Join The Gang

September 4, 2009

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Join The Gang.

Have You Helped to Keep London Swinging Today?

Poster in London shop windows, 1966.

“Join the Gang” is Bowie’s little dig at the London hip set, a tribute to a clique of bright young things—a top model, a sitar player who’s thinking seriously about Buddhism and a West End proto-version of Jim Morrison, raving drunk on stage to a paid audience. Bowie sings in a brisk, arch manner but there’s a slight acrid taste of envy to it. After all, Bowie had had his nose against the glass for years, watching the banquet go on without him. “It’s all a big illusion, but at least you’re in,” he sings. “At least you’re in.”

The music’s an assortment of mid-’60s pop cliches: there’s the funky drummer intro (anyone sampled this? ripe for the picking if not), the manic sitar that bleeds through the opening verse, a honky-tonk piano line and even a dig at the soul-inspired pop Bowie had just deserted—as Bowie touts a club called The Web (“this month’s pick“), the band parodies the opening riff of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’.”

High-strung from the start, the track ends in a nervous breakdown. Gus Dudgeon, asked by David Buckley to listen to “Join the Gang” again after 25 years, reveled in the noise-fest he had recorded: “There’s a hoover, there’s farts and there’s munching. I think the farts sound pretty genuine to me. One of them’s even got a delay on it.”

Recorded 24 November 1966, on David Bowie.

Top: Mary Quant’s 1966 collection for J.C. Penney.

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Dirty Boys

October 8, 2015

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Dirty Boys.

“A euphemism, and a song, for all the glam rock stars that have ever been,” Tony Visconti offered as his take on “Dirty Boys.” His employer simply said: “Violence, chthonic, intimidation.”

Sequenced as a mid-tempo, spacious contrast to the frenetic opener “The Next Day,” “Dirty Boys” is an E minor piece that sways to Steve Elson’s fifth-spanning baritone saxophone figure: the riff sounds like a big man stomping across a dance floor. Elson, who played with everyone from Shuggie Otis and Big Jim Wynn to Natalie Merchant and Radiohead, cut the baritone sax lines for “Modern Love” and was one of the “Borneo Horns” on the subsequent 1983 tour. While Bowie was in his secretive pre-production for The Next Day, he ran into Elson in New York, had “a dad conversation,” and then told him “I’ll be in touch about something.” A year or so later, Visconti called Elson in.

“He’s a little guy and he’s got a huge baritone sax, and he plays this dirty solo that sounds like stripper music from the 1950s,” Visconti recalled of Elson’s work on “Dirty Boys.” “Old bump-and-grind stripper music…it wouldn’t be out of place on Young Americans.”

When Elson turned up at the Magic Shop in 2012, many tracks “had working titles and some reference vocals. David had ideas of where the horns should be,” he told CounterPunch. Bowie’s directions included “don’t even think about what key we’re in” and “go farther out” (similar to what he told Mike Garson when recording “Aladdin Sane”). He wanted only a few takes, nothing too considered. What he liked when recording, he told Elson, was to leave some oddments in tracks, “so you might find, in a record, things that only happened once that one time maybe—just to show we could do it…the gems hidden in the recording.”*

“Dirty Boys” honored this intention: it’s one of the few Next Day songs given the chance to ramble and breathe, and it’s full of characters. Take how Tony Levin’s bass, sputtering underneath as if vexed by how much of a star turn Elson’s sax is getting, will occasionally bubble to the surface. The general mood is a sinister Carl Stalling theme for a Forties Warner Bros. cartoon, with traces of Tom Waits’ mid-Eighties records.

It’s just three verses (shifts from E minor to C major, the same progression as “Eleanor Rigby”), two bridge/refrains that hint at a move to C major, and an outro Em solo. Elson is such a dominant presence in the track, from his main riff (a swaggering step-up from root to dominant note in each chord) to his closing solo, that it’s hard to imagine “Dirty Boys” working without the saxophone. It’s possible Bowie tried out having a guitar play the brass riff, but that would have overcooked the song: instead, the guitars are foils, hitting on the off-beats or giving spiteful replies to Bowie’s lines in the verses (the players were Visconti, Gerry Leonard and Earl Slick, who said of “Dirty Boys,” “if you’re going to have a title like that, I have to be on it”.)

Bowie’s phrasing, keeping to a narrow range of notes and, in the verses, ending every other line with a sinking triplet figure (“lone-ly road,” “cric-ket bat”), calls back to his old “folk” piece “Come and Buy My Toys,” and his lyric traffics in more memory: “Tobacco Road” (whether the Erskine Caldwell novel, the John Ford film or, most likely, the Nashville Teens’ 1964 hit) and, as usual, old Bowie songs—see the third verse’s “we all go through.” The setting’s Finchley Fair in North London; the dirty boys could be vampire hooligans; the singer (and the person whom he’s calling out) want to join the gang, or sleep with them, or both.

It’s the sound of a cutting contest run by Bowie (mainly single-tracked, with what seems like a touch of distortion on his vocal) playing a genteel dirty old man. One of the small disappointments of The Next Day is how much of an outlier “Dirty Boys” proved to be in the context of the album.

Recorded: (backing tracks) mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

Top: “Tataata,” untitled, 2011.

*Take the little barking/scraping noise heard in the last seconds of the track—it could be someone yelping in the studio, or a squawked note from another Elson take.

Another reminder: Saturday, October 17; Astoria, Queens. Bowie night /trivia contest/ Rebel Rebel reading; all that jazz.


Links: Chapters 1-3

March 24, 2015

Chapter 1: The Junior Visualizer (1964-1966)

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“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)

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.


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.


Strangers When We Meet

January 10, 2013

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Strangers When We Meet (promo mix).
Strangers When We Meet (Buddha of Suburbia).
Strangers When We Meet (Outside.)
Strangers When We Meet (single edit, video, Outside).
Strangers When We Meet (live, 1995).
Strangers When We Meet (The Tonight Show, 1995).
Strangers When We Meet (Top of the Pops, 1995).
Strangers When We Meet (Later with Jools Holland, 1995).

“Strangers When We Meet” appears on two Bowie albums, neither of which it suited. On Buddha of Suburbia, its first, sparser incarnation stood out as the most “standard” track of the record, though it sounded undercooked when compared with the effulgence of “Untitled No. 1.” Realizing that he’d thrown away a possible hit on an album that wasn’t released in the US, Bowie reworked “Strangers” in the last sessions of Outside, for which it served as the closing track.

On Outside, the bright chorus melody of “Strangers” was a payoff for a listener who had endured a long, dark, claustrophobic album. Coming after a set of 18 “segues” and generally ominous tracks, “Strangers” felt like a boarded-up window being pried open to let in the sunlight. That said, “Strangers” also sounded like a bonus track, like something appended to the album after it was used in a film.

“Strangers” seems at heart one of Bowie’s transient songs, one more suited for the stateless company of “Holy Holy,” “John, I’m Only Dancing,” “Under Pressure” and “Alabama Song” than it was for any album. It was a pure single that Bowie instead netted and mounted in two different tableaux. And while it felt like a hit, “Strangers” wound up a relative obscurity. Released as Outside‘s second single, it was eclipsed by its B-side, a so-called “live” version (it wasn’t) of “Man Who Sold the World.” “Strangers” only reached #39 in the UK and didn’t chart anywhere else in the world but Sweden. Had it been Outside‘s lead-off single, or had Bowie put it out ahead of the album in, say, spring 1995, perhaps it could’ve had more space to thrive in.

