The Supermen

January 5, 2010

The Supermen (LP version).
The Supermen (1971 remake).
The Supermen (live, 1972).
The Supermen (live, 2004).

I teach you the superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have you done to surpass man?…

Lo, I teach you the superman: he is this lightning, he is this madness!

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra: “Zarathustra’s Prologue.”

His other great inspiration is mythology. He has a great need to believe in the legends of the past, particularly those of Atlantis; and for the same need he has crafted a myth of the future, a belief in an imminent race of supermen called homo superior. It’s his only glimpse of hope, he says—“all the things that we can’t do they will.”

Michael Watts, Bowie profile in Melody Maker, 22 January 1972.

Bowie, who never had the sunniest of dispositions, grew apocalyptic at the dawn of the 1970s. He knew what was coming: neo-fascism, nuclear war, authoritarian cults of personality, decadence, civilization’s end (he gave the human race 40 years to live, soon cut it down to five). Worse, he had started reading Nietzsche, mainly Also Sprach Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil, and took from the former the concept of a new race of overmen who would supplant homo sapiens. For Bowie, this was cause for slight optimism.

“The Supermen,” the first fruit of this new infatuation, isn’t as much future prediction as it is primordial memory, with overmen at the dawn of time on their “loveless isle,” playing and battling (which seem to be one and the same). It’s akin to Donovan’s “Atlantis,” from 1968, but where Donovan had envisioned the few survivors of Atlantis bestowing art and civilization upon the human race, Bowie’s supermen are brutes, nightmare Teutonic demigods. In a 1976 interview, Bowie called the song “pre-fascist.”

Nietzsche wasn’t the only influence: Bowie’s overmen also have (no surprise) some resemblance to the Buddhist monks of his ’60s songs, like the carnival sage of “Karma Man.” Bowie also was likely inspired by the supermen and mutants who populated postwar SF novels and comics, whether The Mule, the superhuman of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, who is the unforeseen variable that alters the predicted path of “psycho-history,” or the mutant children of Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, who discover that together they form a new entity, homo gestalt, a plural form of human being (cf. Bowie’s line: “where all were minds in uni-thought.”)

Even though he is immortal…mankind is affected by mortality…above the cosmic framework, he became a slave in it…He never sleeps because he comes from one who is sleepless. Yet love and sleep are his masters.

Poimandres, the Shepherd of Men.

Bowie’s supermen, however, are locked in the past, once-gods who became mortal. As the very Gnostic lyric says, they are “wondrous beings chained to life.” The song chronicles their fall: the chorus boasts that the perfect men cannot die, but then the overmen dream of murder and rotting flesh; in the last repeat of the chorus, Bowie alters the final word and releases his supermen into death.

Strange games

Jimmy Page allegedly gave Bowie the lumbering riff that opens “The Supermen”—a primal sway between F and G—which on the LP is first played on Tony Visconti’s bass, then Mick Ronson’s guitar. (Page supposedly gave Bowie the riff during the session for Bowie’s 1965 single “I Pity the Fool“—if true, you have to admire Bowie’s packrat sensibilities, stowing away the riff for half a decade.)

For the album cut, Bowie, Ronson and Visconti made, as Visconti later said, an “outrageous sonic landscape.” The track opens with a fanfare on echo-tracked drums, which, like the end of “Width of a Circle,” suggests the tympani of the first movement of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” (This marks the debut of Woody Woodmansey, who Ronson brought in to replace John Cambridge on drums after Cambridge couldn’t master the song’s odd time signatures.) There’s a wordless, moaning chorus soaring throughout, while Ronson offers a solo constructed from three harmonized guitar tracks.

Bowie, for whatever perverse reason, sings his lyric in an exaggerated, nasal, near-Cockney tone (“strAYnge gAYmes thAY would plAY then”), even gasping horribly while he sings “nightmAYre dreams no mortal mind could ‘OLD”. It causes the track to war between self-parody and stone-faced seriousness.

Bowie re-recorded “The Supermen” in November 1971 during the Ziggy Stardust sessions, and gave the track to a compilation LP to benefit the Glastonbury Fair (causing at times the remake to be erroneously labeled as a live recording). The new arrangement suggests a rethink of the song, with the verses now only carried by Bowie’s acoustic guitar while Ronson comes in hard on the choruses. The band would use this arrangement in most of its 1972-1973 live performances (see the 1972 recording from Boston above). Bowie has occasionally exhumed his master race on a few recent tours.

“The Supermen” was first recorded at a BBC session on 25 March 1970 (I’ve not heard it, but Nicholas Pegg writes that it’s close to the studio version, with a few slightly altered lyrics and Cambridge’s “dodgy” drumming); the studio track (sequenced as the final cut on the LP, and so ending the record with the death of gods) was recorded between 18 April-22 May 1970. The remake, recorded on 12 November 1971, was first included on Glastonbury Fayre and is now on the reissue of Ziggy Stardust; the Boston recording, from 1 October 1972, is on the 30th anniversary issue of Aladdin Sane.

Top: Jack Kirby’s New Gods #1; detail from cover of Sturgeon’s More Than Human.

Chapter Three: Someone Else’s Horizon (1977-1979)

October 7, 2018


Epigraphs   isolationist: uncredited early 1978 interview, DB quoted in Miles, In His Own Words, 33.

104  Madman/Sitting      Broadcast: I differ from some sources (Pegg, Cann) here, who have the Bowie/Bolan taping as being on 9 September 1977. There’s a contemporary article by Chris Welch, who attended the show and wrote that it happened “last Wednesday.” Wednesday was the 7th, not the 9th, of September 1977; Bolan back in England…wanting passionately to do it: NME, 7 March 1976.

105  co-write a song: There are other alleged Bowie and Bolan recordings from the mid-Seventies, the one most cited being “Walking Through That Door,” said to be a recording of Bowie, Bolan, and Gloria Jones in LA in 1975. But this is apparently a Bolan song called “Lovin’ You” produced for Richard Jones’ (Gloria’s brother) unreleased album, recorded at MRI Studios in January 1976. Richard Jones has reportedly said Bowie is not on this track; Madman: first issued on a fan-club cassette after Bolan’s death, it was covered by the Cuddly Toys in 1980 and Belgian synth artist Snowy Red in 1982; final episode: its performers were Generation X; a pub rock band called Lip Service; “Heart Throb,” Bolan’s cut-rate Pan’s People, who danced to their self-titled theme song (with giant glowing heart as backdrop) and Gonzalez’s (Gloria Jones-penned) “Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet”; Bolan barely bothering to lip-sync “Deborah” and, with more commitment, “Ride a White Swan” and his blues “Groove a Little”; Eddie and the Hotrods having a blast on “Do Anything You Wanna Do”; and finally a subdued “Heroes,” with Bowie performing alone to a prerecorded backing track; staffers from entering the studio: depicted in Welch and Tim Lott’s articles about the taping for Melody Maker and Record Mirror, respectively, with more stories later recounted to Trynka and Hopkins for their biographies.

106  died within seconds: though it’s often reported that a sycamore tree killed Bolan, the tree (which stood behind a concrete fence post) in truth prevented the car from tumbling down a hill and likely saved Gloria Jones’ life, as per Lesley-Ann Jones’ Ride a White Swan; his son: because Jones wasn’t Bolan’s wife at the time of his death (in fact he was still married to June Child), their son Rolan was legally regarded as illegitimate and Jones couldn’t access the trust fund that held Bolan’s royalties. “Things got very tough,” Rolan told the Daily Mail in 2011. “David’s generosity helped my mother and me to survive [Bowie paid for Rolan’s education and “settled other expenses”]. It wasn’t just the financial help, but the time and kindness. He never came to see us in California…but he kept in regular touch by phone…He’d shrug off our thanks, saying it was the least he could do for the family of a good friend.”  Peace On Earth    Bing was no idiot…I hate that song…biggest complaint: to Paul Fahri, Washington Post, 20 December 2006.

107   knew everything: Hit Parader, June 1978; little old orange: Q, October 1999; on-line mix: Ted Scott, AudioWise, Stories From Sound Control.


108  Peter and the Wolf   little concerned to say the least: Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 January 2016; Ustinov: Arthur Rubenstein also reportedly declined the job; Kaplan: (who wound up buying the Bowie album), in her Leave the Building Quickly, 177.

109  Revolutionary Song   release: the Just a Gigolo soundtrack also includes Marlene Dietrich and the Village People singing the title song, the Manhattan Transfer, and a version of a Scott Joplin rag; it could have been put on Voyager 2; largest budget: reportedly 12 million deutsche marks (as per Wolfgang Tasler, “Just a Gigolo—A Song, A Story, A Film,” June 1978).

110  somewhat thick: Uncut, April 2001.


111 Alabama Song     No more costumes: Melody Maker, 18 February 1978; musician seduced: PC Magazine, 3 April 1984; try to play my same music: Melody Maker, 18 February 1978; didn’t interfere too much: Mayes, Starzone Interviews, 39; Alomar: He came close to not being on the tour—in January 1978, Bowie was publicly talking about using Stacy Heydon. The issue was that Alomar was working on his wife Robin Clark’s album (“This is the first year we’ve had any time off,” Alomar told the Emerald City Chronicle in May 1978. “David probably felt I needed to sometime work with Robin and if I didn’t want to do this tour, he wasn’t going to hold me to it.”) But Alomar cleared up his schedule in time. In the same interview, he described his usual role on tour. “When David looks around and looks at the band, he only looks at me. I give him cues and he gives me cues.” In his memoir, Mayes confirmed that “Carlos was in charge. David [acted] as if he was his own kid brother who got a chance to jump up and sing with the band sometimes…he was acting as if the band isn’t going to take him seriously”; Stage: Bowie’s bald attempt to knock off two records from the remaining four that he owed RCA; it didn’t work.

112  began including: its likely debut was Chicago, 17 April 1978; strident piece of music: Vogue, September 1978; speech rhythm: quoted by Kowalke, in Music & Performance, 84; cult of money: Albright, Untwisting the Serpent, 118.


