Ziggy Stardust was, in his creator’s words, a prefab rock star, a plastic rocker. Bowie tended to work out of sequence: he’d create something, kill it off, then look back in interviews and devise what his intentions had been. So Ziggy, he later said, was his fabricated rock performer, fashioned out of collective rock memory; he was a mannequin who sang on a few records and was soon dispatched.
Thing was, the sound of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars isn’t prefab 1971-1972 rock at all, with the possible exception of “It Ain’t Easy,” its bog-standard rock moment. Ziggy Stardust is shabby provincial music hall pop, shot through with bolts of Mick Ronson’s guitar, and lifting lines and sounds from horror movies, Fifties novelty singles, Beat poets and Kubrick films. You could find Ziggy a clunk-work of irreconcilable influences, but you really couldn’t argue it was “plastic.” It sounded too snippy and weird; it’s unassimilable. Even today, when “Suffragette City” turns up on a Pandora “Classic Rock” playlist, it stands out from “Lay Down Sally” or “Whipping Post” or what have you. It sounds like a vicious knock-off of classic rock standards: a track scrapped together by feral theater kids who managed to snare an ace guitarist and a Moog.
It’s one of the central ironies of Bowie’s work. Even when he tried to create mediocre, keep-your-head-down music, he kept making stuff that couldn’t quite pass. His mannequins would bother and even unnerve shoppers. “Shake It” is pretty dire 1983 R&B, but it wouldn’t have passed muster on many R&B stations of the time—its odd lyric, which Bowie seems to lovingly mock as he sings it, stringing phrases across bars; its fanatic castrati backing vocals; its lumpen rhythms.
On a bonus track released in 2013, Bowie seemed to pull off the trick at last. “Atomica” begins as simulacrum, drawing from the past three decades of music without grounding itself in any. Its opening 30 seconds could play anywhere—an Urban Outfitters, a Cheesecake Factory, or in the background of a home improvement show or a Korean cartoon—and wouldn’t draw attention. The lead guitar riff, nicely keeping in bounds; the tastefully popped bass; the seemingly programmed cymbal fill; the first lines—I’m just a rock star, stabbing away. All safely anonymous, as is the refrain, whose lyric seems to have been generated by bots.
But by the refrain, things have started going awry. Bowie jams twice as many syllables as should fit into his verse lines (“when-you’re-head-o-ver-heels-and-the-magic-is-there-but-im-POSS-i-ble–POSS-i-BLE”). He sings “police” like “puh-leeze,” rhymes “covered-up pool” with “purple tulle.” And after the second refrain, the track sinks into a hole of fixation, with Bowie moaning that “I….hold myself…like a god,” over and over again, until he looks ready to abandon the song. Snare drum fills and synthetic strings don’t rouse him. It takes the opening guitar riff, working as a defibrillator. “Atomica” marches out in its crooked way, stamped as yet another Bowie song.
“Atomica” started in the first wave of Next Day sessions in May 2011 (Gail Ann Dorsey’s on bass) but it needed more work, Tony Visconti said. Released as one of the Extras, it shares with its fellow bonus tracks a cheekiness, a sense of randomly-aimed parody, a labored looseness. “How others must see the faker,” Bowie once sang. But he was never a good faker, it turned out. He was the sort of counterfeiter who couldn’t resist altering whatever piece he was fabricating, so that any close look would reveal a forgery with its own strange intentions.
Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, early 2013, The Magic Shop, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 4 November 2013 on The Next Day Extra.
Top: Paramore, live in Dallas, 27 October 2013 (Antiquiet).
oh, and the Poll’s still going on. Nearing 150 ballots. Send yours in! It’s very much neck-and-neck for a LOT of song rankings, from what I’ve seen so far.
Nice piece; interesting in-depth look at a song with very little depth. I’d say Atomica is pretty much the (She Can) Do That/Lucy Can’t Dance/Shining Star (Makin’ My Love) of this decade – a major irritant (though it still beats some of the songs that made TND).
Now I’m going to associate Hayley Williams with this song. I never imagined that.
