“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.