The only pipe I have ever smoked was a cheap Bewlay. It was a common item in the late Sixties and for this song I used Bewlay as a cognomen in place of my own. This wasn’t just a song about brotherhood so I didn’t want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It’s a palimpsest, then.
David Bowie, 2008.
“The Bewlay Brothers” was one of the last songs cut for Hunky Dory and the only song of the lot Bowie wrote in the studio (he had demoed the rest of the tracks, often months before the LP sessions). Decades later, Bowie described the song’s creation as being impulsive, almost emetic: “I had a whole wad of words that I had been writing all day. I had felt distanced and unsteady all evening, something settling in my mind.” He recorded the song after the rest of the band had gone home (though obviously there were overdubs later), and then went out drinking at “the Sombrero in Kensington High Street or possibly Wardour Street’s crumbling La Chasse.”
Bowie called it a song for the American market. Asked why by his producer, Bowie said that as Americans loved over-analyzing records, finding clues on LP sleeves and in throwaway phrases, he wrote a song to baffle them. He was dismissive of “Bewlay Brothers” at first, describing it as “Star Trek in a leather jacket,” calling his own lyric incomprehensible. In retrospect it seems like Bowie was deliberately evasive, trying to dilute the song’s power, keeping his audience from getting too close to it.
Biographers have offered definitive interpretations of the lyric, mainly focusing on Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother, Terry. (Christopher Sandford: “The song, in fact, dealt with the schizophrenic Terry Burns,” while George Tremlett went further, specifying that the song was about a seance Terry and Bowie held in the ’60s). Certainly the ill-fated Burns (who Bowie would soon effectively disown, cutting off all contact with him) is at the heart of the song, as lines like “My brother lays upon the rocks/he could be dead, he could be not…” or “we’d frighten the small children away” suggest the times when Burns would have seizures on the street, writhing on the pavement while his step-brother watched him, helpless. But mere autobiography is too narrow a lens—the Bewlay Brothers could as well be gay hustlers, or daemons, or the two sides of a fractured personality. (Bowie, interviewed in 2000: “I was never quite sure what real position Terry had in my life, whether Terry was a real person or whether I was actually referring to another part of me.”)
The truth, if there’s any truth to be found, will never be disclosed: it’s buried somewhere within Bowie’s masterful song, which offers as recompense shards of imagery, passwords whispered in dreams, titles of lost paintings: “stalking time for the Moonboys”; “the grim face on the cathedral floor”; “the whale of a lie like the hope it was”; “kings of oblivion”; “they bought their positions with saccharin and trust”; “the crust of the sun”. The weary loss felt in a line like “And the solid book we wrote/cannot be found today.”
Lester Bangs: “I saw Bowie the other night.”
Lou Reed: “Lucky you. I think it’s very sad.”
LB: “He ripped off all your riffs, obviously.”
LR: “Everybody steals riffs. You steal yours. David wrote some really great songs.”
LB: “Aw c’mon. Anybody can write great songs! Sam the Sham wrote great songs! Did David write anything better than ‘Wooly Bully’?
LR: “You ever listen to ‘The Bewlay Brothers,’ shithead?”
“Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves,” Creem, March 1975.
“Bewlay Brothers,” after a somber intro of acoustic guitar and distorted piano, consists of three long verses whose last 14 bars also serve as choruses (a structure similar to earlier songs like “Cygnet Committee”); the verses are separated by four-bar guitar breaks, and are finished off by the bizarre coda sung by a vari-speeded choir of grotesques, the return of the Laughing Gnomes as specters.
Consider the track a series of doubles—the song begins in two dueling keys, modulating from D to E minor and back again; Bowie’s voice is echoed on occasional lines; the piano and Mick Ronson’s guitar are so distorted at times they could substitute for each other; Bowie builds the first lines of each verse out of paired one-syllable beats (i.e., “SO it GOES/we WORE the CLOTHES/they SAID the THINGS/that MADE it SEEM“, etc.); the two guitar breaks pit the musings of Ronson’s elegant lead guitar against the regular strums of Bowie’s acoustic. And the coda shifts between B minor and F, chords not fit for each other (if B minor is the key, then it should be F-sharp, or if it’s F, it should be B-flat): it’s an irreconcilable pairing, much like the Brothers themselves.
Recorded ca. July-August 1971. An alternate mix (hardly different from the LP cut: the voices are just mixed louder in the coda) appeared on the Ryko CD reissue of Hunky Dory. Bowie never played the song live until 2002, when he recorded a version for BBC radio, joking that the lyric had more words than War and Peace. He spoke like a man who wouldn’t recognize his younger self if he passed it on the street.
The shore at Pett Level, near Winchelsea, is steep; and covered with shingles. There is no bathing machine here; and a man should be an expert swimmer to venture in, excepting in calmer weather.
Baker Peter Smith, A Journal of an Excursion Round the South-Eastern Coast of England, 1834.
The shore at Pett Level has been a forest, a feeding ground for dinosaurs, a graveyard for ships; at the time of the Roman conquest, it slept underwater; during the Napoleonic wars and for some time afterward, the beach had eight manned, brick-built Martello towers, each a quarter-mile apart, each with a gun on its roof and a small window facing seaward. During the Second World War, the government evacuated Pett, whose population at the time was greatly holidaymakers and beachcombers.
One morning in late spring 1980 (no one recalls the precise day, and while May is the consensus pick for month, it may not be so*) a thin man in a clown costume walks along this beach.
He’s accompanied by a ballerina, two space nuns, and a gothic bride. Not far behind them rumbles a JCB bulldozer.
This is David Mallet’s video for “Ashes to Ashes,” a song that its creator, David Bowie, had only recently completed at Tony Visconti’s studio in London. It was his most expensive video to date (£25,000–some say more) and would be his most memorable, despite it pre-dating MTV. (MTV feasted on it, though: “Ashes to Ashes” was core to its rotation during its lean first months in 1981.)
Mallet suggested the location for a practical reason (see below) and because “I’d known [Pett Level] since I was a little boy. One of the very rare places you can get right down to the water and there’s a cliff towering over you.” The dreamscape was Bowie’s.
I think video is there to be used as an art form as well as a sort of commercial device for illustration and promotion. In fact, I fell in love with video in the early Seventies when I got a Sony reel-to-reel, black-and-white thing and videoed everything and whatever. I got a small editing machine…and developed some scenarios for Diamond Dogs. I worked with miniature sets and cut video animation techniques which I’ve never seen used since. A dreadful but interesting failure.
Bowie in “David Bowie—Plus Five,” 1981.
By 1979, Bowie had sensed that music video, those cheap promos you sent Top of the Pops and label conventions if you were touring or couldn’t be bothered, was becoming more central, that songs would need visual accomplices. For Lodger, he made three with Mallet: “D.J.” was recluse DJ/ extrovert DB; “Look Back in Anger” was an artist plagued by art, a mix of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Image, a short film Bowie had done in the Sixties; “Boys Keep Swinging” was a farewell to glam and ambiguity.
As opposed to the Lodger videos, which Mallet had shot from Bowie concepts, for “Ashes to Ashes” “I story-boarded [it] myself, actually drew it frame for frame,” Bowie told the NME‘s Angus MacKinnon. “[Mallet] edited it exactly as I wanted it and has allowed me to say [adopts Edward Heath voice] publicly that it is my first direction. I’ve always wanted to direct and this is a great chance to start—to get some money from a record company and then go away and sort of play with it.” (Over the years, Mallet has described a more collaborative effort, with his suggestions having equal weight.)
One image dated back more than a decade. A Pierrot consoling an elderly woman is part of George Underwood’s illustration for the back cover of David Bowie (1969), an illustration Underwood had done based on a Bowie sketch. Recall that Bowie’s father had died that August, leaving an estranged, bereaved son tied to his bereaved mother.
“Ashes to Ashes” began when Bowie remade “Space Oddity” in September 1979, stripping down the latter in the vein of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. “That came about because Mallet wanted me to do something for his show [Kenny Everett, where the two had first met in April 1979], and he wanted ‘Space Oddity.'” Doing the remake led Bowie to wonder where Major Tom would be a decade on: home at last, strung out, craving the high he’d had in space. Making Scary Monsters early in 1980, Bowie took a track titled “People Are Turning to Gold” and made it his sequel song.
In the “Space Oddity” remake that Bowie and Mallet did for a Kenny Everett special (aired on New Year’s Eve 1979), there were two scenarios reused in “Ashes to Ashes.” One was Major Tom at home, reading the paper while sitting in a spaceship chair in a black-and-white “Fifties” kitchen (it became more of a dentist’s chair in “Ashes”). Trash bins and ranges explode around him while his nurse? director?—in the Everett video, she’s shown filming him—calmly does the dishes.
The other concept was a figure in an asylum, a large padded wall behind him as a backdrop. In the Everett “Space Oddity,” Bowie commits himself to the ward, walking in, sitting down to sing about Major Tom. In “Ashes to Ashes,” he no longer has a guitar and seems to be more of a prisoner, a feeling heightened by new shots of Bowie shackled to a wall in what looks like the asylum’s basement, with tubes and hoses attached to his torso (“a nation hides its organic minds in a cellar, dark and grim,” as he’d sung in “All the Madmen”).
As Bowie told MacKinnon, this latter shot (directly above) “was supposed to be the archetypal 1980s ideal of the futuristic colony that has been founded by the earthling [emphasis mine] of what he looks like—and in that particular sequence the idea was for the earthling to be pumping out himself and to be having pumped into him something organic. So there was a very strong Giger influence there [specifically, Giger’s work on the just-released Alien]: the organic meets hi-tech.”
