(She Can) Do That

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(She Can) Do That (demo).
(She Can) Do That.

The official Bowie narrative: after the sudden end of A Reality Tour, he takes a step back, assesses his life and slowly, imperceptibly, he fades into the twilight, not to return for a decade….

Well, yes, but wait. There’s one problem with this story. Bowie released a new song in 2005. This track, not “Bring Me the Disco King,” was the last studio recording issued under his name until The Next Day. Much of Bowie fandom wants to wish the thing away. Many hated it at the time. It’s understandable: the Bowie story shouldn’t have (possibly) ended with some clang-bang dance track he cut for the soundtrack of Stealth, one of 2005’s notable commercial and critical disasters.

But we can’t ignore it; we can’t pretend that it never happened. It’s “(She Can) Do That.” Listen to it and accept that the man who wrote “Heroes” also wrote this, and he wrote it at a time when he was convalescing, after years of making brooding retrospective albums and “Last Songs.”

keep going don’t stop now keep going take cover keep going be cool…

To be fair, Bowie only wrote the lyrics and top line melody. The rest was cooked up by the producer Brian Transeau (aka BT) and the Berklee professor Richard Boulanger, who worked on the refrain. In early 2005, Bowie cut his vocal at his usual studio, Looking Glass in New York, with Tony Visconti producing and Kristeen Young singing backing vocals. Bowie sent the Pro Tools files to BT in Los Angeles, where BT finished the mix. It wound up being used in a dance club scene in Stealth whose dramatic purpose is to establish Jamie Foxx as a ladies man.

STEALTH!!!!!!!

What was Bowie doing? A tribute to/reworking of Hawkwind’s “You Shouldn’t Do That“? A tip of the hat to the Hamtaro theme song? An out-of-nowhere attempt to homage Stop Making Sense-era David Byrne, at a time when Byrne was calm and melancholic? An update of “Right,” another song in which Bowie’s bucking himself up during a dark time?

Of course, one can be cynical and say that Bowie put as much thought into his vocal as he did his coffee order at Dean and DeLuca the morning he cut it. If the brief was “do a dance track for a Jamie Foxx Top Gun ripoff updated for the War on Terror,” there are only so many options.

It’s also obvious Bowie was using “(She Can) Do That” as a tentative first step back into the studio after a long period of recuperation. The question is whether its sound portended a stylistic move. Before his heart operation, Bowie had mentioned to interviewers that he wanted to get back in the studio with Visconti in late 2004, and that he planned something divergent from the Heathen/Reality sound—possibly even cutting an all-instrumental album or something “experimental.”

Was the move meant to be a return to Earthling? Was Bowie actually considering making an EDM record in 2005? Did he listen to a playback of “(She Can) Do That,” have a road-to-Damascus moment and swear off making records for nearly a decade? It’s all speculative.

Full of BT’s trademarks, including the “stutter edit,” vocal pitch shifting and subtle time changes, “(She Can) Do That” ultimately was the Laughing Gnome, back for the millennium, as shameless and irritating as ever. So Bowie’s “last” track for eight years is him thumbing his nose on his way out the door, wondering why people always took him so damned seriously.

Recorded: (Bowie vocal) ca. early 2005, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; music, mixing (LA, early 2005). Released 12 July 2005 on the Stealth OST (Epic EK 94475 ).

Top: Joshua Bousel, “Daphne and Blair’s Last Month Single Party,” December 2005; a stealthy trio.

40 Responses to (She Can) Do That

  1. Johnny L says:

    Oh dear. So should I admit I rather like it? Light and throwaway, sure, but rather fun. I always thought Bowie’s vocals sounded like a tip of the hat (again) to Brett Anderson of Suede….

  2. Maj says:

    “Listen to it and accept that the man who wrote “Heroes” also wrote this.”
    Ha.

    I never felt particularly down abt this song. I heard it at the time, shrugged and moved on. I had no idea it was his last official release for almost a decade. Bless.

    I wouldn’t put this on the same level as the Laughing Gnome, though, Chris. That would be a blasphemy.😉

  3. StevenE says:

    a classic.

    -Steven

    • col1234 says:

      that’s it? after all that buildup, StevenE? I thought you’d do a Momus-esque excavation

    • Galdo says:

      I guess that’s the commentary he was supposed to make about the track, after all. Given the discussions on the post, it was a super appropriate commentary, isn’t it?

      • StevenE says:

        further diluting the purity of my comment by saying that had Bowie never progressed beyond his early light entertainment persona this would so clearly have been his eurovision single, very likely a failed comeback attempt.

        there are still times i wish that this alternate timeline was the one we were given.

    • Ramzi says:

      great commenting game throughout, mate

  4. Mr Tagomi says:

    On a linear scale of “God Only Knows” to “Life on Mars”, I rate this song a “Shake It”.

    That’s about 66/100.

    The Dalek thing at the start almost kills it entirely, and the vocal is slightly off the pace (or something). But it’s catchy.

