Diamond Dogs at 33 1/3rd

April 16, 2020

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Glenn Hendler is a professor of English and American studies at Fordham University and author of the just-published 33 1/3rd book on Bowie’s Diamond Dogs. This is the second book in the 33 1/3rd series on Bowie’s albums—the previous one is Hugo Wilcken’s Low, now nearly 15 years old (!).

Given that Glenn’s book promotion was hit by the ongoing pandemic nightmare, I wanted to interview him in depth to give you a sense of what his study of Diamond Dogs is about. You can buy the book directly from his publisher here. He and I exchanged a series of emails in early April, which I’ve edited into the following conversation. Hope you enjoy.

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CO: Let’s start with the writing of the book. When did you pitch the idea to 33 1/3rd, and was Diamond Dogs always the LP you wanted to do? It’s the first in the series since Wilcken’s Low. One might have thought that 33 1/3rd would have gone with a warhorse like Ziggy or Scary Monsters as the next Bowie volume, so I was delighted when I saw they’d picked you.

Glenn Hendler: At least since I became someone who writes about culture—studying film history and theory as an undergrad, going to grad school and becoming an English professor—I’ve long fantasized about writing about David Bowie. Decades ago, I even sketched out an article about Lou Reed and Bowie, and their related but different ways of addressing their listeners (probably the only thing it would have had in common with the DD book is that it would have included the word “interpellation”). Somewhat more recently, I jotted down some notes about an article I wanted to write about singing “Kooks” to my kid from the time he was a few days old (I still do, most nights). But I kept writing about the 19th Century, which wasn’t going to lead me back to David Bowie.

Then two things happened. By sheer coincidence, I ended up sitting next to then-33 1/3 editor Ally-Jane Grossan on a plane, noticed that she was reading interesting-looking things about music, and engaged her in conversation. She asked—as I’m sure 33 1/3 editors always do when they encounter a chatty fan of the series!—what album I’d want to write about. I said that while the most obvious album would be Ziggy Stardust, I might have more to say about Diamond Dogs…and that there were lots of other options, too! She was politely encouraging, said there was only the one Bowie book in the series and they’d be open to doing another if the proposal grabbed their interest.

I kept that idea percolating for a long time. Then Bowie died, I took those notes about “Kooks,” and—very quickly, especially for an academic—pulled together an article that was published on the Avidly blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books. That got some positive responses…including from one of the then-new four-member editorial team at 33 1/3, Kevin Dettmar (who also wrote the volume on Gang of Four’s Entertainment). I just submitted a proposal in response to an open call, and was thrilled that it was accepted.

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CO: So, our first hearings of Diamond Dogs are rather different. You first hear it in 1974, at age 12, which seems like the perfect age! I was 18, in late 1990, buying the Ryko CD reissues in rough release order.

And I didn’t really like Diamond Dogs. I listened to it the least of the batch between Man Who Sold and Station. I’m trying to recall why. Something about it bugged me then—the “cabaret” songs like “Sweet Thing” and “We Are the Dead” didn’t connect at all and I even found them grating. I was into “Big Brother” and “1984” (in part because I already knew them from the Sound + Vision comp) and “Rebel Rebel” was, of course, the hit—the only song you’d hear on Connecticut classic rock radio then. Whereas you describe DD as “the first album that challenged me to study it.” Did it hook you immediately, or was there a period similar to mine where you had to really work to get into it? I feel like I failed the test, back then.

GH: So you grew up in Connecticut, too? When you say, “Connecticut classic rock radio,” I think WPLR—is that right? That’s what I grew up listening to…though my first radio listening came before FM had really caught on, and everyone listened to Top 40 AM radio because you didn’t have a choice.

CO: WPLR, yes, but more WCCC and WHCN, which were the two classic rock monoliths of the late 1980s in Connecticut. These were very canonical-minded—would often do Top 250 Best Rock Songs Ever Blah Blah weekends, etc. (“Stairway to Heaven” always #1). My best friend and I would call them up and ask them to play Husker Du or Fishbone & the DJs would get mad (“that’s not a real group, stop messing around” one said).

GH: I remember WHCN, vaguely. My Bowie listening started when he was mostly just not on the radio at all, at least not the radio I heard. It was totally word of mouth and all about who bought vinyl albums. I remember playing not Diamond Dogs but David Live; that was my real first exposure. It was the guitar on David Live that hooked me first (at the same time, I got into Lou Reed because of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal; I can still reproduce in my head every note of the long guitar duet at the beginning of “Sweet Jane” on that album).

It was right about then that I got my first stereo and record player, and gave my parents a list of records to get me for my birthday. From that list I got most of the early Bowie albums. I think I liked Man Who Sold the World first—more macho guitars—and a lot of Aladdin Sane. For the same reasons I liked the guitar-heavy songs on the other albums, such as “Suffragette City” and “Ziggy Stardust.” As an indication, the other albums on that initial list included the first two by Bachman-Turner Overdrive (lots of crunching guitar chords; I heard them as similar to “Ziggy Stardust”). Plus: Elton John, who at first vied with Bowie for my affections. I got Caribou and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. There was some hard guitar there (“Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting”), but Bowie and Elton John both mixed the guitar rock with more piano-based, cabaret-like songs, and I guess that combination stuck with me.

While Diamond Dogs wasn’t the one that hooked me first, at the same time—for those last reasons—I didn’t find the non-rock stuff grating. In fact, because my first exposure was to David Live, and that documented the Diamond Dogs tour, there were more familiar songs on DD than on any other album. I suspect, in retrospect, that it mattered that the David Live version of “Sweet Thing” was more guitar-centric than the original on the album. But—as the book explains—I was really into the lyrics, and that’s what at first challenged me. It just annoyed me that there was no lyric sheet, and so I wanted to figure them out. That led to me listening to the songs with headphones on, over and over, putting the needle back over and over again till I got what I thought were the right lyrics. Since I found myself doing the same thing with headphones on decades later when I was writing the book, it really brought that time back.

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CO: The book opens with the 1980 Floor Show, which remains among the more bizarre things Bowie ever did. You describe Diamond Dogs as an album of transition: would you agree that the Floor Show is the true prelude to it?

Because the Floor Show jumbles everything: the Marquee Club (where DB had a “residency” as a Mod in the ‘60s), Mick Ronson, Marianne Faithfull, the Astronettes, Ziggy, with “1984/Dodo” as a warning sign to fans of what was coming next. Is there a premonition in how Bowie’s tearing down and churning up the past here? And it’s so wonderfully garish and ugly—the lighting is school-theatre quality at times. Did you have the Floor Show as the opening from early on, in the writing of the book?

GH: Yes, from early on. It was such a formative moment for me as a kid, seeing it on TV [it first aired in the US in November 1973 on The Midnight Special]. If anything in the book I understate how much that blew me away, and how much it stuck in my mind for all the decades between the one time I saw it and when finally YouTube came along and I could see bits of it again. I had trouble figuring out how to frame the book with it (especially when I realized I’d seen it in 1974, on its rebroadcast, which kind of ruined the idea that I was among the first to see Bowie on TV in the US).

It was also pretty clear to me that I could use The 1980 Floor Show as a way of concisely getting Bowie’s history before Diamond Dogs into the book. I couldn’t assume that readers knew all that, after all. I think you’re exactly right when you say Bowie was “tearing down and churning up the past” in that show: his own past, the history of rock and pop music, everything. The Troggs represented one weird version of the past (and also stood in a way for Iggy Pop and Bowie’s own (re)discovery of the primitivism of rock music); the songs from Pin Ups on the show represented another. Carmen—I want to research and write more about Carmen! I consulted with some of the major experts on rock and Spanish-language music in Los Angeles, and none of them knew anything about Carmen!—seemed to point toward a future. There’s so much more to be written about that show, and Amanda Lear, and Bowie’s recurring interest in Octobriana, and all the things converging at that moment. The photo book about that show came out as I was writing, and I came across Madeline Bocaro’s really useful blog…but there’s still more to be said.

CO: I forgot about Carmen! And yes, Lear and Octobriana. What could’ve been. Bowie is churning up so much stuff in those months after the last Ziggy show. He’s both liberated and I think rather terrified—he’s ended the thing that’s finally gotten him famous, and only after a year or so. So ‘where to go next?’ consumes him in late 1973. Managing the Astronettes and working with Lulu (at the exact same time he’s making Diamond Dogs!—it’s understandable his coke period reportedly starts around now) suggests he still thought he’d be a songwriter/producer for other acts, too, as a sideline to occupy him if his other projects bombed out.

GH: Yet another never-written chapter would have been about The Astronettes, and had a lot about Ava Cherry as his connection to black music. If my book release party had actually happened—just one week earlier and we wouldn’t have been under quarantine (though I fear we instead would have been unknowingly spreading the virus!), one of the singers was going to be Raquel Cion, who does a Bowie Tribute show called Me and Mr. Jones. Raquel actually knows Ava Cherry—I’d like to have developed that connection and found out some stuff from her! Anyway, I think that’s a good reading of Bowie’s state at this point; liberated but directionless and a little panicked.

Oh, and one other thing: The 1980 Floor Show was a useful way for me to foreground my status as an American writer writing about an artist who was still very British. And to do so unapologetically. It allowed me, essentially, to argue that while the earlier albums had been for a UK audience, at the time of Diamond Dogs Bowie was now playing for me.

CO: I find Diamond Dogs being a UK #1 album fascinating, because it shows how Ziggymania was still red-hot there and how different the cross-Atlantic markets were for Bowie in the 70s. Bowie doesn’t really start moving LPs in the US in substantial numbers until Young Americans.

GH: Yes—another thing cut from the book was a lengthy piece on the difference between the UK and US audiences, including the way radio worked. All that remained was the thread that was about him trying to make it in America in different ways, and that’s pretty undeniable. I am guessing that my rather jaundiced view of the song “Diamond Dogs”—even though it matches Charles Shaar Murray’s—is the thing in my book that would most distress many UK readers, since that song was a pretty big hit there. I’ve always wondered how the world would be different if Bowie had released either “1984” or even “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me” as the follow-up single to “Rebel Rebel.” Would he have moved from the AOR niche he carved out with “Rebel Rebel” onto black (or rather interracial) radio earlier, before “Fame”? Would “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me” have put him in competition with Elton John for the piano ballad mainstream? It really is an Elton John song in some ways. “Diamond Dogs” was just a terrible choice for a second single.

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CO: I liked your argument that while Diamond Dogs has three main tributaries—-the stillborn George Orwell adaptation, a Ziggy Stardust cut-up musical, and the William BurroughsWild Boys-inspired Hunger City/Halloween Jack stuff—there’s so much more blurring and interweaving between the concepts within the individual songs. Looking back, I think I pushed the “three albums” idea too hard—I now see DD’s far more of a conceptually murky album than I first considered. Is the power of DD in part because it’s so difficult to get a sense of where Bowie’s coming from?

GH: All I can say to this is “yes.” I think this was the aspect of my book that could have most easily been framed as building on you but also arguing with you—but also with so much other writing about Diamond Dogs that splits it up into parts. And yes, that’s the challenge of the album. I think it’s both more “murky” and more cohesive than it’s been made out to be. I know there’s always a risk of a critic imagining more cohesiveness in the object of analysis than the artist ever imagined, and so I’m sure that some of what I’m doing in the book is making it more cohesive. But even if that’s so, I think that in a way hearing it as more cohesive makes it more interesting to listen to.

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CO: You note how the Diamond Dogs lyrics are often an “I” character that’s addressing a “you,” and that this sort of design isn’t in the service of love songs but more, as you say, along the lines of a policeman yelling “hey, you!” to someone on the street. Was this something you noticed while writing, or had this been something you’d been aware of as a listener, years before? I thought it was an insightful observation. Is there a sense that the whole album is a dialogue between DB and his fans, in this cracked way?

GH: Definitely. If you’ve gotten to what I say about “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” (a song that I always found kind of dull, but came to see as a major part of the record), I think Bowie is kind of explicit about that. I don’t actually think the I/you structure is that unusual for Bowie; I think that’s something he used—selectively but importantly—throughout his career. (That’s what my “Kooks” piece is about, too.) And I think he often thinks about his relationship with his fans. I mean, the whole plot (such as it is) of Ziggy is imagining himself into a character who’s literally torn apart by his fans’ fanaticism. That he wrote and performed this before he really had many fans—that he made it come true through his own performance of it—is part of his brilliance. And that he could make fans (including me) feel that Blackstar was a parting gift to his fans (aren’t those Tony Visconti’s words?) without, this time, actually thematizing his fans (except, a little, in “I Can’t Give Everything Away”) is a sign, to me, that thinking about the performer/fan relation was one of the projects of his career.

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From the Terry O’Neill photo session, 30 January 1974

CO: I’ve called this record “diseased” and “rotten”-sounding before, which you seem to agree with. What do you suppose creates this kind of aural sensation? The distorted instruments? The use of doubling (the bass/harpsichord figures that you mention in “1984”)? Bowie’s scrungy lead guitar lines? The sort of seemingly rough edits in “Big Brother,” as you note? In line with how Bowie was ripping off the Stones openly on the title track and “Rebel Rebel,” I now wonder if it was his take on the sound of Exile on Main St.

GH: I do agree, so long as you meant “diseased” and “rotten” in a good way! And yes, all those factors play into the rottenness it conveys. I’d love to have a conversation with Tony Visconti sometime about what it was like to mix that album. He talks in his book about the brilliant work Bowie had already done in the studio, but it’s also clear that the tapes Bowie brought him were kind of a mess, and I suspect that some of the decisions he made (to accentuate the distortion) probably cover over some badly recorded or deteriorated tracks. And yes, I think the doubling of sounds, and of vocals, is crucial, not just for the general creepiness it produces, but that it also fits the paranoid themes of 1984. I think I say at one point that the second vocal track in “We Are the Dead” is like the state or the Party always watching, always knowing what was happening. [And on ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me’: “You (the Party) always were the one that knew.”] I’m not even sure I quite believe, myself, the claim that the pre-echo of the piano line in that song deliberately refers to that aspect of 1984, but I think it works that way, that it has that effect.

CO: While I haven’t been much of a fan of the new mixes of DB’s old albums, I wouldn’t mind hearing substantially different versions of Diamond Dogs tracks. Feels like there’s so much buried—I wouldn’t be surprised if there were all sorts of backing vocals, saxophone, Mellotron lines that were turfed in the final mix.

GH: Even the minor remixing that’s reproduced in the Who Can I Be Now? collection that I now listen to the most—because I like The Gouster better than Young Americans—clarifies some instruments. The acoustic guitar strumming under “Rebel Rebel,” for instance. My sense is that Mike Garson is the player who lost the most due to the muddy mix on Diamond Dogs. When his piano emerges from the muck for a few moments, it’s either a gorgeous set of chords, as in “Sweet Thing,” or furiously wild playing that does not deserve to be way in the background, as in “Candidate.” I wonder, though, if a better mix might oddly decouple some of the instruments that are so closely mixed that you can’t hear them separately, like the two instruments locked together in “1984,” or whatever interlocked combination of Mellotron and guitar that is playing in “Chant” (I have little idea what the main instruments are there!).

And yes, there’s more to say about the Stones and the “anxiety of influence,” as (if I recall correctly) you call it. I can’t recall if it got into the book or was cut, but I read “Diamond Dogs” itself (the one song on the album I’ve never liked) as Bowie’s effort to create the kind of loose rock band sound that is epitomized on Exile on Main Street, but to do so by splicing a lot of tapes together rather than by gathering a band together in a big old house and recording the jamming together. That’s part of what’s so interesting about the album, is how Bowie hit a set of paradoxes here. Rather than trying to solve the tension between the ideology of authenticity that Simon Reynolds talks about in the 1960s, and the obsessive constructedness that was his method, he just stages that as a contradiction on the album, in song after song.

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CO: That’s a great point. Using a clip of a live Faces recording to kick off the album is part of that, too. “Sampling” rock ‘n’ roll in a way, making his own weird model kit version of it—akin to all the scale models and video clips he was making of Hunger City at the time.

GH: Looking at it that way, it makes perfect sense that he’d go from this to an immersion in the Gamble and Huff Philly sound, and soul music in general, because in that context, there just is no contradiction between authenticity and expressiveness, on the one hand, and a well-constructed and crafted studio album, on the other. I feel like those videos of him orchestrating the intricate call-and-response of “Right,” and then leaning back with a smile as Luther Vandross et al just do it, with feeling, show an artist who has come to a completely different resolution to the conflicts staged in the making of Diamond Dogs. Does that make sense?

CO: Yeah, the usual 180 degree move for Bowie? Young Americans is meant to be communal, live, made “on location” with American Latino and black musicians, with his fans camped right outside the studio while he works (though of course he tinkers with the tapes as much as he did on Diamond Dogs). Tin Machine, 15 years later, is another variation on this.

GH: It is a 180 degree turn in a way, but I think I read it more as a resolution to the problems he staged (fascinatingly) but couldn’t solve on Diamond Dogs. To get a bunch of musicians to work intimately together, but then to work with the tapes and do complex things in the production and mixing process, was not to do two antithetical things in the Gamble & Huff world; that’s just how the music industry worked. It’s only in the rockist (to use a word that wouldn’t have been used at the time) world shaped by people like the Rolling Stones that this would seem like a real problem. I think it’s all tied to Bowie’s shifting understanding of black American culture. The rock version of the ideology of authenticity—which (pace Simon Reynolds) he was still tied to even after the glam years, had to do with the white British vision of a cultural authenticity grounded in the blues. When Bowie started listening to soul and early disco, and the sound of Philadelphia, that kind of gritty authenticity started to seem irrelevant, and studio manipulation wasn’t in tension with spontaneity any more.

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CO: The use of stasis and repetition often gets overlooked on DD: I liked how you showed what “Rebel Rebel” owes to this, how “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” becomes a loop of refrains halfway through. But I’m intrigued by how you came to decide Steve Reich was an influence on “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”—I’d thought that was probably too early, but you make a very good case for it (also congrats on nailing the time signatures of that track better than anyone I’ve read—it’s a nightmare!) [I’m not going to spoil it—buy the book.]

GH: That part of the book was me just asking lots of smart people what they thought, and pulling together what they said until I had a synthesis that I thought was right. I put out a general call on Facebook to listen to “Chant” and help figure out the time signature; I asked colleagues in the music department here. And I got lots of technical and other advice that I incorporated.

I started trying to figure out the time signature of “Chant” when I was about 16 or 17. I was at a boarding school in Connecticut, and generally very unhappy there as a semi-local surrounded by rich kids. But my senior year there I got as a roommate a guy named Matt Brubeck, son of Dave Brubeck. He taught me to appreciate a much wider range of music (including jazz, which up to that point I hadn’t listened to, but when you’re spending weekends at the Brubeck home and going to his concerts, you learn to appreciate it). I also tried to convince Dave to appreciate Bowie, without a lot of success. He was an avid listener to all music, so he was patient. The one song he was fascinated by, as I recall, was “Sons of the Silent Age.” Make of that what you will.

At any rate, Matt and I would sit and figure out time signatures of rock and jazz tunes, and specialized in identifying rock songs that were other than 4/4. It’s the only musical concept that I’ve ever really internalized. And I remember sitting with Matt and trying to figure out “Chant,” to no avail. It stumped even him at the time. (I don’t think we ever played that for Dave; I wish we had).

CO: Oh, the idea of Brubeck covering “Chant.”

GH: Anyway, almost 40 years later, when writing the book, I got in touch with Matt and asked him to listen to it again. In the meantime, he’s gotten a Ph.D. in musicology; he is on the faculty at York University in Canada. He’s the one who first suggested Steve Reich-influenced phasing on the song, explained to me how it might work, and pointed me to some basic readings that would help me understand it. (Coincidentally, I also went to hear some Reich performed live at about this time). I took what he told me, wrote it out in a way I could understand it, and sent it back to him; he made a couple of suggestions and corrections, and said he thought I’d got it right. A few of the other people who’d commented on Facebook also agreed. So that’s how I got there—using other people’s brains and knowledge! What I don’t have is a smoking gun, something showing that Bowie was aware of the phasing technique. But there’s Reich music using that technique that Bowie could easily have heard. Here’s another place where I think talking with Tony Visconti could be useful; I bet he’d know more about how that song was put together.

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Bowie and Garson at Olympic Studios, 14 January 1974 (Kate Simon)

CO: When you were revisiting DD for the book, did you revise any opinions you’d long had about it? Did you listen to it in a different way? One trick I used when I was doing my thing was to completely rearrange LP sequences to try to hear them fresh—I often listened to The Next Day in its recording order; same with Blackstar. Curious if you did something similar.

GH: I’ve already mentioned that I never thought much of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me.” In writing the book, I came to appreciate what he’s doing there (and to like some live versions of it much better than the original; the backing vocalists produce much more dynamism in relation to the song’s repetition). I didn’t so much listen to the songs in a different order, as you did. Mostly I listened to them in isolation from one another, and wrote about them separately. I also initially wrote about them in order, which resulted in a manuscript about twice as long as what Bloomsbury wanted. They assigned me a content editor, who bluntly, though politely, told me what I should have already known: that 33 1/3 books that go in order, track-by-track, rarely work. So she helped me reorder the chapters, which made it much easier to pare down the length. Sometimes when I reread it I think the order works really well; sometimes it seems a little random to me. But I am reasonably confident that it’s much better now that there aren’t 100 continuous pages about “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)” (OK, slight exaggeration), and that I deal with different aspects of that—my favorite Bowie piece ever—in different places in the book.

