Reissues: Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud

A song with some personal resonance (the first Bowie non-“hit” to really hook me, it was sequenced as the 2nd track on the Sound + Vision set), “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is one of the first Bowie epics: very much of its time but transcendent as well.

The book entry goes deeper into the “feral child” myth and its appeal in the Sixties (including a look at Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron), incorporates new information about the song’s creation (such as Bowie having written the basic storyline as an essay at school and having been inspired by his time with Mary Finnigan’s children in 1969), and wages a long battle against Tony Visconti’s arrangement for the LP version of the song (one of Visconti’s rare lapses of taste, IMO). And it ends with a homage to the song’s magnificent last performance at the last Ziggy Stardust show. Bowie would never return to the song again, and he seemed to know it that night.

Originally posted on 30 November 2009: it’s the Wild Eyed Boy again.

Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (1st recording; B-side).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (remake, album version).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (BBC, 1970).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (live, 1972).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud/All the Young Dudes (live, 1973).

“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is another of Bowie’s Tibetan songs, completing a cycle that began in fact (“Silly Boy Blue”), evolved into half-myth (“Karma Man”) and now ends as a fable, fit for a bedtime story or a puppet show. The ancestor of “Freecloud” is Bowie’s mime piece Yet San and the Eagle, the story of a Tibetan boy living under Chinese Communist oppression, and “Freecloud” seems as if it was meant to accompany the movements of actors, with the lyric sometimes doubling as stage directions (the hangman “folds the rope into its bag” or “so the village dreadful yawns”).

But the wild boy of Freecloud isn’t just a Tibetan monk under an assumed name—he’s also uncorrupted youth in nature, whose very existence offends the worldlings who live meanly in the village below him. Bowie described his storyline in an October 1969 interview with Disc & Music Echo: the boy “lives on a mountain and has developed a beautiful way of life…I suppose in a way he’s rather a prophet figure. The villagers disapprove of the things he has to say and they decide to hang him.” The boy resigns himself to death, only to watch in horror as the mountain takes revenge for him. “So in fact everything the boy says is taken the wrong way—both by those who fear him and those who love him.”

Feral children and noble savages cropped up everywhere in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, from Kaspar Hauser in Herzog’s Jeder Für Sich und Gott Gegen Alle, to Truffaut’s L’enfant Sauvage, to the reclamation of Henry David Thoreau as ur-hippie and draft-dodger (e.g., The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail). The wild boys, hippie Christ figures and other “naturals” served as court jesters for the modern age, or as walking rebukes to a conformist, plastic culture. Society usually converts or kills these types, though as the Wild Boy in Bowie’s song eventually leaves the town in rubble, you can’t really blame society.

“Freecloud” marries Bowie’s theatrical sensibilities with his recent folk leanings—Anthony Newley and Jacques Brel sit alongside Fairport Convention in the gallery. The result is an odd combination of staginess (“as the night…begins for ONE!” the narrator intones, hangman exits stage left) and naturalism, the lyric ranging from the carefully-observed details of the opening verses to the Streisand-esque self-acclamation in the bridge (the “REALLLY YOU and REALLY MEEEE” bit). The whole piece is a catalog of influences: the stage setting of a night before a hanging is out of the Child Ballads, the sense of divine retribution levied on a damned town hails from Brecht/Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” and the loftiness of the lyric describing the mountain (“where the eagle dare not fly” and so on) has a bit of Tolkien in it. (“Freecloud” was Tolkien-head Marc Bolan’s favorite Bowie song).

The Battle of Freecloud

“Freecloud” opens with Bowie playing variations on the D chord—D to Dmaj7 to D7 to D6—basically just supplementing a D chord on his 12-string acoustic guitar with additional notes. The pattern repeats throughout the song: it opens the verses and circles three times through them, the relative similarity of the chords creating a feeling of stasis (they occur even while the boy is singing that he’s really free, suggesting he’s just as trapped as the rest of us). The guitar intro also has the song’s other major motif: a sudden push to C, which Bowie later uses to dramatically end the verses and begin the refrain.

The song’s built like an inverted pyramid, opening with two long descriptive verses, each 11 lines long with no rhymes and no real meter; the pattern is finally broken when Bowie goes into the bridge, which, rhyme-strewn and full of long-held notes, comes as a relief to the ear. The song spirals downward faster and faster, first with something of a refrain (handclaps, the title finally sung), then a turbulent pair of verses that contain the destruction of the village within them. It ends with a quiet 10-bar coda, the boy picking his way free from the rubble while the guitar pattern of the intro reappears, suggesting the cycle will begin again, here or elsewhere.

“Freecloud” was first recorded on 20 June 1969 as the b-side of the “Space Oddity” single and a revised version for the LP was cut roughly a month later. Consider the two versions a struggle between Bowie’s two main producers of the ’60s—Gus Dudgeon, who helmed the spare guitar-and-bass initial recording, and Tony Visconti, who seemed hell-bent on trumping Dudgeon for the LP remake.

