Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family

September 27, 2010

Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family.
Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family (live, 1974).
Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family (live, 1987).

Brutish and short, “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family” was the only way Bowie could have ended something like Diamond Dogs. Segueing from “Big Brother,” the track could be Winston Smith’s complete, joyous submission to power, or it could just as well be the return of the Diamond Dogs, dancing around a bonfire on some skyscraper roof in Hunger City.

“Chant,” almost purely a rhythm track, is something of a rhythmic puzzle. Nicholas Pegg wrote that “Chant” is in alternating measures of 6/4 and 5/4, which doesn’t seem right. Rather “Chant” seems to begin with alternating bars of 2/4 and 3/4 and then, in the six “choruses” (1 chorus = 1 set of “brother,” “ooh ooh,” “shake it up” x2, “move it up” x2), it moves completely to 5/4 [edit: no, it doesn’t.]. Further accents–three beats on a tambourine every three measures, a cowbell coming in on the second chorus (hit either two or three times), what sounds like a guiro on the third—seem intended to muddle the sense of time.

[An earlier version of this entry said the track’s end repeat was a lock groove, which isn’t accurate: thus the perils on relying on 25-year-old memories. Still, I’ve retained the info on lock grooves, if that sort of thing interests you.]

The track, and the LP, end in a pseudo-lock groove, the first syllable of Bowie singing “brother” repeated in a stabbing loop of sound. The idea of a repeating lock groove on a record was an avant-garde experiment, its main innovator Pierre Schaeffer, a co-founder of the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète. By the mid-’60s lock grooves had begun to appear on pop/rock LPs like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and The Who Sell Out (the latter’s lock groove was an endlessly-repeating advertisement for Track Records). There the lock groove was often intended as a joke, meant to startle stoned people who were unwilling or unable to get up and change the record (Paul McCartney said the Beatles were inspired after many parties where everyone sat listening to the ticking of a record’s end groove for 20 minutes).

Recorded ca. January-February 1974. Performed during the Diamond Dogs tour of summer ’74 as well as the 1987 tour, in both cases as part of “Big Brother.” Essential cover: The Wedding Present, 1992.

Top: Try convincing your parents to let you go to this concert.

Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise)

September 23, 2010

Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise).
Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise) (live, 1974).

The rotten heart of Diamond Dogs; a triptych where prostitutes are the only lovers left, where street hustlers double as politicians.

Tony Newman, who drummed on most of the record, recalled Bowie switching off all the lights in the studio save those directly over his microphone. So Bowie sang “Sweet Thing” in a spotlight, the musicians around him mere shadows.

During the summer ’74 Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie sang the “Sweet Thing” suite from a catwalk above the stage. He preened, writhed as though being electrocuted; he looked like Baron Samedi gone Hollywood.

It’s Bowie on guitar (and sax), Mike Garson on piano, Herbie Flowers on bass, Tony Newman on drums. Bowie coached his players like actors. For the first 32 bars of “Candidate,” up until Bowie smells “the blood of les Tricoteuses,” he told Newman to play his snare rolls as if he was a French drummer boy watching his first guillotining during the Terror.

The suite opens with thirty seconds of a slowly-emerging wash of backwards tapes. It closes, after the “Zion” mellotron line and Garson playing a bar’s worth of “Changes”, with a minute of musical violence.

It’s safe in the city/to love in a doorway. “Sweet Thing/Candidate,” an urban debasement, is part of a long English tradition of city nightmares. So Thomas Hardy, describing an 1879 Lord Mayor’s Show: As the crowd grows denser, it loses its character of an aggregate of countless units, and becomes an organic whole, a molluscous black creature having nothing in common with humanity, that takes the shape of the streets along which it has lain itself, and throws out horrid excrescences and limbs into neighboring alleys.

In the two verses of “Sweet Thing,” Bowie’s voice rises from the depths (the basso profundo of the opening verse), settling first on a conversational tone (“isn’t it me”) then vaulting to high, long-held notes, starting with “will you see.” There’s the cartoon New Yorkese voice he uses in the first bridge (“if you wannit, boys”) and he nearly laughs when he sings the cut-up-produced nonsense of “turn to the crossroads and hamburgers.” (Or is it “of Hamburg”?) This isn’t the step-by-step graded elation of something like Carol Douglas’ “Doctor’s Orders,” where the song seems to be willing its singer to keep moving higher. It’s more a menagerie of voices that Bowie barely can keep under control.

George Gissing, on Farringdon Road, in The Nether World: Pass by in the night, and strain imagination to picture the weltering mass of human weariness, of bestiality, of unmerited dolour, of hopeless hope, of crushed surrender, tumbled together within those forbidding walls.

There’s a funereal tone to the suite, fitting for its year of creation. Nick Drake, after recording hisfour last songs” in February, died in November. Duke Ellington died in May. Archigram closed. Candy Darling died, age 25. Gene Ammons recorded Goodbye and departed. It was the year of Shostakovitch’s last quartet, Syd Barrett’s last-ever studio session. All that came out of the latter were a few brief guitar pieces. One, known as “If You Go #2,” (3:00 in the preceding link) is a jaunty hint of a song, incidental music for an impossible life.

Bowie’s guitar keeps to the margins until “Candidate,” when begins to cut into the vocal, like an increasingly belligerent drunken party guest. Crude and insistent, possessed by an appalling truth. At first confined to the right speaker, the guitar starts bleeding through. Bowie’s vocal starts matching the guitar’s tone, his phrasing mimicking the riffing.

