Janine

November 19, 2009

Janine (demo).
Janine.
Janine (BBC, 1969).

George Tremlett, a freelance British music journalist, interviewed Bowie in late 1969 and wrote that while Bowie was effusive about most of the tracks on his recently-released LP, he avoided mentioning one song entirely—“Janine”—leading Tremlett to speculate that Bowie considered the song a dud and had regretted putting it on the album.

That doesn’t seem to be the case, as Bowie actually mooted “Janine” as a follow-up single to “Space Oddity” and played it during some 1970 BBC sessions, but true enough, “Janine” has been mainly forgotten in the forty years since. Which is a shame, as it’s one of the few fun songs on a rather serious, dour album. Tony Visconti liked it best of all the Space Oddity tracks, and you can hear why—it’s much like the type of hippie glam that Marc Bolan had begun writing (the first key Bolan single, “King of the Rumbling Spires,” had come out in the summer of ’69).

As opposed to the winsome, unattainable “Hermione” figure of Bowie’s recent songs, “Janine” sounds like a much better time. “You’re fey, Janine, a trooper to the last,” Bowie sings, with some admiration. “Take your glasses off and don’t act so sincere.” Of course, this being Bowie, the center of the love song winds up being its singer, who’s more concerned with protecting his true self than sharing it.

“Janine” is a rocker hidden within a folk song (the acoustic demo has some energy, and even goes into the “Hey Jude” chorus at one point, but it’s hobbled by its staid rhythm) and the studio cut, which attempts to liberate it, winds up being a bit of a hash. The beat’s weak and diffuse and the track is crying out for a simple, solid riff to keep it together. It’s a shame that Bowie didn’t turn Mick Ronson loose on this song a couple years later, as it finally could’ve become the swaggering beast it had potential to be.

Inspirational verse: “If you took an axe to me/you’d kill another man not me at all.” Or even better, “Like a Polish wanderer I travel ever onwards to your land.”

Demo recorded ca. mid-April 1969 with John Hutchinson (Bowie’s introduction claims that the song’s about the girlfriend of George Underwood “who does very nice album covers”); studio version cut ca. July-September 1969 for Space Oddity.

Top: Diana Rigg, doomed newlywed, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

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Reissues: Memory of a Free Festival

February 5, 2016

On a day in which I appear to be snowed in, why not revive a memory of summer? This is a hybrid reissue—the main entry is that of the book (which Repeater excerpted back when the book was released), while the “bonus tracks” are mostly appended from the original blog post.

Originally published on December 11, 2009: “Memory of a Free Festival.”

Memory of a Free Festival.
Memory of a Free Festival (extended version).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 1).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2).
Memory of a Free Festival (BBC, 1970).
Memory of a Free Festival (“Mike Garson Band,” live, 1974).

Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time: miniature utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from a grey morass of mundane, inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence…The most lively [young people] escape geographically and physically to the ‘Never Never Land’ of a free festival where they become citizens, indeed rulers, in a new reality.

Anonymous leaflet ca. 1980, quoted in George McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties.

Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?
Or just twenty thousand people standing in a field?

Pulp, “Sorted For E’s and Wizz.”

The free festival was an open-air concert and fair, held on the Croydon Road Recreational Ground in Beckenham on 16 August 1969 (across an ocean, the Woodstock Festival was underway). Bowie performed, his set allegedly including a reggae version of “Space Oddity,” as did groups like the Strawbs. There were puppet shows, Tibetan goods vendors and coconut shies; his new girlfriend Angela Barnett cooked hamburgers in a wheelbarrow. The festival was peaceful and a success, with some 3,000 attending. Beckenham’s mayor and chief of police complimented Bowie for pulling it off.

The song he recorded three weeks later, sequenced to close Space Oddity as his last word on the Sixties, depicted a golden afternoon in which he wandered through a blissful crowd of flower children, exchanging kisses and greeting passing Venusians. In reality Bowie, who’d buried his father only five days before, had swung between near-catatonia and a foul temper, calling his partners “materialistic arseholes” for profiting off hamburgers and concert posters, complaining about the PA system and skipping the after-party. Mary Finnigan, Bowie’s once-lover and collaborator in the Beckenham Arts Lab, later called Bowie a hypocrite for writing a peace-and-love song for a festival at which he’d been so abrasive.

A contrary set of feelings, a man trying to reconstitute a bad day as the hope it ought to have been, gave “Memory of a Free Festival” depth and even bite, with Bowie making some deprecating asides about the holy tribe: “We claimed the very source of joy ran through/it didn’t, but it seemed that way.” The warmth, the easy unity, of the Free Festival is already in the past. If the hippies are the “children of the summer’s end,” they should ready for winter.

Like the Arts Labs, the free concert was a child of the late Sixties. In summer 1968, the promoter Blackhill Enterprises began putting on monthly free rock shows in Hyde Park with the likes of Pink Floyd and the Move. The Rolling Stones hired Blackhill to run their own free Hyde Park concert the following summer (described by Richard Neville as “free, courtesy of Blackhill, of Granada’s groovy camera team, Marshall’s great amplification system and triple-priced Lyon’s ice cream.”) The Beckenham festival was a homespun version of this and it actually was free, unlike Woodstock, which had been forcibly converted into a free show. The happy chaos of Woodstock, soon followed by the 1969 Isle of Wight concert and the violent chaos of the Stones’ free show in Altamont that December, made the free festival yet another fault line between straight and hippie worlds. Parliament soon passed an act banning gatherings of over 5,000 at the Isle of Wight.

“Memory of a Free Festival” opens with Bowie playing a Rosedale electric chord organ that he’d found at Woolworths. As with the Stylophone, he gave a toy instrument dignity. The sole accompaniment of the song’s four verses, the organ was his voice’s rickety, ecclesiastic complement, making him sound like a wandering sermonizer.

Composing on the organ, even a toy like the Rosedale, liberated Bowie from the guitar’s melodic consistency; it foreshadowed the freedom he’d find when writing on the piano a year later. After politely announcing the piece’s title, he started by playing variations on E minor while nudging up the bassline stepwise from C to F. Settling into a loose 3/4 time, he sang the first two verses over a descending, nebulous chord sequence, shifting from B minor to B-flat (“felt the Lon/don sky,” “source of/joy”) while anchored on a D bass. The third verse gained momentum, Bowie singing more hurriedly while mainly keeping on an E note (pushing up slightly on “ecstasy”), slackening at the end of each phrase. A shift to D major (“scanned the skies”) marked the peak of the festival: the aliens arrive, the joints get passed around, the revelers “walk back to the [Croydon] road, unchained.”

What followed was a free-time interlude of organ swirls, snippets of chatter, laughs and guitar fills while John Cambridge kept loose order with his ride cymbal. A memory so far, the festival shifts to the present, a party as much ominous as joyful. The sequence’s real purpose was more practical: it had to glue the “Free Festival” verses to a three-chord (D-C-G) “sun machine” refrain possibly once intended for another song. Having considered using the “Hey Jude” refrain for “Janine,” Bowie now made the long coda of “Free Festival” in its image: loops of ragged communal chanting, with Bowie in Paul McCartney’s soul cheerleader role.

In early 1970, Mercury’s American wing asked Bowie to re- record “Memory of a Free Festival” as a single, requesting a faster tempo and to get to the refrain sooner. The compromise was to cut the track in half, devoting the B-side entirely to the sun machine. This new “Free Festival” found Bowie outshone by his backing band, who tromped in singly during the intro. Even with the Sixties fresh in the grave, there’s a feeling of getting down to business. Guitar, bass and drums kick in before the first verse starts, the Moog rolls over the humble Rosedale organ like a Panzer tank, the psychedelic interlude gets deep-sixed, the chanted backing vocals of the refrains could be from a football terrace. Mick Ronson, Tony Visconti’s free-flowing bass and Ralph Mace’s Moog used the long fadeout as a preview of coming attractions. “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1 and 2” was the sound of The Man Who Sold the World, hard glam rock, and a bit too hard and glam for summer 1970, as the single sold dismally.

