Dirty Boys

garcon et fille

Dirty Boys.

“A euphemism, and a song, for all the glam rock stars that have ever been,” Tony Visconti offered as his take on “Dirty Boys.” His employer simply said: “Violence, chthonic, intimidation.”

Sequenced as a mid-tempo, spacious contrast to the frenetic opener “The Next Day,” “Dirty Boys” is an E minor piece that sways to Steve Elson’s fifth-spanning baritone saxophone figure: the riff sounds like a big man stomping across a dance floor. Elson, who played with everyone from Shuggie Otis and Big Jim Wynn to Natalie Merchant and Radiohead, cut the baritone sax lines for “Modern Love” and was one of the “Borneo Horns” on the subsequent 1983 tour. While Bowie was in his secretive pre-production for The Next Day, he ran into Elson in New York, had “a dad conversation,” and then told him “I’ll be in touch about something.” A year or so later, Visconti called Elson in.

“He’s a little guy and he’s got a huge baritone sax, and he plays this dirty solo that sounds like stripper music from the 1950s,” Visconti recalled of Elson’s work on “Dirty Boys.” “Old bump-and-grind stripper music…it wouldn’t be out of place on Young Americans.”

When Elson turned up at the Magic Shop in 2012, many tracks “had working titles and some reference vocals. David had ideas of where the horns should be,” he told CounterPunch. Bowie’s directions included “don’t even think about what key we’re in” and “go farther out” (similar to what he told Mike Garson when recording “Aladdin Sane”). He wanted only a few takes, nothing too considered. What he liked when recording, he told Elson, was to leave some oddments in tracks, “so you might find, in a record, things that only happened once that one time maybe—just to show we could do it…the gems hidden in the recording.”*

“Dirty Boys” honored this intention: it’s one of the few Next Day songs given the chance to ramble and breathe, and it’s full of characters. Take how Tony Levin’s bass, sputtering underneath as if vexed by how much of a star turn Elson’s sax is getting, will occasionally bubble to the surface. The general mood is a sinister Carl Stalling theme for a Forties Warner Bros. cartoon, with traces of Tom Waits’ mid-Eighties records.

It’s just three verses (shifts from E minor to C major, the same progression as “Eleanor Rigby”), two bridge/refrains that hint at a move to C major, and an outro Em solo. Elson is such a dominant presence in the track, from his main riff (a swaggering step-up from root to dominant note in each chord) to his closing solo, that it’s hard to imagine “Dirty Boys” working without the saxophone. It’s possible Bowie tried out having a guitar play the brass riff, but that would have overcooked the song: instead, the guitars are foils, hitting on the off-beats or giving spiteful replies to Bowie’s lines in the verses (the players were Visconti, Gerry Leonard and Earl Slick, who said of “Dirty Boys,” “if you’re going to have a title like that, I have to be on it”.)

Bowie’s phrasing, keeping to a narrow range of notes and, in the verses, ending every other line with a sinking triplet figure (“lone-ly road,” “cric-ket bat”), calls back to his old “folk” piece “Come and Buy My Toys,” and his lyric traffics in more memory: “Tobacco Road” (whether the Erskine Caldwell novel, the John Ford film or, most likely, the Nashville Teens’ 1964 hit) and, as usual, old Bowie songs—see the third verse’s “we all go through.” The setting’s Finchley Fair in North London; the dirty boys could be vampire hooligans; the singer (and the person whom he’s calling out) want to join the gang, or sleep with them, or both.

It’s the sound of a cutting contest run by Bowie (mainly single-tracked, with what seems like a touch of distortion on his vocal) playing a genteel dirty old man. One of the small disappointments of The Next Day is how much of an outlier “Dirty Boys” proved to be in the context of the album.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 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: “Tataata,” untitled, 2011.

*Take the little barking/scraping noise heard in the last seconds of the track—it could be someone yelping in the studio, or a squawked note from another Elson take.

