Reissues: Holy Holy

February 2, 2016

Here’s another of the “lost” Bowie flop singles, from 1971—an odd beast, in that it was a pick-up recording session of Bowie and much of the band Blue Mink (at the time, the Spiders had gone back to Hull and Tony Visconti was gone). The original 45 version of “Holy Holy” was unavailable for decades–it took the recent Five Years set to finally issue it again.

Book revision goes a lot more into Aleister Crowley and even manages a reference to Anthony Powell’s Hearing Secret Harmonies.

Originally posted on January 31, 2010: “Holy Holy”:

Holy Holy (single).
Holy Holy (remake).

The nightmare world of Christianity vanished at the dawn. I fell in with a girl of the theatre in the first ten days at Torquay, and at that touch of human love the detestable mysteries of sex were transformed into joy and beauty. The obsession of sin fell from my shoulders into the sea of oblivion. I had been almost overwhelmed by the appalling responsibility of ensuring my own damnation and helping others to escape from Jesus. I found that the world was, after all, full of delightful damned souls…

The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, ch. 7.

“Holy Holy,” yet another flop Bowie single, seems (in theory) like a sure thing: a dark conflation of sex and religion with a catchy chorus. Its timing was perfect, too—“Spirit In the Sky” had hit #1 in the UK a month before Bowie recorded this, Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” (of which Bowie’s song seems like a slight parody) was also a recent hit, and Jesus Christ Superstar would come out in the fall of 1970. But instead “Holy Holy” suffered the fate of every Bowie 45 barring “Space Oddity” and failed to chart.

Philips/Mercury sat on the record for six months, finally putting it out in January 1971, in part because of contract negotiations but also because the track sounds a bit dull: its timing seems off and the playing is leaden, whether due to exhaustion or indifference.

Bowie knew that he had whiffed this one, though, and went back to “Holy Holy” in September 1971 with his new Spiders from Mars (Ronson, Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder). The remake is leagues better than the original—Ronson in particular is inspired, moving from an ominous locomotive intro riff to his sleek solo, a different (though harmonized) guitar track for each speaker. The remade “Holy Holy” was good enough to have made the cut for Ziggy Stardust, but instead wound up as a B-side a few years later. Seemingly of its moment, “Holy Holy”‘s time never quite came.

The lyric hints that Bowie’s been reading some Aleister Crowley—the line about “just the righteous brother” isn’t only a play on the Bill Medley/Bobby Hatfield duo’s name but a reference to the Order of the Golden Dawn, to which Crowley had belonged. The whole song is a paean to sex magick, with the lyric moving from basic seduction (the verse) to an orgy in the chorus (which ends “but let go of me!!!”—suggesting the singer’s either under a spell or is moving onto fresher prospects nearby).

The original “Holy Holy” was cut in June 1970 (with the bassist Herbie Flowers, who produced the session) and released in January 1971 as Mercury 6052 049 (c/w “Black Country Rock”). The remake was cut ca. August/September 1971 and, originally slated for the Ziggy Stardust LP, finally surfaced as the B-side to “Diamond Dogs” in June 1974 (it was included on the Ryko reissue of The Man Who Sold the World, although the remake was mislabeled as the original cut, which has never been re-released).

Top: Terry O’Neill, “Margaret Thatcher ca. 1970.”

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Holy Holy

January 31, 2010

Holy Holy (single).
Holy Holy (remake).

The nightmare world of Christianity vanished at the dawn. I fell in with a girl of the theatre in the first ten days at Torquay, and at that touch of human love the detestable mysteries of sex were transformed into joy and beauty. The obsession of sin fell from my shoulders into the sea of oblivion. I had been almost overwhelmed by the appalling responsibility of ensuring my own damnation and helping others to escape from Jesus. I found that the world was, after all, full of delightful damned souls…

The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, ch. 7.

“Holy Holy,” yet another flop Bowie single, seems (in theory) like a sure thing: a dark conflation of sex and religion with a catchy chorus. Its timing was perfect, too—“Spirit In the Sky” had hit #1 in the UK a month before Bowie recorded this, Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” (of which Bowie’s song seems like a slight parody) was also a recent hit, and Jesus Christ Superstar would come out in the fall of 1970. But instead “Holy Holy” suffered the fate of every Bowie 45 barring “Space Oddity” and failed to chart.

Philips/Mercury sat on the record for six months, finally putting it out in January 1971, in part because of contract negotiations but also because the track sounds a bit dull: its timing seems off and the playing is leaden, whether due to exhaustion or indifference (Tony Visconti had just left Bowie’s band, and Mick Ronson and Woody Woodmansey likely knew by this point that Bowie was sending them back to Hull, possibly for good).

Bowie knew that he had whiffed this one, though, and went back to “Holy Holy” in September 1971 with his new Spiders from Mars (Ronson, Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder). The remake is leagues better than the original—Ronson in particular is inspired, moving from an ominous locomotive intro riff to his sleek solo, a different (though harmonized) guitar track for each speaker. The remade “Holy Holy” was good enough to have made the cut for Ziggy Stardust, but instead wound up as a B-side a few years later. Seemingly of its moment, “Holy Holy”‘s time never quite came.

The lyric hints that Bowie’s been reading some Aleister Crowley—the line about “just the righteous brother” isn’t only a play on the Bill Medley/Bobby Hatfield duo’s name but a reference to the Order of the Golden Dawn, to which Crowley had belonged. The whole song is a paean to sex magick, with the lyric moving from basic seduction (the verse) to an orgy in the chorus (which ends “but let go of me!!!”—suggesting the singer’s either under a spell or is moving onto fresher prospects nearby).