I had thoughts of using Raymond Williams’s keywords idea to organize my Bowie book, since I’ve spent the past decade-plus coediting Keywords books. But then Kevin Dettmar did that for his Gang of Four book. I do think a Keywords for David Bowie would be pretty fun to put together.

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CO: There wasn’t much in the book on DB’s sketches/video ideas for the album (like the Diamond Dogs living on “mealcaine” and the other bizarro stuff from sketches in the museum exhibit). At some point in the writing were you devoting more space to that angle (“the mutant crap” as John Lennon once called it)? Or were you always focusing more strictly on the music/lyrical interpretations, and found such material to be superfluous? 

GH: I’d intended to write more about that stuff when I planned the book, but then (as mentioned) wrote twice as much as 33 1/3 needed, just writing about the music and lyrics. Part of the reason is that I never got into the Bowie archive (despite corresponding with the two curators of David Bowie Is, who were supportive and helpful), and in any event I realized early on that my contribution here was going to be primarily interpretive, not archival. So no, I didn’t think it would be superfluous; I just didn’t take the time and didn’t have the space. I think a whole book could be written on the Diamond Dogs tour, including Bowie’s imagination of the film, how that translated into sets, etc. And that book should probably get going before more of the people involved pass away. There’s so much interesting stuff to be said, and in the course of my initial research I came across some stuff that’s never been in any of the biographies….but I decided that this book had to be just about the album. Even the 1980 Floor Show opening almost had to be cut for space…but I still thought the reader needed a way in, that reading a claustrophobic book about a claustrophobic album wouldn’t be a pleasant experience!

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CO: Did you hear the studio tape that just leaked of Bowie going through five or so takes of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me”? I found it charming and it made me like the song a bit more.  

[Glenn had not, and listened to the tape.] It is charming, indeed. That’s got to be Garson on piano, right? “Keep it clean, Mike”—trying to get him not to do his trills and frills that he loves so much. It’s so interesting, if this song was early (from the supposed Ziggy musical) that it was still not fully formed at this late date. But “I would take invaders into hand/while tens of millions failed to understand”—those lyrics make more sense in a Ziggy context, not so much in DD. And the shift from “tens of millions” to “tens of thousands” takes it from a global scale to the audience that might be present at a concert. I wonder when he changed the first word from “I” to “you.” That shift almost doesn’t matter: the “I” and the “you” are crucial, by my argument, but also often interchangeable. “Rental heats are counted down?” Yikes.

I guess what’s most striking is the lack of guitar. I wonder if he always intended to add it, or if he meant Garson’s piano to be the lead instrument. I’ve always wondered if Bowie played it himself (as the album credits would indicate) or if it’s another uncredited Alan Parker performance (as in “Rebel Rebel”). From just a few bars in, when the guitar should come in, to the final chords—which were clearly always part of the song but sound so weird just on piano, especially with a Garson trill at the end, as he keeps insisting on doing. Fascinating. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

CO: You didn’t go much into “Alternative Candidate,” the joker in a rigged pack of cards. When I wrote about it for the book, I found it exhausting to interpret—how does it fit in? Was it supposed to, ever? It’s the mystery at the heart of the album sessions for me. Curious if your thoughts on it wound up getting cut for space, since it’s not part of the proper album, or if you hit a similar wall.

GH: Everyone always asks me about “Alternative Candidate.” Someday I’ll have to figure out something to say about it. I never came up with any insights. I am fascinated by its existence, and its small lyrical links to “Candidate,” but I find the teenage boy/mountain-teenage girl/fountain opening just embarrassing, and think that while there are some cool lines (I like the three “I make it a thing” lines, for instance) and as you say in the blog, there are little fragments that either indicate Bowie’s obsessions of the time (the Fuhrerling is a fascinating word. So is the mention of Brylcreem) or would turn up later in other songs. Did you ever hear the unreleased Elvis Costello song “Seconds of Pleasure?” It’s this kind of storehouse of lyrics that later appear in other songs. Seems similar to me. The piano line is interesting—kind of boppy, but a bit ominous at the same time; I can see how he’d want to do something with it.

Ultimately, then, after that free associating, the answer is that I wrote more about the album as I heard it in 1974-5, so no “bonus tracks” come up, as far as I can recall. This is another difference I made consciously from what you did in your book (not to try to be better, but to be different). Yours is structured by Bowie’s creating the music: thus it had to be thorough, and it make perfect sense to write, song-by-song, in the order he produced them. Mine is structured by my listening to the album. No, it’s not in track-by-track order, but it is structured by what I heard then (and how those things seem now, looking back), not by what Bowie did when. I think that’s part of what occasionally makes us hear different things? But I’m not sure about that.

Thanks again to Glenn Hendler. A somewhat lengthier version of this conversation is on the Patreon, for those interested, along with other stuff.


Diamond Dogs

September 15, 2010

Diamond Dogs.
Diamond Dogs (live, 1974).
Diamond Dogs (live, 1976).
Diamond Dogs (live, 1996).
Diamond Dogs (live, 2004).

They’d taken over this barren city, this city that was falling apart. They’d been able to break into windows of jewelers and things, so they’d dressed themselves up in furs and diamonds. But they had snaggle-teeth, really filthy, kind of like vicious Oliver Twists. It was a take on, what if those guys had gone malicious, if Fagin’s gang had gone absolutely ape-shit? They were living on the tops of buildings…they were all little Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses, really.

David Bowie, on “Diamond Dogs,” 1993.

Where I lived was with my dadda and mum in the flats of municipal flatblock 18A, between Kingsley Avenue and Wilsonway. I got to the big main door with no trouble, though I did pass one malchick sprawling and creeching and moaning in the gutter, all cut about lovely, and saw in the lamplight also streaks of blood here and there like signatures, my brothers, of the night’s fillying.

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange.

“Diamond Dogs” has never sounded quite right: a sordid, overlong Rolling Stones imitation, someone else’s nightmare inflicted with malice upon you. As darkly comical as it is menacing, it’s a “classic rock” song overrun by grotesques (amputees in priest’s robes, Tod Browning rejects, various ultraviolences).

Audiences didn’t know what to make of it. “Diamond Dogs” was Bowie’s least-successful single since the Hunky Dory days, reaching only #21 in the UK, and going nowhere in the States. On the radio, it never seems to segue well: it burlesques whatever song it follows or precedes. Leading off the second side of Bowie’s hits compilation, ChangesOneBowie, it was a wide moat of a groove, taking up the space of two less disturbing songs (I often skipped it, dropping the needle on “Rebel Rebel” instead). The track sounds used, repurposed, as though Bowie found an old master tape and overdubbed slurs and noises onto it.

The germ of “Diamond Dogs” came from Bowie’s father, Haywood Jones, who had worked at Dr. Barnardo’s Homes, a British children’s charity. Jones had recounted to his son stories of the Homes’ founder, Dr. Barnardo, and his patron, Lord Shaftesbury, who had gone around Victorian London finding bands of homeless children living on the roofs of buildings. Bowie transposed that image into his now-standard future dystopia, turning the Victorian “ragged boys” into”diamond dogs”: a pack of feral kids living on high-rise roofs, going around on roller skates, robbing and mugging, terrorizing the corpse-strewn streets they live above.

A Clockwork Orange was again central (see “Suffragette City”), not only in Bowie’s droogs-like “Dogs” and their Alex-like leader, Halloween Jack, but in the song’s setting—a ruined, post-apocalyptic modernist building. It could be set in a more decayed Thamesmead South estate where Stanley Kubrick shot Clockwork Orange (or Alton West, which Truffaut used for Fahrenheit 451, or La Défense, playing a future city in Godard’s Alphaville, etc.).

Each day the towers of central London seemed slightly more distant, the landscape of an abandoned planet receding slowly from his mind.

JG Ballard, High-Rise.

Watching films from the early ’70s, you can’t avoid the general sense of shabbiness, regardless of where the films were shot. Take one contemporary example, Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, which is a guided tour of blighted Atlantic Coast America, from Philadelphia slums to New York whorehouses to empty Boston parks. It’s decay worsened by the knowledge that the run-down train stations, corner stores and row houses were once clean, stylish, even modern places. Enduring the Seventies meant living in the ruins of the postwar dream of general prosperity, particularly in the cities, which were more and more depicted in films and in the press as asylums, graveyards and prisons.

But “Diamond Dogs,” set in appalling urban ruins, isn’t a despairing song in the slightest. It’s full of vitality, cheap loud tricks, carnival horns, vulgarities, hammering beats (take the way someone keeps thwacking on a cowbell for the nearly the entire track). It makes do with style, it makes playtime out of collapse. The elevator’s shot, so Halloween Jack swings by a rope, Tarzan-style, to reach the street.

The song seems to predict JG Ballard’s High Rise, published the following year, in which residents of a high-rise apartment complex fall into tribalism and warfare. But the high-rise dwellers come to love their new condition: they stop going to work, devoting all their energies to feral pleasures, devolving into hunter-gatherers. It ends with one survivor watching the lights go out in a neighboring high-rise, which makes him happy. He’s “ready to welcome them to their new world.” Bowie was already there.

In the year of the scavenger: “Diamond Dogs” is made partly out of stolen goods. It opens with applause lifted from the Faces’ live album Coast to Coast (you can hear Rod Stewart yell “hey” just as the guitar riffs kick in), and towards the end there’s a blatant rip of Bobby Keyes’ saxophone line on the Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” Bowie’s main guitar line might well be a rewrite of the Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It),” which was born out of a jam session that Bowie took part in. The track ends with Bowie furiously chording on a Bo Diddley riff.

Like “Rebel Rebel” it’s structurally simple, a standard I-IV-V rock song (it’s in A major, and the verses mainly go from the tonic, A, to the dominant, E, while the choruses are basically repetitions of D-A-B, ending back in A) with, as in “Rebel,” two verses, a bridge (6 bars here, starting with “I’ll keep a friend serene”) and ending with an extended chorus.

Bowie sings with exuberance, sometimes ranging widely (“Tod Browning’s freak you was” falls an octave in a single bar), sometimes digging in place (“crawling down the alley on your/hands and knee” is all one note). His guitar work is primitive and brutal, and mixed to be inescapable—as ace commenter Snoball wrote in the “Rebel Rebel” entry, Diamond Dogs tracks like “Rebel” (and “Dogs”) are filled with Bowie’s sledgehammer riffing, lacking the tension-and-release precision of Mick Ronson’s work.

“Diamond Dogs” swims in ugliness (it’s grotesquely funny, too: take how Bowie, having introduced his first character, a genderless amputee dressed in a priest’s costume, has her/him “crawling down the alley on your hands and knee) and it makes no concessions. If there was ever an irony in dancing to a Stones song like “Brown Sugar,”  a party song celebrating slavery,”Diamond Dogs” raises the ante—on its face, it’s completely unredeemable, a honky-tonk celebration of death, decay and violence. Over the years, it’s become one of Bowie’s beloved standards.

Recorded (initially as “Diamond Dawgs”) from 15 January to mid-February 1974. Released as a single (RCA APBO 0293, c/w “Holy Holy”) in June. Performed, no surprise, throughout the “Diamond Dogs” and “Philly Dogs” tours of 1974, and also in 1976. Retired for two decades, then played in some of Bowie’s recent tours.

For SEP, as this is her favorite Bowie song.

Recommended reading: Ballard’s High-Rise, 1975; Thomas M. Disch’s 334, 1972; Owen Hatherley’s excellent Militant Modernism.


Scary Monsters at 40

October 8, 2020

Scary Monsters was released on Friday, 12 September 1980 in the UK, where it was a smash: hitting #1 and having four Top 40 singles, Bowie’s best chart showing there since Diamond Dogs. Released sometime in the following week in the US, sales there were more in line with Bowie’s withered chart performances of the late Seventies. In the US, it peaked at #12 on Billboard and didn’t produce a single chart pop hit, though it got decent album rock airplay.

Reviewers (mostly) praised it at the time and would keep doing so; the cliché “best since Scary Monsters” would appear in assessments of Tin Machine, or Black Tie White Noise, or Outside, or Heathen. Scary Monsters became an end-stop. The Last Great Bowie Album, Until Maybe This One (Well, No).

Scary Monsters is dressed as a finale, one of several in Bowie’s life. The last album that Bowie made for RCA, concluding a sequence that had begun with Hunky Dory. The last Bowie album in the 20th Century produced by Tony Visconti—their friendship frayed soon afterward; they didn’t speak for years. The last Bowie album with Robert Fripp, the last with the magnificent rhythm section of Dennis Davis and George Murray.

There was its recycling, its sense of recurrence. Major Tom returns, as does Lindsay Kemp’s Pierrot. Much like the Rolling Stones’ contemporaneous Tattoo You, Scary Monsters refurbished older, abandoned songs: six of its ten tracks derive from or reference late Sixties-early Seventies Bowie compositions. It’s a rummage through an estate sale, finding a “Laughing Gnome” single, an Astronettes demo. Edward Bell’s album cover illustration (see below) includes a Berlin Bowie retrospective, the LP cover characters now blurred, shrunken, distorted. Bowie’s role as a clown was a nod to his time “in the circus” with Kemp in the late Sixties — his costume was designed by Natasha Korniloff, who had worked with him and Kemp in those years. But there are two clowns on the album cover: the dignified one who looks straight at you, and the disheveled one behind him, casting a long shadow.

Is it possible, given all of this baggage, to hear the album fresh today? To hear it as listeners in 1980 did? Though, of course, they had seen Scary Monsters via a prism of impressions and perceptions that we, forty years later, can only guess at. A punk kid who considered Bowie an old vampire, looking to steal what he can. A woman who loved “Fame” and “Golden Years” in her teenage years, getting the new album as part of an RCA Record Club 10-LPs-for-a-penny batch, dropping the needle on “It’s No Game (Part 1),” soon yanking it off (“this sounds awful—why is he screaming all over the place?”) and filing the album away, never to be played again; it’s eventually bestowed upon a library or a cousin.

Monsters was meant to sound fresh, contemporary, to be more commercially-minded than the “experiments” of the so-called Berlin era. Eno was gone. Bowie seemed “more serious,” both Fripp and Chuck Hammer noted. The album would remain contemporary as it aged, with its near-future always near; it would be Bowie’s perpetual New Album. This summer of pandemic and mass conspiracy, of depression (economic, spiritual) and street actions, of increasingly authoritarian and chaos governments, is a world that Scary Monsters would recognize, as it’s already there in its grooves.

Tracks

Bowie and Visconti at the Power Station, ca. February 1980

Scary Monsters was made in two blocks: tracking sessions with guide/sketch vocals at New York’s Power Station, in February-early March 1980, and overdub and vocal sessions at Tony Visconti’s Good Earth Studios in London, ca. April-May 1980. Somewhere along the line, a set of rough mixes and/or alternate takes were bootlegged—the most likely scenario is that someone dubbed some tapes in the last days of recording in New York, before Visconti shifted operations to London. The original “mass release” bootleg of these tapes was, apparently, Vampires of Human Flesh, ca. 1994.

Along with the bootlegged Leon tapes from 1994 and the Young Americans session tapes housed at Drexel University, the “Scary Monsters roughs,” for lack of a better term, are the only documents that we have of Bowie’s in-progress studio work. While not that revelatory—rhythm tracks are mostly the same as those on the album, nor do Bowie’s lyrics differ greatly from final versions—it’s still invaluable. Scary Monsters, a hard-crafted, punchy album, as seen before the last layers of paint were applied. The energy pulsing through the roughs is such that sometimes I’ll choose the bootlegs over the mastered tracks. 

Scary Monsters sounded good in part because of where it was made, the hottest new studio in New York. Originally a Con Edison plant on West 53rd St. and 10th Avenue, the Power Station (hence the name) had opened in 1977, owned by Tony Bongiovi (cousin of Jon) and Bob Walters. Among its first users were Chic, who would book its Studio B for months. Bowie cut Scary Monsters at the same time Springsteen was cutting The River (hence Roy Bittan’s appearance). Decades later, in 2007, Bowie went back to the studio, which at the time was known as Avatar, to cut backing vocals for a Scarlett Johansson record. Chris Moore, who recorded him then, told me that Bowie “said it felt weird to be back there.”

Power Station Studio A, as it looks today

The band was the trio which had supported Bowie on tour in 1976 and 1978 and which had been his albums’ supple backbone from Station to Station to Scary Monsters. I’ve written enough over the years on the brilliance of Carlos Alomar (heard on backing vocals on the roughs, a role that he often played on tour), Murray and Davis. Their departure after this album (Alomar occasionally returned to the Bowie orbit; Murray would retire completely) was inevitable and tragic.

The roughs are the sound of three musicians at work, one establishing something, the other two ratifying it, as they had when they’d made Station in LA and Low in France and “Heroes” in Berlin and Lodger in Switzerland, this magnificent team of movers, each time setting up in a new studio, in a new country, doing mike checks and then leaping off again, ever so easily, Davis to Murray to Alomar, in telegraph bursts, in long, animated conversations in dynamics and rhythm, always keyed into this great joyous connection they had. The roughs give us a Scary Monsters freed from Robert Fripp’s lead guitar, Andy Clark’s synthesizers, Visconti’s effects and processors (Pete Townshend’s lead is already there in the earlier version of “Because You’re Young,” as he’d cut his parts in New York); it’s the album exposed at its thick roots, David Bowie singing over a New Wave R&B band.

Listen to the instrumental outtake that bootleggers mistakenly titled “Is There Life After Marriage?“—it was, in truth, yet another Bowie attempt at covering Cream’s “I Feel Free.” A trio in a New York studio one evening in February 1980, in a world that now seems as far away as the Napoleonic wars. Alomar parries, Murray rumbles, Davis settles matters. Then they do it again.

Words

Years ago on a blog comment thread, Momus wrote about trying to parse Bowie’s lyrics in “Aladdin Sane,” which he accurately described as “eccentric doggerel.”  

“Passionate bright young things /Takes him away to war (don’t fake it)/ Saddening glissando strings / Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh (you’ll make it)”. The verbs and the nouns don’t even agree! And how could you fake being taken away to war? Where’s the orchestra? It makes no sense! “They’re atmospheric,” Bowie once said of his lyrics. But actually, what I’ve underestimated is that the vagueness is tactical….There’s a kind of negative capability in not being too intentional, too specific, too narrative.

Bowie’s lyrics on paper rarely resemble “verse,” even by the loose standards of rock musicians. They’re meant to be sung, in his voice, and, sometimes, to be obscured in the mix. One line is a garble, the next a fragment, the subsequent one a sharp phrase that lingers in the memory. This tactical vagueness, as Momus called it, was key to Bowie’s aesthetic. Ziggy Stardust has no comprehensible story but the one that you, listener, choose to give it. In the Seventies, Bowie strove to make his lyrics ever more disjunctive, jarring, abstract: using William Burroughs/Brion Gysin-style cut-up was liberating for him. Meaning would be found, should one wish to find it, in the spaces between the lines, in the note that Bowie used for a particular word, in how he phrased a closing line.

You can take this argument too far (a very Bowie thing to do). There are times where he’s writing lucidly about a particular person or emotion or scenario, and his lyrics are often colored, as he’d agree, by the time and place in which he wrote them. See Scary Monsters, whose lyrics were written from possibly late 1979 to, in a last revision burst, March-April 1980, and in jumps from New York to Japan to London.

We’re lucky, as with the album’s bootlegged rough mixes, to have a window into Bowie’s lyric-writing process for Scary Monsters. The David Bowie Is exhibit included two “sketch pages” on graph paper, invaluable documents of how he compiled phrases, quotes, ideas, stage/production concepts, jokes, and queries, and then began to piece together songs from them. The first is below:

It’s like a transcript of Bowie’s mind. Apparent ideas for covers (“Try Some Buy Some,” “Suzy Q,” “Green Tambourine,” “She’s Not There”), which offers the prospect that Bowie was considering a record similar to Heathen and Reality: three-fourths originals, one-fourth covers (“I Feel Free” got as far as the tracking stage—who knows about the others). “Zow[ie]’s Kids List”—his son’s suggestions? Musical and/or production references abound—Wagner, “Clapping Song” (Shirley Ellis, possibly Steve Reich), James Brown’s “Please Please Please,” Stan Kenton’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Philip Glass organ sound,” “Lollipop harmonica solo,” “helicopter sounds.”

On the upper half of the page, you see Bowie assembling “It’s No Game” from a disparate set of lines, a few later discarded (“gradual pagan” and “big head and drum” are in the early vocal take); on the lower half, he does the same for “Up the Hill Backwards,” including a line that Bowie pilfered from Hans Richter’s Art and Anti Art (a Nicholas Pegg discovery from a few years ago):

The other page, whose smuggled exhibit photographs are harder to read (Leah Kardos did her best to transcribe it), is more dense. It’s less a set of prospective lyrics than a word-pile of agitations, observations, rants (“RCA is richer than you’re [sic] whole country”), aphorisms, fears, phrasing/mixing ideas (“get on top of D.D.’s drum,” “Joy Div/ those terrible cockney accents” (see the title track)). Reading it through, however, you find more songs being formed, including “Ashes to Ashes” and, most of all, “Teenage Wildlife.”

