Reissues: Panic In Detroit

Here’s one that didn’t get many comments back when, and whose lyrical scenario seems more true to life today than it did in 1973, sadly. One of those songs whose simplicity, drive, power and wit kept it in the Bowie repertoire throughout his touring years.

Originally posted on 10 June 2010: It’s “Panic In Detroit.”

Panic In Detroit.
Panic in Detroit (live, 1973).
Panic In Detroit (live 1974).

Panic In Detroit (rehearsal, 1976).
Panic in Detroit (live, 1976 (here’s to Dennis Davis)).
Panic In Detroit (remake, 1979).
Panic In Detroit (live, 1990)
Panic In Detroit (live 1997).
Panic in Detroit (live, 2004).

In July 1972 Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman came to Miami for the Democratic National Convention, and whenever they went out on the street, a mob of policemen followed them. Rubin and Hoffman expected nothing less: at the 1968 convention, the Chicago police had made a sport of clubbing and gassing protesters outside the convention hall. This time, however, there was a rumor that a camera crew funded by Warner Bros. would be making a film of the Yippies’ adventures, so the police mainly just wanted to get into the movies. Each one hoped to be the cop on screen bashing Abbie Hoffman’s head in with a club. There was no movie crew, so it was a peaceful convention.

The leading man of “Panic In Detroit” is a fading revolutionary/sex symbol whose last act is suicide, though he graciously leaves behind a last autograph. Inspired by Iggy Pop’s stories of the 1967 Detroit riots and the rise of the White Panther Party, the song’s last main ingredient was Bowie’s encounter at his Carnegie Hall show with a former classmate from Bromley Tech. This nondescript middle-class British kid had become a drug dealer operating out of South America; he’d flown his private plane to the show.

“Panic In Detroit” came as the New Left was devolving into celebrity personality-cult terrorism. The White Panthers’ John Sinclair (former jazz critic and the MC5’s former manager, commemorated by John Lennon on Some Time in New York City) and the late world-trotting revolutionary Che Guevara (whose Korda photograph, once an icon for radicals, now hangs in dorm rooms) were just the starting rounds. Now there was the Weather Underground, whose internal politics were those of a touring, squabbling rock group; Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang (Baader, who owned a Che poster, paid a designer to make his group’s machine-gun-and-star logo), and California’s Symbionese Liberation Army, whose kidnapping of the heiress Patty Hearst in 1974 was one of America’s most popular TV programs.(See Camper Van Beethoven’s “Tania”:“How I long for the days when you [Hearst] came to liberate us from boredom/From driving around from five to seven in the evening.”)

Political violence was a means of self-expression; revolutionary cells became performance artists, their various alliances with criminal groups a form of patronage. It was catnip for Bowie. In “Panic In Detroit,” he gave his provincial Che (late of the perfectly-named National People’s Gang) a backdrop of riot-torn streets and bloodless authority, the latter embodied by a cringing teacher and a student who runs to smash a slot machine in the chaos.

“Panic In Detroit” is also Bowie’s snapshot of the America that he encountered in depth for the first time, touring through it in late 1972: an America he spied through bus and limo windows and from hotel balconies: a country of empty spaces and fallen cities.

“There were snipers all over America, on tops of buildings,” he recalled in 1990. (There weren’t, really; Bowie was likely remembering Charles Whitman, who killed 14 people in 1966 during his sniper rampage from Austin’s University Tower, or even the “Scorpio” killer of Dirty Harry, who opens that film by picking off a woman swimming in a rooftop pool.) For Bowie, America had validated his imagination—the dystopic worlds he had been describing in song for years had turned out to be real places, filled with glamorous decay and casual murder. In Texas, Los Angeles and New York, he’d been harassed and even attacked by strangers. “It was really happening. Suddenly my songs didn’t look out of place,” he said.

Opening with a power chord riff, its monstrous-sounding tone soon tracked with another Wah-Wahed guitar, Mick Ronson shadows Bowie with bombing runs down the scale that end with thick clots of E chordal figures. In the refrain he needles Bowie’s vocal with lines that expire in clouds of feedback. Given leave to solo in the bridge, he sneers.

