Fly

03apts

Fly.

Written seemingly as a counterpart to “She’ll Drive the Big Car,” “Fly” (a desperate husband’s tale, with another A major refrain) was knocked down to a bonus track. By this point in Bowie’s career, one expects this sort of thing. Given a choice, he’ll always cut a self-penned track from an album before a questionable cover (see “It Ain’t Easy,” “Across the Universe,” “Bang Bang,” etc.).

That said, “Fly” would have been a tough fit on Reality, even more than “Queen of All the Tarts.” Despite its depressive lyrical scenario, it’s a cheery track, a clatter-fest in a hurry to get somewhere. In keeping with Bowie’s apparent desire to sneakily remake Never Let Me Down, “Fly” is one of the most “Eighties” Bowie tracks since, well, the Eighties. The main guitar riff (Carlos Alomar, see below) seems a bit derived from Devo’s “Whip It,”* while a holiday camp keyboard is just one voice in a mix overrun by stray instruments. There are even some little party bits, like the “dying for the WEEKEND” tag.

A father’s in his driveway weeping in his car, watching the TV play to an empty room in his house. His wife is bored or distracted, his son might be on drugs. The kids down the street are playing “on their decks”** in the garage, working up a set for an “all-night rave” (seems like Bowie hasn’t been getting out too much in the early 2000s). None of this seems that tragic, even the verse about some kid overdosing. It’s more like Stewart Copeland’s “On Any Other Day“—a suburban dystopia played for laughs.

It’s fun to see Bowie back in suburbia again, for what would be one of his last visits. As a kid in Bromley, like the father in “Fly,” he took refuge in his mind. He stayed up in his room and read Beat novels, looked for UFOs, played records, scrawled in notebooks, practiced astral projections. He once described his teenage home as having to pass through purgatory (his parents’ living room) to get upstairs into his private haven. Dana Gillespie recalled how cold the Jones’ house was—she found it a loveless place, a house without life, as if Bowie’s parents were actors who went off stage when no one was around.

So Bowie stayed in his room until he could fly. Away he went: Haddon Hall, Chelsea, Los Angeles. Berlin, Montreux, New York. As Momus wrote, much of these “last” Bowie albums are Bowie regarding his aging contemporaries as one would creatures in a zoo. What’s it like to have failed, to have fed on dreams but starved instead? Even his own success had nearly snuffed out a few times. He’d rolled the right number, but what if he hadn’t?

Hence the refrain of “Fly,” Bowie taking grandiose refuge in his dreams (in the last refrain, an unexpected D# minor chord (“but I can fly”) rattles the sequence, making Bowie alter his flight path to stay in the air). Dreams are in a provisional tense, offering that the present isn’t real, that the future isn’t set. But dreams are lies, of course. Those that come true are simply lies we’ve willed ourselves (and other people) into believing.

alomar

In spring 1974, a young British singer/songwriter met a guitarist at a session in New York the singer was producing for Lulu. Bowie found in Carlos Alomar his ambassador to the New York R&B and funk scenes; Alomar saw Bowie as a way off the R&B circuit.

The timing was perfect. Having split with Mick Ronson, Bowie needed a new sous-chef. But he didn’t want another Ronson (if he had, he’d just have kept Ronson). He wanted someone who kept behind the scenes (no worries that Alomar would get more fan mail than Bowie) and who could handle new twists in Bowie’s songwriting. To Ronson, Bowie typically presented lyrics, top melodies and even guitar or basslines—at the least, Bowie would offer a complete chord sequence. Ronson’s role was to smooth, kick up, embellish and refine, to find counterpoints and add effects, to broaden and sweeten the song, to give it a public face.

By Station to Station and Low, Alomar was charged with creating the basics of a song. Bowie would offer some chords, a provisional title, some mood directions, and let Alomar take it from there. Bowie would monitor him rigorously and approve or discard whatever Alomar came up with, and much of the work was now in “post-production” (Alomar rarely heard Bowie’s vocals until the record came out). But essentially this was songwriting as delegation: Bowie as foreman/engineer, Alomar as shop steward. Scott Walker once described Bowie’s work as being something like a factory: He comes up with the goods and makes sure of delivery all down the line. Bowie couldn’t have done this without Alomar, who was his translator, research team, legwork man and studio engine.

Nearly becoming a victim of Bowie’s changing tastes in the early Eighties, Alomar persevered, playing on Tonight and Never Let Me Down, touring Glass Spider. He hung on until Outside and the subsequent tour, which finally made him know he was done. Even after that, he added a few guitar lines to Heathen and Reality tracks. Towards the end, Bowie spoke of Alomar a bit coldly (“Carlos is always good value for money,” he said on a webchat in 2001), and the two haven’t reconnected yet in Bowie’s current revival.

