There Is a Happy Land

September 10, 2009

99t/20/huty/13485/12

There Is a Happy Land.

Children have the strangest adventures without being troubled by them. For instance, they may remember to mention, a week after the event, that when they were in the wood they had met their dead father and had a game with him.

J.M. Barrie, Peter and Wendy.

You’ve had your chance, and now the doors are closed, sir.

“There is a Happy Land.”

Once when I was around 24, I was sitting in a Manhattan subway car across from a kid who seemed irritated by his nattering mother. I gave him a raised eyebrow and a smile of sympathy and he stared at me coldly for a moment, as if I was absurd and possibly evil. I realized I was just a grown-up making a weird face at him. We were no longer allies. I had crossed the border and there was no going back; I wearily consigned myself to adulthood.

“There Is a Happy Land,” for me the best song on David Bowie, is Bowie’s attempt to convey the common mind of childhood. He wasn’t alone: psychedelia was in part a means of burrowing back into childhood, whose mindset was seen as being akin to LSD-inspired visions. Think of Syd Barrett’s early songs like “See Emily Play,” recorded a few months after this track.

Bowie’s “When I’m Five” and “There Is a Happy Land” are two of the better depictions in pop music of how a child regards the world, and as such they can be unnerving. In “Happy Land” there’s the sense of childhood being a separate order, with its ranks and guilds, its legends and factions all unknown to adults. The song is set in a field near dusk, the hour just before dinner, when the empire of children is at its height.

“There Is a Happy Land” is ironically named—childhood is rarely purely happy, but is rather tumultuous, epic, hilarious, terrifying and so surreal that the best attempts of artists only come halfway close to capturing it (maybe Jean Vigo or Lewis Carroll came the closest). The lyric has classic fictional children like Tiny Tim playing alongside Bowie’s own creations (perhaps even his memories of Bromley neighborhood kids), much like how kids often blend their lives with stories, as well as how they constantly appraise their world, assigning values and colors to their playmates: Jenny whose sister died, Billy with the limp. A child’s reasoning can be both straight and capricious: I recall being convinced that my dog Jip could talk, but chose not to, for mysterious reasons of his own.

The track has one of the LP’s more ambitious arrangements, opening with a 16-bar instrumental section, with an initial solo by what sounds like a celesta but could be a treated piano, a second by a distant-sounding French horn (again, my guess—could be a trumpet) that ends a bit discordantly. Pieces of the solos recur as motifs, along with several other themes (e.g., a tiny waterfall of piano notes on the penultimate bar of each bridge), which cycle through the rest of the song. Bowie sings much of the lyric in long, slow phrases, though the asides to adults are sung curtly, often in four-note phrases seemingly tacked on to the ends of verses. The two bridge sections are in constant harmonic churn, sometimes with a new chord for nearly every beat (the line “Tiny Tim sings prayers and hymns/he’s so small we don’t notice him,” for example, dips and rises like a seesaw, going (acc. to this chord chart) F/Em/Am/C/Am/C/F/Em over four bars).

The title is possibly derived from “There Is a Happy Land (Far, Far Away),” the 19th Century Scottish hymn, which begins “There is a happy land, far, far away/where saints in glory stand, bright, bright as day.” Which fits well, for childhood is something of a storm-cloudy heaven.

Recorded on 24 November 1966; on David Bowie.

Top photo: Terry Fincher, “12 October 1966: Children playing outside 10 Rillington Place, London, the home of the mass murderer John Christie.”

