Uncle Arthur

August 31, 2009


Uncle Arthur.

David Bowie’s first LP, released on the same June morning as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, is an anthology of comic strips: cross-dressing soldiers, zombies from a soon-to-come dystopia, lost children, ready-made hipsters, maiden uncles, shabby bombardiers. It didn’t sell, and Bowie, seemingly embarrassed by it, has tried to write the record out of his history (selections from it never turn up on career anthologies, though that may be in part due to rights issues).

It’s comparable to the first LP by Bowie’s Deram labelmate Cat Stevens, which was recorded around the same time, shared some of the same musicians and had a similar taste for eclecticism. That said, Stevens led off his album with his #2 hit “Matthew and Son” while Bowie chose his clapalong hornpipe “Uncle Arthur.”

“Uncle Arthur,” also one of the first tracks recorded for the LP, is a character sketch much in the Ray Davies line (down to the mother resenting her child’s ill-advised relationship, a Davies staple), though it’s more surreal and detached from humanity. The Batman-loving title character is both a sad portrait of a middle-aged eccentric unable to accept happiness when he stumbles into it, and also a boy’s imagining of an adult, one who flees from any extended contact with girls. It’s telling that the character is known only as Uncle Arthur, furthering the sense the lyric’s from a child’s perspective, with the muddles of adult life resolved by a child’s logic (Uncle Arthur left Sally because he didn’t like her cooking, or so mum says).

“Uncle Arthur”‘s one of Bowie’s better tunes to date—the chorus seems crafted for a pub sing-a-long. Some nice touches in the arrangement, too: after the second verse, when Arthur finds love, the opening wind melody returns, now as a duet. And at song’s end the chorus, which has only been three lines until now, is finally resolved with a fourth line: “follows mother,” which is Arthur’s final fate. Storytime’s over.

Recorded 14 November 1966, released in June 1967 on DML 1007 David Bowie. The LP was produced by Mike Vernon and engineered by Gus Dudgeon.


The Past Grows Larger

January 8, 2019


As you’ll see in Ashes to Ashes, I made a joke that I expected the Bowie estate to release “Blaze” or another Blackstar outtake on his birthday, thus rendering the book incomplete before it published. This, surprisingly, did not happen (still a few hours left, though). But there is “new” Bowie music today nonetheless.

This Parlophone set of demos, perversely to be issued only on 7-inch vinyl singles for the time being, could have been titled DB ’68, as it seems to be mostly material written and demoed that year (or at the dawn of 1969, with “Space Oddity”). The “new” songs are:

Angel, Angel, Grubby Face. Demoed for Bowie’s never-made second Deram album, it was described by Nicholas Pegg as Bowie still being under the influence of British writers Keith Waterhouse and Alan Sillitoe, from whom he’d taken plotlines and titles for his first album (“Uncle Arthur,” “There Is a Happy Land,” “Little Bombardier”).

Mother Grey seems to be along the same lines, another piece of DB’s “surreal naturalism” period, lyrically. Demoed around late 1967/early 1968, and likely another “2nd Deram LP” contender.

Goodbye 3d (Threepenny) Joe. A title circulating for years, and I wondered in Rebel Rebel if it was the midway point between the transformation of “London Bye Ta Ta” (which has a new demo version in this set) into “Threepenny Pierrot” for the Looking Glass Murders in 1970. It seems possibly not, but we’ll see soon enough!

Love All Around. The scoop! Not even the title had been mentioned in Bowie histories, lists of bootlegs, etc., until now, I believe.

In addition, an upcoming auction lists three more unknown DB demos from 1965—“How Can i Forget You,” “I Live In Dreams” (“which includes a false start and some discussion around the key of the song”) and “It’s My True Love.”

The Parlophone set seems in part to be a copyright dump (hence the notice that the songs appeared for likely six hours on “streaming services” in December) and thus suggests in the years to come, we might get official releases of the heap of unreleased Bowie demos from that period—“Right on Mother,” “Rupert the Riley,” etc.

So as the Strokes once said, the end has no end. Here’s to Bowie’s birthday, and hope all of you are well.

Requisite hype coda: bookNYC tour dates.



Poll, Day 1: Somebody Up There Likes Us

December 15, 2015


To begin, I thought we should honor the songs that, of the 351 songs that placed, only got one single vote.