The original “Holy Holy” was cut in June 1970 (with the bassist Herbie Flowers, who produced the session) and released in January 1971 as Mercury 6052 049 (c/w “Black Country Rock”). The remake was cut ca. August/September 1971 and, originally slated for the Ziggy Stardust LP, finally surfaced as the B-side to “Diamond Dogs” in June 1974 (it was included on the Ryko reissue of The Man Who Sold the World, although the remake was mislabeled as the original cut, which has never been re-released).

Top: Terry O’Neill, “Margaret Thatcher ca. 1970.”


Links: Chapters 4-5

March 24, 2015

Chapter 4: The Man On the Stair (1970)

db1970

“The Prettiest Star” (remake, 1973)
“Threepenny Pierrot”
“Columbine”
“The Mirror”
“Buzz the Fuzz”
“Amsterdam” (Brel, live)
“Width of a Circle”
“The Supermen” (remake)
“All the Madmen”
“After All”
“She Shook Me Cold”
“Saviour Machine”
“Running Gun Blues”
“Black Country Rock”
“The Man Who Sold the World” (Lulu, 1974) (SNL, 1979) (Nirvana, 1993) (DB, 1995)
“Tired of My Life”
“Holy Holy” (remake)

More: Aleister Crowley, Confessions; Friedrich Nietzsche: Thus Spake Zarathustra; Biff Rose, 2014 interview; Michael J. Weller, “The Man Who Drew the Man Who Sold the World” (Home Baked Books, website); Asylum (1971, excerpt); “R.D. Laing and Asylum 40 Years Later” (New School lecture); Performance (1970, excerpt w/ “Memo From Turner“). Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970, excerpt).

Chapter 5: Moon Age (1971-1972)

db71

“Oh! You Pretty Things”
“How Lucky You Are (Miss Peculiar)”
“Right On Mother”
“Hang Onto Yourself” (Arnold Corns single)
“Moonage Daydream” (Arnold Corns)
“Rupert the Riley”
“Lightning Frightening”
“Man In the Middle”
“Looking For a Friend”
“Almost Grown”
“Song for Bob Dylan”
“Andy Warhol(Dana Gillespie version, 1971)
“Queen Bitch”
“Bombers”
“It Ain’t Easy” (Ron Davies, original)
“Kooks”
“Fill Your Heart” (Biff Rose, original)
“Quicksand” (demo)
“Changes” (demo)
“Eight Line Poem”
“The Bewlay Brothers”
“Life On Mars?”

72db

“Shadow Man” (Toy)
“Ziggy Stardust” (demo)
“Star” (Chameleon, demo, 1971)
“Velvet Goldmine”
“Sweet Head”
“Round and Round”
“Lady Stardust” (“Song For Marc,” demo)
“Soul Love”
“Five Years”
“Suffragette City”
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”
“Starman”

More: Bowie, radio interview, Philadelphia, first US visit, 26 January 1971; The Quatermass Experiment (1953); The Tomorrow People (“The Vanishing Earth,” 1973); Doomwatch documentary; Phil Sandifer, “Pop Between Realities: Ziggy Stardust“; Jon Pertwee, “I Am the Doctor“; Ralph Willett, on Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius; Andy Warhol: the Complete Picture; Warhol, Tate Gallery exhibit catalog, 1971 (a man flips through it quickly); Bob Dylan v. AJ Weberman, 1971; Blood on Satan’s Claw, main theme, 1971; A Clockwork Orange (1971, “Flat Block Marina” excerpt); Jacques Brel, “Jef,” 1964.


Bring Me the Disco King

February 17, 2015

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Bring Me the Disco King.
Bring Me the Disco King (video).
Bring Me the Disco King (“Loner Mix” (Danny Lohner)).
Bring Me the Disco King (live, 2003).
Bring Me the Disco King (live, 2003).

Interview transcript, 5/9/2005: OSTERMAN, D., RHINEBECK, NY.

I missed the ’76 tour but I was there at the Garden in August ’77. You’ve heard the show, right? Yeah, right? My kid got the boxed set a while back. I didn’t want to hear it. I heard it once, you know? All you need. All I need, at least.. [inaudible] well, look, the show took forever to get going. Like two hours of lights dimming and going back up, to all these big moaning groans from the crowd, and this fucked-up metal-shredding noise kept playing on the PA, setting everyone on edge. The mood, you can expect, was just…off. Everyone in my group, five of us, was seriously high—we had some ludes and some pot that was laced with who knows what. Not just us. The whole crowd was high on something, or were just tensed for something.

Finally the lights went down for good and Bowie came out. He was pin-thin and wore all black—black suit coat, black rosette in his lapel, black shoes. Black hat? Maybe. Black cane, yes. Leaned on it a lot. Contrast to his face and hands, which were just…I’ve never seen skin shine like that. Like moon-skin. And he was still living in LA then, right? I guess he never went outside [laughs].

He started, I remember, with “Five Years,” and it was just the slowest, most dragging version that you could imagine—was like a year between the drum hits. And he just stood there, just propped against the mike stand, and after a long while he started singing, low, real ghostly. [sings] “Pushing through the market square…” You know how it goes. Then he seemed to kinda wake up and the band really kicked in. He had, maybe, three guitarists? A guy on a huge keyboard too. Drummer had a gong.

There was a bunch of disco stuff, really savage-sounding stuff. Couldn’t really dance to it: too fast. “Fame,” “Stay,” “Calling Sister Midnight,” “Gimme Sweet Head.” He would sing some, then let his band jam for like 10 minutes, then he’d pick up again. While they played he looked out at the crowd, like he was scanning for someone he knew. He did some new stuff, too, maybe ones he never recorded, like this one song I just remember he was yelling “bring me the disco king!” Over and over again. That was most of the song. His hands were up in the air, like someone had a gun on him. Then he did this lunge, this weird pivot, at the mike and said something like, “here’s a new one for you New Yorkers, it’s called “Blackout!””

