Candidate 1 (Alternative Candidate)

September 21, 2010

Candidate 1 (Alternative Candidate).

Having only one line and a title in common with the “Candidate” that eventually appeared on Diamond Dogs, the earlier “Candidate” was a studio demo Bowie recorded on New Year’s Day 1974. It apparently was part of Bowie’s stillborn Nineteen Eighty-Four adaptation, though little of its lyric would suggest that (there’s a reference to “the correction room”—that’s about it). It’s in F-sharp minor (was the entire Orwell musical going to be in a minor key?), and is centered around Mike Garson’s piano runs and smears of Bowie’s guitar.

“Candidate 1,” or “Alternative Candidate,” is somewhat akin to “Zion” in that it’s an inchoate track that serves as a storehouse of obsessions Bowie would tag for future development. So there’s identity and sex games, hallucinogenic TV pornography (see “TVC 15”) and hints of fascism and black magic (see Station to Station). Bowie sings blankly and distantly, and ends the last verse with “Do I have to give your money back when I’m the Führerling?

Recorded 1 January 1974; not released until the Ryko reissue of Diamond Dogs (& later included on the 30th anniversary reissue).

Top: Vanessa Redgrave, campaigning as a MP candidate for the Workers Revolutionary Party, February 1974.

1984, Dodo

August 26, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Astronettes Songs

August 25, 2010

I Am a Laser.
People From Bad Homes.
Things to Do.
I Am Divine.

Before Bowie recorded the bulk of Diamond Dogs over three days in January 1974, he had been trying to get a “soul'” vocal trio off the ground. This was the Astronettes, who consisted of Bowie’s new girlfriend Ava Cherry, his longtime friend Geoff MacCormack (aka “Warren Peace”) and the unaffiliated Jason Guess.

Bowie abandoned the project once Diamond Dogs took on steam, though he kept the Astronettes as his backing singers. He scrapped the proposed Astronettes record in part because of management-related shenanigans, but it was also obvious that the patchy material wasn’t commercially viable. It was sketchwork, but necessary sketchwork, as it turned out: Bowie couldn’t have gotten to Young Americans or arguably Station to Station without these first false starts.

Some of the surviving tracks were issued decades later and merit a listen if only out of curiosity, as some of Bowie’s Astronettes compositions are ancestors to his later songs. The promising (rhythmically, at least) “I Am Divine” is the first draft of Young Americans’ “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” “People From Bad Homes,” with a needling keyboard whistle for its main hook, seems bottom-drawer material. Bowie liked the title enough to use it in a later lyric, but seems to have discarded the rest of the song.

“Things To Do” is in woeful debt to Santana, while the Astronettes, in what one can only hope was a scratch vocal, manage to sound off-key and clumsy, with Cherry colliding with her partners.

The best of the lot was “I Am a Laser,” which Bowie would rewrite a half-decade later as “Scream Like a Baby.” It’s Cherry’s best vocal of the sessions—she manages to find dignity and power in a lyric that has her promise “you’ll feel my golden shower” and call herself the “black Barbarella.” Cherry would have a frustrating career. She was a talented, adventurous singer who was relegated to the margins (both with Bowie and later with Luther Vandross); she seemed destined to make a breakthrough record, and never did.

All tracks were recorded in London from 3 December 1973 to 15 January 1974, and were finally released on the semi-official bootleg People From Bad Homes in 1995.

Top: Cherry and Bowie at the 1980 Floor Show, October 1973.

Growin’ Up

August 19, 2010

Growin’ Up (Bruce Springsteen, demo, 1972).
Growin’ Up (Springsteen, live, 1972).
Growin’ Up (Springsteen, Greetings From Asbury Park).
Growin’ Up (Bowie.)

By late ’73 Bowie had discovered Bruce Springsteen’s debut album Greetings From Asbury Park N.J. and soon covered two songs from it. The tracks didn’t make the grade, though: Bowie’s Springsteen covers were shelved for nearly 15 years until they appeared on various CD reissues. (Bowie likely first heard the songs as demos or acetates, as Springsteen was being pushed in the UK throughout 1973 by Adrian Rudge, a colleague of the Beatles’ former music publisher Dick James.)

Early Springsteen and Bowie had much in common. Springsteen was as much a self-mythologist as Bowie was, and, like Bowie, his core instincts were theatrical (there’s a very thin line between Born to Run and Bat Out of Hell). Bowie also recognized in Springsteen a fellow latecomer. Though they had lived (and recorded, in Bowie’s case) through the ’60s, each knew they were fated to be judged in its shadow: they would be curators and inheritors as much as they were creators.

Of course Bowie also likely enjoyed Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up” as a piece of American blue-collar exotica: Springsteen rewriting his adolescence into a goofball autobiography, a cross of Mad magazine strip and misheard Dylan lyric. Bowie’s version of “Growin’ Up” is quite faithful to the original, with Mike Garson slowing the tempo of David Sancious’ piano line, while Bowie does a fairly credible American-sounding vocal (until he squawks out “she couldn’t SAYL” in the second verse). It’s a curio, interesting mainly in that it seems, like the Astronettes material Bowie was working up in late ’73, to be an initial sketch of Young Americans, and suggesting that Diamond Dogs was something of a detour.

