Readers of Mojo have likely seen the article that I wrote for them this month (a preview here). Though commissioned to coincide with the announcement of The Gouster as part of the upcoming Bowie boxed set, the article is far more about the early days of the album sessions, in Philadelphia in August 1974. This was research I did for the book—I went to Philly and heard the various studio tapes held in Drexel University’s Audio Archives, which document the raw, loose first takes of things like “Young Americans” as well as the legendary “Shilling the Rubes” and the Bowie-sung “I Am a Lazer.” For more, read the article or check out the book. Also, if you’re going to the Bowie conference in Lisbon this September, excerpts from the tapes should be played during Leah Kardos’ and Toby Seay’s presentations.
The Gouster has been talked up as being a “lost” Bowie album but that’s a bit of marketing—all of the restored songs (“John, I’m Only Dancing Again,” “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and “Who Can I Be Now”) have long been available as bonus tracks on other editions of Young Americans. And perversely, the new set doesn’t include previously-issued outtakes like “After Today” and “It’s Hard to Be a Saint In the City” (the latter a confusing track that started during Diamond Dogs and was possibly completed as late as Station to Station). But it is an interesting sequencing—Young Americans reconsidered as a slow-jam album, dominated by lengthy ballads. Would it have sold as well without having “Fame”? Maybe not.
What’s notable is that “Fascination” and “Win” aren’t on The Gouster sequence, though they were recorded prior to Tony Visconti leaving for London to mix and arrange the tracks, unaware that Bowie would upend things with his John Lennon collaborations. Any sequence without the masterful “Win” in particular seems just wrong, but perhaps it goes to show that the song, one of Bowie’s most gorgeous pieces, was underrated from the start.
Originally posted on 15 November 2010, all you’ve got to do is:
The finest Young Americans ballad, “Win” is the closest Bowie came to the Philly Soul sound, using it to cushion a study of obsession and control. Softening David Sanborn’s alto saxophone, which plays dreamy scales throughout, and adding sweeps of low strings, Bowie and Tony Visconti made the track seem swathed in cotton. Along with the promiscuous use of sixth and major seventh chords, the arrangement gave “Win” a narcotic lassitude.
Like “Fascination,” “Win” has little in common with the rambling early Sigma Sound recordings —it’s the track on Young Americans to most foreshadow Station to Station, signaling an end to Bowie’s American soul project. Bowie said the chord structures in “Win” were “much more of a European thing than an American thing,” though they were also apparently a Brooklyn thing, too, as Earl Slick claimed in 2014 that he and Bowie “came up with that whole chord structure” in a hotel one night on tour. It was a standoff between G major and F major in the verses (with an A major posing an unresolved question, rather than moving the song anywhere) and a modulation to D major in the refrain.* It may have come from Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me,” with which “Win” shares a taste for sixths and major sevenths and a rhythmic hiccup: in the latter case, it’s two bars of 6/8 capped by a bar of 2/4 at the close of the refrain (compare “all you’ve-got-to-do-is-win” with the bridge of “Hello It’s Me,” “I’d nev-er-want-to-make-you-change,” a little steal first noted by Jeff Norman).
Singing his most inspired lines on the album (“someone like you should not be allowed to start any fires,”“Me, I hope that I’m crazy”), Bowie made a vocal in brushstrokes. The Philadelphia DJ Ed Sciaky, who attended the last “Win” session, said Bowie worked by “sing[ing] three lines, then having the engineer play them back, keeping the first line every time…hitting every line the way he wanted.” Finishing around seven in the morning, Bowie had the track played back twice, then nodded and pronounced it done.
While on other Young Americans tracks, Bowie had been foiled by his backing singers, on “Win” he keeps them in check. He paces them, undermines them (take the threatening “it ain’t over” that closes the second refrain). The refrain’s a set of knife blows, with an organ high in the mix and a Carlos Alomar arpeggio that calls back to the closing guitar figure of the Beatles’ “You Never Give Me Your Money.” Bowie sings “all…you’ve got…to do…is…win” like a piece of extortion, dreamily lingering on the last word (he’d developed the refrain from riffs during live performances of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”: “you’re not alone! All you’ve got to do is win!”). At the close, Bowie sings “it ain’t over” in a rising melody over an out-of nowhere E major chord. It’s as if “Win” was just prelude so far, that the song’s about to move somewhere else, that Bowie’s barely exhausted his reserves. The sudden fade comes as a small mercy.
Recorded: ca. 20-24 November 1974, Sigma Sound; ca. 3-10 December 1974, Record Plant; January 1975, Air Studios, London (strings, arr. Visconti). First release: 7 March 1975, Young Americans. Only one live recording of “Win” exists: 1 December 1974 at the Omni Theater in Atlanta, the last night of the “Soul Dogs” tour. It’s unknown whether “Win” debuted there or in Nashville or Memphis gigs in late November, neither of which were taped. Bowie hummed the first lines of “Win” after a performance of “Station to Station” in his penultimate show in the US (Jones Beach, 4 June 2004), then cruelly yelled “enough!” to his band.
* “Win” is in G mixolydian (the G major scale with a flattened VII chord, here the song’s “rival” chord, F major). The verse sequence of G-G6-A-A6-G-G6-Fmaj7-F6 is odd, as the A major chord, instead of the expected A minor, seems as though it should have a “purpose” of some sort, but it doesn’t change the key: you go right back to G major and then move on to the flatted VII chord, F. A major is merely a strong flavor in Bowie’s soup.
Top: Tammy Hackney, “Death,” ca. 1974-75. “Death’s newly unearthed recordings reveal a remarkable missing link between Detroit bands like the Stooges and MC5 from the late 1960s and early ’70s and the high-velocity assault of punk.”