Reissues: Panic In Detroit

March 23, 2016

Here’s one that didn’t get many comments back when, and whose lyrical scenario seems more true to life today than it did in 1973, sadly. One of those songs whose simplicity, drive, power and wit kept it in the Bowie repertoire throughout his touring years.

Originally posted on 10 June 2010: It’s “Panic In Detroit.”

Panic In Detroit.
Panic in Detroit (live, 1973).
Panic In Detroit (live 1974).

Panic In Detroit (rehearsal, 1976).
Panic in Detroit (live, 1976 (here’s to Dennis Davis)).
Panic In Detroit (remake, 1979).
Panic In Detroit (live, 1990)
.
Panic In Detroit (live 1997).
Panic in Detroit (live, 2004).

In July 1972 Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman came to Miami for the Democratic National Convention, and whenever they went out on the street, a mob of policemen followed them. Rubin and Hoffman expected nothing less: at the 1968 convention, the Chicago police had made a sport of clubbing and gassing protesters outside the convention hall. This time, however, there was a rumor that a camera crew funded by Warner Bros. would be making a film of the Yippies’ adventures, so the police mainly just wanted to get into the movies. Each one hoped to be the cop on screen bashing Abbie Hoffman’s head in with a club. There was no movie crew, so it was a peaceful convention.

The leading man of “Panic In Detroit” is a fading revolutionary/sex symbol whose last act is suicide, though he graciously leaves behind a last autograph. Inspired by Iggy Pop’s stories of the 1967 Detroit riots and the rise of the White Panther Party, the song’s last main ingredient was Bowie’s encounter at his Carnegie Hall show with a former classmate from Bromley Tech. This nondescript middle-class British kid had become a drug dealer operating out of South America; he’d flown his private plane to the show.

“Panic In Detroit” came as the New Left was devolving into celebrity personality-cult terrorism. The White Panthers’ John Sinclair (former jazz critic and the MC5’s former manager, commemorated by John Lennon on Some Time in New York City) and the late world-trotting revolutionary Che Guevara (whose Korda photograph, once an icon for radicals, now hangs in dorm rooms) were just the starting rounds. Now there was the Weather Underground, whose internal politics were those of a touring, squabbling rock group; Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang (Baader, who owned a Che poster, paid a designer to make his group’s machine-gun-and-star logo), and California’s Symbionese Liberation Army, whose kidnapping of the heiress Patty Hearst in 1974 was one of America’s most popular TV programs.(See Camper Van Beethoven’s “Tania”:“How I long for the days when you [Hearst] came to liberate us from boredom/From driving around from five to seven in the evening.”)

Political violence was a means of self-expression; revolutionary cells became performance artists, their various alliances with criminal groups a form of patronage. It was catnip for Bowie. In “Panic In Detroit,” he gave his provincial Che (late of the perfectly-named National People’s Gang) a backdrop of riot-torn streets and bloodless authority, the latter embodied by a cringing teacher and a student who runs to smash a slot machine in the chaos.

“Panic In Detroit” is also Bowie’s snapshot of the America that he encountered in depth for the first time, touring through it in late 1972: an America he spied through bus and limo windows and from hotel balconies: a country of empty spaces and fallen cities.

“There were snipers all over America, on tops of buildings,” he recalled in 1990. (There weren’t, really; Bowie was likely remembering Charles Whitman, who killed 14 people in 1966 during his sniper rampage from Austin’s University Tower, or even the “Scorpio” killer of Dirty Harry, who opens that film by picking off a woman swimming in a rooftop pool.) For Bowie, America had validated his imagination—the dystopic worlds he had been describing in song for years had turned out to be real places, filled with glamorous decay and casual murder. In Texas, Los Angeles and New York, he’d been harassed and even attacked by strangers. “It was really happening. Suddenly my songs didn’t look out of place,” he said.

Opening with a power chord riff, its monstrous-sounding tone soon tracked with another Wah-Wahed guitar, Mick Ronson shadows Bowie with bombing runs down the scale that end with thick clots of E chordal figures. In the refrain he needles Bowie’s vocal with lines that expire in clouds of feedback. Given leave to solo in the bridge, he sneers.

Working on Ronson’s behalf are a rockabilly Trevor Bolder bassline and a mesh of percussion. Emboldened by his conversion to Scientology and bitter about his paltry wages, Woody Woodmansey refused to play a Bo Diddley-esque shuffle Ronson and Bowie had requested, saying it was corny. Instead he played 16ths on his medium toms and punctuated chorus phrases with his crash cymbal (phased, like the backing vocals). So Bowie brought in his friend Geoff MacCormack to play congas and maracas to cook up a Diddley-style “swamp” groove. The track’s central pulse is MacCormack’s moves between high and low congas, occasionally muting the high conga for effect, as on the title phrase. Gliding between B minor and D major, “Panic In Detroit” descends into the maelstrom for its minute-plus coda, with Ronson’s pick scratches, Woodmansey’s crashes, MacCormack’s congas and the wails of Juanita Franklin and Linda Lewis sounding like a collective murder.

Mostly composed in Detroit during the Spiders’ first visit there (8 October 1972), “Panic In Detroit” was completed on 24 January 1973. A rarity in the last Ziggy Stardust shows, it was a regular in the 1974 tour (a live Philadelphia recording was the B-side of “Knock on Wood”) and in many later tours: Bowie played it up until the end. He also remade the song with Tony Visconti, Zaine Griff and Andy Duncan in 1979 for Kenny Everett’s New Year’s Eve show, but another remake (of “Space Oddity”) took its place in the show —this revised “Panic in Detroit” (with a cameo by either a Speak n Spell or an imitation of one) later appeared on reissues of Scary Monsters and Heathen.

Top: “Anarchistische Gewalttäter”: wanted poster for the Baader-Meinhof Gang, ca. 1972? “Beware! These violent criminals will make ruthless use of guns!” (GHDI).


Panic In Detroit

June 10, 2010

Panic In Detroit.
Panic in Detroit (live, 1973).
Panic In Detroit (live 1974).

Panic In Detroit (rehearsal, 1976).
Panic in Detroit (live, 1976, with the King Kong of drum solos).
Panic In Detroit (remake, 1979).
Panic In Detroit (live, 1990)
.
Panic In Detroit (live 1997).
Panic in Detroit (live, 2004).

In July 1972 Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman came to Miami for the Democratic National Convention, and whenever they went out on the street, a mob of policemen followed them. Rubin and Hoffman expected nothing less: at the 1968 convention, the Chicago police had made a sport of clubbing and gassing protesters outside the convention hall. This time, however, there was a rumor that a camera crew funded by Warner Bros. would be making a film of the Yippies’ adventures, so the police mainly just wanted to get into the movies. Each one hoped to be the cop on screen bashing Abbie Hoffman’s head in with a club. There was no movie crew, so it was a peaceful convention.

“Panic In Detroit”‘s leading man is a revolutionary/sex symbol who “looked a lot like Che Guevara,” as the singer remembers him (Bowie predicting the hipster Che t-shirt, and even better, the Che store). His old group, the National People’s Gang, has been wiped out, so instead he signs autographs, leads a few riots, and finally shoots himself, though he graciously leaves one last autograph for the singer.

The fall of the last revolutionary hipster is set in a post-riot, even post-apocalypse Detroit, with the lyric partially inspired by Iggy Pop’s stories of the 1967 Detroit riots. Yet just as influential was Bowie’s backstage encounter in New York with a former classmate from Bromley Tech, an unassuming, middle-class British kid who had become a drug dealer based out of South America. Bowie was taken with the idea that anyone, through stylish violence, could reinvent themselves into a famous counter-cultural figure. It was the glittering devolution of the American Left, epitomized in the Patty Hearst saga, the greatest show on TV in 1974 (Camper Van Beethoven’s “Tania”:“How I long for the days when you [Hearst] came to liberate us from boredom/From driving around from five to seven in the evening”).

“Panic In Detroit” is also Bowie’s instant snapshot of the America he encountered in depth for the first time, touring through it in late ’72: a country of empty spaces, fallen cities and sporadic violence. He told Musician in 1990 that one image that had fascinated him was of a sniper perched on a rooftop, dispatching random people on the street below him. “There were snipers all over America, on tops of buildings,” Bowie recalled (there weren’t, really, but Bowie was likely remembering Charles Whitman, who killed 14 people in 1966 during his sniper rampage from Austin’s University Tower, or even the “Scorpio” killer of Dirty Harry, who opens that film picking off a woman in her rooftop pool).

