Rubber Band

August 25, 2009


Rubber Band (single).
Rubber Band (album remake, promo film).

Bowie’s first left turn. Suddenly gone are the soul inflections and the fuzzy guitars. Sam Cooke is deposed by Anthony Newley. The setting moves from the basement club to the provincial theater, and instead of youth and longing we get…withered memories of the Great War?

“Rubber Band” is Bowie’s first recording for Deram, a newly-founded subsidiary of Decca Records that was charged with making “artier,” for lack of a better word, pop. “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed and Bowie’s first LP are emblematic of the Deram style—“high concept” songs and LPs; dynamic sound engineering (or at least attempts at it); chamber arrangements, even full orchestras, instead of guitar-bass-drums; theatrics over blues roots.

By autumn 1966, Bowie was being managed by Ken Pitt, a cultured upper-class show business veteran who had a taste for the avant garde (though he later claimed he hated cabaret, he’s often taken the blame for Bowie’s taste for mime and cabaret in the late ’60s). Pitt served as a Henry Higgins figure for Bowie, taking him to West End gallery openings, first exposing him to Andy Warhol, the Velvets and Bob Dylan, housing Bowie in his Marylebone flat.

“Rubber Band,” which helped Bowie land his Deram contract when he recorded it for the label in a tryout session, is the first sign of his sudden shift in aesthetics. It opens in the orchestral pit, with a four-bar intro led by trumpet, oboe and tuba. The song’s quintet of verses trot along at a parade-march pace; the chorus is brief, simple and mainly serves as a breather between verses. There are attempts at musical color: after the third verse, a trumpet soars over groaning tuba (elation!), while after the final verse the tuba gets the last word (deflation!), slowing to a stop after the singer bewails his lost love.

It’s also an early sign of Bowie’s ability to be attuned, almost immediately, to changes in pop. The rise of British psychedelia brought with it a reclamation of childhood, young people dressing in their grandparents’ clothes, all neo-Edwardian brass bands and ’20s crooner pastiches. Around the same time Bowie cut “Rubber Band,’ the New Vaudeville Band released their #1 hit “Winchester Cathedral,” the Beatles were starting what would be the Sgt. Pepper sessions (“When I’m 64” being one of the first songs recorded) and even the Stones in Los Angeles were cutting lysergic vaudeville numbers like “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” and the kazoo-happy “Cool, Calm, Collected.”

All that said, “Rubber Band”‘s is a muddle at best and mostly an annoyance—is there anything sadder than a failed novelty song? Bowie’s set up a tidy song structure, a miniature garden with each verse of equal length and the horn solos neatly spaced apart. But there’s a disconnect between the song’s apparent intention to be a bit of camp nonsense and Bowie’s vocal, which slowly builds to the histrionic; he’s rarely in on the joke, and when he is, he just seems smug. As the PR release for the single put it, “it’s pathos set to tubas.”

The initial version of “Rubber Band,” released as a single, is better than the remake on the first Bowie LP—it’s at a faster tempo, Bowie sings more in his lower register, while the LP is almost all upper-octaves and thus far more irritating, and I’ll take the strange disconnected bit of a woman wailing during the single fadeout over Bowie sniffing “I hope you break your baton!” at the end of the LP cut.

Recorded 18 October 1966 and released in December as Deram DM 107 (the remake was cut on 25 February 1967); on the Deram Anthology.


April’s Tooth of Gold

May 20, 2016


April’s Tooth of Gold (demo, unreleased).

Long known only as a song title, “April’s Tooth of Gold” was finally bootlegged in 2010, revealing itself as a piece of mild psychedelia melodically similar to “Silver Tree Top School for Boys.”

Ray Davies was central to the development of Bowie’s songwriting and “April’s Tooth of Gold” discloses the debt as openly as Bowie ever allowed. Driven by a harshly-strummed acoustic guitar reminiscent of the Kinks’ “Autumn Almanac,*” Bowie’s song concerned strange young people with blue hair and gold teeth, and the older generation bewildered by them—it was a first draft of “Oh! You Pretty Things,” with the old-timey affectations of “Rubber Band” not quite discarded yet. A minor but appealing piece that could’ve won a place on the never-recorded second Bowie Deram album.

* If it was inspired by “Almanac,” it would push the date of composition for “April’s Tooth” to post-October 1967, when the Kinks track was issued. There’s also a bit of The Lovin’ Spoonful in it.

Top: “Arbyreed,” “Hippies near Trafalgar Square, ca. 1968.”

Various business: I did a recent podcast for Zachary Stockill’s Travels in Music. You can hear me utterly blank on naming Eno’s Oblique Strategies (hey, it was early in the day).

Links: Chapters 1-3

March 24, 2015

Chapter 1: The Junior Visualizer (1964-1966)

bowie '65

“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”
“Baby Loves That Way”
“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”
“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)


“Rubber Band” (album remake)
“The London Boys”
“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”
“Come and Buy My Toys”
“Please Mr. Gravedigger”
The Laughing Gnome
The Gospel According To Tony Day
When I Live My Dream
Love You Till Tuesday
(single remake)


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


“Space Oddity” (demo) (original version) (1979 remake)
“Love Song”
“Life Is a Circus”
“Letter to Hermione”
“An Occasional Dream”
“Conversation Piece”
“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.

A Press Bibliography, 1960-1970

March 23, 2015

David Bowie, 1965 image

There was no room in the book for this (bibliography was already rather enormous) but I thought it necessary to credit these pieces somewhere.

So here’s the front line of Bowie reporting. So many impressions, quotes, descriptions, etc. that make up much of any Bowie biography or critical study are owed to the work of ill-paid music journalists, who went to the shows and backstage, who talked to Bowie, his managers and his labels. Collectively these articles offer an invaluable resource: the eyes, ears and thoughts of Bowie’s contemporaries, untainted by revision. And it’s important to note that many of these writers were women—Penny Valentine, Lisa Robinson, Sheila More, Mary Harron, Ellen Willis, Kate Simpson, Lillian Roxon and more.

Below is a list of articles I found in my research (1971-1976 are on another page). I read the majority of them, but some I know only via references in other books and compilations. Kevin Cann’s essential Any Day Now is an enormous reference for documenting and sometimes reprinting 1960-1974 articles. Bowie Wonderworld has a decent number reprinted, as do (starting in 1972) Ziggy Stardust Companion and (starting in 1974) Golden Years.

If you know of any other contemporary Bowie articles not found in these lists, let me know and I’ll add them.



“David (13) Leads Sport Revolution,” Bromley & Kentish Times, 11 November 1960.


“Nearly 4,000 at School Fete,” Bromley & Kentish Times, 22 June 1962.


“Konrads to Cut a Disc,” Bromley & Kentish Times, 23 August 1963.
“A.C.B.,” “West Wickham Strikes Blow for the ‘Pops,” unknown paper, ca. 25 October 1963.


“Bloom Goes Into Pop,” Evening News, 4 June 1964.
“Liza Jane (review),” Bromley Times, 5 June 1964.
“Liza Jane (review), New Musical Express, 5 June 1964.
Thomas, Leslie, Evening News (column on DB and the King Bees), 5 June 1964.
Nightingale, Anne, “Liza Jane” (review), Evening Argus, 17 June 1964.
“D. Jones and Co,” Record Mirror, 20 June 1964.
Chatham Standard (article on Bowie joining Manish Boys), 18 August 1964.
Beat 64 (diary item on Bowie), September 1964.
“Hair Abounds!,” Beat 64, October 1964.
Beat 64, (article on Bowie and Manish Boys), November 1964.
Thomas, Leslie, “For Those Beyond the Fringe,” Evening News, 2 November 1964.
Chatham Standard (interview with Manish Boys’ Paul Rodriguez), 15 December 1964.