Making bullet-proof faces, Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay. 1974 was the wake for the Sixties. Everyone came wearing tatters or suits: they dressed as the person they pretended they once were. Bob Dylan and the Band, touring North America early in ’74, played songs that had earned boos and jeers in ’66, but the songs had become, blessed by time, victory anthems. Dylan sang in a bellow: he might as well have used a bullhorn. He played “All Along the Watchtower” in Boston as if he meant to roust Hendrix from the grave.

Bowie tugs and tears at words, particularly in “Sweet Thing”‘s first verse (“see that I’m scared and I’m lonely“), while he tumbles out other phrases in a bushel (“where the knowing one says” is muttered over three beats). In “Candidate,” the hustler starts out all business, with Bowie sounding confident, even wry, but as the verses keep coming, and he’s not closing the sale, he grows more desperate. He sounds as though he’s suppressing screams: his vocal becomes a run of slurs, colliding syllables, forced marriages of words not meant to rhyme (he mates “shop on” with “papier”). The “Sweet Thing” chorus returns, now only four bars long and taken at a hurried, less alluring pace—time’s running out. When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad I go to pieces. The merchant at the mercy of his customer.

Margaret Thatcher, in 1982, was Lent to the past Carnival: We are reaping what was sown in the sixties…fashionable theories and permissive claptrap set the scene for a society in which old values of discipline and restraint were denigrated.

Holly Woodlawn to the dying Candy Darling: “It’s okay, hon…you don’t have to talk. I know you’re tired.”

Candy: “Yeah. Putting on lipstick…it really takes it out of me.”

Mike Garson’s piano gives the second verse of “Sweet Thing” a few moments of grace and levity. The little winking run of notes after “you’re older than me,” the shards of melodies he plays in the spaces Bowie takes to breathe.

Do you think that your face looks the same? There’s pity in Bowie’s voice here.

On the whole there’s only room for two views in this country.

Education Secretary Thatcher’s election-night commentary, 28 February 1974.

“Candidate” is utterly essential to the suite, its centerpiece, and it also could be excised completely and you would never know it had existed. Play “Sweet Thing” and the Reprise back-to-back and it’s a near-seamless transition. “Candidate” is an outgrowth of “Sweet Thing”‘s chorus, as it’s built on the same chords (D minor, A minor, G); it’s also the inverse of the earlier song—mainly two long verses (24 bars), two brief 4-bar choruses.

James Thomson, in The Doom of a City (1857), came to the City of the Dead: The mighty City in vast silence slept,/dreaming away its tumult toil and strife…Within a buried City’s maze of stone; Whose peopling corpses, while they ever dream/Of birth and death—of complicated life/Whose days and months and years/Are wild with laughter, groans and tears/As with themselves and Doom…

My set is amazing, it even smells like a street. Bowie spent some time obsessively but fruitlessly working on test footage for a Diamond Dogs movie as a daytime distraction from his drinking and drugging social circle at the time (Bowie claims that some of the footage features an impatient John Lennon in the background, berating him with the words “What the bloody hell are you doing, Bowie, all this mutant crap?”, as Bowie tinkers with a clay model of Hunger City, the album’s post-apocalyptic setting). John Tatlock, on “Cracked Actor.”

Live, “Candidate” was introduced by Earl Slick’s guitar and David Sanborn’s saxophone, two peacock performances. On record, Bowie’s guitar solo that closes out “Sweet Thing” is far cruder yet more compelling: a hustler with grand ambitions.

To Thomas Hardy, London was a Wheel and a Beast. (George Whitter Sherman.)

The chorus of “Sweet Thing” is sung by a set of typical Bowie grotesques. The somber bass voices overtopped by tenors. The croaking flat voice that seems most prominent when you’re half-listening. A set of gargoyles, arranged as though on the parapet of a cathedral.

Later in the night Thomson returned home to his own city. Its awfulness of life oppressed my soul; the very air appeared no longer free/but dense and sultry in the close control/of such a mighty cloud of human breath.

“Sweet Thing (Reprise)” offers just one verse: it’s one of the loveliest things Bowie ever recorded, and it pays homage to cocaine, submits to the cruelties of the street. The hustler’s closed the deal at last, and the city takes another victim. It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you. The soaring final notes are reminiscent of “Life on Mars,” whose empathy, grace and beauty “Sweet Thing” suggests were all just vicious lies.

We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/then jump in the river holding hands.

Recorded January-February 1974. The entire suite was performed during the “Diamond Dogs” tour of summer ’74, and never again. A new edit of “Candidate” was made for Patrice Chéreau’s 2001 film Intimacy.

Top and bottom: “Bruce,” “Maggie Sollars, Brixton, 1974”; Middle: Ted Heath faces the public, 28 February 1974.

Diamond Dogs

September 15, 2010

Diamond Dogs.
Diamond Dogs (live, 1974).
Diamond Dogs (live, 1976).
Diamond Dogs (live, 1996).
Diamond Dogs (live, 2004).

They’d taken over this barren city, this city that was falling apart. They’d been able to break into windows of jewelers and things, so they’d dressed themselves up in furs and diamonds. But they had snaggle-teeth, really filthy, kind of like vicious Oliver Twists. It was a take on, what if those guys had gone malicious, if Fagin’s gang had gone absolutely ape-shit? They were living on the tops of buildings…they were all little Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses, really.

David Bowie, on “Diamond Dogs,” 1993.

Where I lived was with my dadda and mum in the flats of municipal flatblock 18A, between Kingsley Avenue and Wilsonway. I got to the big main door with no trouble, though I did pass one malchick sprawling and creeching and moaning in the gutter, all cut about lovely, and saw in the lamplight also streaks of blood here and there like signatures, my brothers, of the night’s fillying.

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange.

