(You Will) Set the World On Fire


(You Will) Set the World On Fire.

A track that seems as if Bowie used a Waring blender to make it, “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” is set in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s yet has a garish rock-show arrangement. Its title is a would-be manager’s promise of fame but it’s also advice given by St. Catherine of Siena (another sign Bowie had a yen for medieval saints—see “The Next Day”).

The presence of Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan (all hanging out in the same club, like a folkie Justice League of America) comes off more as stage-dressing, as if Bowie had just read Van Ronk and Elijah Wald’s Mayor of MacDougal Street (also used for the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis) and figured he’d litter the song with characters from the book.

Because rather being than any sort of homage to American folk music, “Set the World On Fire” is far more a “Broadway” song, with Bowie doing a camp take on a self-serious music—its closest ancestors are “Star” and “Zeroes,” his music-hall stage takes on rock ‘n’ roll.

The figure at the center of the song (“the black girl and guitar/burn together hot with rage”) is most likely the folk singer Odetta, who was represented by Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager (Grossman could be the refrain’s narrator) and who sparked everyone from Janis Joplin to Dylan himself. So the reference to St. Catherine (who allegedly dictated her visions while writhing in orgasmic ecstasy) is Bowie casting the Sixties folk scene as a medieval order.

But using Odetta as the hub of the wheel here also seems like a feinting maneuver, as the only figure who came out of MacDougal Street who could sell magazines and get Top 10 hits was Dylan himself (“manipulate, origin, text,” Bowie winked in his description of the song to Rick Moody). I’d argue that the song is Bowie’s sly tribute to Dylan, the consummate thief, charismatic and manipulator of his era, who left all of his peers far behind by 1965 (“you’re in the boat, babe/ we’re in the water”). Here Dylan’s shown perched off stage, watching the hot new singer’s moves and maybe planning to nick them; the parallels with the shark-like young Bowie seem obvious, if unintended.

It’s a pummeling, somewhat disjointed track, with its E major verses rammed along by Earl Slick’s power chords, over which Bowie offers some spidery phrasings, while its E minor refrains are flooded with guitar dubs (some of which sound like they were originally scored as string lines), harmonies by Janice Pendarvis and Gail Ann Dorsey and some enthusiastic tambourine by Sterling Campbell. After some Slick fireworks for a rising major-chord break, the song finishes off with cannon-blast refrains, where Bowie pushes to the top of his voice’s range, as if trying to sound young and untried again by force of will. As St. Catherine said, “labor to increase the fire of your desire.”

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. July 2012, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

* From Letter 368, one of her epistles to Stefano di Corrado Maconi; it’s variously translated as “If you are what you ought to be, you will set fire to all Italy, and not only yonder” or “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire!”

Top: Oscar Isaac and cat, Inside Llewyn Davis (Coens, 2013).

39 Responses to (You Will) Set the World On Fire

  1. The rest of the song is just okay, but I love Earl Slick’s brief solo spot on this. It’s nothing particularly impressive playing-wise, but it sounds like one of the few moments on the album where a sideman was allowed to throw good taste and restraint out the window and really cut loose.

    Incidentally, I’m such a dork. I said “yay!” out loud when I saw there was a new entry today. What the hell am I gonna do when this blog ends (aside from presumably read whatever other blog you start)?

  2. David says:

    Great write up for what is the lowest point on the album for me. Another track that sounds like a Never Let Me Down retread-I hear Bon Jovi crossed with Iggy’s Bang Bang, which is actually a good approximation of that whole 80s misstep.
    I hope our man feels like he’s done atoning with these recycled bits of NLMD now and moves on. I’d hate to hear Too Dizzy make a reappearance.

  3. I see this song as being about the subject of Boss of Me, I’ll Take You There, and a few others. I have a quarter-baked theory that The Next Day is a muddled, non-linear narrative, maybe one that’s made of multiple abandoned stories that were forged together.

    Basically, it’s about someone fleeing country torn by war and/or paranoia (maybe post-WW II Germany?) for America and trying to become a star.

    Songs dealing with where she left: The Next Day, Dirty Boys, Valentine’s Day, If You Can See Me, I’d Rather Be High, How Does…, You Feel So Lonely, Heat. The “father” in Heat is the subject of You Feel So Lonely.

    Songs about the girl: I’ll Take You There, Set The World on Fire, Boss of Me, The Stars Are Out Tonight, God Bless The Girl, Where Are We Now (this could be a return to her home country, or it could be set there and about living in a totalitarian state).

    Love Is Lost could go in either group. I don’t know where So She would go, or the other tracks.

    I’m not really prepared to defend this theory because I just thought of it a couple of days ago, but I like it. It’s what the album is to me.

    • billter says:

      So we’ll have a The Next Day musical to contend with one day?