For Bowie, this America had validated his imagination—the dystopic worlds he had been describing in song for years had turned out to be real places, filled with glamorous decay and casual murder. “It was really happening,” he said. “Suddenly my songs didn’t look out of place.”

The power and drive of “Panic In Detroit” owes as much to Mick Ronson and the backing singers Linda Lewis and Juanita “Honey” Franklin as it does to any of Bowie’s scenarios. Lewis and Franklin’s long-held notes in the choruses give way to a series of sharp, echoing wails and shrieks in the coda. Ronson opens the song’s 8-bar intro with a fairly simple riff, but that’s not his game here—he shades Bowie’s vocal lines with menace, often pitting two guitar tracks against each other (like the minimalist solo he gets after the bridge), and plays sets of rapid descending scales, like the shift from D to E that ends each chorus. Woody Woodmansey’s Bo Diddley tribute (one of the densest, murkiest rhythm tracks Bowie’s had to date) is bolstered by congas and shakers. Bowie sings long arcs of melody in the verses, culminating in the title phrase—the verses and choruses bleed into each other, separated by a single bridge and a repeat of the intro riff. After Bowie’s last lines, Ronson and the rest of the band descend into madness.

Allegedly composed in Detroit during the Spiders’ first visit there (8 October 1972), “Panic In Detroit” was completed on 24 January 1973. A rarity in the last Ziggy Stardust shows, a regular in the 1974 tour (a live Philadelphia recording was the b-side of “Knock on Wood,” and it’s on later versions of David Live). Bowie remade the song with Tony Visconti, Zaine Griff and Andy Duncan (with a cameo by the Speak and Spell) in December 1979 for Kenny Everett’s New Year’s Eve Show, but their remake of “Space Oddity” replaced it—the revised “Panic in Detroit” later turned up on reissues of Scary Monsters and, currently, Heathen.

Top: “Anarchistische Gewalttäter”: wanted poster for the Baader-Meinhof Gang, ca. 1972. ” Beware! These violent criminals will make ruthless use of guns!” (GHDI).


Poll, Day 2: Readers’ Favorite Bowiesongs, 100-51

December 16, 2015

dbnew

“I’d better be impressed,” the taciturn man says as he turns on his laptop. So, here we go.

The issue with the lower stretches of the top 100 songs is, as you’ll soon see, that there are lots of tied songs. This isn’t often the case above the 50-song barrier. But get ready. If one of your picks is in a tie, well, you can say it’s the best of the bunch and no one can contradict you.

Let’s begin at Haddon Hall, 1971:

David Bowie in a dress, 1971 (3)

TIE: 100-99. Kooks. (30 points/votes).

Soul Love (30 points/votes).

98. Fascination (31 points, 27 votes, 1 #1 vote). Go Luther!

97. Watch That Man (32 points/votes).

96. Up the Hill Backwards (34 points/votes).

The vacuum created by the arrival of freedom
And the possibilities it seems to offer,
It’s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it.
..

bluejean

Hey, it’s a TIE 95-94.

Everyone Says ‘Hi’ (35 points/votes).

Blue Jean (35 points, 31 votes, 1 #1 vote). A strategic #1 vote by a certain music writer.

Bowie_Stardust_03

If you want it, boys, it’s a THREE-WAY TIE, 93-91.

Hang Onto Yourself (36 points/votes (2 for live 1972 recordings, 1 for Stage)).

I’m Deranged (36 points/votes, 1 for Lost Highway edit).

New Killer Star (36 points, 32 votes, 1 #1 vote).

DavidBowieLS03

Yeah, well now it’s a FOUR-WAY TIE, 90-87.

Love Is Lost. (37 points/votes, 7 for the James Murphy remix).

Slow Burn (37 points/votes).

I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (37 points, 33 votes, 1 #1 vote). Toll the bell.

V-2 Schneider (37 points, 33 votes, 1 #1 vote).  “YES OKAY I PUT V2 SCHNEIDER AT NUMBER ONE OKAY WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME” email from its #1 voter.

37 Bowie a

What’s that? You say you want another FOUR-WAY TIE? 86-83.

Conversation Piece (38 points/votes, 7 specified the Toy version, 2 the original). One of the most surprising and loveliest of placings in the top 100. Well done, everyone: well done.

I’m Afraid of Americans (38 points/votes, 1 specified the Earthling version, 1 the NIN remix).

The Next Day (38 points, 34 votes, 1 #1 vote). Not quite dying indeed!

and another fun surprise:

Alternative Candidate (Candidate Demo), (38 points, 30 votes, 2 (!) #1 votes).

d98508e5

Ok, a break from the ties for a bit.

82. Cracked Actor (39 points/votes).

81. Heathen (the Rays) (42 points/votes). Bit of a surprise placement? More support than I expected.

80. China Girl (43 points, 39 votes, 1 #1 vote; 1 vote specified Iggy’s version, 1 Bowie’s).

79. Thru These Architects’ Eyes (44 points, 40 votes, 1 #1 vote).

78. Cat People (45 points/votes, 2 specified the Let’s Dance remake).

77. Diamond Dogs (46 points/votes).

76. DJ (48 points/votes).

75. Sunday (49 points/votes, 1 specified the Moby remix).

blackstar

and presenting, the rookie of the year:

74. Blackstar (50 points/votes). For a song that debuted midway through this poll, this is a pretty damn impressive showing. The big question: had it come out a month earlier, how high would it have been?

dbb

Now the hitters get heavier:

73. All the Madmen (51 points/votes).

72. Red Sails (52 points, 40 votes, 3 #1 votes).

71. Hallo Spaceboy (53 points/votes, 3 specified the Pet Shop Boys remix, 2 specified “NOT the Pet Shop Boys remix”).

Well, it’s been so long, time for a THREE-WAY TIE: 70-68.

Sons of the Silent Age (54 points/votes).

Jean Genie (54 points, 50 votes, 1 #1 vote).

We Are the Dead (54 points, 50 votes, 1 #1 vote).

David-Bowie-960x534

another high-speed TIE for 67-66.

Jump They Say (55 points/votes, 1 for “rock” mix).

Speed of Life (55 points, 51 votes, 1 #1 vote).

dbronno

and a hard rocking glam TIE for 65-64.

John, I’m Only Dancing (56 points, 52 votes, 1 #1 vote).

The Width of a Circle (56 points, 48 votes, 2 #1 votes).

tumblr_nitdvkxBMb1u49wbmo1_500

63. The Secret Life of Arabia (57 points, 53 votes, 1 #1 vote).  At one point, early on in the tabulations, this was in the top 30 songs, votes-wise. I knew that streak couldn’t last, but hey, I had no idea there was so much love for this one.

62. A New Career In a New Town (58 points/votes).

bowie-mercury

And a titan-clashing TIE, 61-60.

Under Pressure (60 points/votes, 1 specified the Dorsey-sung Reality Tour version).

The Motel (60 points, 48 votes, 3 #1 votes). Lights up, boys.

Bowi

was rooting for this to do a little better than it did, but still..

59. Uncle Floyd/Slip Away (61 points/votes, 4 specified “Uncle Floyd”).

It’s a post-apocalyptic Che Guevara TIE for 58-57.

Panic In Detroit (63 points/votes).

Loving the Alien (63 points, 59 votes, 1 #1 vote; 2 votes specified early 2000s live versions, 1 vote specified the full version on Tonight).

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Now the “too low!” yells from the crowd grow in number and fervor:

56. Lady Stardust (64 points, 52 votes, 3 #1 votes).

55. All the Young Dudes (66 points, 58 votes, 2 #1 votes; 1 vote specified Bowie live 1973, 2 specified Mott the Hoople, 2 specified Bowie live 2003.)

54. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). (68 points, 64 votes, 1 #1 vote).

53. Blackout. (69 points, 61 votes, 2 #1 votes).

db77

And finally, a tie for the almost-made-it-ins (from the class of 1977), 52 and 51.

Beauty and the Beast (71 points, 67 votes, 1 #1 vote).

