The Shore at Pett Level

June 11, 2020

The shore at Pett Level, near Winchelsea, is steep; and covered with shingles. There is no bathing machine here; and a man should be an expert swimmer to venture in, excepting in calmer weather.

Baker Peter Smith, A Journal of an Excursion Round the South-Eastern Coast of England, 1834.

The shore at Pett Level has been a forest, a feeding ground for dinosaurs, a graveyard for ships; at the time of the Roman conquest, it slept underwater; during the Napoleonic wars and for some time afterward, the beach had eight manned, brick-built Martello towers, each a quarter-mile apart, each with a gun on its roof and a small window facing seaward. During the Second World War, the government evacuated Pett, whose population at the time was greatly holidaymakers and beachcombers.

One morning in late spring 1980 (no one recalls the precise day, and while May is the consensus pick for month, it may not be so*) a thin man in a clown costume walks along this beach.

He’s accompanied by a ballerina, two space nuns, and a gothic bride. Not far behind them rumbles a JCB bulldozer.

This is David Mallet’s video for “Ashes to Ashes,” a song that its creator, David Bowie, had only recently completed at Tony Visconti’s studio in London. It was his most expensive video to date (£25,000–some say more) and would be his most memorable, despite it pre-dating MTV. (MTV feasted on it, though: “Ashes to Ashes” was core to its rotation during its lean first months in 1981.)

Mallet suggested the location for a practical reason (see below) and because “I’d known [Pett Level] since I was a little boy. One of the very rare places you can get right down to the water and there’s a cliff towering over you.” The dreamscape was Bowie’s.

I think video is there to be used as an art form as well as a sort of commercial device for illustration and promotion. In fact, I fell in love with video in the early Seventies when I got a Sony reel-to-reel, black-and-white thing and videoed everything and whatever. I got a small editing machine…and developed some scenarios for Diamond Dogs. I worked with miniature sets and cut video animation techniques which I’ve never seen used since. A dreadful but interesting failure.

Bowie in “David Bowie—Plus Five,” 1981.

By 1979, Bowie had sensed that music video, those cheap promos you sent Top of the Pops and label conventions if you were touring or couldn’t be bothered, was becoming more central, that songs would need visual accomplices. For Lodger, he made three with Mallet: “D.J.” was recluse DJ/ extrovert DB; “Look Back in Anger” was an artist plagued by art, a mix of The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Image, a short film Bowie had done in the Sixties; “Boys Keep Swinging” was a farewell to glam and ambiguity.

As opposed to the Lodger videos, which Mallet had shot from Bowie concepts, for “Ashes to Ashes” “I story-boarded [it] myself, actually drew it frame for frame,” Bowie told the NME‘s Angus MacKinnon. “[Mallet] edited it exactly as I wanted it and has allowed me to say [adopts Edward Heath voice] publicly that it is my first direction. I’ve always wanted to direct and this is a great chance to start—to get some money from a record company and then go away and sort of play with it.” (Over the years, Mallet has described a more collaborative effort, with his suggestions having equal weight.)

One image dated back more than a decade. A Pierrot consoling an elderly woman is part of George Underwood’s illustration for the back cover of David Bowie (1969), an illustration Underwood had done based on a Bowie sketch. Recall that Bowie’s father had died that August, leaving an estranged, bereaved son tied to his bereaved mother.

Detail: Bowie sketch (l), Underwood illustration (r) for David Bowie (1969)

“Ashes to Ashes” began when Bowie remade “Space Oddity” in September 1979, stripping down the latter in the vein of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. “That came about because Mallet wanted me to do something for his show [Kenny Everett, where the two had first met in April 1979], and he wanted ‘Space Oddity.'” Doing the remake led Bowie to wonder where Major Tom would be a decade on: home at last, strung out, craving the high he’d had in space. Making Scary Monsters early in 1980, Bowie took a track titled “People Are Turning to Gold” and made it his sequel song.

In the “Space Oddity” remake that Bowie and Mallet did for a Kenny Everett special (aired on New Year’s Eve 1979), there were two scenarios reused in “Ashes to Ashes.” One was Major Tom at home, reading the paper while sitting in a spaceship chair in a black-and-white “Fifties” kitchen (it became more of a dentist’s chair in “Ashes”). Trash bins and ranges explode around him while his nurse? director?—in the Everett video, she’s shown filming him—calmly does the dishes.

Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980?, filmed 18 September 1979

The other concept was a figure in an asylum, a large padded wall behind him as a backdrop. In the Everett “Space Oddity,” Bowie commits himself to the ward, walking in, sitting down to sing about Major Tom. In “Ashes to Ashes,” he no longer has a guitar and seems to be more of a prisoner, a feeling heightened by new shots of Bowie shackled to a wall in what looks like the asylum’s basement, with tubes and hoses attached to his torso (“a nation hides its organic minds in a cellar, dark and grim,” as he’d sung in “All the Madmen”).

The two asylum sets, with slight differences: Kenny Everett (1979), “Ashes to Ashes” (1980)

As Bowie told MacKinnon, this latter shot (directly above) “was supposed to be the archetypal 1980s ideal of the futuristic colony that has been founded by the earthling [emphasis mine] of what he looks like—and in that particular sequence the idea was for the earthling to be pumping out himself and to be having pumped into him something organic. So there was a very strong Giger influence there [specifically, Giger’s work on the just-released Alien]: the organic meets hi-tech.”

But Pierrot-on-the-beach would be the video’s central image—it’s easy to forget its other sections. The David Bowie Is exhibit had one of Bowie’s sketches for it. As with the 1969 David Bowie illustration, the Pierrot walks with a woman, though here it’s at night, under the moon, and she’s a shabbier figure. By the filming, the woman had resumed the “middle-class mum” appearance of the David Bowie illustration, with a long-standing rumor that she was played by Peggy Jones.

“We went down to the beach, and I took a woman there who looked like my mother,” Bowie said in 1993. “That’s the surrealistic part of making movies.” (The actress was reportedly Wyn Mac, wife of British comedian Jimmy Mac.)