“Diamond Dogs” has never sounded quite right: a sordid, overlong Rolling Stones imitation, someone else’s nightmare inflicted with malice upon you. As darkly comical as it is menacing, it’s a “classic rock” song overrun by grotesques (amputees in priest’s robes, Tod Browning rejects, various ultraviolences).

Audiences didn’t know what to make of it. “Diamond Dogs” was Bowie’s least-successful single since the Hunky Dory days, reaching only #21 in the UK, and going nowhere in the States. On the radio, it never seems to segue well: it burlesques whatever song it follows or precedes. Leading off the second side of Bowie’s hits compilation, ChangesOneBowie, it was a wide moat of a groove, taking up the space of two less disturbing songs (I often skipped it, dropping the needle on “Rebel Rebel” instead). The track sounds used, repurposed, as though Bowie found an old master tape and overdubbed slurs and noises onto it.

The germ of “Diamond Dogs” came from Bowie’s father, Haywood Jones, who had worked at Dr. Barnardo’s Homes, a British children’s charity. Jones had recounted to his son stories of the Homes’ founder, Dr. Barnardo, and his patron, Lord Shaftesbury, who had gone around Victorian London finding bands of homeless children living on the roofs of buildings. Bowie transposed that image into his now-standard future dystopia, turning the Victorian “ragged boys” into”diamond dogs”: a pack of feral kids living on high-rise roofs, going around on roller skates, robbing and mugging, terrorizing the corpse-strewn streets they live above.

A Clockwork Orange was again central (see “Suffragette City”), not only in Bowie’s droogs-like “Dogs” and their Alex-like leader, Halloween Jack, but in the song’s setting—a ruined, post-apocalyptic modernist building. It could be set in a more decayed Thamesmead South estate where Stanley Kubrick shot Clockwork Orange (or Alton West, which Truffaut used for Fahrenheit 451, or La Défense, playing a future city in Godard’s Alphaville, etc.).

Each day the towers of central London seemed slightly more distant, the landscape of an abandoned planet receding slowly from his mind.

JG Ballard, High-Rise.

Watching films from the early ’70s, you can’t avoid the general sense of shabbiness, regardless of where the films were shot. Take one contemporary example, Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, which is a guided tour of blighted Atlantic Coast America, from Philadelphia slums to New York whorehouses to empty Boston parks. It’s decay worsened by the knowledge that the run-down train stations, corner stores and row houses were once clean, stylish, even modern places. Enduring the Seventies meant living in the ruins of the postwar dream of general prosperity, particularly in the cities, which were more and more depicted in films and in the press as asylums, graveyards and prisons.

But “Diamond Dogs,” set in appalling urban ruins, isn’t a despairing song in the slightest. It’s full of vitality, cheap loud tricks, carnival horns, vulgarities, hammering beats (take the way someone keeps thwacking on a cowbell for the nearly the entire track). It makes do with style, it makes playtime out of collapse. The elevator’s shot, so Halloween Jack swings by a rope, Tarzan-style, to reach the street.

The song seems to predict JG Ballard’s High Rise, published the following year, in which residents of a high-rise apartment complex fall into tribalism and warfare. But the high-rise dwellers come to love their new condition: they stop going to work, devoting all their energies to feral pleasures, devolving into hunter-gatherers. It ends with one survivor watching the lights go out in a neighboring high-rise, which makes him happy. He’s “ready to welcome them to their new world.” Bowie was already there.

In the year of the scavenger: “Diamond Dogs” is made partly out of stolen goods. It opens with applause lifted from the Faces’ live album Coast to Coast (you can hear Rod Stewart yell “hey” just as the guitar riffs kick in), and towards the end there’s a blatant rip of Bobby Keyes’ saxophone line on the Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” Bowie’s main guitar line might well be a rewrite of the Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It),” which was born out of a jam session that Bowie took part in. The track ends with Bowie furiously chording on a Bo Diddley riff.

Like “Rebel Rebel” it’s structurally simple, a standard I-IV-V rock song (it’s in A major, and the verses mainly go from the tonic, A, to the dominant, E, while the choruses are basically repetitions of D-A-B, ending back in A) with, as in “Rebel,” two verses, a bridge (6 bars here, starting with “I’ll keep a friend serene”) and ending with an extended chorus.

Bowie sings with exuberance, sometimes ranging widely (“Tod Browning’s freak you was” falls an octave in a single bar), sometimes digging in place (“crawling down the alley on your/hands and knee” is all one note). His guitar work is primitive and brutal, and mixed to be inescapable—as ace commenter Snoball wrote in the “Rebel Rebel” entry, Diamond Dogs tracks like “Rebel” (and “Dogs”) are filled with Bowie’s sledgehammer riffing, lacking the tension-and-release precision of Mick Ronson’s work.

“Diamond Dogs” swims in ugliness (it’s grotesquely funny, too: take how Bowie, having introduced his first character, a genderless amputee dressed in a priest’s costume, has her/him “crawling down the alley on your hands and knee) and it makes no concessions. If there was ever an irony in dancing to a Stones song like “Brown Sugar,”  a party song celebrating slavery,”Diamond Dogs” raises the ante—on its face, it’s completely unredeemable, a honky-tonk celebration of death, decay and violence. Over the years, it’s become one of Bowie’s beloved standards.

Recorded (initially as “Diamond Dawgs”) from 15 January to mid-February 1974. Released as a single (RCA APBO 0293, c/w “Holy Holy”) in June. Performed, no surprise, throughout the “Diamond Dogs” and “Philly Dogs” tours of 1974, and also in 1976. Retired for two decades, then played in some of Bowie’s recent tours.

For SEP, as this is her favorite Bowie song.

Recommended reading: Ballard’s High-Rise, 1975; Thomas M. Disch’s 334, 1972; Owen Hatherley’s excellent Militant Modernism.

