Reissues: Cygnet Committee

May 31, 2016

In December 2009, I had been writing the blog for nearly half a year, at a steady pace. Readership was modest and comments were few—I imagine the majority of readers at the time were people who liked my old blog and wondered what the hell I was doing.

There’s an arc of inspiration when it comes to a sequential blog like this—initial burst of ambition and fleetness of movement; mild elation when the posts begin stacking up and you feel that the writing’s improved and that you’ve found the right tone; and the inevitable slackening of energy, “God, why am I doing this?,” inspired by a cold-eyed look at future obligations and knowing how much more unpaid work lies ahead of you.

So I likely would have given up around then had it not been for the wise choice to write about someone of whose early work I knew little, so that the blog was fueled by my curiosity as much as anything. I found late Sixties Bowie fascinating, even grim fare like “God Knows I’m Good.” But it was “Cygnet Committee” that did the business. I listened to it for the first time and thought it was just awful, an endless spiel of hippie blather. Further listens convinced me that it was brilliant, ghastly, draining, muddled, cutting, and so on. The blog entry wound up being a muddle itself, a cloudy response to a clouded song.

As I argue below (much of the book revision, minus the substantial end-noted material about Sixties radicalism [now there’s a selling point!]), I believe “Cygnet” was something of the same for Bowie—that it was a necessary song for him, a dark magic ritual, an extended middle finger to the Sixties. The Bowie we came to know would not have existed without it. Nor, as it turned out, would the blog, book, etc.

Originally posted on 8 December 2009, it’s the Cygnet Committee:

Lover To the Dawn.
Cygnet Committee.
Cygnet Committee (BBC, 1970).

“Cygnet Committee” was, consecutively, a break-up letter to a communal arts center Bowie co-founded, a scattershot attack on the counterculture and a desperate self-affirmation. Deep in this gnomic, nearly ten-minute screed was a struggle to find a workable design for the years ahead, Bowie pledging himself to a life of creative destruction while keeping clear of professional revolutionaries. It was the sound of Bowie willing himself to become a stronger artist, hollowing himself out to let a greater creative force, for good or ill, take hold in him. The possession took. In fleeting moments, you can hear the apocalyptic, utopian voice of “Five Years” and “Sweet Thing,” of “Station to Station” and “‘Heroes.’” The man who was able to write those songs had to go through the crucible of “Cygnet Committee” first.

Bowie and his lover/flatmate Mary Finnigan founded the Beckenham Arts Lab in May 1969, one of roughly 50 such Labs in Britain at the time. Along with weekly musical performances at the Three Tuns pub, the Lab (aka “Growth”) offered tie-dying lessons, poetry readings, puppet shows, lectures and mime routines. Hoping to attract local kids and subsequently “turn on their parents,” the Lab’s slogan was “Growth is people, Growth is revolution.” Bowie envisioned an escape valve for suburban dreamers; perhaps he saw the Lab as a way to find younger versions of himself. “There was nothing in Beckenham, just television,” he told a Dutch journalist at the time. “The lab is for extroverts who wish to express themselves, not for established artists.” This was Bowie as proud counter-cultural Beckenhamite, a character out of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, which would gently satirize this era.

In August 1969, interviewed by Finnigan for the International Times, Bowie said he hoped “Space Oddity” became a hit because it would mean exposure and capital for the Lab. Using sparkling ad-man copy, he claimed “Arts Labs should be for everybody, not just the so-called turned-on minority. We need energy from all directions, from heads and skin-heads alike.” It could be a bit much. The guitarist Keith Christmas, who would play on Space Oddity, recalled Bowie being “a twerp in those days…strum[ming] a few folk songs in between a lot of crap about changing the world.

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Nothing in particular soured Bowie on the Lab, at which he’d play regularly until March 1970. By then he’d assembled a hand- picked artistic community at his house in Haddon Hall and no longer had to publicly recruit followers. Yet he was noticeably estranged early on. Roger Wootton, a Lab regular, recalled Bowie as being an “outsider” in the pot-reeking, student-infested Three Tuns shows. “He was never really a part of what was going on. He didn’t seem to be one of the other people.” As the most talented and charismatic figure in the room, Bowie resented the apathetic types the Lab attracted upon its (relative) success. He’d wanted collaborators and got spectators; his encounters with mediocrities in hippie garb spouting “revolutionary” slogans became a drain on him.

As he told the journalist Patrick Salvo, Bowie intended the first harmonically free section of “Cygnet Committee” to symbolize the ideal of the Lab. “It was saying—Fellow man I do love you— I love humanity, I adore it, it’s sensational, sensuous, exciting—it sparkled and it’s also pathetic at the same time.” His players make a staggered entrance, as if plugging in when the mood strikes them. Over a murmuring backdrop of Three Tuns-esque chatter, Bowie sang arcing, eleventh-spanning phrases while Mick Wayne, using a volume pedal, played off a descending chromatic bassline.

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The leak of a Bowie & Hutch composition called “Lover to the Dawn,” demoed on the same tape as “Space Oddity” revealed Bowie had used “Dawn” as the basis of the opening sections of “Cygnet Committee,” from the opening riff and bassline (itself taken from Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come”) through the “they drained her [my] very soul…dry” section. And the long closing section Bowie appended to the reconstituted “Lover to the Dawn” was a bog-standard rock ‘n’ roll progression, the “Stand By Me” I-vi-IV-V sequence he’d used before (see “And I Say to Myself”). Regardless of its length and furor, “Cygnet Committee” was a folk number bluntly welded to a rock song.

“Lover to the Dawn” also shed light on what happened in the mutation that created “Cygnet Committee.” The original song starred yet another “Hermione” figure, called “bitter girl” in its refrains: a woman weary of the incessant demands of her lovers, who’ve drained her soul dry. The original refrain had a sympathetic Bowie and Hutch (“you gave too much and you got nothing!”) urging the bitter girl to get on with her life—it’s something of a hippie “Georgie Girl.”

In “Cygnet Committee,” Bowie cast himself as the bitter girl (not for the last time) and there was no larking Hutchinson to tell him to grow up and out of it. Instead, the self-pity of “Lover to the Dawn” got blown up to widescreen proportions. Bitter Boy isn’t just heartbroken, he’s set upon by parasites of all shapes; his tragedy isn’t personal but that of an entire generation. Its last venomous C major verse became a jeremiad, calling out New Leftists, cult leaders and cult followers, cursing hippie capitalists and their slogans (including “kick out the jams” and “love is all we need,” the revolution brought to you by, respectively, Columbia and EMI).

This extended damning of a movement of which Bowie was barely part requires a touch of context. The British underground lived in a bubble. Unlike in France, China and the US, British youth (apart from those in Northern Ireland) were passive and quiet, if discontented, in the late Sixties. There was nothing equivalent to the violence of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 or the May 1968 student riots in Paris. Colin Crouch, the student union president at the London School of Economics, saw the few substantial protests of the time quickly devolve into games of dress-up. British radicals seemed to get stuck on the idea of protest, raising protest “to a position of value in its own right,” Crouch wrote. “The sit-in became not so much a part of the sojourn in the wilderness for the chosen people of the revolution, but a trailer for the Promised Land.

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Bowie used this failure, the failure of the Arts Lab writ large, as a means to rid himself of the suffocating cant and pretense of the counterculture. In December 1969 he lamented the hippie set as being “the laziest people I’ve met in my life. They don’t know what to do with themselves. Looking all the time for people to show them the way. They wear anything they’re told, and listen to any music they’re told to.” As he sang, they knew not the words of the Free States’ refrain. He’d spent the last years of the Sixties burying himself in committees (“submerging myself,” as he told Mary Finnigan); now he was free.

So with its dead fathers and sons of dirt, the 39-bar-long closing verse of “Cygnet Committee” was the radical faction that took over the whole enterprise. The faceless villains who turned up, busy slitting throats, killing children and betraying friends, predicted the underground’s slide into cheap criminality. Yet the lyric, in turns grandiose, mocking (of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” among others) and fanatic, was more Bowie purging himself of “taste” and “narrative,” ridding himself of the stink of bedsit laments and cabaret, and exploring a inner darkness, calling up images of supermen, ringleaders, wraiths. The “talking man,” a summoned demon who gives the singer access to his “many powers,” would be the dark muse of The Man Who Sold the World.

As on “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” “Cygnet Committee” suffered from an under-rehearsed band, having to master a lengthy, harmonically dense song, that couldn’t deliver the searing accompaniment its vocal demanded (if you’re going to quote the MC5, you should lay down heavier fire than this, or at least ditch the harpsichord). The production did the song little favors, as the drums sound like paper and John Lodge’s bass goes missing towards the close. Bowie gave a more vital, if still ragged performance for a John Peel BBC broadcast of the following year. Despite occasionally bungling lines from his ramble of a lyric, he sang with an eerie sense of self-possession. “Cygnet Committee” had spent itself out in its making, its recording the afterimage of some lost primal inspiration. Still, in its tortuous way, it was as critical to Bowie’s development as “Space Oddity.”

Recorded: (“Lover to the Dawn,”) ca. mid-April 1969, 24 Foxgrove Road; (album) ca. late August-early September 1969, Trident. First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity. Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show. Live: 1969-70.

Top: Bernardine Dohrn, La Pasionaria of the Weather Underground, Chicago, September 1969; Bowie at the Arts Lab, Three Tuns Pub, Beckenham (Rex Stevenson), 1969; John May, the Worthing Workshop, ca. 1969.

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Cygnet Committee

December 8, 2009

Lover To the Dawn.
Cygnet Committee.
Cygnet Committee (BBC, 1970).

People, especially young people, more and more find themselves in the iron grip of authoritarian institutions. Reaction against the pigs or teachers in the schools, welfare pigs or the army, is generalizable and extends beyond the particular repressive institution to the society and the State as a whole. The legitimacy of the State is called into question for the first time in at least 30 years, and the anti-authoritarianism which characterizes the youth rebellion turns into rejection of the State, a refusal to be socialized into American society. Kids used to try to beat the system from inside the army or from inside the schools; now they desert from the army and burn down the schools.

