Reissues: Sorrow

July 5, 2016

Can Pin Ups be redeemed? Arguably the least popular of Bowie’s Seventies albums (see the reader poll last year, in which only five songs out of the album’s 12 tracks even got votes), it feels overdue for someone to make a claim for it besides Greil Marcus, who called it Bowie’s “quirky triumph” decades ago.

For me, Pin Ups still sounds, as it did when I first heard it in the late Eighties, like a scattershot record whose occasional brilliant moments are overcrowded by adequate but uninspired renditions of songs that Bowie couldn’t quite master. I’ve come to appreciate how good it sounds—it’s Ken Scott’s brightest production—and the playing’s top-notch, as you’d expect.

So here’s a revisit to one of the album’s highlights, in which I make the case for the superiority of its contemporary rival, Bryan Ferry’s These Foolish Things (Stephen Ryan, who proofread a lot of the book, wasn’t convinced, to put it mildly–I’ve gotten other “really?” comments over the years).

Anyhow, reconsider Pin Ups if you’d like. I’m on vacation: see you in late July!

Originally posted on 4 August 2010, it’s “Sorrow”:

Sorrow (The McCoys, 1965).
Sorrow (The Merseys, 1966).
Sorrow (Bowie).
Sorrow (Bowie, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
Sorrow (Bowie, live, 1974).
Sorrow (Bowie, live, 1983).

Weeks before Bowie recorded Pin Ups in France, Bryan Ferry cut a covers album in London. This was Ferry’s first solo record, made as Roxy Music was entering a less anarchic second edition without Brian Eno. Learning that Bowie was doing his own covers album, Ferry grew agitated, reportedly calling Pin Ups “a rip-off,” a charge with some heft, given that Bowie would steal the look of Roxy Music’s saxophonist Andy Mackay for the album sleeve.

Though some biographies have Ferry considering having his label file an injunction to prevent Pin Ups from being issued before his record, reality was apparently more polite. After some negotiations between managers, Bowie called Ferry, purportedly to ask permission to record a Roxy Music song (“Ladytron”) but also to drop the news about Pin Ups. “He’d heard that I was doing this thing and that he was going to do something similar,” Ferry told David Buckley. Ferry had to admire what Mick Rock called Bowie’s “marvelous street instinct.” “There doesn’t seem to be any great self-doubt there,” Ferry said. “Whereas I’m always riddled with doubts and self-criticism and God-knows-what.”

Ferry needn’t have worried. These Foolish Things is what Pin Ups could have been: bolder in ambition and scope (Ferry took on the heavyweights: Elvis, Bob Dylan, Smokey Robinson, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones), its arrangements fresher, its execution more consistent. Ferry considered his covers as Dadaist “readymades,” interpreting each song in a glam rococo style, singing in what Greil Marcus called his “Dracula-has-risen-from-the-grave voice” and backed by a female chorus seemingly recruited from an Andy Williams session.

It wasn’t cheap parody. Ferry strove to keep each song’s dignity intact within its new casing (his “It’s My Party” is tragic). Where Bowie stuck with the point of view of the macho teenage Mod, Ferry was catholic in tone, singing from female and male perspectives, elevating “trashy” songs and lowering “serious” ones. He made “Sympathy for the Devil” a Vegas revue number and sang “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” at a gallop, filling it with “grand camp gestures that the song just had to lie down and take,” as Robert Forster wrote, and left the Dylan original in flames. Ferry closed the record with its title song, a straight cover of Maschwitz/Strachey’s standard. It was the legend to his map: a song of how the ephemeral contains the eternal.

The Pin Ups track most worthy of These Foolish Things, and one of the few enduring pieces of music from its sessions, was Bowie’s version of “Sorrow.” Like “I Wish You Would,” it was a second-generation interpretation (Bowie covering the Merseys’ take on the McCoys’ original), with Bowie purpling a Romantic revision of a grungy teenage blues.

