Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy

December 24, 2010

David Bowie and Bing Crosby, Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy.
Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy.

Those of you who’ve stuck with this blog for a while may recall that this entry appeared last Christmas too. Consider it the joker in the pack.

Originally aired on a forgettable 1977 TV special, the Crosby/Bowie duet had a second life with the arrival of MTV, which ran it regularly during the Christmas season. That’s where I first saw it, and I was entranced with the performance—it was like watching your grandfather meet Han Solo. The Internet has formally preserved it at last and in 2010, there’s a brand-new, nearly word-for-word parody video by Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. Which means the duet is basically Christmas canon now, and probably in my old age, I’ll see school kids in assemblies acting out the “Bing” and “Bowie” roles.

In 1999, Bowie recalled filming the duet. It was not fun.

[Bing] was not there at all…He looked like a little old orange sitting on a stool. He had been made up very heavily and his skin was a bit pitted, and there was just nobody home at all, you know? It was the most bizarre experience. I didn’t know anything about him. I just knew my mother liked him.

Crosby died on a Madrid golf course less than a month later.

The song medley was an eleventh-hour compromise. Bowie balked at having to sing “Little Drummer Boy” (“I hate that song,” he told the producers, and I have to agree—it’s irritating and it’s one of the worst offenders of the modern habit of creating endless new supporting players for the Nativity (see Nestor the Christmas Donkey)). So “Drummer Boy” was assigned to Crosby and quickly mated with a new piece for Bowie, “Peace on Earth,” which the Crosby show’s scriptwriters and songwriters dashed out in little over an hour. Even as a kid, I was creeped out by “Peace on Earth,” not just its vaguely totalitarian sentiments (“Every child must be made aware/every child must be made to care/to care enough for his fellow man“) but its obvious sense of being a prefab Christmas song. “Little Drummer Boy” was lame, but it had something of a pedigree—“Peace on Earth,” by contrast, has never been sung by anyone else anywhere.

Somehow, some way, it all works. A worse-for-wear Bing Crosby, squatting in a Munster-esque London mansion, is visited by his freeloading hip neighbor (love that Bowie namedrops Harry Nilsson). They duet on a pair of D-rate Christmas songs and it sounds beautiful. Call it the magic of television, with the box’s gift of placing warring elements into harmony, or just blame Christmas.

Recorded on 11 September 1977 at ATV’s Elstree Studios for Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas and broadcast on Christmas Eve 1977. It was belatedly released as a single by RCA after Bowie had left the label, in October 1982, and hit #3 in the UK.

That’s all. Back next year with The Idiot and Low, two recommended choices for enduring the winter.

Foot Stompin’/I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate

November 8, 2010

Foot Stompin’/I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate (Dick Cavett Show, 1974).
Foot Stompin’ (live, 1974).

Bowie, driven by boredom, frustration and financial mismanagement, used his final run of concerts in 1974 to repudiate everything he’d done that year. He scrapped the elaborate Hunger City sets of his Diamond Dogs tour (they were given away to a Philadelphia school) and recast much of his stage band. As the tour began in early October, Bowie purged his set lists of the grandiose and melancholic: gone were “Sweet Thing,” “Aladdin Sane,” “Time,” and “Big Brother.” The only survivors from Diamond Dogs, the album Bowie allegedly was promoting, were “Rebel Rebel,” “1984,” the title track and “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me.” Bowie instead sang covers, reclaimed a few of his older songs, and sifted in a fair amount of new material from the ongoing Young Americans sessions.

Looking for another uptempo R&B song, one that would showcase his backing singers, Bowie hit upon doing a medley of The Flares’ 1961 “Foot Stompin'” and a ’20s jazz standard, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.” (The inspiration for the medley might have come from the line about “sister May” in “Foot Stompin’.”*) “Kate” wasn’t that left-field of a choice: it had been popular in the early ’60s London club circuit—the Beatles often had played it during their Hamburg residencies. Bowie used as his prime reference The Olympics’ version, “Shimmy Like Kate,” from 1960 (the tell is Bowie playing off the Olympics’ line “north-west-south-east/gonna go west,” which appears on no other version of “Kate” I’ve heard).

