You’ve Been Around

September 20, 2012

You’ve Been Around (live, Tin Machine, 1989).
You’ve Been Around.
You’ve Been Around (video).
You’ve Been Around (Jack Dangers 12″ mix).
You’ve Been Around (Reeves Gabrels, with Bowie and Gary Oldman, 1995).

As “You’ve Been Around” was sequenced as the first vocal track to appear on Black Tie White Noise,* it was Bowie’s first “solo” statement in six years. Unsurprisingly, many took the song to be a pledge to his new wife or his latest self-reassessment, a fresh shareholder’s letter by an absentee owner (“I stay over many years/I should have thought of that,” plus a tossed-in reference to “Changes”). But “Around” was actually Bowie’s drastic revision of his recent past. The song dated to the start of Bowie’s collaboration with Reeves Gabrels in 1988. Tin Machine had even played it once on stage, at the start of their 1989 tour.

Bowie later said “Around” had never worked with Tin Machine, blaming in part his own obstinacy—he had refused to accept what the rest of the band wanted to do with the song, so it was shelved. He wound up holding it in reserve until he had the freedom to rethink the song, using a different cast of players. The BTWN version of “Around” didn’t alter much of Bowie’s cut-up-derived lyric (only a few lines were rejiggered, mainly for better ease of singing). What the remake did was effectively erase the song’s co-composer, Gabrels.

The original “You’ve Been Around,” as evidenced by its sole live recording and demo (the latter recycled by Gabrels on a solo record, see below), was built on one of Gabrels’ best guitar hooks of the period—a grungy ostinato figure that was the meat of the song, which was otherwise an oddly structured piece, with its rambling, barely-melodic verses trailing into brief refrain tags.

Bowie, working with Nile Rodgers, erased the riff from the equation, instead centering the track on a rhythmic base: a synthesizer “bed,” Barry Campbell’s pulsating bassline and a combination of live drums (either Pugi Bell or Sterling Campbell, the latter soon to become Bowie’s main drummer) and drum machine programming. He had Gabrels come in to provide the guitars and then perversely mixed him so low that he’s barely audible in places, while Bowie gave the main solo, which had been a gorgeous melodic run by Gabrels, to Lester Bowie’s elated trumpet. (Further burying Gabrels was Rodgers, who plays classic Chic-style rhythm guitar in the second verse and chorus). In a promo interview for the album, Bowie said: “I had the chance to mix Reeves way into the background. I thought that would doubtlessly really irritate him, which indeed it did.“**

The rethink of “Around” fit Bowie’s apparent overall intention for BTWN, which was to avoid easy pleasures, to the point of perversity at times; a seeming distrust of pop immediacy is all over the record. Here Bowie took a song that easily would have been a highlight of the first Tin Machine record, and one which just as easily could have been a bright, roaring album opener on BTWN, and converted it into a strange piece of art funk, offering a dance foundation for a four-chord drone in B minor (the refrain sinking deeper into E minor, with only a brief escape into F# major (“bad from wrong”)). “What I like about the first half of the song is that there’s no harmonic reference,” Bowie said. “It’s just drums, and the vocal comes out of nowhere—you’re not sure if it’s a melody line or a drone. It’s an ominous feeling.”

The first minute-and-a-half of “Around” seems bent on throwing off the listener (mind, this is after said listener has just sat through a five-minute instrumental). After a faded-in “ambient” synthesizer that occasionally breaks into static, there’s an intro baked out of fragments—ringing percussion, shards of guitar, a laconic bass. This in turn becomes the support of Bowie’s first verse, in which his voice, doubled by a distorted echo of himself, rambles through a series of disjunct phrases, some abruptly sinking by a fifth on the last note (“violent night“), some flat, all building to the tortured “viii-ooo-lin” that Bowie yanks across two bars and lets plummet by nearly an octave. The transition to the chorus comes without warning, the “you’ve been around” tag suddenly appearing in what at first seems to be another verse (the only cue is the now-grooving bassline).