Written in 1965 by Richard Gottehrer, Bob Feldman and Jerry Goldstein, “Sorrow” was the B-side of “Fever,” a single from the McCoys, an Indiana garage band led by Rick Derringer. It wasn’t much of a song, a clichéd lyric over three chords that Derringer sang sheepishly, swallowing “sorrow” like a pill. Tony Crane and Billy Kinsley, as the Merseys, transformed the song when covering it the following year. Opening the track with a bowed bass, the Merseys met insistence— jangling guitar and piano—with a hollowed-out longing. Crane and Kinsley, singing close harmonies, let the last syllable of “sorrow” hang in the air and circled obsessively over two phrases, the title line and “your long blonde hair.” The Merseys’ “Sorrow” hit #4 in Britain and was treasured by the likes of George Harrison, who quoted its opening lines in his “It’s All Too Much.”

Mick Ronson’s arrangement for Bowie’s “Sorrow” took the choicest bits of the Merseys’ and subtly improved them. He made the Merseys’ bowed bass a solitary violin, in line with how the opening verse was just Bowie, his 12-string acoustic guitar (its only appearance on the album), Trevor Bolder’s bass and Mike Garson’s processed piano. The Merseys’ half-bar-delayed harmony vocals became a hall of Bowie mirrors; their piping trumpets and trombones became a ruminative saxophone break: a baritone harmonic base and a tenor melodic line. Ronson’s scoring for strings rivaled his work on Hunky Dory, from the long-held high notes in the ultimate verse (matching Bowie’s gorgeous leap of an octave) to the waltz patterns that sweep through the last refrain.

As a last pip, Bowie’s “Sorrow” had a thirty-second F major outro, where Garson on electric piano worked a new melody until the fade consigns him to silence. It paralleled how Bowie had moved the lyric to the past tense—the disaster’s over and he’s left trying to pick up the pieces.

Recorded 9-31 July 1973, Château d’Hérouville, and released as a single in October 1973 (RCA 2424 c/w “Amsterdam,” #3 UK). On Pin Ups, it was sequenced between the garish “Friday On My Mind” and the brutal “Don’t Bring Me Down” (whose opening guitar riff kills off “Sorrow”‘s fadeout). Bowie performed it in his “1980 Floor Show” (with Roxy Music cover model Amanda Lear as the heartbreaker) and in his 1974 and 1983 tours.

See Emily Play

August 10, 2010

See Emily Play (Pink Floyd, 1967).
See Emily Play (Bowie).

Syd Barrett’s masterpiece “See Emily Play” was one of the last songs he wrote for Pink Floyd. As with other psychedelic songs of the era, “See Emily Play” equated the images received by a mind under the influence of LSD with a child’s developing perception of the world, so its lyric centers on a lost girl (it’s never said she’s a child, though she’s very much a modern Alice in Wonderland) who could be having a bad trip; its chorus is a nursery rhyme, and the track is stuffed with a nursery’s worth of clatter, from music-box chimes to sped-up pianos to guitars that mimic clocks ticking.

Acid use had worsened Barrett’s fragile mental state, and he was reaching the point of no return by the time of “See Emily Play” (David Gilmour, his soon-to-be replacement, visited Abbey Road during its recording and was shocked by Barrett’s deteriorated condition). So the song’s pastoral is undermined by various ominous warnings—the image of Emily lost and crying in the woods at night, or the bluntly-stated “you’ll lose your mind and play.”

Bowie, when he covered “See Emily Play” for Pin Ups, followed this darker path, making the song a schizophrenic nightmare occasionally broken by moments of clarity and restraint. While Bowie sings the verses plainly, even languidly, the chorus is overwhelmed by a choir of ghouls (see our old friend “The Laughing Gnome” or “The Bewlay Brothers”): Bowie overdubs that were altered, via varispeed, to lurk an octave beneath his lead vocal.

