Shakin’ All Over

June 19, 2012

Shakin’ All Over (Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, 1960).
Shakin’ All Over (Tin Machine, live, 1989).
Shakin’ All Over (as part of “Heaven’s In Here,” live, 1992).

Another regular cover in the first Tin Machine tour was the band’s typically brass-knuckled take on Johnny Kidd’s “Shakin’ All Over.” Released in 1960 into a British pop market that had offered Cliff Richard as the UK’s answer to Elvis, Kidd’s “Shakin’,” with its lust-addled vocal, its creeping bassline and its cranked-up guitars, hit like a cannonball: “Shakin'” soon reached #1 and British rock bands would spend the next decade trying to live up to it (Led Zeppelin played a number of Kidd songs in their early rehearsals, while the Who kept trying to crack “Shakin'” on stage).

According to a tongue-in-cheek recollection by the track’s lead guitarist Joe Moretti, “Shakin’ All Over” began as the less euphonious “Shakin’ All Over Except For My Left Foot.” The inspiration was Kidd’s reaction upon seeing a pretty girl—she puts the quivers in me membranes!—and for the song Kidd kept in the passive role, a victim of erotic circumstance. As Tom Ewing wrote, “in a sense “Shaking All Over” is a premonition of the Stones—English boys turned wild by rock. But Mick Jagger sang as a predator, focusing and using his lust: Johnny Kidd feels the same energies but he can’t control them.

With “Shakin'” originally intended as a B-side, the band was relaxed and loose for the take, which contributed to its spooky energy. Moretti’s solo, though preceded by an ill-timed drum fill that was left in to pad out the track, remains a marvel (it’s reminiscent of Vic Flick’s playing on Adam Faith’s “Made You,” though “Shakin'” was cut before the Faith track was released). Mick Ronson paid homage to Moretti by playing some of his lines in Bowie’s cover of “I Can’t Explain” on Pin Ups.

Bowie had a history with the song: he had played “Shakin'” with some of his early bands (the Lower Third had opened for Johnny Kidd at the Isle of Wight, in the summer of ’65), as well as in the early 1970 Haddon Hall rehearsals that had generated most of the songs for the Man Who Sold The World. (Bowie reconnected with the drummer from that era, John Cambridge, at the Bradford gig on 2 July—Cambridge told him the lyric, which Bowie said he’d forgotten.)* But playing “Shakin'” with Tin Machine, Bowie just oversang, blowing his voice out on the choruses. Similar to their “Maggie’s Farm,” the Machine turned “Shakin'” into a mash-up, here a Fifties rock ‘n’ roll catch-all, with Kevin Armstrong playing Duane Eddy riffs throughout while Bowie seemed on the verge of spinning into other “period” hits—“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and Sam Cooke’s “Shake”—as if he was back on the Cher Show.

So the Machine took a 1960 track that sounded like nothing else from its era, a proto-modernist hard rock groove song, and turned it into an “oldie”; the audience cheered them for it. In the 1991-92 tour, Bowie incorporated “Shakin'” into his long “Heaven’s In Here” medleys.

The Machine played “Shakin'” in most of the UK dates of their 1989 tour, starting with the National Ballroom in Kilburn on 29 June. A version from Newport, Wales (1 July 1989), was released two years later as a B-side of the 12″ single version of “You Belong in Rock ‘n’ Roll” (LONX 305)

More shakin’: Ziggy Stardust inspiration Vince Taylor, The Shindogs, The Who, Swinging Blue Jeans, the Guess Who, Suzi Quatro, Wanda Jackson with Jack White, Eilen Jewel.

* This was an odd claim, as Bowie had sung “Shakin'” a few times before Bradford. Perhaps he’d just been mumbling his way through the lyric before then.

Top to bottom: the Wall comes down, Berlin, November 1989.

Maggie’s Farm

June 14, 2012

Maggie’s Farm (Dylan with Mick Ronson, 1976)
Maggie’s Farm (Tin Machine, live, 1989).

The first Tin Machine live gigs in June-July 1989 were more of a preview run than any sort of full-blown tour: only twelve shows, all of which were in modest-sized venues, in the US, UK and Europe. The set design was as severe—stark whites and shadows, calling back to the Isolar tour—as the set list was uncompromising: no past Bowie hits or even obscurities. Instead the band played nearly the entire Tin Machine album, tried out a handful of new songs* and played a couple of Sixties rock standards.

The latter seem to have been an afterthought, a mild concession to fans as well as an easy way to extend the set lists, as Tin Machine’s first gigs, in the US, had been nothing but self-penned material (except “Working Class Hero”). The Machine first played their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” at the Docks show in Hamburg, Germany, on 22 June 1989, and it stayed in the set for the rest of the tour.

Bowie had covered Dylan sparingly in the past: mainly in his folk gigs in 1969, when he sometimes closed sets with “She Belongs to Me” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” His own “Song For Bob Dylan” was a character piece, intended for another singer (his friend, and Dylan nut, George Underwood), and Bowie’s public thoughts on Dylan were respectful but hardly worshipful—Dylan had been a lesser influence on Bowie’s development, minor when compared to Anthony Newley, Jacques Brel, Scott Walker, Lou Reed or even Biff Rose.

“Maggie’s Farm” was an understandable choice as a cover, as it was simple to play (a three-chord song mainly built on an E chord with a vi-V7 turnaround (C#minor and B7 in the original)). Its lyric had some political resonance in the summer of 1989, particularly in Britain, where the impending Community Charge tax would ultimately bring down Thatcher’s ministry in 1990. Bowie sang the five verses as a set of increasing irritations, bellowing the last verse and nearly blowing out his voice.

The Machine’s ominous version of “Maggie’s Farm” (in which the band imposed Dylan’s melody upon the chassis of T. Rex’s “Jeepster,” for whatever reason) downplayed how much the Dylan original is comical, an absurdist parody of the standard “Down on Penny’s Farm”—Dylan’s prison labor camp seems run by a gang of ingratiating sadists. Dylan cut the track in one take. The best of his later live interpretations (especially the Hard Rain version with Mick Ronson on a stinging lead) had a swagger and a slide to them (Marc Bolan would’ve done “Farm” much better). Tin Machine stands in the long line of interpreters who have ignored the goofiness and fatalism of “Maggie’s Farm” (the singer shows no signs of actually getting out) in favor of a posturing, macho defiance (Rage Against the Machine comes to mind).

A version of “Maggie’s Farm” recorded at La Cigale, Paris, on 25 June 1989, was released as a double-A-sided single with “Tin Machine” in September (EMI USA MT 73, #48 UK). (Bowie utterly bungles the first verse on it.)  According to Pegg, a video was shot of the Machine playing “Farm” at the preceding show (the Paradiso, in Amsterdam) but I’ve not seen it. The Machine didn’t bring “Farm” back for their subsequent 1991-1992 tour and apparently made no attempts to cut it in the studio.

* Two of these, “You’ve Been Around” and “Now,” will be covered when we reach Black Tie/White Noise and Outside, respectively.

Top: Nimrod, the Neanderthal butler, is awed by the fang of the cave bear (from last Doctor Who serial to be filmed in the 20th Century, Ghost Light, autumn 1989).

The King of Stamford Hill

April 19, 2012

The King of Stamford Hill.

