Peter and the Wolf

December 21, 2012

bowie wolf

Peter and the Wolf (pt. 1).
Peter and the Wolf (pt. 2).
Peter and the Wolf (pt. 3).
Peter and the Wolf (pt. 4).

I have held this one back (it should have been slotted in the “Heroes” era), as I had intended it as the final Christmas post on this blog, which I assumed would be in 2012. However, given my recently slowed pace (mild illness, overwork, burnout) and the still-massive amount of songs left to get through, it seems likely that the blog will still be active in December 2013, though blessedly it will be quite near the end by then.

So: Peter and the Wolf. Sergei Prokofiev was commissioned by the Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow to write a symphony that would encourage musical taste in children. He wrote it allegedly in four days; it premiered on 5 March 1936, and according to Prokofiev, got a lukewarm reception. During the Thirties, Soviet art was often concerned with magic, fairy tales, legends and domestic happiness, with a consequent cult of the child and Stalin as a sort of national paterfamilias; Stalin was rehabilitating the idea of the “traditional family” (despite, or because, the fact that a housing shortage meant that a set of families were often jammed together in communal apartments).

Peter and the Wolf soon made its way to the West, its permanence assured a decade later, when Walt Disney made a film of it. From the late Thirties on, record labels made a habit of finding seemingly any actor with a spare afternoon to do the narration: Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Jose Ferrer, Paul Hogan, Sirs John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, Patrick Stewart, Sean Connery, Dame Edna Everidge, and Sharon Stone. “The piece has become the classical equivalent of The Vagina Monologues,” wrote Cynthia Kaplan (who wound up buying the Bowie version) in her Leave the Building Quickly.

In 1977, RCA was looking to release a new version with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. They were reportedly turned down by Peter Ustinov and Alec Guinness (the latter was in demand, as Star Wars had just come out) and decided on Bowie. He later said he agreed to do it as a Christmas present for his son, and in December ’77 he flew to New York to record his narration.

It’s one of the more charming versions of Peter and the Wolf ever recorded. Bowie was always inspired when he did children’s material (see his narration of The Snowman), giving it dignity and grace, never being condescending (he’s great in particular as the pissy cat: “Is it worth climbing up so high? By the time I get there the bird will have flown away!“). His old producer Ken Scott, after hearing “Kooks,” said he wished that Bowie would do a whole album of kid’s songs. This is as closest as Bowie ever came.

Here’s hoping that everyone has a merry Xmas and a fine New Year. We’ll be back around the New Year to finish off Buddha of Suburbia, and then onward to greater things Outside. Thanks, once again, to all readers and commenters.

See you in 2013.

C. O.

Under Pressure

September 27, 2011

Feel Like (Queen studio demo, 1981).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Queen).
Under Pressure (Queen, live, 1986).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Annie Lennox, rehearsal, 1992).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Annie Lennox w/Queen, live, 1992).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey, broadcast, 1995).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 1996).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 1997).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 2003).

The comic book Marvel Team-Up (above is the first issue I ever bought, at age 9) had a simple narrative formula: in each issue Spider Man met another hero, usually fought him/her by mistake, then the two combined forces to defeat whatever villain turned up in the third act. MTU often felt like a make-work program for Marvel characters, as Spider Man’s co-stars were generally third-tier superheroes (or even TV actors), but once in a while there was an above-the-marquee pairing, a real event.

“Under Pressure” is the Marvel Team-Up of Bowie songs,* with Bowie sharing the mike with Freddie Mercury, a duet seemingly financed by Rolling Stone for a “Seventies legends” retrospective issue. “Under Pressure” easily lends itself to metaphor: Tom Ewing, in his review of the track, aptly compared it to an exhibition football match (“Sir Fred’s mighty “Why can’t we give ourselves one more chance?” is the song’s most ridiculous, glorious moment: a stunning strike from the Queen frontman whose over-the-top goal celebration (“why can’t we give love, give love, give love”) just prolongs the joy.“)

A vague protest song about modern life, “Pressure” was recorded by an aging rock star and a fading rock group who met one summer in a Swiss studio. Bowie was there working with Giorgio Moroder on “Cat People,” while Queen was recording a follow-up to The Game. After chatting about record advances, Bowie recorded backing vocals for a dreadful Queen track called “Cool Cat” (his contribution was erased before the final mix). This led to a jam session on another unassuming song, provisionally titled “Feel Like,” that Queen was working up in the studio. With contributions by Bowie (who likely wrote the bridge melodies), the song developed into “Under Pressure,” which remains at heart a studio jam: Brian May’s guitar is little more than the arpeggiated pattern he was toying with on “Feel Like,” while Mercury’s peacock scatting in his verse sections disguises the fact that he didn’t bother to write a lyric for them.

And for all its world-encompassing lyrical pretensions and its bravura vocals, “Pressure” is a fairly minimal record, in line with Queen’s new taste for simpler, dance-oriented sounds. Keeping within the confines of D major (until the second bridge, “Pressure” is just tonic (D), subdominant (G) and dominant (A)), “Pressure” is only two verses and two bridges, the second of the latter extended to become the grand climax to the song—after the final Bowie blowout, there’s nowhere to go but offstage.

