Fall Dog Bombs the Moon

03victory

Fall Dog Bombs the Moon.
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon (live, 2003).
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon (acoustic performance, AOL Sessions, 2003).
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon (live, 2003).
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon (live, 2004).

The sword…is unsheathed. The blade…stands ready.

Oliver North, Fox News, 18 March 2003.

Reality was a wartime album, written and cut during the United States’ invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. It was the record of a man living in a city whose attack had provided the justification for the war; it was the work of a British expatriate sickened by the war’s long, seemingly orchestrated media buildup.

Bowie told interviewers he’d turned to using an alternative news service called TruthOut. “A fabulous storehouse of information of what’s written in the alternative press, or the rest of the world’s press, that never really sees the light of day here,” he said to Ken Scrudato. Among the articles that had caught his eye were those about how the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root had won the assignment of restoring and operating Iraq’s oil fields post-invasion. KBR had a long, illustrious career in supplying and cleaning up after various US wars, and on occasion being accused (and sometimes convicted) of bribery, shoddy workmanship, expense padding and sexual abuse and intimidation of its employees.* Its parent Halliburton had, until July 2000 (four days before his nomination), been run by the current vice-president, Dick Cheney.

Cheney was a 21st Century version of Shakespeare’s Richard III, if lacking the wit or taste for theatrics. What distinguished Cheney from his former boss Richard Nixon was that Cheney disclosed none of Nixon’s paranoia or long-collected resentments. Nixon was a brilliant man who was desperate that you knew he was; his pettiness was superhuman. Cheney was unreadable, shameless, unperturbed, placid. He seemingly existed to claim power and once he had it, he brooked no checks on it and moved in his own world. He didn’t care what anyone thought of him; it didn’t matter. Carping about something like Halliburton was merely a sign that you weren’t serious. His public persona was calm, genial, a wry smile often on his face.

What tends to happen is that a thing like an issue or a policy manifests itself as a guide,” Bowie told Interview. “It becomes a character of some kind.” Bowie began with a Cheney-like caricature. “There’s this guy saying, ‘I’m goddam rich…throw anything you like at me, baby, because I’m goddam rich. It doesn’t bother me.’ It’s an ugly song sung by an ugly man.” He wrote the lyric in a half-hour.

falldog

“Fall Dog Bombs the Moon,” similar harmonically and rhythmically to “New Killer Star” in its verses (was one spun out of the other? derived from the same demo?), came together quickly as well: it’s the roughest-sounding of Reality tracks, with no keyboard dubs and its drums lacking reverb or even much presence in the mix. Bowie kept Tony Visconti’s original bassline (heard retorting to the guitar riff in breaks) from the studio demo and layered on guitars: his own scrappy rhythm playing, Earl Slick, Mark Plati and David Torn’s various overdubs, with various center- or right-mixed guitars vying to be the lead, and a harmonized solo for the outro. “Fall Dog” sounded like a collective memory of the past 20 years of “alternative” rock—a touch of “The Killing Moon” in the bassline, some Sonic Youth, Pixies and Yo La Tengo in its tangle of guitar tones, some late-period Lou Reed in the semi-spoken “what a dog” tags.

What was a “fall dog” anyhow? Some fans at the time took the line to be a thinly-veiled George W. Bush, a “fall dog” instead of a fall guy, while the “moon” could work as a reference to the Islamist star and crescent. “An exploding man” suggests a terrorist bomber, but also recall “The Motel,” with its climactic “re-exploding you” refrain (and the line follows “I’m goddam rich”—the dog’s so sated that he’s ready to blow). The lyrical perspective spins and weaves. An American soldier sees a girl in a marketplace with a bomb strapped to her. She runs towards him, he waits resignedly (“I don’t care much: I’ll win anyway“). A verse later he’s the exploding man (victim or bomber?).

