The timing seemed right to look at this song again—one of Bowie’s most gorgeous and eerie odes to power. The key is how much of it he derived from the Bonzos’ “Mr. Apollo”—the self-aware absurdity of Bowie’s dystopias (see also the coke joke in the first verse) is much of what makes them still compelling.
This entry, like much of Diamond Dogs, was a nightmare to revise for the book; I gutted the whole thing, then restored it, then gutted it again. It wound up being fairly similar to the original blog entry—a Momus observation helped to clarify a paragraph. Still an underrated song, I’d say.
Originally posted on 31 August 2010, it’s graphically yours:
A love song to submission, a fascist and a cocaine hymn, “Big Brother” was possibly intended to close Bowie’s Nineteen Eighty-Four adaptation, as little could top it dramatically. Opening in apprehension with a moaning synthetic choir and “trumpet” reveille via Mellotron, after two B minor verses where Bowie sings despairing, fifth-sinking phrases (“a-sylum,” “of mayhem”), “Big Brother” gave itself over to power.
The conversion starts in the first bridge—“please savior, savior show us!” Bowie now jumping up a fifth—and crests in the shining D major refrains, where Bowie rises an octave to hit a high A on “shame us!” Each subsequent refrain offers further bribes—skittish handclaps, a considered tambourine, a counter-melody via Alan Parker’s guitar, a spasmodic snare fill by Tony Newman that predicts Mick Fleetwood’s snare break on “Tusk.”
“Big Brother” was built like a flowchart: beyond a certain point you can’t go back (after the first bridge, there are no more verses). A pair of saxophones keep things in line. The tenor saxophone sweetens verses with bar-length notes, a baritone saxophone prods you along like a warder. Only the four-bar second bridge, with its scrappily-strummed acoustic guitar and its shaky octave-doubled vocal, is a last moment of doubt.
It’s the voice of some Arts Lab hippie about to be packed off to Orwell’s Correction Room. “You know, you think you’re awful square, but you’ve made everyone and you’ve been everywhere,” Bowie chirps in admiration. The squares—the bankers, the landlords, the promoters, the Mr. Joneses of the world—are the real revolutionaries, making the decadence of Bowie’s earlier songs seem played out (“don’t talk of dust and roses,” or spare us the claptrap of Aladdin Sane). The squares (Momus: “brave Apollos to the subcultural Dionysians”), liberated by the freedoms that the counterculture fought to give them, will inherit the earth. They were the homo superior all along; by the end of the century their rule would be secure (see “Alternative Candidate”).
Are there any signs of resistance? Bowie’s 12-string acoustic guitar, running underground for much of the track? His vocal, with a more resonant voice shadowed by a lower-pitched one like a bad conscience? The grin beneath the erotic ode to power? As Nicholas Pegg noted, an ancestor to “Big Brother” is the Bonzo Dog Band’s 1969 parody of Charles Atlas ads, “Mr. Apollo”. (“He’s the stronnnnngest maaan/ the worrrrld has ever seeeen…follow! Mr. Apollo!). It’s Bowie worshiping a cult leader as if he was some fascist bodybuilder. Submitting to a higher power—a dictator, a president (the chorus promises that the divine ruler will be “someone to fool us, someone like you“, a conceit that soon reappears in “Somebody Up There Likes Me”), even a line of coke—can be a beautiful thing.
It ends with a simply-sung “we want you Big Brother,” segueing without pause into the tribal celebration of “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family.” It’s a broken man brought to his feet and made to dance.
Recorded: 14-15 January 1974 (basic tracks) ca. late January-early February 1974 (overdubs). A set regular during the 1974 tour; revived for the Glass Spider tour of 1987.
Top: Augusto Pinochet and friends, Santiago, Chile, ca. September 1973.