Little Toy Soldier

October 7, 2009

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Little Toy Soldier.

“Little Toy Soldier” features a little girl Sadie, a toy soldier and lots of whipping. Amazingly, it was never released.

It’s an obvious rip on the Velvet Underground’s “Venus In Furs,” to the point where Bowie pilfers whole lines from the earlier song. There’s a grubby adolescent sensibility to it: the lyric seems like it’s by a boy who stole a copy of Justine out of the library. It also marks the fittingly perverse, gruesome end to Bowie’s novelty song series.

Gus Dudgeon, Bowie’s dedicated noisemaker by this point, festoons the verses with cackles, whipcracks and creaking springs. That’s just the warm up. Halfway through, after the soldier (a bit too wound up, it seems) kills Sadie in a fit of passion, the track descends into a maelstrom: Indian war whoops, explosions, shattering glass, coughing, motorway noise, and, just as in “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” a loudly blown nose.

Of interest (besides the S&M and noises) for being a document of the battle for Bowie’s soul—Bowie delivers the verses in his Anthony Newley-inspired voice, the choruses in his Lou Reed imitation.

Recorded on 5 April 1967 with the Riot Squad, a London band that Bowie took over for a few months in ’67, playing about 20 shows and cutting a few demos with them. They were Rod Davies (g), Croke Prebble (b), Bob Evans (sax, flute), George Butcher (keys) and Derek Roll (d); “Toy Soldier” is found on bootlegs (where it’s sometimes called “Sadie”) like Pierrot in Turquoise.

Top: Action Man in the field.


Links: Chapters 1-3

March 24, 2015

Chapter 1: The Junior Visualizer (1964-1966)

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“Liza Jane” (Toy)
“Louie Louie Go Home”
“I Pity The Fool”
“Take My Tip”
“That’s Where My Heart Is”
“I Want My Baby Back”
Bars of the County Jail”
“You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”
(Toy)
“Baby Loves That Way”
(Toy)
“I’ll Follow You”
“Glad I’ve Got Nobody”
“Baby, That’s a Promise”
“Can’t Help Thinking About Me”
“And I Say to Myself”
“Do Anything You Say”
“Good Morning Girl”
“I Dig Everything”
(Toy)
“I’m Not Losing Sleep”

More: Britain on Film (Look at Life): “Fashion,” London on Film: “Suburbs,” “Why I Hate the Sixties” (2004); Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (conclusion); Devin McKinney on Colin MacInnes; Nick Bentley, “Translating English: Youth, Race and Nation in Colin MacInnes’s City of Spades and Absolute Beginners;” Bowie: Tonight interview, November 1964; The Beatles Anthology: 1963, 1964, 1965; “British Mods and Rockers” (BBC); scenes from Billy Liar;  Georgie Fame, “Yeh Yeh“; Glenn Gould, “The Search for Petula Clark“(1967); Bowie, radio interview, Marquee Club, 1966; Pye Studios.

Chapter 2: Gnome Man’s Land (1966-1968)

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“Rubber Band” (album remake)
“The London Boys”
(Toy)
“Over the Wall We Go”
“Uncle Arthur”
“She’s Got Medals”
“Join the Gang”
“Did You Ever Have a Dream”
“There Is a Happy Land”
“We Are Hungry Men”
“Sell Me a Coat
” (remake)
“Little Bombardier”
“Maid of Bond Street”
“Silly Boy Blue”
(Toy)
“Come and Buy My Toys”
“Please Mr. Gravedigger”
The Laughing Gnome
The Gospel According To Tony Day
When I Live My Dream
(remake)
Love You Till Tuesday
(single remake)

David-Bowie-1967

“Waiting For the Man”: (1967) (1970) (1972) (1976)
Little Toy Soldier
Pancho
Everything Is You
“Silver Tree Top School For Boys”:
(Slender Plenty) (Beatstalkers)
April’s Tooth of Gold
“Let Me Sleep Beside You”
(Toy)
“Karma Man”
(BBC, 1968)
“C’est La Vie”

“Even a Fool Learns to Love”
“In the Heat of the Morning” (Toy)
“London Bye Ta-Ta”
(1970 remake)
“When I’m Five” (BBC, 1968
) (demo, 1969)
“Social Kind of Girl”
“Ching-a-Ling”
“The Mask”

More: The Strange World of Gurney Slade (1960: Ep. 1, opening sequence); Anthony Newley, live, 1964; Alan Klein, “I Wanna Be a Beatnik“, 1964; Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (esp. “Uncle Ernest,” “The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller” and “The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale”); There Is a Happy Land (1974 adaptation); Heinrich Harrer, “My Life in Forbidden Lhasa” (1955); Ophiel, The Art and Practice of Astral Projection (1961);  David Guy, “Christmas Humphreys”; The Prisoner, excerpt from “Fall Out” (1967); “Forgotten Heroes: Big Jim Sullivan“; The Mothers of Invention, Freak Out (1966); The Fugs, “Dirty Old Man,”(1966); Ken Nordine, “Word Jazz” (1957); The Image (Armstrong, 1967, excerpts).

Chapter 3: The Free States’ Refrain (1969)

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“Space Oddity” (demo) (original version) (1979 remake)
“Love Song”
“Life Is a Circus”
“Letter to Hermione”
(demo)
“An Occasional Dream”
(demo)
“Janine”
“Conversation Piece”
(Toy)
“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” (B-side)
(LP remake)
“Don’t Sit Down”

“God Knows I’m Good”
“Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”
“Cygnet Committee”
” (“Lover to the Dawn”, demo version)
“Memory of a Free Festival”
” (1970 remake)

More:  2001: A Space Odyssey (“Stargate” sequence); The Bee Gees, “New York Mining Disaster 1941“; Apollo 11, pre-flight conference, July 1969;  International Times (1969 archive); Scott Walker, live in Japan, 1970; Jean Itard, Victor de l’Aveyron (French) (English); Prof. John Merryman, France: May 1968; MC5, “Kick Out the Jams” live, Detroit, 1969; Rolling Stones, Hyde Park free concert, July 1969; George McKay, “The Free Festivals and Fairs of Albion” (in Senseless Acts of Beauty); Beckenham Free Festival, 1969.


Chapter Two: Berliners (1977)

October 7, 2018

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Epigraphs Brasch emigrated to West Germany in 1976. These lines are from his “Sleeping Beauty and Pork” (1980): “Abschied von morgen Ankuft gestern/ Das ist der deutsche Traum”; Mann: from 1921, quoted in Gay, 131 (in turn found in Ludwig Marcuse’s Mein Zwanzigstest Jahrhundert, 54); Smith: Hit Parader, April 1978. The rest are self-explanatory, with hope.

66  Turn Blue   Peace, Lacey: Geoff MacCormack, known as “Warren Peace” at the time, was Bowie’s childhood friend, traveling companion, and occasional collaborator (“Rock and Roll With Me”). He drops out of the picture roughly after Station to Station, though he and Bowie remained close until the latter’s death. While Pop once said that MacCormack “had become more Hollywood than was great for [MacCormack and Bowie’s] relationship,” it seems a bit more likely it was the other way around. As for Walter Lacey, the only reference I’ve ever found was of him reportedly performing a spoken-word piece called “Meatpack Man” in 1982. He’s without a doubt the all-time most obscure Bowie co-composer; recorded: as per Trynka’s Bleed, Eduard Meyer’s diary lists Lust for Life sessions on 8-12 and 14 June 1977. As Pop and other musicians recall the album as being cut in one go, in about nine or 10 days, I’ve estimated that Lust for Life was recorded ca. 4-16 June 1977. The sessions could have ended no later than 25 June, when Bowie was in France; Gardiner: spelled “Gardner” on the Lust For Life LP sleeve/label and in copyright filings for “The Passenger” and “Neighborhood Threat” (and he’s listed as “Gardener” on Low, though possibly that was a pun?); first release: another inconclusive date: some sources (e.g., Cann) list 9 September 1977, but Lust was reviewed in the 27 August 1977 issues of Billboard and Cash Box, suggesting a slightly earlier date in the US at least. Given Elvis Presley’s death’s impact on RCA’s LP shipments, Lust possibly didn’t reach some stores until well into September; care not a sot…person again: to Charles M. Young, Rolling Stone, 12 January 1978; eyes turned toward him: Pitt, The Pitt File, 175. Bowie was appearing on Musik Fur Junge Leute, whose usual studio was in Hamburg but the West German government had been pushing to have shows taped in West Berlin “to reduce the sense of abandonment felt by West Berliners,” Pitt wrote; soldiers like film extras…we were home: MacCormack, Station to Station.