If you do what I do—play out of tune, stretch time signatures, make noise—people assume you’re an idiot. Because no one would want to play out of tune, right? So I needed the firepower to say, “OK, this is what I could do if I wanted to wear a Lacoste shirt and chinos like you.” If I wanted to play on baked bean commercials, that’s what I’d do. I’m already past that. I’m working on my vision, dammit. It might not be a good one, but it’s mine.

Reeves Gabrels, 2000.

Has anyone ever had a hard word to say about Mick Ronson? Who has ever knocked Carlos Alomar? Even Tony Visconti remains generally unimpeachable. Not so Reeves Gabrels, the last major Bowie collaborator, who has never shaken the reputation in some quarters as being a garish usurper.

Gabrels worked with Bowie, off and on, for eleven years: his tenure is nearly as long as Alomar’s and Gabrels’ influence on Bowie’s work is arguably greater. No other Bowie “sideman” co-wrote two entire records with him (Earthling and Hours). Gabrels embodied Bowie’s desperate Nineties, whether dressed in Prada suits or kilts and boas. Brought in as a professional agitator, he stayed on throughout the decade, shrouding Bowie albums in noise, eviscerating classic Bowie guitar riffs on stage. For solos, he played his custom-made guitars with a vibrator, he smeared cake icing on their strings. Sometimes he’d unplug his guitar and screech together a solo via the jackplugs.

He was outrageous, he was indulgent, he was loud, he was vital, he was tasteless. He was Bowie’s liberated id, throwing sonic tantrums on stage; he was Bowie’s cold-blooded intelligence service, forever keeping abreast of the trends. He saved Bowie from a life of middle-aged mediocrity, he made Bowie look ridiculous. More than anything else, he was an unknown: his future bandmates the Sales brothers, during the first Tin Machine rehearsals, wondered aloud who the hell the guitarist was. Gabrels was indisputably a latecomer, and there’s always a measure of scorn reserved for those who arrive when the show’s past its prime (see Tara King or John Major). But Gabrels took pride in where he fell. Irreverent, aggressively dedicated to his sonic obsessions, he acted like a man who had no sense of, no use for, history.

In Bowie’s pre-Tin Machine work, Gabrels’ closest analogue is Robert Fripp, whose skronking guitar work on”Fashion” can seem a curtain-raiser for the Gabrels years. The comments for that entry demonstrate how Fripp’s playing on “Fashion” can still irritate, three decades on. Did the guitar noisily ruin the track, or did it give it frisson, turning a basic dance-rock song into something more disturbing, with bite and piss? It’s the fundamental question of the Gabrels era.

Gabrels was born on Staten Island, NYC, in 1956. His father worked on tugboats, his mother was a typist. While self-taught on the guitar, Gabrels considered himself a visual artist, enrolling in the Parsons School of Design in 1974. Studying painting just made him want to play music. So he left Parsons for Berklee, then dropped out in 1981 to make a go at being in a rock band.

It was the height of Boston’s punk scene, the era of The Neighborhoods, La Peste, the Lyres, the Nervous EatersMission of Burma, The Dark, Rubber Rodeo (Gabrels would play in editions of the latter two). It was that rare bird, a viable local scene, in which Boston indie musicians could hack out a meager living by playing a solid regional circuit which included the still-standing Paradise or the late, lamented Rathskeller, which my old university conquered and razed, then built a swank hotel over its bones.

Gabrels soon got notice for his drive to constantly, radically alter his guitar’s tone. He recalled how once he was rehearsing in someone’s kitchen when electromagnetic interference from the refrigerator motor began channeling through his Stratocaster’s pickups and chorus pedal. It was a revelation. Another time in 1984, opening for the Neighborhoods, Gabrels had forgotten most of his gear except for a single distortion pedal, and spent his set wringing dissonant tones from his guitar via pull-offs and distorted harmonics. His bass player complimented him afterward for his new effects and harmonizer programs. (“I thought, “Why am I carrying all this stuff around if I can fool my own bass player without it?” Gabrels recalled in 2000.)

Gabrels began to favor newer-make guitars, arguing that when a guitarist plays a Fender or a Strat, it’s a constant battle not to be mired in nostalgia. (“Playing instruments that don’t have cliches defined on them keeps me from playing licks from 1952,” he once said). In the late Eighties, Gabrels’ main guitar was the “headless” Steinberger, while in the Nineties he favored the lightweight Parker Fly.

So Bowie saw Gabrels as an advocate of the New, a man apparently oblivious to musical history and to “good taste,” and at times seemingly disinterested in the interplay of a band. As he would with the Sales brothers’ truculence and lack of nuance, Bowie considered Gabrels a raw, disruptive force that he could channel. Bowie wasn’t looking to form a band as much as he wanted a set of inspired, violent competitors.

Gabrels met Bowie on the American leg of the Glass Spider tour. Gabrels’ wife, Sara Terry, was a journalist at the Christian Science Monitor. After writing a grueling series of articles about child prostitution, she needed a break and so became Bowie’s press agent for a few months. Gabrels accompanied her on the tour, and Bowie came to enjoy his company. Though Gabrels had been in a Bowie cover band in high school, and while only a few months before Glass Spider he’d played in the Bowie-besotted band Life on Earth, he didn’t even tell Bowie that he played music. Instead he kept Bowie’s magpie mind occupied, whether arguing about painters or watching Fantasy Island with the sound switched off so that Bowie and Gabrels could make up their own dialogue.

Bowie only learned that Gabrels was a guitarist when, at the end of the US leg of the tour, a departing Terry (she and Gabrels were moving to London) handed him a cassette compilation of Gabrels’ various Boston bands. Back home in Switzerland after the end of the tour, Bowie found the tape in a coat pocket, played it and liked what he heard. He began recommending Gabrels for session work, setting him up with Alan Winstanley, who used Gabrels on Sandie Shaw’s Hello Angel and had him play sitar and mandolin on a reunited Deaf School album. And one afternoon in May 1988, Gabrels came home after having walked around London pasting up flyers for one of his few regular sources of income, guitar lessons, and got a phone call from Bowie. He naturally assumed it was a gag until Bowie mentioned Fantasy Island.

Bowie had agreed to be part of a La La La Human Steps dance routine at the ICA in London and to re-record “Look Back In Anger” for the backing music. He’d been listening to Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth and wanted his remade “Anger” to sound as though it had been carved out of a wall of guitars. While Bowie had already recruited his usual go-to team of Kevin Armstrong and Erdal Kizilcay, he wanted a thicker, more violent, massed guitar assault. He invited Gabrels to come out to Switzerland and work on the revision.

As he had with Nile Rodgers a half-decade before, Bowie, once Gabrels arrived at his house in Switzerland, gave him a walking inventory of his current obsessions. These now included: a yen for loud guitar music (Hendrix and Zeppelin bootlegs, Branca and his various offshoots, electric bluesmen like Buddy Guy, and Bowie’s new love, the Pixies); a gorgeous, decadent cookbook co-authored by Salvador Dali and his wife Gala;  and heaps of books on medieval and deconstructivist architecture (the latter had a then-contemporary exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art). Bowie rattled on about flying buttresses and what he considered their descendants, the exposed structures of the likes of Centre Pompidou, and tied this to the “cathedrals of sound” that he heard in Branca and Sonic Youth. In Gabrels’ playing, Bowie said he found something similar—guitar solos that were ornamental, not fitting properly into the harmonics and melody of a song, but still being essential to the song’s support, along with a fascination with breaking down a guitar’s tones into the discrete elements of amplified sound.