113  Lenya: Brecht Unbound, 105; more like a circus: to Mark Paytress, Mojo, November 2017; he felt worked best: Mayes, Life On Tour, 111. In 1966, the Doors had started performing the song because its calls for the next whiskey bar was a crowd-pleaser: they were playing the Whiskey A Go-Go at the time.

114 Move On    Mountain Studios  It opened in 1975, the project of singer Anita Kerr and her husband and manager, Alex Grob, who had moved to Switzerland at end of the Sixties. Its Westlake Audio control room was designed to record concerts, as an easy source of work was taping performances at the annual Montreux Jazz Festival (it’s one reason why the actual studio was so cramped and unappealing, as Mountain was originally geared towards recording off-site live performances). By the time Bowie recorded Lodger there in September 1978, Queen had also started using Mountain—the band would buy it from Kerr and Grob the following year; I don’t live anywhere: Northern Lights interview, 16 June 1978; the more I travel: Melody Maker, 29 October 1977; I have never got around…all my traveling: NME, 12 November 1977; trilogy: Bowie was calling Lodger part of a triptych or trilogy before it was released—in an October 1977 interview to promote “Heroes,” he said he was already at work on the third album. Eno also referred to the records as being a trilogy; The Tenant: other nods in the LP art are a postcard addressed to “David Bowie c/o RCA Records, London” (Polanski’s tenant receives a postcard addressed to the former occupant), and the layout of a photo album that Polanski flips through is similar to that of Lodger‘s inner sleeve. The images, which include an infant, a dying Che Guevara and Christ, have similar poses to Bowie’s fallen Lodger; all suggest death or rebirth, “repetition” throughout time. Other influences on the cover art are Egon Schiele’s Self Portrait as St. Sebastian (1914-15) and Francis Picabia’s Nature Morte: Portrait of Cézanne/Portrait of Renoir/Portrait of Rembrandt (1920); Christgau: Village Voice, 10 September 2002, in a review of Heathen as “Dud of the Month.” “Just to be mean I compared his latest phoenix imitation to 1979’s Lodger, a certified nonclassic I always kind of liked. Lodger won easy.”

115  no mixing equipment…we had no choice: Mojo, November 2017; sketchpad: NME, 13 September 1980; self-plagiarism: Melody Maker, 26 May 1979; Kierkegaard: Momus, comment on the “Move On” blog post, 22 July 2012: “It’s not hard to see why Kierkegaard appealed to Bowie at this stage in his life. K’s themes keep returning to belief versus doubt, marriage versus seduction, the aesthetic versus the ethical. His voice is a playful, ironic and experimental one, with constantly shifting styles and personae. If Bowie begins the 1970s as a disciple of the bombastic Nietzsche (most notably in “The Supermen”), he ends the decade under the influence of Kierkegaard (a much subtler, nicer and more social-democratic figure)”; Dudes: the refrain of “Dudes” is D/Dmaj7/Bm/D-A/Am/Am7-G/F/C (with a G-C-A-D turnaround); the refrain of “Move On” is C/F/G/Am/D/Bm/D, with a A-C-G turnaround. The bridge of “Move On” shifts to A minor; that became ‘Move On’: Brooklyn Boy, 268; Garson: to Dan LeRoy, Greatest Music Never Sold, 59.


116  pick a country: to John Rockwell, New York Times, 7 May 1978; something like Dvorak: Mayes, On Tour, 114.    African Night Flight    fifth business: from the 1970 Davies novel of the same name; Eno chords: Bowie once said he’d gotten “Look Back In Anger” out of the “chalkboard chords” session, but both Mayes and Visconti recalled that the session produced nothing of use.

117  almost all Brian…terrible way to mix a track: Mojo, November 2017; crickety sounds: Uncut, April 2001.

118   German pilots: some were still in East Africa in the 2000s, running anti-al Qaeda surveillance operations out of Mombasa; when they’re going to leave: radio interview, 18 April 1979; Noel Coward: in live versions of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” Coward often sang a nonsensical “native” chant to break up verses.   Yassassin   Issued as a single ca. July 1979 in Turkey and Holland (unknown what the Turks made of it). The Dutch single edit lops off over a minute. Bowie said he was considering “Yassassin” for his 1995 tour, but that’s as far as it went.

119  up-chop: Brooklyn Boy, 268. A story to take with some salt, as Davis had been playing a reggae “What in the World” throughout the 1978 tour without apparent difficulty; Hassan I Sabha: From Quark, Strangeness & Charm (1977). Nicking from a song named after the founder of the Hashashin, then calling your own track “Yassassin” is a bit cheeky, even by Bowie standards. Another nod in the lyric was to Shane Fenton and the Fentones’ 1961 “I’m a Moody Guy” (Fenton later became Alvin Stardust); coffee bars in Turkey: 18 April 1979 radio interview; particular culture: NME, 13 September 1980.


120  Red Sails    Stan Harrison: only credited as “Stan” on the original LP sleeve—he’d later play on Bowie’s 1983 tour. live: for the “Serious Moonlight” tour, Bowie slowed its tempo and added a brass section. It didn’t gel, and he soon cut it from the set list; Errol Flynn…cross reference…don’t know what it’s about: to Watts, Melody Maker, 19 May 1979; motorik: Dominique Leone once gave on ILX a concise definition of it—4/4 time, with snare on 2 & 4; continual eighth notes on hi-hat, with the bass drum mirroring the latter except on snare beats; Belew: David Shaw interview, undated.

121 Repetition    Live: technically, it wasn’t performed in front of an audience in 1997—a backstage performance from rehearsals for Bowie 50th birthday concert was shown on the pay-per-view broadcast. But I figured this was enough for “1997” to merit inclusion; Lodger: Its sequencing has “Repetition” directly following “Boys Keep Swinging.”

122 numbness: Capital Radio, 14 May 1979.


123  DJ   liberators: The very 1990 movie Pump Up the Volume was probably the last time that a DJ was portrayed as any sort of liberating figure; Mathers: “On Second Thought—Lodger,” Stylus, 20 July 2004; dead air: “Conversations with Bowie,” Capital Radio, 14 May 1979; promo film: directed by Mallet, it helped establish a cardinal rule of early MTV that at some point in a video, glass must be broken.

124 Fantastic Voyage   anxious song: Moody, Salon, 20 September 2014; out of our control: Capital Radio, 14 May 1979; first target: Record Mirror, 24 September 1977; reading: Erdman knew a hit when he saw one, as he went on to write The Last Days of America and The Panic of ’89. Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War sold over three million copies—even Reagan allegedly read it. Another Bowie favorite of the time was Anthony Burgess’ 1985, an odd combination of an essay on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and a bad novella about a future Britain overrun by trade unions and Muslims; mandolins: Visconti, Roland blog, 2014: “I noticed that the first two chords of the song were the same as the first two chords of ‘Love Me Tender’…instead of strings, it called for mandolins, playing like a string section of mandolins…You can hear ‘Love Me Tender’ if you listen closely to the mandolins just for a bit. Then the third chord is not in LMT anymore so we stopped playing that motif.”

126  Look Back in Anger  US/Canadian single, released ca. August 1979, to little chart action.  remake: it was performed (to a backing track) twice in 1988, at the Intruders at the Palace show on 1 July and for Nam June Paik’s “Wrap Around the World,” a pre-Olympics 90-minute live television broadcast with events simulcast from Europe and Asian countries, on 10 September (in retrospect, this merited inclusion in the “Broadcast” list). The remake is currently out of print; angels to put the world to right: interview with Boffomundo, 1979.

127 tatty angel of death:  Capital Radio, 14 May 1979; rhythm guitar solo: to Buckley, Strange Fascination, 304.


128 Boys Keep Swinging    UK #7: Bowie’s decision to finally release his disco “John (I’m Only Dancing again)” in late 1979 may have been inspired by the chart success of “Boys.” Twenty years later, Blur raided the song enough for “M.O.R.” that they had to credit Bowie and Eno as co-songwriters. Roxy Music’s “Trash,” released in early 1979, was a similar gambit: an old glam act looking to remake itself as New Wave, with the single debuted on Kenny Everett. Unlike “Boys,” the single flopped, but Roxy soon rebounded with “Dance Away.”

129 colonization…glory was ironic: Bust, Fall 2000; more tension: the D-E-Bb verse progression is a swift move away from the home chord (I- v-of-V- VIb). Bowie adds tension to his underlying chords by briefly pushing to sing submediant notes (B) over the D chord (“hea-ven loves ya”), doing it again (C) over the E chord (“clouds are for ya”), then a tumble down to hit the root note in the Bb chord (“no-thing stands”). Visconti said a third song using this progression was cut during the Lodger sessions, but scrapped; young kids in the basementworld’s your oyster: to Buckley, 304.

130  Red Money   mere whimsy: Uncut, April 2001.

131 Wilson…Dylan: “Reet Petite” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” (cf. “my hands can’t feel to grip”), respectively; small red box: one painting was Man With Red Box, from 1976, described by Will Brooker as “a haunted male figure in a 1930s outfit, glancing off-canvas with apparent horror as he holds, in both hands, an object roughly the size and colour of a brick.”


132 I Pray, Olé  it was out of print for over 20 years, never found on compilations (as with the rest of the late Seventies Ryko bonuses); it’s at last being released on a single for the upcoming Record Store Day. no memory: to Pegg, 124; Palmer: reply to a commenter on the Illustrated DB Discography board, posted 10 October 2011.        Play It Safe  Source for many stories about this track is Trynka’s Bleed, pp. 241-246, based in turn primarily on interviews with Pop and Barry Andrews (Glen Matlock wasn’t in the studio when Bowie visited).

