The Man Who Sold The World

January 27, 2010

The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie, 1970).
The Man Who Sold the World (Lulu, 1974).
The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, 1979).
The Man Who Sold the World (Nirvana, 1993, rehearsal).
The Man Who Sold the World (Nirvana, 1993, broadcast).
The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie, live, 1995).
The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie, broadcast, 2000).
The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie, live, 2004).

I. Metrobolist

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away.

Hughes Mearns, “Antigonish” (1922).

Bowie’s third LP was going to be called Metrobolist, a play on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: it was the title of Mike Weller’s proposed cover illustration, a Letterist cartoon in which a man (whose image was based on a photo of John Wayne) walking past Cane Hill Asylum and carrying a rifle offers an aside in a speech bubble whose words have been erased. It originally read, according to Weller, “ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES, TAKE A LOOK AT YOUR ARMS.”

On the last day of mixing the LP, Bowie had yet to come up with a lyric for a final track that was cued up on the deck. Tony Visconti recalled waiting, tapping his fingers at the console, while Bowie sat in the reception area of Advision Studios, scratching out a lyric on paper. Bowie ran into the booth to record his vocal, the track was mixed in a few hours and the tapes were sent off the same night. You’d expect something like “Black Country Rock” from these straightened circumstances: instead, it was “The Man Who Sold the World,” Bowie’s finest lyric of the record.

Bowie had found his album’s real name. “The Man Who Sold The World,” nearly an afterthought, had turned out to be the prime mover of the LP all along, like a song whose key is only revealed in its last bars.

While it’s basically a first draft (and it shows at times: “I gazed a gazely stare” is pretty rough), the lyric’s forcibly-spontaneous origins also created its uncanny resonance. Metrobolist could be a play on somnambulist, and “The Man Who Sold the World” could be a sleepwalker’s journal entry, a piece of automatic writing.

Like a dream, “The Man Who Sold the World” has a score of fathers—its title is likely from Robert Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon; its opening lines suggest Hughes Mearns’ “Antigonish,” as quoted above, or, even more likely, the WWII-era song based on the poem, “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There“; its image of a man meeting his double, spiritual or corporeal, derives from everything from Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting” to Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” to Ray Bradbury’s “Night Meeting,” in which a man and Martian cross paths in the deserts of Mars one night, each convinced that the other hails from the distant past.

And the song’s symbolic twin was a film from the same year (while shot in 1968, it finally premiered a few months after Bowie wrote his song): Performance (fittingly, the film had two directors: Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell), in which a glamorous gangster (James Fox) holes up in the mansion of a decadent pop singer (Mick Jagger), with the two playing out each other’s roles—a talented criminal, the film suggests, is as much an artist as a true artist can be a criminal.

Nothing is true, everything is permitted.

Turner (Mick Jagger), in Performance.

“The Man Who Sold the World” has two verses (one pairing in a song filled with them: for example, Bowie sings two pairs of notes at the start of each line of the chorus): the first is Now, with the narrator encountering himself or Another (cf. Rimbaud’s “Je est une autre”), the second verse is Afterward (or Before). Where most of Bowie’s lyrics on the LP are oddly-phrased and filled with bizarre imagery, “The Man Who Sold The World,” two verses of eight modest lines and a chorus of four, has a cold simplicity, its tone that of an old riddle.

So the singer passes a man on the stair, although the singer isn’t truly present at the meeting. Is he asleep, dead, exiled from his own time? Whatever his own situation, the singer is more bewildered by the man he encounters. “I thought you died alone, a long, long time ago,” he says in astonishment, as though he has met a lost self, or the self he once imagined he would be, or the self he one day will be.

The chorus is the other’s response. “Oh no, not me” the specter (or the man) says, happily denying the charge. You could read it as “Death hasn’t come for me, it never will.” After all he’s the Man Who Sold the World, the extremity of all the extremities that this odd LP has offered. He could be a con man, like Delos Harriman, Heinlein’s Man Who Sold the Moon, who swindles the masses into financing his dream, only to be denied fulfilling it. He could be the Bowie of 1975, who has become world-famous at the price of his sanity. Or alternately, he could be, as he says, the one who never lost control, the man who never let his imagination take him where it would. Just common David Jones, living out a quiet life in Bromley, rebuking his extravagant alternate self.

The second verse broadens the scope, moving from the stairwell to the world. Bowie wanders, in exile or heading home (one and the same), and tries to find community in the fact that others are in the same straights as he. But the singer’s questions remain open, the riddles only answer themselves, and there’s no resolution. The song fades out with wordless moans and an cycling guitar, seeming to end before it began.

II. The Stairwell

I passed on with an inward shudder. I was so identified with my secret double that I did not even mention the fact in those scanty, fearful whispers we exchanged. I suppose he had made some slight noise of some kind or other. It would have been miraculous if he hadn’t at one time or another. And yet, haggard as he appeared, he looked always perfectly self-controlled, more than calm—almost invulnerable.

Joseph Conrad, “The Secret Sharer,” (1909).

Mick Ronson and Visconti’s arrangements, like Bowie’s language, had been heavy, dark and convulsive for much of the record, but as with “The Man Who Sold The World”‘s lyric, suddenly all is simplicity and clarity. Ronson’s opening guitar riff is basic enough that guitar teachers use it as a lesson for beginners—hold the G string down and play three notes (A), lift your finger up and play a fourth note as an open string, then simply slide your finger along the same string from the second to the third fret and back again, lifting your finger up at the end (which creates the circular hook).

The riff is constant throughout the song, moving, like Bowie’s narrator, across a moving landscape, its appearance seemingly altered with its changing surroundings. So the riff travels, in the intro, from A to D minor (the home key of the song; Bowie, likely unintentionally, sings “made my way back home” over one return to D minor) to F and back to D minor; it does the same in the break after the first chorus, and again, seemingly endlessly, in the long outro. As the author Chet Williamson wrote, in an appreciation of the song: “The melody of the riff is unchangeable. It seems to owe nothing to any key, and stands alone, adapting itself to the darkness of D minor, the brightness of F, and the intermediary and transitory character of A.

The chorus is even simpler. Visconti on bass, then Ronson, then Ralph Mace (or Visconti) on keyboards, all follow the same path: they are simply playing scales, as if pupils in a band class—first the C major scale, then the F major scale. A sudden move to B flat casts a shadow for two bars, and then the cycles resume.

III. The Buyer

Sometime in the late 1980s Chad Channing, a Seattle-based drummer, found a mint The Man Who Sold the World LP in a shop and dubbed it onto cassette, as you did in those days. He played the tape while driving around his bandmates, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, and Channing recalled that when Cobain first heard “The Man Who Sold the World,” Cobain was baffled to learn David Bowie was singing it (this was the era of the “Let’s Dance” MTV icon Bowie, who seemed light years removed from the likes of The Man Who Sold the World).

In November 1993, as Cobain and Novoselic’s band Nirvana (Channing had left in 1990) began what would be their final tour, they came to New York to record a session for MTV’s Unplugged. Determined to irritate the biggest commercial force in music at the time, Nirvana told Unplugged‘s producers that not only would they not perform “Smells Like Teen Spirit” acoustically (thus defeating the whole purpose of Unplugged, which was for bands (and MTV) to cash in by turning their greatest hits into easy-listening standards, like Eric Clapton turning “Layla” into a cocktail-hour blues), but also that half of their set would be obscure covers: three Meat Puppets songs, a Vaselines track, a Leadbelly blues and “Man Who Sold The World,” which, as far as MTV was concerned, might as well have been a Bowie outtake.

The songs Nirvana performed that night were tainted and distorted after Cobain’s suicide five months later, forced into new shapes—“All Apologies” became a self-requiem, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” a final curse, “Plateau” and “Lake of Fire” visions of the afterlife. And “Man Who Sold the World” became Cobain’s catechism.

Where Bowie had sung “The Man Who Sold The World” dispassionately, as if at a remove from his own terror, Cobain sounds betrayed and disgusted (with himself, with whatever alternatives he’s presented with on the stair); whatever fear the figure on the stair means to invoke by saying he’s The Man Who Sold The World, Cobain simply deflates. He’s done his share of selling, after all. But Cobain’s voice catches on lines like “He said I was his friend,” which he offers in a tone of weary disbelief, and he plays his allegedly unplugged guitar through a hidden amplifier.

The time leading up to [Cobain’s] death was really strange. He disappeared. He just seemed like he wanted to get away. He bailed. I honestly did not think he was going to kill himself. I just thought he was on someone’s floor in Olympia, listening to albums. Or something.

Dave Grohl, interviewed by Austin Scaggs, 2005.

Nirvana kept “The Man Who Sold The World” in its set throughout the following tour (here’s Inglewood, Calif. (30 Dec 1993) and Modena, Italy (21 Feb 1994), including their final concert in Munich. The tour ended: Cobain made his way back home to Seattle, where he died alone.

IV. Transit

“Let us agree to disagree,” said the Martian. “What does it matter who is Past or Future, if we are both alive, for what follows will follow, tomorrow or in ten thousand years. How do you know that those temples are not the temples of your own civilization one hundred centuries from now, tumbled and broken? You do not know. Then don’t ask. But the night is very short. There go the festival fires in the sky, and the birds.”

Tomas put out his hand. The Martian did likewise in imitation. Their hands did not touch; they melted through each other.
“Will we meet again?”

“Who knows? Perhaps some other night.”

Ray Bradbury, “Night Meeting,” (1950).

Before this, Bowie had revisited “The Man Who Sold the World” only twice. In 1973, embarking on a mild Svengali relationship with the Scot belter Lulu, Bowie revised the song as glam disco, centering it on a new Ronson riff and a saxophone he played himself. Lulu sang the hell out of it (in the studio, Bowie had told her to smoke cigarettes to make her voice raspier), dressed up for the promo video in a gangster suit. But the song was flattened out and distorted, its questions barely discernible beneath the flash and glare.

And on one of the last weekends of the Seventies, Bowie played Saturday Night Live. Those watching TV that night must have wondered if a European avant-garde theater troupe briefly had commandeered SNL—Bowie, in a giant Dadaist tuxedo (inspired by a Hugo Ball performance in which Ball had been carried onstage in a tube, as well as Sonia Delaunay’s costumes for a 1923 Tristan Tzara play), was hoisted like a placard by two vampires in red and black dresses (Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias), and backed by a band including Blondie’s Jimmy Destri (filmed making ridiculous faces while playing two keyboards). The gorgeous outro, with Nomi and Arias’ counter-tenors swirling around Bowie’s voice, had a severe finality to it, a sense of being a last aria. You could imagine, at the performance’s end, that Bowie never intended to play the song again.