Its commercial failure was a shame, as “Strangers” has one of Bowie’s sturdiest melodies and most haunting lyrics of his later years. It should have been ranked with “Absolute Beginners” and “Modern Love” as one of Bowie’s beloved “silver age” hits; “Strangers,” rather than “Jump They Say,” feels like it should have been the last big Bowie pop moment. Perhaps it was too somber for its time; the doomed, conflicted relationship that dominates its lyric denying any easy access for a listener.

“Strangers” began as another of Bowie’s trawls through the past while he was making Buddha, as the song is built on the bassline of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” (which Bowie had already used, jokingly, in his “Join the Gang”). Bowie was also playing with the associations that its title phrase summoned up. “Strangers when we meet” was associated with adultery: it had titled a Kirk Douglas film about tortured adultery and had been the chorus hook of Leroy Van Dyke’s jaunty ode to adultery, “Walk on By” (“just walk on by/wait on the corner/I love you but we’re strangers when we meet”). In all its uses, the secret lovers in question had to play-act as strangers in public, reserving their true feelings for behind closed doors.The Smithereens had a song in the Eighties that continued these associations—don’t look my way, I’ve still got a wife, I really love you, remember, but we’re going to be strangers on the street.

So Bowie’s lyric took this set of expectations and undermined them. Rather than being any sort of secret lovers, the couple in the song are so brutally alienated from each other, are so consumed by passive/aggressive emotional violence, that they often literally cannot recognize who they once were. There’s an emotional numbness, with the singer’s world bled free of color. “All our friends, now seem so thin and frail,” Bowie begins. The TV shows a blank screen, religion has no consolations, nor does nature (“splendid sunrise, but it’s a dying world“). Sometimes the couple even forget each other’s names. The man weeps in bed, cringes when she tries to embrace him.

The twist is, as the final chorus comes around, that the singer masochistically welcomes this state. Numbness, disassociation, alienation are at least some sort of feeling. Better to serve in hell, as the line goes. As the end chorus begins, with the beat slightly increasing in tempo, Bowie tears into his lines with a sudden, growing conviction. ALL your REGRETS ride ROUGH-SHOD over me, he sings. I’m so GLAD…I’m so THANKFUL…I’m in CLOVER…HEEL HEAD OVER that they’re strangers. Because then they can pretend to fall in love again.

strangers

Bowie didn’t alter the song’s structure when he remade it for Outside. “Strangers” remained a standard progression in A major, with the verses banked to quickly sweep in the dominant chord, E, (“secrets”) after a tense pit stop on a B eleventh chord (“thin and frail”). The choruses reverse course, beginning on E (“violence”) and quickly shuttling back home to the tonic, A (“the sheet”).

The revisions were more subtle, and owed to the greater cast of characters in the studio: Mike Garson, often keeping to the bass end of his piano, offers small commentary and a lovely, ruminative solo; Reeves Gabrels discards the agitated, jabbing hook in the original track’s verses for a set of subtler colors (he also provides a few what-the-hell noises, like the Fripp-esque “elephant roar”  in the intro). Kizilcay on bass plays a similar groove as his performance on the original (it’s also possibly Yossi Fine on bass here) while the drumming, whether Sterling Campbell or Joey Baron, is more dynamic. (The revision moved “Strangers” from the dance floor to a locked room, especially given the diminished presence of the synth drum “march” pattern that had been the backbone of the Buddha version.)

For me, the Outside version’s superiority lies mainly in Bowie’s vocal. His singing on the remake seems an extended critique of his earlier performance. The original found Bowie strong, confident, in full form as “Bowie,” happily delivering on expectations. The double-tracked close harmonies of the chorus emphasized the hearty strengths of its melody and Bowie took the closing lines as a series of hurdles, delighting in his rhymes, bringing the song to a close as if he was landing a plane. On Outside, this bravado has fallen away. Bowie begins in a near-conversational tone, in what sounds like his “gumshoe” Nathan Adler voice—he’s acting, playing a ridiculous role, and in the first chorus he breaks down. His emphases land on unexpected beats: he sings “strangers when we meet” now, letting the last word trail off—it gives a more provisional feel to the line, the singer fixating on the “when,” knowing that they may never meet again. And in the closing chorus, the naked beauty of his voice (accompanied by a ghostly, lower-mixed backing vocal) makes the climactic lines a series of painful, hard-fought delusions.

It’s one of his finest, most beautiful, autumnal songs—Bowie would spend his some of his last decade as a performer (well, until this past Tuesday) playing variations of the character, someone betrayed and bewildered by life, that he unveiled on “Strangers.” Whether he ever bettered it is another question.

Recorded: (original) June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux; (remake) ca. January-February 1995, Westside Studios, New York. A longer, different mix of the original “Strangers” appeared on a Dutch promotional cassette—its most notable differences are the lack of the “Gimme Some Lovin'” hook and a greater emphasis on the synth drums. The remake of “Strangers was released in November 1995 as RCA/BMG 74321 32940 2 (c/w “Man Who Sold the World,” #39 UK—the UK CD single also had “Get Real,” one of two “official” Outside outtakes.) Performed on the Outside and Earthling tours as well as on the Tonight Show on 27 October 1995, TOTP on 9 November 1995 and Jools Holland on 3 December 1995.

Top: “Allison DC,” “Riot Grrrls, Gay Rights March,” Washington DC, April 1993.


Nite Flights

November 14, 2012

Scott Walker, Message to David Bowie on his 50th Birthday, 1997.

I see God in the window.

David Bowie, after hearing it.

See the dwarfs and see the giants. Which one would you choose to be?

Scott Walker, “30 Century Man.”

I. Engel and Jones

I suppose he had made some slight noise of some kind or other. It would have been miraculous if he hadn’t at one time or another. And yet, haggard as he appeared, he looked always perfectly self-controlled, more than calm—almost invulnerable.

Joseph Conrad, “The Secret Sharer.”

Start by placing them across the board from each other: two queen’s bishops, rows of squares ahead of them. One is Noel Scott Engel, born in Ohio in 1943, an American who went to Britain for fame and who stayed there; the other is David Robert Jones, born in Brixton on the day before Engel’s fourth birthday, who scrabbled for fame in Britain and, once he finally got it, left for good. Jones became David Bowie, Engel became Scott Walker. Each was precocious, ambitious, beautiful. They first met around 1966 at a London nightclub, The Scotch of St. James, when Walker was a pop star and Bowie nothing but polite aspiration.

The Walker Brothers were cool, handsome Californians who sang maudlin, shabby pop. Their hit singles were all dirges. Britain, more than any other country, took them to heart, a hint that beneath the shine of Carnaby Street and the “classless” glamour society pages of David Bailey’s Box of Pin Ups there was still a weary nation that had never gotten over the war, a Britain for whom the glum fatalism of “Make it Easy on Yourself” and the doom-struck “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” rang more true than “All You Need is Love,” whose promise seemed extended only to the beautiful and young. The Walkers, though they looked like surfer gods, lived in darkened rooms: they suffered breakups, desertions and morning-after regrets, their albums were lonely hearts columns. The somber flavor of their songs suggested there was still a war on (and of course, there was—one reason the Walkers had left the US was to avoid the draft).



Like the spider-egg memory cruelly programmed into the replicant’s memory in Blade Runner, the Walker Brothers felt real but did not actually exist in any recongisable reality.

Anthony Reynolds, “The Hollow Men.”

Years before Bowie would create a “plastic” rock star, there was the Walker Brothers (not brothers, none of them really named Walker), who didn’t play on their records, who used different backing bands for touring and TV appearances (live, Gary Leeds used paper sticks, the actual drummer parked backstage). As Reynolds wrote, the only “real” Walker Brothers were Scott and John’s voices, “two solo singers sharing a b(r)and name…[whose] LPs were the works of a mythical beast, spawned and constructed under the laboratory conditions of Philips Studios.

