Reissues: Amsterdam

March 11, 2016

Along with the VU’s “Waiting For the Man,” Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” (and Scott Walker’s interpretation of it) is one of the essential building blocks of Bowie’s development as a songwriter. Diamond Dogs couldn’t exist without it, nor could “Time”; “Amsterdam” was even once slotted to appear on  Ziggy Stardust: Bowie wrote “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” in part as his Brel substitute.

There’s a spot of confusion as to when the released Bowie studio take of “Amsterdam” was recorded: the reliable Kevin Cann slots it into the Pin Ups sessions of summer 1973, which is possible (that’s when it finally came out, as a B-side) but that seems like a rare error on his part. Unless the “Amsterdam” recorded in 1971 for Ziggy Stardust was a different take from the B-side version? There’s also another studio version circulating (see below) which sounds like a demo. And the version included on Rare is yet another take, of unknown origin: was this the Ziggy take? One day, perhaps, it will all get cleared up.

Originally posted on 21 December 2009, it’s “Amsterdam” (or “Port of Amsterdam,” if you prefer):

Amsterdam (Jacques Brel, 1964).
Amsterdam (Scott Walker, 1967).
Amsterdam (Bowie, demo? 1971?).
Amsterdam (Bowie, BBC, February 1970).
Amsterdam (Bowie, studio, 1971).
Amsterdam (alternate studio take?, 1971?).
Amsterdam (Bowie, live, 1971).
Amsterdam (live, 1990).

Jacques Brel composed “Amsterdam” in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in a villa overlooking the Mediterranean. He read his lyric to a fisherman friend, who wept while he carved open sea urchins. “Amsterdam” inspired these sort of visceral responses. After Robert Guillaume debuted the English version of “Amsterdam” at the Village Gate in January 1968, there was a “disconcertingly long hush—followed by a roar so damn loud I jumped.”

Brel never recorded “Amsterdam,” despite it being one of his best-known songs: its only official release is on a 1964 live LP of Brel at the Olympia, in Paris. Bowie first heard “Amsterdam” via Scott Walker’s cover recording, the final track on Walker’s 1967 debut LP. Bowie also attended the stage show Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which, having debuted at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, had come to London in the summer of 1968. The play had no libretto, just a series of performances of Brel compositions, with Mort Shuman (who also performed in the play) and Eric Blau translating Brel’s lyrics (freely and racily).

By late 1968 Bowie was playing “Amsterdam” with his folk trio and he’d keep the song in his stage repertoire until 1972 (he replaced it with Brel’s “My Death,” which better suited the times). Like “Waiting for the Man,” another song Bowie was obsessed with during the glam years, “Amsterdam” offered street life as stage material. Where “Waiting For the Man” was confined to the narrow lens of its junkie narrator, “Amsterdam” was a sprawling Brueghelian canvas: a port overrun with drunk, paunchy sailors who gnaw on fish heads, piss and fight in the street and use the port prostitutes “for a few dirty coins.” “Amsterdam” also gave Bowie a primer in how to craft an apocalypse in song, as it opened quietly, with the port waking up, and steadily built to a wild, drunken carnival (it was the template for everything from “Five Years” to “Station to Station.”)

After performing the song twice for the BBC, Bowie cut a studio take of “Amsterdam” that was issued as a B-side in 1973. Where Walker’s “Amsterdam” had been a reel of accordion, strings and horns, Bowie sang accompanied only by his (and in the studio take, possibly Mick Ronson’s) acoustic guitar. In early live recordings Bowie seemed in awe of the song, but by the studio take and his last live performances, he’d developed a saucy tone for the opening verses, boldly inflating and compressing phrases. Yet when he vied to match Brel and Walker in intensity in the last verse, he still audibly strained for effect. His last apprentice work.

Recorded (presumably) autumn 1971. Released 12 October 1973 (RCA 2424). Broadcast on 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show and 21 September 1971, Sounds of the 70s. After retiring “Amsterdam” as a stage piece in 1972, Bowie gave it a very brief revival for the Sound + Vision tour of 1990: its only appearance, I believe, was the aborted attempt in Brussels, linked above.

Top: “Renard Livres Echanges, near Les Halles, Paris,” 1970.


Reissues: Memory of a Free Festival

February 5, 2016

On a day in which I appear to be snowed in, why not revive a memory of summer? This is a hybrid reissue—the main entry is that of the book (which Repeater excerpted back when the book was released), while the “bonus tracks” are mostly appended from the original blog post.

Originally published on December 11, 2009: “Memory of a Free Festival.”

Memory of a Free Festival.
Memory of a Free Festival (extended version).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 1).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2).
Memory of a Free Festival (BBC, 1970).
Memory of a Free Festival (“Mike Garson Band,” live, 1974).

Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time: miniature utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from a grey morass of mundane, inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence…The most lively [young people] escape geographically and physically to the ‘Never Never Land’ of a free festival where they become citizens, indeed rulers, in a new reality.

Anonymous leaflet ca. 1980, quoted in George McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties.

Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?
Or just twenty thousand people standing in a field?