Another reminder: Saturday, October 17; Astoria, Queens. Bowie night /trivia contest/ Rebel Rebel reading; all that jazz.

41 Responses to Dirty Boys

  1. Galdo says:

    Certainly one of the greatest tracks of the era! And I loved that picture, I thought it was Bowie and Pop at first sight.

  2. Bob Whiting says:

    Great song, to me on first listen I initially thought it was very Iggy. I can imagine Iggy singing the verses clear as a bell in my head. It might the sax that gives that Iggy vibe to me. Definitly one the strongest TND tracks

    • Patrick says:

      I always think there’s a cheeky subversive hint of “China Girl” with that almost mock oriental musical background to the chorus as the title is sung.

    • Maj says:

      It is very Iggy. But if Iggy did it it would sound a bit more…organic. Raw. or whatever you want to call it.

  3. Steven says:

    “One of the small disappointments of The Next Day is how much of an outlier ‘Dirty Boys’ proved to be in the context of the album.” Your thoughts on this album, always perceptive and thought-provoking, have never been so pithy and spot-on as this one.

    Sorry I can’t make the shindig next Saturday, but I hope it goes great!

  4. Dave says:

    too repetitive to get mystified this time. I’m afraid the track doesn’t breathe like the author put forward. But as always great writing.

  5. ric says:

    excellent as always; was kind of hoping for an American take on cricket though….

  6. Michael says:

    Well, it can take five days and not necessarily yield a winner.

    Each side has two innings but maybe not if it rains, in which case you might have to use the Duckworth-Lewis method to recalculate the number of overs bowled.

    A batsman might get caught in the slips to a doosra or a googly and if you’re fielding you might have to stand at silly mid off or deep backward square leg.

    You can bowl a maiden over, be an all-rounder or be hit for six if you’re throwing pies but it’s all very civilised (unless someone delivers a bouncer or a beamer) as we always stop for lunch and tea.

    Simple, eh?

    • roobin101 says:

      It’s all simple really except for the fact you cannot say for most of the game who’s winning. Bowlers can win games but batsmen can only lose them. The art of batting is anticipation. You can’t actually follow a ball going that fast.


  7. s.t. says:

    I never got Visconti’s “Young Americans” comparison. To me, it would sound much more at home on “The Idiot.” It’s stripper music for cartoon ghouls.

    It’s a great song, just begging for better production. Visconti should have taken the sleaze and turned it up to eleven; more bass, more murk, and encouraging more chaos from the players. Still, I do really like the most of the elements here.

    • Mr Tagomi says:

      Yes, this has The Idiot era written all over it, for me.

      I also wish the album as a whole was more like this one. But he’s shown this kind of spirit a bit more with Sue and Tis Pity, so hopefully there will be a lot more of this sort of thing.

  8. roobin101 says:

    Song wise it’s OK. The verse has an interesting limp to it but chorus is not much of a lift though, it doesn’t shake the limp off and become limber, as it were.

  9. Galdo says:

    One question: How the hell ‘No Control’ from ‘Outside’ ended on a SpongeBob musical?

  10. Mike F says:

    The setup is good. It sounds like it’s going to be sleazy and menacing. And then nothing happens. It limps by without making any real impression. Another could’ve been great Bowie track.

    • Patrick says:

      Sort of agree, it creeps in but then fades and creeps out before anything really gets going.

  11. steven says:

    I think this is the best track of the album, yeah, maybe the era.

    This blog’s TND write-up’s almost come at the wrong time for me, as I’ve really got a down on the album that I didn’t have on release. I think it’s just because every song he’s put out since have been better and more ambitious than the album as a whole. I’d say this is one of the few tracks that doesn’t look timid in retrospect.

    The Last Panthers thing typified this again, being a return to Outside, which would be very welcome. Perhaps a slight step back from Pity and Sue though, which to me didn’t have obvious reference points in his back catalog and did seem to do something pretty new.