Let’s write about society and events of international import… who’s going to lead the working clash? It ain’t me buddy. Over the page Bowie keeps circling back to the idea of an impending crisis (“won’t stop with Iran”). There’s going to be war… there’s going to be chaos…you’re not gonna turn away. Pricks will write songs about it and tell you ‘it’s the truth’. A few lines down, he becomes the prick: it’s not strange it happens every day… It’s the truth. (The working title of “Teenage Wildlife” was “It Happens Everyday.”)

Bowie kept paring and revising lines, sometimes to obscure an image, to make things less obvious. In “Ashes,” “little green dealer” becomes “little green wheels,” while “every day my reason is ebbing” is scrapped. “Fashion” was stripped of more overt lines that equate dance moves to street violence (“shake a fist, start a fight/ if you’re covered in blood, you’re doing it right”).

There’s a harshness in the lyrics of Scary Monsters, in part because of its paucity of rhyme (with notable exceptions—the hooky refrains of “Ashes to Ashes” and “Scream Like a Baby,” for instance). Bowie instead often uses consonance. The album opens, after Michi Hirota’s barrage of Japanese, with him using hard esses and ens to end his phrases, applying the occasional “oh” and “ev” sound as mortar within a line:

or “Scream Like a Baby,” whose verse’s phonic links are a hard traffic of ens, eds, gees, and uhs:

Or the Buddy Holly-esque “Ashes,” in which Bowie uses a three-note pattern as a rhythmic hook, while varying Major Tom’s message in meter or phrasing or length. Again, there’s nearly no rhyme in the verse, only a series of “ings” and one quick “in/syn.” It’s similar to the verses of “Changes,” another maze of phrasings that seem more akin to recitative in opera than standard pop singing. Further, in “Ashes,” Bowie’s lead vocal is interfered with by layers of mumbled, whispered counter-lines, as if one radio station is breaking into another’s airspace:

Half of me freezing, half of me boiling, I’m nowhere in between, Bowie wrote on his sketch sheet. A reactive person…too much data, possible events. Scary Monsters has recurring themes. A powerless rage at a collapsing world—it’s why Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come” fits into the set: life as being sentenced to a prison farm, an armed guard always at watch from the tower. The streets are dangerous, the rooms are traps; he doesn’t know any hallways. A sense of entropy, of energy ebbing, of structures fraying and eroding. Major Tom falls to earth. Skylab falls from the sky, sneakers fall apart. 

There’s the inability of art to provide answers, alternatives, anything of value, and the question of whether the concept of artistic progress was a cruel illusion. He’s never done anything out of the blue, nothing good, nothing bad. The kids keep at it, but they don’t stand a chance. “Teenage Wildlife” is Bowie watching his imitators and successors fighting over a kingdom already lost. “One flash of light but no smoking pistol” came from something he’d said about glam rock to a TV interviewer at the end of 1979—that while “in the beginning of the Seventies when it was sort of a bit dull, there was the idea of creating a flash of some kind. And the flash was created, but nobody was really found holding the smoking pistol. So [rock] sort of went off at tangents after that.”

When Scary Monsters plays in the background, so that you’re only hearing bits and scraps of lines, it seems as if the album is but one song, that it’s telling one story. It’s a horror film. More precisely, a horror documentary. 

The word is that the hunted one is out there on his own. They do it over there but we don’t do it here. To be insulted by these fascists—it’s so degrading. One flash of light, but no smoking pistol. We’re legally crippled. They’re people I know, people I love, they seem so unhappy, dead or alive. She had a horror of rooms, she was tired, you can’t hide beat. I feel like a group of one. I know too well what’s keeping me here. He jumped into the furnace, singing old songs we loved. 

Images

This photograph is of an LP that I bought thirty years ago, for about four or five dollars, at In Your Ear, a used record store on Commonwealth Ave in Boston. It’s been with me ever since.

The album is slightly more than a foot in length and width. Its outer sleeve is still solid, if the spine has frayed by a thumb’s breadth at the center; the inner sleeve is in more parlous condition, being long engaged in a slow process of tearing in halves. The disc, over time, has nudged through substantial lengths of the sleeve’s bottom and sides. When I pull out the inner sleeve now, a black half-circle of vinyl will appear somewhere along an edge, reminding me that the natural state of things is entropy and that each year, this record’s resale value on Discogs diminishes. 

A late developer, late in discarding teddy bear and comics (and to be honest, neither yet fully relinquished), no good at sports and an academic failure, sanctuary was sought in the art room at school, the harmless pursuit of the cissy.

Edward Bell, 2003, on his youth.  

The cover and inner sleeve were designed in 1980 by Edward Bell. He’d studied graphics at Chelsea, photography at the Royal College of Art. “I started life as a photographer, but I found the medium limiting, so this fact led me to various manipulations: photo montage, over painting or even just using the photo as inspiration for a painting,” he told David Bowie News this year. As Bell said in 2003, “I was impatient with the technicalities of producing the perfect photograph; if a shadow fell in the wrong place, rather than adjust the lighting, I would airbrush, tint and montage. “

A photographer became an illustrator. This illustrator, having done a series of portraits of friends, got his first show at the Neal Street Gallery, in Covent Garden, London. It was attended by someone introduced as “an important client” and who wore, in Bell’s recollection, “an insipid yellow short-sleeved shirt and bright red trousers, but most damning of all, he wore dark glasses to examine the pictures.” This, of course, was David Bowie, who’d been told about Bell’s work by the photographer Brian Duffy.

Although Duffy was taking photos for use on Scary Monsters, Bowie decided that he wanted Bell to do the sleeve artwork, which would incorporate some of Duffy’s pictures. Instead Bell would deface them, covering one up with his own illustration, reducing other photos to postage-stamp size (others literally became postage stamps, in a sheet included with early issues of the album).

After Bowie was photographed in the Pierrot outfit, Bell asked him to muss his hair, smear his makeup, look disheveled. Become a clown scowling backstage after the show, looking cranked off and sour. Then Bell sketched him.

“This was an image no longer wistful, pretty, safe or fey, but a glimpse of glamour in its dangerous extremity; decadent and blatantly seductive,” Bell wrote in his memoir. Bowie told Bell to design the cover however he’d like, only asking for his hair to be tinted red in the illustration (it was a dun color in early to mid-1980—see, below, the photograph used for the “Fashion” sleeve, which was the first shot taken of Bowie at the Pierrot session). “In America I’m known as the red haired bisexual,” Bowie explained to Bell—he apparently needed to maintain the brand for a bit longer.

The cover and sleeve design went through various drafts. I’d wager a guess that Bell may have drawn on two sources as a starting point. Derek Boshier’s cover design for Lodger has a muted, off-white color as its foundation and a similar set of jumbled images, meant to signify something opaque.

And Gerald Scarfe’s design for Pink Floyd’s The Wall (as with Lodger, a recently-issued album at the time). Again a white backdrop, again a series of images—here, cartoon grotesques— “breaking through” the backdrop to catch the viewer’s eye.

Perhaps most obviously, the use of hand lettering, in bold strokes in black ink, for the lyrics on the inner sleeves of both albums.

The brilliance of Bell’s cover design is how it illustrates the mood of the album, its feeling of resurgence and collapse, the concept of a long-running circus shuttering for the winter, maybe forever. David Bowie, throughout the Seventies, was always on the cover of his latest album in the center of the frame: displaying a fresh look, a new haircut, a new caprice. Pre-Raphaelite decadent sprawled on a couch. Tragic silent movie star. Glam icon in an alleyway and phone box. 22nd Century pinup. Freakshow attraction. Hollywood glamour queen. A Man who has Fallen to Earth. An emissary from a lost future.

And here, the sour Pierrot. But something’s not right. The Bowie photograph that should be here has instead been torn in two, the smaller half confined to the back cover. Overlaid upon much of the photo is a haughty-looking cartoon figure, which stands off-center, confined to the left half of the front cover. While one’s eye is still drawn to Bowie’s face, there’s so much “empty” space on the cover that Bowie’s usually definitional image becomes unsettled—you’re as much looking at a shadow of his profile, or wondering what his face looks like in the photograph you will never see. (Again, Lodger is a starting point, as the record buyer only saw Bowie’s splayed legs on its front cover).

On the back cover, more substitutions—Bell’s illustrations supplant Sukita’s “Heroes” photograph, Duffy’s Lodger shot, the Low profile. The past becomes a faded, distorted cartoon of itself (Bowie as the Scary Monsters and Super Heroes of his inspiration). “David Bowie” is a set of postage stamps or miniaturized Polaroids. It has the look of a child’s scrapbook, especially when seen as a two-sided whole.

Like many others who saw the David Bowie Is show, I was stunned by how large Bell’s painting is. Having only known it as an album sleeve for much of my life, I found its true form astonishing. I’d never imagined it was such a physical presence—it seemed to take up a fourth of a museum wall. The LP sleeve itself is a reduction, a substitution, a diminishing of an original grandeur.

Bell and Bowie became friends, in the way Bowie was friends with many people: he’d vanish for years, then appear without notice. He gave Bell (who also did the Tin Machine II cover in 1991) a postal address in Switzerland—Bell would mail the occasional letter or postcard, to no response. Then a call would come in.

“Instead [of writing] he would, completely out of the blue, telephone,”  Bell said in his memoir. “Years might even pass, then I’d be shopping at Tesco, or digging a vegetable patch on the west coast of Ireland, or sitting on a Welsh hilltop painting a sky, when the mobile would ring.” Bowie, calling from Switzerland or Japan or New York, usually at the dead of night of whichever timezone he was in. They’d talk for hours about anything under the sun, then another year or two would pass. It was Bowie as a lighthouse keeper, a harbor master, making his solitary rounds over the years, but mostly existing in his absences, as he does on the cover of Scary Monsters.

Press

Talking with Bowie makes me more than unusually aware of the manifest absurdities inherent in the interview process. Why should Bowie tell me anything at all? He has little to gain and much to lose by doing so. We’re total strangers compelled by our respective positions and professions to confront each other for a ludicrously short time.

Angus MacKinnon, 1980

The promotion of Scary Monsters was relatively modest by Bowie standards. He wasn’t touring the album; his only TV performance for it was on The Tonight Show, which few in his home country saw at the time; he acted in The Elephant Man throughout what, typically, would have been his album’s promo cycle.

In a handful of late 1980 interviews—with the NME and Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles and London Times, some TV and radio spots, Radio One’s Andy Peebles—Bowie talked through the album he’d made the previous spring (an eon ago, by his Seventies standards) and sketched where he’d go in the Eighties. Whether by circumstance or design, he was particularly open (or, at least, apparently so) and retrospective.

Angus MacKinnon, NME (interview conducted early August 1980; published 13 September 1980).

Angus MacKinnon worked at the NME in the punk end of the Seventies, becoming close friends with Public Image Ltd’s Jah Wobble (MacKinnon had reviewed Lodger, saying it felt like Bowie was “ready for religion”). In August 1980, the NME sent him and photographer Anton Corbijn to Chicago for a week to interview Bowie during the run of Elephant Man there (RCA footed the bill, booking journalists in the high-end Whitehall Hotel—a truly lost era). Conducted over two days, it’s among the high-water marks of Bowie interviews, a credit to MacKinnon’s skill and to Bowie’s receptive frame of mind. As fascinated by his life as anyone was, Bowie precisely and coolly assessed his Seventies, which seemed like a science fiction novel in retrospect.

Later, MacKinnon said he thought he got what “the interview” meant for Bowie—an opportunity to play a character (see his coke-freak Nosferatu performance for the benefit of Cameron Crowe in the mid-Seventies) but most of all, to do “an intensive form of self-therapy.” Bowie appeared to live in a state of “continual reassessment and often comprehensive rewriting of his past…although one of the more profoundly amoral people I’ve ever met, Bowie is nonetheless hamstrung by an acuity of self-awareness that constantly threatens to bemuse or even overwhelm him.” 

That said, Bowie the son of a PR man, had been adept at media manipulation since he was a teenager. He could, in a flash, discern who an interviewer was, what their likely angle would be, how they could be flattered, their likely status in the publication they worked for. Most of all, what role they wanted him to play. Bowie is “uncannily adept at telling you exactly what he thinks you want to hear,” MacKinnon wrote. His charm, his wit, his knowledge of what made for a great quote—how a line would play if blown up, marquee-style, in a subhead, or if used as a tart caption to a photograph—his ability to quickly draw you into his confidence: these were his weapons, an armory so colossal that as a reporter, MacKinnon said, you were constantly scrambling to determine if Bowie was contradicting something he’d said only a few minutes before. It was exhausting to challenge his routine habit of blaming “characters” for “his own more irresponsible, or inexplicable actions.” 

MacKinnon begins with basic questions—Bowie’s concept of John Merrick in The Elephant Man, cutting to thoughts on Man Who Fell to Earth (Bowie: “Newton is a far better person at the end of the film…when he first comes down, he doesn’t give a shit about anybody”) and Just a Gigolo (“that film was a cack”). MacKinnon then strings a line from MWFTE to Station to Station, inspiring a Bowie mea culpa for the Thin White Duke “England needs a Hitler” period. (M: I was there and came away thinking you were sort of fascist maniac. B: “I was out of my mind, totally crazed”). “This whole racist thing,” Bowie swears, was because “I was in the depths of mythology. I had found King Arthur.” He attests that he’s worked “with black musicians for the past six or seven years, and we’d all talk about it together….about the magical side of the whole Nazi campaign.” (One can only imagine poor Dennis Davis genially nodding through these sessions.) And a wild bit of psychological legend:

All that stuff was flying around, buzzing around the skies. I could see it. Everywhere I looked there were these great demons of the past, demons of the future on the battlegrounds of one’s emotional plain…Mixed up too, of course, were my own fucking characters.

Bowie jumps around the chessboard. Praise for Berlin, place of restoration; a ritual curse on Los Angeles (“the fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth. To be anything to do with rock and roll and to go and live in Los Angeles is I think just heading for disaster. It really is.”) MacKinnon pushes him to start talking about the Scary Monsters songs at last. A few lines of thought begin here. The idea of “the future” being another Sixties trick. A detaching from Fripp and Eno, whom he describes as being “intellectuals” as compared to his more instinctive type of songwriting. Thoughts on the “grimness” of contemporary fashion, with a dig at the Blitz Kids he’d recently seen in London (and hired, for the “Ashes to Ashes” video). 

They resume talking a few days later, on the stage of the Blackstone, The Elephant Man’s theater. This time, thanks to MacKinnon’s choice to burn through “simple, factual questions” first and free-style for a half hour, a compelling back-and-forth develops. Bowie admits that “he can’t write young” anymore, that rock music is a dead end for him, and wonders what will he, in the end, really be remembered for? MacKinnon later said he felt like he’d gotten through, finally got Bowie to say something real, only to consider that this was possibly another conversational trick of Bowie’s, and furthermore, what does “real” even mean? Why do we, as journalists, as readers, expect this from pop singers, when we don’t offer it ourselves?

M: Those lines from ‘Ashes To Ashes’ spring to mind: “I’ve never done good things/I’ve never done bad things/I’ve never done anything out of the blue.” You seem to be saying that you’re not prepared to judge your own achievements. Do you feel any—how shall I put it?—guilt about having helped propagate the sort of delusions we’re talking about?…

B: Those three particular lines represent a continuing, returning feeling of inadequacy over what I’ve done. (Bowie absently traces a finger around his mouth then proceeds, choosing his words very carefully) I have an awful lot of reservations about what I’ve done inasmuch as I don’t feel much of it has any import at all. And then I have days when of course it all feels very important to me, that I’ve contributed an awful lot. But I’m not awfully happy with what I’ve done in the past actually.

M: So what would you include amongst your positive achievements?

B: The idea that one doesn’t have to exist purely on one defined set of ethics and values, that you can investigate other areas and other avenues of perception and try and apply them to everyday life. I think I’ve tried to do that. I think I’ve done that fairly successfully. At times, even if only on a theoretical level, I’ve managed that. As far as everyday life goes, I don’t think so… I have this great long chain with a ball of middle-classness at the end of it which keeps holding me back and that I keep sort of trying to fight through. I keep trying to find the Duchamp in me, which is harder and harder to find (laughs)….

And a coda, where Bowie considers old age from the vantage point of 33.

Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone; interview, early August 1980; 13 November 1980 issue.

One sign of Bowie’s diminished commercial presence in the US is that he didn’t get the cover of Rolling Stone for this interview—Mary Tyler Moore did, for her role in Ordinary People.

Bowie’s still apparently content to accept being a famous second-tier artist, commercially. “More and more, I’m prepared to relinquish sales…by sticking to my guns about the kind of music I’m going to make.” More differentiation from Fripp and Eno. “They’re out there cerebrally, you know? And I’m just not out there. I sort of bludgeon along through their strange ways and paths and articulate to the best of my ability what the fuck I’m tryin’ to put on a record.” Again, the idea of the future being humbler, dirtier, more brutal than the Sixties thought it was going to be. “Forget your high-tech. We’re not gonna be prancing around in silver suits or anything like that. It’s all blood and guts from here on out.”

Good Morning America, 3 September 1980.

With a few exceptions, Bowie was charming and intriguingly vapid in his post-Seventies American TV interviews, rising to the challenge of the medium. No exception here: some Lodger-era guff about being a perpetual traveler (“Mombasa, Berlin and Kyoto…are my main ports of call”) and praise for his Elephant Man cast. The visual—Bowie looking like a rockabilly Eloi in a purple turtleneck before a backdrop of potted ferns—is exquisite, though.

Robert Hilburn, LA Times, interview 5 September; 21 September 1980 edition

Conducted in an LA dressing room during a Tonight Show rehearsal, this interview is perhaps most notable for one of Bowie’s first, ugly repudiations of his bisexuality—a preview of his 1983 press strategy. For an LA paper, Bowie provides a new variation on his usual escape-from-LA narrative. “I may have been living through a breakdown and not knowing it…In Berlin, I lived quite the reverse style of life that I’d been living. It was designed as a positive step to make myself learn how to relate back to the real world.” The Low era as a purging, “throwing everything out and starting over again.” Yet another sign that despite his protestations, his declining commercial fortunes concern him. “I never tried to define my audience and exploit it like a tobacco company…I just hoped the audience would come along.”

10 October 1980, Friday Night, Saturday Morning, with Tim Rice.

The best of the TV interviews of the period. Bowie offers his story of how he got his album’s title from a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box notice of “Scary Monsters and Super Heroes” (“Supermen and Nosferatus….as I was writing a New York album, it seemed the perfect collective title for the bits and pieces I was writing”). On regular Broadway theatergoers: “they had heard of me but had some kind of really corrupted idea of what I was about. I suppose they’ve got a different impression of me now: little do they know.”

Gordon Burn, Sunday Times Magazine, interview 2 October 1980; 30 November 1980 issue.

A dishy look at Bowie, thespian (“he looked eager, the way contestants often do on quiz shows when they think they’ve got the answer…David was wearing a cowl-neck sweater, possibly a lady’s…he has eye-teeth like fangs”) and someone apparently bracing for future conformity.

“I have so many streaks of sensibleness that it’s frightening. I keep getting drawn back to such a logical, conservative me but it wears me out trying to fight it. Fighting it used to lead me to that very rough, drug-oriented, forceful kind of lifestyle which makes one on edge all the time. Now, having beaten that back, I’m confronted with the basic facts of where I came from and who I am…I am still, as you can see, fighting.”

20/20, broadcast 13 November 1980 (presumably filmed ca. October). 

A bog-standard “This Is David Bowie” bio intro (DB was apparently “born on the other side of the tracks in Brixton”) leads into footage of Bowie drawing (“he’s produced a gallery full of paintings”), It comes off as a butchered 10-minute reduction of a scrapped documentary, in which Bowie occasionally appears to say little of import.

Countdown, broadcast 16 November 1980 (filmed ca. October).

Bowie, filmed in an NYC Japanese restaurant, gives off the vibe of a charming civil servant being asked to justify some questionable expense account statements. The bit where the interviewer asks about Bowie’s 1967 debut album, to DB’s “what in the hell are you bringing this up for?” expressions, is a joy. 

Andy Peebles, Radio One, taped 7 December 1980.

The last great interview of the period, parts of which were used for a promotional LP, with Bowie going into each song on Scary Monsters.

On Major Tom in 1980:

What would be the complete dissolution [of] the great dream that was being propounded when they shot him into space…When he did get up there, he wasn’t quite sure why he’d been put there and…now we come to him 10 years later and we find the whole thing has soured, ‘cos there was no reason…the technological ego that got him up there…was a potpourri of technological ideas. The most disastrous thing I could think of is that he’d find solace in some kind of heroin-type drug, the cosmic space itself is feeding him an addiction and now he wants to return to the womb from whence he came…

Peebles had flown to New York to talk to Bowie and, seizing opportunity, talked to John Lennon and Yoko Ono the day before. Little more than a day after Bowie talked with Peebles, he’d be standing before a TV set, watching news reports about his friend’s murder.