134  Velvet Couch  first surfaced as a bootleg 7″ (“Two Gentlemen in New York”) sometime in the Eighties; Ciarbis Studios: various references cite a recording date of either 5 or 15 October 1979, based on what I have no idea, though I presume it was cut around that time. There’s also utterly no other reference to a “Ciarbis Studios,” in NYC or elsewhere, that I could find. Presumably it was the name given to someone’s (Cale’s?) home recording set-up or maybe it’s a bootlegger joke; war had been declared: quoted in What’s Welsh for Zen, 176; unheard in the mix: The Cornell Daily Sun, 6 April 1979; throwing things around: to Tom Pinnock, Uncut, February 2016.

135  good old bad old days: Uncut, June 2008.

Reissues: Life On Mars?

February 25, 2016

Given Lorde’s tribute to Bowie at the BRIT Awards, it feels like the right time to revive this grand dame.

It was one of the book revisions that took seemingly forever to finish, and then it wound up being not that different from the blog entry. Just a touch more concise, I suppose, and a few new quotes and such. I’ve swapped in the book’s paragraphs on the chords, etc., as the original entry was clunky. If you want to see the warts-and-all version, it’s back here.

Originally posted on 23 March 2010, it’s “Life On Mars?”

Life On Mars?
Life On Mars? (live, 1972).
Life On Mars? (rehearsal, 1976).
Life On Mars? (Tonight Show, 1980).
Life On Mars? (live, 1983).
Life On Mars? (broadcast, 1999).
Life On Mars? (Net Aid, 1999).
Life On Mars? (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Life On Mars? (Glastonbury, 2000).
Life On Mars? (Parkinson, 2002).
Life On Mars? (live, 2005).
Life On Mars (The Bad Plus, 2007).
Life on Mars? (Lorde, 2016).

This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.

Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.

David Bowie on “Life on Mars,” 2008.

Nice indeed. “Life on Mars?,” as fits its cinematic lyric, has become the Citizen Kane of Bowie songs—the youthful masterpiece, the epic, the best thing he ever did. Popular television shows have been named after it, people have gotten married to it.

It (quite literally) is Bowie’s own version of “My Way”—longtime readers may recall Bowie’s chrisom child “Even a Fool Learns to Love,” his attempt to write English lyrics for Claude François’ “Comme d’Habitude.” Bowie’s translation was trumped by Paul Anka’s, which turned François’ stoic Gallic lyric into a grandiose self-assessment, perfect for Frank Sinatra’s late imperial phase. Bowie was nettled by the snub though, and a few years later he rewrote the song as “Life On Mars?”—brazen enough in his theft that he wrote “Inspired by Frankie” on the LP cover.

An anomic heroine

A sullen teenage girl goes to the movies, gets stood up by her friend and dejectedly takes her seat. She’s the subject of the song, not the typical rock ‘n’ roll object of beauty or lust or distraction. In a few lines, Bowie captures a teenager’s life, its slights, its cosmic sense of injustice, its losing war against tedium, its restlessness (he starts nearly every line with a conjunction), its uneasy cynicism. The movie screen flickers to life, showers the girl with images. The song becomes the screen, its pre-chorus is an extended trailer—soaring strings, thunderous piano, ascending chords—for the refrain, one of the most shameless, gorgeous melodies he ever wrote.

And the song also captures a teenager’s ability to suddenly and completely lose themselves in art, to a degree we can never quite do again. It’s what happens in the song as well. Bowie constructs an 8-bar bridge designed to build anticipation in the listener—the strings, the pounding piano, the rising chords in each new bar—and then makes good on his promise: the chorus, with Bowie vaulting nearly an octave to a high B-flat and ending with another high Bb, held for a brief eternity.

The careful imagery and the intricate design of the first verse—its movie theater setting, its mousy heroine—vanishes in the second, replaced by a string of jokes (“Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow” made Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey crack up in the studio), esoteric references and gibberish (“my mother, my dogs and clowns”). A cynic would argue that Bowie didn’t have a second verse and just free-associated in the studio [voice of 2016: a cynic would be partially wrong, as there were further verses written, but Bowie rewrote them at some point before recording]; a more charitable interpretation is that the second verse is from the point of view of the movie screen itself. Blank and fecund, the screen offers nothing but a string of disconnected, vivid, absurd images: the masses scurrying from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads (from a hip summer holiday destination to an old-fashioned one), Mickey Mouse, “Alley Oop” (from which Bowie stole the “look at those cavemen go” line ), crooked cops and honest robbers.

It could be a curse on modern life, in which a discontented girl is stunned into silence by colors and noise, or it could argue that even the basest pleasures have nobility in them. I’d say “Life on Mars?” turns out to be a love song after all—the girl in the stalls, the screen providing her cheap dreams, and the song that unites them.

Striking for fame

There is an art to the building up of suspense.

Tom Stoppard, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

It starts with a cold opening—a single piano note, a rest, two sung notes to kick-start the verse (“It’s a/god-awful”), the latter becoming a rhythmic motif (“But her/friend is…,” “She could/spit”). A harmony vocal appears, a third below Bowie’s lead; Bolder deepens “sunken dream” with a bass fill. By the pre-chorus, a sense of movement has become relentless. All of its players are conscripted: strings and bass slam downbeats; Rick Wakeman’s piano drums out chords; Bowie vaults from a D to a high B-flat (“fo-cus on/SAI-LORS”) as a last flourish. Yet the refrain plays another game of suspense. After his opening gymnastic, Bowie feigns as if he’s losing strength, as he hits the next Bb briefly (“OH man”) and his next leap is a shorter interval, from E to B (“law-man”). It’s all a ruse: his final jump is his grandest—holding a three-bars-long Bb on “MARS!” The whole song is a clockwork. Everything has led up to this glorious indulgence. All that’s left to do is replay the whole sequence and close with fireworks.

There’s a parallel game in the song’s structure. The verses are comfortably in F major, with a C7 chord (“told her to go”) shuttling back home to F (“but her friend”) but at the close, a now-C9 chord jarringly leads to A-flat chords (“lived it ten times”). The pre-chorus becomes a battle for control between waning F major and B-flat, which assures its victory with a triumphant B-flat that opens the refrain as Bowie leaps to sing its root note. Bolder’s bass prepares the ear: in the pre-chorus, his rising chromatic line (inching up from Eb to E, from F to Gb) heralds the transition; in the refrain he tacks things down, keeping to the roots of the newly-established Bb key.

Ronson’s cascading string arrangement was based in part on the descending bassline that Bolder had worked out in rehearsals, while in turn Woodmansey’s drums respond to the strings—he does some tympani-like fills to match the staccato string bursts, and even ends the track by quoting the tympani of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (a Bowie perennial by this point—similar tributes are in “Width of a Circle” and “The Supermen”). Wakeman, playing the same piano that Paul McCartney used for “Hey Jude,” offers a secondary melody line for much of the verses. Ah, you can spend hours on the details: the lovely double-recorder accompaniment in the second verse; or Ronson’s gorgeous,vibrato-filled guitar solo that links the chorus and the verse.

“Life on Mars?” naturally gets a Hollywood ending: sweeping strings, the 2001 drum fanfare and a fadeout. But we still hear Wakeman’s piano in the distance, playing a bit of his chorus line, until a phone rings, someone mutters and we’re left awake and alone.

Recorded June-July 1971; released as a single by RCA in June 1973 (RCA 2316; it hit #3 in the UK, helped by the Mick Rock promo). While a huge hit in the UK, it was never that popular in America, oddly enough. Bowie performed it occasionally during the Ziggy tours of ’72-’73  and in’76 and then retired it until a Tonight Show performance on 5 September 1980 that has, for me, Bowie’s finest vocal for the song. Also revived in 1983, 1990 and the last tours. It’s been regularly covered over the years, even by Barbra Streisand. The version by The Bad Plus (from Prog) is highly recommended.

Top: The Nottingham Odeon, 1971.

You Feel So Lonely You Could Die

July 31, 2015


You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.

Like many Bowie songs of this century, “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is burdened with those of the previous one. Bowie impressed a songbook into service here: verses have the flavor of Leonard Cohen’s beaten warhorse “Hallelujah,” while its title comes from “Heartbreak Hotel.” (Elvis, on this album, is like a watermark on a set of press photos.) Bowie pillages his own stores, too. “Rock and Roll Suicide” is in the guitar figure (the song’s the first Bowie waltz in decades), “The Supermen” in the vocal arrangement; the outro slightly varies the drum pattern of “Five Years,” a reference so obvious that every reviewer felt compelled to note it. (And now I do.)

It’s thick enough to make you choke. In “You Feel So Lonely…,” sequenced as the near-last word of The Next Day, Bowie calls up old spies, broken assignations, outsourced torture, shabby political killings (“the assassin’s needle” calls to mind the murder of the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, dispatched by poisoned umbrella tip). It’s a powerless reckoning, a harping on history (“Russian history,” Tony Visconti specified) that’s been crated up and shipped off, leaving him to pick at dried wounds. It’s galling how much has been gotten away with. All Bowie can hope is that the creep in his sights (a traitor, a sell-out, like an old lover who once worked for the Stasi, or maybe it just felt like it) will one day have the guts to dispatch himself (or herself). (The “official” words for this song are “Traitor,” “Urban” and “Comeuppance.”)

There’s also a sense that the song’s target doesn’t know, or care, how much hate they’ve bred over the years, how much purchase they’ve had on the singer’s imagination. No one ever saw you, Bowie begins, recounting the creep leaving notes in a park somewhere (a fan on Bowie Wonderworld speculated whether this local news story was an inspiration). But not even he saw it at the time: so much of this diatribe is a man making war against his imagination. Oblivion will own you! he cries, though he’s the one who’s most keeping the hated figure alive. He can hope for justice all he wants, whether via rifles, ropes or ricin, or that his hated object is finally stuck in a room somewhere with a mirror. But if justice comes, he’ll lose the light he’s orbiting around.

As always, look for the joke in the curse, like the pissy moan that “people don’t LIKE you” (sung after Bowie’s already called for the hangrope), or the chord sequence of D!-E!-A!-D! while he moans his final “die-ie-ie-ieee” to close out refrains. Momus once argued (and perhaps will argue again) that it’s a possible dig at Morrissey, more revenge for Morrissey stealing “Rock and Roll Suicide” for “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” (“vile rewards for you” is very Moz). And of course, the charges of being a sneak, a vampire and a thief have been leveled against the singer as much as anyone.