“Row Over Davie’s Hair,” Daily Mirror, 3 March 1965.
“All Set! As Davy Jones Has a Trim and a Set,” Evening News and Star, 8 March 1965.
“Gadzooks! It’s All Happening,” Radio Times, 8 March 1965.
“Home Grown (“I Pity the Fool” review),” Chatham Standard, March 1965.
Kent Messenger (article on breakup of Manish Boys), 21 May 1965.
“Bit Much,” Bowie letter to Melody Maker, 10 July 1965.
“Davie…,” photo caption (p: Roy Carson), Record Mirror, 14 August 1965.
“Davie Changes His Hairstyle and His Group,” Kentish Times, 20 August 1965.
“Thanet Group Should Reach Top 30,” Kent Messenger, ca. 20 August 1965.
“’You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving’ (review),” Record Mirror, 11 September 1965.
Fabulous (fashion photo shoot & caption), 2 October 1965.
Boyfriend, (fashion photo shoot), October 1965.



“Can’t Help Thinking About Me (review),” Record Retailer, 6 January 1966.
“Can’t Help Thinking About Me (review), NME, 14 January 1966.
“Pop Star Changes His Image,” Kentish Times, 14 January 1966.
“Hey Presto—There’s a New Name From Davie Jones’ Locker,” Music Echo, 22 January 1966.
Kentish Times (article on Bowie and Ralph Norton), 28 January 1966.
King, Jonathan, “Bowie’s Record Does Not Deserve to Die,” Music Echo, 13 February 1966.
“A Message to London from Dave,” Melody Maker, 26 February 1966.
“Pop Group’s Hopes Dashed,” (Phil Lancaster interview on Lower Third’s breakup), Walthamstow Independent, 11 March 1966.
Springfield, Dusty, “’Do Anything You Say’ (review),” Melody Maker, 2 April 1966.
Fabulous (Bowie mention), 16 April 1966.
“Crowning Moment” (article on Bowie at the Bromley May Queens), 6 May 1966.
“Big L Disc Night,” Kent Messenger, 26 August 1966.
“’Rubber Band’ (review),” Disc & Music Echo, 2 December 1966.
“Are These the ’67 Chartbusters?” Disc & Music Echo, 31 December 1966.



“’The Laughing Gnome’ (review),” NME, 15 April 1967.
David Bowie (LP review),” Record Retailer, 3 June 1967.
“Hear David Bowie—He’s Something New,” Disc & Music Echo, 10 June 1967.
David Bowie (LP review),” NME, 24 June 1967.
Jackie, 8 July 1967.
“Love You Till Tuesday (review),” Record Retailer, 15 July 1967.
Jones, Peter, “Love You Till Tuesday (review),” Record Mirror, July 1967.
Valentine, Penny, “Love You Till Tuesday (review),” Disc, July 1967.
Welch, Chris, “Blind Date With Syd Barrett (inc. ‘Love You Till Tuesday’ review),” Melody Maker, 22 July 1967.
Jackie (item on DB), 22 July 1967.
Osbourne, Christine, “On Our Wavelength,” Fabulous 208, 29 July 1967.
“Love You Till Tuesday (review),” Cashbox, 2 September 1967.
Deane, Barbara Marilyn, “Today I Feel So Happy,” Chelsea News (Bowie interview), 15 September 1967.


“Bowie Bows to Age,” Fabulous 208, 30 September 1967.
Hyland, Mike, “In the Groove,” Schenectady Gazette, 21 October 1967.
“The Lean and Dreamy David,” Fabulous 208, 25 November 1967.
“On the Air and On the Boards,” Bromley Advertiser, 21 December 1967.
Bromley Times (article on DB current activities), 22 December 1967.
Chapman, Don, “Miming Promise (review of ‘Pierrot in Turquoise’),” Oxford Mail, 29 December 1967.
Young, B.A., Financial Times (review of ‘Pierrot in Turquoise’), 29 December 1967.



“Pierrot in Turquoise (review),” The Stage, 1 January 1968.
“Eye Spy!,” Jackie, 3 February 1968.
Roberts, Peter, “Burlesque in Rhyme,” The Times, 8 March 1968.
Farjeon, Annabel, Evening Standard (‘Pierrot in Turquoise’ review), 8 March 1968.
“Bromley 21-Year-old Songwriter Goes On Stage,” Bromley Times, 8 March 1968.
“Pierrot in Turquoise (review)”, Stage and Television Today, 14 March 1968.
“Rex Set: Festival Hall, June 3,” International Times (review of T. Rex/DB show), 14-27 June 1968.
More, Sheila, “The Restless Generation: 2,” The Times, 11 December 1968.



Evening News (article/photo on Love You Till Tuesday), 14 February 1969.
Croydon Advertiser (poss. DB article? unconfirmed), 21 February 1969.
Finnigan, Mary, “Announcement of Beckenham Arts Lab,” International Times, 23 May-5 June 1969.
Valentine, Penny, “David Bowie—Amazing Sound! (“Space Oddity” review),” Disc & Music Echo, 12 July 1969.
Welch, Chris, “Space Oddity (review),” Melody Maker, 12 July 1969.
Finnigan, Mary, “An Interview With David Bowie,” International Times, 15-21 August 1969.
Classen, Jojanneke, “Bowie’s Great Love is His Arts Lab,” Het Parool, 30 August 1969.
Welch, Chris, “Beckenham Arts Lab,” Melody Maker, ca. September 1969.
Welch, Chris, “A Mixture of Dali, 2001 and the Bee Gees,” Melody Maker, 11 October 1969.
Record Mirror (Bowie interview), 11 October 1969.
“Chart Control to David Bowie,” Disc & Music Echo, 11 October 1969.
Norman, Tony, “David Bowie Hopes to Take Over a Road!,” Top Pops, 25 October 1969.
Valentine, Penny, “David Bowie Says Most Things the Long Way Round!” (& “David Bowie: track by track”), Disc & Music Echo, 25 October 1969.
“This Is David Bowie (Space Oddity review)”, Music Now!, November 1969.
“Bowie TV Special, Solo Concert,” NME, ca. November 1969.
Coxhill, Gordon, “Don’t Dig Too Deep, Pleads Oddity David Bowie,” NME, 15 November 1969.


“Popsterren Over Popplaten [Pop Stars on Pop Records]” (Bowie reviews new singles), “David Bowie: Hit After 5 Years,” Muziek Expres, November 1969.
“Outsaspace, Outasight,” Fabulous 208, 27 November 1969.
Palmer, Tony, “Up to Date Minstrel,” The Observer, 7 December 1969.
Simpson, Kate, “David Bowie: His Thoughts and Ideas Revealed,” Music Now!, 20 December 1969.
“New Sound” (photo caption, DB and Stylophone), Billboard, 27 December 1969.
Fabulous 208, 27 December 1969 (Bowie and Angela Barnett on cover).