Pulp, “Sorted For E’s and Wizz.”

The free festival was an open-air concert and fair, held on the Croydon Road Recreational Ground in Beckenham on 16 August 1969 (across an ocean, the Woodstock Festival was underway). Bowie performed, his set allegedly including a reggae version of “Space Oddity,” as did groups like the Strawbs. There were puppet shows, Tibetan goods vendors and coconut shies; his new girlfriend Angela Barnett cooked hamburgers in a wheelbarrow. The festival was peaceful and a success, with some 3,000 attending. Beckenham’s mayor and chief of police complimented Bowie for pulling it off.

The song he recorded three weeks later, sequenced to close Space Oddity as his last word on the Sixties, depicted a golden afternoon in which he wandered through a blissful crowd of flower children, exchanging kisses and greeting passing Venusians. In reality Bowie, who’d buried his father only five days before, had swung between near-catatonia and a foul temper, calling his partners “materialistic arseholes” for profiting off hamburgers and concert posters, complaining about the PA system and skipping the after-party. Mary Finnigan, Bowie’s once-lover and collaborator in the Beckenham Arts Lab, later called Bowie a hypocrite for writing a peace-and-love song for a festival at which he’d been so abrasive.

A contrary set of feelings, a man trying to reconstitute a bad day as the hope it ought to have been, gave “Memory of a Free Festival” depth and even bite, with Bowie making some deprecating asides about the holy tribe: “We claimed the very source of joy ran through/it didn’t, but it seemed that way.” The warmth, the easy unity, of the Free Festival is already in the past. If the hippies are the “children of the summer’s end,” they should ready for winter.

Like the Arts Labs, the free concert was a child of the late Sixties. In summer 1968, the promoter Blackhill Enterprises began putting on monthly free rock shows in Hyde Park with the likes of Pink Floyd and the Move. The Rolling Stones hired Blackhill to run their own free Hyde Park concert the following summer (described by Richard Neville as “free, courtesy of Blackhill, of Granada’s groovy camera team, Marshall’s great amplification system and triple-priced Lyon’s ice cream.”) The Beckenham festival was a homespun version of this and it actually was free, unlike Woodstock, which had been forcibly converted into a free show. The happy chaos of Woodstock, soon followed by the 1969 Isle of Wight concert and the violent chaos of the Stones’ free show in Altamont that December, made the free festival yet another fault line between straight and hippie worlds. Parliament soon passed an act banning gatherings of over 5,000 at the Isle of Wight.

“Memory of a Free Festival” opens with Bowie playing a Rosedale electric chord organ that he’d found at Woolworths. As with the Stylophone, he gave a toy instrument dignity. The sole accompaniment of the song’s four verses, the organ was his voice’s rickety, ecclesiastic complement, making him sound like a wandering sermonizer.

Composing on the organ, even a toy like the Rosedale, liberated Bowie from the guitar’s melodic consistency; it foreshadowed the freedom he’d find when writing on the piano a year later. After politely announcing the piece’s title, he started by playing variations on E minor while nudging up the bassline stepwise from C to F. Settling into a loose 3/4 time, he sang the first two verses over a descending, nebulous chord sequence, shifting from B minor to B-flat (“felt the Lon/don sky,” “source of/joy”) while anchored on a D bass. The third verse gained momentum, Bowie singing more hurriedly while mainly keeping on an E note (pushing up slightly on “ecstasy”), slackening at the end of each phrase. A shift to D major (“scanned the skies”) marked the peak of the festival: the aliens arrive, the joints get passed around, the revelers “walk back to the [Croydon] road, unchained.”

What followed was a free-time interlude of organ swirls, snippets of chatter, laughs and guitar fills while John Cambridge kept loose order with his ride cymbal. A memory so far, the festival shifts to the present, a party as much ominous as joyful. The sequence’s real purpose was more practical: it had to glue the “Free Festival” verses to a three-chord (D-C-G) “sun machine” refrain possibly once intended for another song. Having considered using the “Hey Jude” refrain for “Janine,” Bowie now made the long coda of “Free Festival” in its image: loops of ragged communal chanting, with Bowie in Paul McCartney’s soul cheerleader role.

In early 1970, Mercury’s American wing asked Bowie to re- record “Memory of a Free Festival” as a single, requesting a faster tempo and to get to the refrain sooner. The compromise was to cut the track in half, devoting the B-side entirely to the sun machine. This new “Free Festival” found Bowie outshone by his backing band, who tromped in singly during the intro. Even with the Sixties fresh in the grave, there’s a feeling of getting down to business. Guitar, bass and drums kick in before the first verse starts, the Moog rolls over the humble Rosedale organ like a Panzer tank, the psychedelic interlude gets deep-sixed, the chanted backing vocals of the refrains could be from a football terrace. Mick Ronson, Tony Visconti’s free-flowing bass and Ralph Mace’s Moog used the long fadeout as a preview of coming attractions. “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1 and 2” was the sound of The Man Who Sold the World, hard glam rock, and a bit too hard and glam for summer 1970, as the single sold dismally.

