The Beatles Covers

July 2, 2010

This Boy (live, 1972).
Love Me Do (live, w/”Jean Genie,” 1973).
Love Me Do (live, w/”Jean Genie,” 1974).
Love Me Do (live, w/”Jean Genie,” 2000).

In the late summer of 1972, when David Bowie was becoming a pop star, he would throw The Beatles’ “This Boy” into the occasional Ziggy-Spiders From Mars set. One of The Beatles’ first B-sides (for “I Want to Hold Your Hand”), “This Boy” was their attempt at ’50s doo-wop (also inspired by early Miracles records, especially in its bridge), with its close three-part harmonies and rickety 12/8 time. Bowie mainly sang it solo, with Ronson coming in for occasional harmonies. Surfacing amidst the Ziggy Stardust numbers, “This Boy” seemed like a lullaby suddenly recalled from childhood, Bowie offering the crowd a memory.

The following summer, a gaunt, weary Bowie, with his blood-orange mullet and his Japanese lounging robes, made his final tour of Britain as Ziggy Stardust. He had sold the world and now he was resigning. In some of the last Ziggy shows, the Spiders extended “The Jean Genie” for over ten minutes, teasing it out, and, cued by Bowie’s harmonica, often segued into “Love Me Do.” It was an expedition to find the source. “Love Me Do,” the first Beatles single, was a raw, modern record upon its release: it was pure expectation and promise. At the final Ziggy show, Bowie sang “Love Me Do” simply, letting his audience finish the chorus, then crept back into his own song. The show ended, Bowie broke up the band and, looking for an escape route, burrowed into the past.

“This Boy” was played in a few ’72 shows, with the murky recording linked above from a 27 August concert in Bristol. “Love Me Do” appeared throughout the last Ziggy Stardust UK tour, including the last-ever Spiders show at the Hammersmith, on 3 July (it was cut from the concert film, either due to Jeff Beck’s resistance or copyright issues). Bowie also threw “Love Me Do” into “Jean Genie” performances during his 1974 tour and again in 2000.

Top: Paul McCartney, Band On The Run sessions, Lagos, Nigeria, ca. September 1973.

My Death

June 2, 2010

La Mort (Jacques Brel, 1959).
My Death (Scott Walker, 1967).
My Death (Elly Stone, 1968).
My Death (Bowie, live, 1972).
My Death (Bowie, live, 1973).
My Death (Bowie, live, 1996).
Bowie, My Death (live, 1997).

Bowie unveiled his cover of Jacques Brel’s “My Death” at his two Rainbow Theatre shows of August 1972. These concerts were Bowie’s debutante balls, attended by rock royalty (including Elton John, who reportedly stormed out in disgust). Bowie kept “My Death” in his set for the rest of the Spiders From Mars shows, first as a solo piece on acoustic guitar, later accompanied by his new pianist, Mike Garson.

“My Death” replaced Brel’s “Amsterdam.” Bowie possibly had grown tired of covering “Amsterdam” or, more likely, “Amsterdam” no longer worked in the refitted Spiders set, which was heavy on rockers and theatrical extravagance. In a way, “My Death” played the role Bowie had intended for “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide”—a harrowing number that served, quite literally, as a memento mori in the middle of a rock concert.

Brel recorded “La Mort” for his 1959 La Valse à Mille Temps. As with “Amsterdam,” the intermediaries for Bowie were Mort Shuman, who translated the song for the revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris, and Scott Walker, who covered it on his 1967 debut album. Yet “My Death,” regardless of how ominously Bowie performed it, comes off a bit ridiculous and wearisome, its three verses plodding along, its minor-key choruses lacking power (compare it to the driving, exacting rhythms of Brel’s original). One reason is that the Shuman translation Bowie used is an abomination, a burlesque of Brel’s lyric. Take the opening verse:

La mort m’attend comme une vieille fille
Au rendez-vous de la faucille,
Pour mieux cueillir le temps qui passe.
La mort m’attend comme une princesse
A l’enterrement de ma jeunesse…

This roughly translates as:

Death waits on me like a spinster
at the hour of the sickle,
to better reap the passing time.
Death waits on me like a princess
at the funeral of my youth…

Yet Shuman offers/Bowie sings:

My death waits like an old roue
So confident I’ll go his way
Whistle to him and the passing time.
My death waits like a bible truth
at the funeral of my youth…

It gets worse. Shuman’s translation is more crass (Brel’s “death waits in your bright hands” becomes “My death waits there between your thighs”) and inane (Brel’s “death waits behind the leaves/Of the tree that will make my coffin” becomes “my death waits there among the leaves/in magicians’ mysterious sleeves”). Translated out of Brel’s stark, medieval language, the song becomes an elaborate nothing, and Bowie’s performance of it was mainly dependent on his charismatic stage presence. As a sound recording, it’s tiresome—an unwelcome return of Folkie David Bowie at the height of the glam era.