Gabrels wound up staying in Montreux for weeks, and he returned after the Bowie/Human Steps “Look Back in Anger” in July 1988 (Bowie would perform the routine once more in the US, in September). He and Bowie drove down to Mountain Studios every morning, worked on demos and sounded out ideas, then went home for dinner and Fawlty Towers. Gabrels had no ties to Bowie’s past, had no connection with EMI, and had seemed disinterested in music when Bowie first met him. He was the first collaborator who Bowie had known as a friend first. So Bowie confided in him. He was lost. He felt obligated to write hits but no longer had the knack for it: he was already regretting Never Let Me Down. He couldn’t imagine ever putting himself through another tour again. He was considering getting out of the game entirely.

Gabrels’ response was essentially: why do you have be in the game at all? You’re David Bowie. Find something that interests you, then go with it. Bowie had loved Steven Berkoff’s play West, which had premiered in London in 1983. A story of a Hackney gang leader who, to avenge a slaying of one of his crew, agrees to take on a rival thug from Hoxton in hand-to-hand combat, West was part of the decade’s fascination with London thugs, from Bob Hoskins’ mob boss in The Long Good Friday to Terence Stamp’s sardonic “grass” in The Hit, from the renewed fascination with the Kray Twins to Alan Clarke’s soccer hooligan study The Firm.

Bowie had considered adapting West as a musical, but thought the material was too obscure. EMI had made it clear there wouldn’t be another Baal on their dime. Who cares if only a few people like it? Gabrels responded. So Bowie and Gabrels began on a few prospective West-inspired songs. One, “Bus Stop,” would be reworked for Tin Machine. Another was a musical version of the gangleader’s climactic fight speech: “The King of Stamford Hill.” Bowie sang it as a cock-crow from a despot, but also with anger and desperation. The core theme of West was spoken by the King’s mother: “not to fight was to give in.” The choice was blood and possible humiliation, or a second-class life calling someone else’s tune.

While it’s unknown how “Stamford Hill” originally sounded, as Gabrels re-recorded all the guitar tracks when he used it on his first solo album in 1995, Bowie’s vocal (taken from the demo) is a vulgar, barely comprehensible garble (Berkoff had some of his characters speak a florid “Shakespearean Cockney”). He begins by walking his turf in Hackney, taking in the sewage. “Smells like DAY-sies,” he sniffs, but his mind’s on his rival. “Ain’t it fucking CUR-EE-OUS some other cunts’ll TRY to DITCH the KING.” A pounding, screaming refrain follows: GONNA BUILD AN ARMY. MARCH ‘EM TO THE MARSHES…SOMEONE’S GONNA LOSE HIS POXY FACE!

It was unreleasable, of course: EMI would have blanched. But Bowie took audible delight in his Mockney accent and savored the prospect of lurid violence. He sounded alive again, even in play-acting the thug. It was a scheme at last. Now all he had to do was build an army.

“King of Stamford Hill” was recorded in Mountain Studios, Montreux, ca. July 1988 (Bowie vocals) and completed by Gabrels at Playtime Studios, Boston, 1995. With Gary Oldman providing “running commentary” and Matt Gruenberg (bass) and Milt Sutton (drums).  On the out-of-print Sacred Squall of Now. (My thanks to Annie McDuffie).

Sources for Gabrels’ early years: Trynka and Buckley, as always, along with a book that’s going to be of great help going forward, Dave Thompson’s Hallo Spaceboy: The Rebirth of David Bowie. Gabrels’ quotes are generally from interviews he gave with Guitar Player (1993), Guitar (2000) and Spin (1989).

Top: Chris Dorley-Brown, “Squatters evicted, Stamford Hill estate,” March 1988; Reeves Gabrels, 1989 (Guitar Player); Gary Oldman in Clarke’s The Firm, 1989.

I Wanna Be Your Dog

April 12, 2012

I Wanna Be Your Dog (Iggy Pop with Bowie, live, 1977).
I Wanna Be Your Dog (Bowie with Charlie Sexton, live, 1987).

I had all these thwarted dreams of what I’d tried to do with rock ‘n roll in the early ’70s, and I was trying to do all that a bit late.

David Bowie, 1991.

Glass Spider was a supernova of a concert which saw the old version of Bowie finally explode under the weight of self-parody, only to shrink to the red dwarf of Tin Machine.

David Buckley.

The Glass Spider tour, 1987: 86 shows, six months, three continents. The spider itself, designed by Mark Ravitz, was 60 feet high and 64 feet wide, spun out of fiberglass and metal, with vacuum tubes for legs. Bowie began each concert by descending in a chair from its maw, while on the encore (“Time”) he sang from atop the structure’s head, precariously standing on a three-foot-square steel plate. When the winds were up, it was too dangerous for him to be there; after a while, Bowie began hoping each night that the winds would be up.

The summer of 1987, in Europe and the UK, was soured by winds and rain, and as it generally stayed light until 10 PM, it meant that the Spider often wouldn’t be fully lit until the concert was nearly over, while the video-projected backdrops were often hard to see (worse, many of the open-air arenas that Bowie played in Britain had strict 10:30 PM or 11 PM curfews, causing Bowie to sprint through his encores). Most concertgoers just saw an enormous, immobile, occasionally-glowing spider and, beneath it, some dozen performers running around in circles. Bowie wore bright red and gold suits in part so that those in the nosebleed seats could at least determine which speck he was. (See below, a photograph from a Manchester show in July 1987.)

The tour was plagued by technical foul-ups. The limitations of the sound system and of the headsets that Bowie and his dancers wore meant that their spoken “dialogue” often sounded like babble punctuated by the occasional burst of feedback. Bowie took to miming a pre-recorded vocal track on his opening “Glass Spider” as he was generally inaudible singing into his headset mike while in his chair. Carlos Alomar and Peter Frampton groused that the dancers kept pushing them up-stage and sometimes stepped on their effects pedals—once, during a quiet song, a dancer turned on Frampton’s fuzzbox by accident. There were also a string of greater disasters—a lighting engineer fell to his death in Florence, there was a riot in Milan, Bowie was sued for sexual assault in America (a grand jury later cleared him of all charges).

And the mood backstage was raw at times. Carlos Alomar, at last fed up with being the eternally-agreeable sidekick, gave a few truculent interviews in which he emphasized his importance to Bowie’s records (undeniable, but this was never a good thing for your long-term health in Bowie’s organization), and he asked to start off the concert with an extended squalling guitar solo to show that he was Frampton’s equal: “On that tour I was tired of being the sideman. I wanted my place. Give me a bone, Jesus!” he told David Buckley years later. Alomar and the bassist Carmine Rojas formed a hard-partying, irreverent faction (much to the alleged ire of Coco Schwab), while Frampton and Erdal Kizilcay, by contrast, were reserved and often worn out, and even thought about bailing once the tour had reached America.

And Bowie? He was both tour manager and ringmaster, dancer as well as director: painstakingly mapping out choreographed dance and lighting sequences during soundchecks. He had to sing while performing like a triathlete (climbing up to a catwalk on “Scary Monsters,” being thrown around like a sack of grain by his dancers on “Fashion”). To no surprise, Bowie grew exhausted and irritable, especially once the bad reviews poured in (the NME: “unmemorable tedium,” Melody Maker: “the paucity of ideas is quite incredible,” Sounds: “frenzied schlock”), and his voice occasionally gave out as the months wore on. A member of Big Country, one of Bowie’s opening acts, recalled to Marc Spitz a time when Bowie had a “volcanic” meltdown because the hair stylist had used the wrong lacquer on his mullet. Bowie publicly dressed down Alomar, even once the genial Kizilcay.