Yet despite Bowie framing his song as a picture of some late capitalist monster (and sometimes it sounds as if he’s singing “full dog”), his phrasing undermined this reading. He keeps to a small vocal range, sounding wistful, not getting worked up, letting lines trail off. Or take the image of the Fall Dog itself, rich in rock ‘n’ roll history—is it a scamp like the Everly Brothers’ “Bird Dog” (possibly where Bowie took the “what a dog” tags from) or Bowie’s own “Diamond Dogs“? Or is it more like Iggy Pop’s dog—a man who yearns to submit?

The second verse—there’s always a moron, someone to hate—was taken as a comment on the United States’ endless need for a fresh enemy, but you could equally turn the line back on the antiwar protesters. Who was George W. Bush but a convenient “moron,” a comical authority figure taking the heat? Having a Bush or a Cheney in power gives the American citizen a day pass. I didn’t vote for this fool, and look what he’s done now! What a mess.

A line in Bowie’s earlier “Slow Burn” had called up a future: So small, in times such as these. It echoed in “Fall Dog”: These blackest of years…No shape, no depth, no underground. It’s life in the early 2000s, when even the villains lack stature.

Recorded: (backing tracks) January-February 2003,(lead guitars, vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.

* “We need to be fearful of companies that get so big that they can actually be directing policy…When the Iraq War started, Halliburton got a billion-dollar no-bid contract. Some of the stuff has been so shoddy and so sloppy that our soldiers are over there dying in the shower from electrocution. I mean, it shouldn’t be sloppy work; it shouldn’t be bad procurement process. But it really shouldn’t be that these people are so powerful that they direct even policy.” Sen. Rand Paul, April 2009.

Top: Cherie A. Thurlby, “Victory Sign in Iraq,” 28 April 2003.

31 Responses to Fall Dog Bombs the Moon

  1. I always felt that this song could have come straight from the Never Let Me Down sessions. I felt that several of the Reality songs had similar vocal treatments to NLMD. I considered writing a paper on it once, but then I remembered I’m not a good writer. Anyway, never a favorite song of mine…

    • dm says:

      I hear ya. There’s something of a time will crawl vibe here. And Days, as I’ve said elsewhere, feels a lot like a NLMD title track rewrite. What distinguishes the Reality tracks for me, really, I’d a certain melodic assuredness. There are a lot of NLMD tracks where bowie just doesn’t seem to have had a melody locked down before he stepped up to the mic

  2. dm says:

    One of Bowie’s better “political” songs. So angry yet so resigned. A corporate tie, a wig and a date. What a line

  3. Maj says:

    Fall Dog always seemed to me to be the most un-Bowie-like song on Reality, in that it was really normal sounding (from a rhythmic, musical and sonic point of view).
    The lyric is good, succinct and to the point, it could depress a person.

    Great write-up, Chris. I consider Fall Dog as more of a padding song but this wee post made me think about it again, for the first time in 10 years.😉

    A note on “full dog”…yes, it does sound a bit like “full” but my theory is that it’s Bowie doing his accent thing again. To me it sounds like a very posh pronunciation of “fall”. Maybe I’m wrong…I’m not British either, after all.

  4. stuartgardner says:

    I’ve been particularly eager for your thoughts on this one because it’s always been among Bowie’s most opaque numbers, virtually impenetrable for me. Thanks for an illuminating essay.

  5. Anonymous says:

    “These blackest of years
    That have no sound
    No shape, no depth
    No underground”
    Surely this is a reference to the Velvet Underground (and a statement on rock music in the beginning of the 00’s ?) (I’m quite sure you wrote about it in the past)

  6. MC says:

    Really interesting lyric, this one, but a song that failed to register much with me for the first several listens. Something of a grower, though; it wound up being one of my favourites on the album.

    I always heard the late-period Lou influence, but a friend of mine more familiar with John Cale’s solo output than I was pointed out the melodic resemblance to Cale. After that, I couldn’t not hear Cale’s voice every time I listened to this.

