Reissues: Golden Years

As you likely know, Dennis Davis died last week, furthering this year’s ambition to be the worst year ever. In his honor, I’ve revived one of his first performances for Bowie, the “Golden Years” single, and included his isolated drum track (listen to the hi-hat!).

Though it was one of the huge Bowie Seventies hits, “Golden Years” can sometimes feel overlooked (was it because it was so rarely performed live)? My mother, a high school teacher, says most of her kids only know it because of A Knight’s Tale. Seems right.

Also, my thanks to the blog readers who came to my Iggy Pop panel last weekend: it was great meeting you all!

Originally posted 30 November 2010: run for the shadows.

Golden Years.
Golden Years (Dennis Davis drum track).
Golden Years (Soul Train).
Golden Years (live, 1983).
Golden Years (live, 1990).
Golden Years (live, 2000).

Having spent summer 1975 in New Mexico making The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie returned to Los Angeles in late August, already under pressure to follow up his #1 single. Disturbed by stories circulating about Bowie’s erratic behavior, RCA sent executives to the movie set to check on him. He told them to pack off. As “Fame” had done the trick, Bowie rounded up the same producer, Harry Maslin, and most of the same group—Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick on guitar and the drummer Dennis Davis, with the bassist George Murray recruited from Weldon Irvine’s jazz/funk outfit.

For a studio, Bowie and Maslin investigated Cherokee, which had opened the previous January in the former MGM studios on Fairfax Avenue. It swiftly had become one of LA’s premier studios, inheriting MGM clients like Frank Sinatra (see “Wild is the Wind”). Bowie sang in its cavernous Studio One, played a piano chord and said “this will do nicely.” Unlike Sigma Sound, where he’d cut most of Young Americans, Cherokee prided itself on space, tech and amenities—five studio rooms, 24-track consoles, 24-hour sessions, a fully-stocked bar in the lounge.

First order of business was a prospective single, “Golden Years,” a song he’d started writing in May before leaving for the film shoot. His friend Geoff MacCormack, for whom Bowie tried out the song, suggested a trombone-like WAH-wah-WAH tag for the refrains. At Cherokee, MacCormack added more embellishments like a “go-oh-oh-old” phrase as a tag for the bridge and a similarly descending “run for the shadows” hook. MacCormack even wound up filling in for Bowie on the falsetto for the bridge’s backing vocal (at :45, for example), which was torture for him to sing.

The last time Bowie followed up a career-altering hit he’d cut “The Prettiest Star” as an ill-fated sequel to “Space Oddity.” Time had made him sharper and cannier in his approach. “Golden Years” was both a natural response to “Fame,” keeping the latter’s icy disco sound, but also a swerve back towards the sounds of his early adolescence. He used the Diamonds’ “Happy Years,” a 1958 doo-wop hymn to teenagerdom, and two “Broadway” songs—the Drifters’ “On Broadway,” which Alomar recalled Bowie playing on piano during rehearsals and throwing in a “come buh-buh-buh baby” after each line, and Dyke and the Blazers’ “Funky Broadway,” which Slick raided for a few riffs.* Fittingly, Bowie wrote “Golden Years” with Elvis Presley’s vocal range in mind, although he never submitted the song to Elvis, as negotiations with his manager Col. Tom Parker went nowhere (though Bowie once told Dwight Yoakam, of all people, that Elvis had asked him to produce an album in 1977).

Yet any golden oldie he nicked was nearly unrecognizable, as it was blended with his interpretation of the sound of Kraftwerk and Neu!, heard in the conversation of guitars and its cycling progression: an F-sharp chord downshifting to E major on the third beat of each bar. Bowie described his aim years later when he talked of his love of Donna Summer’s records: “this incredible sound, half-Kraftwerk, half-American soul. An amazing incongruous juxtaposition.”

Cut in roughly ten days at the start of the Station to Station sessions, “Golden Years” was issued as a single less than two months later: it charted while Bowie was still at Cherokee finishing the album. Maslin said “Golden Years” came together with little fuss, especially by comparison to the endless number of retakes and overdubs on the rest of the album. The single was mixed full of small pleasures: Dennis Davis’ hi-hat lifts (right on the beat in the verse/refrains, he moves to slightly hang behind on the bridges) and other echo-slathered percussion (handclaps, vibraslap, melodica); Bowie and MacCormack’s “round-sounding” backing vocals via an old RCA mike Maslin dusted off. The dueling guitars—one right-mixed playing variations on the opening riff throughout while a left-mixed phased guitar (likely Alomar) keeps a gliding rhythm until moving, after the bridges, to a three-chord riff that echoes MacCormack’s “WAH-wah-WAH.”