But Pierrot-on-the-beach would be the video’s central image—it’s easy to forget its other sections. The David Bowie Is exhibit had one of Bowie’s sketches for it. As with the 1969 David Bowie illustration, the Pierrot walks with a woman, though here it’s at night, under the moon, and she’s a shabbier figure. By the filming, the woman had resumed the “middle-class mum” appearance of the David Bowie illustration, with a long-standing rumor that she was played by Peggy Jones.
“We went down to the beach, and I took a woman there who looked like my mother,” Bowie said in 1993. “That’s the surrealistic part of making movies.” (The actress was reportedly Wyn Mac, wife of British comedian Jimmy Mac.)
Bowie wanted to stage the Pierrot sequence on a shore, somewhere in England. “A clown on a beach with a bonfire,” Mallet recalled of the brief that Bowie gave him.
As Nicholas Pegg discovered a while back, a long-missing piece of the puzzle is a Justin Hayward performance of “Forever Autumn” on the Kenny Everett Show in July 1978—Hayward sits on the Pett Level beach, with the cliff behind him seen at roughly the same angle as in Bowie’s video, and with similar video distortion effects applied to land, water, and sky. It seems obvious the Pett location came quickly to mind for Mallet when Bowie said he needed a beach.
In keeping with how Scary Monsters, and in particular “Ashes to Ashes,” was Bowie “eradicating the feelings within myself that I was uncomfortable with…you have to accommodate your pasts within your persona,” as he later said, the three Bowie figures in the video all hail from his turn-of-the-Seventies: Major Tom, the urban spaceman; the asylum dweller of “All the Madmen” (the unluckier of the Bewlay Brothers); and the sad Pierrot of Bowie’s mime years, whose persona Bowie would use as a narrative voice from “An Occasional Dream” to “Thursday’s Child.”
The shore is the line between solidity and liquidity: it is a border that’s forever eroding, broadening, receding, secreting and revealing objects like a magician, never to look the same upon your next visit. The site of evacuations and invasions, it is permanent transition. I wonder if the opening of Michael Moorcock’s An Alien Heat (1972) came to mind for Bowie, too:
The Iron Orchid and her son sat upon a cream-colored beach of crushed bone. Some distance off a white sea sparkled and whispered…[later] Jherek noticed that the sea had turned a deep pink, almost a cerise, and was clashing dreadfully with the beach, while on the horizon behind him he saw that two palms and a cliff had disappeared altogether…
This is an Earth of the far distant future, at the tail end of time, where humanity is reduced to a decadent few who loll about in their glorious collapsing cities and freak pleasure gardens. As Moorcock wrote in his introduction to his trilogy (Alien Heat is the first book of his Dancers at the End of Time), “even if these inhabitants were not conscious of the fact that they lived at the end of time…their schemes—often grandiose and perverse—were pursued without obsession and left uncompleted without regret.”
While the other parts of the video—Major Tom in the asylum, or sitting anesthetized in his stage-set “home”—suggest that the Pierrot sections are Major Tom’s hallucinations or dreams, it’s the Pierrot figure who has the control. He’s the only Bowie character in the video who moves, who exists outside of a set, who’s directing the action. He performs acts of purification—a sacrificial bonfire, the release of a white dove—before his dissolution. First, in spirit: he winces in pain when a snapping photographer takes his soul; later in body, as the Pierrot sinks into the ocean. (Aileen Dillane, Eoin Devereux and Martin Power delve more into the symbolism in their essay on “Ashes to Ashes”).
There’s a funeral march along the shore. The Pierrot walks with the children who will succeed him; he is their divine mother. The sexton machine grumbles behind them, loud and impatient, but it will bury nothing—the clown will be taken by the sea. Walk five abreast, strike the earth, recite the old rhyme (“my mother said, to get things done…”), clasp hands. Do this in memory of me. I will soon be nothing but old lies and air.
For a funeral, one needs mourners, if only a handful, and Bowie knew where to find them.
The making of that video was the death knell for the Blitz and in my mind for Bowie as an innovator. It was my first peek beneath the veneer of public perception and its contrast with reality. Bowie was actually a pilferer and a follower stylistically – finger on the pulse but a follower nevertheless.
Christos Tolera, artist and ex-Blitz Kid, to David Johnson, 2010.
Around 1976, London clubs began having “Bowie nights,” where DJs played Bowie records and clubgoers dressed as an edition of him. By 1978, the big Bowie night was at Billy’s in Soho, where Rusty Egan was the DJ and Steve Strange worked the door. By the turn of the Eighties, the scene had shifted to the Blitz Club in Covent Garden, where Bowie nights became competitive pose-offs. Egan and Strange would form Visage, later described by Simon Reynolds as “a confederacy of punk failures looking for a second shot at stardom” (so, very Bowie).
Bowie was naturally intrigued and visited the Blitz one night, slipping through the back door and being ensconced in an upper room, like slumming royalty. Each party had reservations about the other. Strange, like other Blitz Kids, regarded Bowie as a skilled operator, someone “allowed to get his ideas across quicker than up-and-coming bands. He’s always in the right place at the right time, checking out ideas. When he was in London he was always at the Blitz or at Hell.” And Bowie bottled his thoughts into “Teenage Wildlife,” his early midlife crisis song.
For “Ashes to Ashes,” he wanted some Blitz Kids, his spiritual and sartorial children, on the beach with his clown. So he and Coco Schwab went on safari at the club for the most intriguing-looking numbers (it suggests the opening scene of The Hunger). Strange, who was an operator himself, was an obvious pick. As Strange wrote in his biography, Bowie told him, “’Look, I’d like you to pick the clothes you are going to wear, and to choose three other extras for the video. But there is only one snag. We have to meet tomorrow morning at 6 AM outside the Hilton to leave for the location shoot.’ I rushed around and found Judith Frankland, Darla Jane Gilroy, and another girl for the video.”
The “another girl,” the ballerina of the set, is the mystery of the group. Her name, reportedly, was Elise Brazier and nothing has been heard from her since, as far as I know.
The other Blitz kids in the video were a pair of brilliant young designers: Judith Frankland, a recent graduate of Ravensbourne College of Art, and Saint Martin’s alum Darla Jane Gilroy.
“I was invited, as was Darla Jane, over to the table where David Bowie and his PA Coco were sitting, and offered a glass of champagne,” Frankland wrote in 2011. “Darla and I were both dressed in a similar ecclesiastic style and were asked to take part [in the video] for what at that time was a decent sum of money for penniless, decadent students.” This was £50—not bad for 1980.
Frankland was the costumer for the Blitz quartet. She had gotten attention for her Ravensbourne graduation collection, which had a show at Cafe Royal in London. Her style was once called “Romantic monasticism” and “Balenciaga hears The Sound of Music” (the latter was dead-on, as it was Frankland’s favorite film as a child—the evening-gown habits that she designed came from her memories of it).
Frankland’s designs (in “Ashes,” she and Gilroy wore her nun’s habits, while Strange was in her black wedding gown, whose veil and hat had been made by their friend Stephen Jones) tapped into an eerie key at the end of the Seventies. A sort of neo-medieval formality, as if in homage to a future that was never going to come. Court clothes for a lost extraterrestrial aristocracy, whisked together from scraps across the centuries. A look that, again, calls to mind Moorcock’s decadents at the end of time:
Lord Jagged…concocted for himself a loose, lilac-colored robe with the kind of high, stiff collar he often favoured, and huge puffed sleeves from which peeped the tips of his fingers, and silver slippers with long, pointed toes, and a circlet to contain his long platinum hair: a circlet in the form of a rippling, living 54th Century Uranian lizard.
An Alien Heat
The making of the video was a touch less romantic. Frankland recalled waking up in her bedsit in South Kensington and wondering if meeting Bowie and Schwab the previous night had been a dream, until the communal phone rang and she got instructions (presumably from Schwab). She was to wear what she’d had on at the Blitz, and the same makeup, and to be outside the Hilton “at some ungodly hour…to get on a coach to a secret location,” which turned out to be Pett Level.
The four Blitz Kids arrived at the beach to be greeted by Bowie already in costume. “He coached us for a few minutes on the words we were to mime and then the day was spent in sinking sand and mud,” Frankland wrote.
Happenstance and accidents played their parts. Bowie had noticed an idle bulldozer, property of the local government, parked down the beach. Struck by the idea of having the bulldozer as a “symbol of oncoming violence,” Bowie wanted it in the shoot. A few phone calls later (no doubt Schwab on the case again), a local driver was rolling the machine behind Bowie and the kids.
It was difficult for everyone to keep the same pace. “If I was too fast, I caught David up; if I was too slow, the bulldozer kept catching the robe I was wearing,” Strange wrote. “There’s a famous moment in it where it looks as if I am bending forward to bow. What I was actually doing was moving the hem of my robe to avoid getting pulled over by the bulldozer, but they decided to keep it in.”
A perfect example of how Bowie could seize upon a chance accident and expand it—he had Gilroy do the ground-slapping gesture as well, so that the two “wings” of the group seem to perform acts of consecration. And he’d turn the gesture into a dance move in his subsequent video for “Fashion.”
The original idea was to have the Blitz Kids only in the beach sequence, but Bowie, happy with how things were turning out, asked them to come to Ewart Studios in Wandsworth, where interiors were being shot. They would be a Greek chorus during the Major Tom “kitchen” scene.
“The scene we were to do at the studio involved an explosion and I was at the back,” Frankland wrote. “In fact if you look at the video you can see my crucifix swing in. We were told to duck out and run after we had mimed our piece or we could be hurt. This was difficult in a hobble dress, so I hoisted it up as high as I could and got ready to run. Quite a sight for the superstar sat behind me.”