Subterraneans. (71 points, 47 votes, 6 #1 votes). Broke my heart: it was so close to the top 50 but couldn’t go the last 100 meters. The last ten votes compiled sealed its fate.

Next: Winners’ Outer Circle: Songs 50-26.


Links: Chapters 6-8

March 25, 2015

Chapter 6: Ziggy In Nixonland: 1972-1973

db73

“You Got To Have a Job/ Hot Pants”
“I Feel Free”: (live, 1972) (1980 inst. outtake) (1993 remake)
“White Light/White Heat” (VU)
“All the Young Dudes”: (Mott the Hoople) (Bowie)
“John, I’m Only Dancing”
“My Death”
“The Jean Genie”
“Drive-In Saturday”
“Watch That Man”
“Panic In Detroit” (1979 remake)
“Cracked Actor”
“Time”
“Aladdin Sane”
“Let’s Spend the Night Together”
“Lady Grinning Soul”
“This Boy” “Love Me Do”

More: Ziggy Stardust tour, 1972: Aylesbury; Rainbow Theatre, London; Santa Monica. Rock and Roll (1995, Ep. 7, “The Wild Side“); Classic Albums: Transformer; Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies; Kazumi Hayashi, “Some Cat From Japan,” (on Kansai Yamamoto); Dirty Harry (1971, opening sequence); “Baader-Meinhof: In Love With Terror”; New York Dolls, “Personality Crisis” (Midnight Special, 1973); Mayor of the Sunset Strip; Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture.

Chapter 7: The Anxiety of Influence (1973)

dblate73

“Everything’s Alright” (Mojos)
“I Wish You Would” (Billy Boy Arnold) (Yardbirds)
“Rosalyn” (Pretty Things)
“Don’t Bring Me Down” (Pretty Things)
“I Can’t Explain” (The Who)
“Anyway Anyhow Anywhere” (The Who)
“Here Comes the Night” (Them) (Lulu)
“Where Have All the Good Times Gone” (Kinks)
“Friday On My Mind” (Easybeats)
“Sorrow” (Merseys)
“Shapes of Things” (Yardbirds)
“See Emily Play” (Pink Floyd)
“Zion”
“Music Is Lethal”
“Hey Ma, Get Papa”
“Growing Up and I’m Fine”

More: Pin Ups (Bowie radio promo, 1973); Richie Unterberger, Billy Boy Arnold interview; The Yardbirds Story; Pete Townshend interviews: 1969, 1971, 1972, 1972, 1974; the Kinks: live, 1966; Ray Davies, interviews, 1971, 1977; Syd Barrett: interview, 1967; Mick Ronson: interview, ca. 1992.

Chapter 8: Tomorrow’s Double Feature (1973-1974)

db74

“I Got You Babe”
“Growin’ Up” (Springsteen, live, 1972)
“It’s Hard to Be a Saint In the City” (Springsteen, live, 1975)
“Having a Good Time”
“Things To Do”* (the one clip not on YouTube! it’s on Spotify though)
“I Am Divine”
“People From Bad Homes”
“I Am a Laser” (Bowie, 1974, fragment)
“1984/Dodo” (“1984”) (“Dodo”)
“Big Brother”
“Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”

“We Are the Dead”
“Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me”
“Rebel Rebel” (1974 single version) (2003 remake)
“Future Legend”
“Diamond Dogs”
“Candidate 1 (Alternative Candidate)”
“Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise)”

More: The 1980 Floor Show, 1973; J.G. Ballard, Future Now; “The Family,” BBC, 1974; Pathe, “West End of London,” 1973; John Lydon, on ’70s England (from The Filth and the Fury); Nineteen-Eighty Four (BBC, 1954); Jenny Diski, on Sonia Orwell; The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, “Mr. Apollo”, Colour Me Pop, 1968; John Rechy, City of Night; Marcello Carlin, “Diamond Dogs” (TPL).


A Contest Winner

March 13, 2015

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First, a few book-related things:

Amazon has started shipping copies of Rebel Rebel, which I imagine a number of you have received by now. My cousin, seen above, got his copy and already has incorporated it into his daily life. But the official release date is March 27, which is when (hopefully) the e-book will be ready and when the book should be available in stores. If you’ve received the book via Amazon already and if you like it, please consider giving it a rating on the site. If you hate it, maybe hold off on the rating bit.

OK. The contest. I received 60! entries, all of which were inspired, many of which were astonishing in their inventiveness. After I narrowed the entries down to five (itself a difficult process), it became all but impossible to choose one. But a contest’s a contest: someone’s gotta win it. One of the darker scenarios submitted for 1977 Bowie was also leavened with some inspired comical moments. And when I found myself cracking up in the supermarket thinking about “the Ritual of Da’at,” I realized I had a possible winner…

(drum roll)

0313150815a

Congrats to Tymothi Valentine Loving. Here’s his entry.

“A brief song-by-song recap of the legendary David Bowie Madison Square Garden concert of 1977. It was released posthumously several times, with most versions leaving out several of the end songs, this discusses the only complete, non-bootleg release, 2005’s “DBMSG77.”

1. Five Years

Bowie starts the show as if it were starting with “Station to Station,” only to have it go in to a tar-heroin-slow version of “Five Years,” which then devolved into one of the many noisy jams of the night.  Apocryphally, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music was played at the opening of the show, manipulated through several effects pedals, to create the twisted version of “Station to Station”‘s live “train sound”. The true story is even stranger; apparently Lou Reed and David Bowie indulged in some “speedballs” before the show, and the sound is actually Reed backstage playing a guitar while Bowie “played” the pedals.  After finally tiring of this, Bowie finally staggered out to start the show.  So, technically, although he was never on stage, this was Lou Reed’s last live performance, since he ODed the next year, infamously exactly one month after Bowie’s own fatal OD.

2. Andy Warhol

The shortest, straightest played song of the night.  Notable only for the minute & 30 seconds after the song is over that Bowie spends repeating “Can’t tell them apart at all”, with different emphasis each time (“CAN’T tell them apart at all”, “Can’t tell them APART at all”, etc.) with the final “Can’t tell them apart at AAAAALLLLLL” howled into a feedbacking mike as the band starts:

3. Red Money/Calling Sister Midnight (Just “Red Money” in the DBMSG77 track listing)

The title of this song is questionable. The version that Bowie performed at this show combines the lyrics of the two known recorded versions; “Calling Sister Midnight” that appears on the 1979 Iggy Pop album Idiot’s Lantern, and the 1980 posthumous Bowie collection “David Lives!“, which, among other things, contains tracks from Bowie’s final, incomplete album, What I Will. Who wrote what on which version is still up for debate. What isn’t however, is the performance itself. The dynamic of the fast pace combined with the stop/start cadence, and the quiet verses and loud choruses is still influential to this day, and some version of this song has been covered by bands ranging from Einsturzende Neubauten to Nirvana on their single studio album.

4. Fame
Seven minutes of the band jamming on a sped up version of the riff, while Bowie was offstage (possibly apocryphally) doing more cocaine. This is where the first signs of serious crowd unrest can be heard. Infamously, this was the inspiration for Suicide’s 1978 performance piece “27 Minutes Over New York”, where they would play a synth version of the riff until, basically, forced by the crowd and/or venue to stop. Nobody stopped Bowie that night, however, and when he comes out at 7:13 to finally start singing, the crowd goes wild. And, as clumsy as the increase in tempo makes some of the transitions in the song, the contrast between the band’s frantic pace and Bowie’s deadpan delivery just works.

5. Stay
Probably the clunker of the show. Although the pace of the song is increased, similar to “Fame,” there’s a notable lack of energy, and the bit of attempted free form disco jamming in the middle is as bad an idea as it sounds on paper, and never really coheres. Mainly known for the brief bit in the middle where, apropos of nothing, Bowie points into the crowd and yells “I see you, Pierrot!”.

6. Sweet Head/Cracked Actor (“Gimme Sweet Head” in the DBMSG77 track listing)
Interestingly enough, an early studio recording of this song has surfaced. Quite a bit less abrasive and charged then this version. It’s also quite a bit slower than the manic pace of this performance. And, it must be said, quite a bit shorter. More signs of crowd unrest are evident on the recording, with some angry catcalling at the end of the song.