Robbie, Sandie, “A Real Pop Oddity,” Mirabelle (DB as cover model), 31 January 1970.
Valentine, Penny, “A New Star Shoots Upwards and One Still Shines,” Disc, 14 February 1970.
Nightingale, Anne, Daily Sketch (column mentioning Bowie), 14 February 1970.
“He Likes Our Fish ‘N Chips!” Hull Times, ca. mid-February 1970.
“Bowie Group,” NME, 5 March 1970.
Johnson, Derek, “The Prettiest Star (review), NME, 7 March 1970.
Jones, Peter, “The Prettiest Star (review),” Record Mirror, 7 March 1970.
Valentine, Penny, “The Prettiest Star (review),” Disc & Music Echo, 7 March 1970.
Music Business Weekly, (Prettiest Star review), 7 March 1970.
Daily Mirror, (Prettiest Star review), 7 March 1970.
“David Bowie: A Real Cool Guy,” Mirabelle, 7 March 1970.
Petrie, Gavin, “Bowie’s Bow,” Disc and Music Echo, 12 March 1970.
“The Bridegroom Wore Satin…” (DB wedding), Bromley Times, 27 March 1970.
Telford, Raymond, “Hype and David Bowie’s Future,” Melody Maker, 28 March 1970.
Hughes, Tim and Trevor Richardson, “Bowie For a Song,” Jeremy, March 1970.
Tremlett, George, “Face to Face With David Bowie—My Lost Year,” Jackie, 10 May 1970.
Valentine, Penny, “David Bowie: Music and Life,” Sounds, ? 1970.

Please Mr. Gravedigger

September 23, 2009


Please Mr. Gravedigger.

What I remember is Bowie standing there wearing a pair of cans with his collar turned up as if he was in the rain, hunched over, shuffling about in a box of gravel. And you thought Brian Wilson had lost it!

Gus Dudgeon, on the recording of “Please Mr. Gravedigger.”

“Please Mr. Gravedigger,” the last song on the David Bowie LP and the last recorded in the main sessions, is a graveyard soliloquy by a child murderer, accompanied by a series of sound effects—thunderclaps, raindrops, tolling bells, shovel scrapes, footsteps, cawks.

And sneezes. Bowie gets pretty Method with his character here, so that once he sneezes he has to sing the rest of the track in a snotted-up voice. After another juicy sneeze, Bowie sounds as though he’s shoved cotton into his nostrils.

Like “We Are Hungry Men,” “Please Mr. Gravedigger” is something of a radio play, complete with bizarre voices and sound effects. For the latter, Bowie was able to plunder Decca’s fantastic library of noises (much like the Beatles did with EMI’s vaults): the harvest of decades of radio productions, novelty LPs and horror/SF movie soundtracks.

The tone is the puzzle here—how seriously are we meant to take this thing? It’s overly gruesome and darkly comic, with its stuffy-nosed murderer (its title, and the skeleton of a tune that Bowie offers, seem to be playing off the UK pop oldie “Oh Mr. Porter“), but there’s also a horrible desolation to it, its lyric filled with images like a once-serene graveyard left shattered by a bomb—crooked death layered upon death—and a gravedigger with a strand of a dead girl’s hair in his coat pocket.

The storyline’s out of an EC horror comic like The Haunt of Fear: a man who has murdered a 10-year girl stands in a bomb-blasted Lambeth cemetery, watching an old man dig graves; the killer decides that he’ll need to murder the gravedigger (either for discovering his crime, or for taking a locket of his victim’s hair); as the track ends, he’s begun digging the gravedigger’s own grave.

It’s as if the characters and sounds of the rest of the LP—the children in “There Is a Happy Land” and “Come and Buy My Toys,” the eccentric loners in “Little Bombardier” and “Uncle Arthur,” the shadow play of “Hungry Men”—were all drawn together here and packed under the same dark earth.

Recorded 13 December 1966; on David Bowie. Bowie demoed “Gravedigger” in the same session in which he recorded “Rubber Band” and “The London Boys,” but it’s never been available, even on bootleg (apparently, it’s only Bowie and an organ, no sound effects). He also performed it on the German TV program 4-3-2-1 Musik Für Junge Leute in February 1968, but sadly the footage, which must’ve been wonderfully freakish, hasn’t survived.

Top: Gray Morrow, cover of Creepy No. 13, Feb. 1967.

The London Boys

August 28, 2009


The London Boys.
The London Boys (Toy, 2000).
The London Boys (live, 2000).

I knew a girl like that. She ran our first fan club. She died of junk.

Ray Davies, to Jon Savage.

You’ve got what you wanted but you’re on your own.

“The London Boys.”

Pop records of the late ’60s are littered with runaways—teenagers leaving home, heading into the city for kicks and getting spent up. The Kinks have a host of them: “Little Miss Queen of Darkness,” damned to flirt and dance all night in a discotheque; Polly Garter, the provincial who slinks back home after being debauched, and the nameless girl in “Big Black Smoke” who winds up sleeping in cafes and whose “every penny…was spent on purple hearts and cigarettes.” There’s Miss Lonely in “Like a Rolling Stone” or the child sneaking away at daybreak in “She’s Leaving Home.” True to form, the Stones offer the most lurid scenario.

In Bowie’s “The London Boys,” a 17-year-old kid’s come to the city (the same exile from “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” perhaps) and is trying to work his way into the scene, which means pills, living rough and likely worse. (James Perone reads the lyric as being about a teenage girl getting caught up with the Mods, but it seems to fit better as a boy (gay or straight)’s song—but hey, this is far from the last sexually ambiguous Bowie lyric)).  As the song builds, the kid becomes part of the pack, dressing sharp and pilled up: his dissolute triumph leaving him more alone than he was before.

It’s a crepuscular track, built around organ and bass, colored by winds and horns (the same pit orchestra from “Rubber Band,” here turned into specters). Bowie sings the first verses in a croaky, bleary voice, then turns to cabaret as the song ends (as if the London Boys are freezing on stage in a tableaux, the curtain about to fall). It may seem a thematic misstep, though you get the sense that Bowie’s view of reality at the time was something of a dark cabaret.

Bowie wrote “The London Boys” in 1965, first recording it late that year with The Lower Third for Pye (who rejected the track—it’s what Tony Hatch was referring to when he said Bowie wrote too much about dustbins). Bowie recorded it again for the audition that secured his Deram contract.

Recorded 18 October 1966 and released on 2 December 1966 as the b-side of “Rubber Band”; on Deram Anthology. Bowie’s US label, Decca, rejected the track because of the drug references, replacing it with Bowie’s childhood fantasy “There Is a Happy Land.”

The Hearts Filthy Lesson

February 20, 2013


The Hearts Filthy Lesson.
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (video).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Trent Reznor “alt” remix).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Rubber Mix).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Simple Test Mix).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (first live performance, 1995).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Late Show with David Letterman, 1995).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (live, Loreley Festival, 1996).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (live, Phoenix Festival, 1996).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (live, 50th Birthday concert, 1997).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (live, 1997).

Born during the Leon sessions in March 1994, “The Hearts (sic) Filthy Lesson” was systematically dirtied for more than a year before it emerged as Outside‘s debut single. It sold meagerly (UK #35, US #92) and some critics (including this one) have argued that Bowie would’ve had a better shot had he led off with “Strangers When We Meet” or “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town.”

But it’s obvious why Bowie chose “Hearts” as his opening salvo. The track packed a punch; it was cold and weird, his boldest shot at re-invention since Tin Machine. It signaled a new Bowie persona, or at least the return of an old one: obscurantist, distant, menacing, clinically obsessed with blood and guts. It was The Man Who Sold the World, minus the folkie trappings; a Wan White Duke.