And you remember the blackout had happened just the month before and everyone in that room was probably there in the city during it and..I mean, parts of the city were probably still on fire then! And Bowie sent like an electric current through the place. Have you ever been on a boat during a storm? The crowd was listing, listing, like, say the right side of the Garden kind of convulsed and then it sort of shivered across until the left side got all worked up. Screams, really big shrieks, you know. This guy the row up from us started shaking, having a fit. Making this awful noise, I still remember, this little hut-hut-hut-hut-hut sound. Bowie was really caught up in the song, just wailing at it, but then he’d crouch, almost squat down on stage, like he was like holding off punches. I couldn’t breathe all of a sudden and my friend Cindy was crying, so when the strobe lights started, I figured we just had to get out of there. Nearly got in two fights just getting into the walkway.

We got out on Eighth Ave., probably by the time of “Station to Station,” when that kid got stabbed, right? I was happy to be out. Though I loved Bowie, you know? Really. I was such a fan. But that wasn’t a good place. And what happened to him in ’78—well, you can’t be surprised, really, though, can you?

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Excerpt from Musician, May 1990, “The London Gang’s All Here.”

Musician: So everyone in the group was in London with you? In the ’60s?

Bowie: Yes, although we didn’t all work together then, except for John [Hutchinson] and I. Andy [Mackay] wasn’t quite there—he was still at university until 1969 or 1970, I believe. But he knew the scene, went to a lot of the shows, same as I did. Bill [Legend] of course was Marc’s drummer, on all the great T. Rex singles. Oh and yes, Herbie [Flowers] was on one of my records and one of Lou’s, and he even produced a single that no one ever remembers, called “Holy Holy.”

M: And the band’s name is a tribute to one of your other old singles? That no one remembers?

B: [Laughs]. It wasn’t even on the radar enough to be forgotten! But I always thought it my first proper recording, my first proper song, and it meant a great deal to me. Though we weren’t quite proper London Boys! I was in Beckenham until 1971 or 1972. Hutch was in Canada.

M: Have you gotten flak for going down this nostalgic route? You’re going to be playing a lot of old songs, and you haven’t made any new records since Never Let Me Down.

B: Which has few supporters, I’ve found. No, I wouldn’t call us a nostalgia act at all. There’s a Buzzcocks song that goes, “nostalgia for an age yet to come.” Well this is a nostalgia for a past that never was. I think we bring something new to the table. Though of course we’ve all been on the scene for quite a while. But never quite in this combination.

M: And this is the last time you’re singing your old songs? Are you recording new ones?

B: That’s the plan, yes. Once we’re back from South America later this year, we’re going to see what happens in the studio. One possible title is Bring Me the Disco King [laughs]. You can just see the cover image, right? Henry V, ordering some flamboyant conquered foe to be brought to him in irons.

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“Bring Me the Disco King” first went public in a mix (for the soundtrack of Underworld) in which the Bowie track’s sole elements—Mike Garson’s piano, Matt Chamberlain’s drum loop and, for a good chunk of the song, Bowie’s vocal—were erased and replaced by Nine Inch Nails guitarist Danny Lohner. In this alternate world, Lisa Germano plays piano, John Frusciante’s on lead guitar and Josh Freese drums. And Maynard James Keenan sings some of it.

You may wish to listen to the remix first, because it feels like the most “complete” version of the song, making Bowie’s track sound like a polished, slightly avant-garde demo. The Lohner remix builds steadily, from Frusciante’s looped, distorted Fender in the intro to the string settings and Keenan taking over the refrains.

This wouldn’t be the first time that a “sequel” to a Bowie song supplants the original recording: I’ve long argued the recut/overdubbed version of “Rebel Rebel,” completed in New York months after the Diamond Dogs version, is the superior recording. You could say the definitive “Station to Station” is the (likely doctored) Philadelphia live recording on Stage (used in Christiane F.), and that some of the Reality songs hit harder in their tour versions.

Consider if the remix was the only version of the song, that the Bowie/Garson take was as “lost” today as the Nineties versions of “Disco King” are (see below). That Bowie’s grand finale existed only as a mid-sequence mood piece on a Kate Beckinsale vampire movie soundtrack.

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Excerpt from Simon King, The Royal Scam: A Misspent Youth In the Advertising World (Clearwater: 1995):

Bill said DJ wanted me in his office “yesterday.” First, a trip to the men’s room (thankfully, I still had some coke from the night before). I was bracing for the worst. So, it seemed, was Bill. “King, bring me the disk before you go upstairs,” he said while I was putting on my jacket and pinching some life into my face.

I’d never ever spoken to DJ before, only seen him from across the floor. He worked in three different offices—London, here in NYC and Tokyo—but he was more like some global embodiment of Jones & Bond, his official residence a first-class airplane seat. DJ was a figure of abstract terror for our office. He’d show up on a Friday afternoon and within an hour three people would be packing their desks and you might be reassigned to a new account that had a project due on Monday morning at 8 AM.

His secretary, who looked like a Modigliani come to life, waved me through. DJ was at his desk, which was immaculate and had nothing resembling work on it. He asked me to sit. It’s hard to describe how incredibly striking-looking he was. He was around 40 but looked at least a decade younger. No visible work done, just a sense that life hadn’t managed to touch him yet. He was steeped in charisma. This was a guy who’d started in the business in ’63, when he was barely out of high school, and in two years he was all but running the show at Collett Dickenson Pearce. His own shop by ’68. He could have been anything—an actor, a prime minister. (Rumor was he cut a few Beatles-type singles back when, but no one at J&B has turned up anything).

I tried to meet his gaze. He had an irregular right pupil, permanently dilated, so naturally you were drawn to it but you also kept trying to not stare at it. He, of course, was entirely aware of this situation and used it as a power play, making whoever was across the desk look at anything else (there was a Japanese-looking guitar on the wall, I noticed).