      • SoooTrypticon says:

        I agree to some degree. I do think this album is the product of a few ideas- one of which was some kind of musical. Maybe not all of it though. “The Informer” and “Feel So Lonely” seem to come from this project. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Informer” shows up in Lazarus.

        What’s so lovely about this release though, is the vast amount of music put forward allows you to shape your desired Bowie album/EP/singles any way you want.

  4. Oh, the song: this is one of my favorite songs on the album. I love the lyrics. When else has Bowie written such a clear, direct story song? It’s a bit Ray Davies. And it rocks ferociously. It’s a shame that it will never be played live because it would slay. I wish Bowie was louder in the mix, but that’s true of nearly every song on the album.

  5. crayontocrayon says:

    David nailed it above with saying it sounds like Bang Bang. It is my least favourite TND track. I like the verses and the little jumping harmonies within them. I think the lyrics have some depth to them as the entry excellently explores but I just can’t get over the stock-rock construction of the music and that juddering chorus. And we get to hear it for over half of the 3 and a half minutes. Bowie’s record for songs about men named Dylan isn’t looking too strong.

  6. MC says:

    Much as I love TND, I would agree that it needs more songs like Dirty Boys, and fewer like this one. For what it’s worth, the best of the album’s duds: I sort of admire the sheer incongruousness of it, with the dropping of names like Van Ronk’s over a backing track that sounds like Bang Bang 2. And it is performed with conviction, I suppose.

    As the blog winds down (for now), I must pay tribute to one of its outstanding features: the photographs. The highest compliment I can make is it is impossible for me to hear a DB song now without picturing the accompanying images. As far as the most recent postings, I’m pleased that you chose Inside Llewyn Davis for this song (it was pretty much what I expected, actually), and I really love the photo paired with Dirty Boys. My all-time favourite image-music matchups on PAOTD might be those from the Heroes-Idiot period, though: I’m particularly in awe of the spine-tingling rightness of the photo used with Dum Dum Boys.

  7. Shoop says:

    For some reason, The Greenwich Village stuff flew over my head and I had a notion that this song may have been about his daughter? But I’m bonkers, so…

    • patr100 says:

      Rather than Dylan et al, I seem to habitually read these titles in an ironic way , specially since BD these days, is so far removed in time and even space , from the urgent need to be famous or being told that you are destined to be, So , probably initially very wrong, I cant help thinking about the ill fated and ultimately tragic “heir” to the Space Rock Throne , St Jobriath.

      The lyrics tend to seem rushed and wash over me , the chorus seems mundane, the guitar lifts what would otherwise be a forgettable track.

  8. s.t. says:

    *From recovered email drafts of Nathan Adler*

    Now “Fire,” that’s a real mystery. Lots of unknowns. Known and unknown. The black bombshell in the song, she remains at large. Incognito, as the kids used to say. Some think it was Odetta, that powerhouse singer from the Latex Archon. Man, she could shatter a factory full of newly minted microchips just by opening her mouth if she wanted to. What a voice. Not a bad pick for a suspect, but the facts don’t quite fit if you ask me. That dame had about ten albums by ’63, and she was a sight to hear at the Civil Rights March in Washington that year as well. Not exactly up-and-coming, if I do say so.

    Now it may be that the woman was a…composite of sorts—a slash and paste job of old audio goddesses like Odetta. Nina Simone. …Maybe a pop of Ava Cherry. Talk about a sweet piece of fruit, that one.

    Who knows? Maybe Dylan. Now that’s a cat who set the world on fire. Proverbially speaking, of course. Whoever the mystery broad may be, she sure does conjure up the presence of ol’ Bob. He might be, as they say, one of those “known unknowns.” Or was it unknown unknowns? I don’t remember so great these days…

    And who’s the fella puttin the moves on this mystery girl? Smells like one of Leon’s moves, if you ask me. He sure had a talent for scouting out fresh meat, I can tell you that. But he’s dead now. So that muddles things.

    No, this fella, he almost reminds me of that old band that the architect from Oxford Town always went on about. What was the name? He could talk your ear off with all of those bands. Used to play this one song on the electromagnetic phonograph for me sometimes. Somethin about a cigar. Anyways. Who’d want to remix a character as old and smoky as that one into your artcrime when nouveau is the newest thing? There’s another mystery for you.

    Musically? No mystery at all. Frankly my dear, it’s a piece of chip, as I like to say. A hunk of junk. Case closed.

    What were we talking about again?

  9. billter says:

    I really like this one. Musically, it’s pure, gut-level rock’n’roll of a type that Bowie has done rarely, and done well even less. Like the best possible iteration of Tin Machine. Lyrically, I love the sheer perversity of lyrics about the Village folk scene set to such metallic backing. I mean, what could he possibly have been thinking? Why? Then again why not?