The Beatles ended the Sixties by breaking up, the last record they made showing them walk single-file off stage. The Stones ended with blood and fire and the sense they’d survive it all (and they would). The Who had a messiah pulled down by his followers, the Kinks emigrated to Australia, Dylan and Van Morrison and a host of others went to ground in the country. Bowie closed a decade in which he’d been a footnote by throwing a party, singing a jaded memory of the summer’s end: the fun-fair of the Sixties was just prelude, his work’s troubled childhood. His “Memory of a Free Festival,” a last gathering of the tribes, had a sad, faded grandeur. Forty-five years on, it can still touch a medieval chord in the soul.

Recorded: 8-9 September 1969, Trident. Bowie: lead vocal, Rosedale electric chord organ; Mick Wayne: lead guitar; Tim Renwick: rhythm guitar; John Lodge: bass; John Cambridge: drums, tambourine; unknown musician(s): baritone saxophone; Visconti, Bob Harris, Sue Harris, Tony Woollcott, Marc Bolan, “Girl”: backing vocals. Produced, arranged: Visconti; engineered: Sheffield, Scott or Toft; (remake, as “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1 & Pt. 2”) 21, 23 March, 3, 14-15 April 1970, Trident and Advision Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar, Rosedale organ; Ronson: lead guitar, backing vocal; Ralph Mace: Moog; Visconti: bass, backing vocal; Cambridge: drums; unknown musicians: strings (arr. Visconti). Produced: Visconti.

First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity; (single) 26 June 1970 (Mercury 6052 026). Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show; ca. June 1970, Six-O-One: Newsday; 15 August 1970, Eddy Ready Go! Live: 1969-1971, 1973-1974.

Children of the Sun Machine

E-Zee Possee, The Sun Machine.
Dario G, Sunmachine.
The Polyphonic Spree, Memory of a Free Festival (live, 2004).

The “sun machine” chant, having evanesced at the end of the ’60s, returned a generation later. “Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2),” a trance-inducing earworm, was a natural ancestor of a rave chant, and in 1990 E-Zee Possee had a minor hit with “The Sun Machine,” in which the “sun machine” chant was sung over house piano.

Then there was the UK dance trio Dario G’s 1998 “Sunmachine.” As Dario G’s Paul Spencer said, “We had this idea to sample bits of Bowie’s ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ over an ambient track of ‘Sunchyme.’ But we quickly discovered that the sample was so brilliant that it needed a brand new track–with some rock elements. There was only one problem: the sample we were using had all of Bowie’s instrumentation in it, which was too noisy for our purpose. So, we sent a demo of the song to Bowie and he liked our idea so much that he sent us the song’s original tape, which allowed us to sample only his vocals. He couldn’t have been a better chap!” As an added bonus, Bowie producer, Tony Visconti, played all the flute parts on the track.” (Thanks to Daniel Simon for this link.)

I’m not sure we’re done with the sun machine yet—expect Animal Collective to use it at some point. [NOTE: this was 2009.]

Top to bottom: The Stones bury the Sixties at Altamont, December 1969; “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1” single; bathers in the Serpentine, Hyde Park, 1969.


Reissues: Holy Holy

February 2, 2016

Here’s another of the “lost” Bowie flop singles, from 1971—an odd beast, in that it was a pick-up recording session of Bowie and much of the band Blue Mink (at the time, the Spiders had gone back to Hull and Tony Visconti was gone). The original 45 version of “Holy Holy” was unavailable for decades–it took the recent Five Years set to finally issue it again.

Book revision goes a lot more into Aleister Crowley and even manages a reference to Anthony Powell’s Hearing Secret Harmonies.

Originally posted on January 31, 2010: “Holy Holy”:

Holy Holy (single).
Holy Holy (remake).

The nightmare world of Christianity vanished at the dawn. I fell in with a girl of the theatre in the first ten days at Torquay, and at that touch of human love the detestable mysteries of sex were transformed into joy and beauty. The obsession of sin fell from my shoulders into the sea of oblivion. I had been almost overwhelmed by the appalling responsibility of ensuring my own damnation and helping others to escape from Jesus. I found that the world was, after all, full of delightful damned souls…

The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, ch. 7.

“Holy Holy,” yet another flop Bowie single, seems (in theory) like a sure thing: a dark conflation of sex and religion with a catchy chorus. Its timing was perfect, too—“Spirit In the Sky” had hit #1 in the UK a month before Bowie recorded this, Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” (of which Bowie’s song seems like a slight parody) was also a recent hit, and Jesus Christ Superstar would come out in the fall of 1970. But instead “Holy Holy” suffered the fate of every Bowie 45 barring “Space Oddity” and failed to chart.

Philips/Mercury sat on the record for six months, finally putting it out in January 1971, in part because of contract negotiations but also because the track sounds a bit dull: its timing seems off and the playing is leaden, whether due to exhaustion or indifference.