First manifesto of what would become Weatherman, published in New Left Notes, 18 June 1969.

This country is crying out for a leader. God knows what it is looking for, but if it’s not careful it’s going to end up with a Hitler.

David Bowie, interview with Music Now!, 20 December 1969.

And we can force you to be free
And we can force you to believe

“Cygnet Committee.”

“Cygnet Committee” begins as David Bowie’s break-up letter to the Arts Lab, a communal arts venture he had co-founded that was run out of the back room of a Beckenham pub, and over its near-ten-minute span the song becomes a bile-filled, self-righteous attack aimed at the counterculture itself.

So something whose roots are in petty, specific gripes (Bowie had hoped the Arts Lab (which featured everything from tie-dying lessons to free-form jazz performances) would be a free-flowing exchange of ideas, and found it was mainly a bunch of grubby, needy kids trying to latch onto the slightly-more-famous types like Bowie—“I opened doors that would have blocked their way…I ravaged my finance just for those”) blossoms into a jeremiad against the New Left, cult figures, false hippie capitalists, deluded kids and their various empty slogans (including “kick out the jams” and “love is all we need”): it’s an unrelenting damning of a movement that Bowie was barely part of.

Two centuries before, England had avoided the revolutions that overtook America and France, and by 1969-1971 it seemed like the pattern was repeating—where French students had rioted in Paris and nearly caused DeGaulle’s government to collapse, and radical American students were bombing the Capitol and the Pentagon, the UK had remained relatively quiet (“London was the vacuum of late 1960s rebellion,” Peter Doggett). So “Cygnet Committee”‘s sustained burst of rage and elaborate paranoia seems unearned. After all, what did the guy who wrote “Laughing Gnome” or “Space Oddity” really have to say about the Revolution?

Bowie wasn’t the only one to sense a blackness at the heart of the counterculture—Pete Townshend had just written a rock opera about false messiahs, pop cultism and the rise of mob philosophy (or just listen to the way Merry Clayton’s voice cracks when she sings “Rape! Murder!” in “Gimme Shelter”). For Bowie, “Cygnet Committee” is the portal through which he would descend into his ’70s obsessions—supermen, glam violence, glam fascism, cults of personalities and various dystopias—and some of those figures appear in shadowy form here, slitting throats, killing children, betraying friends. Although Bowie ends the song with a plea for love and freedom, you’re left mainly with the phrase “I want to live,” the simplest, humblest request that a human being can make.

The song seems like a patchwork of three or four different pieces sewn together (it has at least one recognizable ancestor: the second/fifth verses and the start of the third/sixth are reused from a Bowie composition called “Lover to the Dawn” which he had demoed with John Hutchinson earlier in 1969). Two fairly concise four-line verses (sung over acoustic guitar, a fluid bassline and legato electric guitar) are followed by a 13-line, 48-bar rambling monster of a verse, which begins with a basic 4/4 rock accompaniment and then slackens into looser, almost free-form lines. The pattern repeats and this time the rambling verse (call it the radical faction) now conquers the song, extending for over five minutes until the fadeout. There is a coherence to it all, as the three verses are in step-up pattern (they begin in D, Eb and F, respectively, with the “rant” section of the third verse, for lack of a better word, starting in A Minor). The final exhortation (“I want to believe!”) is delivered over twining guitar and keyboard lines.

“Cygnet Committee” can be wearying to listen all the way through (at least I find), as the players either won’t or can’t rock when the song cries out for it—if you’re quoting the MC5, you ought to be laying down some heavy fire. Bowie’s vocal, in which he seems to be bleeding and purging himself so as to be ready for the years to come, carries much of the track.

Several writers have called this Bowie’s “first masterpiece,” which seems an overreach, though Bowie certainly was clawing here after something grander and more resonant than most of his earlier works. For an artist often accused of being cold and calculating, it’s a messy, wildly human performance.

Recorded ca. August-September 1969, on Space Oddity.

Top: Bernardine Dohrn, La Pasionaria of the Weather Underground, Chicago, September 1969.


The Next Day

August 10, 2015

dbnext

The Next Day.
The Next Day (video).

Object one: Album cover art (CD: 5″ x 5.5″; LP: 12.5″ x 12.4″). Designer: Jonathan Barnbrook (photo: Masayoshi Sukita). Designed September-December 2012; issued 8 March 2013.

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I thought that some fan made a joke cover,” Tony Visconti recalled his reaction upon first seeing Jonathan Barnbrook’s The Next Day image. He wasn’t alone.

Commissioned by Bowie in September 2012, Barnbrook proposed that the Next Day cover image should be the defaced cover of an earlier Bowie album. “I thought it would be quite a shocking thing to do and also play with this idea of image,” he told the journalist Rob Meyers. He experimented on nearly every Bowie LP cover, with Aladdin Sane a promising candidate. But “subverting [Aladdin] didn’t work because it’s subversive already…if you subvert Aladdin Sane, you’re adding to it, not destroying it.”

In Sukita’s “Heroes” cover photograph, by contrast, “there’s a distance.” The photo is highly stylized (Bowie replicating a hand gesture from a favorite Egon Schiele painting) and completely contained: it’s Bowie as a god in a universe of one.

nex

Barnbrook first scrawled over the “Heroes” photograph and titles: it looked like a bitter ex-fan had wielded a magic marker (it was the scabrous recycled look of some Fall and Pavement album covers). It didn’t quite work. Then he struck upon having a white square obscure much of the photo. “It had to be something that was in direct contrast to the image underneath but that wasn’t too contrived (we know all design is contrived, that is the essence of the word ‘design’),” Barnbrook wrote in a blog entry in January 2013. “It would have been clearer to many people if we had scribbled all over the cover but that didn’t have the detachment of intent necessary to express the melancholy of the songs on the album.”

Although the album hadn’t been titled when Barnbrook started his work (the code name for the design project was “Table”), The Next Day and the defaced “Heroes” image worked in tandem. “We can be heroes—just for one day,” Bowie had sung. Now his beautiful alien 1977 visage is covered by what looks like a Post-it note. Because it’s the next day, the day after being heroes, back to her being mean and him drinking all the time.

It’s also Bowie’s first album cover not to show his “current” image.* At some point, out of boredom or necessity, the likes of Dylan and Paul McCartney and Neil Young have issued albums whose covers were a painting or a photograph of something other than the aging artist. Not Bowie: his albums are a sequence of magazine covers, his “current” look as important as his current sound. (And recall that “Heroes” had extra impact because it was the first commissioned Bowie cover photo since Young Americans.) The Next Day offers messy shorthand. Bowie isn’t quite “back”: no interviews, no tours, no new cover picture. And rather than claiming he’s offering any new sound, he’s openly scribbling and pasting over his old work.

* Exceptions include Tin Machine II and the original Buddha of Suburbia.

hereiam

Object two: Music video (2:58). Dir: Floria Sigismondi. Starring: David Bowie, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Megan Neal Bodul, Catherine Jolleys, Brigitte Hagerman, Folake Olowofoyeku, Joshua Blake Shiver. Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth. Executive producer: Colleen Haynes (Black Dog Films.) Producers: Jennifer Chavaria, Oualid Mouaness. Released 8 May 2013.

A corrupt priest goes to his favorite bar, populated some possibly depraved Catholic icons, and dances with a woman working there. The music is courtesy of a prophet who’s apparently been out in the desert for a while. The woman develops stigmata, blood sprays everywhere, the prophet’s attacked by false priests and harlots until the deus ex machina ending, complete with heaven-sent white light and the prophet being raptured away.

The reaction was to be expected. The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue attacked Bowie, though more for aesthetic incoherence than blasphemy (“it’s a sure bet [Bowie] can’t stop thinking about the Cadillac of all religions, namely Roman Catholicism. There is hope for him yet,” he concluded). A former Archbishop of Canterbury said Bowie didn’t have the guts to make a video that played with Islamic imagery. YouTube briefly deleted the video (though apparently in error, not in response to complaints), which made fans excited for a moment that Bowie was “dangerous” again. A few tabloids got to run some two-page spreads with blood and half-dressed women, which they always like doing.

It does all seem a bit tired: épater le bourgeois catholique is a very Eighties thing, and Madonna had gotten there first. What saves Floria Sigismondi’s video is its cracked sense of humor, its taste for the grotesque and Sigismondi’s eye for a shot: the way Gary Oldman’s priest, with his ducktail haircut, looks like an aged greaser; the way Marion Cotillard seems to be willing herself out of the frame though abstracted bliss.

“‘The Next Day’ is a song about a tyrant, let me leave it at that,” Visconti said in an interview, while in another he described the tyrant as a medieval Englishman [or “Catholic cardinal”] who “was very insignificant. I didn’t even know who Bowie was talking about. But if you read the lyrics, it’s quite a horrific story.”

A weary sense of obligation led me to spend a couple days trying to track down which “English tyrant” Bowie had read about, but searches for tyrants who were stuffed in hollow trees, or who cavorted with whores, or who were chased through alleys, turned up nothing in particular. Anyway Bowie’s character is far more a general idea of some grasping second-tier Shakespearean villain, a rabble-rousing priest who winds up being killed by his rabble. The video plays with this: all of its medieval Catholic imagery (Joan of Arc is at the bar, as is the eyeless St. Lucy, though the flagellant barback is more a Dan Brown nod than anything else).

It’s all a bit of theater, but the main joke is about Bowie. The sequence of Next Day videos is a storyline. “Where Are We Now” is the returned ‘Bowie’ as a mummified museum exhibit, supervised by the “real” Bowie who keeps off stage. “The Stars Are Out Tonight” is Bowie playing himself as a senior citizen. And “The Next Day” is his big, vulgar Cinescope resurrection, with Bowie howling, jumping around, cursing, performing ‘live’ again. “The normalisation,” as the blogger How Upsetting described it. “Bowie performs. He hams it up. The curtain is pulled back. The deity figure is snuffed out at the end.”

