Reissues: Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise)

One of the more radically transformed entries in the book, with good reason. This was the “cut up” entry of the blog, and it didn’t quite work (well, maybe you thought it did).

I’d planned to do one Diamond Dogs entry in the spirit of 1974: assembling it through Bowie’s favorite method of cutting up lines of verse, jumbling them, selecting the pieces in random order and then pasting together something new from the sequences. Originally it was going to be “We Are the Dead,” but the need for that entry to spell out the George Orwell connections of Diamond Dogs required some coherence and form. In its place: the big triptych of the album.

So I wrote out a “straight” entry on paper and then cut it up, typically in paragraphs but sometimes just sentences. I also cut up quotes that I found in a few books, particularly in Jonathan Raban’s wonderful urban study Soft City and also in a couple of London histories. The Thatcher stuff came from (I believe) Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed. Other bits came from a never-finished 1974 entry on my old blog, Locust St., and from other things that I’ve since forgotten.

I cut it all up, tossed the pieces of paper in a cap, pulled them out one by one and…it was weirdly coherent. The Bowie stuff was all together, generally in order, and most of the quotes were in one clump in the “middle.” Not cut-up enough! So I did it again, then again. At last it was far more jumbled, which was nice. But then I started tinkering with the sequence—it’s got to make some kinda sense, I thought—and wound up smoothing and rejiggering things until I had the below entry. In retrospect, this was likely how Bowie worked as well.

The book entry is far better, I believe, or at least it’s more expansive, delving into things like the guitar solo, John Rechy’s City of Night (a big influence on the lyric), the draft lyric, more on the 1974 tour and the end of Bowie’s life in the UK, and so forth. But the beast below is the untouched original.

A last note: the source of the photos (some of my favorites in the blog’s history) has vanished due to the death of Picasa, and I can’t locate who “Bruce” was anymore. So the blog at present has become the only place on the web to find Maggie Sollars of Brixton, in 1974. I hope she’s doing well these days.

Originally posted on 23 September 2010, it’s:

Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise).
Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise) (live, 1974).

The rotten heart of Diamond Dogs; a triptych where prostitutes are the only lovers left, where street hustlers double as politicians.

***
Tony Newman, who drummed on most of the record, recalled Bowie switching off all the lights in the studio save those directly over his microphone. So Bowie sang “Sweet Thing” in a spotlight, the musicians around him mere shadows.

***
During the summer ’74 Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie sang the “Sweet Thing” suite from a catwalk above the stage. He preened, writhed as though being electrocuted; he looked like Baron Samedi gone Hollywood.

***
It’s Bowie on guitar (and sax), Mike Garson on piano, Herbie Flowers on bass, Tony Newman on drums. Bowie coached his players like actors. For the first 32 bars of “Candidate,” up until Bowie smells “the blood of les Tricoteuses,” he told Newman to play his snare rolls as if he was a French drummer boy watching his first guillotining during the Terror.

***
The suite opens with thirty seconds of a slowly-emerging wash of backwards tapes. It closes, after the “Zion” mellotron line and Garson playing a bar’s worth of “Changes”, with a minute of musical violence.

***
It’s safe in the city/to love in a doorway. “Sweet Thing/Candidate,” an urban debasement, is part of a long English tradition of city nightmares. So Thomas Hardy, describing an 1879 Lord Mayor’s Show: As the crowd grows denser, it loses its character of an aggregate of countless units, and becomes an organic whole, a molluscous black creature having nothing in common with humanity, that takes the shape of the streets along which it has lain itself, and throws out horrid excrescences and limbs into neighboring alleys.

***
In the two verses of “Sweet Thing,” Bowie’s voice rises from the depths (the basso profundo of the opening verse), settling first on a conversational tone (“isn’t it me”) then vaulting to high, long-held notes, starting with “will you see.” There’s the cartoon New Yorkese voice he uses in the first bridge (“if you wannit, boys”) and he nearly laughs when he sings the cut-up-produced nonsense of “turn to the crossroads and hamburgers.” (Or is it “of Hamburg”?) This isn’t the step-by-step graded elation of something like Carol Douglas’ “Doctor’s Orders,” where the song seems to be willing its singer to keep moving higher. It’s more a menagerie of voices that Bowie barely can keep under control.