Future Legend

September 14, 2010

Future Legend.

It works ’cause we said it worked.

John Lennon, 1980.

The one-minute “Future Legend” is almost the entirety of the Diamond Dogs LP “concept.” Not for Bowie the libretto and motifs of Pete Townshend’s Quadrophenia, or the painstaking dreamscape theater of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. As a narrative, Diamond Dogs barely exists. Its story is told only in abstracts: the back cover and inner sleeve of the LP, and the record’s first two songs.

Bowie neither had the time for nor the interest in making his songs a narrative, even a loose one. As he told William Burroughs, he got distracted easily, and while he seemed to like the idea of making odd concept records, he managed to avoid the grim business of actually having to write one. And time was pressing: Bowie was going on tour again in the spring of ’74, needed a new record, and didn’t have the material for an LP on the Diamond Dogs idea alone (hence the scrapped 1984 songs were used to fill a side).

Bowie could argue he had a fine precedent: the king of all concept records, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As John Lennon later said, Sgt. Pepper’s‘  “story arc” consists of the LP cover, the title song, maybe “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and then the “so-called reprise,” as Lennon described it, late on the second side. The rest of it was a set of random Beatles compositions: if they fit together, it was only because the listener wanted them to.

So “Future Legend” is stage setting for an absent play, with the SF juvenilia of the lyric (“fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats,” etc.) set against a rolling scrim of ominous music—air raid sirens; dog howls; synthesizer washes; “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” on electric guitar; what sounds like an impersonation of Scott Walker singing “Any Day Now”; lost children wailing in the streets. The obvious influence is the aural montage opening minutes of Lou Reed’s Berlin. “Future Legend” ends with canned applause and genocide.

Recorded ca. mid-January 1974.

Rebel Rebel

September 9, 2010

Rebel Rebel (original UK single).
Rebel Rebel.
Rebel Rebel (US single, 1974).
Rebel Rebel (live, 1974).
Rebel Rebel (live, 1976).
Rebel Rebel (Musikladen, 1978).
Rebel Rebel (live, 1978).
Rebel Rebel (live, 1983).
Rebel Rebel (Live Aid, 1985).
Rebel Rebel (live, 1987).
Rebel Rebel (live, 1990).
Rebel Rebel (TFI Friday, 1999).
Rebel Rebel (Later With Jools Holland, 2002).
Rebel Rebel (VH1 Fashion Awards, 2002).
Rebel Rebel (remake, 2003).
Rebel Rebel (Sessions @AOL, 2003).
Rebel Rebel (live, 2003).
Rebel Rebel (live, 2004).

By late 1974 glam was over: its death came swiftly, with great theater. Most of the glam acts, which had never found much commercial success in the US, were deposed on their home soil, replaced by distorted echoes of themselves: cartoon pop acts (Mud, the Bay City Rollers) and opera buffa rock groups (Sparks, Queen*, 10cc, etc.).

Retreats, farewells followed. Slade went up into the hills after ’75 to live in exile, while Marc Bolan kept pleading with an audience that had tired of him (“Whatever happened to the Teenage Dream?” he asked in February ’74—it only hit #13). Mott the Hoople, self-chroniclers to the end, issued as their last single the retrospective “Saturday Gigs,” with Mick Ronson in tow. Roxy Music closed each side of Stranded with resignation letters—spiritual (“Psalm,”** an eight-minute gospel song about renouncing fashion for Jesus, a more prestigious fashion, with Bryan Ferry backed by the London Welsh Male Choir) and existential (“Sunset,” which finds Ferry sitting in his sports car, contemplating the void).

And “Rebel Rebel” is Bowie’s parting benediction. Despite its title, the song’s more reconciliation than revolution—more than anything, it’s generous, an offer of pure acceptance. In “Rebel Rebel,” the singer sizes up a girl (or boy, or both) whose outrageous style catches his eye. The singer’s perspective isn’t that of a fellow teenager, though, but someone a bit older—someone out of the scene, who’s a bit jaded, who’s bemused, at first, by the tacky kid’s antics. She’s young enough not to know better, he’s old enough to care. But as the song goes on, the singer grows more inspired by her. She breaks him of his habits, so he gives her his backing. They strike a bargain: her youth and outrage for his knowledge of how she can fit into the world.

So “Rebel Rebel” is a primer of a rock & roll record: everything’s easy to play, everything’s kept simple. It’s as though Bowie, singing to his new find, is teaching her to sing about herself. Bowie makes a vocal for anyone’s voice, as he stays to a four-note span for over half of the song, and sings much of the lyric in a loose, conversational manner (there’s a bit of David Johansen in it). The verses are identical to the choruses (barring the “hot tramp” tag at the end of each chorus), with the only chord variations coming on the two 4-bar bridges. Everything is made subordinate to the beat: the bassline, apart from its one big moment—the sweep of notes that marks its introduction—mainly plays two simple alternating lines; the drums are four-on-the-floor, with the occasional modest fill; Mike Garson’s piano is buried so deep in the mix it sounds like a distant cowbell. The lead guitar riff provides the melody (Bowie sings along to it at times)—it opens the song like a car alarm, courses through it like blood.

Malcolm McLaren once said the first wave of punk kids were former Bowie and Roxy Music fans, who had found nothing for them in the likes of Station to Station or Siren. Bowie seemed to predict this: “Rebel Rebel” is him dividing the kingdom, distributing inheritances. Even the cheap promo video he made for “Rebel Rebel” would teach the punks style and attitude: Bowie’s thrift-shop motley; his blithely arrogant, if awkward, poses; how he holds his Fender Stratocaster with disdain, hardly pretending to play it.