Bowie worked up some visual counterparts to the track, most notoriously its Samuel Bayer-directed video that implied some grotesque sacrificial ritual underway (minotaurs, decapitations, Pinhead piercings, baptisms, a goth-punk Last Supper).* More interesting was Bowie’s performance of “Hearts” on the Late Show With David Letterman, the day before Outside was released in September 1995. For those who had grown accustomed to the icily charming Bowie of the Eighties and Black Tie White Noise, this new incarnation, clad in black leather and wearing eyeliner, black nail polish and what looked like tinted contact lenses, gave off a hostile, jittery vibe. With an air of bemused contempt, getting lost in his mad pantomime, Bowie contorted himself, moving in exaggerated, jerky gestures; he acted as if the audience didn’t exist, that he was playing to a mirror, then he would suddenly acknowledge the crowd with leers and half-smiles. His band clashed behind him. Mike Garson played a solo like a Teppanyaki chef, while Gail Ann Dorsey (this was the first time most Bowie fans got to see her) was cool charisma.

“Hearts,” whose production had a flavor of Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral,* a favorite of Bowie and Reeves Gabrels’, was allegedly from the perspective of Nathan Adler. But its lyric was more a series of warnings that could be assembled in any order (something in our blood…falls upon deaf ears…her hundred miles to hell….I’m already in my grave). Two of the characters mentioned in the lyric, Adler and Ramona, hail from the character segues, while two others, Paddy and Miranda, are just names. The latter have as much dramatic import in the song, if not more. (“Paddy” could be a Beckett-esque nickname for God, a fellow Art Crime detective, or another version of the Minotaur/Artist character that Bowie was developing in other songs).

What was the heart’s filthy lesson? Bowie once said it was knowing the certainty of one’s impending death (the lesson is that the heart will stop one day). But the heart’s also filthy because it’s a blood-sponge. The center of our bodies is a grisly instrument, a ceaselessly throbbing muscle that we pretty up into a shiny red icon used to symbolize our soul, our ability to love, the best of our natures. So there’s a trace of Bowie’s Gnostic leanings in his song’s title phrase—the body’s a prison and we grant nobility to our jailer, making a happy god of our dirty waterworks.


The song itself…is made up of juxtapositions and fragments of information. [It] doesn’t have a straightforward coherent message to it. None of the album has any message; it’s really a compression of information, it’s just information: make of it what you will….The filthy lesson in question is the fact that life is finite. That realization, when it comes, usually later in life, can either be a really daunting prospect or it makes things a lot clearer.

Bowie, on “Hearts Filthy Lesson,” promotional film for Outside, 1995.

“Hearts” began as a group improvisation in the Leon sessions (Garson started things off by playing a hook on piano, while Eno’s contribution was to loop a French radio broadcast and blast it every four bars) and it shows in the song’s structure, as “Hearts” can seem like a welded-together collection of pieces. There’s a “verse” where Bowie sings a D-flat minor melody over a G-flat bass pedal point, a “bridge” that reconciles with the bass pedal by moving to G-flat Lydian (“Oh Ramona”), then to G-flat minor (“something in our skies”), and an F-flat Lydian “chorus,” while the song, after a few more permutations, ultimately closes back in G-flat.

Interweaving the various sections are a set of motifs—a Bo Diddley bass hook, a jabbing Garson piano fill that calls back to Iggy and the Stooges’ “Raw Power,” a guitar riff (Kevin Armstrong, or Reeves Gabrels on his Parker Fly, plays trills down the low E string, punctuating the motion with a quick run of descending notes on the D string.) For stitching between sections there’s an eight-bar antic Garson piano solo, some helpings of the guitar riff and a sudden sigh that triggers the song’s dramatic peak, a G major second bridge (“Paddy will you carry me”).

The devil’s in the details, which were likely Eno’s biggest contributions to the track: the consonant, sibilant backing vocals from the Edwards family**; the dog-whistle-pitched noise (a tuning fork?) that sounds on every other downbeat in the chorus; the mutterings underneath Bowie’s vocals; roiling waves of static; shaken chains; the plaints of a guitar so distorted that it sounds like synthesized strings (around 3:15).

Bowie’s singing is phenomenal and precise throughout the track, from the snarling ease of his opening verse, to the bridge sequence of “OHH Ra-MONa…if there was ON-ly” that Bowie disrupts with “be-TWEEN us,” keeping the stress rhythm but gleefully spoiling his internal rhyme scheme. Or the doomed-sounding “I’m already five years older…already in my grave,” where Bowie seems to intone a mournful organ line against Garson’s agitated piano. Gary Numan called it one of Bowie’s best vocals, saying to David Buckley, “Bowie oversings a lot of the time. He sings harder than he needs to…[“Hearts”] was right back into that not-so-full-on singing.”

That said, Gabrels may have salvaged the song. Bowie had second-guessed himself at some point during the overdubs, writing a completely different lyric based on English landscape painters. “David, that’s nice and all, but it’s kind of destroyed the essence of the song, don’t you think?” Gabrels recalled saying (as per Paul Trynka’s biography). An irritated Bowie told Gabrels to get lost, but he eventually relented and restored the original lyric.


Bowie’s change of costume on “Hearts” and Outside could come off as juvenile and desperate. Studied alienation, pretentious narration, gasped and muttered vocals, a video hinting at Se7en-esque ritualized torture: to some critics, it seemed like a man chasing a train while trying to catch his breath. But a YouTube comment on the “Hearts” video struck me. It was written by someone who was 15 when “Hearts” came out, who said that “Hearts” was the first Bowie song he ever heard, and it freaked him out.

It’s remarkable that a 48-year-old rock musician, who’d been making records since A Hard Day’s Night came out, could still manage to unnerve teenagers, making himself shabby and weird again. What’s more, there was a hard commitment to the present in Bowie’s latest revision, which he would make clear in his album’s title song: It’s happening Now. Not. Tomorrow. It happens Today.  On Letterman, a slight unease hung in the air after the Bowie performance, when Letterman was gassing on to Paul Shaffer and Doc Severinsen—it’s likely someone during the commercial break cracked, “what the hell was that all about?” But Bowie wasn’t singing for them; he just made them seem irredeemably old and square. Tell the others, as he’d murmured as the song careered to a close, tell the others.

The Outside era, kicked off by “Hearts,” was a last throw of the dice for Bowie, where he tried to become a bothersome cult figure again. Sure, it was calculated: so was Young Americans, and Low, for that matter. And it worked, for some. There’s a little-acknowledged generational gap in Bowie fandom, between those who grew up with him in the “classic” Seventies and early Eighties, and those who first knew him with Outside. For the latter, this cadaverous aging creep, muttering about Ramona and blood and filthy things, was their Ziggy Stardust.

By decade’s end, after two albums and tours, Bowie would fall back, exhausted, into the sway of the past. But in the mid-Nineties, he willed himself to be shameless and there was something marvelously crackpot about it. He wouldn’t get hit singles anymore, but he also was a presence again; an irritant, an embarrassment. He became vaguely disreputable. As Greil Marcus once wrote of Randy Newman: he was back at the margin, scheming. It suited him.

Recorded ca. March 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with overdubs at Mountain throughout late 1994, and the Hit Factory, NYC, ca. January-February 1995 (where Armstrong recorded his guitar overdubs). Released on 11 September 1995 (RCA/BMG 74321 30703 2), in a mind-numbing array of versions and mixes (see the Illustrated DB entry for details); the most interesting of the latter was the Reznor-affiliated “Alt Mix.” The US digipak single (Virgin 7432 8 38518 2 9), which did hit #20 on the Modern Rock charts, had “Nothing to Be Desired” as a bonus track, where the UK/Europe/Australia singles had “I Am With Name.” Of course, “Hearts” was used to ominously score the end credits of David Fincher’s Se7en.