7. The Ritual of Da’at
This song has no known recording other than this one. Bowie announced the song title at the beginning (“This here, this is The Ritual of Da’at”). The lyrics are mostly incomprehensible, and gibberish where they can be understood, although the line “Oh my sweet milk and peppers, you are all I can love!” has resurfaced in popular culture after famously being uttered in the midst of a nervous breakdown by the protagonist of Todd Haynes’ brutal, Dogme 96-ish takedown of the glam era, My Velvet Goldmine!. This song shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Something about how slow it starts, and the incredible, proto-speedmetal finish just coheres into what, despite the sloppiness, many consider to be one of the best Bowie live performance ever captured, and if not the best, then certainly one of the most intense.

8. “Bring Me The Disco King” (“The Disco King” in the DBMSG77 track listing)
This improvisational piece, never recorded other than this once, has no known title other than the line Bowie repeats for the first and last couple minutes, quietly at the beginning of the song, yelling at the end. During the middle section, he is offstage, presumably doing more coke, although it’s not true that he mutters “more cocaine” before leaving the stage, it is, fairly clearly, “keep playing”. The crowd, whipped into a seething frenzy by the previous song, seems bemused by this somewhat melancholy (in comparison, anyway) piece.

9. Blackout
Bowie’s intro to this song (“Here’s a new one for you New Yorkers, it’s called “Blackout!”) was famously sampled on the title track of the debut album of 80’s New York rap pioneers Power Station, Here Comes the Blackout. And, if I can be pardoned the obvious pun, Bowie gave an electric performance here. And the crowd went, in the famously un-bleeped words of one of the attending medics who was interviewed on the live news in the aftermath of the show, “Absolutely fucking bugshit insane”. Reportedly, at least 3 people who had never had an epileptic seizure before experienced one due to the severe strobe light effects employed during this number.

This is where most official releases of the show ended until DBMSG77 was released, although the rest of the show has been available in bootleg form for years. Much has been written about the violence of the near-riot that broke out and the damage done to the classic venue by the small fires set at the end (although, as far as I can tell, the number of fires is often exaggerated, there appear to have been only 2). Even more has been written about the investigation afterwards. I’m going to skip most of that here, and focus on the music itself, other than to say that, no, there’s nothing there that can be considered an incitement to riot, at least not in any legal way. The investigation was a witch-hunt, plain and simple. Edward Koch needed a scapegoat for the underlying tensions of his city (although Abraham Beame earns much of the blame), and he chose Bowie. OK, enough of that, on to the music:

10. Station to Station
A strange version of this song. This was the opener of the previous tour; a sprawling, shambling, genius mass of a song that seems like it would fit right into this show, but here, it runs an abbreviated 4 minutes and change. Starting with “The return of the thin white duke/throwing darts in lovers eyes” sung a cappella a few times, with “making sure white stains!” screamed in the last line, skipping the instrumental jam, and ending after only one time through the last few lines of the song, this is a tight, severe performance.

11. Queen Bitch/God Save The Queen (“God Save The Queen Bitch” in the possibly too clever DMBSG77 track listing)
Truly amazing. Bowie performs his song in a vicious, camped up punk cabaret style. And then he throws in a couple of verses and choruses of The Sex Pistols’ single in the middle. Most of the people at the show probably had no idea who The Sex Pistols were at this point. And Bowie handles their song with relish. Makes you wonder what could have been if he’d been around to make music in the 80s, an angry, anti-commercial punk Bowie may have saved that decade from some of its own excesses.

12. White Light/White Heat
A perennial Bowie cover, since at least the Ziggy Stardust tour, the band tears into this one and leaves it bleeding at the end. Bowie, on the other hand, seems disengaged again, forgetting some lyrics (a somewhat impressive feat, considering how few there are in the song). Which leads to him leaving the stage again as the band rides the riff (for 12! minutes!). He does, once again, seem more energized upon his return.

13. Panic In Detroit (Panic In New York on the DBMSG77 track listing).
This song is what was supposedly being focused on in the investigation of Bowie possibly inciting a riot. And yes, he does change the location city in the lyrics, but it’s a very thin thing to hang such a charge on. Anyway, an intense, stripped down version of the song. And yes, Bowie does seem, in some way, to be feeding off of the negative energy of the crowd. His strident, repeated “Panic in NEW YORK!” starts off brutally, and ends up like nothing else Bowie ever performed, at least that’s been saved for posterity.

14. Hang On To Yourself
This wasn’t supposed to be the last song of the show. Although no known printed version of the setlist still exists, according to members of the band, there was supposed to at least be Suffragette City, Let’s Spend the Night Together, TVC15, Rebel Rebel, Jean Genie, with Diamond Dogs as the closer. Notable in their lack are softer songs such as Changes or Time, or anything similar. It seems the intention was to just have the show almost entirely be amped up versions of (mostly) already fast songs. “TVC15” may have been a bit of a reprieve (although I really, really wish I could have heard the version that would have performed at this show). At any rate, this song barely gets started before the show is shut down, due to the (2, not several) fires that had started. An ignoble end to an astounding show that seemed to indicate an amazing new direction for David Bowie.

Although, I am indescribably happy that DBMSG77 has the complete audio of the end of the show, with Bowie screaming “I’m the laughing gnome and you can’t catch me!” at the NYFD and NYPD just before his mike was cut.”

Runner-up: A masterful piece of writing by Steven Hanna, in the style of Pegg’s Complete David Bowie, detailing not just the MSG concert but the whole “1977 ‘New Wave’ Tour,” with Blondie’s Chris Stein as ill-fated lead guitarist and an opening medley of “Can You Hear Me”/”Son of a Preacher Man.” This was a redemptive tale for Bowie, who cleans up and escapes to Europe after the disastrous Low sessions.

Here it is: enjoy!

Other top contenders: James Scott Maloy, who wrote a retrospective in the voice of a Lester Bangs still alive in 1993; James Alex Gabriel Phillips, whose phenomenal 2,000-word piece included the return of Tony Defries as ringmaster; Alon Schmul, who had Mick Ronson, Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, the Bee Gees, Aretha Franklin and Jerry Hall as guests at a Bowie 30th birthday extravaganza; Aaron Rice, who had Bowie sing nothing but duets, including “Win” with Sinatra and “Be My Wife” with Barry Manilow; Ean McNamara, whose set opened with a Buffy St. Marie cover (“sung mostly off stage”) and ended with “Wolves Song” (aka “Some Are”). [Most of these are now in the comments.]

I wish I could send a book to everyone who contributed an entry: I’m very grateful to everyone who took part in this, and the volume of responses bodes well for something I’m planning to mark the blog’s end later this year: a reader survey/ranking of favorite Bowie songs (essentially voting for the Bowiesongs Top 50, or maybe 100).


The Last Tour

March 11, 2015

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some postcards from a very long trip:

Song 2 (Rotterdam, 15 October 2003).
It Can’t Happen Here (Vienna, 29 October 2003).
Do You Know the Way to San Jose? (San Jose, 27 January 2004).

“A Reality Tour”—nine months, 22 countries, 59 songs (+ more snippets*) performed, 112 shows—may be Bowie’s last. Even should he play live again, he won’t undertake the relentless global campaign that his 2003-04 tour was. The people of Australia and New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong may never see Bowie again and in North America, it’s fair to say Uncasville (CT), the Quad Cities, Manchester (New Hampshire), Winnipeg, Minneapolis and Hershey (PA) have seen their last Bowie concert.

Tour in capsule: The 57-year-old Bowie, playing markets that, in some cases, he’d last visited in the Eighties, embarked on a grueling schedule that, originally planned for seven months, soon grew to span nearly a year. Each night he played at least two hours and up to 35-song sets. There were a few signs of wear—a bout of flu caused Bowie to cancel a run of shows in December 2003, highly unusual for him (Lou Reed once said that “David never seems to exercise, but he never gets sick”) and his voice was frayed in some mid-winter shows. Upon finishing the last US tour leg, he moved directly to a run of European summer festivals in June 2004. In Prague, he appeared to have a heart attack and after getting through one more show in Germany, he had a heart operation and was forced to cancel the rest of the tour.