“Simon,” he began. “You consider advertising to be beneath your substantive talents. Is that a fair assessment?”

I think I flushed. Here it comes. “You spend your nights in the East Village and give off that you’re a frustrated, sadly corrupted artist. I quite empathize, but you must realize this is a rather tedious existence.” He took a Gauloise from his pocket and lit it with a bone-handle lighter produced seemingly out of thin air. “Substantive art is not born from such a cliche.”

“I was very much in your shoes once. But I came to realize that advertising has a much greater purchase on the imagination than any painting. What’s the promise of art? What’s its potential? Immortality? Fame? Power? If you want to colonize dreams, if you want to create a desire—to make someone need something they never knew they needed—if you’d like to stage how people regard reality itself, our field offers some promise.”

He drew out another cigarette and pushed it towards me across his desk. “A Tibetan lama once said there are two forms of art—black magic to turn people’s heads and “white” reality art. We’ve well enough of the latter. Simon, would you care to work on some black magic with me? It should prove interesting, at least.”

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Review: “Expatriates in Berlin: 1980-2000” (James Cohan Gallery, until May 23).

The exhibit includes six works by David Bowie, the former rock performer from the 1970s best known for his gender-fluid chameleon figures on stage. Bowie has worked as a painter and an avant-garde filmmaker since his retirement, though his technique has shown little signs of improvement and his subject matter remains obscure and, in its way, provincial.

Of the pictures (three in oil, one black pencil, two mixed-media), the most promising was “(Bring Me) The Disco King and His Wives,” a 6′ x 12′ abstract work with some furious brushwork and a good sense of scale. Unfortunately even this pales to the work of other Berlin-based artists featured, especially the Archine sisters. One wonders why Bowie has abandoned a field in which he was so capable to devote his time to one in which he’ll always be a second-rater.

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“Bring Me the Disco King” dated to the early Nineties, Bowie said. He wrote the song for the Black Tie White Noise sessions in 1992. “I initially did a version of it which played to the title, alarmingly…I wanted it to sound cheesy and kitschy, and be a kind of real uptempo, disco-y kind of slam at late Seventies disco. And the trouble is, it sounded cheesy and kitschy, ha ha! It just didn’t work. It didn’t have any weight to it.” Attempting it again during the Earthling sessions (“we did it in a sort of muscular way, like the band was at that particular time“), he found the track still lacking.

Of course, there are no circulating demos or outtakes of these early versions of “Disco King,” so there’s no way to trace the song’s evolution. And it’s tempting to wonder whether there were any early versions. After all, Bowie likes to lie to us, so perhaps he invented a tangled family history for his big album-closer, which was one of the longest tracks he ever recorded and which, for a decade, was his Last Word on Record (though it wasn’t, quite).

Let’s take Bowie at his word. “Disco King” doesn’t seem originally intended for piano, in the way that, say, “Lady Grinning Soul” or “Oh! You Pretty Things” were. It’s possible the song began as a simple guitar piece in E minor (with a capoed first fret to move the song, vocally, to F minor), and chord-wise it’s fairly standard (if it was written on guitar down a half-step, the verse chords would be Em/D/B/Em or C/Em/D/C).

But the chords on the Reality track were Garson’s choices. Bowie played the latter his vocal over the drum loop and told Garson to “show me the chords,” using Bowie’s top melody as a guide. So Garson’s intro and outro loops F minor, A# and G# (calling back to “Aladdin Sane,” where Garson soloed over the latter two (flattened) chords), and he’ll swap chords for climactic effect—shifting “bring me the disco king” to F minor after Bowie initially sings it over C# and D#, or reversing the latter two chords for the last extended refrain (“soon there’ll be nothing left of me”). (Thanks to regular commenter “CrayontoCrayon” for his help.)

Giving the song a lost, troubled ancestry adds more dimensions, echoes—the ear wonders how “Disco King” could have worked with a disco or techno beat (“I had those drums on it, the works, you know, it’s a 120-beats-a-minute,” Bowie said), how Bowie’s phrasing would have changed (imagine the “don’t let me know we’re invisible” sung varisped at double the tempo).

It fits how Bowie’s final “Disco King” was partially assembled out of lost songs—its “dance dance dance/through the fire” nearly the same melody as Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie,” its drum track cut by Matt Chamberlain during the Heathen sessions in 2001 (“playing to a completely different song,” Tony Visconti said. “We just recorded ‘Disco King’ over the loops that I’d made of his performance”). Or how the notes of Garson’s piano are essentially samples, as he played his lines on Bowie’s Yamaha digital piano in New York.

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The Goblin King was driven out of his kingdom by a palace revolt. Now this wasn’t much of a revolt, as revolts go, more a minor insurrection of a few disgruntled goblins and a set of confused bureaucrats. It could have been crushed with some choice spells and head-whackings. But the King was weary of his throne and he saw a choice opportunity to escape.

He traveled in the cities of the Western Lights, where, in his sweeping cloak and shining boots, he cut a noticeable figure in the marketplaces and piazzas, and for a time he attended the monastery balls each evening, once winning a dancing contest against a Kermode bear. But there was a melancholy in his step and his demeanor, and he found the crowds oppressive, especially as it was growing near carnival time. So he went further westward, out to the few scattered settlements and ranch towns along the Peninsula. He took up residence in a two-story hotel that was perched on the thin end of a frozen lake.

One night he was at his usual table when a man came in. The latter was known to the proprietor, a woman of few words, who called him “El Mayor,” and he sat by the fire, not acknowledging his fellow guest. This was fine for the King, who had no appetite for conversation. Still, as the two saw each other on the succeeding evenings, they began talking, took their meals together and played checkers afterward. The proprietor played songs on guitar: “Out On the Lamplighter,” “Aubergine,” “Traiga La Disco.” “King me,” El Mayor said, ending a game with a hopscotching movement across the board. Later in the evening, he was walking up the staircase to his room when he saw the King descending.