Performed regularly from 1995 to 1997. A recording from the Phoenix Festival, 18 July 1996, was included on, a CD issued exclusively for BowieNet members in 2000, as well as the French-only Limited Edition Track 3 Sampler, while a version from Bowie’s 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden was included on a CD that GQ magazine distributed in its November 1997 issue: Earthling in the City. The closing show of the “Earthling” tour, Buenos Aires on 7 November 1997, was the last time that Bowie ever played the song live.

* Mark Romanek’s video for “Closer,” with its bondage gear, Francis Bacon-inspired slabs of beef, crucified monkeys, decapitated pig’s head, nude human mannequins and general filthiness, was an obvious inspiration for Bayer and Bowie’s video for “Hearts.” (It was a tribute to a tribute, as the heart of “Closer” is a bass drum sample from Bowie and Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing.”)

** Bryony, Josey, Ruby and Lola Edwards, who also sang on “I Am With Name.” (I’m assuming they’re related, unless it was a Ramones-type of thing.) To my knowledge, Outside is the only record on which they’ve been credited.

Top: pride goeth before a fall, Se7en (Fincher, 1995); filthy lessons.

Pretty Pink Rose

August 15, 2012

Pretty Pink Rose (instrumental mix).
Pretty Pink Rose.
Pretty Pink Rose (live, 1990.)

If Bowie’s work on Tin Machine II seems maddeningly uneven, with the likes of “Shopping for Girls” matched with dreck like “You Can’t Talk,” it was in part because making the record was a sideshow for him. At the same time, in the fall of 1989, Bowie was consumed with readying his past for show, planning an elaborate re-issue of his back catalog and a world tour that would serve as its epilogue.

In 1988, compact discs had outsold LPs for the first time1 and by late 1989 vinyl was all but kaput. But the first wave of catalog CDs, churned out simply to get albums into stores, were slipshod, tinny-sounding, with artwork which rivaled that of cassettes (cropped, blurred photos; often no lyric sheets). The first Beatles CDs, which at least standardized US-UK album sequences,2 were primitive if passable, but the majority of Sixties bands’ catalog CDs were dreadful: vastly inferior, sonically, to the LPs they were supplanting. These discs only sounded “good” because for many people the contrasting item was an old, scratched, finger-smudged LP.

Bowie’s catalog was scarcely available on CD. RCA had put out an initial run of discs that by 1987 had all but vanished, as the rights to the albums had reverted back to Bowie. Rather than dump another batch of cut-rate CDs into the market, Bowie envisioned a series of high-end reissues, for which he could charge a premium, rather than the reduced prices that catalog issues usually merited. Essentially, the plan was to market a record that many people already owned (say, Ziggy Stardust) as a new release. It was rock & roll entering its archival, collector’s edition phase, a gambit aided by a booming economy, a new shiny recording medium and a clever strategy like Bowie’s, which baited fans with the promise of, at long last, new old songs.

Bowie was inspired by Frank Zappa, who had used Rykodisc, an independent CD label based in Salem, Massachusetts, to issue his back catalog. Zappa had loaded the CDs with extras, and sometimes re-recorded old tracks (a path Bowie blessedly never followed). Bowie signed an agreement with Rykodisc in March 1989,3 allowing Ryko to selectively raid his vaults for potential extras (with Bowie retaining veto power). These outtakes, demos and live cuts, provisionally around 50 tracks, would be added to various reissues and as well as to a career-spanning boxed set that Ryko issued in September 1989 to kick off the series.

[A brief aside on Sound + Vision. I have a soft spot for it, as I received it for an Xmas present in ’89 and it served as a great entry into Bowieland. But it’s a frustrating compilation at times. Using the Stage version of “Station to Station” was inspired, but substituting “Helden” for “Heroes” was a bridge too far.]

The Sound + Vision plan was tripartite: unveil the boxed set; stagger-release the CDs (the last batch wouldn’t come out until 1992—above is the aluminum “Tech Unit” that Ryko issued as the official holding case for one’s complete Bowie reissues); go on a six-month tour that would be billed as the last time Bowie ever played the hits. For the latter, Bowie needed a lead guitarist who had stage presence, who was familiar with his back catalog and with whom he had a good camaraderie. At first, Bowie assumed he would use Reeves Gabrels.

Gabrels balked, in part because he thought doing the tour would’ve meant bad blood with the Sales brothers, who were definitely not invited. But Gabrels also instinctively knew that he was the wrong choice for the gig, as the audience for this tour wouldn’t tolerate any of his deconstructionist assaults on classic Bowie hits. So instead he recommended one of his inspirations: Adrian Belew.

Belew had last worked with Bowie on Lodger. He had spun through the Eighties: as a counterpart and possible replacement for David Byrne in the Talking Heads (during a low period for band morale, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz asked Belew to consider taking over as lead singer/guitarist); playing “David Byrne” in a revived King Crimson; forming an indie band (the Bears); closing the decade with a solo record, Mr. Music Head, whose goofy father-daughter duet, “Oh Daddy,” was a modest hit.

Belew was sitting by a swimming pool with the band America (now there’s a story untold) when he got Bowie’s call. He was intrigued by the idea, and he and Bowie began mapping out plans for the tour, which songs to include, how to arrange them with a stripped-down band. But Belew also had a solo contract with Atlantic, and in late 1989 he was making Young Lions, the follow-up to Mr. Music Head. So becoming Bowie’s lead guitarist for much of 1990 would mean putting the promotion of his own album on hold. As a lure, Bowie offered to sing on and provide new songs for Belew’s album, which could be performed during his “greatest hits” concerts.

So Belew sent Bowie a few tracks he was working on. Bowie sent back a tape with a song that he had recorded as a studio demo in 1988, “Pretty Pink Rose.” This hailed from a session in Los Angeles produced by Bruce Fairbairn, and cut with Bryan Adams’ backing band (see “Heaven’s In Here”).4 Years later, Belew was unsparing as to what he thought of the demo:

David’s office sent a cassette. Excitedly I opened it and played it. “Oh gawd,” it was awful! Imagine how I felt. Here I was on the verge of touring for a year with David Bowie and thinking we might produce a duet of perhaps a “hit” song of David’s, only to be confronted with something which sounded lifeless, limp, and plodding. I didn’t know quite what to do.

So working alone at a studio in Wisconsin, Belew tried to salvage the song. First he jump-started the plodding rhythm track. Recalling an old Beatles trick in which Paul McCartney played what sounded like straight 4/4 while Ringo Starr played a shuffle (or vice versa), and so creating a “pulling” rhythmic sensation that felt like half-time, Belew used a sampled “growling” bass and played variations against it on a 1955 Ludwig drum set.

Then he tweaked with the song’s structure. He made a tongue-in-cheek grandiose intro out of a play on the chorus melody, a brooding quasi-classical synthesizer musing that’s suddenly upended by a wailing guitar. He replaced a keyboard ostinato that had run under the chorus vocal on Bowie’s demo with a double-tracked guitar line. For the verses, Belew found that the way Bowie’s vocal melody “sat” allowed for him to write a series of responses on guitar: this created an volleying dialogue between guitar and singer, an effect further heightened in the final mix when Bowie and Belew traded off vocals.