What makes the track is the ironic righteousness of Bowie’s lead vocal, one of his most gorgeously sustained performances. Over crabbed chord progressions in a George Harrison vein,* the arrangement is a communal recreation of “classic” Bowie, if through a distorted mirror. DB paces things on his 12-string acoustic, Visconti has a string quartet play keyboard lines and vocal hooks, Gail Ann Dorsey and Janice Pendarvis offer blissful curses. A beautiful ode to, as Lady Stardust sang so many years ago, darkness and disgrace.

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

* See Harrison’s “Long Long Long” (also a waltz) for a similar slowly-descending IV-iii-ii progression (found in Harrison’s refrain (Bb/Am/Gm) and in Bowie’s verse (G/F#m/Em, “leaving slips of paper, somewhere..”), though Bowie moves to the vi chord (Bm, “in the park”) before going home to D, where Harrison gets home via the dominant (C)).

Top: Osamu Kaneko, “Tokyo,” 2012.

The Pink Floyd Set

April 27, 2015


Arnold Layne (Bowie and David Gilmour, live, 2006).
Comfortably Numb (Bowie and David Gilmour, live, 2006).

David Gilmour was touring in the spring of 2006 as a solo artist, as Pink Floyd, the band whose name and leadership he’d assumed since the mid-Eighties, was finally in the grave. “I’m at liberty to play with Rick [Wright] and Nick [Mason] any time,” he said in 2001. “But the weight of the whole Pink Floyd thing is something that I don’t feel like lifting these days…I just think I’ve grown out of it. Finally.”

He and Roger Waters had sniped at each other for decades over who “owned” Pink Floyd. Waters, the band’s neurotic auteur, had left in acrimony in 1983 and Waters partisans considered the Gilmour-led, still-platinum-selling Pink Floyd to be a shell of its former self. Gilmour and Waters buried the hatchet (at least for a night) in 2005, when Pink Floyd reunited for Live 8, but Gilmour used the occasion as a public burial for the band. There were offers of £150 million for a series of reunion gigs, but Gilmour was done: no more tours, no more Floyd albums.

In 2006 Gilmour put out his first solo record in two decades, On an Island, and it hit #1 in the UK (given the collapse in record sales by 2006, if you had any sort of fanbase, you had a good shot to top the chart on your album’s release week).* He played the Royal Albert Hall for three nights at the end of May, with a band and set list full of guests—David Crosby and Graham Nash, Robert Wyatt, Phil Manzanera. And at the first show, with no fanfare or pre-show hype, David Bowie walked out on stage to help sing the encores.

Gilmour said he chose his collaborators that night from “people I grew up loving…David Bowie might not have worked with Pink Floyd,” he said in 2007. “But it fits with me.” Afterward on BowieNet, “sailor” wrote that “I had a ball tonight singing with David Gilmour and the band. He invited me up to do Arnold Layne and Uncomfortably Numb.” (Bowie felt obligated to note, in a follow-up post, that the latter title was a joke.)

Bowie’s appearance at the Royal Albert Hall, following his performances with Arcade Fire the previous autumn, hinted that he was testing the waters for a return to public life. Soon enough would come the announcements: a new album, even a new tour, perhaps? Any day now, certainly.


We’re doing this for everyone who’s not here. Particularly, of course, for Syd.

Roger Waters, Live 8, 2005, before “Wish You Were Here.”

The encore songs were both Pink Floyd pieces: two points far apart on the band’s spectrum, though symbolically linked. Both addressed the man who wasn’t there; a man who, in two months, would finally die, though he’d left the world far earlier.

“Comfortably Numb” is a moment of grace on Waters’ misanthropic The Wall, perhaps in part because Gilmour wrote most of the music. Its lyric was pure Waters: isolation as defense mechanism, using dope-induced quietude to find a lost, better self, exalted self-pity. The B minor verses found Waters in a favorite role as a manipulative bureaucrat—here, a doctor trying to revive the catatonic “Pink” and get him functioning enough to perform (inspiration came from Waters getting a tranquilizer injection before a show during the Animals tour). The Gilmour-sung D major refrain was the release, the needle hitting the vein, the clouds lifting for a moment.

Behind it all was Syd Barrett. Was there ever more heartbroken a band than Pink Floyd? Spending decades mourning a man who’d left them, making album after album in his image. “Brain Damage,” “Wish You Were Here,” “Comfortably Numb” were all Waters trying to contact his lost boyhood friend, to try to see the world as he imagined Barrett did. Barrett’s continued presence on the margins was a rebuke: the fact that he kept on living and enduring (“[Syd] found his own mind so absorbing that he didn’t want to be distracted,” his sister Rosemary Barrett said after his death), that he didn’t need Pink Floyd a tenth as much as they apparently needed him. “When people called [Syd] a recluse they were really only projecting their own disappointment. He knew what they wanted but he wasn’t willing to give it to them,” as Rosemary Barrett said.

Bowie struggled to find his footing in “Comfortably Numb,” in part because he was miscast for the verses. Given the near-conversational melody that Waters wrote to fit his cracked recorder of a voice (it started as something of a Dylan parody, as a studio demo shows), Bowie elevated his phrasings and wound up worrying his way through the song; he’s a doctor who knows he’s a quack.

But before that he’d sung “Arnold Layne,” Pink Floyd’s first single, a Barrett masterpiece. Though it was recorded after Bowie had cut his first album, “Arnold Layne” distilled the latter—Bowie’s little bombardier, cross-dressing barkeep and Uncle Arthur are the children of Barrett’s knicker-thief and jailbird Arnold. Bowie’s songs share Barrett’s empathy for his oddball, his knowledge that there’s little separating him from the official freaks of the world—why can’t you see? Barrett had sung to a silent England. Like “Waiting for the Man,” “Arnold Layne” could seem like a song that Bowie wished he’d written, to the point where he named his “fake” rock band the Arnold Corns in homage to it. Finally singing “Arnold Layne” here, at the apparent end of his stage career, came off as an intro melody reappearing in a closing movement.

Bowie savored the song’s Mockney rhymes (“now ‘ees CORT/a nahsty SORT,” “LAYNE..had a STRAYNGE ‘obby” (see his “The Supermen”: “straynge gaymes thay would play”) and he jibed the refrains. “Takes two to know! TWO to KNOW!” flashing a V-for-victory sign. The freaks and the oddballs had won out, or at least they’d persevered, if keeping to their own worlds, as Syd had. By 2006, Arnold Layne had become a late 20th Century saint: Bowie, Gilmour and Richard Wright sang his name over and over again in tribute.

Two months after this performance, Barrett died of complications related to diabetes. Wright died of cancer in 2008. Gilmour keeps on; he revived Pink Floyd one last time in 2014 for a scrap reclamation effort; he’s got a new album coming this year, it’ll probably hit #1. Waters tours The Wall endlessly (it’s lasted longer now than the old Berlin one). And David Bowie has never performed live in Britain again.

Recorded 29 May 2006, RAH, London. “Arnold Layne” was released 25 December 2006 as a UK/European single (EM 717), with Bowie and Rick Wright’s versions of the song and Gilmour’s take on “Dark Globe.” “Arnold Layne” and “Comfortably Numb” were released 17 September 2007 on the DVD/Blu-Ray Remember That Night: David Gilmour, Live at the Royal Albert Hall.

* For instance, see other one-week UK LP #1s of early 2006: Morrissey’s Ringleader of the Tormentors, the Strokes’ First Impressions of Earth, The Streets’ Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, etc.

Top: “Tom,” “South Bank Portrait,” London, 13 October 2006.

BOOK HYPE: As I think I’ve mentioned, the e-book version of Rebel Rebel‘s now available, for everything from Kindle to iTunes to Nook to Google Play. See the “electronic” list on the book page.

And I’ll be the guest of Evan “Funk” Davies on WFMU this Wednesday, 29 April, from 9 to midnight EDT. So tune in: there should be a lot of Bowie played. The show will be archived on Evan’s page afterward.

Links: Chapters 4-5

March 24, 2015

Chapter 4: The Man On the Stair (1970)


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

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

Chapter 5: Moon Age (1971-1972)


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


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

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


October 2, 2013

ultimos amarres

Safe (remake of “Safe in this Sky Life”).

It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths. Images and symbolic constructs of the past are imprinted, almost in the manner of genetic information, on our sensibility. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past or of a past borrowed from other cultures…

George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, 1971.1

The past, it almost shimmers down


What happened in 1998?

The president of the United States was impeached for perjuring himself about a shabby affair. Around the world: wars, calamities, children, television, the usual things. Never mind that. What happened to Bowie? It was the year he finally was consumed by the past.

He entered 1998 still talking up jungle, still acting out Earthling, but he left it readying his next face. This would be the “street clothes” Bowie of the turn of the millennium: flannel shirts, his hair a rat-brown fringe, granny glasses. And as a variant, a wan majordomo figure first seen on the cover of Hours. In either case, this new Bowie came off as something like a decommissioned rock star; an aging hipster caretaker of his past lives.

Sure, he’d changed his look before; he’d soon change it again. But any subsequent changes would be minor cosmetic variations on this image. The “new” Bowie of 1999 would be his last edition. He stopped here. As the cliche has it, he finally fell to earth.

He’d always had a curatorial side, surprising fans with the carefully-deployed antique, weaving a fresh song over the bones of an old one. But there was also his obverse: the man devoted to the present, seemingly bent on claiming a stake in the future: an artist happy to be a tuning fork for more discordant sounds, the ambassador of the weird to the straight world.

Now the future side of him went into remission. Rather than make another evasive maneuver like Tin Machine, he went inward, back into his old music. Not all at once (his next album would shuttle between a world-weary tone and the last squawks of his mapgie self); he edged into rock classicism as one does a hot bath. But his music became, more and more, extensions to and rewrites of his old work, rather than attempts to claim new territories. It began, as these things do, with the cartoon Rugrats.