And that was it. The Blitz Kids were driven back to London and spent the night clubbing at Hell. Mallet enhanced the beach shots with solarizing effects from the brand-new Quantel Paintbox. The video set the topsy-turvy colors of the outdoor shots against the high-contrast black-and-white of the “kitchen” ones, with the asylum shots as an intermediary.
What did Bowie and Mallet have with it? It’s too much to say they’d invented the grammar of MTV (Kate Bush was doing similar stuff at the same time, for instance) but “Ashes to Ashes” certainly provided a template. First, it just looked cool. Fantastic-looking weirdos on a candy-colored beach, leavened by explosions. There was nothing remotely like it on American television, at least.
Bowie managed, for the first time, to convey on film the sort of jump-cut, indirect narrative of his best songs—he was overdubbing a dense layer of new information upon an already-complex set of tracks (the Visconti-produced master). The sensation, watching the video, was something like the Choose Your Own Adventure books—a set of scenarios and decisions, some leading you deeper in, some killing you off.
“There’s an awful lot of cliched things in the video, but I think I put them together in such a way that the whole thing isn’t cliched,” Bowie said in 1980. “The general drive of the sensibility that comes over is some feeling of nostalgia for the future. I’ve always been hung up on that; it creeps into everything I do.”
It’s the visualization of a cusp song—an old world is falling away, the edges are blurring, but the new world that it shakes into view is still unclear. The careerist fabulousness of the Blitz Kids? A return to a falsified Fifties? A time when dreams need to be repressed, stowed away in the cellars and asylums? Bowie was winding down his Sixties and Seventies, disassembling his past, with a sense of foreboding as to what would take its place: could he have foreseen Tonight and Glass Spider? No, directly ahead of him was respectability, class, nuance—The Elephant Man, Baal, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. The Eighties were going to be a serious time.
The past will be burned and buried: toll the bell, pay the private eye, as Bowie later sang. Only a few exiles will be left to recall it. The future is to be found on the shore at Pett Level, near Winchelsea. It is steep, and covered with shingles.
Coda: In 1993, Michael Dignum was working on the video for Bowie’s “Miracle Goodnight.” “We had a change that was gonna take 10-15 mins to complete,” he later said. So he struck up a conversation with Bowie, his childhood hero, and asked him what he thought the biggest moment of his career was. “His reply was EPIC. And it went like this:”
“I was on the set of the music video ‘Ashes to Ashes,’ do you know the one?…So we’re on the beach shooting this scene with a giant bulldozer…I’m dressed from head to toe in a clown suit. Why not. I hear playback and the music starts. So off I go, I start singing and walking, but as soon as I do this old geezer with an old dog walks right between me and the camera…
As he was walking by the camera, the director said, excuse me, mister, do you know who this is? The old guy looks at me from bottom to top and looks back to the director and said…’Of course I do!!!! It’s some cunt in a clown suit.’ That was a huge moment for me. It put me back in my place and made me realize, yes, I’m just a cunt in a clown suit. I think about that old guy all the time.”
“Ashes to Ashes.” Directors: David Mallet, David Bowie; Concept: Bowie. Starring: Bowie, Steve Strange, Judith Frankland, Darla Jane Gilroy, Elise Brazier, Wyn Mac? Costumes: Natasha Korniloff (Pierrot suit), Frankland (Blitz kids outfits), Stephen Jones, Fiona Dealey, Richard Ostell (hats, veil); makeup: Richard Sharah. First release: 19 September 1989, Sound + Vision (on a VCD likely unplayable today).
Sources: [background] the (velvet) goldmine that is Shapers of the 80s; Roger Griffin, Golden Years; Nicholas Pegg, Complete David Bowie; Kevin Cann, A Chronology; [quotes] Bowie, to NME (13 September 1980), to Musician (April 1990), in “David Bowie Weekend” on MTV (4-5 April 1993), A&E Biography (“David Bowie: Sound and Vision”) (2002); Mallet, to Marc Spitz (Bowie, 2009) and Dylan Jones (Bowie: A Life, 2017); Strange, in autobiography (Blitzed!, 2002) and to Spitz; Frankland, in “Frankly Frankland: The Blitz, David Bowie and Ashes To Ashes” (The Swelle Life, 22 February 2011). Dillaine, Devereux & Power’s essay “Culminating Sounds and (En)visions: Ashes to Ashes and the Case for Pierrot” is collected in David Bowie: Critical Perspectives; on the history of Pett, sources inc. Christa Cloutier’s “The Blessed Little Sea Shanty,” (Guardian, 30 Sept 2009), Michael Foley’s Martello Towers (2013) & description of latter comes from BP Smith’s Journal (1834). Most of the Pett towers had to be abandoned due to beach erosion by the end of the 19th C.
*Most Bowie references (Pegg, Cann, Griffin) note that the video was shot in May 1980, but Strange once said it was in early July. Given the English climate, it’s impossible to determine by sight if the beach shoot is in summer or no (Brazier, who has the only skimpy costume, is wearing an overcoat to cover herself in one “off-stage” photograph, seen above—but again, this proves nothing, as it’s a beach near Hastings). It would make a bit more sense if the video had been filmed later than May, given that Bowie had just completed “Ashes” that month—a shoot a few weeks later, which still left enough time for post-production before the single’s release in early August, is perhaps more likely?
Fitting for April Fool’s Day, it’s the one of the most knocked-about and belittled songs in the Bowie canon. But I stand by what I wrote in 2009, and the book version has even more love for the song. Below is a mingle of the two versions:
Let’s come straight to it: yes, “The Laughing Gnome” is about a man meeting a gnome and, a bit later, the gnome’s brother. It has sped-up gnome voices (à la Alvin and the Chipmunks) by Bowie and engineer Gus Dudgeon. For the refrains, Bowie and the gnomes duet. There are gnome puns, many of them.
During a state visit to Washington, DC in 1994, Boris Yeltsin was found dead drunk late one night, standing on Pennsylvania Avenue wearing only his underwear, trying to hail a cab because he wanted to get a pizza. Many consider “The Laughing Gnome” to be something of an equivalent in Bowie’s life. “Undoubtedly the most embarrassing example of Bowie juvenilia,” wrote Charles Shaar Murray. “WORST SONG EVER LOL, know SERIOUSLY WORST,” wrote Techtester45 on YouTube.
At the apex of Bowie’s global fame in 1984, Mick Farren (who’d known Bowie in the Sixties) wrote that “whenever [Bowie] comes under discussion and the folks around the bar start to get rapturous, a still, small voice pipes up in the back of my mind to remind me: This is the man who recorded ‘The Laughing Gnome.’” When Bowie asked fans to vote for which songs he’d perform on his “greatest hits” tour of 1990, the NME launched a write-in campaign to humiliate him by making him sing “Laughing Gnome” on stage.
Stuff and nonsense, I say. After “Space Oddity,” it was Bowie’s best single of the Sixties.
Why “The Laughing Gnome” is brilliant
1. It rocks. It was Bowie’s best Mod soul single: its propulsive 4/4 slammed home by drums, bass, harpsichord and guitar all locked in, the guitar shifting from topping the bassline to biting down hard on each beat. (It was the first of many Bowie attempts to match the drone of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man.”) Even the gnome voices were basically drum fills. His melody, reminiscent of “The Tennessee Waltz,” was a rhythm guitar line in a vocal. Bowie started each verse with short upward moves (“I was walk-ing, down the high street”), took a long stride down an octave (“heard-foot-steps-be-hind-me”) echoed by a closing set of short, descending lines (“scarlet and grey, chuckling a-way”). The refrains were a four-part harmony: soaring oboe, playing whole or half notes; huffing bassoon happy to act the clown; Bowie’s lead vocal; the gnome chorus.
2. The puns. Come on, they’re not bad. Some are even inspired.
“Haven’t you got an ‘ome to go to?”
‘No, we’re gnomads!’
“Didn’t they need you to get your hair cut at school, you look like a Rolling Gnome!”
‘No, not at the London School of EcoGnomics!
It’s a quadruple gnome pun score! Eighteen points, plus a bonus for making an LSE joke about Mick Jagger.
3. Credible dark interpretations. Momus, in the early 2000s, offered the intriguing theory that “Laughing Gnome” may be about a man losing his mind, a schizophrenic’s conversation with himself. The storyline fits. The man’s walking down the street, hears a strange voice, sees a vision. Then he starts having visions at home. He tries to rally, puts the gnome “on a train to Eastbourne.” No luck. The visions return and multiply: there are two gnomes now! Finally, descent into madness. The man’s at home, believing his gnomes have made him wealthy and famous, but is actually curled in a ball on the floor. If you come close you can hear him whisper “HA HA HA…hee hee hee…”
4. Gnomic synchronicity. The son of a half-century’s worth of British novelty records, from Charles Penrose’s “laughing” discs in the Twenties to Anthony Newley’s “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “That Noise,” “Laughing Gnome” suited the frothy mood of its time, preceding Pink Floyd’s “The Gnome” by a few months. Syd Barrett’s gnome is named Grimble Gromble and is more of a stay-at-home than Bowie’s. Both gnomes like their booze, though. They’re color-coordinated, too: Grimble wears a “scarlet tunic [and] a blue green hood” while the Laughing Gnome sports “scarlet and grey.” Barrett offers a general benediction, honoring the other meaning of the word gnome, that is, “a brief reflection or maxim; a wise pithy saying”:
Look at the sky, look at the river,
Isn’t it good?