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Object three: Musical composition/recording (3:27). Composer: D. Bowie. Performers: D. Bowie, vocals, guitar; David Torn: guitar; Gerry Leonard: guitar; Gail Ann Dorsey: bass; Zachary Alford: drums; Antoine Silverman, Maxim Moston, Hiroko Taguchi, Anja Wood: violins, viola, cello (string arrangement: Bowie, Tony Visconti). Producers: D. Bowie, T. Visconti. Spiritual influences: Mick Ronson, Macbeth. Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released 8 March 2013.

The doctors tell me I shouldn’t be here now. But I don’t go to the doctors for chemotherapy or anything anymore. I just put one foot in front of the other, and the next day is the next day, and you do your best. I’ve still got so much to do.

Mick Ronson, 1993.

You can talk about the drums: Zachary Alford harping on the beat, brooking no distractions, sparing little time for fills, pacing everyone with his hi-hat. Or the guitars: the crunchy off-beat figure that comments throughout the track, and the trebly guitar that comments on its comments, and the spectral guitar that plays a rising E Dorian line to ladder up to the refrains, or all the other dubs happy to make the occasional clatter. Or the other touches, like the barely-audible rising string lines in the refrains.

You can talk about the song, happy to stay in its bright E major (some verses seem to pull off into G major, only to be dragged up or down, depending where they are, back to E), with its chassis a set of fat seventh chords (G7-C7-E7, and so on).

All well and good. But “The Next Day” is Bowie’s vocal and little else. Sequenced as the opening track, it’s Bowie offering a demonstration, in a few minutes, that he’s alive and unwell and full of piss and vinegar. His phrasings are delicious consonant runs (“ignoring the pain of their partic-u-lar dis-ease-es“), hooked on simple dumb rhymes (“yeah” with “yeah,” ending with “yeah”). His words blur into runs of aggressive sound, as if Bowie’s been penned up for a decade and needs to get this stuff out. Can you believe this? Echoing “Breaking Glass,” he kills off a verse by saying: Listen! Or how a stray line catches the ear—listen to the whores, he tells her—but before you process it, here comes another refrain battering at you.

And what a refrain. Bowie, seemingly doubled by a pantheon of himself, hollers down a world that wants him dead (it wants everyone dead, if you think about it). Who knows whether a line from one of Mick Ronson’s last interviews was in his mind as he wrote it, but “The Next Day” winds up being a curse at death from the ranks of the living. Whatever credos Bowie has offered, whatever dreams he’s encouraged, his work boils down to a line he’d sung at age 22, in “Cygnet Committee“: We want to live.

Even if you’re left half-dead, some near-corpse stuffed into a tree by fanatics, you’re not dead yet. So give ’em the finger, if you can. HERE I AM: NOT QUITE DYING. The anti-epitaph. The bitter pleasure derived from living despite God or the fates’ best intentions. The joy of the numbing business of life, all the small routines, all the breaths and footsteps, the eye-blinks and stomach rumbles. The small beauty of just keeping on, however pointless it all may seem. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, a doomed Scot once said. And the NEXT DAY and the NEXT and ANOTHER DAY, offers the man from Bromley, roaring out those last words. One foot in front of the other. Live, live, goddamn you: live.


Links: Chapters 1-3

March 24, 2015

Chapter 1: The Junior Visualizer (1964-1966)

bowie '65

“Liza Jane” (Toy)
“Louie Louie Go Home”
“I Pity The Fool”
“Take My Tip”
“That’s Where My Heart Is”
“I Want My Baby Back”
Bars of the County Jail”
“You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”
(Toy)
“Baby Loves That Way”
(Toy)
“I’ll Follow You”
“Glad I’ve Got Nobody”
“Baby, That’s a Promise”
“Can’t Help Thinking About Me”
“And I Say to Myself”
“Do Anything You Say”
“Good Morning Girl”
“I Dig Everything”
(Toy)
“I’m Not Losing Sleep”

More: Britain on Film (Look at Life): “Fashion,” London on Film: “Suburbs,” “Why I Hate the Sixties” (2004); Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (conclusion); Devin McKinney on Colin MacInnes; Nick Bentley, “Translating English: Youth, Race and Nation in Colin MacInnes’s City of Spades and Absolute Beginners;” Bowie: Tonight interview, November 1964; The Beatles Anthology: 1963, 1964, 1965; “British Mods and Rockers” (BBC); scenes from Billy Liar;  Georgie Fame, “Yeh Yeh“; Glenn Gould, “The Search for Petula Clark“(1967); Bowie, radio interview, Marquee Club, 1966; Pye Studios.

Chapter 2: Gnome Man’s Land (1966-1968)

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“Rubber Band” (album remake)
“The London Boys”
(Toy)
“Over the Wall We Go”
“Uncle Arthur”
“She’s Got Medals”
“Join the Gang”
“Did You Ever Have a Dream”
“There Is a Happy Land”
“We Are Hungry Men”
“Sell Me a Coat
” (remake)
“Little Bombardier”
“Maid of Bond Street”
“Silly Boy Blue”
(Toy)
“Come and Buy My Toys”
“Please Mr. Gravedigger”
The Laughing Gnome
The Gospel According To Tony Day
When I Live My Dream
(remake)
Love You Till Tuesday
(single remake)

David-Bowie-1967

“Waiting For the Man”: (1967) (1970) (1972) (1976)
Little Toy Soldier
Pancho
Everything Is You
“Silver Tree Top School For Boys”:
(Slender Plenty) (Beatstalkers)
April’s Tooth of Gold
“Let Me Sleep Beside You”
(Toy)
“Karma Man”
(BBC, 1968)
“C’est La Vie”

“Even a Fool Learns to Love”
“In the Heat of the Morning” (Toy)
“London Bye Ta-Ta”
(1970 remake)
“When I’m Five” (BBC, 1968
) (demo, 1969)
“Social Kind of Girl”
“Ching-a-Ling”
“The Mask”

More: The Strange World of Gurney Slade (1960: Ep. 1, opening sequence); Anthony Newley, live, 1964; Alan Klein, “I Wanna Be a Beatnik“, 1964; Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (esp. “Uncle Ernest,” “The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller” and “The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale”); There Is a Happy Land (1974 adaptation); Heinrich Harrer, “My Life in Forbidden Lhasa” (1955); Ophiel, The Art and Practice of Astral Projection (1961);  David Guy, “Christmas Humphreys”; The Prisoner, excerpt from “Fall Out” (1967); “Forgotten Heroes: Big Jim Sullivan“; The Mothers of Invention, Freak Out (1966); The Fugs, “Dirty Old Man,”(1966); Ken Nordine, “Word Jazz” (1957); The Image (Armstrong, 1967, excerpts).

Chapter 3: The Free States’ Refrain (1969)

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“Space Oddity” (demo) (original version) (1979 remake)
“Love Song”
“Life Is a Circus”
“Letter to Hermione”
(demo)
“An Occasional Dream”
(demo)
“Janine”
“Conversation Piece”
(Toy)
“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” (B-side)
(LP remake)
“Don’t Sit Down”

“God Knows I’m Good”
“Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”
“Cygnet Committee”
” (“Lover to the Dawn”, demo version)
“Memory of a Free Festival”
” (1970 remake)

More:  2001: A Space Odyssey (“Stargate” sequence); The Bee Gees, “New York Mining Disaster 1941“; Apollo 11, pre-flight conference, July 1969;  International Times (1969 archive); Scott Walker, live in Japan, 1970; Jean Itard, Victor de l’Aveyron (French) (English); Prof. John Merryman, France: May 1968; MC5, “Kick Out the Jams” live, Detroit, 1969; Rolling Stones, Hyde Park free concert, July 1969; George McKay, “The Free Festivals and Fairs of Albion” (in Senseless Acts of Beauty); Beckenham Free Festival, 1969.


Afraid

March 10, 2014

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Afraid (BowieNet demo, 2000).
Afraid (Toy).
Afraid (Heathen).
Afraid (Late Night with Conan O’Brien, 2002).
Afraid (live, 2002).
Afraid (live, 2003).
Afraid (live, 2004).

[where were we?]

The plan at Looking Glass Studios in October 2000 had been just to cut overdubs for the Toy tracks—backing vocals, some Lisa Germano colors, “lock[ing] up a few things” (Mark Plati)—but by mid-month, Bowie and Plati were recording new tracks and mixing them as they went along, the sessions now extending through early November. Plati had cranked out two tracks a day when mixing Bowie’s BBC recordings “so I figured I’d try and have the same sort of work ethic for this project,” he wrote in his web journal.* And Bowie kept writing new songs.

Reading Andrew Loog Oldham’s memoir Stoned at the time (Oldham had managed the Rolling Stones in the Sixties—he’d done a quick assessment of David Jones and had passed), Bowie was tickled by an anecdote in which Oldham had locked Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a flat until they came up with a song. Oldham knew the band was going nowhere unless they started writing their own material. With the Stones’ ostensible leader, Brian Jones, incapable of delivering the goods, the task fell on the singer and the rhythm guitarist. Oldham returned to be greeted with either “It Should Be You” (Jagger’s recollection) or “As Tears Go By” (Richards’) (my vote’s “It Should Be You,” which sounds written by someone trapped in a kitchen for an hour).

As a joke, Plati said Bowie should follow the Oldham approach. Hey, it got results. “So I sent him off to the Looking Glass lounge and told him not to come back until he had the goods!” Plati wrote. This being Bowie, he actually did come back with a fresh song, which he called “Afraid,” debuting it to Plati on the latter’s mini Stratocaster.

“Afraid” had some affinities to the Toy “new songs in the vein of my old songs” conceit, with Bowie hinting at “Heroes” (“I…wish I was smarter“), “Conversation Piece” (“if I put my faith in medication” has a touch of “I’ve spent a lot of time in education“) and “I Can’t Read” (esp. its mid-Nineties revision, whose revised lyric Bowie all but quotes in the last chorus). A few other ghosts kicked around in it: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sings through the last refrain. And Bowie went back, yet again, to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. In that album’s “God,” after dispatching a run of false idols (Jesus, Buddha, Bob “Zimmerman”), Lennon ended his purge with the Beatles. Grow up, the dream’s over, make a new life for yourself. I have. I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that’s reality.