Karyn Rachtman, an executive producer and musical director of the first Rugrats film, asked Bowie to contribute a song. Rachtman (sister of Ricky, late of Headbanger’s Ball) wanted to make the soundtrack hip. This was the coming thing: children’s entertainment had to appeal to parents, to assure them they hadn’t lost their souls by reproducing. So she got Iggy Pop, Beck, Patti Smith, No Doubt and Elvis Costello (the last two in a duet). From Bowie, she wanted a proper “David Bowie song.” Ziggy Stardust guitars, sweeping strings, the Thin White Duke croon. (“A little bit of ‘Space Oddity,’ ‘”Heroes”‘ and ‘Absolute Beginners’ rolled into one,” its producer said). An amalgam of the popular imagination’s Bowie. And Bowie gave her what she wanted.

As the song, “Safe In This Sky Life,” was never released or bootlegged, all we have to go by are descriptions of its making, which was elaborate. The track featured a 24-piece string section, Reeves Gabrels on guitar (he’d co-written the song), harmony vocals by Richard Barone (the Bongos), drums by Clem Burke (Blondie) and keyboards by Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater). To produce it, Bowie had dialed up his past.

Tony Visconti hadn’t worked with, or even talked to, Bowie in 15 years. There were reportedly sore feelings on both sides, Visconti for being elbowed out of Let’s Dance and for his contributions to the “Berlin” records erased in the press; Bowie for Visconti’s alleged verbosity in interviews.2 Visconti said the reconciliation, when it came, was simple: Bowie just called him up one day and asked him to make a record. As it happened, Visconti reappeared just as Bowie’s relationship with Gabrels had begun to fray. By the end of 1999, Gabrels was gone; Visconti has been Bowie’s collaborator ever since.

“Safe in This Sky Life” was cut from the Rugrats film during editing, after the sequence for which it was intended was deleted. There was apparently nowhere else in the movie for the song to go (not even over the end credits?). “He delivered a song far beyond my wildest dreams, and now I can’t even use it,” Rachtman lamented to the press. Bowie, saying that the song “doesn’t fit in with what I’m doing at the moment,” put it on the shelf.


The released version of “Safe” is one Bowie and Visconti recorded during the Heathen sessions in 2001. All that remains in it from the 1998 take are the string tracks, Visconti said.

So it’s difficult, even foolhardy, to speculate what the original sounded like based on its remake. The guitars, played possibly by Mark Plati or Bowie himself, do sound as if they’re tracing over Gabrels’ original lines. But much of  “Safe” feels as if you’ve heard it somewhere before in the Bowie catalog. The verses begin with close to the same top melody as “The Supermen” (cf. “When all the world was heavy hung” to “frozen to the glass again“). There’s a “period” synthesizer effect that sounds like the Stylophone of “Space Oddity” at times. Visconti’s strings, anticipating and parrying the vocal, have a massed lushness that calls back to the likes of “Win” or “In the Heat of the Morning.”

It’s a song as a series of sensory triggers: its dramatic moments—the rising chord progression in the verses, the guitar-smeared shifts to the chorus, the long-held “skyyyliiiiiifes”—suggest a common idea of a “great” Bowie song. “Safe” rewarded your perseverance as a fan: this is what you wanted, and here it is, better than you imagined. (Matt Chamberlain’s drumming could power a small city). It’s Bowie starring as “Bowie”; it was as if he was covering himself. The lyric also carefully matches a gentle conservatism (safety, acceptance, resignation) with a spiritual yearning—after all, it began as a song for hip parents. It’s a lovely song, one of his best of the period, and there’s something hollow inside it.


So what did he think about Glam being big again?

“Was it really?” he says in his campest ‘suits you sir’ voice. “I felt that it was a synthetic recycling on the back of the belief that Velvet Goldmine would be a smash movie and be able to sell all those spin-off books and records. It was PR led. It didn’t come from the streets. 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,” he says, pausing for a moment. “Also there was a lot more shopping.”

Bowie, interview by Andrew Davies, The Big Issue, January 1999.

When Bowie and Visconti first cut “Safe,” glam nostalgia was thick in the air, thanks in part to Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, released in autumn 1998. A barely-veiled Bowie biopic as directed by an obsessive Bowiephile (it even has characters based on Kenneth Pitt and Corrinne Schwab), Velvet Goldmine was the middle piece of a trilogy Haynes made about pop stars and stardom. Superstar enacted the tragedy of Karen Carpenter via Barbie dolls; I’m Not There would split Bob Dylan into six incarnations of fan myths, from amphetamine hipster to Guthrie disciple.4

Haynes had sent Bowie an early version of Velvet Goldmine’s script and had 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. He didn’t like the script, he said: all that his analogue character, Brian Slade, did was give blow jobs.

You can see his point: Slade, played blankly by Jonathan Rhys-Myers, has no inner life; he’s just a series of beautiful reactions. Haynes’ film was sharp, some of its casting was inspired (Toni Colette’s tragic Angela Bowie), and it was lovingly detailed.5 But for Bowie Goldmine came off as obnoxious and cynical (in perhaps the same way he would find this project misguided and tone-deaf.)6 Haynes film was an aging glam fan’s perspective, rewriting the glam era as a collective fan myth (hence Slade winds up as an Eighties fascist global pop icon, sporting Billy Idol hair). The film’s language was half-remembered Bowie gossip; it played with pieces of Bowie’s life for sport. It cast Bowie as a character in someone else’s drama, where Bowie had always written his own lines.

That said, there was another reason for Bowie’s rejection. In 1998, he was planning a Ziggy Stardust film of his own, and didn’t want his songs appear in what he considered a competitor picture.


This Ziggy Stardust project was first mentioned in autumn 1998, and it seems to have filled the gap left by the collapse of the Outside sequels and concerts (see the upcoming “Seven”). The grandiosity of the Ziggy plan, its wild scope matched by apparently nothing resembling a budget or a workable blueprint, suited Bowie’s restless mood of the time: his jumping from film to film; his agreeing to host a season of The Hunger; his various immersions in the Internet and video games.

It’s hard to tell just how far the Ziggy project ever got: were there scripts commissioned? sets designed? (probably the latter: he always loved making set models.) Ziggy was supposed to appear in 2002 to commemorate the album’s 30th anniversary. It would be a three-pronged attack. A film (“an objective piece about how [Ziggy] is viewed and perceived by his audience,” Bowie said—so, in other words, Velvet Goldmine), a theater piece (“more internal, more reflective of the immediate repercussions of Ziggy and his effect on the people around him…his close intimates, how he thinks and what his perception of the world really is,” possibly including mime sequences) and “Internet” (the latter would be “pure fun, with hypertext links so you can find out who his mum was, and things like that—a huge exploration of his background. It’s sort of factground, and startlingly info-packed maps and photographs“).

Naturally, there would be tie-ins: a new book of photos by Mick Rock, a DVD with rare concert footage and a double-CD with unearthed and re-recorded Ziggy Stardust outtakes (including the legendary “Black Hole Kids”). In an interview with Radio One’s The Net in 1998, Bowie waxed effusive: “..I’ve found bits and pieces of songs that I obviously had written for [Ziggy Stardust] but never finished off. It’s as if I’ll be complementing what’s already there with other pieces that were started but not actually finished at the time, so they have an authenticity of the period about them. For me, I think it’ll be an extraordinary thing to see what kind of animal it becomes eventually!…It’s just a question of finishing off what might be a 90-second or a two-minute piece, taking it obviously the way it wanted to go and finishing it off and keeping the sound of the material in the period.”

(This idea—Bowie taking a scrap from an old session and working it into a releasable track, is the closest he’s come to explaining alleged “Berlin-era” outtakes like “I Pray Ole.“)

Gabrels thought the project had the potential for disaster. The only way it could have worked, he later said, would be to record the new Ziggy songs at Trident Studios with Ken Scott or Visconti, using only 16-track decks and keeping to the instruments that Mick Ronson and Bowie had used in 1971: Mellotron, Moog, recorder, 12-string acoustic, a single Les Paul guitar with a Cry Baby Wah-Wah pedal. If you’re going for nostalgia, get the details as right as Todd Haynes did. If not, Bowie’s new Ziggy tracks risked sounding like the surviving Beatles’ ghost-duets with John Lennon in the Anthology series: a glossy simulacrum of his old music, made palatable by nostalgia and the indulgence of fans.

The Ziggy project apparently died around the turn of the century. By 2002, when Ziggy Stardust‘s 30th anniversary was only commemorated by a CD that repackaged the Rykodisc extras, Bowie told Rolling Stone that “I’m running like fuck from that [idea]…Can you imagine anything uglier than a nearly 60-year-old Ziggy Stardust? I don’t think so! We actually tried a few years ago to pull a movie together but at every turn it was like…” Ziggy Stardust deserved to remain an idea, a fan memory, he said, rather than “presenting some nerd in a red wig, having run through a really slack arsed movie script.”


So: a seeming debacle avoided. Yet the Ziggy project still had consumed much of Bowie’s time around the turn of the millennium, and it paralleled his decision to rerecord his old Mod songs for Toy. Both of these, his biggest ambitions in 1999-2000, would wind up as unreleased failures; both were excavations and reworkings of past glories. It’s easy to see why he didn’t have much time for the present. He’d been used to making knight’s moves across the board; now, with his pieces depleted, he was left to devise workable defenses.

“Safe,” a “Bowie-sings-‘Bowie'” track intended for and scrapped by a cartoon soundtrack, and which wound up being issued as its own obscure cover, sums up this period as well as anything could. There’s a majesty in “Safe,” but it’s a borrowed majesty. One line from it in particular could serve as the credo of Bowie’s post-millennial years:

…From now on,
The things will move more slowly…

Recorded (“Safe in This Sky Life”) ca. August 1998, unreleased. “Safe,” cut during the Heathen sessions of July-September 2001, was released as a download for BowieNet subscribers in June 2002, then as a B-side of the “Everybody Says ‘Hi'” CD single on 16 September 2002. The only edition of Heathen on which it appears (in a longer edit) is the rare SACD.