Bowie had never put on a show on the level of “Glass Spider” and he soon came to feel trapped within it. In 1974, he had ditched the Diamond Dogs concept three months into the tour, scrapping the Hunger City sets in favor of soul-inspired group performances. But now Pepsi was footing much of the bill, and everyone expected the spectacle: the giant spider, the routine where Bowie pulled his girlfriend out of the crowd on “Bang Bang,” the abseiling and kickboxing dancers.

So the “Glass Spider” tour became an extended acting-out of the conflicting impulses that had bedeviled Never Let Me Down. On one hand, the tour was meant to be an arena-based summer hot-ticket event (and the shows generally sold out—Bowie didn’t lose money on it, by any means), but Bowie also intended it to be a traveling performance-art show, an avant-garde rock and roll circus, featuring modern dances inspired by Pina Bausch: he originally wanted the Canadian troupe La La La Human Steps to be his dancers, but they were unavailable (he would work with them in 1988).

The band generally turned in solid, even inspired performances (“Heroes” in the Berlin concert in June 1987 remains one of Bowie’s most resonant moments), while the set list was fresh, with few nostalgic favorites or greatest hits on the bill. In the “Serious Moonlight” tour, Bowie had performed only the hits off of Let’s Dance and had filled the rest of his set with classics. Even in 1978, he had leavened the Low/”Heroes” material with Ziggy Stardust songs. But “Glass Spider” featured almost all of Never Let Me Down (except, wisely, “Shining Star” and “Too Dizzy”), while its older songs were as much obscurities (“Sons of the Silent Age,” “All the Madmen,” “Big Brother”) as they were hits (“Let’s Dance,” “China Girl,” “Fame”).*

As the tour wound down in Europe, Bowie began swapping out some of his new material for storied rockers (“Jean Genie,” “White Light/White Heat”), in part because he didn’t have to dance during the new numbers: he could just stay in one place on stage and even strap on a guitar. And soon into the American leg of the tour, he began playing the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” in encores (the first set list that I found with it is, appropriately, Iggy Pop’s backyard: Pontiac, Michigan, on 12 September 1987).

It’s not that Bowie’s performances of “Wanna Be Your Dog” were revelatory—in fact, they were often dull, especially compared to the caustic performances that he and Pop had unleashed a decade before. The all-star celebrity revue performance with Charlie Sexton (filmed in Sydney for the Glass Spider video), with its almost cheery uptempo rhythms, and with Sexton and Frampton vying to out-cliche each other, is particularly grating. But reviving “White Light” and “Wanna Be Your Dog” served a purpose for Bowie: it let him revel in a fantasy that, for a moment, he was happily reduced to being in a rock band again, that the only spectacle he had to pull off was the song itself.

The tour ended in Auckland on 28 November 1987. Bowie would never attempt anything of its like again (though “Glass Spider” would be the template for a host of succeeding tours, from Paula Abdul‘s abseiling dancers to U2’s PopMart and 360 tours). It had been a long, hard purging of illusions. Bowie would never again attempt to so fully reconcile his avant-garde theatrical side with the hard business of filling arenas. He had been ridiculed for it, the process had nearly broken him, and now he was done. Bowie the global pop icon died on the same night that he torched the spider in a New Zealand field.

Still, there were a few moments during 1987 when Bowie stumbled upon his future. At a party to celebrate the end of the tour, a depressed-looking Bowie saw Hunt Sales across the room and embraced him like a lost brother. And before he left for the last leg in Australia, his publicist Sara handed him a cassette. It was a few demos by her husband, who Bowie had befriended during the tour. Bowie was bemused: he had thought that Reeves Gabrels was a painter. He put the tape in his coat pocket and soon forgot about it. Six months later, back home in Switzerland, Bowie came across the tape and figured it was worth a listen…

*In rehearsals, Bowie tried out “Scream Like a Baby” (Frampton again taking part of the vocals), “Because You’re Young,” and “Joe the Lion.”

The version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” linked above was filmed by David Mallet in Sydney on 6 November 1987, and released as part of the Glass Spider concert video.

Photos (top to bottom): unknown show/photog. (let me know);  pommieken (Manchester,UK, 14 or 15 July 1987); Wikipedia (Nürburgring, Germany, 7 June 1987);  Turistadeguerra (Madison Square Garden, NYC, 1 or 2 September 1987).


March 12, 2012


A rare piece of subtlety from the Never Let Me Down sessions, “Julie” was naturally thrown away as a B-side (it was possibly cut because of its similarity in places to “Bang Bang,” suggesting that it began life as Bowie reworking Iggy Pop’s song). Like “Zeroes,” “Julie” seems intended as a “Sixties” pop song—as though Bowie wanted for the song to sound like a cover of a falsely-remembered older hit. It helped that the name “Julie” itself has a storied rock ‘n’ roll pedigree—the Crescendos, the Lettermen, Bobby Sherman and the Cuff Links all used it for singles, in part because it’s such an easy rhyme generator: “truly,” “you and me,” “eternally,” etc.*

There’s also a connection to “Janine,” an actual Bowie Sixties pop song also concerned with deception and ill-matched love. In “Janine,” however, there was a sense of play—Janine might be an affected ingenue, but the singer was just as much of a fraud, and there was a smile in Bowie’s singing, in all of his blustering attempts to win a round against her. It was a love affair in a house of mirrors. In “Julie” the lyric depicts a far sadder, if obscure scenario–the singer knows Julie doesn’t love him, that she’s consumed with another guy, but he’s willing to settle for the mere appearance of love, even in his imagination (there’s also the implication, in the second verse, that the singer killed the guy that Julie really loves, and that he’s desiring her while she’s mourning). The story’s more directly told in Bowie’s vocal, which is solitary and in a narrow range for the opening verse, double-tracked at the octave for the second, and which soars to his higher register for the delusive, desperate chorus, eventually joined by Robin Clark and/or Diva Gray.

While the track, with its synth bass and drums, is dated-sounding and the mix seems slightly off-balance (all the electric guitars are crammed into the right channel, while a lower-mixed acoustic in the left), its guitar tracks (Peter Frampton and Carlos Alomar, I’m assuming) give the song some blood and muscle, with Frampton giving some tasteful lead coloring in the chorus: it’s reminiscent of his sitar lines on “Zeroes.” One of the few late Eighties Bowie songs to have escaped its time with some dignity, its later inclusion on Never Let Me Down reissues was a minor injustice corrected.

Recorded ca. September-November 1986 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and the Power Station, NYC. Released 23 March 1987 as the B-side of “Day-In Day-Out” and on CD reissues of Never Let Me Down.

* Of course, there’s the chance Bowie’s inspiration came from more contemporary tracks: Daniel’s “Julie” from Eurovision 1983 and Shakin’ Stevens’ cod-zydeco UK #1 “Oh Julie” from 1982.

Top: Jeanette Montgomery Barron, “Beatrix Ost-Kuttner and Adeleheid Ost, Virginia, 1987.”


February 23, 2012

Girls (Tina Turner, 1986).
Girls (Bowie).
Girls (Bowie, Japanese version).