A few motifs are cycled throughout—the two-note synth line that sounds like a French horn (in the intro, verses and outro) and a two-note piano quote—and the rhythms build steadily, with the piano moving from brief interjections to a steady vamping in the verses, or Roger Taylor going from hi-hat in the intro to pounding his snare in the verses to the drum crescendo for Mercury’s bird of prey howls in the bridge (with Bowie yelling “no! no! no!” as though an air raid’s about to begin).

Neither Bowie nor Queen were enthusiastic at first about “Pressure,” most of which was completed in a day (then given some overdubs a few weeks later in New York). But “Pressure” had quite a few things in its favor, like its superstar co-billing and John Deacon’s minimalist bassline (six D notes, then an A; repeat, with minor variations, ad infinitum) which, especially when set against the bare-bones rhythm base in the intro (claps, fingersnaps, hi-hat), was a natural hook.** And once EMI learned it had a Bowie and Queen duet, the label pushed for it to be a single.

The once-David Jones and the once-Farrokh Bulsara first met in the late Sixties, when Bowie was an obscure would-be folkie and Mercury was selling second-hand clothes in a Kensington Market stall. Little more than a decade later, after having become pop demigods and having lived on a galactic scale, Bowie and Mercury were the last glam superstars left standing. Meeting by chance at the turn of a decade, the two seemed compelled deliver a pronouncement, some kind of state of the union address.

A problem with many rock star “social commentaries” is that the star, long isolated by money and sycophants, speaks in generalities, with human life reduced to a series of abstractions, as though the star’s fearful of alienating constituencies with an inappropriate detail. So we get things like: Feed the world. We are the world. People need to be free. The children are our future.

“Under Pressure” seems a case in point. People on streets, Mercury and Bowie sing, over and over again; it’s a phrase so abstracted that it lacks a definite article. “Pressure”*** is so ill-defined a concept that it’s both a physical force—burning buildings down—and a spiritual blight, causing divorce and homelessness. The brutal syntax of Bowie’s insanity laughs, under pressure we’re breaking doesn’t help things, while the song builds to the climactic flattery of Mercury’s why can’t we give ourselves one more chance?, offering unearned forgiveness for indeterminate sins. So it’s easy to ridicule the lyric as the gassings-on of two pantomime actors playing at being statesmen.

That judgement would miss something essential, I think. Nick Lowe, in 1974, wrote a parody of the Last Hippie called “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding?,” which Lowe’s protege Elvis Costello covered five years later. Lowe’s song is the lament of a hippie sad sack, lost in a cruel world and wondering where the good times have gone—there’s a touch of cruelty in it. Costello instead took the lyric utterly seriously, and the song, warming to its interpreter, became heartbreaking. “Where are the strong? and who are the trusted?” became hard indictments, questions more relevant than ever today.

Something similar happens in “Under Pressure,” which is a sad hippie song beneath its arias and cannonades, and it’s owed entirely to its singers.

Bowie and Mercury simply will “Under Pressure” into being far better than the material deserves. Take how Mercury sings the cliche “it never rains but it pours,” in an impossibly light falsetto, making it sound like a lament for the world, or how he soars to the diva high note that even Annie Lennox would struggle to hit. It’s a man carving his own monument.

But (given our biases here, this should be no surprise) it’s Bowie who really salvages the song. The sudden ferocity of his appearance on the first bridge (“it’s the terror of knowing what this world is about“) dispels some of the vagaries of the verse. Then there’s Bowie’s crescendo performance in the second bridge. It’s a melody that Bowie’s held back until now like an ace of trumps, the magnificent staircase-climb of “love’s..such an..old fashioned…WORD/and love..DARES YOU to CARE FOR…” It’s a beautiful moment: in the middle of what has been a superstar jam session, there suddenly appears Bowie’s new hymn for all the young dudes, buried away in plain sight. Watch George Michael start singing along in awe during Bowie’s rehearsal performance at the Mercury tribute—he can’t help himself.

“Under Pressure” is a day’s indulgence by two men past their prime, who were entering a decade that would reward and diminish them; Mercury had only a decade more to live. So there’s a sadness along with the bravado, a sense of loss to go with the heroics. Something is going away, going away for good, and Bowie and Mercury see it, if only in shadows. Anthony Miccio once called “Under Pressure” “the best song of all time,” and there are a few days when I think he was right. It’s the last song of the titans, one that needs grandiose claims made on its behalf.

“Under Pressure” slipped out in late 1981: a collective anonymous act. The single sleeve had no photographs, its video was cobbled together by David Mallet from stock footage, Queen and Bowie never performed it live together and never gave a single interview about “Under Pressure.” And it hit #1.

Recorded July 1981 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, with overdubs a few weeks later at the Power Station, NYC. Released 26 October 1981 as EMI 5250 (#1 UK, #29 US); later on Queen’s 1982 Hot Space, as well as being collected in a few Bowie anthologies. Bowie never played it live until the tribute to Mercury in April 1992, with his grand duet with Annie Lennox. Bowie then fashioned “Pressure” into a duet that he would perform with Gail Ann Dorsey throughout his last decade of touring.

