Reissues: Life On Mars?

February 25, 2016

Given Lorde’s tribute to Bowie at the BRIT Awards, it feels like the right time to revive this grand dame.

It was one of the book revisions that took seemingly forever to finish, and then it wound up being not that different from the blog entry. Just a touch more concise, I suppose, and a few new quotes and such. I’ve swapped in the book’s paragraphs on the chords, etc., as the original entry was clunky. If you want to see the warts-and-all version, it’s back here.

Originally posted on 23 March 2010, it’s “Life On Mars?”

Life On Mars?
Life On Mars? (live, 1972).
Life On Mars? (rehearsal, 1976).
Life On Mars? (Tonight Show, 1980).
Life On Mars? (live, 1983).
Life On Mars? (broadcast, 1999).
Life On Mars? (Net Aid, 1999).
Life On Mars? (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Life On Mars? (Glastonbury, 2000).
Life On Mars? (Parkinson, 2002).
Life On Mars? (live, 2005).
Life On Mars (The Bad Plus, 2007).
Life on Mars? (Lorde, 2016).

This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.

Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.

David Bowie on “Life on Mars,” 2008.

Nice indeed. “Life on Mars?,” as fits its cinematic lyric, has become the Citizen Kane of Bowie songs—the youthful masterpiece, the epic, the best thing he ever did. Popular television shows have been named after it, people have gotten married to it.

It (quite literally) is Bowie’s own version of “My Way”—longtime readers may recall Bowie’s chrisom child “Even a Fool Learns to Love,” his attempt to write English lyrics for Claude François’ “Comme d’Habitude.” Bowie’s translation was trumped by Paul Anka’s, which turned François’ stoic Gallic lyric into a grandiose self-assessment, perfect for Frank Sinatra’s late imperial phase. Bowie was nettled by the snub though, and a few years later he rewrote the song as “Life On Mars?”—brazen enough in his theft that he wrote “Inspired by Frankie” on the LP cover.

An anomic heroine

A sullen teenage girl goes to the movies, gets stood up by her friend and dejectedly takes her seat. She’s the subject of the song, not the typical rock ‘n’ roll object of beauty or lust or distraction. In a few lines, Bowie captures a teenager’s life, its slights, its cosmic sense of injustice, its losing war against tedium, its restlessness (he starts nearly every line with a conjunction), its uneasy cynicism. The movie screen flickers to life, showers the girl with images. The song becomes the screen, its pre-chorus is an extended trailer—soaring strings, thunderous piano, ascending chords—for the refrain, one of the most shameless, gorgeous melodies he ever wrote.

And the song also captures a teenager’s ability to suddenly and completely lose themselves in art, to a degree we can never quite do again. It’s what happens in the song as well. Bowie constructs an 8-bar bridge designed to build anticipation in the listener—the strings, the pounding piano, the rising chords in each new bar—and then makes good on his promise: the chorus, with Bowie vaulting nearly an octave to a high B-flat and ending with another high Bb, held for a brief eternity.

The careful imagery and the intricate design of the first verse—its movie theater setting, its mousy heroine—vanishes in the second, replaced by a string of jokes (“Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow” made Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey crack up in the studio), esoteric references and gibberish (“my mother, my dogs and clowns”). A cynic would argue that Bowie didn’t have a second verse and just free-associated in the studio [voice of 2016: a cynic would be partially wrong, as there were further verses written, but Bowie rewrote them at some point before recording]; a more charitable interpretation is that the second verse is from the point of view of the movie screen itself. Blank and fecund, the screen offers nothing but a string of disconnected, vivid, absurd images: the masses scurrying from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads (from a hip summer holiday destination to an old-fashioned one), Mickey Mouse, “Alley Oop” (from which Bowie stole the “look at those cavemen go” line ), crooked cops and honest robbers.

It could be a curse on modern life, in which a discontented girl is stunned into silence by colors and noise, or it could argue that even the basest pleasures have nobility in them. I’d say “Life on Mars?” turns out to be a love song after all—the girl in the stalls, the screen providing her cheap dreams, and the song that unites them.

Striking for fame

There is an art to the building up of suspense.

Tom Stoppard, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

It starts with a cold opening—a single piano note, a rest, two sung notes to kick-start the verse (“It’s a/god-awful”), the latter becoming a rhythmic motif (“But her/friend is…,” “She could/spit”). A harmony vocal appears, a third below Bowie’s lead; Bolder deepens “sunken dream” with a bass fill. By the pre-chorus, a sense of movement has become relentless. All of its players are conscripted: strings and bass slam downbeats; Rick Wakeman’s piano drums out chords; Bowie vaults from a D to a high B-flat (“fo-cus on/SAI-LORS”) as a last flourish. Yet the refrain plays another game of suspense. After his opening gymnastic, Bowie feigns as if he’s losing strength, as he hits the next Bb briefly (“OH man”) and his next leap is a shorter interval, from E to B (“law-man”). It’s all a ruse: his final jump is his grandest—holding a three-bars-long Bb on “MARS!” The whole song is a clockwork. Everything has led up to this glorious indulgence. All that’s left to do is replay the whole sequence and close with fireworks.

There’s a parallel game in the song’s structure. The verses are comfortably in F major, with a C7 chord (“told her to go”) shuttling back home to F (“but her friend”) but at the close, a now-C9 chord jarringly leads to A-flat chords (“lived it ten times”). The pre-chorus becomes a battle for control between waning F major and B-flat, which assures its victory with a triumphant B-flat that opens the refrain as Bowie leaps to sing its root note. Bolder’s bass prepares the ear: in the pre-chorus, his rising chromatic line (inching up from Eb to E, from F to Gb) heralds the transition; in the refrain he tacks things down, keeping to the roots of the newly-established Bb key.

Ronson’s cascading string arrangement was based in part on the descending bassline that Bolder had worked out in rehearsals, while in turn Woodmansey’s drums respond to the strings—he does some tympani-like fills to match the staccato string bursts, and even ends the track by quoting the tympani of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (a Bowie perennial by this point—similar tributes are in “Width of a Circle” and “The Supermen”). Wakeman, playing the same piano that Paul McCartney used for “Hey Jude,” offers a secondary melody line for much of the verses. Ah, you can spend hours on the details: the lovely double-recorder accompaniment in the second verse; or Ronson’s gorgeous,vibrato-filled guitar solo that links the chorus and the verse.

“Life on Mars?” naturally gets a Hollywood ending: sweeping strings, the 2001 drum fanfare and a fadeout. But we still hear Wakeman’s piano in the distance, playing a bit of his chorus line, until a phone rings, someone mutters and we’re left awake and alone.

Recorded June-July 1971; released as a single by RCA in June 1973 (RCA 2316; it hit #3 in the UK, helped by the Mick Rock promo). While a huge hit in the UK, it was never that popular in America, oddly enough. Bowie performed it occasionally during the Ziggy tours of ’72-’73  and in’76 and then retired it until a Tonight Show performance on 5 September 1980 that has, for me, Bowie’s finest vocal for the song. Also revived in 1983, 1990 and the last tours. It’s been regularly covered over the years, even by Barbra Streisand. The version by The Bad Plus (from Prog) is highly recommended.

Top: The Nottingham Odeon, 1971.


Life On Mars?

March 23, 2010

Life On Mars?
Life On Mars? (live, 1972).
Life On Mars? (rehearsal, 1976).
Life On Mars? (Tonight Show, 1980).
Life On Mars? (live, 1983).
Life On Mars? (broadcast, 1999).
Life On Mars? (Net Aid, 1999).
Life On Mars? (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Life On Mars? (Glastonbury, 2000).
Life On Mars? (Parkinson, 2002).
Life On Mars? (live, 2005).
Life On Mars (The Bad Plus, 2007).
Life on Mars? (Lorde, 2016).

This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.

Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.

David Bowie on “Life on Mars,” 2008.

Nice indeed. “Life on Mars?,” as fits its cinematic lyric, has become the Citizen Kane of Bowie songs—the youthful masterpiece, the epic, the best thing he ever did. Popular television shows have been named after it, people have gotten married to it.

