Reissues: Big Brother

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:

Big Brother.
Big Brother (live, 1974).
Big Brother (live, 1987.)

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.

25 Responses to Reissues: Big Brother

  1. shoop says:

    I always imagine this soundtracking the trailer of an imaginary Diamond Dogs film.

  2. StoweTheLion says:

    I don’t underrate it, I think people think it is a good song, and I do too, but it’s not one most are often going to play by itself, it really fits in the context of the album though, once played as a part of the whole, it is magnificent.

    I admire what he did on diamond dogs so much. Makes it seem so easy.

    • Waki says:

      I have listened to it a few times owing to this post (after months and years), and must say musically it stand by itself wonderfully. It is indeed magnificient –in itself, a fantastic gem, another perfect piece. I am blown, once again, by the flow of the music, the creativity, the playfulness and sense of humour. And social relevance…
      But of course, as always, wheither it works or not depends on your mood on the moment.

  3. StoweTheLion says:

    Thanks for pointing out that Bonzo track. It is always so great to discover the influences!

  4. dm says:

    I always thought it was “Please saviour, save your shores!” Like a threat of invasion being used to maintain fascist power

    • Anton says:

      Me to. I read it as a kind of Little Englander, Churchillian, ‘fight them on the beaches/’White Cliffs of Dover’ vibe and a distorted, more insular plea than SOS – ‘Save Our Ships’ ; ironically referencing the ‘Living proof of Churchill’s lies’ line in ‘Quicksand’. Also the scansion of ‘save your shores’ and ‘graphically yours’ works better.

      • col1234 says:

        the sheet music has “show us” but that’s far from authoritative. “shores” works just as well, if not better; go with it.

      • Anton says:

        Wish I still had my vinyl copy. I’m sure it had a lyric sheet which I would have scoured for clues, references etc. My teenage years were almost totally taken up with discussing and analysing Bowie lyrics. If I recall the line as ‘shores’ it would be because that’s how it was annotated on the album.

        Great site by the way. Always enjoy your insights.

      • Jaf says:

        Don’t think the original lp had a lyric sheet. Mine certainly didn’t anyway (bought at time of release and still have it) although I guess subsequent reissues may have?

      • col1234 says:

        To my knowledge there was no lyric sheet on Dogs. “Future Legend” is reprinted in the gatefold, which might be the source of confusion.

      • Anton says:

        Ah, yes. Future Legend on the inner gatefold, printed over a lovely panorama of the ruined city (Also by Peelleart I believe) that’s what I was thinking of. I can still recite that from memory. My copy was also bought on the day of release as were all Bowie’s albums from Ziggy onwards but I sold my vinyl collection years ago.

  5. Stolen Guitar says:

    Yep; underrated, or perhaps overlooked. But I think it’s because it’s just one of so many great songs on this album.

    I’ve always loved it, even when I was 14 and really didn’t have a clue what it was about. I read 1984 the following year for my English O Level and went ‘Aah, now I see…’

    Is it Alan Parker on guitar on this, Chris? I’m not doubting your research, but I was always under the impression that Bowie played all the guitars on the album, apart from the 1984 wah-wah, Isaac Hayes-Shaft riff? Mind you, I was assuming that from the album notes alone, and they’re notoriously skewed in so many cases. The Fall’s records’ credits and liner notes are mainly works of fiction…

    PS Think the ’74 David Live version is terrific, too, but then I love all his stuff with Earl Slick. Please don’t tell me it’s not him on guitar on this…!

    • col1234 says:

      this was from the book revision & I have to trust myself that it’s accurate, as I don’t know where I got that from at the moment. There have been a few recent Mojo pieces on Diamond Dogs, which is likely where it’s from. DB does do much of the guitar on that album & he’s certainly doing a lot on “Big Brother”

  6. Pollyanna S says:

    WHAT a song, what an album! Rocked my 14yo soul back in 1984 – which was the year I first heard it. We were all reading Orwell then so I was thrilled and surprised that Bowie had written such a thing (hello, I’m talking about a Wham-saturated music scene – fun but nothing really substantial). I KNEW Serious Moonlight Bowie was a Sex God (those China Girl vocals) and then it turned out he was an intellectual too. So much depth for a “pop star” was not the norm and so from very early on I began to see David as an avant-garde “artist” and how could one not love – worship – that brave Apollo? It wasn’t till much later that I learned about his “Dionysian” side (remember, this is all pre-internet) and I was actually quite shocked by the voraciousness of the rockstar appetite, but I guess that was very Bowie – a constant interplay between lusty sensation and cool intellect – packaged so neatly that he came across as the sort of earnest, mild-mannered boy you’d take home to meet mother. Drug addiction takes people to all sorts of places, but that it took David to this place, to intellect – to art – speaks volumes about his character. I’m shocked by his clarity and intricate articulation. To put those incredible lyrics to that unforgettable music – I’m sorry Orwell’s estate didn’t go for it – it would have taken this remarkable music to a wider audience. Of course we’ll never know – the rejection allowed him to move on to other things – I suppose to that end, the world’s loss is the Bowie aficionado’s gain?

  7. Vinnie M says:

    “The Gouster”

    • BenJ says:

      Mainly seems to be Young Americans with a few substitutions, but it’s an interesting view into his process all the same.

      • dm says:

        Yeah it’s good as a guide for a playlist, but others have pointed out it’s a few tracks short of the “true” gouster, and a bit of a money grab as a release tbh

    • James LaBove says:

      I was so very excited when I heard about The Gouster… and now I’m so very disappointed. What a letdown that we won’t be hearing some of the lost tracks in full (especially considering what a perfect opportunity it would have been). Still keen to hear the alternate mixes, I guess.

      This is pure fan wankery, but if I were in charge of spinning together an alternate tracklisting for Young Americans, it’d look something like this:

      Side 1:
      Right
      I Am a Laser
      Footstompin’
      Can You Hear Me?

      Side 2:
      Fascination
      Shilling the Rubes
      Who Can I Be Now?
      Win

      Maybe fit Young Americans on there at the end if room permitted. Save Somebody Up There Likes Me, After Today and It’s Gonna Be Me as strong b-sides. Chuck Fame and Across the Universe. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am.

  8. Guest says:

    Timely reissue indeed. As you posted it, the French government made it 100% legal for the police to spy at anytime by any means on anyone who is connecfed to anyone who is a potential “threat”. Voted while the poeple are on the beach.

  9. MC says:

    Global craziness aside, I hope everyone reading is having a great summer. Agreed on Big Brother’s excellence. The final repeat of the chorus is one of the most rousing moments in his entire discography, and of course, one of the most chilling moments as well. I must say, though, Somebody Up There Likes Me is the song flitting in and out of my head, in these days of Generallissimo Trump.

  10. Matthew says:

    Well it does sound like shores on the DD version. I think this album has my most misheard lyrics of all.
    Still have my original vinyl copy and there’s no lyric sheet included in the UK issue.

  11. Mustn’t forget to mention that the brilliant intro is a subtle salute to Miles Davis.

  12. Great review as usual. Interesting take on the similarities with Todd’s ‘Hello, It’s Me’. I checked it out and it checks out.

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