“I believe in Beatles,” Bowie sings in “Afraid.” He doesn’t want reality. He also believes in aliens and/or in God (“we’re not alone”), in reincarnation and/or spiritual betterment (“I believe my little soul has grown”**). There’s another old Bowie song shifting deep beneath all of this: “Cygnet Committee.” “Cygnet Committee” is an ambitious young man trying to will himself into an artist, escaping from being a dilettante into the sort of man who could write “‘Heroes'” and “Station to Station.” It’s a long flagellation, building to a near-screamed final set of refrains: “And I want to believe!/in the madness that calls ‘Now’/and I want to believe!/that a light’s shining through/somehow.” It’s a man opening himself up to life, exposing himself to the blows of experience.

“Afraid” is the other end of the telescope. It’s a numbed (maybe via Prozac or lithium) perspective, a man recalling the heights and depths of a past life (“I used to walk on clouds”) but now desperately trying to be “normal,” to live a flattened life, to conform in any way imaginable so he can sleep at night. Even his hopes—in God, aliens, “classic” pop music—are compromised. They’re beliefs he hopes are shared, or are at least common enough (in the language of social media, they’re “trending”). He’s outsourced even his aspirations to society.

In an interview in 2002, Bowie took pains to distance himself from the character: “I don’t see it as being representative of me.” He described the narrator as someone who does what society expects him to, striking a bargain of spiritual conformity for a sense of security. “An interesting deceit, but not mine,” Bowie clucked.

This was similar to how he’d prefaced ‘Hours’: that he was using the perspectives of other men his age who’d been less favored by life. And you could argue the desperate soul of “Afraid” is a photo negative of the man who sang the song, who was established, famous, rich, happily married and a new father. But in the context of Toy, “Afraid” took on different colors. There the track was surrounded by those in which an older man revisited his first songs, the songs he’d written before he became ‘David Bowie.’ As weak or as scattered as these songs were, what united them was a sense of movement. They were building blocks which the singer of “Cygnet Committee” had needed before he could try to scrabble up higher. “Afraid” suggested the man had fallen back down, that the dreams had proved too much for him, that he was settling for shopworn ones. It gave a new, bitter flavor to a sadness that permeated the album.

ben_stiller_david_bowie_owen_wilson_zoolander_001

Plati and Bowie honed “Afraid” through late October, debuting the song on a livestream on BowieNet (on 2 November). By this performance (just Bowie on acoustic, Plati on electric guitar) “Afraid” had crystallized: its subsequent revisions, for both Toy and Heathen, would mainly serve to add or sift a few layers. Even in its “demo” stage, Bowie had the downshifting intro guitar riff and the G minor verse progression. Nearly all of his lines were in place as well as essentially the whole song structure.

The version cut for Toy ornamented and weighed down the song: while Sterling Campbell’s drums were lively, the wall of harmony vocals pasted in the choruses clotted up the melody, suggesting some extended community of the deluded. Then “Afraid” was packed off to EMI as part of the Toy tapes, and (as we’ll see next entry) wound up stranded in the void.

By the time of the sessions for his next album in 2001, where he was working with Tony Visconti, Bowie had abandoned hope that Toy would be released and set about pulling a few things from the wreckage, including “Afraid.” Unlike another Toy original Bowie retrieved (again, see next entry), he kept some of the basic tracks of “Afraid,” with Visconti adding a new bassline and a string arrangement. “I had always liked the version of ‘Afraid’ that I did with Mark Plati, so Tony and I got him to do a little more work on his guitar parts so that it would be more in line with the rest of the album, Tony again playing bass,” Bowie said in an interview. “Then Tony mixed it. I think it could be a great live song. Of course, it’s kind of sardonic in its assertion that if we play the game everything will be alright.”

Visconti’s “Afraid” was a paring back, a realignment, and his changes worked to sharpen the song’s unsettled mood. He gave space and perspective. Take the first verse: where on Toy it had been carried by acoustic guitar, now the dramatic weight mainly falls on a right-mixed electric guitar, while the left-mixed acoustic is confined to making jarring interjections, jabbing off-beat as if trying to wake the singer up. Then the acoustic’s shuffled to the center and quickly submerged in the mix (a conscience smothered) while a new voice takes its place in the left channel, a low, arpeggiating guitar figure. Visconti’s strings emboss the delusion of the refrains, where Bowie’s quavering lead vocal is at first left starkly exposed.

Now sequenced in the middle of Heathen, “Afraid” was strengthened by its new surroundings. Other Heathen tracks were brothers to it, whether thematically, harmonically or melodically. It was home at last, it was among adults. Did it lose anything from being stripped from its original context? Or was it good for Toy to die so that “Afraid” could live?

[to be concluded]

Recorded October-November 2000, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; (overdubs) ca. July-September 2001, Allaire Studios, New York. Released 11 June 2002 on Heathen. Performed 2002-2004, up until the last shows of the aborted summer ’04 tour.

* For gear heads only: Plati rented two Universal Audio Teletronix LA2A compressors: “[they] still had the warmth one would associate with a classic LA2A but with a much clearer and open top end…I went back and remixed previous tracks with them.” He also had the Apogee PSX-100 analog-digital converter, which he used in conjunction with a Tascam DA-88 to make 24-bit mixes. For guitars, Plati favored a Fender Stratocaster “done over with Sperzel tuners, a graphite nut and saddles…up a gauge to .11s.”

** Possibly a wink at Emperor Hadrian’s alleged tribute to his departing soul: animula, vagula, blandula

Future days dept.:

The next two months will be quieter than usual for the blog, as I’ll be consumed with a few things, including speaking at the Experience Music Project’s Pop Conference in Seattle (see here) in late April. So don’t be surprised if two weeks and change go by without a fresh entry. We should return to a brisker pace once all of this is over, sometime in May.

Top: Domitilla Asquer, “Farncesca Waiting for Gasoline,” Riruta (Nairobi), Kenya, March 2000; Bowie briefing Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson on the rules of battle, Zoolander.


What’s Really Happening?

January 14, 2014

99seattle

What’s Really Happening? (demo with guide melody).
What’s Really Happening? (Internet Tonight, studio footage, 1999).
What’s Really Happening? (Bowie studio vocal takes).
What’s Really Happening?

Being a pop music fan is transactional. You buy the records (well, you used to), and if you like them, you join the fan club: pay your dues, subscribe to the newsletter, and maybe you get an autographed picture in the mail, or an exclusive Christmas record, or first dibs on concert seats. If you’re a member of the fan club in good standing, you could win a contest to go backstage or have lunch with the star, or maybe his drummer. The more time and money you devote, the further you can go into the circle (but only so far). It’s a one-sided relationship seemingly designed for abuse: fan clubs milked for cash by managers; female fans sexually propositioned by roadies, bodyguards and hangers-on for backstage access.

What was hopeful about the first generation of Internet pop music fandoms was that (sometimes) both parties, fan and star, seemed to want a less exploitative relationship. BowieNet was among the brightest of the new worlds: for a relatively cheap subscription, you got a number of actual exclusives and chances to “talk” to Bowie online. And the site was serious, for a time, about keeping up its participatory half of the deal. BowieNet members got to vote on single mixes and cover art; most of all, fans competed to write a lyric for a Bowie song.

This was a gimmick: “What’s Really Happening?,” the first “Cyber Song,” with Bowie singing the fan-written lyrics in the studio while being filmed via webcam and a Lucent 360 “BowieCam.”* The webcast provided “a ground breaking “insiders view” into the studio session,” as per the breathless PR copy.

The contest ran from 2 November to 15 December 1998. Bowie claimed he read through most of the reported 20,000-25,000 entries (“there were a lot of potty ones,” he told Chris Roberts: one wag rewrote “Laughing Gnome” to make it fit Bowie’s melody, another sent in “Wind Beneath My Wings” unaltered). He found many fans contributed work in the vein of the as-yet-released ‘Hours,’ “very soul searching and angst-ridden” stuff. There were some funny contributions too, “so flip they’re almost successful, because they were written with such a lack of responsibility attached. Often things work really well when you don’t feel the pressure of having to make them good. To play at something is often more productive than earnestly striving.”

He (and BowieNet voters) narrowed the entries down to 25, then he picked a 20-year-old Ohioan, Alex Grant, as the winner. “It was impertinent, it scanned well, and it was easy to sing,” he said of Grant’s lyric. Hoping to reduce the number of “Cygnet Committee”-style rants, Bowie had offered as a template to would-be lyricists a wordless top melody rough track: three sets of four lines, mainly seven syllables each (the end phrases shortened to five). Grant’s lyric tightly fit the metrical constraints and shifted from an AAAB rhyme scheme (box/locks/clocks/mind) to an AAAA one (eyes/bye/lie/cry) to an ABAA second verse (glass/sinking/past/last).

Grant wanted the lines to question the medium that created them. “When I first logged on three years ago, [the Web] was this beautiful magic thing but after a certain amount of time I was getting stuck inside of that, my whole life became the Internet,” he said in an interview at the session. So the opening verse is a look at “virtual” life, our personae now grown inside Dell desktops or iMacs, with the natural mechanics of our bodies reduced to “outdated clocks.” This idea went a bit astray in the last verse, with its sinking glass clouds “falling like the shattered past,” though this stanza was the most Bowie-esque, with a clunky mixed metaphor that seemed derived from a cut-up.

For his troubles Grant got a $15,000 publishing contract from Bug Music, the complete Bowie catalog on CD, a $500 gift card to the internet retailer CDNow (in its last year of independent existence), subscriptions to BowieNet and Rolling Stone magazine and the raw envy of other Bowie fans.

wrhh

They’re amazing kinds of people…I’ve been through the fan sites of other artists and I’m really proud of my lot…Because it’s produced a kind of a community feel, that one doesn’t become the focus of everything all the time. It’s amazing how much you get into their lives and find out about what they’re doing and what’s interesting them other than just being part of the BowieNet site.

Bowie, 1999.

The “What’s Really Happening?” contest was reminiscent of Todd Rundgren’s No World Order, a 1993 Rundgren project in which fans were producers and engineers: you could alter the tempo of tracks, choose different mixes, make bars a capella or dub in guitar lines. You could make Rundgren’s record your own, veto his decisions. This was the Nineties’ idea of 21st Century pop: you, the fan, would help make the music; you would become an aesthetic minority shareholder of sorts.