Bowie wanted to stage the Pierrot sequence on a shore, somewhere in England. “A clown on a beach with a bonfire,” Mallet recalled of the brief that Bowie gave him.

As Nicholas Pegg discovered a while back, a long-missing piece of the puzzle is a Justin Hayward performance of “Forever Autumn” on the Kenny Everett Show in July 1978—Hayward sits on the Pett Level beach, with the cliff behind him seen at roughly the same angle as in Bowie’s video, and with similar video distortion effects applied to land, water, and sky. It seems obvious the Pett location came quickly to mind for Mallet when Bowie said he needed a beach.

In keeping with how Scary Monsters, and in particular “Ashes to Ashes,” was Bowie “eradicating the feelings within myself that I was uncomfortable with…you have to accommodate your pasts within your persona,” as he later said, the three Bowie figures in the video all hail from his turn-of-the-Seventies: Major Tom, the urban spaceman; the asylum dweller of “All the Madmen” (the unluckier of the Bewlay Brothers); and the sad Pierrot of Bowie’s mime years, whose persona Bowie would use as a narrative voice from “An Occasional Dream” to “Thursday’s Child.”

The shore is the line between solidity and liquidity: it is a border that’s forever eroding, broadening, receding, secreting and revealing objects like a magician, never to look the same upon your next visit. The site of evacuations and invasions, it is permanent transition. I wonder if the opening of Michael Moorcock’s An Alien Heat (1972) came to mind for Bowie, too:

The Iron Orchid and her son sat upon a cream-colored beach of crushed bone. Some distance off a white sea sparkled and whispered…[later] Jherek noticed that the sea had turned a deep pink, almost a cerise, and was clashing dreadfully with the beach, while on the horizon behind him he saw that two palms and a cliff had disappeared altogether…

This is an Earth of the far distant future, at the tail end of time, where humanity is reduced to a decadent few who loll about in their glorious collapsing cities and freak pleasure gardens. As Moorcock wrote in his introduction to his trilogy (Alien Heat is the first book of his Dancers at the End of Time), “even if these inhabitants were not conscious of the fact that they lived at the end of time…their schemes—often grandiose and perverse—were pursued without obsession and left uncompleted without regret.”

transition, transmission

While the other parts of the video—Major Tom in the asylum, or sitting anesthetized in his stage-set “home”—suggest that the Pierrot sections are Major Tom’s hallucinations or dreams, it’s the Pierrot figure who has the control. He’s the only Bowie character in the video who moves, who exists outside of a set, who’s directing the action. He performs acts of purification—a sacrificial bonfire, the release of a white dove—before his dissolution. First, in spirit: he winces in pain when a snapping photographer takes his soul; later in body, as the Pierrot sinks into the ocean. (Aileen Dillane, Eoin Devereux and Martin Power delve more into the symbolism in their essay on “Ashes to Ashes”).

There’s a funeral march along the shore. The Pierrot walks with the children who will succeed him; he is their divine mother. The sexton machine grumbles behind them, loud and impatient, but it will bury nothing—the clown will be taken by the sea. Walk five abreast, strike the earth, recite the old rhyme (“my mother said, to get things done…”), clasp hands. Do this in memory of me. I will soon be nothing but old lies and air.

For a funeral, one needs mourners, if only a handful, and Bowie knew where to find them.

Blitz, Covent Garden, 1980. © Dick Scott-Stewart Archive (Museum of London)

The making of that video was the death knell for the Blitz and in my mind for Bowie as an innovator. It was my first peek beneath the veneer of public perception and its contrast with reality. Bowie was actually a pilferer and a follower stylistically – finger on the pulse but a follower nevertheless.

Christos Tolera, artist and ex-Blitz Kid, to David Johnson, 2010.

Around 1976, London clubs began having “Bowie nights,” where DJs played Bowie records and clubgoers dressed as an edition of him. By 1978, the big Bowie night was at Billy’s in Soho, where Rusty Egan was the DJ and Steve Strange worked the door. By the turn of the Eighties, the scene had shifted to the Blitz Club in Covent Garden, where Bowie nights became competitive pose-offs. Egan and Strange would form Visage, later described by Simon Reynolds as “a confederacy of punk failures looking for a second shot at stardom” (so, very Bowie).

Bowie was naturally intrigued and visited the Blitz one night, slipping through the back door and being ensconced in an upper room, like slumming royalty. Each party had reservations about the other. Strange, like other Blitz Kids, regarded Bowie as a skilled operator, someone “allowed to get his ideas across quicker than up-and-coming bands. He’s always in the right place at the right time, checking out ideas. When he was in London he was always at the Blitz or at Hell.” And Bowie bottled his thoughts into “Teenage Wildlife,” his early midlife crisis song.

For “Ashes to Ashes,” he wanted some Blitz Kids, his spiritual and sartorial children, on the beach with his clown. So he and Coco Schwab went on safari at the club for the most intriguing-looking numbers (it suggests the opening scene of The Hunger). Strange, who was an operator himself, was an obvious pick. As Strange wrote in his biography, Bowie told him, “’Look, I’d like you to pick the clothes you are going to wear, and to choose three other extras for the video. But there is only one snag. We have to meet tomorrow morning at 6 AM outside the Hilton to leave for the location shoot.’ I rushed around and found Judith Frankland, Darla Jane Gilroy, and another girl for the video.”

The “another girl,” the ballerina of the set, is the mystery of the group. Her name, reportedly, was Elise Brazier and nothing has been heard from her since, as far as I know.

Some stills appear to predict Bill Sienkiewicz’s work on The New Mutants

The other Blitz kids in the video were a pair of brilliant young designers: Judith Frankland, a recent graduate of Ravensbourne College of Art, and Saint Martin’s alum Darla Jane Gilroy.

“I was invited, as was Darla Jane, over to the table where David Bowie and his PA Coco were sitting, and offered a glass of champagne,” Frankland wrote in 2011. “Darla and I were both dressed in a similar ecclesiastic style and were asked to take part [in the video] for what at that time was a decent sum of money for penniless, decadent students.” This was £50—not bad for 1980.