Bowie knew that he had whiffed this one, though, and went back to “Holy Holy” in September 1971 with his new Spiders from Mars (Ronson, Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder). The remake is leagues better than the original—Ronson in particular is inspired, moving from an ominous locomotive intro riff to his sleek solo, a different (though harmonized) guitar track for each speaker. The remade “Holy Holy” was good enough to have made the cut for Ziggy Stardust, but instead wound up as a B-side a few years later. Seemingly of its moment, “Holy Holy”‘s time never quite came.

The lyric hints that Bowie’s been reading some Aleister Crowley—the line about “just the righteous brother” isn’t only a play on the Bill Medley/Bobby Hatfield duo’s name but a reference to the Order of the Golden Dawn, to which Crowley had belonged. The whole song is a paean to sex magick, with the lyric moving from basic seduction (the verse) to an orgy in the chorus (which ends “but let go of me!!!”—suggesting the singer’s either under a spell or is moving onto fresher prospects nearby).

The original “Holy Holy” was cut in June 1970 (with the bassist Herbie Flowers, who produced the session) and released in January 1971 as Mercury 6052 049 (c/w “Black Country Rock”). The remake was cut ca. August/September 1971 and, originally slated for the Ziggy Stardust LP, finally surfaced as the B-side to “Diamond Dogs” in June 1974 (it was included on the Ryko reissue of The Man Who Sold the World, although the remake was mislabeled as the original cut, which has never been re-released).

Top: Terry O’Neill, “Margaret Thatcher ca. 1970.”


Reissues: Conversation Piece

January 26, 2016

69paris

One of the few Sixties Bowie songs to make the reader top 100 song poll, “Conversation Piece” was one of DB’s “lost gems,” a B-side never compiled until the Ryko Space Oddity reissue in 1990. But is it finally starting to come into its own?

This entry isn’t that different from the book revision: in the latter, there’s more on the arrangement, the rather inept musical breakdown offered here is corrected, and more attention is paid to the remake, to which I give short shrift here. Likely the only piece of rock criticism to open with a quote from the 2nd president of the U.S.

Originally posted November 23, 2009: “Conversation Piece.”

Conversation Piece (1969 demo).
Conversation Piece.
Conversation Piece (Toy remake, 2000).


[The poor man] feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind take no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market, at a play, at an execution, or coronation: he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or cellar. He is not disapproved, censured or reproached; he is only not seen.

John Adams, Discourses on Davila.

I get lonesome right in the middle of a crowd.

Elvis Presley.

There have been few songs written about academics, whether tenured or failed. All that comes to mind are REM’s “Sad Professor” and this one, and “Conversation Piece” may not be about an academic at all. An independent scholar, let’s say—a shabby young man with an old man’s habits, who lives above an Austrian grocer: his rug is scattered with the pages of unpublished essays, and he spends his time wandering the streets begrudging life. He may throw himself off a bridge at song’s end.

“Conversation Piece” was Bowie’s most recent composition when he made a demo tape in April 1969 (John Hutchinson calls it “a new one” and Bowie has to prompt him with the opening guitar chords (“G-D-G”).) It’s unlike most of the songs written in this period, which are either love ballads or self-mythical explorations, as it hearkens back to the oddball character sketches of the first Bowie LP, like “Little Bombardier” or “She’s Got Medals.” (That said, some, like Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, have said the song is fairly autobiographical, a sketch of the frustrated composer and failed pop singer Bowie of 1968.)

Most of all, it captures well the curse of urban anonymity—its title is a cruel joke, the “conversation” only going on in the singer’s head. Once during a hard spell while living in NYC I spent a weekend almost entirely out of doors, going from shop to cafe to library, and realized at some point during it that I had talked to absolutely no one, except maybe to mutter thanks to a ticket-taker or cashier. The sense of moving among a great mass of people and feeling utterly invisible and isolated from them is almost addicting at first, and then it can just sink your soul.

It’s a fairly simple song—three meandering verses, three tight eight-bar choruses (half lyric, half wordless). For the final verse, Bowie uses a standard trick and changes key, bumping all the chords up one step (so while the third line of the verse—for example, “he often calls me down to eat“—has been C/G, it’s now D/A (“and they walk in twos and threes or more“), and so forth). To further the sense that the singer is breaking down, the last verse extends into a faster-paced section with shorter sung phrases until collapsing into the final chorus.

The studio take, recorded during the Space Oddity sessions ca. July-September 1969, was eventually released as the B-side to “The Prettiest Star” in March 1970. It’s unclear why “Conversation Piece” was left off the Space Oddity LP, as it’s stronger than most of the other cuts, and if LP time was an issue, they could’ve shaved at least three minutes off “Memory of a Free Festival” and no one would’ve wept. Over the years, it’s become many people’s favorite Bowie obscurity (Stuart Murdoch seems to have lived in this song at some point).

Bowie revived “Conversation Piece” in 2000 for his scotched LP Toy, and eventually released it on a bonus disc for his 2002 Heathen album. He sings it in a lower register and without much emotion. The flailing scholar of the original recording at least had energy in his desperation; here, all is resigned, empty despair.

Top: Pascal Grob, “Paris, 1969.”