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Links: Chapters 1-3

March 24, 2015

Chapter 1: The Junior Visualizer (1964-1966)

bowie '65

“Liza Jane” (Toy)
“Louie Louie Go Home”
“I Pity The Fool”
“Take My Tip”
“That’s Where My Heart Is”
“I Want My Baby Back”
Bars of the County Jail”
“You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”
(Toy)
“Baby Loves That Way”
(Toy)
“I’ll Follow You”
“Glad I’ve Got Nobody”
“Baby, That’s a Promise”
“Can’t Help Thinking About Me”
“And I Say to Myself”
“Do Anything You Say”
“Good Morning Girl”
“I Dig Everything”
(Toy)
“I’m Not Losing Sleep”

More: Britain on Film (Look at Life): “Fashion,” London on Film: “Suburbs,” “Why I Hate the Sixties” (2004); Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (conclusion); Devin McKinney on Colin MacInnes; Nick Bentley, “Translating English: Youth, Race and Nation in Colin MacInnes’s City of Spades and Absolute Beginners;” Bowie: Tonight interview, November 1964; The Beatles Anthology: 1963, 1964, 1965; “British Mods and Rockers” (BBC); scenes from Billy Liar;  Georgie Fame, “Yeh Yeh“; Glenn Gould, “The Search for Petula Clark“(1967); Bowie, radio interview, Marquee Club, 1966; Pye Studios.

Chapter 2: Gnome Man’s Land (1966-1968)

db1

“Rubber Band” (album remake)
“The London Boys”
(Toy)
“Over the Wall We Go”
“Uncle Arthur”
“She’s Got Medals”
“Join the Gang”
“Did You Ever Have a Dream”
“There Is a Happy Land”
“We Are Hungry Men”
“Sell Me a Coat
” (remake)
“Little Bombardier”
“Maid of Bond Street”
“Silly Boy Blue”
(Toy)
“Come and Buy My Toys”
“Please Mr. Gravedigger”
The Laughing Gnome
The Gospel According To Tony Day
When I Live My Dream
(remake)
Love You Till Tuesday
(single remake)

David-Bowie-1967

“Waiting For the Man”: (1967) (1970) (1972) (1976)
Little Toy Soldier
Pancho
Everything Is You
“Silver Tree Top School For Boys”:
(Slender Plenty) (Beatstalkers)
April’s Tooth of Gold
“Let Me Sleep Beside You”
(Toy)
“Karma Man”
(BBC, 1968)
“C’est La Vie”

“Even a Fool Learns to Love”
“In the Heat of the Morning” (Toy)
“London Bye Ta-Ta”
(1970 remake)
“When I’m Five” (BBC, 1968
) (demo, 1969)
“Social Kind of Girl”
“Ching-a-Ling”
“The Mask”

More: The Strange World of Gurney Slade (1960: Ep. 1, opening sequence); Anthony Newley, live, 1964; Alan Klein, “I Wanna Be a Beatnik“, 1964; Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (esp. “Uncle Ernest,” “The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller” and “The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale”); There Is a Happy Land (1974 adaptation); Heinrich Harrer, “My Life in Forbidden Lhasa” (1955); Ophiel, The Art and Practice of Astral Projection (1961);  David Guy, “Christmas Humphreys”; The Prisoner, excerpt from “Fall Out” (1967); “Forgotten Heroes: Big Jim Sullivan“; The Mothers of Invention, Freak Out (1966); The Fugs, “Dirty Old Man,”(1966); Ken Nordine, “Word Jazz” (1957); The Image (Armstrong, 1967, excerpts).

Chapter 3: The Free States’ Refrain (1969)

db69

“Space Oddity” (demo) (original version) (1979 remake)
“Love Song”
“Life Is a Circus”
“Letter to Hermione”
(demo)
“An Occasional Dream”
(demo)
“Janine”
“Conversation Piece”
(Toy)
“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” (B-side)
(LP remake)
“Don’t Sit Down”

“God Knows I’m Good”
“Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”
“Cygnet Committee”
” (“Lover to the Dawn”, demo version)
“Memory of a Free Festival”
” (1970 remake)

More:  2001: A Space Odyssey (“Stargate” sequence); The Bee Gees, “New York Mining Disaster 1941“; Apollo 11, pre-flight conference, July 1969;  International Times (1969 archive); Scott Walker, live in Japan, 1970; Jean Itard, Victor de l’Aveyron (French) (English); Prof. John Merryman, France: May 1968; MC5, “Kick Out the Jams” live, Detroit, 1969; Rolling Stones, Hyde Park free concert, July 1969; George McKay, “The Free Festivals and Fairs of Albion” (in Senseless Acts of Beauty); Beckenham Free Festival, 1969.