***
George Gissing, on Farringdon Road, in The Nether World: Pass by in the night, and strain imagination to picture the weltering mass of human weariness, of bestiality, of unmerited dolour, of hopeless hope, of crushed surrender, tumbled together within those forbidding walls.

***
There’s a funereal tone to the suite, fitting for its year of creation. Nick Drake, after recording hisfour last songs” in February, died in November. Duke Ellington died in May. Archigram closed. Candy Darling died, age 25. Gene Ammons recorded Goodbye and departed. It was the year of Shostakovitch’s last quartet, Syd Barrett’s last-ever studio session. All that came out of the latter were a few brief guitar pieces. One, known as “If You Go #2,” (3:00 in the preceding link) is a jaunty hint of a song, incidental music for an impossible life.

***
Bowie’s guitar keeps to the margins until “Candidate,” when begins to cut into the vocal, like an increasingly belligerent drunken party guest. Crude and insistent, possessed by an appalling truth. At first confined to the right speaker, the guitar starts bleeding through. Bowie’s vocal starts matching the guitar’s tone, his phrasing mimicking the riffing.

***
Making bullet-proof faces, Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay. 1974 was the wake for the Sixties. Everyone came wearing tatters or suits: they dressed as the person they pretended they once were. Bob Dylan and the Band, touring North America early in ’74, played songs that had earned boos and jeers in ’66, but the songs had become, blessed by time, victory anthems. Dylan sang in a bellow: he might as well have used a bullhorn. He played “All Along the Watchtower” in Boston as if he meant to roust Hendrix from the grave.

***
Bowie tugs and tears at words, particularly in “Sweet Thing”‘s first verse (“see that I’m scared and I’m lonely“), while he tumbles out other phrases in a bushel (“where the knowing one says” is muttered over three beats). In “Candidate,” the hustler starts out all business, with Bowie sounding confident, even wry, but as the verses keep coming, and he’s not closing the sale, he grows more desperate. He sounds as though he’s suppressing screams: his vocal becomes a run of slurs, colliding syllables, forced marriages of words not meant to rhyme (he mates “shop on” with “papier”). The “Sweet Thing” chorus returns, now only four bars long and taken at a hurried, less alluring pace—time’s running out. When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad I go to pieces. The merchant at the mercy of his customer.

***
Margaret Thatcher, in 1982, was Lent to the past Carnival: We are reaping what was sown in the sixties…fashionable theories and permissive claptrap set the scene for a society in which old values of discipline and restraint were denigrated.

***
Holly Woodlawn to the dying Candy Darling: “It’s okay, hon…you don’t have to talk. I know you’re tired.”

Candy: “Yeah. Putting on lipstick…it really takes it out of me.”

***
Mike Garson’s piano gives the second verse of “Sweet Thing” a few moments of grace and levity. The little winking run of notes after “you’re older than me,” the shards of melodies he plays in the spaces Bowie takes to breathe.

***
Do you think that your face looks the same? There’s pity in Bowie’s voice here.

On the whole there’s only room for two views in this country.

Education Secretary Thatcher’s election-night commentary, 28 February 1974.

***
“Candidate” is utterly essential to the suite, its centerpiece, and it also could be excised completely and you would never know it had existed. Play “Sweet Thing” and the Reprise back-to-back and it’s a near-seamless transition. “Candidate” is an outgrowth of “Sweet Thing”‘s chorus, as it’s built on the same chords (D minor, A minor, G); it’s also the inverse of the earlier song—mainly two long verses (24 bars), two brief 4-bar choruses.