He’s never headlined a full concert again. His live appearances dwindled to a handful of guest spots and small sets; after 2007, he was no longer a public performer.

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The future distorts the past. The “Reality” shows now seem hubristic in their energy, pacing and length—why was Bowie pushing himself so much? Take it easy, man! you want to yell at the computer screen when you see a concert clip. But this belies the evidence of the time. Fan reports, newspaper concert reviews, tour diaries of players like Gail Ann Dorsey, video footage of the shows—all document a man seemingly in robust health, in fine voice, eager to play each night.

He said he really was, at last. He’d been wary of singing live since the Sixties. “It was not something I looked forward to very much,” he told the Weekly Dig in late 2003. “I’ve always loved the putting together everything. I love the idea of making albums and writing albums and conceptualizing and all that side of the thing, you know? The actual going out on the road side of the thing—one, I never thought I was that good at it, and two, I just didn’t enjoy the process too much. I don’t know, maybe because I didn’t feel competent as an artist.”

But after Tin Machine and his road-heavy mid-Nineties, he’d developed a taste for the stage. “We did a lot of festivals throughout Europe. I mean, heavens, over a two-year period we did so many,” he told an interviewer. “We were working with really top-rate bands like The Prodigy, bands of that ilk, and we were going down really well. I hadn’t been amongst that many bands continually so it was like, ‘Phew, got to measure myself against this every night’. And it was like, ‘You know what, we’re going down really well considering all these bands are like half my age, some of them a third of my age.'”

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Touring as “himself” to say goodbye, if unknowingly, to the world, Bowie quietly solved the problem of how to reconcile his hits (“singalong time,” he called it) with newer, lesser-known material by just putting the songs cheek-by-jowl in a set, sequencing them so that the crowd wouldn’t get restless and he wouldn’t get bored playing too many old chestnuts. “I can’t do a full evening’s worth of those songs [like “Starman”] because I’ll go barmy. You become a karaoke machine,” he said in 2003 (“look mum, I’m a jukebox!” he snarked after singing “Starman” one night). On stage he used the image of travel to describe his sets to crowds—you’ll go down an unfamiliar road for a while, so just enjoy the sights, and soon enough “you’ll recognize a street, then a house.” (“You’ll recognize this house,” he said, introducing “Ashes to Ashes.”)

He didn’t go easy on his audiences: “Heathen (The Rays)” was occasionally a set-closer or encore piece. “Sunday,”The Motel” and “The Loneliest Guy” (the latter a bathroom break for some griping concertgoers) were regulars. Nor were the oldies only his top-charting hits. There was no “Space Oddity” or “Golden Years,” but plenty of “Fantastic Voyage” and “Be My Wife” and a somber “Loving the Alien.” Over the months, Bowie slowly reshaped his sets into being more retrospective—by spring 2004 he was playing only a handful of Reality songs while cycling in “Queen Bitch,” “Bewlay Brothers,” “Five Years,” “Quicksand,” “Panic In Detroit” and “Diamond Dogs,” mainly for encores.

Judging by the audience reaction to this tour, I think I’ve done the right thing,” he told a reporter midway through the tour, in February 2004. “I think I’ve chosen quite accurately how far I can go with quite new and obscure things, and how much I should balance that with pieces everybody knows.” That said, fan recollections of the shows recounted a fairweather portion of audiences growing impatient at times. “Give us some hits, Davy!” one man loudly yelled in Toronto between songs.

An inspiration was Bob Dylan, who in 2003 was well over a decade into his “Never Ending Tour.” Learning that Dylan made his band keep 70 songs in their repertoire, so that if the mood struck him one night he could play “Lenny Bruce,” Bowie pushed his band to learn around 60 songs and he altered set lists regularly to bring in new pieces and shuffle out old ones. At first this churn was trying for the band—Dorsey wrote in her tour journal that after one show in Paris where Bowie swapped in a bunch of under-rehearsed songs, the band “all felt as if we had fumbled through a tough football match we knew we had lost from the beginning.”** But soon they had it tacked down, capable of playing any era that Bowie threw at them.

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In the works since 2001, the tour’s impetus was in great part financial (which, of course, is the impetus behind every rock tour in history). Despite high chart placings in Britain and Europe, Bowie’s later albums had sold relatively modestly and he got scant airplay for his new singles. It didn’t help matters that the music industry was in free-fall, tottering thanks to Napster, plummeting once the iPod hit critical mass in 2004. Making a living by selling albums was for suckers, Bowie said. “I don’t see any hope for the industry at all. We’re watching it collapse—it’s definitely imploding—and it’s become a source of irrelevance.

So touring was Bowie’s main source of new revenue (at the time, all earnings from much of his back catalog were going to Prudential Insurance, holder of the Bowie Bonds). And his Area 2 festival shows of 2002 had grossed $4.7 million, with attendance down from earlier “mini tours.” Bowie’s people surveyed fans and found them unhappy with the recent shows, which had been built around festivals and sharing the stage with other headliners. There was a hunger for an undiluted Bowie, by a global market. He hadn’t been to Singapore and Hong Kong since 1983, Australia and New Zealand since 1987, Japan since 1996, South America since 1997 (and he never would make it back to South America).

Using goliath Clear Channel Entertainment, Bowie and his advisers drafted a flexible tour schedule—he’d play the arenas he knew could sell out (like Wembley) but he’d also book 2,000-seat theaters in less predictable markets. And he often underestimated demand: he booked the 4,400-seat Rosemont Theatre for his Chicago stop, but sales were enough to justify playing the Rosemont two more nights. The tour wound up grossing $46 million, even with its premature end.

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I know I’m a solo artist, but there are aspects of being a solo artist I don’t particularly enjoy, being separated from the others. I don’t like the feeling of being closeted somewhere on my own. I’ve always liked being part of a band—I did with the Spiders, I liked it with Tin Machine and that feeds back into the music. It starts to take on a coherence and a solidarity within the seven of us.

Bowie, Scotland on Sunday, June 2004 (his last newspaper interview to date).

His band was the “Hours” tour rhythm section (Dorsey and Sterling Campbell), old standby Mike Garson, guitarists Gerry Leonard (playing the “Fripp,” “Belew” and “Gabrels” roles) and Earl Slick (playing himself) and the most recent addition, from 2002: Catherine Russell, a utility player who sang, played keyboards, percussion and guitar. They were a no-nonsense crew who’d worked with Bowie, in some cases, over decades. If they lacked in improvisation, mainly keeping to established arrangements, they made up for it in power and precision, aided by a cracking sound mix in which “David’s voice sits on top, but this is not a Vegas-style show. The band is every bit as present as they need to be,” said front-of-the-house engineer Pete Keppler.

The aim was to make the band heard clearly throughout the room, even the largest stadium gigs. So Keppler and monitor engineer Michael Prowda used a JBL VerTec PA system, with 14 cabinets and subwoofers on each side of the stage and Prowda mixing each song live with a 14-track console (“Every song is a scene and I have some 50-odd scenes”). Bowie used a vocal effects system that included a Digitech Vocalist and a Moog moogerfooger to alter his voice on a whim. “David has two volume pedals onstage where he mixes his own distortion and doubling and sets his volume level. He’s hearing the balance in his head and wants it to sound similarly in the house,” Prowda said.

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Wearing jeans, a t-shirt and scarf, leather boots or Chuck Taylors and a tattered jacket to be discarded after a few songs*** (“it’s a T-shirt and jeans type show, believe me that’s what it is”), Bowie became something of a traveling politician and emcee, pulling the same jokes each night, gurning, pantomiming (doing a runway strut for “Fashion,” Pierrot-isms for “Ashes to Ashes,” drag queen moves for “China Girl”), bantering with the crowd (“how DO you get your hair that color? What product do you use?” to a fan in Copenhagen; calling one guy in Atlanta “fancy pants”), having the crowd sing verses of “All the Young Dudes” and “China Girl.” “Constantly grinning,” Billboard noted of Bowie’s performance in New York. In Berkeley he “pranced theatrically, calling himself the Artful Dodger, imitated Americans and Americans imitating the British,” a reviewer wrote. In Denver, he did a bit of his old Elephant Man performance. He usually opened shows with “[YOUR CITY HERE] you bunch of crazy motherfuckers!”