All The Young Dudes

May 20, 2010

All The Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople, with Bowie guide vocal).
All The Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople).
All The Young Dudes (Bowie).
Wide-Eyed Boy From Freecloud/ All The Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 1973).
All The Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 1974).
All The Young Dudes (Mott and Bowie, 1992).
All the Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 1996).
All the Young Dudes (Bowie and Billy Corgan, live, 1997).
All the Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 2004).

If you make a revolution, make it for fun,
don’t make it in ghastly seriousness,
don’t do it in deadly earnest,
do it for fun.

D.H. Lawrence, “A Sane Revolution.”

Why did David Bowie give away his best song? Mott the Hoople didn’t know. The band, watching Bowie demo “All the Young Dudes” on guitar in his manager’s Regent Street office, were baffled by his generosity. Asked if they wanted the song, “we broke our necks to say yes,” Mott’s drummer Dale Griffin later said. One reason was simply timing: in early 1972, Bowie still considered himself as much a songwriter as a performer and wanted to place a song with an established act like Mott. He had pitched them “Suffragette City,” but the band had passed on it, telling him they were breaking up. And so Bowie wrote “All the Young Dudes” partly to rescue one of his favorite bands.

“All The Young Dudes” was born larger than its creator. It’s not just that Bowie’s own version of the song, cut later in 1972, is a wan reflection of the Mott record (the only time Bowie came close to the power of the Mott single was onstage at the last Ziggy Stardust concert). “Dudes” is a band’s song, its power derived in part from its performers’ own mythology and history; take the way, as the song winds down, Ian Hunter riffs against the chorus that his bandmates repeat. The chorus gives the come-on, Hunter closes the sale, picking out faces in the crowd, pointing at them, baiting them, drawing them in.

Pop music is as tribal as it can be universal, and “All the Young Dudes” is one of the great tribal songs: it draws a line in the dirt and says, “this is where we stand,” or “this is far as we go.” On its surface, it’s an attempt to make a secessionist movement of the younger Baby Boom kids, severing them from their hippie older brothers and sisters. Bowie had hinted at this strategy with the line “look out you rock & rollers—pretty soon, you’re gonna get older” in “Changes,” but here he puts it right out:

My brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones
We never got it off on that revolution stuff
What a drag
Too many snags

The cold contempt in Hunter’s voice as he sings the last two lines brings it home. The house has burned down, so let’s just play in the ashes. It’s telling that the hippie brother is sitting around at home, considering himself a revolutionary but lost in his fantasies, while the Young Dudes are out on the streets and starring in their own dramas. Their revolution, if they even want one, is the one D.H. Lawrence proposed in “A Sane Revolution” (“it would be fun to upset the apple-cart/and see which way the apples would go a-rolling”), a poem that Mott the Hoople would quote on their last great record.

The ancestors to “All the Young Dudes” are Bowie’s songs about children, “There Is a Happy Land” or “When I’m Five” or “After All.” As in those songs, “All the Young Dudes” ranks and marks its characters, watching them play out their tiny lives onstage (with some fine writing, like the detail about the kid scarring his face by ripping off stickers); again, there’s a sense of ominousness and loss, whether in the way the chorus, opening in triumph, soon descends into minor chords, or how the lyric opens with a kid rapping about how he’s going to kill himself when he gets old (25 years old).

The “news” the kids are carrying, Bowie later said, is the secret knowledge that the world is ending soon: the Young Dudes are the final generation, or at least believe they are. The world’s last children, they spend their days in happy revolt against the world, a life full of petty crimes, costumes and solidarity.

“All the Young Dudes” sounded like a smash from the start (“we knew we were singing a hit,” Hunter later said), and it’s constructed similarly to “Changes,” with a compelling melody set against a fairly complex chord structure. The song’s full of little touches: take the way the opening guitar riff becomes a series of triplets leading into the verse, or how while the verse and the chorus begin the same (moving from C to A minor to E minor to G), each then takes a different path, the verse moving to a D minor bridge (“television man is crazy,” etc.) while the chorus suddenly shifts to 3/4 time after “carry the news.”

