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.”
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.”
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).