Running Gun Blues

January 11, 2010

Running Gun Blues.

An early entrant in the distinguished “crazy Vietnam veteran” genre, “Running Gun Blues” features an ex-soldier turned serial killer. Bowie sounds unhinged in the verses, tries for menace in the choruses, going on about cracking the heads of “gooks.” It’s satire fit for (and seemingly written by) a squalid 13-year-old boy.

Mick Ronson offers amends—beefing up the D-C-G riff that Bowie first offers on his acoustic, locking in with Tony Visconti’s bass to ride out the track. It’s no use, as the track’s nothing but cheap, loud burlesque with “social commentary” pretensions. Angela Bowie recalled that her husband wrote the lyrics to “Running Gun Blues” over an afternoon when he kept being interrupted to do interviews, and it shows (“for I promote oblivion/and I’ll plug a few civilians”). As rancid as it is forgettable.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970; never performed again by Bowie, or anyone else.

Top: Lt. William Calley goes on trial, November 1970.


Poll, Day 1: Somebody Up There Likes Us

December 15, 2015

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To begin, I thought we should honor the songs that, of the 351 songs that placed, only got one single vote.

It’s a motley of: a) Iggy Pop songs, b) Bowie bonus tracks, oddments and rarities, c) Tin Machine stuff, and d) songs sometimes mocked by Bowie fandom and critics (cough). But they all got a vote! Someone thinks enough of each one of these songs to have included them in a list of their top 30 favorite Bowie songs ever.

So, raise a glass to the single-vote songs. Have cheer, lonelyhearts: somebody up there likes you.

Amazing. Amlapura. Atomica. Baby Can Dance. Beat of Your Drum. A Better Future. Betty Wrong. Bleed Like a Craze, Dad. Chilly Down. Ching-a-Ling. Crack City. The Cynic. Dancing Out in Space. Day-In, Day-Out. Did You Ever Have a Dream. Do Anything You Say. Dodo. Don’t Bring Me Down. Don’t Look Down. Fall In Love With Me. Fill Your Heart. Future Legend.

Get Real. God Only Knows. Gunman. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow. If I’m Dreaming My Life. Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary). I’ve Been Waiting For You. Law (Earthling’s On Fire). Leon Takes Us Outside. Lightning Frightening. The Loneliest Guy. Love Song.

Maid of Bond Street. Man In the Middle. Mass Production. New York Telephone Conversation.* New York’s In Love. Real Cool World. Reflektor.** Running Gun Blues. (She Can) Do That.*** Shining Star (Makin’ My Love). Silver Treetop School for Boys. Success. Tiny Girls. Tired of My Life. Uncle Arthur. Waterloo Sunset. Where Have All the Good Times Gone? Wishful Beginnings. Without You I’m Nothing. Working Class Hero. You Can’t Talk. Zion.

And “Dancing in the Street” got two votes.

*Doesn’t qualify, but meant as a ‘protest’ vote against the cruelty of having to decide which Bowie song should get the #30 slot on a ballot. Hey, I understand.
** Doesn’t technically qualify, but if you love “Reflektor” enough for it to make your top Bowie 30, I’ll record it.
*** Regular readers will likely guess who this voter was.

Next: the almost-theres. Songs 100-51.

Top: a semi-retired gentleman salutes your picks. (“Crack City”? Nice!”)


Links: Chapters 4-5

March 24, 2015

Chapter 4: The Man On the Stair (1970)

db1970

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

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

Chapter 5: Moon Age (1971-1972)

db71

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

72db

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

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


I Am With Name/ Segue: Ramona A. Stone

January 31, 2013

ramona

I Am With Name (Leon suite) (plus annotations).
Segue: Ramona A. Stone/ I Am With Name (Outside).

There was a theory that one creates a doppelganger and then imbues that with all your faults and guilts and fears and then eventually you destroy him, hopefully destroying all your guilt, fear and paranoia. And I often feel that I was doing that unwittingly, creating an alternative ego that would take on everything that I was insecure about.

Bowie, Arena interview, 1993.

So you are what’s been manipulated in each of these pieces [segues]?

Bowie: Yes, they’re all based on me.

Interview with Moon Zappa, Interview, 1995.