The Flares (Foot Stompin’ Pt. 1, 1961).

The original Flares track hails from a time when dance novelty songs came with the frequency and the cut-throat drive of city tabloids. Each single tried to kill off its competitors, each pushing to be more immediate, more compelling, than its rivals. The records as a whole helped create the foundation of Pop, centering the dance floor, and eventually teenage life itself, on the ever-changing Now, on the pure pleasures of a community built on that promise. The records offered nothing but an enormous beat and usually a single, inescapable hook (meant to be sung or chanted by a whole dance floor of people), and were as revolutionary as they were disposable.

The Flares’ record erupts with a saxophone conga line by session ace Plas Johnson followed by two bars’ worth of tromping (the Flares and everyone else in the studio contributing their feet). The vocals are a compact between the lead vocalists and the bassman, the latter providing comic relief and necessary ballast; the chorus is simple and undeniable, and there’s a demented ecstasy to the singing. A guitar solo and sax break offer tiny distractions, and the whole thing is over in little over two minutes.

To update “Foot Stompin'” for 1974, Bowie’s guitarist Carlos Alomar picked up the tempo and anchored the song on a new guitar riff: a needling, repeating line that ran like Morse code underneath the vocals. (Spoiler: if you haven’t heard Bowie’s “Foot Stompin'” before, listen to it now, as Alomar’s riff went on to greater things.) Bowie usually sang the medley with two of his male backing singers (typically Geoff MacCormack and Anthony Hinton), with Bowie as the center, the singers bounding over him.

Some Sisters Kate:
Eva Taylor and Clarence Williams, 1922.
Ray Miller Orchestra, 1928.
Betty Grable, 1950.
The Olympics, 1960.

“Sister Kate” provided backstory and pedigree. Louis Armstrong once claimed that its alleged composer, New Orleans musician Armand Piron, had stolen it from him (Sidney Bechet, in his autobiography, backed Armstrong). Piron, asked about Armstrong’s accusation, said “that tune is older than all of us,” suggesting Armstrong was trying to take credit for a traditional folk song (though of course Piron got paid for his copyright). Piron was ultimately proved right: “Sister Kate” went from novelty to tradition without changing, it was a speakeasy number that could be played, with only a few additions, at Studio 54.

So Bowie’s dance medley, a mayfly of a piece that only a handful of audiences heard, and which has survived only as bootleg footage from the Dick Cavett Show, was one of the more communal things he’d ever perform, and it tied him directly to American popular music, in a way all of his Young Americans efforts never quite did. In a few minutes, Bowie linked the black dance music of the ’20s to that of the late ’50s, and, via his guitarist, brought it into the ’70s: he was more an ambassador than he was an interpreter.

The “Foot Stompin'” medley was played in most of Bowie’s late ’74 concerts, possibly debuted during his residency at Radio City Music Hall (the first surviving bootleg performance is from a 28 October show there.) The Cavett performance was recorded on 2 November 1974, broadcast on 4 December 1974.

Bowie cut at least two attempts at “Foot Stompin'” in the studio in November-December ’74, while another go at “Foot Stompin'” in January 1975 led, circuitously, to Bowie’s first US #1, as we’ll see soon enough. The Cavett Show recording was included on the “official” bootleg RarestOneBowie, while the Cavett “Foot Stompin'” was left off the recent Young Americans CD/DVD reissue, which included all of the other Cavett performances.

* Though imagine if Bowie had used “Sister Ray” in the medley instead of “Kate.”