As for the guitar tracks, Belew said: I was using Stratocasters equipped with Kahler tremolos at the time. I discovered you could adjust the tip of the Kahler tremolo arm downward facing the strings and then play the strings using the tip itself. Like “tapping,” only using the tip of the tremolo arm instead of your right hand fingers. It was the perfect bit of “flash” I was looking for. And it just happened! I had never seen it done before (or since).”

The finished track shifted between 16-bar uptempo verses driven by propulsive rhythm guitar and moody choruses that sounded more like bridges and were well suited for a classic Bowie croon. It was punchy, full of hooks, a ready-made piece of guitar pop. Bowie, stunned that Belew had made a possible hit single out of a song that hadn’t been good enough for Tin Machine, wrote an inspired lyric in response.

Bowie and Belew cut their vocals in a raucous session in NYC in January 1990, just before Bowie unveiled the Sound + Vision tour. The original vocal intro, Bowie intoning “she had tits like melons…it was love in the rain,” was sadly discarded, but an uncorked joy remained in the final lyric, a gonzo kiss-off to the waning Cold War. She’s just been to Russia and they’re dying their faces, the song begins: capitalism gaudily triumphant at last, the funfair finally heading East, streaking across the broken borders. They’re dying over there, is the subsequent pun, which Bowie sings with a smirk. The video took the idea further: Bowie and Belew, two louche representatives of the West, cringe before and court Julie T. Wallace, cast as a dominatrix in traditional Russian garb.

And where Never Let Me Down and the Tin Machine records had their wearying share of heartbreaking, ball-breaking women, here Bowie made his obsession into a force of nature (Belew’s whinnying, goading guitar solos also seem like a parody of Gabrels at his most excessive; it’s a master mocking a pupil). She’s the poor man’s gold, she’s the anarchist crucible!, Bowie hollers. She upturns civilizations wherever she spins, tearing up Paris looking for Tom Paine, who’s slipped loose from the jails, heading for the Finland Station. For a moment around 1990, it seemed like the world could be reset, and the optimism of the time echoes in “Rose.” But in its second verse, Bowie growled out a premonition of what the next two decades really would hold: the left wing’s broken, the right’s insane.

“Pretty Pink Rose” is a brief taste of glam élan during Bowie’s bilious mid-life crisis. It’s also frustrating. Belew’s surgical repairs to the song showed that, in the hands of a musician with something at stake, Bowie’s sub-standard material could be restored to life. It makes one wonder how much of the banal music that Bowie released in the late Eighties had finer, if unborn incarnations. “Pretty Pink Rose” easily could have been a throwaway. Instead it was Bowie’s best single since “Absolute Beginners.”

Recorded at Royal Recorders in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, on 11 November 1989, with vocals cut at Right Track Recording in NYC on 15 January 1990 (info via Belew’s website, from which I also took the history of “Rose”‘s restoration). You can purchase the instrumental version directly from Belew here. Released in May 1990 as Atlantic A7904, c/w “Heartbeat” (only #89 UK, though it hit #2 on US “Modern Rock” charts). There’s an alternate mix released on the promo CD single: it’s about thirty seconds shorter, has less lead guitar and even has a different second verse (I’ve not heard it). The video, filmed in a day at an abandoned German railway station, was never officially released.

1: The market leader until 1993 was the cassette, mainly because it was cheaper and cars didn’t have CD players yet. The transition happened earlier in the UK: by 1990, CDs had a greater market share than cassettes.

2: It’s nice that for everyone under, say, 35, Revolver has always had “I’m Only Sleeping” on it, Rubber Soul has always had “If I Needed Someone,” and Help! is where you find “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “Yesterday.”

3: This was only for the US. Bowie finally struck a UK licensing agreement with EMI in 1990.

4: It’s possible that the outtake “I Pray Ole” was either an early or alternate version of what became “Pretty Pink Rose.” The closing “take me to the heart, to the heart, to the heart” chorus melody fits over some of “Ole.”

PS BUT HEY WAIT THERE ARE MORE TIN MACHINE SONGS. Yes, yes! As the last two TMII songs were recorded in 1991, we’ll get to them after these few Belew/Sound + Vision posts.

Top: “Reconstructing Light,” Bowie and Belew at the Point Depot, Dublin, 9 August 1990.

The King of Stamford Hill

April 19, 2012

The King of Stamford Hill.

If you do what I do—play out of tune, stretch time signatures, make noise—people assume you’re an idiot. Because no one would want to play out of tune, right? So I needed the firepower to say, “OK, this is what I could do if I wanted to wear a Lacoste shirt and chinos like you.” If I wanted to play on baked bean commercials, that’s what I’d do. I’m already past that. I’m working on my vision, dammit. It might not be a good one, but it’s mine.

Reeves Gabrels, 2000.

Has anyone ever had a hard word to say about Mick Ronson? Who has ever knocked Carlos Alomar? Even Tony Visconti remains generally unimpeachable. Not so Reeves Gabrels, the last major Bowie collaborator, who has never shaken the reputation in some quarters as being a garish usurper.

Gabrels worked with Bowie, off and on, for eleven years: his tenure is nearly as long as Alomar’s and Gabrels’ influence on Bowie’s work is arguably greater. No other Bowie “sideman” co-wrote two entire records with him (Earthling and Hours). Gabrels embodied Bowie’s desperate Nineties, whether dressed in Prada suits or kilts and boas. Brought in as a professional agitator, he stayed on throughout the decade, shrouding Bowie albums in noise, eviscerating classic Bowie guitar riffs on stage. For solos, he played his custom-made guitars with a vibrator, he smeared cake icing on their strings. Sometimes he’d unplug his guitar and screech together a solo via the jackplugs.

He was outrageous, he was indulgent, he was loud, he was vital, he was tasteless. He was Bowie’s liberated id, throwing sonic tantrums on stage; he was Bowie’s cold-blooded intelligence service, forever keeping abreast of the trends. He saved Bowie from a life of middle-aged mediocrity, he made Bowie look ridiculous. More than anything else, he was an unknown: his future bandmates the Sales brothers, during the first Tin Machine rehearsals, wondered aloud who the hell the guitarist was. Gabrels was indisputably a latecomer, and there’s always a measure of scorn reserved for those who arrive when the show’s past its prime (see Tara King or John Major). But Gabrels took pride in where he fell. Irreverent, aggressively dedicated to his sonic obsessions, he acted like a man who had no sense of, no use for, history.

In Bowie’s pre-Tin Machine work, Gabrels’ closest analogue is Robert Fripp, whose skronking guitar work on”Fashion” can seem a curtain-raiser for the Gabrels years. The comments for that entry demonstrate how Fripp’s playing on “Fashion” can still irritate, three decades on. Did the guitar noisily ruin the track, or did it give it frisson, turning a basic dance-rock song into something more disturbing, with bite and piss? It’s the fundamental question of the Gabrels era.

Gabrels was born on Staten Island, NYC, in 1956. His father worked on tugboats, his mother was a typist. While self-taught on the guitar, Gabrels considered himself a visual artist, enrolling in the Parsons School of Design in 1974. Studying painting just made him want to play music. So he left Parsons for Berklee, then dropped out in 1981 to make a go at being in a rock band.

It was the height of Boston’s punk scene, the era of The Neighborhoods, La Peste, the Lyres, the Nervous EatersMission of Burma, The Dark, Rubber Rodeo (Gabrels would play in editions of the latter two). It was that rare bird, a viable local scene, in which Boston indie musicians could hack out a meager living by playing a solid regional circuit which included the still-standing Paradise or the late, lamented Rathskeller, which my old university conquered and razed, then built a swank hotel over its bones.