But Nirvana’s cover, played on TV throughout the spring of 1994 (MTV was running “Nirvana Unplugged” seemingly around the clock), suddenly exhumed the song, and “The Man Who Sold The World” was out of Bowie’s hands. Many kids even thought the song was a Nirvana track (despite Cobain’s earnest introductions on stage that “this is a David Booooie song”), placing Bowie in the odd position of, if he revived the now-popular song, being accused of covering his own composition.

A year later Bowie made his move: he gutted the song, making what he did in the Lulu version seem like minor outpatient surgery. Erasing everything familiar (the vocal melody, Ronson’s riff, the chorus scales) as if it was the speech bubble of Weller’s cartoon, Bowie left only the lyric, stripped bare over a minimalist electronic beat. He sang it quietly and sadly, the puzzles that the song once offered now not even worth trying to solve.

Finally Bowie seemed to make peace with the song, offering a fairly “traditional” version in 2000 for a BBC performance (a version that, to be honest, sounds like a Nirvana cover). By the time of Bowie’s Reality tour of 2003-2004, “The Man Who Sold the World” had become part of Bowie’s canon, along with “Changes” and “Young Americans” and “Ashes to Ashes.” Bowie sang it as if had been one of his standards all along: he had reclaimed a child who had been stolen from him and, in the process, had outgrown him.

V. Transit Documents

“The Man Who Sold The World,” originally recorded ca. 8-22 May 1970, was the penultimate song of the LP it titled; lurking between the bombast of “She Shook Me Cold” and the closer “The Supermen,” its cold power was, if anything, magnified. It was the B-side of a few singles, including a 1973 RCA reissue of “Life on Mars?” Lulu’s 1974 single (Polydor 2001 490) hit #3 in the UK and was collected on her 1977 LP Heaven And Earth And the Stars. A truly god-awful cover, with the Lulu track as its apparent inspiration, was cut by the young John Cougar in 1977. The Bowie/Nomi/Arias recording, from 15 December 1979 (they also did “TVC-15” and “Boys Keep Swinging”) has never been released, either on DVD or CD.

Nirvana’s version was recorded on 18 November 1993 and is found on Unplugged in New York; Bowie’s 1995 remake, mixed by Brian Eno, was released as the B-side of “Strangers When We Meet”; the 2000 live performance, recorded 27 June 2000 at the BBC Radio Theatre, is on the bonus disc of Bowie at the Beeb; the final version featured here was recorded in Dublin on 22-23 November 2003 and is on the A Reality Tour DVD.

Top: Gov. Ronald Reagan debates Irving Wesley Hall, Sacramento, Calif., 1970.


Watch That Man

June 8, 2010

Watch That Man.
Watch That Man (live, 1973).
Watch That Man (Lulu, 1973).
Watch That Man (live, 1974).

Lester Bangs, while calling Bowie “that chickenhearted straw man of suck rock you love to hate so much,” admitted in the same article (Creem, December ’73) that Bowie had outplayed the Rolling Stones with “Watch That Man,” Bowie’s annexation of their sound. The Stones settled matters by issuing their first utterly mediocre LP, Goats Head Soup, in response. (Things were catching up to the Stones—during the Soup sessions, producer Jimmy Miller was carving swastikas onto the recording console, while Keith Richards once tried to play a lead guitar solo on a bass and didn’t realize his mistake for 15 minutes.)

“Watch That Man”‘s mix is blatant Exile on Main St.-vintage murk, Bowie’s vocal submerged beneath Mick Ronson’s guitars: at times Bowie sounds like a trebly part of the horn section. Ken Scott, trying to get a wall of sound, pushed all the instruments up in the mix, drowning Bowie’s vocal in the process. MainMan, Bowie’s management company, balked and asked Scott to bring Bowie’s vocal up front. A few weeks later RCA (or Bowie) overruled them, finding the new mix lacked a punch, and so asked Scott to bring back the mud.

Written in the last days of September 1972, while Bowie was holding court in New York before resuming his American tour, “Watch That Man” reflects Bowie’s new A-list status while recounting his initial round of decadence when visiting New York the previous fall. It’s set at a celebrity party where most of the game is being seen by the right people (“No one took their eyes off Lorraine/she shimmered and she strolled like a Chicago moll,” Bowie sings, likely referring to Cyrinda Foxe (cf. “Jean Genie”).

It’s a typical rock & roll party song, as the music’s loud, the champagne bottles and cocaine mirrors are on the table and a gaggle of drunks are hanging together in a corner of the room, stealing glances at the imperious singer arranged on the couch (Bowie seems to be watching TV most of the time). With Bowie, though, it usually comes down to who has the best angle, and by the chorus you realize there’s someone hipper than him in the room. Whether it’s the party host, Shakey, or a drug dealer, or a record exec (maybe he’s all of the above), the “Man” of the title unsettles Bowie, takes him off his game. Finally, he flees the party, heading down to the street. As much swagger as “Watch That Man” has, it ends with Bowie losing face.

The song’s all forward motion—the verses move from A to F#m, while the chorus begins with a slap, three big steps up (“Watch! That! Man!”, over A/D/G). Ronson uses both speakers to dominate the room, Woodmansey gives one of his meatier performances, Bolder keeps the swampy tide of sound moving. Newcomers include pianist Mike Garson, who breaks into Ronson’s flow of conversation, and the backing singers—Linda Lewis and Juanita “Honey” Franklin. The latter head out the door with Bowie, but they sound as captivated by his rival as he is.

Recorded ca. 20-25 January 1973: it was the natural lead-off track for Aladdin Sane. Lulu recorded a version later that year, which became the B-side to her “Man Who Sold the World.” Bowie retired the song after his 1974 tour, with a Philadelphia concert recording collected on David Live.

Top: Garry Winogrand, “Untitled,” New York City, 1972.


Chapter Eleven: Tomorrow Isn’t Promised (1998-2000)

December 17, 2018

Front_5

Epigraphs   Eno: to Mark Sinker, The Wire, 1992; Pyzik: in Helibo Seyoman.

442  Trying to Get to Heaven  it appeared on a Virgin promo CD-R that also had a Danny Saber remix of “Fun” (photographic evidence on this Illustrated DB thread); Time Out of Mind: for instance, it topped OK Computer in the Village Voice “Pazz & Jop” critics poll of 1997; nice break in the cycle: Plati, on his website’s message board (reprinted on Teenage Wildlife); should just give up: to Michael Kimmelman, NY Times, 14 June 1998; Tim Curry: said to young CO at a press junket in October 1993. Curry was the villain in a now-forgotten remake of The Three Musketeers, and was talking about his performance in that film in particular.

443  Battle Hymn  As Bowie’s only singing the chorus, he could be singing “John Brown’s Body,” the song that “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was adapted from. But as his character Sikora looks as if he’s wearing a variant of a Confederate uniform, it would be odd if he was singing the Union marching song. Perhaps he’s doing so ironically; perhaps this is an alternate Earth where the Confederacy won; perhaps (here’s a guess) no one involved in the film had a clue about this issue; first release: it didn’t appear in the US until was issued, under the title Gunslinger’s Revenge, as a DVD in 2005.

444  Suite for a Foggy Day  apparently its official title, though the Red Hot + Rhapsody CD just uses the Gershwin title, which I also use as the primary way to identify this track; make it very Badalamenti: East Village Radio interview, ca. March 2014; transcription by Pieter Dom, 13 January 2016. There’s of course the story that Bono wanted to do this song but Badalamenti had already booked DB—I didn’t mention it in this essay because it seemed like the story had been recounted by 200 websites in the months after Bowie’s death, so I figured you didn’t need reminding.

445   Safe  oddly difficult to determine when exactly it was offered to BowieNetters. Its first physical release was on the “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” CD single, issued on 16 September 2002; a real old woman: The David Bowie Story, 1993; three hours reminiscing: Billboard, 26 September 1998. The reunion had begun a year or so before, but had a pause when Bowie apparently got irked with Visconti talking to Mojo in 1997 about how he and Mick Ronson had been essentially co-composers of some of The Man Who Sold the World; far beyond my wildest dreams…doesn’t fit in: MTV News, 9 October 1998.

446  objective piece: to Stuart Clark, Hot Press, 10 November 1999; more internal…world really is: to Chris Norriss, Spin, November 1999. Responding to a fan query on a web-chat on BowieNet (27 April 1999), Bowie said:

At the time of Ziggy, there was so 
   much more going on in my head than just the idea 
   of a new synthetic rock star
<David\bBowie> that I want to fully explore all the 
   fragments that made up in my own mind the Ziggy 
   world.
<David\bBowie> And hopefully I'll be able to do 
   quite a complex overview in 2002.
<David\bBowie> And it will have great shoes...
<hj> 28BebeBuell says:rnSpeaking of Ziggy will the 
   1980 Floor Show ever see the light of day again??
<David\bBowie> What a charming name, Bebe...
<David\bBowie> I'm very keen to try and get this 
   released and I would like to combine it with 
   outtakes from that night.
<David\bBowie> It should be this century...maybe 
   next century, but we've all got patience haven't 
   we?

info-packed maps: Hot Press, 10 November 1999; Ziggy’s parents perspective: shown in a plot sketch included in the David Bowie Is exhibit; I’ve found bits and pieces…keeping the sound of the material in the period: Radio One “The Net” interview, 23 July 1998 (Ziggy Stardust Companion is a good source for more details about the ‘Ziggy 2002’ project.)

photo+jun+15_+4+53+27+pm

447 Velvet Goldmine:  Haynes sent Bowie an early version of the script and asked to use seven songs (“All the Young Dudes,” “Sweet Thing,” “Lady Stardust,” “Moonage Daydream,” Bowie’s cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Lady Grinning Soul,” and the title track). Despite lobbying by Michael Stipe and Kim Gordon, Bowie denied Haynes permission. “When I saw the film I thought the best thing about it was the gay scenes, the only successful part of the film, frankly. The film didn’t understand how innocent everyone was then about what they were getting into Also there was a lot more shopping,” Bowie said to Andrew Davies (The Big Issue, 11-17 January 1999); so ecstatic about Tommy Stone: Haynes, conversation with Julia Leyda, 29 March 2012; got really nervous: Jones, 379.

448  running like fuck from that one…slack-arsed script: to Michael Dwyer, Rolling Stone (Australia), June 2002.  Mother   it’s unclear whatever happened to this Lennon tribute album, still unreleased as of this writing. You’d think at some point, tracks recorded for it would have come out, as seemingly everything else Lennon-related has; lonely little kid: quoted in Jonathan Cott’s Days That I’ll Remember; journalist saw him: Martin Hayman, Rock, 8 October 1973. “At the corner of the settee nearest the fire…sits a familiar figure, eyes half closed, head bowed, nodding gently, almost imperceptibly, to the pain and anger of John Lennon’s “Mother” growling out of a loudspeaker at each corner of the spacious hunting lodge room…you might think he was falling asleep were it not for the slight tightening of the eyebrowless forehead at the compelling anguish of the shrieking fade-out.”