67   Isherwood myth: Ash, The File, 36; a year all told: to the Daily Mirror (22 October 1977), Bowie claimed he’d only spent two months in Berlin at that point (a slight understatement, as recording Lust for Life and “Heroes” alone had taken up roughly that time and he’d spent considerable time in Berlin in autumn 1976), and that he’d “drained himself of enthusiasm” for the city, calling it a “ghost town…everyone seems to be leaving”; temporary stop off: Rüther, Heroes, 67; very claustrophobic: Record Mirror, 24 September 1977; island of luxury: Byrne, Bicycle Diaries, 46; total isolation: Heroes, 41; gunners on the Wall: Five Years; 40% of budget: Clay Large, Berlin, 464.

68  particular dilemma: to Angus MacKinnon, NME, 13 September 1980; grumpy, snotty students: Kerrang!, 8 September 2001; little in between: I Want More, 95, 101; sleep it off: 1990 radio interview with Nicky Campbell. “They’d pick me up and take me home, which is nice in a way”; rockism: to Trynka, Bleed, 349; one jump ahead of them: Starman, 271-272.

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69  drug use was unbelievable: to Adrian Deevoy, Q, May 1993; tinker toy: NME, 12 March 1977; no excess of any kind: Stephen Dobson, The Man Who Killed the Hamsters, 52; punk rock: CBC interview, 11 March 1977. Pop said he was impressed by Johnny Rotten (“he puts as much blood and sweat into what he does as Sigmund Freud did”); second fiddle to Iggy: Bleed, 222.

71  Some Weird Sin   edits: live, Gardiner typically played a 16-bar solo after the second verse. On the studio cut, it’s cut in half (at the 2:12 mark); angry poem: quoted in Adams, Complete Iggy Pop, 96.

72  Tonight   remake: issued as a single in November 1984, it was a trans-Atlantic stiff (EMI EA 187, stalling out at #53 in both the UK and US). Bowie sang it with Turner on 23 March 1985, in Birmingham, UK, a performance included on Turner’s Live In Europe; barren thing: to Murray, NME, 29 September 1984.

73  Neighborhood Threat    it went totally wrong: to Scott Isler, Musician, August 1987.

74  Oompa-Loompas: Stylus, 12 July 2005.   Lust for Life  issued at last as a UK single in 1996 (it hit #26, Pop’s highest-charting single since “Real Wild Child” a decade earlier)  Call this one Lust for Life: Krautrock: Rebirth of Germany; Morris: Uncut, April 2001; had to follow: Bleed, 226; Burroughs: see “control addicts…were to be seen on every corner of the city hypnotizing chickens,” from The Ticket That Exploded. Pop also borrowed from Naked Lunch (“No one talks, no one reads, no one walks”) for the chorus of “Tonight.”

75  fuck somebody over: Rolling Stone, 5 April 2011; small mountain of cocaine: Bleed, 261.

76  Success  issued as a single in October 1977 c/w “The Passenger” (RCA PB 9160; didn’t chart); damn crooning thing: Bleed, 227. Pop recalled that his strategy was to “wait until [Bowie] walked out of the studio and then I changed everything”; Lonely at the Top: Randy Newman, to Rolling Stone, 15 September 2017: “There was a massive drive at Warner Bros. Records to get Frank a hit. I thought – maybe stupidly – that he would be ready to make fun of that leaning-against-the-lamp-post shit: “Oh, I’m so lonely and miserable and the biggest singer in the world.” I never bought that part of him. I thought he’d appreciate that. I played it for him, at his office on the Warner Bros. lot. His reaction? Nothing. He said, “Next.” I also played “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” He said, “I like that one.” But he couldn’t hide his bitterness at young people’s music”; money in rugs: Viz, 1980.

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77  Passenger  It had the same chord progression as “Neighborhood Threat” (Am-F-C-G); The Lords: the key passage is Morrison’s “Modern life is a journey by car. The Passengers change terribly in their reeking seats, or roam from car to car, subject to unceasing transformation. Inevitable progress is made toward the beginning(there is no difference in terminals), as we slice through cities, whose ripped backsides present a moving picture of windows, signs, streets, buildings.”

78  Fall In Love With Me   Julian Casablancas owes his career to this and a few other Pop vocals on Lust.

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79  Sons of the Silent Age  Used as the basis of the fourth movement of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 4 (“Heroes”), premiered September 1996. Scored for: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, 3 percussion (side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, tambourine, cymbals, triangle, vibes, tam-tam, castanets, glockenspiel), harp, piano, celesta, strings.   Recorded: I’ve used the recording dates listed on a Hansa telegram sent to Visconti in August 1977, included as part of the David Bowie Is exhibit (these dates were also referenced in the New Career in a New Town box set). Some final overdubs were done at Mountain Studios in August, marking the start of a nearly 20-year relationship between Bowie and that studio; Brel: Bowie was familiar with Scott Walker’s version of “Sons Of” (off Scott 3, 1969) and Elly Stone’s from Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well, both of which used Mort Shuman’s translation. Stone’s version of “Old Folks” (“the old folks never die/ they just put down their heads and go to sleep one day” and also “you lived too long” (see “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”)) may have been a starting point for Bowie and Visconti’s vocal harmonies; melody: the refrain melody mainly draws from the E-flat scale until, on “all I see,” it flats the seventh chord, turning the scale into either Ab or Eb mixolydian. As Larry Hardesty noted to me, of Eb, D, Db, and C, only Eb is natural in the key of Eb, while Eb and Db are both natural in the key of Ab. Thus when the chromatic sequence finally breaks with a move to Ab, right as the melody appears to have switched to the Ab scale, it makes Ab sound like the home key. But this gets immediately undermined by the move to Bb and Eb— the standard-issue cadence in Eb. The oddball chord progression and the ambiguities in the pitch class of the melody, create a tonal instability until that cadence; major step up: Hardesty: “In What in the World, the verse rocks back and forth between two chords a whole step apart — F and Eb— and then the chorus modulates to G, which is a whole step higher than the top chord of the verse. In Sons of the Silent Age, the verse rocks back and forth between two chords a whole step apart — G and F — and then the chorus modulates to Eb, which is a whole step lower than the bottom chord of the verse. In both cases, the modulation maps out a sequence of three major triads a whole step apart. That’s the same relationship that gives the famous guitar break in “Space Oddity” its extra oomph: C F G A…A Bowie signature trick.”

80   Beauty and the Beast    whole thing evolved: NME, 26 November 1977; weird amp: Sound International, September 1978.

81  best, most positive album…no bad scenes: Juby, In Other Words, 88; he had a life!: to Buckley, Strange Fascination, 276; ray of light: Heroes, 121; nook in the unconscious: Uncut, April 2001.