Yet by encouraging fan participation at a lyric-writing or mixing-stage level, was the artist consigning her work to communal mediocrity, making it a slush of good intentions? Would you want to hear Something/Anything, the work of one weirdo locked in a studio playing nearly every instrument, or No World Order? Was the artist giving away too many magic tricks? The night Bowie and Grant recorded “What’s Really Happening?” BowieNet fans had a real-time comment thread as they watched the session: “Bowie’s drinking a Zima!” “What a boring song!” “Reeves is a Teletubbie” “Whoever wrote Shinin’ Star wasn’t an experienced songwriter either :)” “Coco [Schwab]: how did you get the nickname Coco?” “you haven’t missed anything except David wailing the same line incessantly“). (It’s archived here.) Imagine a live thread while Bowie and Eno cut “Warszawa” (“wtf is this in Portuguese?” “I MISS RONNO”) (cf. the Sermon on the Mount scene in Life of Brian).

It’s telling that “What’s Really Happening?” was a dead end: never again would Bowie offer this degree of fan participation. As I wrote in the BowieNet piece, Bowie now uses the Internet as a one-way distribution hub: putting out product, letting fans respond to it and hype it as they will. Where the creative fan impulse went, where the sense of community went, are the Bowie fansites on Tumblr. Occasionally something from my site gets reblogged 100 times, sending the quote or photo off into this seemingly endless run of Bowie fans, who make GIFs of his various incarnations, who write poems and limericks about him, who annotate and snark at and love him. This, as it turned out, is 21st Century fandom: not artists ham-handedly trying to make their fans Official Contributors, but fandom on its own branching off into thousands of bottle universes, forming and breaking off like atoms. It’s about as happy an ending as one could hope for.

wrh

“What’s Really Happening” as a composition and recording gets lost in these sort of discussions. So a brief consideration: it’s a basic G Dorian song whose verse melody is a Sixties mingle (2 cups “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” 1 cup “Pictures of Matchstick Men”) and whose main guitar riff comes off as a tribute to late Britpop (see Space’s “Female of the Species” or Suede’s “She’s in Fashion“). The hectoring chorus, with its glum accumulation of major chords (D-C-B-A), was among the dreariest he’d written in a decade, with Bowie reduced to recycling a line from Tin Machine’s “One Shot.” (It’s ironic that while Bowie likely kept control over the chorus to ensure his “Cyber song” at least had a hook, one wonders if Grant could’ve improved it).

Some backing tracks had been cut in Bermuda, while during the “Cyber” session in New York Reeves Gabrels cut some lead lines and Mark Plati, producing the session, did some bass overdubs (Grant and a friend, Larry Tressler, sang some backing vocals). Comparing the demo version to the final cut shows a decision somewhere along the line to clutter up the mix, perhaps in the hope of distracting from the fact that the song’s basically over at the two minute mark, with Bowie having to repeat half of the first verse and the intro (there’s a brutal cut at 2:36, suggesting they just looped the original intro) before we get to Gabrels’ outro shreddings.

Initially Bowie said “What’s Really Happening?” was going to be a Web exclusive (the contest rules didn’t specify that the track would appear on the album), but he later chose to include it on ‘Hours,‘ and fairly prominently (it was the lead-off track of Side 2 for the dwindling number of cassette buyers). Its tempo and guitars served as a good dividing point between the somber “Side 1” songs and the “Side 2” rockers. A time-stamped curio, “What’s Really Happening?,” more than any other Bowie track, is also the product of noble intentions.

Recorded (backing tracks) Seaview Studio, Bermuda, April-May 1999 and Looking Glass Studios, New York; (guitar and bass overdubs, lead and backing vocals) 24 May 1999, Looking Glass.

* Everything under the moon in 1997-1999 apparently had a “Bowie” prefix; you wonder if Looking Glass Studios had a “BowieLoo.”

** Bowie cracked to Roberts that “I can now nick 25,000 songs over the next few years. It’s all done for me, no prob. It’s all fitted out, I got it in a big store room. Change the odd word, nobody’ll ever know, who cares?” When Roberts joked that the songs would all have the same chorus, Bowie replied: “So what—all this shit is up in the air. Intellectual property? Don’t make me larf!

Note: I tried to track down Alex Grant for this entry, as he’s never been interviewed for any Bowie bio or magazine piece, and I thought he’d provide some fresh perspective. Given his relatively common name and a lack of Internet footprints (BMI lists him only as the co-composer of “What’s Really Happening?”) I had no luck. Mr. Grant, if you by chance read this, please contact me and I’ll put up any response/recollections you’d like to make (even if it’s “wow, your site sucks”).

Top: “Doctors With Patient,” Seattle Municipal Archives, 1999; “What’s Really Happening” BowieNet page, 1999 (captured via Wayback Machine).


If I’m Dreaming My Life

December 31, 2013

rushmore

If I’m Dreaming My Life.
If I’m Dreaming My Life (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
If I’m Dreaming My Life (only live performance, 1999).

“If I’m Dreaming My Life” wasn’t just the longest track on ‘Hours’: it was one of the longest studio recordings that Bowie made in his life. Its contemporaries (length-wise) were epics and scene-changers: “Station to Station,” “Width of a Circle,” “Cygnet Committee,” “The Motel,” “Memory of a Free Festival,” the upcoming “Bring Me the Disco King.” If Bowie songs were comic books, these would be the Jack Kirbys. So when considered in this grand company, “If I’m Dreaming My Life” comes off as aridly grandiose.

On ‘Hours,’ though, its odd structure (four verses broken up by guitar solos, the second and last verses given tagged-on refrains, and a three-minute bloodletting of a coda) and its occasionally disconcerting chord progressions* gave it a presence, if a blank one, on the album: it’s an empty quadrant of the map. “Dreaming My Life” seems half-finished at times—Bowie sings emotive “ooohhhs” in lieu of words; the second guitar solo appears to have started as a parody of “Under the Bridge” and hardly developed further. Nothing pans out; the timing’s off. Lights fade. A father “steps aside/at the wrong time:” a bungled bit of wedding stagecraft—a father giving the bride away too soon—or the bitter thought of an estranged husband: he shouldn’t have given her away at all? Or the line “was it air she breathed?”: it’s a man seeming to fancy, like four hundred songwriters before him, that his lover seems scarcely human. Then he concludes the line with another “at the wrong time.” She wasn’t as much perfect as poisoned.

Though demoed and partially tracked in Bermuda, “If I’m Dreaming My Life” was completely remade once Bowie and Reeves Gabrels returned to New York for overdub and mixing sessions. Former Rollins Band guitarist Chris Haskett was recruited to play rhythm guitar; he’s echoed, in places, by a stabbing keyboard line. Mark Plati and Mike Levesque, perhaps energized by playing “live” on the backing track instead of cutting their typical overdubs, provide one of the more supple foundations on the album. Plati’s bass is the lead melodic voice of the intro, while his roaming fills in the coda are a counter-melody to Bowie’s static refrain; Levesque, charged with flooring life into the song in the refrain verses, serves as a gravity well (for all its faults, ‘Hours’ has some of Bowie’s more dynamic-sounding drum tracks).

The song’s bid for “greatness,” or at least to hold its head up among the likes of “Station to Station,” is Bowie’s performance in the coda. It’s a simple conceit: he tries to complete a single phrase yet hardly seems able to make the effort (often he’ll just get out a “dreaming my….” before stumbling back to the start); it’s a man reduced to his voice. Beginning with keyboards masked as a horn/wind quartet (in the song’s few live performances, this role was assumed by Mike Garson’s “church” organ chords), the coda gains fresh dimensions whenever Bowie manages to finish the phrase: a distorted, chiming guitar; a choir of secondary Bowies; the melodic generosity of Plati’s bass. If it’s a triumph, it’s a barren one. Compared to the imaginative density of a “Station” or “Width of a Circle,” “Dreaming My Life” seems like an abandoned outpost of some crumbling empire.

Recorded ca. May 1999, Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Performed on VH1 Storytellers and once live, at Libro Music Hall, Vienna, 17 October 1999.

* The verses are basically in G minor, though a motivic chord sequence—found in the intro, refrain tags and coda—is Gm-Eb-C-F-D, suggesting a move to the parallel major. There’s a quintessential odd Bowie progression in the first round of the coda, where a C-sharp major chord crops up where the ear expects (by now) C major (the first “dreaming my…”).

Top: Rushmore (Anderson, 1998).


The Buddha of Suburbia

November 27, 2012

The Buddha of Suburbia.
The Buddha of Suburbia (“rock” mix).

Rarely now do we artists tell us much of ourselves. We are without history, interest or spiritual life. Our thoughts are often scattered and banal. Those occasional strands that have some merit are often stunted if not still-born. Although I get the sense that all art is somewhat autobiographical it seems increasingly hard for the artist to relinquish his solipsistic subjectivity.

David Bowie, liner notes to the original Buddha of Suburbia.

The suburbs were over: they were a leaving place.

Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.

Black Tie White Noise, though it sold in the UK (hitting #1 and producing a Top Ten single), failed to “reestablish” Bowie as a commercial presence, which is just as well, as Bowie had been greatly ambivalent about being reestablished. The record stiffed in the US, in part because Bowie’s American label, Savage, collapsed a month after its release and filed for bankruptcy six months later. In a fine turn, Savage partially blamed its collapse on the performance of an album whose sales were hurt by its collapse; they would later sue Bowie and BMG for $100 million.*

BTWN‘s respectable, mediocre performance was an ideal outcome for Bowie. He had shown that he still could sell records, but he’d also deftly avoided being roped into touring for a year to promote the album (he’d been far more relentless in pushing Tin Machine II). And for once in his late career, he was able to push on quickly, to build upon the strengths of a previous work rather than discarding it and starting yet again from scratch. He’d established a beachhead; now he was moving inland.