Gabrels soon got notice for his drive to constantly, radically alter his guitar’s tone. He recalled how once he was rehearsing in someone’s kitchen when electromagnetic interference from the refrigerator motor began channeling through his Stratocaster’s pickups and chorus pedal. It was a revelation. Another time in 1984, opening for the Neighborhoods, Gabrels had forgotten most of his gear except for a single distortion pedal, and spent his set wringing dissonant tones from his guitar via pull-offs and distorted harmonics. His bass player complimented him afterward for his new effects and harmonizer programs. (“I thought, “Why am I carrying all this stuff around if I can fool my own bass player without it?” Gabrels recalled in 2000.)

Gabrels began to favor newer-make guitars, arguing that when a guitarist plays a Fender or a Strat, it’s a constant battle not to be mired in nostalgia. (“Playing instruments that don’t have cliches defined on them keeps me from playing licks from 1952,” he once said). In the late Eighties, Gabrels’ main guitar was the “headless” Steinberger, while in the Nineties he favored the lightweight Parker Fly.

So Bowie saw Gabrels as an advocate of the New, a man apparently oblivious to musical history and to “good taste,” and at times seemingly disinterested in the interplay of a band. As he would with the Sales brothers’ truculence and lack of nuance, Bowie considered Gabrels a raw, disruptive force that he could channel. Bowie wasn’t looking to form a band as much as he wanted a set of inspired, violent competitors.

Gabrels met Bowie on the American leg of the Glass Spider tour. Gabrels’ wife, Sara Terry, was a journalist at the Christian Science Monitor. After writing a grueling series of articles about child prostitution, she needed a break and so became Bowie’s press agent for a few months. Gabrels accompanied her on the tour, and Bowie came to enjoy his company. Though Gabrels had been in a Bowie cover band in high school, and while only a few months before Glass Spider he’d played in the Bowie-besotted band Life on Earth, he didn’t even tell Bowie that he played music. Instead he kept Bowie’s magpie mind occupied, whether arguing about painters or watching Fantasy Island with the sound switched off so that Bowie and Gabrels could make up their own dialogue.

Bowie only learned that Gabrels was a guitarist when, at the end of the US leg of the tour, a departing Terry (she and Gabrels were moving to London) handed him a cassette compilation of Gabrels’ various Boston bands. Back home in Switzerland after the end of the tour, Bowie found the tape in a coat pocket, played it and liked what he heard. He began recommending Gabrels for session work, setting him up with Alan Winstanley, who used Gabrels on Sandie Shaw’s Hello Angel and had him play sitar and mandolin on a reunited Deaf School album. And one afternoon in May 1988, Gabrels came home after having walked around London pasting up flyers for one of his few regular sources of income, guitar lessons, and got a phone call from Bowie. He naturally assumed it was a gag until Bowie mentioned Fantasy Island.

Bowie had agreed to be part of a La La La Human Steps dance routine at the ICA in London and to re-record “Look Back In Anger” for the backing music. He’d been listening to Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth and wanted his remade “Anger” to sound as though it had been carved out of a wall of guitars. While Bowie had already recruited his usual go-to team of Kevin Armstrong and Erdal Kizilcay, he wanted a thicker, more violent, massed guitar assault. He invited Gabrels to come out to Switzerland and work on the revision.

As he had with Nile Rodgers a half-decade before, Bowie, once Gabrels arrived at his house in Switzerland, gave him a walking inventory of his current obsessions. These now included: a yen for loud guitar music (Hendrix and Zeppelin bootlegs, Branca and his various offshoots, electric bluesmen like Buddy Guy, and Bowie’s new love, the Pixies); a gorgeous, decadent cookbook co-authored by Salvador Dali and his wife Gala;  and heaps of books on medieval and deconstructivist architecture (the latter had a then-contemporary exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art). Bowie rattled on about flying buttresses and what he considered their descendants, the exposed structures of the likes of Centre Pompidou, and tied this to the “cathedrals of sound” that he heard in Branca and Sonic Youth. In Gabrels’ playing, Bowie said he found something similar—guitar solos that were ornamental, not fitting properly into the harmonics and melody of a song, but still being essential to the song’s support, along with a fascination with breaking down a guitar’s tones into the discrete elements of amplified sound.

Gabrels wound up staying in Montreux for weeks, and he returned after the Bowie/Human Steps “Look Back in Anger” in July 1988 (Bowie would perform the routine once more in the US, in September). He and Bowie drove down to Mountain Studios every morning, worked on demos and sounded out ideas, then went home for dinner and Fawlty Towers. Gabrels had no ties to Bowie’s past, had no connection with EMI, and had seemed disinterested in music when Bowie first met him. He was the first collaborator who Bowie had known as a friend first. So Bowie confided in him. He was lost. He felt obligated to write hits but no longer had the knack for it: he was already regretting Never Let Me Down. He couldn’t imagine ever putting himself through another tour again. He was considering getting out of the game entirely.

Gabrels’ response was essentially: why do you have be in the game at all? You’re David Bowie. Find something that interests you, then go with it. Bowie had loved Steven Berkoff’s play West, which had premiered in London in 1983. A story of a Hackney gang leader who, to avenge a slaying of one of his crew, agrees to take on a rival thug from Hoxton in hand-to-hand combat, West was part of the decade’s fascination with London thugs, from Bob Hoskins’ mob boss in The Long Good Friday to Terence Stamp’s sardonic “grass” in The Hit, from the renewed fascination with the Kray Twins to Alan Clarke’s soccer hooligan study The Firm.

Bowie had considered adapting West as a musical, but thought the material was too obscure. EMI had made it clear there wouldn’t be another Baal on their dime. Who cares if only a few people like it? Gabrels responded. So Bowie and Gabrels began on a few prospective West-inspired songs. One, “Bus Stop,” would be reworked for Tin Machine. Another was a musical version of the gangleader’s climactic fight speech: “The King of Stamford Hill.” Bowie sang it as a cock-crow from a despot, but also with anger and desperation. The core theme of West was spoken by the King’s mother: “not to fight was to give in.” The choice was blood and possible humiliation, or a second-class life calling someone else’s tune.

While it’s unknown how “Stamford Hill” originally sounded, as Gabrels re-recorded all the guitar tracks when he used it on his first solo album in 1995, Bowie’s vocal (taken from the demo) is a vulgar, barely comprehensible garble (Berkoff had some of his characters speak a florid “Shakespearean Cockney”). He begins by walking his turf in Hackney, taking in the sewage. “Smells like DAY-sies,” he sniffs, but his mind’s on his rival. “Ain’t it fucking CUR-EE-OUS some other cunts’ll TRY to DITCH the KING.” A pounding, screaming refrain follows: GONNA BUILD AN ARMY. MARCH ‘EM TO THE MARSHES…SOMEONE’S GONNA LOSE HIS POXY FACE!

It was unreleasable, of course: EMI would have blanched. But Bowie took audible delight in his Mockney accent and savored the prospect of lurid violence. He sounded alive again, even in play-acting the thug. It was a scheme at last. Now all he had to do was build an army.

“King of Stamford Hill” was recorded in Mountain Studios, Montreux, ca. July 1988 (Bowie vocals) and completed by Gabrels at Playtime Studios, Boston, 1995. With Gary Oldman providing “running commentary” and Matt Gruenberg (bass) and Milt Sutton (drums).  On the out-of-print Sacred Squall of Now. (My thanks to Ian McDuffie).