The five characters Bowie invented for Leon, and which he later imported into Outside, allegedly came out of his “orgiastic” improvisation session with the band in March 1994, with Bowie pulling together voices, intentions and actions by reading lines from sheets of paper scattered across a table. (Later interviews established that there had been some preparatory work done before this, with Bowie using his “Verbasizer” (an automatic cut-up lyric generator) computer program, among other things.)

In what seems like the “final” version of Leon, Bowie’s characters crept in and out of three suites: “Leon Takes Us Outside” focused on the detective Nathan Adler and the cipher Leon Blank, while “Enemy Is Fragile” was a revue, with all the characters making appearances. And “I Am With Name” was devoted, in spirit at least, to Ramona A. Stone, the villain of the piece. This was the most disturbing and weird of the suites, featuring two unnerving/irritating “anxiety raps,” where Bowie sounded like a man who believes rats are climbing all over his body, and a SF fascist sequence involving the “Leek Soldiers.” “Bit of a dark spiral with no end,” as old Touchshriek mutters at the close.

What survived of this suite on Outside was a re-recorded, edited version of one of Ramona’s two segues: her appearance on “I Am With Name.” This piece was mixed over the backing track of “I Am With Name” and then segued directly into the latter song. While it was Ramona’s only appearance on the album, she was elsewhere as a specter/object of malice and lust (“Hearts Filthy Lesson,” for example).

There’s a hierarchy of sorts in the Outside crew: Leon is kept the farthest distance away; Baby Grace and Touchshriek, victim and witness, are miniature character studies; Adler and Ramona, an interlocked pair, seem most like twisted self-portraits of Bowie. We’ll get to Adler in a bit, but it’s worth looking at Ramona here.

I won’t go as far as Steele Savage, who wrote that Ramona “represents everything that Bowie hates about himself,”*but there is the sense that Bowie’s using the character of Ramona—a futurist fascist, white supremacist and aesthetic murderer (an art critic who kills!), a vain “high priestess” of art (“I was an artiste!…in a tunnel”), someone so disgusted by aging that she dreams of becoming a machine—in the vein of the ugly parallel self he’d created with the Thin White Duke character. She’s a highbrow version of another reappearing Bowie doppelganger: the emotionally void, possibly homicidal creep of “Running Gun Blues” and some of the Tin Machine songs. As Momus said (in the comments to “I Can’t Read”), “this parallel self is a fink, a fish, an automaton, a killer-zombie, a wife-beater, a conformist, empty and dead inside.”

It’s not that grim, though (I mean, the picture of Ramona alone, with Bowie’s face imposed on a She-Hulk cyborg figure wearing a Mohawk, is pretty barmy). Ramona’s also a parody of Bowie as High Artist and cultural vampire. She first appears in Adler’s diary in “Kreutzburg, Berlin,” 1977, where she’s running a Caucasian Suicide Temple, “vomiting out her doctrine of death-as-eternal-party into the empty vessels of Berlin youth.” She turns up around the millennium in London, Canada, running a “string of body-parts jewelry stores,” and in her song, “I Am With Name,” she seems reduced to a pure automaton, a “good time drone” that, in Adler’s words, says “in the future, everything was up to itself.”

For the Ramona character, Bowie triple-tracked (or more) his voice, altering each with a vocoder and/or other harmonizing synthesizers, possibly Eno’s Eventide H3000. Bowie winds up sounding like a premonition of Andy Serkis’ “Gollum” voice. The only thing that’s not synthetic on “Name,” which is built on sounds generated by, among others, Eno’s Yamaha DX-7, E-mu Procussion Module and Lexicon JamMan, is Mike Garson, whose fleeting bursts of piano are a last bit of humanity left in the matrix.

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London (with overdubs at Brondesbury Villas Studio, London, January 1995). “Stone”/”I Am With Name” was released on Outside, September 1995.

* See also Angela Bowie’s typically barbed comment to Peter Koenig: “David wants to be a dictator, not God. His fixation is with himself and he strives to ignore his own self-loathing.”

Top: Bowie dresses in battle gear as Ramona.


How Does the Grass Grow?

July 16, 2015

pj-harvey

How Does the Grass Grow?