It’s Hard To Be a Saint In the City

November 3, 2010

It’s Hard To Be a Saint In the City (Bruce Springsteen, demo, 1972).
It’s Hard To Be a Saint In the City (Springsteen, Greetings From Asbury Park).
It’s Hard To Be a Saint In the City (Springsteen, live, 1975).
It’s Hard To Be a Saint In the City (Bowie, 1974?).

After I heard this track I never rode the subway again… it’s called ‘Saint In the City’. That really scared the living ones out of me, that.

Bowie on Radio One, May 1979.

Bruce Springsteen came to Sigma Sound on 25 November 1974, on what was supposed to be the last night of the Young Americans sessions. His escort was Ed Sciaky, a Philadelphia DJ, who had brought Springsteen along at the request of Tony Visconti. Bowie had been working on a version of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint In the City,” off of Springsteen’s debut album, which was Bowie’s favorite of Springsteen’s records. (During the ’79 Radio One appearance, Bowie took a dig at Darkness At the Edge of Town.) Visconti thought Springsteen would be interested in hearing the cover, even playing on it.

Springsteen at this time seemed committed to living out his own street myths. Contacted around noon that day, he hitched a ride to Asbury Park, then took a Trailways bus to Philadelphia, and, upon arriving, hung out with the bums in the station until he was picked up.

Bruce is stylishly attired in a stained brown leather jacket with about seventeen zippers and a pair of hoodlum jeans. He looked like he just fell out of a bus station, which he had.

Mike McGrath, Bowie Meets Springsteen, November 1974.

Bowie arrived at the studio an hour later. The initial meeting was polite but strained. Springsteen was shy and reserved, while Bowie admitted years later that he was so cracked up on drugs and worn down by his breakneck work schedule that he found it hard to relate to anyone. “What do I say to normal people?” Bowie recalled. “There was a real impasse.” Still, the two found common ground, complaining about stage jumpers, and Bowie complimented Springsteen by saying there was no other American artist he was interested in covering. Bowie tried to do a vocal take, noted it wasn’t late enough in the evening (“I won’t be able to record anything till about half past five”); he drifted in and out of the conversations, perking up when the talk turned to UFOs.

Springsteen left at 5 AM. Bowie never played him the cover of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint,” partly because Bowie wasn’t happy with the track, which he soon shelved. A shame, because Bowie’s somber, romantic take on “Saint,” complete with a Visconti string section, was in line with what Springsteen was attempting to do, broadening the sonic palette of his first two records, committing fully to what the radical John Sinclair sneeringly called “tales of a mythic urban grease scene.” Springsteen had spent much of 1974 laboring over what would become Born to Run, with little to show for it at year’s end. Only when he hooked up with Jon Landau and Steven Van Zandt, in March ’75, did the record really take focus.

“It’s Hard to Be a Saint,” with its Bo Diddley-esque braggadocio, its self-mythology, was better suited for Bowie than “Growin’ Up,” Bowie’s earlier cover. Bowie sang it as though he was trying out the extent of his vocal range (taking the verses low, subbing for his backing singers on “don’t that man look pretty”). There are the occasional wayward notes and gruesome phrases that seem to be attempting Americanisms, but it’s one of Bowie’s more inspired covers of the decade, better than most of the covers Bowie officially released. Bowie was channeling Springsteen’s own development, ghosting his future records. The two would never work together, but on that evening, unknown to each other, they were brothers.

Recorded 20-24 November 1974? (though it’s possible Bowie revisited the track during the Station to Station sessions, in October-November 1975). Released on the Sound + Vision box set in 1989.

Top: Terry O’Neill, “Bruce Springsteen on the Sunset Strip,” 1975.

John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)

November 1, 2010

John, I’m Only Dancing (Again).
John, I’m Only Dancing (Again) (live, 1974).

Disco, omnivore of music genres, ingested anything given it. So there were disco records based on Beethoven symphonies, ’40s swing tunes, country stomps, Italian police thriller themes, cartoon noises, and, Bowie’s contribution, glam rock songs.