***
James Thomson, in The Doom of a City (1857), came to the City of the Dead: The mighty City in vast silence slept,/dreaming away its tumult toil and strife…Within a buried City’s maze of stone; Whose peopling corpses, while they ever dream/Of birth and death—of complicated life/Whose days and months and years/Are wild with laughter, groans and tears/As with themselves and Doom…

***
My set is amazing, it even smells like a street. Bowie spent some time obsessively but fruitlessly working on test footage for a Diamond Dogs movie as a daytime distraction from his drinking and drugging social circle at the time (Bowie claims that some of the footage features an impatient John Lennon in the background, berating him with the words “What the bloody hell are you doing, Bowie, all this mutant crap?”, as Bowie tinkers with a clay model of Hunger City, the album’s post-apocalyptic setting). John Tatlock, on “Cracked Actor.”

***
Live, “Candidate” was introduced by Earl Slick’s guitar and David Sanborn’s saxophone, two peacock performances. On record, Bowie’s guitar solo that closes out “Sweet Thing” is far cruder yet more compelling: a hustler with grand ambitions.

***
To Thomas Hardy, London was a Wheel and a Beast. (George Whitter Sherman.)

***
The chorus of “Sweet Thing” is sung by a set of typical Bowie grotesques. The somber bass voices overtopped by tenors. The croaking flat voice that seems most prominent when you’re half-listening. A set of gargoyles, arranged as though on the parapet of a cathedral.

***
Later in the night Thomson returned home to his own city. Its awfulness of life oppressed my soul; the very air appeared no longer free/but dense and sultry in the close control/of such a mighty cloud of human breath.

***
“Sweet Thing (Reprise)” offers just one verse: it’s one of the loveliest things Bowie ever recorded, and it pays homage to cocaine, submits to the cruelties of the street. The hustler’s closed the deal at last, and the city takes another victim. It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you. The soaring final notes are reminiscent of “Life on Mars,” whose empathy, grace and beauty “Sweet Thing” suggests were all just vicious lies.

***
We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/then jump in the river holding hands.

Recorded January-February 1974. The entire suite was performed during the “Diamond Dogs” tour of summer ’74, and never again. A new edit of “Candidate” was made for Patrice Chéreau’s 2001 film Intimacy.

Top and bottom: “Bruce,” “Maggie Sollars, Brixton, 1974”; Middle: Ted Heath faces the public, 28 February 1974.

58 Responses to Reissues: Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise)

  1. Geen Geenie says:

    These tracks are absolutely the corner stone of Diamond dogs for me, and the best part. I loved reading all the different snippets of info/review here.

  2. Pepe the pig says:

    I haven’t read this entry back in the day. It’s as great as the song(s). Candidate should have been a duet with Sinatra. Congratulations on this one.

  3. Tony Wright says:

    This is the Man at his very best.

  4. fantailfan says:

    On a mostly unrelated, I have used Picasa (not the web version) for ten years. I supposed I shouldn’t expect free software from for-profit companies to be updated forever, but it is a pretty good program for the casual photo gatherer.

  5. Brian Busby says:

    My favourite. Am I alone in being surprised at how very high it appeared in this blog’s song poll?

  6. goa says:

    Not a rational thing (punt intented) but DD is the album I choose in case it would be a gun in my head…and Sweet Thing is the top tune here.

  7. Greg says:

    Perhaps my favorite Bowie song, but only as goa says, with a gun at my head. Occasionally I read comments on this blog by folks who don’t think much of Bowie as a lyricist, to which I always want to respond: “I smell the blood of les Tricoteuses.” What more needs to be said?

    Very much look forward to reading the updated version of this. The cut-up idea was clever, but I’d really love to read your more straightforward take on the lyrics, the influences, etc. (As ever, the cut-up approach, to me, is better in theory than in practice, rescued by Bowie’s seeming tendency to re-order the phrasing to more logical ends).

    My big question: Is the “candidate” a political candidate, or merely a possible “candidate” for the hustler’s evening?

    • BenJ says:

      My big question: Is the “candidate” a political candidate, or merely a possible “candidate” for the hustler’s evening?

      I lean toward the latter. My interpretation of the song’s triptych nature is that any enticing sweet thing you meet has a calculating candidate within.

      This has become one of my favorite Bowie songs – or three of my favorite Bowie songs – and it’s also one of my favorite entries on this blog.

