Boss of Me


Boss of Me.

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.

49 Responses to Boss of Me

  1. audiophd says:

    Glad I’m not the only one let down by this track. Along with “Dancing Out in Space”, it’s one of the main reasons I start to zone out by the middle third of the album, only to come around again for the closing act.

  2. gcreptile says:

    Heh, one of the few songs that get worse in context, not better.
    I mean, if it wasn’t 65 year-old Bowie, and Imam, and a ridiculously highly anticipated album, it would be a nice little number. Grungy guitar, pleasant voacl harmonies.

  3. John Riordan says:

    How funny, I LOVE this one! I love how big, dumb, goofy yet sinister it is. Just goes to show, one man’s meat etc…

  4. King of Oblivion says:

    Very relieved you don’t like this one, Chris. For I while I kept playing it, thinking I was missing something, but then, ‘nah’

    TND would be so much stronger with a few strategic cuts. This would be the first to go. Many better tunes on TND Extra EP! could have replaced it!

    • col1234 says:

      yeah, that’s the thing. It doesn’t utterly suck and probably would’ve been tolerable as one of the bonus tracks. but it making the cut in place of “god bless the girl” or “so she” or even the other Leonard co-write is just baffling.

  5. Mr Tagomi says:

    I don’t think it’s terrible, but the latter 50% of the song always makes me think of an exhausted carthorse being whipped on and on. The song just wants to stop and he won’t let it.

  6. Steven says:

    I love when you hate a song, Chris. In a way, it was Bowie’s gift to us to put one hate-able track on an otherwise quite stellar comeback — if we get nothing else out of “Boss of Me,” at least we get a classic O’Leary dismissal like “including something so third-rate seems… an act of genial perversity.”

  7. I’ll go you one further: this is one of the worst Bowie songs ever.

  8. Ramzi says:

    “You look at me and you weep
    For the free blue sky
    I look to the stars
    As they flicker and float in your eyes
    And under these wings of steel
    The small town dies”

    Has there ever been a less Bowie-like lyric in his discography?

  9. Patrick says:

    I’d forgotten about this one. Now I’m reminded why.

  10. Momus says:

    1. This is another Next Day song I killfiled, so I come to it relatively fresh. To be honest I was hoping Love Is Lost or Valentine’s Day would come next in this sequence, because I feel as if I’m being relentlessly negative, when in fact there’s a lot I like on the album. Just not this. However, there are things to say about it. Of course! I mean, the honking tenor sax (or is it a sample?) is quite decent, for a start.

    2. I do think it’s genuinely about Iman. I think the lyrics are pretty awful — sky, stars, come on, we need oceans and mountains in the middle eight, surely? — but I do think they evoke a journey back from Somalia. “These wings of steel” are a plane’s wings, departing Mogadishu, where Iman was born, or Nairobi, where she went to university. Neither of them small towns, sure. And Iman was in fact an ambassador’s daughter, so, you know, if it is about her, it’s slightly odd, because an ambassador’s daughter is exactly the sort of person who could become the boss of the son of a charity worker.

    3. Flying over Africa (“we fly through the night”) makes me think immediately of African Night Flight, but that just makes me sad because the Lodger song is so vastly superior lyrically and musically. There’s even a hint of China Girl in the eyes / free blue sky imagery, and that sense of two people from unequal cultures bonding. But again, it would be chauvinistic and odd to warn someone like Iman: “I’ll give you television…” She surely had one in Egypt, the Somali embassy in Riyadh, and those other places she was brought up.

    4. There’s a strong allusion in the line “life has your mind and soul, it spins on your hips” to David Byrne’s line “the world moves on a woman’s hips”, from the 1980 Talking Heads song The Great Curve. Apparently Byrne took the image from Professor Robert Farris Thompson’s book African Art in Motion. The Great Curve, like African Night Flight, was produced by Eno, and was made in an era when Bowie and Eno and Byrne — as well as their countless early 1980s imitators, Shriekback and Blancmange spring to mind — were using African styles as straightforward cultural appropriation, but also as a comment on post-colonial issues, and what Edward Said was already calling Orientalism (his book of the same name appeared in 1978).

    5. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, for instance, samples Africa for the ambience, but is also commenting in full self-awareness on a history of Western projection onto Africa, the orientalism built into Modernism, from Picasso’s use of tribal masks through Michel Leiris’ surreal L’Afrique Phantome and, for instance, Stockhausen’s electronic approximations of talking drums.

    6. Speaking of Shriekback and Blancmange and all those post-postcolonial 80s groups influenced by Eno and Byrne, the Sheffield band Clock DVA released their album Thirst in 1981. My favourite track was called Impressions of African Winter, based on Raymond Roussel’s 1909 novel Impressions d’Afrique. Roussel imagined a bizarre, circus-like Africa in which a transvestite emperor called Talou rules over a fictitious African state called Ponukele. The story was generated by a pun-like technique: Roussel would change a single letter of a strategic word, altering the sense of the sentence enormously. The Surrealists (not to mention Marcel Duchamp) consequently adored him, and his influence extends to Perec and Burroughs, and therefore — via the Gysin cut-up technique — to Bowie too.