“John, I’m Only Dancing,” a UK #12 in 1972, hadn’t been released in the US, so Bowie considered it a potential breakthrough single there. It was just a matter of resuiting “John” for the times, the sexual ambiguity of the original making it ideal for a disco revision. Bowie even slotted “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)” as a potential lead-off track for his new record, which at one point was going to be called Dancin‘. As the sessions went on, though, and after Bowie had played “John (Again)” on tour in September-October ’74, his enthusiasm for the remake seemed to cool. The happy appearance of “Fame” at the eleventh hour made “John (Again)” seem a bit redundant, and the latter was left off Young Americans and shelved. In 1979, just as disco was peaking, Bowie issued “John (Again)” as a stand-alone single, and it charted the same as the original.

For “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)” Bowie fit a new set of verses to the original track’s chorus. While both “Johns” are in the same key, the rhythm, naturally, radically changed in the remake. The original “John” was built on a chassis of chugging acoustic guitar and sharp Mick Ronson interjections, where “John (Again)” is four-on-the-floor classic disco, with Ronson’s signature riff converted to a keyboard line. The original’s constantly moving bassline (which provided the melodic hook in the chorus) was replaced by a repeated four-beat line wedded to the bass drum.

And where the original “John, I’m Only Dancing”‘s two brief verses were miniature character sketches, evoking a world of seedy nightclubs and quick assignations (“I saw you watching from the stairs,” “Annie’s very sweet, always eats her meat”), the remake has five hectoring verses, in which Bowie, spurred by his backing singers, seems like a demented MC, calling back to T. Rex and Chuck Berry hits, getting off the occasional joke (the first line’s pretty good). Where the original “John” constantly moved and evaded, the remake is far more static, the only curveball being a bar of 3/4 that ends each verse.

There’s a feeling everyone is working a bit too hard on the remake—the groove ‘s impressive, but where the original “John” had a sense of space and depth, this track seems cluttered, the playing too agitated, with Bowie venturing into disco burlesque at times. Only the latter half of the track, when the chorus singers urge each other on, Bowie growls out some affirmations, and Carlos Alomar lets loose with some fine rhythm guitar, really seems fit for the dance floor.

Recorded 11-18 August, 20-24 November 1974. Released as RCA BOW 4 (#12) in December 1979 and later collected on ChangesTwoBowie and reissues of Young Americans.

Top: Patrick Davies, “Ric Briggs, a Fashionable High School Student,” 1975.

Who Can I Be Now?

October 21, 2010

Who Can I Be Now?

“Who Can I Be Now?” should have been dedicated to Bowie’s prospective biographers (though no one’s used it for a title yet). While “Changes,” Bowie’s quirky self-assessment from 1971, became the soundtrack of Bowie career clip montages, the outtake “Who Can I Be Now?” is an even more obvious fit, a song in which Bowie seems to assess his talent for fraud, and where he wonders, even as he’s donning his “soul boy” garb, what sort of role to play next.

The lyric also has some faint traces of Gnostic imagery—mankind in chains, being raised in blindness—that Bowie would develop much further in “Station to Station,” though it seems like stage dressing for a man who, unmasked by someone he’s in love with, fears that he might not be able to exist as himself. Unlike its fellow Young Americans outtake “It’s Gonna Be Me,” “Who Can I Be Now?” is fairly restrained in tone and tightly-constructed, with a confident, wide-ranging Bowie vocal and a chorus whose main vocal melody is so basic and sturdy it could support a highway. While there are some flaws (the mix on the chorus is a bit crowded, with David Sanborn’s saxophone apparently determined to fill every last bit of open space), discarding a track like this for the likes of “Across the Universe” was a minor injustice.

Recorded 11-18 August 1974, and cut from the final version of Young Americans; it first appeared on the 1991 Ryko reissue.

Top: Jim Brickett, “Washington Square Park, 1974.”