Live versions of “My Death” from 1972 are on RarestOneBowie and Live at Santa Monica; a 1973 recording, from the last Spiders show, is on Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture. Bowie and Garson revived the song in the mid-1990s and played it occasionally (such as the 1997 GQ Awards linked above, in which Bowie switched roles and sounded like Death).

Top: William Gedney, “Man driving car and drinking can of beer, Kentucky, 1972.”

John, I’m Only Dancing

May 27, 2010

John, I’m Only Dancing.
John, I’m Only Dancing (“sax” version, 1973).

John, I’m Only Dancing (live, 1972).

David’s present image is to come on like a swishy queen, a gorgeously effeminate boy. He’s as camp as a row of tents, with his limp hand and trolling vocabulary. “I’m gay,” he says, “and always have been, even when I was David Jones.” But there’s a sly jollity about how he says it, a secret smile at the corners of his mouth. He knows that in these times it’s permissible to act like a male tart.

David Bowie, Melody Maker interview, 22 January 1972.

Some forty years later, it’s still Bowie’s most famous interview: “I’m gay, and always have been” seemed a casual aside but it was as deliberate as a Spassky chess move.

Bowie had an acute sense of cultural timing, able to move just ahead of the beat, so January 1972 was the perfect time to out himself. Homosexuality had been decriminalized in the UK for five years, gay liberation had become public after the Stonewall riots in ’69, men wearing glitter and makeup were hitting the top of the charts. Also, Bowie was still a relative unknown. His public image had only begun to coalesce; he had few fans who would desert him when they read the news, and he’d gain just as many through the subsequent publicity.

One thing, though—Bowie wasn’t gay. This blog doesn’t wish to delve into Bowie’s personal life (there are a dozen-odd bios, some quite lurid, if you want that), but it’s fair enough to say that, from the vantage point of 2010, Bowie appears to have been a mild bisexual who only chose women for long-term relationships. Throughout the ’70s, he was perceived as gay (The Gay News in 1972 hoped that Bowie would gain popularity so that “gay rock [will have] a potent spokesman,” while Jon Savage wrote in a 1980 article for The Face that “just as Bowie’s massive contribution to fashion was in the fact that you can still see the glam uniform of baggies, tank-top and platforms on provincial streets, so the spice in his image was gayness“), and Bowie did little to dispel that impression. Then in the reactionary early ’80s, with the AIDS panic at its height, he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone with the coy, repellent headline “DAVID BOWIE STRAIGHT” and never hinted at being gay again.

“John, I’m Only Dancing,” Bowie’s follow-up single to Ziggy Stardust, has been claimed as one of Bowie’s gay songs: a subversive, oft-banned anthem. But the single charted without incident in the UK, and it wasn’t released in the US as much for its unusual sound and Bowie’s poor commercial history as for its controversial lyric. And “John” has little in common with the likes of “Glad to Be Gay,” or “Smalltown Boy,” or “It’s a Sin” —it lacks the Tom Robinson’s track polemical urgency and anger; it has nothing like the Bronski Beat and Pet Shop Boys tracks’ sense of lived experience. “John, I’m Only Dancing” is a vague, shadowy and unreadable performance; its promo video, filmed by Mick Rock, features a writhing male-and-female pair of dancers, while Bowie and the Spiders look like they’ve stepped out of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. If anything, “John” is basically Son of Suffragette City, its lyric again (as in “Queen Bitch,” too) depicting a man in a possibly gay relationship flirting with a woman and trying to make excuses.

This is all late-in-the-day speculation, of course. When he publicly came out, regardless of whether he did it purely for spectacle and money, Bowie opened up a world. His essential moment in “John, I’m Only Dancing” is when he sings, with wryness, sexiness and longing, another man’s name in the chorus. “For gay musicians, Bowie was seismic. To hell with whether he disowned us later,” Tom Robinson later said (as quoted in Buckley’s Strange Fascination). Even John Gill, in his Queer Noises (which brutally sums up “Queer David” as an opportunist and a fraud), admits that “I belong to a generation that probably has to thank Queer David for the comparative ease with which we came out…[his] clever packaging of sexual outrage created a safe space where many of us, gay, bi or straight, could play out games and experiment with difference.”

