Pug Nosed Face

tsott_070112_1

Pug Nosed Face (aka Little Fat Man).
Pug Nosed Face (live, 2007).

One night in 1999, a British pianist named Clifford Slapper was walking to a gig in London. To do so, he had to go past the Astoria, where David Bowie was playing the same night. Slapper had wanted to go to the show but had his prior obligation. So instead he stopped for a moment, heard Bowie’s voice ringing out from the venue, and walked on. Later that night he returned, talked with someone who he later realized was likely Bowie’s guitarist Mark Plati, and regretted missing the gig.

But seven years later, he played piano with Bowie on a television show, so sometimes things work out.

“During production of the second season of Extras, I was contacted by the producer, Charlie Hanson, and was told that David Bowie would be flying over from New York to film an episode, and would be singing and playing the piano, but that he’d specified that he wanted an ‘English rock pianist’ to be brought in to actually play the piano track,” Slapper told me.

Extras was Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s follow-up to The Office. Where The Office was a sad little world, a place where failure and humiliation came as often as the rains fell on Slough, Extras was on a broader canvas. It diagnosed a wider malaise: millennial Britain’s obsession with fame (or at least notoriety), money, status.

For Gervais, Extras was a sign of his upgraded celebrity rating. The Office had a strong cult following in the US and had spawned an American version, and the BBC had partnered with HBO for Gervais and Merchant’s new series, which meant there was a substantial production budget (which likely enabled Bowie’s scene to have the entire Extras crew relocate to an actual club in Hertfordshire (see below) instead of just filming the scene on a soundstage in London, which helped Bowie avoid the paparazzi). And Gervais had acquired some famous fans, letting him stud Extras with celebrity cameos: Ben Stiller, Patrick Stewart, Kate Winslet, Robert DeNiro and, of course, David Bowie.

It’s not surprising that Bowie agreed to appear on Extras, whose jaundiced sensibility and humor (its plots centered on the accumulated humiliations and grievances of Gervais’ character, striving actor Andy Millman) reminded him of what he enjoyed most about Britain. He’d loved The Rutles, screening All You Need Is Cash and playing the soundtrack for his band during his 1978 tour; he’d name-dropped Dudley Moore and Peter Cook’s Behind the Fridge in “Young Americans” and had spent the Low and “Heroes” sessions doing “Pete and Dud” impressions with Eno. And he’d done a few comic turns himself, from his flamboyant director “Sir Roland Moorecock” on HBO’s Dream On to his “Requiem for a Laughing Gnome” on Comic Relief.

For Extras, Gervais and Merchant wrote Bowie as a figure of refined fame, an avatar of impeccable cool. The set-up had the slightly-famous Millman (he has a role in a sitcom that requires him to say a catchphrase, which he hates) visiting a high-end bar and looking for a sympathetic ear from Bowie, who, after a few nods, instead turns to a conveniently-located grand piano and performs what, until 2013, was his last public composition: “Little fat man, who sold his soul…chubby little loser…the clown that no one laughs at…he blows his stupid brains out…see his pug nosed face!”

The scenario’s brilliance lies in that it’s a fan’s worst nightmare: failing Bowie’s hip test and then being stilettoed in public. Certainly, about every account of Bowie over the past 40 years has been of a professional and charming man, whether meeting fans or greeting fellow artists or celebrities (indeed, Bowie’s often been the put-upon one, such as in his ill-fated dinner with Frank Zappa in 1978). But the Bowie mystique is such that you still fear, somehow, you’ll have failed Bowie by coming off as too eager, too boorish, too familiar, and then you’ll pay for it.

“Pug Nosed Face” (still, as of this writing, Bowie’s last television appearance) also encapsulates a common perception of Bowie the artist: someone who regards life as a collection of images to exploit, a man who can take a stray line and wind a song around it and one who can move, in a few bars, from dramatic, ominous phrases to a knees-up singalong refrain. For a time, I thought “Pug Nosed Face” would be the blog’s last entry, and it seemed fitting: Bowie going out with a bout of wickedly funny, slightly surreal cruelty.

ricky-gervais-david-bowie

The lyrics were already written as part of Gervais and Merchant’s script.