Reissues: The Prettiest Star

January 21, 2016

Still often forgotten, “The Prettiest Star” remains, in its way, the last curse of the Sixties for Bowie: it was the early 1970 follow-up single to his Top 5 hit “Space Oddity” that went nowhere in the UK and wasn’t even released in the US. It was rarely performed live: never again after 1973.

As always with the early stuff, this entry’s unfocused and sloppy at times, particularly in the music graphs. The book version’s better, I hope. I still like the Aladdin Sane version more.

Originally posted December 29, 2009: The Prettiest Star (whether it was Angela or Marc)

The Prettiest Star (single).
The Prettiest Star (Aladdin Sane remake).
The Prettiest Star (live, 1973).

Space Oddity” gave David Bowie a hit single at last and he had no clue how to follow it up. He dithered for months, considering “Janine,” among other Space Oddity tracks. The decision finally came down to either remaking “London Bye Ta-Ta” (his manager Ken Pitt’s choice) or cutting a new song that Bowie allegedly had just written for Angela Barnett, who he’d marry in a few months. Bowie went with the latter and got his old rival/colleague and emerging pop star Marc Bolan to play lead guitar on it. “The Prettiest Star” was simple, hummable, sweet and reassuring: it sold less than 800 copies.

Why did “The Prettiest Star” stiff so badly? Tony Visconti had warned about the danger of “Space Oddity”: it was such a dated one-off song that it threatened to consign Bowie into the bin of late ’60s novelties. Bowie resisted the obvious course, doing an SF-themed follow-up, but “Prettiest Star,” compared to “Oddity,” was quite square, its sentiments treacly, its tone warm and nostalgic. Many ’70s pop listeners would have a yen for those very qualities, but maybe March 1970 was a bit too soon. By the spring Bowie was recording heavy metal songs.

“The Prettiest Star,” lovely and neglected, is in retrospect the first sign of a countercurrent in Bowie’s ’70s work. Seventies Bowie is remembered mainly for glam rock anthems and “avant-garde” electronic records, for dressing as an alien or a Kabuki drag queen. But littered throughout all of that are the occasional regressions—stage ditties, warm reminiscences, tributes. Bowie followed his hard rock Man Who Sold the World LP with a return to music hall shenanigans, chased the sleazy glamour of Aladdin Sane with homage to his old Mod rivals and inspirations, and did a Christmas song with Bing Crosby while promoting “Heroes.”

“The Prettiest Star” has a basic verse-and-refrain structure, simple rhymes (“one day” with “someday”), dyslexic rhymes (“tried” and “tired”) and a pretty if unadventurous melody. There are a few tricks. Take the way the first three guitar notes serve as a count-in before the first bar of the intro, a pattern replicated before other verses by piano or strings. Or how in the first two verses Bowie stays on the C chord when it seems like he’s going to move up (“it can all but break your heart…in pieces,” “I moved up to take a place…near you”), only to break the pattern in the third verse, the chords moving to F and F7 as Bowie sings the title phrase. And the song’s other main part (the 10-bar section that begins “staying back in your memory“) is either a refrain or a bridge—it can serve either role.

All of this is overshadowed by the lead guitar, whose eight-bar intro is both overture for the verse (it’s the same underlying chords) and the song’s central motif. In the original version, the guitar intro reappears after two verses and is granted three more repetitions at the end—as a result, the track can feel like padding between a series of guitar solos. (When Bowie and Mick Ronson remade “Prettiest Star,” they corrected this flaw—the original’s draggy midsection, with two back-to-back bridges glued together by the repeated opening riff, is streamlined with the third verse now separating the two bridges and the riff repeat eliminated (the final guitar repeats are also reduced by one).)

“The Prettiest Star” seems to offer a battle of two lead guitarists—Marc Bolan on the single, Mick Ronson on the remake—but comparison listening makes it pretty clear that Ronson ceded the field to Bolan. While some critics have claimed Ronson reproduces Bolan’s solo note-for-note, which isn’t quite the case I think, he comes pretty close (Ronson even plays a vibrato-laden chord against Bowie singing “HOW you moved” in the bridge, just as Bolan did).

You can see why Ronson didn’t change it up: Bolan’s vibrato-saturated solo is one of the most melodic guitar lines he ever recorded, and it’s more memorable than Bowie’s vocal. In January 1970 Bolan only recently had switched to electric guitar (one reason he agreed to the Bowie session was that Visconti and Bowie had flattered his playing) and he plays the near-identical riff throughout the song, changing it only in the final repeat.

Ronson, when he remade “Prettiest Star” in late 1972, had his own well-established sound—plug his Les Paul directly into a cranked-up amp (occasionally using just a single wah-wah pedal), and, like Jimmy Page, use precise overdubs to fatten out the track (here he puts in a scratchy, distorted second guitar at the end of the intro). Bolan’s lead had been supplemented by Bowie strumming on 12-string acoustic guitar, but Ronson has no need of that, as saxophones serve to beef up the verses, freeing Ronson to craft metallic washes of sound.

It’s unclear why Bowie remade “Prettiest Star” for Aladdin Sane: perhaps he was short of new material (this was when record companies wanted artists to churn out new LPs seemingly every nine months—today, Justin Timberlake gets half a decade between records) and for most record buyers “Prettiest Star” was basically an unreleased track, given its awful reception in 1970.