Bowie played little games with the song structure, making the bridge either two or six bars. The longer bridge had the song’s only real progression, a run from G major (“nothing’s gonna touch you”) through A minor (“golden”) and an E minor seventh (“yeeeears”) capped off with a 2/4 bar: Bowie singing the descending “go-oh-oh-ollld” hook shadowed by a Murray bass slide he overlaid with Moog. He did the same to his lyric, altering phrasings and rhythms. In the third verse, he moves from a word-packed, near-rap to surge up to an F# on “all the WAY!”, then tumbles right into a fresh chorus hook, the harmonized “run for the shadows.”

Here’s my baby, lost that’s all

“Golden Years” opens as a blessing, with Bowie and MacCormack cooing the title phrase, and its opening verses are Bowie in huckster mode (see “Right”), singing sharply enunciated syllables stepping down in pitch. There’s the bustling consonance of “in walked luck and you looked in time” and an octave leap to “AN-gel”matched, four bars later, by a depths-dredging “yuh-uh-unnng.”

The promise of “golden years” isn’t communal here. The chance is offered only to one person: the hope of being sealed off in a limousine from the street. His life in Los Angeles added to the lyric’s anomie—long paranoid days in his mansion; making an appearance on Dinah Shore with the Fonz. Angela Bowie, busy with her own celebrity, said the song was Bowie’s blessing for her and perhaps it was, as there was a threat in it. You want fame? Here, take it: it will eat you up. Last night they loved you, opening doors and pulling some strings, Bowie sang, snarling out the gees. The following night, the doors could well be shut. A rap of materialist promises becomes a desperate prayer to God, followed by a murmured warning to run for the shadows. At first caressing the words “golden years,” Bowie began to put them to the rack, rattling consonants, rotting vowels—“years” was a strangled curse heard beneath the backing vocals (esp. at 2:58).

Its video complement was Bowie’s performance on Soul Train, where he’s a wraithlike spiv barely able to keep his balance, let alone mime his vocal. It’s as though he’s hearing the song for the first time, that he’s still in character from The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s his loneliest, saddest television appearance: a crowd of magnificent strangers dance around him, as if communally denying his presence.

Recorded ca. late September 1975, released 17 November 1975 as RCA 2640 c/w “Can You Hear Me” (#8 UK, #10 US). For whatever reasons (its difficulty of singing, perhaps), he never performed “Golden Years” on the Isolar tour of 1976 (there’s one show at which he allegedly sang it, but no proof), waiting until 1983 to debut it live. He played it very sporadically thereafter: just a handful of times in 1990 and 2000.

Top: Peter Turnley, “San Diego, 1975.” (From the collection “The Other California.”)

*There’s of course the chance that Alomar and Slick, both of whom have admitted to not remembering much of the sessions, are confusing their respective “Broadway” songs.

26 Responses to Reissues: Golden Years

  1. Patrick says:

    For me, it’s the exquisite opening that draws you in, the economy of that wispy smokey melodica(?) . Like the saying goes. “you had me at “hello”. Though it does seem vocally quite a challenge in contrast to the deceptively lazy/relaxed backing.

  2. Ragnhild says:

    Thank you for posting Dennis Davis drum track separetly. What a great gesture to abrilliant drummer. And yes…. musicwise this is the worst year ever!!!

  3. JW says:

    Possibly the Bowie song I find myself humming most frequently in idle moments. Run for the shadows….

    What a wonderful drum track. And the vocal tracks are staggering. Here’s the lead:

    And here is the harmony:

    • col1234 says:

      yeah, the drum track vanished from YT a while ago. keep in mind, as i noted in the entry, that it’s MacCormack singing those high notes in the backing vox track. well done, Geoff

  4. Jasmine says:

    That Russell Harty interview though, when he introduces GY as ‘The shape of things to come’ and then ‘Golden Tears’ and then shows the Soul Train performance. And then asks Bowie about what he’s wearing and Bowie says ‘It was a functional suit. That suit was very functional. It was a functional suit’.
    Despite being a great Bowie song it has always made me feel sad because Bowie was so totally out of it in 75 and this was almost his point of no return, publicly announcing his drug problems on prime time UK TV was a low point.
    I might have imagined this but thought I read somewhere that this song might have been for Ava Cherry; weren’t they breaking up around the time he was writing it?

    • Sky-Possessing Spider says:

      I can’t say with absolute certainty, but I’ve always believed it was a pick me up song for Angie whose career was in the doldrums after auditioning for the part of Wonder Woman and losing out to Linda Carter.
      Apparently David and Angie had made some kind of a pact when they first got together that first she would direct all her energy into getting his career off the ground, then he would return the favour. But unfortunately she kept running up against the same hurdle of a lack of any discernible talent…

      • Jasmine says:

        Ah yes – Jipp Jones
        A lot of people thought he wrote songs for/about them, he could even have been writing GY about himself in the third person, in a kind of ‘sort your life out Dave’ way! (though I doubt it)

  5. sakura_starfall says:

    A great song from my favourite Bowie album. Staggering vocals, great drum track. I’m so wishing I could hear the jam session happening beyond the pearly gates right now…RIP Dennis.