It began with an arranged conversation. The author Hanif Kureishi interviewed Bowie in February 1993, and at the close of their talk Kureishi mentioned he was adapting his novel The Buddha of Suburbia into a miniseries for the BBC, and asked Bowie if the production could use some period songs like “Fill Your Heart” and “Time.” Bowie agreed. Working up the nerve, Kureishi then asked if Bowie felt like contributing any original material. Bowie asked to see the tapes of Buddha, and a couple of months later, Kureishi and the series’ director Roger Michell were in Switzerland, listening to Bowie’s score.

There were two stages of Bowie’s involvement in the BBC’s Buddha. First, he composed incidental music for the series.** These were generally a series of motifs—combinations of guitar, synthesizer, trumpet, percussion, sitar—roughly a minute in length each, which Bowie tweaked based on responses from Kureishi and Michell. Kureishi found the whole business surreal: watching rough cuts of his fairly autobiographical Buddha playing on a TV monitor while the idol of his adolescence workedthe mixing desk, which was dotted with dozens of buttons, levers and swinging gauges, alongside which were banked computers.”

Roughly a month later, Bowie went back to these motifs and, relying on his usual studio jack-of-all-trades Erdal Kizilcay, began tinkering with the pieces, extending them into six- or eight-minute loops, isolating what he considered “dangerous or attractive elements” and adding overdubs and occasional vocals. After a week’s recording and another fortnight of mixing, he had a new 50-minute album.

Released in November 1993 to little notice, listed as a soundtrack album and not as a new Bowie release, distributed only in the UK and Europe and eclipsed, sales-wise, by the near-simultaneous issue of the compilation The Singles Collection, The Buddha of Suburbia was a non-existent album, a ghost record, and it was Bowie’s best album in over a decade. If there is a latter-day “great” Bowie album, it’s this one; Buddha is only now beginning to get the recognition that it always had deserved.

Buddhas in Bromley

I am considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories. But I don’t care—Englishman I am (though not proud of it), from the South London suburbs and going somewhere. Perhaps it is the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored. Or perhaps it was being brought up in the suburbs that did it.

Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.

Bowie found a fellow traveler in Kureishi. Seven years Bowie’s junior, Kureishi had grown up in the same London suburb, Bromley, had attended the same school, Bromley Tech, and had followed the same trajectory as Bowie: escape to London, a professional life in the arts. Kureishi started out as a dogsbody at the Royal Court Theatre and eventually became its writer in residence and a playwright, then in the Eighties moved into making films, scripting two directed by Stephen Frears, My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.

Buddha of Suburbia, Kureishi’s first novel, published in 1990, used his Bromley adolescence as its backdrop. Like Kureishi, the novel’s protagonist, Karim “Creamy” Amir, is the son of a Pakistani father and an English mother. Spending his youth trying to escape the curse of lower-middle-class suburban life, Karim finally slips free of it, first via his father’s abandonment of his family and subsequent move to South Kensington, and then via his own success as an actor (paralleling Kureishi, Karim goes from avant-garde theater into television). One of the best novels of the Nineties, Buddha balances a minstrels’ gallery of characters (including Changez, an Indian national brought to Britain for an arranged marriage, who is obsessed with Harold Robbins and Arthur Conan Doyle; Pyke, a sexual adventurer and Svengali stage director; the would-be Marxist revolutionary Terry, who makes a living playing a cop on a TV series; and the Buddha himself, Karim’s father Haroon, a Muslim bureaucrat who becomes a Buddhist guru to earnest suburban Londoners) with acridly funny and astute observations on class, identity and pretensions (artistic, political, spiritual, sexual).

Bowie…had attended our school several years before, and there, in a group photograph in the dining hall, was his face. Boys were often found on their knees before this icon, praying to be made into pop stars and from a release from a lifetime as a motor mechanic, or a clerk in an insurance firm, or a junior architect…We had a combination of miserable expectations and wild hopes. Myself, I only had wild hopes.

Kureishi, Buddha.

When I knew I was going to be a writer, it completely changed my life because it made the present unimportant. Whatever was happening to me, the racism, the drag of being in such a violent school, were made unimportant because I lived in the future.

Kureishi, interview.

Kureishi had used Bowie as a symbolic figure from his earliest work (Bowie recordings are in his second play, 1980’s The Mother Country) and Bowie naturally figures in his novel, both as an actual cultural reference as well as an element in one of the book’s major characters, Charlie Kay (later Charlie Hero), a Bromley-born musician who molts from a would-be Ziggy Stardust local muso into a punk and ends the novel as a NYC-based rock star, a thinly-veiled Billy Idol (another Bromley kid made good).

Bowie, who had driven through his early childhood neighborhood of Brixton in 1991 and had a moment of bewildered nostalgia there, found in Kureishi’s novel and scripts a central observation that rang true to him: that the curse of a would-be artist who grows up middle-class in the suburbs is a restless and self-compromised ambition, the constant need to better yourself chased by the fear of being found out. The novel takes a generous view of this: its characters who thrive are those who manage to transform themselves in some way, like Karim, Charlie, Haroon and his lover Eva, who goes from suburban mystic hanger-on to upper-class home decorator. Even Changez winds up in a Peckham commune, happily raising his wife’s child by another man. Those who perish or wither, like Karim’s would-be fundamentalist uncle Anwar and his drunk, “respectable” aunt Jean, are those unable to discard the past.

Karim, on Thatcher: She can’t win: she’s too suburban.

Eva: We live in a suburban country.

Buddha, end of episode 4.

The rub is that this drive of self-betterment and self-transformation, this multi-colored suburban counterculture, ultimately twins with the impetus that drove Thatcherism—both novel and series end on the night of the general election in May 1979, with the main characters celebrating their new selves in an expensive Soho restaurant whose patrons are cheering the returns.

And although written in the Eighties by a man who was far from a Thatcherite, Buddha isn’t a criticism as much as it’s a bittersweet family history: showing how the ferment generated by the hippies, the communes, the suburban mystics and the Bromley punks was just part of a greater pattern, and that the economic “liberation” of Thatcher’s era wasn’t as much a reaction to them as it was a fellow radical movement, and the most successful of all. The revolution happened after all, but it was a suburban one. Kureishi’s novel and Bowie’s musical take on it are both documents from the aftermath, the notes of two survivors on the opposite shore, wondering how they had made the passage, now finding it hard to recognize the country that they had grown up in.

I felt the pleasure of pleasing others, especially as this was accompanied by money-power. I was paying for them; they were grateful; they had to be; and they could no longer see me as a failure…it was as if I’d discovered something I was good at.

Buddha.

Stockpile of residue

In the suburbs people rarely dreamed of striking out for happiness. It was all familiarity and endurance: security and safety were the reward of dullness.

Buddha.

Working on Buddha triggered something in Bowie: an introspection, a need to sort through the past. Film and book were a loving recreation of Seventies Bromley and Beckenham (e.g., Karim and Haroon stop off at the Three Tuns, where Bowie had run an Arts Lab in 1969 (see “Cygnet Committee”), and where, in the novel, Kevin Ayers is playing a dreary set, “whispering into a microphone [while] two French girls with him kept falling over the stage“). Bowie likely also found analogues of himself and people he’d known (he’d had his share of encounters with Sixties avant-garde theater) in the characters: Charlie’s magpie-like musical thievery, Haroon’s suburban mysticism, Eva’s ambition, Karim’s self-absorption and his openness to new experiences.

So for his Buddha songs, Bowie drew from what he called a “personal memory stock” of Seventies images, ranging from his teenage years in Bromley through late Seventies Berlin. He made Buddha a secret, abstract autobiography, perhaps the only one he’ll ever do.*** His songs not only directly quote from his previous work (especially the theme song, see below) but in total offered an impressionist retrospective of his past musical life, revisiting jazz, Eno’s ambient works, Philip Glass, glam, R&B, funk. Not as museum pieces or pastiches, but far more indirectly: most of the tracks on Buddha are answer songs to hazily-remembered past works, reinterpretations of the past, kept alive and contemporary, with Bowie using cues and moods from his old work and churning them up in the service of the future.

Bromley in the Buddha

Bowie’s title song was the only recording from the Buddha album that was actually used in the series: it played over the end credits of each episode (except ep. 3, which closes with an orgy scored to Ian Dury’s “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”).

So unsurprisingly, of the Buddha songs, the title track is the one that most directly relates to the past; it’s the easiest of the set, a rewriting of and homage to Bowie’s turn-of-the-Seventies “Beckenham” songs: the guitar break from “Space Oddity” turns up (and the string of suspended, diminished and augmented acoustic guitar chords that undergird the song are very Oddity), as does the “zane zane zane” coda chorus of “All the Madmen,” while the melancholy flavor of its verses—Bowie’s voice, octave-tracked at times, circling within a cage of acoustic guitar, bass and synthesizer—calls back to the likes of “Bewlay Brothers” and “After All.”

His two-verse lyric keeps to the rough outline of Kureishi’s narrative (the book is divided into “In the Suburbs” and “In the City” sections). The opening stanza is suburban misfit angst, sung from the perspective of a figure who’s both Karim and a self-recalled Bowie: compare “Elvis is English and climbs the hills” with Bowie’s proclamation to Kureishi in their interview: “I knew at thirteen that I wanted to be the English Elvis.” (And Bowie also lived “near the railway lines,” which figure in his early “Can’t Help Thinking About Me.“) There’s a tension in the character, who’s both pushing for experience (“full of blood, loving life and all it’s got to give“) and has a middle-class kid’s terror of being different, of failing, of being shown up. The second verse finds the kid in the city at last, changing himself (or at least his clothes), liberating himself while still, in his heart, praying in suburbia for escape.

There’s tension and doubling in the song as well, with Bowie shifting from being a melancholy custodian of his folk years in the verses (the subtle arpeggiated guitars; the sweet, yearning top melodies) to a garish figure in the choruses, a revival of Anthony Newley and provincial showbiz (“down on my KNEEEES in Suh-bur-bee-yah!“). He’s reconciling two sides of his Sixties. The two solos are also different editions of Bowie: the would-be jazz saxophonist from Bromley takes the first solo, while the power-chording glam idol gets the second. (Bowie had Lenny Kravitz play lead guitar on a harsher, inferior “rock” mix of “Buddha.” Kravitz’s soloing is proficient, perfectly-played and soulless, top-rate simulacrum-music from one of the Nineties’ most pointless artists.)