The Beatles ended the Sixties by breaking up, the last record they made showing them walk single-file off stage. The Stones ended with blood and fire and the sense they’d survive it all (and they would). The Who had a messiah pulled down by his followers, the Kinks emigrated to Australia, Dylan and Van Morrison and a host of others went to ground in the country. Bowie closed a decade in which he’d been a footnote by throwing a party, singing a jaded memory of the summer’s end: the fun-fair of the Sixties was just prelude, his work’s troubled childhood. His “Memory of a Free Festival,” a last gathering of the tribes, had a sad, faded grandeur. Forty-five years on, it can still touch a medieval chord in the soul.

Recorded: 8-9 September 1969, Trident. Bowie: lead vocal, Rosedale electric chord organ; Mick Wayne: lead guitar; Tim Renwick: rhythm guitar; John Lodge: bass; John Cambridge: drums, tambourine; unknown musician(s): baritone saxophone; Visconti, Bob Harris, Sue Harris, Tony Woollcott, Marc Bolan, “Girl”: backing vocals. Produced, arranged: Visconti; engineered: Sheffield, Scott or Toft; (remake, as “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1 & Pt. 2”) 21, 23 March, 3, 14-15 April 1970, Trident and Advision Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar, Rosedale organ; Ronson: lead guitar, backing vocal; Ralph Mace: Moog; Visconti: bass, backing vocal; Cambridge: drums; unknown musicians: strings (arr. Visconti). Produced: Visconti.

First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity; (single) 26 June 1970 (Mercury 6052 026). Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show; ca. June 1970, Six-O-One: Newsday; 15 August 1970, Eddy Ready Go! Live: 1969-1971, 1973-1974.

Children of the Sun Machine

E-Zee Possee, The Sun Machine.
Dario G, Sunmachine.
The Polyphonic Spree, Memory of a Free Festival (live, 2004).

The “sun machine” chant, having evanesced at the end of the ’60s, returned a generation later. “Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2),” a trance-inducing earworm, was a natural ancestor of a rave chant, and in 1990 E-Zee Possee had a minor hit with “The Sun Machine,” in which the “sun machine” chant was sung over house piano.

Then there was the UK dance trio Dario G’s 1998 “Sunmachine.” As Dario G’s Paul Spencer said, “We had this idea to sample bits of Bowie’s ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ over an ambient track of ‘Sunchyme.’ But we quickly discovered that the sample was so brilliant that it needed a brand new track–with some rock elements. There was only one problem: the sample we were using had all of Bowie’s instrumentation in it, which was too noisy for our purpose. So, we sent a demo of the song to Bowie and he liked our idea so much that he sent us the song’s original tape, which allowed us to sample only his vocals. He couldn’t have been a better chap!” As an added bonus, Bowie producer, Tony Visconti, played all the flute parts on the track.” (Thanks to Daniel Simon for this link.)

I’m not sure we’re done with the sun machine yet—expect Animal Collective to use it at some point. [NOTE: this was 2009.]

Top to bottom: The Stones bury the Sixties at Altamont, December 1969; “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1” single; bathers in the Serpentine, Hyde Park, 1969.


Reissues: The Prettiest Star

January 21, 2016

Still often forgotten, “The Prettiest Star” remains, in its way, the last curse of the Sixties for Bowie: it was the early 1970 follow-up single to his Top 5 hit “Space Oddity” that went nowhere in the UK and wasn’t even released in the US. It was rarely performed live: never again after 1973.

As always with the early stuff, this entry’s unfocused and sloppy at times, particularly in the music graphs. The book version’s better, I hope. I still like the Aladdin Sane version more.

Originally posted December 29, 2009: The Prettiest Star (whether it was Angela or Marc)

The Prettiest Star (single).
The Prettiest Star (Aladdin Sane remake).
The Prettiest Star (live, 1973).

Space Oddity” gave David Bowie a hit single at last and he had no clue how to follow it up. He dithered for months, considering “Janine,” among other Space Oddity tracks. The decision finally came down to either remaking “London Bye Ta-Ta” (his manager Ken Pitt’s choice) or cutting a new song that Bowie allegedly had just written for Angela Barnett, who he’d marry in a few months. Bowie went with the latter and got his old rival/colleague and emerging pop star Marc Bolan to play lead guitar on it. “The Prettiest Star” was simple, hummable, sweet and reassuring: it sold less than 800 copies.

Why did “The Prettiest Star” stiff so badly? Tony Visconti had warned about the danger of “Space Oddity”: it was such a dated one-off song that it threatened to consign Bowie into the bin of late ’60s novelties. Bowie resisted the obvious course, doing an SF-themed follow-up, but “Prettiest Star,” compared to “Oddity,” was quite square, its sentiments treacly, its tone warm and nostalgic. Many ’70s pop listeners would have a yen for those very qualities, but maybe March 1970 was a bit too soon. By the spring Bowie was recording heavy metal songs.

“The Prettiest Star,” lovely and neglected, is in retrospect the first sign of a countercurrent in Bowie’s ’70s work. Seventies Bowie is remembered mainly for glam rock anthems and “avant-garde” electronic records, for dressing as an alien or a Kabuki drag queen. But littered throughout all of that are the occasional regressions—stage ditties, warm reminiscences, tributes. Bowie followed his hard rock Man Who Sold the World LP with a return to music hall shenanigans, chased the sleazy glamour of Aladdin Sane with homage to his old Mod rivals and inspirations, and did a Christmas song with Bing Crosby while promoting “Heroes.”

“The Prettiest Star” has a basic verse-and-refrain structure, simple rhymes (“one day” with “someday”), dyslexic rhymes (“tried” and “tired”) and a pretty if unadventurous melody. There are a few tricks. Take the way the first three guitar notes serve as a count-in before the first bar of the intro, a pattern replicated before other verses by piano or strings. Or how in the first two verses Bowie stays on the C chord when it seems like he’s going to move up (“it can all but break your heart…in pieces,” “I moved up to take a place…near you”), only to break the pattern in the third verse, the chords moving to F and F7 as Bowie sings the title phrase. And the song’s other main part (the 10-bar section that begins “staying back in your memory“) is either a refrain or a bridge—it can serve either role.

All of this is overshadowed by the lead guitar, whose eight-bar intro is both overture for the verse (it’s the same underlying chords) and the song’s central motif. In the original version, the guitar intro reappears after two verses and is granted three more repetitions at the end—as a result, the track can feel like padding between a series of guitar solos. (When Bowie and Mick Ronson remade “Prettiest Star,” they corrected this flaw—the original’s draggy midsection, with two back-to-back bridges glued together by the repeated opening riff, is streamlined with the third verse now separating the two bridges and the riff repeat eliminated (the final guitar repeats are also reduced by one).)

“The Prettiest Star” seems to offer a battle of two lead guitarists—Marc Bolan on the single, Mick Ronson on the remake—but comparison listening makes it pretty clear that Ronson ceded the field to Bolan. While some critics have claimed Ronson reproduces Bolan’s solo note-for-note, which isn’t quite the case I think, he comes pretty close (Ronson even plays a vibrato-laden chord against Bowie singing “HOW you moved” in the bridge, just as Bolan did).

You can see why Ronson didn’t change it up: Bolan’s vibrato-saturated solo is one of the most melodic guitar lines he ever recorded, and it’s more memorable than Bowie’s vocal. In January 1970 Bolan only recently had switched to electric guitar (one reason he agreed to the Bowie session was that Visconti and Bowie had flattered his playing) and he plays the near-identical riff throughout the song, changing it only in the final repeat.