Not that it mattered. By 1966, the Walkers’ UK fan club was larger than the Beatles’ and the Stones’; Mick Jagger, sizing up the competition, tried to start a feud by flicking cigarette butts down on Walker at a nightclub. Lulu, besotted with Scott herself, recalled being unable to sleep while on tour with the Walkers because shrieking girls had the hotels under siege. The Walkers’ mid-Sixties was a reenactment of Beatlemania in miniature, more ritualized and more violent, with Walkers shows condensed to a half-hour of screams and gutter battles. One night Leeds saw a girl covered in blood from head to foot—she had crawled through a shattered window to get into the club—and he remembered another girl who wouldn’t let go of John’s hair even after being punched in the face.

It had happened by chance. John Maus and Scott Engel, who’d met in the early Sixties, got a minor hit in America and were working clubs on the Sunset Strip. John sang lead; Scott, his gloomy baritone suiting his role as bassist, was second string. Recording a new song, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill’s “Love Her,” that had been written for the Righteous Brothers, the producer Nick Venet suggested a deeper-voiced lead for the Bill Medley role, and Scott became the front man. Leeds, a drummer that he and John knew, came back from a British tour with PJ Proby with UK contacts and a proposition. The three, christened the Walker Brothers, flew to London in February 1965. Four months later, they had a manager, a record contract and hits, starting with “Love Her.”

Scott had worked in professional music since his boyhood: he was making demos and singles in his mid-teens and had been a protege of the singer Eddie Fisher. It was a life of pointed ambition, reminiscent of another boy in Bromley who started cutting singles at age 17. But unlike Bowie, Walker had only a professional interest in R&B and rock ‘n roll (with the exception of the disco-tinged Nite Flights, Walker’s oeuvre is an alternate history in which “white” popular music had almost zero African-American influence). His idol was Frank Sinatra. Hearing that Sinatra had built up his lungs by staying underwater for minutes, Walker would try to hold his breath for a block when walking in London.

His was a wary fame. He never had a period like Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era when he savored the absurd peak of his celebrity. Instead he escaped whenever he could, enisling himself in movie theaters, where he’d watch four films in a row, or turning up at nightclubs at 1 AM and sitting by himself; he took Valium to bring himself down, uppers and vodka to get him through sessions and shows. Encouraged by his manager to write B-sides for some publishing royalties, Walker found his ideal form of escape: his songs, from the start, fabricated worlds for him to hide away in. In December 1966 he had a breakthrough, with “Archangel,” built on a Bach-inspired pipe organ figure that Scott recorded at the Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square (a moviegoer’s whim indulged), and the kitchen-sink drama of “Mrs. Murphy.” In these two songs, a B-side and an EP track, was the breadth of his imagined, inherited London: the gossipy flavor of life in a two-up two-down, where angels sometimes appear at the windows.

Walker became a dedicated expatriate: Sixties London, he later said, really was the London he had dreamed of in America, the London of Ealing Studios films, of eccentricity and “making do,” with vaguely Continental daydreams as its mild opiate. He became a British citizen in the Seventies, though living in Holland much of the time, and his attitude towards his native country has been coldness tinged with contempt. An idealized, affected “British” sensibility colored his music. Even the Walker Brothers albums were structured like provincial pantomime revues: a Matt Monro-style ballad followed by a back-to-the-Sunset Strip rocker like “Land of 1,000 Dances,” a country-style number leading into one of Scott’s compositions (a bizarre piece of sequencing on Images sandwiches Walker’s “Orpheus” between anemic covers of “Stand By Me” and “Blueberry Hill”).

Much of the music, even the #1 singles, sounded slightly off, inaccurate translations. “Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine” was producer Johnny Franz and a pack of British session players (including Alan Parker, who later played on “Rebel Rebel”) going for the full-bore Phil Spector sound, with Hal Blaine style “on the four” drums, “Holland Tunnel” reverb and instruments stacked upon each other like folding chairs. But they didn’t quite pull it off: “Sun” has so much blear and murk that Scott drowns in the mix, but the track’s also thin-sounding in places; it’s a drywall of sound.

Still, even echoes have echoes. Some of Bowie’s 1966 Pye singles, with their Tony Hatch productions, seem crafted to mimic the gimcrack cathedral tone of the Walkers’ singles. He and Walker were in different worlds: you can imagine Scott’s face on a magazine cover at the Clapham cafe where Bowie once wrote a bitter little jibe called “Join the Gang,” which he couldn’t. Where Bowie was a footnote, Walker was getting enseamed in British pop legend. When the gangster Ronnie Kray shot a rival at the Blind Beggar on Whitechapel Road, one bullet from Kray’s Mauser hit the jukebox, causing the record playing to skip: the sun ain’t gonna shine…sun ain’t gonna shine…

II. Billy Balloon and Major Tom

Scott Walker, Amsterdam.
David Bowie, Amsterdam.
Scott Walker, My Death.
David Bowie, My Death (live).

Contrary to public opinion, I hated cabaret. In the course of four years, I mentioned it to David once. That was when he was broke and unable to feed himself. Cabaret? Not likely. It killed Scott Walker.

Kenneth Pitt, David Bowie’s former manager.

Caller: Is [“Plastic Palace People”] about what I think it is?

Scott Walker: Uh, yeah.

Capitol Radio interview, 1978.

It’s a well-established arc in pop: the teen idol grows (cracks) up. Idols are a savvier lot now, and managers have gotten far better at handling the transition, but it remains a treacherous crossing, one that usually demands some sort of declaration of independence. Scott Walker’s was extremist. Consider if Justin Bieber put out a record where he sang about losing his virginity in an “mobile army whorehouse,” recalled “the queer lieutenant who slapped our asses as if we were fags” and “my first case of gonorrhea” and closed with “one day I’ll cut my legs off or burn myself alive.”

Walker went to the Playboy Club one night in 1967 and met a German woman who worked there. Back at her place, she drank Pernod and played Jacques Brel records for him, translating the songs as they played. He fell in love, not with her. By chance, soon after that evening Walker’s friend Andrew Oldham told him that Mort Shuman had just made a translation of Brel songs for a stage revue, some of which had been recorded for a promo disc. Walker found this acetate, which had “Amsterdam” and “Jackie” and “Mathilde” on it, and, in his words, “ran with it.” Brel was his liberator, giving Walker cover, some exotica and notoriety.

So began the “shabby ’60s solo epics: fantasias of crumpled velvet” (Tom Ewing) that were the four Scott records: fervid Brel covers, MOR schlock, occasional country/folk forays and the Walker-penned songs, the latter increasingly more “lieder” than pop, with Walker disdaining hooks and choruses in favor of wandering through his endless, spiraling verses. His songs, sometimes literally art movies remembered in music (“The Seventh Seal“), were split-screen compositions (“Plastic Palace People”), flashbacks, slow-motion reveries. He peopled his lyrics with children and angels (and one in the same), tramps and toy soldiers (there was a touch of the black velvet painting in Scott’s songs of the period), squandered dreamers rotting away on fire escapes and terraces. His characters, refracted through his own brooding persona, seemed poisoned by memories, left motionless (the first side of Scott 1 is a set of remembered lost girls—Mathilde,Angelica, Lucy Brown, Joanna—that naturally concludes with ode to death). The Scotts are singular, as much out of their time as they reek of it: Scott 2 remains one of the stranger #1 albums ever released.