    This week I finally saw “The Devil and Daniel Mouse” after hearing the lyrics filtered through Bauhaus’ “Party of the First Part” for 30-some years. Which has put me in a Faustian state of mind. So maybe that’s what this song is about: “Hey kid, that folk music sounds nice and all, you’ve sure got the talent. But don’t you want to be a big star? Well, just take this here electric guitar….”

  10. Dave says:

    the blog is not winding down , there are 5 new songs this year to review.

    • col1234 says:

      10 more song posts: that’s all you’ve got

      • Anonymous says:

        2 remaining from The Next Day, 4 more extras from the TND sessions, the 2 late 2014 songs (“Sue…”, “Tis…”), but what are the other 2? The suspense builds…

    • s.t. says:

      Don’t worry; I’m going to make a blog chronicling Chris’ Bowie write-ups, entry by entry.

  11. SoooTrypticon says:

    I’ve wondered if the song wasn’t more of a threat to the person at the center.

    “You say too much.”
    “Kennedy would kill for the lines that you’ve written”

    Makes me wonder if Bowie wasn’t writing an oblique “Candle In The Wind,” feeding off Monroe conspiracy theories.

    “I can work the scene” could be a crime scene, not just the media stage.

    “I can see the magazines, I can hear the nation cry.”

    Almost every line allows for a double reading- both stardom and tragedy.

    With that said, it’s still one of my least favorite songs from the album. Has something to do with the name dropping- it doesn’t really set a mood. I’d rather this was a “Watch That Man” where the lyrics painted a picture of the scene, rather than reading names off a list.

  12. Steve M. says:

    Yep I have to concur with the majority view here: this is pretty much the nadir of TND, thanks to its utterly conventional plod-rock arrangement and lyrics that have absolutely no flair.

  13. I really like this song, and it seems really appropriate that you have broadway and the folk scene jutxtaposed against each other in the lyrics to what’s very much a big-rock song musically. There are competing ideas of authenticity bound up in these form. For me, the way all of that rubs up against each other on this track is quite pleasurable.

  14. Anonymous says:

    “Set The World on Fire” has precisely the same ultimately flawed attributes as two other TND tracks, “Boss of Me” and “Dancing Out in Space”: catchy and musically interesting verses, but plodding, generic choruses that are also repeated too often. Take out these 3 songs and you have an 11-song, LP-length truly excellent album that really packs a punch.

    • King of Oblivion says:

      Agreed, those are the three tracks that really kill TND’s momentum for me. So many modern albums are hurt by the newer standard of getting the thing up around an hour instead of the old 40-45 minutes of LP days.

      • Anonymous says:

        Indeed, some of the greatest Bowie LPs were even shorter than 40 minutes: Ziggy, Station, Low, and Lodger are each between 35-38 minutes long.

      • I think that’s the main reason that there are more great albums from the 60s – 80s than form the 90s-now, particularly from the late 90s onwards. In the vinyl era artists were limited by the time constraints of vinyl, so they could only put their best stuff on the album. But with CDs, there’s so much more room for self-indulgence. Even “excessive” bands like Rush and Pink Floyd released albums under 40 minutes long, and they’re all the better for it. There was only room for top-notch songs.

  15. rob thomas says:


    Chris, just to let you know (maybe you saw it?) that the acme of musicians has finally made it into the acme of dramas: Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, beamed live around the world last night, wore a Bowie t-shirt (Bowie as Ziggy, making his hands into glasses/binoculars- enlighten me…).

    He was a great Hamlet in a pretty great production, but it was wonderful to have Bowie looking out at one as the glorious pentatmeters shot out…

  16. rob thomas says:

    pentameters, obvs…

  17. Maj says:

    Late to this party…Don’t have much to say. It’s a solid rock song, IMO. Fun enough.
    But had it not been for this entry I would have never seen any onnections with saints… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  18. John E. says:

    Hi. I’m looking for Bowie’s interview with Rick Moody mentioned here but can’t seem to find it. Do you have a link by chance?

    This is a great blog!

  19. New album “Blackstar” was just announced. Looks like you’ve still got quite a few songs come January!

  20. Deanna says:

    Damn, I am not keeping up with these entries lately. I wish I had more time to really sit and absorb these songs as they’re being covered.

    Though I always did like this song, I can appreciate the criticism, especially when comparing it to Dancing Out In Space and the like… Some of the others do feel like they go on forever. I don’t feel that here, though. I think Bowie’s got enough energy in this one to sustain it for as long as he did. Even if just barely…

    This song energizes me; it’s a happy tune that I come back to when I need something fun. There are some great lines, too.

  21. Will says:

    I’m going to go way out on a limb here and put forth that, contrary to all the Greenwich Village stuff, Bowie is paying a very sly tribute to Annette Peacock.

  22. steven says:

    so knowing what we know now about bowie’s aborted bob dylan play, and this track’s broadway-vibe, is it fair to guess that this could’ve had its genesis as part of that project?

    not at all hard to imagine this slotting into the mooted production in any case.

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