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82  Blackout     Dennis Davis: years later, Eno said in a New Yorker interview, “the question is: do drummers have different brains from the rest of us? Everyone who has ever worked in a band is sure to say they do.” (25 April 2011); most abstract: Sound International, September 1978; jazz metronome: to Richard Buskin, Sound on Sound, October 2004. Visconti: “‘Heroes’ wasn’t played to a click track, but its tempo is virtually the same through the entire six minutes. He’s not only an innovative drummer but a human metronome, and he’s also a jazz guy who never plays the same thing twice”; built on two structures: Mayes, On Tour, 114.

83   bit of a distance: Rock On, 20 October 1977; angst in the air: to Jonathan Mantle, Vogue, September 1978.         Joe the Lion   A pointless remix appeared on the Ryko reissue of “Heroes” in 1991, mostly beefing up the drums; Alice Cooper: Peter Plagens, “He Got Shot For His Art,” New York Times, 2 September 1973.

84  Art doesn’t have a purpose: Donald Carroll, “Chris Burden: Art on the Firing Line,” Coast, August 1974; Carr: On Edge, 16; take dangerous risks…started with the characters…same kind of risks: to Nicky Horne, Capital Radio interview, 13 February 1979; like a Roman arena…a protest against himself: Bleed, 157-158; Matterhorn of cocaine: Times of London, 12 January 2013; working on getting drunk: Backstage Passes, 158; clashing set of chords: Much of the song moves from B major to E major, with F# cropping up for one line. But I think the opening is D-G-D.  There’s also an apparent flaw at 2:38, with the left channel of the stereo mix vanishing for a second.

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86  Heroes   Bowie’s German vocal (“Helden”) became far more well-known among fans in the late Eighties when it was chosen for the Sound + Vision box set over the English version (an odd decision, though Jeff Rougvie has repeatedly said that the set was meant as a Bowie sampler, not a greatest hits compilation). As I first knew “Heroes” in its German form, DB’s wildly over-the-top “ICH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ICH BIN DANN KOE-NIG!” still sounds like the “real” version of that section to me.

87   Reagan was a survivor: Cannon, Governor Reagan’s Rise to Power; failure of nerve: Village Voice, 17 December 1979.

88   motive was guilt…offices were nearby: Rolling Stone, 12 January 1978.

89   beautiful spatial noises: Music Moguls: Melody Makers (BBC), January 2016; both dastardly, like the Velvet Underground: Capital Radio, 13 February 1979; horizontal groove: Uncut, June 2008; shuddering, chattering effect: Sound on Sound, October 2004.

90 four feet away was an A: Mat Snow, Mojo: 60 Years of Bowie, January 2007; dreamy, wailing quality: Sound Opinions, Show 381, 15 March 2013; weedy violin patch: Sound on Sound, October 2004; David lived with it…master level: Roland blog interview, 2014; fairly heavy compression: Sound on Sound, October 2004.

91   Grave for a Dolphin: of course, Bowie went on to marry a Somalian woman. He referenced Denti’s novel in his introduction to her I Am Iman (2001); Antonia Maaß: “No way was it us,” she told Rüther (Heroes, 122-123).

92  swimming with dolphins: David Bowie Blackstar, 22 September 2017 (https://www.davidbowieblackstar.it/our-interview-with-clare-shenstone/); we all knew never would come to pass: Uncut, October 1999.

93 continue to live: Finnish television (YLE) interview, 16 January 1996.   Secret Life of Arabia   Billy MacKenzie’s 1982 cover with the BEF is one of few Bowie covers that pretty much blows the original out of the water.

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94  V-2 Schneider  The last movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 4 (the “V-2-Schnei-der” chorus melody, initially played on woodwinds, is shifted to open the piece)  live:  a recording from the Paradiso, Amsterdam, on 6 October 1997 was issued as a b-side of “Pallas Athena”; insider knowledge: the earliest reference I found in the US/UK press was Hütter and Schneider telling Glenn O’Brien these nicknames in a 1977 Interview; neo-Nazi kind of thing: Circus, 27 April 1976. Schneider’s father, architect Paul Schneider-Esleben, served in the German army during the war but wasn’t a Nazi party member. His Fifties work was associated with the “Year Zero” movement of rejecting Nazi-era neo-classicism and championing the modernism of the Bauhaus school; they’re like craftsmen: to Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone, 23 April 1987; lazy analyzes…music was spontaneous for the most part: Uncut, April 2001.

95   no fathers: Movie Maker, 1 December 1995; German entertainment…parents bombed out of their homes: my conflation of two Hütter interviews, with Lester Bangs (1975) and Mark Cooper (1982); Witts: from “Vorsprungdurchtechnik,” Chapter 8 of Kraftwerk: Music Non-Stop; we influenced Bowie: Keyboard, October 1991; weeble sounds: to Paul Du Noyer, Mojo, July 2002.

96  they have their reasons: to Buckley, Kraftwerk, 88; reassuring…in his work: Soho Weekly News, 29 September 1977; pzzt: Sounds, 20 September 1975; Visconti: from FAQ on former website; wrong way round…impossible to write that: MM, 18 February 1978 (a longer version of the interview appears in Egan, Bowie On Bowie, 95).

97   Abdulmajid   At present, only available on the All Saints compilation. Used as the second movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 4—Glass gave it an “Iberian” feel, with an initial rhythmic base of castanets. Visconti: to Pegg, 13 (as with all Pegg references, the most recent 2016 ed.)

98  Sense of Doubt    broadcast: A “video” of sorts, it’s a filmed performance of Bowie miming the piano line, then staring moodily into space, in the empty RCA Studios in Rome, done for an Italian television appearance (Odeon) on 8 October 1977. The song was the third movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 4, and among its weakest, with Glass mostly keeping to the original’s melodic confines, losing the strangeness and severity of the “Heroes” recording while adding little else; trying to do the opposite: to Lisa Robinson, Interview, June 1978; organic sound: quoted in Pegg, 237; Eno: liner notes for Music for Airports.

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99  Moss Garden  koto: first brought to Japan in the early Nara Period (8th Century), the modern koto is about 70 inches long and has 13 strings tuned according to the placement of bridges and plucked with three picks, called tsume, worn on the thumb, index and middle finger. Bowie’s koto was much smaller, not much longer than a foot (likely the same one used on “Brilliant Adventure” 20 years later): it was included in the David Bowie Is exhibit. dog’s ears: multiple tests conducted with D. Lucy O’Leary, Easthampton, 2011-2018.

100   Neukoln  Used as the fifth movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 4, with the lead saxophone lines in part taken up by strings. Also the neighborhood of Christiane F. Bowie’s misspelling was…maybe? him punning on the band Neu! and the city of Köln but it was more likely a mistake; good relationship…it’s not a good one…thick wedge of sound…humorous aspect: to Steve Weitzman, Musician, May 1983. Bowie described his “Turkish modal” scale as having “whole notes where one could take a half note,” suggesting possibly the Phrygian dominant scale; critics: a recent example, far from unique: “In Neukoln, Bowie looked to embody the culture clash of displaced immigrant communities in mid-‘70s Berlin against the cold war backdrop,” All About Jazz, 24 November 2014.


The Duncan Jones Films

June 3, 2015

Moon (opening sequence, trailer, 2009).
Source Code (trailer, 2011).

Q. You have a son and his name is Zowie?
DB: One of his names.
Q. Is there a meaning to Zowie?
DB: No.
Q. And how old is he?
DB: Seven-and-a-half.
Q. Does he look like you?
DB: Yes.
Q. Which bit?
DB: Um, not the eyes (laughs). He’s blond and very lively. He’s not interested in music at all.
Q. He’s not going to take after you?
DB: No, he likes mathematics (laughs)
.