* Of course, there’s another edition of Bowie Team-Up coming in 1985, one that’s far less sublime. Brace yourselves.

** Deacon was supplanting Brian May as Queen’s dominant instrumental voice: his Chic-inspired bassline had owned “Another One Bites the Dust.” Who wrote the mighty “Pressure” bassline? Various authors have been proposed (or proposed themselves) over the years, but according to May and Taylor, Deacon came up with it. However Deacon once said that Bowie wrote it. And yes, there’s Vanilla Ice—let’s not get into it. [Supplementary note: I failed to mention that in the recent Paul Trynka DB bio, Trynka bolsters the Bowie-as-author case, claiming that a) the bassline was actually recorded late in the game, in New York during overdubs and B) Bowie “sang” the entire bassline to Deacon. No direct attribution as to where this info came from, though.]

*** See also Billy Joel’s even more incoherent “Pressure,” from 1982.

Top: MTU #110, Oct. 1981; Kim Aldis, Brixton riots, UK, April 1981.

Cat People (Putting Out Fire)

September 21, 2011

The Myth (Giorgio Moroder with David Bowie).
Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (single).
Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (LP remake).
Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (live, 1983).
Cat People (single edit, Inglourious Basterds, 2009).

The plan was for a tour, possibly, in 1981, with Bowie’s new band—anchored by Steve Goulding and featuring the battling guitars of G.E. Smith and Carlos Alomar—burning through the Berlin records and Scary Monsters and reviving standards, the way Bowie had already transformed “The Man Who Sold the World'” and “Space Oddity.”

The Lennon murder ended any chance of that. Bowie fled New York soon after the New Year, returning to Switzerland. There, in Coursier-sur-Vevey, Bowie hired an ex-Navy SEAL bodyguard and took classes in self-defense for celebrities, learning how to identify potential stalkers (he was advised to move, as some fans had found his address—this would be his last summer in Vevey). He skied, entertained Charlie Chaplin’s son and widow, doted on his 10-year old son. With the exception of a brief trip to London to accept an award, Bowie stayed in his Swiss exile, living like a well-apportioned hermit.

He didn’t want to record new material, either. Bowie had soured on RCA, which he blamed for poorly promoting his late Seventies records* while flooding the market with repackages like ChangesTwoBowie. Also, he still had contractual obligations to Tony Defries that wouldn’t expire until October 1982: Bowie hated that his old manager was still owed a piece of his mechanical royalties (it’s one reason Queen put out “Under Pressure,” a song he partially wrote, on their label and with a headline credit—that way Defries wouldn’t get a cut of it). Having only one more album on his RCA contract and almost clear of Defries, Bowie determined to wait everyone out. 1981 would be a deliberately lost year.

Well, not entirely. Paul Schrader had asked Bowie to work with Giorgio Moroder on the title song for Schrader’s garish remake of Cat People. In the summer of 1981, Bowie went to Mountain Studios in Montreux to meet Moroder, whose music he had enjoyed since Moroder’s Donna Summer productions. Moroder played him a moody three-chord piece he had worked up for the title theme, a slow builder that would have Bowie sing the opening two verses in his lowest register, then suddenly vault up to spark the refrain.

Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) is an eerie, wonderfully weird picture in which the (generally) off-screen monsters are shadow metaphors for frigidity, repression, xenophobia (an “all-American” guy marries a foreign girl whose “Old Country” past is dark and potentially lethal). It was far too nuanced for 1981. Schrader, taking the title and a handful of plot details and scenes from the original, turned Cat People into a bloodfest that he shot like a fashion spread. Cat People was an excuse for Schrader to shoot Nastassja Kinski, with whom he was infatuated, as often and as naked as possible, these scenes occasionally punctuated by gore-pieces, like Malcolm McDowell (Kinski’s cat-brother, who wants to mate with her: “we are an incestuous race,” he intones in a dream sequence) tearing off Ed Begley Jr.’s arm in a spray of blood.

Bowie crafted a ridiculous lyric that suited the film’s pretensions (Schrader said Kinski and McDowell’s relationship was a reworking of Dante and Beatrice—if Dante could transform into a panther). Paralleling Schrader’s own loose adaptation techniques, Bowie only vaguely referred to the cat people of the title, instead offering groaning banalities as “Fill this pulsing night/a plague they call the heartbeat.”

It didn’t matter, because the sound-picture Moroder created for Bowie gave him the license to go gloriously over the top. Bowie’s sepulchral croon in the opening verses (it seems like a near-parody of Jim Morrison at times) plays against Moroder’s minimalist percussive tracks—a repeating cymbal pattern, clattered sticks—and droning, yearning synth lines. And the sudden octave-leaping explosion of “putting out fire….WITH GAS-OH-LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINE!” that triggers the “full band” entrance is a magnificent moment, giving Bowie such presence that everything that follows, everything stupid and campy about the song (and there’s lots), is just burned away—Bowie rips into lines like “it’s been so long” or “you wouldn’t believe what I’ve BEEN THROUGH” as in a fever. The track goes on far too long, the backing singers eventually try to defuse Bowie, but there’s a lurid, pulp power to the track—the film it’s scored for seems unworthy of it.