    7. We’re in danger of severe bathos here, going from Roussel to this song via the whole history of Africa as it’s been (deliberately) misrepresented in Modernist Western art, but I do love the idea that the whole lyric comes from a Boss ME-80 drum machine, because that is actually appropriately oblique as the origin for a song. (When I was lucky enough to be recording once in Eno’s house in Woodbridge, I noticed that he paints “BENO” in Tippex on his effects pedals, and that it looks like BEANO, the name of a British comic, and possibly a reminder not to take any of this too seriously.)

    8. The Clock DVA album cover has an image of an African warrior on it, and that makes me think of another Afro-themed sleeve from the era, the photo of two Nuba warriors on Rema Rema’s first 4AD release. Taken in 1949 by photographer George Rodger, the image piqued the curiosity of Leni Riefenstahl, who wanted to photograph the tribe herself. Rodger — who’d been traumatised by the war, and partly blamed Riefenstahl — refused to tell her anything about them, and it took her 15 years to track the Nubas down to Kordofan, Southern Sudan. The images she eventually took actually look a lot like Jean-Paul Goude’s famous images of a naked, greased-up Grace Jones.

    9. Iman was discovered by photographer Peter Beard. He followed her down the street in Nairobi, where she was studying political science at university. His first words to her were: “Have you ever been photographed?” Much later, Iman told Vanity Fair: “I thought, Well, I’ve heard lines, but this is ridiculous. What do these white people think? That my parents never took a picture of their family?”

    10. Iman was soon flown to New York, where Beard had already established a farrago of myths, lies and projections about her: “He hypes it that I’m six feet tall; I’m barely five feet nine inches. He claims I didn’t speak a word of English; I spoke English, Italian, and Arabic, as well as Somali. He says he found me with goats and sheep—that I was some kind of shepherdess in the jungle! I never saw a jungle in my life. But Peter lives in a fantasy world.” It’s possible David does too. As Cocteau said: “I’ve always preferred mythology to history. History is truth that becomes an illusion. Mythology is an illusion that becomes reality.”

    • Momus says:

      (Oh, sorry, the Boss ME-80 is not a drum machine, it’s a guitar effects unit. Frankly, I’d rather have a vintage drum machine for a boss. A vintage Wurlitzer Sideman, for instance. Warm, with valves.)

    • Mike F says:

      When we run out of Bowie songs, I would be happy if this blog switched to Clock DVA. I especially like the Man Amplified album.

    • spanghew says:

      “The story was generated by a pun-like technique: Roussel would change a single letter of a strategic word, altering the sense of the sentence enormously.”

      Such as our earlier commentor, changing the “n” in “Iman” to an “m”…albeit accidentally. But as Eno might have said, from the Oblique Strategies deck, “Embrace accidents and mistakes.”

    • I don’t necessarily disagree with you (the album is an old favorite) but can you provide reference or example for how My Life In the Bush of Ghosts is a comment on Western colonialism or presence on Africa?

  11. James says:

    A pedestrian track. That should have never been,

  12. SongYard says:

    Always thought this was a straight up lyric about his daughter – knowing wink to other dads and all. A young child’s tears; the desire for a parent to see their child bright again; the “Boss Baby” book; how your tiny little bundle of joy suddenly takes over your whole life; the small town – Woodstock? When I hear this it makes me think of his “Wheels on the bus” comedy-moan on some chat show he was on..

    • Anonymous says:

      Me too. Not sure if lyrically it checks out (spinning hips, etc) but I can relate to the image of a small child smashing a town of blocks with a toy aeroplane…

  13. DLR says:

    I assumed that it was another Coco song, in the vein of Never Let Me Down and Days. The latter even foreshadows the lyrics to this one, in my opinion (“Hold me tight/Keep me cool” and “Tell me when your sad/I want to make it cool again”).

  14. s.t. says:

    Oh thank you, Chris. I thought I was the only person to hate this track. I don’t hate easily. I even admire most of the misfires on Never Let Me Down. But on The Next Day, Bowie should have known better…

    • s.t. says:

      Also, I’m wondering about your photo choice. What did the Laputian-bot do to deserve an association with this song? 😉

  15. Don’t mind Boss of Me, but then I like Tonight.

  16. Mike F says:

    I listened to this stinker of a song twice just now and I’m done with it. It’s professionally performed but also devoid of inspiration or interest.