As for the single, it mainly belongs to the Spiders. Mick Ronson’s verse riff updates Eddie Cochran, while he offers a siren wail in the chorus and his coda solo ends with Ronson using the toggle switch on his guitar to create staccato bursts of feedback. He’s mixed to knife out of the speakers. (“A guitar like sawing through metal,” Ian Rankin wrote in one of his Rebus novels, Black and Blue.) The rhythm section is also inspired: Woody Woodmansey, who used mallets for most of the drumming, recalled it was the first time he ever did a drum overdub for Bowie, tracking a couple different tom fills. And Trevor Bolder’s bassline is one of the track’s main hooks, especially in the chorus, where he starts with a slow rise-and-fall and then shifts to bars of octave-jumping runs.

Recorded 26 June 1972 and released in September as RCA 2263 c/w “Hang Onto Yourself.” It hit #12. A remake, with a faster tempo and Bowie’s saxophone accompaniment, was recorded on 20 January 1973 in the final Aladdin Sane sessions (it was slated to be the LP’s final track until scratched at the last minute). This version, bizarrely, was also released as a single in April 1973 with the same catalog number. RCA, with malice or neglect, randomly alternated the two takes for much of the decade (e.g., both versions appear on various copies of ChangesOneBowie), then released yet another version, a remix of the original track with less echo on Bowie’s vocal, as a 1979 B-side (it’s on the Ryko Ziggy Stardust). Bowie’s 1974 sequel, “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” will get its own entry in a bit.

Pick your cover: The Chameleons, Paul Westerberg, the Polecats, Vivian Girls.

Top: George Best, fashion plate, April 1972.

White Light/White Heat

May 25, 2010

White Light/White Heat (BBC, 1972).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1972).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1973).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1983).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1987).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1990).
White Light/White Heat (BBC, 1997).
White Light/White Heat (Bowie with Lou Reed, 1997).
White Light/White Heat (live, 2003).

Covering “Waiting For the Man” gave the young David Bowie a hint of street cred, covering “White Light/White Heat” just gave him power. As Bowie and the Spiders honed their live act, they swapped out the likes of “Starman” and “Andy Warhol” for bruising workouts like “White Light,” whose relentless drone rhythm and severity of design (mainly just thrashing on G and D chords, then thrashing on F at the end) made it a hard contrast to the more fanciful Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust songs. It was a staple of the Ziggy tour by May 1972, and Bowie would play it for decades.

Giving prominence to “White Light/White Heat” and “Waiting for The Man” also helped Bowie bring Lou Reed into his rapidly-expanding sphere of influence and in July 1972, Reed played his first-ever UK concert as Bowie’s guest. Bowie and Mick Ronson produced Reed’s Transformer* over a manic six weeks in the summer of ’72, working with Reed during the day, playing concerts across the UK at night. Reed, drugged into near-catatonia, needed a translator to understand Ronson; Bowie sometimes was found in the studio bathroom weeping; Ronson did much of the work and his touches are all over the record, like the soaring string arrangement on “Perfect Day.”

“White Light/White Heat” is mainly about the joys of speed, though VU chronicler Richie Unterberger said in a Well interview last year that another possible influence was Alice Bailey’s “A Treatise on White Magic,” which delves into astral projection “all down a stream of pure White Light.'” (Reed reportedly mentioned the book in radio interviews and Unterberger interviewed a fan who recalled Reed babbling about psychic healing via “light projection.”) Bowie likely had no clue about this when he covered the song, though it’s fitting given his own interest in astral projection (“Did You Ever Have a Dream”). “White Light” was transcendence, chemical or no.

Bowie recorded two versions of “White Light/White Heat” in May 1972 for the BBC, and the song was central to the 1972-1973 Ziggy tours; a recording from the last Spiders concert in July 1973 was issued as a single a decade later (RCA 372) to promote the concert film Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture. Bowie recorded a version of “White Light” in 1973 for his covers LP Pin-Ups but eventually scrapped it, with Ronson using the backing track for his own cover on 1975’s Play Don’t Worry.

Top: L to R: The top student, the feral child, the dark master (Mick Rock, 1972).

* It’s been repeatedly claimed, even in credible Bowie biographies like Strange Fascination, that Bowie secretly wrote “Wagon Wheel,” a forgotten track on Reed’s Transformer. To my knowledge, this is bunk (seriously, “Wagon Wheel”?), and there appears to be some proof dispelling the rumor—a tape allegedly exists of Reed singing “Wagon Wheel” in New York in 1971, a time when he had only met Bowie once at a nightclub—but doubtless this bizarre legend will persist for decades to come.