Visconti called the Dudgeon recording a “throwaway” (it had been recorded in about twenty minutes) while hearing “a Wagnerian orchestra in my head” for his remake, and the LP version of “Freecloud” is an elaborate one-upmanship to Dudgeon’s “Space Oddity” production: Dudgeon has eight tracks on “Space Oddity”? Visconti has 16 for the new “Freecloud”! Dudgeon uses a dozen or so string and wind players? Visconti gets Philips to fund a 50-piece orchestra, including harp and tympani!

But the orchestral arrangement has an overbearing presence—it begins at top volume and goes upward, so that the chaos of the later verses lacks the dramatic force it should have. It’s a crowded party in which each guest tries to dominate the conversation: nearly every line Bowie sings is accompanied by some swoop of strings, brass blast, harp plucks, or tympani crashes. It may be the old punk purist in me, but I find the original B-side recording—a duet between Bowie’s 12-string acoustic guitar and Paul Buckmaster on Arco bass—has a cold severity and power that eludes the Visconti production. Because a fable only really needs a voice.

The Ronson-led 1973 live performance linked above, in which “Freecloud” segues into “All the Young Dudes” as if it was always meant to do, is a marvel.

Top: “Vietnamese civilians, countryside,” taken by Lt. Commander Charles H. Roszel, 1969.

20 Responses to Reissues: Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud

  1. Galdo says:

    I really like the Visconti version. I like the grandiosity the orchestra added to the track. But I can’t deny, a fable only really needs a voice.

    • leonoutside says:

      Love this song. This post. Both versions, and particularly Visconti’s album production. Tolkien didn’t “ring true” when he denied his “Lord of The Rings” wasn’t inspired by Richard Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibeling”. Wagner’s 15 hour epic “Ring” opera has much to associate it with Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud – especially the Visconti(TV) version. Bowie’s lyric led TV to it! Bowie’s “boy” is Wagner’s “Siegfried” (Wagner himself is thought to have based Siegfried on Mikhail Bakunin, a Russian anarchist). TV uses dozens of Leitmotifs – musical phrases associated with an idea or character. Wagner spent 26 years or so putting together 150 leitmotifs to accompany his narrative, and to the reveal subconscious feelings of the character, – or of what will happen later on in the opera. So the young Brooklyn boy dismayed by his Space Oddity decision, thinks, “I Know, this is what I’ll do…” And for me, it works great!

      Oh, re the Ronson led segue into All The Young Dudes, it’s great – but for me, I like the track to breath separately.

  2. I heard the live/Young Dudes version before the album version and I totally agree that it’s superior.

  3. Jason Das says:

    I like all the versions! Buckmaster’s cello part is super, but the orchestral bombast works for me, too. Was nice to hear Holy Holy resurrect the Freecloud/Young Dudes/Pretty Things medley live. It really works.

    I listened to (and loved) this song for about 20 years before properly paying attention to the lyrics. (That didn’t improve it for me … I like to think of it as a less specific story/situation.)

  4. s.t. says:

    Visconti’s arrangement is indeed cluttered and cacophonous. Still, I prefer Bowie’s singing in the second take, particularly in the triumphant/defiant swell. So I’m a bit torn between the two.

  5. ecsongbysong says:

    If I have to decide, I’ll choose the original take — and chalk up the overeager orchestration of Visconti’s version to youthful exuberance. I don’t like second-guessing one of the greatest producers in history. To be sure, he came up with far more tasteful string parts on later records.

    But the song is a masterpiece, albeit one from a very specific time. I imagine Bowie never returned to “Wild-Eyed Boy” after ’73 out of a recognition that the seventies just wouldn’t stand for it — much as I suspect he axed “Fascination” from the Live Aid set because he knew that song would wither like a shade plant in the sun if he tried to do it in the eighties.

    Lovely entry. I’m really enjoying being exposed anew to some of these older posts.

  6. Michael says:

    I love the live version with the segue into Dudes.

    The high backing vocals on the word “free” just absolutely kill.

    It’s really Me
    Really You
    And really Me
    It’s so hard for us to really be
    Really You
    And really Me
    You’ll lose me though I’m always
    really freeeeeeeeeeeeee!!

    Then the ATYD riffs kicks in, wonderful!