The Ziggy Stardust Companion was especially valuable for this entry, as it’s compiled the most details about Bowie’s reaction to Velvet Goldmine as well as the ill-fated Ziggy revival.

1 Cited by Bowie as one of his top 100 books. The list is as much an exhibition piece as the Ziggy Stardust costumes of Bowie’s ongoing show: it’s a scavenger hunt for fans.

2: There’s a detail in Marcello Carlin’s wonderful piece on ABC’s The Lexicon of Love: that Visconti and Bowie visited ABC during Lexicon‘s recording, and that Bowie was taken by “The Look of Love” in particular. You wonder if Bowie had stuck with Visconti for Let’s Dance (recorded in late 1982) instead of using Nile Rodgers, whether that record would’ve been more in line with what Martin Fry et al were doing at the time.

3 The biographer Dave Thompson claims, citing an anonymous “latter-day associate,” that Bowie had been irritated by Visconti spilling the beans in interviews over the years. However, this theory is weakened by the fact that a few months before Bowie contacted Visconti, Mojo ran an article in which Visconti was on record saying essentially that he and Mick Ronson had co-written The Man Who Sold the World (this was the article that inspired Bowie to snap at journalists to go back to the record and listen again: “no one writes chord changes like that“). If Bowie was so irked by such statements, this was a pretty big one.

4: Though Haynes braced for Dylan to freeze him out like Bowie had, Dylan instead let Haynes use whatever songs he wanted, including the Basement Tapes era title song, released for the first time on the film’s soundtrack.

5: Curt Wild’s band is the Rats; Slade’s first words to Mandy, “do you jive?” were allegedly Bowie’s first words to Angela; a boy recites the Hughes Mearns poem that inspired “Man Who Sold the World”; one of Slade’s press conferences has him say, almost word for word, a notorious line Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1971; and so on and so on.

6: According to David Buckley’s bio, Brian Eno was spied at the cinema, laughing his way through Velvet Goldmine.

Top: Dante Busquets, “Últimos Amarres: Laurie, Mariana y Leslie, Cuernavaca, Mor, 1998”; various shots from The Rugrats Movie (Kovalyov/Virgien, 1998) and Velvet Goldmine (Haynes, 1998).

Dirty Blvd.

August 21, 2013


Dirty Blvd. (Lou Reed, 1989).
Dirty Blvd. (Bowie and Reed, 50th Birthday concert, 1997).

How will David Bowie face up to his unmasked, lined face at 50?

“I shall welcome it, Lord yes,” he said. “Pop stars are capable of growing old. Mick Jagger at 50 will be marvellous—a battered old roué—I can just see him. An aging rock star doesn’t have to opt out of life. When I’m 50, I’ll prove it.”

Jean Rook, “Bowie Reborn,” Daily Express, 14 February 1979.

His other milestone birthdays had passed privately, but for his 50th Bowie threw himself a celebration at Madison Square Garden; it was simulcast via pay-per-view television. As a consolation prize to Britain, he, Gail Ann Dorsey and Reeves Gabrels cut ten songs during rehearsals to be played on a Radio One special to air on the same day as the New York show. ChangesNowBowie was ruminative and fresh, a paging through the back catalog: he revived “The Supermen,” “Lady Stardust” and “Quicksand,” pulled “Repetition” from out of nowhere, rehabilitated Tin Machine with “Shopping for Girls” and “I Can’t Read.”

The big party itself was another matter: its location and guests were chosen for practical reasons. Most of his musicians and support staff were based around New York, and Bowie was still doing final mixes on Earthling while rehearsing the show.* Two weeks after the concert he would release the new album and he was planning to tour it for much of 1997. So the concert’s organizing theme was to offer audiences a preview of Earthling and to establish Bowie as an “alternative rock” icon, with most of his guests a generation younger than him.

Bowie opened with “Little Wonder,” dug into “Hearts Filthy Lesson”. Some guests were a subtle nod at Tin Machine’s influences: Frank Black, who came on to sing “Scary Monsters” and “Fashion,” and Sonic Youth, who bloodied up “I’m Afraid of Americans.” Dave Grohl (seemingly a stand-in for the late Kurt Cobain—a Cobain/Bowie duet on “Man Who Sold the World” would’ve been inevitable) added munitions to “Seven Years in Tibet” and “Hallo Spaceboy.” Robert Smith, the most inspired guest choice, sang “The Last Thing You Should Do” and an oddly heartening “Quicksand” (Smith had lobbied to sing “Young Americans”). Billy Corgan helped close out the show like a kid who’d won a contest.

For some fans, this immersion in the present tense was disappointing. The biographer David Buckley made a case for the prosecution: Just for once, it would have been a poignant and magnanimous gesture to have filled the bill with musicians who were actually part and parcel of [Bowie’s] history. Imagine Bowie singing “Breaking Glass” and “Station to Station” again with Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray. Bringing John Hutchinson on stage to sing “Space Oddity,” Luther Vandross to sing “Young Americans” or “Fascination.” Playing “Moonage Daydream” with Bolder and Woodmansey. Playing live with Iggy Pop for the first time in 20 years. Playing live with Robert Fripp and Brian Eno for the first time ever. Bringing on Nile Rodgers for “Let’s Dance.”

Alomar, for one, was irritated. “I wasn’t asked to play,” he told Buckley. “He could have had asked Luther Vandross, who’s now a superstar. But that whole thing was a political thing for him, to get together with the people who he thought would project him into the future…Sonic Youth? Come on, give me a break! They’re brain dead!…Who are these people?”

David is generally more about the present than the past,” Gabrels told Buckley, adding that, contra Alomar, “I was concerned that the list of participants would end up being too mainstream. For the longest time Madonna was expected to perform.”

So you have the case of a fanbase (and a peer group) whose nostalgia for Bowie’s past was apparently far greater than his own. Or the case of a fanbase that, despite how long they’d been dealing with Bowie’s zigs and zags, still fundamentally misunderstood him. The idea of Bowie doing a Last Waltz-style “This Is My Life” retrospective (Buckley even suggested that the Lower Third should’ve been there) was an improbable conceit. Bowie would catalog his past, keep all his old reviews and stage sets and outtakes, and he would shamelessly raid from his past whenever it suited him. But he wasn’t going to star in a revue about himself (it’s telling that during Bowie’s comeback year of 2013, people will stand in line for hours to see an exhibit of his clothes).


The only person who’d been invited that night who actually hailed from Bowie’s past, who had been Bowie’s influence, was Lou Reed. Introduced as “the king of New York,” Reed played “Queen Bitch,” Bowie’s annexation of his and Sterling Morrison’s sound. He looked bemused, as if wondering whether he’d written the song (he had, in a way). Gail Ann Dorsey wore a smile that could’ve powered the Chrysler Building. “Waiting for the Man” seemed freighted with history. It had been 30 years since Bowie had first heard it and he still seemed in awe of the song. Then, with one more duet to go, the choice was obvious: something from Transformer. “Walk on the Wild Side.” “Perfect Day.” “Vicious.” Instead, Reed and Bowie went into “Dirty Boulevard,” a track off Reed’s 1989 New York.

Reed had had a stronger Eighties than Bowie (even his “sellout” pop album, Mistrial, seems like Haydn compared with Tonight). He’d gotten married, moved out to New Jersey. Rather than putting a chill on his writing, domestic suburban life seemed to liberate him. The records came out at an almost yearly clip, like issues of an anthology: The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, New Sensations.

So New York wasn’t the “return to form” of, say, Neil Young’s Freedom: it was a mild course correction rather than a career revival. But it was lumped with the other albums of the Boomer Counter-Reformation (Steel Wheels, Oh Mercy, Now and Zen, Flowers in the Dirt, etc etc.); it was another example of an older legend bringing things back to basics (“nothing beats 2 guitars bass drums,” Reed wrote on the liner) after the fey, synthesized Eighties. “Dirty Boulevard,” the lead-off single, had a thick muscle of a guitar riff that compensated for a lyric whose last verse is so on the nose that it feels like it was workshopped (in another life, Reed was a professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa).

The performance of “Dirty Blvd.” at Bowie’s concert had the feel of Bowie guesting at a Reed concert: at times, Bowie appears to have learned his verses during the soundcheck. Still, there was the riff and the visible enjoyment the two of them took from their mere proximity. Maybe doing “Dirty Boulevard” was a whim (or a requirement by Lou), and Bowie considered that following a whim on stage would make a far better self-tribute than reuniting the Spiders.

At the end of the show, Bowie made a concession: he came out alone with his 12-string acoustic guitar and sang “Space Oddity,” the song that made him. Without Major Tom, without the sway on guitar from F major 7 to E minor, none of it—the show, the crowd, the life—would have existed. “I don’t know where I’m going from here,” he said. “But I promise I won’t bore you.” Then he was off for another year of tours and TV spots. He’d dodged the snare, at least this time.

Performed at Madison Square Garden, 9 January 1997. The complete concert was never issued on CD or DVD, though plenty of “official” bootlegs are out there.

* Thurston Moore, to Marc Spitz: “We just sort of sat down and he blasted the track to us.” Rehearsals took place in an empty sports arena in Hartford. “They were pre-creating the show. Who the fuck rents out a fucking arena? People with his kind of revenue…they have airplanes…they rent out arenas.”

Top: birthday imp; crowd’s eye view of birthday imp (via turistadeguerra).

Dead Man Walking

July 9, 2013


Dead Man Walking.
Dead Man Walking (single edit, video).
Dead Man Walking (“house” mix).
Dead Man Walking (Moby Mix 1).
Dead Man Walking (Moby Mix 2).
Dead Man Walking (Top of the Pops, 1997).
Dead Man Walking (Late Night with Conan O’Brien, 1997).
Dead Man Walking (Jack Docherty Show, 1997).
Dead Man Walking (acoustic w/ Gabrels, radio, 1997).
Dead Man Walking (acoustic w/ Gabrels, Live 105, 1997).
Dead Man Walking (live, 1997).