It (quite literally) is Bowie’s own version of “My Way”—longtime readers may recall Bowie’s chrisom child “Even a Fool Learns to Love,” his attempt to write English lyrics for Claude François’ “Comme d’Habitude.” Bowie’s translation was trumped by Paul Anka’s, which turned François’ stoic Gallic lyric into a grandiose self-assessment, perfect for Frank Sinatra’s late imperial phase. Bowie was nettled by the snub though, and a few years later he rewrote the song as “Life On Mars?”—brazen enough in his theft that he wrote “Inspired by Frankie” on the LP cover.

An anomic heroine

In Bowie’s lyric, a sullen teenage girl is sent off to the movies by her distracted parents, gets stood up by her friend (maybe her boyfriend) and dejectedly takes her seat in the stalls. It’s one of the few early rock-era songs in which a girl is simply the subject of a song, not an object of beauty or lust or distraction, and Bowie also neatly captures the essence of a teenager’s life: filled with slights and petty injustices, the constant restlessness (take the way nearly each line starts with a new conjunction), the ingrained tedium of your narrow world.

And the song also captures a teenager’s ability to suddenly and completely lose themselves in art, to a degree we can never quite do again. It’s what happens, suddenly, as the girl sits bored in her seat—the movie screen comes alive, showers her with images, flatters her, distracts her, wins her over against her will. It’s what happens in the song as well. Bowie constructs an 8-bar bridge designed to build anticipation in the listener—the strings, the pounding piano, the rising chords in each new bar—and then makes good on his promise: the chorus, starting with Bowie vaulting nearly an octave to a high B-flat and ending with another high Bb, held for a brief eternity, is one of the most gorgeous melodies he ever wrote.

The careful imagery and the intricate design of the first verse—its movie theater setting, its mousy heroine—vanishes in the second, replaced by a string of jokes (“Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow” made Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey crack up in the studio), esoteric references and gibberish (“my mother, my dogs and clowns”). A cynic would argue that Bowie didn’t have a second verse and just free-associated in the studio; a more charitable interpretation is that the second verse is from the point of view of the movie screen itself. Blank and fecund, the screen offers nothing but a string of disconnected, vivid, absurd images: the masses scurrying from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads (from a hip summer holiday destination to an old-fashioned one), Mickey Mouse, “Alley Oop” (from which Bowie stole the “look at those cavemen go” line ), crooked cops and honest robbers.

It could be a curse on modern life, in which a discontented girl is stunned into silence by colors and noise, or it could argue that even the basest pleasures have nobility in them. I’d say “Life on Mars?” turns out to be a love song after all—the girl in the stalls, the screen providing her cheap dreams, and the song that unites them, which in turn becomes the stuff of our own daydreams and idle hopes.

Striking for fame

There is an art to the building up of suspense.

Tom Stoppard, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

“Life on Mars?” is a case in point. The suspense starts in the very first bar, where there’s a single piano note (A), a rest and then two notes that Bowie uses as the first words of his verse (It’s a/godawful small affair”) and every following line has the same two-note intro (“But her/friend is…,” “And her/daddy…,” “And she’s/hooked to the…,” “She could/spit in the eyes…,”). The result is that there’s always a sense of motion, with these “empty” bars suddenly leading to the next line. In the bridge, Bowie drives toward the chorus slowly and relentlessly: there’s the two-note intro again (But the/film is a saddening bore”) and suddenly strings hit on the first beat (on “film”), as does Bolder’s bass, while Rick Wakeman’s piano, which has up until now been offering brief ascending and descending lines of notes, drums out chords.

The chords are stacked upward to the chorus, moving from A flat to an augmented E to G flat to an augmented A, leading to the sudden vault (in Bowie’s vocal) from D to B flat (“fo-cus on/SAIL-ORS“). Even in the chorus Bowie’s not done with the anticipation, as he comes back to the high B-flat again but now briefer (“OH man”), repeats his first leap, now moving from E to B  (“LAW-man”). Finally, at last, comes the release—the three-bars-long B on “MARS!”, a brutal endurance test (Bowie’s voice slightly wavers on the first chorus of the LP cut) that ends the chorus and seems what the whole song has been leading up to.

Ronson’s cascading string arrangement was based in part on the descending bassline that Bolder had worked out in rehearsals, while in turn Woodmansey’s drums respond to the strings—he does some tympani-like fills to match the staccato string bursts, and even ends the track by quoting the tympani of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (a Bowie perennial by this point—similar tributes are in “Width of a Circle” and “The Supermen”). Wakeman, playing the same piano that Paul McCartney used for “Hey Jude,” offers a secondary melody line for much of the verses. Ah, you can spend hours on the details: the lovely wind (or is a synth?) accompaniment in the second verse; or Ronson’s gorgeous,vibrato-filled guitar solo that links the chorus and the verse; or the way Wakeman suddenly drives the rhythm midway through the chorus, pounding eight identical chords over four beats (while the piece oddly moves from F major to F minor).

“Life on Mars?” naturally gets a Hollywood ending: sweeping strings, the 2001 drum fanfare and a fadeout. But we still hear Wakeman’s piano in the distance, playing a bit of his chorus line, until a phone rings, someone mutters and we’re left awake and alone.

Recorded June-July 1971; released as a single by RCA in June 1973 (RCA 2316; it hit #3 in the UK, helped by the Mick Rock promo linked to above). While a huge hit in the UK, it was never that popular in America, oddly enough. Bowie performed it occasionally during the Ziggy tours of ’72-’73 and then retired it until a Tonight Show performance on 5 September 1980 that has, for me, Bowie’s finest vocal for the song. Also revived in 1983, 1990 and some recent tours. It’s also been regularly covered over the years, even by Barbra Streisand. The recent version by The Bad Plus (from Prog) is highly recommended.

Top: The Nottingham Odeon, 1971.


Teenage Wildlife

September 7, 2011

Teenage Wildlife (earlier studio take, rough mix).
Teenage Wildlife.
Teenage Wildlife (live, 1995).
Teenage Wildlife (live, 1996).

Only last summer, a group was on the stage of a more liberal Manchester club; called Spurtz, they featured two girls who knew what they were doing and one chap who didn’t really. They weren’t much—noisy and atonal—but what struck me was that the lead singer, banging around in a lurex mini-dress, was drawing entirely from a vocabulary invented by Bowie. And people stood and took it.

Jon Savage, “David Bowie: The Gender Bender,” The Face, November 1980.

Around 1976, a few London clubs began having “Bowie nights,” where DJs would play Bowie records and clubgoers would come dressed as an edition of him. For some kids, it was the pupal stage before they became punks; others kept at it. By 1978, the main Bowie night in London was at Billy’s, where former Rich Kid Rusty Egan was the DJ and Steve Strange worked the door. As the Eighties began, the scene shifted to (and culminated at) the Blitz Club in Covent Garden. By then Bowie nights had gone from being an impulsive collective tribute to a competitive pose-off. Doing a variation on Bowie had become work. New bands were literally recruited off the Blitz floor, like Spandau Ballet and Visage, which Egan and Strange formed.

Bowie recognized his heirs, using Strange and three other Blitz kids one night in May 1980 to serve as mourners in the video of “Ashes to Ashes.” But his thoughts on becoming a influence weren’t always as noble, and understandably so. After all, paternity means that your genetic purpose is fulfilled: now you can shuffle off and die. There was Bowie’s notorious slagging-off of Gary Numan in the press, while he led off the B-side of Scary Monsters with “Teenage Wildlife,” the first Bowie midlife crisis on record.

Ironically, the lyric is something about taking a short view of life, not looking too far ahead and not predicting the oncoming hard knocks. The lyric might have been a note to a younger brother or my own adolescent self,” Bowie wrote of the song many years later, and in its most generous interpretation, “Teenage Wildlife” is Bowie’s bequest to his successors—be true to yourself, or at least to your favorite illusion; know that the crowd will mock your ambitions and will hunt you down if you have the bad taste to fulfill them.