It was all his “schtick,” as he described it to journalists. “I just want to have a laugh with the audience. I don’t want it any other way,” he said. “If there’s a sense of seriousness, that comes in the songs themselves….Performing isn’t a life-threatening situation in the scheme of things.” Or as the Kinks once sang, it’s only jukebox music.

This was a return to an old form: the fey, witty folk musician of “Bowie and Hutch,” who’d made his hippie audiences crack up between numbers. Or the would-be cabaret star of 1968, the “all-round entertainer” persona that his old manager Kenneth Pitt had believed was Bowie’s best bet for stardom. Reviving this glad-handing figure for the “A Reality Tour” (the indefinite article, mind) was a theatrical bit, a way for Bowie to serve as stage manager and frontman.

But he also seemed intent on de-mystifying “Bowie” at last. I’ll do songs I like, I’ll play songs you like, let’s have fun. The only stage props were catwalks, video screens and some tree branches suspended in mid-air. Each night of the tour found a magician walking on stage in shirt sleeves, showing you how he made his assistant disappear via a set of mirrors, recalling favorite sleights of hand. And then still making you fall for the trick.

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Then his luck turned.

Early summer 2004 was dismal in northern Europe, with nearly every Bowie festival appearance that June plagued by rains and wind. At the Norwegian Wood Festival in Oslo, on 18 June, he was struck in the eye by a lollipop, causing him to understandably lose his shit for a moment. Gerry Leonard said a fan had somehow hit a bullseye (the thrower was a mortified thirtysomething who claimed she’d just been waving her hands when someone knocked into her and caused her to project the lollipop). The next festival, in Finland, passed uneventfully in rain. Then came Prague.

He opened with “Life on Mars?” for the first time on the tour, and eight songs in, while singing “Reality,” it was obvious to fans in the front rows that Bowie was in pain, struggling to finish the song. He left the stage, the band keeping going with “New Career In a New Town” and “Be My Wife” (sung by Cat Russell). “‘That’s not supposed to happen,” Leonard recalled thinking. “He was really feeling terrible. it happened right there on the stage: that’s showbiz.” Returning to apologize, Bowie blamed a trapped nerve in his shoulder. He sang “China Girl,” still in noticeable pain, and left the stage again after an aborted “Station to Station.”

It was as if the persona he’d developed for the tour, the music man who gave you a bang for the buck, wouldn’t let him end a set early. So he went back out again to finish “Station” and sing “Modern Love” and “The Man Who Sold the World” while sitting on a stool and clutching his arm. Finally he pulled the plug. Our Czech correspondent, longtime commenter Maj, was there: she told me that the crowd soon grew aware something was wrong: “There might have been a few boos because it got cut short, but I think mostly we were confused & a bit worried.”

While not confirmed, it seems apparent that Bowie had a heart attack that night, possibly while singing. It may not have been the first time, either. Gabrels told Marc Spitz, one of Bowie’s biographers, that “I knew for years that he was having some chest pains, but he swore me to secrecy, and I should have told Iman.”

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If all this turned out badly and I didn’t enjoy it, I’d just have to create a character to get out of being me again, I suppose. Now there’s a story! There’s an album there (laughs).

Bowie, Weekly Dig.

There would be one more show.

The annual Hurricane Festival is held on a motorcycle racetrack in Scheeßel, a German village southwest of Hamburg. An unassuming place to close a story that began on Bloomsday, 16 June 1962, with 15-year-old David Jones’ first-ever public gig, playing Shadows covers at the Bromley Tech PTA Fete.

Fans noticed nothing amiss during the set, with Bowie moving around on stage and playing some guitar (he did seem to have a moment of pain during “Ashes to Ashes,” clutching his arm again). As evening drew in, it got colder, the North Sea winds coming across the Lower Saxony plains, and Bowie donned a simple grey sweatshirt. It’s poignant: Bowie finally reduced to the human, looking like a handsome, tired dad at a football game. Or a fishing boat captain weathering a storm (via Chris Barrus).

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“Heroes” (Hurricane Festival).

He closed the set with “Heroes.” Leonard starts with an ascending, choppy figure on guitar, jabbing against a backdrop of Sterling Campbell’s snare and cymbals. Bowie holds back, knotting his fingers below his chin, as if he’s outside looking in, even slightly bemused by his old dramatics (he does a little dolphin dance). Dorsey’s pensive, working down the song. Slick comes in, cool and indifferent, chewing gum. At last, the wailing Fripp riff (courtesy of Leonard’s E-bow) appears and Bowie starts drawing power from somewhere in him, diving into the song, resurfacing, torching through its last verses. And the SHAME spread on the OTHER SIDE!, gesturing off towards a lost Berlin to the east. And NOTHING and NO ONE will HELP us! while Campbell plays hard enough to power a city.

Do they, does he, know it’s the end? But it is the end. An end, at least. The moment has chosen itself. This is the wake for David Bowie. We’ll never see his like again. Nor will he.

UK: The Nokia Isle of Wight Festival 2004 - Day Three

He encored with “Life On Mars?” (opening with it was bad mojo), “Suffragette City” and he closed the show, as he had for almost every other show on the tour, with “Ziggy Stardust.” The next day, at St. Georg Hospital in Hamburg, a surgeon performed an angioplasty to treat a blocked artery in Bowie’s heart, inserting a stent to open up a blood vessel narrowed by plaque.

Bowie was in hospital for over a week. One by one, his appearances at the remaining June festivals and the eleven July festival dates were cancelled. Scotland’s T in the Park, where Bowie had hoped to meet one of his new favorite bands, Franz Ferdinand. The Xacobeo Festival in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where he would have shared a bill with Iggy Pop again.

He gave a public statement, said he was irked that the tour had to end this way but that he was feeling better and hoped to “get back to work” within a month. It would be a touch longer than that.

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Following a rehearsal gig in August and a “satellite link-up” spectacle filmed at Riverside Studios in September, the tour ran from 7 October 2003 (Copenhagen) to 25 June 2004 (Hurricane). The 22-23 November 2003 shows at The Point in Dublin were filmed, with an edited selection of performances released as the A Reality Tour DVD on 19 October 2004 (a slightly-expanded version was released on CD in 2010).

Of immense help to this entry was the site Bowie Wonderworld, which provided a day-by-day account of the tour while it happened, compiling set lists and fan testimonies.

* No clips on YT, but Bowie also sang bits of songs like “Puppet On a String,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Here Comes the Sun” at other dates.

** Though he sound-checked and rehearsed “Win,” Bowie never played it, only humming it once at his penultimate US show on 4 June 2004.

*** In Adelaide on 23 February 2004, Bowie showed up in a grey zoot suit, sporting a trilby, braces and two fob chains, claiming he’d “found this pair of gardening trousers.” He was back to his usual “casual” costume by the following show, later saying he’d switched into gouster duds out of boredom.

Photos: a curtain call (unsure from which show); Melbourne, 26 February 2004 (Trevor Wilson); Pittsburgh, 17 May 2004 (Keith Sparbanie); Bowie and Debbie Harry backstage in Manchester, 17 November 2003 (Ian Hodgson); Houston, 24 April 2004 (Mark Jeremy); Kansas City, 10 May 2004 (Deryck Higgins); Indianapolis, 20 May 2004; Isle of Wight Festival, 13 June 2004 (Anthony Abbott); Hurricane Festival; Bowie at the Rainbow Theatre, London, 1972.


Battle for Britain (the Letter)

July 24, 2013

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Battle for Britain (the Letter).
Battle for Britain (50th Birthday Concert, 1997).
Battle for Britain (live, 1997).
Battle for Britain (GQ Awards, 1997).
Battle for Britain (live, 2004).

Many music celebrities simply chose to leave Britain, and it wasn’t all about tax; American was the main global market for music and, after all, the country where rock ‘n’ roll began. I had considered moving to America myself, but I didn’t want to leave home. Everything I am and have done for myself, all my artistic work, was rooted in the British way of life, the two world wars and the hidden damage they had done to four generations. I knew I’d never leave Britain. My roots were too deep.

Pete Townshend, Who I Am, 2012.

