5:15 The Angels Have Gone


5:15 The Angels Have Gone.
5:15 The Angels Have Gone (live, 2002).
5:15 The Angels Have Gone (VH1 Live By Request, 2002).
5:15 The Angels Have Gone (Radio 2, Live and Exclusive, 2002).
5:15 The Angels Have Gone (Later With Jools Holland, 2002).
5:15 The Angels Have Gone (live, 2004).

The tattered end of a baggy trilogy (“Look Back in Anger,” “New Angels of Promise“), “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” is also a curtain-raiser for “Heathen”: it’s a world deserted by God, or at least a world whose inhabitants have gotten rather sick of Him. “A man who could once see his angels—hopes and aspirations, maybe?—can’t see them anymore,” Bowie described the song to Billboard in 2002, “and he blames the crushing dumbness of life for it.”

Bowie’s angels had done little more than look for exits. “Look Back In Anger” has Bowie encountering a bored, low-level bureaucrat (one who’s long given up hope of promotion to arch-angel) who taps at his watch and tells him it’s time they should be going. The “new angels of promise” were just avatars in a video game most computers can’t play today. Now even the glum last intermediaries between man and God are gone, leaving us to steer our lives with railway timetables (the same time Pete Townshend’s Jimmy had caught a train to Brighton)* and astrology columns.

Like “I Would Be Your Slave,” “5:15” is a love ballad in which one party is an estranged god: “weeee never TALK an-ny-more!” Bowie pleads in the refrains, which makes you wonder if Cliff Richard was having his own doubts in the late Seventies. But even Cliff had some bravado in his despair: “I ain’t losin’ sleep! ain’t countin’ sheep!” Bowie’s numbed, dulled, concerned only with what he can see before him. He’s in a foreign station, being rained on, the train’s late (this could well be death, or at least Belgium).

A few colors appear here and there: Bowie’s choir, summoned by the keys of his Chamberlin, swirling in eddies and hockets of sound; a piano that scampers through the refrains; Matt Chamberlain’s drum break, a loud, unresolved argument between crash cymbals and whacked kick drum, which foreshadows Chamberlain’s “live” drums ruling the second verse; Tony Visconti’s little grudging nods on his bass.

And there are some past Bowie lives buried in it—Mr. Norris Changes Trains, “A New Career In a New Town,” even “Station to Station”—which adds to the weary circularity of the whole business. There’s the guitar riff, a small shrug of a melody confined to a guitar’s three low strings—one line starts and ends on notes sounded on an open G string, the other just cuts off, disappointed. Or the drum loop, sounding like a man tattooing a pattern on an anvil (with a shaker for company), that keeps on through the C major verses/breaks, which give way to F# minor refrains. Numbed grief gets interrupted by brief spasms of anger.

Go back to Townshend’s “5:15” for a moment (he’ll show up again soon in this survey). Bowie’s departed angels here seem like Mods: thin on the ground, all legs and wings, strange sandy eyes. The Mod could “pass”—in their sharp suits and neatly-cut hair, they could sit on a train and not draw attention, not bother the old with the impropriety of being young, even though (like Jimmy) they may have been bonked out of their heads on amphetamines or be dreaming about setting fire to the train. The Mod were the last angels in our midst, and now they’re gone. Caught the last train for the coast. Bowie’s left among the squares, a fate that his teenage Mod self would have considered worse than death.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen.

* Also likely used for the tactile pleasure of singing “five-fifteen,” one of the more glorious collection of numbers in the English language (two quick nasally syllables cleansed by a deep long vowel; the alliterative push of “five-fif,” with its furtive romance of the lower lip and teeth). “Five-twenty-five” or “five-forty” doesn’t work half as well.

Top: Surya Sen, “Bombay, 2001.”

40 Responses to 5:15 The Angels Have Gone

  1. Nick 7 says:

    This is a beautiful song, that swirl of sound and lovely soft almost oh superman backing voices, contrasting with the half-hearted gritty guitar riff and thudding rhythm loops – “tattooing on an anvil with a shaker for company” is a great description.

    it’s a quietly devastating song in it’s way as well, someone who has reached the end of the line, and feels that they cannot or will not continue further. It’s uncertain what kind of release is suggested by the rushing train sound towards the end, and the “I’m out of here forever” closing line.