Uniquely spot on, Chris, as always.
A great backing track, with a killer opening riff, completely ruined by what could be some of the worst lyrics, Bowie has consigned since Tin Machine’s ‘A Big Hurt.’
He probably thought it had the hallmarks of being a possible opening track, a proclamation or manifesto of sorts after being away, but I’m relieved he went with The Next Day, because lyrics like ‘let Let’s get this show on the road’ or ‘Let’s rock till we explode’ belong nowhere in the Bowie cannon. In this case, he definitely sang ‘too much’.
When I saw this in my mailbox, I groaned “oh God”. Guess that tells you how I feel about this track.
LOL. well, it’s over at least.
I’m not sure I understand the loathing aimed at this song, or indeed at any of the “Extra” tracks. (For that matter, I also find things to like in the not-unfascinating “Shake It,” clearly a “Lodger” also-ran bent awkwardly into something resembling radio-friendliness.) No, “Atomica” doesn’t work, but neither do even some of the best tracks that actually made the record — and every last one, good and bad and middling alike, has something going for it (usually on the production side, alas). Here we get odd Bowie vocal quirks like the fall at the end of “police take me away,” or the crisp guitar matched with the thudding drums — like Visconti has dismantled the Eventide Harmonizer and rebuilt it after letting a few crucial bits roll unnoticed under the dresser. As for the not-unjustly-derided lyrics, well… Just as “The Next Day” seems to have found Bowie scavenging the sonics of “Never Let Me Down, here we see him raiding the pantry for a few “Tin Machine II” verbal leftovers. I can’t defend that, but I’d rather hear him sing these words than not hear him sing at all — and I might argue he does some nice work with the peppery stanza about “protect you from the voices, protect you from the visions…” This one didn’t exactly make my “top thirty,” but I feel obliged to speak up in its defense.
I’m going to go considerably further than Steven. I think this is a seriously underrated song. I’ve been perplexed for months at the amount of stick it’s got on other threads, and I’m pleased that Chris has been relatively generous towards it.
I really like the song’s wryness. I like the lyrics. I think they’re clever and amusing. Where others seem to read lazy cliche, I read something else entirely.
Yes, “get this show on the road” and so forth are shopworn in a certain context, but Atomica is a different context.
And that “head over heels” hook may be simple enough in principle, but he does it with a deftness beyond most acts.
I may well be the only listener in the world who feels this way, but for me Atomica is a latter-day DB triumph.
I throw my lot in with Mr Tagomi, as usual.
Quite like this song. The “get this show on the road” lyrics are mundane for a purpose, whether it’s parody or the like, and I love the way this song takes you in and meanders from the hard rock opening to the pulsing “impossible” to the drunken “like a God” section … I’m with him all the way and I find it all moving and entertaining. Others hear some echoes of other Bowie songs but I find it unlike anything else he’s done before. This feels like he’s writing from a place similar to the one he was in for Buddha, where he’s creating new sounds without worrying about the critics.
Yes! No longer a voice in the wilderness. Thank you, Dave.
I think the key to this song is the sly little “babe”. It all has to be taken in the light of “babe”.
I think it’s my favourite song on the Extra. About the picture of the post, I think it was surprising and very fitting actually. A plastic vocalist in a plastic rock band (I don’t know if this changed, but Haley was the only member with a signed contract, acutally).
I’m a DB fan and feel overdrawn at the Bowie bank for the surprise TND album, so I find it hard to critique it. Here’s the but, there are segments of songs that are fantastic: like the opening drum beat and vocals to Dancing Out In Space, which is then cursed by a dodgy chorus. I feel the same for Atomica, some great pieces, but not a complete song. I almost think moving some of the musical jigsaw pieces for fewer songs would have created a better quality output overall. But then I’m just being greedy for quality and I’m reminding myself this was a DB album I never expected to nurture, never mind critique. Bring on January 2016.