Taking an ocean liner to America in the spring of 1974, leaving as a soiled goodbye note Diamond Dogs, Bowie never came back to Britain. Sure, he’d get the occasional flat or lodge in a London hotel for some project or other, but he rarely recorded in Britain again* and when his tours played the UK, they were revivals, a traveler stopping by a town he’d grown up in, showing relations (estranged or worshipful) what he’d found out in the world, eager to get moving again.

If Townshend felt he needed Britain, that his work would wither if he was away from it, Bowie had been itching to leave by the mid-Seventies. It was as if he’d spent himself out of his home. Out he went: Los Angeles, Berlin, Java. He had a pleasure dome in Mustique. Most of all, he spent a long, comfortable isolation in Switzerland. Once he’d been among the most deliberately “British” of British pop singers, taking cues from Anthony Newley and Ivor Cutler and Peter Cook. His records up to Diamond Dogs are a world in which the United States is only a rumor, a radio broadcast or an LP test pressing. His records after it are a British exile’s.

He never downplayed his heritage in his music: take the Mockney accent that would turn up seemingly on every record, like a photo watermark. Even while filming in Australia or Polynesia he came across more as a genteel Englishman in the tropics than any stateless world traveler. Yet statelessness, the sense of being an artistic embodiment of global capital, was his apparent aim in the Eighties: if not wished for, achieved anyhow.

Then he had a homeward arc in the Nineties, starting with an impromptu bus tour of Brixton one night in 1991 with Tin Machine and ending with him sporting a fashionably-shredded Union Jack frock coat on the cover of Earthling (echoing Townshend, predicting Geri Halliwell), where he stood, back to camera and hands clasped, like an alien surveyor assessing the fields of Kent. The center of it was Buddha of Suburbia, a project that had sent him back to his past, making him become, for a moment, the aging Beckenham hippie he could have been. He seemed in love with his home country again. At least he told reporters this.

There’s so much energy there. It’s as if we’ve finally understood that we don’t have the rest of the Commonwealth, or the world, to support and comfort us, that we have to do things on our own now to prove who we are,” he said to Andy Gill. Britain has “the greatest architects in the world…In the fashion world, we’re taking over; in the art scene, there’s nobody to touch us and the best music is coming out of Britain now. In every aspect of world culture we are leaders. Quite rightly! The whole thing will all fall down in a year or two when we realize that, once again, we have no idea how to market it, and all our original ideas will run off to Italy and America, and we’ll get all whiney about it.”

This effusion reads like ad copy for “Cool Britannia”: Swinging London redux, with Britpop and Damien Hirst, culminating in an election in which Tony Blair played a slimmed-down (in various senses) Harold Wilson. It’s not surprising that Bowie wanted to align himself with what he considered a renaissance in the UK. Being a tax exile in Switzerland was a bit played out by 1996.

But despite Bowie’s belief that British pop music was on an upswing, his connection to it seemed more tenuous than ever. He talked up Tricky, A Guy Called Gerald, Prodigy, but his own works seemed tributes to their sound at best, never rivals or viable contemporaries. And Cool Britannia was a world of A-list Sixties revivals: Beatles, Stones, Kinks, not oddballs like Bowie who’d come along in their wake. By 1996, the young musicians who’d been most inspired by him (Suede and the Auteurs come to mind) were being obscured in the music press by the likes of the Gallagher brothers, who seemed to hail from a Britain in which David Bowie had barely existed. Bowie’s 50th birthday was even an occasion for fresh scorn.

[“Battle for Britain”] is another cut-up, but it probably comes from a sense of  “Am I or am I not British?’, an inner war that wages in most expatriates. I’ve not lived in Britain since 1974, but I love the place, and I keep going back.

Bowie, 1997.

“Battle for Britain” is a letter from a man in exile, intended for no one in particular, as though its author had dropped it, addressed to ENGLAND, in an airport mailbox somewhere. My my, the time do fly, he begins, when it’s in another pair of hands. (In the second verse, he puns on “fly,” tweaking the last phrase to “pair of pants“; Gail Ann Dorsey responds with a slow, descending bassline as if she’s elegantly backing away from him.) He’s back home again, scuffing around the old neighborhood. He pops pills to manage his imaginary ailments, he’s broke and shabby. He doesn’t regret leaving. Better a beggarman on the shelf than be in a two-up, two-down here, he sniffs.

He recalls an old song from when he was young here. First heard it on the Carousel record every mother in his street seemed to have, then sung by Gerry Marsden (and a Bromley kid onstage at the Marquee Club). When you walk through a storm…don’t be afraid of the dark… Now with a sneering guitar goading him, he curdles the memory. Don’t be so forlorn..it’s just the payoffit’s the RAIN before the STORM! In “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” Marsden promised a golden sky after the rain; the expat here just promises more rain. It is England, after all.

Yet just when the song is teetering into spite, the last bars of the pre-chorus shift to a bright A major, pivoting to a refrain where the old man makes amends. Don’t you let my letter get you down, he sings, sounding remorseful over a resounding C major progression that’s guided by steady waves of Reeves Gabrels’ guitar. No one cares that he’s back; no one seems to remember he was gone. By the second verse, he’s boring himself, cutting off a line with a weary la-di-dah.

In all its seeming unfairness, what Britain is very good at is keeping people re-evaluating their own standards in a hostile and quite cruel fashion.

Bowie, 1997.

Like “Looking For Satellites,” “Britain” began as one of producer Mark Plati’s experiments. Here Plati was trying to create “a jazz-tinged jungle track,” as he told David Buckley, which eventually entailed Zach Alford playing “live” in half time against programmed double-time jungle figures. It’s Alford’s best performance on the record: take how he pushes his way into the track with a staggered artillery barrage, starting out with hissing ride cymbals, thundering a few tom fills, and finally settling on the snare pattern that becomes the track’s jumpy heartbeat.

Bowie heard a rough version of the rhythm track and soon scrapped Plati’s original chord sequence in favor of a constellation of B major (verses), G major (pre-chorus) and C major (refrain) progressions.** Plati was elated: “I felt this could be our first real ‘Bowie’ song,” he said, a sign that the sessions were creating an album rather than being a few odd jungle experiments. Bowie improvised a lyric from his Verbasizer, cut his vocal with the usual dispatch. For a finishing touch, Plati added a “Benefit of Mr. Kite”-inspired carousel of sound culled from his collection of studio scraps, capped off by a skipping Bowie vocal (at 3:33) seemingly intended to make a listener wonder if the CD’s scratched.

For the solo, Bowie gave a typically impossible brief to Mike Garson: play a piano solo like Stravinsky’s wind octet (unfamiliar with the piece, Garson had to walk up Broadway to Tower Records to buy the CD). Garson complied: thin-sounding atonal chords with a brass feel, spiky runs across the treble end of the keyboard, spidery traces of melody. The fresh element here is Alford, who starts challenging Garson halfway through, somehow slipping in snare fills between Garson’s notes, unsettling Garson’s runs with a rolling tom fill and finally bludgeoning the solo to a close.

“Battle for Britain” is a tight, sparkling group performance of a solitary exile’s song; it’s the community the singer has to replace what he’s long abandoned. Bowie’s return to Britain didn’t take. It was like an attempted reconciliation of a long-dead marriage: some lofty sentiments, some earnest attempts to reconnect. But too much time had flown by, in other pairs of hands (or pants). Instead, he chose the city where he recorded his last letter home. By the start of the century, Bowie was a New Yorker and has lived there, for the most part, ever since.

Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Debuted at the 50th birthday concert in Madison Square Garden, January 1997, and played in the Earthling and Reality tours.

* The only instances that come to mind are his remakes of “Space Oddity” and “Panic in Detroit” at Tony Visconti’s Good Earth Studios in London, summer/fall 1979, and the “Absolute Beginners”-era soundtrack material in the mid-Eighties, at Abbey Road.

** Most of the sequences use a flatted VII chord for a feint before moving back to the tonic—take the verse, which is I-V-VIIb (“(B) and a loser I will be, for I’ve (F#) never been a winner in my (A) life…”) or the I-V-VIIb-IV chorus ((C)”don’t you let my letter get you (G) down (Bb) (F) don’t you…”)

Top: “wcher,” “London, 1996.”