Bowie’s performance, while not dissimilar to how he originally sang the piece, is channeling Scott Walker, the not-so-hidden muse of BTWN (we’ll get to “Nite Flights,” which will be a much-too-long look at Bowie and Walker’s three-decade conversation, towards the end of our survey). As with a few other tracks on BTWN, Bowie seems intent here on out-Walkering Walker here: the sepulchral crooning, the near-recitative top melodies, a sense of hermetic grandiosity. It’s crafting a sort of alternate-universe pop, one that speaks a dialect of pop but one which fundamentally seems cut off from its everyday conversation. “Around,” like much of the record it opened, is a strange private music in the guise of a public one.

As for Gabrels, he made his reply in 1995, refitting the original “Around” demo with some new guitar tracks, and, in a fine tit-for-tat, he replaced Bowie’s vocals in the second verse with the actor Gary Oldman (sounding a bit like Bono).

“You’ve Been Around” was played once on the first Tin Machine tour, at the opening show at The Globe, NYC, on 14 June 1989. The studio version was recorded ca. summer-autumn 1992, at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or The Power Station, NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise. A remix of “Around” by Jack Dangers (Meat Beat Manifesto) was issued as the B-side of “Black Tie White Noise”; a longer edit of the remix is on the 2-CD/DVD 2003 reissue of the album. The Bowie/Oldman/Gabrels version is on Gabrels’ Sacred Squall of Now, 1995.

* BTWN opens, as we’ll soon see, with the instrumental “The Wedding,” although on the LP version, “Around” is the lead-off track, with “The Wedding” deleted for presumably space reasons (open Q: was anyone still buying new vinyl in 1993?).

** This was Gabrels’ only appearance on the record. While he’d also cut a solo for “I Feel Free,” it was wiped once Bowie recruited Mick Ronson for that track.

Top: Ed Newman, “Jolly Bunch Parade,” Treme, New Orleans, 1992.

I Feel Free

May 17, 2010

I Feel Free (live, 1972).
I Feel Free (backing track, 1980).
I Feel Free (Black Tie White Noise, 1993).

Cream’s “I Feel Free,” a staple of the early Spiders From Mars shows, was both a crowd-pleaser (it was a hit song in a set mainly consisting of unreleased material) and a means to let Mick Ronson solo like a madman (“Width of a Circle” later filled this role). “I Feel Free” was a memory chain for Bowie, as his half-brother Terry had suffered an attack during a Cream concert in Bromley, as well as for Ronson, who had worshiped Cream as a teenager and who, in The Man Who Sold The World, had made a tribute album to them.

Bowie made a habit of almost covering the song on record. “I Feel Free” nearly made the cut for Pin-Ups, while another attempt during the Scary Monsters sessions in 1980 survives in bootlegs as an instrumental track. In 1992, Bowie finally cut “I Feel Free” for Black Tie White Noise. By then it had become an elegy for Terry Burns, who had killed himself in 1985, and a tribute to Ronson, who was dying of cancer and whose guitar solo on the track was among his last-recorded performances. Ronson died at age 47, a few days after the record was released.

The “I Feel Free” performance from Kingston Polytechnic on 6 May 1972 was later collected on RarestOneBowie, a semi-official bootleg released in the ’90s by Bowie’s estranged former management company. The Black Tie White Noise recording, an attempt at contemporary R&B as perpetuated by Nile Rodgers and with Bowie intoning the lyric in his lowest register, was cut ca. autumn 1992 and released in April 1993. The video features a 46-year-old Bowie at the height of his Dorian Gray period and a motley backing band that includes the Manhattan Transfer’s stunt doubles, an eyepatch-wearing man apparently hired to gyrate in place, and a Jimi Hendrix impersonator who mimes Ronson’s guitar solo.

Top: March by the Schools’ Action Union and the National Union of School Students, Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park, 17 May 1972.