Bowie’s cover is also a sonic tribute to Barrett, the one artist covered on Pin Ups who had been a direct influence on Bowie, from Barrett’s singing voice with its unaltered English accent to his fevered, shambling stage appearances (Bowie said Barrett was the first man he saw wearing make-up on stage). Mick Ronson’s guitar echoes Barrett’s own playing on early Pink Floyd tracks (take the descending, twisting lead riff of “Lucifer Sam,” which is close to surf music, or the harsh chording of “Astronomy Domine”). Mike Garson, on piano and synths, provides the color, while Trevor Bolder and Aynsley Dunbar’s backing is more solid and fluid than the original track’s.

The track ends with the taste of a sprightly arrangement for strings, suggesting either that the madness has abated for now, or that it’s become all-consuming, blotting out reality forever and leaving the singer stranded in a permanent dream (the psychotic varispeed voices bleeding into the final verse, eating away at Bowie’s lead vocal, suggest the latter). Despite its bizarre, garish trappings, “See Emily Play” is the only Bowie cover on Pin Ups bold enough to be nuanced.

Recorded July-early August 1973.

Top: Children, under stress since 1973.

Shapes of Things

August 6, 2010

Shapes of Things (The Yardbirds, 1966).
Shapes of Things (Bowie).

The Yardbirds’ “Shapes Of Things” is young men’s wisdom wrapped in young men’s ambition. The former is, no surprise, awkwardly phrased and ponderous; the ambition is still impressive, 45 years on. The Yardbirds had used outside songwriters for all of their singles until “Shapes of Things,” which they cut at the end of 1965. The track was designed, much like the Who’s “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” as a piece of sonic adventurism, the expedition led by Jeff Beck and the band’s underrated bassist Paul Samwell-Smith. Beck bided his time until the rave-up, where he made his fuzz-toned guitar sound like a distorted electric violin, while he brutally ended the track with staggered bursts of feedback.

The likes of “Shapes of Things” created an atmosphere in which Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane could breathe. So Bowie pays his respects, not by trying to match Rod Stewart (who sang it with the Jeff Beck Group in 1968) in power, but by singing the verses like an East End drag queen doing Judy Garland. It’s pure mockery, a sci-fi goof, or else Bowie’s taking the lyric way too seriously. It’s a failure by any reading. Ronson gives one of his better solos on the record as amends, or at least as a distraction.

Recorded July-early August 1973.

Top: “Normko,” “London, Oxford Street, 1973.”


August 4, 2010

Sorrow (The McCoys, 1965).
Sorrow (The Merseys, 1966).
Sorrow (Bowie).
Sorrow (Bowie, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
Sorrow (Bowie, live, 1974).
Sorrow (Bowie, live, 1983).

A few weeks before Bowie began recording Pin Ups in France, Bryan Ferry made a covers album in London. It would be Ferry’s first solo record; he cut it as he was reconfiguring Roxy Music into its less anarchic second edition (minus Brian Eno). When he learned Bowie was doing his own covers LP, Ferry grew paranoid. “It’s a rip-off,” he allegedly said, and wanted his label, Island, to file an injunction against RCA to prevent Pin Ups from being released before his record.*

Ferry needn’t have worried, as These Foolish Things is what Pin Ups should have been. Bold where Bowie’s record was timid (Ferry took on the heavyweights: Elvis, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones), brilliantly arranged where Pin Ups was often flat, These Foolish Things is most of all superior in the scope and execution of its ambitions. Ferry considered his covers “readymades”: he interpreted each song in a similar glam rococo style, delivering the lyric in what Greil Marcus called his “Dracula-has-risen-from-the-grave voice,” bolstered by a female chorus who sounded like they could have backed Andy Williams. However, the aim wasn’t cheap parody. Ferry strove to keep each song’s dignity intact within its new glitter casing, and often made the songs more pathetic and moving than they had been in their former incarnations. (Ferry’s “It’s My Party” seems tragic.)

‘A Hard Rain’ being a three-chord folk song, Ferry not only saw the possibilities of pounding it into a three-chord rock song, but the opportunity to add all the touches so characteristic of his work at that moment: grand camp gestures that the song just had to lie down and take.

Robert Forster, “Bryan Looks Back,” 2007.