449  stepping stone: to Jérome Soligny, Rock et Folk, December 1998; first attempts at manipulating music in a computer: Visconti message to Bowie Wonderworld, ca. September 2006 (the year I believe “Mother” was bootlegged).

450  20th Century Boy    we were in key at least: Melody Maker, 17 April 1999; old Judy Garland thing: Gay Times, December 1998.

interface

451  New Angels of Promise The Omikron: The Nomad Soul version appeared on the 2004 ‘hours…’ 2-CD reissue.  BowieNet: users were charged $20 a month to use it as their internet service provider ($6 for a no-frills subscription). After four months of operation, it was reportedly valued at $500 million (as per Time Out, December 1998), though Bowie was skeptical about how much he really was earning from it: “I can’t even buy a packet of cigarettes on the proceeds from this fucking thing…There is no money in what we do. It’s like being in the silent movies”; Subeez Café: 30 September 1998 BowieNet web chat. I’m being mean in choosing these particular questions—there were some funny and perceptive ones, too; almost metaphysicalon the cusp of something: BBC2 Newsnight, 3 December 1999.

452  once everyone can sample…no longer church: Bowie, chat on Eden.vmg.co.uk, 2 February 2000. Interviewed by Yahoo! Internet Life in 1999, he predicted music would soon be “on tap” through computers like water. But touchingly, he still imagined that record stores would remain central to music consumption, predicting that clerks would download tracks for you from some licensed database. “You go in and you’d ask the assistant for the menu and you choose exactly what tracks you want. And then they’ll be burned into a CD—if you’re that old-fashioned—or put onto a player”; bit Bond Street: Mojo, October 1994; core competencies: Financial Times, 26 January 2000; Bowie bonds: among the more misunderstood things that Bowie was ever involved in. He didn’t “go public,” he didn’t put himself on the stock market, fans almost certainly couldn’t have bought them, etc. For more, see the blog post; Bowie’s trading desk: to Forbes, 4 March 2000 (“People don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gosh, I’m really turned on by my bank,’ says Goodale, but he and Bowie didn’t see why something that is useful, like online banking, couldn’t also be sexy and fun.”) To Peter Paphides (Time Out, December 1998), Bowie said “when I was a kid, music was the fascinating alternative future. But now it’s just another career choice such as banking or being a travel rep”; BowieBanc: run by USABancShares.com Inc. It’s worth briefly recounting the history of this company. In 1887, the Peoples Thrift Savings Bank was founded, which thriftily endured for a century. Then in 1995 an investment banker named Kenneth Tepper bought it, renamed it BankPhiladelphia (mashed/multi-capitalized bank names were in vogue), bought other local banks and merged their operations, took this company public, renamed it again to USABancShares, which increased its valuation from $18 million to $350 million in four years. Its internet bank division launched in 1999, of which BowieBanc was the first big venture. Bowie had no exposure to USABancShares, put up no capital, and was paid for the use of his name and image. So he was possibly the only person left unscathed from the venture, which had a mere 1,500 depositors by mid-2000 and lost $9.7 million that year. Tepper resigned in March 2001; the bank was delisted by Nasdaq and traded for a dime a share (“the expectations on us and on technology in general were unrealistic,” Tepper told the Philadelphia Business Journal (1 April 2002—much of the above comes from various Philadelphia Business Journal articles of the period).) USABancShares was soon sold to a company run by its former chief financial officer, which in turn went out of business in 2017; Zysblat: FT, 26 January 2000.

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453   Boz as a patchwork quilt: Game Center, 25 October 1999; plenty of strip clubs: New Zealand Herald, 26 June 1999.

454  man does not hear: Herron, Call of the Cross, “The Divine Method of Culture,” 74.

455 Jahangir labeled “Jangir” on the Omikron game booklet, so I threw in both names.

456  Survive first distributed on a promo giveaway CD included with the 8-14 September 1999 issue of Les Inrockuptibles. It was also a 2-CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96486 0 7, 7243 8 96487 0 6) released on 17 January 2000, which included Marius de Vries’ mix, the Walter Stern-directed video clip and a live performance of the song from the Elysée Montmartre, 14 October 1999.

457  composed throughout the year: descriptions of the ‘hours’ composing/recording process as per Gabrels to CO, August 2018; window of opportunity was there: Buckley, 463; stripped-down affair…music for Omikron: Plati interview with Trynka, ca. late 2000s; see what will come out of it: Rock et Folk, December 1998. “Reeves Gabrels and I have written a lot in during the last few months…We compose for the pleasure and our spectrum is wide, between purely electronic music and acoustic songs.”

458  had my druthers, not put out an album…how I tend to think: to Robert Phoenix, Dirt, 5 October 1999; full album in London: Gabrels to CO, August 2018; Diamond Dogs quality…fretless bass: Ives interview, 20 February 2017; looking where songs would land: Trynka interview, ca. late 2000s.

q99

459 just like a bloke: Chris Roberts, DB interview tape for Uncut, 29 July 1999; circle of friends…feel claustrophobic to me: Ives interview, 20 February 2017; evolves as an artist…why he’s not old: David Bowie Story, 1993; wrinkled, shaggy-haired: AP, 9 September 1999; every cliché in the book…poignant, sad life: to Jim Sullivan, Boston Globe, 9 February 1997.

460  people get mellow…aren’t true to their lives: to Stuart Maconie, NME, 13 September 1991; flounder a little…when they were younger: to Gil Kaufman, ATN, October 1999; living a lie or mistake: Liquid Love, 55; boy was the flame dead: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999.

461 Something in the Air   The American Psycho remix appeared, unsurprisingly, on the soundtrack of Mary Harron’s 2000 film and was later collected on the 2004 ‘hours…’ reissue.

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462  terrible conflict…it’s terrible: ATN, October 1999; present sensibility…so has the future: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999; pairs of chords: both verse and refrain open by shuttling between tonic and flatted VII chords (so D to C in the verse, A to G in the chorus), darken midway through with a run of minor chords and each closes by setting up the opposing key (so the verse ends with a G that the A major opening of the chorus resolves; the refrain just sinks back to D); faux novelist: ATN, October 1999; Peacock: to Bill Reynolds, Crawdaddy, April 1989. Bowie had been a fan since the early Seventies, having his Astronettes record Peacock’s “Seven Days” in 1973, and had apparently wanted to work with Peacock on what became ‘hours…’ But as with Bowie’s oft-expressed wish to work with Glenn Branca, the collaboration never came to be.

464 Brilliant Adventure    luverly instrumental: DB, web-chat on BowieNet, 4 July 1999; something very odd came from all this: Bowie, 24 August 1998 web journal entry.

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465   Thursday’s Child   BowieNet members voted on the single mix: both the “Radio Edit” (their choice) and the “Rock Mix” (guitars trace over the synths; Bowie lead vocal sounds like it’s being routed through a metal tube; gargle-orgasm-drum fill break) appeared on the UK/EU CD single; a “Hip Hop Mix” was never released. A longer (by ten seconds) version is in Omikron: The Nomad Soul: this version, titled the “Omikron Slower (sic) Version” was included on the 2004 reissue, as was the Rock Mix; Eartha Kitt:  in addition to titling her autobiography, Thursday’s Child was also one of the Kitt LPs released in Britain in the Fifties; prediction rhyme: altered during the 19th Century, perhaps to bring it more in line with Christianity, as Friday was now “full of woe” and Sunday got some of Thursday’s glory.

466  teeth-grinding get it done guy: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999; her friends rather than grown-ups: Buckley, 471.

467  We All Go Through   faux-psychedelic: DB on BowieNet, 27 July 1999; a series of transitions without scenes: Momus, 10 January 2014.

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468  Seven  the album’s third single, 17 July 2000 (Virgin 7243 8 96928 2 2, UK #32), a CD that included the DeVries Mix, the “demo,” the album version, a live version from the Kit Kat Club, NYC (19 November 1999; another live recording is on the “Survive” single) and Beck Mix #1. All but the live version were included (along with Beck Mix #2) on the 2004 ‘hours’ reissue; song of nowness: VH1 Storytellers performance, 23 August 1999; seven days to live…the present is the place to be: to David Quantick, Q, October 1999; each day to be really good…until death strikes: to Charlie Rose, 31 March 1998; only the person the greatest number of people believe I am: Q, October 1999.

469 Pretty Things Going to Hell a different mix (notable mostly for the occasional sub-Nine Inch Nails loop) was issued on 24 August 1999 on the Stigmata soundtrack, though oddly another mix (jacked up in tempo) was used in the actual film (both tracks are on the 2004 reissue of ‘hours…’). The Omikron: Nomad Soul “performance” is the Stigmata soundtrack version. An edit of the album version was issued as a lead-off single in Japan and Australia, and as a promo-only CD single in the US. A live NYC performance (from the Kit Kat Club, 19 November 1999) is on the “Seven” single; something more rambunctious: ATN, October 1999; their day is numbered…very serious little world: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999.

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470   I wrote a song about stand-up: ATN, October 1999; low ugly simple perfect: to Buckley, 472.  We Shall Go to Town   Confusing its B-sides, Virgin listed the track as “We Shall All Go to Town” on the CD single; key track…less jolly than Thursday’s Child: Ives interview, 20 February 2017.

471  done in a heartbeat…went to town as it were: Plati to CO, April 2016.

473  What’s Really Happening   very soul searching: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999; impertinent, scanned well: ZDTV interview, shot at the overdub session, aired 14 June 1999; color commentary: BowieNet transcript from 24 May 1999.

474 Jewel    pursuit of the new…diverging from what I needed: Buckley, 476. That said, Gabrels soon took his own traditionalist turn. For his Rockonica, he went analog. “Having spent the previous six years using Logic/Pro Tools on everything I wrote or produced…I was pretty tired of the “man alone in front of a computer” thing. In fact, that whole treated-drum-loop-electronic-rock-band-vibe that I was into in the middle of the last decade seemed soooo tired out to me,” he told Music Dish. “While you can’t fault the technology (computers don’t make boring music, people do), I just felt like to record digitally would have been so very, very nineties.”; becoming too VH1…imposing my will: to Kenneally, October 2000 “Noneradio” interview; drug myself to death: to Trynka, Starman, 376; workload got heavier: to Spitz, 384.