Sometime in the ’80s, Bowie was being kept awake in his hotel room by someone above him playing “Rebel Rebel” on electric guitar, and terribly. [Edit: this turned out to be “Sufragette City,” see comments; I’ll keep the anecdote in this entry, just substitute the song.] Finally, Bowie walked upstairs, prepared to deliver a humiliation: he would show the guitarist how to play the song properly, then tell him to shut up. He knocked on the door, and John McEnroe, aspiring guitar player, answered it.

The “Rebel Rebel” riff seems crafted for obsession. A shuttle from D to E,*** the riff’s made of three parts—an opening burst (four notes, the first bent), a centerpiece (two quickly strummed E chords) and a resolution, five descending notes that end back with the riff opening. Its structure’s reminiscent of the “Ziggy Stardust” riff, while its tone has a taste of “Jean Genie.” Bowie makes the riff inescapable—in the four-plus minutes of the original “Rebel Rebel,” the riff is only absent in the two bridges and in the two-bar tags at the end of each chorus.

Alan Parker played the riff on the record, using a Les Paul standard and a Fender reverb amp with a single Wharfedale speaker. He later said Bowie had about three-fourths of the riff down when he played it for Parker on an acoustic guitar: he told Parker to make it a bit more Rolling Stones. Parker replayed the riff on his electric, adding some clang and bends (Bowie credited Parker with the three final notes of the riff: Ab, D and E). Its godfather was Keith Richards, who’d made a lifetime habit of compelling two-chord riffs; its target was Mick Ronson, who Bowie seemed to be trying to outdo.

Though “Rebel Rebel” is about as simple as a rock song gets, there’s still a compositional trick in it—over half of the song is a colossal 40-bar chorus, which Bowie sneakily turns into a set of variations, filling its bars with new lyrics. So while the two verses of “Rebel Rebel” are exactly the same, with identical lyrics and chords, the end chorus offers Bowie’s variations; words keep coming, bouncing off each other, as though Bowie, who started the song in studied indifference (“your hair’s alright”), is falling deeper in love with each passing second. You can’t get enough, but enough ain’t the test! You’ve got your cue lines and a handful of ‘ludes/you wanna be there when they count up the dudes. (There’s a whole novel in that last line). How could they know!? he wonders towards the fade-out: after all, he didn’t. The song fades out at last, and he watches her walk off into her youth. She’s his juvenile successor.

Doesn’t “Rebel Rebel” go on a bit, though? Four and a half minutes on the LP, the song’s melodic and harmonic stasis makes it feel even longer. On a dance floor it worked well enough, as its Moebius strip of a guitar riff and its endless stomp beat made it trance-music (Rodney Bingenheimer played it at least every half-hour at his English Disco in LA; Joan Jett and Cherie Currie were on the floor); on the radio, DJs often faded out the final minute.

We have a remedy, as Pete Townshend once said. Soon after Bowie came to America in April 1974, he cut a revised version of “Rebel Rebel” for US radio, doing a series of overdubs onto the original master (with Geoff MacCormack on congas and castanets). The American single is shorter (nearly two minutes less than the LP cut) and seems even faster. Bowie loaded the new mix with hooks and gimmicks: careering and echoing backing vocals, clattering percussion, muttered interjections. He kicked it off with the “hot tramp” chorus tag and faded it out while the track was still boiling. It’s the essential version of “Rebel Rebel” for me—Bowie’s single of singles. Bowie seemed to agree, as most of his live versions of took their cue from it.

Recorded 14-16 January 1974. Released as RCA LPBO 5009 in mid-February ’74 (it hit #5), two months before Diamond Dogs came out. The American single (RCA APBO 0287) was cut in New York in mid-April ’74. It only hit #64 in the US, and was never compiled until the 30th anniversary reissue of Diamond Dogs. Performed in every Bowie tour until 1990, revived around century’s end. A new arrangement, debuted on stage in 2002, was recorded in 2003 during the early Reality sessions, and wound up on the Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle soundtrack. Merged with “Never Get Old” to make the 2004 mash-up record “Rebel Never Gets Old,” which blessedly I won’t have to write about for years.

Much of the “Rebel Rebel” composition/recording history is from David Buckley’s extensive liner notes for the Diamond Dogs reissue, now out of print.

Top: Daniel Meadows, “Portsmouth: John Payne, aged 12, with two friends and his pigeon, Chequer, 26 April 1974.”

*Queen’s first appearance on Top of the Pops in February 1974 only happened because Bowie’s promo for “Rebel Rebel” didn’t reach the studio in time for broadcast.

**Watch this video, not only for the great performance, but to see Ferry make a flawless tambourine catch at 6:20.

*** What are the riff chords? The “official” sheet music throws in an A chord, so it’s D/D-A-E for every two bars. This how-to video seems more on the mark, though, and it has the sequence as Dsus2/E/E6.

Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me

September 7, 2010

Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me.
Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me (live, 1974).

“Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” is an island of melody and reassurance on an otherwise diseased-sounding record. It seems to be playing the role reserved for cover songs on Bowie’s earlier albums (see “Fill Your Heart,” “It Ain’t Easy,” “Let’s Spend The Night Together”): a spot of familiarity in a strange landscape. “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” even sounds like a cover. Bowie chose it to lead off Diamond Dogs‘ second side, thus making whatever LP concept remained even more incomprehensible*; its relative prominence was likely a commercial move, as the song seems like a possible single (& a live version of it would be).