It’s a motley of: a) Iggy Pop songs, b) Bowie bonus tracks, oddments and rarities, c) Tin Machine stuff, and d) songs sometimes mocked by Bowie fandom and critics (cough). But they all got a vote! Someone thinks enough of each one of these songs to have included them in a list of their top 30 favorite Bowie songs ever.

So, raise a glass to the single-vote songs. Have cheer, lonelyhearts: somebody up there likes you.

Amazing. Amlapura. Atomica. Baby Can Dance. Beat of Your Drum. A Better Future. Betty Wrong. Bleed Like a Craze, Dad. Chilly Down. Ching-a-Ling. Crack City. The Cynic. Dancing Out in Space. Day-In, Day-Out. Did You Ever Have a Dream. Do Anything You Say. Dodo. Don’t Bring Me Down. Don’t Look Down. Fall In Love With Me. Fill Your Heart. Future Legend.

Get Real. God Only Knows. Gunman. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow. If I’m Dreaming My Life. Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary). I’ve Been Waiting For You. Law (Earthling’s On Fire). Leon Takes Us Outside. Lightning Frightening. The Loneliest Guy. Love Song.

Maid of Bond Street. Man In the Middle. Mass Production. New York Telephone Conversation.* New York’s In Love. Real Cool World. Reflektor.** Running Gun Blues. (She Can) Do That.*** Shining Star (Makin’ My Love). Silver Treetop School for Boys. Success. Tiny Girls. Tired of My Life. Uncle Arthur. Waterloo Sunset. Where Have All the Good Times Gone? Wishful Beginnings. Without You I’m Nothing. Working Class Hero. You Can’t Talk. Zion.

And “Dancing in the Street” got two votes.

*Doesn’t qualify, but meant as a ‘protest’ vote against the cruelty of having to decide which Bowie song should get the #30 slot on a ballot. Hey, I understand.
** Doesn’t technically qualify, but if you love “Reflektor” enough for it to make your top Bowie 30, I’ll record it.
*** Regular readers will likely guess who this voter was.

Next: the almost-theres. Songs 100-51.

Top: a semi-retired gentleman salutes your picks. (“Crack City”? Nice!”)

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 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”
“Baby Loves That Way”
“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”
“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)


“Rubber Band” (album remake)
“The London Boys”
“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”
“Come and Buy My Toys”
“Please Mr. Gravedigger”
The Laughing Gnome
The Gospel According To Tony Day
When I Live My Dream
Love You Till Tuesday
(single remake)


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


“Space Oddity” (demo) (original version) (1979 remake)
“Love Song”
“Life Is a Circus”
“Letter to Hermione”
“An Occasional Dream”
“Conversation Piece”
“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.

Segue: Algeria Touchshriek

February 4, 2013

glowers for algeria

Segue: Algeria Touchshriek.

Do I detect a character from ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ lurking on your new album?
Bowie: Not intentionally….
The guy who rents the room–
Bowie: Aha! Catshriek! Yes, the guy who owns the store in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’
There’s a little bit of him, I thought.
Bowie: It is very much. A very English character, he’s almost the stereotypical shop owner.

Interview with Seconds, 1995.

Bowie meant “Charrington,” but he was so tickled that the interviewer had unearthed a piece of his subconscious that he blended Orwell’s character with his own. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Charrington is the junk shop owner who rents a room to Winston Smith for his liaisons with Julia. “The old man seemed seldom or never to go out of doors, and on the other hand to have almost no customers. He led a ghostlike existence. Wandering about among his worthless stock, with his long nose and thick spectacles and his bowed shoulders in the velvet jacket, he had always vaguely the air of being a collector rather than a tradesman. He had dragged out from the corners of his memory some fragments of forgotten rhymes.

Charrington turns out to be a Party member who helps bait the trap that lands Winston in Room 101. (Some scholars have argued that Charrington is a veiled T.S. Eliot, who Orwell had defended from attacks by leftist critics and who later “betrayed” Orwell by declining to publish Animal Farm.) The loyalties of Bowie’s character on Outside are more vague. Touchshriek is a 78-year-old shopkeeper who, according to Nathan Adler, “deals in art drugs and DNA prints [and] fences for all apparitions of any medium.” His personality is described as “harmless, lonely.”

Lonely, yes. Is he harmless? Touchshriek has one of the more opaque roles in the Outside “narrative.” He seems to have seen something (Grace’s murder, Leon or Ramona’s arrangement of the body), as in a deleted Leon segue, he mentions having been walking near the Museum of Modern Parts, where Grace’s body was displayed. He’s considering renting a room above his shop to a fugitive (perhaps Grace was once kept there), and it’s possible Touchshriek was involved with the killing in some manner. In another deleted Leon segue, he mentions that he “knew Leon once.”