    Just a small correction – it’s F sharp minor (I think, not F minor) in the “we don’t talk” refrains going down to E major, quite at odds with the predominantly C major verses, but it works really well, I think, as if two songs have collided, DB singing the long sustained notes on these refrains so powerfully that by the end of each phrase he’s almost got no breath left at all.

  2. MC says:

    Of the “4 Last Songs” of the album, probably for me the one that veers the most into dullness. It is impeccably sung, arranged, and produced, though, and it has grown on me over the years. While it’s no Look Back In Anger, it’s definitely more fully-realized than New Angels Of Promise.

    The Mod connection is an interesting one. This blog never fails to yield fresh insights.

  3. dm says:

    This was the first nuBowie song I ever heard, on Later with Jools. I remember being quite captivated by it at the time. Many years later I bought the album and, while lovely, the whole thing seemed to have a bit of that forced “everyman” simplicity leftover from hours in some of the lyrics and melody. And I find the almost adult contemporary production on the drums a little tasteless. Still, the sheer loveliness of it all and the occasionally moving lyric win out.

  4. alfredsalmanac says:

    Love your delicious description of singing the words, “5-15”. Another interesting post.

  5. Nice post. Lovely verses, not sure about the refrains.

  6. BenJ says:

    Bowie’s left among the squares, a fate that his teenage Mod self would have considered worse than death.

    I wonder if this stranding has anything to do with Mr. Bowie’s withdrawal from public life (which was largely undisturbed by the release of The Next Day).

  7. s.t. says:

    Inviting sounds
    Tight little drums
    To this song
    So far so good
    What could go wrong?

    Something bout trains
    Sounds a bit slight,
    It’s OK,
    I dig the groove,
    I still approve…

    WAAAAAIIIITTTTT—what is this halfhearted shit?
    IIIIIIIII just can’t believe it(‘s Bowie)…

    Segue to drums
    Changing things up,
    Then same old groove
    Beat comes in strong
    M.O.R. ‘tude

    All of this time,
    Just mood and gloss
    Melody’s dross

    Just one more line
    Then that refrain:

    WHHOOOOOO does Bowie think he is?
    Reeeccooooording stuff as lazy as this?

    Underwritten; freighted with taste
    Even that train pun made in my haste (is better than this dreck)

  8. david says:

    For me, this and Heathen are the last two songs that held true emotional resonance. It’s the fragile realization of loss, mortality and obsolescence from a man beyond the median of his fifty years- or a measure of 5.15 if you will. A man rootless of his peers, his homeland, his conferees, his partners, his brothers in arms, angels traversed:Terry, Bolan, Lennon, Mercury, Ronson, Burretti, Mayes, Vandros, soon Gus Dudgeon would join their ranks, leaving David Jones in the shadows, stripped bare of his bachelor past- all those moments lost like tears in this foreign reign.

  9. StevenE says:

    i like it.

  10. crayontocrayon says:

    I like the song but it somehow feels a little incomplete. It’s something you could also say about I would be your slave – There isn’t much of a third act, it just reverts back to the verse. Not an issue in principle but with both songs over 5 minutes long it’s a little unsatisfying.

    In the theme of it being a dialogue with God, absent or otherwise, 5:15 could also reference a bible verse? “Be very careful, then, how you live —not as unwise but as wise” seems to match Bowie’s mood, but most likely it’s just a nod to Pete who in mod terms is basically God anyway.

    • Mr Tagomi says:

      I agree. It’s lovely and yet not quite there, for some reason.

      The words are beautifully put together though. I think as a lyricist he’s got much better and more interesting in the latter years.

      I have the impression not only from songs like this but also from remarks he made in interviews in the few years up to 2004 that one of his preoccupations is finding some conception of God that he can believe in, or at least hold onto.