  12. billter says:

    Was Bowie a Morphine fan? This song sounds like “Like Swimming” crossed with “Up the Hill Backwards.”

  13. crayontocrayon says:

    I really like the song but in a low key way. It doesn’t really do anything to jump out at you. The sax is obviously the high point from a musical perspective, although it’s perhaps a shame that Bowie didn’t back himself to deliver on the sax himself.

    The cricket bat line stands out for me. I can’t decide if it’s a Ian Faith of spinal tap reference or a Jagger thing (a confirmed fan). I just can’t see Bowie being into cricket, though there are rumours of him being a regular at new york sports bars to watch English International soccer games during his reclusive years. Perhaps he was a sports covert late in life.

  14. Maj says:

    Of all the songs on the album this is the one I’d like to hear played live the most, with the sax dude, of course.
    It would be a bit less tin and a bit more balls.

    But it’s a great song, definitely. Or if not a “great” song, a fun song. The sax is cool.

  15. dm says:

    When this one came out, I had just moved from Sydney to Clapton, East London and spent a lot of time wandering around in parks drinking cheap cider alone. This one really sparks those feelings in me again, that lost, melancholy, but not actually unhappy feeling. This kind of pathetic not-quite-debauchery.

    The most texturally satisfying thing on the album, I think.

    • dm says:

      I think what I’m getting at is a particularly mundane variety of self destruction- not necessarily supported by the lyrics so much as the rising, falling, two steps up, three steps down feeling of the instrumentation.

    • Patrick says:

      Small world. Made ever smaller by the internet. I grew up on a Council Estate in Upper Clapton, on the 60s/70s. Hackney started getting very trendy around the 80s (Stoke Newington Church st especially) but alas priced many natives out. Plus having no tube station in the borough them didn’t help though Springfield Park and the nearby marshes and River did. specially growing up.

      • John D. says:

        I have just left Newington Green and moved back to Glasgow after 2 years in London. This song reminds me strongly of jogs along the canal in Maryhill in Glasgow. I agree with the overall consensus that this isn’t necessarily a “great” Bowie song, but it’s a pretty cool one, and one of the best on TND.

    • roobin101 says:

      Me and now my family have been in Lower Clapton for 12 years. The area has got very international since the Olympics but it wasn’t so long ago that Clapton Road was known as Murder Mile.

  16. fantailfan says:

    I don’t believe Bowie was a recluse. I think it’s possible for famous people to live in Manhattan in plain sight, without having actively to hide. There are plenty of people in Manhattan more than eager to take attention away from you. I think that’s why Bowie and family moved there.

  17. BenJ says:

    This is an entertaining culture clash. The title can’t help but recall Pete Townshend’s “Rough Boys”, which was also thematically similar. Musically it reminds me of Tom Waits, and the instrumentation wouldn’t be out of place on Bad as Me. Of course Bowie as vocalist couldn’t be much different from Waits.

  18. Momus says:

    1. I’ve been slightly reluctant to comment on some of the Next Day songs which aren’t on my subset playlist, because I don’t want to sound pointlessly ungenerous. This one almost makes the list, because it has a strong flavour, a valuable eccentricity. I think what troubles me about it is the slightly reedy and strained vocal. It’s one of the tracks in which Bowie sounds old, and that disturbs me in all sorts of ways.

    2. The sax part reminds me somehow of early Laurie Anderson — those disjointed, interlocking postmodern sax and violin constructions of hers — as well as mid-80s Tom Waits. And I appreciate the Iggy-Idiot comparisons too, the sense of a drunken cabaret, although it would need some tougher vocals and lyrics to really hit The Idiot’s sweet spot of electronic Weimar irony. It isn’t as delightfully hard-bitten as Dum Dum Boys or the Alabama Song cover. In fact, it’s quite sentimental and vague.