  7. Jubany says:

    The first Bowie song I ever recorded, in 1999. I tried to emulate the whole Visconti arrangement with a cheesy Yamaha organ. Speaking of which… I read in the post before this one that someone has covered the whole Blackstar album. That led me to you to share with you this: The morning of January 11th I was approached by the owner of a local music club called Let’s Dance to do a tribute show, since I’m the most obvious go-for Bowie-related pop singer in my town (Rosario, Argentina), to say the least (in fact, that week I did more radio and newspaper interviews than ever!). I thought a lot about it because I didn’t want to make a cash-in tribute show. I really felt it had to be a very special gig. My band wasn’t available (summer holidays and all that) so I decided I’d do the Blackstar album from start to finish with only piano and vocals, which I did, given that it IS a jazz oriented album, not because it has a lot of sax solos, but because of the chord progressions and modal changes, so it was a lot more natural thing to do than it may seem. That was January 23th, so maybe it was the first time that the album was performed live in its entirety. So: if you people (and Chris, of course) are interested, I may upload the performance at YouTube and post the link here. Anyway, thanks for reading. I wanted to share this with you at some point. I don’t comment very often, but I’m a full time reader of this wonderful blog and, in a way, a proud member of the intelligent and sensitive community that grew around here.

  8. Cansorian says:

    I agree that the original version has a lot more charm than Visconti’s version, but like s.t. above, think the vocal in the latter is better. I really like the way in the “It’s really me” section you can hear David Jones turn into David Bowie.

  9. Alon Shmuel says:

    I never liked this song, even in the period when I was a kid who loved every Bowie song. I always had enough when the hand clapping starts, after reading this entry, I guess it’s (at least partly) due to the over the top production. The original B-side is new to me, it’s much better than the album version. Thanks Chris.

  10. MC says:

    I’ve usually avoided the album version of Freecloud; for me, it’s the earliest example of Bowie’s propensity for overproduction, which would plague some of his later, weaker albums of the 80’s and 90’s (and a rare misstep for Visconti). I would agree that the B-side is the essential Freecloud; its inclusion on Sound And Vision is one of the great things about that collection.

    As for the vocal on each, I don’t see a giant difference between the recordings, though DB hits a noticeable bum note at the end of his earlier rendition.

    His finest singing, though, may be on the 1973 medley version. Generally, I find medleys to be old-time showbiz at its worst, with the recent Gaga tribute being a case in point, but Freecloud/Dudes/Pretty Things is a grand exception. I agree with Michael: that last “Freeeee” is magnificent.

    Great piece, Chris, in both the blog and book versions.🙂

  11. Bee365 says:

    I haven’t listened to this for years and years. It was never one of my favourites, I think because of the strong storyline – the Bowie songs I like best are the ones where you have to work out for yourself what’s going on. But hearing it again, it’s much better, and more powerful, than I remembered. And as an odd bonus, the YouTube version of the album track is playing over some well-chosen footage from ‘Noggin the Nog’, whose handmade pseudo-Norse whimsy it suits surprisingly well!

  12. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    I used to own the first official cd pressing of the Ziggy farewell concert at the Hammersmith Odeon where, as we all know, this song was performed as part of a medley with Oh! You Pretty Things and All the Young Dudes.
    To me, one of the highlights of the show was when he hit that really shrill, sustained high note on the word; ”freeeeee’, before segueing into Dudes.
    A few years back I replaced my copy of the album with the new, whizz-bang re-mixed version, primarily because it was advertised as being a better mix and or pressing, with a few extra bits included. (Although, disappointingly, this did not include Jeff Beck’s omitted parts.)
    To my horror, that spine-tingling high note that he hit and sustained had been exorcised from the show like an unwanted evil spirit and replaced with a crooned version instead. If I’d known they were going to do this, I’d have kept my original version.
    Has anybody else noticed this? Is it possible that Bowie re-sang the part in the studio and mixed it in, because he was unhappy with the original? Chris, can you shed any light on this bit of unwelcome revisionism?

    • Matthew says:

      I wouldn’t be surprised, he definitely messed around with the between track chat on Santa Monica, such as his Andy Warhol impersonation, much to the detriment of the feeling of being there.

      • col1234 says:

        yes, it’s fair to say most Bowie live recordings have some sort of studio doctoring but the Ziggy farewell concert is the biggest (Earl Slick overdubs are on the recording in places, and more vocals were cut in the ’80s by Visconti and Bowie).

  13. Matthew says:

    Lots of Bowie stuff on Youtube doesn’t seem to play here in the UK either taken down or not available this one of the 1973 live show plays at the moment.
    Never heard the original before, it really brings out the vocal and story, love it.
    Villagers as vigilantes seem to be a recurring theme in the sixties from Hammer Horror versions of Frankenstein to The Small Faces ‘Mad John’

    There was an old man who lived in the greenwood
    Nobody knew him or what he had done
    But mothers would say to their children, “Beware of Mad John.”

    and

    So here was a wise one who loved all the haters
    He loved them so much that their hate turned to fear
    And shaking from behind their curtains the loved ones would hear.

    • Matthew says:

      Sorry pressed post by accident halfway through. I like to think of Mad John as the wild eyed boy grown older and wiser still living on the margins of society but happy. I’ve always found Freecloud such a melancholy song with no real resolution. That desultory kicking of the pebbles in weary acceptance is such a sad end.

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