5. The Gnome saved Bowie from a life of cabaret. “Bowie included the song in his ill-fated cabaret audition, with the assistance of a glove-puppet gnome.” (Nicholas Pegg; my emphasis.)
6. A bassoon is a lead instrument. The chromatic three-octave-descending oboe/bassoon riff would be a through-line in Bowie’s songs, heard in everything from “Fame,” “Speed of Life” and “Fall in Love With Me” to “Scream Like a Baby” and “Real Cool World.” And the varisped gnome voices returned as ghouls in “After All,” “The Bewlay Brothers” and Bowie’s cover of “See Emily Play,” among others.
7. It’s a testament to a lost friendship. Gus Dudgeon, architect of “Gnome,” became close to Bowie over the course of making Bowie’s first LP. He recalled Bowie walking into his flat at Christmas and shaking a branch of Dudgeon’s tree in greeting. (“All the bloody pine needles came off.”) For “Laughing Gnome” Bowie and Dudgeon spent weeks coming up with puns and experimenting with tape speeds, cutting multiple versions of the track (the musician Mike Scott said he once slowed down the track enough to hear that Dudgeon’s doing most of the gnome voices). Bowie and Dudgeon even were proud of the single until the world told them it was a mistake. “For a brief period I enjoyed it, but then when the record came out and everyone said how awful it was I realized it was pretty terrible,” Bowie recalled in 1993.
The single’s failure to chart and some critical pasting pushed Bowie towards a darker path: soon enough came Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World. This would become his regular maneuver. Whenever he did something too silly (say, Labyrinth or the Glass Spider Tour) he’d make amends by dressing as a “serious” artiste for a time. While the cracked, gleeful spirit of the “Gnome” went missing for much of the Seventies, Bowie kept quietly drawing from its stores.
Dudgeon and Bowie eventually had a falling out. But when Dudgeon was killed in a car crash in 2002, Bowie sent flowers to his funeral with the note “Farewell to the Laughing Gnome.” Because Bowie, deep down, knew the track was one of the finest things he ever did.
Recorded 26 January, 7 & 10 February and 8 March 1967 and released on 14 April 1967 as Deram DM 123. It flopped upon first release, but reached #6 in the UK when Deram reissued it at the height of Ziggydom in 1973. The Gnome will rise again, one day.
[The Legendary Stardust Cowboy] is an outsider artist, he’s playing with a different deck of cards…[and] Daniel Johnston is like a one-man Brian Wilson/Beach Boys. He comes out of Austin, Texas, also another lad who had a lot of problems with thinking. He was in different institutions and hospitals all his life and would make funny little cassettes of all his songs, on an out-of-tune piano or guitar: beautiful, poignant, sad little pieces. And he’d take them into the local comic shop and swap the cassettes for comics.
Bowie to Paul Du Noyer, Mojo, 2002.
I bet you never knew
What I went through
What I had to do
Just to bring you a lonely song
In early 1972, as Bowie was finishing Ziggy Stardust, a teacher from the University of Kent in Canterbury named Roger Cardinal published a survey of “marginalized” artists, some of whom were schizophrenic and confined to mental institutions. Cardinal wanted to call his book Art Brut, honoring the term the painter Jean Dubuffet used for such artists, but his publisher blanched, wanting “something more easy to get on with the English ear.” So Cardinal went through hundreds of potential titles (one was “the art of the artless”) until settling on Outsider Art.
Given a name, the genre soon accumulated critics, collectors, exhibitions. But reviewing Cardinal’s book in the New York Times, Corrinne Robins pinpointed flaws of his approach: the conflation of surreal, obscure artists with artists who suffered from schizophrenia; the treatment of these artists as Noble Madmen (with an element of the freakshow to it); the idea of “outsider art,” because of its lack of technique, as being more “pure” than the contemporary art scene. As Dubuffet said in 1951, “Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses—where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere—are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals.”
Once the art world became a wing of the stock market in the Eighties, the idea of outsider purity further blossomed, even though outsider art itself became more collected and so more valuable. It could seem as if the only remaining uncorrupted artists were Sunday painters, odd grandmothers, troubled children, Jesus enthusiasts, recluses and hermits, few of whom were recognized in their lifetime. And at its best, outsider art truly was visionary and astonishing: James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, a new Ark of the Covenant that Hampton built in a rented garage (see below), or Henry Darger‘s 15,145-page illustrated epic The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal.*
I think David thought that he was more practical and that they were loonier artists in the real sense of artists as madmen. He felt guilty. Because David was never a madman [and] how could you be a really good artist without being a madman? And now he had two of the maddest madmen in the world, one on each arm.
Danny Fields, on Bowie’s recruitment of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop in 1971.
Bowie had become taken with “outsider” painters while working up Leon/Outside in the mid-Nineties (visiting the Gugging Clinic’s artist wing with Eno), but his affinities for musical outsiders went much further back. As a teenager, he sought out the professional or actual deranged, in part inspired by a favorite book of his adolescence, Frank Edwards’ Strange People, a chronicle of various real or fictional persons who had ESP or third eyes or who’d been struck by lightning and now could talk to ghosts.
His love of oddballs like Biff Rose and Ken Nordine, and of the “feral” Iggy Pop, stemmed from this. He savored performers who lived in their own bright, strange worlds, whose moves didn’t seem calculated, whereas his entire career had been nothing but calculation. His discovery of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy was another glorious find (and of course Ziggy Stardust was the marriage of Iggy and “The Ledge”). Bowie was fascinated by the singer. Was “The Ledge” a put-on, or was he actually insane? Did he really think he could sing? Was he a genius or some talentless clown? The Cowboy’s appearance on Laugh-In offers the 1968 equivalent of a crowd baiting a medieval fool. (See next entry.)
Punk and indie rock purists (I’ve been and known some in my time) followed a similar route. The more obscure and penniless the band, the more mentally disturbed the singer, the better. It became a game of oneupmanship: who can find the biggest unknown weirdo? When I visited an old high-school friend in Chicago in 1995, he pulled out a cassette from “this unbelievable fucked-up amazing homeless dude” and played me Wesley Willis. Every song seemed to have the same refrain: Kurt-Co-bain, Kurt Co-bain; Re-tard bus, re-tard bus. “It’s amazing, amazing,” he said, laughing a bit too hard. Something felt off about it all—sitting in his brick-walled loft apartment in Wicker Park (we were far away from the old punk days by now), listening to and laughing at a man who sounded mentally disturbed.
The tunes they call creative when they’re running out of names…
“Wood Jackson,” though Bowie didn’t quite admit it to Paul Du Noyer, was his tribute to the musician Daniel Johnston. (The name possibly came from an SF pulp writer; another Nicholas Pegg suggestion, a reoccurring private eye character of the mystery writer M. Scott Michel (“Wood Jaxon”), seems less likely, though as it is Bowie, you can’t write anything off).
Born in 1961, Johnston kicked around the country and wound up in Austin, Texas, where he worked at McDonald’s and was a musician who handed out demo cassettes; sometimes, as Bowie mentioned, he bartered with his tapes for comics. Taken up by Austinites, who have a studied taste for the eccentric, Johnston appeared in a few local concert films and was recruited by the New York producer/musician Kramer, with whom he recorded his first professional record, 1990. His reputation was made on his self-recorded cassettes of the Eighties, though, particularly Hi, How Are You, whose cover Kurt Cobain often sported as a t-shirt.
Johnston suffered from manic depression and suffered schizophrenic episodes. Convinced he was Casper the Friendly Ghost, he nearly killed himself and his father in 1990 by yanking the keys from the ignition of a two-seater plane, forcing his father to land the stalled plane in a forest. Committed to a mental institution after causing an old woman to leap from a two-story window (he was trying to exorcise demons from her), Johnston also rejected a deal by Elektra Records (the label of Metallica, whose music he considered Satanic) to keep issuing his own tapes.
These stories gilded his legend. “When a child hits a piano, he makes untainted music, and that’s there in Daniel,” Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce once said. This “untainted” art ideal went back to the counterculture and far beyond—the idea of the child’s nascent creativity as a pure state, untouched by ambition or money or labels or journalists. The child may not know how to draw a straight line, but what matter? A bourgeois sniffing in a gallery that a child could draw that! was a badge of honor for modern painters.**
Everything about Johnston—his wavering, sometimes-tuneless voice; his lack of interest in production “values”; his vivid imaginative world (which resembled Henry Darger’s with its battles of light and dark by cartoon avatars); his artless, seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics (“hearts upon his sleeve and his blade,” as Bowie sang)—was a rebuke to the singer who takes two weeks to cut a lead vocal, the guitarist who’s deliberately referencing John Fahey in a riff, the lyricist who makes Sartre references or spins intricate rhyme schemes. He was an artist’s “anti-artist.”
As Sean O’Hagan wrote, this all removed Johnston’s agency, ignored his intelligence and his own self-awareness, to make of him a sort of Holy Fool for indie music. To wax how “untainted” Johnston’s music is, to rack up the stories of his breakdowns and institutionalizations as if they were batting statistics, is to diminish Johnston as a human being, making him some primitivist art project for your secret benefit. You hear something in Johnston—a deep privacy, an inner richness that dwarfs your own—and you eagerly pass him on to others, and soon it’s easy to regard him as an exotic object; you become a collector, a Victorian slum-tourist, despite your best intentions. But Johnston was aware of the game. Listening to Johnston’s songs, you can hear cynicism and sadness, a weariness at life and the role he’s been assigned in it.