Nearly two decades later, “Cat People” found its true role, used by Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds for a sequence that reveals the plans of the Jewish avenger Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) to condemn and massacre a cinema full of Nazis. Used here, lines like “it’s been so long” or “judgement made can never bend” suddenly sharpened, gained bloody, righteous purpose. “Cat People” now seems written for Laurent, who was born two years after it was recorded; in her, the song finally found its muse.

Moroder’s soundtrack for Cat People (he performed all tracks solo save Bowie’s theme song, which only appeared in the end credits) followed the formula Moroder had perfected in his American Gigolo soundtrack—have a hit single as the centerpiece, then write variations around it (like the various incarnations of Blondie’s “Call Me” in Gigolo). So Cat People opened with a brooding instrumental version of the title theme, called “The Myth,” featuring some ominous Bowie humming.

Due to rights issues with MCA, Bowie couldn’t include the Moroder “Cat People” on his first record for EMI, as he had wanted, forcing him to remake the song with Nile Rodgers in New York. A collective lack of enthusiasm is audible on the second “Cat People,” which at times seems a deliberate ruination of the song, with Bowie and Rodgers botching everything great about the original (Bowie’s initial vocal leap is way too rushed here, while the drumming, by either Omar Hakim or Tony Thompson, kicks in far too early, and mixed in the stadium-ready gated sound of the Power Station). Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar overdubs seem superfluous compared to the minimalist work of Moroder or whichever anonymous session musician played on the original.

Recorded July 1981, Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland (Moroder seems to have played much of the track, though the saxophonist David Woodford said he played on some of the Cat People material). First issued as a single in March 1982 (MCAT 770, both 7″ and 12″ versions, #26 UK) and on Moroder’s Cat People original soundtrack. The remake was cut at the Power Station, December 1982; on Let’s Dance, and also a B-side to the title track. Played live only during the Serious Moonlight tour, 1983.

*RCA, in turn, had never forgiven Bowie for abandoning the sound of Young Americans. Hearing that Bowie was working with Moroder initially raised their hopes until they discovered the partnership had resulted only in a single put out by another label. According to Christopher Sandford’s bio, one RCA executive, in a memo to a colleague, sighed that “it would be nice if DB went into the studio and recorded a real album.”

Top: ‘interieurblue,” “Sunglasses Mirror,” Paris, 1981.

Crystal Japan

September 1, 2011

Crystal Japan.
Crystal Jun Rock advert (starring D. Bowie).

A minor cultural oddity exposed by the all-seeing Internet is how various celebrities get a quick paycheck by doing TV ads in countries where they once assumed their primary fan base wouldn’t see them, touting everything from Polish banks to Japanese beers. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation captures a time when this type of sell-out was more discreet.

In early 1980, Bowie did a TV ad for a Japanese shochu manufacturer, Crystal Jun Rock, filming a spot at a Kyoto temple and licensing out an instrumental outtake called “Fuji Moto San” (sometimes incorrectly referred to as “Fuje San Moto”). “The money is a useful thing,” Bowie later said, also noting that he got more airplay via TV ads then he did with radio at the time.

Though often referred to as a Scary Monsters outtake, and originally intended to be the album’s closer (a Japanese counterpart to “It’s No Game (No. 1)”), it’s possible that at least some of “Crystal Japan” was recorded prior to those sessions, perhaps in Mountain Studios in Switzerland. (It’s established that Bowie filmed the ad in March 1980, in a break between Monsters‘ recording sessions.) “Japan” sounds unlike anything else from Scary Monsters, too—it’s far more in line with earlier ambient pieces like “Moss Garden.”

While it made sense to cut it from Scary Monsters, where “Japan” would have been an even more anomalous LP closer than “Secret Life of Arabia,” it’s a shame that “Crystal Japan” has been generally forgotten, as it has some of Bowie’s most gorgeous melodies of the period: the first childlike motif that begins at :25, the subsequent “choral” melody and development that follow it, and the resolution, with a rising-and-falling synthesized bass (almost gong-like), and the tiny three-note patterns that appear before the curtain falls. It’s “Warszawa” in miniature.

Recorded: Jan 1980?, Mountain Studios?, February 1980, Power Station, NYC. Released as a Japan-only single (RCA SS-3270) in spring 1980 (c/w “Alabama Song”) and then as the B-side of “Up the Hill Backwards” in March 1981. Later included on the Ryko reissue of Scary Monsters and All Saints. Trent Reznor (subconsciously) nicked the melody for Nine Inch Nails’ “A Warm Place” from it (confession to Bowie @2:00 in this interview).

Top: The Young Marble Giants, 1980.

Is There Life After Marriage?*

August 23, 2011

Is There Life After Marriage?*

I came very close to not doing an entry for this one, but seeing as I’m behind on the remaining Scary Monsters entries and after listening to it again, I felt “Is There Life After Marriage?” merited some sort of notice: a separate but qualified entry. Hence the asterisk.