Working on Ronson’s behalf are a rockabilly Trevor Bolder bassline and a mesh of percussion. Emboldened by his conversion to Scientology and bitter about his paltry wages, Woody Woodmansey refused to play a Bo Diddley-esque shuffle Ronson and Bowie had requested, saying it was corny. Instead he played 16ths on his medium toms and punctuated chorus phrases with his crash cymbal (phased, like the backing vocals). So Bowie brought in his friend Geoff MacCormack to play congas and maracas to cook up a Diddley-style “swamp” groove. The track’s central pulse is MacCormack’s moves between high and low congas, occasionally muting the high conga for effect, as on the title phrase. Gliding between B minor and D major, “Panic In Detroit” descends into the maelstrom for its minute-plus coda, with Ronson’s pick scratches, Woodmansey’s crashes, MacCormack’s congas and the wails of Juanita Franklin and Linda Lewis sounding like a collective murder.

Mostly composed in Detroit during the Spiders’ first visit there (8 October 1972), “Panic In Detroit” was completed on 24 January 1973. A rarity in the last Ziggy Stardust shows, it was a regular in the 1974 tour (a live Philadelphia recording was the B-side of “Knock on Wood”) and in many later tours: Bowie played it up until the end. He also remade the song with Tony Visconti, Zaine Griff and Andy Duncan in 1979 for Kenny Everett’s New Year’s Eve show, but another remake (of “Space Oddity”) took its place in the show —this revised “Panic in Detroit” (with a cameo by either a Speak n Spell or an imitation of one) later appeared on reissues of Scary Monsters and Heathen.

Top: “Anarchistische Gewalttäter”: wanted poster for the Baader-Meinhof Gang, ca. 1972? “Beware! These violent criminals will make ruthless use of guns!” (GHDI).

37 Responses to Reissues: Panic In Detroit

  1. djmac says:

    WHAT?!! This got no comments on the original post??? Then let me be the first! I love this song! One of the many many many jewels from Aladdin Sane!
    and as always, thank you for all your work Chris!

    • col1234 says:

      oh, it got a few; like 8 over five years

    • waki says:

      There is an interesting recent comment out there on that song:

      (Filmmaker and activist) Michael Moore … had … trouble when he tried to secure David Bowie’s right to “Panic in Detroit” for his 1997 documentary, The Big One (a documentary that exposes more wrongdoing by greedy big businesses). “Whoever determines these things initially turned us down,” says Moore. “I finally just made a call to David myself and he gave me the song. I’ve read stuff since his death saying that he wasn’t that political and he stayed away from politics. But that wasn’t the conversation that I had with him. … We live in a better world as a result of the Springsteens and the David Bowies and the Dylans.”
      (scroll down to the end)

  2. stowe says:

    Woah thanks for sharing that 1979 version. I was unaware of that. This is such a great song, brilliantly arranged that I easily forget about amongst all his brilliance. One of the first DB songs I heard that really drew me in!

    Who ever did the female backing vocals adds a vital spice

    • I adore the 1979 version! Although it may be sacrilegious to admit, the Aladdin Sane version has never really done much for me; it wasn’t until I heard the remake that the lyrical content “clicked.” The original sounds like he’s just singing a song, whereas the remake sounds like he’s emotionally recounting something that he experienced,

      I also prefer the stripped-down sound… It seems to suit the lyrics better than the lush, Aladdin-Sane era production. I’d contend that it was never really a glam rock song at heart.

      • stowe says:

        Interesting. Always interesting the different perspectives people can have, seems other hate it. I didn’t think the 79 version was bad, but I just loved the Aladdin Sane version first 🙂

  3. ecsongbysong says:

    No offense to the song, which I love, but I always figured the backing vocals were a pretty overt steal of those harrowing Merry Clayton wails from “Gimme Shelter.” I’m not familiar with Juanita Franklin and Linda Lewis, though — are those names I would know from other songs? Just curious.

    Nice post, Chris, as always. Yes, let’s all raise a glass to the great Dennis Davis — man, did he ever slay on that drum solo in ’76. Somebody pointed out to me this morning that the Nassau Coliseum bootleg from that tour was recorded exactly forty years ago today. That’s crazy to think — it sounds as fresh as if it were being played right now.