Released as a B-side but recorded in the Heathen sessions, Bowie’s “Wood Jackson” had ties to “Uncle Floyd,” another song about an obscure “savant” figure who never quite made prime time. If “Wood Jackson” was Bowie’s interpretation of a Johnston song, rather than cutting it on four-track or a boombox cassette, he made his track as spacious as a three-story house. It was as though he was making the song that Johnston was hearing in his head.
Bowie also couldn’t resist playing on his own history, with references to “The Bewlay Brothers” (“to tayke away“) and “All the Madmen” (see Tony Visconti’s recorder accompaniment). It’s a man going back over old ground, looking for landmarks. “Bewlay” and “Madmen” were songs about his lost half-brother, his odes to madness, his pledges of allegiance to the raving men who lived in a way that he couldn’t. As with the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, all Bowie could do was tip his hat to Johnston and use him as the meat of a song.
It opens with Jordan Rudess on Hammond organ, a grand version of the toy organ Johnston would use. A Matt Chamberlain drum loop, Visconti’s bass and David Torn’s sliding, spectral lead guitar are other main players. Bowie’s Wood Jackson is both Christlike (taking beatings, being threatened by mobs) and Satanic, giving away his cassettes in exchange for souls. Such a shay-hay-hayme, Bowie sings. Jackson just wants to play: he just wants to be heard, not pitied or honored.
Back when Heathen seemed like one of Bowie’s last records, a track like “Wood Jackson” had finality—it was the last word on old obsessions: the raving men, the mad saints, those who’d burned more brightly than him. And it was a confession of sorts: he’d used these sad, lonely men for his own ends, he’d tasted their madness and their eccentricities, and had stolen from them happily. Now he was saying goodbye, shuffling off, wishing them well.
One of his saddest and loveliest B-sides, with its autumnal vocal melody, its jostling rhythms (see how the shaker and congas play off each other, or how the late-arriving acoustic guitar serves as another percussion line) and its gorgeous tapestry of organ, guitar and backing vocals (Bowie and Visconti), “Wood Jackson” still seems one of Bowie’s last chapters, regardless of where it now falls in his work.
Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 5 June 2002 as a CD bonus track on the “Slow Burn” EC single (ISO/Columbia COL 672744 2) and later in the UK on the “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” single.
* The influence of Darger on early 21st Century pop culture is near-inescapable, from the band Vivian Girls to the cover of Animal Collective’s Feelsto John Ashbery’s Girls on the Run to a photo spread in Rookie and so on.
** I have a London friend whose mother was rather set in her ways. He took her once to the Tate Gallery and she spent the entire trip tromping from painting to painting, each time saying loudly, “Well, I could’ve done that!” After a time he started mumbling “but you didn’t, did you” under his breath. “Never take your mother to an art gallery,” he said afterward.
Sources, quotes: Robins, “A Vocation for Madness and Art,” NYT, 8 April 1973; Willem Volkersz, “Roger Cardinal on Outsider Art,” Raw Vision No. 22; Fields quote from Marc Spitz’s Bowie; O’Hagan, “At War With His Demons…and Metallica,” Observer, 1 April 2006.
Top: Darger, “GIGANTIC ROVERINE WITH YOUNG ALL POISONOUS ALL ISLANDS OF UNIVERSAN SEAS AND OCEANS. ALSO IN CALVERINA ANGELINIA AND ABBIEANNA,”; Hampton’s Throne; Kurt Cobain sporting Daniel Johnston t-shirt, ca. 1992; more Darger; Simon Sparrow (b. West Africa, c. 1925; d. USA, 2000), Assemblage with Painted Frame.
Bowie had been a dedicated self-recycler from his earliest days, although he used to take more pains about his sleight of hand (burying the likes of “I Am a Lazer” and “Tired of My Life” so that their descendents on Scary Monsters seemed like fresh songs). By 1993, Bowie was opening the lab door, letting you watch him stitch a fresh piece together.
“Bleed Like a Craze, Dad” feels like a set of rough mixes that Bowie’s considering using for some other song, but his trial-and-error process of creation winds up being the actual track. There’s the self-sampling: the bassline from “Sister Midnight,” already reused on “Red Money,” while Mike Garson’s flown-in piano gives tastes of his work on “Lady Grinning Soul” (a little dancing phrase on high keys in the intro suggests the latter, but it gets diverted and broken down by the guitar kicking in). Then there’s the cohesion in real time of the song itself—take how Bowie sews together the chorus, first the guitar/keyboard vamp anchored on the “Sister Midnight” bass, then introducing the “shine, shine, shine” hook (very Tears for Fears) and then, finally at 1:50, singing the title line. The assembled chorus doesn’t arrive for another thirty seconds.
The lyric seems owed to a similar picking-up-sticks method, with Bowie using cut-up to fill his three brief and rapped verses with a run of words, occasionally wedded by similar vowel or consonant sounds (astral/kestrel, footnote/footstone, parlous/parlours, Shirley/Charley), down to the title phrase itself, a pun on the Kray Brothers.
The Krays (and “friends of the Krays I had known,” as Bowie wrote) were part of Bowie’s memory jog while writing Buddha of Suburbia. Twin gangster brothers who ran West End nightclubs in the Sixties as part of their racketeering, the Krays were as much part of Swinging London as Mary Quant (even being photographed by David Bailey for his Box of Pin Ups). Their connections with the London entertainment world meant that many musicians came into their orbit at one time or another (“very dangerous people those Kray twins,” as Ray Davies recalled in “London Song”) and their thuggish glamour fit the times—what’s Get Carter but “a Kray Brother visits Newcastle”? Criminality had a fashionable allure for the smart London set, and decades later, as Morrissey noted, the Krays remained a celebrity crush for some. On “Bleed,” the Krays are used as part of a London Mod biography told in a few scattered fragments, the Bewlay Brothers on the town (“how they drank from the jazz,” “seek for a leather journey,” “living on a movie”).
There are some subtle touches of keyboards and organ (and a guitar arpeggio that cycles throughout the track), the bassline is good enough to have been used in three Bowie tracks, and Garson, while vanishing for long stretches, manages to parry his way into a backing track that seemed inhospitable for him—he makes a lark of it, opening with a parody of a Debussy prelude and jabbing out a few scattered notes while the sludgy guitars kick in. The question is Erdal Kizilcay, who’s charged with playing the Robert Fripp/Reeves Gabrels sonic-disruptor role here but instead mainly offers tasteful guitar licks suitable for a Richard Marx record. Kizilcay was a player who lacked irony, and his presence here (perversely, intentionally?) generates some tension—he’s another piece that doesn’t quite cohere in the mix, contributing to the track’s sense of turbulence.
Recorded ca. June-July 1993 at Mountain Studios, Montreux.
On the morning of 16 January 1985, during a snowstorm that had left the Cane Hill Hospital in Coulsdon understaffed, a patient left the asylum grounds. He went across the road, into the Coulsdon South train station, and walked to the end of the platform. When the express train, which had run late, appeared in the distance, he jumped down onto the track. He lay his head upon the rail and turned his face away from the train, which killed him a few seconds later. He was Terry Burns, David Bowie’s half-brother.
As with many suicides, the final act wasn’t a surprise. Burns had laid on the same track the month before but had pulled away from the rail at the last minute. He had thrown himself out of a window in Cane Hill in 1982. These are just the documented attempts.
Most of us are fortunate in that our family tragedies don’t become the sport of tabloids. The Sun attacked Bowie for his alleged mistreatment of Burns, calling him out for ignoring his brother and for not attending the funeral (which he didn’t attend because he thought he would make it a press circus). The papers gave a platform to an aggrieved aunt to lambaste him. The following year Peter and Leni Gillman’s biography, Alias David Bowie, was published, with the aunt as one of its key sources and which offered as a central premise that the Bowie family was riddled with insanity and that Bowie’s tortured relationship with his mentally ill half-brother, and his fear of going mad, inspired many of his songs. Except for a note included with the flowers he sent to Burns’ funeral (paraphrasing a line from Blade Runner), Bowie kept silent.
Certainly Terry Burns had been essential to Bowie’s development; there’s little question as to that. Burns, Bowie’s elder by ten years, had helped turn David Jones into “David Bowie,” having introduced his younger half-brother to everything from Tibetan Buddhism to jazz. And the period in which Bowie and Burns had last had regular contact, the Haddon Hall days of 1970-1971 (when Burns would sometimes stay with the Bowies on weekends) coincided with Bowie’s quantum leap in songwriting—he would introduce himself to guests as “Terry’s brother” and then go off to write “Quicksand” and “Life on Mars?”
There was Cane Hill on the cover of The Man Who Sold The World, and there were the songs: “All the Madmen,”“After All,”“Five Years,“* “The Man Who Sold the World,” “The Bewlay Brothers.” Songs about doubles and brothers and shadows, about lost children, madness and isolation. But songs about “Terry” the imago, not Terry the troubled man who would take his own life at age 47. Bowie had made a doppelganger of Terry, had used it for his own ends, as a vessel into which he could channel his fears, a muse he could eventually discard. In 1993, promoting his new album, Bowie said he’d really never known his half-brother, who in his youth would disappear for years and then turn up at the house in Bromley seemingly just to upset his mother. “I think I unconsciously exaggerated his importance. I invented this hero-worship to discharge my guilt and failure, and to set myself free from my own hang-ups.”
“Jump They Say,” released eight years after Burns’ death, was “semi-based on my impression of my stepbrother,” Bowie told the NME. But “Jump” was no eulogy (how could it have been, as Bowie had already written “Bewlay Brothers”?), and there was little sentimental or maudlin about it. It was a somber, desolate song, built on a steady mid-tempo rhythm track and which only erupted into brief spasms of cold anger—even the usually buoyant Lester Bowie sounds aggrieved in his solo. Oddly enough, it was a hit: Bowie’s last-ever UK Top 10 single.