Ronson, when he remade “Prettiest Star” in late 1972, had his own well-established sound—plug his Les Paul directly into a cranked-up amp (occasionally using just a single wah-wah pedal), and, like Jimmy Page, use precise overdubs to fatten out the track (here he puts in a scratchy, distorted second guitar at the end of the intro). Bolan’s lead had been supplemented by Bowie strumming on 12-string acoustic guitar, but Ronson has no need of that, as saxophones serve to beef up the verses, freeing Ronson to craft metallic washes of sound.

It’s unclear why Bowie remade “Prettiest Star” for Aladdin Sane: perhaps he was short of new material (this was when record companies wanted artists to churn out new LPs seemingly every nine months—today, Justin Timberlake gets half a decade between records) and for most record buyers “Prettiest Star” was basically an unreleased track, given its awful reception in 1970.

If the original version of “Prettiest Star” was a simple valentine, the remake is a rowdy, garish engagement party, with doo-wop backing vocals, a horn section, an aggressive piano and a heavier beat. They both have their appeal, though the Aladdin Sane edition sounds like a better time.

Recorded 8, 13-14 January 1970 (with Visconti on bass and Godfrey McClean on drums) and released in March as Mercury MF 1135 c/w “Conversation Piece”—the same group, including Bolan, also cut “London Bye Ta-Ta” but it was left on the shelf; the Aladdin Sane remake was recorded in New York between 3-10 December 1972, in one of the first sessions for the LP.

Top: The Bowies wed each other, Bromley Registry Office, 20 March 1970.


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)

db1

“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)

db69

“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.


I Feel So Bad/ One Night (2002 Tour)

October 2, 2014

02elvisbombayted

Part 1: Taxidermy

Near-complete Low and Heathen (live, Roseland Ballroom, NYC, 11 June 2002).
Near-complete Low and Heathen (live, Meltdown, London, 29 June 2002).
Half-complete Low (live, E-Werk Festival, Cologne, 12 July 2002).
Near-complete Low (live, Montreux Festival, 18 July 2002).

The closest Bowie has come to being the curator of himself was the 2002 tour to promote Heathen. This was first intended as a minor tour of the European summer festival circuit, with a few TV dates between gigs, but soon Bowie’s theatrical instincts kicked in and he devised the most fannish set-list of his life.

He would perform all of Low in sequential order, wearing a (slightly) looser version of his Thin White Duke outfit. Then, after a change to Burberry tweed, he would perform all of Heathen in sequential order. The albums “feel like cousins to each other,” he said. “They’ve got a certain sonic similarity.” His recent work with Lou Reed (see “Hop Frog“) may have been an influence, as Reed had performed full-album live sets for New York and Magic & Loss.

But Bowie was also doing a bit of trend-chasing. Around 1998, it became increasingly common for bands (especially older bands) to play their “classic” LPs in sequential order live. The trend ballooned in the 2000s once live performance became a primary way for musicians to make a living. (“You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen,” Bowie told the New York Times in June 2002). You could see why the “play your whole LP” shtick worked: get the old fans who’d stopped buying CD reissues out of the house to hear It Takes a Nation of Millions or Fun House or Entertainment! on stage.

Was choosing Low a cynical touch? The album had little to do with Heathen besides some superficial resemblances (it’s as if Bowie recalled Low being eleven variations on “Warszawa” and had forgotten the little fractured funk tracks on its first side). But 2002 was the apex of Low‘s critical reputation: it was now considered, in the Pitchfork age, to be his masterpiece and most influential release. So there was some ad man’s hustle (“Heathen is the new Low“) and keyed-in nostalgia in the mix.

The full performances of Low were tailored to what fans wanted (on the Montreux tape, you can hear some guy lose his marbles when “Breaking Glass” kicks in)—the performances were sung well and played well, with Earl Slick tracing over his old nemesis Carlos Alomar’s guitar lines, Gail Ann Dorsey singing “Warszawa” like a muezzin and Sterling Campbell as a dynamic foundation (he’s a monster on stuff like “Speed of Life”). The guitar-heavy arrangements (Slick on lead, Mark Plati on rhythm and acoustic, Gerry Leonard on what Bowie termed “atmos”) and the supplemental vocals of Catherine Russell and Dorsey gave a density to the sound.

But there’s a constriction in some of the performances: there’s a sense that Bowie’s working with a common audience memory of each song and feels unwilling to challenge it. This was most noticeable in the instrumentals, which cried out for some sort of revision, some fresh improvisation or just an instrument swap. Instead Bowie kept reverent, a tour guide pacing his audience through an old cathedral of his making.

The track-by-track album live homage also suggested a sad endgame for Bowie: to be doomed, ever so often, to trot out another classic to showcase to fans. The Second Year of the Diamond Dogs. Major Tom’s 40th Birthday Party. Hunkier Dorier 2011.

lucca02

Boredom (the most constant of Bowie’s muses) soon put an end to it. After playing Low and Heathen in their entirety at a BowieNet-only show at the Roseland in NYC, he began monkeying with the song order, first jumbling the Low songs to break up the run of instrumentals. By his 1 July 2002 performance in Paris, he’d made a salad of the set-list, also throwing in oldies like “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fame.”

On he went, through Horsens and Oostende, from Manchester to Cologne to Lucca, earning the sort of reviews that had become de rigueur by now. “The hits were pitch perfect” (Daily Star). “An incredible rebirth as a performer” (Daily Telegraph), “More relaxed than he’s been for years” (Manchester Evening News), “His voice: that indispensable sound which ricocheted against the square’s walls like some operatic singer” (Sunday Times of Malta). Having done enough, he sailed home to New York on the QE2.

02elvisdeathmarchted

Part 2: Theology

I Feel So Bad (Chuck Willis, 1954).
I Feel So Bad (Elvis Presley, 1961).
One Night (Smiley Lewis, 1955).
One Night (Elvis, 1958).
One Night (Elvis, 1968).
I Feel So Bad/ One Night (Bowie, live, 2002).

[Elvis was] a kid who was monstrously acquisitive, but also fundamentally passive, looking to be counselled and led. In his own wholly pragmatic way, Col. Parker foresaw several future directions that showbiz would take. He saw how Elvis, the real Elvis, with all his moods and problems, could be left to sit at home and do whatever he did, while the spangly, malleable Elvis image could be sent out into the world to work…

Ian Penman, “Shapeshifter,” London Review of Books, 25 September 2014.

The next leg was an alternating-headline slot Moby’s Area 2 Festival, a three-week cross-country North American tour that also included Busta Rhymes (sometimes a no-show) and the Blue Man Group. (“What’s most striking about this collection of acts is the lack of novelty,” Kelefa Sanneh wrote in his review of a Holmdel, NJ, stop.) Bowie said he didn’t mind playing second fiddle to Moby on some nights, as it let him cut out early and (if he was in the Northeast) get home to say goodnight to his daughter.

The set-lists were essentially the same as the latter European shows: a mingle of Low and Heathen tracks, with some popular oldies for seasoning (“Fashion,” “Life on Mars?” “Space Oddity,” “Let’s Dance”). Bowie was drawing the sort of crowd for whom the appearance of “Stay” in the set-list “generated a bit of puzzlement,” according to a review of a Toronto gig. “Bowie devoted two-thirds of his set to songs that were 20 or even 30 years old. But the move didn’t seem like a surrender to the commercial reality that fans want to hear the familiar,” wrote Robert Hilburn, reviewing the LA stop. On and on it went, in the pages of American and Canadian papers: Timeless perfection. A still-commanding voice. He’s still beautiful. As steely as sinuous as ever. A nearly flawless musical time capsule.

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On the last night of the Area 2 tour, at the Gorge Amphitheatre east of Seattle, Bowie did something different at last for the encore. He noted that it was the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death (which he’d learned about while on safari in Kenya in 1977). He mock-griped that Presley’s birthday had always eclipsed his own. “He gets all the birthday shit and nobody knows that I ever got born…Jimmy Page was born on the 9th: you can make something out of that. But the 8th of January? You lose out, innit.” And he sang two Presley songs in commemoration.