Late Sixties Scott can seem a schizophrenic character, hosting a lite-pop TV revue for the BBC while singing about prostitutes and archangels on his gnomic records. For some he was a tortured artist, packaged by his label and manager as a reluctant version of Englebert Humperdinck, who slipped in a few subversive masterpieces on records marketed to middle-aged bourgeois. For others he was a teen idol with bad taste, a ghastly poseur who took a sniggering adolescent pleasure in singing Brel’s bawdy lyrics. (He was easy to detest: Nik Cohn called Walker “top heavy and maudlin” in 1968 and Robert Christgau later threw up in print: “purely godawful…Anthony Newley without the voice muscles…a male Vera Lynn for late bloomers who found Paul McCartney too R&B.”)

Sure, Walker’s records are the sort of thing the couple in Paul Simon’s “The Dangling Conversation” would have on their hi-fi, and his lyrics can easily venture into Rod McKuen waters. He seemed an older man in spirit, a throwback whose main vices, booze and pills, were classic Hollywood’s, and whose interests were those of a graduate student ca. 1957: Camus, Bergman films, Bartok. The Scotts are the refined sound of the aspiring middlebrow of the Sixties, a tragic figure easy to mock today. A lost world of Cabernet, mime, mild Buddhism, poetry readings, “action” theater. Which, as it happens, was also the world of Bowie and his girlfriend, the dancer Hermione Farthingale, in 1968.

During the Scott years, Bowie was in the wilderness. His one LP had flopped and Deram stopped releasing his singles. And in 1968, a year when he didn’t release any music and nearly abandoned pop music, he discovered Walker. As with Walker and Brel, a woman was the ambassador. The songwriter Lesley Duncan had dated Walker and later briefly took up with Bowie, and Bowie found the latter’s records in her flat on Redington Road. Bowie was irritated at first, Walker seeming to mock him with his glamorous brooding Philips LP covers, but when he finally played the records he was entranced.

At first, mainly with Brel (Walker had chosen Brel wisely, as a carnival barker to get potential listeners into the tent). Bowie soon tried to make “Amsterdam” and “My Death” his own, singing them accompanied only by his 12-string acoustic guitar, but all he managed to do was cover Walker. The actual Brel, an agitated Fleming who expectorated his songs in performance, is hardly to be heard in Bowie’s various versions—Bowie’s Brel is just a shadow of Scott’s. Seeking to evade Walker, he only channeled him.

Then, through Walker’s own songs, Bowie began to craft a new persona to inhabit. He had forgotten he’d ever been a Mod and, in the words of his then-partner John Hutchinson, was now “into softer things.” Scott’s songs are in the sediment of Bowie’s late Sixties: in the bedroom of “hessian and wood” where Bowie and Hermione once stayed; in the paper-strewn rooms of the scholar who lives above an Austrian in “Conversation Piece”. And in the song that finally made Bowie? Is there some of Walker’s growing isolation and coldness in “Space Oddity,” in Major Tom’s desire to slip free from the world’s tether and just float off somewhere, like a balloon?

It’s easy to go too far in this game. There were other competing influences at work on Bowie, and Bowie’s arrangers/producers Gus Dudgeon and Tony Visconti were of a different cast than Walker’s, who were generally of an older generation. Dudgeon and Visconti were more pop-oriented, working in service to the song, favoring moody sweeps of ‘celli, using strings and horns to underscore top melodies, and while open to innovations like the Mellotron and Stylophone, kept them as secondary players in the mix. Nowhere on a Bowie record of the period is there anything like Wally Stott’s coagulation of strings, a semi-tonal quivering between G, G-sharp and F-sharp, that hangs like a storm cloud in Walker’s masterpiece “It’s Raining Today.”

It was this sound—a suspension between tonality and atonality, release and tension, fear and longing—which Walker had sought since he began making records (Derek Walmsley: “each instrument is locked into a hovering circle of vibrato, like bees moving in swarm formation“) and he would reuse it for decades to come, building and coloring his songs with variations on these shifts, with strings phasing in and out of key, players rolling out strings of harmonic and ghost notes that suddenly cohere into great clumps of sound. (On Tilt, three decades later, Walker would try to create “new chords” by having his players play major and minor chords simultaneously, aiming for “a yin and yang thing,” he said.)

The sound of “Raining Today” suggested that Scott was delving further inward. His lyrics grew more obscure, his art movie songs were increasingly meant for him alone, as if he was screening dailies of his dreams. After the triumph of Scott 3, Walker even discarded Brel, disposing of one last crutch. He went off the map as his audience fell away. There’s a telling moment in the Walker documentary 30 Century Man, when, as part of a transition montage, there’s a cut to a late 1969 issue of Melody Maker. On the right-hand side of the two-page spread is a photograph of a beaming hippie Bowie in an article about his hit single. On the opposing page, a dour Walker illustrates a piece about the poor sales of Scott 4, which Philips would delete in a year. Sun (machine) rising, sun setting.

You’ve been a wonderful audience. Now it’s time for me to go away.

Scott Walker, at the end of his first BBC TV show, 1969.

III. Ziggy and the Moviegoer

It bothered me that I couldn’t write a record. Sure. But I felt…it’s just as important to exist as write…Existence is worth everything. So I wasn’t dead, you know?

Scott Walker, interview, early 1990s.

Had my double vanished as he had come? But of his coming there was an explanation, whereas his disappearance would be inexplicable….

Conrad.

In the early Seventies, David Bowie finally became a star. You likely know the story: Ziggy Stardust, Ronson, the Spiders, Angela, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Tony Defries, Mike Garson, “Starman”, “Jean Genie.” Bowie still sang the Walker-Brel songs on stage but he’d long since dispensed any Scott-inspired production cues and lyrical influences, as though he’d stuffed away Walker in a box of teenage memorabilia when moving house.

As for Walker, he was hiding in plain sight. He still put out records, sometimes twice a year. The Moviegoer, Stretch, Any Day Now, We Had It All. These albums seemed intended to be remaindered, meant for dusty afterlives in charity shops and garage sales and church basements. One wonders who bought them (there weren’t many—none of the albums really sold). A fan from the Walker Brothers days, now married with children, who spied the still-handsome face on a LP in Debenhams and bought it out of some weak nostalgic obligation? A cultist, poring through the liner notes, looking for clues? Your grandmother?

Walker was blocked, creatively, and pushed by his manager to only do covers, so he grubbed out albums to meet his contracts and support his family, sometimes cutting all of his vocals in a single day, going through a bottle or two of vodka in the booth. He sang anything that he was given, sang it professionally and at times even beautifully, but with little artistry, little trace of his own interpretation. It was though he was demoing songs for other singers to do something with. Amanda Petrusich argues that Walker’s move into country music came as he was renouncing his citizenship, at the height of Watergate, and that singing country was a way for Walker to make some sort of reckoning with his past (he said in an interview that most of his family back home had voted for Nixon). It’s a solid enough theory as any. What’s more unnerving is the idea that Walker simply had no motives, had no strategies, but was just using music as a base currency. As Andy Zax said of these records, “their emptiness is startling.”

The connection could have been severed here: Walker drifting off into genteel nothingness, Bowie far off on his own path. But the line was still open on Bowie’s end. In late 1973, with the Spiders gone, with Bowie forced back onto himself and clawing his way out of a trap he’d made (he was trying to salvage at least three failed musicals), Bowie found himself listening to Walker again.