There’s something sage-like about [Neil] Young, this grand old man of American rock, a pioneer loaded with integrity…

Bowie, 1997.

People my age, they don’t do the things I do.

Neil Young, “I’m the Ocean.”

He idly considered writing an ode to his former co-star Susan Sarandon, using as a kick-off point the title of her most recent film. But upon seeing Neil Young and Crazy Horse play one night,* Bowie found “Dead Man Walking” better suited someone who’d become the California redwood of rock musicians.

He’d discovered Young during his “oddball folkie” period of high influence, ca. 1970-1971, when other favorites on the Haddon Hall turntable were Biff Rose and Ron Davies. And it was Young’s After the Gold Rush Bowie was listening to when he learned his son Duncan was born. “Kooks,” the song he wrote in commemoration, was also a tribute to Young, both lyrically (“we believe in you“) and instrumentally (Trevor Bolder’s trumpet solo on the track is a close cousin to the one on Young’s “Till the Morning Comes.”)

Like Bowie, Young’s finest work came in the Seventies; unlike Bowie, his Eighties were commercially barren, his records seemed willfully obscure. In his crooked way, Young was doing what Bowie had tried with his “Berlin” records—to erase a persona that he felt trapped in. While in the Seventies he’d slaved to be contrarian, driving “into the ditch” after a time in the middle of the road, Young still mainly played two alternating roles: heavy rocker and somber folkie. So in the Eighties he rubbished the idea of “Neil Young.” He made a synthesizer album, a country record, a blues-bar album and a Fifties rock ‘n’ roll tribute LP that led his label’s head David Geffen to sue him for making “unrepresentative” albums.

Around the turn of the Nineties, Young seemed to settle on being “himself” again and soon was anointed the only Baby Boomer musician who wasn’t a joke. He was slower, craggier, he looked like someone’s hippie dad, stumping around on stage. But he became immaculately hip, recording with Pearl Jam, touring with Sonic Youth; he seemed more of the time than his counterparts a generation younger.

What Bowie seemed hell-bent on being in the Nineties—a 50-year-old rocker who was still in the bloodstream of current music—Young simply was. And he did this not by playing drum ‘n’ bass or Pixies riffs, but the same old first-gear/second-gear grind, feedback-bloodied, juddering, two-guitars-bass-drums music that he’d played in the Sixties. He had stood still and the world had revolved back around to him.

Bowie was taken by the idea of Young as some kind of shaman figure for audiences half his age. Watching Young and his old bandmates in Crazy Horse channel music seemingly through their bodies, he thought “there was a sense of grace and dignity about what they were doing, and also an incredible verve and energy. It was very moving, watching them work under the moon,” he said.

In another interview, he expanded on what he’d seen that night. During a long instrumental section of a song, “they began to dance, turning around, like in a tribal circle, very slowly. And it seemed to me that they were doing that to catch back their dreams, to find youth again, to not allow the energy to escape…”Dead Man Walking” is a sort of homage to rock and roll that is still young while we are all growing old.”

The song’s second verse is Bowie’s dream memory of that night, a realization that he, too, had become a crazy old man dancing under the moon:

Three old men dancing under the lamplight
Shaking their sex and their bones
And the boys that we were..

dead man yowling

So one tributary of “Dead Man Walking” began the night Bowie saw Young play. Another was a far older stream, starting in a London studio one day in January 1965.

Two ambitious young men are in the room that day: one is an 18-year-old from Bromley who’s cutting his second-ever single, a muddled cover of Bobby Bland’s “I Pity the Fool.” The other, despite being just 21, is a storied professional guitarist, a studio hired gun who quietly exudes cool and who’s happy to show off his latest gear: in this case, a fuzzbox. So David Jones sings “Pity the Fool,” and Jimmy Page doubles on lead for it. Page doesn’t think it’s a hit, and it isn’t. As if in recompense he plays Jones a riff that he’s not going to use. It’s a lumbering sway between two chords, a brontosaurus stomp. Duh-nuh duh-nuh dunna-nuh duh-nuh. Page doesn’t realize just how much of a packrat he’s talking to. Jones will keep the riff in his head: he’ll use it on “The Supermen” five years later, then he’ll revive it in another lifetime, in New York in 1996.

In its old age, Page’s riff was still basically the same: E-flat and F major, a steady foot-clomp of harmonic rhythm. But on the studio take of “Dead Man Walking,” the riff is a beast in a cage. It collides with a second Reeves Gabrels synthesized guitar line, which buzzes along and jabs at it. Its rhythms are overwhelmed by synthesizer arpeggios, tea-kettle feedback noises, various percussive loops. Yet despite this it still has its power: whenever the riff plays to close out a chorus, it’s a gavel pounding, making the other jabbering voices fall in line for a moment.


“Dead Man Walking” was nearly abandoned during the Earthling sessions until the co-producer Mark Plati spent five days salvaging the song, painstakingly putting a mix together that was built on a dramatic arc. As Plati said, the track “begins completely programmed and ends completely live.” It opens with solitary synthesizer flourishes and ends with the sound of live musicians making themselves heard above the din: Zachary Alford’s snare fills and hissing cymbals, Gail Ann Dorsey’s bass (she’s often gliding between notes, as if looking to outflank the rest of the band, and while she holds back during Alford’s solo, she slides in afterward and lays down a sinuous foundation for the outro) and Mike Garson, who closes out the song by playing a new, Latin-sounding melody on his piano, as if saying: no, look we could go here now just at the fade.

Bowie opens his verse with an older man, perhaps an entertainer, watching a clip of his youth on a screen, recalling some show or deal in Atlantic City. He gets up, dismisses his idle thoughts while he “walks down the aisle”: (he’s on an airplane? or maybe he’s getting married again). As the pre-chorus begins, with its downshift to E-flat minor, he feels oddly clear of the past, as if he’s suddenly outlived it: in a marvelous line, he feels “older than movies.” Like Young, he’s been around enough that the world’s swiveling back round to him. A counterpoint chorus, Bowie holding on two alternating notes, finds him hanging in mid-air, spinning slack through reality, falling “up” through time. Just before the riff kicks in (it’s the “earthling” of the song, its gravity well), as he sings across a four-chord descending progression (A-flat through G minor and F-sharp, ending on the riff’s bedrock F major), he tweaks his nose and dives away:

And I’m gone!
Like I’m dancing on angels
And I’m gone
through a crack in the past..

It’s bluster, playing japes: he can’t shed the weight of the past. He’ll wake up in his torn Union Jack coat and dried makeup and feel the hangover deep in his bones. (This is essentially the acoustic revision of “Dead Man Walking” that Bowie and Gabrels played for a number of TV and radio spots in 1997. It’s lovely and graceful but it’s an old man’s song now.) The chorus lines subtly acknowledge this, with their echoes of Young’s “Sleeps With Angels” (a man mourning a kid who took his old path and went astray) and, in perhaps the ultimate Bowie in-joke, his lost “Shilling the Rubes,” where a woman is played for a sucker by a man who’s skipped out on her (“Gone! the day he left town!”) The title line itself is a cruel joke: he’s escaped the past and wound up a zombie.

But there are a few moments in the song—whenever the riff’s playing (it’s like an extended middle finger pointed at time) or during Gabrels’ jabbing solo that has him relentlessly moving down his guitar neck, or when Alford slips in a sharp little tom-snare fill (4:52)—when Bowie seems free, when he’s gone lighter than air, toe-tapping on an angel’s head. It’s a youth of the mind, sure, but that’s really all youth ever was.


Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released as Earthling‘s third single in April 1997 (RCA 74321 475842, #32 UK). The single mix lops four lines from the pre-chorus (moving from “older than movies” straight to “And I know who’s there”), which does get to the chorus hook faster (Bowie used this edit for his acoustic versions as well), but diminishes the narrative of the song—its pleasures come a bit too easily.

There were a mind-fogging array of mixes. In Britain, there was a 12″ single with the House Mix and the Vigor Mortis remix (BMG/RCA 74321 475841 (oh, for the sunny days of “BOW 5″) as well as a promo single (RCA/BMG DMW02) that had the Moby Mix 1, the This One’s Not Dead Yet Remix as well as the two previous mixes. The EC and the US offered different variations, including a Moby Mix 2 on a US promo 12” that was later included on the 2004 reissue of Earthling. There were three acoustic versions of the song broadcast in 1997 subsequently issued on CD (including the Conan O’Brien performance): please see the Illustrated DB entry for more details.

Top: Shakey and Crazy Horse, ca. 1996 (found this on Tumblr–don’t know photog. if someone does, let me know.)

* Bowie claimed this was the Bridge Benefit Concert that he’d played with Young in October 1996. However, Earthling was mainly cut in August 1996. So perhaps Bowie rewrote the lyric to “Dead Man” after the Bridge show, or in interviews he confused that show with his memories of an earlier Young concert, or he was just making it up. All seem plausible.

Baby Universal

June 26, 2012

Baby Universal.
Baby Universal (Paramount City, 1991).
Baby Universal (video, 1991).
Baby Universal (live, 1991).
Baby Universal (Saturday Night Live, 1991).
Baby Universal (live, 1996).

Hot tramp! We loved you so. Now sit down, man. You’re a fucking disgrace.

So ended the Melody Maker‘s review of Tin Machine II. Jon Wilde, responsible for the bludgeoning, said on a Guardian comment thread that “Bowie’s PR later told me that Bowie read it and cried when he got to the last line. I’m not proud of that. But that was the last we heard of Tin Machine. If my review had any small influence on Bowie’s decision to disband, then at least my career as a music hack wasn’t entirely pointless.”