Like any British rocker born in the Forties, Bowie was fascinated by Elvis, who’d seemed like an extraterrestrial to him at age 10. Elvis was a swiveling mass of American bad intentions. There’s even a touch of Elvis in Bowie’s singing at times, in the swagger of “Janine” and, oddly enough, in some of his “Song For Bob Dylan.”

At first Bowie seemed to be paying tribute to the pantomime Elvis, the dead Elvis of common tabloid memory. Fat, pilled-up Elvis, the sweaty kung-fu-chopping “thankyouverramuch” Elvis: rock and roll in its buffoonish red giant phase. But the songs that he chose were a fan’s picks.

“I Feel So Bad,” which Presley cut in Nashville in March 1961, was Presley’s take on a Chuck Willis R&B number. It was fitting for Elvis at the time, about to vanish into a morass of cheap, endless movies and soulless soundtrack LPs (“sometimes I wanna stay here/then again, I wanna leave“): its moroseness chased away by an alliance of Floyd Cramer’s piano and Hank Garland’s guitar, and capped with a Boots Randolph saxophone solo that Presley walked over to cheer during the take, as if he’d bet on Randolph in a horse race.

“One Night” was a dirty Smiley Lewis song, an open account of a man caught in an orgy (“the things I did and I saw/would make the earth stand still“), that Elvis cleaned up (slightly) in his 1958 take, a minor hit. Elvis went back to “One Night” in his 1968 TV special, where he tore into the song, retrieving the original Lewis lyric. You can see in the clip what made him maddeningly, exotically Elvis. He’s joking around, mugging for the camera and his friends, parodying himself, not seeming to give a shit about the song and then suddenly in a breath he’s there, committed like a zealot, screaming BEEN TOO LONELY TOO LONG! like he’s confessing to a killing. He lurches up, forcing one of his buddies to rig up a mike for him, and he stands there, balancing his weight with his foot, slashing at his guitar as if he wants the strings to snap off in a pack.

Bowie’s versions of the songs (respectful, even modest) couldn’t compare. Elvis was too high a cliff to climb, to even consider climbing. He paid his respects and called it a tour.

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Part 3: Cartography

The New York Marathon:
Music Hall at Snug Harbor, Staten Island, 11 October 2002.
St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, 12 October 2002.
Colden Center at Queens College, Queens (queen borough of the 5), 16 October 2002.
Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe, Bronx, 17 October 2002.
Beacon Theater, Manhattan, 20 October 2002.

Well, not yet. Bowie seemed unwilling to stop playing. He went back to Europe in September for more TV and radio spots, some record store signings. At a Radio 2 concert he filmed some of the audience with a handheld camera (“to show my daughter exactly what sort of person I associate with”). He offered more prizes for lucky winners, like the first-ever live performance of “Bewlay Brothers.”

On 22 September he played Max-Schmelling-Halle, his first concert in Berlin since 1995. The hall, built in 1996, was at the edge of the Mauerpark, near where the Wall once had cut through Prenzlauer Berg. “Half the audience [that night] had been in East Berlin that time way before [in 1987],” Bowie told Performing Songwriter in 2003. “So now I was face to face with the people I had been singing to all those years ago. And we were all singing it together.”

It was as if his tour had become a leyline of his past lives. A stop in Munich, where he’d recorded some of The Idiot. A return to the once-Hammersmith Odeon (in 2002 it was “the Carling Apollo”; it later became the “HMV Hammersmith Apollo” and is currently the “Eventim Apollo”), with Eno, Bowie’s old schoolfriend George Underwood and his once-drummer John Cambridge in attendance. This gig, finally, was supposed to be the finale.

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But back in New York, Bowie realized he still had some TV appearances booked for October, so why not keep the band together a bit longer (“before they drifted off to family and friends for the winter“)? Bowie credited a friend “Bill” (likely his financial adviser, Bill Zysblat) with the idea of doing a set of shows that roughly followed the route of the New York marathon. It would be a tribute to his still-recovering adopted city, with Bowie playing clubs.

First Snug Harbor, a park two miles west of the Ferry terminal on Staten Island (“Earl Slick country,” Bowie wrote. “Earl was freaked and excited at the same time. ‘Oh God, I’m gonna see some really old faces. We’re gonna get Joey Bag-a-Doughnuts…And then there’s family. I’m never gonna survive this.”). Then up to the rapidly-gentrifying DUMBO (one sign of gentrification: getting an acronym like “DUMBO”) neighborhood of Brooklyn, at St. Ann’s Warehouse. I’d seen Joe Strummer play there earlier that year: he’d been late, complaining his cab didn’t know where to go, then ripped into “Bank Robber,” singing it like Elvis.

Colden Center at Queens College, which the band likened to a high school hall. Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe, visited by everyone from Fidel Castro to Bill Cosby (and which would close its doors in 2004). Finally the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side. Bowie closed with “Ziggy Stardust.”

When Gail Ann and I slow-danced through ‘Absolute Beginners’ that night…it didn’t seem like the end of a long and grueling year, but a new time with a horizon that went on forever,” Bowie wrote in 2003, when he was making a new album and planning a global tour. Was this hyperbole? Of course not. It would go on forever. Wouldn’t it?

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“One Night” and “Feel So Bad” were performed 16 August 2002, The Gorge, WA.

Photos: “Elvis Bombay” and “Vigil One: Elvis Death March, Memphis,” Ted Barron, 2002; Giacomo Pepe, “Bowie in Lucca,” 15 July 2002; Adam Bielawski, “Bowie in Chicago,” 8 August 2002. The other shots of Bowie in NYC, mid-October 2002, are from David Bowie: Live in New York, a fine photo collection by Myriam Santos-Kayda.


Hole In the Ground

February 17, 2014

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Hole In the Ground.

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!” He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house…

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

Be like the sun
Never gone
Sleep long and fast
Let the past be the past

Broadcast, “Long Was the Year.”

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Aaargh, that Tony Newley stuff, how cringey. No, I haven’t much to say about that in its favor.

Bowie, Musician, 1990.

For a long time, Bowie’s Sixties had begun in 1969: he hadn’t existed prior to “Space Oddity.” Whatever came before that record was mere juvenilia. His Decca, Parlophone and Pye singles, his Deram album, “The Laughing Gnome,” the King Bees and Manish Boys and the Buzz and the Riot Squad, five years of candled ambition: all of it was buried, its obscurity encouraged.

It was also hard to find some of these records—they crept in and out of print, the tracks shuffled through decades’ worth of shabby collections. Bowie didn’t own the rights to the songs, and seemed indisposed to licensing them, so “The London Boys” was never on any career retrospective despite the song being a foundational work—“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and Diamond Dogs, among a fleet of others, are inconceivable without it.

A few things aligned at last. His pre-Philips material was thoroughly compiled on two CD reissues: Rhino’s 1991 Early On and 1997’s Deram Anthology (Bowie was involved in producing the latter, which unfortunately meant two outtakes from David Bowie—“Bunny Thing” and “Pussy Cat”—were cut from the track list). And the Sixties affectations of high Britpop—Blur’s “Country House” wasn’t that far removed from “Join the Gang“— gave the oldest Bowie records a context: they had somehow become hip. It’s surprising one of Bowie’s Pye singles didn’t wind up on the Rushmore soundtrack. “Some of my recent albums have been picked up by the ’90s generation, but they don’t know the early stuff,” Bowie told GQ in 2000. “I think it’s a surprise when they hear them…and think ‘did he write that?‘”

It could’ve been a preemptive strike, covering himself before someone like Oasis did. Bowie, taping a VH1 Storytellers in August 1999, resurrected his first major composition, “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” playing it for the first time since the Marquee Club days of 1966. While he introduced the song by ridiculing its lyric, it cooked on stage, thanks to Sterling Campbell’s drumming—it felt fresher than the ‘hours’ songs he was debuting. (Playing it allowed Mark Plati “to work out a lot of Who fantasies on stage, thank you very much.”) And in a few live dates later that year, Bowie revived “I Dig Everything.” (Mike Garson said they played “Karma Man” and “Conversation Piece” in rehearsals.)