The Mott single, produced by Bowie and Mick Ronson, was recorded on 14 May 1972 and released in July. It hit #3 in the UK and was collected on the LP of the same name, again produced by Bowie and Ronson and recorded in June-July ’72. (The Mott track with Bowie’s guide vocal is on the reissue of All the Young Dudes.) Bowie’s version, cut during the early Aladdin Sane sessions at the end of ’72, was an oft-bootlegged outtake until the 1990s, when it was collected on a greatest-hits disc—Bowie’s only “official” version until then was a 1974 concert recording on David Live.

Top: Schoolboys smoking, Hyde Park, 17 May 1972. (Another Nickel in the Machine).


After All

January 13, 2010

After All.

A curse on childhood, lifted on the flipside.

Greil Marcus, on The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” single.

“After All” offers a similar curse, except Bowie gives no subsequent reprieves: his vision of childhood, now extended into cold adolescence, offers no escape except the void and the grave.

The Man Who Sold the World is a record of extravagance and braggadocio—Bowie wrestles with a devil in “Width of a Circle,” while other tracks are filled with extremities: supermen, serial killers, sex maniacs, master computers. “After All,” by contrast, is quiet (Bowie sings much of it in a near-whisper), withdrawn, a requiem for the defeated. Its verses are built around minor chords—E minor to A minor, wearily rising to F under the “by jingo” refrain—and its rhythm is a somber 3/4 time, which extends into a decrepit fairground whirl during the 16-bar solo.

“After All” seems like an unwanted sequel to the early psychedelic records, the sunshine lullabies of 1966 and 1967, as well as Bowie’s own childhood ballads, “There Is a Happy Land” and “When I’m Five.” In those songs, there was wonder and delight amidst the shadows, but in “After All” there’s little but shadow. Bowie watches from his window as the hippies pass by, those who can’t or refuse to grow up, those who march together in protests without rationale or results, who “paint [their] faces and dress in thoughts from the skies, from paradise,” those who are nothing but taller children, children denied a feasible adulthood.

The curse eventually turns in on itself, as Bowie’s narrator in the final chorus and verse (there are three of each), admits that he holds no answers, that he’s wasted his listeners’ time, that even the music he’s crafted is just built of “impermanent chords” (as he sings the words, the chords naturally shift, either to E7 or E/G#). A prophet who disparages his own predictions, Bowie finally offers a grim perversion of the Buddhism that once had sustained him. “Live ’till your rebirth and do what you will,” he says, taking the latter words from Aleister Crowley. It’s as close to consolation as it comes.

“After All” has echoes of Bowie’s ’60s recordings—the varispeed choir of grotesques moaning “Oh by jingo” is a dark reflection of “Laughing Gnome,” while the Stylophone of “Space Oddity” returns at the end of each chorus, appearing with a flourish and then declining in three-note patterns. The track’s built around Bowie’s acoustic guitar and Tony Visconti’s bass, with Mick Ronson serving mainly as background color. Visconti said that he and Ronson took Bowie’s basic tracks (the acoustic-centered verses and the “oh by jingo” refrain) and overdubbed them repeatedly during the mixing stage, though the result doesn’t feel overdone in the slightest—the track sounds rather like parts of it have been erased.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970, the last song on side A of The Man Who Sold The World. Covered by Tori Amos in 2001.

Top: Boyd Lewis, “Girls encounter the hippie vans in Piedmont Park [Atlanta],” 1970.


End of Chapter One (1964-1968)

November 6, 2009

68maxmin

This seems a good place to pause and take a breath. Next in line is the first Big Bowie Song (oh, you know which one it is), so I’ll need some time to get the entry together.

For four years, David Bowie had been trying to become a pop star. He made nine singles, one LP, and went through six bands, three managers and four labels. By the end of 1968 he was in a folk trio scrounging for gigs, didn’t have a record contract and had a girlfriend who wanted him to get into something more respectable. The Bowie story easily could have ended right then…

For what it’s worth, here’s my Top 10 from this period. What’s yours?