Ferry’s treatment leveled pop hierarchies, elevating “trashy” songs like “I Love How You Love Me” and lowering “serious” rock songs (so “Sympathy for the Devil” becomes a Vegas revue number, exposing the lyric’s silliness). He sang “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at a gallop, his croon highlighting the surrealism in Dylan’s lyric, making the case that “Hard Rain” was far more aligned with “Tombstone Blues” or “Visions of Johanna” than it was with traditional folk; he placed “Don’t Worry Baby” deeper inside the singer’s head, where Brian Wilson had intended it to be. He closed the record with a cover of Maschwitz/Strachey’s standard “These Foolish Things,” which served as the legend to his map: how the ephemeral contains the essential. “The smile of Garbo and the scent of roses/The waiters whistling as the last bar closes/The song that Crosby sings…”

These Foolish Things made Pin Ups seem scatter-shot. One of the latter’s main failings is Bowie’s inability or unwillingness to settle on a coherent vocal style, even within a single song (Bowie was notorious for only doing one- or two-take vocals, which didn’t serve him well in these sessions). The overall feeling is that Bowie is just throwing out whatever he can think of at the moment, and it’s not surprising that the best Bowie managed was to match a few of the hard rock songs in attitude and volume (mainly the Pretty Things tracks).

The exception is “Sorrow,” a series of reflections and removes—Bowie, who seems to be channeling Ferry, is covering a cover. It’s the only enduring piece of music to emerge from the Pin Ups sessions.

“Sorrow” was written in 1965 by the team of Richard Gottehrer, Bob Feldman and Jerry Goldstein, who had written hits like “My Boyfriend’s Back” and, in the guise of their fake Australian group The Strangeloves, “I Want Candy.” It was the B-side of “Fever,” the follow-up single for the McCoys, an Indiana garage band (led by Rick Derringer) who had had a smash with “Hang On Sloopy.” As a composition, it’s not much—a cliche-filled lyric over mainly two chords (the song mostly stays on G, only venturing briefly to C on the title line, which is also the four-bar chorus). Derringer sang reservedly, swallowing the word “sorrow” like a pill, while the track, anchored on harmonica and a twining guitar line, hinted at despair but mainly kept on the surface.

In England, Tony Crane and Billy Kinsley had formed a duo, The Merseys, out of remnants of their old group The Merseybeats, which, like the Mojos, had formed in Liverpool during the first stirrings of Beatlemania. Their 1966 cover of “Sorrow” transformed the song. Opening with a bowed bass intro (originally played by Jack Bruce), the Merseys’ version combines aggression—the insistent four-to-the-bar guitar and piano—and longing. Crane and Kinsley let the last syllable of “sorrow” hang in the air, and center the song around two phrases, the title line and “your long blonde hair,” which they circle back to, obsessively, as the song ends. The Merseys also used delayed echoing vocals in the last verse, while their instrumental middle eight pits horns against guitars (the earlier version not only has Bruce’s bass intro, but likely has Jimmy Page doing the guitar solo and John Paul Jones on bass).

It hit #4 in the UK, and was a favorite of a number of bands, particularly the Beatles. George Harrison sang its opening lines in his “It’s All Too Much,” while Ian MacDonald suggested that the “rolling swing” of the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” was possibly based on the tempo of the Merseys’ track.

Bowie’s version is a further refinement of the Merseys’ cover, which had already changed the song from mumbling teenage blues into a more florid piece of romanticism. Now Bowie turned “Sorrow” into a grandiose, DeLuxe-colored production, where a sudden sweep of strings erupts in the last verse, while Bowie seems to be imitating Ferry in his swooning, over-the-top vocal—he nearly weeps out “sorrow” towards the end. He made the Merseys’ echoing vocal into a hall of mirrors and used Ken Fordham’s melodic saxophone solo as the calm heart of the track. And Bowie extended the song with a thirty-second ruminative outro over F chords, where Mike Garson on piano struggles to piece together a new melody as the fadeout slowly silences him.