If the original version of “Prettiest Star” was a simple valentine, the remake is a rowdy, garish engagement party, with doo-wop backing vocals, a horn section, an aggressive piano and a heavier beat. They both have their appeal, though the Aladdin Sane edition sounds like a better time.

Recorded 8, 13-14 January 1970 (with Visconti on bass and Godfrey McClean on drums) and released in March as Mercury MF 1135 c/w “Conversation Piece”—the same group, including Bolan, also cut “London Bye Ta-Ta” but it was left on the shelf; the Aladdin Sane remake was recorded in New York between 3-10 December 1972, in one of the first sessions for the LP.

Top: The Bowies wed each other, Bromley Registry Office, 20 March 1970.


Holy Holy

January 31, 2010

Holy Holy (single).
Holy Holy (remake).

The nightmare world of Christianity vanished at the dawn. I fell in with a girl of the theatre in the first ten days at Torquay, and at that touch of human love the detestable mysteries of sex were transformed into joy and beauty. The obsession of sin fell from my shoulders into the sea of oblivion. I had been almost overwhelmed by the appalling responsibility of ensuring my own damnation and helping others to escape from Jesus. I found that the world was, after all, full of delightful damned souls…

The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, ch. 7.

“Holy Holy,” yet another flop Bowie single, seems (in theory) like a sure thing: a dark conflation of sex and religion with a catchy chorus. Its timing was perfect, too—“Spirit In the Sky” had hit #1 in the UK a month before Bowie recorded this, Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” (of which Bowie’s song seems like a slight parody) was also a recent hit, and Jesus Christ Superstar would come out in the fall of 1970. But instead “Holy Holy” suffered the fate of every Bowie 45 barring “Space Oddity” and failed to chart.

Philips/Mercury sat on the record for six months, finally putting it out in January 1971, in part because of contract negotiations but also because the track sounds a bit dull: its timing seems off and the playing is leaden, whether due to exhaustion or indifference (Tony Visconti had just left Bowie’s band, and Mick Ronson and Woody Woodmansey likely knew by this point that Bowie was sending them back to Hull, possibly for good).

Bowie knew that he had whiffed this one, though, and went back to “Holy Holy” in September 1971 with his new Spiders from Mars (Ronson, Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder). The remake is leagues better than the original—Ronson in particular is inspired, moving from an ominous locomotive intro riff to his sleek solo, a different (though harmonized) guitar track for each speaker. The remade “Holy Holy” was good enough to have made the cut for Ziggy Stardust, but instead wound up as a B-side a few years later. Seemingly of its moment, “Holy Holy”‘s time never quite came.

The lyric hints that Bowie’s been reading some Aleister Crowley—the line about “just the righteous brother” isn’t only a play on the Bill Medley/Bobby Hatfield duo’s name but a reference to the Order of the Golden Dawn, to which Crowley had belonged. The whole song is a paean to sex magick, with the lyric moving from basic seduction (the verse) to an orgy in the chorus (which ends “but let go of me!!!”—suggesting the singer’s either under a spell or is moving onto fresher prospects nearby).

The original “Holy Holy” was cut in June 1970 (with the bassist Herbie Flowers, who produced the session) and released in January 1971 as Mercury 6052 049 (c/w “Black Country Rock”). The remake was cut ca. August/September 1971 and, originally slated for the Ziggy Stardust LP, finally surfaced as the B-side to “Diamond Dogs” in June 1974 (it was included on the Ryko reissue of The Man Who Sold the World, although the remake was mislabeled as the original cut, which has never been re-released).

Top: Terry O’Neill, “Margaret Thatcher ca. 1970.”


Tired Of My Life

January 29, 2010

Tired of My Life.

No one’s sure when exactly this dreary thing was recorded—the best guess (by Nicholas Pegg, the most reliable of Bowie chroniclers) is that it was taped around the time of The Man Who Sold The World, ca. May 1970, at Bowie’s residence in Haddon Hall. The song’s a return to the folkie ruminations of Space Oddity, now with a more pronounced Crosby, Stills & Nash influence (especially in the bridge). Mick Ronson likely sings harmony.

Bowie left it in the bottom drawer for a decade, then dragged it out and tarted it up (recycling a few lines and the vocal melody) for a much better song on Scary Monsters, “It’s No Game.”

Top: Harold Chapman, “Glasgow, the Gorbals,” (slum neighborhood cleared in 1970).


Amsterdam

December 21, 2009

Amsterdam (Jacques Brel).
Amsterdam (Scott Walker, 1967).
Amsterdam (David Bowie, BBC, February 1970).
Amsterdam (Bowie, studio version 1971).

Jacques Brel, according to legend, composed “Amsterdam” in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in a house overlooking the Mediterranean. He read the completed lyrics to a fisherman friend, who wept and cut open some sea urchins. After Robert Guillaume first sang “Amsterdam” at the Village Gate in January 1968, he recalled in his memoir there was a “disconcertingly long hush—followed by a roar so damn loud I jumped.”