All The Young Dudes

May 20, 2010

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

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

D.H. Lawrence, “A Sane Revolution.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The James Brown Covers

May 14, 2010

You Got to Have a Job (If You Don’t Work, You Can’t Eat)/ Hot Pants.

The first Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars concerts in the UK, from February to May 1972, were a series of small insurrections.

The tour began on 10 February at the Toby Jug in Tolworth (“a gaunt fortress of a pub, on the edge of an underpass,” as described in Alias David Bowie—it’s since been leveled). At Imperial College two days later, Bowie tried to crowd-surf (too few in the crowd, so he fell to the floor) while Mick Ronson let the front row caress his guitar. The band went north to Glasgow, west to Aberystwyth. In the Locarno Ballroom, in Sunderland, kids in wheelchairs rose to their feet when Bowie came on stage, a publicity stunt or a minor, unregistered miracle. In Bristol, they carried Bowie around on their shoulders after the show, as if he had made a winning goal. At the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, where righteous folkies had harassed Dylan six years earlier, Bowie threw an acoustic guitar into the crowd.

The tour was allegedly in support of Hunky Dory, which had been released in December 1971, but as the weeks went on, many Hunky Dory songs were swapped out for as-yet-unreleased Ziggy Stardust tracks. The typical set opened with “Hang Onto Yourself” and other rockers, quieted down for an interlude where Bowie and Ronson sat on stools and played the likes of “Space Oddity” or “Andy Warhol” and revved up for the usual finale of “Suffragette City”/“Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide.”

Bowie interspersed a few covers with his originals, including, for a month or so, a medley of James Brown’s “Hot Pants” and a relative obscurity, the 1969 single (King 6218) Brown had written for Marva Whitney, “You Got To Have a Job (If You Don’t Work, You Can’t Eat).” (Bobby Byrd also cut a version a year later.)

Whitney had been a member of the James Brown Revue since 1967, and like other Brown proteges Vicki Anderson and Lynn Collins, cut a string of Brown-composed singles in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Who knows why Bowie chose to cover “You Got To Have a Job,” one of Brown’s bootstrapping communiques to the American black community: it’s just an excuse for Ronson to play a funk riff, Bowie to deliver a manic saxophone solo and The Spiders’ rhythm section to (leadenly) keep a groove.

The performances linked above are from the oft-bootlegged Kingston Polytechnic (Angela Bowie’s alma mater) concert of 6 May 1972.

Top: the Godfather lost in thought, Oakland, 1971.

Round and Round

May 4, 2010

Around and Around (Chuck Berry, 1958).
Around and Around (Rolling Stones, 1964).
Round and Round (Bowie, studio, 1971).
Round and Round (Bowie, live w/Jeff Beck, 1973).

“Round and Round” (Bowie’s diminution of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around”) nearly made Ziggy Stardust and nearly even titled the album. Sequenced to follow the annunciation of “Moonage Daydream,” the song was essentially footage of the Spiders in action. By the time Bowie returned to Trident Studios in early 1972 to finish the album, he’d worked up “Suffragette City.” As the latter sounded like Chuck Berry lost in a William Burroughs novel, it made an actual Berry cover redundant. Bowie stockpiled “Round and Round” for a future B-side.

Born from a jam and likely to expire in one, “Around and Around” had come out of Berry hanging out before a concert with some “on-the-ball musicians…playing standard sweet songs to gut-bucket rock and boogie.” Issued as the B-side to “Johnny B. Goode” and included on the 1959 LP Chuck Berry Is On Top, “Around and Around” was in the repertoire of any half-competent British beat group. (In June 1964 the Rolling Stones, in an act of competitive worship, cut a version of it at Chess Studios in front of Berry himself.) It was audience bait: its stop-time verses tantalizing dancers, its chorus releasing them. Offering the sweet promise of a club that’s never heard of closing time (until the cops kick in the doors), “Around and Around” was Mod solidarity: there are no girls to impress, no boys making a scene.

Where the Stones’ and the Animals’ covers had prominent piano, the Bowie/Spiders take hangs entirely on Ronson’s distorted Les Paul and Trevor Bolder’s bassline. Ken Scott recalled the track needing the fewest overdubs of any Ziggy Stardust-era cut. With little hope of matching Berry’s rhythms, the band set about clobbering the song, pushing up the tempo, knocking the guitar solo back until after the second verse, letting the track expire in a Ronson fusillade. It was the template for how Bowie and Ronson would record Pin Ups the following year.

Recorded ca. 8-11 November 1971. Issued as the B-side to “Drive In Saturday” in April 1973, and also included on the Sound + Vision box set. It was the final song of the final “Ziggy Stardust” show at the Hammersmith on 3 July 1973, though it was cut from the subsequent concert film (allegedly at the orders of Jeff Beck).