Recorded July-early August 1973, and released as a single in October 1973 (RCA 2424 c/w “Amsterdam,” it hit #3 in the UK). On Pin Ups, it was oddly sequenced between the garish “Friday On My Mind” and the brutal “Don’t Bring Me Down” (whose opening guitar riff kills off “Sorrow”‘s fadeout) . Bowie performed it in his “1980 Floor Show” (with Roxy Music cover model Amanda Lear playing the heartbreaker) and in his 1974 and 1983 tours.

* This account is only mentioned in Christopher Sandford’s biography. By contrast, David Buckley’s bio depicts Ferry (who Buckley interviewed) as being far less combative, quoting him as saying he was only “apprehensive” when hearing about Pin Ups, with Ferry recalling that Bowie had phoned him first to settle any potential problems. Another bio, Stardust, claims Bowie told a companion he wanted “to get a jump on Ferry” after learning about the latter’s album.

Top: Bryan Ferry in blue silhouette, back cover of These Foolish Things.

Friday On My Mind

August 2, 2010

Friday On My Mind (The Easybeats, 1966).
Friday On My Mind (Bowie).

The closest Pin Ups comes to karaoke, “Friday On My Mind” features Bowie’s most bewildering vocal of the record, an acidic blend of his old Anthony Newley-isms and mock-Cockney efforts, mixed with a pupal-stage incarnation of his “soul” croon and a few other abuses. To make things worse, he has the backing vocals bluntly and artlessly say what the original, and infinitely superior, Easybeats track only suggested. Mick Ronson and Aynsley Dunbar color within the lines. The nadir of a weak album.

Recorded July-early August 1973.

Where Have All The Good Times Gone

July 28, 2010

Where Have All the Good Times Gone (The Kinks, 1965).
Where Have All the Good Times Gone (Bowie).

“Where Have All the Good Times Gone” was the B-side of the Kinks’ November 1965 single “Till the End of the Day” and soon afterward was tucked away on the LP The Kink Kontroversy. It’s one of the first Ray Davies compositions to suggest Davies’ primary theme for the ’60s: “ordinary” English people’s reactions to a shifting world that they no longer quite understood. In “Good Times Gone,” a kid faces frustration and loss for what feels like the first time in his life, and so he turns inward; feeling old, he waxes nostalgic for a youth that he discarded the day before. He can even empathize with his parents, who he’s now able to imagine as being human, too, and pining for their own youth.

The song’s also a wry comment on the London pop world, ca. summer 1965, which was moving from regional scenes to cross-Atlantic mass audience fare, from the Liverpool docks to the Hollywood Bowl. In particular, it’s a slight send-up of the Beatles’ world-weary “Yesterday.” Davies first hints at this in the second verse (“let it be like yesterday,” he sings with a groan, while the song, which has been mainly shuttling between the home key G and F, moves briefly to A) while his last verse almost directly quotes from McCartney’s lyric. (The Stones get a nod, too, with “time was on our side.”)

Bowie’s cover is dominated by Mick Ronson, who, after nodding out in the last few Pin Ups tracks, seems back in form. Ronson heralds the first verse with a long slide down his guitar neck, and he fills the verses/choruses with a simple, nagging riff, a push from F to G and back. The riff and Aynsley Dunbar’s drums give some muscle to the song, whose original performance was ramshackle even by Kinks standards.

Van Halen did a cover on their 1982 filler LP Diver Down (David Lee Roth sang the lyric with indifferent contempt, sounding like a malicious wedding toastmaster—watch him almost roll his eyes while he sings “will this depression last for long” in the live clip here). It seems far more inspired by Bowie’s version than the original, with Eddie Van Halen unmistakably playing the Ronson riff.

The One-Year Mark

Tomorrow (Jul. 29) marks the one-year anniversary of this blog, which I began on a whim and which I half-expected to abandon long before reaching “Space Oddity.” And somehow I’m still here, having made it from “Liza Jane” to nearly the end of Pin Ups. I’ll celebrate by going to NYC and avoiding the Internet for a few days.