Sources for Gabrels’ early years: Trynka and Buckley, as always, along with a book that’s going to be of great help going forward, Dave Thompson’s Hallo Spaceboy: The Rebirth of David Bowie. Gabrels’ quotes are generally from interviews he gave with Guitar Player (1993), Guitar (2000) and Spin (1989).

Top: Chris Dorley-Brown, “Squatters evicted, Stamford Hill estate,” March 1988; Reeves Gabrels, 1989 (Guitar Player); Gary Oldman in Clarke’s The Firm, 1989.

Glass Spider

March 30, 2012

Glass Spider.
Glass Spider (live, 1987).

It’s an all-time low: a spoken/sung SF-themed track with “spooky” music and which has some of the silliest lines that Bowie ever wrote. I’m talking about “Future Legend,” of course.

“Glass Spider” is not the singular high embarrassment of the Bowie canon, as some have claimed. Along with Labyrinth, it’s the return of a part of Bowie that he had kept in a box for over a decade: the Bowie of “Laughing Gnome,” “The Supermen” and Diamond Dogs, the weird, whimsical, dorky, gloriously juvenile Bowie. The embarrassing Bowie. The Bowie who Lester Bangs once called “that chickenhearted straw man of suck rock you love to hate so much.”

By the Eighties, Bowie had reinvented himself as an aspirational figure, unknowable and cool, existing in a state of otherworldly fame. Then in “Glass Spider,” he suddenly became a clown again, and he got jeered for it. As Steve Pond of Rolling Stone wrote in his Never Let Me Down review, “Glass Spider” [is] Bowie’s most embarrassing moment in years…it’s probably not any dumber than the 1984-inspired excesses of Diamond Dogs, but coming thirteen years later from an artist who’s supposed to be sophisticated and intelligent, it sounds a hell of a lot dumber.”

Elvis Costello once said that his record company (and some of his fans) had hounded him for years to make another This Year’s Model,  but when he finally gave it to them in ’86—the bile and wordplay-soaked Blood and Chocolate—they didn’t know what to do with it. There’s something of the same in the general reaction to “Glass Spider.” Isn’t this what everyone wanted? Back to space-age fables and apocalypse? Back to costumes and dark theater? Back to scary monsters? Why was it all so embarrassing now? Why could Bowie dress up like a space pirate in 1974 and be the height of cool, but when he gloomily intoned his parable about spiders in 1987, it was a laughable, pathetic indulgence?

Maybe because Bowie was forty years old in 1987, and this monster-movie doom mongering now seemed beneath him. Bowie, as he aged, was apparently meant to drift into pseudo-Continental adult sophistication, à la Bryan Ferry (who had always done it better than him), not to revive his old pantomime shenanigans. Bowie was making his audience regret their tastes. There was an article I read some time ago in which a woman was driving with her teenage daughter and “Space Oddity” came on the radio. It once had been her favorite song. But as she watched her daughter listen and roll her eyes, the woman realized “what a dumb song it was.” And it is: “Space Oddity” is hokey bubblegum folk-pop. But it’s sublime hokey bubblegum folk-pop, with a world inside it. It didn’t matter: all at once, the woman had grown up and out of it.

There’s a Smiths B-side, “Rubber Ring,” that gets to the heart of this. Morrissey breaks the fourth wall throughout the song, with the record giving a long harangue to its teenage listeners, telling them of their upcoming betrayal. “The most impassioned song to a lonely soul/is so easily outgrown.” These songs mean everything to you now, but soon you’ll grow up and leave them behind, and crack jokes about your mopey Smiths-listening phase. All Moz asks is that from time to time, “when you’re dancing and laughing, and finally living/hear my voice in your head and think of me kindly.” Because you get to move on, you get to grow up to be a clever swine. But I’m staying here at the barricades.

“Glass Spider,” while in no way as self-conscious (or as good) a song, comes from the same position, an artist saying: this is what I do, this is what I’ve always done, ridiculous as it may seem to you now. So it’s fitting that “Spider” is in part a (tortured) metaphor about growing up, of being abandoned by your parents and learning to live on your own. “You always think your mother’s there, but of course she never really is,” Bowie said in ’87.

Bowie’s inspiration was a TV documentary he saw about black widow spiders. He was especially taken by the image of their webs festooned with remnants of their prey, and he played with the idea of an enormous, multi-tiered, corpse-strewn spider web as a housing project (yet another link back to Diamond Dogs) as well as a mythic castle “with a kind of altar at the top.” And like his inspirational black widows, he kept piling things on—the spider became a universal mother figure, one who abandons her children to the cold world, where they have to fend for themselves. The third verse, with the spiders keeping to ground, looking for shelter, fearing nature, is Bowie’s Fall of Man (in a horror comic).

At the same time, Bowie had more practical needs for the song. He wanted it to be the big opening number for his tour (so the spoken prologue was designed in part as mood-setting and to give the band time to get out on stage) and to have a striking image he could build the stage set around. And of course he was playing with his past, too, obviously referencing the Spiders from Mars.*

So “Glass Spider” was a garish, muddled mix of influences and intentions. It begins as a spoken-word parable (56 bars, the first 1:40 of the song) in which Bowie’s echoed voice is set against washes of Mellotron and Moog, with Crusher Bennett’s stick percussion giving occasional punctuation. The spoken section is ridiculous (Bowie’s narrative soon loses its authority because he’s constantly equivocating, as if he can’t be bothered to remember the details: “with almost apparent care,” “one could almost call it an altar,” “its blue eyes [were] almost like a human’s!“) but also has a real creepiness with its wailing synthesizers, some of which call back to “Heroes.”

The latter half of the song, announced by a synth bassline that foreshadows the refrain, works well enough as a horror-movie soundtrack theme, with some of Bowie’s eeriest lines on the album (“life is over you,” “come along before the animals awake“) and there’s a sense of menace in its building momentum, with the “Mummy come back” refrain repeatedly knifing its way into the verses. “Spider” also uses some of Bowie’s favorite compositional tricks, such as backing his way into establishing the key: while the spoken section seems to be in E minor, when the song proper begins, it quickly hammers down into A minor, its verses a I-VI-VII progression similar to “Time Will Crawl” (Am-F-G, with the latter chords keeping A as the root note). There’s also a chromatically descending bassline (used in “Life on Mars?” among a host of other songs) that anchors the climactic “mummy come back” chorus, which climaxes in an a capella bar.

And just as much of it’s a mess, from Bowie’s quasi-operatic bursts in the first verse (“can you HEAAR this wasted CRYYYY”) to the whinnying Frampton guitar solos to Bowie’s irritating tone in the “jah jah jah” refrains. Still, “Glass Spider” alone makes the case for Never Let Me Down—with its air of frenzied desperation, its sense of Bowie being willing to try anything, even if it made him look like an ass—being superior to the pure product Tonight and, arguably, some of his later albums. “Glass Spider,” a bewildering, appalling lapse of taste, is the sound of a man reclaiming himself.

Recorded ca. September-November 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. On Never Let Me Down and, of course, it was performed in the tour that it named.

Jake Brown’s fine article on“Rubber Ring” from 2003 sums up well the song’s many qualities.

* Referencing the Spiders was a canny move, as the mid-Eighties were the height of Ziggy Stardust‘s reign as critical consensus pick for Best Bowie Album (Rolling Stone‘s Top 100 albums list in 1987 had Ziggy in its top 10, with no other Bowie records making the cut except for ChangesOneBowie at the tail end). Low and Station to Station have since usurped it (similar to how Revolver has knocked off Sgt. Pepper.)

Top: Gerhard Richter, Gudrun, 1987.