The first evidence on Diamond Dogs is a parody of Walker’s “Any Day Now” that briefly surfaces in the murk of “Future Legend.” Then, a few tracks later, comes “Sweet Thing/Candidate.” The ghoulish basso profondo that Bowie used to open “Sweet Thing” sounds like some resurrected, blighted Walker, Walker as some croaking Baron Samedi figure, pacing through Bowie’s Hunger City, looking for rough trade. It was a Walker that had never existed, one that seems instead to have been generated in Bowie’s shadow-memory of Scott’s old songs, and it’s a more frightening, vivid figure than Scott ever managed to play on his Philips LPs: a Scott purged of his middlebrow crooner affectations, clarified to base instinct and dark camp. The zombified Walker crops up again, as a lesser flavor, in some of Bowie’s other mid-Seventies songs (“Station to Station” comes to mind). It’s one possible ending: Walker ending up as one of Bowie’s characters, yet another influence absorbed. Instead, one day Walker woke up.

IV. The Electrician and the Lodger

David Bowie, he’s a very smart guy. He comes up with the goods and he makes sure of delivery right down the line. I thought, ‘Shit, if he can do it, so can I.’

Scott Walker.

Nite Flights (The Walker Brothers, 1978).

The Walker Brothers reunited in 1974, for lack of anything else to do. They got a minor hit, a cover of Tom Rush’s “No Regrets,” and stalled out. Their label GTO collapsed but there was enough money for one last record, so the Walkers figured they’d cut some of their own songs for once, using the budget to bring in some top session men (including Alan Parker and the guitarist “Big Jim” Sullivan, who’d played on hundreds of British rock records, including David Bowie).

So far, this has been a one-way tale: Bowie watching, interpreting, coveting, acquiring Walker. Now Walker, at last, was listening to Bowie, sifting through Station to Station, Low and especially the just-released “Heroes,” which Walker brought to the studio, playing it for his partners and the studio musicians (he also wanted everyone to subscribe to Gramophone magazine). The engineer Steve Parker told Anthony Reynolds that “Heroes” was “the reference album when we were making Nite Flights…we could have been more adventurous, maybe. If we’d had an Eno character in there, it would have been even more stunning, I think.”

What did Walker get out of Bowie’s “Berlin” albums? They were records of a man, pushed to his limits, who broke himself up and tried to piece himself together again, one who seemed intent on killing his former personae; Walker, after years of acquiescent mediocrity, of self-imposed artistic silence, was trying to write again, trying to make the step he felt he should have made after Scott 4. The Bowie records are also an exile’s albums, their creator roaming from Los Angeles to France to Berlin, which a fellow expatriate like Walker could appreciate. And more cynically, as Walker’s quote above suggests, he saw in Bowie someone to whom it had seemingly come easily, a man who dabbled in art rock but still got hits, one who seemed to have stolen the freedom to go where he willed. Remember that Walker wasn’t the mysterious avant-garde figure in 1978 that he’s since become. He was a pro singer who’d put out a lousy record for nearly every year of the Seventies, and whose vaunted Sixties LPs had more than their fair share of songs that could have been a Blood, Sweat and Tears album. He could still think in commercial terms, and he likely did here.

Nite Flights was front-loaded with Scott’s songs (though his fingerprints are everywhere on the record—as Reynolds wrote, the phased tubular bells and harmonized snare on Gary Leeds’ “Den Haague” are very Bowie/Eno/Visconti-inspired), which are sequenced perfectly. The opener “Shutout” is a first shot at Bowie, a reconsidering of “Blackout” with a taste of sharp violence, while “Fat Mama Kick” seems to be Walker taking Eno’s measure, writing a song that Eno could’ve fit on Taking Tiger Mountain or Here Come the Warm Jets. It’s a dark, extravagant goof, with Walker again, as with “Archangel,” busting the budget to record a colossal pipe organ (in this case, the Royal Albert Hall’s). “Nite Flights” (see below) is a maneuver where Walker met Bowie head-on.

He closed the quartet with “The Electrician,” where he pushed beyond Bowie and Eno, opening an avenue they had never considered. It begins with Walker’s favored dissonant string chords, with Walker, when he appears, groaning and bellowing as if he’d heard Bowie’s incarnation of him on “Sweet Thing” and thought, “oh, you think you can do this?“. Then, with the chorus, Walker strangles his professional voice. Considering his moneymaker baritone suspect, that it lulled the listener to sleep, he altered his phrasing and timbre, now singing lines in a straining, desperate tone that, like his love of consonant/dissonant strings, hung between being sharp and on the note. It suited the lyric, a love song about American complicity in Central American torture regimes.

There was nothing of its like in 1978. Brilliantly released as a single, “The Electrician” proffered a future that no one dared to take (Eno, decades later, groused about the cowardice of young bands who never went beyond “The Electrician,” but were just content to imitate him or Roxy Music or Bowie.)

In late 1978, Eno brought Nite Flights to Montreux, where he and Bowie had started recording Lodger. Bowie was stunned. One can’t blame him. Imagine if a great stone face to whom you’ve been making offerings for years suddenly rumbles up a response, in an approximation of your voice.

So Lodger was, in part, Bowie scrambling to acknowledge a revived Walker, from the obvious reference “African Night Flight” to “Look Back in Anger,” a song full of cold angels (at a time when Walker no longer seemed interested in them) and whose phrasing had a trace of Bowie’s old Scott imitation. But this was superficial. Bowie stewed, considered new responses. “The Electrician” proved such a challenge that Bowie played it for nearly twenty years, then all but rewrote it as “The Motel.” (But that’s a story for later.)

V. Nite Flights

Nite Flights (Bowie).
Nite Flights (Bowie, video w/introduction).
Nite Flights (The Tonight Show, 1993).
Nite Flights (Moodswings Back to Basics Mix).
Nite Flights (Bowie, live, 1996).

In the early Eighties, when Bowie pieced himself out to the world, Walker, after the promise of Nite Flights, seemed to leave it. It was here, not in his workingman’s Seventies, when he truly began to vanish. He had ceased to exist in the music press. None of his records get a mention in the Rolling Stone Record Guide of 1983, or in the Trouser Press record guides of the era; he merits a single line in a two-graph Walker Brothers bio in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of 1983 and isn’t mentioned at all in RS‘ 1986 History of Rock & Roll. Nite Flights, rather than marking some startling rebirth, instead seemed his last roll of the dice before leaving the room.

Then Walker put out another record, Climate of Hunter. This would establish the pattern of his late work: silence, oblivion, then a new album. Released in spring 1984, a few months before Bowie’s Tonight, Climate made Bowie’s corporate nadir LP even more appalling. Climate was an actual adult pop record, Walker working with contemporary musicians and producers (Billy Ocean and Mark Knopfler, among others), but keeping his own counsel, to the point of perversity (the Ocean track, the most pop-appealing song on the record which even got a video, didn’t get a title).

For the rest of the Eighties, when Walker was nowhere to be found, Bowie endured his own public set of lost years, reduced to making records for the sake of it, losing himself, trying to purge his way back with Tin Machine. Finally, in 1992, looking for some anchorage, casting about for fresh influences or just any means to move ahead, he finally decided to take Walker on. He covered “Nite Flights.”

As with his take on Morrissey’s “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” there was a touch of vanity in Bowie’s choice: “Nite Flights” is the closest that Walker was ever influenced by Bowie’s music, from the “Heroes” callbacks in the lyric (“we could be gods“) to its production and arrangement, which has the taut fluency of Bowie’s great Murray-Alomar-Davis band (the hi-hat, mostly played by Peter Van Hooke (and Frank Gibson here) is the unsung hero of Nite Flights, mixed as prominently as the lead vocal).