Frankland was the costumer for the Blitz quartet. She had gotten attention for her Ravensbourne graduation collection, which had a show at Cafe Royal in London. Her style was once called “Romantic monasticism” and “Balenciaga hears The Sound of Music” (the latter was dead-on, as it was Frankland’s favorite film as a child—the evening-gown habits that she designed came from her memories of it).

Frankland’s 1980 graduation collection show (Niall McInerney, via The Swelle Life).

Frankland’s designs (in “Ashes,” she and Gilroy wore her nun’s habits, while Strange was in her black wedding gown, whose veil and hat had been made by their friend Stephen Jones) tapped into an eerie key at the end of the Seventies. A sort of neo-medieval formality, as if in homage to a future that was never going to come. Court clothes for a lost extraterrestrial aristocracy, whisked together from scraps across the centuries. A look that, again, calls to mind Moorcock’s decadents at the end of time:

Lord Jagged…concocted for himself a loose, lilac-colored robe with the kind of high, stiff collar he often favoured, and huge puffed sleeves from which peeped the tips of his fingers, and silver slippers with long, pointed toes, and a circlet to contain his long platinum hair: a circlet in the form of a rippling, living 54th Century Uranian lizard.

An Alien Heat
parallels, variations, echoes: Frankland’s 1980 “nun” collection in Viz; Ylla and Yll in The Martian Chronicles (1980; designer: Cynthia Tingey); Alia Atreides in Dune (1984; Bob Ringwood)

The making of the video was a touch less romantic. Frankland recalled waking up in her bedsit in South Kensington and wondering if meeting Bowie and Schwab the previous night had been a dream, until the communal phone rang and she got instructions (presumably from Schwab). She was to wear what she’d had on at the Blitz, and the same makeup, and to be outside the Hilton “at some ungodly hour…to get on a coach to a secret location,” which turned out to be Pett Level.

The four Blitz Kids arrived at the beach to be greeted by Bowie already in costume. “He coached us for a few minutes on the words we were to mime and then the day was spent in sinking sand and mud,” Frankland wrote.

Happenstance and accidents played their parts. Bowie had noticed an idle bulldozer, property of the local government, parked down the beach. Struck by the idea of having the bulldozer as a “symbol of oncoming violence,” Bowie wanted it in the shoot. A few phone calls later (no doubt Schwab on the case again), a local driver was rolling the machine behind Bowie and the kids.

Blitz Kids take five at Pett Level (from a now-defunct? Blitz Kids website)

It was difficult for everyone to keep the same pace. “If I was too fast, I caught David up; if I was too slow, the bulldozer kept catching the robe I was wearing,” Strange wrote. “There’s a famous moment in it where it looks as if I am bending forward to bow. What I was actually doing was moving the hem of my robe to avoid getting pulled over by the bulldozer, but they decided to keep it in.”

A perfect example of how Bowie could seize upon a chance accident and expand it—he had Gilroy do the ground-slapping gesture as well, so that the two “wings” of the group seem to perform acts of consecration. And he’d turn the gesture into a dance move in his subsequent video for “Fashion.”

The original idea was to have the Blitz Kids only in the beach sequence, but Bowie, happy with how things were turning out, asked them to come to Ewart Studios in Wandsworth, where interiors were being shot. They would be a Greek chorus during the Major Tom “kitchen” scene.

“The scene we were to do at the studio involved an explosion and I was at the back,” Frankland wrote. “In fact if you look at the video you can see my crucifix swing in. We were told to duck out and run after we had mimed our piece or we could be hurt. This was difficult in a hobble dress, so I hoisted it up as high as I could and got ready to run. Quite a sight for the superstar sat behind me.”

And that was it. The Blitz Kids were driven back to London and spent the night clubbing at Hell. Mallet enhanced the beach shots with solarizing effects from the brand-new Quantel Paintbox. The video set the topsy-turvy colors of the outdoor shots against the high-contrast black-and-white of the “kitchen” ones, with the asylum shots as an intermediary.

What did Bowie and Mallet have with it? It’s too much to say they’d invented the grammar of MTV (Kate Bush was doing similar stuff at the same time, for instance) but “Ashes to Ashes” certainly provided a template. First, it just looked cool. Fantastic-looking weirdos on a candy-colored beach, leavened by explosions. There was nothing remotely like it on American television, at least.

Bowie managed, for the first time, to convey on film the sort of jump-cut, indirect narrative of his best songs—he was overdubbing a dense layer of new information upon an already-complex set of tracks (the Visconti-produced master). The sensation, watching the video, was something like the Choose Your Own Adventure books—a set of scenarios and decisions, some leading you deeper in, some killing you off.

“There’s an awful lot of cliched things in the video, but I think I put them together in such a way that the whole thing isn’t cliched,” Bowie said in 1980. “The general drive of the sensibility that comes over is some feeling of nostalgia for the future. I’ve always been hung up on that; it creeps into everything I do.”

It’s the visualization of a cusp song—an old world is falling away, the edges are blurring, but the new world that it shakes into view is still unclear. The careerist fabulousness of the Blitz Kids? A return to a falsified Fifties? A time when dreams need to be repressed, stowed away in the cellars and asylums? Bowie was winding down his Sixties and Seventies, disassembling his past, with a sense of foreboding as to what would take its place: could he have foreseen Tonight and Glass Spider? No, directly ahead of him was respectability, class, nuance—The Elephant Man, Baal, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. The Eighties were going to be a serious time.

The past will be burned and buried: toll the bell, pay the private eye, as Bowie later sang. Only a few exiles will be left to recall it. The future is to be found on the shore at Pett Level, near Winchelsea. It is steep, and covered with shingles.