Thanks in particular to Tom Ewing, who was one of the first to take note of the blog and helped give it an audience; Bowietweet, which graciously retweets pretty much every post I do; and anyone who’s left a comment or dropped me a line. Onward, onward.

Top: PM Ted Heath confers with the ghosts of Christmases Past during the economic crisis of late 1973.

Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere

July 27, 2010

Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere (The Who, 1965).
Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere (Bowie).

“Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”* is the least personal of the early Who singles: it easily could have been an instrumental. The band wanted its second single, as Pete Townshend said at the time, “to achieve the sound we get on the stage at present…show what we’re really trying to do.” So after the chorus and a bridge, there’s a nearly minute-long sonic steeplechase, with Townshend, his Rickenbacker stuffed with paper, producing harmonic feedback and using his toggle switch to make SOS signals, while Keith Moon and John Entwistle set off bombs underneath him. Townshend had wanted “to make the guitar sound like a machine gun,” he told Guitar World in 1996.

The lyric’s pure Pop aspirations—I can do anything I want to, at any time; I can recreate myself at will—sounded like wishful thinking when voiced by Roger Daltrey, all blustery delusions of youth. Bowie sings the lines as statements of fact. Nicholas Pegg hears Bowie “test-driving [his] burgeoning soul mannerisms” in the vocal, and you can hear Bowie trying out croons in the long-held notes. Mainly, though, Bowie seems to be trying to craft an imitation of Daltrey that’s superior to the original.

Taking that cue, Aynsley Dunbar spends most of the track playing technically “better” versions of Keith Moon’s fills; he’s powerful, but you hear Dunbar thinking all the way through the performance. As in “I Can’t Explain,” Ronson sounds mostly muted, coming alive only in the opening riff and in the taste of feedback he offers during the surprisingly dull rave-up section. A better cover than “I Can’t Explain,” if as pointless.

Recorded July-early August 1973.

* Pin Ups and most Who compilations have the song title written with commas separating the words, but the original single was titled “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere,” which works better, I think—the title’s so of the Now that pauses seem antiquated.

Top: Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!, 1973.

I Can’t Explain

July 23, 2010

I Can’t Explain (The Who, 1965).
I Can’t Explain (Bowie).

I Can’t Explain (Bowie, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).

I Can’t Explain (Bowie, live, 1983).

Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves. But nothing is got for nothing, and self-appropriation involves the immense anxieties of indebtedness, for what strong maker desires the realization that he has failed to create himself?

Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence.

Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Pete Townshend checked Bowie at every turn. In 1965, when the two first met in Bournemouth, Townshend gave Bowie some condescending criticism about the latter’s songwriting, which Townshend noted was rather blatantly ripping off his own songs, and badly (see “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”). The two had had little contact since. Then in the summer of 1973 Bowie covered two early Who songs on his new record, while Townshend was revisiting the ’60s as well, finishing up his Mod opus Quadrophenia.

The 1965-7 run which spans “I Can’t Explain” and “I Can See For Miles” works in terms of aesthetic power and urgent “now” reportage; Townshend is ceaselessly looking outwards, towards his audience, wanting to understand and empathise with them—these songs completely avoid sentimentality, oneupmanship and navel-gazing…via [Roger] Daltrey’s as yet untutored voice, you feel that they are singing to you and for you—and, sometimes (“My Generation”) at those who would rather not listen.

Marcello Carlin, on Who’s Next.

“One of the things [Bowie] does very well is find the strong parts of other artist’s “acts” and appropriate them into his own persona,” wrote an insightful, anonymous person in this ILM thread on Bowie. But Bowie never could figure out Townshend. Townshend was a playwright as much as he was a songwriter, with bizarre, first-person psychodramas that required a group to act out, whether it was a cad dumping his pregnant girlfriend (“A Legal Matter”) or a kid so fraudulent he may not even exist (“Substitute”), or masturbation to centerfolds as cross-generational bonding (“Pictures of Lily”) or the utterly bizarre and wonderful “I’m a Boy,” a rock single Philip K. Dick could’ve written. Townshend’s perspective was usually that of another, whether it was lyrics for Daltrey to sing or stories for an audience to piece together. The vocals on Who tracks—Daltrey’s growl, Townshend’s reedy tenor, John Entwistle’s near-soprano (or basso profundo)—sounded like the pieces of a single voice, joined together for a few minutes.