Bowie’s cover took the fractured disco of the Walkers and smoothed it out, deepening the song, gave it a steadier foundation (with Nile Rodgers’ fine rhythm guitar, starting in the second chorus, providing some friction). Just as with their Johnny Franz Sixties singles, the Walkers record, despite its pedigreed cast, had a feel of being scraped together at short notice, trying to approximate a sound they’d heard elsewhere. Bowie made “Nite Flights” a thick curtain of music, lessening the dramatics (Walker makes the out-of-key change to B-flat on “blood-lite” seem to portend something awful, while Bowie just breezes by it). Where Walker strains, gasps, acts as though he’s only got a few moments before something terrible happens (is he the air, about to crash? both he and Bowie shared a fear of flying), Bowie sings the bizarre, violent lyric (“the dark dug up by dogs!…the raw meat fist you choke!…broken necks!“) as if it was a love song, making it even more surreal, delivering each phrase with a poise that makes Walker seem like a madman. Bowie takes the first octave leap—“it’s so COLD!“—without blinking, where Walker seemed to bleed while doing it.

Covering Walker shook something loose in Bowie, reset his ambitions, made him commit to one last push into the avant-garde, to try to give audiences not what they wanted but what they didn’t know they needed. And in 1995, as Bowie was putting the final touches on Outside, a record that Reeves Gabrels has said was made under the influence of Walker, Walker popped out of the void with Tilt, a record so abrasive and baffling and ahead of its time, that it made Outside seem like a pop record. (Again, more later.)

VI. Walker and Bowie

I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.

Conrad.

Starting with Nite Flights and on through Tilt and The Drift (and, from what I’ve heard of it, Bish Bosch), Walker eradicated himself, exiled his past lives. There remains some continuity of sound (the dissonant/consonant strings, while a ghost of the flugelhorn in “Orpheus” appears in “Cue”, and a few basic lyric images: he’s still obsessed with the movies—“Clara” began with his memories of seeing Mussolini’s corpse on a newsreel as a child) but otherwise Walker has, more than anyone else of his generation, hived off his past, has made it of no relevance to him. He’ll never revisit his former work, nor flog it on stage nor give it deluxe CD/DVD reissue treatments (Walker has said he’s never listened to any of his records since he’s made them). The tremulous Anglophile of the Scott records, the jaundiced pop singer of Climate of Hunter, are well in the grave. The Walker of today keeps to the edges, looking for margins within margins. The Drift, in 2006, found him hiring top percussionists to punch slabs of beef and rub thimbles across wooden blocks. He sings his inscrutable lyrics, hinting at future fascisms, ethnic cleansings, plagues, in a voice that he seems to keep purging and bleeding; he’s become increasingly medieval.

Bowie, after his last trek into the attempted unknown in the mid-Nineties, fell back into his past. At the turn of the century, as we’ll see soon enough in this survey, he revived some of his oldest songs, remade them, like an older man reading aloud some faded letters; he drafted wills, put old debts to right, arranged his estates, then went out by playing his old music with fervor, as though he was a young man again. And he praised Walker effusively, again and again, his fandom ripening with age. Hearing Walker merely wish him a happy 50th birthday left Bowie close to tears. Whereas with Walker, whenever he mentioned Bowie (not often) there was simply gracious reserve, the quiet complimentary manner of an artist to his occasional patron.

So add up the sums. Walker, apart from a few Walker Brothers hits, has never produced work that a mass audience has loved, in the way that they have loved “Changes” or “Life on Mars?” or “Heroes,” or will still run to a dance floor whenever “Blue Jean” or “Let’s Dance” comes on. Bowie, despite his best intentions, was a populist at heart. As Lloyd Cole wrote about Low, there was always too much with Bowie, too much melody, too much love of pop, too much need to be heard, so that he never could cram himself down into being just an “artist” (it’s akin to how Bowie never could make a coherent “concept album,” as much as he hinted at it). Walker began standing in the center, a treasured photograph on a teenage girl’s bedroom wall, and wormed his way out, seeking nothing, throwing away everything that he once carried, occasionally sending some new transmission from somewhere far off the grid, seemingly not caring whether it even gets heard.

Consider two planets in the same system. One has been more favored by the sun, a rich world with a host of lesser satellites that wheel around it. The other is a smaller, less hospitable, furtive planet, which goes on long elliptical orbits, vanishing for years then appearing again in the sky without warning. Sometimes the two have been in sync, pulling on the other, eclipsing each other. But their dance is over. The larger world has stopped moving; it just hangs suspended now, having become a preservation of its better days. The lesser orb goes on its way.

In the next two months, Scott Walker will turn seventy and will release a new record, one which appears to be as weird and ominous as his other late works, while David Bowie is out of the game. His name only surfaces in quickly-disproven rumors of a return, to the stage or studio (a deluxe boxed set of Low is about all we can hope for). It’s a shame that their story, which had run for so long, through so many editions, is over, but all stories end: you know that. It was fine while it lasted. Secret partners, rivals, sounding, sounded, carriers, receivers, exiles, electricians. Engel and Jones, Bowie and Walker.

The Walkers recorded “Nite Flights” in February 1978 at Scorpio Sound, UK. Bowie’s version was cut ca. summer/autumn 1992 at the Power Station and/or Mountain Studios, Montreux. A remix was released as a UK promo 12″ single (Arista HOME 1) and later included on the reissued Black Tie White Noise.

Sources: The Wire‘s recently-issued essay compilation No Regrets: Writings on Scott Walker (edited by Rob Young) was essential. I’m particularly indebted to Derek Walmsley on Scott 3 and 4, Amanda Petrusich on Walker’s wilderness years, Ian Penman’s meander through Walker’s befuddled early Seventies and Damon Krukawski on Climate of Hunter. Anthony Reynolds’ The Impossible Dream is a first-rate bio: many quotes and facts are taken from it, as well as from the Bowie-produced 30 Century Man documentary (Kijak, 2006). Thanks to @Discographies (Andy Zax) for entertaining theories and offering insights and music.

Top to bottom: Scott Walker in 1966, 1969, 1972, 1984, 1995, 2006; Bowie in 1966, 1969, 1973, 1977, 1984, 1994, 2006.


Fashion

September 15, 2011

Fashion.
Fashion (single edit, video).
Fashion (live, 1983).
Fashion (live, 1987).
Fashion (live, 1990).
Fashion (live, VH1 Fashion Awards, 1996)
Fashion (live, with Frank Black, 1997).
Fashion (live, 1997).
Fashion (Jonathan Ross, 2002).
Fashion (live, 2002).
Fashion (live, with Damon Albarn, 2003).

“Fashion,” the last song completed for Scary Monsters, kicks off Bowie’s Eighties: a dance song with bad intentions. Though Bowie later took pains to say the song wasn’t about neo-fascism, lines like “we are the goon squad and we’re coming to town,” the double-meaning of “turn to the left, turn to the right” and even the way Bowie sings the song’s title as a near-homophone of “fascism,” suggest otherwise.

Bowie instead said he had intended “Fashion” as a sequel to Ray Davies’ “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” with the idea of being hip as a wearying, conformist full-time job (although Bowie was writing about that as early as 1966, see “Join the Gang” or “Maid of Bond Street“). “When I first started going to discos in New York in the early ’70s, there was a very high powered enthusiasm and [the scene] had a natural course about it,” Bowie said on a promo disc. “[It] seems now to be replaced by an insidious grim determination to be fashionable, as though it’s actually a vocation. There’s some kind of strange aura about it.

Using as a starting point another Astronettes song, “People From Bad Homes,” which turns up in the verse lyric, Bowie also nabbed the “beep-beep” hook from his lost goofball gem “Rupert the Riley.” Like “Ashes to Ashes,” “Fashion” began life as a reggae number (and the clicking sound of Andy Clark’s sequencer, the first sound you hear, works as the equivalent to a guitar upstroke throughout the track), with Bowie originally singing the title hook as “Jahhh-MAI-ca!” Bowie didn’t know what to do with the song at this point, and was about to scrap it until Visconti, correctly sensing that the track was a potential hit single, allegedly implored Bowie to write a lyric. The next morning, Bowie turned up with his complete lines, got them quickly on tape, and mixing on the record began the same evening.