The starting point for “Jump” may have been Bowie toying with his old piece “What in the World” with which “Jump” shares a similar shifting two-chord structure, rhythmic base and even lyrical signifiers: a girl with grey eyes in “World” gives birth to the shaking man with a nation in his eyes in “Jump.”
And there’s a taste of Low‘s spiritual deadness in “Jump.” It’s even a far colder song than “What in the World,” which lies on the manic end of Low‘s emotional spectrum. “Jump” feels like it’s going nowhere, a song locked in a box, from the constant two-chord (C/B-flat) shift underlying the verses and bridges** to the looped percussion tracks (a left-mixed synthesized hi-hat and right-mixed tambourine 16ths, which play almost entirely through the track—the hi-hat drops out during Lester Bowie’s solo, while the tambourine gets down-mixed) to the bassline, which until the chorus just alternates between holding on the root note (the C bars) and playing a livelier two-note pattern (the Bb bars).
Bowie’s vocal, which keeps to the range of a fifth except for the soaring bridge, is also locked in this stasis, with Bowie arranging phrases so that “he has” falls at the same place, rhythmically, in each line (Bowie eventually alters this pattern—while he at first does the same with “they say,” using that line to end phrases in the first verse, he starts dragging it across bars in the second verse: “they/say he has/no fear they…“). This strict rhythmic pattern fits the coldness of the lyric, in which the “Terry” figure is observed as though by a scientist in a lab—“Terry” has no inner life, he’s just made up of a series of observation reports. Look at him climb! the researcher notes, with the slightest trace of life in his voice, watching as the man hauls himself up a spire like some sad parody of King Kong. And what’s the chorus but a crowd calling for him to jump? The researcher closes the file. I’d say he should watch his arse, he mutters, as he leaves the room and turns off the light.
Breaking through the song’s permafrost are a few brief interruptions—distorted, “underwater”-sounding trumpets that crop up in the intro and get a brief moment to solo; Lester’s wild spray of notes (in the Outside tour, this section was battled over by Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson); Bowie’s pained-sounding saxophone responses to the crowd calling “jump!,” a melody that Bowie finally put to words in the last chorus. It’s a message of hope and faith (“got to BELIEVE somebody!“) though Bowie and his backing singers only emphasize the last syllable (“LEAVE!”)
While the single went nowhere in America, “Jump” was a hit in the UK, its performance likely boosted by a strong promotional push, the hype around it being Bowie’s first “real” new single in half a decade and by its video, directed by Mark Romanek. The latter was Bowie’s best effort since “Ashes to Ashes,” with which it shared a sense of rummaging through discarded Bowie selves: in “Jump” the stewardesses from Kubrick’s 2001 share the stage with the fallen man of Lodger and the tortured Thomas Jerome Newton of Man Who Fell to Earth.
As for the man who walked into the Coulsdon South station that morning? No one knows him; no one will ever be privy to was in his mind, on that or on any other morning. He remains a secret to us, likely even to his brother. “Jump” doesn’t bring us any closer to him, it answers nothing, it explains nothing, it mourns him only in passing, indirectly, as if in a scientific paper’s abstract; the song’s falling man easily could have been someone Bowie had just read about in a newspaper. “Jump” lets us overhear a man talk to his brother’s shadow, which had always been just as much a reflection of himself.
Recorded ca. summer/fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or Power Station, NYC. Released as a single (Arista 74321 139424, c/w “Pallas Athena,” #9 UK) in March 1993. Performed live in 1995-1996, one of two songs from BTWN that Bowie revived. Again, there were a heap of remixes (see here for the lot). The UK 12″ single included the Hard Hands, Leftfield and Dub Oddity mixes (the latter, also by Leftfield, an instrumental that’s basically a new song, is on the 2-CD BTWN reissue); the Rock Mix (orig. on the Savage CD single, “Rock Mix” = more banal guitar) and the Brothers in Rhythm 12″ mix are also on that reissue. “Jump” was also released in 1994 as a poorly-received CD-ROM in which users could remix BTWN songs, re-edit the “Jump” video and listen to Bowie gas on.
* “I thought of my brother and wrote “Five Years,” Bowie, Rolling Stone interview, 1976.
** Much of the song alternates between B-flat and C major, the chords shifting every other bar. While the ear keeps trying to guess which way the song will go, the pattern seems that it’s never going to break, so there’s a suspension of movement, fitting the uncertainty of the track. Finally, the chorus progression (Dm7-F-Gm7-C5) offers a vague resolution, establishing the song in C Mixolydian mode. (Though you could make a case that the song’s been in F major the whole time, with the dueling Bb and C chords the IV and V chords of F. Or that it’s in standard C major, with Bowie borrowing Bb from the key of F major (as a substitute IV chord—it’s the sort of thing John Lennon loved to do), and portending a key change to F that never happens.)
Epilogue: There was another Bowie half-sibling, one who is often forgotten: his half-sister Annette, born in 1943 (she was his father Haywood’s daughter). Her story ends far happier. As Bowie wrote in the introduction to his wife’s autobiography: “When I was seven or thereabouts, my half-sister, Annette, left England for good. She had fallen in love with an Egyptian and was to travel to his village to marry him. She would write. My father may have received news but if so those letters were not shared. I never heard another thing from or about her…[when] Annette had arrived in Egypt, she had converted to Islam, which had meant undergoing a name change. Being the first Western Christian girl to ever visit let alone live in her husband’s village, the most appropriate name for her was obvious.
If you care to listen I will tell you that I, David Robert Jones, a Protestant Caucasian boy from South London in jolly old England, have a wife and a sister, both called Iman.”
Top: Messrs. Blonde, White and Pink, Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino, 1992; “Jump” single; still from the “Jump” video, Romanek, 1993.
Bowie’s Sixties pop tribute “Zeroes” is the ambition, creative anxiety and bungled execution of Never Let Me Down in microcosm. Bowie considered “Zeroes” one of the album’s major songs, sequenced it to close the first side and labored over it, crowding the track with everything from Peter Frampton’s electric sitar to a 10-person vocal chorus whose members likely included his son Duncan and his assistant Coco.* It’s telling that Bowie kept “Zeroes” at its full length (just shy of six minutes) on the LP release, where he’d trimmed a majority of the other cuts.
Bowie described his intention for “Zeroes” as “stripping away all the meanness of rock and coming back to the spirit with which one entered the thing. It’s the ultimate happy-go-lucky rock tune, based in the nonsensical period of psychedelia. So it’s a naivete song about rock, using a lot of cliches.” It’s always a mug’s game to accept a composer’s description of his/her work as gospel, and this quote is such a misreading that it seems like a deliberate feint, much as how Bowie regularly knocked “The Bewlay Brothers” for being gibberish. Because there’s little that’s “happy-go-lucky” in the song, which opens with demonic, distorted screams in lieu of actual audience noises, and whose first verse and chorus is a sharp self-assessment of Bowie’s battered aesthetic condition and where he stood in regard to “The Sixties.”
The latter, by 1986-1987, had been cast into a hollow, brightly-colored tomb, a ceremonial contrast to the political and cultural mood of the era. “The Sixties” was an opposition party happily exiled to the past. And while a numberof underground bandswere exploring the legacy of “nonsensical psychedelia” and appropriating pieces of it for their ownends, the official “Sixties” narrative was used to shame the allegedly frivolous and/or derivative pop music of the Eighties. There was a sense, pushed by the “classic rock” radio stations and the major rock magazines (blessedly not Spin, the oasis of the era), of Sixties music as being a perfected strain of rock & roll, the High Canon, to which no music afterward could be compared. All that was left for younger musicians was to pay homage, and for Sixties survivors to occasionally reunite and demonstrate “real” music to kids.
In “Zeroes” Bowie tries to position himself, shiftily as usual, as someone who had been both part of the era and yet always outside of it, and one who was trying to escape the decade’s long shadow while simultaneously exploiting it. The first verse is the lay of the battlefield: all the bright young heroes are dead, their memories a curse on the survivors, who are stuck between an unknowable bleak future and a “toothless past” that still has a wounding power. And the chorus begins as a self-flagellation, an aging musician acknowledging that while his muse and his youth have deserted him, his audience hasn’t, and they still have lists of demands: another tour, yet another record (“don’t you know we’re back on trial again today?” he sings later, drawing out the sharp vowels of “trial”).
The chorus builds to a refrain, the singer gamely making a go of it, singing cliches: it’s all for you, tonight I’m yours, this music was meant for you, everybody is a star. That the band on stage is called the Zeroes is one of Bowie’s better jokes: the rock band reduced to a cipher that holds no value. The Spiders from Mars were a holy conceit, a “fake” band that had more life than the bluejeans- and drum-solos groups of the early Seventies. The Zeroes are faceless, nameless; they are no ones, place-fillers for memories.
“Zeroes” finds Bowie pushing back against the official media narrative of the Sixties. He’s trying to recapture the frivolity and gimcrackery of the era, the lost Sixties of “Laughing Gnome” and “Green Tambourine,” as opposed to the solemnized hippie New Testament with its songs of revolution and freedom. So when Bowie references Prince in the lyric, it’s in the context of Prince as a fellow Sixties pastichist, another musician raiding the era for a few shiny trinkets. (Bowie wrote “Zeroes” while Prince was at the peak of this, with Around the World in a Day and Parade). And Bowie tries to turn the Beatles back into pop merchants, plastering the track with shards of their songs (helped by Erdal Kizilcay, whose “knowledge of rock music begins and stops with the Beatles,” Bowie said),** with Dylan also getting a few nods (Bowie tweaks lines from both “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Ballad of a Thin Man”).