Co-composed by Bowie’s close friend Geoff MacCormack, who wrote some of the verse melody and chord sequences, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” was originally slated for the vaguest of Bowie’s mid-’70s projects, a stage (and/or TV) musical version of Ziggy Stardust. In Bowie’s interview with William S. Burroughs in November ’73, Bowie said he intended to create a “cut-up” musical performance of Ziggy. He would write some 40 scenes, which he would then “shuffle around in a hat the afternoon of the performance and just perform it as the scenes come out. I got this all from you Bill… so it would change every night…”

Like some Ziggy tracks (“Star,” for example), “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” refers to rock & roll as something occurring elsewhere—it’s more a stage direction than a description of the actual record. But the song’s also a fairly artless (for Bowie) rumination on the transactions of stardom. A rock star flatters his audience, thanking them for his fame, giving them in recompense a singalong chorus that puts them on stage with him for a moment. Performing the song in Boston in November ’74 (link above), Bowie broke off halfway through and tried to spell out his intentions: “This one is very much for you, this song…are you people? I’m people.” (“It’s about me, and singing,” he said during another performance of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” that year.)

By Bowie’s standards of the time, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” is a fairly basic composition and performance, from its “Lean On Me” inspired piano intro, to Bowie’s familiar vocal strategy (low and rich in the first verse, high and dramatic in the second, and in the chorus repeats), to the chord sequence of the chorus (C/E minor/F/C), which is the same as a host of pop standards, like “Kiss the Boys Goodbye” (it’s also a simplified version of “Over the Rainbow”‘s chorus).

Still, it’s not as warm a song as it first seems—Bowie’s lyric is ultimately ambivalent about his audience, despite his flattery (“they sold us for the likes of you”), and some surviving cut-up-inspired lines like “lizards lay crying in the heat” further confuse things, while Bowie’s brutal lead guitar playing eats away at the melody’s sweetness.

* A far more coherent Side 2 of Diamond Dogs would have been: 1984/Dodo/We Are the Dead/Big Brother/Chant.

Recorded 15 January 1974. The David Live version, recorded in July ’74, was released as a North American single (PB 10105) in September; it was a rush-job meant to compete with Donovan’s cover, though neither single charted.

Top: Elton John breaks in the piano in his new Surrey mansion, June 1974.

We Are The Dead

September 3, 2010

We Are the Dead.

The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing. All around the world, in London and New York, in Africa and Brazil, and in the mysterious, forbidden lands beyond the frontiers…everywhere stood the same unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing. Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come. You were the dead; theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body, and passed on the secret doctrine that two plus two make four.

“We are the dead,” he said.

“We are the dead,” echoed Julia dutifully.

“You are the dead,” said an iron voice behind them.

George Orwell, Nineteen-Eighty Four.

Of Bowie’s Nineteen Eighty-Four songs, “We Are the Dead” seems to have been the most rewritten after the musical was scrapped, as much of its final lyric is a series of William Burroughs-inspired cut-up lines. This technique, which Bowie used for other Diamond Dogs tracks, entailed writing a lyric on paper, cutting the lines into strips, drawing the strips randomly (say, from a hat), then pasting the rearranged lines together to make a new lyric. The goal was to use blind chance as a midwife, to create bizarre juxtapositions that the conscious mind wouldn’t have considered. So you get lines like you’re dancing where the dogs decay/defecating ecstasy or I love you in your fuck-me pumps/and your nimble dress that trails or the legendary curtains/are drawn round Baby Bankrupt.

This was an outgrowth of a ’60s obsession with the spontaneous, the random prized over the deliberate—a belief summed up in an Allen Ginsberg quote: “first thought, best thought.” For Bowie, using cut-up was a way to get out of a creative hole, and it generally worked well for him. After all, Bowie had never been much of a traditional lyricist, and his lines often sounded better out of context. (It’s telling that Bowie’s cut-up lyrics don’t seem radically different from ones he wrote out start to finish.) The problem was that Bowie was still committed to these conceptual LP ideas, and so was stuck trying to make a narrative out of a set of, in some cases, deliberately nonsensical songs.

“We Are the Dead” is reminiscent of Bowie’s late 1960s rant-epics like “Cygnet Committee” in that it forgoes a verse-chorus-verse structure in favor of a rambling trellis of verses that, only twice in the song, culminate in a weak 4-bar refrain. The song, as all of Bowie’s Orwell pieces are, is a minor key (Gm): it opens with two eerie eight-bar verses, dominated by Mike Garson’s electric piano and sung in a stage whisper by Bowie—these first two verses move through nearly every pitch in the key, from Gm to B flat (III) to D (V) to E flat (VI), back to Gm until they end, unresolved, on F (VII).

Yet just when you assume Bowie will move to a bridge or chorus, he instead keeps going with a new 14-bar verse, spewing lines over a circular harmonic sequence, his vocal mainly accompanied by grating bursts of guitar while, every second bar, the title line sweeps by like a ghost on a stairwell. As if to counter the randomness of his lyrics, Bowie keeps to a fairly strict rhythm, singing a six-beat line for each bar (though as he goes on, his timing gets looser—he starts cramming in more words). A breath, and then the entire sequence repeats again, with the refrain dragged out a bit longer for the outro.

There are only traces left of the Orwell narrative—for instance, “I hear them on the stairs”—but in its way “We Are the Dead” is the truest of Bowie’s Orwell adaptations. Winston Smith, with the Thought Police closing in on him, hopes that revolution lies in the working-class proles, who keep alive the freedom of the body, while Smith’s class will somehow keep alive the freedom of the mind—a belief that Smith’s subsequent conversion shows to be a cruel folly. But as John Huntington wrote in The Logic of Fantasy, a study of the Orwell novel, “to transform a dystopia to a utopia requires discovering a different set of images.” Bowie’s bilious, chaotic lyric, formed by deliberate chance, could also be a passkey.