A groove piece built around a handful of augmented chords (G7 and Fadd9 in the verse and a flatted B 7th in the chorus, with a swerve to D minor in the six-bar bridge), “Fashion” was Bowie’s most straight-on dance track since “Golden Years,” which it partially rewrites.* Unlike the vocal calisthenics of other Scary Monsters performances, Bowie here keeps to a narrow, comfortable three-note range for the verse, his vocal one long insinuation. His rhythms are sharp, too: Bowie opens the verse with three short descending notes (“brand-new-dance” or “brand-new-talk“), then offers a longer, equally drooping line to balance it out (“but I don’t know its name,” etc.). Then there’s the wonderful way that Bowie takes what seems like a lyrical misstep in the second verse, his words not really fitting the meter (“shout it while they’re dancing on the dance floor“), and makes it a miniature performance: he puts weight on “the,” drags it up an octave and extends it far beyond its means, suggesting the image of someone trying to foot their way onto a crowded dance floor.

Robert Fripp, seemingly channeling the Gang of Four’s Andy Gill in the intro, gets two vicious skronky eight-bar guitar solos, along with his various shrieking outbreaks throughout the song (the one erupting at 2:43 threatens to consume the track whole). While Fripp later called his performance “blues-rock played with a contemporary grammar,” it’s more like a run of dissonant tones that occasionally threaten melodies. Fripp seems to have been recorded by Visconti first across the studio room (the cavernous sound of the opening) and then closer-miked with a flanger applied, with Fripp also possibly using his favorite fuzzbox, the obscure WEM Project 5 that he’d had since Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire.” Fripp cut the solo at 10:30 AM in London after a long drive back from Leeds, where he had played the previous evening. “There’s nothing you feel less like in the world than turning out a burning solo—fiery rock and roll at 10:30 in the morning– just out of a truck. But it doesn’t matter much how you feel, you just get on with it,” Fripp later said. (Graham Coxon allegedly was so intent on trying to capture the sound of Fripp’s “Fashion” solo on Blur’s “London Loves” that the song’s working title was “Fripp.”)

“Fashion” marks the last stand of the great Bowie rhythm section. While Carlos Alomar will be a central character for a while longer, this is where we part company with George Murray and Dennis Davis. They go out blazing: take the way Murray’s bass plays the “fash-ion” two-note hook well before Bowie sings it, or the two chicken-scratch Alomar guitar tracks parked in the left and right channels, or Davis’ hissing disco hi-hat mixed left. Davis was playing to a drum machine pattern for the first time ever in his work with Bowie—Visconti had intended to keep the synth beat in the mix as well, but Davis was so tight that Visconti just used his drum track, only digitally treated and fattened with handclaps.

Dennis was so open. He was almost orgiastic in his approach to trying out new stuff. He’d say, ‘Yeah, let’s do that new shit, man.” I told him about a Charlie Mingus gig that I saw where the drummer had polythene tubes that would go into the drums, and he would suck and blow to change the pressure as he played. Dennis was out the next day buying that stuff. Dennis is crazy, an absolute loony man, but he had a lot of his own thoughts on things, and he would throw us all kinds of curve-balls.

David Bowie, Modern Drummer, 1997.

Davis, Bowie’s finest drummer, would keep working as a session and touring musician (he’s on some of Stevie Wonder’s early Eighties albums, and Davis would return to collaborating with Roy Ayers in the Nineties and Aughts), as well as a teacher: among his students was Sterling Campbell, who played on some of Bowie’s later records. He’s still playing today (here’s a drum solo from a performance with Yukari in 2007 and Old Soul in 2010), and he recorded an album called “The Groovemaster” at some point (as per his now-deleted website).

George Murray is a more mysterious case. As far as I can determine, Murray only cut one more album, Jerry Harrison’s The Red and the Black,** in 1981, and then apparently retired from session work and touring. He has, basically,vanished: I’ve found no reference to him in the past three decades. Often described as a reserved man, Murray likely was tired of the rock & roll life and just got out of it (a move that perhaps inspired Bowie around 2005). Still, the man who was the support beam of Station to Station and Low, of the ’78 tour and Scary Monsters, deserves far more recognition than he gets. Raise a glass to a master.

Recorded February 1980, Power Station, NYC; April 1980, Good Earth Studios, London. Released as a single in October 1980 (RCA BOW 7, #5 UK). A live favorite, especially in the later tours, where it often was a duet with Gail Ann Dorsey. Sung with Frank Black at Bowie’s 50th anniversary party and with Damon Albarn in 2003 (Albarn seems either hungover or flu-ridden: what a half-assed performance).

* Nicholas Pegg wondered if Bowie was possibly inspired by the Boomtown Rats’ “Rat Trap” for the “listen to me, don’t talk to me” lyric in the bridge (Bob Geldof singing “walk don’t walk/talk don’t talk” ) but I don’t really hear it. I also really hate “Rat Trap,” so there’s that too.

** This is a fine record, but Harrison had the misfortune to release a solo album in the same year when his Talking Heads colleagues put out “Genius of Love” and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. He wound up looking like the Ringo of the group.

Top: Eddie Woods, “Roberto Valenza, San Francisco, Summer 1980.”


Beauty and the Beast

April 29, 2011

Beauty and the Beast.
Beauty and the Beat (12″ edit, 1977).
Beauty and the Beast (live, 1978).
Beauty and the Beast (Musikladen, 1978).

I asked them what they thought of Bowie’s interpretation. They said it was not rock n roll. It was cabaret. Behind my shades I can imagine him. There in Berlin. In the abandoned section. I imagine him stumbling through old boxes and props in the street. I imagine him in love with the whole world or totally dead.

Patti Smith, “Heroes: A Communiqué,” Hit Parader, April 1978.

“This song is somewhat schizophrenic in nature,” Bowie quipped before going into “Beauty and the Beast” on a German TV show in May 1978, but a better diagnosis would have been bipolar: “Heroes,” side A at least, is the manic side to Low‘s depression, particularly with its crackpot opening track.

“Beast” opens in grandiosity, like a parody of Roxy Music’s “The Thrill of It All” or Bowie’s own “Station to Station.” There’s eight measures of Bowie playing a simple pattern on the bass end of a piano, just a dyad (mainly E-G) and a single note (usually A), a pattern that occurs throughout the song. There’s a nudge of Robert Fripp’s treated guitar in the third bar (very similar to his work on Eno’s “Sky Saw”). Then George Murray’s bass (and a repeating pattern of octaves on the piano) builds momentum until Bowie’s entrance, an “oooooh!” glissando spanning over five bars and neatly tumbling into the opening verse.

Which is cracked and jittery, sung by a man reduced to a series of broken movements. “Walking down a by-road, singing the song,” Bowie begins, his vocal, though kept to a two-note range, sounding strained. Later verses find Bowie moving to his lower register, running his lines together, building to hysteria (the brief chorus) or mockery, or both.

Patti Smith’s review of “Heroes” for Hit Parader quoted a group of German teenagers who kicked Bowie out of “rock n roll,” calling him cabaret. And sure, “Beast” makes their case: it is cabaret, a piece of avant-garde pop with backing vocals by the Berlin club singer Antonia Maass, who at one point swoons out “Liebling!” and other times sounds like a hawk shrieking. The counterweight is Carlos Alomar, who does what he can to keep “Beast” a dance song, almost against Bowie’s will: there’s a funk riff buried under one of Fripp’s groaning solos, while the sly line that crops up after “Liebling” could have been the central riff of the whole song.