475  descriptions of the “Jewel” session via RG to CO, August 2018, and Bowie’s web journal entries, 1998-1999. Sector Z    overriding feature: Visconti, Brooklyn Boy, 342; we freaked out: Gutter to CO, February 2014 (source of recording details in this entry). Gutter once played a prank on Visconti in which he called him up pretending to be Bowie, not knowing that Bowie and Visconti were now regularly talking to each other.

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476  Hole in the Ground  As Toy, as of this book’s publication, is still a bootleg, it couldn’t appear in the Discography (well, it could have, I suppose). The sequence of the 2011 leak, which has not been verified as the intended release sequence, is: Uncle Floyd*/Afraid*/Baby Loves That Way/ I Dig Everything*/ Conversation Piece/ Let Me Sleep Beside You/ Your Turn to Drive (Toy)/ Hole in the Ground*/ Shadow Man/ In the Heat of the Morning*/ You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving/ Silly Boy Blue*/ Liza Jane*/ London Boys. (* = tracks or mixes still unreleased); Anthony Newley stuff: Q, April 1990.

477  invigorated sense of purpose: ATN, April 1997; re-recording some early songs: Bowie web journal, 29 October 1998; Up Date I: Bowie web journal, 3 January 2000; waste the energy of a show-honed band…sing till my tits drop off: Bowie journal, printed in Time Out, 21-28 June 2000; weren’t out to reduplicate original tracks: Plati essay for The Voyeur, April-Sept. 2002.

478  belting his brains out: to Dan LeRoy, Greatest Music Never Sold, 42.

479  her vibe would be perfect…arsenal of eccentric instruments…beg it to stay together: Plati, Voyeur, Aug.-Sept. 2002; cool drones, like a John Cale vibe: Germano to LeRoy, 47; hard to believe they were written so long ago…in the Sixties: 28 September 2000 Bowie web journal.

480  Pictures of Lily   glam version of Crazy Horse: Plati web journal, 1 November 2000.

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481 Afraid   until he had the goods: LeRoy, 53; interesting deceit: quoted in Pegg, 15.

482 everything will be alright: Bowie web journal, 23 May 2002.

483 The Uncle Floyd Show: the life of Floyd Vivino and the Uncle Floyd Show comes from a number of sources including Amy Krakow’s profile for New York (21 January 1980), Jack Silbert’s NY Times interview with Vivino (8 December 2002) and most of all Beth Knobel’s profile, written as the show entered syndication, for the Columbia Daily Spectator (21 July 1982). Other details are from a long-shuttered website run by Floyd Show alum “Muggsy” (http://archive.is/I6boc); show’s production values: One example of the show’s rhythms: R. Stevie Moore is playing “Sit Down” on the Uncle Floyd Show in 1980. After the performance, Uncle Floyd greets each member of the band. The guitarist blankly says that his guitar is wrapped in a sheet of newspaper from the day he was born (“well, that’s different,” Floyd says). Floyd vaguely insults the bassist, while the drummer is hostile (“can you shake my hand at least? Don’t you wanna meet me?”). Throughout Floyd is calm, unruffled, a king; Bones and Oogie: “If you didn’t know about Uncle Floyd, you’d think the characters in the song were Bowie characters,” Bowie introducing “Slip Away” on A&E, 23 June 2002; living room in New Jersey: Bowie web journal, 23 May 2002.

484  doing a song about me: NY Times, 8 December 2002; semi out of tune piano: Plati web journal, 1 November 2000; Mark Ryden painting: LeRoy, 42.

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485  Toy is finished and ready to go: BowieNet chat, 4 June 2001; complicated scheduling negotiations: BowieNet, 4 July 2001; new material over Toy: BowieNet, 29 October 2001; Bowie would never talk about it: LeRoy, 60; new writing takes precedence: quoted in Pegg, 403.

486  so much more haunting: LeRoy, 55; a nicer time…anxiously into the future: Rolling Stone, June 2002.

487 Isn’t It Evening  one street guy in there: to Jeff Slate, Music Radar, 26 February 2013; almost like making a demo: to Gerry Galipault, Pause and Play, 9 December 2003; doing a little something: Billboard, 31 December 2003; seven rough pieces: to Lisa Sharken, Vintage Guitar, March 2004; sat around for a long time…just had a thing: Plati to CO, April 2016.

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488 Nature Boy   resurrect the audience: to Harvey Kubernick, 2006 (collected in Kubernick’s Hollywood Shack Job); eden ahbez: Born George Alexander Aberle, in Brooklyn, 1908. We first meet him in Los Angeles in 1947, failing to get backstage at a Nat King Cole concert at the Lincoln Theater. He gave Cole’s manager a soiled, rolled-up score for “Nature Boy.” Cole was taken with it, but the “eden ahbez” on the score had no known address (ahbez said only God was entitled to capital letters). After scouring the city, Capitol executives (at least according to PR legend) found him camped underneath an “L” of the Hollywood sign. By summer 1948, Cole’s “Nature Boy” was a #1 pop hit, soon covered by Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra. Cast by reporters as the embodiment of his song, ahbez was an ur-hippie, promoting vegetarianism, outdoor living, “Eastern” philosophies, and a live-off-the-land-or-someone’s-couch ethos. (In the Sixties, he hung out with Donovan, had his songs recorded by Grace Slick and attended Beach Boys Smile sessions; R. Crumb’s “Mr. Natural” was partially based on him). He stayed in California for the rest of his life, spending his last years working on a book and album, neither of which he finished. He died at 86, in 1995. (Sources include Ted Gioia’s entry on “Nature Boy” in The Jazz Standards; the marvelous blog dedicated to ahbez, “Eden’s Island“; a profile of ahbez for Life, 10 May 1948; and Brian Chidester’s “Eden Ahbez: The Hippie Forefather’s Final Statement to the World,” LA Weekly, 18 February 2014.)

489  Yiddish pop song: “Nature Boy” is just two 16-bar verses, with slight harmonic and melodic differences between the two. Its D minor progression has a chromatic descending bassline for the boy’s roam over land and sea in the middle bars and feints at a shift to A major at the end of each verse. Most of its phrases are pegged to the notes of each underlying triad (“was-a-boy,” “then-one-day” etc. are A-F-D, the notes of the underlying D minor chord (D-F-A) and so on). Scrapping ahbez’s waltz meter for a free rubato, Cole leisurely scaled ahbez’s wide intervals (like the octave leap-and-fall of “there WAS a boy”); Luhrmann: to Jones, 418-420.


Reissues: Cygnet Committee

May 31, 2016

In December 2009, I had been writing the blog for nearly half a year, at a steady pace. Readership was modest and comments were few—I imagine the majority of readers at the time were people who liked my old blog and wondered what the hell I was doing.

There’s an arc of inspiration when it comes to a sequential blog like this—initial burst of ambition and fleetness of movement; mild elation when the posts begin stacking up and you feel that the writing’s improved and that you’ve found the right tone; and the inevitable slackening of energy, “God, why am I doing this?,” inspired by a cold-eyed look at future obligations and knowing how much more unpaid work lies ahead of you.

So I likely would have given up around then had it not been for the wise choice to write about someone of whose early work I knew little, so that the blog was fueled by my curiosity as much as anything. I found late Sixties Bowie fascinating, even grim fare like “God Knows I’m Good.” But it was “Cygnet Committee” that did the business. I listened to it for the first time and thought it was just awful, an endless spiel of hippie blather. Further listens convinced me that it was brilliant, ghastly, draining, muddled, cutting, and so on. The blog entry wound up being a muddle itself, a cloudy response to a clouded song.

As I argue below (much of the book revision, minus the substantial end-noted material about Sixties radicalism [now there’s a selling point!]), I believe “Cygnet” was something of the same for Bowie—that it was a necessary song for him, a dark magic ritual, an extended middle finger to the Sixties. The Bowie we came to know would not have existed without it. Nor, as it turned out, would the blog, book, etc.

Originally posted on 8 December 2009, it’s the Cygnet Committee:

Lover To the Dawn.
Cygnet Committee.
Cygnet Committee (BBC, 1970).

“Cygnet Committee” was, consecutively, a break-up letter to a communal arts center Bowie co-founded, a scattershot attack on the counterculture and a desperate self-affirmation. Deep in this gnomic, nearly ten-minute screed was a struggle to find a workable design for the years ahead, Bowie pledging himself to a life of creative destruction while keeping clear of professional revolutionaries. It was the sound of Bowie willing himself to become a stronger artist, hollowing himself out to let a greater creative force, for good or ill, take hold in him. The possession took. In fleeting moments, you can hear the apocalyptic, utopian voice of “Five Years” and “Sweet Thing,” of “Station to Station” and “‘Heroes.’” The man who was able to write those songs had to go through the crucible of “Cygnet Committee” first.

Bowie and his lover/flatmate Mary Finnigan founded the Beckenham Arts Lab in May 1969, one of roughly 50 such Labs in Britain at the time. Along with weekly musical performances at the Three Tuns pub, the Lab (aka “Growth”) offered tie-dying lessons, poetry readings, puppet shows, lectures and mime routines. Hoping to attract local kids and subsequently “turn on their parents,” the Lab’s slogan was “Growth is people, Growth is revolution.” Bowie envisioned an escape valve for suburban dreamers; perhaps he saw the Lab as a way to find younger versions of himself. “There was nothing in Beckenham, just television,” he told a Dutch journalist at the time. “The lab is for extroverts who wish to express themselves, not for established artists.” This was Bowie as proud counter-cultural Beckenhamite, a character out of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, which would gently satirize this era.

In August 1969, interviewed by Finnigan for the International Times, Bowie said he hoped “Space Oddity” became a hit because it would mean exposure and capital for the Lab. Using sparkling ad-man copy, he claimed “Arts Labs should be for everybody, not just the so-called turned-on minority. We need energy from all directions, from heads and skin-heads alike.” It could be a bit much. The guitarist Keith Christmas, who would play on Space Oddity, recalled Bowie being “a twerp in those days…strum[ming] a few folk songs in between a lot of crap about changing the world.

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Nothing in particular soured Bowie on the Lab, at which he’d play regularly until March 1970. By then he’d assembled a hand- picked artistic community at his house in Haddon Hall and no longer had to publicly recruit followers. Yet he was noticeably estranged early on. Roger Wootton, a Lab regular, recalled Bowie as being an “outsider” in the pot-reeking, student-infested Three Tuns shows. “He was never really a part of what was going on. He didn’t seem to be one of the other people.” As the most talented and charismatic figure in the room, Bowie resented the apathetic types the Lab attracted upon its (relative) success. He’d wanted collaborators and got spectators; his encounters with mediocrities in hippie garb spouting “revolutionary” slogans became a drain on him.