Bowie, interview in Japan, December 1978.

Searching for the father in the work of the son risks diminishing both. One easily makes the father a thick cloud of influence, burnishes the son into a mirror. Here we go, anyhow.

Because there are parallels, and extensions and variations on common themes, in David Bowie’s songs and in the films of Duncan Jones. Especially as the latter fill a void: Bowie’s absence neatly coincides with the releases of his son’s first two feature films. Bowie keeping out of the spotlight also let Jones establish himself as an artist. After all, there was a Bowie hard at work in public during 2008-2012; he just wasn’t the rock singer.

There’s a generational symmetry. Bowie’s father had wanted a life in the entertainment business but lost much of his savings in an ill-fated nightclub. Instead, he supported Bowie’s musical ambitions, hoping his dreams would come to fruition in his son. They did, although sadly Bowie’s break didn’t happen until after Haywood Jones’ death in 1969.

And Bowie was a pop singer who dreamed of being a director. He’d taken various film roles, he said, because he wanted in on the trade secrets—working with Nicolas Roeg and Martin Scorsese would let him see how masters shot a film. Thus armed, he’d make his own films. The David Bowie Is exhibit shows just how detailed Bowie’s plans were: the storyboards and scale model work for the Diamond Dogs and Ziggy Stardust films that would never be made. (Instead, Bowie made albums as if he was a director: having his “actors” improvise in the studio from his scenarios, then piecing together a “storyline” in the vocal booth.)

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As it turned out, Bowie was raising a director. He brought his son to various soundstages and location shoots, with Labyrinth (shot when Jones was 14) a high note, and on The Hunger, director Tony Scott let the 11-year-old Jones shoot with a “wild camera,” roaming around the set during takes (Scott reportedly wound up using some of Jones’ footage). Bowie screened countless films with him—whenever there’s a blank spot in a biography during the late Seventies or Eighties, Bowie’s likely in Switzerland watching movies with his son. Making movies, too: “One of the things we were always doing together as a hobby was filming stuff, shooting on 8mm cameras and using tiny little editing systems to cut together Smurf movies,” Jones said in 2006. “I had these Smurf and Star Wars figures and would do one-stop animation with them. I was six or seven.”

Wary of the press, as he’d been a paparazzi target since infancy, Jones even asked in early newspaper interviews that a childhood shot of him be used, so that he wouldn’t be recognized on the street. He was adamant on making his own way in film, not dropping his father’s name to ease his way into productions. (That said, being the son of a rock star does help with some financing: among the producers of Moon were Bill Zysblat, Bowie’s longtime financial adviser, and Trudie Styler, aka Mrs. Sting.)

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You know, it was work. Dad was working. And it was like any kid going to watch his dad at work, no matter what they do. We were just waiting for the concert to be over so we could go home. I could hear the noise up front but I’d spend most of my time hanging out with the roadies and playing with them.

Jones, interview, 2011.

After getting a degree in philosophy at the College of Wooster, Jones entered Vanderbilt’s PhD philosophy program in 1995. Two years in, he was “miserable” and wanted to make films instead (likely not the first philosophy doctoral student to reach this conclusion). “I had this kind of epiphany, that this was what I was supposed to be doing. This hobby of filmmaking from my childhood—this was what I should pursue,” he told Vanderbilt’s alumni magazine.

He enrolled in the London Film School, apprenticed as (again) a cameraman for Tony Scott and as an assistant director on commercials made by Walter Stern. By 2006, he was directing his own commercials—his debut being a notorious one for French Connection in which two women kung-fu fight, rip off each other’s clothes and make out. Loudly exploitative, the commercial did showcase Jones’ developing style, a postmodern “realism”–the performers aren’t models or actresses but stunt women, doing their own moves; the soundtrack juxtaposes cartoonish sound effects with a “medieval” aria (composed by Mark Sayer-Wade, with a Jones libretto).

Jones’ 2002 short Whistle (it’s on the Moon DVD) suffers from the typical student film’s stiffness in shots, edits and performances. Yet Whistle has the central Jones scenario in place: a man, isolated in a remote place, being manipulated by “off-stage” forces, with his emotional life used as leverage. An assassin, based in a Swiss chateau, dispatches various people via drones. He gets assignments from an elegant old man located off-site; his mental state is monitored by his rather robotic wife. A killing goes awry, with the target’s wife and daughter becoming collateral damage, leading the assassin to have a crisis of faith. He tries to quit and escape but winds up becoming the next target for the drones. Despite the lead character’s epiphanies, the company stays in business (Jones’ films all end this way, much as how weddings usually close a Shakespeare comedy).

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Moon: Sam, packed in a box

Jones’ studies at Vanderbilt entailed “applying artificial intelligence and morality to sentient machines. Very sci-fi. I was trying to get ahead of the game, ready for when our robot masters arrived,” he once said. He read Robert Zubrin’s 1999 Entering Space, which analyzed the potential for humans to colonize the solar system (and which has a chapter on how the moon’s Helium-3 deposits could fuel nuclear fusion projects on Earth; mining Helium-3 is the job of Sam Rockwell’s character in Moon). Jones used the book as the starting point for Moon, which he wrote in the mid-2000s and shot in 2008.

Made for $5 million on a 33-day shoot, Moon was one of the most impressive directorial debuts of the 2000s and the decade’s best “hard SF” film. He wrote the script with Nathan Parker (“I fucking hate first drafts,” Jones said in 2009. “I write extensive, usually 20- or 30-page treatments and beat lists, and then I hand it over to the writer I am working with to get my first draft done, then I alternate drafts with the writer“), with Sam Rockwell in mind as the lead, and basically sole, actor (the only scene in which Sam physically interacts with another human being is in a dream sequence).

In Moon, Jones’ situates Sam in a “realist” environment—the moonbase has a compact, visually coherent floor plan and is depicted as being a bit grimy and worn-down—with a post-modern backdrop. Moon relies in part on the viewer’s memory of earlier SF films. There are visual references to Outland, Alien, Silent Running and 2001, while Jones and Rockwell used David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers to map how Rockwell’s character could play off his identical twin clone.

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Moon: Gerty, sympathetic God

And of course, there’s “Space Oddity.” It’s as though Moon is Jones remaking his father’s breakthrough hit by moving it into a more remote key, adding some new overdubs and a different outro. Ground Control and Major Tom are, respectively, played by Gerty (a movable computer voiced by Kevin Spacey) and Sam, the astronaut who cracks up and “leaves the capsule” by escaping the moon base (though tellingly Sam returns home; he doesn’t drift off into space).

Where “Space Oddity” finds the rational can-do American mind collapsing in the face of the void, blanking out, with the body drifting off, Moon is infused with meaning upon meaning: it’s man symbolizing empty space, in the way that the harvester robots have transformed the lifeless moon surface into an industrial complex.

Take the boatload of Christian symbolism. Sam has named the moonbase’s four robot harvesters after the Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (a later shot discloses that Luke, the harvester on the blink for the whole film, has been renamed “Judas” on a post-it note). Sam’s wife is Tess, from Theresa, a name derived from the Greek therizo, “to harvest,” while his daughter is called Eve (a bit too on the nose). Sam (Samuel) himself has a biblical name (literally “name of God”), one of an Old Testament prophet; Sam ends Moon by returning to earth to bring the Good (?) News.

Even the film’s plot is an annunciation (Sam realizes something’s wrong with his reality, discovers his existence is false, the truth revealed to him by a “god,” i.e., Gerty) followed by death and multiple resurrections (Sam is grievously wounded, prompting Gerty to awaken a “Sam 2” clone to replace him; Sam 2 temporarily repairs the dying Sam 1; the two eventually activate a “Sam 3”). Jones shoots each Sam clone waking up several times, with Sams 2 and 3 first “awakening” in a sparse white room, the base’s vestibule between life and death.