Because “Is There Life After Marriage” has already been covered here—it’s an instrumental from the early Scary Monsters sessions that was meant to be a version of Cream’s “I Feel Free,” a song that Bowie played during the first Spiders tour and had intended to cover for years: he finally did so on Black Tie White Noise. The intended Scary Monsters cover went no further than this backing track (possibly because “Kingdom Come” made it superfluous), in which Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray do their thing: Alomar demonstrates yet again that he’s one of the best rhythm players of his generation, Murray is a rock of melodic steadiness and Davis seems ready to cut loose at a half-second’s notice.

To make things more confusing, there are two “Marriage”s: a track title reportedly documented during the Scary Monsters sessions (as per Pegg) which no one has heard outside the Bowie circle (and which may well be a working title of another Monsters track, as “Cameras in Brooklyn” was for “Up the Hill Backwards”), and this version, the bootlegged “I Feel Free” backing track. The title could be a reference to the just-divorced Bowie, but it’s also possible that he took the phrase from Margaret Drabble’s The Middle Ground (1980), where it’s a graffito scrawled on the wall of an Oxford Street bridal shop.

Recorded February 1980, the Power Station, New York. Unreleased.

Top: Kevin O’Sullivan, “New York,” May 1980.

The Cale Demos

August 2, 2011

Velvet Couch.
Piano-la (Pianola?).

When we did that bootleg, it was like the good old bad old days. We were partying very hard. It was exciting working with him, as there were a lot of possibilities and everything, but we were our own worst enemies at that point…Did I ever want to produce Bowie? After spending time with him, I realised the answer was no. The way we were then would have made it too dangerous.

John Cale, Uncut interview, 2008.

John Cale first heard David Bowie in 1971, during Cale’s tenure as the “weirdo music” A&R man for Warner Records, but the two didn’t meet until years later.* Cale, in the interview linked above, said he had been startled and delighted when coming upon Hunky Dory, which he saw as the heir to Lionel Bart and Anthony Newley with bizarre SF overtones and a pinch of Neil Young. No one in America really got the record, particularly Warner’s (which, thankfully, wasn’t Bowie’s label), but Cale had heard a kindred spirit.

Finally, on April Fool’s Day 1979, Bowie and Cale performed together, playing Cale’s recent “Sabotage” during a Philip Glass and Steve Reich show entitled “The First Concert of the Eighties.” Bowie, wearing a black kimono, attempted to play viola for the first time in his life. Sadly, no footage has survived.

If one had the power to fork and twist history, it would be tempting to do all sorts of damage, but one very minor alteration would be, in the ’70s, to align Bowie with John Cale instead of Lou Reed. Cale and Bowie were far better suited and could have been fantastic collaborators, on a par with Bowie and Eno’s partnership. Time has done adequate justice to Cale, as there’s a general consensus now that his work in the ’70s—the cracked Whitman’s Sampler Vintage Violence, the majestic pop of Paris 1919, the “dirty ass rock and roll” trilogy Fear, Slow Dazzle and Helen of Troy and the punk salvos with which Cale closed out the decade, the Animal Justice EP and his live CBGB document Sabotage—is at least the equal, if not the superior, of Reed’s work in the decade.

In October 1979, when Bowie was hanging around New York, Cale and Bowie finally tried to collaborate. It would be nice to say that the surviving demos from this session were glimpses of what could have been major works, but they’re just murky-sounding early drafts, weak shadows of songs; they exist only as lost potential.

The somber “Piano-la” or “Pianola” (a bootlegger apparently titled the songs) is a barely-audible Bowie singing place-filler notes while Cale sounds out ideas on piano. “Velvet Couch” is more realized, with Bowie, tracing together a melody, surfacing with lines like “we won’t do things like that anymore,” “we’ll be as we are,” “they never sleep and they never play guitar,” “a red velvet couch and no guitar.” The songs, at least in these early forms, have little connection to what Bowie was writing on Lodger and Scary Monsters: they’re more similar to Cale’s then-recent slow pieces like “Chorale.” Hearing these demos is as frustrating as it is tantalizing—it’s a glimpse of a path not taken, a ghost avenue.

Recorded 15 October 1979, Ciarbis Studio, NYC. Unreleased (first issued on the bootleg 7″ Two Gentlemen in New York in the 1980s). To hear, click on the link above and then on Player #4—they’re tracks 11 and 12.

* There’s a charming (and hopefully true) anecdote about Bowie visiting the US for the first time in 1971 and going to see the Velvet Underground play, excited that he would see Cale and Lou Reed at last. But of course, this was the “fake” VU with Doug Yule as lead singer. Bowie, however, mistakenly thought he had met Cale that evening.

Top: Cale and Nico at CBGB, 19 February 1979.

PS: For those unfamiliar with Cale, here’s a Youtube sampler I just threw together.

Play It Safe

July 28, 2011

Play It Safe (Iggy Pop).

If Bowie left the Seventies (relatively) cleaned up and prosperous, in gear for the upcoming decade, Iggy Pop exited in a shambles, with much of the salvage work of the Idiot/Lust for Life era unraveled by the typical chaos.