As he told the journalist Patrick Salvo, Bowie intended the first harmonically free section of “Cygnet Committee” to symbolize the ideal of the Lab. “It was saying—Fellow man I do love you— I love humanity, I adore it, it’s sensational, sensuous, exciting—it sparkled and it’s also pathetic at the same time.” His players make a staggered entrance, as if plugging in when the mood strikes them. Over a murmuring backdrop of Three Tuns-esque chatter, Bowie sang arcing, eleventh-spanning phrases while Mick Wayne, using a volume pedal, played off a descending chromatic bassline.

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The leak of a Bowie & Hutch composition called “Lover to the Dawn,” demoed on the same tape as “Space Oddity” revealed Bowie had used “Dawn” as the basis of the opening sections of “Cygnet Committee,” from the opening riff and bassline (itself taken from Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come”) through the “they drained her [my] very soul…dry” section. And the long closing section Bowie appended to the reconstituted “Lover to the Dawn” was a bog-standard rock ‘n’ roll progression, the “Stand By Me” I-vi-IV-V sequence he’d used before (see “And I Say to Myself”). Regardless of its length and furor, “Cygnet Committee” was a folk number bluntly welded to a rock song.

“Lover to the Dawn” also shed light on what happened in the mutation that created “Cygnet Committee.” The original song starred yet another “Hermione” figure, called “bitter girl” in its refrains: a woman weary of the incessant demands of her lovers, who’ve drained her soul dry. The original refrain had a sympathetic Bowie and Hutch (“you gave too much and you got nothing!”) urging the bitter girl to get on with her life—it’s something of a hippie “Georgie Girl.”

In “Cygnet Committee,” Bowie cast himself as the bitter girl (not for the last time) and there was no larking Hutchinson to tell him to grow up and out of it. Instead, the self-pity of “Lover to the Dawn” got blown up to widescreen proportions. Bitter Boy isn’t just heartbroken, he’s set upon by parasites of all shapes; his tragedy isn’t personal but that of an entire generation. Its last venomous C major verse became a jeremiad, calling out New Leftists, cult leaders and cult followers, cursing hippie capitalists and their slogans (including “kick out the jams” and “love is all we need,” the revolution brought to you by, respectively, Columbia and EMI).

This extended damning of a movement of which Bowie was barely part requires a touch of context. The British underground lived in a bubble. Unlike in France, China and the US, British youth (apart from those in Northern Ireland) were passive and quiet, if discontented, in the late Sixties. There was nothing equivalent to the violence of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 or the May 1968 student riots in Paris. Colin Crouch, the student union president at the London School of Economics, saw the few substantial protests of the time quickly devolve into games of dress-up. British radicals seemed to get stuck on the idea of protest, raising protest “to a position of value in its own right,” Crouch wrote. “The sit-in became not so much a part of the sojourn in the wilderness for the chosen people of the revolution, but a trailer for the Promised Land.

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Bowie used this failure, the failure of the Arts Lab writ large, as a means to rid himself of the suffocating cant and pretense of the counterculture. In December 1969 he lamented the hippie set as being “the laziest people I’ve met in my life. They don’t know what to do with themselves. Looking all the time for people to show them the way. They wear anything they’re told, and listen to any music they’re told to.” As he sang, they knew not the words of the Free States’ refrain. He’d spent the last years of the Sixties burying himself in committees (“submerging myself,” as he told Mary Finnigan); now he was free.

So with its dead fathers and sons of dirt, the 39-bar-long closing verse of “Cygnet Committee” was the radical faction that took over the whole enterprise. The faceless villains who turned up, busy slitting throats, killing children and betraying friends, predicted the underground’s slide into cheap criminality. Yet the lyric, in turns grandiose, mocking (of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” among others) and fanatic, was more Bowie purging himself of “taste” and “narrative,” ridding himself of the stink of bedsit laments and cabaret, and exploring a inner darkness, calling up images of supermen, ringleaders, wraiths. The “talking man,” a summoned demon who gives the singer access to his “many powers,” would be the dark muse of The Man Who Sold the World.

As on “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” “Cygnet Committee” suffered from an under-rehearsed band, having to master a lengthy, harmonically dense song, that couldn’t deliver the searing accompaniment its vocal demanded (if you’re going to quote the MC5, you should lay down heavier fire than this, or at least ditch the harpsichord). The production did the song little favors, as the drums sound like paper and John Lodge’s bass goes missing towards the close. Bowie gave a more vital, if still ragged performance for a John Peel BBC broadcast of the following year. Despite occasionally bungling lines from his ramble of a lyric, he sang with an eerie sense of self-possession. “Cygnet Committee” had spent itself out in its making, its recording the afterimage of some lost primal inspiration. Still, in its tortuous way, it was as critical to Bowie’s development as “Space Oddity.”

Recorded: (“Lover to the Dawn,”) ca. mid-April 1969, 24 Foxgrove Road; (album) ca. late August-early September 1969, Trident. First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity. Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show. Live: 1969-70.

Top: Bernardine Dohrn, La Pasionaria of the Weather Underground, Chicago, September 1969; Bowie at the Arts Lab, Three Tuns Pub, Beckenham (Rex Stevenson), 1969; John May, the Worthing Workshop, ca. 1969.


Reissues: The Laughing Gnome

April 1, 2016

Bowiegnome

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:

The Laughing Gnome!

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.

See also: “Requiem For a Laughing Gnome.


Reissues: Memory of a Free Festival

February 5, 2016

On a day in which I appear to be snowed in, why not revive a memory of summer? This is a hybrid reissue—the main entry is that of the book (which Repeater excerpted back when the book was released), while the “bonus tracks” are mostly appended from the original blog post.

Originally published on December 11, 2009: “Memory of a Free Festival.”

Memory of a Free Festival.
Memory of a Free Festival (extended version).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 1).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2).
Memory of a Free Festival (BBC, 1970).
Memory of a Free Festival (“Mike Garson Band,” live, 1974).

Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time: miniature utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from a grey morass of mundane, inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence…The most lively [young people] escape geographically and physically to the ‘Never Never Land’ of a free festival where they become citizens, indeed rulers, in a new reality.

Anonymous leaflet ca. 1980, quoted in George McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties.

Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?
Or just twenty thousand people standing in a field?

Pulp, “Sorted For E’s and Wizz.”

The free festival was an open-air concert and fair, held on the Croydon Road Recreational Ground in Beckenham on 16 August 1969 (across an ocean, the Woodstock Festival was underway). Bowie performed, his set allegedly including a reggae version of “Space Oddity,” as did groups like the Strawbs. There were puppet shows, Tibetan goods vendors and coconut shies; his new girlfriend Angela Barnett cooked hamburgers in a wheelbarrow. The festival was peaceful and a success, with some 3,000 attending. Beckenham’s mayor and chief of police complimented Bowie for pulling it off.

The song he recorded three weeks later, sequenced to close Space Oddity as his last word on the Sixties, depicted a golden afternoon in which he wandered through a blissful crowd of flower children, exchanging kisses and greeting passing Venusians. In reality Bowie, who’d buried his father only five days before, had swung between near-catatonia and a foul temper, calling his partners “materialistic arseholes” for profiting off hamburgers and concert posters, complaining about the PA system and skipping the after-party. Mary Finnigan, Bowie’s once-lover and collaborator in the Beckenham Arts Lab, later called Bowie a hypocrite for writing a peace-and-love song for a festival at which he’d been so abrasive.

A contrary set of feelings, a man trying to reconstitute a bad day as the hope it ought to have been, gave “Memory of a Free Festival” depth and even bite, with Bowie making some deprecating asides about the holy tribe: “We claimed the very source of joy ran through/it didn’t, but it seemed that way.” The warmth, the easy unity, of the Free Festival is already in the past. If the hippies are the “children of the summer’s end,” they should ready for winter.

Like the Arts Labs, the free concert was a child of the late Sixties. In summer 1968, the promoter Blackhill Enterprises began putting on monthly free rock shows in Hyde Park with the likes of Pink Floyd and the Move. The Rolling Stones hired Blackhill to run their own free Hyde Park concert the following summer (described by Richard Neville as “free, courtesy of Blackhill, of Granada’s groovy camera team, Marshall’s great amplification system and triple-priced Lyon’s ice cream.”) The Beckenham festival was a homespun version of this and it actually was free, unlike Woodstock, which had been forcibly converted into a free show. The happy chaos of Woodstock, soon followed by the 1969 Isle of Wight concert and the violent chaos of the Stones’ free show in Altamont that December, made the free festival yet another fault line between straight and hippie worlds. Parliament soon passed an act banning gatherings of over 5,000 at the Isle of Wight.

“Memory of a Free Festival” opens with Bowie playing a Rosedale electric chord organ that he’d found at Woolworths. As with the Stylophone, he gave a toy instrument dignity. The sole accompaniment of the song’s four verses, the organ was his voice’s rickety, ecclesiastic complement, making him sound like a wandering sermonizer.

Composing on the organ, even a toy like the Rosedale, liberated Bowie from the guitar’s melodic consistency; it foreshadowed the freedom he’d find when writing on the piano a year later. After politely announcing the piece’s title, he started by playing variations on E minor while nudging up the bassline stepwise from C to F. Settling into a loose 3/4 time, he sang the first two verses over a descending, nebulous chord sequence, shifting from B minor to B-flat (“felt the Lon/don sky,” “source of/joy”) while anchored on a D bass. The third verse gained momentum, Bowie singing more hurriedly while mainly keeping on an E note (pushing up slightly on “ecstasy”), slackening at the end of each phrase. A shift to D major (“scanned the skies”) marked the peak of the festival: the aliens arrive, the joints get passed around, the revelers “walk back to the [Croydon] road, unchained.”

What followed was a free-time interlude of organ swirls, snippets of chatter, laughs and guitar fills while John Cambridge kept loose order with his ride cymbal. A memory so far, the festival shifts to the present, a party as much ominous as joyful. The sequence’s real purpose was more practical: it had to glue the “Free Festival” verses to a three-chord (D-C-G) “sun machine” refrain possibly once intended for another song. Having considered using the “Hey Jude” refrain for “Janine,” Bowie now made the long coda of “Free Festival” in its image: loops of ragged communal chanting, with Bowie in Paul McCartney’s soul cheerleader role.

In early 1970, Mercury’s American wing asked Bowie to re- record “Memory of a Free Festival” as a single, requesting a faster tempo and to get to the refrain sooner. The compromise was to cut the track in half, devoting the B-side entirely to the sun machine. This new “Free Festival” found Bowie outshone by his backing band, who tromped in singly during the intro. Even with the Sixties fresh in the grave, there’s a feeling of getting down to business. Guitar, bass and drums kick in before the first verse starts, the Moog rolls over the humble Rosedale organ like a Panzer tank, the psychedelic interlude gets deep-sixed, the chanted backing vocals of the refrains could be from a football terrace. Mick Ronson, Tony Visconti’s free-flowing bass and Ralph Mace’s Moog used the long fadeout as a preview of coming attractions. “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1 and 2” was the sound of The Man Who Sold the World, hard glam rock, and a bit too hard and glam for summer 1970, as the single sold dismally.