  5. Stang says:

    This song (if we can call it that) was perhaps Bowie’s attempt in the absence of new material to design a new nadir which would hoist the likes of TONIGHT & NLMD up to ‘classic Bowie’ by contradistinction?

  6. SoooTrypticon says:

    It is catchy. And it is odd.

    Perhaps he wanted to see what another producer would do with his material. And then they threw it out into the void, to see if anyone noticed.

    I’m not sure anyone did… I could only find two reviews.

    Allmusic Review:
    “David Bowie’s meet-up with BT isn’t as successful. “[She Can] Do That” has a punchy electronic bounce, but it could be Bowie or anybody on the chopped-up vocal. ”

    Entertainment Weekly:
    “…and David Bowie getting funky with BT. ‘Tain’t bad …”

    I would have loved to see him doing the “Next Day” finger point while performing this song though. “She Can Do That! He Can Do It!”

    Actually, typing that out… aren’t these lyrics a bit Leon-esque?

  7. crayontocrayon says:

    This takes up a happy place along with ‘Law (earthlings on fire)’ of songs that on paper should be annoying but actually you find yourself happily bouncing along with.

  8. gcreptile says:

    Not hard to figure out what the producer was aiming for. Hot girl in a jet, needs some high energy/ vaguely modern and cool production. The simple lyrics are all about verve, not deeper meaning. But as a Bowie song it’s unusual, if not a failure. The title is just so vapid. What is it that she can do? Also, in 2005 Bowie definitely was too old for this.

  9. s.t. says:

    It does sound a good deal like BT’s stuff from this era. This was after electroclash had blown up, and after Bassment Jaxx’s phenomenal Kish Kash, when dance producers were trying their best to avoid the beyond-standard 4/4 pulse of most trance and techno. So, “She Can Do That,” like BT’s “Superfabulous” was a sassy number with rockish leanings.

    Unlike Superfabulous, which actually erupts into driving rock beat, “She Can Do That” just plods along. Despite being BT’s programming, the song ends up having that middling rubberneck rock rhythm of later period Bowie songs: Pretty Pink Rose, New Killer Star, Next Day, etc.

    I just wish the thing had more sass and cheek to it. If you’re going to make something gleefully repellant, at least give it a big garish sound. It needs something like that wonderful whip crack snare of Mirwais’ “Disco Science;” something more…extroverted than what we have here.

    But, as you say, it was just a minor collab contribution for a soundtrack to a minor action flick. No great sin. It’s kind of fun. Ish.

    Perhaps the more pertinent question here is: why do you know the Hamtaro theme enough to recall it? 😉

    • col1234 says:

      i saw some fan complaining it sounded like Hamtaro on a message board: BowieWonderworld’s maybe? I checked out the theme & cracked up.

  10. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    What was Bowie doing? Perhaps he read the plot to the movie, saw the striking similarity to “Saviour Machine” and decided to have a go.
    Result: a catchy enough little throwaway song.
    BTW Chris, I hate to keep doing this, but I spotted another typo:
    “But we can’t ignore it; we can’t pretend it that never happened”.

  11. David says:

    Just no.On every level. So bad it almost justified why he went away.

  12. Deanna says:

    The typo in Bowie’s name in the link truly makes the song, I find. DEVID.

    It’s weird but bearable. If anything, it’s a nice break from the really dark narrative we’ve been following until this point. Not taking him seriously is actually really nice at this point.

    ^The Hamtaro thing is absolutely hilarious.

  13. Vinnie says:

    I’m never not hearing this buzzing in my brain for the rest of my life.

  14. Patrick says:

    My first impression is due to its relentless structure it’s a kind of contemporary (for the time released) auto pilot update of TVC15. While the latter while overlong, had enough to hold the attention for 3 mins before it stayed its welcome. SCDT sounds like a favour for a friend whereby he allows his vocals to be handed over and mangled by ProTools or whatever the cultural weapon of choice was at the time. Forgettable and lyrically meaningless certainly but It’s a surprisingly energetic shot across the bows for someone who would then be considered by some rumours to be at Death’s door.

  15. gnomemansland says:

    It is a reworking of the Beatles – you can’t do that – is it not?

  16. MC says:

    I finally made my acquaintance with this song some 4 years after its release, thanks to YouTube, and let me just say I’m glad I didn’t shell out for the Stealth soundtrack. Of primary interest as a sort of Real Cool World for the noughties, a possible taster for an album that in this case was never to be (maybe just as well)

    Speaking of which, my local HMV music store used to make a practice of inserting cards in the CD display cases to stand in for upcoming releases. In early 2007, there was such a card in place in the Bowie section. This was before it began to seem like the man had retired, when there were still periodic updates about a new DB album underway. It may be too soon to address that possible lost album, but I wonder if there’s any info floating around about this.

  17. billter says:

    This may be jumping ahead a little bit, but I hope there’s an entry coming on Bowie’s appearance on “Extras.”