      I’m sure this was always the case to some extent, but I think as a younger man he was as much attracted to the strangeness and otherness of spiritual ideas as he was to the possibility of there being actual truth in them.

      (Maybe I’m just projecting this onto him.)

      • s.t. says:

        I can’t be sure, but Bowie’s attitude toward religion/spirituality seems to be akin to Nick Cave’s. They started out with kind of a showy antagonism, which was nevertheless a fascination, and that gave over to mixtures of sardonic and sincere. Outside of their art, they both seem pretty comfortably agnostic/non-religious, so perhaps music is their way of invoking angels and exorcising demons. It’s basically true for any artist, but feels explicitly, self-consciously so for these two.

      • col1234 says:

        the next post will be in part an attempt to hash this out

  11. Fuxi says:

    What’s wrong with Belgium? If Bowie’s train were late in a Belgian station, he would at least find a cosy pub with the world’s best beers (Westmalle Tripel is the first that comes to mind) in the station hall, right next to platform 1, and what’s more: I remember attending that first gig of the Serious Moonlight Tour in Brussels, 1983, when the “new Sinatra” (not the Thin White Duke, alas) had tears of joy running down his face – clearly exhilarated to be appearing on the Belgian stage!

    • col1234 says:

      nothing’s wrong with Belgium! it just felt like the right place the morning I wrote this.

      • Nick 7 says:

        Perhaps DB’s tears of joy that night were partly inspired by the thought of one of his music heroes, the Belgian genius Jacques Brel, born in Schaarbeek Brussels? It isn’t hard to imagine Jacques in that cosy pub by platform 1, nursing a brandy and a cigarette, the train delayed and the rain falling outside forever.

  12. Momus says:

    1. Belgium is a good place to go when thinking about this song. It makes me think of Brel’s La Ville S’Endormait, or Scott Walker’s It’s Raining Today. The first is about a provincial town, and contains an angry gear change which breaks it out of an uneasy tranquility. The second is about a girl glimpsed in a drizzly train station.

    2. But when I think of those songs, I think of the gorgeous textures of their string arrangements, and the cheesy digital pads Bowie is all too often content to settle for just don’t measure up. Also, it feels like Bowie hasn’t really bothered to write a second verse.

    3. The Walker song has lovely drifting, sliding and melting discords which evoke the rain, and also refer to Toru Takemitsu’s soundtracks. Which makes me think of how it was Bowie-disciple David Sylvian who actually befriended Takemitsu, and who followed Scott Walker’s avant gardism much further than Bowie ever dared to. It’s odd how Bowie reacted so negatively to some of his followers, getting Numan banned TV studios and disallowing Sylvian the use of shots of Bowie in the Forbidden Colours video. It’s as if, having disowned these versions of himself, he couldn’t really advance into the harsh electronic pop or atonal lush experimentalism they’d made their own. As a result, we Bowie fans suffer; we never get a Bowie version of, say, Sylvian’s Blemish.

    4. The imagery of angels somewhat overpermeates the mainstream of art cinema, art rock and contemporary dance from the late-80s on, due in large part to Wenders’ Wings of Desire (referred to, for instance, in the opening to the Day In, Day Out video). If the angel in Look Back in Anger already had crumpled wings, by 2001 they were pretty gamey.

    5. It’s not a bad track, nice bass again, and certainly an improvement on, say, the Tonight album. But it doesn’t escape what I might call “idiomatic lostness”. There’s a vapidity in the music and in the words which suggests that Bowie and Visconti don’t really know what’s good, and can’t get a distinctive sound. I suppose I’m thinking of something like The Fall as a comparison; despite all the changes, there’s a consistency of idiom in The Fall that is also a guarantee of edge and attitude and vision.

    6. The very fact that we can think of Cliff Richard in the middle section is worrying. And I say that as a bit of a Cliff fan.

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Momus – Far too many recording artists I like are content to settle for cheesy digital pads, it seems. Thank goodness John Foxx is daring to be great in his later years.

  13. This might just be me, but the guitar in this song reminds me of the Niles Rodgers era. Not the arrangement, but the sound of the instrument itself could be right off of “Let’s Dance.”