Tina Turner credited David Bowie with helping to revive her fortunes, as Bowie had recommended that EMI sign Turner, which led to the all-conquering Private Dancer. So it’s a shame that Bowie and Turner’s collaborations are all such duds, whether their somnolent duet on “Tonight,” their Pepsi commercial that was soon yanked, or “Girls,” a dreary song that Bowie co-wrote for Turner’s follow-up record, Break Every Rule, and which he later recorded himself as a B-side.

Was ever there a record more unworthy of its title than Break Every Rule? Replicating the formula of Private Dancer (aptly described by R. Christgau as “the archetypal all-singles all-hits multiproducer crossover”), Turner’s people apparently summoned every sentient MOR hitmaker on Earth to write a song or to play on the record. Bowie, Rupert Hine, Bryan Adams, Mark Knopfler and Paul Brady contributed songs; studio hands included Steve Winwood, Phil Collins and Eric Clapton; Steve Lillywhite and Bob Clearmountain were among the horde who put it all together. The record went platinum, spawned seven singles (all targeted to various regional markets—“Girls” was big in Poland) and was forgotten in a couple of years.

To give Bowie some credit, his contribution “Girls” (co-written with Erdal Kizilcay) wasn’t a blatant Turner retread like Terry Britten and Graham Lyle’s “Typical Male” or uninspired hard rock like Adams’ “Back Where You Started.” Instead, Bowie had the urge to write a Jacques Brel-style chanson again, then passed the thing on to Turner, for whom it was unsuited.

Some of it’s the lyric (a weirdly jejune effort from a 40-year-old man),* some of it’s the music and production, in which a slow, “dramatic” verse is patched to a set of increasingly bludgeoning climaxes.”Girls” finds Turner brooding about the caprices of her own sex, and not very convincingly, as she’s soon forced to jump through a series of hoops (take the ridiculous dead stop at 2:28). Turner was a gifted interpreter, if narrow in her intentions: she knew how to make a song effortlessly frenetic—pinpointing just where a performance could reach the berserk, as in “Proud Mary”—while the best of her later work had a weary, scorched-earth quality. But here she just seems at the mercy of an ungainly song. When she’s finally allowed to just holler at the end, she sounds relieved.

Bowie cut a version of “Girls” during the Never Let Me Down sessions (maybe as a hedge—if Turner’s version had been a hit, Bowie could’ve ridden in its slipstream). The song was far better suited to its author, as Bowie made “Girls” a revival of the cabaret camp of “Time” and “My Death.” And it’s fine enough in its first minutes, with the proceedings dominated by Kizilcay (or possibly Carlos Alomar) playing scales on his guitar, a falling (fretless?) bass and piano. But once the choruses really get underway around 2:00, with backing singers, a garrulous saxophone and a guitar track that might as well be a Fairlight simulacrum, the song slips away from Bowie, as it did Turner. There’s a sense that Bowie’s going through his recent back catalog and lobbing in whatever he thinks might work: a bit of “China Girl” in the rhythm guitar, the bassline of “Criminal World,” an accordion to revive the sense of a Brel pastiche.

By the four-minute mark, the song seems ready to expire out of exhaustion (and there’s thankfully a single edit which pulled the plug around here). But on the full edit, there’s still nearly two minutes to come, including a guitar solo so devoted to wankery that I hope whoever played it got a repetitive strain injury. A composition of moderate potential that was murdered in the making, “Girls” is a preview of coming miseries.

Turner’s “Girls” was released in September 1986 on Break Every Rule, and later issued as a single, while Bowie’s version, recorded at Mountain Studios, Montreux, ca. September-November 1986, was released as the B-side of “Time Will Crawl” in June 1987. (Perhaps driven by market research, Bowie recorded a Japanese vocal for “Girls” as well.) “Girls” later appeared on CD reissues of Never Let Me Down.

*And as Nicholas Pegg noted, some of the lines (“you vanish like tears in the rain”) are near-direct lifts from Rutger Hauer’s death speech in Blade Runner, a soliloquy that Bowie had also quoted on a funeral wreath for his half-brother, Terry Burns.

Top: A-ha makes an in-store appearance at HMV, London, January 1986.

When the Wind Blows

February 21, 2012

When the Wind Blows.
When the Wind Blows (video).
When the Wind Blows (extended mix).
When the Wind Blows (film).

The decisions made by the powers that be will get to us in the end.

Jim Bloggs, in Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows.

Bowie’s last Eighties soundtrack song was for Jimmy Murakami’s adaptation of When the Wind Blows, a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs. In its various incarnations (it was also adapted as a play and as a radio broadcast), Wind Blows is a haunting artifact of the late Cold War. (While the film debuted in January 1987, when Gorbachev was in power and the first signs of thaw were visible, Briggs’ novel, published in 1982, is the child of the more fraught turn-of-the-decade (see “Fantastic Voyage”)).

Recorded around the time of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in late April 1986,*”Wind Blows” was intended to be one of several songs that Bowie would cut for Murakami’s film (Bowie had first worked with Murakami and Briggs on The Snowman, for which he had shot an introduction). However, under pressure from EMI and feeling the need to focus on his own record, Bowie pulled back from the project, with Roger Waters asked to fill in.

Briggs, born in Wimbledon in 1934, was, like Bowie, a lower-middle-class London suburbanite. While Briggs’ mother had been in service and his father was a milkman, he was able to attend art college; in his case, the Slade School of Fine Art in the late Fifties. Briggs became a freelance illustrator and cartoonist, first known as a children’s author, writing such perennials as Father Christmas (1973) and The Snowman (1978).

Briggs had always tended towards the tragic and the grotesque: he was part of a bilious generation of British illustrators, like Ralph Steadman, the chronicler of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Gerald Scarfe, who drew the cartoons for Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The Snowman offers that the magic of childhood can be seemingly over in a night; his Father Christmas is a grumbling sot, while his Fungus the Bogeyman is a repellent troll conscripted into serving as a monster. But Thatcher radicalized Briggs. A man of few political interests, Briggs felt compelled to join the CND after doing research on nuclear war for When the Wind Blows, while his 1984 The Tin Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman was a flat-out screed against the Falklands War, with both Thatcher and the Argentine Junta depicted as murderous automatons.

The plot of Wind Blows is as simple as it’s harrowing: the Bloggses, a retired couple that Briggs had introduced in his Gentleman Jim, hears of an imminent nuclear war, and the two set about making do in the old Blitz spirit: following government pamphlets to make a lean-to shelter out of wooden doors. When the holocaust comes, they’re as helpless as children, going through the motions of their former life (teatime, sweeping up the shattered house). Soon enough they get radiation sickness and as the film ends, they’re about to expire in pain and ignorance, all the while still attempting to Keep Calm and Carry On. As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists wrote in a review of Briggs’ book, “Following government safety guidelines is of course useless; common sense is useless; good cheer is useless; optimism and bravery are mere self-delusion…Like all cartoon figures, [the Bloggses] have the seeming innocence of animals.” In this case, animals led to the slaughter by their indifferent owners.**

What makes Wind Blows so compelling is its suburban sensibility, its quiet and steady annihilation of everything that allegedly symbolized middle-class England. It documents how radical and anti-human the Cold War, with its mutual death pacts and its militarization of nature itself, truly was. Bowie caught this feeling in his theme song, with his lyric using images and phrases associated with comfort and calm—childhood lullabies and nature—and making them ominous. The chorus is simply a repetition of “when the wind blows,” which Bowie sings lovingly but coldly, as it’s now a death sentence, the wind bringing fallout with it.