The group is a fairly simple form of Pop art. We get a lot of audience this way. Off stage, the group get on terribly badly.

Townshend, ca. 1966 (interview clip from The Kids Are Alright).

Did anyone believe in rock and roll as much as Townshend did in his youth? He was an evangelist whose audience had converted him, so much that he ended Tommy, his record about false messiahs, by submitting to the crowd, the true religion. He nearly had a breakdown writing a rock opera in which the audience would input their vital stats—climacteric charts, personal appearance, beliefs, etc.—into a computer, which would then convert the data into personalized musical signatures, with the hope that all of these signatures, played at once on quadrophenic speakers, would form one final, “universal” note or chord.

Townshend’s hope for the ecstatic universal in rock music was as far removed as you could get from Bowie, who, despite how much he relied on creative partners (from Mick Ronson to Eno to Reeves Gabrels), remained entirely singular. His songs could be empathic, but they were also unmistakably his perspectives. At the end, you always find yourself outside his songs. Bowie and Townshend were of irreconcilable minds, of irreconcilable worlds, and perhaps that got to Bowie, who had so capably absorbed so many other of his influences.

Is that why Bowie’s cover of The Who’s first major single, “I Can’t Explain,” is such a disaster? It’s an act of vandalism, as though Bowie intended to strip the song of everything that gave it power—Keith Moon’s whirlwind drumming, which is the track’s lead instrument; the surf group backing vocals in the verses; the pilled-up beat—and then watched it die. Ronson, rather than trying to one-up Townshend’s guitar solos, sounds neutered.

The most perverse misreading is in Bowie’s vocal. “I Can’t Explain” is sung by a kid who has never been in love, maybe he’s never even been attracted to another person before in his life, and suddenly it’s happening, and his life no longer makes sense. As with most of the early Who singles, “I Can’t Explain” is entirely of the present, with the singer trying to trap something unknowable and new into words—he should rush out the lyric, push against the flow of the music, sink under it. The vocal should be dizzy and frantic, and far from sensual. Instead, Bowie sings “I Can’t Explain” slowly, coolly, teasing out the lyric, lingering on phrases like a cabaret vamp: he’s appalling in his confidence.

Recorded July-early August 1973. Bowie performed it on his 1980 Floor Show TV special in October 1973, and he brought “Can’t Explain” back a decade later for his “Serious Moonlight” tour. The song still eluded him.

Top: Keith Moon conquers London, 1973.

Here Comes The Night

July 22, 2010

Here Comes The Night (Lulu, 1964).
Here Comes The Night (Them, 1965).
Here Comes The Night (Van Morrison, live, 1974).
Here Comes The Night (Bowie).

Bert Berns’ “Here Comes the Night” is teenage envy and despair. Like Claudine Clark’s “Party Lights,” the song takes what should be a source of pleasure for its teenage singer—a party, or a weekend night—and makes it a brutal humiliation.

Berns was a producer and songwriter (“Twist and Shout”) who had once run a nightclub in Cuba, fleeing after the rise of Castro. He went to London in 1964 as one end of a cross-Atlantic producer swap engineered by his label, Decca (the Americans got Mike Leander). There he gave the fledgling Scot singer Lulu a new composition, “Here Comes the Night,” and arranged the song as a Roy Orbison-esque mood piece, with the darting melody of its verses crushed against the pathos of its chorus, in which a guitar tolls like a funeral bell. Lulu sang it beautifully but with resignation, her verses slowly sinking into the chorus: “here it is,” she sings, without surprise or fear, as though she’s so low already, what worse could the night do? Gorgeous and bleak, the single was a florid downer in the Beatles/Stones-heavy atmosphere of ’64, and it flopped.

