When the Boys Come Marching Home


When the Boys Come Marching Home.

While Bowie claimed he’d written the lyrics for Heathen before the 9/11 attacks, it’s easy to imagine the B-side “When the Boys Come Marching Home” coming out of the dark autumn of 2001, with the Afghanistan invasion, a nation afraid to open its mail thanks to the anthrax scare, routine color-coded terror freak-out alerts, the Department of Homeland Security established and plans for the Iraq war underway.

It’s not as if the song would have been out of place anytime in the past century, though. The somber refrains, Matt Chamberlain’s snare pattern and the song’s title suggest the endless military cycles of history (“There’s nothing to learn from history. As we’ve repeatedly shown,,” Bowie told the Daily Mirror in 2002. “We’re not willing to learn. We’ve slipped straight back into what we usually do—we’ve fallen for a religious war.“): an obvious reference was the U.S. civil war song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” and its British counterpart “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye.”

But the lyric, one of Bowie’s most gnomic works since Hunky Dory, offered more than antiwar sentiments: there are “outsider” artists as bellwethers and court jesters (“I love him in his craziness, his tatters and his courage“), wanderings through some lost battle-numbed Europe of the imagination (“I love the little cars at dawn“). Cities and countries as prostitutes; collectives of mean townies; Aldous Huxley nods. Bowie casts himself as the moon (“my cloudy face will be gone, high-tailing it out of here” and there’s a lovely bit in the second verse where the moon in turn becomes a fisherman, using the tides to “pull[] up its net of souls“) and Don Quixote (“I and the cobbled nag I ride/stumble down another weary mile“).

A descending synthesizer line, following the footsteps of the Laughing Gnome, appears in the first verses and then gets packed off; florid margin commentaries of violins and viola, courtesy of the Scorchio Quartet, color the refrains; Jordan Rudess plays a nimble piano line towards the close that seems about to break into stride or boogie-woogie. The vocal melody in the bridge is one of Bowie’s loveliest, seemingly building to a dramatic payoff that never comes (that we don’t deserve?): the refrains sound beaten into submission. One of his more indecipherable songs, it’s been all but forgotten today.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 5 June 2002 as a bonus track on the “Slow Burn” EC single (ISO/Columbia COL 672744 2) and later in the UK on the “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” single.

Top: Sgt. Joseph R. Chenelly, “A U.S. Marine with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit leads others to a security position after seizing a Taliban forward-operating base, Afghanistan, 25 November 2001.”

28 Responses to When the Boys Come Marching Home

  1. Mike says:

    I forgot about it myself… but I’ll be digging it out this morning for a listen. Thanks!

  2. Robert W. Getz says:

    Not that stranded, though: also on 2-disc ‘Heathen’ set as well as its SACD incarnation. Or are they equally difficult to find now?


    • col1234 says:

      yes, both out of print too. but i mean, it’s not that hard to find.

      • Ian says:

        For less than a copy of the ‘Heathen’ set, you can also pick up a copy of the David Bowie box set from 2006 or so. It has what were (at the time) his final five albums, with a disc of extras for each.

  3. StevenE says:

    It’s on itunes, so not quite out of print!

    • col1234 says:

      OK OK you guys win.

      • s.t. says:

        Maybe it depends on where you’re living, but I don’t currently see it on iTunes US. So thanks, I had been trying to find this one for a while!

      • col1234 says:

        thank you! so i’m not crazy. It’s not on US Amazon MP3 or US iTunes, and the only CDs you can find it on, you have to buy second-hand.

  4. crayontocrayon says:

    I hear a little nod to ‘the return of the thin white duke’ part of station to station with the arpeggiated guitar at around 3:05.

    Also strikes me how 80s sounding the production is at the start. chiming bell synths and piano drowned in reverb. Makes for a pleasant overall sound though as the dry vocals and strings act as a good counterbalance.

    It sounds like a lot of time went into it as a song, and it has the right effect. As you mention the song doesn’t really have a climax, much like humanity and its wars it just ends up repeating itself endlessly without resolve.

  5. Ian says:

    A hidden, secret favorite of mine, and not only because he ended up using the drum track as the loop for the Disco King…

  6. I remember when I first bought the Slow Burn EP, it had this, Wood Jackson, Shadow Man and You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving Me as the b-sides. Talk about your embarrassment of riches – I’m almost tempted to say I listened to it more than Heathen itself.

    • SoooTrypticon says:

      Yes. That single was like finding buried treasure.

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      I bought three pressings of the Everyone Says Hi single in pale blue, orange and green. All up the bonus tracks were; When the Boys Come Marching Home, Shadow Man, Safe, Wood Jackson, Baby Loves That Way and You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving. I think it’s all very strong material for B-sides.

      • Mr Tagomi says:

        Same here. He churned out an awful lot of fine work around that time. Those singles were essential purchases.

        I really love You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving especially.

        Based on Chris’ article about the song, maybe that’s because I don’t know The Who’s music very well.

        Funny about WTBCMH – I always assumed it was one of the Toy re-recordings.

  7. s.t. says:

    My my, this is lovely. Simple and poignant. A real shame it’s not in wider circulation. Musically, I hear shades of “When I’m Five” in the chorus (“yesterday was horrid day cuz Raymond kicked my shin”). This song could make for a properly disillusioned sequel to that cute little novelty tune.

  8. Ramzi says:

    The sadness of the post-9/11 strings that you mentioned in the I Would Be Your Slave post reappearing quite strongly here

  9. roobin101 says:

    Lovely – the queasy production suits what (on first listen) sounds like a slippery song. If Bowie albums became more like compilations Heathen seems far and away to be the best mix… still this could have edged blooming Cactus.

  10. SoooTrypticon says:

    One of my favorites from this period. It slots nicely into my alternate tracklist. A fine write up too (:

  11. sinj says:

    I have neglected this one. Very affecting indeed. Has that intimacy that has tied me to the new conversation piece for so long. Gorgeous.

  12. gcreptile says:

    The violins have a certain oriental touch.

  13. Anonymous says:

    How many excellent Bowie songs that I’ve never heard can there be?

  14. Mike F says:

    I’m not crazy about him going with work in progress lyrics but the melody and vocal delivery is strong. The arrangement is OK but also sounds basic and overly familiar.

    This could be a classic but it wasn’t fully developed so we are left with a very nice outtake.

  15. Maj says:

    Don’t think I know this one. There’s a bit in it that reminds me of a bit in Safe. Nice song. Can hardly get deeper into it after one listen. Cool.

  16. sidthecat says:

    It’s a bit of a foreshadowing of the more uptempo, angrier “The Next Day”.

  17. s.t. says:

    This isn’t appropriate for the post (maybe via connections to Army Dreamers and Pull Out the Pin?), but did anyone get to see Kate Bush perform?

  18. There are two songs on the single that
    ought to have nudged 5.15 from the album
    plus the Neil Young song.
    The Boys Come Marching Home is just too
    good to be lost on a B-side.
    I agree it foreshadows the density of
    the Next Day.
    Recommend- it’s more than a mere out-take.

  19. Ten days later, I’ve learned this song. Vocally, Bowie’s rendition is really low-key but I notice the possibility to really give it volume. That underperformance lends the song a lot of power. Bowie has layered the vocals: he uses his own voice as a backing vocal for the chorus and sings over a slightly different version of the song’s second half. The production is quite complex. The effect is a very powerful and poignant song. The visuals such as the town seen from a distance, the “townies”, the little cars and bad grammar (“is the lights ablazing”) and the marked town-country distinction all suggest the 1940s. The Gulf War and the Iraq War are harder to identify.
    This song really needs to be more widely known.

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