Is fame even worth it, though? A kid with “squeaky clean eyes” is desperate for fame but he becomes a toy of commerce, just another ugly teenage millionaire, “a broken nosed mogul,” with nothing new to say. The “same old thing in brand new drag comes sweeping into view.” After that, all that remains is the fall: it’s a world of pop stars as a succession of Jane Greys, queens crowned and dispatched in a week. It’s a lurid, violent lyric, with its “midwives to history” in bloody robes, or the teenage millionaire left to bleed out on the floor and howl “like a wolf in a trap,” while his friends scamper past him, whispering to each other “he was great, yeah, but it was time, you know?” Or take the song’s title, a play on healthy adolescent abandon and the image of teenagers as feral beasts.

“Wildlife”‘s lyrical harshness is echoed by its structure. Much of the song is built on sharps: the opening verses first shuttle between G# and C# (e.g., “its promise of something hard to do,” “break open your million-dollar weapon and push your luck) then expand to F# (“blue skies above”) and D# (“new wave boys”). There’s a brittle, wavering feel to the track; nothing is stable, everything is on the verge of change.

You’ll take me aside, and say “well David, what shall I do?
They wait for me in the hallway.”
I’ll say “don’t ask me, I don’t know any hallways.”

The presence of Roy Bittan, recruited from Bruce Springsteen’s The River sessions in the adjacent studio of the Power Station, heightens the sense that “Wildlife” is in Springsteen waters, indulging in and undermining adolescent myth-making. As with Springsteen epics like “Jungleland” (which Springsteen was moving away from—The River was a mix of frat house anthems, re-imagined Four Seasons songs and the occasional quiet prediction of Nebraska), “Wildlife” has a loose, improvisatory structure; it’s as though Bowie is leaving enough space for whatever last-minute inspirations come to him. There’s not really a chorus, just meandering verses which only end when punctuated by the title phrase and a Robert Fripp solo.

Bowie sings the opening verse slowly and somberly, wringing whatever effects he can get from each phrase (the sudden swoop upward on “BLIND-ed”) but keeping within his bounds. Then, triggered by a brief Fripp interlude, Bowie unravels as he sings, summoning a different personality for each new line (he seems to be imitating/inspiring Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs on the first bridge), placing stresses helter-skelter on his words, forcing and suppressing rhymes. His bite sharpens, the song seems to feed off of him: the players drive at each other, the backing singers swirl out of time beneath him, until Bowie finally breaks the fourth wall, turning to the audience in exasperation when faced with the desperate vanity of youth. “David, what shall I do?” the kid asks. It sets Bowie off on an agitated monologue, as snarky as it’s paranoid (“I feel like a group of one–no-oh–they can’t do this to me!”),  spinning and spinning until he finally kills the verse off by howling the title phrase. The Fripp guitar solo that follows comes like a blessing.

Bowie said he wanted the guitars on “Wildlife” to be “a splintery little duel” between Fripp and Carlos Alomar, but the third element is Chuck Hammer’s guitar synthesizer (used to even greater effect in “Ashes to Ashes”), which adds an eerie choral tone; at times it supplements the chorus of Tony Visconti, Lynn Maitland and Chris Porter. Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis mainly keep their heads down, the latter two keeping a steady eighth-note pulse. And Fripp, in his most glorious appearance on Scary Monsters, essentially rewrites his lead work on “Heroes.” If the yearning, straining sound of Fripp’s “Heroes” playing suggested an unattainable perfection, his reworking of the line for “Teenage Wildlife” humanizes it, providing the comfort and strength that Bowie’s manic, badgering vocal denies.

“Wildlife,” the longest track on Scary Monsters, is a series of hard demands on the listener (Visconti said it took him years to like the song, having first considered it a misstep), and it can be wearying. It sounds as though two decades of pop music cues were pulped within its vague confines—the Ronettes vocal hooks, the guitar heroics, the pseudo-Japanese melody in the second bridge. If “Wildlife” was a bequest to Bowie’s successors of the time, it’s a poisoned one: there’s a vicious challenge in its grudging transfer of power, a cold judgment on a lesser future. It ends with the godfather chuckling as he walks past the corpse of his would-be inheritor: “the fingerprints will prove that you couldn’t pass the test.”

Recorded February 1980, Power Station, NYC; April 1980, Good Earth Studios, London. Played as one of the few oldies on Bowie’s 1995-1996 tours, a gibe to the latest heirs apparent. “I’m still enamoured of this song and would give you two “Modern Loves” for it any time,” Bowie said in 2008.

Top: Boy George and Steve Strange at the Blitz Club, London, 1980.


The Gift of Sound + Vision

September 25, 2019

R-1042699-1247423098.jpeg

The first box sets that I bought, when I was 17 years old, were Product, a Buzzcocks collection by Restless Retro, and Rykodisc’s Sound + Vision. I got them in the autumn of 1989, and on cassette—not an ideal medium for a box set—because I didn’t own a CD player then.

Sound + Vision, released 30 years ago today, remains the essential Bowie career compilation, despite said career being confined to a mere 11 years on it. Its recent challenger is Nothing Has Changed, whose span is far greater but whose “backwards” sequencing feels more gimmicky with each year. Also Nothing Has Changed, er, changed nothing in how Bowie was perceived—issued, like a set of bonus discs, in the midst of his grand comeback of the mid-2010s, it already seemed forgotten by the time of his death.

By contrast, Sound + Vision was intended as a major reputational reboot. Like Neil Young’s Decade and Bob Dylan’s Biograph (the latter an obvious, and admitted, influence on the Bowie set), it imposed a narrative upon a set of disparate tracks—outtakes, studio warhorses, live performances, demos. It built David Bowie a past, if one cluttered like a Victorian house, and plucked him out of the Eighties just as the decade expired. Sound + Vision (which closes in 1980) was a set of knight’s moves, sending him back across the board in leaps. (That said, S+V used Bowie’s “Serious Moonlight” 1983 tour setlists as one guide as to what to include—note how many of those songs appear on it.)

Jeff Rougvie, who put together the set for Ryko in 1988-1989, has gone into great detail on his blog as to how S+V came together (he has a book about Ryko coming out next year, too). The timing was ideal: much of Bowie’s RCA work was out of print, and had scarcely been available on CD before then, and most previous Bowie compilations had been obvious label cash-grabs. The success of Biograph, Clapton’s Crossroads and the Springsteen Live 1975-1985 sets had shown there was a market for high-end, ambitious rock retrospectives, and this was certainly one of them—a custom-made plastic silkscreen cover lid, a Kurt Loder-penned booklet, and a then-cutting-edge (and now unplayable) CDV bonus disc.

Rougvie is an American, Ryko was an American indie label, and Sound + Vision was an American take on a British artist. The track choices aren’t those of a fan who saw Bowie at the Hammersmith Odeon or “Starman” on Top of the Pops. They’re to fill in the rough sketch that the typical American fan had of Bowie’s career—S+V was an extended answer piece to the 1976 ChangesOneBowie, Bowie’s biggest US seller after Ziggy Stardust and the template of Classic Rock radio Bowie—“Space Oddity,” “Changes,” some Ziggy, “Jean Genie,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Young Americans,” “Fame,” “Golden Years,” done.

Another theme of Sound + Vision was: Look, Really, This Guy Used to Be Cool. The aim of its third disc, which spanned from Low to Scary Monsters, was to show America what it had missed by not buying those albums when they were released, Rougvie said. It also made a hipper, arty contrast to the waning Glass Spider, “Dancing in the Street,” and Jareth era. The inclusion of Bowie’s cover of Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come,” an odd pick to represent Scary Monsters, was in part because Rougvie wanted to show Bowie’s ties to the New York punk scene, which was becoming mythologized by the end of the Eighties.

So let’s go back to high-school me, listening to S+V for the first time in 1989. Side One of the first tape starts with the “Mercury demo” of “Space Oddity.” The compilation begins at Bowie’s bedside as he’s strumming together the song that will introduce him to the world (Rougvie: “Bowie delivered [the “SO” demo] separately from the rest of the vault, although he left me to assembling the track list & sequence. He didn’t specify it as the first track, but later confirmed he’d hoped we’d start with it”). Then comes the B-side of “Space Oddity,” “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”; the Marc Bolan “Prettiest Star” (a single unreleased in the US; American fans, if they knew the song at all, knew it as its Aladdin Sane remake), and the outtake “London Bye Ta-Ta,” lone representative of Bowie’s Deram-era Sixties (it was originally cut in 1968), with Bowie sounding like a pilled-up cabaret act.