Alomar’s lead riff on “Fly” is barbed with hooks, as always, but it’s a rather hollow last act, like Ronson’s farewell solo on “I Feel Free” in 1993. No matter. What’s important is that Alomar got a last act, and that he’s slowly won the recognition he deserves. Let’s hope “Fly” isn’t the end of Bowie and Alomar’s days together. But if it is, hail and farewell, Carlos Alomar: Bowie’s finest collaborator.

Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003, (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on the 2-CD version of Reality.

* Nicholas Pegg suggested the riff owes a bit to Abba’s “On and On and On” too.

** See LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge,” which Bowie almost certainly heard before making this. “I’m losing my edge…to the kids whose footsteps I hear when they get on the decks.”

Top: James Welling, “Apartments, West Los Angeles,” 2003; Carlos Alomar teaching kids music at the Summer Science and Rainbow Camp, Anatolia College, 2011.

42 Responses to Fly

  1. Deanna says:

    I adore this song. I don’t know what it is– I’m not a middle aged man with children or anything even close to the situation in the lyrics, but there’s just something fundamental in it that I can really relate to. It’s one of my favourite Bowie songs because it connects with me on an emotional level. Maybe it’s a sort of longing for more combined with an unspoken fear of things changing?

    It’s just a bonus track that got cut from the main album but I really treasure it.

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      Pink Floyd once sang that; “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”. Personally, I would say this is a universal rather than a particularly English conundrum, as we can all be inclined at times to rattle at the bars of the cages that the world puts us in.
      Like you, I don’t fit with the specifics of this song. But it’s this universality, coupled with a great, typically soaring Bowie melody which makes this song so irresistible.
      Way too good for a bonus track.

  2. J.D. says:

    Might be so that Alomar was db’s finest ‘collaborator’.
    Doesn’t stop anyone from recognizing that Ronno was half of the finest partnership db ever had. But Ronson’s input wasn’t an add-on, it was an enabler, and a distinctive voice of its own.

    Maybe too fine a distinction there, but go back, way back.. there was a sense when they first played together that Mick R was saying, in musical terms, to db– “well right, that’s lovely; now let’s do it with an electric guitar and we’ll have hard rock”. That he did string arrangements and more just seals the legend.

    Carlos A was a very different kind of cat, and so too was DB, by the time he met Carlos.
    Safe to say without Alomar that Station To Station wouldn’t be the same album…

    • col1234 says:

      think we’re on the same page with Ronson, who’s as important as Alomar but on another level if that makes sense. the two are hard to compare (& no reason to pick a favorite either)

      • J.D. says:

        Agree. Very different, really.
        And I’d like to append my imaginary Mick-to-Dave conversation:

        Mick: “well right, that’s lovely; now, let’s do it with an electric guitar and a couple mates of mine, and we’ll have hard rock”

        Dave: “my third eye sees that you’re right about that; now what’s all this about “The Rise And Fall Of Bernie Gripplestone” exactly?”

  3. StevenE says:

    Did you have a particular song in mind to swap out Bang Bang for?

  4. I dunno, I was under the impression that Bowie and Alomar were on relatively good terms – Bowie specifically singled out Alomar as a “collaborator and friend” in the liner notes to that iSelect compilation he put together and Alomar had some very kind words to say about The Next Day on his Facebook page. (Yes, I follow Bowie sidemen on social media. Quit looking at me like that.

  5. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Good to see a bit of love for Carlos Alomar. For me, undoubtedly the key collaborator in Bowie’s career, and there have been many important ones. The difference with Alomar is that for long stretches of that voyage from the ashes of glam rock to Heroes, he was both busy in the engine room and quietly steering on the bridge. And it is that fantastic voyage that sets Bowie apart from others in pop music, and the reason we’re all here.

    And he got to play drums, twice!

    I was disappointed but not surprised that he didn’t feature on The Next Day.

  6. Galdo says:

    My favourite Bowie collaborator.

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      Bowie has had many great collaborators over the years. One could even mount a case for Mike Garson, Eno, Earl Slick, and even Tony Visconti. Carlos Alomar is great of course, but for me there’s no getting past Mick Ronson.
      Ronno was there when Bowie was at his most alien, strange, alluring, mysterious, untouchable and brilliant.

  7. Galdo says:

    I got curious on which of Reality covers is the questionable one mentioned the post…

  8. roobin101 says:

    I’m beginning to like this batch of songs. What a shame it didn’t make the cut. It’s eighties but in a good way. it was around about 2003 that bands/artists started to get a handle on 80s sounds. Off the top of a few listens the music sounds quite like the Killers – top melody less so.

  9. Jubany says:

    I’d say that the problem Alomar had with Bowie’s changing tastes in the 80s is that he embraced them too much, certainly more than Bowie himself. And that, I think, is why he eventually got axed, at the end of that decade.

  10. Maj says:

    I love this wee thing. And I love it even more because the lyrics are so depressing and the music so bouncy. My kinda pop music.