    3. More generally, the track makes me think about what “avant pop” means. I’d call all the things this track makes us think about (Anderson, Waits, The Idiot) “avant pop” and add Bowie’s own Lodger album. Scott Walker also makes avant pop. The simplest definition of avant pop would be something like: “music made with the idea that the language of pop — its sonic grammar — is constantly evolving through experiment”.

    4. I think Bowie has been a somewhat reluctant and inconsistent avant popper. Given the choice between evolving the grammar of pop music and shifting truckloads of records, he’s usually gone for the latter. Lodger is an anomaly, and despite Bowie’s enormous admiration for Scott Walker he’s never gone anywhere near the kind of risks Walker takes on his two most recent albums.

    5. It’s usually the threat of irrelevance which has spurred Bowie towards the avant. When the New Wave with its infrastructure of adventurous independent labels threatened to make a whole generation of artists irrelevant at the end of the 1970s, Bowie was — had to be, really — on the side of the angels (Devo, Talking Heads, Joy Division). Lodger was a strong statement of that affiliation.

    6. For certain artists — Waits, Walker, Sylvian — there’s a strong sense of a kind of Year Zero when they discover their new style: there’s no reverse gear. Once Tom Waits starts making a sort of post-Partch Fats Waller din in his garage, he can’t really go back to piano ballads. Once Scott Walker starts hymning the mallet-slapped pig carcass, there’s no way back to Montague Terrace. And Sylvian’s Blemish and Manafon, as if honour-bound, continue a process of purification and refinement of a personal musical language.

    7. Despite enthusiasms, encouragements and endorsements for avant pop artists, Bowie has balked at being one himself. There’s no sense of abjuring the reverse gear, no sense of a pact with himself to take a lonely and brave road towards an utterly fresh musical mode, a completely personal form of expression. In fact, we could say that betrayals, reversals and surprises (sometimes bad ones) are the kind of changes Bowie has embraced, along with random and haphazard appropriations of the musical language of others: a kind of opportunistic, actorish ventriloquism.

    8. I say “random and haphazard” because there’s no sense, with Bowie, that an experimental gesture — the accelerando in Tis Pity, for instance — is something he’ll ever return to. It’s never a Rubicon, a Charon: there’s always a way back over the river. For this reason, avant pop gestures in Bowie have a slightly shallow, sad feel to them. They stand as tips of the hat to other artists, or diluted appropriations. They’re postmodernist, in that the modernist sense of progression and progressiveness — inherent in the very idea of the avant-garde — is replaced by an ahistorical sense of “anything goes”. And anything that goes can go back. If the audience doesn’t follow — and it surely won’t — you go back to the audience.

    9. This commitment to populism (and other things, like a concern with flexibility and spontaneity) is one reason we’re still talking about Bowie today. He never went off to starve in an attic or record the sound of air escaping from balloons. Whenever that urge arose, others (the urge to be rich and heroic, for instance, to cut a dash on a big stage) trumped it.

    10. This week I’ve had the song Blackout playing in my head a lot. There’s something completely fabulous about the way energy just shoots out of it, the way Bowie self-dramatises, the Expressionist way the words tumble out, even the rather good Mick Jagger impersonation. There’s a little edge of synthy and structural avant-gardism in it, but not too much. Blackout isn’t about being musically progressive, but about self-dramatising, self-expressing (even when mimicking someone else), intelligent swagger, the confident articulation of doubt. It’s an EL Kirchner painting come to life, and when my brain loops Blackout without asking, it’s telling me why David Bowie is so important.

    • billter says:

      It seems to me that Bowie has always wanted to be a popular artist – that is, an Artist who is also popular. Throughout the 70s he walked that line, weaving sometimes a little to one side, sometimes a little to the other, but always homing in on the perfect balance. By the time of “Scary Monsters,” he had it figured out — a great band, a simpatico producer, and a working method that allowed him to make strange, individualistic music that was also appreciated and purchased by a sizable audience.