    Oh, and shout out to Speak N Spell! It’s a little sad that you were concerned enough we might not know what you were talking about that you had to link to a YouTube demo. Man, am I ever getting old…

    • Dr Z says:

      Plenty of Linda on wikipedia e.g.she opened Knebworth in ’75 followed by Roy Harper & Captain Beefheart!

  4. Frank from Frankfurt says:

    Thank you, Chris, for that repost. I was not aware of a lot of details about how the song came to be and who or what might have been an inspiration – and that Woody did not want to play a Bo Diddley drum pattern. Thank you very much for that insight!

    I have to add I was as well very surprised about the picture you chose. I am German and I still remember that poster well (it hang in our local post office, just like they used to hang these posters in office buildings in the “wild west” in those movies). I would like to add that Baader in Germany today is considered a kind of “role model of a ‘fashionable’ terrorist”, who drove a Porsche, was aware of his own public inpact – and who was clearly in love with his own image. He was considered to be arrogant, violent and dangerous – and more in love with the act of terrorism than with thinking about who, how and why he would fight. Some of the other people on that poster had a different approach to their actions (Ulrike Meinhof for example, who used to be a leading editor before going underground, was an intellectual who killed herself when she had realized that her way was leading nowhere and she was isolated as well within the small group of prisoners in Stammheim), but Baader was the “Rockstar” amongst these German terrorists, and he obviously liked that role. I will try not to go any deeper into this discussion, but there still is a vital discussion about the RAF (Rote Arme Fraktion, not Royal Airforce) in Germany today, about their background, their actions, their convictions, their principles, and as well about their victimes (who generally were high ranking German economical leaders and their security staff). Sorry for writing more about German terrorism of the 70ties than about the wonderful music of David Bowie. What I wanted to say is that Baader has been described by his fellows as a very problematic character (original quote is quite often “asshole”), whereas others – like Ulrike Meinhof – were really convinced they were fighting for a just cause, and have later been able to question their own role.

    Small correction concering the timing of the poster: Baader was arrested (finally and for the last time) in 1972 in a carport in Frankfurt (next to his Porsche), so this poster with his face on it cannot date from 1977, but rather from the Hunky Dory/Ziggy days.

    • col1234 says:

      Frank: thanks: a commenter on the old post said the poster couldn’t be from 72 (as i had it originally) but 77. so i changed the date. but they were wrong? ha. goes to show you should stick with your gut.

      yes: agree that Meinhof was the “real deal” in a way where Baader was the rockstar of the bunch. & don’t apologize for going into this stuff, as it’s exactly what DB was writing about in this song, I believe.

      • Frank from Frankfurt says:

        Thank you, Chris, and yes: Always stay with your original convictions/information. Your approach is so well researched and so well considered, you are probably 99% right.

        Thank you for that – it is always a pleasure to read your blog. For me it’s like a goldmine – a literal one, not a velvet one. Though I have to admit I have no idea what a velvet goldmine would be… so much gets lost if you are not a native English speaker. And your blog reveals so much for me, thank you again!

  5. fantailfan says:

    The 1979 remake sounds a bit like another satire of David Byrne’s quirky enunciation.

  6. BenJ says:

    This is one of the songs that as soon as I heard about the poll – before that, really – I knew I’d be voting for. Bowie does a wonderful job of sketching out a twisted story here. It’s also one of the Wood Man’s best drum performances, congas and all.

    • BenJ says:

      Self-correction: I want to give MacCormack his share of credit for the percussion too.

  7. Notonecte Glauque says:

    Dedicated to the Jean Genie/ Jean Genet-Outrageous POPterberberg-Guevara Genre- good tune, especially when performed during the 1974 shows with this emblematic neverending Earl Slick solo. The 1979 version seems weak compared to those (but this is just my opinion).

  8. Notonecte Glauque says:

    Read “POPsterberg” & not POPterberg, of course…

    • nomad science says:


      This is something I’m interested in myself (as if my name didn’t give it away). How familiar with Deleuze & Guattari was Bowie? As Chris mentions in his entry for “A Small Plot of Land,” the title is likely a reference to this passage in A Thousand Plateaus, which Duncan Jones probably read while in pursuit of a philosophy PhD:

      “Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times.”