  6. Stolen Guitar says:

    Thank you for the drum and vocal tracks; it’s the first time I’ve heard either in isolation and they really do illustrate just how much of an accomplished musician Bowie really was.

    Nothing else sounded like this when it was first released and not much since, either. A truly great record, that by itself alone demonstrated that Bowie was streets ahead of his contemporaries then, and still now, in death. And then he followed it up with Station to Station…a gift from the gods (or the man who fell to Earth)?

    Dennis Davies was his least obviously best drummer, in my humble non-musician’s opinion, and God knows he’s had a few good ‘uns! The hi-hat was obviously his forte; I love his use of it on Ashes to Ashes. Shocking year thus far for my vintage; mortality is racing up behind me in the rear view mirror, and I don’t like it one bit!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Have a safe trip Chris!!!

  8. djonn says:

    a great audio interview with Dennis Davis from The Trap Set on his work with Bowie, Roy Ayers, Stevie Wonder etc., his life in general- what a sweet, honest guy! http://www.thetrapset.net

  9. il transito says:

    Even weirder is the “interview” before miming his vocals in Soul Train. The whole thing remind me the dancing video Travis is watching in Taxi Driver.

    • BenJ says:

      Bowie later on recounted how Don Cornelius took him aside after the performance and gently took him to task for blowing a chance that entertainers kill themselves to get. Apparently stuck with him, despite the condition he was in.

      • Il transito says:

        Don sounds like a good guy. Although he pronounces Bowie differently, not like David used to prefer. And the kids seems to dig the song, a great validation for Bowie, I think.

    • BenJ says:

      And the kids seems to dig the song, a great validation for Bowie, I think.

      That’s true too, and I’m sure it did mean a lot to him.

  10. BlaMmO says:

    Bowie, speaking to comparisons between his Berlin-era work and Kraftwerk:

    “In substance too, we were poles apart. Kraftwerk’s percussion sound was produced electronically, rigid in tempo, unmoving. Ours was the mangled treatment of a powerfully emotive drummer, Dennis Davis. The tempo not only ‘moved’ but also was expressed in more than ‘human’ fashion. Kraftwerk supported that unyielding machinelike beat with all synthetic sound generating sources. We used an R&B band. Since ‘Station To Station’ the hybridization of R&B and electronics had been a goal of mine.”

  11. BlaMmO says:

    Kind of off-topic (though I have requested our host re-post one of Iggy’s songs..), having just seen Iggy in concert my appreciation for his two Berlin albums has rocketed. If you get a chance to see this tour you won’t be disappointed.

    Some of the deep tracks like Mass Production and Some Weird Sin really benefit from slight re-arrangements in the live performance. Homme has put together a crack band with obvious affection for the material.

    Iggy stakes his China Girl as being the definitive version and when he belts out “…whiiiiiitteee of mah-eeeyyyyesss…” I’m hesitant to disagree with him. And the sound mixers deserve kudos for convincingly replicating the ‘thuck-thht – thuck-thht’ of the Davis/Visconti, Berlin-era drum sound.

    Out of respect to the Asheton’s (?) they didn’t play Dum Dum Boys which is one of my favourites but all-in-all it was a tremendous show, and to me, a moving tribute to Iggy’s benefactor.

    • I’ve always felt that Iggy’s original was the definitive version of China Girl. Although my friends all howled me down en masse when I casually suggested this ridiculous notion at a recent pool night.

  12. Il transito says:

    By the way, does anyone know if David didn’t like this song? I wonder if it’s another case like Starman, a great song that didn’t get so much love from its creator.

  13. MC says:

    Just listened to the isolated drum track, and wow, what a great player Dennis was, and one not widely enough known outside Bowie fan circles. RIP. A golden year this is not.

  14. postpunkmonk says:

    Oh my. “Golden Years” was only the third Bowie song I ever heard on Top 40 radio growing up. It would be several more years before I finally bought a Bowie album and began diving in, but I’ll say this much for “Golden Years,” it sounded a decade ahead of its time. Thus is one I love to sing a Capella in the car when I don’t have any tunes with me. Singing that middle eight with that “all the way” is quite a rush, let me tell you!

  15. ”Having spent the summer 1975 in New Mexico making MWFTE…,”

    A Mr Jim Sullivan also was there, but probably already pushing up cacti in the desert since that spring where he disappeared mysteriously en route solo LA to Nashville. [Just discovered & covered his GREAT album-song UFO and his wack story]
    ,,, Here’s to the wish that DB had heard & done UFO

    on Heathen in lieu of ‘Gemini’
    then what a wonderful world….
    Please dont miss Jim’s ‘Jerome’ tune too

  16. kimlove says:

    Does anyone know – did bowie himself do the whistling part at the end?

  17. StoweTheLion says:

    After stumbling upon stems to this song.. I went about attempting to make some sort of remix (though, cutting it up at all feels like heresy). And noticed the tempo really does flow about a fair bit, but it makes it so alive and human!

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