“I’ve been into Bowie since I was about sixteen,” Gervais told Rolling Stone in 2007. “I sent the lyrics and called him up and asked him if he got them, and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah …'” (switching to a slightly spaced-out, ruminative voice.) And I said to him, ‘We’re thinking of the music to be sort of retro, like “Life on Mars”—and Bowie said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just knock off a “Life on Mars” for you, shall I?'”

Having received the lyric in New York, Bowie “was asked to write chords to the song and bring them over,” Slapper says. “I was also sent a script and was asked to do the same, in case he declined to do so. One of the first things that happened after we met is that he asked to see what chords I had come up with, and compared them with his. It turned out that they were almost exactly the same, which he found spooky.”

The song’s progression (which Slapper still has and recalls was in A major) was “classic” Bowie in its modulations. Hence the nearly-identical works of Bowie and Slapper, who naturally was writing in a Bowie vein, much as how Gervais and Merchant were writing a “Bowie” lyric.

“It was perfect!” Gervais recalled of the song to Rolling Stone. “All the little bits to it. It was amazing, because what he did was, he gave us Bowie!”

CS & DB AT PIANO square & small

Already in London for his performance with David Gilmour in late May 2006, Bowie filmed his Extras scene in the first week of June.

“We had one day of rehearsal and one day of filming for the scene, which was tricky as it was filmed ‘live’ (without overdubs) with a second piano off-camera for me to play, and it was important for us to synchronize so that his arm movements coincided perfectly with my playing,” Slapper says. “It soon became clear that it would be easier for him to mime to my playing if his fingers were allowed to sometimes make contact with the keys on the piano he sat at. But obviously since it was being filmed as a live performance with sound, we could not have any sound from that piano being heard. I suggested that we simply disengage the action of that piano, and showed the crew how to do this.”

“The rehearsal and filming all took place in a real nightclub [Elberts on Pegs Lane*] not far from London, which was still in use, though obviously closed down for those few days. The club was in Hertford but the base for filming was established at a location a couple of miles away at the small town of Ware in Hertfordshire, which gave rise to some amusement, as I would ask the producer where we would be, and he would say “Ware”, and I would say, ‘yes, where?'”

The song was registered as a three-way split among Bowie, Gervais and Merchant, with “Pug Nosed Face” chosen as its official title (though I imagine many fans call it “Little Fat Man”—Gervais sometimes still refers to it as such in interviews).

I asked Clifford if it felt odd to know that he’d played on possibly the “last” Bowie recording until The Next Day appeared. But he corrected me in noting “this was in 2006, only about three years after Reality, so there was not that sense of a long absence or hiatus from recording on his part, as there might have been if it had been 2011. Nevertheless, I was excited and honored to play on this. Bowie was charming, intelligent, modest, efficient, creative, perceptive. He was a delight to work with: polite, funny, witty and sharp. In rehearsal, we worked out the arrangement in a way which he guided and directed whilst at the same time allowing me to express myself in the way I played it.”

“Pug Nosed Face” would be the last public image of Bowie for over six years: healthy, well-dressed, sitting in a nightclub and leading a pack of yuppies through an eviscerating song. The story could have ended here; indeed, for a time, it seemed that it really had. Not bad, as endings go.

Recorded 5-7 June 2006, Elberts, Hertford, Hertfordshire. First broadcast on BBC2 on 21 September 2006. Bowie’s brief rendition of “Pug Nosed Face” in his introduction of Gervais at the Theater at Madison Square Garden (for the Bowie-curated High Line Festival) on 19 May 2007 remains, to date, his last appearance on stage.

* Elberts relocated in 2009; the original bar is now apparently an art gallery.