Coda: In 1993, Michael Dignum was working on the video for Bowie’s “Miracle Goodnight.” “We had a change that was gonna take 10-15 mins to complete,” he later said. So he struck up a conversation with Bowie, his childhood hero, and asked him what he thought the biggest moment of his career was. “His reply was EPIC. And it went like this:”

“I was on the set of the music video ‘Ashes to Ashes,’ do you know the one?…So we’re on the beach shooting this scene with a giant bulldozer…I’m dressed from head to toe in a clown suit. Why not. I hear playback and the music starts. So off I go, I start singing and walking, but as soon as I do this old geezer with an old dog walks right between me and the camera…

As he was walking by the camera, the director said, excuse me, mister, do you know who this is? The old guy looks at me from bottom to top and looks back to the director and said…’Of course I do!!!! It’s some cunt in a clown suit.’ That was a huge moment for me. It put me back in my place and made me realize, yes, I’m just a cunt in a clown suit. I think about that old guy all the time.”

Michael Dignum, Facebook post, 11 January 2016

Ashes to Ashes.” Directors: David Mallet, David Bowie; Concept: Bowie. Starring: Bowie, Steve Strange, Judith Frankland, Darla Jane Gilroy, Elise Brazier, Wyn Mac? Costumes: Natasha Korniloff (Pierrot suit), Frankland (Blitz kids outfits), Stephen Jones, Fiona Dealey, Richard Ostell (hats, veil); makeup: Richard Sharah. First release: 19 September 1989, Sound + Vision (on a VCD likely unplayable today).

Sources: [background] the (velvet) goldmine that is Shapers of the 80s; Roger Griffin, Golden Years; Nicholas Pegg, Complete David Bowie; Kevin Cann, A Chronology; [quotes] Bowie, to NME (13 September 1980), to Musician (April 1990), in “David Bowie Weekend” on MTV (4-5 April 1993), A&E Biography (“David Bowie: Sound and Vision”) (2002); Mallet, to Marc Spitz (Bowie, 2009) and Dylan Jones (Bowie: A Life, 2017); Strange, in autobiography (Blitzed!, 2002) and to Spitz; Frankland, in “Frankly Frankland: The Blitz, David Bowie and Ashes To Ashes” (The Swelle Life, 22 February 2011). Dillaine, Devereux & Power’s essay “Culminating Sounds and (En)visions: Ashes to Ashes and the Case for Pierrot” is collected in David Bowie: Critical Perspectives; on the history of Pett, sources inc. Christa Cloutier’s “The Blessed Little Sea Shanty,” (Guardian, 30 Sept 2009), Michael Foley’s Martello Towers (2013) & description of latter comes from BP Smith’s Journal (1834). Most of the Pett towers had to be abandoned due to beach erosion by the end of the 19th C.

*Most Bowie references (Pegg, Cann, Griffin) note that the video was shot in May 1980, but Strange once said it was in early July. Given the English climate, it’s impossible to determine by sight if the beach shoot is in summer or no (Brazier, who has the only skimpy costume, is wearing an overcoat to cover herself in one “off-stage” photograph, seen above—but again, this proves nothing, as it’s a beach near Hastings). It would make a bit more sense if the video had been filmed later than May, given that Bowie had just completed “Ashes” that month—a shoot a few weeks later, which still left enough time for post-production before the single’s release in early August, is perhaps more likely?


September 15, 2011

Fashion (single edit, video).
Fashion (live, 1983).
Fashion (live, 1987).
Fashion (live, 1990).
Fashion (live, VH1 Fashion Awards, 1996)
Fashion (live, with Frank Black, 1997).
Fashion (live, 1997).
Fashion (Jonathan Ross, 2002).
Fashion (live, 2002).
Fashion (live, with Damon Albarn, 2003).

“Fashion,” the last song completed for Scary Monsters, kicks off Bowie’s Eighties: a dance song with bad intentions. Though Bowie later took pains to say the song wasn’t about neo-fascism, lines like “we are the goon squad and we’re coming to town,” the double-meaning of “turn to the left, turn to the right” and even the way Bowie sings the song’s title as a near-homophone of “fascism,” suggest otherwise.

Bowie instead said he had intended “Fashion” as a sequel to Ray Davies’ “Dedicated Follower of Fashion,” with the idea of being hip as a wearying, conformist full-time job (although Bowie was writing about that as early as 1966, see “Join the Gang” or “Maid of Bond Street“). “When I first started going to discos in New York in the early ’70s, there was a very high powered enthusiasm and [the scene] had a natural course about it,” Bowie said on a promo disc. “[It] seems now to be replaced by an insidious grim determination to be fashionable, as though it’s actually a vocation. There’s some kind of strange aura about it.

Using as a starting point another Astronettes song, “People From Bad Homes,” which turns up in the verse lyric, Bowie also nabbed the “beep-beep” hook from his lost goofball gem “Rupert the Riley.” Like “Ashes to Ashes,” “Fashion” began life as a reggae number (and the clicking sound of Andy Clark’s sequencer, the first sound you hear, works as the equivalent to a guitar upstroke throughout the track), with Bowie originally singing the title hook as “Jahhh-MAI-ca!” Bowie didn’t know what to do with the song at this point, and was about to scrap it until Visconti, correctly sensing that the track was a potential hit single, allegedly implored Bowie to write a lyric. The next morning, Bowie turned up with his complete lines, got them quickly on tape, and mixing on the record began the same evening.

A groove piece built around a handful of augmented chords (G7 and Fadd9 in the verse and a flatted B 7th in the chorus, with a swerve to D minor in the six-bar bridge), “Fashion” was Bowie’s most straight-on dance track since “Golden Years,” which it partially rewrites.* Unlike the vocal calisthenics of other Scary Monsters performances, Bowie here keeps to a narrow, comfortable three-note range for the verse, his vocal one long insinuation. His rhythms are sharp, too: Bowie opens the verse with three short descending notes (“brand-new-dance” or “brand-new-talk“), then offers a longer, equally drooping line to balance it out (“but I don’t know its name,” etc.). Then there’s the wonderful way that Bowie takes what seems like a lyrical misstep in the second verse, his words not really fitting the meter (“shout it while they’re dancing on the dance floor“), and makes it a miniature performance: he puts weight on “the,” drags it up an octave and extends it far beyond its means, suggesting the image of someone trying to foot their way onto a crowded dance floor.