Much of “Zeroes” is able mimicry, with Bowie using Frampton’s Coral electric sitar as a curtain-raiser between verses and choruses (the sitar, which had Danelectro pickups, had an impeccable Sixties pedigree, as it was formerly owned by Jimi Hendrix. Frampton got it from the owner of Electric Lady Studios), or having Crusher Bennett play what sounds like a tabla during the droning “psychedelic” outro. And Bowie churns up his own classics as well, adding them to the broth. He was an old hand at this by now: what was Scary Monsters but a rummaging in the cupboard, twisting old discarded folk and soul songs into brutal new shapes? So the song’s opening, with its vampirish screams and applause, calls back to the start of “Diamond Dogs,” while “Zeroes” seems a diminution of both the Spiders and of “Heroes,” a song that offered, in Bowie’s words, the sound of a bright future which would never come to pass. Now the future had come, “Zeroes” suggests, and it’s a broken mirror.
It soon becomes overwhelming: the denseness of the mix, its claustrophobic clutter of sounds, makes Bowie seem like he’s suffocating in a compost of old songs.
At the center of this was one of Bowie’s knottiest compositions in over a decade, a return to the tortuous structures and harmonic ambiguities of his early Seventies works. Each section of “Zeroes”—verse, chorus, coda—is in a different key. The keys themselves (A major, F major, D-flat major) are isolated from each other, sharing few common chords, while Bowie’s transitions between them sound abrupt, even disturbing. (A dense and possibly faulty musical theory section follows, so feel free to skip to the next section.)
“Zeroes” begins (intro and verse) in A major, with a fairly standard progression, A-B-D, repeated three times in the verse. Then as the verse closes, Bowie sets the stage for a key change in the chorus. A common move, when a change is approaching, is to use a pivot chord: a chord that fits both the current key and the upcoming new one. This helps your ears subconsciously process the change, so that it sounds “right” (much as how, when watching a film, the mind will accept a cut from a man settling his bill at a bar to a shot of him entering his apartment. The cut works on a subconscious level—we fill in the narrative gaps).
So at the end of the verse, instead of the expected D chord, there’s an E-flat diminished seventh chord (right after “how it feels”). There’s a building tension, as the chord, which is a weird, dissonant one, needs to be resolved—i.e., it needs to “go” somewhere. But instead of what you’d expect—a move into a key in which E-flat fits—the song instead shifts to F (whose only flatted tone is a B-flat). It’s an odd move, and it sounds “wrong.” And while we’re solidly in F for the chorus, immediately afterward comes another harsh transition: a four-bar solo break that veers out of F major (the chords are E-flat again, now followed by G-flat). Again, you expect this to lead somewhere, but no, instead it’s a hard landing back to A major for the second verse. The sequence repeats.
Only at the end of the second chorus, with a run of D-flat chords in the last three bars (on the last, long-held “you”) is there finally a “logical” transition, as the song’s closing section (a long coda) is in D-flat. So D-flat is already establishing itself in the expiring moments of the chorus, so that when the coda officially begins with a G-flat chord (the subdominant of the new tonic chord, Db), the move finally makes “sense,” the progression soon resolving to Db (on “to dooo”).
However, as often with Bowie, there’s a method to the apparent madness. The Eb chords at the end of the verses, and the Eb and Gbs in the solo? They all fit into the song’s ultimate key, D-flat (II and IV chords, respectively). So all along, “Zeroes” has been hinting at its ultimate destination, twice nearly leading you there, each time yanking you back. So when the sitar-heavy coda appears, it feels like a happy return home at last, and works with the lyric’s final collapse into submission and acceptance.
So “Zeroes” is ambitious enough, but you can’t escape the sense that it’s a flawed reduction of a song that sounded far grander in Bowie’s head. It seems compromised, overworked, and it’s an exhausting listen (despite being (or perhaps because it was) mixed by Bob Clearmountain), a victim of Bowie’s conflicting impulses—to make a dead-on parody of Sixties pop, to pit his old songs against each other, to undermine the idea of a holy Sixties crowding out the present, to feel diminished when placing yourself against the past.
And Bowie also faced the limitations of his collaborators. He no longer had Tony Visconti or Eno to play against and to use as interpreters; Carlos Alomar was no longer at peak fighting strength (and was hamstrung in the sessions anyhow); and he’d long disposed of the rhythm section of George Murray and Dennis Davis, who’d put in the pocket anything that Bowie had thrown at them. Instead Bowie mainly had Kizilcay, Frampton and David Richards: an admirable set of secondary translators.
It’s tempting to consider the closing minute of “Zeroes”—Bowie sinking into a trance of “doesn’t matter“s—as an exhausted surrender, Bowie unable to reconcile his narratives and admitting it’s all been just wasted effort. But making “Zeroes” had pushed Bowie, had made him struggle again, and while the track is a lesser version of what the Bowie of 1974 would have done, it still has a sense of moody life and grand intention. As with “Glass Spider,” it’s a testament that Bowie was finally willing to fail again.
Recorded ca. September-November 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. Played on the Glass Spider tour.
* I agree w/Nicholas Pegg that the “Joe” and “Coco” credited on the LP sleeve as part of the “Coquettes” chorus are likely to be Mr. Jones and Ms. Schwab.
Bowie also said the chord changes at the end of “Zeroes” “are real derivative” of Beatles songs, but I couldn’t find any direct parallels. That said, “When I’m Sixty Four” is also in D-flat major and has a similar progression in its verses as the coda of “Zeroes.”
Top to bottom: George Harrison at 44 (John Livzey), 1987; at 33 (unknown photog.), 1976; at 24 (Terry O’Neill), Paris, December 1967; at 15, with McCartney and Lennon, Liverpool, 30 December 1958.
“Sons of the Silent Age,” the only song Bowie had written before he began recording “Heroes” in July 1977, is the odd man out on that record. It seems like a latter-day visitation of faded Bowie obsessions, the return of homo superior and the Bewlay Brothers.*
There’s a revivalist feel to much of “Sons,” sometimes literally: the chorus melody sounds inspired by one of Mick Ronson’s guitar solos in “Width of a Circle,” while Tony Visconti’s harmonies also call back to Man Who Sold the World. For much of the lyric, Bowie seems to have picked through old songs for spare images: the Gnosticism of “Station to Station” (“they never die, they just go to sleep one day”), the urban dreamscapes of “Diamond Dogs” and “Warszawa” and “Five Years,” even plastic rock stars (the Sons listen to the very Burroughsian “Sam Therapy and King Dice”). And with generally fine results: the last verse in particular is some of the eeriest writing Bowie’s done since MWSTW.
“Sons” is sequenced well on “Heroes,” serving as a breather after the epic title track and before the onslaught of the side-closer “Blackout.” Yet taken on its own, “Sons” is an odd, schizophrenic track, with the verses and chorus seemingly from different songs, each temporarily eclipsing the other; the 4-bar theme led by Bowie’s saxophone serves as a scene-changer.
The verses are harmonically stable (just moving back and forth between two augmented chords), are sung by Bowie in his Cockney voice (which helps flesh out the rhyme scheme, making the title phrase “sons of the SYlent AYdj”) in a near-conversational tone, and the lyric is surreal and possibly cut-up derived. By contrast the chorus, which spans much of the key of E-flat, is sung in Bowie’s “epic” register, has elaborate vocal harmonies, a simple, reassuring lyric and an overall grandiose tone. When Bowie revived “Sons” on the Glass Spider tour in 1987, he gave the chorus to Peter Frampton, which seemed fitting enough.
Recorded July to mid-August 1977, Hansa Tonstudio 2, Berlin. Performed throughout the 1987 tour, and used as the fourth movement of Philip Glass’ “Heroes” Symphony, composed 1996, recorded 1997 by The American Composers Orchestra.
* A marvelous insight in the comments by Ian W. Hill: a primary influence on “Sons” is Jacques Brel, particularly “Les Vieux” (Les vieux ne meurent pas, ils s’endorment un jour et dorment trop longtemps”).
Top: Michael Schmidt, “Berlin-Wedding, 1976-1978.”
“Fame,” one of David Bowie’s two US chart-toppers, is a freak and a fluke. It’s more in line with experimental Bowie works like Low than it is with the “soul” album to which it was appended. Its groove, so compelling that James Brown stole it, and its back story (the John Lennon connection likely spurred airplay) made it a smash, but “Fame” just as easily could’ve been consigned to Bowie’s pile of studio outtakes.
Because Bowie wasn’t sure what he had with it: a minimalist funk improvisation, a mutant hybrid of “Foot Stompin’,” the odd result of a few hours of studio jamming. He later called “Fame” his least favorite track on Young Americans, a sentiment that some of his players shared—Andy Newmark, who drummed on most of Young Americans (but not “Fame”), dismissed “Fame” as “just a vamp, a groove. It’s not the essence of what [Bowie] represents in my mind. “Young Americans” is more of the persona I associate with him.”
“Fame” is as dry as it is cynical, the opposite of what Bowie had been attempting when he started Young Americans in Philadelphia, with the dense gospel- and soul-inspired tracks cut at Sigma Sound. Now here was a track clarified to vocals, guitars, bass and drums; it was funk seemingly arrived at via a William Burroughs cut-up. Its sonic landscape, using the wide stereo separation typical of contemporary funk tracks (like Lyn Collins’ “Rock Me Again & Again & Again & Again & Again”) is broad and clear.