      But when he took some time off – due to either artistic burnout or wanting to wait out his contract with Tony Defries, or some combination of the two – he lost all his momentum. And momentum matters. The Bowie who returned was not the same guy, and we all know the results: “Let’s Dance” (commercially massive, artistically iffy), “Tonight” (commercially middling, artistically disastrous) and “NLMD” (commercially disastrous, artistically irrelevant).

      Since then I feel like he’s been constantly trying to get back to where he was in 1980. But as Uncle Bill told us, “Evolutionarily speaking, the one way you can’t go is back. It’s the law.” So we keep getting these teasing hints of past glory, along with the occasional stab at opening new territory – but as you say, none of these has amounted to a fully committed new direction.

      If Bowie had disappeared after “Scary Monsters,” we’d still be talking about the amazing run he had. Instead, the legacy has been diluted by 35 years of this other guy. In a way it’s a shame – but does that mean he should have quit, rather than keep trying, with occasional flashes of success? Who gets to make that call?

      As for Scott Walker, or Sylvian – you have to admire their unwavering pursuit of their vision, certainly, but who wants to actually listen to that stuff? I’ll take “Dirty Boys” any day of the week.

      • John D. says:

        Blackout is an immense track. I thought it was just me who loved it. So much fun. I think Let’s Dance has it’s merits. It must have been fun for long term Bowie fans to see him go absolutely stratospheric. Then again, maybe they were sad their cult had been uncovered? I was only 3, so it’s hard to remember!

      • Mike F says:

        Bowie’s post-1980 period can be explained in terms of the Cinderella fairy tale. The year 1980 was his midnight when the magic spell wore off — Bowie and his Glittering Stardust Chariot transformed back into plain old David Jones and his rusty Tin Machine. He carried on as best as he could but the magic was gone.

    • Mike says:

      I’ll be naming my next band The Avant Poppers. (Yes, you’ll
      be credited on the sleeve.)

  19. Dave L says:

    Well that’s strange, because for whatever reason, “Blackout” has been playing on a loop in my head for the last week as well.

    I agree with a lot of what you say here, but when you only mention “Lodger”, I don’t think you’re giving enough credit to the whole period from “Station to Station” to “Scary Monsters”, when it seems he was creating solely for himself, producing idiosyncratic music.

  20. I’m hearing a very frenetic harmonica in the mix of “Blackout” too. That’s something that makes me think of the Rolling Stones too.

  21. wow! I am the one from the picture 🙂 such a honour and lovely surprise that you chose this picture for text about this song! thank you!

    • col1234 says:

      Tania–thanks. It’s a great, fun shot that wonderfully suited the song title. Thanks for putting it up.

  22. Great to see Steve Elson getting some cred!
    We were in a band together [along w/ Joey Arias of Bowie/Nomi-SNL fame] in early 80s and here are some clips:

    and this is the cover art [price stickers] i did honored that Steve used:

  23. postpunkmonk says:

    Yesssss. I hear Iggy Pop and even Tom Waits, but those names were not the first in my head when I heard this track. The first thing I was reminded of was “avant garage” act Pere Ubu. That’s what I hear happening here. They could cover this and I would not bat an eyelash. Of course, there are differences between Bowie and Pere Ubu.

    Pere Ubu absolutely does what it wants to with little heed for salesmanship while, as mentioned, Bowie’s undying fealty towards making pop music was always a hobble on his artistic ventures. Truth be told, it was also his strength when he was on top of things. Bowie was the ideal “second to market” avant rocker, and as we all know, being first to market usually results in cult fame at best while the second to market guy can often grab the brass ring.

    That said,when Bowie went all out for commercial acceptance, the results were often cringeworthy. When Pere Ubu did the same [see their Fontana releases] the results were absolutely delightful to these ears.

  24. Gb says:

    Agree with some other posters here…a very good song that could have been even better. Still one of my favorites of the album.

  25. just keep hearing the goespel according to tony day when i listen to dirty boys

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