Top: Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry at Madison Square Garden, 6 May 1972.

Sweet Head

April 19, 2010

Sweet Head.

“Velvet Goldmine” was barely a secret—journalists had heard about it before Ziggy Stardust was released and “Goldmine” eventually was issued as a B-side. But the other major Ziggy outtake, “Sweet Head,” was utterly forgotten. No one outside the Bowie circle knew the song even existed until it turned up on Ryko’s 1990 CD release of Ziggy. Ken Scott, who produced Ziggy, says he has no memory of recording it. Bowie has seemed ambivalent about it at best—he’s never performed the song live, and came close to yanking the track off the Ryko CD.

Yet “Sweet Head” is not only a great rocker, capturing the power of Mick Ronson and the Spiders better than most of the actual Ziggy tracks, but it’s also a polished recording, one whose lyric mentions “Ziggy” by name. It’s not some obscure studio jam: it seems as if it could’ve been the centerpiece of the whole record. Then Bowie dropped it into a well and pretended he never made it.

Blame the lyric. It’s nasty throughout, from the first verse’s Clockwork Orange-inspired violence and racist slurs to the double entendres (barely) of the chorus to later lines like “I’m your rubber peacock angelic whore.” You can’t blame Bowie for trying to forget a track where he sang “my guitar and Mr. Fag, we can give you sweet head.” (“It was about oral sex, and it was one I don’t think RCA particularly wanted,” Bowie told Musician in 1990.)

Shame, though, as the track’s as ferocious as Bowie and the Spiders ever got. Ronson opens with a twining guitar figure (moving between A and A6) that he extends into the verses, while he slams on the off-beats during the long chorus and outro. The lyric, while vulgar and ridiculous, also captures the Ziggy character arguably better than”Ziggy Stardust,” as it throws together blasphemy (“’til there was rock, you only had God”), sex and celebrity and ends with a verse that’s pure rock & roll:

You and I have a mutual vow,
We both like young and we both like loud.
I got pretty shoes and I’m kid and proud,
I’m street-side out with my ear to the crowd.

Recorded 11 November 1971. Finally released on the 1990 Ryko CD issue of Ziggy Stardust.

Top: Slade, 1972.

Velvet Goldmine

April 16, 2010

Velvet Goldmine.

Those unfamiliar with Bowie (if you’re reading this blog, that likely disqualifies you) might assume that “Velvet Goldmine,” which Todd Haynes used as the title for his glam fantasia, was an essential track on Ziggy Stardust. But it’s an outtake from the Ziggy sessions, finally sneaked out as a B-side a few years later.

“Velvet Goldmine,” originally called “He’s a Goldmine,” had been slated for Ziggy‘s second side until Bowie recorded a new batch of songs in January 1972 to shore up the record. Rather than cutting an obvious dud (cough, “It Ain’t Easy”), Bowie gave “Velvet Goldmine” the chop. He said “the lyrics are a little bit too provocative” during a radio interview in February 1972. Really? “Sweet Head,” the other great Ziggy outtake, likely wasn’t fit for public consumption at the time, but “Goldmine,” while salacious enough (“you got the width of my tongue,” “I had to ravish your capsule, suck you dry”), isn’t much worse than, say, “Suffragette City.” Some writers have wondered whether Bowie felt the song was too openly gay: if so, that’s also odd since Bowie soon announced his homosexuality to Melody Maker and released an undeniably gay single (“John, I’m Only Dancing”) a few months later.

Bowie may have axed “Goldmine” because he thought it sounded a bit retrograde compared to the other Ziggy tracks. (And the thumping, eight-to-the-bar piano in the chorus does give it a music-hall feel, reminiscent of Hunky Dory tracks like “Oh! You Pretty Things.”) Still, “Goldmine”‘s got a moody, minor-key chorus; Ronson’s guitar smeared over the verses and culminating in a solo that sounds as if it was recorded underwater; a saucy Bowie vocal over a knotty verse (i.e., the sudden 3/4 bar on “close to my breast”); a wonderfully bizarre outro with massed whistles, hums, laughs and moans; and a lyric filled with lines like “I’ll be your king volcano.” One of the best tracks from the Ziggy period—cutting it was a blunder.

Recorded 11 November 1971. Released in September 1975 as a B-side to a “Space Oddity” single repackage (which would be Bowie’s first UK #1). Bowie later said the mix was rushed out without his approval. Included on various Ziggy Stardust CD reissues.

Top: Roxy Music, 1972.