1. There’s not much I’ve done that’s truly embarrassing, looking back, but something that still makes me squirm is a terrible, terrible Bowie pastiche I made when I was about 16. It was called Take It The Hard Way, and it’s about a Jeremiah character the narrator tries to ignore. Verse 3 goes: When I met him again on a ruined street / We shielded our eyes against the atomic heat / And I saw in his face, like a hollow lie / The sentence he had warned me: “We’re all going to die!” / This time I didn’t laugh, I damned his foresight / I said “Maybe I was wrong, but maybe you’re not right!” / Well he took it the hard way, yelling “Ha, my God! This is just the beginning of mankind’s lot!”
2. Set amidst sub-Diamond Dogs fuzz-and-fog, my drums were a silly little clicking metronome, my vocal a series of camp Ziggy yelps, my riffs sick with polio. The song was so bad, in fact, that I revived it in 2009 for a show in Berlin, a one-off art performance in which I remade my most awful songs, partly for a sense of David Brett-like squirmy comedy, partly as a form of “embarrassment art”. It was interesting to revisit what I’d written before I knew how to write. Before I got slick and developed my own style.
3. Malcolm McLaren, towards the end of his life, had this great line about Authenticity versus what he called “Karaoke Culture”. To be truly authentic, for McLaren, is to be messy, to risk failure, to waste time, to be creative. But we live in an age of prefabricated success, an age with no time for failure, no time to waste, no extra money to burn, an age with a fascination with “talent competitions” but no understanding of talent. What succeeds in this world is what has succeeded before: karaoke, basically — endless shiny retreads of the canon. Of course this Karaoke Culture attempts to make its karaoke look authentic — that’s part of the act. But, says McLaren, “you have to be a magician to do that”.
4. McLaren (as I discovered when I interviewed him in 2002) was difficult to challenge once he got onto one of his hobbyhorses. But one Dutch curator managed to make him rethink his stance on Karaoke Culture, and banality: “I tell the curator I think van Dongen’s paintings [portraits of pretty girls] are banal,” he wrote in a diary piece for the Financial Times. “She comments kindly that anyone who has lost the connection with the fundamental in art also lacks sense for the banal. I look at her, amused and curious as to what will come out of her mouth next. She doesn’t mean the ability to see that something is banal, she says, but the ability to understand the artistic value of banality. She thanks my girlfriend for iced coffee and explains further: ‘A great work of art is the complete banality, and the fault with most banalities is that they are not banal enough.’ I am sold.”
5. Banality, in other words, is on the side of the fundamental, the universal, and great art is on the side of those things too. Being original might matter at art school, but can values like “being messy” or “being a flamboyant failure” or “saying something no-one’s ever said before” really compete with values like “connecting immediately” and “touching people”? The thing, according to this curator (McLaren doesn’t name her), is to ride the banality all the way down, to touch its fat, compelling, essential, universal core.
6. Sometimes I think 2013 Bowie is like teenage me: a bad Bowie impersonator who seems to pick up on all of Classic Bowie’s stereotypical mannerisms and ignore what made him classic in the first place. But we have to remember that Bowie was hugely influenced by Warhol, someone who certainly understood the value of banality (his disciple Jeff Koons made it even more explicit in the eighties, proclaiming himself to be “ushering in banality” and “exploiting the masses”). Maybe this explains why so much of The Next Day seems to be trying to revive Bowie’s most banal failures: Tin Machine, Never Let Me Down.
7. Think of the Oblique Strategies card which might have produced a song like Atomica. What might it say? “Emphasise stereotypical elements until they yield weirdness.” And so we get the paradox Chris pinpoints so well in his commentary: that, in trying to be banal, Bowie has always failed. The Bowie discography is full of “let’s do the show right here” meta-songs about rock — Rock’n’Roll With Me, You Belong in Rock and Roll, Star — and full of songs in which Bowie seems to break through writer’s block by singing about writer’s block (all those “I’ve nothing much to offer” and “I’ve never done good things” and “I can’t reach it any more” songs). When they succeed, it’s because their failure fails.