Recorded 16 January 1974, never performed live.

Top: Erik Van Straten, “London, Thames, 1974.”

Big Brother

August 31, 2010

Big Brother.
Big Brother (live, 1974).
Big Brother (live, 1987.)

A love song to abasement, a fascist hymn, a cocaine song: “Big Brother” apparently was, in the scheme of Bowie’s Nineteen Eighty-Four adaptation, meant as an end piece to accompany the broken Winston Smith’s submission at last to Big Brother. It may well have been intended as the show’s closing song.

“Big Brother” is built like a flowchart, designed to move the listener from doubt (the verses open in B minor, move slowly up to A at the end of the first two lines, a structure repeated in the chorus, though Bowie sings the latter in a much higher register) to desire (the first bridge, “please savior, savior show us”) to, in the choruses, an ecstatic submission to power. Once you move past a certain point, there’s no way back: take how the verse never reoccurs after Bowie sings the chorus. There’s only the four-bar second bridge (Bowie singing alone on acoustic guitar, “I know you think you’re awful square”…) that serves as a final breath before the song completely gives itself over.

Still, submitting to a higher power—a dictator, a president (the chorus promises that the divine ruler will be “someone to fool us, someone like you”), even a line of coke—can be beautiful, “Big Brother” argues. Its final chorus repeats are glorious, soaring with melody (Bowie’s upward leaps at the start of each bar), with each chorus offering something to further the excitement—a new counter-melody emerging on guitar or a great rolling drum fill by Aynsley Dunbar in the final repeat. It’s a stunning resolution to a game that’s been rigged to lead you there all along, from the one-bar gaps between the bridges and chorus that give an illusion of space and freedom, to how the saxophones are present throughout the song, prodding the listener along like warders.

Are there signs of resistance? The scrappy acoustic guitar playing, barely discernible, under most of the track? Bowie’s octave-doubled lead vocal, with his more resonant voice shadowed by a thinner, lower one, like a bad conscience? Or the realization that the “trumpet” whose fanfare opens the track and which gets the solo, is a fraud, a synthesizer in disguise? And is there a sly sense of humor under it all? Nicholas Pegg makes the excellent call that one of “Big Brother”‘s ancestors is The Bonzo Dog Band’s 1969 parody of Charles Atlas ads, “Mr. Apollo,” a track Dunbar drummed on. (“He’s the strongest man/the world has ever seen…follow Mr. Apollo/everybody knows he’s the greatest man!)

If so, they’re wiped out by the efficiency, beauty and power of Bowie’s song, whose three and a half minutes culminate in its final line, a simply-sung “we want you Big Brother,” which immediately segues into the tribal celebration of “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family.” Broken and emptied, the once-human being is brought to his feet and made to dance.

Recorded 14-15 January 1974, a regular during the ’74 tour, revived for the Glass Spider tour of 1987.

Top: Augusto Pinochet and friends, Santiago, Chile, ca. September 1973.

1984, Dodo

August 26, 2010

1984/Dodo (first performance, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
1984/Dodo (studio outtake, 1973).
1984 (Diamond Dogs).
Dodo (studio outtake, 1973).
Dodo (studio outtake, with Lulu & Bowie co-lead vocals, 1973).
1984 (live, 1974).
1984 (The Dick Cavett Show, 1974).

Orwell in 1948 understood that despite the Axis defeat, the will to fascism had not gone away, that far from having seen its day it had perhaps not even come into its own—the corruption of spirit, the irresistible human addiction to power, were already long in place, all well-known aspects of the third Reich and Stalin’s USSR, even the British Labour party—like first drafts of a terrible future.

Thomas Pynchon, introduction to the 2003 edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Diamond Dogs is a salvage job, a compilation of scraps from stillborn Bowie projects. There are remnants of a Ziggy Stardust musical (“Rebel Rebel” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me”), pieces of a barely comprehensible Oliver Twist-by-JG Ballard scenario (“Diamond Dogs,” “Future Legend” and “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”), and fragments of Bowie’s grandest failed ambition, a musical of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “We Are the Dead,” “Big Brother” and, of course, “1984” itself.

Orwell’s widow, Sonia Brownell, vetoed Bowie’s proposed musical, considering it to be in poor taste. (Brownell died in 1980, depriving Orwell’s works of a gatekeeper: it was good news for the Eurythmics.) So we can only guess, via its few surviving songs, as to what Bowie’s adaptation would have been like. He seems most intrigued by the concept of absolute authority, the quisling culture over which it rules and how the mind seems eager to condone and accept it. What fascinated Bowie, what was arguably the only thing that truly interested him in the mid-’70s, was power, and the schizophrenic manner of thinking—double-thought, basically—that allows, even encourages its abuses. “1984” is a homage to power, with Bowie singing the title year like a man beseeching a lover (it’s a perverse echo of Roy Orbison’s “Leah”).

The title of Orwell’s book, of course, is the year of its composition with the last two digits reversed, with the world of Big Brother being essentially postwar Britain, with its bombed-out city centers, its food and electricity rationing, its grubbiness (watery coffee, half-cigarettes) and exhaustion. Drawing on the bureaucracy and hive-mind that he had encountered working in BBC propaganda during the war, Orwell suggested that even the well-meaning Labour Party, busy in 1948 erecting the welfare state, would be concerned with establishing and bolstering its power at the expense of everything else.

So it’s not surprising to find Bowie writing his version of Nineteen-Eighty-Four in late 1973, which was something of a bookend to 1948. It was an anemic sequel to the war years, with, once again, government-mandated rationing (PM Heath’s Three-Day Week power cuts, which lasted from January to March ’74), food shortages and price hikes, even bombs going off regularly in London, courtesy of the IRA.