It’s Gonna Be Me

October 19, 2010

It’s Gonna Be Me.
It’s Gonna Be Me (live, 1974).

“It’s Gonna Be Me,” Bowie’s epic outtake from the Young Americans sessions, is in the same realm as “Can You Hear Me”: both are sung by a wayward man regretting his actions, wondering if he’s left the real thing behind, and slowly circling into obsession, with the chorus serving as reassurance, or possibly only voicing his delusions.

Bowie had done his research before going to Sigma Sound, listening to recent Philly Soul, Aretha Franklin and Al Green records, and tracks like “It’s Gonna Be Me” find Bowie playing with soul conventions, particularly with vocal choruses. In a typical Green track, the chorus is under Green’s complete control, keeping quiet until he gives his cue; so in “Let’s Get Married” it’s only after Green finally reaches his conclusion (“I wanna settle down”) that the chorus rushes in to sing the title phrase. They elaborate on his thought, but they’re only ratifying a decision he’s already made. And in many of Franklin’s classic songs, like “Respect” or “Don’t Play That Song,” the chorus serves as her confidant, backing her plays, urging her on, fueling her indignation.

In “It’s Gonna Be Me,” the backing singers are barely there in Bowie’s three long, tortured verses, cropping up only to softly underline a particular phrase (like “weep over the breakfast tray”). Then they emerge as a support system in the chorus, singing simple, upward-moving lines while Bowie scurries around them. Bowie can barely bring himself to sing the title line, which he nearly mutters in its first appearance, leaving the chorus singers to provide the melodic hook.

With the church-trained Luther Vandross helping to craft the vocal arrangements, it’s easy to argue that the vocal narrative casts Bowie’s lead as a wandering penitent, one eventually reconciled to community in the chorus. Yet there’s often a disunion between Bowie’s vocal and the chorus—they come together, they work together, but there’s still a feeling of estrangement. Bowie seems unable to accept his singers’ reassurances, his jittery phrasing undermines their solidarity. The last verse, in which all but Mike Garson’s piano abandon Bowie, is so brutal, the singer walling himself up in desperate fantasy, that when the singers finally reappear to help Bowie play out the final chorus, it seems like they’re only doing so out of pity.

“It’s Gonna Be Me” initially was considered a central track for Young Americans, and Tony Visconti wrote a typically understated, sumptuous string arrangement once he returned to London in late 1974. But it was cut to make room for Bowie’s collaborations with/homages to John Lennon (“Who Can I Be Now?” also got axed).

Recorded 11-18 August 1974 and performed in some of the late ’74 Philly Dogs shows (the performance linked above is from Los Angeles in Sept. ’74). The studio take wasn’t released until the Ryko CD issue of Young Americans in 1991.

Top: Neil Libbert, “New York,” 1974.

After Today

October 14, 2010

After Today (earlier studio take, fragment).
After Today.

Within days of Bowie starting work at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, a routine had developed. Bowie’s musicians, particularly Mike Garson, David Sanborn and Carlos Alomar, would show up in the late morning or early afternoon and would record overdubs, jam, try out arrangements. Bowie tended to arrive late, around 11 pm, and, fueled by cocaine, would usually work through the following morning. The grueling pace took its toll on many players (Garson recalled being one of the few who had the stamina to endure Bowie’s all-nighters) as well as on Tony Visconti, who had what he thought was a heart attack while driving home from the studio one morning.

Bowie went through the day’s takes upon his arrival, picked what he thought worked, then usually sang live in the studio with his band. The communal, spontaneous nature of the Sigma sessions, with songs often coming together out of jam sessions, played by a free-flowing group of musicians and singers, and with Bowie fans camped outside the studio (he eventually let them come in to hear rough mixes), was a contrast to the Diamond Dogs period, in which Bowie was often isolated, producing and playing much of that record himself.