Black Tie White Noise

October 17, 2012

Black Tie White Noise.
Black Tie White Noise (video).
Black Tie White Noise (Arsenio Hall Show, 1993).
Black Tie White Noise (The Tonight Show, 1993).
Black Tie White Noise (3rd Floor US radio mix).
Black Tie White Noise (club mix).
Black Tie White Noise (Here Come Da Jazz mix).
Black Tie White Noise (extended remix).

A week after they were (first) married, Bowie and Iman flew to Los Angeles for some apartment shopping. Their first night in LA, 29 April 1992, was to be marked by a celebratory dinner. Instead, dinner was cancelled and the couple stayed in their hotel, watching from their windows as the city burned. “The whole thing felt like nothing less than a prison break,” Bowie said the following year to Rolling Stone. “By people who have been caged up for too long with no reason.”

The very JG Ballard image of a rich man standing in his hotel suite, watching a riot unfold in the city below and feeling vaguely euphoric about it, would seem ripe inspiration for someone who’d once written “Panic In Detroit.” Instead, Bowie’s L.A. riots song was “Black Tie White Noise,” a track teetering between dark sarcasm and watery humanism. Though saved from complete disaster by its lyric’s occasional self-awareness and harshness, “Black Tie” drowned this acerbity in a glossy jumble of “contemporary” R&B sounds, the backdrop to Bowie’s duet with a mediocrity, Al B. Sure!.

“Black Tie” started as Bowie’s attack on the pop tradition of interracial-brotherhood songs, from “Black and White” to “Ebony and Ivory” to the song it seemed to be directly answering, Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” “Black Tie,” while inspired by a racial crisis, denies any wisdom, its most coherent point being that songs of its ilk (Bowie mentions by name “We Are the World,” “We Shall Overcome” and”What’s Going On” (and he weirdly drags “I Got You Babe” into these ranks)) have nothing to say about such crises, that they’re instead cheap slogans meant to make “white liberals” feel better, as Bowie told the NME in 1993. “[Black people] have their own ideas of how they can improve their lot, and they couldn’t give a fuck what we think. They don’t want our advice.” (This seems like Bowie had just seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which had opened in late 1992.) In another 1993 interview, Bowie was scathing about how such songs strive to find “white sameness within everybody” as a means of racial reconciliation.

This emphasis on chastising messengers suggests that Bowie, having long lost any contact with the street, especially the American street, could only approach life via songs. But he was aware of where he stood. In 1993, Arsenio Hall asked Bowie if he and Iman, as an interracial couple, had ever experienced any hostility. Bowie was blunt: never, because the two of them had been established as celebrities well before they’d married. They already had public personae, so their wedding was more akin to the merger of Warner and Time Inc. than it was the potentially “troublesome” union of an African woman and a white British man. To consider their marriage as a typical interracial one would be, as in Bowie’s opening line, “getting [your] facts from a Benetton ad.”

That said, Bowie was playing with his marriage as a symbol. The song’s title is a vague reference to their wedding gear, as well as a comment on their personae (Iman: elegance, Bowie: abrasive music). As he was envisioning having children with his new wife (and he would), it’s fair to say he was considering the future that his bi-racial child would inherit. He finally had some stake in the game, and he was optimistic in an apocalyptic way, believing that a series of further L.A.-style riots were needed before anything changed. “There’s going to be an awful lot of antagonism before there’s any real move forward,” he told Record Collector. Or as he had Al B. Sure! sing: “there’ll be some blood, no doubt about it.”

However, these were all just public statements. “Black Tie” as a finished song, as a title track, discarded the troubling and contrary notions that Bowie was voicing to the press in favor of an awkward and at times tasteless production, one apparently meant to bury the song’s fatalism in a vein of pop R&B so lifeless that it could have won a Grammy.

“Black Tie” as a composition was already an ungainly bird, alternating between pairs of verses set in a vague E-flat major and a longer pair of bridges (interrupted by an 8-bar break over the verse chords) that establish the song in A-flat (with Eb revealed as the dominant chord). (The only curveball is an out-of-key F-sharp minor seventh chord that transitions verses to bridges and vice versa). Over this Nile Rodgers slathered a paste of sounds: a jawboning wah-wah guitar, Lester Bowie’s ebullient trumpet fills, over-mixed drums, a quavering piano ostinato, washes of synthesizer and Tonight-style supper-club backing vocals (their staccato “black! tie! white! noise!” is the closest “Black Tie” comes to a hook, and it’s preferable to Bowie’s descending croak of “no-oi-oi-se” or his would-be-reggae chant of “cranking out” in the coda).

Then there was Al B. Sure!,* to whom Bowie generously gave the opening verse and who got many of the song’s allegedly dramatic moments (and who handled the lion’s share of the high notes, like the peak A-flat on “Lord Lord” in the bridge). Sure!’s performance is ultimately a blank, with little sense of personality imparted. As Bowie said he spent ages coaching Sure! as to how he wanted the vocals to sound, it’s possible that Bowie just shoehorned him in too tightly. It didn’t help that Sure! was given lines like “I’ve got a face, not just my race.

The latter line is in the bridges, which were apparently meant to be the emotional peaks of the song, with the two singers facing off on a street as though it’s the last minutes of Reservoir Dogs. But whatever nuance and fatalism Bowie tried to impart in his lyric is rubbished by the vocals, which border on the comical (“you won’t kill me! you won’t kill me NO!” or Bowie’s singsong “I won-der WHY, I wond-er WHY“) and was finished off by Rodgers’ production, with its swooning high synth lines and occasional murmurs of Bowie’s saxophone.

The break (starting at 2:29) has the best singing on the track, in service of the song’s apparently straight-faced “We Are the World” moment, the cynicism giving way to a heartfelt plea for togetherness. Bowie said that he didn’t want to make another “Ebony and Ivory,” that his song was meant to be a bitter riposte to such treacle, but maybe that’s all he really had in him.

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or Power Station, NYC. Released as the second single from the record it titled, (Arista/BMG 74321 (#36 UK)). Some 15-plus remixes were made of this song! Please see the Illustrated DB site’s entry for a complete breakdown. Of the mixes linked above, the “3rd Floor” mix was first issued on a promo CD for US radio and later was included on the BTWN reissue; the “club mix,” the Extended Remix and the Here Come da Jazz mixes (the latter uses Bowie’s “crankin-out” coda chant as its central hook) were on the UK 12″ promo (BLACK 1), with the latter included on the BTWN reissue.

* Sure!, a man with one of the more ridiculous stage names in pop history, was an occasional chart presence at the turn of the Nineties, with one top 10 hit (“Nite and Day”) and a few R&B #1s (“Off on Your Own,” “Right Now”). By the time “Black Tie” was released in late ’93, he was cooked: he didn’t release another LP or single until 2009.

Top: Dark Sevier, “Los Angeles,” April 1992.


End of Chapter Three (1971-1973)

July 6, 2010

In the last months of 1970 David Bowie sat alone at his piano in Haddon Hall in Bromley, day after day, writing songs. No one knew him when he went out into the street. He was composing more for others than for himself. The songs piled up around him, fictions for an inhospitable world.

By July 1973 Bowie had become a name and a face: he was as striking and as recognizable as a cereal box logo. He had sold-out shows, had five LPs in the UK Top 40 (including #1, Aladdin Sane), and even a reissued “The Laughing Gnome” would hit the Top 10.

And it was ending just (seemingly) as it was starting. The band he had casually assembled in 1970 was breaking apart. Woody Woodmansey (radicalized by his conversion to Scientology, and asking for more money) was gone, Trevor Bolder would soon follow him. Even Mick Ronson was wondering where he stood.

So five days after he announced his retirement on stage at the Hammersmith, Bowie left for France, for the Château d’Hérouville in Val-d’Oise. He was going to make a covers record.

My Top Ten of the period. A tough call:

Queen Bitch.
Life On Mars?
Suffragette City.
The Bewlay Brothers.
All the Young Dudes.

The Jean Genie.
John, I’m Only Dancing.

Sweet Head.
Panic In Detroit.
Oh! You Pretty Things.

Top: Ilsa (l) narrowly won the contest, having used the most square yardage of polyester curtain fabric to make her leisure suit. Heike (2nd from r) smiled but was consumed with silent hatred. She had thought her maxi-dress was a sure winner, and later that day she set fire to it in a trash barrel (Bundesarchiv: “Leipzig, Messe, neue Mode,” September 1972).