    • col1234 says:

      oh, absolutely. That was going to be the last-ever entry of the blog, back in the pre-Next Day era

      • alexandriadouillette says:

        Oh god. Yes please.😀
        He’s a little fat man with a pug-nosed face! Pug, pug, pug, pug!

  18. Momus says:

    1. Bowie’s decision to donate his vocals (varispeeded almost beyond recognition) to the title song for the Hamtaro blockbuster of 2005 has brought him in for some unmerited critical bastinado, in my view.

    2. We’ve already seen on this blog how EMI executives in the 1980s began to despair at the sight of Bowie “diluting the brand” with casual, seemingly uncool film soundtrack work. But Bowie has always been one step beyond cool, especially as defined by the world’s least funky people, record company managers.

    3. You don’t have to be a full-on popist to understand the centrality of the novelty gimmick in some of popular music’s most daring developments, as well as, metonymically, in Bowie’s. He’s cited the 1960 hit Alley Oop by the Hollywood Argyles as a song just as influential on him as anything by Little Richard, and the unexpected high D# in Tubby the Tuba as, if anything, more so.

    4. George Martin famously parlayed tricks he learned producing comedy records into signifiers of psychedelic altered states in his Beatles productions, and a similar bridge between Pinky and Perky and Lucy in the Sky exists in late 1960s Bowie recordings, linking The Laughing Gnome to the varispeed voices at the end of The Bewlay Brothers.

    5. When the 1980s rolled around and EMI execs were appalled by the call-and-response routines of the Labyrinth soundtrack, they were ironically echoing the dismay of RCA execs in the 1970s who regretted being unable to get Bowie an apartment in Philadelphia to repeat these very call-and-response routines. Both sets of A&R men failed to see the essential proximity of coolness to uncoolness, and novelty to the avant-garde.

    6. In the 1990s the arrival of digital tools allowed this connection of sublimity to abjection — understood only by those who have “seen so much cool it’s left me cold” — to accelerate. It should have surprised no-one, therefore (and certainly no-one cool enough to appreciate the need to be uncool), when the lead single for the Earthling album turned out to be a drum’n’bass reworking of the Pingu the Penguin theme.

    7. If there’s a utopia in Bowie’s work, it’s not “coolness” per se, not gender ambivalence nor the electric flash of hot sex, not even Tibet or the character acts of the old British music hall, but childhood, that (to paraphrase Keith Waterhouse) happy land under the rhubarb leaves.

    8. Bowie told interviewers in the early noughties that the music he was listening to most at home was Wheels On The Bus. He also confessed to Michael Parkinson that he’d spent a big chunk of his life seeking affection, but being unable to give it. This was something he was now correcting, precisely in that “happy land where only children live”, and specifically with his daughter Lexi.

    9. Something in the Hamtaro lyric must have appealed to Bowie. Perhaps the protective line “If she heads for trouble we won’t let her”, which expresses both the old familiar Bowie sense of apprehension, and also the newfound concern for the wellbeing of another. Other resonances come in “watch out for those cats, you know they’re smarter than you think” (a whiff of Ziggy, the smart “cat” from Japan) and “Cooshy-cooshy ticky-ticky wooooooo”, an echo, surely, of “wham bam thank you ma’am!”

    10. “Snoozer, Howdy, Penelope, Panda, Oxnard, Bijou, Cappy, Maxwell, Dexter, Boss, Pashmina, Jingle…” The song’s roll-call of hamsters and their associates can’t help remind us of the beginning of Dum Dum Boys, with its list of the fallen, the straitened and the straightened. Although it’s something no record exec will ever be cool enough to understand, subcultures are made up of the downtrodden, and in the trash bin of human despair nobody much cares whether you’re a space junky or a hamster with a squeaky voice.

  19. Lux says:

    Luckily, I missed having to hear the Hamtaro theme song because by then my kids were older but the writer of the Digimon theme song certainly pays homage to Bowie, about the :27 mark. See you tube ‘digimon theme song full version’

    • Momus says:

      Yes, Digimon analysts say Bowie was offered a cool million to sing that single word “change” and, by the sound of it, accepted.

      • Momus says:

        (By the way, I hope Chris is going to devote at least six entries to Bowie’s seminal six-second appearance in SpongeBob SquarePants.)

    • Ramzi says:

      Beautiful. Digimon have a very Bowie-esque line delivery, so Bowie releases She Can (Do That), clearly inspired by the Digimon theme. Dialogue between songs. Exactly like is relationship with Scott Walker.

  20. mark shark says:

    Kristeen Young allegedly singing backing vocals (I don’t hear her, though). ” She’s doubling him in the chorus. It’s actually pretty audible.

  21. Here is their demo version – Kristeen Young posted it just yesterday and mentioned it on Facebook:

  22. leonoutside says:

    Great to hear Kristeen Young’s demo – last night, on The Ramoana Experience. Great artwork too, on the KY FB posting. Love it. The line “She Can Do That”. Is similar to one in The Leon Suites.

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