    Really good piece; fascinating unpacking of the lyric’s complexities. Its far from a simple Tin Machine-style protest song, isn’t it? Its ambiguous perspective for me makes it one of the tracks most reminiscent of Lodger, in fact, its protagonist a bit like Repetition’s Johnny.

  7. Momus says:

    1. For me the song is Neil-Youngish in its artful simplicity; that plaintiveness combined with slight heaviness and weariness.

    2. It also has a grunge overtone, in the manner of something like Beck’s Asshole. The way the words just flow carelessly in apparent first drafts, the desurgent chord sequence rotating like an ever-descending staircase.

    3. Why does it sound like “full dog”? I think it was probably “fool dog” in the original draft and got softened on the page without being re-sung in the studio. It’s definitely “fall dog” by the live acoustic version.

    4. How can the world’s number one power be a “fall guy”? And yet victimhood was what motivated the bullying of this particular era, so it adds up. A spurious victimhood leads to an absurd revenge. “Fall dog” brings more ambiguity than “fool dog” and so works better.

    5. “Fool dog”, though, suggests to me that Bowie might have been trying to articulate the voice of the Arab street, and its uncomprehending revulsion against the pointless omnidirectional aggression of a US lashing out at “things related and not”.

    6. This would make “the moon” stand for any poor, rocky Islamic country soon to become even more cratered, pock-marked and blood-spattered; Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan.

    7. Speaking of the Arab street, I seem to remember Bowie being vociferously amused circa 1999 by the “I kiss you” meme — the sexy but naff self-recommendations of one Mahir Cagri from Turkey, who said things like “I have many many music enstrumans my home I can play” and “I like sex”.

    8. I feel like this person saying “fool dog” is an angry Mahir. Things have darkened considerably in those four years, and the common cause everyone felt in the globalist 90s has melted away. Mahir is no longer looking for an American wife.

    9. Another quote (already cited by Chris in the Better Future entry): “I had rosy expectations for the 21st Century, I really did”.

    10. Combine the disappointments of a new century of war with the heart attack which was about to cast its grim shadow, and it’s no wonder we got the semi-retirement, the end of interviews, chats, casual commentary, diaries, laffs and memes. The gnomic was about to replace the laughing.

  8. Ramzi says:

    A fine and admirable subject matter but if I wanted to hear the Stereophonics I would listen to the Stereophnics.

  9. roobin101 says:

    That said, I heard it in passing on a Q Magazine compilation. I liked it, mostly because it was so sullen and acid (both music and lyrics) and very unBowie like. The lyric is a corker, aphorism on top of observation. (Coincidentally) it sums up the modern ruling class attitude: “You hate me? Like I give a crap! What’re you going to do about it? Nothing.”

  10. Remco says:

    My favourite song from this album. I couldn’t tell you why.

  11. david says:

    It seems that after years of trying to make music on some didactic elder statesman level, he seemed to have gotten the balance right on his last two albums. Also notable is that this the song predated the actual Moon bombing I believe by something like four years.

  12. dm says:

    It seems wrong somehow to post again but I’m still gathering my thoughts. This is just a really good, affecting track. To do the first verse from the perspective of one of the most disgusting human beings alive, and to do it in such a restrained, resigned way, it gets me every time. Bleak, cutting. Fall Dog Bombs the Moon is the sound of just giving up in these blackest of years.

    Bowie was a pop sensation for a good part of the war in Vietnam. But it took a figure like Cheney and more of an investment in the future to bring something this powerful out of him. Fair enough, Cheney’s legacy is still with us, as we attempt yet again to bomb our way out of a situation we created.

    Thought: as the moon landing was a demonstration of military technological might against the soviets, the invasion of Iraq as a display of might against the vaguely defined concept of terror seems a reasonable parallel

  13. Mr Tagomi says:

    For years i thought the lyric went “When i talk in the night/It’s out of my hands”, wherein the Rumsfeld figure (as i understood it) was saying that if he muttered his secrets in his sleep, there was nothing he could do about it, so who cares.