But Touchshriek’s far more interesting than his cloudy role in Bowie’s admittedly plotless mystery. His Outside segue, an edited/re-recorded version of a segue on the “Enemy Is Fragile” Leon suite, is a clever, touching, sharply compressed piece of writing. Bowie opens with some Edward Lear- and James Joyce-inspired wordplay and, showing a fine touch for detail, he builds up Touchshriek’s enclosed world in a handful of lines.

The backing track suits the flow of the segue, with Reeves Gabrels guitar and Mike Garson piano lines cycling beneath Touchshriek’s monologue, as if they’re interrogating him. (In the original segue, Bowie spoke over a gradual crescendo of Garson piano glissandi and Gabrels arpeggios). Some Eno “jungle” sounds accompany Touchshriek’s last words, and he walks off stage to a quiet flow of synthesizer chords.

If the various Outside characters are refracted pieces of Bowie’s personality, Touchshriek is the withered end of one unlived life, a David Jones who had stayed in Beckenham, had kept up marginal ties to the local art scene (imagine him still running an Arts Lab at the Three Tuns in 1995) and who had grown old and alone there. In this vein, Touchshriek also ties back to Bowie’s Sixties character studies, his songs of shabby bachelors, elderly shoplifters and Gurney Slade-esque suburban dreamers: he’s the heir to Uncle Arthur, the Little Bombardier, and the lonely scholar in “Conversation Piece.

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London, with overdubs at Brondesbury Villas Studio, London, January 1995.

Top: Bowie, older than he is today.

God Only Knows

December 20, 2011

God Only Knows (The Beach Boys, 1966).
God Only Knows (Andy Williams, 1967).
God Only Knows (Ava Cherry and the Astronettes, 1973).
God Only Knows (Bowie, 1984).

When you listen to “Smile” now, what words come to mind?

Childhood. Freedom. A rejection of adult rules and adult conformity. Our message was, “Adults keep out. This is about the spirit of youth.”

Brian Wilson, Wall Street Journal interview, October 2011.

Brian Wilson, who is nearly 70 years old, talked recently about the latest salvage of his would-have-been masterwork Smile. He has been asked about this “lost” record for much of his life, and he’s long run out of stories to tell. Never the most articulate of people, Wilson typically recalls half-remembered things that others have said about him. So here Wilson repeated, yet again, the statement that Smile was meant to be “a teenage symphony to God.” But then Wilson kept on that thought. “It’s a teen’s expression of joy and amazement. It’s unrestrained. We thought of ourselves as teens then, even though we were in our 20s….Van Dyke [Parks] and I wanted “Smile” to be a musical tour of America through the eyes of kids—from Plymouth Rock to Diamond Head.

We thought of ourselves as teens then, even though we were in our twenties. A simple statement that has a world in it: the Sixties ideal of the teen, with adulthood now an afterthought, a curse, something to be put off as long as possible. In Wilson’s case, he has permanently put it off—he is a senior citizen who still sings about being a teenager, and his life is a teenager’s idea of an adult’s. He is Bowie’s Uncle Arthur made flesh.

Odd Victorians—butterfly collectors, mathematicians, table rappers, quietly heretical parsons—had idealized children. Somewhere in the Sixties, in California, that cult was overturned, the child was supplanted by the teen, by the beautiful, corrupted child, one pure with appetites. It was a happy usurpation. Adolescence—a brilliant dream-version of it, at least—was now the peak of life. Catalogs of songs were made in its honor.

Wilson’s Smile, intended as a hymnal for the new religion, was never released, although fragments of it have been around since 1967. The record collapsed for a host of reasons—too many drugs; the exhaustion of its composer; the resistance of the Beach Boys’ reactionary wing, led by Mike Love; the fact that some of its songs weren’t that good. And maybe because it was just unnecessary. Wilson had already written a teenage symphony to God in miniature: his and Tony Asher’s “God Only Knows,” his most perfect song.

Recorded in March 1966, when Wilson was only 23, “God Only Knows” is a prayer in a love song. This wasn’t anything new. What was soul music but singers using expressions and phrasings crafted to praise God and pressing them into service for baser ends, to pronounce lust and love? It was a heresy far older than soul: in 1939, The Ink Spots offered “My Prayer,” which wasn’t to commune with God but simply to “linger with you, at the end of each day.”