Thanks again to Clifford Slapper, who’s also just published a biography of Mike Garson. This came about in part because of Extras, as when Slapper met Garson for the first time in LA in the late 2000s, “a strange and funny coincidence happened. Without knowing about my participation in Extras, Garson started to tell me a story of how he had, a couple of years earlier, enjoyed an English comedy on cable TV, and had seen David Bowie in it, apparently playing piano. Garson spoke to Bowie around that time and had joked with him about it, “I see you’re playing the piano pretty well yourself, now. I guess you won’t be needing me any more!” Garson told me that Bowie had replied, “No, Mike, that wasn’t me! That was some English guy playing the piano.” It was a lovely twist to be able to interrupt Mike’s musings and to say, “Well, I was that guy!” We bonded over this coincidence. Mike and I found that we had a great deal of shared experiences as pianists and as working musicians generally. After hours of conversation, on our first meeting, I pointed out what a fascinating life he’d had and how inspiring his experiences and outlook on life could be. I asked whether there were any biographies of him and he replied that there had not been any yet, but that he thought I would be the perfect person to write it. I started work on it that day.”

You can buy Clifford’s biography, Bowie’s Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson (Fantom Books) here (UK) and here (USA and elsewhere). Any Bowie fan should enjoy it. I regret that I wasn’t able to read it before I published my book, as it sheds a great deal of light on Garson and his playing.

Top: Bowie on set, Extras; Bowie and Gervais, NYC, 2007; Clifford Slapper and David Bowie (photo: Ray Burmiston).

49 Responses to Pug Nosed Face

  1. Claws-on says:

    Bowie and Gervais have remarkably similar eyebrows. Not a particularly insightful comment but there you go…

  2. billter says:

    Thanks for this. I want to expand on one point a little bit. The hit TV show that Andy Millman is on is his own creation, his own script, his passion project. And he’s allowed it to be bastardized into a brain-dead, catchphrase-heavy embarrassment. Part of the genius of this scene that Bowie somehow immediately grasps the essence of it, and gives Millman the punishment he deserves for selling his dream.

  3. Ramzi says:

    It’s a great testament to Ricky Gervais’ former genius that he took the opportunity to work with one of his heroes (who was a fan of his work) and use it to take the piss out of himself.

    How far away from both the lack of awareness he shows today and the quality of his work (“Derek” is a disaster of a show).

    The “performance” at the High Line festival is interesting. While obviously not performing, he sings the song as if it’s just the latest thing he’s done, and there will be more things to come in the future. It shows just how little time was spent in “retirement”. TND was 2 years in the making according to Tony VIsconti interviews around the beginning of 2013, which probably means that the ball would have started rolling in 2010, in Bowie’s mind if nothing else. This just leaves 2008 and 2009 as full years of dedicated retirement/reclusion.

  4. David says:

    It’s odd that he had someone else do the piano part, his lack of confidence in areas of his musicianship-even at such a sagely age-puzzles me.

    By the way, had the Next Day not materialized, wouldn’t his input on the Scarlett Johansson tracks been your final entry, or will you not be doing an entry for them?

    • col1234 says:

      I think it was more a case of needing to do it all live—act, sing and play piano in a single take. a bit tough to pull off for anyone.

      the orig. plan (ca. 2011, when I had no idea how long this thing would go) is that I’d move up Ms. Scarlett in order make this one the last entry.

  5. Seanmacgabhann says:

    This song reminds me of Ken Pitt’s comments in 1983 of laughing gnome showing this happy side of bowie, the side which had been wiped out by fame

    The circle turns

    Was expecting a comment about the melodic similarities between “chubby little loser” and “sitting in the dschungel ” from where are we now

  6. Bee365 says:

    I’ve always thought there is an odd resemblance between Ricky Gervais and DB. I could imagine Gervais playing Bowie’s seedy and down-at-heel brother who stayed in south London and got a proper job.

    An excellent post, as always.