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moonsam
Moon: “I thought you died alone/ a long long time ago”

Sam 1: I’m the original Sam!
Sam 2: I’m in the same boat, asshole.

Christianity is just one way of viewing the film; its most obvious (too obvious?) level of interpretation. Jones once said he wanted the sequence of Sam clones to play with “the idea of a confrontation between yourself and a different version of yourself. I just liked the notion of maybe the me from now being able to talk to me from a younger period; of how different I am now to how I was.”

Again, it’s Jones playing deep into Bowie territory: the idea of piecing together a self from a mess of other selves (some yours, some others); repeated themes of duality and schizophrenia; alternating moods of radical reinvention and eternal continuity (like breaking apart your established sound to make a “Speed of Life,” then including the “Laughing Gnome” riff in it).

Moon sounds these themes in subtle ways, aided by Rockwell’s precise performance (you never lose track of which Sam he’s playing in a shot). There’s the prospect that the idea of a unique individual consciousness is a cruel joke (each “morning” a clone’s alarm playsThe One and Only” by Chesney Hawkes. (“And yet you try to make me forget / Who I really am / Don’t tell me I know best / I’m not the same as all the rest.”). Or that much of what makes you “you” is possibly false information programmed by others (consider how many of your childhood memories are actually yours, and how many are stories your parents have told you, perhaps validated by a few photographs).

So Sam, who thinks he’s serving a three-year stint on the moonbase and will soon return home to his wife and young daughter, instead finds he’s one in a long series of clones, and that his memories are those of the original Sam, who may have never left Earth. “His” wife is actually long dead; his daughter is a teenager (who has grown up knowing the “real” Sam, so she’s not even missing her father). His life is that of a plastic toy kept in a box.

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Moon: death and resurrection

There’s an optimistic reading to the film’s close. Gerty, rather than going the way of the usual murderous super-computer, instead helps lead Sam to enlightenment. And the Sam clones enact the range of human experience: the dying Sam 1 breaks down into a petulant adolescent whereas the “young” Sam 2 quickly matures, helping his “father” to accept his end and die with honor. The clones even act as the parents of “Sam 3,” the clone activated to run the moonbase: Sam 1 chooses to die for his child while Sam 2 goes to earth to fight for him.

I am fascinated by the idea that the person you think that you are is very different from what other people see you as,” Jones said. Moon ends with a man falling to earth. Not, as in Bowie and Nicolas Roeg’s film, an extraterrestrial looking to save his home by coming to ours but a manufactured human coming “home” to a planet he’s never seen but that he remembers in his dreams.

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Jones’ follow-up was 2011’s Source Code, based on a Ben Ripley script developed years before Moon. It’s a less personal film, which Jones said he took in part to prove he could helm a mainstream picture, and he had some frustration with the shift in scale. Where Moon was the work mostly of him, his producer and Rockwell, Source Code had multiple layers of producers and some mid-level studio money behind it (a $32 million budget). Jones also had to contend with a script in which a tenuous love story attempted to flower in the midst of a 24-esque “beat the clock” terrorist scenario.

That said, there are a number of similarities between the films (its star, Jake Gyllenhaal, had wanted Jones to direct after seeing the first few minutes of Moon). Again, a man kept in isolation is being lied to by his employer in order to keep him concentrated on his work. Gyllenhaal is Colter Stevens, a paraplegic, barely-alive Afghanistan war veteran whose brain is linked to “source code,” which allows a government lab to “insert” his mind into the last eight minutes of another man’s memories. This man, a teacher named Sean, was killed by a terrorist bomb; Stevens is repeatedly resurrected in the man’s body so that he can find who set the bomb, and thus let the government prevent a further atrocity. (As a tip of the hat to Moon, before the storyline is revealed, Sean’s friend/love interest Michelle Monaghan’s cel phone rings to Hawkes’ “One and Only”).

scode

Jones’ hand is most evident in shot composition and set details. Take the color scheme: blue unites Monaghan, Stevens and Stevens’ sympathetic army supervisor (the Gerty of the film), played by Vera Farmiga (her boss, Jeffrey Wright’s character, an amoral careerist scientist, wears brown—he’s out of the circle). There’s a hierarchy within the blue unity: Stevens wears a darker blue than Sean, the man he’s inhabiting, while Farmiga and the train conductors, the authority figure, wear shades of black-blue.

Like the moonbase, the main set of Source Code is a bottle world: the fishbowl of a two-tiered commuter train car (a life-sized set that Jones had constructed, built on a gimbal, rather than use an existing train car). The other two main environments are equally enclosed: the technology-dominated government base, code name “beleaguered castle” (it has more glowing screens than humans) where Farmiga and Wright monitor the action from what might as well be outer space; and Stevens’ mental projection of his helicopter cockpit which is shot at odd angles and extreme closeups, with handheld camera and short cuts, and the set is doused in blues, altering in shape and props upon each return visit.

code

Again, the film plays free agency against corporate repetition. Without Stevens’ knowledge, the doomed train passengers would simply repeat the same lines and actions, dying in exactly the same way; the train is a limbo between existences. But Stevens’ consecutive appearances soon alter the narrative, from helping a woman to avoid spilling her coffee to having an obnoxious comedian entertain a car full of passengers.

It’s reality as video game—Stevens plays out the train bomb scenario nine times, usually losing, but finally “solving” the game in his last go-through. Jones edits each scenario differently, changing dialogue (the only constant is Monaghan’s opening line, “I took your advice”), so that the film essentially repeats nine times, sometimes as black comedy, sometimes as distorted, sped-up fragments, sometimes as a downbeat thriller (see the eighth repetition, in which the villain kills the heroes and gets away with his plans).


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Source Code: blue, blue, electric blue

Source Code did well, making $135 million, and Jones hoped to use it to springboard into more ambitious films. “Until all this is done and I go back to Los Angeles and start taking meetings, I don’t know how seriously I’ll be in a position to get the films made that I’d like to make,” as he told Den of Geek.

He’d envisioned Moon as being one part in a possible trilogy, and he’s long wanted to make a film called Mute (he originally talked to Rockwell about starring in it before Moon even came about). His inspiration for the latter was a SF fan’s: what’s happening elsewhere in the world of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner?

What will Berlin be like in that same future? It got me very excited,” he said. “Berlin’s always a city I’ve found fascinating. I lived there for a little bit when I was a kid, and I went back again more recently, after the reunification of Germany, and it’s a city that’s changing so fast. Just because of the reunification, and the fact that the Soviets no longer exist, as such, so all the old socialist buildings are being repurposed—night clubs, residences, gyms…So, I was thinking, if Berlin has changed that fast in the last fifteen years, what will it be like thirty or forty years from now?

Jones is now a talked-up director, getting on the shortlist for a Superman film and eventually landing Warcraft, adapting the World of Warcraft video game franchise. He’s spent over three years on the project, mostly in post-production. If the film’s a hit (as it likely will be) will this finally give him the pull to make Mute or his other personal projects? Here’s hoping.

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Mute: Berlin street, Jones’ storyboard, ca. 2009

Jones goes a bit against the current grain by not indulging in grimdark SF dystopias. The worlds of Moon and Source Code have positive qualities. The moon colony supplies cheap, clean energy to Earth, letting the human race advance beyond its fossil fuel stage and reduce the pace of climate change. And the use of source code allows someone to prevent terrorist atrocities without resorting to murderous violence or repressive government measures, like a happy dream from the Bush years.