      • Greg says:

        As, so you think the Sweet Thing is the Candidate? I always heard it as Sweet Thing talking to Candidate. So: “I’ll make you a deal, like any other candidate” means “I’ll make you the same deal I’d make to any other candidate,” not “I’ll make you the same deal that all of us candidates make…”

      • BenJ says:

        (Responding to Greg from a couple of days ago.)
        There’s just something about the whole act “I like that you’re older than me, tee hee” that makes me think this person is covering something, a dark(er) side. But of course I see my interpretation isn’t the only one that fits, and I find yours interesting.

  8. Paul O says:

    This is the (re-)post that will lead to me finally buying the book now. Well played, Chris.

  9. Stretsam says:

    Just love this – it is, in my opinion, the quintessential Bowie. Oozes a quality that is hard to define – dangerous, emotive, ‘sexy’ – definitely the core of DD. And because it wasn’t part of the live ‘play list in the years to come it retained something of an elusive, magical quality.’ Thank you for revisiting it.

  10. Gabe says:

    Until a few months ago, I thought the line “bullet-proof faces” was “voulez-vous faces,” which I thought was a great, seedy way to refer to prostitutes—though now I realize that “Lady Marmalade” postdates the Diamond Dogs album by a few months.

    Still a great line. And a great post; now I’m eager to see what the book says…

  11. M says:

    Always deep, always rewarding. Love love love your insights on chord changes and song structure.

    Resurfacing a recent discovery re magpie Bowie made a month ago and posted to the New Killer Star page, https://bowiesongs.wordpress.com/2014/12/09/new-killer-star-2/#comment-56772 , how the riffs that close Sweet Thing (Reprise) are reworked to propel NKS (and also seem to inspire the rhythmic camera-swing fx of the video)

  12. Galdo says:

    The unusual entries is a part of why I love this blog.

  13. Stolen Guitar says:

    Surely this was the conclusive and incontestable evidence that confirmed Bowie’s genius? Still, if there was any doubt remaining in the stoned and atrophied heads of mid-70s critics, for whom Laurel Canyon and Led Zep’s outright thievery represented their ideal of ‘genius’, StationtoStation, just a few years later, would provide the epilogue that finally closed the book on that debate. There, I feel better for that!

    Who else even came close to this in 1974? Thought it was other- worldly when the album first came out; I was 13 then, and I still marvel at it today, as a 55-year-old with a lifetime of listening to music behind me.

    And that’s Bowie, a self-confessed, supposed non-guitarist, playing that guitar so brilliantly…! This is one of the more remarkable aspects of Diamond Dogs. Peerless. And, the album also contained When You Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me, Big Brother, We Are The Dead; 1984 and Rebel, Rebel; was he just showing off?!

    Love both the original web entry and the book’s revised version, Chris. Great art sometimes struggles to be afforded commensurate and fitting criticism, but you always get it right. I’m extremely envious…!

    PS Any idea when Blackstar’s coming? Anticipating it greatly.

  14. greg says:

    Stolen Guitar, you had me till the Zep bashing! But yeah, I love this album too, quite possibly the one I’d take to the desert island. D Dogs, for me, hits the sweet spot of my own critical appreciation and sentiment – the Dogs tour was the first concert I ever saw – June 1974. Still my favorite after all these years – I can still picture Bowie on that catwalk, crooning this tune.

    But I have to disagree with you on a point of history: ’70s critics were no likelier to praise the Laurel Canyon or Zep albums than this one. All three were pretty much reviled by the Lester Bangs of the world, to the lasting discredit of their ilk.

  15. Patrick says:

    On the first YT link, always wondered, is the symphonic/classical sounding segue at around 7.40 original or a homage/derived from another composers work?

    • col1234 says:

      that’s the piece known (perhaps wrongly) as “Zion” (see link to song in the entry)

      • Patrick says:

        Thanks I sorta missed that link, feels like a fragment of Elgar or another English late 19th, early 20 century. Possibly a Garcia improv?