Silly Boy Blue.
The Laughing Gnome.
The London Boys.
There Is a Happy Land.
London Bye Ta-Ta.
Baby Loves That Way.
Karma Man.
I Dig Everything.
Can’t Help Thinking About Me.
Liza Jane.

Top: changing of the guard, London, 1968.


When I’m Five

November 2, 2009

68kidsn

When I’m Five (demo, 1968).
When I’m Five (BBC Top Gear 1968 recording; promo film).
When I’m Five (1969 demo).

Als das Kind Kind war,
erwachte es einmal in einem fremden Bett
und jetzt immer wieder,
erschienen ihm viele Menschen schön
und jetzt nur noch im Glücksfall.

(When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again,
many people seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by chance.)

Peter Handke, “Lied vom Kindsein.”

Thereafter all his dreams and plays were inspired by the magic words, “When I’m five an’ can see.” The sentence served as a mental spring-board to jump his imagination off into a world of wonder where he could see “dest—dest as good as big folks.”

Margaret Prescott Montague, “What Mr. Grey Said.”

“When I’m Five” is a sung by a child who wants to be a child. Or to be more precise, a true child, a child of five or seven, one who seemingly has the business of childhood sorted out. Age is the most salient of childhood’s hierarchies; age truly matters, each year has its own weight and presence, in a way it never quite does again. To a four-year-old, a seven-year-old (the first climacteric year, the year of permanent teeth) is an aspiration, a 10-year-old is a high master, while those over 13 belong to the Great Otherwhere, a sullen land full of dark, awful mystery.

Bowie’s “When I’m Five” is a thematic sequel to “There Is a Happy Land” (not just thematic—Bowie reuses “Happy Land”‘s bridge). Where the latter was sung by an all-seeing narrator who occasionally took the voice of the children he observed, “When I’m Five” is entirely first-person. It’s both endearing and embarrassing—Bowie sings in a pinched, awkward voice (matched visually by his mime-like performance in the promo film Love You Till Tuesday) and performs without a trace of self-consciousness. It feels quite personal for a Bowie lyric, which up until now have rarely been autobiographical: there’s a reference to “my Grandfather Jones,” as well as a crying father and a mother who keeps secrets tucked away in a drawer.

While “When I’m Five” is embedded deep in the mind of childhood, there’s also a flavor of departure in it—the child wants to grow up, if at first just to be a greater child, but escape and adulthood are his final aims. The adult world, with all its worries, pettiness and wonders (spitting tobacco, marching in army parades, marriage), has come flooding in. After a period in which British pop music had been besotted with childhood, a change appears to be coming, darkness and strife on the horizon.

Bowie cut a demo of the song in early 1968, while the only proper recording he made of it was at a BBC session on 13 May 1968—the BBC version was the soundtrack to the “When I’m Five” sequence in Love You Till Tuesday. The Beatstalkers were convinced to cover the song, and released their bewildered version on their last single, c/w, appropriately, “Little Boy” (CBS 3936). It marked the end, both of the band’s connection to Bowie’s music and of the band itself.


Please Mr. Gravedigger

September 23, 2009

creepy

Please Mr. Gravedigger.

What I remember is Bowie standing there wearing a pair of cans with his collar turned up as if he was in the rain, hunched over, shuffling about in a box of gravel. And you thought Brian Wilson had lost it!

Gus Dudgeon, on the recording of “Please Mr. Gravedigger.”

“Please Mr. Gravedigger,” the last song on the David Bowie LP and the last recorded in the main sessions, is a graveyard soliloquy by a child murderer, accompanied by a series of sound effects—thunderclaps, raindrops, tolling bells, shovel scrapes, footsteps, cawks.

And sneezes. Bowie gets pretty Method with his character here, so that once he sneezes he has to sing the rest of the track in a snotted-up voice. After another juicy sneeze, Bowie sounds as though he’s shoved cotton into his nostrils.