So “God Only Knows” falls in this line, but what makes it special is its awkwardness, its honesty. Asher’s lyric captures the tumult of an adolescent’s thoughts: the sudden revisions, the stumbling, the defensiveness. I may not always love you, the song begins. What a start! The kid has to back his way into a vow of eternal commitment, but the bluntness of the opening line (Wilson initially hated it, and had wanted Asher to rewrite it) defines the song’s core ambiguity. It’s an eternal pledge made by a kid with a weak grasp on eternity. The second verse even opens with bluster: If you should ever leave me/though life would still go on, believe me! And again, the singer has to work his way back into pledging his love. The lyric, intentionally or no, is bled through with a teenager’s manic narcissism: every line in the second verse ends with “me” (it’s the only rhyme).

Wilson’s music and arranging for “God Only Knows” deepens the sense of love-as-confusion. The song is tonally vague (it’s a sway between E major, the key of the verse, and A major, the apparent key of the refrain), while its instrumentation is a series of blends, of instruments whose tones bleed into each other in the mono mix. The opening melody is carried on a fusion of accordion, French horn and strings; the staccato quarter notes that undergird the track are a motley of sleigh bells, pizzicato strings, organ, harpsichord and slap-echoed piano and bass (the latter sometimes played so high it sounds like an electric guitar).

Then there are the moments of grace. The little instrumental bridge that briefly sends the song off into a new world. The sweet sighing of Brian Wilson’s voice. The extended coda, with its gorgeous, humble polyphony (just the Wilson brothers, with Bruce Johnston as the top voice): it’s a sense of awe inspired by a suddenly imaginable bliss.

Bowie, like many British musicians of his generation, had loved Pet Sounds—Paul McCartney’s infatuation with the record is one of the more shopworn facts in Beatles lore. The sweetness, the teenage grandeur of the Beach Boys’ records, their sense of a paradise effortlessly achieved by young people somewhere on the West Coast, were something alien to the UK. To no surprise, a cult soon formed around Wilson.

I believe you, Mr. Wilson, John Cale sang, I believe you anyway. Because by 1975, when Cale wrote the song, Wilson had become a zombified figure padding about in a bathrobe, writing songs about Johnny Carson, while the California mythland he had authored had gone to seed (already, in the promo film for “God Only Knows,” Dennis Wilson looks dissolute, Manson-like). When I listen to your music, you’re still thousands of miles away, Cale sang. The line was a play on Cale’s memory of being a nobody in Wales hearing Wilson’s Californian exotica for the first time, and on Wilson’s distance from the promises that his own music made.

The distance that McCartney, Cale and Bowie felt from (and in) Wilson—a dreamer who could never fall asleep, so he doled out his dreams to others—gave them a better vantage to appraise his work. They saw that the Beach Boys at their finest made a modern holy music; religious music for a generation that never thought it would die, one that would never grow old.

Bowie recognized that “God Only Knows,” one of his favorite Wilson tracks, was at heart a soul song. His first attempt to cover the song, with Ava Cherry and the Astronettes in 1973, got it half-right. Cherry was a marvelous singer who never got the chance to really prove it, and here she gives a fervor to the lyric yet doesn’t lose the sense of happy bewilderment and humility. But Bowie’s arrangement, with an odd mandolin accompaniment in the verse and a garrulous saxophone solo that nearly flat-out kills the song, was an ill omen.

A decade later, making Tonight, Bowie seemed to have lost everything that had once made him—his tactical intelligence as a singer, his innate good taste, the precision of his performances, his easy way of reconciling styles within himself. For whatever reason, he decided at last to cover “God Only Knows” himself. He sounds like a man lost in a cathedral who begins to deface the walls in panic.

Bowie’s inspiration seems to be Andy Williams’ version of the song, from 1967 (Bowie’s schmaltzy version of “Imagine” from 1983 seems an initial run-through). But Williams was respectful, cool: he lets himself sink into the song, letting the melody occasionally slip away from him, and whenever he moves to the grandiose, he quickly checks himself with his awed, quiet phrasings of the title refrain. Williams and Ava Cherry had known that the song was bigger than them, and wandered happily within its confines.