The Next Day was conceived and recorded in secrecy and there’s little of the contemporary in it. Supposedly. “We’re not very impressed with today’s music,” Tony Visconti said, in his role as Voice of Bowie in 2013. “We weren’t listening to anything current. It all sounds like it was made by the same person….It could be the same production crew, it could be the same singer, everybody is Auto-Tuned to death and the songs are very flimsy.”

That said, one recent album casts a shadow on Next Day: PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, released on Valentine’s Day 2011, and the heavyweight of its decade so far. At times Harvey goes up country and sends back gnomic reports, other times she sings in a city square. So her piano study White Chalk is countered by Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, a millennial New York album that elegized a New York about to die. (Harvey learned she’d won the Mercury Prize for Stories on 9/11/01, while stuck in a locked-down Washington D.C., watching tanks rumble around near her hotel.)

Let England Shake was another “public” album. Written in 2007-2009 and recorded over five weeks in 2010, its spark came when Harvey learned the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had their official photographers and writers. She wondered if a war could have an official composer. To Drowned in Sound, she said: “My whole thinking around the writing of the record was very much around the idea of ‘if I was appointed the official “song correspondent”, how would I bring the stories home, how would I relay them to people.‘ “(See Wire’s “Reuters“: “sooner or later/the end will arrive…this is your correspondent, running out of tape…”).

With the Bush/Blair wars as her backdrop, Harvey used another generation’s wars for imagery, particularly World War One (one text was Maurice Shadbolt’s Voices of Gallipoli, which inspired two lyrics) and its shorthand: trenches, barbed wire, gas, broken trees, shells, fields of poppies and blood. “In a way, I wanted [my] voice to be quite unobtrusive but just to relay the story,” she said. “Almost like a witness, who is just narrating the stories and bringing them back from the place that they happened.”

pjh

A set of love songs between doomed young men and the island for which they’re dying, Let England Shake is choked in sediment, its songs patched with pieces of older songs. The chassis of the great Police break-up song “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” becomes the spine of “The Glorious Land,” where blood makes the grass grow. “The Words That Maketh Murder” winks at “George of the Jungle” (Bush of the Desert) and quotes “Summertime Blues” (Eddie Cochran’s United Nations joke seems sad here—for Cochran, the UN had meant authority, the faraway adult world, a place of prestige and power). “Istanbul, Not Constantinople” plays on xylophone during a lull in a battle. Said El Kurdi, recorded in 1920s Baghdad, wails as if he’s seen what’s coming; a British woman sings counterpoint 90 years later. More ghosts come and go—Niney the Observer‘s “Blood and Fire,” reveille trumpets, Russian folk songs, army chants, sea shanties, gabbled sounds of carnival nights and marching seasons.

Like Bowie, Harvey took her time in writing the album (though doing so in reverse,  first writing the lyrics, then coming up with songs) and she used her reliable small crew of musicians (John Parish and Mick Harvey, with whom she’d worked for decades). And possibly like Bowie, she’d first considered making the record in Berlin but wound up recording it down the street from her home. “[Berlin] was a city I was finding quite interesting at the time and wanted to work there,” she told The Quietus. “But I went over to Berlin and couldn’t find a place that felt right, and then, just coincidentally, the man who runs this church [in Dorset] as an arts centre approached me and said if I ever wanted to use it for rehearsing I could, because he liked my music and knew I lived nearby.”

Helmand

There are a few Next Day songs in the England Shake mode: songs crammed with old violence, history as haunting. The title track comes to mind, as does the bizarre “How Does the Grass Grow?” whose refrain is the closest Bowie’s come to the cracked sound of “The Laughing Gnome” in decades.

Where Let England Shake was small, portable and sufficient in sound, like an early response to Cameronian austerity (Harvey mainly used her two-man pit crew, each of whom could play any instrument and sing when needed), “How Does the Grass Grow?” is like an overfilled mailbox, with its array of feedback squalls, keyboard lines doubled by vocal dubs, mutters and laughs lurking in the margins of the mix, treated cymbal crashes, organ swells, a great two-note groan of a synth bass hook. The distortion applied to Bowie’s voice in the verses even suggests the bandpass-filtered vocals in Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” (a song also lurking in Bowie’s “Valentine’s Day”).