Recorded in November 1973 (lead guitar by Ron Wood, who seemed to turn up on every UK record cut from ’73 to ’75); it was eventually released on the Ryko reissue of Pin Ups and, later, on the 30th anniversary reissue of Diamond Dogs.

Top: Edie Steiner, “Father and Son,” 1973.

I Got You Babe

August 17, 2010

Marianne Faithfull and David Bowie, I Got You Babe.

Television does not vary. The trivial is raised up to power in it. The powerful is lowered to the trivial.

The power behind it resembles the power of no-action, the powerful passive.

It is bewitching

Celebrities have an intimate life and a life in the grid of two hundred million. For them, there is no distance between the two grids in American life. Of all Americans, only they are complete.

George W.S. Trow, “Within the Context of No Context.”

Between 1973 and 1977, David Bowie waged an inadvertent guerrilla war against television, particularly American television. In these years, Bowie appeared on some of the most popular TV programs of the era and disrupted them. He may not even have meant to, for it wasn’t that Bowie was wild or outrageous when he showed up on Dinah!, or Cher, or Soul Train, or The Dick Cavett Show. If anything, he was gracious, charming, polite, and happy to flatter the host.

Yet Bowie’s emaciated coke-wraith appearance was disturbing purely as a visual, and even while sitting on a couch bantering with a host, or singing a medley of awful contemporary hits with Cher, Bowie came across as estranged, permanently distracted, standing at a remove from humanity, as if he was an extraterrestrial who had learned to speak English by watching television.

TV, with its rituals and its rhythms, was meant to reassure, to serve as the commons for millions of atomized people, but Bowie’s appearances upset the timing. Bowie, whether he wanted to or no, couldn’t fit properly into the frame, and his freakish appearance, the way he seemed tuned to a different key than everyone else on the screen, in turn distorted the “normal” TV celebrities. His oddness brought out their falseness. He made Cher inexplicable, he made Dinah Shore seem like a malevolent cartoon. Bowie broke the contract of celebrity, which is that famous, beautiful people exist in bright excess purely for our enjoyment. He was a celebrity who made no sense; he seemed like a visitation. Television was relieved when he finally left it alone.

If this era ended with the bizarre pairing of Bowie and Bing Crosby for a Christmas special in 1977, the project having reached the limit of absurdity, it began in October 1973 with Bowie’s 1980 Floor Show, a televised stage revue shot in London’s Marquee Club, meant to promote the just-released Pin Ups for NBC’s The Midnight Special.

The 1980 Floor Show lacked the cool and reserve of Bowie’s later TV appearances, as Bowie was still determining how to kill off Ziggy Stardust: the compromise was to do glam rock as avant-garde theater. (The performance is a mix of Bowie’s past and future—Mick Ronson’s still there, while the backing singers are the Astronettes, on whom Bowie tried out early sketches of Young Americans compositions.) Much of the Floor Show is intended to visually shock, with Bowie wearing a succession of bizarre outfits, from a fishnet body-stocking adorned with a pair of gold lamé hands grasping Bowie’s chest, to a Tristan Tzara-inspired leotard with a keyhole on Bowie’s torso. It ended with Bowie in ostrich plumes and Marianne Faithfull wearing a backless nun’s habit, singing “I Got You Babe.”

As Dave Marsh wrote of the original Sonny and Cher single, “both the voices on ‘I Got You Babe’ are young and dumb [but] what they’re saying boils down to this: Love redeems everything, no matter how ridiculous, moronic, or grotesque. Noisy and misshapen as those declarations may be, they’re also an essence of what rock & roll brought to pop music that hadn’t been there before:…a willingness to reach for effects and worry about decorum later, an understanding of where to find the sublime amidst the trivial.” Bowie and Faithfull live up to this, somehow crafting a touching, human performance out of the most outlandish of materials.

Top: Bowie and Faithfull, in love.

Here is the complete 1980 Floor Show, in televised order, as found in fragments: 1984/Dodo, Sorrow, Bulerias (the Spanish prog band Carmen), Everything’s Alright, Space Oddity, I Can’t Explain, As Tears Go By (Faithfull), Time, Wild Thing (The Troggs), The Jean Genie, Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (not broadcast), 20th Century Blues (Faithfull), I Got You Babe.

The Ronson Songs

August 16, 2010

Growing Up and I’m Fine.
Music Is Lethal.
Hey Ma, Get Papa.

The creative partnership of David Bowie and Mick Ronson, which in four years had produced The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, Transformer, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane (Pin Ups is a footnote), withered and died in the last months of 1973.