“Beast” mainly keeps to one chord, an A seventh*, with a move to C and C7 only on the “I wanted to believe” eight-bar bridge. It sums up how Bowie, by his “Berlin” period, had rethought his writing methods, moving away from the harmonic adventurousness of his early work. Bowie was a musical autodidact, with many of his early songs coming out of experiments on the guitar or piano, Bowie pitting various chords against each other. Or, while listening to Ronson or Alomar play guitar, Bowie would fasten onto whatever random progression intrigued him, whether it made musical “sense” or no.

So Bowie’s songs from 1966 to 1975 are filled with intricate, at times bizarre structures: a trifle like “Join the Gang” has five key changes; the dippy blues “The Gospel According to Tony Day” has a thirteenth in it; “Changes” is a tumble of altering time signatures; the Space Oddity LP has so many augmented and inverted chords it seems to have been designed as a guitarist’s advanced training module.

By the time he wrote “Beast,” Bowie had discarded this type of songwriting (whether because he couldn’t do it anymore, or was just bored with it) to concentrate on establishing a groove and directing a series of actions to play out over it, whether an odd vocal or one of Fripp’s Eno-fied guitar solos. Bowie’s lyrics had changed as well: no more characters or fractured stories, just a series of non-sequiturs and cryptic jokes that sang well together (Tony Visconti’s regular curse of exasperation during the LP sessions—“someone fuck a priest!”—inspired one of the best lines).

Some, like Thomas Seabrook, argue that “Beast”‘s lyric is an exhumation of the Thin White Duke, Bowie reviving the days of black magic and finally burying his book. I think it’s a bit more random than that, but there’s certainly something cold and malevolent about the track in its final form. “Something in the air,” Bowie sings, calling back to Thunderclap Newman. “Slaughter in the air, protest on the wind.” Despite his dedication to the random, Bowie was still storytelling. Bowie issued “Beast” as the follow-up single to “Heroes” and it flopped: even in a year of portent and noise like 1977, “Beast” proved a bit too much to take.

Recorded July-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin. A 12″ single with a longer edit, c/w “Fame,” was released in the US in December 1977, while also released as a 7″ single c/w “Sense of Doubt” (RCA PB 1190) in January 1978. Performed throughout 1978, with a version from Philadelphia on Stage. The live versions are a credit to Adrian Belew, who had to play in one go the various guitar parts that Fripp had overdubbed and Eno and Bowie had pieced together.

*According to the sheet music. Some tabbers have it as a B-flat.

Top: William Newton, “Eeyore’s Birthday Party,” April 1978.


Dum Dum Boys

January 19, 2011

Dum Dum Boys.
Dum Dum Boys (Pop, live, 1981).

Iggy Pop was stuck at the piano during the early Idiot sessions at the Château d’Hérouville. He played the same set of notes over and over again, at a loss at where to go next. Bowie told him he should write a song about the Stooges, and offered a title: “Dum Dum Days.”

There’s a long tradition of self-mythologizing rock & roll songs, like the Barbarians’ “Moulty,” the Raiders “Legend of Paul Revere,”* or the Mammas & Pappas’ “Creeque Alley,” with variations like Creedence Clearwater’s “Lodi,” where John Fogerty offers an alternate life in which he never made it and was stuck playing one-night stands in bars. These songs usually end in the triumphant present, with the band on top, sometimes mocking their success, sometimes still tainted with dreams. “So I learned to play the drums, and got myself a band, and now we’re starting to make it,” sang Moulty, the Barbarians’ drummer.

But by the time of “Dum Dum Boys,” the Stooges’ story was long over; it had ended in recriminations, death, and wasted promise. Their records had never sold, many of the band had become junkies, and the Stooges hadn’t broken up as much as they had disintegrated. “Dum Dum Boys” opens with the tally: the dead, Zeke Zettner, who overdosed on heroin in 1973, and Dave Alexander, the Stooges’ original bassist, who died of pneumonia after being admitted to a hospital for alcohol-fueled pancreatitis in 1975; and the discarded, Ron Asheton, stuck at home in Ann Arbor, and his successor James Williamson, who Pop curtly notes has “gone straight.”

Pop offered legend based on fact: he did first see Ron and Scott Asheton standing on an Ann Arbor street (in front of Discount Records, where the then-James Osterberg worked), and they were a set of wild boys, described as Ann Arbor’s own set of droogs by those who knew them. Iggy gave them ambition, the Ashetons gave him ugly reality (Iggy “felt he was an outcast, but Ronnie, Scotty and I, we were outcasts,” Stooge Bill Cheatham told Pop’s biographer Paul Trynka.)

For Bowie, Pop offered in “Dum Dum Boys” a non-fictional rewrite of “Ziggy Stardust,” its lyric the perspective of a Ziggy who had somehow survived, digging up shards of the past, wondering whatever had become of the Spiders, who he had feasted on, then abandoned. Bowie was responsible for “that guitar arpeggio that metal groups love today,” as Iggy later said. Bowie had the guitarist Phil Palmer replay the arpeggio, mimicking his original performance note for note. (Bowie had Palmer recut the opening line for dozens upon dozens of takes, with exacting instructions, like “bend that note more,” Palmer recalled to Trynka.)

Palmer was Ray Davies’ nephew, and had been summoned by Bowie (via a 2 AM phone call) to Munich for overdub work. He recalled walking into a darkened room full of guitars and drum kits (the property of Thin Lizzy, who were recording during the day—Palmer would help himself to Thin Lizzy’s collection of pedals and other gear), while Bowie and Pop sat in the control room, giving cryptic instructions.

“Dum Dum Boys” was sequenced to lead off The Idiot‘s second side—it was the ruin of the past set against the airless future of the album’s closer “Mass Production.” A requiem and a feral boy’s tale, it’s the bruised heart of the record. Pop, like Keith Richards, would be fated to survive where so many of his friends fell, winding up a withered monument to excess. The song’s title was its greatest legacy, as it named a Norwegian band and, more recently (and gender-altered), a California one. It was also Stone Gossard’s suggested name for what would become Mother Love Bone, the ur-Pearl Jam.

Recorded July-August 1976, mainly at Musicland, Munich.

*The Raiders’ guitarist, Freddy Weller, cut his own “Legend of Paul Revere,” in 1979. The earlier “Legend of Paul Revere” was recorded when the group was at their peak and is slyly cynical, but Weller’s sequel is cold and lurid: the scorecard the band kept for groupies, the drugs, the eventual sell-outs (“Now Paul’s big in land deals and Mark is a company exec.”)

Top: Anthony Catalano, “Boro Park—Skateboards Old School Boys, 1976.”


Did You Ever Have a Dream

September 8, 2009

dream

Did You Ever Have a Dream.

Recorded in the second session for Bowie’s debut LP, “Did You Ever Have a Dream” only slipped out as a B-side almost a year later. It’s a bit odd that the track was so neglected as it’s one of the more straightforward pop songs Bowie recorded in the period, although its lyric is about the joys of astral projection.

Bowie could play both sides of the net at once: in the same session he lampooned ’60s hipsters with “Join the Gang,” he also dashed out a dippy song that seems desperately wedded to its period; it’s the sort of record that caters to the worst affectations of its audience.

Still, it’s fun enough in sparing doses. Inspirational verse: “You can walk around in New York while you sleep in Penge.

Recorded 24 November 1966 and released in July 1967 as the b-side to “Love You Till Tuesday”; on the Deram Anthology.