Stage

Scary Monsters was a greatly unrealized album on stage, as Bowie would never perform half of its songs. It’s in part because the tour on which he would’ve likely sung them, a proposed 1981 venture, never came to be.

An alleged “spokesman” said in late 1980, while Bowie was promoting the album, that Bowie planned to devote three months in 1981 to “live work” while Bowie told MacKinnon “next spring—I want to play smaller places.” The tour was barely in the sketch stages, apparently, when DB pulled the plug after John Lennon’s murder. Given that he was also talking about doing an exhibition of his paintings and video work in 1981, and was in negotiations for film and TV roles, there’s a strong likelihood that a 1981 tour wouldn’t have been on the scale of, say, 1978. More something like a month of shows in the UK and Europe, a month or two in major markets in North America, maybe a Japanese coda.

When Bowie did return to live work in 1983, he was now promoting Let’s Dance to a new, broader audience, one with less of a taste for oddity. The emphasis was on new hits, old hits, a few obscurities for the die-hards. Scary Monsters was represented only by its charting singles.

Songs Never Performed, Apparently Never Rehearsed

“It’s No Game (Pt. 1 & Pt. 2).” The Bowie film archivist Nacho proposed a dream 1981 setlist not long ago, in which Bowie would open and close sets with the two “It’s No Games.” It’s a great idea, but given that “It’s No Game (Pt. 1)” sounds utterly brutal to sing, the idea of Bowie opening with it for months seems a bit unlikely.

“Kingdom Come.” Not a shock: a song that audiences mostly wouldn’t have recognized, and as with “It’s No Game,” another wear-and-tear of a vocal.

Songs Rehearsed, Never Performed

“Scream Like a Baby.” Rehearsed for Glass Spider in 1987; didn’t make the cut. The rehearsal tapes show that the band had the song down well, if Bowie sounds borderline camp.

“Because You’re Young”: As with “Scream,” a reject from the Glass Spider set; as with “Scream,” it likely would’ve worked well enough. Though the idea of Bowie’s gang of theater-kid “street” dancers interpreting this song makes me grateful it didn’t make the cut.

Songs Sort-of Performed

“Up the Hill Backwards.” Used as part of the opening sequence for Glass Spider: Bowie didn’t sing it, his dancers lip-synced it. The Legs & Co. interpretation from Top of the Pops in 1981 is superior and more weird.

Songs Performed

“Teenage Wildlife.” Debuted in the Outside tour in 1995, and a highlight of those shows—sung as Bowie watched teenage Nine Inch Nails fans pack up, leaving behind empty rows, it had a fresh poignancy. Carlos Alomar provided continuity, Reeves Gabrels did a fine American art-weirdo’s take on Robert Fripp.

“Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).” Debuted in 1983 on Serious Moonlight, but its definitive live versions were Bowie’s duets with Trent Reznor in 1995. A Scary Monsters track tailored for the following decade.

“Fashion.” The “Fame” of Scary Monsters songs—debuted in 1983 and performed in nearly every tour afterward. Had the potential to be irritating on stage, and sometimes was. Its live peak was 1996-97, as it suited the Earthling era well.

“Ashes to Ashes.” Like “Fashion,” often found in his 1983-and-afterward setlists, though Bowie put it on ice in the Nineties after Sound + Vision. For me, he’d never manage on stage to rival the studio version—he tended to grapple around the song and do an approximation. Something was always off: the bassline, the keyboards, his vocal. If I had to choose a performance, I’d go with its slightly-shambolic Tonight Show debut in 1980, in which a pick-up band (GE Smith! Steve Goulding!) and Bowie punch into the song, one still so new that Bowie bungles a verse lyric. They advance, stumble back; something keeps evading them but they keep scraping away at it. There’s a beauty in the effort.

Crystal Japan Epilogue

“Crystal Japan,” for a while during the Scary Monsters sessions, was intended as the album’s closer. Yet after Bowie decided instead to end the LP with a reprise of the opening track, he cast “Crystal Japan” loose. It first appeared as a Japanese single in 1980, then as the B-side of “Up the Hill Backwards” the following year; it’s likely, however, that many Bowie fans first heard it as a bonus track on the 1992 Ryko reissue of Scary Monsters—that’s where Trent Reznor, who nicked its melody for his “A Warm Place,” discovered the song. (Reznor confessed this to a cracking-up Bowie during an MTV interview.) 

Had it closed Scary Monsters, “Crystal Japan” would have changed the album’s tone, brightened its aspect. “It’s No Game (Pt. 2)” is cyclicality—the album ends as it began (furthered by Tony Visconti adding a tape spool-out sound to parallel the “roll tape” intro of Pt. 1)—and exhaustion, with the rage of “Pt. 1” cooled to a weary acceptance of daily horrors. “Crystal Japan,” had it capped off a hard, brutal album, would have offered a respite, an exit, a future. Something akin to “Radio 4,” the closer of PiL’s Metal Box in 1979—an epilogue that, at last, lets in the sun.

Who knows why Bowie pulled the track. Perhaps if it couldn’t be a finale, it just didn’t fit in anywhere else. Maybe he wanted to put the “Berlin” era firmly behind him, and so yanked an instrumental that might remind listeners of “Moss Garden.” Or he felt that a respite and an exit weren’t what was needed at the time.

Bowie had agreed to do a TV ad for a Japanese shochu manufacturer (he needed the money, he said, adding that he thought the track would get more airplay than his singles would on radio). So he had to come up with an instrumental for a 30-second bit in which he’d appear to be a visiting extraterrestrial a) on holiday at a Kyoto temple or b) relaxing in the mothership, which, nicely, has a piano and a wet bar. 

During the Scary Monsters sessions, Bowie assembled the track himself on synthesizer (no idea which models—he may have still been using the Low/”Heroes” set, which included an ARP Solina, ARP Pro Soloist and a Chamberlin M1), with Visconti’s only contribution being a treated falsetto vocal. It’s unknown whether DB wrote the piece after filming the ad in Japan (during the break, March 1980, between the LP’s New York and London sessions), or if he’d been working on it for a while, perhaps as far back as “Heroes” or Lodger.

With its yearning melodies and placid feel, it’s a quiet world tucked away within a greater, turbulent one—the sound of a warm place, as Reznor might say. The exiled ending of Scary Monsters, “Crystal Japan” was fated to forever be alone, a beautiful fragment.


The Shore at Pett Level

June 11, 2020
ashes

The shore at Pett Level, near Winchelsea, is steep; and covered with shingles. There is no bathing machine here; and a man should be an expert swimmer to venture in, excepting in calmer weather.

Baker Peter Smith, A Journal of an Excursion Round the South-Eastern Coast of England, 1834.

The shore at Pett Level has been a forest, a feeding ground for dinosaurs, a graveyard for ships; at the time of the Roman conquest, it slept underwater; during the Napoleonic wars and for some time afterward, the beach had eight manned, brick-built Martello towers, each a quarter-mile apart, each with a gun on its roof and a small window facing seaward. During the Second World War, the government evacuated Pett, whose population at the time was greatly holidaymakers and beachcombers.

One morning in late spring 1980 (no one recalls the precise day, and while May is the consensus pick for month, it may not be so*) a thin man in a clown costume walks along this beach.

He’s accompanied by a ballerina, two space nuns, and a gothic bride. Not far behind them rumbles a JCB bulldozer.

This is David Mallet’s video for “Ashes to Ashes,” a song that its creator, David Bowie, had only recently completed at Tony Visconti’s studio in London. It was his most expensive video to date (£25,000–some say more) and would be his most memorable, despite it pre-dating MTV. (MTV feasted on it, though: “Ashes to Ashes” was core to its rotation during its lean first months in 1981.)

Mallet suggested the location for a practical reason (see below) and because “I’d known [Pett Level] since I was a little boy. One of the very rare places you can get right down to the water and there’s a cliff towering over you.” The dreamscape was Bowie’s.

I think video is there to be used as an art form as well as a sort of commercial device for illustration and promotion. In fact, I fell in love with video in the early Seventies when I got a Sony reel-to-reel, black-and-white thing and videoed everything and whatever. I got a small editing machine…and developed some scenarios for Diamond Dogs. I worked with miniature sets and cut video animation techniques which I’ve never seen used since. A dreadful but interesting failure.

Bowie in “David Bowie—Plus Five,” 1981.

By 1979, Bowie had sensed that music video, those cheap promos you sent Top of the Pops and label conventions if you were touring or couldn’t be bothered, was becoming more central, that songs would need visual accomplices. For Lodger, he made three with Mallet: “D.J.” was recluse DJ/ extrovert DB; “Look Back in Anger” was an artist plagued by art, a mix of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Image, a short film Bowie had done in the Sixties; “Boys Keep Swinging” was a farewell to glam and ambiguity.

As opposed to the Lodger videos, which Mallet had shot from Bowie concepts, for “Ashes to Ashes” “I story-boarded [it] myself, actually drew it frame for frame,” Bowie told the NME‘s Angus MacKinnon. “[Mallet] edited it exactly as I wanted it and has allowed me to say [adopts Edward Heath voice] publicly that it is my first direction. I’ve always wanted to direct and this is a great chance to start—to get some money from a record company and then go away and sort of play with it.” (Over the years, Mallet has described a more collaborative effort, with his suggestions having equal weight.)

One image dated back more than a decade. A Pierrot consoling an elderly woman is part of George Underwood’s illustration for the back cover of David Bowie (1969), an illustration Underwood had done based on a Bowie sketch. Recall that Bowie’s father had died that August, leaving an estranged, bereaved son tied to his bereaved mother.

Detail: Bowie sketch (l), Underwood illustration (r) for David Bowie (1969)

“Ashes to Ashes” began when Bowie remade “Space Oddity” in September 1979, stripping down the latter in the vein of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. “That came about because Mallet wanted me to do something for his show [Kenny Everett, where the two had first met in April 1979], and he wanted ‘Space Oddity.'” Doing the remake led Bowie to wonder where Major Tom would be a decade on: home at last, strung out, craving the high he’d had in space. Making Scary Monsters early in 1980, Bowie took a track titled “People Are Turning to Gold” and made it his sequel song.

In the “Space Oddity” remake that Bowie and Mallet did for a Kenny Everett special (aired on New Year’s Eve 1979), there were two scenarios reused in “Ashes to Ashes.” One was Major Tom at home, reading the paper while sitting in a spaceship chair in a black-and-white “Fifties” kitchen (it became more of a dentist’s chair in “Ashes”). Trash bins and ranges explode around him while his nurse? director?—in the Everett video, she’s shown filming him—calmly does the dishes.

Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980?, filmed 18 September 1979

The other concept was a figure in an asylum, a large padded wall behind him as a backdrop. In the Everett “Space Oddity,” Bowie commits himself to the ward, walking in, sitting down to sing about Major Tom. In “Ashes to Ashes,” he no longer has a guitar and seems to be more of a prisoner, a feeling heightened by new shots of Bowie shackled to a wall in what looks like the asylum’s basement, with tubes and hoses attached to his torso (“a nation hides its organic minds in a cellar, dark and grim,” as he’d sung in “All the Madmen”).

The two asylum sets, with slight differences: Kenny Everett (1979), “Ashes to Ashes” (1980)

As Bowie told MacKinnon, this latter shot (directly above) “was supposed to be the archetypal 1980s ideal of the futuristic colony that has been founded by the earthling [emphasis mine] of what he looks like—and in that particular sequence the idea was for the earthling to be pumping out himself and to be having pumped into him something organic. So there was a very strong Giger influence there [specifically, Giger’s work on the just-released Alien]: the organic meets hi-tech.”

But Pierrot-on-the-beach would be the video’s central image—it’s easy to forget its other sections. The David Bowie Is exhibit had one of Bowie’s sketches for it. As with the 1969 David Bowie illustration, the Pierrot walks with a woman, though here it’s at night, under the moon, and she’s a shabbier figure. By the filming, the woman had resumed the “middle-class mum” appearance of the David Bowie illustration, with a long-standing rumor that she was played by Peggy Jones.

“We went down to the beach, and I took a woman there who looked like my mother,” Bowie said in 1993. “That’s the surrealistic part of making movies.” (The actress was reportedly Wyn Mac, wife of British comedian Jimmy Mac.)

Bowie wanted to stage the Pierrot sequence on a shore, somewhere in England. “A clown on a beach with a bonfire,” Mallet recalled of the brief that Bowie gave him.

As Nicholas Pegg discovered a while back, a long-missing piece of the puzzle is a Justin Hayward performance of “Forever Autumn” on the Kenny Everett Show in July 1978—Hayward sits on the Pett Level beach, with the cliff behind him seen at roughly the same angle as in Bowie’s video, and with similar video distortion effects applied to land, water, and sky. It seems obvious the Pett location came quickly to mind for Mallet when Bowie said he needed a beach.

In keeping with how Scary Monsters, and in particular “Ashes to Ashes,” was Bowie “eradicating the feelings within myself that I was uncomfortable with…you have to accommodate your pasts within your persona,” as he later said, the three Bowie figures in the video all hail from his turn-of-the-Seventies: Major Tom, the urban spaceman; the asylum dweller of “All the Madmen” (the unluckier of the Bewlay Brothers); and the sad Pierrot of Bowie’s mime years, whose persona Bowie would use as a narrative voice from “An Occasional Dream” to “Thursday’s Child.”

The shore is the line between solidity and liquidity: it is a border that’s forever eroding, broadening, receding, secreting and revealing objects like a magician, never to look the same upon your next visit. The site of evacuations and invasions, it is permanent transition. I wonder if the opening of Michael Moorcock’s An Alien Heat (1972) came to mind for Bowie, too:

The Iron Orchid and her son sat upon a cream-colored beach of crushed bone. Some distance off a white sea sparkled and whispered…[later] Jherek noticed that the sea had turned a deep pink, almost a cerise, and was clashing dreadfully with the beach, while on the horizon behind him he saw that two palms and a cliff had disappeared altogether…

This is an Earth of the far distant future, at the tail end of time, where humanity is reduced to a decadent few who loll about in their glorious collapsing cities and freak pleasure gardens. As Moorcock wrote in his introduction to his trilogy (Alien Heat is the first book of his Dancers at the End of Time), “even if these inhabitants were not conscious of the fact that they lived at the end of time…their schemes—often grandiose and perverse—were pursued without obsession and left uncompleted without regret.”

transition, transmission

While the other parts of the video—Major Tom in the asylum, or sitting anesthetized in his stage-set “home”—suggest that the Pierrot sections are Major Tom’s hallucinations or dreams, it’s the Pierrot figure who has the control. He’s the only Bowie character in the video who moves, who exists outside of a set, who’s directing the action. He performs acts of purification—a sacrificial bonfire, the release of a white dove—before his dissolution. First, in spirit: he winces in pain when a snapping photographer takes his soul; later in body, as the Pierrot sinks into the ocean. (Aileen Dillane, Eoin Devereux and Martin Power delve more into the symbolism in their essay on “Ashes to Ashes”).

There’s a funeral march along the shore. The Pierrot walks with the children who will succeed him; he is their divine mother. The sexton machine grumbles behind them, loud and impatient, but it will bury nothing—the clown will be taken by the sea. Walk five abreast, strike the earth, recite the old rhyme (“my mother said, to get things done…”), clasp hands. Do this in memory of me. I will soon be nothing but old lies and air.

For a funeral, one needs mourners, if only a handful, and Bowie knew where to find them.

Blitz, Covent Garden, 1980. © Dick Scott-Stewart Archive (Museum of London)

The making of that video was the death knell for the Blitz and in my mind for Bowie as an innovator. It was my first peek beneath the veneer of public perception and its contrast with reality. Bowie was actually a pilferer and a follower stylistically – finger on the pulse but a follower nevertheless.

Christos Tolera, artist and ex-Blitz Kid, to David Johnson, 2010.

Around 1976, London clubs began having “Bowie nights,” where DJs played Bowie records and clubgoers dressed as an edition of him. By 1978, the big Bowie night was at Billy’s in Soho, where Rusty Egan was the DJ and Steve Strange worked the door. By the turn of the Eighties, the scene had shifted to the Blitz Club in Covent Garden, where Bowie nights became competitive pose-offs. Egan and Strange would form Visage, later described by Simon Reynolds as “a confederacy of punk failures looking for a second shot at stardom” (so, very Bowie).

Bowie was naturally intrigued and visited the Blitz one night, slipping through the back door and being ensconced in an upper room, like slumming royalty. Each party had reservations about the other. Strange, like other Blitz Kids, regarded Bowie as a skilled operator, someone “allowed to get his ideas across quicker than up-and-coming bands. He’s always in the right place at the right time, checking out ideas. When he was in London he was always at the Blitz or at Hell.” And Bowie bottled his thoughts into “Teenage Wildlife,” his early midlife crisis song.

For “Ashes to Ashes,” he wanted some Blitz Kids, his spiritual and sartorial children, on the beach with his clown. So he and Coco Schwab went on safari at the club for the most intriguing-looking numbers (it suggests the opening scene of The Hunger). Strange, who was an operator himself, was an obvious pick. As Strange wrote in his biography, Bowie told him, “’Look, I’d like you to pick the clothes you are going to wear, and to choose three other extras for the video. But there is only one snag. We have to meet tomorrow morning at 6 AM outside the Hilton to leave for the location shoot.’ I rushed around and found Judith Frankland, Darla Jane Gilroy, and another girl for the video.”

The “another girl,” the ballerina of the set, is the mystery of the group. Her name, reportedly, was Elise Brazier and nothing has been heard from her since, as far as I know.

Some stills appear to predict Bill Sienkiewicz’s work on The New Mutants

The other Blitz kids in the video were a pair of brilliant young designers: Judith Frankland, a recent graduate of Ravensbourne College of Art, and Saint Martin’s alum Darla Jane Gilroy.

“I was invited, as was Darla Jane, over to the table where David Bowie and his PA Coco were sitting, and offered a glass of champagne,” Frankland wrote in 2011. “Darla and I were both dressed in a similar ecclesiastic style and were asked to take part [in the video] for what at that time was a decent sum of money for penniless, decadent students.” This was £50—not bad for 1980.

Frankland was the costumer for the Blitz quartet. She had gotten attention for her Ravensbourne graduation collection, which had a show at Cafe Royal in London. Her style was once called “Romantic monasticism” and “Balenciaga hears The Sound of Music” (the latter was dead-on, as it was Frankland’s favorite film as a child—the evening-gown habits that she designed came from her memories of it).

Frankland’s 1980 graduation collection show (Niall McInerney, via The Swelle Life).

Frankland’s designs (in “Ashes,” she and Gilroy wore her nun’s habits, while Strange was in her black wedding gown, whose veil and hat had been made by their friend Stephen Jones) tapped into an eerie key at the end of the Seventies. A sort of neo-medieval formality, as if in homage to a future that was never going to come. Court clothes for a lost extraterrestrial aristocracy, whisked together from scraps across the centuries. A look that, again, calls to mind Moorcock’s decadents at the end of time:

Lord Jagged…concocted for himself a loose, lilac-colored robe with the kind of high, stiff collar he often favoured, and huge puffed sleeves from which peeped the tips of his fingers, and silver slippers with long, pointed toes, and a circlet to contain his long platinum hair: a circlet in the form of a rippling, living 54th Century Uranian lizard.

An Alien Heat
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parallels, variations, echoes: Frankland’s 1980 “nun” collection in Viz; Ylla and Yll in The Martian Chronicles (1980; designer: Cynthia Tingey); Alia Atreides in Dune (1984; Bob Ringwood)

The making of the video was a touch less romantic. Frankland recalled waking up in her bedsit in South Kensington and wondering if meeting Bowie and Schwab the previous night had been a dream, until the communal phone rang and she got instructions (presumably from Schwab). She was to wear what she’d had on at the Blitz, and the same makeup, and to be outside the Hilton “at some ungodly hour…to get on a coach to a secret location,” which turned out to be Pett Level.

The four Blitz Kids arrived at the beach to be greeted by Bowie already in costume. “He coached us for a few minutes on the words we were to mime and then the day was spent in sinking sand and mud,” Frankland wrote.

Happenstance and accidents played their parts. Bowie had noticed an idle bulldozer, property of the local government, parked down the beach. Struck by the idea of having the bulldozer as a “symbol of oncoming violence,” Bowie wanted it in the shoot. A few phone calls later (no doubt Schwab on the case again), a local driver was rolling the machine behind Bowie and the kids.

Blitz Kids take five at Pett Level (from a now-defunct? Blitz Kids website)

It was difficult for everyone to keep the same pace. “If I was too fast, I caught David up; if I was too slow, the bulldozer kept catching the robe I was wearing,” Strange wrote. “There’s a famous moment in it where it looks as if I am bending forward to bow. What I was actually doing was moving the hem of my robe to avoid getting pulled over by the bulldozer, but they decided to keep it in.”

A perfect example of how Bowie could seize upon a chance accident and expand it—he had Gilroy do the ground-slapping gesture as well, so that the two “wings” of the group seem to perform acts of consecration. And he’d turn the gesture into a dance move in his subsequent video for “Fashion.”