Like “We Are Hungry Men,” “Please Mr. Gravedigger” is something of a radio play, complete with bizarre voices and sound effects. For the latter, Bowie was able to plunder Decca’s fantastic library of noises (much like the Beatles did with EMI’s vaults): the harvest of decades of radio productions, novelty LPs and horror/SF movie soundtracks.

The tone is the puzzle here—how seriously are we meant to take this thing? It’s overly gruesome and darkly comic, with its stuffy-nosed murderer (its title, and the skeleton of a tune that Bowie offers, seem to be playing off the UK pop oldie “Oh Mr. Porter“), but there’s also a horrible desolation to it, its lyric filled with images like a once-serene graveyard left shattered by a bomb—crooked death layered upon death—and a gravedigger with a strand of a dead girl’s hair in his coat pocket.

The storyline’s out of an EC horror comic like The Haunt of Fear: a man who has murdered a 10-year girl stands in a bomb-blasted Lambeth cemetery, watching an old man dig graves; the killer decides that he’ll need to murder the gravedigger (either for discovering his crime, or for taking a locket of his victim’s hair); as the track ends, he’s begun digging the gravedigger’s own grave.

It’s as if the characters and sounds of the rest of the LP—the children in “There Is a Happy Land” and “Come and Buy My Toys,” the eccentric loners in “Little Bombardier” and “Uncle Arthur,” the shadow play of “Hungry Men”—were all drawn together here and packed under the same dark earth.

Recorded 13 December 1966; on David Bowie. Bowie demoed “Gravedigger” in the same session in which he recorded “Rubber Band” and “The London Boys,” but it’s never been available, even on bootleg (apparently, it’s only Bowie and an organ, no sound effects). He also performed it on the German TV program 4-3-2-1 Musik Für Junge Leute in February 1968, but sadly the footage, which must’ve been wonderfully freakish, hasn’t survived.

Top: Gray Morrow, cover of Creepy No. 13, Feb. 1967.


Come and Buy My Toys

September 21, 2009

pt1

Come and Buy My Toys.

Minimalist by the standards of David Bowie, “Come and Buy My Toys” is just Bowie and a 12-string guitar. “Toys” is in the same vein as “There is a Happy Land” but lacks the latter’s sense of mystery and ominousness, in part because the cod-medieval imagery Bowie’s stuffed the lyric with (“you’ve watched your father plow the fields with a ram’s horn” and so on).

It passes its brief span pleasantly enough, though. “Come and Buy My Toys” best serves as an advertisement for the whole record—Bowie as a purveyor of assorted sweets, sours, tapestry tales, jewels and baubles.

Recorded on 12 December 1966; on David Bowie. The guitar line that runs through the verses reminds me a bit of the one in Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me”: they have close to the same chord sequence: D/Am/C/G for Madonna, D/Am/C/G6 for Bowie).

Top: Patrick Troughton, the new star of Doctor Who, in “The Power of the Daleks,” November 1966.


Sell Me a Coat

September 15, 2009

db

Sell Me a Coat.
Sell Me a Coat (remake, 1969).

Well before Bowie’s first album was released, his manager Ken Pitt sent acetates to American musicians, hoping that Bowie, like Bob Dylan or Laura Nyro, could first get a name as a songwriter. Pitt sent “She’s Got Medals” and “Silly Boy Blue” to the Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Co. (both rejected both) and, in a sign he considered Bowie to fit into the “folk” niche, Pitt singled out Judy Collins, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, to whom he sent everything from “When I Live My Dream” to “There is a Happy Land” (sadly, not “We Are Hungry Men”—a Peter, Paul and Mary version of that track would’ve been one for the ages).

No one wanted anything to do with Bowie’s admittedly odd songs. It’s surprising that they all rejected “Sell Me a Coat,” though, as it’s one of Bowie’s catchiest early compositions, with its nursery-rhyme chorus. Someone could’ve made a hit, a minor one at least, with these materials.