The Beatles ended the Sixties by breaking up, the last record they made showing them walk single-file off stage. The Stones ended with blood and fire and the sense they’d survive it all (and they would). The Who had a messiah pulled down by his followers, the Kinks emigrated to Australia, Dylan and Van Morrison and a host of others went to ground in the country. Bowie closed a decade in which he’d been a footnote by throwing a party, singing a jaded memory of the summer’s end: the fun-fair of the Sixties was just prelude, his work’s troubled childhood. His “Memory of a Free Festival,” a last gathering of the tribes, had a sad, faded grandeur. Forty-five years on, it can still touch a medieval chord in the soul.

Recorded: 8-9 September 1969, Trident. Bowie: lead vocal, Rosedale electric chord organ; Mick Wayne: lead guitar; Tim Renwick: rhythm guitar; John Lodge: bass; John Cambridge: drums, tambourine; unknown musician(s): baritone saxophone; Visconti, Bob Harris, Sue Harris, Tony Woollcott, Marc Bolan, “Girl”: backing vocals. Produced, arranged: Visconti; engineered: Sheffield, Scott or Toft; (remake, as “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1 & Pt. 2”) 21, 23 March, 3, 14-15 April 1970, Trident and Advision Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar, Rosedale organ; Ronson: lead guitar, backing vocal; Ralph Mace: Moog; Visconti: bass, backing vocal; Cambridge: drums; unknown musicians: strings (arr. Visconti). Produced: Visconti.

First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity; (single) 26 June 1970 (Mercury 6052 026). Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show; ca. June 1970, Six-O-One: Newsday; 15 August 1970, Eddy Ready Go! Live: 1969-1971, 1973-1974.

Children of the Sun Machine

E-Zee Possee, The Sun Machine.
Dario G, Sunmachine.
The Polyphonic Spree, Memory of a Free Festival (live, 2004).

The “sun machine” chant, having evanesced at the end of the ’60s, returned a generation later. “Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2),” a trance-inducing earworm, was a natural ancestor of a rave chant, and in 1990 E-Zee Possee had a minor hit with “The Sun Machine,” in which the “sun machine” chant was sung over house piano.

Then there was the UK dance trio Dario G’s 1998 “Sunmachine.” As Dario G’s Paul Spencer said, “We had this idea to sample bits of Bowie’s ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ over an ambient track of ‘Sunchyme.’ But we quickly discovered that the sample was so brilliant that it needed a brand new track–with some rock elements. There was only one problem: the sample we were using had all of Bowie’s instrumentation in it, which was too noisy for our purpose. So, we sent a demo of the song to Bowie and he liked our idea so much that he sent us the song’s original tape, which allowed us to sample only his vocals. He couldn’t have been a better chap!” As an added bonus, Bowie producer, Tony Visconti, played all the flute parts on the track.” (Thanks to Daniel Simon for this link.)

I’m not sure we’re done with the sun machine yet—expect Animal Collective to use it at some point. [NOTE: this was 2009.]

Top to bottom: The Stones bury the Sixties at Altamont, December 1969; “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1” single; bathers in the Serpentine, Hyde Park, 1969.


Reissues: Holy Holy

February 2, 2016

Here’s another of the “lost” Bowie flop singles, from 1971—an odd beast, in that it was a pick-up recording session of Bowie and much of the band Blue Mink (at the time, the Spiders had gone back to Hull and Tony Visconti was gone). The original 45 version of “Holy Holy” was unavailable for decades–it took the recent Five Years set to finally issue it again.

Book revision goes a lot more into Aleister Crowley and even manages a reference to Anthony Powell’s Hearing Secret Harmonies.

Originally posted on January 31, 2010: “Holy Holy”:

Holy Holy (single).
Holy Holy (remake).

The nightmare world of Christianity vanished at the dawn. I fell in with a girl of the theatre in the first ten days at Torquay, and at that touch of human love the detestable mysteries of sex were transformed into joy and beauty. The obsession of sin fell from my shoulders into the sea of oblivion. I had been almost overwhelmed by the appalling responsibility of ensuring my own damnation and helping others to escape from Jesus. I found that the world was, after all, full of delightful damned souls…

The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, ch. 7.

“Holy Holy,” yet another flop Bowie single, seems (in theory) like a sure thing: a dark conflation of sex and religion with a catchy chorus. Its timing was perfect, too—“Spirit In the Sky” had hit #1 in the UK a month before Bowie recorded this, Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” (of which Bowie’s song seems like a slight parody) was also a recent hit, and Jesus Christ Superstar would come out in the fall of 1970. But instead “Holy Holy” suffered the fate of every Bowie 45 barring “Space Oddity” and failed to chart.

Philips/Mercury sat on the record for six months, finally putting it out in January 1971, in part because of contract negotiations but also because the track sounds a bit dull: its timing seems off and the playing is leaden, whether due to exhaustion or indifference.

Bowie knew that he had whiffed this one, though, and went back to “Holy Holy” in September 1971 with his new Spiders from Mars (Ronson, Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder). The remake is leagues better than the original—Ronson in particular is inspired, moving from an ominous locomotive intro riff to his sleek solo, a different (though harmonized) guitar track for each speaker. The remade “Holy Holy” was good enough to have made the cut for Ziggy Stardust, but instead wound up as a B-side a few years later. Seemingly of its moment, “Holy Holy”‘s time never quite came.

The lyric hints that Bowie’s been reading some Aleister Crowley—the line about “just the righteous brother” isn’t only a play on the Bill Medley/Bobby Hatfield duo’s name but a reference to the Order of the Golden Dawn, to which Crowley had belonged. The whole song is a paean to sex magick, with the lyric moving from basic seduction (the verse) to an orgy in the chorus (which ends “but let go of me!!!”—suggesting the singer’s either under a spell or is moving onto fresher prospects nearby).

The original “Holy Holy” was cut in June 1970 (with the bassist Herbie Flowers, who produced the session) and released in January 1971 as Mercury 6052 049 (c/w “Black Country Rock”). The remake was cut ca. August/September 1971 and, originally slated for the Ziggy Stardust LP, finally surfaced as the B-side to “Diamond Dogs” in June 1974 (it was included on the Ryko reissue of The Man Who Sold the World, although the remake was mislabeled as the original cut, which has never been re-released).

Top: Terry O’Neill, “Margaret Thatcher ca. 1970.”


Reissues: All the Madmen

January 29, 2016

The unearthing of a never-before-published interview [which I believe is legit, not a clever fiction] with Bowie from February 1971 inspired this reposting. In it, when asked about “All the Madmen,” Bowie said:

“The guy in that story has been placed in a mental institution and there are a number of people in that institution being released each week that are his friends. Now they’ve said that he can leave as well. But he wants to stay there, ’cause he gets a lot more enjoyment out of staying there with the people he considers sane. He doesn’t want to go through the psychic compromises imposed on him by the outer world. [Pauses.] Ah, it’s my brother. ’Cause that’s where he’s at.”

The book revision of this post goes more into Nietzsche, R.D. Laing, the  song’s bizarre and very Bowie chord progressions, the (possible) influence of flamenco on Visconti and Ronson here, and other fun things.

Originally posted on January 18, 2010: “All the Madmen”:

All the Madmen.
All the Madmen (single edit).
All the Madmen (live, fragment, 1971).
All the Madmen (live, 1987).

In a closet of that church, there is at this day St. Hilary’s bed to be seen, to which they bring all the madmen in the country, and after some prayers and other ceremonies, they lay them down there to sleep, and so they recover.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy.

In a general way, then, madness is not linked to the world and its subterranean forms, but rather to man, his weaknesses and illusions…There is no madness but which is in every man, since it is man who constitutes madness in the attachment he bears for himself and the illusions he entertains…In this delusive attachment to himself, man generates his madness like a mirage.

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization.

Everyone says, ‘Oh yes, my family is quite mad.’ Mine really is.

David Bowie, to Cameron Crowe, 1975.

Bowie’s family, on his mother’s side, was riddled with mental illness: his aunt Una had been institutionalized for depression and schizophrenia, was given electro-shock treatment and had died in her late thirties; another aunt had schizophrenic episodes; a third had been lobotomized.

Most of all there was his mother’s son, his older half-brother Terry Burns, who eventually was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In 1966, while Bowie and Burns were walking to a Cream concert, Burns fell to the street and screamed, claiming he saw flames rising up from cracks in the pavement. By the time Bowie recorded The Man Who Sold the World, Burns had been confined to London’s Cane Hill Hospital.

So Bowie believed, at the age of 23, that he had perhaps even odds of going mad. The prospect naturally terrified him and would lie behind much of his work in the ’70s—writing songs about identity, control, lunacy and fear; devising personae as various means of escape, as conduits for insanity (Ziggy Stardust was partially based on the mad rock & roller Vince Taylor—Bowie once saw Taylor on his hands and knees outside Charing Cross, using a magnifying glass to pinpoint UFO landing sites on a city map he had spread on the pavement).

“All the Madmen” is Bowie’s first attempt to grapple with what he regarded as his sad inheritance, but it also reflects broader cultural movements; in the quarter century since the war, how society regarded and treated the insane had begun to change, in some cases radically.

(Two films stand on either end of the divide: Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), where the asylum is a stately Vermont manor, the “mad” are the misdiagnosed, the repressed and the malformed, and the face of modern psychiatry is the gorgeous Ingrid Bergman in a white lab coat; and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), where the asylum is a jail, and the insane are no longer puzzles to be solved or worthy citizens to be rehabilitated, but truth-tellers, the last honest men, who society hates and demands silenced and locked away. The face of mental illness treatment is now the sadistic bureaucrat Nurse Ratched.)

Ken Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest was just one of several 1960s books that questioned the treatment of the mentally ill and helped drive the anti-psychiatric movement: along with Foucault’s Madness and Civilization and Erving Goffman’s Asylums, Cuckoo’s Nest showed the asylum as society’s means of isolating the mad from mainstream life, so as to streamline and better enforce cultural norms (e.g., sending homosexuals to be “cured” in asylums via shock treatment). Asylums were hypocrite’s prisons, in which the quiet compromises the “sane” made to conform with society were replaced by brute force.

