Suite for a Foggy Day (A Foggy Day)

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A Foggy Day (in London Town) (Fred Astaire, 1937).
Suite for a Foggy Day (A Foggy Day) (Bowie and Angelo Badalamenti, 1998).

The only (released) studio recording that Bowie cut in 1998 was a collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti for one of the Red Hot compilations. Badalamenti had scored David Lynch’s Lost Highway, for which Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” had been used, and Bowie was a fan. Sometime after Bowie finished shooting a trio of films, most likely in July, the two worked in a New York studio on a version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day.”

This was his first recorded jazz standard since “Wild Is the Wind.“* The move suggested, on its surface, a growing conservatism, a sense that he was finally acting his age. If you were a rocker in your fifties, recording “the Great American Songbook” was something you were supposed to do, like having a prostate exam. (Starting in 2002, Rod Stewart would go to the bank with a seemingly endless sequence of “Songbook” albums). You were too old to rock and roll, so you had put on a tie and sing the music of your parents to your peers. For some rockers, purging one’s sins in purgatory begins in one’s temporal life.

Happily, Bowie and Badalamenti’s take on “Foggy Day” is so brooding and weird that it escapes the trap of reverence and taste: if you played this track as background music in Urban Outfitters, it could possibly irritate a customer. This is partly due to Badalamenti’s ambition: he had the gall to incorporate two of his own compositions, “Overcast” and “The Rainbow,” into George Gershwin’s music, opening the piece (officially titled “Suite for a Foggy Day”) with a minute-long suite with a rising four-note motif, massing his strings on one note for Bowie’s entrance.

The Gershwins had dashed out “A Foggy Day” for a Fred Astaire film, Damsel in Distress. Ira was sitting up at 1 AM reading when his brother came in from a party, sat down at the keyboard and said “how about some work? Got any ideas?” Ira offered the idea of doing a song about fog in London and in an hour they had the chorus worked out. The next day they wrote “an Irish verse” for their London song, and that was that. Astaire sang it on film and recorded it, and George died of a brain tumor a few months later: “A Foggy Day” was one of his last pieces.

“A Foggy Day” was a Gershwin musical fingerprint: the repeated notes in the melody; the rich chords for jazz players to feast on (e.g., the B-flat minor sixth on “town”); a feel of melancholy lifted by sudden jumps of fourths and fifths (take the elated leap on “for su-ddenly”), paralleling the sun breaking through the fog in the lyric; the unusual structure, with the song escaping its expected 32-bar confines with two additional bars, full of harmonic movement and melodically winking at the folk tune “English Country Gardens.”

In the Bowie/Badalamenti version, the moody “Irish” verse is lighter in feel, with an oboe line suggesting that the sun is breaking through early. When it’s time to transition to the chorus, night and fog descend: ominous low strings and winds (bass clarinet and bassoon), a drooping line on fretless bass. Bowie sings the chorus as if he’s walking into a headwind. He valiantly keeps the Gershwin vocal melody aloft while getting little support from the instruments—if anything, they seem to be retarding his progress, undermining him. Finally, there’s a feeling of movement: Bowie sees her, the fog lifts and for a moment the song breaks open. But in Bowie’s voice, the final line “through foggy London town, the sun was shining” has a weary sadness in it: it’s a moment of long-departed happiness, remembered now as a brief break in the battle. He’s still, and always will be, a stranger in the city. One of his finest covers.

Recorded ca. July 1998, National Edison and/or Excalibur Sound, New York. Released 6 October 1998 on Red Hot + Rhapsody (Antilles 314 557 788-2).

Bonus: recommended Foggy Days: Charles Mingus (beep! beep!) (1956), Oscar Peterson (1959), Billie Holiday (1957), Joe Pass (1988), Sarah Vaughan (1957), Petula Clark (1965), Frank Sinatra (1953), Judy Garland (1963).

* You could argue for “Volare,” I suppose.

Top:  Steven V-L Lee, “Penny for the Guy,” Columbia Road Market, London, November 1998,

15 Responses to Suite for a Foggy Day (A Foggy Day)

  1. Maj says:

    Wow. Had no idea this existed, never heard it and…well at first listen I like it. It’s kind of strange hearing Bowie on Bryan Ferry’s territory but at the same time it’s still pretty cool. Well, maybe a bit too cool.

    I listen to Fred Astaire quite a lot actually, but can’t say this is song among the most played ones. Probably listened to it once and didn’t think twice about it. I’d almost say the slower, melancholy tempo of the Bowie cover suits it better.

    Well, anyway, cool find & thanks for the analysis, Chris!

  2. s.t. says:

    There is no song like an old song. It’s the kind of move that catalyzes the death of the tasteless man. (hey, it’s not Pynchon, but it’s no sham).

    Really, a pleasant surprise to hear. Like a more grounded variation of that Goldie track “Truth,” or like Walker revisiting his 60’s work with new ears. I’m surprised there aren’t more Bowie/Badalamenti collaborations.

    I’m guessing a less adventurous take on a standard is coming soon, bringing with it an increasing reverence to rock classicism.

    (Ramona don’t go….)

  3. Momus says:

    I love Bowie’s Hollywood torch moments, especially unexpected touches like the quote from Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered in Future Legend. The follow-spot sweeps the dark stage…

    My favourite take on A Foggy Night is Dirk Bogarde’s crisp, fragmentary talk-through (it’s the first track in his voluptuously camp Lyrics For Lovers): http://youtu.be/AsJqxLZdAuM

  4. MC says:

    Interesting track this. Always admired it more than I liked it; hearing it again today after a long interval, though, with pouring rain outside, it’s suiting my mood just fine. I remember Visconti saying he wanted to collaborate with DB on an album of standards. Given Bowie’s erratic history with covers, it may be better to leave it at this. (Speaking of Ferry, interesting how this recording predates his standards collection As Time Goes By.)

    Speaking of Diamond Dogs, is it just me, or are there traces of Sweet Thing sweeping by as I listen to this?

  5. SoooTrypticon says:

    Gosh, I haven’t listened to this in such a while. It is a lovely delivery. A bit of this made its way into “Disco King” I’d say.

  6. Mike F says:

    That could have been another clunker but David actually pulled this one off.

  7. Mother says:

    Lovely review as always.
    Quite like this, always have.

  8. Mr Tagomi says:

    Can I ask what makes the verse “Irish”? I’ve heard three versions and I can’t figure it out.

    • col1234 says:

      that was the Gershwins’ description of it. keep in mind these are Jewish New Yorkers, born at the end of the 19th Century: “Irish” meant maudlin, “Danny Boy” songs to them: gloomy Gus stuff

  9. michael says:

    The singing on this is lovely and underlines how versatile his voice is, whether it’s working with, or (sometimes intentionally) against, the song. The Ferry comparison stands but this also looks back again to the Scott Walker of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he took on standards with diminishing enthusiasm – although even those pre Nite Flights albums have their moments. Those tensions in Bowie between artist, rebel, rock and roller and all round song and dance man…

  10. sidthecat says:

    Re: “Volare”
    It depends on one’s definition of “finest”.

  11. Samizdat says:

    Is the photo really 1998? Those kids have stepped straight out of Dickens!

  12. StupidintheStreet says:

    Oh hell. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this moved me to tears. Absolutely one of his best covers. How did I not know this existed? Thanks Chris!

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