  11. Though I agree with you about Bowie’s habit of cutting good stuff im favor of questionable covers (Across The Universe’s case being the most egregious), Ihave to say I like the upcoming one. And although I do think NLMD’s version of “Bang Bang” is fairly weak, I have a soft spot for the live Glass Spider version. I actually have a mix CD where it plays right after Stage’s Warzawa, and I think it works surprisingly well.

  12. Hm… apparently I lost the first half of my comment before posting it. Long story short, I thanked you for giving Carlos Alomar his due, because, though he has seen more of his role acknowledged in recent years, he still feels like the unsung hero of Bowie’s career to me.

  13. crayontocrayon says:

    Later Alomar tracks often suffer from sounding a bit dated (Get Real springs to mind) and as such the sound doesn’t really fit on the album and the songs get relegated to bonus tracks. Given the quality of many Bowie B-sides there is no shame in that. This is still a pretty solid song, I especially like the pre chorus towards the end, it’s an unexpected turn for the song to take and feels very ‘Bowie’

    I love Alomar’s work- Just look at the run of albums that he worked on from 75 to 80 and it easily ranks with Ronson (personally I would include Gabrels with them as well in terms of overall impact on Bowie’s music, I’m sure some would disagree).

  14. Jaf says:

    Just wanted to add to the Alomar love really; apart from DB he played with The Main Ingredient, James Brown, the Apollo House Band and on records like Drowning In The Sea Of Love. Nile Rodgers once said “my whole life I’ve been following Alomar, he always got there first; the Apollo job, the Bowie job…”

  15. roobin101 says:

    Here’s the moot but fun debate: should Carlos Alomar be credited as co-songwriter? Given that for four albums Bowie would usually write top melodies and lyrics based, key features of any song, on Alomar’s arrangement and counterpoint

    • col1234 says:

      I’d say yes (& Alomar does get various credits), but the whole business of composer credit is a rather confusing one, with various traditions (see jazz, where Miles Davis is solely credited for compositions mainly improvised by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock—the rule is basically whoever’s paying for the session, and whose name is on the record, gets the songwriting). Alomar was a session pro & knew the score—I don’t think he’s ever publicly complained about not getting publishing.

  16. roobin101 says:

    I’m sure credit for Fame has kept the wolf from the door. It seems to me with Bowie that chords trump riffs when it comes to credits, which is odd perhaps given a lot of pop songs are the same chords jigged about a bit (the obvious case being Stay – how is that anything but a riff?). It put me in mind of the band the Bluebells, who hired a violinist to play on their (it turned out) one and only hit. The only bit people really remember is the violin part. The judge ruled that the violinist made a “significant and original contribution” to the eventual song – a subjective standard perhaps but truer to the democratic nature of music.

    • Anonymous says:

      That brings to mind the collaborator who really doesn’t get the credit he deserves, Earl Slick. He is so often dismissed as just a solid session go-to man, but his contribution to Station to Station represents an immense chunk of the Bowie legacy. He never got so much as a sniff of a writing credit, but his ‘creative tension’ with Alomar on that album is often neglected in favour of the more familiar Bowie coke demons narrative. The intros to Stay and the title track, in particular, are high points of Bowie’s career. And he never complained about any lack of credit – unlike some.

    • rob thomas says:

      didn’t know this story about a song i’ve not thought about for 20-odd years. Thanks!

    • Maj says:

      “a lot of pop songs are the same chords jigged about a bit”

      no Bowie, as far as I remember.

  17. s.t. says:

    husband to Big Car Driver; father to Little Wendy Cocaine.

  18. Steve says:

    Thanks for spotlighting this! Never really listened to it much before, let alone examined the lyrics, but I’ve been really liking it! I’d even got it stuck in my head! (I’ve noticed that even Bowie’s outtakes or lesser tracks often have a way of coming back to you, for some reason, even if you didn’t care for them much the first time around).

    At first listen of “Fly”, I remember just hearing to the main riff, which I wrote off as being too derivative Devo’s iconic “Whip It” (At the time I assumed this was why it was left off the album proper). Although now I wonder if this track’s riff may be traced back to “She’s Got Medals” (could just be coincidence, in any case).

    I love the production on this song (not quite sure how to describe it), especially the “scratchy” (is that the right word?) opening, which is in line with the opening to “Station to Station” or “V-2 Schneider” or “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore.”

    And the chorus is so dramatic – seems like it could have been (maybe was intended to be?) an album opener or closer (the strings at the end remind me a little of “Heat” on “The Next Day”). “Fly” has great energy and feels very polished: I think the decision to omit it from “Reality” must have come rather late in the recording process. I can’t quite imagine where it would have fit on the finished album, so I guess that’s why it was cut (maybe it would have stole the show from some of the other tracks?). Of course, maybe Bowie thought it sounded too much like “Whip It” and didn’t want to get accused of plagiarism.

    Also, in terms of sound, I feel that, of all the tracks on “Reality,” this is probably closest to something that could have appeared on “The Next Day.” (“New Killer Star” and “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon” might come close, too. I dunno.)

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