It has one of Bowie’s most memorable vocal melodies of the era, especially in the verses, which have a trace of Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” in them (in the book, it’s the song that Jim Bloggs murmurs as he’s dying). “Wind Blows” was co-written by Erdal Kizilcay, who played all of the instruments on the track: the synthesizer accompaniment is fine, though the zippy opening guitar riff seems a bit out of place, a bit of showboating at a funeral. Bowie found Kizilcay to be an ideal partner when writing about London suburbia, as the two would reunite for The Buddha of Suburbia a few years later.

Recorded ca. April 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland. Released in November 1986 as a single (Virgin VS 909, #44 UK) and on the When the Wind Blows OST. Later collected on a 1995 CD reissue of Never Let Me Down and issued as a digital EP (with the extended mix and an instrumental version) in 2007.

* Bowie has said he was recording at Mountain Studios when news of the Chernobyl disaster hit on 26 April 1986 (the experience led him to write “Time Will Crawl”). This could have been during the Blah-Blah-Blah sessions, but consensus has much of that album being cut in May. So this means Bowie was either working on Never Let Me Down demos or on this track, so poetic license makes “Wind Blows” the obvious choice.

** Wind Blows can seem like a thematic sequel to Watership Down, except that the rabbits were far craftier, with Fiver and the rest getting the hell out of the warren before the slaughter began.

Top: Nicholas Nixon, “M.A.E., Boston,” 1985.

Dancing in the Street

January 17, 2012

Dancing in the Street (Jagger and Bowie).
Dancing in the Street (Jagger and (sorta) Bowie, live, 1986).

We should begin by noting that this record was made for charity and, as it sold well, it presumably made a decent sum of money, and perhaps a trace of that money, the remainder after the bankers, customs men, grifter politicians and local warlords had been sated, served to feed and clothe some indigent people. So that’s a good and noble thing, and should be commended.

And the record was only a bonus souvenir, a by-popular-demand single release. Today it would’ve just been a viral YouTube clip, a format for which its ludicrous video is still well suited. Recorded on the fly, in under five hours (it shows), its video was shot on the cheap, in under twelve hours (it shows). Calling such a ramshackle charity throwaway one of the worst rock & roll singles of all time seems like overkill.

That said, Bowie and Mick Jagger’s “Dancing in the Street” is a rotten record for which everyone involved should be embarrassed. Most likely are, perhaps even Jagger, the single’s main architect, in his fleeting moments of humility. The fact that it’s Bowie’s last UK #1 and his last Top 10 American hit is terrible, sure, but it’s not that shocking. Our careers often end in ridicule or disgrace. Chuck Berry went out with “My Ding a Ling.”

Jagger and Bowie originally had planned to sing a cross-continental duet during Live Aid—Bowie in London, Jagger in New York—but an insurmountable satellite issue (due to signal delays, they would be either a second behind or ahead of each other) made a hash of that plan. So instead Bowie and Jagger decided to make a video to air during the concert. Having first considered Bob Marley’s “One Love” (just imagine that for a moment), they instead decided to cover Martha and the Vandellas.

While the rhythm tracks and vocals of “Dancing in the Street” were cut one night during Bowie’s Absolute Beginners sessions at the end of June 1985, with the same band Bowie used for that soundtrack, Jagger soon took over the show, bringing the tapes back with him to New York in early July and larding them with horns, backing singers who sounded like they came from a karaoke machine and generic guitar contributions by G.E. Smith and Earl Slick.

It hadn’t been an inspired session, with the band slogging through takes of “Dancing” to get the feel of it, as they’d just learned the song, and sounding “fucking awful…like a cabaret band,” as producer Alan Winstanley recalled to David Buckley. (“I had my head in my hands, thinking, what the fuck is this?” he added.)  Jagger’s arrival got everyone down to business, with most of the lead vocals soon cut in a single take. However drummer Neil Conti recalled Jagger “on an ego trip,” strutting around the studio, establishing his alpha credentials even to the tea boys. Bowie, in a genial mood or perhaps just drunk, gave Jagger the reins (Conti recalled Bowie smiling “Sphinx-like…while Jagger sneered at the engineer“), an imbalance of power that continued in both the video, where Bowie plays Robin to Jagger’s louche Batman, and in the pair’s single live performance of “Dancing,” at the 1986 Prince’s Trust concert, where Jagger utterly dominates the song, thanks in part to either a wonky mike or poor sound mixing for Bowie.

In the summer of 1985 Jagger was trying to work himself up as a solo artist, with a mild hit debut record, She’s the Boss, to his credit. The Rolling Stones were a mess: Jagger and Keith Richards were barely speaking, Bill Wyman had his eye on the door, Ron Wood was in a genial orbit of celebrity parties and recording sessions, poor Charlie Watts was on heroin. The Stones hadn’t made a good record in years, and the band now seemed like a quarreling, aging touring company.*

While Richards never had much use for Bowie (see the bitchy aside in his recent autobiography), Jagger seemed to admire, or at least envy, Bowie’s craftiness and his newfound commercial sense. Like Bowie, Jagger was focused on keeping his sound current; unlike Bowie, Jagger tended to come upon trends a bit past their sell-by date (so pushing the Stones into reggae, disco, even rap (“Too Much Blood”)). He used Bowie’s recent work as a template for his own debut, to the point where you wonder if Jagger sent a copy of Let’s Dance to his producer with a note attached: “How do you go about getting one of these?” Jagger nabbed some of Bowie’s former collaborators to play on his album, including Nile Rodgers and Carlos Alomar (co-writer of the title track and the non-classic “Lucky In Love”).

And there’s some desperation to this junk version of “Dancing in the Street,” with both parties trying to affirm their A-1 celebrity status. One of the more pernicious effects of the whole Live Aid/Farm Aid/Band Aid spectacle was to cement the hierarchy of the “legend” rock acts and a smaller tier of anointed successors from the slightly-younger generation (Tom Petty, Sting, Dire Straits, U2). It was the height of the Boomer Counter-Reformation. The late Eighties would see the over-publicized returns of everyone from Steve Winwood to the Monkees to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, to a revamped George Harrison to a MOR version of Pink Floyd to Robbie Robertson pretending that he was Peter Gabriel (a version of Gabriel who couldn’t sing) to an all-star Yes and a Zeppelin-sampling Robert Plant, culminating in the return of the “revitalized” Stones in 1989, the touring company now reincorporated into a gleaming multinational. As Marcello Carlin said back when Popular covered this single: “Suddenly we were once again reminded who in pop and rock mattered and who didn’t…With their massacre of “Dancing In The Street,” Bowie and Jagger seemed to relish rubbing it in.

Worse, the song that Jagger and Bowie desecrated, “Dancing in the Street”, was originally a record that fulfilled every promise rock & roll ever made. It sounded as bright as the sun, with Martha Reeves as a beautiful embodiment of youth and revolution, built on a colossal double-thick beat (Marvin Gaye (allegedly) slamming on drums, in a frenetic language of fills and breakneck turnarounds, while the future free jazz drummer Steve Reid chases after him), with carnival horns and the Vandellas as a raucous second line. “Dancing” was global in its aspirations, local in its intentions—Reeves singles out Washington and Detroit—and its emotional tenor captured the sense of dance as collective liberation, a full commitment to the present (and the future). There are few records so public, in all the best senses of that word. Towards the fade, when Reeves sings let’s form a big strong line, its political reading becomes unmistakable—it’s not just doing the conga, but marching in Selma.