It likely began as a writing exercise in the Lodger vein, despite Visconti claiming the track “was very different, new-style Bowie.” Bowie started with a refrain from Jerry Lordan’s “Apache” (as performed by the Shadows), keeping the top melody while slightly altering the chords (so Lordan’s F-G-C/Am becomes F#6*-Ab-Bbm). Then he simply reversed the chord sequence to get his verse progression—Bbm-Ab-F#6. The key was a typical Bowie shadow-blend, a gloomy B-flat minor tonality with dreams of escape into D-flat major, giving the song a knotted-up tension that it can’t dispel even in the two guitar solos.

Bowie rewriting “Apache” recalls Iggy Pop’s claim that he and Bowie, on Lust for Life, had taken a bunch of old songs and messed around with them enough so that no one would recognize them anymore. Not quite the case here—Bowie left enough “Apache” in the mix to have to share co-composing credit with the Lordan estate.

The lyric’s some Eastern Europe of Bowie’s imagination: another of his war-bled Warsaws. The backdrop could be Bosnia or Hungary or Ukraine (the “official” Bowie words for the song appear to be “Balkan,” “burial” and “reverse”); the line about the village girls hail from a 1967 essay by Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, describing the Russian village of Zhukovka (“television antennas stick up from the gray, tumbledown roofs and the girls wear nylon blouses and sandals from Hungary. But the grass and birch forest have a sweet smell“). It’s life in the West’s broken mirror, with sandals from a country without a seashore, or wild boys riding cheap Latvian mopeds (the Riga-1 was the first model, ca. 1965, further grounding the song in the Sixties): kids making “a life out of nothing.”

These are minor details: the song mainly harps on sex and death (there’s a trysting place where “we struggled with our guns.”). Bowie sings like a fanatic wielding a megaphone, keeping to a small range of notes, his phrasing in the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” tradition of jamming in as many syllables as he can screw into a set of bars. The singer (a coward, “a white face in prison”) wants to reverse time so that “the girls would fill with blood”: the girls are slaughtered and he wishes he could somehow fill their veins full again, but it’s also a lurid menstrual image. Only the earth survives, its mud absorbing bones and blood and entrails. Blow a hole in the ground, and soon enough grass claims it; mow down a row of trees (which die like Spartans, standing firm in a line) and their corpses feed mosses.

The refrain “how does the grass grow? blood! blood! blood!” came from Bowie reading about military training camp chants. In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, a variation on the line is part of the chant that R. Lee Ermey leads his troops in (see also Johnny Rico’s 2007 Afghanistan memoir Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green.) “It’s about the way the soldiers are trained to kill other soldiers…part of a chant they’re taught as they plunge their bayonets into a dummy,” Visconti said.

Almost three minutes into this loud, claustrophobic track, the tempo slows and a D major bridge begins, the song shaking out of a bad dream. Bowie sings as “Bowie” for the first time, sounding mournful, if a bit removed. Though more ghosts appear—there are hints of “Shadow Man” and “Under Pressure” in the phrasing—there’s a feeling of stolen beauty, a hard-won peace (or at least that a cease-fire’s been called). Then it’s a staircase fall into another guitar solo, more “Apache” refrains and blood chants. Dancing out in A major, hanging on Gail Ann Dorsey’s circular bassline, “How Does the Grass Grow?” ends by unearthing yet another old song: “Boys Keep Swinging.” Remember how that one goes: You can wear a uniform. Other boys check out you out, at least before they take aim at you.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

*The F-sharp chord’s made an F#6 (F#-A#-C#-Eb) because Bowie’s hitting an Eb note when singing over the chord. (A detail noticed by Clifford Slapper, to whom I’m indebted for puzzling out the song and noting the “Boys Keep Swinging” reference). Augmenting chords is central to the track: Gerry Leonard extends B-flat minor chords in the refrains by playing F, G, Ab and G guitar notes that make the underlying Bbms  consecutively, Bbm, Bbm6, Bbm7 and Bbm6. See also the keyboards augmenting D major chords in the bridge (playing A-F#-G#). (Thanks again to Clifford for spotting these.)

Top: Polly Jean Harvey, MBE, 2011; band, church, Dorset; British soldiers in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2011 (Reuters).