      Outside is a very Deleuzian (Deleuzoguattarian?) album on the whole, and its subtitle, “the Ritual Art-Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle,” could be the title of something cooked up by the Deleuzians of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at the University of Warwick in the mid-90s.

      But even without a direct influence there is a lot of overlap between Bowie’s approach to art (music+image, sound+vision) and D&G’s concepts of the schizo, becoming, territoriality, BwO, smooth and striated space in music, and so on.

      • col1234 says:

        yes pretty sure DB did read this, as I think he read everything

      • Waki says:

        There is an interview somewhere where he does mention them — or is it Brian Eno who does. It might be about their recirding (of Low?) in a French castle. Beung in France led them to comment of contemporaneous French Philosophy — so obviously they were aware
        But as far as i understood when I read the interviews, they were making fun of it. Like it was BS — too abstract too far from life too much of “intellectual masturbation” as we say in France.
        But maybe i missed the point and am too dumb.

  9. bootedhoss says:

    I thought Visconti said in his autobiography that it was his voice imitating a Speak n Spell.

  10. Matthew says:

    I particularly like the line in quotations at the end, “Let me collect dust”. This really sums how the jaded revolutionary feels at the failure of the movement to produce any real change, rejecting fame to just fade away unremembered.

  11. Matthew says:

    Off topic I know, but what does anyone make of new discovery “To Be Love”? If I just randomly heard it on the radio I wouldn’t have picked it as a DB vocal.

    • BenJ says:

      Truth to tell, I didn’t even know about “To Be Love” until reading your comment. Now I’ve listened to it at Consequence of Sound. I like the way it starts off sounding like a “Peggy Sue” cover and gets crazier and more psychedelic from there. It’s engagingly manic.

    • Jasmine says:

      This is my own opinion

      This is NOT a Bowie demo whatsoever.

      He doesn’t even have a vocal on it.

      To say ‘Not only is it the first song David Bowie recorded in the U.S., it is also his final track’ is outrageous.

      The dates quoted don’t tie up with real events and other facts are also incorrect.

      Unless Aynsley Dunbar can give this proper provenance I will give it the respect it deserves and exclude it from the canon.

      • Matthew says:

        I didn’t understand the final track reference, nor did it sound like DB which is why I asked. Wonder who it is, sounds like west coast psychedelic, strange sound right at beginning of song.

      • Matthew says:

        Thanks, I don’t know enough DB history to thoroughly pick the story apart but my ears just couldn’t hear any DB in there. More of this sort of thing to come I expect, lets hope something genuine turns up.

      • BenJ says:

        On reflection it’s a little suspicious that DB’s part in this is supposed to be drums. “Cactus” is the only release where he plays them as far as I know, and while he’s not bad it would be perverse to hire him as a session drummer instead of guitar or sax.

  12. s.t. says:

    Always loved this one.
    And I always found this covered-then-remixed version charming:

  13. Jasmine says:

    I have always been intrigued by the line ‘jumped the silent cars that slept the traffic lights’. It was that line on the AS album (my second ever after Lets Dance) which made me go and buy all the Green label RCA Intl re-releases and truly become a Bowie fan. I love that line!
    My favourite version is from David Live but shout out to Dennis Davis for 76, they really shouldn’t have shortened the drum solo on Nassau – how would Bowie have got through those gigs without that drum solo…!
    But I never really fathomed why Bowie added it to the Heathen bonus disc and I can only think it was linked to 9/11 and he saw America was in panic mode? That, or he was back working with Visconti again? Did anyone here have a view on that?

    • Frank from Frankfurt says:

      Of course I don’t have a clue either – but I think that your impression is pretty accurate: It probably was the 9-11 reaction. Bowies complete Album was considered an reaction to that, although it had been completed before, so he chose the one song which matched the situation best.

      On the Visconti-option: I don’t think so. It had been a bonus track of Scary Monsters in the EMI/Rycodisk-Edition, so why come up with it again? This was more than just a gesture towards an old friend and collaborator, it probably was a statement against terrorism – and a clear message to whoever thinks that any kind of violence against people might be ok (not only so called “terrorists”, I include as well country leaders of the first world): This is NOT ok. Never. Nowhere. For no reason.