“Whose story are we in?” El Mayor said.

“I couldn’t tell you, Tomás,” the King replied.

“But it’s a story nonetheless.”

“I suppose. Its length is its only virtue.”

“It’s not a very good story, then?”

“Are they ever?”

“Sometimes,” El Major considered. “I’m happy: hope you’re happy, too.”

“Not particularly,” the King said.

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“Short Picks,” JazzWeb, 10 May 1998.

Label: King (Disco 1). “Bring Me The French Reserves.” Zurich free-jazz ensemble Malachi (rumored to include David Bowie among its ranks—its LPs never feature credits) offers two 30-minute free form jams featuring a distorted alto saxophone, vibraphone, car horns and arco bass. Recommended.

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Garson’s piano solo on “Aladdin Sane” gave Duncan “Zowie” Jones nightmares when he was a child, Garson recently said. Likely not the only one. Garson’s solo on “Aladdin Sane” is one of a few endpoints in Bowie’s work, being Bowie’s most avant-garde (if outsourced) moment on record. If you were to constellate Bowie songs, the solo would place “Aladdin Sane” out along the edges.

So it’s fitting that Bowie chose Garson to be the harmonic support for “Bring Me the Disco King,” which at some point in the Reality sessions Bowie had pegged as an album closer. It’s very unlikely at the time that Bowie considered Reality as any sort of last work (he would mention a new album throughout the tour and into 2005). But given the weighty end-of-days imagery he’d been playing with since Hours, perhaps it seemed appropriate to have a grand summary piece, in the way a television show uncertain of being renewed will shoot a final episode that could double as a series-ender.

What a difference between the madcap Garson of “Aladdin Sane,” a man running a series of parlor tricks and throwing Cecil Taylor and Keith Tippett figures into a blender, and the more stately figure on “Disco King,” whose opening riff seems a slower, truncated version of the intro to Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” (possibly because Bowie’s first line sounds a bit like Donald Fagen’s: “while the music played, you worked by candlelight“).

Often keeping to his bass keys, Garson gives brief ascending or descending chord figures as hooks, laces Bowie’s verse lines with discreet note runs, provides chordal support just when Bowie expects it, on a dramatic pause or an emphasis, while also rhythmically playing off Chamberlain’s looped drum figure. His solos on “Aladdin Sane” had acted as if Bowie’s vocal melody was off in another dimension, whereas here Garson remains in gracious service to the song, never straying too far from its confines, worrying out the “disco king” melody in his closing solo. This is, as of this writing, Garson’s last performance on a Bowie record; there have been no finer last acts for Bowie sidemen.

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Excerpt from Hollywood’s Greatest Disasters (Methuen: 1988).

By May 1980, The Cubists was $10 million over budget, only four complete scenes had been shot and Stoppard’s script (which Godard had never consulted) was still being revised. After having seen dailies, producer De Laurentiis called a temporary halt to the filming for a week, at the end of which he fired Godard (who had already left the set) and said he would recast the Braque and Léger roles, much to the consternation of De Niro, who had developed a good rapport with Depardieu during the shooting of 1900 and was upset the latter would no longer be playing Léger.

The replacement leads, however, were at first warmly received, particularly Bowie, who played well against De Niro. To the shock of nearly all concerned, the first two weeks of resumed filming went smoothly, with much of the Paris exteriors completed. The move to Cinecittà, however, proved disastrous. Walken fell ill with colitis, De Niro was acting increasingly erratic (at times speaking in a pidgin French no one could understand) and Brando had still yet to appear on the set. A stage hand fell to his death, the atelier set burned down in a mysterious fire (some suspected the desperate producer’s hand). There was, consecutively, a flood, a rat infestation, a bomb threat by a remnant of the Red Brigades, a supporting actor suddenly becoming mute, a second fire, a third fire, and the violent reappearance of Godard, who demanded he be restored to the director’s chair (by this point, the 2nd AD was doing much of the primary shooting).

Throughout it all, sources said, Bowie was unflappable, even when summoned to the set by De Laurentiis yelling “bring me the disco king.” His long years in live television, co-hosting revues with Petula Clark and Cher, had inured him to chaotic situations on set, and he entertained fellow actors with impromptu songs he played on guitar during the many breaks in filming. De Niro recalled hearing a charming one “about some kind of astronaut rock star” and said he wished Bowie would have made a “proper album, as he was never really given his due.” “Bowie was the only good thing about that misbegotten wreck,” Walken later said. “It should not have been his last movie.”

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“Bring Me the Disco King” isn’t Bowie’s last song (anymore), but through its lengthy verses and lengthier refrains you can see Bowie begin to plot his own demise. Take the last refrain, with his ominous command to “close me in the dark/let me disappear,” then punning on a release from jail and being freed from the album release cycle, as he’d earlier punned on “balance” (as a way of life and a bank statement). His abstruse lines of half-remembered decadence: Hunger City seen off in the distance, fading nights in a lost, divided Berlin. Killing time in the Seventies: wasting one’s life in nightclubs, or being victorious over time (temporarily, of course).

You promised me that the ending would be clear, he begins, but this isn’t a promise David Bowie would ever make. The lines about opening the door may reference Brel’s “My Death,” an old Bowie obsession, but if there was a death here, it proved temporary. “Bring Me the Disco King” sets the stage for a world in which David Bowie is only a memory or a legend, a world that’s waiting to be born. He’ll be okay, most likely, but he doesn’t know about you.