8. Personally, I don’t think Atomica fails in a good way. I don’t think it takes its assumed banality anywhere interesting (as, say, Let’s Dance does). Though actually the “I hold myself like a god” section is just getting interestingly emotional when it gets cut off. And is it just the YouTube video that ends so abruptly — sniiiiiip! — or is that the track commenting on its own karaoke-like disposability?
9. I was watching Ian Anderson being interviewed by Rick Wakeman on YouTube recently and was struck by something he said: “25 years ago the last big revolution in music was taking place. I would argue that since then not a lot has changed. We’ve recycled elements of early pop music, punk has had its re-emergence in more contemporary ways, we’ve seen fairly basic rugged rock music come back at the end of the eighties with the so-called Seattle sound… A lot of recycling of these old ideas has taken place, which is not a bad thing, because there’s some great music to recycle. But the genre is pretty much wrapped up in a neat bow now; rock music as we’ve known it for fifty years is pretty much done.”
10. Given that basic situation, there are two options: on the one hand recycling and self-karaoke — riding banality straight to the reward of easy public acclaim — and on the other avant-gardism — the Scott Walker option, you might call it. Typically, recent Bowie is having a go at both. The Next Day is basically a self-karaoke album. It got the critics onside (they’re “karaoke critics”, perhaps) and did well commercially, but with a couple of years of retrospect The Next Day doesn’t fail interestingly enough, doesn’t get its self-pastiche wrong enough. What we seem to be getting with Blackstar is a more exciting prospect: Walkeresque avant-gardism, Bowie perhaps smashing through to a new musical language for himself and for rock. Let’s get THAT show on the road!
Yes I think Momus has it about right here. TND was the album he had to make after a 10-year hiatus – the confidence boost of a commercial success he could only get by doing a classic “Bowie” album. But a few years on, with one or two exceptions, it rings fairly hollow.
I find Sue and Tis A Pity She Was A Whore far more compelling than most of TND so I’m pumped for Blackstar…
This reminds of me of what one-time Bowie companion Trent Reznor said about his album “With Teeth”. He said, he had to see if he had a career left after his drug and video game addiction-induced hiatus. So With Teeth was a fairly by-the-numbers work, quite like The Next Day. Then, after chart success (the lead single made it into the UK Top 10, just like Where Are We Now) Reznor proceded with the sonically more interesting, conceptually ambitious (but structurally boring) Year Zero. Blackhat seems to follow that trajectory.
Isn’t interesting how “Sue” is kind of Earthling as Jazz? “Sue” symbolizes the end of Bowie’s neoclassical era that began with the end of Earthling.
Bah humbug, it seems that Blackstar is just the four Lazarus songs, plus Sue and Whore again, plus the Last Panthers track. (Track listing: Blackstar,’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore, Lazarus, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), Girl Loves Me, Dollar Days, I Can’t Give Everything Away.)
There are 8 songs. And I hope you’re wrong about the songs too. Why did he have to put a song on this album that was commissioned for the NHC compilation?
if you don’t mind, let’s move this to the open thread I just created. ici: http://wp.me/pANCf-3FJ
“Karaoke culture” is definitely a useful concept here, thanks. Bowie doing a karaoke culture approach to himself, as you say, is the characterization I’ve been looking for to describe my feelings on The Next Day, as well as Reality (and perhaps everything post-Earthling). I still feel that Reality and TND are successful, they still work and work very well. But that feeling of perhaps too-familiar-ground seems close by…or maybe it’s his own awareness of having taken on this karaoke culture approach. Atomica is my least favorite TND track.
In lieu of a comment on “Atomica,” here’s:
I always think I like this song more than I do. “Yeah, Atomica!” I’ll think to myself when it comes on shuffle, but I very rarely make it to the end. The beginning is so strong, but then it fizzles, I agree.
And that’s the problem with the album! Songs don’t die on their own terms, they’re put on life support but then eventually shot when it gets too expensive for everyone. “Just die already!”, they yell. Go towards the light!
It would be a good opening song for a tour, I guess. Maybe some other band can use it.
Also, maybe I’m crazy, but I hear a weird beep at 3:28. It always stands out to me.
Hahaha. You definitely hit the nail on the head with the song life support metaphor. It’s definitely true abt some Bowie songs, and not just on this EP or the recent album.
I like Atomica. It’s catchy. And since I rarely listen to the sort of generic rock band stuff, I still need it sometimes, and I’d rather get it from Bowie than go in search for it somewhere else. Erm.
Thing is…the guitar hook is a wee bit generic, but it’s good generic. It reminds me of the Stones’ Doom and Gloom, which is one of the few songs of theirs I listen to.
As for the lyrics…well I don’t really listen to Bowie for the lyrics in general, so I don’t quite care to be honest.
I read the lyrics for the Extra songs back when I was trying to find a photo of mine for this blog, and boy, there *was* a lot of boring crap among those words, but I’ve mostly retconned it all since then.
Oh, and the “I hold myself like a god” bit is good. I suppose he didn’t quite know where to use it, so he put it into this song, but whatever. It’s a nice bit.
Anyone know what the second line is? Lyric websites say “a modern scholar”, but I always thought it was “up in Scotland, just let me know if I sing too much”. Which reminds us of the controversial statement Bowie made through Kate Moss on the 2014 Scottish independence referendum through.
Did a millionaire tax exile who hasn’t lived in the UK since 1974 have any right to tell the people of Scotland to stay a part of it? I thought so, Irvine Welsh didn’t.
This song is what Reality’s critics think Reality sounded like.
sounds like there’s no “t” sound. “ska-la” not “skot-land” though who knows.
I really like Atomica as well. It was the Extra song that seemed most fun to me. There’s a Ricky Gervais interview somewhere where he said someone along the lines that he told Bowie on his birthday a while ago that it was about time he got a proper job. The response was something like ‘I have a job – rock god’. I think we should listen to Atomica in that light.
Chris, you get any bits of “Pretty Pink Rose” from the “Like a God” section?
I like that part… but these lyrics do seem awfully clunky.
The first time I heard “Atomica” I thought, “That’s a nice heavy rocker.” The second time I was completely bored. I hadn’t listened to it again until now, and I have no plans to listen to it any more after this.
An excellent blog entry though; file under “Songs Chris O’Leary has thought about more than David Bowie has.” Between the lines I can hear Chris’s sigh of relief that the long slog through these lesser “Next Day” songs is almost over. By my count, there’s only “The Informer” still to go, then we’re on to “Heat” and “Sue” and “Tis a Pity.”
After which Bowiesongs will be tantalizingly close to Catching Up with the Dame…will our man be tempted into one last push to get to the top of the mountain? Can’t wait for 2016.
That was me by the way. Didn’t mean to be anonymous/
you’re missing one. hint “think it’s gonna be a long long time…when I was younger, so much younger than to-daaay”
Every now and then, Mr. B recalls that part of his job description entails creating catchy rock singles. But in the later years, he has done this halfheartedly because he considers himself an “elitist” who looks down on this sort of commercial stuff.
It’s a shame because the backing track for this is quite catchy — more rhythmically propulsive than his other recent attempts at a single like “New Killer Star.” The lyrics on this one are the weak point with clunky lines like “Let’s rock ’til we explode.”
Rather than revamping the lyrics and coming out with a pretty decent rock single, Mr. B unfortunately deemed this not artistically worthy for TND and dumped it in the Extras bin. Oh well.
I like the verse, I like the outtro. The chorus is as painfully naff as rock music gets. Bowie is perfectly aware of this (the song is called Atomica for goodness sake). Seems like half the TND tracks have been compared to beat of your drum in the comments of this blog, add another to the list.
I quite like the song, it’s my second-favorite on the EP, which admittedly is not saying much. It reminds me of 90s girl band Elastica.
A song with potential, imo, ruined by terrible, terrible lyrics and a bad chorus. I think Bowie was aiming for “faux uppity pop”, corning it up to make it edgy, but it ended up having the reverse effect.