“All the Madmen” falls in this line. In the lyric, Bowie casts his lot with the insane, following Kerouac’s lines in On the Road (a favorite of Terry Burns) that “the only people for me are the mad ones…the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles.” Bowie’s madmen, locked in their asylums, are “organic minds” hidden in a cellar. Bowie first acts like a lunatic to escape detection and show solidarity, as he’s realized he lives in a society of lunatics. It’s no use: his captors (his doctors, one and the same) remove pieces of his mind, until he truly descends into madness. He ends the song by chanting, over and over, the Dadaist refrain: “Zane zane zane! Ouvre le chien!!”

Aversos Compono Animos

“All The Madmen” is one of the more intricately-arranged tracks on The Man Who Sold the World, opening with Bowie on his acoustic (a brusque, scattered intro with several ringing open strings), leading into the first verse. A descant recorder appears in the second verse, played by Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson (it’s eventually supplanted by synthesizer in the final chorus), and the ominous quiet of the early verses is shattered when Mick Ronson kicks in to lead the band into the long bridge (three separate sections, 24 bars in all).

The chorus (one of the catchiest on the record) is dominated by Ronson’s guitar in its first appearance, with Visconti’s freely-roaming bass as a counterweight, and it leads to a brief two-harmonized-guitar solo. A spoken interlude reminiscent of “We Are Hungry Men” follows, but soon enough it’s Ronson’s show again, with another harmonized-guitar solo replacing the first section of the bridge. The track ends in glorious chaos: Ronson repeating a riff from his first solo, Bowie chanting “Ouvre le chien,” madmen voices swirling around, Woody Woodmansey keeping on ride cymbals ’til the fadeout.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970. While Bowie’s American label Mercury released it as a promo single in December 1970 to accompany Bowie’s first-ever American press tour, the only contemporary live recording of “All the Madmen” was captured at a party by the Los Angeles DJ Rodney Bingenheimer in early 1971—part of the poor-sounding recording turned up in a 2004 documentary on Bingenheimer’s life, Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Bowie let “Madmen” lie fallow for the rest of the ’70s, but garishly revived it for his Glass Spider tour in 1987. He’s left it alone since.

Top: Marcello Mastroianni in John Boorman’s Leo The Last; an alternate cover of The Man Who Sold The World LP, with the administrative wing of Cane Hill Hospital in the background.


Album Poll, Day 3: 10-1

January 6, 2016

David Bowie

It’s the end. The album poll’s Top 10 results show that even for as diverse a group as Bowie fans are, the power of consensus is mighty and vast.

It’s interesting to note some rises and falls in fashion: album #4 likely would have been atop any Bowie LP survey until, maybe, 1995? As late as 1990, some critics considered the top-ranked album akin to The Buddha of Suburbia. And #9 wouldn’t have made the list as recently as five years ago, I’m betting.

Presenting: the Top 10 Favorite Bowie Albums, as determined by about 350 people at the end of 2015.

dblodg

10. Lodger (207 points, 179 votes, 7 #1 votes).

The true ‘lodger,’ the refugee from everywhere, would have more to say, more at stake, and could never be so passionless, so facile. There is still good music here, well-played, unusual, once in a while excellent. The LP is easy to listen to because it rarely challenges the listener; it only baits you with slick and highly embossed surfaces. It is not really a departure from Low and ‘Heroes’, but a rejection of their serious nature.

Paul Yamada, LP review, New York Rocker, 1979.

The oft-overlooked Lodger…is slight to the point of invisibility, ten tracks in 35 minutes with nary a grand statement in sight. And upon its release, everyone—Bowie, Eno, Adrian Belew, Carlos Alomar, the record label—was underwhelmed.  I come, however, not to bury Lodger but to praise it. We’ve had decades for the album to ingratiate itself to our ears, and it has been (partially) successful—Belew, for example, now dubs it “the greatest thing Bowie has given to the world”. It is perhaps the great lost Bowie album, with not a single dud to be found in the ten songs and maybe the finest second half of any of his efforts.

Ian Mathers, 2004.

And here’s the only post-1980 album to crack the Top 10. Your latter-day canonical pick is…

R-256507-1229520214.jpeg

9. 1. Outside (234 points, 162 votes, 18 #1 votes).

The new album is called Outside and what Brian and I were trying to achieve more than anything else was an album that was made up of components that were bitten off from the periphery of the mainstream, rather than jumping into the middle of what’s kind of artistically and commercially known.

Bowie, 1995.

If we were proper fine artists, we would be terribly concerned about which school we belonged to. The advantage the popular arts have is that they are not ideologically proud.

Eno, 1995.

I don’t think it’s easily accessible at all [laughs], and it’s 75 minutes, which is extremely long by most current CD standards, but, frankly, I don’t think accessibility was something that was at the top of our list when we were making it. I think, as always, when Brian and I work together, we tend to work very much for our own enjoyment and for whatever fulfillment we get out of it. We just hope and presume that somebody else will also like the things we find interesting.

Bowie, 1995.

from Oxford Town back to Hunger City…

bowietour

8.  Diamond Dogs (259 points, 215 votes, 11 #1 votes).

Diamond Dogs useta make me laugh; right now it scares the shit out of me.

Charles Shaar Murray, 1975.

A guitar chimes in, another churns the rhythm along, and a sax section blows a storm. All played by D. Bowie.  “Angie bought me a baritone sax, so I’ve got the whole set now and I can do a brass section,” David later informs me, “and I play all the guitars on this one, except for one bit on ‘1984’ which is Alan Parker.” He’s also playing a series of mellotrons and moog synthesizers, which give the first side of the album a ghostly mechanical effect. Between tracks you can hear those machines whirring and clicking away. They create the impression of a machine society, and yet it’s still strange that an album which is about the break-down of an over-mechanized society should rely so heavily upon machines. None of this album would be possible without 16-track tape machines, sophisticated recording studios, mellotrons, and moogs.

Rock, 1974.

His favorite album of his own – and always has been, no matter what he says in interviews – is Diamond Dogs.

A source familiar with Bowie.

R-7756078-1448127665-6848.jpeg

7. Aladdin Sane (276 points, 232 votes, 11 #1 votes).

Aladdin Sane was a result of my paranoia with America at the time. I hadn’t come to terms with it, then. I have now, I know the areas I like best in America…And I’m quite happy over here. I found different people.

But I ran into a very strange type of paranoid person when I was doing Aladdin. Very mixed up people, and I got very upset. It resulted in Aladdin … And I know I didn’t have very much more to say about rock’n’roll. I mean Ziggy really said as much as I meant to say all along. Aladdin was really Ziggy in America. Again, it was just looking around, seeing what’s in my head.

Bowie, 1974.

Besides the fact we were in a different country, city, studio and I couldn’t touch the board, the general feel of the [Aladdin Sane] sessions in New York was a bit strange as well. For whatever reasons, it happens frequently that some members of English bands touring the States for the first time get involved in cults or religions.

Ken Scott.

Now, a set of albums that fought like scrappy (diamond) dogs for the 6-4 slots (they were often tied during the vote tallying):

R-6986619-1431051999-2399.jpeg

6. Scary Monsters (342 points, 258 votes, 21 #1 votes).

[Scary Monsters is] Bowie’s decision to take his work in rock & roll seriously. Anyone who goes to New York takes his work seriously — the city certainly has that effect. So his return to a degree of involvement with New York, I think, is very healthy.

Robert Fripp, 1980.

There are an awful lot of mistakes on that album that I went with, rather than cut them out. As much as possible, [one wants] to put oneself on the line artistically, ever since the Dadaists, who pronounced that art is dead. Once you’ve said art is dead, it’s very hard to get more radical then that. Since 1924 it’s been dead, so what the hell can we do with it from there on? One tries to at least keep readdressing the thing and looking at it from a very different point of view.

Bowie, 1980.

dbhres

5. “Heroes” (349 points, 253 votes, 24 #1 votes).

[Bowie] writes them in the studio now. He goes in with about four words and a few guys, and starts laying all this stuff down and he has virtually nothing—he’s making it up in the studio.

John Lennon, 1980.

I listened to the record for 72 hours. Day and night. Watching tv and in my sleep. Like Station To Station and Low, Heroes is a cryptic product of a high order of intelligence. Committed to survival….His new work is not immediately accessible but neither was Exile on Main Street. Beauty and the Beast is a shock that is eventually absorbed into shining acceptance. Joe the Lion is startling too, and stretched out by some great guitar. It takes some time to get under the skin…Records sound different in Europe. I think the turntables are faster. There’s more treble.

Patti Smith, 1978.

smith

4. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (352 points, 256 votes, 24 #1 votes).

Ziggy was this kind of megalomaniac little prophet figure who came down to tell us it was all over. We never quite sure whether he meant it or not, whether he was from outer space or not.

Bowie, 1980.

What you have there on that album, when it does finally come out, is a story which doesn’t really take place…it’s just a few little scenes from the life of a band called Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars…who could feasibly be the last band on Earth. It could be within the last five years of Earth…I’m not at all sure. Because I wrote it in such a way that I just dropped the numbers into the album in any order that they cropped up. It depends in which state you listen to it in. The times that I’ve listened to it—I’ve had a number of meanings out of the album…but I always do. Once I’ve written an album, my interpretations of the numbers in that album are totally different afterwards than the time that I wrote them, and I find that I learn a lot from my own albums about me.

Bowie, US radio interview, early 1972.

Before reaching the throne room, we pass through a small conservatory…

dbhunky

3. Hunky Dory (389 points, 265 votes, 31 #1 votes).

He really started to think about how he was going to have a kid. That was interesting to him. He got along very well with his father, so from that relationship, he had an optimistic prognosis on what it was going to be like. It wasn’t a scary thing for him. ‘Changes’ and ‘Eight Line Poem’ were about that. And of course, ‘Kooks’.

Angela Bowie.

The songs were more structured. Honestly, I didn’t think he had these songs in him.

Woody Woodmansey.

When Hunky Dory came out, I took one look at the album cover – a soft, vague picture of the artist looking soft and vague – and anticipated a soft, vague sensibility. Instead, Bowie turned out to be an intelligent, disciplined, wry Lou Reed freak.

Ellen Willis, 1972.

Which leaves us with…what you might have expected. The mid-1970s were Bowie’s golden age, at least according to this poll. Check out the numbers!

stat

2. Station to Station (593 points, 293 votes, 75 #1 votes).

If Bowie was James Brown he could well have entitled the second, up-tempo half of Station To StationDiamond Dogs ’76.” The dominant sound of this album overdubs the claustrophobic guitar-strangling garage band chording of Dogs (plus, to a lesser extent, the howling, wrenching lead guitar of The Man Who Sold The World) over the itchy-disco rhythms of the Young Americans album, while Bowie’s vocals evoke the lugubrious, heavily melodramatic vibratoed almost-crooning of Scott Walker.

Charles Shaar Murray, LP review, NME, 1976.