The original idea was to have the Blitz Kids only in the beach sequence, but Bowie, happy with how things were turning out, asked them to come to Ewart Studios in Wandsworth, where interiors were being shot. They would be a Greek chorus during the Major Tom “kitchen” scene.

“The scene we were to do at the studio involved an explosion and I was at the back,” Frankland wrote. “In fact if you look at the video you can see my crucifix swing in. We were told to duck out and run after we had mimed our piece or we could be hurt. This was difficult in a hobble dress, so I hoisted it up as high as I could and got ready to run. Quite a sight for the superstar sat behind me.”

And that was it. The Blitz Kids were driven back to London and spent the night clubbing at Hell. Mallet enhanced the beach shots with solarizing effects from the brand-new Quantel Paintbox. The video set the topsy-turvy colors of the outdoor shots against the high-contrast black-and-white of the “kitchen” ones, with the asylum shots as an intermediary.

What did Bowie and Mallet have with it? It’s too much to say they’d invented the grammar of MTV (Kate Bush was doing similar stuff at the same time, for instance) but “Ashes to Ashes” certainly provided a template. First, it just looked cool. Fantastic-looking weirdos on a candy-colored beach, leavened by explosions. There was nothing remotely like it on American television, at least.

Bowie managed, for the first time, to convey on film the sort of jump-cut, indirect narrative of his best songs—he was overdubbing a dense layer of new information upon an already-complex set of tracks (the Visconti-produced master). The sensation, watching the video, was something like the Choose Your Own Adventure books—a set of scenarios and decisions, some leading you deeper in, some killing you off.

“There’s an awful lot of cliched things in the video, but I think I put them together in such a way that the whole thing isn’t cliched,” Bowie said in 1980. “The general drive of the sensibility that comes over is some feeling of nostalgia for the future. I’ve always been hung up on that; it creeps into everything I do.”

It’s the visualization of a cusp song—an old world is falling away, the edges are blurring, but the new world that it shakes into view is still unclear. The careerist fabulousness of the Blitz Kids? A return to a falsified Fifties? A time when dreams need to be repressed, stowed away in the cellars and asylums? Bowie was winding down his Sixties and Seventies, disassembling his past, with a sense of foreboding as to what would take its place: could he have foreseen Tonight and Glass Spider? No, directly ahead of him was respectability, class, nuance—The Elephant Man, Baal, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. The Eighties were going to be a serious time.

The past will be burned and buried: toll the bell, pay the private eye, as Bowie later sang. Only a few exiles will be left to recall it. The future is to be found on the shore at Pett Level, near Winchelsea. It is steep, and covered with shingles.

Coda: In 1993, Michael Dignum was working on the video for Bowie’s “Miracle Goodnight.” “We had a change that was gonna take 10-15 mins to complete,” he later said. So he struck up a conversation with Bowie, his childhood hero, and asked him what he thought the biggest moment of his career was. “His reply was EPIC. And it went like this:”

“I was on the set of the music video ‘Ashes to Ashes,’ do you know the one?…So we’re on the beach shooting this scene with a giant bulldozer…I’m dressed from head to toe in a clown suit. Why not. I hear playback and the music starts. So off I go, I start singing and walking, but as soon as I do this old geezer with an old dog walks right between me and the camera…

As he was walking by the camera, the director said, excuse me, mister, do you know who this is? The old guy looks at me from bottom to top and looks back to the director and said…’Of course I do!!!! It’s some cunt in a clown suit.’ That was a huge moment for me. It put me back in my place and made me realize, yes, I’m just a cunt in a clown suit. I think about that old guy all the time.”

Michael Dignum, Facebook post, 11 January 2016

Ashes to Ashes.” Directors: David Mallet, David Bowie; Concept: Bowie. Starring: Bowie, Steve Strange, Judith Frankland, Darla Jane Gilroy, Elise Brazier, Wyn Mac? Costumes: Natasha Korniloff (Pierrot suit), Frankland (Blitz kids outfits), Stephen Jones, Fiona Dealey, Richard Ostell (hats, veil); makeup: Richard Sharah. First release: 19 September 1989, Sound + Vision (on a VCD likely unplayable today).

Sources: [background] the (velvet) goldmine that is Shapers of the 80s; Roger Griffin, Golden Years; Nicholas Pegg, Complete David Bowie; Kevin Cann, A Chronology; [quotes] Bowie, to NME (13 September 1980), to Musician (April 1990), in “David Bowie Weekend” on MTV (4-5 April 1993), A&E Biography (“David Bowie: Sound and Vision”) (2002); Mallet, to Marc Spitz (Bowie, 2009) and Dylan Jones (Bowie: A Life, 2017); Strange, in autobiography (Blitzed!, 2002) and to Spitz; Frankland, in “Frankly Frankland: The Blitz, David Bowie and Ashes To Ashes” (The Swelle Life, 22 February 2011). Dillaine, Devereux & Power’s essay “Culminating Sounds and (En)visions: Ashes to Ashes and the Case for Pierrot” is collected in David Bowie: Critical Perspectives; on the history of Pett, sources inc. Christa Cloutier’s “The Blessed Little Sea Shanty,” (Guardian, 30 Sept 2009), Michael Foley’s Martello Towers (2013) & description of latter comes from BP Smith’s Journal (1834). Most of the Pett towers had to be abandoned due to beach erosion by the end of the 19th C.

*Most Bowie references (Pegg, Cann, Griffin) note that the video was shot in May 1980, but Strange once said it was in early July. Given the English climate, it’s impossible to determine by sight if the beach shoot is in summer or no (Brazier, who has the only skimpy costume, is wearing an overcoat to cover herself in one “off-stage” photograph, seen above—but again, this proves nothing, as it’s a beach near Hastings). It would make a bit more sense if the video had been filmed later than May, given that Bowie had just completed “Ashes” that month—a shoot a few weeks later, which still left enough time for post-production before the single’s release in early August, is perhaps more likely?


Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me (Again)

April 6, 2020

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Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me (studio takes, 9 January 1974).

A happy surprise in a season of unhappy ones is the recent leak of an Olympic Studios tape of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” from January 1974. The source is, apparently, someone who made a digital copy of the tape, which was auctioned off by Omega last fall. The winning bidder paid £2,100. Now the world has it—who knows, perhaps the bidder was feeling generous.

As per Omega’s description of the session, from 9 January 1974: “The tape features Bowie pausing frequently to direct the musicians – in total there are six different takes with three being complete. The label lists a final version as “MASTER” but this is no longer present on the reel, presumably having been spliced off to be compiled with other album master tracks, possibly for further overdubbing etc.”

This is exactly the sort of thing—a series of studio takes, with Bowie shifting lyrics around, trying out phrasings and tempos, hitting bum notes, cracking up—that he had no interest in ever releasing. “Official” Bowie outtakes are almost always a complete performance, whether it’s a demo, live recording, fully-mixed studio take, alternate mix of a song, or, a DB favorite, a sketch that he monkeyed with years later to create a fake “lost” song (see “I Pray Ole”). Twenty minutes of Bowie running Mike Garson, Herbie Flowers, and Tony Newman through a song that he’d not quite finished: not so much.

So is it worth a listen? I found it pretty compelling—played it twice through. Not quite sure why, apart from its novelty. Maybe just to hear Bowie and his musicians doing a normal act—working out backing tracks of a song in a studio one night—is now comforting, similar to how films with scenes in restaurants or offices or crowded streets have a sudden, painful nostalgia to them. Random shots of life as we’ve known it our entire lives can seem as remote as film footage of a Cossack charge.

Bowie had been working on what became Diamond Dogs for months when he cut these takes in early January. This period at Olympic, with just Bowie, Garson, Flowers, and Newman on the session, was when the album, which had been a loose collection of songs from various prospective theatrical ventures, finally took shape—they cut much of the “Sweet Thing” sequence, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me,” “We Are The Dead,” “Big Brother” and “Diamond Dogs” alone in roughly 10 days (along with an early version of “Can You Hear Me”).

Hearing “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” in a stripped-down, developing state improves the song for me. It was always an odd fit for Diamond Dogs, playing the role that a cover song like “Fill Your Heart” or “It Ain’t Easy” had on Bowie’s earlier Seventies albums. A spot of reassurance on a diseased-sounding record, as I once called it—the brass hinge between the “Hunger City” songs on side one and the Nineteen Eighty Four pieces on the second side.

Co-composed by Bowie’s childhood friend (and 1974 tour vocalist) Geoff MacCormack, who came up with some of the verse chords, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” was apparently first slotted for the sketchiest of Bowie’s mid-Seventies plans: a Ziggy Stardust musical intended for the stage or TV. Talking to William S. Burroughs two months before this recording, Bowie said this musical would be a cut-up performance. He’d write some 40 scenes and then “shuffle [them] around in a hat the afternoon of the performance and just perform it as the scenes come out…it would change every night.”

A precursor of “We Are the Champions” and other arena standards, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” is made of “rock spiritual” timber—a “Lean On Me”/”Let It Be”-esque piano intro, a Garson organ hymn and a Bowie vocal that takes predictable flight: low and confined in the first verse, swoops up an octave for the second, capping it off with roared refrains and scats (“I’m in tears...I’m in tears”). In the rehearsal takes, you can hear Bowie plotting this course out (“the next time it comes around it keeps straight, like a 4/4 thing…that’s right, the high verse: AH la la la lah-dah!”)

What saves the song from sentimentality is its acerbic take on the relations of audience and actor (“they sold us for the likes of you”). “There are two stars in rock ‘n’ roll—me and the audience,” Bowie had said at one of the last Ziggy Stardust concerts in Newcastle, irritated by bouncers hitting some kids. “And if these stewards don’t stop…the stars are going to make this place into a matchbox.” If it’s meant to be the voice of Ziggy, it’s a Ziggy tartly explaining why he broke up the band and was renting a room somewhere in America to get away from his fans (“I’ve found a door that lets me out!”).

Asked in summer 1974 whether his fans considered him as a leader, Bowie said that “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” was his response: “you’re doing it to me. Stop it.” Eventually-scrapped lyrics in the rehearsal takes show how he was playing with this idea: “I would take invaders into hand/ tens of millions fail to understand.”

He could be frustrated by fans who got stuck on a persona he’d discarded. They were content to “adopt the stance of a character that didn’t exist at all, and a life-style that hadn’t been created…they created their own life-style for Ziggy,” he later said, baffled that anyone had taken him seriously. On stage in 1974, he used performances of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” to have gnomic dialogues with his crowds. In Boston, he broke off midway through it to ramble “this one is very much for you, this song…are you people? I’m people.” (“It’s about me and singing,” he said during another performance.) On the Diamond Dogs cut, he gave the last word to his lead guitar.

The rehearsal takes have a lightness and a dedication to them, the latter especially in Bowie’s singing—after being in a fog, he was seeing the way out. Diamond Dogs was a defiant album: the album after Ziggy and the Spiders died, the one that showed that Bowie could stand on his own without a Ronson or Visconti (though the latter helped with mixing it), the one he made after Sonia Orwell turned him down for Nineteen Eighty Four; the last album that he cut (mostly) in England. It was, in many ways, his first true solo album, and it always meant a great deal to him. Now, until the YouTube links dry up, you can hear Bowie singing part of it into being.


Chapter Eleven: Tomorrow Isn’t Promised (1998-2000)

December 17, 2018

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Epigraphs   Eno: to Mark Sinker, The Wire, 1992; Pyzik: in Helibo Seyoman.

442  Trying to Get to Heaven  it appeared on a Virgin promo CD-R that also had a Danny Saber remix of “Fun” (photographic evidence on this Illustrated DB thread); Time Out of Mind: for instance, it topped OK Computer in the Village Voice “Pazz & Jop” critics poll of 1997; nice break in the cycle: Plati, on his website’s message board (reprinted on Teenage Wildlife); should just give up: to Michael Kimmelman, NY Times, 14 June 1998; Tim Curry: said to young CO at a press junket in October 1993. Curry was the villain in a now-forgotten remake of The Three Musketeers, and was talking about his performance in that film in particular.

443  Battle Hymn  As Bowie’s only singing the chorus, he could be singing “John Brown’s Body,” the song that “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was adapted from. But as his character Sikora looks as if he’s wearing a variant of a Confederate uniform, it would be odd if he was singing the Union marching song. Perhaps he’s doing so ironically; perhaps this is an alternate Earth where the Confederacy won; perhaps (here’s a guess) no one involved in the film had a clue about this issue; first release: it didn’t appear in the US until was issued, under the title Gunslinger’s Revenge, as a DVD in 2005.

444  Suite for a Foggy Day  apparently its official title, though the Red Hot + Rhapsody CD just uses the Gershwin title, which I also use as the primary way to identify this track; make it very Badalamenti: East Village Radio interview, ca. March 2014; transcription by Pieter Dom, 13 January 2016. There’s of course the story that Bono wanted to do this song but Badalamenti had already booked DB—I didn’t mention it in this essay because it seemed like the story had been recounted by 200 websites in the months after Bowie’s death, so I figured you didn’t need reminding.

445   Safe  oddly difficult to determine when exactly it was offered to BowieNetters. Its first physical release was on the “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” CD single, issued on 16 September 2002; a real old woman: The David Bowie Story, 1993; three hours reminiscing: Billboard, 26 September 1998. The reunion had begun a year or so before, but had a pause when Bowie apparently got irked with Visconti talking to Mojo in 1997 about how he and Mick Ronson had been essentially co-composers of some of The Man Who Sold the World; far beyond my wildest dreams…doesn’t fit in: MTV News, 9 October 1998.

446  objective piece: to Stuart Clark, Hot Press, 10 November 1999; more internal…world really is: to Chris Norriss, Spin, November 1999. Responding to a fan query on a web-chat on BowieNet (27 April 1999), Bowie said:

At the time of Ziggy, there was so 
   much more going on in my head than just the idea 
   of a new synthetic rock star
<David\bBowie> that I want to fully explore all the 
   fragments that made up in my own mind the Ziggy 
   world.
<David\bBowie> And hopefully I'll be able to do 
   quite a complex overview in 2002.
<David\bBowie> And it will have great shoes...
<hj> 28BebeBuell says:rnSpeaking of Ziggy will the 
   1980 Floor Show ever see the light of day again??
<David\bBowie> What a charming name, Bebe...
<David\bBowie> I'm very keen to try and get this 
   released and I would like to combine it with 
   outtakes from that night.
<David\bBowie> It should be this century...maybe 
   next century, but we've all got patience haven't 
   we?

info-packed maps: Hot Press, 10 November 1999; Ziggy’s parents perspective: shown in a plot sketch included in the David Bowie Is exhibit; I’ve found bits and pieces…keeping the sound of the material in the period: Radio One “The Net” interview, 23 July 1998 (Ziggy Stardust Companion is a good source for more details about the ‘Ziggy 2002’ project.)

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447 Velvet Goldmine:  Haynes sent Bowie an early version of the script and asked to use seven songs (“All the Young Dudes,” “Sweet Thing,” “Lady Stardust,” “Moonage Daydream,” Bowie’s cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Lady Grinning Soul,” and the title track). Despite lobbying by Michael Stipe and Kim Gordon, Bowie denied Haynes permission. “When I saw the film I thought the best thing about it was the gay scenes, the only successful part of the film, frankly. The film didn’t understand how innocent everyone was then about what they were getting into Also there was a lot more shopping,” Bowie said to Andrew Davies (The Big Issue, 11-17 January 1999); so ecstatic about Tommy Stone: Haynes, conversation with Julia Leyda, 29 March 2012; got really nervous: Jones, 379.

448  running like fuck from that one…slack-arsed script: to Michael Dwyer, Rolling Stone (Australia), June 2002.  Mother   it’s unclear whatever happened to this Lennon tribute album, still unreleased as of this writing. You’d think at some point, tracks recorded for it would have come out, as seemingly everything else Lennon-related has; lonely little kid: quoted in Jonathan Cott’s Days That I’ll Remember; journalist saw him: Martin Hayman, Rock, 8 October 1973. “At the corner of the settee nearest the fire…sits a familiar figure, eyes half closed, head bowed, nodding gently, almost imperceptibly, to the pain and anger of John Lennon’s “Mother” growling out of a loudspeaker at each corner of the spacious hunting lodge room…you might think he was falling asleep were it not for the slight tightening of the eyebrowless forehead at the compelling anguish of the shrieking fade-out.”

449  stepping stone: to Jérome Soligny, Rock et Folk, December 1998; first attempts at manipulating music in a computer: Visconti message to Bowie Wonderworld, ca. September 2006 (the year I believe “Mother” was bootlegged).

450  20th Century Boy    we were in key at least: Melody Maker, 17 April 1999; old Judy Garland thing: Gay Times, December 1998.

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451  New Angels of Promise The Omikron: The Nomad Soul version appeared on the 2004 ‘hours…’ 2-CD reissue.  BowieNet: users were charged $20 a month to use it as their internet service provider ($6 for a no-frills subscription). After four months of operation, it was reportedly valued at $500 million (as per Time Out, December 1998), though Bowie was skeptical about how much he really was earning from it: “I can’t even buy a packet of cigarettes on the proceeds from this fucking thing…There is no money in what we do. It’s like being in the silent movies”; Subeez Café: 30 September 1998 BowieNet web chat. I’m being mean in choosing these particular questions—there were some funny and perceptive ones, too; almost metaphysicalon the cusp of something: BBC2 Newsnight, 3 December 1999.

452  once everyone can sample…no longer church: Bowie, chat on Eden.vmg.co.uk, 2 February 2000. Interviewed by Yahoo! Internet Life in 1999, he predicted music would soon be “on tap” through computers like water. But touchingly, he still imagined that record stores would remain central to music consumption, predicting that clerks would download tracks for you from some licensed database. “You go in and you’d ask the assistant for the menu and you choose exactly what tracks you want. And then they’ll be burned into a CD—if you’re that old-fashioned—or put onto a player”; bit Bond Street: Mojo, October 1994; core competencies: Financial Times, 26 January 2000; Bowie bonds: among the more misunderstood things that Bowie was ever involved in. He didn’t “go public,” he didn’t put himself on the stock market, fans almost certainly couldn’t have bought them, etc. For more, see the blog post; Bowie’s trading desk: to Forbes, 4 March 2000 (“People don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gosh, I’m really turned on by my bank,’ says Goodale, but he and Bowie didn’t see why something that is useful, like online banking, couldn’t also be sexy and fun.”) To Peter Paphides (Time Out, December 1998), Bowie said “when I was a kid, music was the fascinating alternative future. But now it’s just another career choice such as banking or being a travel rep”; BowieBanc: run by USABancShares.com Inc. It’s worth briefly recounting the history of this company. In 1887, the Peoples Thrift Savings Bank was founded, which thriftily endured for a century. Then in 1995 an investment banker named Kenneth Tepper bought it, renamed it BankPhiladelphia (mashed/multi-capitalized bank names were in vogue), bought other local banks and merged their operations, took this company public, renamed it again to USABancShares, which increased its valuation from $18 million to $350 million in four years. Its internet bank division launched in 1999, of which BowieBanc was the first big venture. Bowie had no exposure to USABancShares, put up no capital, and was paid for the use of his name and image. So he was possibly the only person left unscathed from the venture, which had a mere 1,500 depositors by mid-2000 and lost $9.7 million that year. Tepper resigned in March 2001; the bank was delisted by Nasdaq and traded for a dime a share (“the expectations on us and on technology in general were unrealistic,” Tepper told the Philadelphia Business Journal (1 April 2002—much of the above comes from various Philadelphia Business Journal articles of the period).) USABancShares was soon sold to a company run by its former chief financial officer, which in turn went out of business in 2017; Zysblat: FT, 26 January 2000.

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453   Boz as a patchwork quilt: Game Center, 25 October 1999; plenty of strip clubs: New Zealand Herald, 26 June 1999.

454  man does not hear: Herron, Call of the Cross, “The Divine Method of Culture,” 74.

455 Jahangir labeled “Jangir” on the Omikron game booklet, so I threw in both names.

456  Survive first distributed on a promo giveaway CD included with the 8-14 September 1999 issue of Les Inrockuptibles. It was also a 2-CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96486 0 7, 7243 8 96487 0 6) released on 17 January 2000, which included Marius de Vries’ mix, the Walter Stern-directed video clip and a live performance of the song from the Elysée Montmartre, 14 October 1999.

457  composed throughout the year: descriptions of the ‘hours’ composing/recording process as per Gabrels to CO, August 2018; window of opportunity was there: Buckley, 463; stripped-down affair…music for Omikron: Plati interview with Trynka, ca. late 2000s; see what will come out of it: Rock et Folk, December 1998. “Reeves Gabrels and I have written a lot in during the last few months…We compose for the pleasure and our spectrum is wide, between purely electronic music and acoustic songs.”

458  had my druthers, not put out an album…how I tend to think: to Robert Phoenix, Dirt, 5 October 1999; full album in London: Gabrels to CO, August 2018; Diamond Dogs quality…fretless bass: Ives interview, 20 February 2017; looking where songs would land: Trynka interview, ca. late 2000s.

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459 just like a bloke: Chris Roberts, DB interview tape for Uncut, 29 July 1999; circle of friends…feel claustrophobic to me: Ives interview, 20 February 2017; evolves as an artist…why he’s not old: David Bowie Story, 1993; wrinkled, shaggy-haired: AP, 9 September 1999; every cliché in the book…poignant, sad life: to Jim Sullivan, Boston Globe, 9 February 1997.