“After Today” is typical of the freewheeling Sigma sessions, as it was tried out both as a slow, moody ballad and as an uptempo piece, with a take of the latter version eventually released on Bowie’s career retrospective Sound + Vision (the decision seemed to be Rykodisc’s, who preferred the faster take).

Bowie’s decision to sing much of “After Today” in falsetto turned out to be overly ambitious, and likely doomed the song to being an outtake, but “After Today” remains a showcase for Andy Newmark’s drumming. Newmark, who was a replacement behind the kit for both Sly and The Family Stone and Roxy Music, had started out in a ten-piece soul band. His playing was so dynamic that, at an impromptu audition, he got the wasted Sly Stone out of his bed and dancing. Newmark often played a stripped-down kit—a bass drum, snare, hi-hat and one cymbal doing double-duty as a ride and crash—and got a sharp, cracking sound via a tightened snare head and by constantly hitting rim-shots. He once described his sound as being “either super low or super high—super bottom or super top. Everything cuts through the band. The bass drum and the floor tom are like volcanos.” An earlier take of “After Today,” which turned up on the “Shilling the Rubes” tape, has a ferocious 4-bar intro by Newmark that could have kicked off a punk song.

Recorded 13-18 August 1974, though it’s possible the Ryko version was cut later that year. Released on the Sound + Vision boxed set in 1989, but oddly enough “After Today” has never been included on various Young Americans reissues.

Top: Pete Dexter, Philadelphia, 1974.

Shilling The Rubes

October 7, 2010

Shilling The Rubes (fragment).

The rumors were true. Many Bowie researchers had concluded that “Shilling the Rubes,” long considered to be a lost Bowie classic, was only just a working title for Young Americans, a name that bootleggers occasionally slapped upon another outtake. Then in 2009, a reel from Bowie’s Sigma sessions supposedly turned up in a Philadelphia street fair (it’s speculated that the tape went astray (cough) from the rest of the Sigma reels, which are housed in the Drexel University Audio Archive) and it subsequently sold on eBay for $15,000.

The tape, apparently a rough mix from early in the sessions (13 August), featured an early take of “Young Americans,” a rewrite of the Astronettes song “I Am a Laser,” an early version of known YA outtake “After Today” and the grail itself: “Shilling the Rubes.”

Only about a minute’s worth of each track circulated, apparently as a sampler for prospective buyers on eBay. So all we have of “Rubes” are an eight-bar intro in which Mike Garson’s piano faces off against Andy Newmark’s drums, and the first verse, which is an intriguing bit of sleaze by Bowie, suggesting that “Rubes” was revisiting the love-as-prostitution theme of “Sweet Thing.” The fragment cuts off before the chorus (if there was one), thus retaining “Rubes”‘ status as the great unheard Bowie song. One imagines the whole four-minute track will turn up someday (though there’s already been a gold-plated reissue of Young Americans), but until then “Shilling The Rubes” will remain largely imaginary.

Recorded 13 August 1974. Perhaps only one person on the planet besides Bowie can listen to “Rubes” in its entirety. And there’s of course the chance that the whole story’s fraudulent (though the outtake really sounds genuine), which would be fitting given the song’s title, an equivalent to “fooling the suckers.”

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

October 1, 2010

Here Today and Gone Tomorrow (Ohio Players, 1968).
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow (Bowie, 1974).

David Live was near-universally regarded as the worst record Bowie released in the ’70s. It earned one star in the Rolling Stone Record Guide; Lester Bangs called it “a dismal flatulence”; Christgau, giving it a C-minus, wrote it was “the artiste at his laryngeal nadir, mired in bullshit pessimism and arena-rock pandering.” Bowie, in 1977, admitted he had never even played it; Tony Visconti, who had been hired to help turn a set of spotty concert tapes into a 2-LP album, called it “one of the quickest and shoddiest albums I’ve ever done.”