Tin Machine had been received in the press with some bafflement but mainly with relief that Bowie seemed to be trying to put the Eighties behind him. Tin Machine II, issued two years later, was spat on. In Spin. Jonathan Bernstein called the record “a follow-up as eagerly awaited as Mannequin 2: On the Move” and Bowie “a man made ridiculous by adhering to rules he wrote for his most rickety and least publicly subscribed persona.” Bill Wyman, in Entertainment Weekly: “Anonymous, grinding rockers…songs with passable chorus hooks and nothing in the verses to support them. Meaningless lyric after meaningless lyric.”

Two decades on, Tin Machine II remains an ignored, unloved album, a commercial and critical failure (peaking at #23 in the UK, #126 in the US) that killed Bowie’s relationship with EMI, which had refused to release it. When Bowie shopped the TMII tapes around to other labels, one exec said “a band like Tin Machine could bankrupt the whole enterprise” (as per C. Sandford’s bio).

TMII‘s reception is unsurprising if one considers the perspective of the average Bowie fan at the turn of the Nineties. Summer 1989: Bowie puts out Tin Machine, tours a bit to support it. Okay. Fall 1989: the Sound + Vision career retrospective appears, followed by a staggered CD reissue of the classic Bowie catalog, some of which had fallen out of print. The likes of “Velvet Goldmine,” “Sweet Head,” “Some Are” and “Who Can I Be Now” are finally released. Reappraisal of Bowie’s genius in the press. March-September 1990: Bowie tours the world, singing the old hits, winning adulation and forgiveness for past musical sins. He seemed restored to his former place in collective memory. He was “relevant” again. Who knew what he would do next? September 1991: hold on, it’s another goddamn Tin Machine album?

The record came at the wrong time: its creation had been a mess. While most of TMII was cut in a few weeks in the autumn of 1989, with the band, fresh from their mini-tour, in good spirits and working at a fast clip, a combination of delays—EMI’s refusal to release TMII and Bowie subsequently not having a record deal, and Bowie’s decision to put TMII on the back burner to concentrate on the Sound + Vision tour/retrospective—led to TMII being released two years after its main sessions.

And during their album and tour promotions in late 1991, Tin Machine itself seemed an abrasive and desperate collection. It wasn’t just the “we’re four dicks” album cover illustration, which caused an inane mini-controversy when US record dealers refused to carry it until the statues’ genitalia were obscured. The group persona of Tin Machine could seem smug, mildly bullying and pathetic. Bowie in particular has never been as unpleasant a public figure than he was during this time, whether condescendingly telling an interviewer “you seem like a smart girl—why are you asking me this” when she brought up the cover art controversy (the only newsworthy thing about the record) or acting like a boor to Paula Yates and on the Wogan show (Terry Wogan later said Bowie’s behavior nearly earned him a slap in the face).*

The album, nearly forgotten amidst the teacup tempests of its promotion, deserved better. Tin Machine II, at its best, is Bowie trying to create a viable template to move forward—it’s the rough draft of Outside, Earthling and the last records—and to better wed his commercial instincts with his avant-garde ones. Of course, that had been Bowie’s intent with Never Let Me Down as well, though that record wound up being a compromise which failed all sides.

Now Bowie had Reeves Gabrels serving as prosecutor. For Gabrels, rock music had stagnated after punk had died—in 1989, guitarists were still hung up on trying to play Jimi Hendrix, he said, which had chloroformed the instrument’s development. Why play the same blues licks Albert King could’ve played in 1965? Taking inspiration from Adrian Belew and Allan Holdsworth, Gabrels tried to recast the role of lead guitar. He considered lead playing as a series of disparate events, he told Musician in 1991. “The events get people from the verse to the chorus, or through the second verse after they’ve heard the melody once…the current listener’s horizon time is shorter in terms of how often you have to give them things to keep them interested.” While avant-garde in theory, the strategy also suggested developments in commercial film in the Nineties, with action movies, for example, becoming a series of explosive spectacles connecting plot point to plot point.

For Gabrels, an “event” could be anything—the tone of a vibrator pressed against the guitar neck, for instance, or a riff stolen from a speed metal record cropping up in a ballad—and he coupled that with an attempt to work in a “modal chromaticism,” that is, using a combination of various modes with a common tonic chord, and so letting the player essentially use any note on a variety of scales.** In Gabrels’ words, the rule was to “play any note you want, as long as you end on a right note.” So if a Tin Machine song was in E major, for example, Gabrels could play in E Phrygian, a scale that would let him play “notes that shouldn’t be there” (say an F when it should be an F-sharp). It was a seat-of-the-pants strategy that sometimes led (deliberately) to bizarre excesses, but in other cases created passages of uncanny melodies, or shocking counterpoints that elevated a banal chord progression.

And TMII became Gabrels’ record. With Bowie occupied for much of 1990 on Sound + Vision, Gabrels kept toying with the roughs, adding more and more guitar overdubs, recording dozens of new solos, sometimes just a few tweaked or buzzed notes. The finished result was a Glenn Branca-esque wall of battling guitars—on some tracks like “You Belong In Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Gabrels’ collected overdubs took up the vast majority of the 56-track master.

As a counterweight to Gabrels’ ambitions was a more collected and tighter band, with Bowie contributing more rhythm guitar than on the first Tin Machine. When the band assembled in Sydney in September 1989 to record the album, they were in high spirits. A group camaraderie had developed, as Bowie had traveled with the rest of Tin Machine in buses throughout that summer’s tour, playing cards and pretending he was 20 years old again. So although Bowie and Gabrels had been reluctant to make another record so soon (Bowie’s attention was becoming consumed with the Sound +Vision project), they bowed to the Sales brothers’ wishes to capitalize on the generous collaborative mood.

It helped that they had some material stockpiled: “Baby Universal” and a cover of Roxy Music’s “If There Is Something” had been tried out in the first LP sessions, while Hunt Sales’ “Sorry” had been road-tested. Other tracks came together quickly, over a few days in the studio. And a general agreement to reduce the guitar-drum artillery of the first record to focus more on melody and structure lessened the monotony of the Machine’s debut album—there was brutalist surf music, pop metal, dressing-room blues.

So yes, a distracted Bowie allowed his drummer to write and sing two songs, both of which are among the most hated pieces in the Bowie catalog, and Tin Machine hadn’t lost its habit of overplaying and throttling promising material to death. But at its best, which I would argue is about half of the album, Tin Machine II had some of Bowie’s strongest writing since Let’s Dance. Rather than being a throwback to reclaim past glories (as would happen in 1992), TMII is the record of a man finally coming to terms with his extremities, and being helped, rather than being buried, by his bandmates.

Bowie and Gabrels had written some of “Baby Universal” in their first extended songwriting collaboration, back in the summer of 1988, so it hails from the same period that produced “I Can’t Read” and “Amazing.” While he worked on “Baby Universal” during Tin Machine, Bowie had soon set the song aside—from the producer Tim Palmer’s perspective, it seemed as though Bowie considered the song too catchy, too rewarding, to suit his hard rock deconstructionist manifesto.

“Baby Universal” is a boundary work for Bowie, calling back to past songs yet setting terms for the future (both “Hallo Spaceboy” and “Looking For Satellites” seem to have come out of it). Its lyric concerns another of Bowie’s space messiah figures, first viewed skeptically in the verse (where he’s compared to a spoiled child, a product of awful, chaotic parents) then with a grand annunciation in the chorus. Where earlier incarnations, the Supermen, Ziggy, the Pretty Things or the Starman, had promised some sort of liberation, the space messiah here is self-contained, jaded (“it doesn’t matter–I’ve seen everything anyway,” he says in the brief second verse), imploding into himself, with humanity an afterthought. The chanted opening, where a repeated “baby” is mixed with barely-audible interjections (including “thinking/walk” and “lost/found”), suggests that the messiah’s been reborn as stream of binary code.

In A major for its verses, “Baby” shifts to a vague G major for the start of its chorus until an E dominant chord (on “I’m the baby now“) brings the song back into A. The past bleeds through: the first prechorus vocal melody (“failures as fathers”) seems a rewrite of the chorus of “Under the God,” while the “no baby no baby NO” tag calls back to some of Eno’s rock tracks from the Seventies, like “King’s Lead Hat.” The chorus itself, with its eerie guitar/organ accompaniment, matches the lyric’s attempted grandeur—it seems a deliberate attempt to hint at “Space Oddity” at first—and then builds to the thrashing title refrain, with Bowie howling the line twice, then letting it expire with a final slurred “U-ni-vers-ULL.”

It’s an ideal album opener: a tight, contained performance, with Tony Sales playing Kim Deal to Gabrels’ Joey Santiago, its mix littered with fine details (the tambourine in the pre-chorus, Hunt Sales’ lightning-fast drum fills to trigger chord changes in the verse) and with a Bowie lyric that’s as well-crafted (the nice internal rhymes of “humans” and “assume you’re”) as it’s sloppy (Bowie rhymes “thinking” with “thinking” in the chorus). The Nineties would be Bowie’s long battle of reconquest, a bid for the throne by an exile who seemed not to care anymore, so paradoxically his ambitions grew in stature; all of it starts here.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, Studios 301, Sydney (w/overdubs throughout 1990 and at A&M Studios, March 1991). Released in October 1991 as Tin Machine II‘s second and last single (LOCDT310 c/w BBC versions of “Stateside,” “If There Is Something” and “Heaven’s In Here,” #48 UK). Performed throughout the 1991-92 tour, often with Bowie and Gabrels on dueling “headless” Steinbergers. It was played a number of times on TV, including Top of the Pops and Saturday Night Live on 23 November 1991, Bowie’s second of three appearances on SNL.

* To be fair, Bowie was irritated that the BBC had made him lip-sync “You Belong In Rock ‘n’ Roll” for the show, and Wogan does come off as a dim, gaseous uncle here.

** Gabrels, in the Musician interview, said the term had been coined by “a couple of jazz oriented friends of mine,” but it actually was Bela Bartok, who was not a regular in the Boston music scene.

Top: Andrew McDonald, “Drag Queens, Sydney, 1990.”