    • Dave L says:

      Yep – everytime I see Gervais on TV, I’m surprised by how much he looks like Bowie — or his seedy brother, as you suggest …

  7. Joe Jones says:

    This was very funny, Bowie was such an iceman back in the 80s, but as he got older he seemed to chill out and show that he is actually very funny. Unfortunately, as a previous commenter noted, Gervais has stopped being funny as the dreadful sitcom Derek demonstrates.

    • Maj says:

      I never watched Derek, I’d like to preserve the good vibes from The Office & Extras. End on a high note and all that.
      I already made the mistake of following Gervais on Twitter for a while a few years back. Not a good decision. Sigh.

  8. zak says:

    Check out Ricky Gervais in 1983 as a Bowie-influenced singer in the duo Seona Dancing…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kuy1Z4wqQ4w … Big in the Philippines apparently

  9. postpunkmonk says:

    I had heard of this appearance for years. Possibly through this very blog, now that I think about it. What I found most fascinating was the tale of Mr. Slapper. Did the Bowie story figure in the book or did you come across his tale in another way? At the very least, I’d have to read the Mike Garson bio he wrote. Garson is such a huge talent, and little is known about him, comparatively speaking. The backstory all but demands I read it!

  10. John D. says:

    Possibly the first time I have ever been a bit disappointed by an entry on this blog (I have bought the fab book!). I love this little sketch and always assumed Dave turned round and played the piano himself. Hunky Dory era BBC recordings show he was/is clearly capable of playing the piano and singing simultaneously – unless they were faked as well….??

    • Dave L says:

      Just more evidence that Bowie’s genius may not lie in his writing or musicianship, but his ability to be rock’s great general contractor …

  11. I actually saw the Garson book appear in my amazon recommendations the other day. I’ve always enjoyed his work but I don’t know a great deal about him. Could be worth picking up!

    A couple of years ago my friend showed me a pilot Gervais wrote and starred in for Channel 4 called Golden Years. Gervais plays Clive Meadows, a video shop co-owner and Bowie fanatic who applied for Stars in their Eyes (something of a British Saturday night karaoke game show) to perform as David Bowie. The fame gets to Meadows’ head and before he even hears back from the studio he’s already threatening to leave his job, befriending a Freddie Mercury impersonator and edging very close to at least two sexual harassment cases (There’s a particularly cringe worthy scene where Meadows attempts to serenade an employee in his office by singing Sorrow).

    It wasn’t surprising that the two’s paths would eventually cross. It seems, oddly enough, that Bowie has been an influence on Gervais’ entire career. I’ve always felt that he based his comedic persona on Vic from Jazzin’ for Blue Jean, and of course there was that period in the early 1980s when he actually was living the life of a failing Bowie impersonator.

  12. Momus says:

    This was my take at the time:

    http://imomus.livejournal.com/228261.html

    (I’d write more, but I’m flying to Japan.)

    • Momus says:

      I got to Japan, so I will write one more thing: anyone who says “This is just a funny sketch idea, Bowie would never write such a nasty song about anyone” should imagine how a certain bequiffed Mancunian must’ve felt when he first heard You Feel So Lonely You Could Die: “People don’t like you… I can see you as a corpse hanging from a beam / Oh, see if I care / Oh please, please make it soon…”

      • Steve M. says:

        I’m not terribly convinced Feel So Lonely is about Morrissey. The vitriol doesn’t seem like Bowie’s, it’s more in character. There’s no reference to anyone in particular in the lyrics, save for the ‘assassin’s needle on a crowded train’ which I guess is a reference to the Markov assassination in 70s.

    • billter says:

      Is it a widely held theory that “You Feel So Lonely” is about Morrissey? First I’ve heard of it. I always thought Osama bin Laden, but maybe that’s a bit literal.

      This is making me eager to get on to “The Next Day.”

  13. Anonymous says:

    Reading this, I had an extrasensory experience. Do you know what happened? I saw Peter Cook’s ghost. Do you what he told me? “Tell that Captain Tom’s fan that the show was called BEYOND the fringe, not Behind the fringe”… And he went away through the wall.