Some of the problem was technical, as the Philadelphia concerts had been dismally recorded: the backing singers and musicians often had wandered off-mike, requiring players to redo their performances in the studio, while the overall sound was a weak struggle between tinniness and murk. The final mix was mainly the work of engineer Eddie Kramer at Electric Ladyland studios (Visconti recalled Kramer ridiculously “conducting” the mixing desk, throwing his head back while he slopped together what would become David Live).

Sound quality scarcely mattered to RCA, who wanted to rush-release a live record before Bowie resumed touring later in 1974. After all, the mid-’70s were the banquet years for the double-LP live album, and the sight of their thick, cracked spines, their seed-littered gatefolds, would likely be the equivalent of Proust’s madeleine for a whole generation. Frampton Comes Alive. The Song Remains the Same. Cheap Trick At Budokan. Bob Dylan At Budokan. Made in Japan. One More From the Road. Double Live Gonzo. On Your Feet Or On Your Knees. Wings Over America. Live! Bootleg. Miles of Aisles. Eagles Live. Kiss Alive! Live Bullet. Waiting For Columbus. Yessongs. All the World’s a Stage. Love You Live. Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends. And so on (even Barry Manilow had a 2-LP live album, on which he sang a medley of his self-penned TV commercial jingles). They were greatest-hits records as well as party soundtracks, and perhaps one reason David Live didn’t work is that it wasn’t a party record at all—it seemed like an aural remnant of some kabuki performance, Bowie’s rock “standards” reworked as cabaret songs.

Visconti managed to salvage David Live when he remixed it in 2004 and re-sequenced the tracks in order of performance, making the record richer and more coherent. The wisest move was to restore to the playing order Bowie’s cover of the Ohio Players’ “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” one of the show’s better performances.

“Here Today And Gone Tomorrow” (Bowie discarded the conjunction) was one of the first Ohio Players singles, from 1969, and it’s more Southern soul than the slick urban funk the band would make its name on in the ’70s. Centered on Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner’s guitar and deliberate in its pacing (the chorus doesn’t arrive until nearly halfway through the song, and only appears once more, after the entire process repeats), “Here Today” has the singer lamenting a woman who blows through town like a sailor or a gypsy, leaving him (and many other guys, apparently) heartbroken.

Bowie’s version, as with “Knock on Wood,” hardly deviates from the original, though Earl Slick’s guitar is arguably hotter than Bonner’s. Bowie takes the song at a faster pace, and where the Ohio Players drift off in a half-minute coda of resignation, Bowie keeps repeating the chorus, as if repeating his lament long enough would somehow cauterize the wound.

Recorded 8-12 July 1974 at the Tower Theatre, Philadelphia (first released as a bonus track on the Ryko CD reissue of David Live, and sequenced properly on the 2005 reissue). Performed only during the Philadelphia shows.

Top: Gedney, “Girls on train,” London, 1974.

Knock On Wood

September 29, 2010

Knock on Wood (Eddie Floyd, 1966).
Knock On Wood (Bowie, David Live, 1974).
Knock on Wood (Bowie, live, 1974).

[America] filled a vast expanse of my imagination; I was always pretty imaginative. Imagination can dry up in wherever, living in England, often—if there’s nothing to keep it going. It just supplied a need in me, America, became a myth-land for me. I think every kid goes through it, eventually. I just got onto it earlier.

David Bowie, Cracked Actor, 1974.

In the opening minutes of Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor, a BBC documentary of David Bowie in the US in mid-1974, Bowie is shot sitting in the back of a limousine driving through the California desert. It’s a bit like Nosferatu touring Death Valley. Throughout the performance, as it’s very much a performance, Bowie keeps picking up on the song playing in the car, Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman,” wanly delighting in its call-and-response vocals: he seems to be craving the song, using it as a means to keep himself in focus. So begins Bowie’s soul era.