What interests him is what’s sacrificed to make even these compromised utopias: a single human soul, whether the string of short-lived clones in the moon base or the maimed soldier locked in a box in Source Code. Ursula LeGuin’s Omelas lies at the heart of Jones’ work to date—a brighter future built on the enslavement and degradation of a single person, someone who has to be lied to in order to keep working. The company always stays in business.

Of course, this being Bowiesongs, we should close back with the father. Who, after all, was a proud father, and one who’d want to pay homage to the son who had surpassed him, at least in one field.

What’s the very first thing the viewer sees in Moon, after the production tags?

wwa

Moon premiered 23 January 2009 at the Sundance Film Festival and it screened in the UK and US that summer, Europe and Asia that fall. Source Code premiered on 11 March 2011 at the South By Southwest Film Festival. Warcraft is due to be released in June 2016. Let’s hope Mute will follow.

Top: Duncan Jones and his dad, Sundance, January 2009; Jones and Jones and Roeg, 1975; Jones and Jones at press conference, 1974.


Nite Flights

November 14, 2012

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

I see God in the window.

David Bowie, after hearing it.

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

Scott Walker, “30 Century Man.”

I. Engel and Jones

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

Joseph Conrad, “The Secret Sharer.”

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

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



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

Anthony Reynolds, “The Hollow Men.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. Billy Balloon and Major Tom

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

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

Kenneth Pitt, David Bowie’s former manager.

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

Scott Walker: Uh, yeah.

Capitol Radio interview, 1978.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Ziggy and the Moviegoer

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

Scott Walker, interview, early 1990s.

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

Conrad.

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

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

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

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

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

IV. The Electrician and the Lodger

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

Scott Walker.

Nite Flights (The Walker Brothers, 1978).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

V. Nite Flights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VI. Walker and Bowie

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

Conrad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Heroes”

May 11, 2011

“Heroes.”
“Heroes” (single edit).
“Helden” (German single, 1977).
“Héros” (French single, 1977).
“Heroes” (broadcast, “The Marc Bolan Show,” 1977).
“Heroes” (broadcast, “Top of the Pops,” 1977).
“Heroes” (live, 1978).
“Heroes” (live, 1983).
“Heroes” (Live Aid, 1985).
“Heroes” (live in Berlin, 1987).
“Heroes” (live, 1990).
“Heroes” (with Mick Ronson and Queen, Freddie Mercury Tribute, 1992).
“Heroes” (live, acoustic, 1996).
“Heroes” (live, 1997).
“Heroes” (live, 2000).
“Heroes” (live, Concert for New York City, 2001).
“Heroes” (live, 2002).
“Heroes” (live, 2003).
“Heroes” (final performance (to date), June 2004).

Berlin, Bowie observes, reflecting upon the environments in which he has produced his last two albums, is a city made up of bars for sad disillusioned people to get drunk in.

“…It’s hard to sing “Let’s all think of peace and love… ” “No, David, why did you say that? That is a stupid remark.” Because that’s exactly where you should arrive…You arrive at a sense of compassion. The title track of “Heroes” is about facing that kind of reality and standing up to it. The only heroic act one can fucking well pull out of the bag in a situation like that is to get on with life from the very simple pleasure of remaining alive, despite every attempt being made to kill you.”

Allan Jones, “Goodbye to Ziggy and All That,” Melody Maker, 29 October 1977.

1. Regions (Nothing Will Drive Them Away)

“Heroes” in the United States, and to a lesser extent in the UK, was a failure. It got only marginal commercial airplay in the US in the ’70s and ’80s (the single even didn’t crack the top 100), with most Americans likely unaware “Heroes” existed until Bowie’s performance of it on Live Aid, if even then. “Heroes” gradually became a global Bowie standard, a consensus masterpiece, but it’s also a late revision to the canon.* In the US, at least, “Heroes” was the Bowie song that was famous somewhere else.

That was Europe (even Bowie noted that “Heroes” “seems to have a special resonance” in Europe, and he certainly tried to sell the single there, cutting German and French versions of the song). Maybe its motorik-inspired groove, indebted to Neu! and Kraftwerk, or Bowie’s at-times declamatory, harsh singing just sounded more familiar, or maybe “Heroes” tapped into something broader, an ominous general mood. In 1977, Europe’s fate was the property of others. Even the continent’s flash point, Berlin, the alleged centerpiece of the Cold War, was irrelevant. If there was to be a war, West Berlin would fall to the Soviets in a day and it likely would be annihilated soon afterward. All of the pointed decadence in West Berlin, all of the parades and drills in the Eastern half, seemed pantomimes by actors out of work.

There’s a lassitude, an echoing, fading grandeur, in the sound of “Heroes”: its dragging beat; its backdrop of squalls and what sound like wayward radio signals;  its lyric, set at the continent’s scarred heart; Bowie’s extravagant, metal-edged vocal; Robert Fripp’s feedback ostinato. “Heroes” is Bowie at his most empathic and at his most desperate, a wish-chant that offers, at best, some tiny regency for the spirit. Bowie, who had once had filled his songs with starmen and calamity children, seems reduced here to a minor scale, despite the talk of kings and dolphins. Any hope “Heroes” offers is meager: we can be better than we are. Only sometimes, and not for long.

2. Reductions (I Drink All the Time)

Interviewer: I remember one lyric [of yours]: “all the nobody people, all the somebody people. I need them.”

DB: Yes, well, that character definitely did, ’cause his world was exploding…That was definitely a character. That was Ziggy Stardust. He was the archetype needing-people rock star.

David Bowie, press conference in Holland, October 1977.

Around 1975, the writer Greil Marcus noticed the rise of “survivors.” He heard the phrase used in TV shows (the title often bestowed upon middle-aged actors promoting a new project), in politics (“Reagan was a survivor,” as per Lou Cannon’s bio), in films and particularly in rock music, where “survivors” were suddenly inescapable: “Soul Survivor,” Street Survivors, “Survival” (the O’Jays single and the Wailers record), “I Will Survive,” with the culmination being a band actually called Survivor.

I grew obsessed with the phenomenon, Marcus wrote at the decade’s end. I seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the seventies, to stand for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. Language was being debased. “Survivor” had once meant someone who had endured a horror that had killed a great many others—a concentration camp survivor, a plane crash survivor. Now the word applied to anyone remotely competent at living (Queen’s first hit, “Keep Yourself Alive,” could’ve been the motto of the ’70s).

There was something off putting about the sudden prominence of “survivors,” of odes to the simple life and of people being called “heroes” for the mildest of reasons. It was as if, in the decades after WWII, people had come to want too much, had attempted too great a height, and they were now being herded back down, their ambitions reduced to the scope of mere living. Going to work, paying your bills, raising your children, hitting 30, enduring an awful disease—these became “heroic” acts. Everyone alive became a survivor. Common life, as its radical prospects diminished, was exalted.

Bowie’s “Heroes” could seem part of this reduction, an ancestor to the wave of “you’re MY hero” kitsch of the late 20th Century, of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and it certainly has been interpreted as such.** What saves Bowie’s song from cheap sentimentality is its coldness, the sense that it’s been compromised from the start. We can be kings, we can be heroes, nothing will hurt us, the singer offers at the start of each verse, but he soon backtracks, equivocating, willing to settle for less. We can be us, he sings at last, his voice hissing out the last syllable: could we even venture that?

When Bowie first saw the lovers who inspired his song’s climactic verse, sitting on a bench by the Berlin Wall, he had wondered why they had chosen such a grim place. Did the pair feel shame at what they were doing? Were they meeting where they figured no one would see them? Or were they just bored or restless, pawns playing at being rooks?