Sure, Van Halen had already turned “Dancing” into a slick piece of pop metal disco and The Big Chill already had masticated Motown into nostalgic pap. But there’s something especially cheap and grotesque in Bowie and Jagger’s pantomime reduction of “Dancing,” especially Jagger, who knew better (he’d sampled the lyric on his own “Street Fightin’ Man”). It’s just a charity show, yes, it’s just a laugh, yes, it’s just for fun, yes, but it’s also two sad men selling off their youth at cut rates.

Highlights of the video:

1) Jagger’s dancing, especially in the opening verse, reminds one of Truman Capote’s snark about Jagger’s stage act: “as sexy as a pissing frog.”

2) The choreography makes a bit more sense if you imagine that each of them are pretending to duet with Tina Turner.

3) A small charm is Bowie’s role as foil here—he’s often acting like a gawky fan who won an MTV contest to co-star in a video with Jagger. The dopey hand twirling movements, the half-assed judo kicks.

4) That said, when Bowie sways his hips and clasps himself as he lip-syncs “streets of Brazil!” is the absolute nadir of his performing life.

5) Jagger had been a fashion casualty for years, so his sherbet-green puffy shirt and purple caddy pants are just par for the course. But you’d expect better from Bowie than the camouflage pajamas and over-sized raincoat.

6) St. Vincent, on Twitter: “Bowie and Jagger “Dancing in the Street” video duet is the biggest anti-cocaine ad you ask for. #ihavethatjacket“. Sadly, I don’t think you can blame coke for this one.

7) After all the hard work Bowie did in 1983-1984 establishing his heterosexual bonafides, he releases a single whose sleeve could’ve doubled for a gay porn film advertisement and whose video ends with a freeze-frame of his and Jagger’s synchronized ass-waggle.

8) “That happened and we let it happen“: trenchant YouTube comment (actually “Family Guy” reference, see comments).

Recorded 29-30 June 1985, Abbey Road Studios (with overdubs in New York in early July). Premiered at Live Aid, 13 July 1985, and released on 19 August 1985 as EMI America 204 (#1 UK, #7 US).

* The record the Stones were making in the summer of 1985, Dirty Work, is like the final, chaotic days of a marriage, with Jagger singing about nuclear war, money-grubbers, cheaters and violent sex, with a reoccurring motif of wanting to beat the shit out of someone (“Fight,” “One Hit (to the Body)”). It should have been their last album. (Christgau: We should be thankful the old reprobate [Jagger] didn’t lavish much personal attention on it, that he just plugged into his Stones mode and spewed what he had to spew. Let him express himself elsewhere. The individual Rolling Stones can have their own disgusting lives and careers—I don’t care. What I want is the Rolling Stones as an entity, an idea—that’s mine and yours as much as theirs. And it’s the Rolling Stones as an idea that Dirty Work vindicates“).

** Best obscure cover of “Dancing in the Street”: the Carpenters’ freaky jazz-trio version from 1968.

Top: Lee Friedlander, “Boston, 1985,” from the series MIT (1985-1986) (LF: “The working project was named “Changing Technology.” I chose to photograph people working at computers as these ubiquitous machines seemed to be the vehicle for that change. The pictures were made in the environs of Route 128, a loop road around Boston, which at the time was considered a northeastern Silicon Valley.“) (It went bust five years later.)

Absolute Beginners

January 12, 2012

Absolute Beginners.
Absolute Beginners (single edit).
Absolute Beginners (dub mix).
Absolute Beginners (live, 1987).
Absolute Beginners (broadcast, 2000).
Absolute Beginners (live, 2002).

I recall reading somewhere (a commenter on Popular, most likely) a DJ taken by the response he got whenever he played “Absolute Beginners,” especially towards the end of an evening. It’s the Bowie song that people forget they love, he said.

If “Ashes to Ashes” kills off world-altering Bowie, “Absolute Beginners” finishes world-popular Bowie. Very nearly a UK #1 (held off by Diana Ross’ “Chain Reaction” and a Cliff Richard/Young Ones duet), “Beginners” is the end of Bowie’s days in mainstream pop, with only one more solo appearance in the UK Top 10 to come in this survey. While some of its chart success was due to Absolute Beginners hype (which explains in part why “Beginners” died such a death in the US, only reaching #53, as the film flopped there), “Beginners” was loved too, as it was one of Bowie’s most open, most heartfelt-seeming songs, even if he occasionally sounded like Neil Diamond on the chorus (especially on “hard lines”).

Having recently looked up pop hits of my childhood in the late Seventies-early Eighties (as memory-triggers for this new project), I was struck by how many of them had been “adult” pop songs, for lack of a better word—songs about commitment, missed chances, regrets, sacrifices, sneaking around, feeling used up but still keeping at it. Some were saccharine and self-deceiving, some were home truths. “Still the One,” “Reminiscing,” “Against All Odds,” “Secret Lovers,” “”Oh Sherrie,” “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” “Glory Days,” “Solid,” “Still the Same,” “Don’t Answer Me,” and so on. At some point, by the turn of the century, country music had annexed most of these songs, leaving today’s pop charts far more ruthlessly dedicated to the pleasures and preoccupations of youth (with many exceptions of course, Beyoncé being the first that comes to mind).

This outcome would’ve been fine for me as a kid, because I always hated when some ballad about being lost in middle-aged love knocked off an important song like “Rock Me Amadeus” in the charts. But as dreary as I thought them, the songs were a collective undercurrent, giving warnings that life in the years ahead would have different pleasures, different worries, than those I was consumed with then. It was perhaps the last time the pop charts were a generational dialogue, even if both sides weren’t particularly interested in listening to each other.

This is a long way of saying that “Absolute Beginners” falls into this decaying line of adult pop—it’s not a song for young people, though Bowie casts himself as a beginner in love. His nearly-improvised lyric, marked by slant rhymes (“ocean/reason” or “offer/beginner”), is subtly an extended pledge of love as one long equivocation. Even at his most heartfelt, Bowie’s still hedging something.

A heartbroken man is trying out love once more. He’s been down so long that it feels like it’s the first time again, and he’s so intoxicated by the promise that he feels as though he can start over from scratch. But he can’t, and he knows it—his eyes are open, his feet are on the ground, he’s unfortunately sane. The first verse closes with “I absolutely love you/but we’re absolute beginners“: it’s a declaration undermined with a quick caveat. If I don’t know anything about love anymore, then I don’t know if this will work.

There’s wariness in the chorus as well, despite the unbounded joy of the vocal melody and the soaring sentiments about flying over mountains and laughing at oceans (though recall that Bowie’s not talking about love here but its commercial vehicles—songs and films). Where the first chorus finds Bowie reassuring his love, saying that there’s no reason to dwell on the past, to be pessimistic, by the chorus repeat he’s come back down. If there are reasons to be afraid, if you are worried you’re making another mistake, then you may well be right. And you realize Bowie’s been playing with the word “absolute” the whole time. “Absolute” as an adjective means an unconditional fact, as in a pledge of “absolute” love, but the word also means to be completely independent, to be utterly whole. Two absolute beginners may be awful lovers, for they’re complete in themselves and need nothing else added.