460  people get mellow…aren’t true to their lives: to Stuart Maconie, NME, 13 September 1991; flounder a little…when they were younger: to Gil Kaufman, ATN, October 1999; living a lie or mistake: Liquid Love, 55; boy was the flame dead: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999.

461 Something in the Air   The American Psycho remix appeared, unsurprisingly, on the soundtrack of Mary Harron’s 2000 film and was later collected on the 2004 ‘hours…’ reissue.

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462  terrible conflict…it’s terrible: ATN, October 1999; present sensibility…so has the future: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999; pairs of chords: both verse and refrain open by shuttling between tonic and flatted VII chords (so D to C in the verse, A to G in the chorus), darken midway through with a run of minor chords and each closes by setting up the opposing key (so the verse ends with a G that the A major opening of the chorus resolves; the refrain just sinks back to D); faux novelist: ATN, October 1999; Peacock: to Bill Reynolds, Crawdaddy, April 1989. Bowie had been a fan since the early Seventies, having his Astronettes record Peacock’s “Seven Days” in 1973, and had apparently wanted to work with Peacock on what became ‘hours…’ But as with Bowie’s oft-expressed wish to work with Glenn Branca, the collaboration never came to be.

464 Brilliant Adventure    luverly instrumental: DB, web-chat on BowieNet, 4 July 1999; something very odd came from all this: Bowie, 24 August 1998 web journal entry.

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465   Thursday’s Child   BowieNet members voted on the single mix: both the “Radio Edit” (their choice) and the “Rock Mix” (guitars trace over the synths; Bowie lead vocal sounds like it’s being routed through a metal tube; gargle-orgasm-drum fill break) appeared on the UK/EU CD single; a “Hip Hop Mix” was never released. A longer (by ten seconds) version is in Omikron: The Nomad Soul: this version, titled the “Omikron Slower (sic) Version” was included on the 2004 reissue, as was the Rock Mix; Eartha Kitt:  in addition to titling her autobiography, Thursday’s Child was also one of the Kitt LPs released in Britain in the Fifties; prediction rhyme: altered during the 19th Century, perhaps to bring it more in line with Christianity, as Friday was now “full of woe” and Sunday got some of Thursday’s glory.

466  teeth-grinding get it done guy: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999; her friends rather than grown-ups: Buckley, 471.

467  We All Go Through   faux-psychedelic: DB on BowieNet, 27 July 1999; a series of transitions without scenes: Momus, 10 January 2014.

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468  Seven  the album’s third single, 17 July 2000 (Virgin 7243 8 96928 2 2, UK #32), a CD that included the DeVries Mix, the “demo,” the album version, a live version from the Kit Kat Club, NYC (19 November 1999; another live recording is on the “Survive” single) and Beck Mix #1. All but the live version were included (along with Beck Mix #2) on the 2004 ‘hours’ reissue; song of nowness: VH1 Storytellers performance, 23 August 1999; seven days to live…the present is the place to be: to David Quantick, Q, October 1999; each day to be really good…until death strikes: to Charlie Rose, 31 March 1998; only the person the greatest number of people believe I am: Q, October 1999.

469 Pretty Things Going to Hell a different mix (notable mostly for the occasional sub-Nine Inch Nails loop) was issued on 24 August 1999 on the Stigmata soundtrack, though oddly another mix (jacked up in tempo) was used in the actual film (both tracks are on the 2004 reissue of ‘hours…’). The Omikron: Nomad Soul “performance” is the Stigmata soundtrack version. An edit of the album version was issued as a lead-off single in Japan and Australia, and as a promo-only CD single in the US. A live NYC performance (from the Kit Kat Club, 19 November 1999) is on the “Seven” single; something more rambunctious: ATN, October 1999; their day is numbered…very serious little world: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999.

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470   I wrote a song about stand-up: ATN, October 1999; low ugly simple perfect: to Buckley, 472.  We Shall Go to Town   Confusing its B-sides, Virgin listed the track as “We Shall All Go to Town” on the CD single; key track…less jolly than Thursday’s Child: Ives interview, 20 February 2017.

471  done in a heartbeat…went to town as it were: Plati to CO, April 2016.

473  What’s Really Happening   very soul searching: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999; impertinent, scanned well: ZDTV interview, shot at the overdub session, aired 14 June 1999; color commentary: BowieNet transcript from 24 May 1999.

474 Jewel    pursuit of the new…diverging from what I needed: Buckley, 476. That said, Gabrels soon took his own traditionalist turn. For his Rockonica, he went analog. “Having spent the previous six years using Logic/Pro Tools on everything I wrote or produced…I was pretty tired of the “man alone in front of a computer” thing. In fact, that whole treated-drum-loop-electronic-rock-band-vibe that I was into in the middle of the last decade seemed soooo tired out to me,” he told Music Dish. “While you can’t fault the technology (computers don’t make boring music, people do), I just felt like to record digitally would have been so very, very nineties.”; becoming too VH1…imposing my will: to Kenneally, October 2000 “Noneradio” interview; drug myself to death: to Trynka, Starman, 376; workload got heavier: to Spitz, 384.

475  descriptions of the “Jewel” session via RG to CO, August 2018, and Bowie’s web journal entries, 1998-1999. Sector Z    overriding feature: Visconti, Brooklyn Boy, 342; we freaked out: Gutter to CO, February 2014 (source of recording details in this entry). Gutter once played a prank on Visconti in which he called him up pretending to be Bowie, not knowing that Bowie and Visconti were now regularly talking to each other.

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476  Hole in the Ground  As Toy, as of this book’s publication, is still a bootleg, it couldn’t appear in the Discography (well, it could have, I suppose). The sequence of the 2011 leak, which has not been verified as the intended release sequence, is: Uncle Floyd*/Afraid*/Baby Loves That Way/ I Dig Everything*/ Conversation Piece/ Let Me Sleep Beside You/ Your Turn to Drive (Toy)/ Hole in the Ground*/ Shadow Man/ In the Heat of the Morning*/ You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving/ Silly Boy Blue*/ Liza Jane*/ London Boys. (* = tracks or mixes still unreleased); Anthony Newley stuff: Q, April 1990.

477  invigorated sense of purpose: ATN, April 1997; re-recording some early songs: Bowie web journal, 29 October 1998; Up Date I: Bowie web journal, 3 January 2000; waste the energy of a show-honed band…sing till my tits drop off: Bowie journal, printed in Time Out, 21-28 June 2000; weren’t out to reduplicate original tracks: Plati essay for The Voyeur, April-Sept. 2002.

478  belting his brains out: to Dan LeRoy, Greatest Music Never Sold, 42.

479  her vibe would be perfect…arsenal of eccentric instruments…beg it to stay together: Plati, Voyeur, Aug.-Sept. 2002; cool drones, like a John Cale vibe: Germano to LeRoy, 47; hard to believe they were written so long ago…in the Sixties: 28 September 2000 Bowie web journal.

480  Pictures of Lily   glam version of Crazy Horse: Plati web journal, 1 November 2000.

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481 Afraid   until he had the goods: LeRoy, 53; interesting deceit: quoted in Pegg, 15.

482 everything will be alright: Bowie web journal, 23 May 2002.

483 The Uncle Floyd Show: the life of Floyd Vivino and the Uncle Floyd Show comes from a number of sources including Amy Krakow’s profile for New York (21 January 1980), Jack Silbert’s NY Times interview with Vivino (8 December 2002) and most of all Beth Knobel’s profile, written as the show entered syndication, for the Columbia Daily Spectator (21 July 1982). Other details are from a long-shuttered website run by Floyd Show alum “Muggsy” (http://archive.is/I6boc); show’s production values: One example of the show’s rhythms: R. Stevie Moore is playing “Sit Down” on the Uncle Floyd Show in 1980. After the performance, Uncle Floyd greets each member of the band. The guitarist blankly says that his guitar is wrapped in a sheet of newspaper from the day he was born (“well, that’s different,” Floyd says). Floyd vaguely insults the bassist, while the drummer is hostile (“can you shake my hand at least? Don’t you wanna meet me?”). Throughout Floyd is calm, unruffled, a king; Bones and Oogie: “If you didn’t know about Uncle Floyd, you’d think the characters in the song were Bowie characters,” Bowie introducing “Slip Away” on A&E, 23 June 2002; living room in New Jersey: Bowie web journal, 23 May 2002.

484  doing a song about me: NY Times, 8 December 2002; semi out of tune piano: Plati web journal, 1 November 2000; Mark Ryden painting: LeRoy, 42.

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485  Toy is finished and ready to go: BowieNet chat, 4 June 2001; complicated scheduling negotiations: BowieNet, 4 July 2001; new material over Toy: BowieNet, 29 October 2001; Bowie would never talk about it: LeRoy, 60; new writing takes precedence: quoted in Pegg, 403.

486  so much more haunting: LeRoy, 55; a nicer time…anxiously into the future: Rolling Stone, June 2002.

487 Isn’t It Evening  one street guy in there: to Jeff Slate, Music Radar, 26 February 2013; almost like making a demo: to Gerry Galipault, Pause and Play, 9 December 2003; doing a little something: Billboard, 31 December 2003; seven rough pieces: to Lisa Sharken, Vintage Guitar, March 2004; sat around for a long time…just had a thing: Plati to CO, April 2016.

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488 Nature Boy   resurrect the audience: to Harvey Kubernick, 2006 (collected in Kubernick’s Hollywood Shack Job); eden ahbez: Born George Alexander Aberle, in Brooklyn, 1908. We first meet him in Los Angeles in 1947, failing to get backstage at a Nat King Cole concert at the Lincoln Theater. He gave Cole’s manager a soiled, rolled-up score for “Nature Boy.” Cole was taken with it, but the “eden ahbez” on the score had no known address (ahbez said only God was entitled to capital letters). After scouring the city, Capitol executives (at least according to PR legend) found him camped underneath an “L” of the Hollywood sign. By summer 1948, Cole’s “Nature Boy” was a #1 pop hit, soon covered by Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra. Cast by reporters as the embodiment of his song, ahbez was an ur-hippie, promoting vegetarianism, outdoor living, “Eastern” philosophies, and a live-off-the-land-or-someone’s-couch ethos. (In the Sixties, he hung out with Donovan, had his songs recorded by Grace Slick and attended Beach Boys Smile sessions; R. Crumb’s “Mr. Natural” was partially based on him). He stayed in California for the rest of his life, spending his last years working on a book and album, neither of which he finished. He died at 86, in 1995. (Sources include Ted Gioia’s entry on “Nature Boy” in The Jazz Standards; the marvelous blog dedicated to ahbez, “Eden’s Island“; a profile of ahbez for Life, 10 May 1948; and Brian Chidester’s “Eden Ahbez: The Hippie Forefather’s Final Statement to the World,” LA Weekly, 18 February 2014.)

489  Yiddish pop song: “Nature Boy” is just two 16-bar verses, with slight harmonic and melodic differences between the two. Its D minor progression has a chromatic descending bassline for the boy’s roam over land and sea in the middle bars and feints at a shift to A major at the end of each verse. Most of its phrases are pegged to the notes of each underlying triad (“was-a-boy,” “then-one-day” etc. are A-F-D, the notes of the underlying D minor chord (D-F-A) and so on). Scrapping ahbez’s waltz meter for a free rubato, Cole leisurely scaled ahbez’s wide intervals (like the octave leap-and-fall of “there WAS a boy”); Luhrmann: to Jones, 418-420.


Chapter One: New People (1976-1977)

October 6, 2018

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Epigraphs    Shaftesbury: pen name of Albert Webster Edgerly, late-19th-Century American reformer/con man who promoted healthy eating (particularly of whole grain cereal), “probationary marriage,” teeth brushing, and eugenics. He wrote over a hundred books: “The New Race” is an essay in one of them, Cultivation of the Chest; Or, The Highest Physical Development of the Human Form (1895); von Wolzogen: quoted in Berlin: Culture and Metropolis, 98; Kino-Eye: as per subtitles of the now out-of-print Image DVD.

20   Sister Midnight    Hansa Tonstudios: Hansa began as a label, production company, and publishing firm founded by the Meisel brothers in 1962. In the Sixties, the brothers regularly used the future Hansa by the Wall Meistersaal, booking time from its then-owner, the Ariola label. They also built their own studio, Hansa Tonstudio 1, where The Idiot would be mixed (and possibly have some last overdubs). Tonstudio 1 was not in the same building as Meistersaal Tonstudio 2 (where Low overdubs and mixing & vocals/tracking for “Heroes” were done) and the less grand Tonstudio 3 (where Lust for Life was cut), both of which were on Köthener Straße—Hansa had bought the latter studios in the mid-Seventies. The original Tonstudio 1 was located at Nestorstraße 8-9, in Halensee. When it closed at the end of the Seventies, a “new” Tonstudio 1 was built in the Köthener Straße location (sources include a Hansa profile in the 22 January 1977 Billboard.) As per Tobias Rüther, Hansa engineer Eduard Meyer’s diary lists Idiot mixing sessions for 21-22 and 28 August 1976—I gave a slightly broader range of dates; engineered: Meyer and Tony Visconti did enough significant work on the album that they likely should be credited, too; first release: Iggy album release dates of the period are harder to determine than Bowie’s. In this case, I went with Kevin Cann’s Chronology, published in 1983 and closer to the time than most other sources: Cann lists 18 March 1977, a Friday. The Idiot is reviewed in the 19 March 1977 Record World, the 26 March 1977 Billboard, the 28 March 1977 Village Voice, the 5 March 1977 Melody Maker, and Cash Box notes it first being added to radio playlists in its 19 March 1977 issue; live: while there are claims that Pop played Sister Midnight live in 1990, I didn’t find any bootlegs to verify this; trailer park: the Osterbergs lived there until 1982; Jim Bowie: Pop to Paul Trynka, Open Up and Bleed, 19. Trynka’s biography is by far the best depiction of Pop’s early life in Ann Arbor and a key source of details here; city administrator’s daughter: Sally Larcom. “It’s hilarious when I remember how straight and smart he was,” she recalled of her ex-boyfriend (Michigan Live, 23 June 2008); studded with rivets: recollection of Cub Koda to Trynka, Bleed, 39; sort of smelled out: 2009 Pop interview in Benjamin Piekut’s Experimentalism Otherwise, 182.

21   guys were over my head: to McCain and McNeil, Please Kill Me (PKM), 367; used to work off the age: to Roy Trakin, New York Rocker, No. 25, December 1979/January 1980; Corrs: eyewitness account on this ILX thread, 23 July 2002; hear words musically: to Chris Roberts, Sounds, 18 October 1986; I was the worker: to Mat Snow, Q, September 1988; 24-hour job: Cynthia Rose interview with Pop, from an undated 1980 issue of Viz (a UK art and fashion magazine, published 1979-1981); who cares if we’re not the best: one of the Whiskey a Go-Go shows in September 1973; against the wall: to Dave Marsh, Zig Zag, December 1970; one-piece life: NY Rocker, Dec. 1979/Jan. 1980; proximity of the electric hum: I Need More, 60.

22  need the freedom: quoted in Joe Ambrose’s Gimme Danger, 31; rock and roll reality that Iggy lived: PKM, 122; both escaped from LA…no fixed address: to Jim Sullivan, Boston Globe, 8 July 1990; watching Bowie doing: NME, 12 March 1977; never showed bad form: Bleed, 202; all the shit I know: PKM, 252; I think that was liberating for him: to Edwin Pouncey, The Wire, November 1999; important young actors: to Ben Edmonds, Circus, 27 April 1976.

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23  sweet but stupid: to Lester Bangs, Creem, March 1975; Hunter: Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 5 April 1975; Château d’Hérouville: for more on Bowie’s history there, see the Pin Ups chapter in Rebel Rebel. Bad Company cut Burnin’ Sky there between the making of The Idiot and Low; the Bee Gees wrote “Stayin’ Alive” there not long afterward. Having closed in 1985, the studio was abandoned “to weeds and squatters” for nearly two decades until being put on the market in 2013 and sold to a trio of French musicians. A restored studio was set to open in 2018 but as per its website, it remains “currently under restoration”; great rock ‘n’ roll studio: recalled by Thibault to Trynka, Starman, 253; compositional drought: “I was very unhappy with my writing style by the end of Station to Station. I thought my work was deteriorating,” Bowie told Lisa Robinson (Hit Parader, June 1978). Station to Station had only five original songs, one of which, “Stay,” was essentially a rewrite of “John, I’m Only Dancing”; fought for royalty advances: despite having just had a successful tour, Bowie was nearly broke at times in summer 1976. His MainMan-era royalties were reportedly in escrow due to his split with Tony Defries, and Thibault recalled Bowie having no cash for day-to-day expenses; first days of June: Bowie was in Switzerland for his son’s birthday on 30 May 1976: The Idiot sessions began within days after that; poor Jim: to Kurt Loder, Sound + Vision booklet interview, September 1989; Santangeli…suivons!: Bleed, 206-207. Thibault told Trynka that French musician/engineer Michel Marie played guitar in some tracking sessions, including the unreleased “Iggy Pop Don’t Stop” (see appendix). Edgar Froese also was slated to play synthesizer on the album but never got called to the studio—he went home after getting sunburned by the pool.

24  not seeing superheroes…godlike: Circus, 27 April 1976; cut your hair: Hughes, writing in Classic Rock, 26 September 2016; I was a guinea pig: to David Fricke, Rolling Stone, 19 April 2007; you fucking idiot: to Glenn O’Brien, Interview, April 1990; point of view of an idiot: to Thomas Vinterberg, 4 July 2002 TV interview; a little too much of me: Radio One interview with Stuart Grundy (Rock On), broadcast 29 October 1977.

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25   possibly demoed: Pop recalled that Bowie played him a four-track demo of “Sister Midnight” in LA in February 1976, so the song almost certainly preceded the tour; gigantic system built at Olympic [Alembic? see next]: Alomar to John Schaefer, WNYC Soundcheck, September 2010; sounds I was fascinated with: to Trynka, Mojo 219, February 2012 [someone on Tumblr had a good point—this may likely be an Alembic system, though it’s written as “Olympic” in Mojo—they’re homonyms, so it’s easy to see how the error happened if so]; Sister Midnight: shot between 1967-1974, its director Mays described the film as being about five young people who get high, then “enter as a group into a series of multiplexed dreams.” One girl, “Sister Midnight, allows one of the guys to enter her mind. As a result of this invasion she is reborn” (Mays, Film Works). See the NSFW trailer (soundtracked to “Baba O’Reilly”). It’s quite plausible that Bowie knew of the film, as it reportedly premiered in LA in June 1975, before he left for New Mexico to shoot The Man Who Fell to Earth; played live: debuted in Vancouver, 2 February 1976 (video footage exists of a rehearsal performance there). Its last extant concert recording is Philadelphia, 16 March 1976 (it’s not in the set in Boston, the following night). While it may have been performed in one of the last, un-bootlegged US shows that month (New Haven or Springfield), it didn’t survive the crossing to Europe; Radio-Activity: along with the Ramones’ debut, which Bowie told Pop showed that “the world hasn’t forgotten the Stooges”; Stacy Heydon: one of quite a few musicians whose name has been misspelled in Bowie or Bowie-related LP liner notes. It’s Stacy, not Stacey: that’s how he’s referred to in a CBC profile in 2016.

26  this record is bent: to Stephen Demorest, Phonograph Record, April 1977; mother: Pop sang that he’d made love to potatoes (or maybe? the Turtles—it’s a muddy vocal) during his Dinah Shore performance in 1977; Harrison console: a solid chance it was the same 3232 Harrison desk on which Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” was recorded; I love noises: Thibault to Bradley Banks (http://idiotlust.blogspot.com), 23 January 2008.

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27  Funtime   Dinah!: it aired on 6 May 1977. Other guests included Rosemary Clooney and the Miracles. A note (within a note): though I’ve listed Iggy Pop live performances, I didn’t do the same for solo Iggy broadcasts. The data on the latter is spotty, and it just was taking up way too much research time for a book about Bowie’s songs, not Iggy’s; we want flesh: The Ticket That Exploded, 54; my love song: Phonograph Record, April 1977; range of a fourth: with emphasis on the root (D) note of the D5 chord. When the chord shifts to E major for the solo, the spoken “we’re havin’ fun” is on that chord’s dominant note (B); make moneylittle gay: quoted in Adams, Complete Iggy Pop, 87; Lila Engel: inspired suggestion of Greg Smith.

28  Baby   live: he debuted it at the Teragram Ballroom, LA, on 9 March 2016. “This is a good little song off The Idiot”; torn apart in his heart: to Hideaki Okada, Music Life, 23 April 1977 (an interview tape that was on YouTube for a time, but appears to be gone. Some excerpts are transcribed in Roger Griffin’s Golden Years).

