesting, and his camp humour and ridiculous clobber of the 80’s made him a kind of Liberace comic entertainer, rather than a rock god. Interesting that both he and Jagger failed to make it as solo artists.

      My dad has Queen’s greatest hits in with his Jim reeves and Andy Williams CD’s. He 80yrs, my dad. The others are all dead.

      What was the question again?

      • s.t. says:

        I recently came closer to your stance on Queen, twinkle. For years I had only owned the Greatest Hits CD (plus B-Rhapsody & Stone Cold Crazy ripped from another comp), and it was wonderful. I had nothing but good to say about Queen.

        Most of my transitions from intro-compilation to larger oeuvre have been positive experiences (Bowie, Erasure, the Buzzcocks, etc), expanding my appreciation of the artists’ talents. Not so with Queen. Now I’ve heard everything from Queen II to The Game, and my impression of them as a band has definitely changed for the worse. The bland prog flourishes, the calculated pomposity, the bloat, oh the bloat. That Greatest Hits comp takes pretty much the best they’ve ever done and puts in on one album. It’s all the Queen I need (though Night at the Opera is a decent album). I’m trying to convince myself that my exploration of their albums never actually happened, so I can get back my wide-eyed appreciation for their craft. No luck so far. But I do like those hits…

    • twinkle-twinkle says:

      Oh!! And when asked, who was the greatest performer he’d ever seen, Roger Taylor said Bowie.

  15. s.t. says:

    I found this fan’s acoustic version of BfB on YouTube. I think it’s rather good; he’s got an excellent singing voice. The arrangement sounds more like Oasis than what I imagine Bowie might use, but it gives a credible idea of what the song would have sounded like in a more traditional context.

    • Maj says:

      Thanks s.t.! This is quite good. Luckily I don’t hear Oasis in it, but it reminds me of Jeff Buckley a bit, and someone else, but can’t quite put my finger on who..

  16. I especially appreciate that parenthetical about Gail Ann “backing away slowly.” It’s very perceptive.

  17. Diamond Duke says:

    At this point, there’s very little I can contribute that hasn’t already been adequately commented on by everybody else! (I’ve been something of a latecomer on the last couple of entries, having been quite occupied with other matters of one sort or another…)

    Suffice it to say, Battle For Britain (The Letter) is one of the superior tracks on Earthling, a much more successful example of Bowie’s assimilation of the drums ‘n’ bass genre into his own songwriting style. Certainly far less dated than, say, Law (Earthlings On Fire), and perhaps a bit more substantial feast than the admittedly cheeky and fun Little Wonder. It makes for a slamming live number, as well…

  18. stevev44 says:

    I’ve come to this blog rather late in the game, but want to add something. I happened to catch Bowie at a small gig here in Philadelphia, at the Electric Factory, as he was just beginning to perform this material. He came out in his Union Jack coat, which did look a touch too glamorously pre-torn, and then ripped through a set in which he seemed more committed and ecstatic than he had since 1983.
    He was all the way back, and he knew it. We can all debate the quality of the music, but I still run into Bowie fans who don’t particularly care for Low. I mean he was back in the sense that he didn’t give a flip anymore and was chasing his own interests. 1. Outside had placed him firmly back in the avant-garde camp and Earthling confirmed his residency there. (Hours, in retrospect, looks like a halfhearted attempt to land some songs on America’s “adult-oriented radio” and act his age, and I wonder to what degree his pending fall-out with Gabrels played a role in that album’s sense of the dulls.)
    Earthling never quite rides the lightening like The Prodigy, but I listened to it, straight through, for the first time in at least five years after Bowie passed, and I was amazed at how it held my attention. It still sounded fresh to me, and “Battle For Britain” is a true highlight—a master class in marrying seemingly disparate elements into a single, shambling new creation. It’s a graceful barrage, a nimble stampede. As much as I like Prodigy, did they ever do anything with quite this “pop” sensibility?
    In the end, I think Earthling encapsulates everything Bowie was ever about. He treated the culture as his thrift shop, and he loved marrying more obscure influences with broader, more accepted forms, high art and low art. Let’s face it: as exciting as The Prodigy were, they were a freaking dance act. In terms of sales and airplay, they were only briefly relevant in America. The difference between Bowie appropriating from them or from Kraftwerk really isn’t so much in the actual maneuver, but in how the culture had changed around Bowie in the meantime, and also in the nature of time itself.
    He cribbed from Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk, in the pre-MTV and streaming days, when finding work on the cutting edge—let alone immersing yourself in it—took serious effort. By the time Earthling came up, the world has shifted on its axis. One crazy video—where were those played in 1977?—by The Prodigy, “Firestarter” and everyone felt like they knew them.
    Also, Bowie was 50—and age when we no one in rock and roll, near as I can tell, had ever done anything new before. The very appearance of him trying to connect with the day’s youth looked desperate, but listening to the album, watching the show, it was anything but. It was an artist chasing his muse. We’d just never seen an artist in this medium, rock and roll, still doing that at his age before.
    More fool us, I think.
    There is a difference between The Prodigy and Earthling. I listened to The Fat of the Land again, for the first time in a long time, before I wrote this, and for all the technology involved it sounds more organic, more natural and powerful. Part of that, I think, is that as the originators of something new they really owned it and sound like it. They also aren’t working *against* anything, aren’t trying to marry this new creation with anything else, and didn’t face any of those challenges.
    Was The Prodigy’s work better?
    Yes. Unequivocally. The Fat of the Land is a series of punches to the face, whereas Earthling just keeps popping jabs.
    But it’s also true that Bowie was audibly trying to fashion something brand new out of what The Prodigy had done. Earthling lies in another category. Bowie never used the phrase that I’m aware of but he might as well have called it “Plastic Jungle.”
    Was Marvin Gaye’s work “better” soul than anything on Young Americans? Yes. Unequivocally.
    But Bowie was up to something different and what he did worked.
    With Earthling, the canny and now “old” bastard was back to doing what he’d done 20, 21, 22, years earlier, and there are several tracks here—”Dead Man Walking,” “Battle For Britain,” “Looking for Satellites,” and “The Last Thing You Should Do”—where he unequivocally, succeeded. He melded jungle with pop song craft. It was great, but it wasn’t enough.

  19. jbacardi says:

    Just a quick heads-up- the Geri Halliwell link leads to a video now marked “private”.

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