191446305_25728ac573_o

Recorded: (drums) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (vocals, digital piano) ca. March-April 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Its first release was on 2 September 2003 as the “Loner Mix” (by Nine Inch Nails guitarist Danny Lohner), on the soundtrack to Underworld (Lakeshore LKS, 33781). Bowie’s version was released on 16 September 2003 on Reality.

Top: Jon Gosier, “Misfilter @ the Remote Lounge,” 2003. “My band performed at the Remote Lounge in New York in late 2003. The whole club is monitored by cameras which they post every night on a website that clubgoers go to to get pics of themselves.”


Nothing Has Changed Open Thread (& “‘Tis Pity” too, why not)

November 14, 2014

nothing has changed,

A place for discussion about the new compilation, plus the new B side, which is not found on said compilation.

What I wrote a few weeks ago:

The reversed-time sequencing (Disc 1: “Sue” to the Outside “Strangers When We Meet”; Disc 2: “Buddha of Suburbia” to “Wild Is the Wind”; Disc 3: “Fame” to “Liza Jane”) is a fascinating gambit. It’s not just that Bowie’s opening the set with the long recitative piece “Sue.” After “Where Are We Now” the first real “hit” comes 13 tracks in (“Thursday’s Child”). For casual American fans, the entire first disc could prove a blank: only “I’m Afraid of Americans” may register.

All compilations wind up creating narratives, if inadvertent ones: even a hack job by an estranged label can still tell a story. The earlier major Bowie career retrospectives (ChangesBowie, The Singles) centered on establishing “classic” Bowie parameters: pretending Bowie didn’t record anything before 1969; lots of Ziggy and Scary Monsters; proposing the idea Bowie took long sabbaticals in the late Eighties and Nineties.

So a new twist here with Bowie placing accents on latter-day work. Ziggy gets dispatched in three songs (as many as …hours gets), The “Berlin” albums get one song apiece (there as many songs from the Toy sessions). Tin Machine gets written out (as, essentially, does Reeves Gabrels: the …hours singles are mixes that excised much of Gabrels’ guitar work; “Hallo Spaceboy” is the Pet Shop Boys remix, etc). There’s no “John I’m Only Dancing” or “Holy Holy,” no “Station to Station” or “Quicksand.” But “Silly Boy Blue” is there, as is the gawky “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving.”

The second disc is the Bowie pop sequence spooled backward: the peak of “Absolute Beginners” crumbles into “Dancing In the Street” and “Blue Jean” before coalescing again into the bright run of “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance,” “Under Pressure” and “Fashion.” Following this group, the Berlin pieces seem like fractured pop songs, odd, distorted echoes of what’s come “before” (esp. “Boys Keep Swinging” and “Sound and Vision”).

And the last disc is like the old legend about Merlin aging in reverse: you begin with the mature wizard (“Diamond Dogs,” “Young Americans”) and watch him sink into adolescence (“All the Young Dudes” “Drive-In Saturday”) and childhood: “Starman” and “Space Oddity” seem more like kid’s songs than ever. Back and back you go, until you end with “Liza Jane,” with a barely 18-year-old amateur screaming his way into an ancient American piece of minstrelsy and theft.

Some of the sequencing is inspired: the opening trio of “Sue”–>“Where Are We Now”–>Murphy remix of “Love Is Lost” works marvelously. There’s a decade-long jump-cut from “Stars Are Out Tonight” to “New Killer Star,” and a lovely melancholic sequence of “Your Turn to Drive” (with a slightly longer fade than the original release) to “Shadow Man” to “Seven.” “Loving the Alien” and “This Is Not America” make a fine shadow pair.

And some of it’s not. “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” seems like thin gruel when bracketed by “New Killer Star” and “Slow Burn.” The overdone remake “Let Me Sleep Beside You” (a different, more “upfront” mix than the Toy bootleg, with some notable changes (a new backing vocal on the chorus, for example)). “Time Will Crawl” stands bewildered and alone, like a survivor of an airplane crash. The block of …hours songs sap the comp’s energy. Using the single edits of the likes of “Young Americans” and “Ashes to Ashes” (presumably for CD space reasons?) is cutting corners for no reason in 2014. Outside and Earthling get shortchanged. And damn it, “Laughing Gnome” should’ve been on here.

Nothing_Has_Changed

Thoughts?


I’m Afraid of Americans

May 14, 2013

cheer

I’m Afraid of Americans (first version, Showgirls OST).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Earthling remake).
I’m Afraid of Americans (video, Trent Reznor Remix V1).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V2).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V3, Ice Cube).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V4).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V5, Photek).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V6).
I’m Afraid of Americans (50th Birthday concert, w/ Sonic Youth, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (GQ Awards, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Howard Stern Show, 1998).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Musique Plus, 1999).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Live at the BBC, 2000).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Live By Request, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2004).
I’m Afraid of Americans (NIN, live, 2009).

I never said, “The superman exists, and he’s American.” What I said was,”God exists, and he’s American.”

Prof. Milton Glass, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen.

“I’m Afraid of Americans,” made and remade over the course of two years, has no definitive version. It’s an Earthling album track, a soundtrack obscurity and, in its most popular incarnation, a Trent Reznor single remix, which was a minor US hit in 1997. Slot it as another of Bowie’s “stateless” songs, in the company of “Holy Holy” and “Strangers When We Meet.” Originally called “Dummy” (a Portishead nod?), the song came out of the final sessions for Outside in January 1995, its initial mix a fairly rote Brian Eno concoction of drum, synthesizer and distorted vocal loops, a few of which—a monotone laugh hook and a synth hook that pinged around an E-flat octave—persevered through most subsequent revisions.

