After the first Next Day sessions of May 2011, Bowie had a good set of backing tracks (“Heat” and “Love Is Lost,” which will come later in this survey, also had their rhythm tracks cut then) but he was far from ready to move to the vocal/overdub phase. Having gone through ideas stockpiled from his “off duty” years, he wanted to freshen the pot with some new compositions.
So that summer he visited his guitarist/bandleader Gerry Leonard in Woodstock (Leonard had a house there; Bowie, a nearby mountain). “He said, ‘okay, I’ll come over for coffee and maybe we’ll do a little more writing,'” Leonard recalled to Rolling Stone. Borrowing a Roland TR-808 from a friend (he couldn’t say why—“we were still in this official secrets act [period], y’know?“], Leonard set up a makeshift studio in a back room, with a keyboard, the Roland and some guitars and amps. “It was ready to pick up instruments and bash around,” as he told the writer Jamie Franklin.
Bowie and Leonard scratched out two songs, both of which they’d record in the next round of studio sessions in mid-September 2011. “‘I’d just establish the tempo and we’d program up a very simple beat and play along,” Leonard said. “When we worked out all the sections, then we would do a very simple little recording of that.”
One song, a mid-tempo C minor piece, took its title (no one’s confirmed this but it has to be true) from one of Leonard’s effects processors, the Boss ME-80. You can just imagine how it went: “ha! Boss ME! You’re not the Boss of ME!” Using this cliche as a lyrical rallying point, Bowie wrote lines which he rhymed “cool…again” with “cool…again,” gave character insights like “life has your mind and soul” and built to peak inanity with “and under these wings of steel, the small town diiiiiies,” which he sang like a dying Valkyrie.
Sure, “Boss of Me” is a possibly a joke about his Somalian-born wife being a “small town girl,” and yes, he’s aware you’re thinking that, and so having some fun with your groundless suppositions about his marriage, and you know he knows this, and so on and on into infinity. He told Rick Moody that key words for the song were “displaced,” “flight” and “resettlement,” so maybe there’s a refugee narrative in there somewhere that Bowie’s privy to at least.
There are a few things of interest—Tony Levin’s Chapman stick, Zachary Alford’s cymbal work, the grumpy baritone saxophone retorts by Steve Elson, sounding like a bear waking up from hibernation, the tippling recorder lines by Visconti in the bridge, and the clever structural shift, as the C minor verse chords (Cm-Am-Bb-F) subtly become the refrain chords: it’s a passively hostile takeover. It has good stereo placement; there’s depth in the mix. But there are always a few things of interest, even in the most dire recording. Which this is—by far the worst thing on its album. There is no reason for it to exist. Bowie had a decade to create The Next Day: including something so third-rate on it seems an act of genial perversity.
Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.
Top: Trevor H., “Laputan Robot,” 2012.