29  Tiny Girls   there’s allegedly a bootleg of Pop singing “Tiny Girls” for the only time in his life on stage—at Tsubaki House in Tokyo, 22 June 1983. As I couldn’t track down this tape, I didn’t feel there was enough evidence to mark the song as having been sung live. If the setlist is indeed genuine, it appears that “Tiny Girls” was sung as part of a medley that also included the standard “One For My Baby”; released: a quasi-official Iggy box set issued in the mid-2000s has an alternate mix roughly 15 seconds longer, with a slightly-different saxophone track; she destroyed me, man: NME, 3 May 1975. In 1979 Pop ranted to Kent that “all the bitches, all the women, want me now…Well, I hate women!”; little girls in Berlin: NY Rocker, Dec. 1979/Jan. 1980.

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30   Dum Dum Boys   broken-up group: unspecified 1997 interview, quoted in Wilcken’s Low, 42; Straight: a play on Williamson’s nickname, “Straight James”; we were outcasts: Bleed, 58; basic Archie Bunker juniors: quoted by Jon Savage, Dazed & Confused, 1997.

31   wandering tribe: to Bill Holdship, Detroit Metro Times, 7 October 2009; like a sociologist looking back: Phonograph Record, April 1977; intro: Bowie would get Pop in the vocal booth and tape him recounting stories of his misspent youth, with the vague idea of making a spoken-word album. It’s possible the opening of “Dum Dum Boys” came out of this; you jerk!: quoted in Dave Thompson’s Pretty Face Is Going to Hell, 259. “You know that little part on ‘Dum Dum Boys,’ that Boweeeewaaah? That’s his part, that’s David doing that.” (“Boweeewaah” was his guitar trademark, as he’d contributed a similar sound to “Fame”); Palmer…bend that note more: Bleed, 210. Ray and Dave Davies’ nephew, Palmer was summoned via a 2 AM Bowie phone call to Munich in early August 1976. He recalled to Trynka walking into a darkened room full of guitars and drum kits (property of Thin Lizzy, who were recording Johnny the Fox during the day—Palmer helped himself to their effects pedals), while Bowie and Pop sat in the control room, giving cryptic instructions; metal groups: unspecified 1997 interview, quoted by Wilcken and Ambrose; it’ll be me: Pop to Nick Kent, NME, 3 May 1975; Dum Dum Boys: the song would name a Norwegian and a California band, and it was Stone Gossard’s suggested name for what became Mother Love Bone, the ur-Pearl Jam.

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32   China Girl   Pop’s “China Girl” was issued as a single in the UK in May 1977 (RCA PB 9093); Bowie’s remake in May 1983. The latter’s David Mallet-directed video included a homage to the beach scene in From Here to Eternity, with an oft-censored shot of Bowie’s ass; live, 1985: an unrecorded Pop/Bowie performance with Ron Wood and Steve Winwood at a Pop gig at the China Club, NYC, 5 November 1985; politely drunk: Pop, interviewed in Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany (BBC, 2009), where he uses a power drill to open coconuts between questions; blundering blustering: Phonograph Record, April 1977.

33   Brando: Neil Young’s “Pocahontas” has parallels to “China Girl”— written around the same time, with a similar relationship between the white singer and his non-white title subject, and a Marlon Brando cameo.

34  bubblegum: to Buckley, Strange Fascination, 338; misjudged the length: Bob Clearmountain recalled “I could see the wince on Vaughan’s face. I said, ‘I’ll fix it,’ but David jumped in and said, ‘Don’t touch it. It’s perfect.’ We looked at each other, but David insisted. He loved the spontaneity.” (Wall Street Journal, 26 March 2011); invasion and exploitation: DB intro to VH1 Storytellers performance, 23 August 1999; fairly angry but it’s loving: Musiek Expres interview tape for a June 1983 feature, apparently conducted ca. March 1983, as Bowie references Vaughan as being in his touring band; Nguyen: “David Bowie m’a embrassée. Il était beau, j’ai pris peur…” Journal du Dimanche, 17 January 2016. Nguyen also wrote that she played “devil’s advocate” in a dinner conversation with Bowie (translated by Higelin? did Bowie speak enough French to communicate with her?) by defending Soviet communism—“in the name of this utopian, beautiful idea of ​​sacred unity for human beings”—against Bowie, who “was obsessed with the loss of freedom, he never missed a criticism of the Soviet regime.” The argument began when Bowie heard her reciting Pushkin in Russian, and it’s possible the idea of using a Dostoevsky novel’s title started here.

35  Mass Production   a child transfixed: Bleed, 210; zombie deadpan: Kent, NME, 12 March 1975; cities devoted to factories: Gimme Danger, 176.

 36  Nightclubbing    live: Pop sometimes sang the first verse in German during 1977 performances. Scott Thurston didn’t want to play “Nightclubbing” on Pop’s late 1977 tour because “I thought it was too drippy” (PKM, 434); lyric: Pop credited Bowie with “we walk like a ghost”; lousy drum machine: Pop remembered it as an “odd little Roland.” Trent Reznor sampled it for “Closer”; only Iggy Fucking Pop: South Bank Show interview, December 2004.

37   incredible coldness and deathly feeling: Phonograph Record, April 1977; Wardour Street: Bleed, 209.

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38  What in the World    ARP: Bowie and Eno never said which ARP synthesizers were used on Low. Top candidates are the ARP 2600 (a three-oscillator analog synth dating to 1971), the Odyssey Mark I (ca. 1972: a “suitcase” edition (two oscillators) of the 2600 that was meant to compete with the more affordable Minimoog; Roger Powell played one of the former on Bowie’s 1978 tour), and the Axxe (a smaller version (one oscillator) of the Odyssey, and reportedly used on The Idiot). One clue is the apparent use of a ring modulator (found on the 2600 and Odyssey but not the Axxe) on tracks like “Speed of Life” and “Weeping Wall,” though the latter most likely had an ARP Pro Soloist (ca. 1972) as its main synth. A commenter on the Vintage Synth boards noted that the Pro Soloist’s “Fuzz Guitar 1” preset is almost certainly heard on the track, adding “you can hear that Bowie has put Vibrato as a Touch Sensor effect in both cases, which you can hear him pressing harder then releasing in places, and then around 2:15 you can hear that he has added Growl as a Touch Sensor effect on the Clarinet preset.” The ARP Solina String Ensemble is a strong candidate for “Sound and Vision” at the least. The Solina, with a four-octave keyboard on which you could play violin, viola, trumpet, horn, cello and contrabass sounds, was popular among disco producers of the late Seventies; Rimmer EMI: possibly Eno’s EMS Synthi AKS temporarily renamed in honor of the composer John Rimmer; engineered: no credits listed, so my surmise is Thibault and Visconti for the French sessions, Meyer and Visconti for Hansa; Musikladen: a date maddeningly hard to verify. Consensus has it at 30 May 1978, but 29 May has also been cited. Maybe they shot it at midnight; tempo: Bowie’s last live versions, in 2002 as part of his revival of Low, restored the studio version’s tempo; Roy Young: A member of the Rebel Rousers in the early Sixties, Young was once called “England’s Little Richard.” He was in the house band of Hamburg’s Top Ten Club in 1962, playing with Tony Sheridan and Ringo Starr, and occasionally with the Beatles at the neighboring Star Club. (He and the Beatles cut backing tracks for an unreleased Sheridan single (“Sweet Georgia Brown”) in May 1962.) Young was still a hellion in 1976, making gin and tonics between takes at the Chateau, keeping a bucket of ice on his piano. Sending up cocktails to the control room proved disastrous, with Bowie found asleep or drunk at the console soon afterward; Farfisa: used on Eno’s Another Green World, the organ was being revived at the time by Jimmy Destri in Blondie and Jools Holland in Squeeze; Syd Barrett: he was “singing through the gloom,” which Barrett in turn had taken from James Joyce’s poem “Lean Out of the Window.”

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39   anima: a concept by Carl Jung, and an inspired suggestion of a commenter known only as “Norsey.”   Speed of Life    descending progression: Eb-Db-Bb-Ab, or I-VIIb-V-IV. Compare any 1978 live version to the Low track. The former are easier on the ear, with the verses given a rich, flowing bed of synthesizers to make the chord changes fall more smoothly.

41   A New Career in a New Town   Lennon: his earthy playing (he treated his chromatic harmonica like a one-key blues harp) is a key part of the sound of the early Beatles, from their first singles to album cuts like “Chains,” “Little Child,” and “I Should Have Known Better.” There’s a sharp drop-off in Beatles harmonica by late 1964, with the Dylan-tinged “I’m a Loser” marking the end of the line: a sign that the band thought the sound was becoming old hat. Lennon’s harmonica is heard only a few times more in the Beatles years (“All Together Now,” “Rocky Raccoon”), and his last recorded harmonica performance was his glorious solo on “Oh Yoko!”; chord progression: C-Am-F-G, or I-vi-IV-V, the “Fifties” progression (see “Five Years” in Rebel Rebel); Mr. Bloe: The B-side of an early Tony Orlando single, “Make Believe.” As songwriter Kenny Laguna recalled, he and his partner Bo Gentry dusted off the backing track of a “Mony Mony” knock-off single called “Bingo Bingo” and “improvised a haphazard harmonica and melodica overdub” (via Laguna’s website.) Called “Groovin’ With Mr. Bloe,” as performed by “Mr. Bloe,” the track became a UK #2. David J, in a Facebook post (1 June 2016), recounted that there was a Fifties-style jukebox outside Bowie’s dressing room during The Hunger shoot. After J punched up the Bloe 45, “Bowie was smiling all the while and well . . . grooving with Mister Bloe. Somehow I summoned up the audacity to make a statement. “This reminds me of something.” To which D.B. responded: “Oh, yeah? What’s that then?” “It’s one of yours!” “Yeah? Which one?” “It’s off of ‘Low.” “Yeah? Well, which track?” “Eh, ‘A New Career In A New Town?” And with that, Bowie put a finger to his lips, winked and carried on dancing!”

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42   Always Crashing in the Same Car    crashed Mercedes: Thibault to Trynka, 2005 “He told us he has to sell his Mercedes…It was a big class Mercedes and the value of the car was terrible because he’d had a car crash. So they offered only a very low price. David was very angry because he said that the Mercedes was paid for by RCA as an advance in royalties and it was very, very expensive and they wanted him to sell it for nothing”; like being in a car: The David Bowie Story, 1993; hardest one to get right: Mojo, February 2012.

43  spooky, not funny: Visconti, response to query on his old website (https://archive.is/YtKC8)   Sound and Vision   Low’s first single, it did well in the UK but died in the US—by April 1977, RCA took out ads in industry trades all but begging for Top 40 disc jockeys to play it. Top of the Pops 2: performed in the set, as per fans who attended the taping, but never aired; live: sung once on the 1978 tour, at Earl’s Court, a recording that first appeared on the semi-bootleg RarestOneBowie. Revived at the end of the Eighties, “Sound and Vision” titled Bowie’s career compilation and subsequent greatest-hits tour. A ghastly 1991 remix appears on the Rykodisc Low, while 808 State’s remix was issued as a David Bowie vs. 808 State 12″/CD-single the same year. A 1’50” reworking for a Sony’s Xperia Z was released as “Sound And Vision 2013,” and with hope, that’s the end of it; ultimate retreat song: to Michael Watts, Melody Maker, 18 February 1978; deep blue: this excerpt, which Bowie gave to Cameron Crowe in 1975, is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Archives. Quoted by Martin Schneider in Dangerous Minds, 31 July 2015; hand-cranked gramophone: “David had some odd requests, and it was my job to fulfill them. He was a vegan (sic) and more or less lived on milk and large amounts of cocaine which isn’t that easy to come across in the desert. I also found him a wind up gramophone. He used to sit alone in the white sands winding it up and listening to vinyl records for hours on end.” David Cammell, Man Who Fell to Earth’s producer (Daily Telegraph, 10 November 2016); greenie-grey light…buy your own groceries: to Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 12 November 1977.

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44  Crusaders tune: to Ralph Denyer, Sound International, September 1978; chords: in G major, so G-Am-D-G (I-ii-V-I), with the subdominant chord held back until the refrain, where it’s pitted against the tonic chord (C6 (“I will”) G (“sit right down”).)

45  theme from Deep Throat: a truly inspired discovery by Owen Maercks in 2017; not become a casualty: David Bowie Story, 1993.    Be My Wife   a promo shot by Stanley Dorfman in Paris in late June 1977 appears to reference earlier Bowie videos—Bowie’s flailing, awkward body movements parody his Jagger-esque moves on “Let Me Sleep Beside You” while the white-room setting and washed-out lighting invoke the promo for “Life On Mars?”; he just can’t be bothered: Momus comment on ILX, 10 October 2004.

46  genuinely anguished, I think: Melody Maker, 18 February 1978; merely sad: recalled by Annie McDuffie, who saw DB’s 5 February 2004 show in Phoenix.

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47  Breaking Glass   mangled treatment: to Chris Roberts, Uncut, October 1999; aggressive guitar drone: to Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton, Uncut, April 2001; hit one A note: Music Tech, 26 November 2014.

48  Eventide H910: Unveiled in 1974 (Yes’ Jon Anderson advised on the prototype), it had four knobs (input level, feedback, anti-feedback, and manual control) and eight buttons to regulate delay and output. It was invented by Eventide engineer Tony Agnello, who envisioned it as a means to pitch-correct wayward vocals or brass (NYC’s Channel 5 would use a Harmonizer to downward pitch-shift audio of I Love Lucy reruns that they’d sped up to squeeze in more commercials). Visconti had already used earlier-model signal distorters, like the Digital Delay and the Keypex, on his mixing of Diamond Dogs; fucks with the fabric of time: see any Visconti interview in the past 15 years; feedback of the tone…man hit in the stomach: Visconti, Brooklyn Boy, 237; how hard he hit his snare: to Michael Molenda, Electronic Musician, 19 April 2007; as big as a house: Sound International, September 1978; eccentric and listenable: to Rüther, Heroes, 48. Meyer added that “the glissando lowered the punch on the (snare) drum down to the basement.” In 1978, Bowie took credit for the sound!, telling Michael Watts that “I mixed up the bass very high…and did very extraordinary and naughty things to the snare drum sound…I wanted the snare drum to disintegrate. I was incredibly bored with the drum sound one hears, especially the American drum sound of the last 4, 5 years, the big, heavy, upfront bass drum, the make-it-sound-like-a-wooden-box that’s been there ever since “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” It doesn’t cut it anymore. So we fooled around with the drums and found that when we treated the whole drum kit it started to get back to a sort of psychedelic sound so we picked out different drums and treated them all individually. We found that corrupting the snare drum definitely put the whole thing out of focus with the normal perspective on how drums have sounded”; punky…did that shit the day before!: Five Years.

49  don’t normalize it: David Bowie Story, 1993; Tree of Life: to Uncut in 2001, Bowie said “it is a contrived image…it refers to both the Kabbalistic drawings of the Tree of Life and the conjuring of spirits.”   Subterraneans    Used as the opening movement of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 1, premiered in August 1992. Scored for: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, 4 percussion (side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, glockenspiel, triangle, chimes, tambourine, cymbals, castanets, tam-tam, woodblock), harp, piano, strings (8 first violins, 6 second violins, 4 violas, 4 celli, 2 double bass).   Strick: Circus, 28 February 1977; New Music: the album’s name apparently changed late in the day, as New Music was the title on first-run cassette labels in Canada, and it was also apparently on some promo issues, as  Ian MacDonald, reviewing the record in January 1977, referred to that name as if it was the album’s subtitle; manic disco…interesting shapes: to Miles, NME, 27 November 1976.

50  hence he brought in Eno: to George Cole, Record Collector, January 2017; soundtrack work: Music for Films was issued in a limited edition in 1976 and, with a revised track list, to the general public in 1978; David, Peter and me: Record Collector, January 2017; back into music again: Alan Yentob TV interview (Arena Rock), filmed in Cologne and broadcast 29 May 1978; faint jazz saxophones: to Tim Lott, Record Mirror, 24 September 1977.

51   16-bar refrain: As per the 1977 Low songbook, the sequence is: bars one to four: 3/4, 4/4, 4/4, 3/4 (“A”); bars five to eight: 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 3/4 (“B”); bars nine to twelve: 3/4, 4/4, 4/4, 3/4 (“A”); bars thirteen to sixteen: 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 3/4 (“B”); phonetics: Melody Maker, 29 January 1977.

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52  Art Decade  It was credited solely to Bowie until being changed to “Bowie-Eno” on All Saints in 1993 (the original, privately-issued version of this compilation) and subsequently on the European 2005 reissue of Stage. Possibly the latter was an error caused by referencing the first All Saints, as the credit had never changed on various Low reissues. The recent box set has restored the original sole-Bowie credit; sound made completely physical: quoted in Sheppard, Faraway Beach, 63-64; blast of synthesizer nonsense: to Lenny Henry, GQ, September 1996.

53  fecundity: Eno’s work of the 1973-1976 period includes (solo vocal LPs) Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) and Another Green World, (solo vocal singles) “Seven Deadly Finns” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” (instrumental albums) No Pussyfooting, Discreet Music, Evening Star, and the original Music for Films, (producing & “Eno-izing”) John Cale’s Fear, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Phil Manzanera’s Diamond Head, the first Penguin Café Orchestra album, Robert Calvert’s Lucky Leif and the Longships and more; more of a technologist: to Steven Davy, Beetle, January 1975; credited: It was happening before the first album came out (e.g., “Bowie’s newest, produced by Eno,” in a Low preview in the Soho Weekly News, 9 December 1976.) In 1999, Visconti told Uncut “David’s set the record straight many times since, and of course my name is in the credits as co-producer with David. How rock journalists continue to make that mistake is beyond me. Come to think of it, I don’t recall Brian ever setting the record straight.” In his NME review of Low, MacDonald praised “Eno’s treated snare drum” sound; German music: Bowie claimed in 1999 that “I took it upon myself to introduce Eno to the Dusseldorf sound with which he was very taken,” a recollection that may have surprised Eno; in Germany, he found something: to Stubbs, Future Days, 347.

54  wasn’t associated with rock: to Rob Patterson, “The Real David Bowie Stands Up,” Indiana Gazette, 7 January 1978 (this article was syndicated, so it wasn’t done for this newspaper); I needed somebody to work with…empathetic git: Rock On, 29 October 1977; cello: Meyer interviewed in Mike Christie’s Hansa Studios: By the Wall, 1976-90. “So when you listen to the track, you listen to a cello orchestra, played by myself.”

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 55  no hope of retribution: Record Mirror, 24 September 1977.  Warszawa  It was used as the basis of the third movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 1.  pockmarked with bullet holes: as described to Trynka, Bleed, 205.

56  Żoliborz: A northern district, west of the Vistula river and a roughly twenty-minute walk from the station; Plac Komuny Paryskiej: Paris Commune Square. It was restored to an earlier name, Plac Wilsona (after American president Woodrow Wilson, proponent of Polish independence), in the Nineties. I differed from my usual approach in recounting this story, which remains legend—to my knowledge there are no photographs of Bowie walking in Warsaw in 1976, nor has anyone else on that trip (e.g., Pop, Andrew Kent, Schwab) recalled this walk, I believe. But it’s far from improbable—it seems very much like the thing Bowie would have done. The story feels true, and ought to be in any regard; emotive, almost religious feel: Melody Maker, 18 February 1978; sonic scenarios: BBC Hard Talk, 11 May 2016; single notes: NME, 27 November 1976; melody against bass: JazzTimes, 15 May 2016; root notes instead of chords: In September 2016, a blog commenter “Tyrell” broke down the song’s structure brilliantly and greatly improved my original analysis. So: the opening melody is A-D-G-F. From F the melody goes to E, but as the root note remains A, this now sounds like an A major chord. When the melody started by Visconti’s son appears— A-B-C—the underlying chord changes to C major. The main melody (or first part of the “theme”) moves from F# major to D# minor to C# major, reaching a peak with an A# chord. After a repeat, there’s a third sparkling little melody, an upward movement that begins B, F#, B, F#, etc. After the theme section, the chords are F# major, F# minor, E major. The root note is now E, so the “solo vie milejo” section seems as if it’s in E major (Bowie sings a G#) while the “cheli venco deho” section feels more like E minor (Bowie sings a G). “After “malio” the root note goes from E to A (E-F-G-A) and it remains A during the second part of the sung section. At the end of this (after the last “malio”) it goes back via A-G-C and C# to the key of the main melody, which closes the song; musical picture of countryside in Poland: Melody Maker, 18 February 1978.

58  Polish folk songs: to Filip Łobodziński, Machina, January 1997; Polish choir as a child: to Watts, Melody Maker, 29 January 1977. Over the years, this statement has evolved into Bowie playing a “Balkan boys choir” album at the studio; phonetic language that doesn’t exist…different kinds of tensions: Okada Music Life interview, 23 April 1977; nice-sounding words: NME, 27 November 1976.

59  sinister: Pyzik to CO, February 2011. Her Poor But Sexy expands upon her thoughts here & is greatly recommended.    Some Are  Currently only available on the All Saints and iSelect compilations. The basis of the second movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 1.   bittersweet songs: Wilcken, 129, citing a “recent biography” that claimed this.

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60  wolf: Mail on Sunday, 28 June 2008; free-association: idea from Anthony Teague (whose name I misspelled as “Heague” in Rebel Rebel; apologies again, Anthony).