Bowie’s move into soul/R&B in 1974 could be seen as a calculated, even slightly exploitative move: Bowie giving his secretary a list of contemporary R&B records to purchase as research, Bowie going to Sigma Sound to have the Philadelphia International house musicians craft a soul album for him. Yet this ignores Bowie’s long-documented love of soul and jazz, and that he had started out making records as a Mod soul singer, covering Bobby “Blue” Bland (“I Pity The Fool”) and writing Sam Cooke tributes (“And I Say to Myself”); even at the height of the Ziggy Stardust era he had covered James Brown songs on stage.

So the soul-inspired ’74 Philly Dogs tour, and the subsequent Young Americans record, can seem like a return to first things for Bowie, a further step back after his psychedelic/Mod tribute Pin Ups. Of course this wasn’t quite the case, either. Bowie would use soul as a way to get out of an aesthetic dead-end, as a way to finally get an American hit record. He treated the music with respect but also without much reverence, using soul as a means, making his own twisted version of it. As it turned out, this made him a trenchant interpreter of contemporary black music (it’s no surprise that Bowie was one of the first white artists to play Soul Train).

Bowie’s Diamond Dogs tour began in June 1974 in Canada and in mid-July the tour was in residence at Philadelphia’s Tower Theatre, with the five Philly shows taped for a prospective live record. Until Philadelphia, the shows had consisted of revamped hits like “Space Oddity” and “Changes” and the new Diamond Dogs material, but now Bowie put Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood” in the middle of the set list.

“Knock on Wood” seemed at first intended to be a breather for Bowie’s band and his audience, as it brightened the mood after the dark extravagance of the “Sweet Thing” suite and, often slated to follow the uptempo “Watch That Man,” built up the show’s momentum. “Knock on Wood” is soul at its most welcoming and democratic, whether in the easy, undemanding vocal (a good fit for Eddie Floyd’s voice, though originally intended for Otis Redding), or the utter basics of its groove (Al Jackson playing ones and threes on the bass drum, twos and fours on the snare) or structure.

It was written by Floyd and Steve Cropper, with Floyd providing the lyric and vocal melody and Cropper the chords/riffs. Cooked up in Memphis one evening in June 1966, “Knock on Wood” was built by committee, as everyone in the studio that night offered something: Isaac Hayes wrote the sprightly horn line for the bridge, while Jackson contributed the “knock-knock-knock-knock” drum hook (Floyd later said Jackson was inspired by “Open the Door Richard”). While initially rejected by Stax owner Jim Stewart, who thought it was too much of an “In the Midnight Hour” knock-off (which, admittedly, it was), “Knock on Wood” topped the US soul charts upon its eventual release, and was a UK hit as well.

Bowie’s performance recorded for David Live is anchored by his new guitarist Earl Slick (whose guitar replaces the horn riffs in the verses) and his now-established rhythm section: Herbie Flowers on bass and drummer Tony Newman. While the trio aren’t quite Booker T and the MGs, they keep a vigorous groove, with Slick on offense while Flowers follows Donald “Duck” Dunn on the Floyd single, providing melodic variations on bass. Letting down the side are Mike Garson, who seems unwilling to commit to the groove, and the stiff horn playing of David Sanborn and Richard Grando (the latter in part because much of the brass was overdubbed in the studio later). Bowie, his voice worn down after a month of nightly concerts, delivers the song credibly, if keeping very close to the record (by contrast, Floyd often riffed and improvised on stage).

Recorded 8-12 July 1974 at the Tower Theatre, Philadelphia. On David Live, and also released as a single in September ’74 (RCA 2466; #10 in the UK) (odd TOTP clip here). Bowie’s relative hit single revived “Knock On Wood,” arguably inspiring a host of further covers, some majestic (the high disco of Amii Stewart‘s 1978 single), some dull (Rachel Stevens).

Top: Steve Schapiro, “Ike and Tina Turner, Los Angeles, 1974.”

Much of “Knock on Wood”‘s history is from Rob Bowman’s fine Soulsville, USA.