In four tracks, you get Bowie’s deep past, if its sources are greatly in shadow: Anthony Newley, John Hutchinson, the Arts Lab, Chimi Rinpoche, Bolan, Lindsay Kemp. Then—bang—comes the Seventies: “Black Country Rock” (huh? is he covering Zeppelin?), “Man Who Sold the World” (why have I never heard this on the radio?) and “Bewlay Brothers” (wait, what?) And the side ends with “Changes.” (Rougvie: “I felt like the newbies needed familiarity after a lot of material the casual fan would only be peripherally familiar with, if at all. Plus, it’s fucking “Changes.”)

Finishing this side, I sat for a moment, then rewound to the start again. It was a few days until I got to Side Two, a history of Bowie’s glam years in jump cuts. Ziggy Stardust is represented solely by “Moonage Daydream” and the “Round & Round” outtake/B-side; Aladdin Sane via “Panic in Detroit” and “Drive-In Saturday” (another UK hit/ US relative obscurity). It ends with Ziggy dying on stage at the Hammersmith in 1973.

You can, of course, point out everything that’s missing—and there’s a lot! Where’s “Queen Bitch?” “Quicksand?” “Life on Mars?” “Lady Stardust?” But the object of the box set wasn’t to be a greatest hits compilation (that would come in 1990) and Ryko didn’t want fans to buy the same outtakes twice—thus much of the cream of the unreleased tracks (“Some Are,” “Who Can I Be Now?” “Sweet Head,” the “Quicksand” demo, “Alternative Candidate,” etc.) was held in reserve for individual album reissues.

The second disc/tape was the weakest of the set, having to carry the still-basically-Ziggy Bowie over to Thin White Duke DB in 15 tracks. The Pin Ups selections seem chosen by lot, the David Live ones don’t represent that tour well, although ending on “Wild Is the Wind” makes thematic sense as a “European” transition piece to the Berlin years.

All compilations tell a story, if inadvertent ones; S+V‘s was deliberate. It gave order to decisions Bowie had made as whims, as instinctual bobs and weaves, of knowing when a style was played out and darting into another one; moves based upon little more than meeting a rhythm guitarist in New York, or dating an R&B singer, or agreeing to spend a summer making a movie in New Mexico. And by arranging these pieces in a (relatively) straight line, S+V brought out underlying patterns, the tics and oddities and continuities that Bowie brought to all his work, despite how much he felt the urge to move on, to discard his pasts. S+V showed him as the secret traditionalist he always was.

In 2003, EMI issued an “updated” four-disc S+V without Rougvie’s (or, apparently, much of Bowie’s) input. While some new selections were made in the spirit of the original—“Ricochet” is there to represent Let’s Dance—it was more hits-oriented. That said, it remains the only Bowie compilation to fully incorporate Tin Machine, including three tracks from Tin Machine II (and well-chosen picks at that—“Amlapura,” “Shopping for Girls” and “Goodbye Mr. Ed.”) For label reasons, it ends abruptly on Buddha of Suburbia, with an Earthling-era coda.

It had none of the impact of the original compilation (which had sold over 200,000 copies in under a year). Admittedly I wasn’t paying much attention to Bowie at this time, but I’ve no recollection that the updated S+V even existed—I found out about it years later. By 2003, no box set could’ve have rebooted David Bowie, a genial, regularly-touring, “regular guy” legacy rock act whose new songs weren’t heard on US radio. As it turned out, the way to refresh his public self would be to retire it for a decade.

Should the estate ever release Sound + Vision: The Remix, an eight-disc set that ends with the Blackstar outtake “Blaze,” what would it accomplish? The market is awash with Bowie retrospectives and the Bowie Story is canonical enough that there are children’s books about his life. Sound + Vision had made a workable past for David Bowie to use, and long ago it became part of it.


Glastonbury 2000

November 30, 2018

glasto_2000_cvr_1080sq

On stage in summer 2000, Bowie broke his Sound + Vision tour pact and flung open the catalog. His first gig at the Roseland in New York, a near three-hour set on 16 June 2000, began with “Wild Is the Wind” and went on through “Life on Mars?” “Golden Years,” “Absolute Beginners,” “Rebel Rebel,” and “Changes,” most of which he’d hadn’t played in a decade. In Britain he sang “Starman” on television for the first time since the Heath ministry (you expected him to appear in Ziggy Stardust makeup by this point). Two days later, he headlined Glastonbury.

He’d last played it in 1971, when it was Glastonbury Fayre, one of the free festivals then cropping up around Britain (its pyramid-shaped stage was built on a ley line). In 2000, Glastonbury was now £87 tickets and 100,000-strong crowds. Wearing a glam bishop’s vestments, his hair at Hunky Dory length, Bowie made the rest of the bill look second-rate. For an encore he did “Ziggy Stardust,” “Heroes,” “Let’s Dance,” and a stonking “I’m Afraid of Americans.” The UK press genuflected: “a masterclass of superstardom” (the Mirror), “an object lesson in How to Be a Rock Star” (the Times), “a level beyond and above anyone else at this festival” (NME). All was forgiven. In the prophecy year 2000, he rode in on the past.

setlist

After a decade of (relative) experimentation, Bowie at last gave his audiences what they wanted, or at least what his critics had said they wanted: the hits, performed with vigor, command, and humor. For much of the Nineties, roughly post-Tin Machine, he’d been an object of mockery and pity, even a source of irritation, for some in the UK press. “For God’s sake, man…play the old stuff and stop trying so hard,” as per an Observer review of a 1997 Bowie “drum ‘n’ bass” set.

“As of 1990, I got through the rest of the 20th century without having to do a big hits show. Yes, yes, I know I did four or five hits on the later shows but I held out pretty well I thought…[but] big, well known songs will litter the field at Glastonbury this year,” as Bowie told Time Out.

The band was developing into what would be his last touring group, with the rhythm section of Gail Ann Dorsey and Sterling Campbell, Earl Slick on guitar, and Mike Garson. Eventually departing were Mark Plati (guitar, bass, keyboards) and a vocal section—Emm Gryner and Holly Palmer. This was the band that, a few weeks afterward in New York, cut much of Bowie’s as-yet-released Toy.

He’d gotten laryngitis during his Roseland shows, having had to cancel one performance, and he was still hoarse at Glastonbury. And he was worried about how he’d be received. “I remember how nervous he was at Glastonbury,” Hanif Kureishi told Dylan Jones. “His voice was failing, he had to do a gig the next day at the BBC, and he was really worried…As soon as it was finished, he rushed offstage, grabbed Duncan, and then got in the car and went straight to bed. He hated it….I’d never seen so many people in my life as I did that night in Glastonbury. It was incredible to me that someone could be so nervous and yet still have the balls to go out there and make it all work.”

It was one of the crowning moments of his performing life. He’d been adamant that the BBC could only show the first songs of the set and an encore song or two, which seemed perverse to the viewers at home—why cut away from the great comeback? But as BBC producer Mark Cooper wrote recently, “I think Bowie knew exactly what he was doing on the night of 25 June 2000. He wasn’t about to give away his peak performance or his catalogue for nothing. He hoarded that night so that one day it could be shown in all its glory as his legacy, the culmination of his golden years and surely his greatest concert since he buried Ziggy Stardust at Hammersmith in July 1973. It’s a time capsule of his life.”

If you’ve never heard the concert before, I’m curious as to what you think of it.

(Over 700 pages more of stuff like this in Ashes to Ashes, coming soon to your favorite bookstore.)

ticket

Setlist above from “Georgi,” a Bowie fan on the now-shuttered (?) Teenage Wildlife website, who paid a hard price for it. “Had great time at Glasto but I’m afraid my fandom had a bad consequence. My two front teeth were knocked almost completely out by being pushed against the bar at the front line. I was at the very front!!! Woohoo! Anyway, ended up getting dragged to the med. centre behind stage and pleaded with the security guards to put me back at the centre front where I’d been since 9am. They eventually agreed and after a fantastic show one gave me the set list.”


Chapter One: New People (1976-1977)

October 6, 2018

punkjul76

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.

rw77

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.

22e25249cb4cd54c5240577212f58b6d

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.