“Sell Me a Coat” is Bowie coloring within the lines—it was almost certainly written and produced to be a possible single. The verses’ melody is in a lower range, with Bowie singing phrases slowly and somberly; the chorus has a brisker tempo, is in a higher key and is made of short, punchy phrases (like the consonant “little patch pockets”). Overlaid onto all this are Bowie’s alternating images of winter and despair (the verses—his girlfriend has dumped him) and warmth and renewal (the chorus—he’s looking for a new one).

It’s almost too perfect, and so winds up feeling a little fake and cloying. Still, those qualities didn’t hurt a great many Top 10 hits. “Sell Me a Coat” is a girl dressed up for the ball who wound up with no dance partners.

Recorded 8 December 1966. A revised version (heard in the promo clip above) was made for Bowie’s promotional film “Love You Till Tuesday” in 1969, with new backing vocals from Bowie’s then-partners Hermione Farthingale (you don’t get names like that anymore) and John “Hutch” Hutchinson—the new version’s a mess, mainly because, due to odd mixing, the backing vox often drown out Bowie’s lead); on David Bowie.


We Are Hungry Men

September 13, 2009

hh

We Are Hungry Men.

On the oddly-sequenced LP David Bowie, sandwiched between the hushed, eerie “There is a Happy Land” and the saccharine “When I Live My Dream” is Bowie’s abrasive science-fiction radio play “We Are Hungry Men,” which opens with a frantic “BBC announcer” bewildered by cities apparently overpopulating by the hour, offers a comic-book Nazi rant interlude and reaches its insane peak with Bowie chanting like a Dalek, over shrieking horns:

I’ve prepared a document legalizing mass abortion!
We will turn a blind eye to infanticide!

“We Are Hungry Men” may be one of the more embarrassing things Bowie has ever recorded but it’s also a spectacular car wreck of a track, whose chorus is, perversely, one of the album’s catchiest. As with “She’s Got Medals,” it’s Bowie’s first crack at a theme that will preoccupy him for much of the following decade—here, messianic fascist political figures and the dystopias in which they come to power (“Cygnet Committee,” “The Supermen,” much of Diamond Dogs).

The lyric’s specific enough (people arrested for breathing too much air, etc.) that Bowie must have been reading some contemporary science fiction. So here’s a brief generalization on postwar SF, which you can feel free to skip.

Where much of US postwar science fiction is visionary, po-faced, curious about drugs, ultra-masculine and often rife with can-do positivism (Alas, Babylon offers nuclear war as a means of restoring America’s pioneer spirit), UK SF is far more pessimistic, full of ruin and doomed societies.

The UK of the ’50s and early ’60s produced John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (grains disappear, civilization ends) and John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (plague, then plants kill almost everyone) and The Midwich Cuckoos (your children are evil—they will kill you). Most of all, there were the great postwar British dystopians JG Ballard (Jonathan Lethem: “Ballard in a grain of sand — the visual poetry of ruin…the convergence of the technological and the natural worlds into a stage where human life flits as a violent, temporary shadow“) and Brian Aldiss. Aldiss, by 1965, had written novels about humanity being reduced to a bestial state and hunted by insects (Hothouse), human civilization as a generations-long sham (Starship) and the grim spectacle of a world with no children, only the aged (Greybeard).

So in “We Are Hungry Men” Bowie is working in an already well-tilled field. He’s also flashing on a hip topic of concern in the mid-’60s: global overpopulation. This would come to mainstream attention with Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb in 1968, but the concept was already in wide circulation before then. Images of humans packed like sardines in cities, living ten to a room in teeming high rises, are all over the late ’60s: the Star Trek episode “The Mark of Gideon” and John Brunner’s novel Stand on Zanzibar, both from 1968, being just two examples.

But the key inspiration for Bowie’s lyric may have been Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!, serialized in the August to October 1966 issues of the British SF magazine Impulse. Make Room! (set in 1999, in a New York City overrun by 35 million people) is better known as its movie adaptation, Soylent Green. “Soylent Green is people!” is a better catch phrase than “we are hungry men!,” though.

Recorded 24 November 1966; released on David Bowie.