So Bowie’s first web journal entry of the new century noted that he would re-record songs he’d released between 1964-1969, “not so much a Pin Ups II as an Up Date I.” As typical with Bowie, the idea quickly ballooned in scope. As with “What’s Really Happening?” the recording sessions for Up Date I would be broadcast via webcam. And he wouldn’t only remake his old singles, he’d revive songs which hadn’t even made the cut back then. He would draw from his legion of ghost songs, those that fans knew only as their titles: Ernie Johnson, “Black Hole Kids,” “It’s Gonna Rain Again” and, see below, “Hole In the Ground.”

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“I know what happens when I play the classics,” he sneers a little impatiently. “So why would I want to do it again? Other than for financial remuneration, which I frankly don’t need.”

Bowie, Q interview, 1997.

In February 2000, Bowie and Iman told the press that she was pregnant. He would be a father again at 53. He also said he would play the Glastonbury Festival for the first time since 1971 (when he’d also been a new father). Soon afterward he hired Earl Slick, who hadn’t played with him since the Serious Moonlight tour, as his new lead guitarist: a sharp swerve from the now-confirmed-departed Reeves Gabrels.

As Iman was due in August, Bowie planned a burst of activity for June and early July: a handful of NYC live shows that would double as rehearsals for the Glastonbury gig and for what he was now calling “the Sixties album,” which he planned to cut immediately upon his return to New York. “I hate to waste the energy of a show-honed band,” he told Time Out. “I’ve pulled together a selection of songs from a somewhat unusual reservoir and booked time in a studio. I still get really elated by the spontaneous event and cannot wait to sit in a claustrophobic space with seven other energetic people and sing till my tits drop off.” Plati would go to work mixing Bowie’s 1968-1972 BBC sessions (yet another reclamation: Bowie at the Beeb would be issued in September) and then would pivot to mixing “the Sixties album” in the fall.

During rehearsals, Bowie worked his band (the Hours touring unit plus Slick) through his abandoned catalog, reviving all but two of his 1964-1966 singles (“I Pity the Fool” was superfluous, “Do Anything You Say” perhaps too dire a composition to salvage) and the cream of the Deram years (sadly, not the Gnome). He didn’t want the band to be reverent; he wanted them to crack their way into the songs, pull them out of their shells. “We weren’t out to duplicate the original tracks at all,” Plati said.

As a prelude, Bowie fully gave himself over to his past, with setlists meant to make old Bowie fans weep. The first Roseland gig, a three-hour extravagance that blew out Bowie’s voice, opened with the four-shot of “Wild Is the Wind,” “Life on Mars?” “Golden Years” and “Changes,” most of which he’d hadn’t played in a decade. He unearthed rarely-played classics (“Absolute Beginners,” not performed since 1987) and debuted “This Is Not America” on stage; at the June 19 gig, he played “London Boys” for the first time in nearly 35 years. It also gave Gail Ann Dorsey a rare chance to play clarinet.

He flew to the UK, where he sang “Starman” on television for the first time since the Heath ministry (why not? it was getting to the point where you expected him to appear in Ziggy Stardust makeup); two days later, he headlined Glastonbury.

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I haven’t been here for 30 years and I’m having a fucking great time!

Bowie, quoted by the NME at Glastonbury.

In the year of its birth, 1971, Glastonbury was among the free festivals starting to crop up around Britain. Fitting for a show held in the shadow of Glastonbury Tor, its pyramid-shaped stage was constructed on a ley-line. It was free admission for the 12,000 or so hippies who’d made their way out to Somerset. Bowie played a set at dawn: just him, his 12-string acoustic and a piano. For the wakening crowd, he offered, for the first time, the breadth of Hunky Dory, from “Quicksand” to “Kooks.”

Glastonbury was in retrospect one of Bowie’s most critical live performances: the sunny reception he got was the best experience he’d had in years. He’d stopped solo live performance after his acoustic/mime shows had bombed in 1969. In the summer of 1971, Bowie was still unsure whether he wanted to be a performer at all. Given the songs he was now racking up, he thought he could be primarily a songwriter, like his friend Lesley Duncan. But that morning in Glastonbury confirmed him as a stageman: Ziggy Stardust would play his first show half a year later.

In 2000, Glastonbury was charging £87 tickets and drawing crowds of 100,000. Its recent headliners had included Blur, Oasis, Primal Scream, Pulp and Prodigy. Bowie came back as some lost king regnant of British music, wearing what looked like an eccentric bishop’s vestments, his hair in flowing golden locks; he gently proceeded to make everyone else on the bill (his co-headliners were Travis and the Chemical Brothers) look second-rate. He led off with “Wild Is the Wind,” exorcised “Station to Station” with Slick in tow: for an encore he did “Ziggy Stardust,” “‘Heroes’,” “Let’s Dance” and a stonking “I’m Afraid of Americans.” The papers went mad: “a masterclass of superstardom” (the Mirror), “an object lesson in How to Be a Rock Star”(the Times); “a level beyond and above everyone else at this festival” (NME).

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BBC executive producer Mark Cooper, who was recording the festival, was frustrated that Bowie’s management let him only broadcast six songs from the set (presumably because they were considering releasing the Glastonbury show as a live CD). “It was painful” to cut away from Bowie, he told Paul Trynka. “An artist can be reborn with a performance like that, get another 10 years in their career…I think [denying the full broadcast] was a mistake. Because this was the moment.”

But what was the moment? Was there something sad in all of this ecstatic reclamation, this genial reconquest, with Bowie even wearing his hair at Hunky Dory length? You could regard it as some traveling grand self-entombment. In the year 2000, which he’d feared and talked up and prophesied for much of his life, Bowie wound up playing the nostalgist. A stunningly capable one, sure, but still, he was someone who’d greeted the new millennium by playing songs from 1966 again.

That said, he was in line with one mood of the time. The hooks of the old century were still barbed in the new one: it was as if the culture still couldn’t shake the Sixties’ idea of the future, a future that, of course, hadn’t come true, but one which still seemed more of a “real” future than the one we were now living in. There were still ghosts everywhere. Take the through-line of “Sixties” droning organ across a swath of 2000 records: Broadcast’s “Come On Let’s Go,” Yo La Tengo’s “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” Blonde Redhead’s “This Is Not,” Ladytron’s “Another Breakfast with You,” Clinic’s “Distortions,” Radiohead’s “Morning Bell.” (If you wanted the sound of a new future, you had to listen to Aaliyah or OutKast.)

So what did Bowie intend with his own “Sixties record”? He’d let in the past again: what was he going to do with it?

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The album soon got the working title of Toy (likely from “Baby Loves That Way” and/or “London Boys”). Its basic tracks were cut in about nine days in early July 2000 at Sear Sound, whose 2,500-square-foot studio boasted two isolation booths: one set aside for vocals, the other housing Mike Garson’s collection of keyboards, including a Fender Rhodes (which he hadn’t played since Young Americans) and a Hammond B3 organ. Earl Slick soon had a sense of déjà vu. A walk around the place made him realize that he was in the old Hit Factory, where he’d cut Double Fantasy with John Lennon twenty years earlier. “It really freaked him out,” Plati recalled.