C7NafTWXQAEPvI2.jpg large

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.

idiotbillboard77

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.

vv77

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.

77circ

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.”

billbord77

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!”

mirror22jan77

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.

xgau

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.

nyt

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.

77febzigzag

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.”

cashbox29jan77

 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.

77nmejan

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: 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.


Poll, Day 4: Readers’ Favorite Bowiesongs, 25-1

December 18, 2015

First, an announcement.

I’m happy to say that I’ve signed with Repeater Books for Ashes to Ashes, the sequel to Rebel Rebel. Repeater was co-founded by Tariq Goddard, who signed me at Zero for the first book, and I’m very happy to be working with him and the Repeater team. (You can follow Repeater on FB or Twitter.)

The new book will be larger than Rebel Rebel, which is quite a large book. It will start with “Sister Midnight” and will end with whatever songs Bowie’s put out by summer 2017. I hope you enjoy it. And thanks so much to everyone who bought the first book, or is considering buying it.

OK, the last bunch of songs. The big megillahs. The top of the heap. Here goes, with the first book’s namesake, as it turns out:

db

25. Rebel Rebel (105 points, 93 votes, 3 #1 votes, 3 specified the U.S. single because they have good taste).

It’s a fabulous riff. Just fabulous. When I stumbled onto it, it was ‘Oh, thank you!’

Bowie.

David Bowie hopped onto the stage…Right in front of my face, this beautiful, hypnotic, strange man was singing to me…I instinctively knew that what I was experiencing was something religious.

Cherie Currie.

Heaven loves ya, no. 24!

dbboys

24. Boys Keep Swinging (108 points, 104 votes, 1 #1 vote).

I played an over-the-top bass part, in the spirit of The Man Who Sold the World.

Tony Visconti.

Bowie played it for me, and said, ‘This is written for you, in the spirit of you.’ I think he saw me as a naive person who just enjoyed life.

Adrian Belew.

dis

23. Drive-In Saturday (109 points, 101 votes, 2 #1 votes, 1 vote specified the 1999 VH1 Storytellers performance).

This takes place probably in the year 2033.

Bowie, debuting “Drive-In Saturday” on stage, 1972.

…the creaking Palais saxophones combining with post-Eno electronic whooshes, the references to Jung, Jagger and (yet to be realised!) Sylvian, Bowie’s sometimes reflective, other times barking vocals – the song is a warning about allowing the past to dominate our future so heavily if we cannot actively use it to get ourselves forward, or indeed back.

Marcello Carlin.

starman

22. Starman (113 points, 101 votes, 3 #1 votes).

After ‘Starman,’ everything changed.

Woody Woodmansey.

In 1972 I’d get girls on the bus saying to me, ‘Eh la, you got a lippy on?’ or ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ Until [Bowie] turned up, it was a nightmare. All my mates at school would say, ‘Did you see that bloke on Top of the Pops? He’s a right faggot, him!’ And I remember thinking ‘you pillocks.’…With people like me, it helped forge an identity and a perspective on things, helped us to walk in a different way, metaphorically…

Ian McCulloch, in David Buckley’s Strange Fascination.

dbb

21. Lady Grinning Soul (115 points, 111 votes, 1 #1 vote.)

How can life become her point of view?

We reach the heights of the top 20, starting with an encounter on the stair:

lulu

20. The Man Who Sold the World (120 points, 116 votes, 1 #1 vote, 1 vote specifying the 1990s remake).

This is a David Boowie song.

Kurt Cobain.

I guess I wrote it because there was a part of myself that I was looking for.

Bowie, 1997.

Top of the pops TIE for 19-18, though if “Shane75″‘s ballot had come through (see comments yesterday), he’d have given the vote to push “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” one step ahead of..

david-bowie-mugshot-rochester-ny-01

Stay (123 points, 111 votes, 3 #1 votes).

It started with a groove, and when I came up with the guitar bit at the front I could tell it would be a monster song. The funny thing about it is, I came up with that lick because we were messing around with an older song called ‘John, I’m Only Dancing.’

Earl Slick.

hold on a sec, while time takes a cigarette:

david-bowie-ziggy-stardust-makeup

Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (123 points, 107 votes, 4 #1 votes, 1 specifying live 1973 versions)

It looked good when he did that whole sort of Messiah thing.

Angela Bowie.

A declaration of the end of the effect of being young.

Bowie.

dbjapan

17. It’s No Game (Pts. 1 and/or 2) (127 points, 119 votes, 2 #1 votes, 9 specified “Pt. 2,” 20 specified “Pt. 1”)

I wanted to break down a particular type of sexist attitude about women. I thought the [idea of] the “Japanese girl” typifies it, where everyone pictures them as a geisha girl, very sweet, demure and non-thinking, when in fact that’s the absolute opposite of what women are like. They think an awful lot!, with quite as much strength as any man. I wanted to caricature that attitude by having a very forceful Japanese voice on it. So I had [Hirota] come out with a very samurai kind of thing.

Bowie, 1980.

Well, this one had better have been on the list, seeing as how it named the blog. If I’d voted, this would’ve been my #1.

dbqueen

16. Queen Bitch (130 points, 122 votes, 2 #1 votes, 1 specifying the “Bowie at the Beeb” performance).

There’s blood and glitter in this song: it’s as good as anything Bowie ever made.

Rebel Rebel.

and to start the top 15, a leap from the 11th floor of some cheap NYC hotel up to the exosphere:

garson

15. Aladdin Sane ( 138 points, 122 votes, 4 #1 votes).

The ‘Aladdin Sane’ solo actually shocked me when I heard it again and I realized… that it was pretty good.

Mike Garson, ca. 2005. (above: transcription of 2:20-2:29 of “Aladdin Sane”).

Bowie has created entire universes in my mind with his words. It’s just that, on one level (to the grammar Nazi English teacher in me, at least), they’re 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. Bowie has also said that he’d be delighted if his work allowed people to find different characters within themselves. In order to do that, you don’t overdetermine things. There’s a kind of negative capability in not being too intentional, too specific, too narrative. This is artistry on a higher level.

Momus.

THE LAST TIE: 14-13, TWO TALES OF ISOLATION

dbodd

Space Oddity (140 points, 136 votes, 1 #1 vote, 2 votes specified the 1979 remake, 2 the Italian version)

It’s not a David Bowie song, it’s “Ernie the Milkman.”

Tony Visconti, recalling his reaction to it in 1969.

This is the great control of Major Tom, so great, that in fact, I don’t know anything.

rough translation of Seu Jorge’s Portuguese lyric in The Life Aquatic.

“And there’s nothing I can do”—this is repeated. Initially, this is just an observation and Ground Control, at this point, is still in control. The repetition comes at a stage when Ground Control is just as helpless as Major Tom.

Nelson Thornes Framework English 2 textbook.

and buckle up, because he’s:

db76

Always Crashing In the Same Car (140 points, 128 votes, 3 #1 votes).

So that initial period in Berlin produced Low, which is ‘isn’t it great to be on your own, let’s just pull down the blinds and fuck ’em all.’ The first side of Low was all about me: “Always Crashing In The Same Car” and all that self-pitying crap,

Bowie, 1977.

Roaring out of Berlin and into Philly…

dbcavv

12. Young Americans (141 points, 133 votes, 2 #1 votes).

I peered and peered, trying to catch the ultimate vibe…Johnny Ray. Johnny Ray on cocaine singing about 1984… Don’t be fooled: Bowie is as cold as ever, and if you get off on his particular brand of lunar antibody you may well be disappointed in his latest incarnation, because he’s doubling back on himself.

Lester Bangs, 1974.

We come now to a fine example of how the “#1 vote bonus” worked out. The following song would’ve been nowhere near the Top 10 but for the fact that 12 people chose it as their number one. Borne aloft on pure love, this was.

dbauto

11. Teenage Wildlife (149 points, 101 votes, 12 #1 votes).

The lead singer, banging around in a lurex mini-dress, was drawing entirely from a vocabulary invented by Bowie. And people stood and took it.

Jon Savage, 1980.

Ironically, the lyric is something about taking a short view of life, not looking too far ahead and not predicting the oncoming hard knocks. The lyric might have been a note to a younger brother or my own adolescent self.