At first, Bowie’s version on Tonight seems adequate. He sounds somber and restrained in the opening verses, if seemingly doing a parody of Scott Walker, though the croaking begins to irritate after a time—the lyric is meant to be sung by someone bewildered by love; Bowie seems to be serenading a corpse. A few warning signs come: the grotesque way Bowie sings “stahhhrs,” like he’s gargling, or how he gets snagged on “sure,” rolling the word around on his tongue.

Then Bowie decided that the performance needed to build, that some act of professional grandiosity was required on the record, a contractual obligation that EMI had slipped in. So he and Hugh Padgham (and maybe Derek Bramble—no one’s claimed ownership, unsurprisingly) start to trowel things on. Strings, which had been part of the communal sound world on the Beach Boys’ version, just playing sustained chords and mixed with organ, are used on Bowie’s cover as offensive weapons, soon followed by the horns. One saxophone gets a little solo phrase that’s utterly hateful in its insipidness. Then the singers come in, up to no good. The thing is, everyone sounds so damned pleased with themselves. They’re vandals with delusions of artistry.

But the worst crimes are left to Bowie. Too much of an egoist here to share the vocals, he has to carry the coda by himself. He starts singing the title phrase in a hectoring tone, souring the pleasures of the long vowels—the way “OHN-lee” and “KNOWS” are warm sisters, a communal reassurance following the initial hard, short vowel of “God.” Instead Bowie places his weight upon “God” and rushes through the rest of the phrase, letting it expire in a sickly gasp on “with-out you.” The last repeat, in which Bowie brutalizes each word, wringing whatever effect he can from each syllable, is the apex of the dreadful performance. It’s astonishing in its tastelessness.

The story goes that Bowie was too young for the Sixties, he was always outside of it. But maybe, as this terrible record shows, he was just always too old.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec.

Top: Steve Kagan: Anthony Michael Hall, John Hughes and Molly Ringwald on the set of The Breakfast Club, filmed 1984; Molly Ringwald in Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984); Eric Fischl, The Brat II, 1984.

Boys Keep Swinging

July 27, 2011

Boys Keep Swinging.
Boys Keep Swinging (The Kenny Everett Show, 1979).
Boys Keep Swinging (w/ Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, Saturday Night Live, 1979).
Boys Keep Swinging (broadcast, 1995).
Boys Keep Swinging (live, 1995).

“Boys Keep Swinging” is Bowie taking on the Village People, with an irony far beyond the double-entendres of “YMCA” or “In the Navy.” There’s never a knowing aside, never a line sung with a wink: Bowie sells his pitch in his “Golden Years” croon, with a joyful bellow on “luck just kissed you HELLO!” while he gives the crude line “life is a pop of the cherry” some grandeur.

The whole piece is dedicated to camaraderie, with the backing singers taking over on the refrains as Bowie’s vocal sinks into the bassline, while the lead and supporting voices collide on a line like “you’ll get your share!” Bowie’s tone is beyond detachment or parody: the lyric and performance could be an extraterrestrial’s baffled report on human gender roles. If you are a male of the species you can wear a uniform! You can buy a home of your own!

Yet “Boys” isn’t really that far apart from “In the Navy,” with its lustily-chanted chorus, its barely-hidden gay anthemic qualities, its goofy delight in the cartoon masculine. It calls back to Bowie’s early “childhood” songs (“Uncle Arthur,” “When I’m Five”) in that the lyric’s perspective seems like a boy’s cracked idea of what manhood is, with lines suggesting adulthood is like joining a Scout troop: Uncage the colors! Unfurl the flag! From there it’s an easy path to another of the song’s buried themes, which is that traditional “manhood” can resemble a fascist cult, while a dedication to the ultra-masculine echoes an obsession with “feminine” pursuits like fashion (Bowie would go further with this in “Fashion,” where being in vogue is akin to goose-stepping).*

As with “Look Back In Anger,” there’s a sense of Bowie recrossing old ground here. The “Berlin” records are relatively chaste—love and sex, when they appear at all, are compromised, violent, alienated acts. There’s nothing with the swagger of “Suffragette City” or “Queen Bitch” on the Berlin albums, certainly nothing as salacious as “John, I’m Only Dancing.” Suddenly, in the last hours of the Eno partnership, Bowie returned to the spirit of glam, though lacing it with a harsher irony than before (“Rebel Rebel,” by contrast, has an open spirit that’s missing here) and inventing the New Romantics in the process. (Bowie decision to finally release his disco remake of “John” in late 1979 may have been inspired by the success of “Boys.”)