Robert Fripp, seemingly channeling the Gang of Four’s Andy Gill in the intro, gets two vicious skronky eight-bar guitar solos, along with his various shrieking outbreaks throughout the song (the one erupting at 2:43 threatens to consume the track whole). While Fripp later called his performance “blues-rock played with a contemporary grammar,” it’s more like a run of dissonant tones that occasionally threaten melodies. Fripp seems to have been recorded by Visconti first across the studio room (the cavernous sound of the opening) and then closer-miked with a flanger applied, with Fripp also possibly using his favorite fuzzbox, the obscure WEM Project 5 that he’d had since Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire.” Fripp cut the solo at 10:30 AM in London after a long drive back from Leeds, where he had played the previous evening. “There’s nothing you feel less like in the world than turning out a burning solo—fiery rock and roll at 10:30 in the morning– just out of a truck. But it doesn’t matter much how you feel, you just get on with it,” Fripp later said. (Graham Coxon allegedly was so intent on trying to capture the sound of Fripp’s “Fashion” solo on Blur’s “London Loves” that the song’s working title was “Fripp.”)

“Fashion” marks the last stand of the great Bowie rhythm section. While Carlos Alomar will be a central character for a while longer, this is where we part company with George Murray and Dennis Davis. They go out blazing: take the way Murray’s bass plays the “fash-ion” two-note hook well before Bowie sings it, or the two chicken-scratch Alomar guitar tracks parked in the left and right channels, or Davis’ hissing disco hi-hat mixed left. Davis was playing to a drum machine pattern for the first time ever in his work with Bowie—Visconti had intended to keep the synth beat in the mix as well, but Davis was so tight that Visconti just used his drum track, only digitally treated and fattened with handclaps.

Dennis was so open. He was almost orgiastic in his approach to trying out new stuff. He’d say, ‘Yeah, let’s do that new shit, man.” I told him about a Charlie Mingus gig that I saw where the drummer had polythene tubes that would go into the drums, and he would suck and blow to change the pressure as he played. Dennis was out the next day buying that stuff. Dennis is crazy, an absolute loony man, but he had a lot of his own thoughts on things, and he would throw us all kinds of curve-balls.

David Bowie, Modern Drummer, 1997.

Davis, Bowie’s finest drummer, would keep working as a session and touring musician (he’s on some of Stevie Wonder’s early Eighties albums, and Davis would return to collaborating with Roy Ayers in the Nineties and Aughts), as well as a teacher: among his students was Sterling Campbell, who played on some of Bowie’s later records. He’s still playing today (here’s a drum solo from a performance with Yukari in 2007 and Old Soul in 2010), and he recorded an album called “The Groovemaster” at some point (as per his now-deleted website).

George Murray is a more mysterious case. As far as I can determine, Murray only cut one more album, Jerry Harrison’s The Red and the Black,** in 1981, and then apparently retired from session work and touring. He has, basically,vanished: I’ve found no reference to him in the past three decades. Often described as a reserved man, Murray likely was tired of the rock & roll life and just got out of it (a move that perhaps inspired Bowie around 2005). Still, the man who was the support beam of Station to Station and Low, of the ’78 tour and Scary Monsters, deserves far more recognition than he gets. Raise a glass to a master.

Recorded February 1980, Power Station, NYC; April 1980, Good Earth Studios, London. Released as a single in October 1980 (RCA BOW 7, #5 UK). A live favorite, especially in the later tours, where it often was a duet with Gail Ann Dorsey. Sung with Frank Black at Bowie’s 50th anniversary party and with Damon Albarn in 2003 (Albarn seems either hungover or flu-ridden: what a half-assed performance).

* Nicholas Pegg wondered if Bowie was possibly inspired by the Boomtown Rats’ “Rat Trap” for the “listen to me, don’t talk to me” lyric in the bridge (Bob Geldof singing “walk don’t walk/talk don’t talk” ) but I don’t really hear it. I also really hate “Rat Trap,” so there’s that too.

** This is a fine record, but Harrison had the misfortune to release a solo album in the same year when his Talking Heads colleagues put out “Genius of Love” and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. He wound up looking like the Ringo of the group.

Top: Eddie Woods, “Roberto Valenza, San Francisco, Summer 1980.”

Ashes to Ashes

September 13, 2011

People Are Turning to Gold (fragment of studio demo).
Ashes to Ashes.
Ashes to Ashes (video, single edit).
Ashes to Ashes (The Tonight Show, 1980 (5:00 in)).
Ashes to Ashes (live, 1983).
Ashes to Ashes (live, 1990).
Ashes to Ashes (broadcast, 1999).
Ashes to Ashes (broadcast, 2000).
Ashes to Ashes (live, 2002).
Ashes to Ashes (A&E Live By Request (thanks George!), 2002).
Ashes to Ashes (live, 2004).

Scary Monsters for me has always been some kind of purge. It was me eradicating the feelings within myself that I was uncomfortable with…You have to accommodate your pasts within your persona. You have to understand why you went through them. That’s the major thing. You cannot just ignore them or put them out of your mind or pretend they didn’t happen or just say “Oh I was different then.”

David Bowie, Musician, July 1990.

Two nuns, a priest, a pretty girl in a party dress and a sad clown walk abreast in a funeral procession. The sexton drives a bulldozer a few paces behind them. It’s only a procession; there’s no burial, for there’s no body (but there will be a grave). The clergy slap the ground as they walk, as if consecrating the beach. The clown clasps his hands in prayer, half-smiling. The clown’s mother arrives late, nags at him as he dutifully walks with her along the strand. For a hymn, the mourners chant a children’s bogeyman song. My mother said, I never should/Play with the gypsies in the wood.