The track is nothing but a set of muscles and ligaments. There are no horns, no backing chorus singers (just Lennon’s squeaked-out “fame” and the varispeed vocals at the end), no keyboards save for a backwards piano track that appears in the intro and briefly shows up later. Primarily built on one chord (F7), the song’s either one long chorus or an extended, repeating verse, the only contrast being the two-bar move to B-flat: “It’s not your brain/it’s just the flame”, etc.). The rhythm, apart from two bars of 3/4 that open the track, is straight 4/4, hammered down by Emir Ksasan’s bass and Dennis Davis’ drums hitting on alternating beats.
The lyric came out of Lennon’s cynical take on the star-maker-machine process, with Bowie contributing his own paranoid thoughts on the business, particularly his gripes with his manager, Tony Defries. (Bowie, having discovered that the massive expenses incurred by Defries’ company Mainman were coming out of his own pocket, formally severed ties with Defries about ten days after recording “Fame,” kicking off a legal war.)
Two rock stars complaining about being famous are a potentially awful set of parents, but Lennon and Bowie’s lines are harsh enough, and lurid enough (“lets [a man] loose and hard to swallow”), to be compelling. There’s no self-pity in “Fame,” as there is in something like Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” where playing the star is a weary business, one Seger shoulders like a burden. In “Fame,” the lyric is a series of dry observations that culminate in the key line of the last verse—is it any wonder I reject you first? In the first verse, “fame” is an active force, a possession (it “makes,” “puts,” “lets”), while in the second verse, Bowie pits “what you like” against “what you get” and “what you need”—fame may satisfy the first, but it puts you on the hook for the rest. (There’s a dying Sixties echo in these lines, a play on the Stones’ you can’t always get what you want (but sometimes you get what you need) (which already suggested that sometimes you get nothing at all), or on Dylan’s line from “Memphis Blues Again”: your debutante knows what you need/but I know what you want.)
The song’s poison can be distilled down to how Bowie and Lennon sing the title word. They elongate the “ay” sound while pulling the word down (it sinks a half-step between syllables), so that it’s not an affirmation, an exclamation—it’s a hook that initially sounds like a phasing mistake. It sags, it withers, it blights the rest of the verse. Bowie spends much of each verse trying to scrabble back up to the initial high note (& only doing so on each phrase’s last syllable (for instance “take things ov-ER“)).
“Fame” was officially credited to Bowie, Lennon and Carlos Alomar, and in the 35 years since its creation, there’ve been about as many claims as to who contributed what to “Fame,” and especially who ripped off who.*
Lennon’s primary contributions seem to be a) playing an acoustic guitar only audible in the intro bars, b) supervising the backwards piano track and c) allegedly coming up with the line “fame” and sometimes singing it. Still, some writers have made Lennon (who was in the studio on a whim, having come in to hear “Across the Universe”) more of the creative mastermind. For example, here’s Philip Norman, from his 2008 Lennon biography, who claims: John attended the session at Electric Lady studio and improvised a three-note riff around the single word “fame.” Compare Lennon himself, who, interviewed soon after “Fame” was released in 1975, gave credit for the riff to Alomar: “This guitarist had a lick, so we sort of wrote this song, no big deal. Oh-boom-boom-boom. We made this lick into a song is what happened.”
Alomar recalled that “Fame” came about after Bowie finally decided that “Foot Stompin’,” which he’d been trying to cut in the studio for months, wasn’t going to work. “Foot Stompin'” “sounded like a plain, stupid, old rock & roll song,” Alomar told David Buckley in 2005. “David didn’t even like it. So what he did was to cut it up into blues changes, which is one-four-five-four, which is what “Fame” is. It cut it up so he just had drums, bass and that one guitar line.” Alomar also said Lennon, playing acoustic guitar, inadvertently inspired the lyric. Lennon “put his chin on the acoustic guitar when he played and just the breathing he did produced that funny noise. David thought he was saying “Fame”: “he’s saying Fame! I’m telling you!”
There are three primary guitar tracks on “Fame”: the Alomar “Foot Stompin'” riff that repeats through the verses (mainly confined to the left channel), Bowie’s central electric guitar, which, in Bowie’s words, “makes the long Wah and the echoed Bomp! sound,” and which serves as the track’s brass section (there’s also a “telephoning ringing” guitar fill mixed in the center), and a third electric guitar, mainly confined to the right channel, that keeps to the high end. There are secondary guitar tracks as well—Lennon’s barely-there acoustic, and what Alomar has claimed (and Bowie has disputed) as a series of guitar overdubs that Alomar did after Bowie left the studio.
Bowie added dabs of color (the backwards piano and rattlesnake percussion that drop in after the third verse) to help the track avoid monotony, and he ended “Fame” with a new varispeed vocal experiment (see “The Bewlay Brothers,” “The Laughing Gnome,”“After All”). Here a repeated “fame” (Lennon and Bowie’s vocals) descends stepwise from the air to the earth over six bars. So the vocal, initially sped up to Gnome level, starts up in the stratosphere on a high E flat, falls an octave over two bars, then falls another octave in the next two (going from D to D), until finally the vocal, now at molasses speed, ends in the depths, stopping on a low D (tweaked a beat later by a Lennon “fame!” interjection). The idea’s an old Bowie trick, as the same melodic fall appears in “Gnome’s” opening bassoon line and it will soon crop up again in “Speed of Life.”
Released in August 1975, “Fame” hit #1 in the US a month later. It was his long-desired passport. “Fame” landed him on Soul Train, where Bowie was so wrecked that he required multiple takes to lip-sync it and “Golden Years,” and an even more prestigious/egregious tribute was James Brown’s outright theft of much of the song—Alomar’s riff, the “telephone” guitar fills—for his 1976 single “Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved).” (Some stories have claimed Brown actually put on the Bowie record for his band, and said “play this.”) For Alomar, who had played with Brown in the late ’60s, it must have seemed a particularly strange turning of the circle. Alomar once said Bowie told him “if it charts, we’ll sue [Brown],” a spectacle avoided by “Hot”‘s weak performance (#31 R&B).
Bowie had played “Fame” for most of his tours between 1976 and 1990, and, needing bait for Ryko’s CD reissue campaign, he reworked “Fame” at the end of the ’80s. While attempting to maintain the original’s minimalism, Bowie larded his new mix with gewgaws and glitter, put the rhythm on steroids, mercilessly included a vocal “stutter,” and then turned his own sins over for other parties to amplify. While “Fame” would seem to be ideal raw material for a hip-hop update, Bowie wound up with a Queen Latifah performance that achieves mediocrity in its better moments. The best of the new lot is probably the Baker house mix, which uses Bowie’s vocal as just another piece of percussion.
“Fame” was recorded ca. 12-15 January 1975. Released in August 1975 as RCA 2479 c/w “Win.” (While hitting #1 in the US, it only reached #17 in the UK. The British, in a nostalgic contrarian mood, instead sent a re-release of “Space Oddity” to the top in the same period.) “Fame 90″ came out in its various incarnations in March 1990 (a 7″ single, a 7″ picture disc and a 12” single/CD all featured different mixes), and served as the traditional crap “remake” cuckoo egg track on the hits collection ChangesBowie (there’s usually one on every greatest hits compilation, cf. the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me ’86”.)
Top: Bowie’s choreographer, Toni Basil, on the cover of the Sept. 1974 issue of After Dark, the apparent inspiration for Eric Stephen Jacobs’ Young Americans cover photograph. Bowie allegedly had wanted to commission a Norman Rockwell painting for the cover, but balked when he was told Rockwell needed at least six months to do the job.
A postscript on “Shame” and plagiarism:
Shirley & Company’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” has been called a key influence on “Fame,” and some Bowie biographers claim that “Fame” actually rips “Shame” off, e.g. Christopher Sandford: [Fame] evolved, via Carlos Alomar and a riff lifted from Shirley and Company(my emphasis) through a half-dozen makeovers and a last-minute name change from “Footstompin’.” (“Footstompin’ was another song, but never mind that.)
Sandford’s source appears to be Tony Zanetta and Henry Edwards’ bio Stardust, from 1986. In this account, Lennon “while David was out of the room” starts playing the “Shame, Shame, Shame” riff, and is soon joined by Alomar, who “picks up the riff, and the two men played together.” Bowie allegedly comes in, asks what they’re playing, is told it’s “Shame, Shame, Shame,” then leaves the room and comes back a half-hour later with the complete lyrics for “Fame.”
If true, this scenario would have the wily Alomar riffing with Lennon on a song that he’s already ripped off. Because Alomar had been playing his “Foot Stompin'” riff, the direct ancestor of the “Fame” riff, since late October ’74. The timing doesn’t really work. “Shame, Shame, Shame”‘s first reference in Billboard is the issue of 21 December ’74, where it’s reviewed as a new-release single, and “Shame” didn’t chart nationally until 18 January 1975, days after the “Fame” recording session. Sure, pro musicians often get new releases ahead of the public, and “Shame” was likely getting NYC airplay in December ’74, but, really, the 35-year-old John Lennon was that up on new disco records? And wouldn’t Alomar, instead of “picking up” the riff, maybe have said something like, “yeah, I love this song—in fact, I’ve been jamming it for months on tour already.”
My guess: “Shame, Shame, Shame” has really nothing to do with “Fame.”[CO, 2014: I was wrong: see Trynka in comments.] I expect the confusion began when people first heard “Fame” in summer ’75 (when it was released as a single) and thought it was a nick on “Shame,” a hit song from the previous winter. Now James Brown, on the other hand—the Godfather committed robbery in broad daylight, no denying it.