True to his plans, Bowie had flown in his band days after the Glastonbury concert and essentially had them plug in and rip through the songs. (He’d ditched the webcast idea.) In roughly a week they cut 13 tracks, complete with full Bowie vocals. The engineer Pete Keppler recalled Bowie “belting his brains out while the band was just roaring away behind him,” while Plati hadn’t seen Bowie so excited since the first Earthling sessions (another album cut right after a tour to feed off a band’s energy). Bowie was economical beyond his usual habits: he’d cut a first-take lead vocal, then overdub himself on the second take, then add further harmonies for every further take (Plati: “his final vocal would be finished by the time the band had gotten it right!”). Bowie and Plati even managed to hustle in Tony Visconti to score a 14-piece string section for a few tracks.

What Bowie had at the end of the Sear Sound sessions almost certainly included these 11 revivals—a link to the Toy track, if extant, is found in the original entry (* = not circulating, but reportedly recorded):

“Liza Jane”
“You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”
“Baby Loves That Way”
“Can’t Help Thinking About Me”*
“I Dig Everything”
“The London Boys”
“Silly Boy Blue”
“Let Me Sleep Beside You”
“Karma Man”*
“In the Heat of the Morning”
“Conversation Piece”

There was also a track known as “Secret 1” (allegedly Dorsey’s favorite) which Nicholas Pegg rightly (IMO) surmises was likely the revived “Shadow Man.” My guess for the other completed track is another ghost song.

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‘Hole in the Ground’ was written by David, Herbie Flowers on bass, Tim Renwick on guitar and Terry Cox on drums. Also David was playing guitar on it. What year was it?…1971, I think. Apart from David, I think I have the only copy in existence.

George Underwood, May 2006 interview with The Voyeur.

It was fitting that George Underwood got caught up in Bowie’s Sixties revival, if indirectly. Underwood was one of Bowie’s oldest friends: he’d played with him in the King Bees; his girlfriend had inspired Bowie’s “Janine”; he’d accompanied Bowie on his first US tour (where he may have kicked off “Jean Genie” by playing Yardbirds songs on the bus). Most of all, Underwood was partially responsible for Bowie’s look (starting, of course, by hitting Bowie in the eye as a teenager and so leaving Bowie’s pupil permanently dilated): he drew the back cover of Space Oddity and designed the covers of albums from Hunky Dory to Low.

Underwood is the control in an experiment in which Bowie’s the radical element: his life can seem an alternate edition of Bowie’s. Considered as handsome, charismatic and talented as his bandmate in the King Bees, Underwood also cut an unsuccessful single or two in the mid-Sixties. But by the end of the decade, he’d become the artist that Bowie would occasionally play at being, founding the Main Artery Studio in 1971. And sometime in the Seventies, Underwood bailed out of the professional music game for good (one story is that a bad acid trip led to a nervous breakdown).

Bowie wrote “Hole in the Ground” for Underwood around 1970. It was his part of his bid to help Underwood make it as a singer—he also wrote “Song for Bob Dylan” and “We Should Be on By Now” (the ur-“Time”) for him—but it was also a feint to benefit his own career. In 1971, Bowie couldn’t release songs under his own name for a time due to his manager’s label/publisher negotiations, so he put out his new compositions under aliases (see the Arnold Corns) or used his friends as masks (see Mickey King’s “Rupert the Riley” or Dana Gillespie’s “Andy Warhol”).

As the original “Hole in the Ground” has never leaked, it’s impossible to know how much of it was altered for the Toy remake. Mike Garson described the Toy version as a jam that the band developed in the studio. If I had to guess, I’d say little fundamentally was changed. The lyric’s in line with Bowie’s lesser works of 1970-1971 (its title may homage Bernard Cribbins): it’s a depressive love ballad with some apocalyptic portents (the hole in the ground mirrors of the “crack in the sky” in “Oh! You Pretty Things”). Some of its vocal phrasing, and the acoustic guitar strum patterns in the verse, call back to “Janine,” and the song shares with “Janine” a slacking-off in lieu of an ending, with its chorus repeated long enough to double as a coda.

Its revival was performed well—Garson’s keyboards gave fresh backdrops to the verses and refrains, and Campbell and Dorsey (who homages Herbie Flowers’ bassline on “Walk on the Wild Side”* and gets in a nice sloping bass fill or two) shone in particular—but its reappearance mainly argued that Bowie had been right in deep-sixing “Hole In the Ground” back in 1970. Time hadn’t improved the song, only made it somewhat novel.

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So Bowie had the basics for a new record, one that would capstone a year he’d dedicated to his youth. After taking some time off to be a father, all he’d have to do is a cut few overdubs, mix the tracks and send Toy on its way. Then onto something new with Visconti. Toy would take its seat in the canon, and the past would be the past again… [to be continued]

* Of course the intriguing question is whether Flowers had originally come up with that bassline for “Hole in the Ground” and later recycled it for Lou Reed.

Sources: For this, and the upcoming run of entries, Dan LeRoy’s The Greatest Music Never Sold, which devotes a chapter to Toy, was invaluable. Also, Teenage Wildlife and Bowie Wonderworld, as each was founded in the late Nineties, serve as “real time” documentation of Bowie during this time: interviews, setlists, BowieNet comments, journal entries and chats, etc. Having spent some frustrating months trying to verify details from the shakily-remembered and legend-prone Diamond Dogs era, it’s a blessing to have such an amount of concrete information available.

Top to bottom: Bowie’s life in pictures, 2000.


Julie

March 12, 2012

Julie.

A rare piece of subtlety from the Never Let Me Down sessions, “Julie” was naturally thrown away as a B-side (it was possibly cut because of its similarity in places to “Bang Bang,” suggesting that it began life as Bowie reworking Iggy Pop’s song). Like “Zeroes,” “Julie” seems intended as a “Sixties” pop song—as though Bowie wanted for the song to sound like a cover of a falsely-remembered older hit. It helped that the name “Julie” itself has a storied rock ‘n’ roll pedigree—the Crescendos, the Lettermen, Bobby Sherman and the Cuff Links all used it for singles, in part because it’s such an easy rhyme generator: “truly,” “you and me,” “eternally,” etc.*

There’s also a connection to “Janine,” an actual Bowie Sixties pop song also concerned with deception and ill-matched love. In “Janine,” however, there was a sense of play—Janine might be an affected ingenue, but the singer was just as much of a fraud, and there was a smile in Bowie’s singing, in all of his blustering attempts to win a round against her. It was a love affair in a house of mirrors. In “Julie” the lyric depicts a far sadder, if obscure scenario–the singer knows Julie doesn’t love him, that she’s consumed with another guy, but he’s willing to settle for the mere appearance of love, even in his imagination (there’s also the implication, in the second verse, that the singer killed the guy that Julie really loves, and that he’s desiring her while she’s mourning). The story’s more directly told in Bowie’s vocal, which is solitary and in a narrow range for the opening verse, double-tracked at the octave for the second, and which soars to his higher register for the delusive, desperate chorus, eventually joined by Robin Clark and/or Diva Gray.

While the track, with its synth bass and drums, is dated-sounding and the mix seems slightly off-balance (all the electric guitars are crammed into the right channel, while a lower-mixed acoustic in the left), its guitar tracks (Peter Frampton and Carlos Alomar, I’m assuming) give the song some blood and muscle, with Frampton giving some tasteful lead coloring in the chorus: it’s reminiscent of his sitar lines on “Zeroes.” One of the few late Eighties Bowie songs to have escaped its time with some dignity, its later inclusion on Never Let Me Down reissues was a minor injustice corrected.

Recorded ca. September-November 1986 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and the Power Station, NYC. Released 23 March 1987 as the B-side of “Day-In Day-Out” and on CD reissues of Never Let Me Down.

* Of course, there’s the chance Bowie’s inspiration came from more contemporary tracks: Daniel’s “Julie” from Eurovision 1983 and Shakin’ Stevens’ cod-zydeco UK #1 “Oh Julie” from 1982.

Top: Jeanette Montgomery Barron, “Beatrix Ost-Kuttner and Adeleheid Ost, Virginia, 1987.”