    Anyway, great song. It’s on side 2 that Reality really achieves excellence.

  14. Galdo says:

    This songs sounds like a demo sometimes. Its sound is kinda rough. I like it, I don’t know if I can properly explain this point but its rhythm sounds like a lullaby or something you could sing to a child…

  15. s.t. says:

    I always appreciated the similarity of this and New Killer Star; it seemed to lend the album a feel of cohesion and composition. But Chris’ and Momus’ suggestions are intriguing. Perhaps Bowie conceived of these two tracks as the crowning concept of his topical album: “newkuler” star meets crater-filled crescent moon. An absurd and tragic new vision of the Middle East.

    It reminds me of the uncannily prophetic rantings of Nick Cave from the Birthday Party song “Big Jesus Trash Can:”

    Big Jesus Oil King down in Texas
    Drives great holy tanks of gold
    And he trashes heaven’s graveyard!

    But, you know, not as crazy.

  16. crayontocrayon says:

    Agree with Momus saying it’s Neil Youngish, musically it reminds me of Harvest Moon and the unpolished production is very Crazy Horse.

    It’s the kind of song that goes about it’s business very quietly and without much fanfare, but when you look at it closely there isn’t a single wasted line, among the best lyrics of his later period.

  17. humanizingthevacuum says:

    I love the guitar sound.

  18. Vinnie says:

    The production sounds dated: perhaps the “early 00s” alt/album rock sound is still soured on my youth spent in pop radio.

    Being said, the AOL Acoustic Session gives the song more power. The lyrics are really something. Good on Bowie for writing this.

    And then, I return to the album art: if only Bowie would have done something similar to Earthling, perhaps a photograph of Bowie dressed to look more American. Stylized/art photography of a man living in a country where he’s afraid of the man on the street, of terrorist attacks in his adopted city.

    Another thought: 2003 also saw the recording of Hail To The Thief. Bowie could have easily gone in a similar, more cynical route with art/video/design, but did not.

  19. As an aside, in 2009 NASA actually did bomb the moon. The album came out in 2003, so obviously Bowie wasn’t referencing this event. Still, it’s kind of interesting. Maybe around the time of the album he read somewhere about a future plan to explode something on the moon.

    I completely missed the political connotations of this song, which is my favorite on the album. I always took it as a song of personal regret about how he used people, especially women, in his younger days. When a guy says he is a dog, it means he uses women for sex. “I’m just a dog.” The moon is an image of beauty and purity. Bombing the moon (penetrating it) is destroying its purity for gain. The “fall dog” is definitely cryptic: I just took “fall” to mean “fallen” in the sense of “sunk low.”

    The narrator says to a girl, “come blow me away.” This probably means “go ahead, impress me,” but has an obvious sexual connotation. As long as he gets what he wants, he doesn’t care what happens to the girl, or what she says about him–“I win anyway.” This made me think of the famous line in Fame: “is it any wonder I reject you first.” Fall dog is “cruel and smart,” which based on the only bio of Bowie I read, Loving the Alien, is pretty accurate of Bowie in the 70s. As Bowie himself said, the Thin White Duke was not a nice guy.

    Now other parts of the song, especially the oil on the hands, doesn’t fit the theme of personal regret. And the bits about But then again, “little girl” doesn’t fit the Iraq interpretation. The corporate tie could be a dig at Halliburton types, but Bowie himself wore a corporate tie in the 80s, he was and is “goddamn rich,” and the “wig and a date” sounds like glam-era “Queen Bitch.”

    I don’t know what to make of this song. I tend to think the Iraq interpretation makes more sense, with the moon perhaps referring to the lunar landscape of much of Irag, but the sadness and regret in that “just a dog.” I don’t think it’s all Iraq.

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