The latter wouldn’t be unusual, as West Berlin was where one could play at life. Bowie would describe his Berlin period, which ended in late 1977, as the time when he fell to earth. West Berlin was “a womb,” he said, “a therapeutic city, with a real street level.” Bowie often myth-tinted his doings and so his Berlin years became an exile with the common people: “I had to go down the road and buy food in a shop,” he incredulously told an interviewer in late ’77. So the myth of “Bowie in Berlin,” who lived in a working-class Turkish neighborhood (not quite) and drank in workingmen’s bars unrecognized (not really—only once during the Hansa sessions, when Tony Visconti cropped Bowie’s hair, was Bowie able to walk around without attracting much notice). Still, it was a potent myth: Berlin as the place one went to be a human. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and Faraway So Close!, where angels become mortals in Cold War and post-Cold War Berlin, have a trace of Bowie in them.

It’s a shame that “Heroes” is best known in its maimed form, the 7″ single edit, which lops off about two minutes of the track so that the song begins with its third verse (“I wish you could swim”). It’s the version used for Stanley Dorfman’s promo film, included on ChangesBowie and the version Bowie would perform most often on stage.

The edit weakens the song. It’s not just that the buildup to the last two verses is now too brief (the Bowie vocal fireworks start at 1:23 in the single, but don’t appear until 3:16 in the original), but the lyric’s also thrown out of whack. The original song opens with a grandiose claim: “I, I will be king” (the wording deliberately stilted, calling back to ’60s pop dramas like “I Who Have Nothing”). Then in the second verse, the artifice suddenly falls away:

And you, you can be mean
And I, I drink all the time.
‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact
Yes we’re lovers, and that is that.

The intimacy of these lines, sung by Bowie close to the mic, in his lower register (and obscured in the mix, so the first line sounds like “you could be me”) are key to the song. This verse is the reality: a pair of lovers trapped in routine, seeing no way out. A man and a woman face each other across a table, reading each other’s faces for signs, their only freedom left in dreams. It’s all in the way Bowie sings “that is that,” quietly, with no emotion, a settled fact in a settled life.

This is what makes the later verses, which, starting with the fourth (the repeat of “I will be king”), are sung in Bowie’s “epic” register (see below), all the sadder. The singer, growing increasingly desperate, can barely keep his fantasies from blurring together. I will be king! You will be queen!, he nearly shrieks, while the following line brings the ominous “nothing will drive them away.” Who are “them”? Is it some further delusion that their love is so precious someone would want to kill it?

Until the last verse, the song’s been abstract, its setting could be anywhere (like the empty backdrop in Bowie’s promo film for it). Then the lovers are suddenly by the Wall, the guns firing above them: they’re brave, and could be about to die. Bowie sings the lines in one sustained, howling scream. It’s cathartic as it is baffling. Are the guards shooting at them, or is their meeting so insignificant that the guards don’t even notice them? Some have interpreted the lines as meaning the lovers are separated by the Wall, like some Pyramus and Thisbe in Berlin, others that the pair is trying to escape East Berlin (but then why is “all the shame on the other side,” where they’re trying to flee?). I’d say the details don’t really matter: the Wall verse is as much a fantasy as being a king for a day or swimming like a dolphin. It’s the dream of someone in the muddle of life, wishing that his empty days and his shabby love affair had some grandeur, finding dignity even in tyranny.

3. Reconnoiterings (Nothing Will Keep Us Together)

“Heroes” began out of pique. Bowie, irritated by Iggy Pop scrapping much of his original music for “Success,” was still toying with a G-C-D chord sequence and a vocal melody, reworking the piece with Brian Eno in rehearsals. Eno soon wanted to call it “Heroes,” as the song, even in embryo, had a rousing, propulsive feel (also, “Heroes” would also reference Neu!’s “Hero,” (from Neu! 75), complementing the Kraftwerk tribute “V-2 Schneider”).

At Hansa Studios, Bowie tried out “Heroes,” existing mainly in fragments, with his regular band: Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar and George Murray. In a few hours they had built up the song, Alomar working out guitar riffs that would become the track’s underlying rhythmic hooks (like the twining, dancing three-part figure that plays over lines like “nothing will keep us together”). “Heroes” had a “plodding rhythm and tempo,” Bowie later said, which was intentional: it was another reworking of “I’m Waiting For the Man,” a song that had obsessed Bowie for ten years. Eno and Bowie, considering the ’70s German bands the natural heirs to the Velvet Underground, had taken the VU drone and translated it into motorik.

Eno’s main contribution was his EMS synthesizer, which plays throughout the track, its oscillators reduced to a low frequency rate (Visconti estimated five cycles per second) and using a noise filter: the result, Visconti said, was the “shuddering, chattering effect [that] slowly builds up and gets more and more obvious towards the end.”

As with many of Bowie’s songs on “Heroes”, the title song’s foundation is simple: five verses, some expanded with a six-bar chorus tag, and finally a refrain of sorts to close things out. “Heroes,” in D major, is primarily the three-chord sequence proposed for “Success”: the verses (and the intro/solo sections) move between D and G major, with the arrival of C major (on, for example, “nothing, nothing will keep us together”) and a two-bar foray into A minor and E minor (on “beat them” and “forever”), briefly disrupting the pattern.

(“Heroes” appears to be in the “D mixolydian” mode—basically, Bowie drops what would be the dominant (V) chord, A major, and replaces it with A minor (and follows it up with E minor). So he’s essentially swapping chords from D major’s parallel minor, D minor, then quickly shuttling back to the major tonic chord, D (so the verse’s climactic sequence of Am-Em-D is v-ii-I)).

It’s unclear if “Heroes” was originally intended as an instrumental. Eno has said he thought it was, and that Robert Fripp’s guitar work was crafted with this in mind, hence Fripp playing all the way through the song.

As it turned out, Fripp’s guitar became a high chorus to Bowie’s multi-gated vocal. On Eno’s Another Green World or other “Heroes” tracks like “Joe the Lion,” Fripp was the variable, breaking open songs, his guitar coming in like a thunderclap. On “Heroes,” he’s there from the beginning, his guitar hanging in the upper atmosphere throughout, singing to itself; his feedback-laden lines suggesting the arrival of a grand melody that never quite comes. It’s a continual promise, never fulfilled.

While most guitarists that took on “Heroes” had to use an Ebow to get Fripp’s sound, playing a sustained run of A notes, Fripp had worked out the feedback patterns on foot, literally. Standing in Hansa’s Studio 2, his guitar routed through Eno’s EMS synthesizer, Fripp marked with tape the places on the studio floor where he could get a feedback loop on any given note. So four feet away from his amp was an A, three feet away was a G, and so on. Fripp stepped and swayed through the song, his sound owed to a simple cartography.

Fripp ran through three takes, and the trebly nature of his playing (further distorted live by Eno’s EMS) meant that each solo on its own sounded thin and wavering. So Tony Visconti blended all three together, eventually bouncing them down to a single track, to achieve what Visconti called “a dreamy, floaty effect.”

As “Heroes” developed, Visconti further emphasized the pulsating drone by tweaking the rhythm tracks. Typically kick drum and snare drums are put in the forefront of a rock mix, but now Visconti buried Dennis Davis’ kick and instead brought up the bassline (played both by Murray’s bass and on one of Alomar’s guitar tracks), so that the latter bolstered the shuddering feel of Fripp’s guitar tracks and Eno’s low-oscillating synthesizer.

So much of “Heroes” is owed to improvisations. An intended horn section (at the start of the second verse) was replaced by a “brass” noise on Bowie’s Chamberlin (“it sounds more like a weedy little violin patch,” Visconti later said), while the Alomar/Murray basslines had been originally considered as string parts. When overdubbing percussion Bowie and Visconti even made do without a cowbell, instead using an empty tape canister that Visconti thwacked with a drumstick (it first appears at 2:55). The only other percussion is a tambourine that crops up in the final verse (at 3:56) and runs through the remainder of the track.