    • Matthew says:

      Agreed a very strange choice for a Heathen bonus track. Looking around other sites people seem to view it as a nod to Tony Visconti but given the massive impact 9/11 had on everyone it is tempting to view it that way, although apart from the “Panic in…” refrain and “Ran to the window / Looked for a plane or two” the rest of the lyrics don’t seem to fit.
      The protagonist in the song views the terrorist as a sort of celebrity to get an autograph from, like some pop star. So maybe in this context the song can be viewed as a warning that wall to wall tv coverage can serve to glamourise such events in the minds of some.

  14. Gozomoto says:

    This song never ceases to energize me, even when I’m at my most sluggish. It’s definitely in my top 15, and I love the ’76 version. I find it fascinating how deeply affected Bowie was by late 1960s- early-1970s American culture and politics. (I also find it fascinating how this blog sends me down endless rabbit holes!).

    I am, er, was (huge and recent heartbreak), a dog owner, and my bestie, Gozo, always seemed more content when Bowie was playing; it was the soundtrack of his 13 years with me. This particular tune was on regular rotation.

    One day last fall, while we were at the vet for his now bi-weekly appointments, he was doing his best to escape from the (very kind) doctor, which is hard to do in a 6’x5′ room when you’re 120 lbs and the door is shut. He looked at me pleadingly and let out an enormous howl. I swear he was channeling Bowie, because my next thought “Panic in Detroit” only I heard “Panic at the Vet.” Gozo proceeded to transmit his lyrics to me telepathically (okay, maybe I imagined that part, but I had a ton of fun with it), and they were every bit as apocalyptic as Bowie’s …

  15. Anonymous says:

    I completely concur with ecsongbysong that Panic is DB’s Gimme Shelter, a churning, nightmarish rocker against the backdrop of the crumbling Sixties. What a superlative song and performance – one of my all-time Bowie faves. Anyway, contra Woody, I don’t think you can go wrong with a Bo Diddley beat.

    I’m fascinated by the ’79 revision, though I don’t really like it that much; I find it really fussy and laboured, like a lot of DB’s remakes of his own songs. What strikes me after listening to it just now is how much it resembles some of the berserk New Wave era covers of classic rock staples, like Devo doing Satisfaction or XTC doing All Along The Watchtower, right down to the yelping vocal. That it’s Bowie deconstructing his own song is pretty interesting, though the Speak and Spell cameo may be the best part of it.

  16. Waki says:

    How funny and curious… Thanks to this post I listened to Panic in Detroit paying attention and it sounds as if I have never heard it before. Many other songs from Aladin Sane are part of my emotional and sensory DNA because that was an album i listened to a lot in my teens but this one? Unnoticed and forgotten.
    I am rediscovering Bowie these days (months…) and i can only accept thanks to your explanations that this is significant Bowie stuff. Significant because of the subject. Indeed a great perfect subject for a Bowie topic …and bringing the Baader Bande in makes so much sense! The fact that the BB is still a topic in Germany tells again of Bowie’s gift as a visionary social observer and artist.

    Listened to both the early and 1976 version. Still not convinced it is a great song. I only recognize and therefore appreciate his singing his energy his voice. Will dive more into the lyrics now. It seems the juice is there.
    Overall the music and guitar and energy reminds me The Clash… Did they borrow from it?
    Am i deluded?

    I am far more ignorant than most of you guys –and from France with limited English– so hope am not offending anyone saying i must have heard this songs 10 or 100 times before and it never registered.
    Interesting that it was important to the man himself DB. I am sure its because of the lyrics and topic not the music.
    On a somewhat distantly related topic i find the music of I Am Afraid of Americans very effective. I discovered that song (like all other later albums) only lately but this is one of my favorite.

    • Waki says:

      oh ahem well. Did my homework listened to the various versions and studied the lyrics and their context and then listened again to the orginal on Aladin Sane

      i hear the swirl of genious
      playing with the swirl of madness

      you are doing a great job Chris
      and i feel so humbled so overwhelmed by the playfullness
      the creativity
      the boldness
      the vision
      the lightness
      the density
      the intelligence
      the sensitivity
      the fearlessness
      the memoŕy
      of Bowie

%d bloggers like this: