The unearthing of a never-before-published interview [which I believe is legit, not a clever fiction] with Bowie from February 1971 inspired this reposting. In it, when asked about “All the Madmen,” Bowie said:
“The guy in that story has been placed in a mental institution and there are a number of people in that institution being released each week that are his friends. Now they’ve said that he can leave as well. But he wants to stay there, ’cause he gets a lot more enjoyment out of staying there with the people he considers sane. He doesn’t want to go through the psychic compromises imposed on him by the outer world. [Pauses.] Ah, it’s my brother. ’Cause that’s where he’s at.”
In a closet of that church, there is at this day St. Hilary’s bed to be seen, to which they bring all the madmen in the country, and after some prayers and other ceremonies, they lay them down there to sleep, and so they recover.
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy.
In a general way, then, madness is not linked to the world and its subterranean forms, but rather to man, his weaknesses and illusions…There is no madness but which is in every man, since it is man who constitutes madness in the attachment he bears for himself and the illusions he entertains…In this delusive attachment to himself, man generates his madness like a mirage.
Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization.
Everyone says, ‘Oh yes, my family is quite mad.’ Mine really is.
David Bowie, to Cameron Crowe, 1975.
Bowie’s family, on his mother’s side, was riddled with mental illness: his aunt Una was institutionalized after a breakdown and died in her late twenties; another aunt was diagnosed with manic-depressive psychosis and lobotomized; a third had schizophrenic episodes. Then there was his mother’s son, his half-brother Terry Burns, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. (In 1966, while Bowie and Burns were walking to a Cream concert, Burns fell to the street and screamed, claiming he saw flames rising up from cracks in the pavement.) When Bowie recorded The Man Who Sold the World, Burns was a regular ward at Cane Hill, a Victorian-era psychiatric hospital in Croydon, and occasionally released to stay at Haddon Hall on weekends.
At times, Bowie seemed to believe he had considerable odds of going mad. The prospect bled into his work—all the lyrics about identity, control and insanity, the devising of various personae as means of escape, writing songs as conduits. “One puts oneself through such psychological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity,” he recalled in 1993. “As long as I could push these psychological excesses through into my music, into my work, then I could always be throwing it off.”
In “All the Madmen,” his first overt attempt to grapple with his inheritance, Bowie references Cane Hill (“mansions cold and grey”) and the treatments offered there: EST (electroshock therapy), Librium (brand name of the anxiety drug chlordiazepoxide) and “good old lobotomy.” And his refrain is a homage to one of Burns’ (and his) favorite books, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: “The only people for me are the mad ones…the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles.”
The idea that the institutionalized were, in Bowie’s words, society’s “organic minds kept in a cellar,” was becoming common in the Sixties. The psychiatrist R.D. Laing argued much of what was diagnosed madness was instead a sensitive mind’s defense against the oppressions of family and modern civilization. In his The Politics of Experience (1967) Laing argued the schizophrenic could be the most “sane” person of an insane society, and that behavior labeled schizophrenic was instead a “special strategy that a person invents to live in an unlivable situation.” Similarly, the idea of involuntarily confining the insane to a mental institution had come under attack. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization and Erving Goffman’s Asylums depicted the asylum as society’s washroom, its bureaucratic means of removing the mad from common life to better enforce cultural norms (like having homosexuals “cured” via shock treatment). Institutionalization created its own self-fulfilling cycle of admittance-treatment-breakdown-readmittance. It was a prison culture. The anti-psychiatric movement, proposing the deinstitutionalization Goffman and other sympathetic writers favored, came out of this ferment. So did “All the Madmen.”
(Two films stand on either end of the divide: Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), where the asylum is a stately Vermont manor, the “mad” are the misdiagnosed, the repressed and the malformed, and the face of modern psychiatry is the gorgeous Ingrid Bergman in a white lab coat; and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), where the asylum is a jail, and the insane are no longer puzzles to be solved or worthy citizens to be rehabilitated, but truth-tellers, the last honest men, who society hates and demands silenced and locked away. The face of mental illness treatment is now the sadistic bureaucrat Nurse Ratched.)
Aversos Compono Animos
One of the first songs recorded for the album sessions, “All the Madmen” begins with Bowie on his 12-string acoustic, slowly panned left to right. A brusque performance with ringing open strings, Bowie keeps a constant low E as a bassline while in a closing bar of 5/4, he’s topped by a “violining” C note from Ronson. After a second acoustic verse marked by a descant recorder duet (Ronson and Visconti) and Woodmansey ringing on his cymbal bell, Ronson kicks into the refrain with a distorted power chord; soon he’s off on a two-harmonized-guitar solo. After a spoken interlude by what sounds like Deram-era Bowie, with its newscasters and eerie children, “All the Madmen” becomes Ronson’s show again. He rips through the last verse with pick scratches, as if mocking the recorders’ tippling accompaniment (they’re soon swapped out for Ralph Mace’s Moog, which acts as a string section).
The song also had Bowie’s mordant sense of humor, his collagist sensibility (he tweaks the Beatles’ “You Better Hide Your Love Away” and “Fool on the Hill” in his lyric) and his taste for shock and ghoulishness. He mingles “The Laughing Gnome” (“he followed me home Mum, can I keep him?” he pips in a sped-up “kid” voice) with Friedrich Nietzsche. Like “Width of a Circle,” Bowie used the “Tree on the Hill” chapter of Thus Spake Zarathustra, in which Zarathustra encounters a young man who desperately yearns for transcendence, who wants to free the dogs from his “cellar” so that he can climb the heights. The closing Dadaist-inspired line (“zane zane zane, ouvre le chien (open the dog)”) referenced this: “thy wild dogs want liberty, they bark for joy in their cellar when thy spirit endeavoureth to open all prison doors.” More prosaically, if you break open your own asylum, you’ll unleash your basest instincts along with your nobler aspirations.
Given this backdrop, it’s fitting that “All the Madmen” was Bowie’s most harmonically radical piece on the album. Opening with shifts between E minor and augmentations of the E major chord, the verse soon establishes two spheres of influence: E major and F major (“the far side of town”), while the arrival of a G major chord (“heavy as can be”) in the pre-chorus offered another candidate. With E major, F major and G major vying for control, “All the Madmen” feels chaotic, as those chords don’t coexist in any key, a conflict never resolved (see “Station to Station”). But as E, F and G are chords often used in flamenco, Ronson and Visconti, in an inspired response, wrote a “bolero” style accompaniment for Ronson’s solo (starting at 3:07).
After dabbling for much of its length, “All the Madmen” commits to madness. It closes with Bowie chanting “ouvre le chien” in descending phrases while voices swirl around him and echoed handclaps sound him out. One of his most brilliant compositions to date, “All the Madmen” was also the keystone of an inspired musical sequence, the first side of The Man Who Sold the World, where “Madmen” douses the spirits of “Width of a Circle” and presages the ashen side-closer “After All.”
Recorded 17 April-22 May 1970. While Bowie’s American label Mercury released it as a promo single in December 1970 to accompany Bowie’s first-ever American press tour, the only contemporary live recording of “All the Madmen” was captured at a party by the Los Angeles DJ Rodney Bingenheimer in early 1971—part of the poor-sounding recording turned up in a 2004 documentary on Bingenheimer’s life, Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Bowie let “Madmen” lie fallow for the rest of the ’70s, but garishly revived it for his Glass Spider tour in 1987. He left it alone after that.
Top: Marcello Mastroianni in John Boorman’s Leo The Last; an alternate cover of The Man Who Sold The World LP, with the administrative wing of Cane Hill Hospital in the background.