In late 1978, Pop was living a fairly domestic life in West Berlin with his girlfriend, the photographer Esther Friedmann. Things were on the up: he had a new contract with Arista and he released a fine, still-underrated record in April 1979, New Values, which was a minor success in the UK and produced a few FM radio hits like “I’m Bored.'” The next record, Iggy’s circle agreed, could be the big one—at last, a commercial smash. So Iggy set about assembling a punk rock supergroup for the sessions, including former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock, former Rich Kid Steve New and Barry Andrews, whose manic organ playing had defined the first two XTC albums.

But the result, Soldier, was a mess and didn’t sell. The album sessions, held in a remote Welsh farm, were plagued by sloth, drugs and paranoia, with producer/former Stooge James Williamson pacing the studio with a bottle of vodka and a gun, ordering retake after retake, or spending days trying to create a 48-track console by synchronizing tape machines. Iggy, who had just come off a tour and had little time to rehearse, was having trouble with lyrics. The general vibe was awful.

Then Bowie appeared—as Pop recalled to Paul Trynka, Bowie showed up looking like “the Scarlet Pimpernel,” wearing an all-red outfit (including a cape). Bowie, who was worried about Pop, soon tried to lighten the mood. Gathering the musicians around him (including some Simple Minds members who showed up when they heard Bowie had arrived), Bowie spun tales of London lowlife, particularly the notorious John Bindon, a former gangster (an alleged Kray Brothers enforcer) turned actor (Get Carter, Performance) who had once run security for Led Zeppelin and who was known for having an enormous penis, which, Bowie said, was a favorite of Princess Margaret’s.*

That was enough for Iggy. He went into the vocal booth and soon improvised an obscene rap about Bindon and the Princess that spread into a rant on how being a criminal was like being a rock star, was better than being a rock star. The refrain came from the idea that the safest thing you can be is a criminal. I’m gonna play it safe! Iggy beamed. The band perked up, found a groove centered around a droning synthesizer line. Bowie went around the studio, politely offering suggestions, tweaking sounds. Williamson, angered by what he saw as Bowie’s usurpation, retaliated by sending a dose of feedback into Bowie’s headphones.

Bowie (and the disgruntled Williamson) left Wales the next day. Later that year Bowie apparently had second thoughts, asking for “Play It Safe” to be cut from the album. Instead the track was edited, losing not only the Princess Margaret verses but most of Steve New’s guitar (Pop allegedly was angry that New wasn’t going to tour with him, though there’s an apocryphal story about New punching Bowie when New thought Bowie was hitting on his girlfriend**). The final Soldier, which limped out in early 1980 and promptly sank without a trace, suffered from a poor mix, with a batch of songs that ranged between the funny-dumb (“I’m a Conservative”) and the dumb-dumb (“Dog Food“).

Even in its bowdlerized form, “Play It Safe” was the best track on a mediocre record. Iggy’s improvised lyric starts with Dwight Eisenhower and ends with the Son of Sam and Jim Jones, and there’s a poignancy to how Pop sings the title line—it’s the sound of a man trapped in his own diminishing legend.

Recorded ca. September 1979, Rockfield Studios, Monmouthshire, Wales. On Soldier, released February 1980. Trynka’s Open Up and Bleed, particularly his interview with Barry Andrews, is the main source for this entry.

* Among Bindon’s many girlfriends were, reportedly, Christine Keeler, Dana Gillespie and Angela Bowie. The latter two, one assumes, provided Bowie with his anecdotes.

** If this story is true, 1979 was a year Bowie got punched out a lot, most notoriously in the Lou Reed brawl in London.

Top: Pete Shacky, “Four Afghan Hounds,” West Berlin, 1979.

I Pray, Olé

July 19, 2011

I Pray, Olé.

“I Pray, Olé” closes the quartet of official Berlin-era outtakes (see “Some Are,” “All Saints,” “Abdulmajid“). As with most of these tracks, it’s hard to determine how much of “Olé” really is the work of its alleged era. I venture that little of it is. Mixed and released in the late Tin Machine years, its lyric is very Machine-esque at times (“it’s a god eat god world“) while some of the guitar overdubs harbinger Reeves Gabrels—it’s quite possible that Gabrels did them, though the guitar wailing towards the fadeout seems more Adrian Belew. The robotic drumming doesn’t seem like Dennis Davis at all, though perhaps it’s a Davis run-through drum track as consumed by the sins of 1980s production.

Nicholas Pegg speculated that “Olé” was cut from Lodger because of its melodic similarity to “Look Back in Anger,” and there’s something to that idea—the guitar counter-melody in the verses is close to the backing chorus (“waiting so long”) of “Anger.” Also (and that’s if “Olé” actually came out of the Lodger sessions) the song seems half-finished, with the various overdubs working hard to obscure the thinness of the material. Still, the opening verse has a fine, even somber vocal melody and there’s a catchy pair of chorus tags (the title and “can you make it THROUGH“). “Olé” could’ve been tucked onto one of Bowie’s ’90s records and few would have been the wiser.