Blue Jean

December 7, 2011

Blue Jean.
Blue Jean (alternate video).
Jazzin’ For Blue Jean.
Blue Jean (12″ remix, Jellybean Benitez).
Blue Jean (live, 1987).
Blue Jean (live, 1990).
Blue Jean (live, 2004).

You can’t take me on my own. You can only use me as a form of reference.

David Bowie, interview, 1984.

“Blue Jean,” the only track to escape the morass of Tonight, was written off as a cheap score by its creators. Hugh Padgham regretted that of all the promising demos he’d heard, “Blue Jean” was one of the handful that Bowie developed. It was Padgham’s least favorite of the lot. Padgham had always wanted to work with Bowie; cruel fate assigned him Tonight (it’s like a lifelong Hitchcock fan collaborating on Topaz).

And Bowie didn’t think much of “Blue Jean” either—it was the single, it got him on the radio again and let him do a slapstick extended video. It was a vehicle: he used it, he had no love for it. Bit of a sexist rock & roll thing, he later said. Music for picking up girls.

Bowie seemed mired in vague nostalgia at the time of Tonight, pining for the London of his teenage years. He liked working on the “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” video with Julien Temple because he got to play-act being caught up in London life again (he hadn’t lived there for over a decade now), and he felt Temple was part of a fresh pack. Temple, along with Alex Cox, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh, was waking up the moribund British film industry, so working with him made Bowie feel contemporary again. (Bowie soon had a role in Temple’s Absolute Beginners.)

Missing what he called the vitality of the Sixties, the smartness in dress, the sudden dominance of youth, Bowie found in Thatcherite London at least a simulacrum of it. After all, there was money, fashion, swinging parties, respectable drugs. But Sixties London also had taken its savor from working-class life and provincial imports, creating, if for a moment, a “classless” society of the young, wild and hip. Not quite the case in aspirational Eighties London, an after-hours playground for young professionals.

So “Blue Jean” is a throwback in a period of throwbacks. It’s even more retro than “Let’s Dance,” taking cues from Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else,” Sam Cooke (“somebody send me“), Sixties rock & roll (Carlos Alomar’s arpeggiated guitar in the verses has echoes of “If I Needed Someone”). Bowie’s low-pitched word-tumbling vocal in the verse suggests an uptempo Jacques Dutronc, the alto saxophonist sounds like a Georgie Fame player who’s been given a slightly longer leash. Taking Robin Clark out of the vocal chorus alters its sound, making the now-all-male backing singers sound conspiratorial and even slightly lustful.

“Blue Jean” herself is an exotic temptress out of a Frankie Laine song, or, worse, a Tom Jones track (she’s got “Latin roots”). If she has an ancestor in the Bowie catalog, it’s the original manic pixie hippie girl “Janine.”

A basic workout in D major (the slight tension in the early bars of each verse is owed to a wavering between D and a D suspended fourth), “Blue Jean”‘s chorus moves between the dominant, A major, and the mediant, F# minor—so the song is mainly keeping to the basic tones of the D chord (D, F#, A); there are no real surprises except swapping in a natural C (on “police bike”) for a sharp one. Two verses, three choruses, no bridges or solos save a four-bar Alomar riffing transition. “Blue Jean” ends just when you get sick of it.

There’s a lot of small pleasures to be found: take how Omar Hakim slightly varies the climactic drum fill at the end of each verse—first hard on the snare, then quick on the bass drum. Or Alomar’s typically crafty rhythm playing (there’s the sweet way that he lags against the beat midway through the verse (as on “always let you down when you need ’em“)). And the marimba player Guy St. Onge makes the track, accenting Alomar’s guitar in the verses, meshing with the drums to build up to the chorus, where it plays counter-melodies to the vocals. “Blue Jean” is fun, catchy, flash; it moves well, it does its business quickly. One of the best second-rate Bowie hits.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec. Released as a single in September 1984 (EA 181, #6 UK, #8 US). The Temple-directed 20-minute “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” promotional video used the age-old “doppleganger” formula where the star plays both nerd and cool kid (for a more recent example, see Taylor Swift). Look for the Right Said Fred guy playing Bowie’s bassist, though the highlight for me is “Screamin’ Lord Byron” applying his makeup while listening to “Warszawa.”

Top: Miami police officer Tina Hicks in simulator training, November 1984. (via the fantastic If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger… blog).


The Prettiest Star

December 15, 2009

The Prettiest Star (single).
The Prettiest Star (Aladdin Sane remake).

Space Oddity” gave David Bowie a hit single at last and he had no clue how to follow it up. He dithered for months, considering “Janine,” among other Space Oddity tracks. The decision finally came down to either remaking “London Bye Ta-Ta” (his manager Ken Pitt’s choice) or cutting a new song that Bowie allegedly had just written for Angela Barnett, who he’d marry in a few months. Bowie went with the latter and got his old rival/colleague and emerging pop star Marc Bolan to play lead guitar on it. “The Prettiest Star” was simple, hummable, sweet and reassuring: it sold less than 800 copies.

Why did “The Prettiest Star” stiff so badly? Tony Visconti had warned about the danger of “Space Oddity”: it was such a dated one-off song that it threatened to consign Bowie into the bin of late ’60s novelties. Bowie resisted the obvious course, doing an SF-themed follow-up, but “Prettiest Star,” compared to “Oddity,” was quite square, its sentiments treacly, its tone warm and nostalgic. Many ’70s pop listeners would have a yen for those very qualities, but maybe March 1970 was a bit too soon. By the spring Bowie was recording heavy metal songs.

“The Prettiest Star,” lovely and neglected, is in retrospect the first sign of a countercurrent in Bowie’s ’70s work. Seventies Bowie is remembered mainly for glam rock anthems and “avant-garde” electronic records, for dressing as an alien or a Kabuki drag queen. But littered throughout all of that are the occasional regressions—stage ditties, warm reminiscences, tributes. Bowie followed his hard rock Man Who Sold the World LP with a return to music hall shenanigans, chased the sleazy glamour of Aladdin Sane with homage to his old Mod rivals and inspirations, and did a Christmas song with Bing Crosby while promoting “Heroes.”

“The Prettiest Star” has a basic verse-and-refrain structure, simple rhymes (“one day” with “someday”), dyslexic rhymes (“tried” and “tired”) and a pretty if unadventurous melody. There are a few tricks. Take the way the first three guitar notes serve as a count-in before the first bar of the intro, a pattern replicated before other verses by piano or strings. Or how in the first two verses Bowie stays on the C chord when it seems like he’s going to move up (“it can all but break your heart…in pieces,” “I moved up to take a place…near you”), only to break the pattern in the third verse, the chords moving to F and F7 as Bowie sings the title phrase. And the song’s other main part (the 10-bar section that begins “staying back in your memory“) is either a refrain or a bridge—it can serve either role.

All of this is overshadowed by the lead guitar, whose eight-bar intro is both overture for the verse (it’s the same underlying chords) and the song’s central motif. In the original version, the guitar intro reappears after two verses and is granted three more repetitions at the end—as a result, the track can feel like padding between a series of guitar solos. (When Bowie and Mick Ronson remade “Prettiest Star,” they corrected this flaw—the original’s draggy midsection, with two back-to-back bridges glued together by the repeated opening riff, is streamlined with the third verse now separating the two bridges and the riff repeat eliminated (the final guitar repeats are also reduced by one).)

“The Prettiest Star” seems to offer a battle of two lead guitarists—Marc Bolan on the single, Mick Ronson on the remake—but comparison listening makes it pretty clear that Ronson ceded the field to Bolan. While some critics have claimed Ronson reproduces Bolan’s solo note-for-note, which isn’t quite the case I think, he comes pretty close (Ronson even plays a vibrato-laden chord against Bowie singing “HOW you moved” in the bridge, just as Bolan did).