Lovely and wistful, a shadowy collision of influences, “Buddha” was a minor hit in the UK and served its chorus role in the series well. But it was just the opening act for what Bowie would attempt on the Buddha album, much of which would make the “Buddha” song seem oppressively literal. As Bowie wrote in his liner notes manifesto, “a major chief obstacle to the evolution of music has been the almost redundant narrative form. To rely upon this old war-horse can only continue the spiral into British constraint of insularity. Maybe we could finally relegate the straightforward narrative to the past.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux (Kravitz’s overdubs were recorded ca. July-September 1993, poss. at O’Henry Sound, Burbank, California). Released as a single in November 1993 (Arista/BMG 74321 177052, c/w “Dead Against It” and “South Horizon,” #35 UK)—the first track on the CD single is a mix of the original track and the Kravitz “rock mix,” both of which were included on the Buddha soundtrack. The album wasn’t released in the US until October 1995 (weirdly enough, there was a vinyl pressing made for Brazil in 1994). The BBC’s Buddha of Suburbia aired over four weeks in November 1993 and since has been released on VHS/DVD.

* Savage, in its suit, claimed that after spending $2 million in advances and video promotion expenses BMG, Bowie’s UK/European label, had “unilaterally terminated” its distribution agreement with Savage and had refused to pay $1 million that it allegedly owed to Savage. In September 1993, a cash-poor Savage said it had to return to Bowie the rights to BTWN. (Savage had laid off its entire staff on May 27, barely a month after the album’s release.) The case was dismissed and was finally put in the grave in July 1998, when the New York Court of Appeals refused Savage’s request to reinstate its lawsuit. “This drives a stake through the heart of this ridiculous case,” Bowie’s lawyer Paul LiCalsi said at the time.

** Bowie “was amazed at how little the BBC paid. Nobody had ever paid him so little in his whole life.” It’s unclear whether Bowie composed the two “punk” songs that Charlie Hero performs in the series, but if so (and I think he did), they’re pretty sharp parodies of the Sex Pistols and serve as Bowie’s belated nose-tweaking of punk. (More on this in future entries.)

*** While I’m skeptical he’ll record again, I think Bowie has at least one book in him, and hope he publishes it.

Top: Naveen Andrews as Karim in Buddha; first edition of Kureishi’s novel; original Buddha CD; “Buddha” CD single.


Baal’s Hymn

September 30, 2011

Baal’s Hymn (broadcast).
Baal’s Hymn (studio).

Before he was a playwright, director, theorist or general undesirable (having to flee both Nazi Germany and the McCarthy-era USA), Bertolt Brecht was a poet, one whose works were meant to be sung to guitar. Brecht was inspired by performers he had seen in his native Bavaria, like Karl Valentin, a clown who was Germany’s answer to Charlie Chaplin, and Joachim Ringelnatz, a sailor/minesweeper turned poet and cabaret performer. Brecht’s poems were to be chanted or sung; they are often a kind of plainsong, as his future interpreter David Bowie once noted.

While Brecht drew on classic German literature and narrative ballads, he favored mass-produced pop culture more than the “approved” folk music praised by the German middle class. Following unification in the 1870s, there was a vogue for Germanic folklore and mythology (this didn’t end well). For Brecht, much of this Volkslieder was fossil-music which had nothing to offer the working class of, say, 1915 Munich. As Brecht later wrote, working people have no wish to be Folk. Many of Brecht’s early poems were set to melodies of trashy pop songs, while in the Twenties, Brecht’s discovery of jazz (a new sordid American import, later restricted by the Nazis) would lead to works like Threepenny Opera.

Baal, Brecht’s first play, is the culmination of his early work, the fruit of his youth in Augsburg, where Brecht was known for walking around town and in the woods, writing on scraps of paper that he kept in his pockets: the result was “the single, self-consistent poem whose stage expression was Baal “(John Willett). For Baal, Brecht recycled poems as dramatic interludes, in-scene performances or monologues in song (some, like the cruel “Legend of the Harlot Evelyn Roe,” were cut from the play upon revisions, while other poems would be swapped in and out, depending on the director’s choice (as we’ll see with “Remembering Marie A.”).

Written in 1918 and revised eight years later, Baal is an episodic portrait of a “a man stripped of character…[an] asocial man.” (Eric Bentley). Baal is a drunk, poet, moocher, singer, guitarist, seducer, murderer and general agent of chaos, but he’s not a “natural” man either. He’s not a feral beast unable to fit into modern society, but a modernist who clearly sees “the amorality of nature all around us, but beholds it from a distance, and with longing and envy.” (Brecht said his Baal was modeled on one “Josef K,” a washerwoman’s bastard who charmed society figures, seduced many women (leading one to kill herself) and finally died while living in the Black Forest.)

In 1981, Bowie starred in a BBC revival of Baal and as his parting gift to RCA, he recorded five Baal songs for an EP (it’s a kiss-off to a label Bowie had grown to hate: “you thought Low was too uncommercial? Good luck selling this one“). Baal is often considered a strange cul-de-sac in Bowie’s career, a time-filling ploy while Bowie was waiting out his contracts. Only two of Bowie’s many biographies give Baal more than scant mention.* But Baal, after Scary Monsters, is Bowie’s best record of the decade; it’s another farewell to the performer he once was (for Bowie, the early Eighties was a series of strategic retreats, of closing down outposts) and a glimpse of the artist he could have been.

In early 1981, the director Alan Clarke (best known for the vicious prison drama Scum) proposed reviving Baal for the BBC. Working with the producer Louis Marks,** Clarke planned to use split-screen to convey the Brechtian dramatic technique of characters addressing the audience during the play. Looking for a lead actor, Clarke and Marks recalled Bowie’s recent success in The Elephant Man and correctly guessed that he had some interest in Weimar Germany; after visiting him in Switzerland, they offered him the role, for which he received the standard BBC scale of £1,000.

During rehearsals, Marks and John Willett (who wrote the script, a fine, sharp translation) were stunned to find that the rock star they had recruited knew as much about Brecht and Weimar Germany as they did (and Willett had just finished assembling Brecht’s poems in their definitive compilation). His years of isolation in Los Angeles, with Bowie obsessively reading whatever he could find on Weimar, and his immersion in Berlin in 1976-77 had turned Bowie into an amateur scholar.

Sure, Baal was a way for Bowie to keep busy during a deliberate period of slack, but it’s too well-chosen a role for just that. Baal is a prototype rock star, a Weimar-era Ziggy, marked by his callousness, charisma and all-consuming need to devour all he sees, from the women that he tumbles into bed to the clouds that he spies in the forest sky. Portrayed by Bowie as a shabby East End bohemian, Baal seems like one last incarnation of a greedy, world-shattering youth, one marked, as Bowie’s had been, by a cold observant eye to match a ravenous appetite. It’s the angry, self-righteous, devouring voice of “Cygnet Committee,” heard again but now encased in a stage performance, preserved as a keepsake.

“Hymn of Baal the Great” (also translated as “Chorale of the Great Baal”) is Baal‘s 14-stanza prologue, although, as Clarke chose, the poem is often broken up in performance, its stanzas distributed throughout the play to serve as between-scenes commentary. (In Clarke’s production, the first three stanzas are the prologue, a compressed fourth and fifth stanza comes after the scene of Baal’s introduction, etc.)

Dominic Muldowney wrote music for it, using as the melody an uncredited piece included in Brecht’s 1927 Die Hauspostille: an 8-bar refrain in G major whose vocal melody rises in thirds for each line (the singer first keeps on E, then G, then B, culminating in the octave E on “MARV-eh-lous“). The BBC performance of “Baal’s Hymn” is just Bowie and banjo, serving as a needling, harsh commentary on the performances or intertitles flashing by in the right-hand frame of the split-screen. For complete version of the “Hymn” that Bowie recorded in Berlin a month later, Muldowney and Bowie had to rethink the song as a unified performance.

Bowie had convened Willett, Muldowney, Tony Visconti and Edu Meyer to record the Baal songs at Hansa Studios in Berlin in September 1981. Visconti said Bowie described the session as being a “souvenir,” merely recording the songs for posterity. The Baal session was also another farewell: it would be the last Visconti Bowie production for nearly 20 years, and the last time Bowie ever recorded in Berlin.

Muldowney scored the Baal songs for a 15-person band of Berlin musicians (mainly one musician per instrument (violin, viola, trombone, trumpet, cello, etc.), so to get a “German pit orchestra” sound, Visconti said), including the percussionist Sherry Bertram and “a 75-year-old bandoneónist who’d played in the first productions of the Threepenny Opera” (Trynka), Muldowney was startled to hear what Visconti was doing to the mix, compressing and flanging the recorded instruments, so that “four strings sounded like four tanks,” he told Trynka.

Bowie had wanted to sing live with the band, but he had showed up late to the session and, as these were German union musicians, the session needed to start and end on time. Bowie was happy to be tardy, as listening to the musicians gave him a chance to “mentally rehearse” his vocals, Visconti said.

The studio “Hymn” uses Bowie’s voice in the way a jazz ensemble would a lead saxophone—sometimes working in support of the group, sometimes as a wild soloist. The opening three stanzas are similar to the BBC production, with Bowie, using a very free meter that lets him extend or shorten lines as he sees fit, at first set only against piano, with the full band coming in as the verses go on. A brief interlude, then a second phase, with Bowie now singing in a march-like fixed meter, chained to the rhythms of the piece. A second interlude triggers the return of the initial free-ranging performance, with Bowie let off the leash again (listen to how he bites into “nothinggg could be HARD-er than the QUest for FUN“). After another interlude, Bowie is conscripted again, but he resists more now, capping off one verse with a gleeful “vulture SOUP!”. And the Hymn ends with Bowie free but bloodied, offering one final burst of defiance with the long-held “marvelous!” before he expires.