        Possibly thematically, “candidate” is his version of “waiting for the man”, the street hustler or as suggested the politician ,”Tricky Dicky” Nixon in 1972? “Do you remember? ”
        The “boys” refrain was later picked up by Bowie aficionados Japan in “Quiet Life”.

        I too was a little surprised at the popularity of this track . But it is an audacious song, with compelling moments , such was the genius of the guy.
        Still missing him. I can listen to his songs but still cant quite fully comprehend his absence.

  16. Hi Chris; isn’t the line “And turn to the crossroads of Hamburg…” and not hamburgers. I’m not sure. Best song ever.

  17. Dean A says:

    He certainly sings “hamburgers” in the Live version – but that, too, could be considered not definitive.
    I usually sing along to the original as though he was running off a list he got tired of : “crossroads and hamburgers and….” – I’m sure I hear an extra syllable at the end. Sometimes I sing “hamburger stands”, but that’s me.

    • Greg says:

      I hear that “and” too, Dean, which I always assumed was just a transition to the chorus: “…hamburgers and boys, boys it’s a sweet thing…”

      As for those darned hamburgers — the only lyric fail in this song to me. It makes some sense – an Americanism, of course, and a plot point as the rent boy tells his candidate, hey, if this deal falls through, no big deal, i’ll just walk away and grab a bite on the way home – but still. I blame the cut-ups.

      • Brilliant! I always heard “Hamburg-guh-guh” but “hamburgers” and a snigger/laugh is a very strong contender, especially if heard on the live version.

        Thanks boys!

  18. Matthew says:

    When I was about 14 I assumed every crossroads in America would have a hamburger or hotdog stand. So I never found this line at all strange unlike the ‘Blood of the tree cutters’ (heard this till the internet came along) or the ‘bullet proof faces’ which I could never hear properly.

  19. particledots says:

    going off on a tangent here…..whatever happened to momus? i used to love his input on this blog

  20. Dan American says:

    I always heard “the crossroads of Hamburg” and also – “it’s got *balls*, it’s got me, it’s got you”, since 1974…

  21. Phil Stewart says:

    I’ve only read your blog for a short while since been introduced to it in February this year. I wanted to let you know I find your writing captivating, your insights essential and your overall blog a diamond of distraction in a busy world. Thank you.

  22. Jasmine says:

    Definitely hamburgers, there’s hand written lyrics somewhere on the web which I saw a long time ago and annoyingly can’t find now.
    I’ve always thought this is an elaboration of what’s happening in Hunger City, the dogs trailing on leashes, seedy, turning tricks, living day to day, grotesque etc. Always heard 2 characters singing as well.
    An incredible piece of work from Bowie and I’m reminded of Blackstar again; merging 2 songs (with reprise) and the line ‘Isn’t it me’ is so like ‘Ain’t that just like me?’ on Lazarus.

  23. MC says:

    I’m a little late to the party, but I wanted to add my two cents.This was one of the first PAOTD entries I read. (The very first was the piece on Big Brother) It was this “cut-up” essay that really confirmed for me that the blog was something special; Chris, I love how you’ve consistently broadened the scope beyond DB to address the world outside. Some great quote juxtapositions, notably Thatcher and “When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad I go to pieces.” I also love the piece on Sweet Thing in the book, how it ties up the era of Diamond Dogs and so on, so both approaches work very nicely, in my opinion.

    As far as the song itself, a masterpiece to be sure, and as much a goodbye to Glam as the more celebratory Rebel Rebel. And I agree with Jasmine above, as far as how much the structure of the piece mirrors Blackstar’s.

  24. oh ramona says:

    These songs showcase Bowie’s incredible vocal range like nothing else he did. At first listen, when I was 17, this album was…disturbing. Now it makes me long for the never-produced 1984 musical. Does anyone know if he actually composed the songs and wrote the book, or was it something he would have done if only he had secured the rights?