It’s the dream of a man in a padded room. He was once someone else: a black-and-white memory comes, framed like a ’50s coffee commercial, of him sitting at breakfast in his spacesuit, ready for his commute. She packed my bags last night, pre-flight. Protein pills, helmet on. Then the memory catches fire: the kitchen explodes, the mourners from the beach appear in periphery, singing to him. Maybe he’s still in space, floating alone in the deep. Or he came home after all but was never allowed to return, instead kept stowed away in a basement. All of these the papery visions of an aging junkie, dreams nested within dreams like matryoshka dolls.

Somewhere in Ground Control, in a room entered only by custodians and lost interns, an ancient Telex machine rumbles to life. A single line: I’M HAPPY HOPE YOU’RE HAPPY TOO. A pause, as if the machine draws a breath. Then: I’VE LOVED ALL I’VE NEEDED LOVE SORDID DETAILS FOLLOWING. But nothing else follows.

On 6 February 1969, on a Greenwich soundstage, David Bowie dressed up as an astronaut. He was making a promotional film for a song that no one had heard, one he had recorded only a few days before. The grips and cameramen chuckled when they saw his costume (the film was a self-funded vanity project, a last attempt by his manager to revive a stalled career). But when they heard “Space Oddity” in playback, the stagehands began to hum the lines, as if they were recalling a schoolyard chant. As Bowie walked off the set, a crew member saluted him and called him Major Tom. Bowie was delighted: he had finally become someone else.

“Space Oddity” is the beginning of David Bowie as “Ashes to Ashes” is his end. “Oddity” opens the tale, expanding outward, with infinite space as its backdrop; “Ashes” closes it, collapsing on itself, compressing itself, sounding at times like a store’s worth of music boxes were opened together at once. “Oddity” took a stock character, Bowie’s idea of the all-American GI, and set him against the sublime, letting him fall into the deep and leaving room for us to follow him. “Ashes” brings him home, now deranged and offering only shards of riddles, jonesing for utopia. “Ashes” is the song that eats itself, Major Tom’s death song.

When I originally wrote about Major Tom, I was a very pragmatic and self-opinionated lad that thought he knew all about the great American dream and where it started and where it should stop. Here we had the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space, but once he gets there he’s not quite sure why he’s there. And that’s where I left him.

Bowie, NME, September 1980.

Bowie revised “Space Oddity” in late 1979. With a small band that he and Tony Visconti cobbled together, Bowie stripped “Oddity” down, reducing it to the folk song it had always been beneath its trappings. “Space Oddity” was recorded as a theater piece, following Bowie’s cryptic narrative rather than any typical song structure, with its various parts (the eerie Stylophone, the parade-ground snare drum, the soaring Mellotron) characters in a revue. Now Bowie clarified “Oddity” down to the vocal melody, a harshly-strummed 12-string guitar, a basic bass-drums rhythm section. Instead of a countdown, silence. Instead of the measured back-and-forth of Major Tom and Ground Control’s interplay, a pained solitary vocal.

The remake (played on Kenny Everett’s New Year’s show and issued as a B-side soon afterward) led Bowie to consider a sequel to “Space Oddity.” He was in a retrospective mood already, reusing Astronettes numbers and old demos for the tracks he was working up for Scary Monsters, and the timing seemed right: the start of a new decade, one that would be the obverse of the Sixties. Still, when Bowie began working on a song called “People Are Turning to Gold,” he only had a melody line, no lyrics. The idea to use the track to revive Major Tom came months later, during overdubs.

I was thinking of how I was going to place Major Tom in this 10 years on, [with] what would be the complete dissolution of the great dream that was being propounded when they shot him into space. The great technology [was] capable of putting him up there, but when he did get up there, he wasn’t quite sure why he’d been put there…We come to him 10 years later and find the whole thing has soured, because there was no reason for putting him up there…[So] the most disastrous thing I could think of is that he finds solace in some kind of heroin-type drug, actually cosmic space feeding him: an addiction. He wants to return to the womb from whence he came.

David Bowie, promo disc for Scary Monsters, 1980.

“Ashes to Ashes” seems composted from old records, stitched together out of discarded rhythm tracks and random overdubs. Deep in its bones is a song Bowie had loved since childhood, Frank Loesser’s “Inchworm,” as sung by Danny Kaye.”Inchworm’s” semitonal moves between F and Eb are echoed in “Ashes,” which moves from F to Eb at the end of its verses, with Bowie also inspired by the way Kaye’s lead vocal rises and falls against a equally wavering choral counter-melody. (The vocal line of “Ashes” is also a reverse image of “Life on Mars,” whose legendary octave leaps in its chorus are countered by, in “Ashes,” verses filled with octave drops.)

But its most direct ancestor was a sequel song, too: Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue Got Married.” Rock & roll began as an overnight fad, its forefathers quick to exploit whatever sold. So hit songs bred follow-ups. “Johnny B. Goode” led to “Bye Bye Johnny,” “The Twist” begat “Let’s Twist Again,” “Louie Louie” was followed by “Louie Louie Go Home” (covered by an 18-year-old Bowie). Still, “Peggy Sue Got Married” isn’t quite that blunt—there’s a sad self-consciousness in it that you also find in “Ashes,” the sense of a song chewing up another song.*

Like “Ashes,” “Peggy Sue Got Married” opens with Holly asking if you recall his older hit (Bowie sighs “it’s such an EARLY song”), but then he equivocates—he’s heard something, he may be wrong, who knows, he’s just the messenger. “I just heard a rumor from a friend,” Holly sings, teasingly (“I heard a rumor from Ground Control,” Bowie answers, 20 years later), then strings you along with little three-note loops: “I don’t say…that it’s true… and culminates with the roller-coaster rise-and-fall of “I’ll just leave that up to you.” And Holly’s trademark vocal fills, his oohs and moans, are mirrored by Bowie’s interjections in “Ashes”: “oh no—don’t say it’s true” or “oh no, not again!” and especially the “who-oh-oh-oh” after “out of the blue.” It’s the sound of Holly’s ghost.