“Beginners” was a throwback to the type of studio improvisation that had created the likes of “Heroes,” which suggests again that Bowie in his declining years needed to will himself into a state of determined, frenzied creativity before he could produce top-flight work. This arguably had been the case with Station to Station or Low too, but now it was ten years on from those records. Bowie was rich, unchallenged and at a loss of where to go. Then, in a pick-up session for an inconsequential film soundtrack, he managed a late lucky strike.

The song came out of a demo session for “That’s Motivation,” which Bowie cut with a band assembled by EMI A&R head Hugh Stanley Clarke, including Attractions’ keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Matthew Seligman (who’d worked with the Soft Boys and Thomas Dolby), drummer Neil Conti and guitarist Kevin Armstrong (Prefab Sprout), with Rick Wakeman subsequently doing piano overdubs.* Each musician only had been told they were supporting a “Mr. X” at Abbey Road. (Most of them knew who “X” was before they arrived, though. Conti had been given the tip that his employer “had a glass eye.”)

Quickly dispatching the “Motivation” demo (with which “Beginners” shares an opening guitar line), Bowie and the band had time left on the clock, so they began working on another piece Bowie was considering for the film. Fueled by a mix of cigarettes, Cuba Gold coffee and, as per one bio, cocaine,** Bowie sketched out a few chords and lyric phrases, then led the band through the song as he was writing it. Building the song eight bars at a time, scribbling out the lyric in bursts, Bowie took cues from his players’ suggestions—a key change; an exuberant bassline courtesy of a beside-himself Seligman.

Playing the role of Eno to his new charges, Bowie offered suggestions like “think green” or “sound Brazilian.” According to Sandford’s bio, Bowie also kept the mood light with a few pantomimes, like filming an empty glass on the recording console or hanging a painting on the studio wall.

“Beginners” is structurally fairly standard. While solidly in D major, an early Amaj7 chord in place of an A adds a bit of tension (on “nothing”) as do a few later diversions—for instance, a C major subs for what should be a C# minor (on “I’m absolutely,” so brightening that declaration). Where the track’s most radical in its embrace of stasis, in its easy but steady momentum. Its two verses are far too long for a typical pop single: they’re 40 bars, each over a minute long, so even on the single edit the chorus doesn’t appear until two minutes into the track. And what a chorus, though: one of the great octave-spanning Bowie melodies, a worthy heir to “Lady Grinning Soul” and the second bridge on “Under Pressure.”

However, despite this, “Beginners” doesn’t seem to drag. If anything, there’s a sense of having enough room to spare—take the way Bowie will take his time on every phrase, often languidly singing a three-beat line over four bars. The song’s fluid, able to be extended and shortened at will without sacrificing its feel, as long as you cut to the meaty chorus ever so often. So there’s a five-minute single edit, the eight-minute “master” version on the soundtrack LP (and used for the video), the two-minute cut for Absolute Beginners‘ opening credits, the six-minute cut for the end titles. “Beginners” was easily extended by Don Weller’s saxophone solo and a Luis Jardem percussion breakdown;  it was just as easily compressed to a single verse/chorus.

When Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who were producing the Absolute Beginners soundtrack, heard Bowie’s studio demo of “Beginners,” they were flummoxed, as they had no idea how to improve it. “We’ve been handed this one on a plate,” Langer recalled saying in the elevator afterwards (as per Buckley’s bio).

The main addition was fulfilling Bowie’s request for a backing singer “who sounds like a shopgirl.” Langer and Winstanley found the 22-year-old Janet Armstrong, whose vocal on “Absolute Beginners” was her first-ever professional studio session. (It’s yet another play on the title, as Bowie is duetting with a literal absolute beginner). Bowie’s lead vocal was cut during a freewheeling session in which he imitated Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Bruce Springsteen—the tapes, sadly, haven’t been bootlegged.

“Beginners” (the instrumental “dub” mix, issued as the B-side, is a nice way to hear the intricacies of the backing track) is a collection of small pleasures—the way Nieve’s keyboards can sound like an accordion; Wakeman’s wry musings that become, during the chorus, a lovely embellishment on the vocal melody; the baritone-sax heavy horn section, which eventually takes up the “bom-bom-bahOOOH” vocal hook; the Jardim percussion break, capped off with what sounds like an analog attempt to match the Fairlight tom samples on Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice” theme; Bowie and Armstrong’s last “true,” which they hold aloft as long as they can, then slowly bring it down to earth.

The song felt valedictory, like a last gift, and it was. “Beginners” marks the end of Bowie as a mass property (it’s arguably the most recent song that the average person knows of his), his final hour in the center. Now he begins a long journey that will lead him back to where he had started: on the margins.

Recorded June 1985 at Abbey Road Studios, London (with overdubs later in the year). Released March 1986 as Virgin VS 838 (#2 UK, #53 US). Performed during the Glass Spider tour, live for the BBC in 2000 (during this performance, Bowie raises his eyes to the sky while he sings “I absolutely love you,” and then mouths “thank you”—it seems like a prayer, but perhaps he was only acknowledging a vocal fan in the nosebleed seats) and as a duet with Gail Ann Dorsey on the Heathen tour of 2002.

* Wakeman added what he described as the “classical piano/ Rachmaninoff type stuff” in a much later mixing session, where he and Bowie (who had been neighbors in Switzerland) spent a few hours reminiscing.

**An apparent late-in-the-day indulgence, as it’s one of the last reported times Bowie used it.

Top: Michael Schmidt, from the Waffenruhe (“ceasefire”) series, Berlin, 1985-86.


January 9, 2012

Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu) (Domenico Modugno, Eurovision, 1958).
Volare (Dean Martin, 1958).
Volare (Bowie, 1985).

The world of Absolute Beginners is also the high tide of Italy’s cultural influence on British youth. The cliche of dolce far niente Italian life had allured Britons since the Renaissance, and now it helped that the Italians had been the inept junior partners of the Axis, so there were no hard feelings about air raids, for instance.

What Italian culture offered the postwar British was a readymade sense of style—hence the late Fifties vogue for coffee bars, Vespa and Lambretta scooters, tailor-made suits, Fellini films. Adopting Italian styles led directly to the Mods, as it offered the most appealing distance from the throwback “American” stylings of the great Mod rivals, the rockers.

Contemporary Italian pop music was part of the package. Domenico Modugno’s “Volare” (its official title was “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu”), Italy’s entrant to the 1958 Eurovision competition, placed third at Eurovision but as compensation it became a worldwide hit, even reaching #1 in the US in the summer of 1958, with various covers, most notably Dean Martin’s, charting near-simultaneously.

Bowie’s cover (in Absolute Beginners, it’s heard only on the radio while his character, the ad man Vendice Partners, is driving around the lead, Colin) is impeccably sung, with Bowie handling the Italian lyric so well that perhaps he should’ve made an Italian version of “Heroes” rather than a French one. Bowie, like most interpreters, excised Modugno’s original weird opening, where he recalled a dream in which he painted his flesh blue and then soared off into the sky. The production is clean and sparkling, the bongo/marimba rhythms add a Brazilian flavor, the period guitar solo is executed perfectly. It’s prop-music.

Recorded June 1985 at Abbey Road Studios, London. Included only on the double-LP version and the CD issue of the Absolute Beginners soundtrack.

Top: Terry Gilliam, Brazil, 1985.