Recorded ca. 1978-1979, overdubs and mixing in 1991 in Montreux. Only released on the Ryko CD edition of Lodger, currently out of print.

Top: Hazel Motes receives visitors, Wise Blood, John Huston, 1979.

Alabama Song

June 6, 2011

Alabama Song (Lotte Lenya, 1962).
Alabama Song (The Doors, 1967).
Alabama Song (Bowie, live, 1978).
Alabama Song (soundcheck, 1978).
Alabama Song (broadcast, 1978).
Alabama Song (single, 1980).
Alabama Song (live, 1990).
Alabama Song (live, 2002).

Here in Mahagonny, life is lovely.

Scene title in Mahagonny-Songspiel, 1927.

Bertolt Brecht wrote “Alabama Song” around 1925. With its stilted English lyric (likely by his regular collaborator, Elisabeth Hauptmann, as Brecht’s English was never good) and a crabbed melody meant for Brecht’s flint box of a voice, it was more a poem than it was a future standard. Kurt Weill, upon reading the original score, said “Alabama” was “nothing more than a notation of [Brecht’s] speech-rhythm and completely useless as music.” So Weill, once he began working with Brecht, set about turning “Alabama Song” into music. For instance, Brecht originally had compressed the start of the refrain, “O moon of Alabama,” into 1 1/2 bars—Weill extended the line over five bars, making “O” a whole note, having “Alabama” descend an octave. One of their first collaborations, the revised “Alabama Song” embodied the Brecht/Weill partnership, with Brecht’s depiction of man as a scavenging animal undermining, and being exalted by, Weill’s beauties.

“Alabama Song” first appeared in Brecht/Weill’s Mahoganny Songspiel (1927) and its operatic reworking three years later, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny. It was sung by a prostitute and her gang, leaving one town, heading for the fabled city of Mahoganny (essentially the ur-Las Vegas). “Alabama Song” was an anthem of the dissolute, a cry for base pleasures “performed by a priestess in the cult of money” (Daniel Albright). Lotte Lenya immortalized it, as she would other Brecht/Weill songs (a version here from 1962). When Lenya first sang “Alabama Song” for Brecht, he “listened with that deep courtesy and patience that I was to learn never failed him with women and actors,” Lenya recalled. “‘Not so Egyptian,’ he said, turning my palms upward, extending my arms…

Once the Nazis took power, Mahoganny and all other Brecht/Weill productions were banned from performance; by the early 1940s, Brecht, Weill and Lenya were all exiled in America. In the postwar years, Mahoganny was admired more than it was performed, never achieving the renown of Threepenny Opera, which had a major Broadway revival in the ’50s.

In 1965 Ray Manzarek played a cast recording of Mahoganny for his new band, the Doors. They adapted “Alabama Song,” as its calls for whiskey and (gender-altered by Jim Morrison) girls worked with the songs the Doors were writing at the time (here are versions by leather Morrison or bearded Morrison); the Doors played it in their sets at the Whiskey A Go-Go, where it became a standout, with most of the audience assuming it was an original. The band put “Alabama Song” on their first album; it was a remnant from a long-expired decadent era included in a bid to herald a new one.

A decade later, Bowie, planning a world tour in 1978, decided to play “Alabama Song” live; the idea may have been sparked by Bowie’s negotiations to star in a Threepenny Opera revival. It was an inspired choice, as “Alabama Song” both referenced (and slightly mocked) Bowie’s recent Berlin leanings and showed the ancestry of some of his recent songs—compare the irregular, even chaotic stressing of beats in the vocal (take “FOR–IF–we-don’t-FIND—the-next WHISKEY bar”) to Bowie’s vocals on songs like “What in the World” or “Breaking Glass.” In the Doors’ cover, Morrison had put a soulful rasp into the verses, making them flow better into the choruses. Bowie went back to Weimar, instead singing the verses with a blank expression, sometimes smoking a cigarette, flattening and deadening his tone. Then, suddenly, he would fall into the chorus, swooning and closing his eyes, with his band chanting behind him.

Pleased with how “Alabama Song” was working in his live sets, Bowie brought his touring band into Tony Visconti’s Good Earth studio in London, the day after the final Earl’s Court show, to cut a version of “Alabama Song” as a prospective single. Bowie wanted Dennis Davis to play a wild track-length drum solo, but attempting to do that live in the studio caused Davis to keep throwing off the band. The compromise was, breaking with standard recording practices, to tape the drums last, with the rhythm mainly kept by Sean Mayes’ keyboards and George Murray’s bass. Davis opens with a rumbling run on toms and cymbals, offers a stammering off-beat commentary on the choruses.

Bowie shelved “Alabama Song” until early 1980, when he finally issued it as a single. The timing was right at last: “Alabama Song” would mark his goodbye to the Seventies with a curse and smile, and, as it was an ode to sex and dollars, it would neatly welcome the Eighties.