Bowie, 2008.

and here we go, at the height of heights. Your Top 10 (don’t blame me!)

DB-Terry

10. Bewlay Brothers (150 points, 118 votes, 8 #1 votes, 1 specified the alternate mix).

I was never quite sure what real position Terry [Burns] had in my life, whether Terry was a real person or whether I was actually referring to another part of me.

Bowie, 2000.

This wasn’t just a song about brotherhood so I didn’t want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It’s a palimpsest, then.

Bowie, 2008.

dd

9. Five Years (155 points, 147 votes, 2 #1 votes).

The cycle of the Earth (indeed, of the universe, if the truth had been known) was nearing its end and the human race had at last ceased to take itself seriously.

Michael Moorcock, 1972.

Maybe the bleak future Bowie likes to scare his fans with is a metaphor for his own present.

Robert Christgau.

but cheer up! if we’ve only got five years left, at least they’ll be:

db

8. Golden Years (169 points, 149 votes, 5 #1 votes).

David goes to the piano and plays, ‘they say the neon lights are bright, on Broadway…come de dum ma baby.’ That’s the kind of vibe he wanted…I play the opening guitar riff and he says, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, like that, do that, do that.'”

Carlos Alomar.

When we came to recording the backing vocals [for “Golden Years”], David lost his voice halfway through. That meant I had to sing the series of impossibly high notes before the chorus, which were difficult enough for David but were absolute murder for me.

Geoff MacCormack.

One last burst of glam majesty:

dbsanta

7. Moonage Daydream (173 points, 153 votes, 5 #1 votes, 1 specified the 1973 concert film version).

BAMMMMM-BLAMMMMMMMMM!!!
I’m an ALLIGATOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
BAMMMMMMMMMM-BLAMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!
I’m a MAMMAPAPA coming FOR YOU!!!

Every night you knew that “Moonage Daydream” was going to be the one that really lifted them. Then we’d go and follow on from there to the end.

Trevor Bolder.

Now, the big gap. During the vote tabulation, the remaining songs quickly segregated themselves from the rest of the rabble. But the next song always kept to itself, never threatening the top 5, yet never in danger of being overtaken by any other song. A perfectly isolated entity, and so fitting for the song…

db77

6. Sound and Vision (244 points, 184 votes, 15 #1 votes).

“Low” was a reaction to having gone through that peculiar… that dull greenie-grey limelight of America and its repercussions; pulling myself out of it and getting to Europe and saying, For God’s sake re-evaluate why you wanted to get into this in the first place? Did you really do it just to clown around in LA? Retire. What you need is to look at yourself a bit more accurately.

Bowie, 1977.

Bowie adopts a distanced, contemplative attitude. He studies his own depression. Typically, rock music is presented by the frontman — virile, confident, strident, desirable — as Bowie himself was in 1973. In 1977, we find him frail, reticent and seemingly doubting his very self. Not nightclubbing. He is the anti-rockstar, alone in his room, thinking:

Blue, blue, electric blue.
That’s the color of my room, where I will live.

Lloyd Cole.

1971_window_shirt_600h

5. Life on Mars? (312 points, 228 votes, 21 #1 votes, 2 specifying 2000s-era live versions).

“Life on Mars?” remains the decadent aesthete’s first and last question—his whole world’s proof there’s none here.

Greil Marcus.

This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.

Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.

Bowie, 2008.

Next, did being a suite help inflate its vote total? Probably, but one can’t imagine it without all of its constituent parts..

db74

4. Sweet Thing-Candidate-Sweet Thing (Reprise) (323 points, 215 votes, 27 #1 votes, 1 specifying the live 1974 version).

Sounding like a B-movie Scott Walker, Anthony Newley and Mae West, Bowie tour-guides the brothel district of his Armageddon city…Mike Garson’s florid piano qualifies it as one of the few legitimate successors to Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

Scott Miller.

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.

George Gissing, The Nether World.

and now….Each of these final songs at some point in the tabulations were leading the pack. Only in the last 50 to 75 votes did a winner clearly emerge. But it was a long, hard battle.

Presenting, your bronze medalist:

ashes-to-ashes

3. Ashes to Ashes (358 points, 238 votes, 30 #1 votes).

It was me eradicating the feelings within myself that I was uncomfortable with…You have to accommodate your pasts within your persona. You have to understand why you went through them. That’s the major thing. You cannot just ignore them or put them out of your mind or pretend they didn’t happen or just say “Oh I was different then.”

Bowie, 1990.

So Major Tom thought he was starring in an Arthur C. Clarke story and found himself in a Philip K. Dick one by mistake, and the result is oddly magnificent.

Tom Ewing.

Bowie may still release more songs. But “Ashes to Ashes” is his last song. It’s the final chapter that came midway through the book. Bowie sings himself offstage with a children’s rhyme; eternally falling, eternally young.

and your runner up…

David_Bowie_1976

2. Station to Station (364 points, 236 votes, 32 #1 votes, 1 for the Stage version).

Uprooted from his native context in the cultural artifice of Europe, isolated in a largely unironic and cultureless alien land, Bowie was forced back on himself, a self he didn’t much like.

Ian MacDonald.

Hermes teaches that the seven spheres of the stars enclose the soul of man like a prison…But man is a brother to those strong daemons who rule the spheres; he is a power like them, though he has forgotten this…For if the sun is at the center and not the earth, then there are no crystal spheres to hold us in; we have only and always fooled ourselves, we men, kept ourselves within the spheres which our own flawed and insufficient senses perceived, but which were never there at all.

John Crowley, The Solitudes.

This is from back in the Seventies. Well, my Seventies, they weren’t necessarily your Seventies.

David Bowie, introducing “Station to Station,” Atlantic City, 2004.

So you know what’s left. Too obvious? Too popular? Too epic to be denied? Well this is David Bowie’s finest song, if just for one day…

david-bowie-heroes

1.“Heroes” (385 points, 237 votes, 37 #1 votes (the most in the poll), 5 specifying “Helden,” one noting it was for the LP cut, not the single)

For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds. In some ways, sadly, they really captured, unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass.

Bowie, 1999.

And that’s it.

Honor roll: Songs that got #1 votes but not enough points to make the Top 100.

Right (29 points); Letter to Hermione (28 points); Untitled No. 1 (28 points); What In the World (24 points); 5:15 The Angels Have Gone (22 points); Time Will Crawl (22 points); Memory of a Free Festival (21 points); Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (20 points); Art Decade (18 points); A Small Plot of Land (18 points); We Prick You (17 points); It’s Gonna Be Me (15 points); Repetition (14 points); See Emily Play (11 points); Glass Spider (8 points); Ian Fish, U.K. Heir (8 points); Tonight (7 points). And When the Boys Come Marching Home, which got only 2 votes, but one was a #1 (6 points).

Thanks to everyone for participating. Album poll results at some point before Xmas.

Top 100 Songs Spotify link.

Complete list of votes.


Pug Nosed Face

May 14, 2015

tsott_070112_1

Pug Nosed Face (aka Little Fat Man).
Pug Nosed Face (live, 2007).

One night in 1999, a British pianist named Clifford Slapper was walking to a gig in London. To do so, he had to go past the Astoria, where David Bowie was playing the same night. Slapper had wanted to go to the show but had his prior obligation. So instead he stopped for a moment, heard Bowie’s voice ringing out from the venue, and walked on. Later that night he returned, talked with someone who he later realized was likely Bowie’s guitarist Mark Plati, and regretted missing the gig.

But seven years later, he played piano with Bowie on a television show, so sometimes things work out.

“During production of the second season of Extras, I was contacted by the producer, Charlie Hanson, and was told that David Bowie would be flying over from New York to film an episode, and would be singing and playing the piano, but that he’d specified that he wanted an ‘English rock pianist’ to be brought in to actually play the piano track,” Slapper told me.

Extras was Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s follow-up to The Office. Where The Office was a sad little world, a place where failure and humiliation came as often as the rains fell on Slough, Extras was on a broader canvas. It diagnosed a wider malaise: millennial Britain’s obsession with fame (or at least notoriety), money, status.