For Bowie’s vocal, Visconti and Meyer used the “Heroes” strategy of having several mikes placed around Hansa’s enormous Meistersaal, to capture Bowie’s voice at different levels and imbued with room ambiance. Bowie cut all of his vocals for the EP in a few hours. Then he took Muldowney on a guided tour of Berlin low-life, including transvestite bars and New Wave clubs; it was a night out with a Baal who had reached a comfortable middle age.

Baal was taped on 8-12 August 1981, BBC Television Centre, and was shown on BBC1 on 2 February 1982.*** The studio take of “Baal’s Hymn” was recorded in September 1981 at Hansa on the Wall, Berlin; released on 13 February 1982 on the EP David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (RCA BOW 11, #29 UK). “Baal’s Hymn” was later collected on the revised Sound + Vision.

(Baal‘s amazing UK chart placing—#29 on the singles chart for an EP of obscure Brecht—is a testament to British taste or devoted Bowie fandom; hats off in either case. There’s a wonderful unsourced anecdote from Wikipedia: “the EP was released as a 12″ which gained it some play in clubs.” Ah, the delight on the dance floor when some perverse DJ put on “Baal’s Hymn”…)

* Trynka’s new bio is excellent on Baal, and George Tremlett devoted some space to it. By contrast, Edwards/Zanetta, Sandford, Spitz and Buckley all dispatch Baal in a paragraph (Buckley calling Baal a “minor work,” too.)

** Marks, who died last year, was a BBC stalwart, even writing four Doctor Who scripts.

*** Unfortunately only the first 30 minutes (from someone’s off-air videotape) have turned up on Youtube. Why the BBC has never released Baal on either VHS or DVD at some point in the past 30 years is baffling; maybe it’s a rights issue (Brecht’s early poems are public domain, but not Baal). A complete version of the off-air tape is circulating, though the picture/sound is pretty dismal.

Top: Bowie as Baal, video and vinyl, respectively.


1984, Dodo

August 26, 2010

1984/Dodo (first performance, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
1984/Dodo (studio outtake, 1973).
1984 (Diamond Dogs).
Dodo (studio outtake, 1973).
Dodo (studio outtake, with Lulu & Bowie co-lead vocals, 1973).
1984 (live, 1974).
1984 (The Dick Cavett Show, 1974).

Orwell in 1948 understood that despite the Axis defeat, the will to fascism had not gone away, that far from having seen its day it had perhaps not even come into its own—the corruption of spirit, the irresistible human addiction to power, were already long in place, all well-known aspects of the third Reich and Stalin’s USSR, even the British Labour party—like first drafts of a terrible future.

Thomas Pynchon, introduction to the 2003 edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Diamond Dogs is a salvage job, a compilation of scraps from stillborn Bowie projects. There are remnants of a Ziggy Stardust musical (“Rebel Rebel” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me”), pieces of a barely comprehensible Oliver Twist-by-JG Ballard scenario (“Diamond Dogs,” “Future Legend” and “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”), and fragments of Bowie’s grandest failed ambition, a musical of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “We Are the Dead,” “Big Brother” and, of course, “1984” itself.

Orwell’s widow, Sonia Brownell, vetoed Bowie’s proposed musical, considering it to be in poor taste. (Brownell died in 1980, depriving Orwell’s works of a gatekeeper: it was good news for the Eurythmics.) So we can only guess, via its few surviving songs, as to what Bowie’s adaptation would have been like. He seems most intrigued by the concept of absolute authority, the quisling culture over which it rules and how the mind seems eager to condone and accept it. What fascinated Bowie, what was arguably the only thing that truly interested him in the mid-’70s, was power, and the schizophrenic manner of thinking—double-thought, basically—that allows, even encourages its abuses. “1984” is a homage to power, with Bowie singing the title year like a man beseeching a lover (it’s a perverse echo of Roy Orbison’s “Leah”).

The title of Orwell’s book, of course, is the year of its composition with the last two digits reversed, with the world of Big Brother being essentially postwar Britain, with its bombed-out city centers, its food and electricity rationing, its grubbiness (watery coffee, half-cigarettes) and exhaustion. Drawing on the bureaucracy and hive-mind that he had encountered working in BBC propaganda during the war, Orwell suggested that even the well-meaning Labour Party, busy in 1948 erecting the welfare state, would be concerned with establishing and bolstering its power at the expense of everything else.

So it’s not surprising to find Bowie writing his version of Nineteen-Eighty-Four in late 1973, which was something of a bookend to 1948. It was an anemic sequel to the war years, with, once again, government-mandated rationing (PM Heath’s Three-Day Week power cuts, which lasted from January to March ’74), food shortages and price hikes, even bombs going off regularly in London, courtesy of the IRA.

No coup will take place in this country until it is one that would be welcomed or quietly acquiesced in by a majority or a very large minority of the people…in my judgment, we have gone measurably down the road to such acceptance in the last decade, and we have travelled very quickly along it in the last year.

Patrick Cosgrave, “Could the Army Take Over?” The Spectator, 22 December 1973.

There was a sense that the center couldn’t hold for much longer, that the government would fall either to the Communists or the neo-fascists, each of whom at least had some vitality left. The Establishment was old and crazed: in early 1974, Sir William Armstrong, the Head of the Home Civil Service, at a weekend government seminar in Oxfordshire, stripped off his clothes, lay on the floor and, in Francis Wheen‘s words, began “chain-smoking and expostulating wildly about the collapse of democracy and the end of the world…about moving the Red Army from here and Blue Army from there.” The Christmas ’73 issue of The Spectator speculated on the likelihood of a military coup in the UK; it quoted a Tory lobby hack who said that Britain “had seen our last general election, since from now on the Prime Minister would merely need to continue to prolong various states of emergency and elongate the life of this parliament.” A few weeks later, the Spectator editorialized that “Britain is on a Chilean brink.”

For Bowie, this situation only meant that the endgame he had imagined as far back as “The Supermen” or “Cygnet Committee” was coming to pass soon, and in songs like “1984” he seemed to welcome it. “I’m looking for the treason that I knew in ’65,” he sings at one point, but don’t believe him. His Winston Smith wouldn’t have required conversion—he would have shoved his face into the rat cage without prompting.

“1984” is a milestone for Bowie; it’s the most rhythmically ambitious track he’d ever made. Rhythm was underdeveloped in most of Bowie’s early records, as Bowie concentrated on harmonic progression, developing melodies and juxtapositions—playing out odd chord changes, creating intricate vocal lines, building off riffs, crafting tracks out of sound effects (from Stylophones to varispeed vocals). It didn’t help that Bowie’s first studio drummers were under par, while Woody Woodmansey (and Trevor Bolder) mainly followed Mick Ronson’s lead, serving as the equivalent to a rhythm guitar. With Aynsley Dunbar, Bowie’s first top-rate drummer, Bowie was able to work through ideas he was picking up from James Brown and Isaac Hayes records.

So the opening of “1984,” with its Shaft-inspired chicken-scratch guitar (by Alan Parker), its staggered four-note bassline, Dunbar’s sizzling cymbal work and sweeps of violins (the latter arranged by Tony Visconti, back in the Bowie fold after a few years), is a pure groove—it spins in place for ten bars, and feels like it could go on for hours. The essential “1984” performance, for me, is the Dick Cavett Show performance in November ’74, where the band is so tight and fluid that Bowie just bounces off of them.

There’s a similar richness in the vocals. Bowie’s developing the sonorous timbre he would use for much of the next decade—it’s the dawn of his imperious Thin White Duke voice, which he uses here craftily (his vocal is full of feints and unusual phrasings: take the way Bowie sings the highest note on the penultimate beat of a phrase, e.g. “you said it WOULD last/but I guess we EN-rolled” or “nine-teen eigh-TY four”). He wraps his vocal in a web of call-and-response backing vocals by the Astronettes, which gives the track a sense of grandeur, particularly in the bridge, where Bowie’s high register contrasts with the basso chorus.

Bowie overlaid these rhythm and vocal innovations on a slightly-off song structure. The verse’s progression from the home key of D minor to F is broken by an odd swerve to E minor, while the chorus is a four-bar extension of the verses, built on a move up to the sixth and seventh intervals—Bb (“be-ware the”) and C (“savage”)—before falling back home to Dm (“lure”). The bridge, the track’s melodic and dramatic high point, starts in 5/4 time (“see, come see, remember”), slows to a bar of 2/4 (“me”), then finally settles on 4/4.

“1984” was born conjoined with “Dodo,” the latter song originally titled “You Didn’t Hear It From Me.” The pairing worked, thematically—“1984” set the scene, then “Dodo” narrowed the scope, focusing on a particular doomed man about to be brainwashed. At some point Bowie excised “Dodo” and shelved the song after trying it out as a possible single for Lulu.

Cutting “Dodo” was the right move, as “1984”s power lies in the force of its sweep, how the verses tumble into the choruses, how the intro groove returns to ease transitions between the oddly-timed bridges. In the original medley, “Dodo” emerged after the first bridge of “1984”—its appearance was surprising yet still felt like a natural progression, but it also sapped the tempo and the song never quite recovered. When “1984” returned at the end, its force had lessened.

“Dodo” on its own still had potential as a narrow, jaundiced piece of funk, but Bowie’s studio version didn’t gel—it sounded sluggish and underdeveloped. Bowie may have considered it too similar, melodically, to “1984,” while “Big Brother” had gone over similar ground, making the aptly-named “Dodo” superfluous for Diamond Dogs.

The first performance of “1984/Dodo” was recorded at the 1980 Floor Show on 18 October 1973, while the studio “1984/Dodo” medley was cut in November 1973 (it was the last hurrah of the old gang, as the track featured Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder and was the last Bowie recording produced by Ken Scott). Unreleased at the time, it wound up on the Sound + Vision set.

The revised “1984,” divorced from “Dodo,” was likely cut between 14-16 January 1974 and is the centerpiece of Diamond Dogs‘ B-side. It was released as a single in the US and Japan (RCA PB 10026) and performed throughout Bowie’s ’74 tour. Bowie, showing amazing restraint, didn’t perform the song once during its title year.

Top: Piccadilly Circus with much of its lights out due to power cuts, 1 February 1974.