Its first lyric hinted at Bowie’s renewed interest in David Byrne (see “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town”), its chorus calling back to the Talking Heads’ “Animals”: “I’m afraid of the animals!” Bowie howled, with an apparent vocal improvisation turning “animals” into “Americans” by the close of the track. Not making the cut for Outside, “Dummy” was quickly slated for Johnny Mnemonic, a Keanu Reeves-starring adaption of a William Gibson short story, which opened in May 1995.* But allegedly Eno told Bowie to rescind the offer, as the film sounded bad (one ill omen: Bono had been offered a role and turned it down). So instead “Dummy,” by now retitled “I’m Afraid of Americans,” wound up on the soundtrack of Joe Eszterhas’ and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls.

This was the version of “Americans” that I first heard, as Showgirls, at least in New York in the winter of 1995-1996, quickly evolved from first-run flop into a cult film playing the midnight circuit. Given the ludicrous nature of Showgirls, (“I’m erect. Why aren’t you erect?” “Only people I know got pimp cars are pimps.” Only Road House has better lines), Bowie growling lines like “dummy wants to suck on a Coke” seemed appropriate—its lyric is basically poor Elizabeth Berkley’s plotline in the film. The Showgirls soundtrack, an uninspired collection of mild Goth and pop industrial, was released around Christmas ’95 and went into rotation, well at least in a few West Village and Upper East Side bars I frequented, more for its connection to the revered film than for any merit of its own.

I mention this because “I’m Afraid of Americans,” from my perspective, was the last Bowie song that had any purchase in America, the last song of his (chronologically-speaking) that I can recall hearing in public, Bowie’s voice intoning in a club or piping out through car speakers (mainly the track’s Reznor mix incarnation). In the US at least, “Americans” is the last Bowie song that rattled around in a wider culture, existing outside of Bowie fandom: its paranoid video was part of the TV compost of the late Nineties.

shwgirls

Maybe he was embarrassed that a song of his wound up on the Showgirls soundtrack, or he might have been looking for workable material in the time-tightened Earthling sessions. In any event, Bowie revised “I’m Afraid of Americans” in August 1996, changing the lyric’s protagonist to “Johnny” (a callback to Mnemonic, or perhaps to Bowie’s own “Repetition.”)

He kept the structure of the song, a one-chord vamp in F major,* mainly intact: spare verses sewn through with loops and hooks and given a near-conversational phrasing, Bowie keeping to a two-note range; choruses where multiple-tracked guitars kicked in and Bowie moved to his higher register, his phrases now spanning fifths (“afraid of the WORLD,” “afraid I can’t HELP IT”). For Earthling, he transposed and rewrote verses: the Showgirls version’s opening verse became the Earthling version’s third, while he put in a new opener that incorporated the “laugh” hook.

The remake was bright and “current”: its arrangement was a stew of everything from Nine Inch Nails to favorites like Underworld and Photek (the new opening line sounded like “Photek’s at the wheel”), its mix was in line with the post-Pixies, post-Nirvana “alternative” rock template of volleying between sonic extremes for verses and choruses. But the new mix was also cluttered, with seemingly every bar affixed with baubles: a keyboard gurgle, a feedback whistle, assorted static, twinging high synth note loops, a synth line in the chorus that sounded like “Macarena,” various Reeves Gabrels pull-offs and bent notes. For ballast it had its main hook, a riff sounding root and fifth notes of the F chord, carried first on keyboard and then, in the chorus, thundered by Gail Ann Dorsey’s bass.

So dedicated to spectacle, the Earthling “Americans” could fumble the drama: the climactic “God is an American” section began with Bowie singing over Mike Garson’s keyboards, a sense of lightness and unease (slightly suggesting Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” which Bowie would play live during the subsequent tour). But the mood died when Bowie then up-shifted to another chorus, singing, in strained voice, over jacked-up drums. Still, the tasteless shifts in tone and the over-the-top mix fit what Bowie intended: the singer was afraid of Americans, but his song was meant to cater to their debased tastes.

trentmix

Where the song’s first lyric had Bowie afraid of the natural world, in later versions his paranoia found richer territory. “Americans” were an easy target. By the mid-Nineties, with the Cold War wound down and the virtues of Yankee capitalism unquestioned, the public face of the United States, to some, was a bloated, drunken fan celebrating his team’s victory well after the game had been called. God is an American, as Bowie sang.**

As much as Bowie had been fascinated by America as a kid, as much as commercial success there had consumed him in the early Seventies, he never shook his view of the country as being fundamentally crass, incoherent and violent (he loved to describe his first visits to the US in 1971-2 as a time when there were “snipers on the roofs”). He explained the lyric of “Americans” to journalists by saying he was referring to the public face of America, the one that everyone else in the world has to see: its gaudy advertisements, its junk food, its all-conquering franchises, its action films. “I was traveling in Java when [its] first McDonald’s went up: it was like, “for fuck’s sake,’” he said. Meanwhile the “real America” of blues musicians and Beat poets (“the aspects of America that are really magical to us,” Bowie said) remained hidden, even (or especially) at home.

There was a bit of Gnosticism here: while the visible America is a false, fallen world, the true “magical” one is accessible only to those who learn to see it. What most of us see is just surface America, the backlot that “Johnny” walks through in the song while eating, driving, screwing, preening in the mirror. Even the false God (again, pure Gnosticism) who created the world is an American, and he’s busy drowning out any murmurs of resistance with Entertainment Tonight and the OJ Simpson trial.