61   All Saints   electronic loops: to Pegg, 18 (all references in these notes are to Pegg’s seventh edition, from 2016);  label: the label in turn was named after All Saints Road in Notting Hill. Its first releases were holdovers from Eno’s Opal Records, which had closed in 1991.   Weeping Wall    works it out in his head: Heroes, 76; Meta-Musik Festival: after the performance, Bowie introduced himself to Reich. “And [he] then writes “Weeping Wall,” which sounds like “Music for 18 Musicians,” Reich told Alex Tween of The Gothamist (15 November 2013). The date of the 1976 festival is oddly hard to determine: one source has it as 5 October. Held in West Berlin in 1974, 1976 and 1978, the Festival was programmed by Walter Bachauer, an appointee of the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutsche Akademischer Austauschdienst, or DAAD), a government-run body indirectly funded by the Ford Foundation. The DAAD favored avant-garde and American artists to foment “freedom of expression” as part of West Germany’s cultural war with its eastern half; no regular beat…Bach, Stravinsky…irrational relationship: Reich interview with Jonathan Cott, 1996.

62  phasing: “What you really have is a unison canon or round where the rhythmic interval between the first and second voices is variable and constantly changing. “Phase” was just a technical word I used at the time to refer to the function of the tape recorders” (to Cott, 1996); out of phase with the original…new timbre that is both instrumental and vocal: Reich, Writings on Music, 76; vibraphone: “lying around in the studio,” as Meyer recalled to Rüther. It was an early version of the vibraphone (a marimbaphone with a distinct vibrato), built by the instrument’s creator, Herman Winterhoff, in 1916; bassline: in standard notation in the Low songbook, “Weeping Wall” is 97 bars of 3/4 time (the same time as much of “Mallet Instruments”), with a 16-bar outro faded halfway through. The synthetic bassline is four measures of a single note that’s repeated six times per bar—it starts with D, then A, F, B, G, B, G, E, G# and so on, patterns emerging as the piece proceeds; accumulative piece: David Bowie Story, 1993.


Reissues: Win

August 9, 2016

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Readers of Mojo have likely seen the article that I wrote for them this month (a preview here). Though commissioned to coincide with the announcement of The Gouster as part of the upcoming Bowie boxed set, the article is far more about the early days of the album sessions, in Philadelphia in August 1974. This was research I did for the book—I went to Philly and heard the various studio tapes held in Drexel University’s Audio Archives, which document the raw, loose first takes of things like “Young Americans” as well as the legendary “Shilling the Rubes” and the Bowie-sung “I Am a Lazer.” For more, read the article or check out the book. Also, if you’re going to the Bowie conference in Lisbon this September, excerpts from the tapes should be played during Leah Kardos’ and Toby Seay’s presentations.

The Gouster has been talked up as being  a “lost” Bowie album but that’s a bit of marketing—all of the restored songs (“John, I’m Only Dancing Again,” “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and “Who Can I Be Now”) have long been available as bonus tracks on other editions of Young Americans. And perversely, the new set doesn’t include previously-issued outtakes like “After Today” and “It’s Hard to Be a Saint In the City” (the latter a confusing track that started during Diamond Dogs and was possibly completed as late as Station to Station). But it is an interesting sequencing—Young Americans reconsidered as a slow-jam album, dominated by lengthy ballads. Would it have sold as well without having “Fame”? Maybe not.

What’s notable is that “Fascination” and “Win” aren’t on The Gouster sequence, though they were recorded prior to Tony Visconti leaving for London to mix and arrange the tracks, unaware that Bowie would upend things with his John Lennon collaborations. Any sequence without the masterful “Win” in particular seems just wrong, but perhaps it goes to show that the song, one of Bowie’s most gorgeous pieces, was underrated from the start.

Originally posted on 15 November 2010, all you’ve got to do is:

Win.
Win (live, 1974).
Win (live, tantalizing fragment, 2004).

The finest Young Americans ballad, “Win” is the closest Bowie came to the Philly Soul sound, using it to cushion a study of obsession and control. Softening David Sanborn’s alto saxophone, which plays dreamy scales throughout, and adding sweeps of low strings, Bowie and Tony Visconti made the track seem swathed in cotton. Along with the promiscuous use of sixth and major seventh chords, the arrangement gave “Win” a narcotic lassitude.

Like “Fascination,” “Win” has little in common with the rambling early Sigma Sound recordings —it’s the track on Young Americans to most foreshadow Station to Station, signaling an end to Bowie’s American soul project. Bowie said the chord structures in “Win” were “much more of a European thing than an American thing,” though they were also apparently a Brooklyn thing, too, as Earl Slick claimed in 2014 that he and Bowie “came up with that whole chord structure” in a hotel one night on tour. It was a standoff between G major and F major in the verses (with an A major posing an unresolved question, rather than moving the song anywhere) and a modulation to D major in the refrain.* It may have come from Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me,” with which “Win” shares a taste for sixths and major sevenths and a rhythmic hiccup: in the latter case, it’s two bars of 6/8 capped by a bar of 2/4 at the close of the refrain (compare “all you’ve-got-to-do-is-win” with the bridge of “Hello It’s Me,” “I’d nev-er-want-to-make-you-change,” a little steal first noted by Jeff Norman).

Singing his most inspired lines on the album (“someone like you should not be allowed to start any fires,”“Me, I hope that I’m crazy”), Bowie made a vocal in brushstrokes. The Philadelphia DJ Ed Sciaky, who attended the last “Win” session, said Bowie worked by “sing[ing] three lines, then having the engineer play them back, keeping the first line every time…hitting every line the way he wanted.” Finishing around seven in the morning, Bowie had the track played back twice, then nodded and pronounced it done.

While on other Young Americans tracks, Bowie had been foiled by his backing singers, on “Win” he keeps them in check. He paces them, undermines them (take the threatening “it ain’t over” that closes the second refrain). The refrain’s a set of knife blows, with an organ high in the mix and a Carlos Alomar arpeggio that calls back to the closing guitar figure of the Beatles’ “You Never Give Me Your Money.” Bowie sings “all…you’ve got…to do…is…win” like a piece of extortion, dreamily lingering on the last word (he’d developed the refrain from riffs during live performances of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”: “you’re not alone! All you’ve got to do is win!”). At the close, Bowie sings “it ain’t over” in a rising melody over an out-of nowhere E major chord. It’s as if “Win” was just prelude so far, that the song’s about to move somewhere else, that Bowie’s barely exhausted his reserves. The sudden fade comes as a small mercy.

Recorded: ca. 20-24 November 1974, Sigma Sound; ca. 3-10 December 1974, Record Plant; January 1975, Air Studios, London (strings, arr. Visconti). First release: 7 March 1975, Young Americans. Only one live recording of “Win” exists: 1 December 1974 at the Omni Theater in Atlanta, the last night of the “Soul Dogs” tour. It’s unknown whether “Win” debuted there or in Nashville or Memphis gigs in late November, neither of which were taped. Bowie hummed the first lines of “Win” after a performance of “Station to Station” in his penultimate show in the US (Jones Beach, 4 June 2004), then cruelly yelled “enough!” to his band.

* “Win” is in G mixolydian (the G major scale with a flattened VII chord, here the song’s “rival” chord, F major). The verse sequence of G-G6-A-A6-G-G6-Fmaj7-F6 is odd, as the A major chord, instead of the expected A minor, seems as though it should have a “purpose” of some sort, but it doesn’t change the key: you go right back to G major and then move on to the flatted VII chord, F. A major is merely a strong flavor in Bowie’s soup.

Top: Tammy Hackney, “Death,” ca. 1974-75. Death’s newly unearthed recordings reveal a remarkable missing link between Detroit bands like the Stooges and MC5 from the late 1960s and early ’70s and the high-velocity assault of punk.”


Reissues: Big Brother

July 21, 2016

The timing seemed right to look at this song again—one of Bowie’s most gorgeous and eerie odes to power. The key is how much of it he derived from the Bonzos’ “Mr. Apollo”—the self-aware absurdity of Bowie’s dystopias (see also the coke joke in the first verse) is much of what makes them still compelling.

This entry, like much of Diamond Dogs, was a nightmare to revise for the book; I gutted the whole thing, then restored it, then gutted it again. It wound up being fairly similar to the original blog entry—a Momus observation helped to clarify a paragraph. Still an underrated song, I’d say.

Originally posted on 31 August 2010, it’s graphically yours:

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

A love song to submission, a fascist and a cocaine hymn, “Big Brother” was possibly intended to close Bowie’s Nineteen Eighty-Four adaptation, as little could top it dramatically. Opening in apprehension with a moaning synthetic choir and “trumpet” reveille via Mellotron, after two B minor verses where Bowie sings despairing, fifth-sinking phrases (“a-sylum,” “of mayhem”), “Big Brother” gave itself over to power.

The conversion starts in the first bridge—“please savior, savior show us!” Bowie now jumping up a fifth—and crests in the shining D major refrains, where Bowie rises an octave to hit a high A on “shame us!” Each subsequent refrain offers further bribes—skittish handclaps, a considered tambourine, a counter-melody via Alan Parker’s guitar, a spasmodic snare fill by Tony Newman that predicts Mick Fleetwood’s snare break on “Tusk.”

“Big Brother” was built like a flowchart: beyond a certain point you can’t go back (after the first bridge, there are no more verses). A pair of saxophones keep things in line. The tenor saxophone sweetens verses with bar-length notes, a baritone saxophone prods you along like a warder. Only the four-bar second bridge, with its scrappily-strummed acoustic guitar and its shaky octave-doubled vocal, is a last moment of doubt.

It’s the voice of some Arts Lab hippie about to be packed off to Orwell’s Correction Room. “You know, you think you’re awful square, but you’ve made everyone and you’ve been everywhere,” Bowie chirps in admiration. The squares—the bankers, the landlords, the promoters, the Mr. Joneses of the world—are the real revolutionaries, making the decadence of Bowie’s earlier songs seem played out (“don’t talk of dust and roses,” or spare us the claptrap of Aladdin Sane). The squares (Momus: “brave Apollos to the subcultural Dionysians”), liberated by the freedoms that the counterculture fought to give them, will inherit the earth. They were the homo superior all along; by the end of the century their rule would be secure (see “Alternative Candidate”).

Are there any signs of resistance? Bowie’s 12-string acoustic guitar, running underground for much of the track? His vocal, with a more resonant voice shadowed by a lower-pitched one like a bad conscience? The grin beneath the erotic ode to power? As Nicholas Pegg noted, an ancestor to “Big Brother” is the Bonzo Dog Band’s 1969 parody of Charles Atlas ads, “Mr. Apollo”. (“He’s the stronnnnngest maaan/ the worrrrld has ever seeeen…follow! Mr. Apollo!). It’s Bowie worshiping a cult leader as if he was some fascist bodybuilder. Submitting to a higher power—a dictator, a president (the chorus promises that the divine ruler will be “someone to fool us, someone like you“, a conceit that soon reappears in “Somebody Up There Likes Me”), even a line of coke—can be a beautiful thing.

It ends with a simply-sung “we want you Big Brother,” segueing without pause into the tribal celebration of “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family.” It’s a broken man brought to his feet and made to dance.

Recorded: 14-15 January 1974 (basic tracks) ca. late January-early February 1974 (overdubs). A set regular during the 1974 tour; revived for the Glass Spider tour of 1987.

Top: Augusto Pinochet and friends, Santiago, Chile, ca. September 1973.


Reissues: Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise)

May 10, 2016

One of the more radically transformed entries in the book, with good reason. This was the “cut up” entry of the blog, and it didn’t quite work (well, maybe you thought it did).

I’d planned to do one Diamond Dogs entry in the spirit of 1974: assembling it through Bowie’s favorite method of cutting up lines of verse, jumbling them, selecting the pieces in random order and then pasting together something new from the sequences. Originally it was going to be “We Are the Dead,” but the need for that entry to spell out the George Orwell connections of Diamond Dogs required some coherence and form. In its place: the big triptych of the album.

So I wrote out a “straight” entry on paper and then cut it up, typically in paragraphs but sometimes just sentences. I also cut up quotes that I found in a few books, particularly in Jonathan Raban’s wonderful urban study Soft City and also in a couple of London histories. The Thatcher stuff came from (I believe) Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed. Other bits came from a never-finished 1974 entry on my old blog, Locust St., and from other things that I’ve since forgotten.

I cut it all up, tossed the pieces of paper in a cap, pulled them out one by one and…it was weirdly coherent. The Bowie stuff was all together, generally in order, and most of the quotes were in one clump in the “middle.” Not cut-up enough! So I did it again, then again. At last it was far more jumbled, which was nice. But then I started tinkering with the sequence—it’s got to make some kinda sense, I thought—and wound up smoothing and rejiggering things until I had the below entry. In retrospect, this was likely how Bowie worked as well.

The book entry is far better, I believe, or at least it’s more expansive, delving into things like the guitar solo, John Rechy’s City of Night (a big influence on the lyric), the draft lyric, more on the 1974 tour and the end of Bowie’s life in the UK, and so forth. But the beast below is the untouched original.

A last note: the source of the photos (some of my favorites in the blog’s history) has vanished due to the death of Picasa, and I can’t locate who “Bruce” was anymore. So the blog at present has become the only place on the web to find Maggie Sollars of Brixton, in 1974. I hope she’s doing well these days.

Originally posted on 23 September 2010, it’s:

Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise).
Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise) (live, 1974).

The rotten heart of Diamond Dogs; a triptych where prostitutes are the only lovers left, where street hustlers double as politicians.

***
Tony Newman, who drummed on most of the record, recalled Bowie switching off all the lights in the studio save those directly over his microphone. So Bowie sang “Sweet Thing” in a spotlight, the musicians around him mere shadows.

***
During the summer ’74 Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie sang the “Sweet Thing” suite from a catwalk above the stage. He preened, writhed as though being electrocuted; he looked like Baron Samedi gone Hollywood.

***
It’s Bowie on guitar (and sax), Mike Garson on piano, Herbie Flowers on bass, Tony Newman on drums. Bowie coached his players like actors. For the first 32 bars of “Candidate,” up until Bowie smells “the blood of les Tricoteuses,” he told Newman to play his snare rolls as if he was a French drummer boy watching his first guillotining during the Terror.

***
The suite opens with thirty seconds of a slowly-emerging wash of backwards tapes. It closes, after the “Zion” mellotron line and Garson playing a bar’s worth of “Changes”, with a minute of musical violence.

***
It’s safe in the city/to love in a doorway. “Sweet Thing/Candidate,” an urban debasement, is part of a long English tradition of city nightmares. So Thomas Hardy, describing an 1879 Lord Mayor’s Show: As the crowd grows denser, it loses its character of an aggregate of countless units, and becomes an organic whole, a molluscous black creature having nothing in common with humanity, that takes the shape of the streets along which it has lain itself, and throws out horrid excrescences and limbs into neighboring alleys.

***
In the two verses of “Sweet Thing,” Bowie’s voice rises from the depths (the basso profundo of the opening verse), settling first on a conversational tone (“isn’t it me”) then vaulting to high, long-held notes, starting with “will you see.” There’s the cartoon New Yorkese voice he uses in the first bridge (“if you wannit, boys”) and he nearly laughs when he sings the cut-up-produced nonsense of “turn to the crossroads and hamburgers.” (Or is it “of Hamburg”?) This isn’t the step-by-step graded elation of something like Carol Douglas’ “Doctor’s Orders,” where the song seems to be willing its singer to keep moving higher. It’s more a menagerie of voices that Bowie barely can keep under control.

***
George Gissing, on Farringdon Road, in The Nether World: Pass by in the night, and strain imagination to picture the weltering mass of human weariness, of bestiality, of unmerited dolour, of hopeless hope, of crushed surrender, tumbled together within those forbidding walls.

***
There’s a funereal tone to the suite, fitting for its year of creation. Nick Drake, after recording hisfour last songs” in February, died in November. Duke Ellington died in May. Archigram closed. Candy Darling died, age 25. Gene Ammons recorded Goodbye and departed. It was the year of Shostakovitch’s last quartet, Syd Barrett’s last-ever studio session. All that came out of the latter were a few brief guitar pieces. One, known as “If You Go #2,” (3:00 in the preceding link) is a jaunty hint of a song, incidental music for an impossible life.

***
Bowie’s guitar keeps to the margins until “Candidate,” when begins to cut into the vocal, like an increasingly belligerent drunken party guest. Crude and insistent, possessed by an appalling truth. At first confined to the right speaker, the guitar starts bleeding through. Bowie’s vocal starts matching the guitar’s tone, his phrasing mimicking the riffing.

***
Making bullet-proof faces, Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay. 1974 was the wake for the Sixties. Everyone came wearing tatters or suits: they dressed as the person they pretended they once were. Bob Dylan and the Band, touring North America early in ’74, played songs that had earned boos and jeers in ’66, but the songs had become, blessed by time, victory anthems. Dylan sang in a bellow: he might as well have used a bullhorn. He played “All Along the Watchtower” in Boston as if he meant to roust Hendrix from the grave.

***
Bowie tugs and tears at words, particularly in “Sweet Thing”‘s first verse (“see that I’m scared and I’m lonely“), while he tumbles out other phrases in a bushel (“where the knowing one says” is muttered over three beats). In “Candidate,” the hustler starts out all business, with Bowie sounding confident, even wry, but as the verses keep coming, and he’s not closing the sale, he grows more desperate. He sounds as though he’s suppressing screams: his vocal becomes a run of slurs, colliding syllables, forced marriages of words not meant to rhyme (he mates “shop on” with “papier”). The “Sweet Thing” chorus returns, now only four bars long and taken at a hurried, less alluring pace—time’s running out. When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad I go to pieces. The merchant at the mercy of his customer.

***
Margaret Thatcher, in 1982, was Lent to the past Carnival: We are reaping what was sown in the sixties…fashionable theories and permissive claptrap set the scene for a society in which old values of discipline and restraint were denigrated.

***
Holly Woodlawn to the dying Candy Darling: “It’s okay, hon…you don’t have to talk. I know you’re tired.”

Candy: “Yeah. Putting on lipstick…it really takes it out of me.”

***
Mike Garson’s piano gives the second verse of “Sweet Thing” a few moments of grace and levity. The little winking run of notes after “you’re older than me,” the shards of melodies he plays in the spaces Bowie takes to breathe.

***
Do you think that your face looks the same? There’s pity in Bowie’s voice here.

On the whole there’s only room for two views in this country.

Education Secretary Thatcher’s election-night commentary, 28 February 1974.

***
“Candidate” is utterly essential to the suite, its centerpiece, and it also could be excised completely and you would never know it had existed. Play “Sweet Thing” and the Reprise back-to-back and it’s a near-seamless transition. “Candidate” is an outgrowth of “Sweet Thing”‘s chorus, as it’s built on the same chords (D minor, A minor, G); it’s also the inverse of the earlier song—mainly two long verses (24 bars), two brief 4-bar choruses.

***
James Thomson, in The Doom of a City (1857), came to the City of the Dead: The mighty City in vast silence slept,/dreaming away its tumult toil and strife…Within a buried City’s maze of stone; Whose peopling corpses, while they ever dream/Of birth and death—of complicated life/Whose days and months and years/Are wild with laughter, groans and tears/As with themselves and Doom…

***
My set is amazing, it even smells like a street. Bowie spent some time obsessively but fruitlessly working on test footage for a Diamond Dogs movie as a daytime distraction from his drinking and drugging social circle at the time (Bowie claims that some of the footage features an impatient John Lennon in the background, berating him with the words “What the bloody hell are you doing, Bowie, all this mutant crap?”, as Bowie tinkers with a clay model of Hunger City, the album’s post-apocalyptic setting). John Tatlock, on “Cracked Actor.”

***
Live, “Candidate” was introduced by Earl Slick’s guitar and David Sanborn’s saxophone, two peacock performances. On record, Bowie’s guitar solo that closes out “Sweet Thing” is far cruder yet more compelling: a hustler with grand ambitions.

***
To Thomas Hardy, London was a Wheel and a Beast. (George Whitter Sherman.)

***
The chorus of “Sweet Thing” is sung by a set of typical Bowie grotesques. The somber bass voices overtopped by tenors. The croaking flat voice that seems most prominent when you’re half-listening. A set of gargoyles, arranged as though on the parapet of a cathedral.

***
Later in the night Thomson returned home to his own city. Its awfulness of life oppressed my soul; the very air appeared no longer free/but dense and sultry in the close control/of such a mighty cloud of human breath.

***
“Sweet Thing (Reprise)” offers just one verse: it’s one of the loveliest things Bowie ever recorded, and it pays homage to cocaine, submits to the cruelties of the street. The hustler’s closed the deal at last, and the city takes another victim. It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you. The soaring final notes are reminiscent of “Life on Mars,” whose empathy, grace and beauty “Sweet Thing” suggests were all just vicious lies.

***
We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/then jump in the river holding hands.

Recorded January-February 1974. The entire suite was performed during the “Diamond Dogs” tour of summer ’74, and never again. A new edit of “Candidate” was made for Patrice Chéreau’s 2001 film Intimacy.

Top and bottom: “Bruce,” “Maggie Sollars, Brixton, 1974”; Middle: Ted Heath faces the public, 28 February 1974.