    • col1234 says:

      not to keep having to say “there’s more in the book” but there’s more in the book.

      but in short–DB likely wrote a decent number of 1984-related songs (some of which turned up on D Dogs) but he didn’t appear to have written a book/storyline (though who knows what’s in the archives)

      • oh ramona says:

        I actually have owned your book for a few months, but just hadn’t worked my way down the stack. Thank you; it was very informative. I look forward to your eventual posts about Blackstar. (You are going to write about it, aren’t you?) I still can’t listen to it without tearing up. But take your time. It will be worth it.

      • col1234 says:

        yes: announcement relatively soon about Blackstar stuff

  25. James LaBove says:

    Late to the party as well, but I couldn’t let this one go without comment. It’s the centerpiece to a somewhat divisive album, and one of my favorite Bowie songs (agree that it’s useless to think of the three parts as anything other than one song – it’s absolutely a single musical statement).

    Like most of Bowie’s epics, it’s a perfect distillation of the man’s artistic strengths and contemporary preoccupations. If I were preparing a mix tape for a new fan, it would be a required entry. And in the weeks following Bowie’s passing, it was one I came back to often. My first encounter with the suite was on David Live, which (as with most of the songs on the album) is a great compliment to the recorded version without surpassing it. Can’t match the original’s atmosphere or pacing.

    And as always a wonderful analysis from Chris on the song; it fits the song well. I’m glad to revisit the post! I like the politician angle, but I always assumed the narrator was riffing on actors / casting directors during Candidate. It’d seem to support the subsequent references to his “set” and the auditor “screaming out of line,” which I always (perhaps incorrectly) interpreted as breaking character.

    (Off-topic, but Chris: Have you ever happened upon Peter Hanson’s Every 70’s Movie blog? In some ways a similar project in scope to Pushing Ahead of the Dame, and Hanson’s writing style even reminds me a bit of your’s – which I mean as a compliment to you both!)

  26. Sheldon says:

    I always regarded the “if you wannit, boys” as an homage to either Mae West ( Come up and see me some time) or Dietrich’s cockney put-on voice in the railway bar scene in Witness for the Prosecution.

    • Thatnamealreadyexists1 says:

      Does anyone else think it’s ‘warmburgers’? Good that’s sorted then. I was just about to say that C/ST/ C reprise does for this LP what the rug did for the Dudes room but as I was typing someone outside by the river put Hotel California on their car sound system! ( Who doesn’t hate the fucking Eagles man?). But tell me that’s not spooky. Big Brother is obviously watching! I’ll add that Bowie’s guitar work fits the mood perfectly particularly as C reprise starts to disintegrate ( breakdown) towards Rebel Rebel ( it’s not really RR without it ) and sighing sax at the close of Sweet thing is luscious. I know a girl who said that to me early in our relationship as I was checking her Bowie cred and I just felt that dispensed with weeks of ‘getting to know you’ stuff. We are still great friends all these years later. I got DD the day it came out as my old dad collected it for me on the way home from work, I’d just started secondary skool and it’s been a soulmate since. And great site thank you.

  27. Gabe says:

    From “it was cold and it rained, so I felt like an actor” to “my set is amazing, it even smells like a street” in just two short years. A meditation on how power corrupts, possibly? Feeling like an actor is one thing, but being one—or being a politician, though what’s the difference?—is totally different.

  28. greg says:

    I’m on the record as this being my favorite (sentimental or otherwise) Bowie song, but I will say that the one bit of lyric that always sticks out for me (and not in a good way) is the “my set is amazing” line. The only sense it makes is if we assume Bowie is winking about the “Diamond Dogs” set (either the miniature model or the actual stage set), and that just seems so clunky and intrusive to me. He breaks characters with this line, and it’s always bugged me.

    Hoping someone can offer a better explanation…

  29. greg says:

    Breaks character, not characters, although maybe that too…

  30. Anonymous says:

    Searching for Margaret Sollars in UK birth registrations, I found a candidate. She was born in Totnes in Devon in 1956.

  31. Anonymous says:

    + She married Paul Calvert at Newton Abbot in Devon in 1982.

    Probably not the same person.

  32. fantailfan says:

    Anonymous in the two previous comments is me.

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