I love this record. I love it because it rocks like a bitch, because it has stupid lines like “It’s not the side effects of her [sic] cocaine. I’m thinking that it must be love”, and because Bowie has the sense of humour to not only mumble half the songs, but mix them so low down it’s impossible to make out a word.

John Ingham, LP review, Sounds, 1976.

We tried to keep [Station to Station] on a private basis…We started at 10 or 11 at night and went to anywhere from eight in the morning to whatever, 36 hours later. David knows exactly what he wants, it’s just a matter of sitting there and doing it till it’s done…David knows a great deal about technical things. He doesn’t know everything, he’s not an engineer, but he knows more about arranging a song, he knows more about how to relate to people and get what he wants out of them…If you listen to the rhythms specifically on this album, there are very strange things going on rhythmically between all the instruments… If nothing else, David’s a genius when it comes to working out rhythmic feels. He was the mainstay behind it all.

Harry Maslin.

and lastly, your all-time #1 (at least for today).

lo

1. Low (621 points, 305 votes, 79 #1 votes).

On this album David Bowie achieves the ultimate image-illusion available to an individual working within the existing cultural forms of the West. He vanishes. The first impression Low imparts to the listener is that he is somehow hearing it sideways.

Ian MacDonald, LP review, NME, 1977.

I loaded the second side of Bowie’s Low onto the cassette deck. Those ominous Berlin synthesizer sounds were probably never imagined as a soundtrack for a dawning stretch of highway on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, but they seemed perfect for my alien mood.

Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink.

When you say ‘avant-garde’, you fall into a category of no melodies, very bizarre-sounding stuff, and [Low] is not like that at all. Some of it is very pretty, some of it is very up…

RCA PR exec to Wesley Strick, Circus, 1977.

It was a dangerous period for me. I was at the end of my tether physically and emotionally and had serious doubts about my sanity. But this was in France. Overall, I get a sense of real optimism through the veils of despair from Low. I can hear myself really struggling to get well.

Bowie, 1999.

And that’s it. Thanks to all who voted. No more polls! (Never again: my hat’s off to anyone who works in data entry.) We’ll be back with an open thread for Blackstar on Friday. I also should be on Norman B‘s radio show on Sunday to talk about my first impressions.

My ballot (I didn’t vote in the poll, though).

Photos: Mostly Discogs. Bowie holding “Heroes” (Claude Vanheye); Robert Smith and Ziggy (couldn’t find photog credit: via a Cure Tumblr); Bowie and Hunky Dory (Mick Rock).


Album Poll, Day 2: 19-11

January 5, 2016

jimmyk

We reach the middleweight section of the album poll: those that wound up ranked between 19 and 11, by you (don’t blame me).

We begin with what was once, for a time, Bowie’s “last” album:

reality

19. Reality (25 points/votes).

It is ironic. You haven’t seen the artwork yet, but there’s a fakeness to the cover that undermines that. It’s the old chestnut: What is real and what isn’t? It’s actually about who’s stolen this world.

Bowie, 2003.

Reality ends up changing in the wake of Bowie’s return. The fact was that his disappearance made Reality a better album. Not that it was bad, ever, but the only reason it was important at all was because of its status as “The Last One.”…The Next Day was hell on Reality because it made Reality have to stand on its own legs as an album for almost the first time. In its defense, the only real difference is that now we *really* wish ‘Try Some Buy Some’ was a B-Side.

Ian McDuffie.

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18. David Bowie aka Space Oddity aka Man of Words/Man of Music (28 points/votes).

I’ve been the male equivalent of the dumb blonde for a few years, and I was beginning to despair of people accepting me for my music. It may be fine for a male model to be told he’s a great looking guy, but that doesn’t help a singer much, especially now that the pretty boy personality cult seems to be on the way out.

My songs are all from the heart, and they are wholly personal to me, and I would like people to accept them as such. I dearly want to be recognized as a writer, but I would ask them not to get too deeply into my songs. As likely as not, there’s nothing there but the words and music you hear at one listening…I see you’ve noticed that my songs are seldom about boy and girl relationships. That’s because I’ve never had any traumas with girls.

Bowie, NME interview, 1969.

David Bowie can be viewed in retrospect as all that Bowie had been and a little of what he would become, all jumbled up and fighting for control: a rag-bag of ideas all getting in each other’s way.

Charles Shaar Murray and Roy Carr.

brazilbuddha

17. The Buddha of Suburbia (42 points, 34 votes, 2 #1 votes).

One idea pulled another behind it, like conjurers’ handkerchiefs…I felt more solid myself, and not as if my mind were just a kind of cinema for myriad impressions and emotions to flicker through.

Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.

I spent so much time in my bedroom [in Bromley]. It really was my entire world. I had books up there, my music up there, my record player. Going from my world upstairs out onto the street, I had to pass through this no-man’s-land of the living room, you know, and out the front hall.

Bowie, 1990.

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16. Let’s Dance (50 points/votes, highest-ranked LP to get no #1s).

A friend of mine who heard this record before I did told me that he was rather disappointed by it. “It’s got guitar solos all over it,” he announced in the sort of tone that you might use for telling somebody that there is a large, maggoty dog turd on their new jacket. Despite the expectation that the combination of Bowie and Nile Rodgers would result in the kind of immaculately tortured but immaculately deft angst-funk that seems in vogue in certain quarters, the actual result is something quite different: some of the strongest, simplest and least complicated music that Bowie has ever made. Let’s Dance is clean, straight and…huge.

Charles Shaar Murray, LP review, NME, 1983.

I think I’m just a little tired of experimentation now…there is a proliferation of synthetic instruments being used in that kind of, er, Me generation icy cold vein. I feel it’s very hard to use those instruments without a kind of preconditioning already there. That if you use the synthesizer it means this particular thing; that I’m part of this angular society.

So that’s why I’ve used a very organic, basic instrumentation on this new album. Such instrumentation doesn’t say anything other than it comes from a hybrid of white and black culture. That is the only underlying subtext it has really…As I say, experimentation can be rewarding for finding awkward stances musically. But it just isn’t satisfying after a while. And it’s not satisfying because it’s not very useful, except – as Brian Eno would say – for setting up a new kind of vocabulary. Now I’ve got the vocabulary I’m supposed to do something with it! Ha ha!

Bowie, 1983.

rosie

15. Earthling (57 points, 49 votes, 2 #1 votes).

I’ve been featured in a long-running cartoon in Britain as being a rather disengaged culture vulture. A bit of a mad pilot that kind of flies from avant-garde trees, making this nest out of glittering jewels that belong to other beings. Well, I guess that’s me. The thing is, I agree with all that, and I don’t see anything wrong in that. Yes, that’s what I do. I’m a contagious, infectious enthusiast. It’s what I like doing.

Bowie, 1997.

What’s great about him in that he’s constantly looking for new input. There’s all this stuff going on around us, and it’s so easy to just shut it out because it’s too much. Instead, he just wades right in, like an old lady at a basement sale. Instead of going through racks of clothes, he’s going through racks of ideas, pulling out what interests him.

Reeves Gabrels, on Bowie, 1997.

and the first notable jump in votes:

tnd

14. The Next Day (98 points, 94 votes, 1 #1 vote, 2 voters specified Next Day Extra).

Effigies Indulgences Anarchist Violence Chthonic Intimidation Vampyric Pantheon Succubus Hostage Transference Identity Mauer Interface Flitting Isolation Revenge Osmosis Crusade Tyrant Domination Indifference Miasma Pressgang Displaced Flight Resettlement Funereal Glide Trace Balkan Burial Reverse Manipulate Origin Text Traitor Urban Comeuppance Tragic Nerve Mystification

Bowie’s “work flow diagram” for The Next Day, sent to Rick Moody, 2013.

Stay-At-Home Bowie isn’t boring, however…In fact, it’s one of the most interesting evolutions of Bowie’s public persona. He’s taken a conception of himself forced upon him by popular culture, an idea created in his absence from the public eye. It’s also a character that is forced upon him by the passage of time: he simply is older now. And he’s playing up to that, to a degree. He’s also raging against it, subverting it, adding to it, and generally not doing the sort of things you’d expect David Bowie to do. Plus, Bowie getting old and revelling in it: that has the same sort of rebellious spirit as modern-day Bob Dylan, his protest song period long behind him, putting out a record of Christmas standards.

“A Sitting Ovation.”

mwh8

13. The Man Who Sold The World (112 points, 104 votes, 2 #1 votes).

Tony Visconti’s compressed production gives the album an utterly synthetic audio quality: few records this simply played sound as studio-created.

Trouser Press Record Guide, 3rd edition.

It’s clearly the beginning of the Spiders from Mars…Though that band was yet to be invented, technically, it’s a logical extension of what was going on with The Man Who Sold The World. It was a pivotal album in that it gave [Bowie] a taste of what it was like to be in a rock band.

Tony Visconti.

It was all family problems and analogies put into science-fiction form.

Bowie, on MWSTW, 1976.

dbheathn

12. Heathen (150 points, 134 votes, 4 #1 votes).

Especially in one’s mid-fifties, you’re very aware that that’s the moment you have to leave off the idea of being young. You’ve got to let it go.

Bowie, Interview, 2002.

Heathen will surely be condemned by those who cannot forgive him for his past greatness, and will likely be loved by a few who still imagine strains of “Space Oddity” beneath its refrains. It’s hard to shake the thought that even thirty years later, some people still seem to be expecting another Ziggy.

Eric Carr, review, Pitchfork, 2002.

Heathen was written in the mountains, and kind of feels like that, I think.

Bowie, 2002.

taylor

11. Young Americans (157 points, 137 votes, 5 #1 votes).

Bowie played [Young Americans] for the ten blissed-out, formerly camped-out, devotees, who’d been ushered into the studio, finally, at 5 am by Stuart George. With wine, tears and adulation flowing around and from the blessed, Bowie was an affable host as he signed more autographs, apologized for the unfinished mix of the album and agreed to play it a second time, at which point the party erupted into dance. Bowie took center floor with a foxy stomp.

Rolling Stone, 1974.

My own recent music has been good, plastic soul, I think. It’s not very complex, but it’s enjoyable to write. I did most of it in the studio. It doesn’t take very long to write…about ten, 15 minutes a song. I mean, with Young Americans I thought I’d better make a hit album to cement myself over here [the U.S.], so I went in and did it. It wasn’t too hard, really.

Bowie, Melody Maker, 1976.

Next: the Top 10. Oy Vey Baby still has a shot.

Photos: mostly Discogs. Also: amateur painter, 2014 (Jimmy King); “According to G,” Next Day promo posters, NYC, 2013; Bowie at an HMV promo for Heathen, 2002 (unknown photog); Ms. Swift & Young Americans (ASOS).