The “Starman” performance on Top of the Pops that had made Bowie a UK pop star had also spotlit Ronson, who was regarded as Bowie’s rock & roll straight man (in various senses). Ronson’s reputation grew during the ’72 and ’73 tours: he was doing 10-minute guitar solos while Bowie went off to change costumes, and was getting as nearly as much fan mail as Bowie. Stories circulated that most of Bowie’s records were Ronson’s doing, with Bowie sometimes depicted as the studio creation of Ronson and producer Ken Scott. (Bowie arguably recorded much of Diamond Dogs alone in part to kill these rumors.)

Also, Bowie’s manager Tony Defries started grooming Ronson as a solo act, in part as insurance against Bowie becoming a commercial has-been (Marc Bolan’s singles were barely cracking the top 40 by late ’73). If glam had reached its sell-by date, Defries’ MainMan would have a rock guitar god ready for the shops. “They told me I could be the next David Cassidy,” Ronson later said. MainMan would have Ronson’s face plastered on billboards in LA and Times Square.

Finally, Bowie felt he needed to clean house, and acted swiftly and brutally. He had already dropped Woody Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder, was about to end his relationship with Ken Scott, and was considering leaving his wife; he moved out of his longtime home Haddon Hall and, in March 1974, left England for good. So Ronson, despite his past and his potential (you can imagine Ronson on Station to Station or Low), was consigned to Bowie’s discarded life.

Ronson began recording his solo record, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, in August 1973. It’s unclear whether Defries prodded Bowie to provide some new material for it, or whether Bowie volunteered some songs (Bowie did suggest that Ronson cover Richard Rodgers, which became the title track). Relations between the two hadn’t deteriorated yet. That said, where Bowie, in a more fruitful era, was content to give away “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “All the Young Dudes,” his Ronson contributions were a cut below his regular work.

“Music is Lethal” is Bowie’s return to translation (see “Pancho” or “Even a Fool Learns to Love”), providing English lyrics for Lucio Battisti’s 1972 “Io vorrei…non vorrei…ma se vuoi.” Bowie combined Jacques Brel’s waterfront with his own developing Hunger City, with Ronson wandering through a cityscape full of “mulatto hookers/cocaine bookers, troubled husbands.” (A shame Bowie and Ronson didn’t choose to cover Battisti’s “Ma é un canto Brasilero,” instead.)

“Hey Ma, Get Papa” is mainly Bowie’s words fitted to Ronson’s music, with Ronson seemingly inventing Queen in the process. The best of the lot was Bowie’s only sole composition on the record, “Growing Up and I’m Fine,” which in retrospect seems like Bowie’s farewell note and blessing to a man who was once, to quote Charlie Parker on Dizzy Gillespie, his worthy constituent.

Top: Mick Rock, “David Bowie and Mick Ronson, lunch on train, 1973.”

Zion (or Tragic Moments, or A Lad In Vein)

August 11, 2010

Zion (or Tragic Moments) (or A Lad In Vein).

This is the black hole of Bowie songs, bereft even of a title—various bootleggers have dubbed it “Zion,” “A Lad in Vein,” “Love Aladdin Vein” and “Aladdin Vein,” while Bowie, in his one public reference to the track*, said it was to be part of a musical called Tragic Moments. Nor has anyone turned up any direct evidence as to when it was made, though it was almost certainly cut in either the last Aladdin Sane sessions in January 1973, or (most likely) the Pin Ups sessions of July-August ’73, or (least likely) the early Diamond Dogs sessions of October-November ’73.

Nor is “Zion” really a composition, as Bowie just provides dummy lyrics over a series of improvisations (though the track’s not a jam—it’s definitely arranged and mixed). The track’s more of a vestibule between Bowie’s early ’70s work and the latter half of the decade: it’s a musical sketchbook burgeoning with ideas—melodies, riffs, rhythms—with Mike Garson developing on his “Aladdin Sane” piano solo, while also providing some gorgeous accompaniment on Mellotron, while Mick Ronson’s full-blooded guitar makes you mourn that he didn’t appear on Diamond Dogs. Some phrases and melodies in “Zion”‘s middle section turned up as connective tissue between “Sweet Thing (Reprise)” and “Rebel Rebel” on Diamond Dogs, while Bowie’s vocal melody, which ranges from music hall to the slightly Eastern (there’s a touch of “Silly Boy Blue” in it), seems an ancestor to a number of tracks on Low, Lodger and other later records.

* Nicholas Pegg points to an interview Bowie did with Martin Hayman during the Pin Ups sessions of summer ’73. Hayman, after hearing a rough mix of Pin Ups, then heard a demo of “perhaps seven minutes of…highly arranged, subtly shifting music with just a touch of vaudeville,” while Bowie said “there are no vocals on it yet, just my la-la-la-ing.” I agree with Pegg that this has to be “Zion.”

In the interview, Bowie described the demo as being part of “the next project,” about which he said “this is something I’ve always wanted to do…I envisage a scenario first, then the music.” So “Zion” is the earliest surviving piece from what would be a series of stillborn musical theatrical scenarios in late 1973, with various false starts and leftovers eventually making up the core of Diamond Dogs. “Zion” should have been called “Future Legend.”

Top: “WillemGT,” “Smoking blind accordion player,” London, 1973.