Rock & roll sequels have nowhere to go but home: they’re not fun, they expire in respectability. Johnny B. Goode goes to Hollywood to make a decade’s worth of bad movies. Louie Louie goes back to his wife and child. Wild, irresistible Peggy Sue gets married, moves into a prefab house and has kids. Bowie’s playing with this conceit in “Ashes to Ashes”—what else is there for Major Tom but a fall from grace, Dan Dare becoming a tired old junkie? I ain’t got no money and I ain’t got no hair, he laments, like a kid’s parody of a blues song.

[“Ashes”] is also a nursery rhyme. It’s very much a 1980s nursery rhyme, and I think 1980s nursery rhymes will have a lot to do with 1880s-1890s nursery rhymes, which were all rather horrid, with little boys with their ears being cut off and things like that. I think we’re getting round to that again, the idea of the Sesame Street “nice” nursery rhymes being possibly outdated—unfortunately.

Major Tom was also a boy’s adventure hero, one abducted from Eagle comics and cast into the void (remember how much of “Space Oddity” uses child’s words instead of “official” ones). “Ashes” sends him back into a storybook, only now tainted, diseased, embittered. The song’s two refrains—the chorus and the outro—are twisted children’s rhymes, chants for “the awful Eighties,” as Bowie called the decade before it hardly had started. Creepy, suggestive of some old horror bricked up in rhymes, Bowie’s lines echo the chants in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, the latter written in the broken language of a post-nuclear-holocaust Kent reduced to a second Stone Age.

For “Ashes,” Bowie wrote one of his finest, most extravagant and taxing melodies, one that seems to work against the song at times (Bowie’s often landing against the beat, or singing “through” bars). But through force of will, Bowie keeps the song whole: it’s as though the conductor of an opera is also the lead tenor.

The first verse starts with Bowie in flight, swooping from a high A-flat down to an A-flat deeper in his range. He sings a trio of sudden collapses (“do-you-re-mem-ber-a-guy” is all high notes, the quick fall comes on “that’s-been; same for “in-such-an-ear-ly (high) sooong” (low), etc.). Then comes a line with a much shorter range, almost conversational (“oh no, don’t say it’s true“). The high, falling lines are fanciful, the retorts are flat and short. “They got a message from the action man” stays almost entirely on one note, like a newscaster breaking into the song.

(Again, this is pure Buddy Holly. As Theodore Gracyk wrote in Rhythm and Noise: “Holly’s dips and swoops embroider the beat and thus bind rhythm and melody together, dissolving the typical division between vocal and rhythm section…[Holly] exploits the peculiarities of his own voice.”)

Then comes Major Tom’s message, which begins as two quick jolts upward (“I’m HAPPY,” “hope you’re HAPPY“) and then, again, falls back to earth (“too-ooo-oo“). The message (and the verse) end by repeating now-established vocal patterns: one line is a near-octave fall (“I’ve loved all I’ve needed love“), the other is narrow and low (“sordid details following“). The second verse (starting with “time and again“) repeats the formula, though the falls are less severe—“stay clean tonight” is only an Ab to C drop, for example.

By contrast, the two bridges are a series of arcs, with Bowie’s vocal leading the backing band as if in a choral round. Typically Bowie will start low, rise to a high note and descend in the same breath: so on “the shrieking of nothing” line, he starts on F, goes up to a D natural and falls down to B-flat. He also creates the sense of a quickening pace via a run of triplets (“Jap-girls-in” “syn-the-sis” “and-I-“). Along with Dennis Davis’ intricate drum patterns and various Visconti tweaks and flanging, the sensation is that the song is slowly falling out of time, although it stays straight 4/4 throughout.

In the bridges a set of zombified voices mutter curses beneath Bowie. While in the first bridge the voices are so submerged in the mix that they’re audible only as a menacing rumble, in the second the “zombie” voices are mixed higher, delay-echoing the lead vocal with utterly no emotion. It culminates in the eerie/hilarious way that the zombie voice flatly repeats Bowie’s “who-oh-oh,”: it’s a rock & roll vocal fill reduced to flat, lifeless syllables, music drained of its blood.

And in his eight-bar nursery rhyme refrain, Bowie again sings a series of falls: the last line, all half notes, is a descending sequence (Eb-Db-C) that ends, appropriately, on Low. The song expires with its cycling four-bar chant, a move from Eb minor to Ab minor, each line again finished off in a three-note descent (“ma-ma said,” “get things done,” “not mess with” “ma-jor Tom“). Major Tom, returned to the cruel world of children, is consumed by them.

So Major Tom thought he was starring in an Arthur C Clarke story and found himself in a Philip K Dick one by mistake, and the result is oddly magnificent. Why is Bowie doing this? To kill off the 1970s, like everyone else was trying to. And by that he meant his 70s, because Bowie’s pop was always strongest when it was just him in his hall of mirrors.

Tom Ewing, Popular: “Ashes to Ashes.”

“Space Oddity” was horizontal, carefully assembled in stages. Though its lyric’s questions were left unanswered, the structure of the song, its staggered arrangements (written on a piece of paper by producer Gus Dudgeon as a series of squiggly lines and streaks of colors), made “Oddity” a one-way flight, continually moving forward. By contrast, “Ashes” is vertical, organic, a deliberate mess. There’s a density to the mix; it’s like a black hole absorbing whatever sounds approach—the percussion mixed in the left channel (often a shaker, but a stick hit off-beat appears briefly in the verses), Carlos Alomar’s ska guitar, George Murray’s popped bass, a synthesizer choir, a synthesized guitar solo, Davis’ intricate hi-hat work, the muttered backing vocals, and the little noises that you only hear once or twice (a sprinkle of piano notes, Bowie’s groans during an instrumental break, a few piercing guitar chords).

And unlike “Space Oddity,” which Dudgeon had planned like an invasion by sea, “Ashes to Ashes” came together in pieces, Bowie and Visconti relying (as usual, by this point) on a series of happy accidents.