You can see why Ronson didn’t change it up: Bolan’s vibrato-saturated solo is one of the most melodic guitar lines he ever recorded, and it’s more memorable than Bowie’s vocal. In January 1970 Bolan only recently had switched to electric guitar (one reason he agreed to the Bowie session was that Visconti and Bowie had flattered his playing) and he plays the near-identical riff throughout the song, changing it only in the final repeat.

Ronson, when he remade “Prettiest Star” in late 1972, had his own well-established sound—plug his Les Paul directly into a cranked-up amp (occasionally using just a single wah-wah pedal), and, like Jimmy Page, use precise overdubs to fatten out the track (here he puts in a scratchy, distorted second guitar at the end of the intro). Bolan’s lead had been supplemented by Bowie strumming on 12-string acoustic guitar, but Ronson has no need of that, as saxophones serve to beef up the verses, freeing Ronson to craft metallic washes of sound.

It’s unclear why Bowie remade “Prettiest Star” for Aladdin Sane: perhaps he was short of new material (this was when record companies wanted artists to churn out new LPs seemingly every nine months—today, Justin Timberlake gets half a decade between records) and for most record buyers “Prettiest Star” was basically an unreleased track, given its awful reception in 1970.

If the original version of “Prettiest Star” was a simple valentine, the remake is a rowdy, garish engagement party, with doo-wop backing vocals, a horn section, an aggressive piano and a heavier beat. They both have their appeal, though the Aladdin Sane edition sounds like a better time.

Recorded 8, 13-14 January 1970 (with Visconti on bass and Godfrey McClean on drums) and released in March as Mercury MF 1135 c/w “Conversation Piece”—the same group, including Bolan, also cut “London Bye Ta-Ta” but it was left on the shelf; the Aladdin Sane remake was recorded in New York between 3-10 December 1972, in one of the first sessions for the LP.

Top: The Bowies wed each other, Bromley Registry Office, 19 March 1970.


Memory of a Free Festival

December 11, 2009

Memory of a Free Festival (LP).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 1).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2).

Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time: miniature utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from a grey morass of mundane, inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence…The most lively [young people] escape geographically and physically to the ‘Never Never Land’ of a free festival where they become citizens, indeed rulers, in a new reality.

Anonymous leaflet ca. 1980, quoted in George McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties.

Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?
Or just twenty thousand people standing in a field?

Pulp, “Sorted For E’s and Whizz.”

“Memory of a Free Festival” is a false memory, experience refurbished by regret. The festival in question was an open-air concert and fair held at the Croydon Road Recreational Ground in Beckenham on 16 August 1969 (the same weekend the Woodstock Festival was happening) that featured performances by Bowie—including a reggae version of “Space Oddity,” thankfully not recorded—and other groups like The Strawbs, all introduced by John Peel, puppet shows (of course), Tibetan goods (natch) and coconut shies. Bowie’s new girlfriend Angela Barnett cooked hamburgers in a wheelbarrow. The festival was peaceful and a relative success, with some 3,000 attendees (Bowie was complimented by Bromley’s mayor and chief of police, who also showed up).

The song David Bowie wrote about the festival soon afterward, which became the last song of the Space Oddity LP and was possibly the last song he recorded in the ’60s, depicts a blissful afternoon in which Bowie’s narrator wanders through a happy crowd of flower children, exchanging kisses, greeting Venusians. It ends with a communal worship of the setting sun and hopes for pleasures in the night ahead.

This wasn’t quite the case in reality. The festival was held five days after Bowie had buried his father, and he was in a foul mood, calling his partners “materialistic arseholes” for making money on hamburgers and T-shirts, complaining about the lousy PA system and eventually storming off in a black cloud at the end of the night. Mary Finnegan, Bowie’s once-lover and collaborator in the Beckenham Arts Lab, later called Bowie a hypocrite for writing a peace-and-love anthem about a festival at which he had been such a bore.

But “Memory of a Free Festival” is a requiem more than it is a celebration, the first clue being in the title—the naivete, the warmth, the easy unity that the song commemorates are already receding into the past. Bowie calls the hippies “children of the summer’s end,” suggesting they will soon have to return home for the impending winter. And Bowie’s narrator has a touch of wit in his descriptions, with lines like “We claimed the very source of joy ran through/it didn’t, but it seemed that way” or “Satori must be something like the same.”

Free “spontaneous” festivals first appeared in the UK in the summer of 1969, with free concerts given in Hyde Park by Humble Pie and, more famously, the Rolling Stones; the template for the model became Woodstock, though of course Woodstock, like the 1970 Isle of Wight concert, was a for-profit event forcibly converted into a free one by the assembled mob. It’s arguable that the Arts Lab festival was the first intentionally free festival held in Britain, one that served as a vanguard for later editions like the Phun City festival in July 1970 and the Windsor Free Festivals of the early ’70s, which eventually were shut down by the police.

The insistence on a concert being free was both idealistic (music is meant to be free, it gets corrupted by the capitalists, etc.: the same sort of thing a pro-Napster person was writing on a message board in 2001) and hipper-than-thou purist (how very bourgeois to make money on hamburgers and ticket sales). Cynics would claim the free festival’s natural endpoint is the disastrous Altamont concert, with Hell’s Angels murdering concertgoers, though the dream of a spontaneous gathering of the tribes, something medieval in our souls, has kept the dream alive in the forty years since.

“Memory of a Free Festival”‘s original recording starts with Bowie playing the Rosedale electric chord organ (a sort-of electric harmonium that only has about twelve playable chords), which serves as the main accompaniment for the song’s four verses, offering a humble ecclesiastical complement to Bowie’s wavering vocal. A interlude of organ swirls, snippets of chatter and laughter and guitar grunts follows (this chord chart aptly terms it “WEIRD BIT”), leading to a four-bar refrain (D-G-C-D, repeat ad infinitum) that carries the song to its end: The sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party!. Yes, it was 1969.

Bowie loved “Hey Jude” (having included the “na na na” refrain in his demo of “Janine”) and this is his obvious attempt to imitate McCartney’s structure—extend a three-minute song into an epic via five minutes or more of ragged communal chanting over three repeated chords (according to Pegg, some of the backing singers included future Sony VP Tony Woollcott and Radio 1 DJ “Whispering” Bob Harris).

In the spring of 1970, Bowie’s American label Mercury asked him to re-record “Memory of a Free Festival” as a single. Mercury thought it had potential to be a hit, instructing Tony Visconti to pick up the tempo and move the “sun machine” refrain to about two minutes into the track. The compromise was to break the track into two parts, with the single’s B-side being simply the “sun machine” bit. It’s a stronger record, with Mick Ronson quickly establishing himself as lead guitarist and a sumptuous Visconti string arrangement, though the fragile naivete of the original has been swallowed by grandeur and spectacle. Here come the Seventies.

The original was recorded ca. September 1969, on Space Oddity; the remake single was recorded on 3, 14-15 April 1970 and released as Mercury 6052 026 (it was a colossal flop, as Pegg found that it sold a mere 240 copies in the US in its first month of release).

Children of the Sun Machine

E-Zee Possee, The Sun Machine.
Dario G, Sunmachine.
The Polyphonic Spree, Memory of a Free Festival (Sun Machine).

The “sun machine” chant, having evanesced at the end of the ’60s, returned a generation later. “Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2),” a trance-inducing repetition of a meaningless earworm, was a natural ancestor of a rave chant, and in 1990 E-Zee Possee had a minor hit with “The Sun Machine,” in which the “sun machine” chant was sung over house piano. Dario G’s 1998 “Sunmachine” is something of an officially-approved sequel to “Free Festival,” with Visconti playing flute and Bowie graciously sending Dario G the master tape so they could isolate his vocal for the new recording. I’m not sure we’re done with the sun machine yet—expect Animal Collective to use it at some point.

From the top: The Stones bury the Sixties at Altamont, December 1969; “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1” single; bathers in the Serpentine, Hyde Park, 1969.