4. Reverberations (You Will Be Queen)

Though the backing track was finished, Bowie waited for weeks to write a lyric, then patched it together in one go. Listening to playback in his headphones, Bowie would write a line or two and swiftly get his vocal down on tape. Visconti would rewind to where Bowie had left off, then he’d write and record another line. (It’s in part why Bowie’s singing on “Heroes” doesn’t flow as much as it seems like a series of dramatic pauses and sudden stabs of phrases.)

Where the lyric of “Station to Station” had been a profusion of imagery hauled out of Bowie’s inventory of obsessions, “Heroes” is far more minimal, its words simple and precisely chosen. Bowie drew from two main sources, both European, both postwar(s). One was the short story “A Grave For A Dolphin” by the Italian aristocrat Alberto Denti Di Pirajno, which details a doomed affair between an Italian soldier and an Somalian girl during the Second World War (it inspired the “dolphins can swim” verse).*** (Bowie also nicked the occasional line from elsewhere: “I will be king, you will be queen” is from the English folk song “Lavender’s Blue,” which Bowie would sing onstage sometimes as a prelude to “Heroes.”)

Bowie had also been taken with an Otto Mueller painting he had seen in Die Brücke Museum, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern (Lovers Between Garden Walls), which Mueller had painted as World War I was ending. Bowie transplanted Meuller’s image of two lovers embracing by a high stone wall, placing them before the Wall that Bowie saw every day from Hansa’s control room window. As legend has it, Bowie was looking out that very window when he spied Visconti (who was married at the time, to Mary Hopkin) and the singer Antonia Maass embracing by the Wall. At once he had found his lyric’s resolution, a snapshot of love and bravery set against the concrete madness of governments, despite it being a shabby act, a man cheating on his wife. (The story, essential to the legend of “Heroes,” might not be true.****)

With Fripp, who usually provided the dramatics, instead working in the chorus line, it was left to Bowie to provide the contrast to the track’s overall stasis. The drama had to come with the vocal, and Bowie planned his singing as though he meant to take an entrenched position from a rival force.

Visconti set up three Neumann microphones in Studio 2, placing the first, a valve U47, directly in front of Bowie, about nine inches away from his face (using “fairly heavy compression, because I knew beforehand that he really was going to shout”). The second, a U87 stood about 15 to 20 feet away from Bowie and the third, another U87, was at the end of the room, some 50 feet away. The latter two mics had electronic gates: they would be switched off until triggered by Bowie hitting a certain volume. Once they were turned on, they would capture the sound of the entire room ringing with Bowie’s voice. (This also meant that Bowie, once he had triggered the other mics, had to go at full blast to keep them on, hence the histrionic tone of his singing—he sounds unhinged at times.)

The vocal was done in three takes (Visconti said most of the final vocal is from the last take, with a few punch-ins to correct stray notes). Bowie immediately moved to recording two tracks of backing vocals with Visconti (hence the faint Brooklyn accent you hear on “I remember” and “wall”), harmonizing in thirds and fifths below the lead vocal. The backing chorus, which generally comes in on the last note of each lead vocal phrase, is the last essential ingredient of the song—until now the singer’s been alone in his fantasies, so having another voice back him up adds a sense of reassurance at last. From the first line Bowie wrote and sang, to the last punch-in edit, it had taken about five hours.

5. Reputations (All the Shame Was On the Other Side)

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.

David Bowie, Uncut interview, 1999.

Bowie promoted “Heroes” across two continents, made a promo film, talked to any interviewer who would have him, but the single stiffed, only reaching #24 in the UK and not cracking the Billboard 100 in the US. “Heroes” soon took on another life, becoming a favorite on tour, and Bowie eventually would tailor it for grand moments—closing his Live Aid set with it, playing it in his tribute to Freddie Mercury and his tribute to the dead of 9/11. Of course “Heroes” has also been used to sell mobile phones, software, digital film, life insurance, football matches, HBO’s Latin American programming, hockey and rock star video games; it’s promoted a dopey comic book TV series, while a cover by the Wallflowers was used in an abysmal ’90s Godzilla remake.

None of this has reduced the original “Heroes.” One could argue it’s even strengthened the song. It seems to have been intended as a gift, crafted to be dispersed, to be carried in the air, used by whoever would have it.

At the Hurricane Festival in Scheeßel (the story ends back in Germany, as it seemingly had to), on 25 June 2004, Bowie closed his set with a restrained “Heroes.” He did a few other standards as encores, then he collapsed backstage, suffering what appears to have been a heart attack. Hurricane was the sudden end of the tour, and in retrospect seems the close of Bowie’s professional life. He’s appeared a couple more times on stage (last in 2006), but Hurricane was the terminus: there’ve been no more tours, no more records since.

So closing what could be his last show with “Heroes” seems fitting and just. “Heroes,” the most generous of Bowie’s songs, and possibly the saddest, sounds like Bowie’s farewell, fallen out of time.

Resources

Recorded at Hansa by the Wall, July-August 1977. Released as a single in September 1977 (RCA PB 1121, #24 UK), as were “Helden” (RCA PB 9168)—some argue it’s the definitive version of the song, and Bowie’s vocal is pretty tremendous (“ICH!!! ICH BIN DANN KOENIG!”)—and the French “Héros,” (RCA PB 9167), the dud of the bunch. Performed in every Bowie tour since 1978.

Along with the usual suspects in the “sources” list at the right side of the page (esp. Trynka, Pegg and Buckley), of great help for this entry was Phil Sutcliffe’s article on “Heroes” for Q, August 2005; Visconti’s essential interview with Sound on Sound, 2004, and his interview for the great, lost documentary Rock & Roll (1995: episode 7: “The Wild Side”); Mat Snow’s “Making ‘Heroes'” in Mojo‘s 60 Years of Bowie special (2007); guitar tabs in Play Guitar With David Bowie, which unfortunately is just for the single cut. Marcus’ “survivor” piece is his wonderful “Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes,” Village Voice, 17 December 1979 (later collected in Fascist Bathroom).

Photos, top to bottom: Sibylle Bergemann, “Berlin, Palast der Republik,” 1978; Mueller, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern (1919);  “Englehaftetraumstoffe,” “Berlin, Ost 1977”; John Spooner, “Berlin Wall, 1978”; Unknown photog. (Landesbildstelle), East Berlin border at Niederkirchner Strasse, January 1977; Christian Simonpietri, “Eno, Fripp and Bowie,” Hansa Studios, ca. July 1977; “Klaus183,” Berlin Wall, 1978; Masayoshi Sukita, cover of “Heroes” (referencing Heckel’s Roquairol (1917) (as was the cover of The Idiot); “Helden” sleeve, 1977.

* In the US, its closest counterpart would be “The Man Who Sold The World”: a relative obscurity until the mid-1990s, now a Bowie standard.

** Most recently, and most terribly, in the version by the X Factor contestants, who took it to #1 in the UK last year (imagine if “Stars on 45” had charted higher than any actual Beatles singles).

*** Of course, Bowie would eventually marry a Somalian woman. He referenced the Denti novel in his introduction to her I Am Iman (2001).

**** Tobias Rüther, in his Helden: David Bowie und Berlin (2008), interviewed Maass, who claimed the lines weren’t about her and Visconti, as “Heroes” had been completed before their affair started, and that Bowie couldn’t have seen them together anyhow. Someone should do a feminist reading of the song—the male gaze (Bowie), the male protagonist (Visconti) and the oft-forgotten woman who claims that none of the story is true.