  17. David says:

    I don’t hate it, I just think its as peripheral as Shake it or Too Dizzy. Maybe its about Iman, but I kind of also surmised that it was about his daughter. Maybe that reason alone felt enough reason to keep it on the album

  18. MC says:

    For me, it’s not the worst of TND’s dud tracks, but it’s most definitely the dullest. Its loping rhythm and the harmonies make me think that it was another stab at a Neil Young/Crazy Horse thing, but to little avail. Still, it’s anomalous enough in the context of the album to qualify as somewhat “experimental”, as in ‘Let’s wrongfoot everyone with some stodgy Dadrock.”

  19. J. A. F. says:

    No way! “Dancing Out In Space” is the worst! (And “Atomica” on the extras CD the absolute nadir!) However…the bridge is definitely some kind of Neil Young thing. Which I don’t mind.

  20. poseidonian says:

    I love this song. Then again, I suspect we have similar marriages.

  21. I love that tune. Got a nicely crass 80’s vibe and a bridge that doesn’t lack panache. In any case it can’t possibly be the worst track off the album since that honor belongs to eithet How does the grass grow or Set the world on fire.

  22. kouyoy says:

    Thank you Khoral. The same with me,live everything about this song, bass, verses, terrific choruses… still my favourite.

  23. ric says:

    one of those where the co-writer is there to share the responsibility, rather than the credit

  24. crayontocrayon says:

    Not quite in the ‘really really awful’ category, the chorus has some semblance of a hook but as many have noted, there was so much more interesting material that could have made the canon album. In general Leonard has got to be one of the least exciting of the major Bowie collaborators musically, despite seeming to be a thoroughly nice chap and all.

  25. humanizingthevacuum says:

    Bowie is at his worst when he pretends to be one of the crowd. The hook is like something out of Tin Machine or “Never Let Me Down.” In my SPIN review I mentioned how gross this song made me feel.

  26. Deanna says:

    “Oh no, he hates ‘Boss of Me’! Why would he?” I asked myself as I saw the scathing descriptions with various links posted on Twitter and Facebook.

    The first time I heard this song I was in scraping bits of dead rat off of dissection supplies after a late-night lab that I hated. I had basically disintegrated my rat’s mouth and everything was awful. This song came on my iPod and I was so pleased to hear Bowie. Maybe that moment coloured my perception of it.

    But you’re right, it is bad.

    I always seem to THINK I like this song, and I genuinely do up until 0:44. The opening few bars are awesome. But god, that chorus is painful. I’m also realizing now that every time I get to 2:08, I skip the song. I actually haven’t heard the other half in quite awhile!

    • s.t. says:

      Oh Deanna, your disintegrated rat’s mouth is far more disturbing than your Ku Klux furniture!

      • Momus says:

        Paddy, who’s been wearing Miranda’s clothes?

      • s.t. says:

        Research has pierced all extremes of my pets.

        (Okay, I’ll call it a day…)

      • Deanna says:

        Ooh, a Nick Cave fan, nice. Though I should clarify to those unfamiliar that I don’t actually own any such things, those are song lyrics 😉

        It was pretty disturbing! I hope nobody else has to experience the horrible sound of a rat jaw cracking. It was actually worse than the Boss of Me chorus.

      • s.t. says:

        My friend/colleague recently detailed his process of sacrificing rats to me. Nearly as horrific as Bowie’s “God Only Knows.”

    • Mike F says:

      Deanna is a rat star. And remember, rat star spelled backwards is rat star.

  27. John D. says:

    Can’t believe Boss of Me is getting such a hard time – I genuinely think it’s one of the best things on the album! No, hang on, I am getting it mixed up with Dirty Boys. I still like the chorus though, it is easy to sing loudly as if you are the great man himself. Not that I would do that of course.

  28. Hm. It’s my favorite track

  29. Brian says:

    Ah yes, “The song my mom would like” as I called it when I first heard it. This and ‘Dancing Out in Space’ I deleted from my playlist once I ripped the CD to my computer. I’m kinda dense since I never figured this song was about anyone in particular (Iman or Coco), but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.

    While thinking about the duds on this album, I have a kind of… morbid(?) what-if scenario going on in my head if this album was made by the group he had on Blackstar. Several tracks would be leagues above where they stand now, and this might be one of them.

  30. Jasmine says:

    I really like BoM – it feels very Sister Midnight to me. The sax and the tempo make it feel like a movie theme. I always thought it was for Coco. It’s an ear-worm for me, I don’t understand the vitriol for it!

  31. Gb says:

    It’s low, by Bowie standards, and by what the first 8 songs promise, but I find it the least offensive of the 3/4 not great songs of the album. It has a good hook and has a nice twang to it at least.

  32. amagnolia says:

    Interesting, I really love this song – surprised to see all the hate.

    I picture it being set in war-time Germany (like many TND tracks?), and sung from the perspective of a bomb bound to wipe-out a city, addressed to either the plane or the pilot carrying it.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with Iman, although you’re led to believe that in the first couple verses and choruses.

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