For Gervais, Extras was a sign of his upgraded celebrity rating. The Office had a strong cult following in the US and had spawned an American version, and the BBC had partnered with HBO for Gervais and Merchant’s new series, which meant there was a substantial production budget (which likely enabled Bowie’s scene to have the entire Extras crew relocate to an actual club in Hertfordshire (see below) instead of just filming the scene on a soundstage in London, which helped Bowie avoid the paparazzi). And Gervais had acquired some famous fans, letting him stud Extras with celebrity cameos: Ben Stiller, Patrick Stewart, Kate Winslet, Robert DeNiro and, of course, David Bowie.

It’s not surprising that Bowie agreed to appear on Extras, whose jaundiced sensibility and humor (its plots centered on the accumulated humiliations and grievances of Gervais’ character, striving actor Andy Millman) reminded him of what he enjoyed most about Britain. He’d loved The Rutles, screening All You Need Is Cash and playing the soundtrack for his band during his 1978 tour; he’d name-dropped Dudley Moore and Peter Cook’s Behind the Fridge in “Young Americans” and had spent the Low and “Heroes” sessions doing “Pete and Dud” impressions with Eno. And he’d done a few comic turns himself, from his flamboyant director “Sir Roland Moorecock” on HBO’s Dream On to his “Requiem for a Laughing Gnome” on Comic Relief.

For Extras, Gervais and Merchant wrote Bowie as a figure of refined fame, an avatar of impeccable cool. The set-up had the slightly-famous Millman (he has a role in a sitcom that requires him to say a catchphrase, which he hates) visiting a high-end bar and looking for a sympathetic ear from Bowie, who, after a few nods, instead turns to a conveniently-located grand piano and performs what, until 2013, was his last public composition: “Little fat man, who sold his soul…chubby little loser…the clown that no one laughs at…he blows his stupid brains out…see his pug nosed face!”

The scenario’s brilliance lies in that it’s a fan’s worst nightmare: failing Bowie’s hip test and then being stilettoed in public. Certainly, about every account of Bowie over the past 40 years has been of a professional and charming man, whether meeting fans or greeting fellow artists or celebrities (indeed, Bowie’s often been the put-upon one, such as in his ill-fated dinner with Frank Zappa in 1978). But the Bowie mystique is such that you still fear, somehow, you’ll have failed Bowie by coming off as too eager, too boorish, too familiar, and then you’ll pay for it.

“Pug Nosed Face” (still, as of this writing, Bowie’s last television appearance) also encapsulates a common perception of Bowie the artist: someone who regards life as a collection of images to exploit, a man who can take a stray line and wind a song around it and one who can move, in a few bars, from dramatic, ominous phrases to a knees-up singalong refrain. For a time, I thought “Pug Nosed Face” would be the blog’s last entry, and it seemed fitting: Bowie going out with a bout of wickedly funny, slightly surreal cruelty.

ricky-gervais-david-bowie

The lyrics were already written as part of Gervais and Merchant’s script.

“I’ve been into Bowie since I was about sixteen,” Gervais told Rolling Stone in 2007. “I sent the lyrics and called him up and asked him if he got them, and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah …'” (switching to a slightly spaced-out, ruminative voice.) And I said to him, ‘We’re thinking of the music to be sort of retro, like “Life on Mars”—and Bowie said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just knock off a “Life on Mars” for you, shall I?'”

Having received the lyric in New York, Bowie “was asked to write chords to the song and bring them over,” Slapper says. “I was also sent a script and was asked to do the same, in case he declined to do so. One of the first things that happened after we met is that he asked to see what chords I had come up with, and compared them with his. It turned out that they were almost exactly the same, which he found spooky.”

The song’s progression (which Slapper still has and recalls was in A major) was “classic” Bowie in its modulations. Hence the nearly-identical works of Bowie and Slapper, who naturally was writing in a Bowie vein, much as how Gervais and Merchant were writing a “Bowie” lyric.

“It was perfect!” Gervais recalled of the song to Rolling Stone. “All the little bits to it. It was amazing, because what he did was, he gave us Bowie!”

CS & DB AT PIANO square & small

Already in London for his performance with David Gilmour in late May 2006, Bowie filmed his Extras scene in the first week of June.

“We had one day of rehearsal and one day of filming for the scene, which was tricky as it was filmed ‘live’ (without overdubs) with a second piano off-camera for me to play, and it was important for us to synchronize so that his arm movements coincided perfectly with my playing,” Slapper says. “It soon became clear that it would be easier for him to mime to my playing if his fingers were allowed to sometimes make contact with the keys on the piano he sat at. But obviously since it was being filmed as a live performance with sound, we could not have any sound from that piano being heard. I suggested that we simply disengage the action of that piano, and showed the crew how to do this.”

“The rehearsal and filming all took place in a real nightclub [Elberts on Pegs Lane*] not far from London, which was still in use, though obviously closed down for those few days. The club was in Hertford but the base for filming was established at a location a couple of miles away at the small town of Ware in Hertfordshire, which gave rise to some amusement, as I would ask the producer where we would be, and he would say “Ware”, and I would say, ‘yes, where?'”

The song was registered as a three-way split among Bowie, Gervais and Merchant, with “Pug Nosed Face” chosen as its official title (though I imagine many fans call it “Little Fat Man”—Gervais sometimes still refers to it as such in interviews).

I asked Clifford if it felt odd to know that he’d played on possibly the “last” Bowie recording until The Next Day appeared. But he corrected me in noting “this was in 2006, only about three years after Reality, so there was not that sense of a long absence or hiatus from recording on his part, as there might have been if it had been 2011. Nevertheless, I was excited and honored to play on this. Bowie was charming, intelligent, modest, efficient, creative, perceptive. He was a delight to work with: polite, funny, witty and sharp. In rehearsal, we worked out the arrangement in a way which he guided and directed whilst at the same time allowing me to express myself in the way I played it.”

“Pug Nosed Face” would be the last public image of Bowie for over six years: healthy, well-dressed, sitting in a nightclub and leading a pack of yuppies through an eviscerating song. The story could have ended here; indeed, for a time, it seemed that it really had. Not bad, as endings go.

Recorded 5-7 June 2006, Elberts, Hertford, Hertfordshire. First broadcast on BBC2 on 21 September 2006. Bowie’s brief rendition of “Pug Nosed Face” in his introduction of Gervais at the Theater at Madison Square Garden (for the Bowie-curated High Line Festival) on 19 May 2007 remains, to date, his last appearance on stage.

* Elberts relocated in 2009; the original bar is now apparently an art gallery.

Thanks again to Clifford Slapper, who’s also just published a biography of Mike Garson. This came about in part because of Extras, as when Slapper met Garson for the first time in LA in the late 2000s, “a strange and funny coincidence happened. Without knowing about my participation in Extras, Garson started to tell me a story of how he had, a couple of years earlier, enjoyed an English comedy on cable TV, and had seen David Bowie in it, apparently playing piano. Garson spoke to Bowie around that time and had joked with him about it, “I see you’re playing the piano pretty well yourself, now. I guess you won’t be needing me any more!” Garson told me that Bowie had replied, “No, Mike, that wasn’t me! That was some English guy playing the piano.” It was a lovely twist to be able to interrupt Mike’s musings and to say, “Well, I was that guy!” We bonded over this coincidence. Mike and I found that we had a great deal of shared experiences as pianists and as working musicians generally. After hours of conversation, on our first meeting, I pointed out what a fascinating life he’d had and how inspiring his experiences and outlook on life could be. I asked whether there were any biographies of him and he replied that there had not been any yet, but that he thought I would be the perfect person to write it. I started work on it that day.”

You can buy Clifford’s biography, Bowie’s Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson (Fantom Books) here (UK) and here (USA and elsewhere). Any Bowie fan should enjoy it. I regret that I wasn’t able to read it before I published my book, as it sheds a great deal of light on Garson and his playing.

Top: Bowie on set, Extras; Bowie and Gervais, NYC, 2007; Clifford Slapper and David Bowie (photo: Ray Burmiston).


Wake Up

April 8, 2015

05kids

Wake Up (Bowie and Arcade Fire, broadcast, 2005).
Wake Up (Arcade Fire and Bowie, live, 2005 (fragment)).
Reflektor (Arcade Fire, with Bowie vocals, 2013).