Brel never recorded “Amsterdam,” despite it being one of his best-known songs: its only official release is on a 1964 live LP of Brel at the Olympia, in Paris. Bowie likely first heard “Amsterdam” via Scott Walker’s cover recording, which was the final track on Walker’s 1967 debut LP. Bowie also attended the stage show Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which, having debuted at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, had come to London in the summer of 1968. The play had no libretto, just a series of performances of Brel compositions, with Mort Shuman (who also performed in the play) and Eric Blau translating Brel’s lyrics (freely and racily).

In late 1968 Bowie began covering “Amsterdam” with his folk trio, keeping the song in his stage repertoire until 1972 (he replaced it with Brel’s “My Death,” which better suited the times). Bowie even originally intended to end side 1 of Ziggy Stardust with his studio version of “Amsterdam,” with Side 2’s closing song, “Rock and Roll Suicide,” being a thematic twin of sorts, Bowie’s own rock & roll Brel song.

Like “Waiting for the Man,” the other song Bowie obsessively covered in this period, “Amsterdam” offers street life as stage material, but where Lou Reed’s lyric is the narrow perceptions of its junkie narrator, Brel’s “Amsterdam” is sprawling, a Bruegelian vision: a port filled with drunken, paunchy sailors who chew fish heads with their rotten teeth, piss in the street, fight, sing in broken voices and use the port prostitutes “for a few dirty coins.” The sense of life as a canvas, the vulgar proletarians as actors in their own dramas, appealed to Bowie, whose ’60s lyrics had tended to be obscure or bloodless—he sensed a method, via Brel, to connect with reality more directly, to use stagecraft to build more resonant songs.

Bowie also took from “Amsterdam” its sense of apocalyptic timing (such as how “Amsterdam” begins quietly, with the port slowly waking up, and builds to a wild, drunken spectacle) and its exacting demands on a singer, who has to deliver the entire lyric without barely a pause in three minutes, the intoned words “in the port of Amsterdam” serving as the unchanging hub of the song.

Bowie’s various covers of “Amsterdam” are as much interpretations of Scott Walker’s recording as they are Brel’s. In all his attempts, Bowie seems too much in awe of the material: when he tries to outdo Brel in intensity and Walker in moodiness (particularly in the studio recording) his vocal is stagy and strained, the lyric’s judgments seem unearned. It’s Bowie’s last apprentice work.

Bowie first recorded “Amsterdam” for the BBC’s Sunday Show on 5 February 1970 (on Bowie at the Beeb), and also for “Sounds of the ’70s” on 21 September 1971. The studio recording of “Amsterdam,” made in the summer of 1971 during the early Ziggy Stardust sessions, was eventually cut from the LP (though it was on the first master recording) and wound up issued as the B-side of “Sorrow” in 1973.

Top: “Renard Livres Echanges, near Les Halles, Paris,” 1970.


Buzz The Fuzz

December 16, 2009

Buzz The Fuzz.

The next one to follow is also another Biff Rose number. I’m a bit keen on his songs, I think they are very good, very funny. He’s a very overrated, er, underrated songwriter, sorry Biff, and he’s been working in America for about five years and nobody over here is buying his records, and not many people in America seem to either, and the album this comes from is called The Thorn in Mrs. Rose’s Side and it’s a good album to buy. It’s called “Buzz The Fuzz” and it’s a Los Angeles song.

David Bowie, Friars Club, Aylesbury, 25 September 1971.

Bowie had a taste for musical eccentrics, those further out on the limb then he ever ventured, whether it was Ken Nordine’s “Word Jazz” LPs or the odd figure of Paul “Biff” Rose. Rose was a banjo-playing comedian, born in New Orleans, who worked with George Carlin on various TV shows in the ’60s, including Mort Sahl’s, while releasing a series of comedy records.

“Buzz The Fuzz” is off Rose’s 1968 LP The Thorn in Mrs. Rose’s Side (as was “Fill Your Heart,” which Bowie also covered) and the song’s your basic sort of hippie drug humor, involving a rookie LA cop and the femme fatale he encounters, Alice Dee (rim shot). Removed from its narrow cultural/generational niche (Robert Christgau, watching Rose tweak Johnny Carson in 1969, admired Rose’s “hip aplomb” and ended his blurb with “Hurray for longhairs”), the song now seems smug and unfunny—a poor translation from a dead language.

First played at a BBC session on 5 February 1970, where Bowie sings it in a sideshow freak’s voice. While he kept “Buzz the Fuzz” in his stage repertoire until 1972, he never recorded it.

Top: Nixon meets the Queen, 3 October 1970. Elizabeth seems nonplussed.


The Prettiest Star

December 15, 2009

The Prettiest Star (single).
The Prettiest Star (Aladdin Sane remake).