  14. s.t. says:

    I wonder if the Toy project had Bowie considering a redo of “I’m Not Losing Sleep,” which in turn got him thinking about “We Don’t Talk Anymore” due to the similar “sleep/sheep” lines. Too far fetched?

  15. gcreptile says:

    A really nice, weary song. Doesn’t even really sound like typical Bowie. Maybe because it contains hints of tragedy which is something Bowie never really did.

  16. Maj says:

    However resigned/weary/desperate a song this might be I absolutely love it. Every single element of the song works for me, especially the arrangement and the production. It just works so flippin well. Wouldn’t change one wee thing about it. There ya go.

  17. When he sang this at the Royal Festival Hall in 2002 he dedicated it to John Entwistle.

  18. 2fs says:

    As much as I love the actual entries, I look forward nearly as much to their ongoing dialogue with Momus: his responses are invariably a thoughtful counterpoint and commentary to Chris’s post. The comments on this blog will be sorely missed in the book(s?) – although I very much look forward to those as well.

  19. heathen72 says:

    The intro always reminds me of ‘Streets of Philadelphia’.

  20. TheIdiot says:

    Truly baffled by the sheer number of haters on the last two tracks. Impeccably gorgeous pieces. The culmination of Bowie’s ‘desperate need to connect’ with his common humanity.

  21. CosmicJive says:

    A decent enough song, but one of my least favorites on the album. Dull comes to mind. That probably has a lot to do with (again) those cheesy synth sounds. Something is lacking in this track keeping it from being excellent like the title track. I can’t really put my finger on it. I do like live version with Garson’s solo. But even his touch doesn’t really save the track.

    That guitar figure in this song always reminded me a bit of a synth figure thats in one of the Leon suites. Probably a coincidence or selective hearring from my part though…

  22. Mitja Lovše says:

    There are a lot of people who say this track reminds them of something on ‘Hours…’ and that made me wonder – is Heathen the album ‘Hours…’ should have been? Both album are dealing with similar themes, but Heathen pulls them off better. It does not have that woe is me attitude, prevalent in ‘Hours…’ and it is sonically richer. Still, I cannot stop wondering – is Heathen an apology for ‘Hours…’ and its refinement?

  23. steg says:

    I was listening to and watching yesterday night “Live by request” and once more I was hit by the 5.15 connection with The Who (that is Townshend) song from Quadrophenia.
    I believe your website and your book (one day?) are needed for all those who cannot make such connections on their own because of their age.
    Be assured, I do need it (and it, the book) too because I am not a databank.

    Once more keep on!

    Steg at http://steg-speakerscorner.blogspot.com/

  24. col1234 says:


    sorry for the delay in the next entry. It’s one of the Big Ones, and has been a bit of a bear to complete. Early next week, I hope.

  25. from the very first ‘hear’ I always read this as about the death (or loss) of Bowie’s elder brother – the loss of the anxious, confused, edgy brother who showed the young one scenes and speech and clothes of exciting Alternate, but hinted so much further of heavenly, stardust horizons; the brother lost his life on the tracks, escaping from the latest little town (a psychiatric hospital) having let him down, he could no longer touch the world with his vivid-ink colour, not even with his brother (‘don’t talk anymore’), in the final crepuscule of the day he put his head on the tracks (the sudden drum-burst) and ascended like an …

    • Bruin Parker says:

      Following this, is the idea of angels at all related to the tabloid shorthand for nurses (echoed in the BBC1 series “Angels”)? A short staffed hospital (as so many are, but then in the process of winding up and closing down). No ticket? Jumping tracks? Or am I being more unreasonably literal than David ever was?

      • I think Bowie was always literal, but simultaneous with several readings at the same time;
        OK, since then and now, we have had ‘Blackstar’ … ‘something happened when he died / spirit rose a metre, then stepped aside …’, oh, so 5:15 could be about Terry (Bowie’s brother), or not, and and, but so could ‘Blackstar’, and and (sic, again)

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