No coup will take place in this country until it is one that would be welcomed or quietly acquiesced in by a majority or a very large minority of the people…in my judgment, we have gone measurably down the road to such acceptance in the last decade, and we have travelled very quickly along it in the last year.

Patrick Cosgrave, “Could the Army Take Over?” The Spectator, 22 December 1973.

There was a sense that the center couldn’t hold for much longer, that the government would fall either to the Communists or the neo-fascists, each of whom at least had some vitality left. The Establishment was old and crazed: in early 1974, Sir William Armstrong, the Head of the Home Civil Service, at a weekend government seminar in Oxfordshire, stripped off his clothes, lay on the floor and, in Francis Wheen‘s words, began “chain-smoking and expostulating wildly about the collapse of democracy and the end of the world…about moving the Red Army from here and Blue Army from there.” The Christmas ’73 issue of The Spectator speculated on the likelihood of a military coup in the UK; it quoted a Tory lobby hack who said that Britain “had seen our last general election, since from now on the Prime Minister would merely need to continue to prolong various states of emergency and elongate the life of this parliament.” A few weeks later, the Spectator editorialized that “Britain is on a Chilean brink.”

For Bowie, this situation only meant that the endgame he had imagined as far back as “The Supermen” or “Cygnet Committee” was coming to pass soon, and in songs like “1984” he seemed to welcome it. “I’m looking for the treason that I knew in ’65,” he sings at one point, but don’t believe him. His Winston Smith wouldn’t have required conversion—he would have shoved his face into the rat cage without prompting.

“1984” is a milestone for Bowie; it’s the most rhythmically ambitious track he’d ever made. Rhythm was underdeveloped in most of Bowie’s early records, as Bowie concentrated on harmonic progression, developing melodies and juxtapositions—playing out odd chord changes, creating intricate vocal lines, building off riffs, crafting tracks out of sound effects (from Stylophones to varispeed vocals). It didn’t help that Bowie’s first studio drummers were under par, while Woody Woodmansey (and Trevor Bolder) mainly followed Mick Ronson’s lead, serving as the equivalent to a rhythm guitar. With Aynsley Dunbar, Bowie’s first top-rate drummer, Bowie was able to work through ideas he was picking up from James Brown and Isaac Hayes records.

So the opening of “1984,” with its Shaft-inspired chicken-scratch guitar (by Alan Parker), its staggered four-note bassline, Dunbar’s sizzling cymbal work and sweeps of violins (the latter arranged by Tony Visconti, back in the Bowie fold after a few years), is a pure groove—it spins in place for ten bars, and feels like it could go on for hours. The essential “1984” performance, for me, is the Dick Cavett Show performance in November ’74, where the band is so tight and fluid that Bowie just bounces off of them.

There’s a similar richness in the vocals. Bowie’s developing the sonorous timbre he would use for much of the next decade—it’s the dawn of his imperious Thin White Duke voice, which he uses here craftily (his vocal is full of feints and unusual phrasings: take the way Bowie sings the highest note on the penultimate beat of a phrase, e.g. “you said it WOULD last/but I guess we EN-rolled” or “nine-teen eigh-TY four”). He wraps his vocal in a web of call-and-response backing vocals by the Astronettes, which gives the track a sense of grandeur, particularly in the bridge, where Bowie’s high register contrasts with the basso chorus.

Bowie overlaid these rhythm and vocal innovations on a slightly-off song structure. The verse’s progression from the home key of D minor to F is broken by an odd swerve to E minor, while the chorus is a four-bar extension of the verses, built on a move up to the sixth and seventh intervals—Bb (“be-ware the”) and C (“savage”)—before falling back home to Dm (“lure”). The bridge, the track’s melodic and dramatic high point, starts in 5/4 time (“see, come see, remember”), slows to a bar of 2/4 (“me”), then finally settles on 4/4.

“1984” was born conjoined with “Dodo,” the latter song originally titled “You Didn’t Hear It From Me.” The pairing worked, thematically—“1984” set the scene, then “Dodo” narrowed the scope, focusing on a particular doomed man about to be brainwashed. At some point Bowie excised “Dodo” and shelved the song after trying it out as a possible single for Lulu.

Cutting “Dodo” was the right move, as “1984”s power lies in the force of its sweep, how the verses tumble into the choruses, how the intro groove returns to ease transitions between the oddly-timed bridges. In the original medley, “Dodo” emerged after the first bridge of “1984”—its appearance was surprising yet still felt like a natural progression, but it also sapped the tempo and the song never quite recovered. When “1984” returned at the end, its force had lessened.

“Dodo” on its own still had potential as a narrow, jaundiced piece of funk, but Bowie’s studio version didn’t gel—it sounded sluggish and underdeveloped. Bowie may have considered it too similar, melodically, to “1984,” while “Big Brother” had gone over similar ground, making the aptly-named “Dodo” superfluous for Diamond Dogs.

The first performance of “1984/Dodo” was recorded at the 1980 Floor Show on 18 October 1973, while the studio “1984/Dodo” medley was cut in November 1973 (it was the last hurrah of the old gang, as the track featured Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder and was the last Bowie recording produced by Ken Scott). Unreleased at the time, it wound up on the Sound + Vision set.

The revised “1984,” divorced from “Dodo,” was likely cut between 14-16 January 1974 and is the centerpiece of Diamond Dogs‘ B-side. It was released as a single in the US and Japan (RCA PB 10026) and performed throughout Bowie’s ’74 tour. Bowie, showing amazing restraint, didn’t perform the song once during its title year.

Top: Piccadilly Circus with much of its lights out due to power cuts, 1 February 1974.


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