A brief word on Stage, as this is the place for it. A live record of Philadelphia, Boston and Providence shows taped in early May 1978, it has strong versions of “Warszawa” (and all the Berlin instrumentals), “Stay” and arguably has the definitive “Station to Station.” It’s a document of transit: Bowie’s band learning how to adapt the Low/”Heroes” songs live and creating the sound of Lodger in the process, with keyboard work divided between Roger Powell (avant) and Sean Mayes (garde). Adrian Belew, having to not only cover Robert Fripp’s guitar work but Mick Ronson’s too, acquits himself well; Simon House’s violin adds an electric gypsy sound to the proceedings.

That said, as with most live records, Stage is a case of souvenirs from a trip that you (well, most of us) didn’t go on*. Most of the uptempo songs pale when compared to their originals, in particular the Ziggy Stardust material, with which none of the players were familiar. The original sequencing of the record was odd: Visconti, with Bowie’s approval, cut up the performance tapes so as to track the songs in chronological order, so that the LP began with “Hang Onto Yourself,” had a nearly all-instrumental side, and ended with “Beauty and the Beast.” This was a complete distortion of how the shows actually were performed. Bowie generally opened with nearly an hour of new material (leading off with “Warszawa”) leavened by a stray oldie like “Jean Genie”. After intermission, he returned with a revisited Ziggy Stardust (though mainly its lesser-known tracks, so “Soul Love” or “Star,” no “Suffragette City” or “Starman”), a Berlin entr’acte (“Art Decade,” “Alabama”) and closed out the set with the monster songs from Station to Station.

“Alabama Song” was performed throughout the 1978 tour, with a version on Stage. The studio version was recorded 2 July 1978 and released in February 1980 as RCA BOW 5  (#23 UK, c/w the “acoustic” remake of “Space Oddity”). Performed in 1990 and 2002.

Essential for the history of “Alabama Song”: Daniel Albright’s Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts; Foster Hirsch, Kurt Weill on Stage: From Berlin to Broadway; James K. Lyon and Hans-Peter Breuer, Brecht Unbound (source of Lenya quote).

* Stage was also Bowie’s bald attempt to knock off two records from the remaining four that he owed RCA, though RCA successfully argued that the double-LP live album should only count as one.

Also, thanks very much to Time magazine, which chose “Pushing Ahead of the Dame” as a “Best Blog of 2011.” Finding my small, weird effort on the same list as the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nate Silver has made it a very odd morning.

Top: Lotte Lenya, New York, 1978.

Revolutionary Song

June 2, 2011

Revolutionary Song.

Bowie’s movie career had started with his best film, so it had nowhere to go but down. His second feature, Just a Gigolo (the official title was the German: Schöner Gigolo, Armer Gigolo), was the sort of wrack left at the ebb of an era, one of those bloated ’60s and ’70s film extravaganzas that sunk a small fortune on locations and sets and bribed as many aging stars as possible to fill the cast list. These films were like James Bond movies without the gadgets or the wit. In this case, Gigolo was meant to be the grand return of German film, boasting the largest budget ($19 million, inflation-adjusted) since the war.

You’d expect an aging Hollywood director or a rising vulgarian like Dino de Laurentiis to be behind something like Gigolo, but the film was the vanity project of the British actor David Hemmings (best known for Blowup). He wooed Bowie for the lead role by noting that Gigolo would be shot in Berlin, making it convenient for Bowie, and by assembling a collection of legendary actresses for him to play against, including Kim Novak and (the clincher for Bowie) Marlene Dietrich. But the reclusive Dietrich refused to come to Berlin, so Bowie’s scene with her was shot in two parts—Dietrich alone on a Paris soundstage, Bowie acting “to a chair” in Berlin, as he recalled.

Gigolo was a disaster upon release, getting vicious reviews and poor box office, with Hemmings repeatedly re-cutting the film in a bid to salvage it until it was taken away from him and dumped into theaters in a butchered, barely-coherent cut. Worth a viewing (most of it’s in fragments on Youtube) if you’ve some time, as Bowie is like Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It—the beautiful, oblivious object of desire for the rest of the cast. He also hasn’t shaken the image of being an extraterrestrial in disguise, which gives the film a slight SF quality; it’s as if an alien had posed as a gigolo in Weimar Berlin.

As Hemmings had a rock star in his film, he naturally wanted something on the soundtrack from him. Bowie’s effort was the paltriest thing he recorded in the ’70s: “Revolutionary Song,” a Brecht/Weill pastiche co-written with Jack Fishman. I think Nicholas Pegg’s speculation is correct that Fishman essentially tarted up a doodle that Bowie played during filming. Bowie’s sole contribution was the “la-la-la-la-la-la-la-LA-la-la” vocal melody, which sounds as if they taped it while Bowie was singing in the shower.

Recorded ca. February-March 1978 (Bowie’s vocal?) and likely finished later in 1978; released on the Just a Gigolo soundtrack in June 1979 (the track was credited to “The Rebels”), and as a single in Japan. A justifiable obscurity, “Revolutionary Song” never has been released on CD or digitally. The Gigolo soundtrack features Marlene Dietrich, the Village People, David Bowie and a Scott Joplin rag: it sadly missed the cut to be included on Voyager 2 as an example of the glorious mess that is human civilization.

Top: Just a Gigolo cast searching for direction, ca. January-February 1978.