Still in London in early 1965, Berns began producing a quarrelsome Northern Irish band called Them and offered Them “Here Comes The Night.” His new arrangement was faster and guitar-heavy, with session player Jimmy Page’s lead guitar spurring the verses and beefing up the tolling chorus riff. Van Morrison’s vocal starts jumpy and soon descends into malice. He chokes out words in the verses, as though building himself up to commit murder, and he sings the title line as though it was the death of the world. Morrison’s “Here it comes!” signals the arrival of the chorus as well as his further debasement. The single was a smash in the UK (#2) and cracked the US Top 40 in the summer of ’65.

Berns went back to the US soon afterward and, once Them collapsed, sent Morrison a plane ticket. So Morrison found himself in Cambridge, Mass., calling DJs all night to request Howlin’ Wolf records, and writing Astral Weeks. Teenage drama like “Here Comes The Night” seemed a lifetime behind him. Then in 1973, while Morrison was divorcing his wife and moving out of his exile in Woodstock, he crafted a series of concerts as a way to recompose himself, to assess his work to date. The best performances were captured on the great It’s Too Late To Stop Now, his equivalent to Neil Young’s Decade, assembled a few years later.

On stage, Morrison reclaimed “Here Comes the Night,” making a reel of its verses, singing the lines at twice their old speed, twining sounds into each other, and finding further dimensions of pain in the chorus. His new arrangement, with a string section central to the performance, moved the song back towards the Lulu original, striking a compromise between the somberness of the Lulu single and the agitation of the Them track.

Around the same time, Bowie covered “Here Comes the Night” for Pin Ups. Why he picked the song remains a mystery: maybe his work with Lulu in the same period inspired him (though I can’t imagine Lulu had much love for the song). Erupting out of its preceding track “Rosalyn,” Bowie’s “Here Comes the Night” is mostly camp, Bowie swooning over the title phrase like a vampire. The arrangement’s close to the Them track, with the addition of Ken Fordham’s baritone saxophone (“we got a real Atlantic horn sound,” Bowie rather ambitiously claimed in ’73). A gaudy burlesque of a performance, it wouldn’t have been out of place in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which isn’t a compliment.

Recorded July-early August 1973.

Top: Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) leads the festivities, The Wicker Man, 1973.

Don’t Bring Me Down

July 20, 2010

Don’t Bring Me Down (The Pretty Things, 1964).
Don’t Bring Me Down (Bowie).

“Don’t Bring Me Down” began life as a benign pop song and was put to disreputable ends by the Pretty Things. The song, written by the now-obscure British singer Johnny Dee, was originally slow-paced and “tame,” Phil May recalled. “We hijacked it,” he told Richie Unterberger.

The Pretty Things’ version, their second Fontana single and their biggest UK hit (#10), is two minutes of caveman mating calls. It opens and closes with four descending chords, E-D-C-A, opening on guitar and ending with four thudding drum beats, and the four-step plummet continues throughout the song, occasionally countered by four-step upward pushes (“I said I think this rock is grand” is over A-C-D-E). May’s first verse has him as a rolling stone, not looking to settle down, but when he finds a girl he likes, our brute suddenly gets domestic. “I got this PAD/just like a CAVE,” he coos, following up with what sounds like “And then I laid her on the ground.” (It’s really “lead her,” which Bowie pronounces quite clearly; the line got the Pretty Things single banned by some U.S. radio stations).

As with “Rosalyn,” Bowie and Mick Ronson keep close to the original, though Ronson and Aynsley Dunbar provide more wattage (Dunbar in particular makes the original track sound like it was recorded on paper drums). The harmonica sawing away on the Bowie version seems like a throwback—replace it with another guitar and you’ve got a punk rock record. It’s a lesson future Sex Pistol Glen Matlock, who loved Pin Ups, would take to heart.

Recorded July-early August 1973.

Top: “Normko,” “Tower of London,” 1973.