  14. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    While it’s refreshing to see a host of A-list celebs so willingly play such AWFUL versions of themselves, the Bowie episode is the only one that appeared to make no sense.
    I mean, Chris Martin hijacked the Drink Clean Water campaign to promote the latest Coldplay album, and Kate Winslet took on the role in the film about Nazis because she was fishing around for an Oscar. But Bowie is mean to Andy Millman for no apparent reason, and it just doesn’t ring true to me.

    • billter says:

      I think it makes sense for two reasons. Within the context of the show, Andy has sold out his integrity for commercial success. He tries to get sympathy from Bowie and Bowie is having none of it. This is Bowie as Old-Testament Rock God; dealing out wrath that may be excessive, but not unjustified. (Admittedly this is coming from the man who made “Tonight”; but as always you have to try to forget that.)

      In the larger context, I think Gervais really wanted to portray the ultimate Bowie fan’s nightmare. You finally meet David in the VIP area of a hip nightclub. You talk to him a little bit. And what little you tell him about yourself prompts him to improvise a catchy song about what a loser you are, and a sellout, and a generally unworthy human being. And everyone in the place starts singing along. What could possibly be worse than that?

  15. judelawr says:

    Mike Garson was in Weather Report. (Right?)
    Probably after his Spiders from Mars stint.

    I heard a live recording of a Weather Report song on a jazz radio station with him playing an almost identical atonal-ish solo to the one in “Aladin Sane.” Was this before or after he played on that song? One or the other must have been repeated over a similar chord progression. Both exist on released recordings, hopefully they are discussed in the biography of Garson. Maybe someone can comment here.

    • cliffordslapper says:

      judelawr, you’re thinking of Joe Zawinul from Weather Report. Interestingly, one of the interviewees in the book, Neil Conti, does make a comparison between Garson and Zawinul.

  16. Maj says:

    Comedy gold, and a pretty good song to boot. What’s not to like. (Extras might actually be my favourite Gervais, though obvs, The Office is brilliant too. The UK one, never seen the US one.)

    I had no idea DB didn’t play his piano part (even tho I was surprised his playing sounded pretty competent, heh), so it’s a treat to read about the behind-the-scenes here. I have actually heard of Clifford Slapper & his Garson book before, it would be cool to read it at some point.

  17. cliffordslapper says:

    judelawr, you’re thinking of Joe Zawinul from Weather Report. Interestingly, one of the interviewees in the book, Neil Conti, does make a comparison between Garson and Zawinul.

  18. patr100 says:

    By they way, the first link is blocked in the UK

    This video contains content from BBC Worldwide, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.

    Sorry about that.

  19. Brendan O'Lear says:

    It really would have been a great ending …

  20. great post, great book.

    funny stuff this. I recall having a good chuckle at the time.

    has there been a review of Bowie in the Jazzin’ for Blue Jean mini-film?

  21. MC says:

    Yes, this would have been a great ending to the blog, and to Bowie’s songwriting career. I wonder if DB may have envisioned it as such at the time.

  22. sidthecat says:

    When I saw the episode, it was as though Mr. Bowie had suddenly revealed a superpower: the ability to destroy a person with words and music. In truth, though, it doesn’t really sound like a Bowie lyric – it’s too linear. It’s a TV lyric written to make sure everyone gets the point.

  23. Mrs. Mojo says:

    The “Extras” bit just slays me every time I see it. Millman’s friends are a hoot and a half. But our boy’s name is pronounced “Boe-ee” to rhyme with “crow”, and Gervais seems to consistently pronounce it “Bough-ee” to rhyme with “cow”, in the skit as well as in interviews. Apparently DB professes not to care, and that may well be so, but I once worked with him, long ago, on some radio spots in which he had occasion to mention his name five or so times, and he pronounced it “Boe-ee” every single time. Charming and super-intelligent guy, by the way. But you knew that.

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