In David Mallet’s promo film for “Boys,” Bowie appeared in drag as his three backing singers. His rubbing-the-lipstick-off gesture was a steal from Romy Haag: it was a classic finale move by drag queens (Bowie loved the “anarchic” feel of destroying makeup that had taken hours to apply). Bowie’s mimetic talent, his ability to create a character in a few gestures, are amazing in this video, as each of his three women is distinct: the brassy Sixties belter; the faded, elegant dowager (modeled on his former co-star Marlene Dietrich); and his skeletal high society vampire. The latter is especially frightening; when Bowie rips off his Rebekah Brooks wig, he looks like a demon.

“Boys Keep Swinging” was one of the last songs completed for Lodger. It had a hard birth, though Adrian Belew recalled Bowie coming up with the lyric and vocal in a week during the overdub sessions.

During early takes of the rhythm track, Bowie, frustrated by what he called a “too professional” sound (Bowie wanted to sound like “young kids in the basement [were] just discovering their instruments,” Carlos Alomar said), was inspired by one of Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards (“Use Unqualified People”) and had the band switch instruments, a trick used during Lust For Life (“Fall in Love With Me”). Alomar competently played drums and Dennis Davis not-so-competently played bass, requiring Tony Visconti to redo the bassline during mixing. Visconti used the opportunity to play a hyperactive line that echoed his work on The Man Who Sold the World (it’s possibly inspired by the main riff of the Beach Boys’ “You’re So Good To Me.”). It became one of the track’s main hooks. George Murray was assigned to keyboards but was apparently erased from the final track, as he’s not credited on the LP sleeve.

“Boys” is the same chord progression as “Fantastic Voyage,”** and while at a far brisker tempo, its structure is basically the same as “Voyage”—two verses and two choruses, the latter extended while stalling, harmonically, on the A chord (starting with “we’ll get by I suppose” in “Voyage” and the last “when you’re a boy” in “Boys”). The drone in the background, led by Simon House’s violin, is, yet again, an echo of “Waiting For the Man,” here by way of “Heroes.”

Its lyric wrapped up early on, “Boys” cedes its remaining 90 seconds to a gonzo Adrian Belew guitar solo, again compiled by Visconti and Bowie from various takes (the only clue Belew was given about the song was that Alomar was playing drums). Belew recalled Bowie buttering him up during the session, saying that “Boys Keep Swinging” had wound up being a homage to Belew, as he was boyish and was a “world-is-your-oyster kind of guy,” Belew recalled in an interview with David Buckley. It’s Belew’s most inspired performance on the record, so flattery works.

Recorded September 1978 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and March 1979 at the Record Plant, NYC. Released as a single (RCA BOW 2 c/w “Fantastic Voyage,” #7, UK) in April 1979. Covered by the Associates in 1980 and Susanna Hoffs a decade later. Blur ripped “Boys” off so much on “M.O.R.” that they were forced to credit Bowie and Eno as co-songwriters.

* The chorus has a taste of the Shirelles’ “Boys,” whose cover by the Beatles is an inadvertent early gender-challenging song, with the affable croaker Ringo singing blissfully: “I’m talkin’ ’bout boys! Yeah yeah boys! What a bundle of joy!”

** Visconti has said there was a third song using this progression cut during the Lodger sessions, but it was scrapped. According to the sheet music, the two Lodger songs don’t quite have the same progression—in the verses, “Boys” has a Bb where “Voyage” has a G minor.

Top: Val Denham, ca. 1978.

Right On Mother

February 8, 2010

Right On Mother.

“Right On Mother” is something of an answer record to “Oh! You Pretty Things,” bridging the generation gap depicted in the latter. It’s also a happier remake of “Uncle Arthur,” in which the parent, rather than sabotaging her son’s relationship with his new girl, is instead welcoming of it.

Still, there’s also something disturbing about the song, whether in the boy’s elation that his mother knows “I’m a man!!!” or the last lines, where the singer apparently dumps his girl off so he can spend the night with mum.

Recorded ca. late 1970-January 1971 (some websites list it as a 1968 recording, which doesn’t seem to fit—it was obviously part of the demo package that Chrysalis Music sent to Peter Noone in late 1970/early ’71). Noone recorded it as the B-side to “Walnut Whirl” (RAK 121, October 1971) with Bowie on piano.

Top: “Shoreditch Street Washing,” 1971.

Please Mr. Gravedigger

September 23, 2009


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.