But Bowie’s “real” America was just as tainted: blues musicians and Beat poets are just as commodified as Pepsi, as are “outsider” artists, punk rockers, skateboarders, rappers and any other potential subversives. They’re just less-attended wings of the same carnival tent. The fact that “I’m Afraid of Americans” became a minor US hit (like “Young Americans,” another jeremiad turned into a good-time song by the country it belittled) showed how the carnival endures: piss on the tent, and you get brought in and made into a fresh act.

afraid

Its video was a European tourist’s nightmare of walking in an American city. Some thuggish American will single you out for your weird clothes and accent, and chase you down; everyone’s armed; the street people are jabbering and menacing; the cabbies are lunatics; the whole place is overrun by machine guns and Christian fanatics. (Trent Reznor, looking like a Manson Family member and wearing Travis Bickle’s jacket, plays a convincing heavy).***

The video used Reznor’s first remix of the song, which was issued as the radio single. In it, Reznor scrubbed the track of much of the Gabrels/Eno jiggery-pokery, instead staggering new loops and riffs for ominous effects (a static grinding noise mixed right builds to swamp the first chorus). The bassline is held back until the second chorus, where it’s delivered via harsh, distorted guitar. Later choruses are shaken by jackhammer synth beats; “God is American,” chanted over a chanted loop that’s shadowed by an murderous bassline, is the last word: the song never returns to the bravado of its chorus again, instead just muttering its way to the fade.

For me, it’s the best version, but other spins of the wheel turn up equally appealing/appalling faces: the fledgling version trapped in the high trash of Showgirls; the geegaw-filled Earthling take; the Ice Cube remix, where Cube chases Bowie’s voice through the track as Reznor did in the video (“shut up and be happy!” he yells. “Superbowl Sunday!“); the various live versions that rely on the muscle-flexing chorus for effect. A hydra-headed song, “Americans” is Bowie’s last bitter populist moment.

miss america

Original version recorded ca. January 1995, Record Plant, NYC, and released in December 1995 on the Showgirls OST (Interscope 92652-2). The remake, recorded at Looking Glass Studios in August 1996, appeared on Earthling, while Reznor’s various remixes were issued on a US-only CD single (Virgin V25H-38618, #66 US), issued October 1997. Performed live throughout the remainder of Bowie’s tours.

* Most of the time the song stays on a F7 chord, but the guitars shift to F5 power chords to beef up the choruses. A C minor (the dominant chord of F’s parallel minor) makes a cameo appearance in the “God is an American” section.

** One ancestor to this song is Jackson Browne’s “Lawyers in Love,” a vicious late Cold War satire in a cheery pop package, complete with doo-wop breaks: it’s the US fulfilling its Manifest Destiny at last (“now we’ve got all this room! we’ve even got the moon!“), with God sending spaceships down to blessed America in time to watch us watch the six o’clock news, and where even the layabout Jesus Christ has to get a job. Browne’s prediction that “I hear the U.S.S.R. will be open soon/As vacation land for lawyers in love” was pretty much how it turned out.

*** Recall that around this time the papers were playing up a “wave” of German tourists being mugged and killed in Florida. Also, the ill-fated 1996 revival of Doctor Who opens with Sylvester McCoy walking out into a San Francisco street, immediately being shot by thugs and dying on an operating table thanks to American surgical malpractice.

Top to bottom: “Streetpix,” “Cheerleaders, New Year’s Day Parade, London, 1996.”; various fearful or fearsome Americans.


Strangers When We Meet

January 10, 2013

riots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

strangers

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Shadow Man

April 12, 2010

Shadow Man (studio demo, 1971).
Shadow Man (Toy, 2000).

“Shadow Man” was demoed in an early session for a Hunky Dory sequel LP. As Bowie had yet to develop the Ziggy Stardust concept, the new record began as a random collection of songs, including some Arnold Corns leftovers, remakes of “Holy Holy” and “The Supermen,” Biff Rose, Chuck Berry and Jacques Brel covers, and a couple new pieces (which include “It’s Gonna Rain Again” and “Only One Paper Left,” tracks the bootleggers still haven’t unearthed).

Bowie soon shelved the Neil Young-influenced “Shadow Man” once the Ziggy concept took hold and never attempted a full studio version. While its messiah-superhero title figure seems like a rough draft of the Ziggy character, “Shadow Man” comes off a bit stale, hobbled by the dreary earnestness of its lyric and its plodding tempo.

Recorded on 14 September 1971 and never released. In 2000, Bowie cut a grandiose revision of “Shadow Man” for his aborted Toy LP and later issued it as a B-side of  the 2002 singles “Slow Burn” and “Everyone Says ‘Hi’.”

Top: Doisneau, “Les Jambes du Métro, Paris, 1971.”


End of Chapter Two (1969-1970)

February 1, 2010

In July 1970, having cut The Man Who Sold the World and “Holy Holy,” Bowie went into hibernation (well, aestivation, to be precise). Everything was on hold. No shows, no promotions, no studio sessions. Mick Ronson and Woody Woodmansey dejectedly went back to Hull (Ronson even fell into a depression). Tony Visconti, who was about to produce a run of chart-topping singles for T. Rex and who was wary of Bowie’s new manager Tony Defries, told Bowie he couldn’t work with him anymore. The two parted outside Defries’ office on Regent Street, not to meet again for years.

The silence was partly strategy. Defries was negotiating to get Bowie a better record deal than his current one with Philips/Mercury, whose contract would expire once Man Who Sold the World was released. Bowie’s publishing contract with Essex Music was also expiring, and due to Bob Grace at Chrysalis Music’s love for “Holy Holy,” Bowie landed a new publishing deal with Chrysalis in October (giving Bowie a much-needed £5000 advance).

So in the latter months of 1970 Bowie simply wrote, song after song, many of them on a piano he had brought into Haddon Hall; he later demoed many of the pieces at Radio Luxembourg’s studios. In 1971 Bowie would at last go to America and would record Hunky Dory and most of Ziggy Stardust: alone at his piano, Bowie laid the framework for a miracle year.

Top five from the “Philips/Mercury” era:

The Man Who Sold the World.
Conversation Piece.
Space Oddity.
After All.
Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed.

Top: London, 1970 (photographer unknown).