Some of it’s the lighting, some of it’s the TV facepaint, and hi-definition video does the face few favors, even for the photogenic. But Bowie, for the first time in his life, looks frail and old. He looks as if something’s been wrung out of him. The band Arcade Fire crowds him on the stage but he’s happy for the company, happy to be mistaken, at a distance, for one of them.

It’s September 2005, Bowie’s first live performance since his heart operation. It’s “Fashion Rocks,” a ceremony in which the fashion industry toasts itself and donates money to a catastrophe somewhere far away (post-Katrina New Orleans, in this case). Strumming a 12-string acoustic, Bowie takes the first verse of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up,” his phrasing little two-beat jabs. Something…filled up…my heart…with nothing…Now that….I’m older..my heart…colder…I can…see that it’s a lie.

His body, which he’d always been able to manipulate as he’d like, his happy soldier, now seems guarded, wary. He nods on the beat, sways on the snare hits. On the ragged communal chants (even the unmiked string players howl along), he holds back, sometimes stepping away from his mic, then joins in, a shaky higher flavor in the mix. After some lines about children growing bigger but never growing up and out of it, the song shifts into the “You Can’t Hurry Love” (and “Lust for Life”) beat, sounding scattered and diffuse here, with Bowie taking the lead again on a line about becoming a rain god and meeting Death.

He’d opened his set with “Life on Mars?,” with just Mike Garson on piano. In diminished voice (the vault on “Sai-LORS” now a modest lift), he took the song at a distance, appraising it, wondering at it. He sang its cut-up nonsensical second verse solemnly, as if offering recollections from a dying language. Then he did “Five Years,” with Arcade Fire brought on as backing band, which he delivered as a missive from a future that never happened. Too bad (in gleeful John Cale voice). “Five years! God, that’s all we got!” Bowie shouted towards the end, his voice fraying, Win Butler taking over the harmonies. Then he gave the stage over to Arcade Fire.

1

I don’t wanna live in America no more
Because the tide is high
And it’s rising still
And I don’t wanna see it at my windowsill

Arcade Fire, “Windowsill.”

By the time of the presidential election of 2004, the image that many Americans (often younger ones, but not always) had of their northern neighbor had changed. What once had been genial indifference became a sense of longing, of envy, even. O Canada, country with a nationalized health care system, no Patriot Act, no Iraq War and run by a benign-seeming Liberal Party, of which most Americans knew nothing (but, hey, they had “liberal” in their name). Canada became a dreamland for alienated Americans: an alternate country above the 49th Parallel (are the winters really that bad?), a U.S. shed of its less desirable elements.

It didn’t help that were all of these Canadian collectives roaming around—the seven-member New Pornographers, the eight-person Godspeed You Black Emperor!, the sometimes-19(!)-strong Broken Social Scene. I knew a guy in an American indie rock band at the time, and he was bewildered by the logistics. “Do they all go broke on the road? Who can carry two violin players?” Canadian indie rock had a layer of unseen supports, its tours seemingly the beneficiary of the Canada Health Act and generous government arts grants.

“We should just go to Canada”: a sentiment heard around the country on the night after the election (I heard it at the West Village bar Fiddlesticks on that crashed-out evening). (“The American people have spoken—is that certain? Maybe those nice Midwestern folks were just jokin’!Nellie McKay sang.) Arcade Fire, arriving right at this time, was the culmination of the fantasy. Win Butler was an American, from Texas, no less, home of the president; his father had even worked for Dick Cheney’s Halliburton. He’d run off to Canada, fallen in love, had formed a band in Montreal with his wife, his brother and some friends.

So Arcade Fire offered an American-Canadian bohemia—a popular bohemia, even (they won some Grammys). They drew from and trafficked in childhood: the flip-books in the Neon Bible box, the corroded Yellow Submarine graphics of their videos, the neighborhood jamboree feel of their live performances, where they came off like a better-rehearsed Portsmouth Sinfonia–it was as if they’d taken up their instruments at random, that the next night Sarah Neufeld would play drums and Regine Chassagne would be on lead guitar.

The songs on their first record were worlds depopulated of adults and given over to children. Streetlights out, power failures, empty highways, snowdrifts. Lost brothers and vampires. Tunnels, legends and maps, tribal boasts: “‘cos nothing’s hid from us kids,” or, in one of their first songs: “us kids know.” The school music room garnishes—the sleigh bells on “Neighborhood #2,” the accordions, harpsichords and xylophones. In their video for “Rebellion (Lies),” they’re a pied piper collective, parading down a suburban street and waking up slumbering kids, who fall in line behind them.

It was a world shaped by distorted memories of Richard Scarry and Maurice Sendak books; it was the ideal of a reconstituted childhood as a form of protest against the adult world. Arcade Fire was the musical analogue of Dave Eggers (who’d soon adapt Where the Wild Things Are), who’d raised his eight-year-old brother after their parents had died, who’d written a book about it and who, with McSweeney’s, offered another childhood order suited for adults: the Secret Club, with its stamp books, membership cards and shibboleths (“that is all”).

Arcade_Fire-Arcade_Fire_y_David_Bowie_At_Fashion_Rocks_Live_(Ep)-Frontal

Bowie was fascinated. “Arcade Fire has a very strong theatrical flair, a boisterous, college kind of feel to what they’re doing, and also there’s a wave of enthusiasm to it,” he said in 2005. “But their show is theatrical nonetheless, because it doesn’t alter much from night to night. I’ve seen them many times, and I love them very much. I think they’re exhilarating.” He joined the band again live the following week, singing “Queen Bitch” and “Wake Up” in their encore at SummerStage.

Then he went away; Arcade Fire kept at it. Neon Bible was an expatriate’s curse on America (its title taken from a John Kennedy Toole novel that was, in Toole’s words, ” a grim, adolescent, sociological attack upon the hatreds caused by the various Calvinist religions in the South”), with some back-channel communications via Springsteen and John Cafferty tributes. The Suburbs found Butler returning home, a poseur snapping at the generation of poseurs coming up after him (see “Rococo”); the album ended with what sounded like their last song, their credo piece for suburban misfits, the band’s natural constituency (“come out and find your kind!”), its music a mingle of an MTV-fed youth (the beat of “Come On Eileen,” the hook of “The Safety Dance”), its video a tribute to Pink Floyd’s The Wall (there’s also a bit of “Wish You Were Here” in “Wake Up”). The band got tighter, their records became more spacious, if losing the edge of Funeral, where the guitars sounded as if they’d been strung with baling wire.

Reflektor was a band’s midlife crisis: a labored attempt to change the palette while layering on the mythology thicker (see the respective Orpheus and Eurydice songs on Disc 2; see also the idea of a “Disc 2”). It was their go at doing a Remain In Light; it only worked on their Haitian-inspired piece “Here Comes the Night Time” (yet another Eighties tribute—here, the Cure’s “Close to Me”).

The title track was a hidden reunion with Bowie (only credited in the “thank you” section of the liners), who’d kept on being a fan during his absent years. He visited the band in a New York studio while they were mixing Reflektor. “It was just after The Next Day had come out,” Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry told the NME last year. “He offered to lend us his services because he really liked the song. In fact, he basically threatened us—he was like, ‘If you don’t hurry up and mix this song, I might just steal it from you!’ So we thought, well why don’t we go one better, why don’t you sing on our version? Thankfully he obliged.”

“Reflektor” wasn’t that radical a shift, as the band had always tried to dance, in their way (there’s a frenzied disco hi-hat in “Neighborhood #1”) and the track fell in Arcade Fire’s tradition of being happily shameless in their dork-theater routines—see its performance on Saturday Night Live, where Chassagne got into a glass box and did a sort-of mime routine, or Butler sporting raccoon makeup in its video. Arcade Fire perseveres, having grown up to be Bowie’s contemporaries where they once were his charges. They’re the closest thing that indie rock has to an institution these days, God help them.

Recorded: (Fashion Rocks) 8 September 2005; (live) 15 September 2005. The Fashion Rocks recordings were issued as a digital single on 21 November 2005. “Reflektor,” the lead-off single of the LP it titled, was released on 9 September 2013.

Top: Daska, “Children,” 2005.