Space Oddity” gave David Bowie a hit single at last and he had no clue how to follow it up. He dithered for months, considering “Janine,” among other Space Oddity tracks. The decision finally came down to either remaking “London Bye Ta-Ta” (his manager Ken Pitt’s choice) or cutting a new song that Bowie allegedly had just written for Angela Barnett, who he’d marry in a few months. Bowie went with the latter and got his old rival/colleague and emerging pop star Marc Bolan to play lead guitar on it. “The Prettiest Star” was simple, hummable, sweet and reassuring: it sold less than 800 copies.

Why did “The Prettiest Star” stiff so badly? Tony Visconti had warned about the danger of “Space Oddity”: it was such a dated one-off song that it threatened to consign Bowie into the bin of late ’60s novelties. Bowie resisted the obvious course, doing an SF-themed follow-up, but “Prettiest Star,” compared to “Oddity,” was quite square, its sentiments treacly, its tone warm and nostalgic. Many ’70s pop listeners would have a yen for those very qualities, but maybe March 1970 was a bit too soon. By the spring Bowie was recording heavy metal songs.

“The Prettiest Star,” lovely and neglected, is in retrospect the first sign of a countercurrent in Bowie’s ’70s work. Seventies Bowie is remembered mainly for glam rock anthems and “avant-garde” electronic records, for dressing as an alien or a Kabuki drag queen. But littered throughout all of that are the occasional regressions—stage ditties, warm reminiscences, tributes. Bowie followed his hard rock Man Who Sold the World LP with a return to music hall shenanigans, chased the sleazy glamour of Aladdin Sane with homage to his old Mod rivals and inspirations, and did a Christmas song with Bing Crosby while promoting “Heroes.”

“The Prettiest Star” has a basic verse-and-refrain structure, simple rhymes (“one day” with “someday”), dyslexic rhymes (“tried” and “tired”) and a pretty if unadventurous melody. There are a few tricks. Take the way the first three guitar notes serve as a count-in before the first bar of the intro, a pattern replicated before other verses by piano or strings. Or how in the first two verses Bowie stays on the C chord when it seems like he’s going to move up (“it can all but break your heart…in pieces,” “I moved up to take a place…near you”), only to break the pattern in the third verse, the chords moving to F and F7 as Bowie sings the title phrase. And the song’s other main part (the 10-bar section that begins “staying back in your memory“) is either a refrain or a bridge—it can serve either role.

All of this is overshadowed by the lead guitar, whose eight-bar intro is both overture for the verse (it’s the same underlying chords) and the song’s central motif. In the original version, the guitar intro reappears after two verses and is granted three more repetitions at the end—as a result, the track can feel like padding between a series of guitar solos. (When Bowie and Mick Ronson remade “Prettiest Star,” they corrected this flaw—the original’s draggy midsection, with two back-to-back bridges glued together by the repeated opening riff, is streamlined with the third verse now separating the two bridges and the riff repeat eliminated (the final guitar repeats are also reduced by one).)

“The Prettiest Star” seems to offer a battle of two lead guitarists—Marc Bolan on the single, Mick Ronson on the remake—but comparison listening makes it pretty clear that Ronson ceded the field to Bolan. While some critics have claimed Ronson reproduces Bolan’s solo note-for-note, which isn’t quite the case I think, he comes pretty close (Ronson even plays a vibrato-laden chord against Bowie singing “HOW you moved” in the bridge, just as Bolan did).

You can see why Ronson didn’t change it up: Bolan’s vibrato-saturated solo is one of the most melodic guitar lines he ever recorded, and it’s more memorable than Bowie’s vocal. In January 1970 Bolan only recently had switched to electric guitar (one reason he agreed to the Bowie session was that Visconti and Bowie had flattered his playing) and he plays the near-identical riff throughout the song, changing it only in the final repeat.

Ronson, when he remade “Prettiest Star” in late 1972, had his own well-established sound—plug his Les Paul directly into a cranked-up amp (occasionally using just a single wah-wah pedal), and, like Jimmy Page, use precise overdubs to fatten out the track (here he puts in a scratchy, distorted second guitar at the end of the intro). Bolan’s lead had been supplemented by Bowie strumming on 12-string acoustic guitar, but Ronson has no need of that, as saxophones serve to beef up the verses, freeing Ronson to craft metallic washes of sound.

It’s unclear why Bowie remade “Prettiest Star” for Aladdin Sane: perhaps he was short of new material (this was when record companies wanted artists to churn out new LPs seemingly every nine months—today, Justin Timberlake gets half a decade between records) and for most record buyers “Prettiest Star” was basically an unreleased track, given its awful reception in 1970.

If the original version of “Prettiest Star” was a simple valentine, the remake is a rowdy, garish engagement party, with doo-wop backing vocals, a horn section, an aggressive piano and a heavier beat. They both have their appeal, though the Aladdin Sane edition sounds like a better time.

Recorded 8, 13-14 January 1970 (with Visconti on bass and Godfrey McClean on drums) and released in March as Mercury MF 1135 c/w “Conversation Piece”—the same group, including Bolan, also cut “London Bye Ta-Ta” but it was left on the shelf; the Aladdin Sane remake was recorded in New York between 3-10 December 1972, in one of the first sessions for the LP.

Top: The Bowies wed each other, Bromley Registry Office, 19 March 1970.


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