Roy Bittan’s opening Wurlitzer pipe organ line (there’s a trace of the piano opening of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in it) is actually a grand piano fed through one of Visconti’s new toys, the Eventide Instant Flanger. Bowie had requested an actual stereo Wurlitzer, but after it arrived, Visconti found that only one side of the organ worked “and even then not very well.” So he ran Bittan’s piano through the Flanger until he “got a decent moving stereo image to emulate a Wurlitzer.” But of course Visconti couldn’t stop toying with the Flanger, winding up with the shaking, wobbly sound you hear in the final mix.

Chuck Hammer’s guitar synthesizer treatments (which he called “guitarchitecture”) were also a random element, as Hammer had essentially showed up at the Power Station to give Bowie and Visconti an exhibition of his technique and tools (which included a synthesizer that gave Hammer an “infinite” sustain on his guitar). He wound up as “Ashes”‘ last mourner, ushering out the song (Andy Clark’s synthesizer, which serves as a high chorus in the bridges, appears as well) by dueting with himself, a performance that Visconti recorded in the stairwell of the Power Station (& it winds up sounding like a Theremin).

The foundation, as always, was the old gang of Alomar, Murray and Davis, their time now almost at an end (they’ll go out dancing, though, in the last Scary Monsters song). If “Ashes” is a funeral, they are its second line: Alomar plays a cryptic reggae, his guitar rasping out breaths,while Murray pops his bass throughout, as though bent on making such an ungainly song swing (and he pulls it off). Davis had to cope with one of the hardest challenges of his time with Bowie, forced to play what Bowie later called “an old ska beat.” It’s like a guitarist having to play lead and rhythm lines at once**—Davis has to master the intricate off-kilter beat while also keeping time while using his hi-hat to link together the bridges and verses. Bowie said that Davis struggled throughout the session until Bowie played out the pattern for him on a chair and cardboard box. Davis went home, practiced all night and finally got the track down the next day.

I’ve never done good things,
I’ve never done bad things,
I never did anything out of the blue…

“Ashes to Ashes” was a smash, Bowie’s second UK #1 (the first, of course, was “Space Oddity”). It was a surprise return to commercial form, as many (including RCA) had written off Bowie as a hitmaker. (The single’s brisk sales were helped by a gimmick: the initial run of 45s included a set of collector stamps.) Bowie’s masterpiece of a promo film, directed by David Mallet, dispatched the past (Bowie wore a Pierrot costume designed by his old collaborator/lover Natasha Korniloff (see “The Mime Songs“) with emissaries of the future (four Blitz kids recruited as mourners). The video created the language of MTV as it disposed of Bowie’s past selves, auctioning them off in a series of images.

Bowie’s timing was acute. Ziggy Stardust had helped end the Sixties by parodying the decade’s excesses, its grand claims and public spectacles, but Bowie, while moving from face to face throughout the late Seventies, had remained, in his gnomic way, a believer, a child of the summer’s end. Now he could taste winter. “Ashes to Ashes” seems like a public abdication; it’s a man summoning his powers once more to twist a world into his own, flickering image—for the last time. It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for, as Tom Baker, another colorful Sixties remnant, would say as his last words on Doctor Who, a few months after “Ashes to Ashes” hit #1.

In our survey, Bowie has many more years to run, and there are many more songs to come—the commercial triumph, the fall into weariness and slack, the desperate, at-times amazing effort to reconnect with his muse and his audience in his fading years. Bowie may still release more songs. But “Ashes to Ashes” is his last song. It’s the final chapter that came midway through the book. Bowie sings himself offstage with a children’s rhyme; eternally falling, eternally young.

Recorded February 1980, Power Station, NYC; Good Earth Studios, April 1980. Released as a single c/w “Move On” in August 1980 (RCA BOW 6, #1 UK). Performed on the Tonight Show on 5 September 1980 with Bowie’s band-that-never-was, assembled for a possible 1981 tour: including Alomar, G.E. Smith and Steve Goulding (the Tonight Show was the band’s only public performance, though they’re in the concert filmed for Christiane F as well as in the “Fashion” video). Played live throughout Bowie’s subsequent career, though rarely that well.

Sequels and adaptations: Major Tom returns once more in the Bowie story in the Pet Shop Boys’ remix of “Hallo Spaceboy,” which we’ll get to next year. However, there’s a notable piece of Apocrypha: Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom (Coming Home)” (1983), which is the 2010 to Bowie’s 2001. Though “Ashes to Ashes” seems uncoverable (it’s like “The Ballad of John and Yoko” in its sense of being tailored for its writer alone), several have tried: Tears for Fears, the Sneaker Pimps, Warpaint, the Commodore 64, the Shins.

* Holly only recorded “Peggy Sue Got Married” as a demo, as he was killed before he took it into the studio. With glommed-on lead guitar, bass and drums, it was a minor hit in the early 1960s.

** An insight by my drummer girlfriend, who likes the Tears for Fears version as much, if not more, than the DB version.

Top: David Bowie, Self Portrait (ca. 1980); “railroadweasel”, “Self Portrait–DMK 1980”; Robert Mapplethorpe, “Self Portrait,” 1980; Suzanne Poli, “Self Portrait,” 1980; Jonas Mekas, Self Portrait, 1980; Andy Warhol, Self Portrait in Drag, 1980.

Teenage Wildlife

September 7, 2011

Teenage Wildlife (earlier studio take, rough mix).
Teenage Wildlife.
Teenage Wildlife (live, 1995).
Teenage Wildlife (unbroadcast White Room perf., 1995).
Teenage Wildlife (live, 1996).

Only last summer, a group was on the stage of a more liberal Manchester club; called Spurtz, they featured two girls who knew what they were doing and one chap who didn’t really. They weren’t much—noisy and atonal—but what struck me was that the lead singer, banging around in a lurex mini-dress, was drawing entirely from a vocabulary invented by Bowie. And people stood and took it.

Jon Savage, “David Bowie: The Gender Bender,” The Face, November 1980.

Around 1976, a few London clubs began having “Bowie nights,” where DJs would play Bowie records and clubgoers would come dressed as an edition of him. For some kids, it was the pupal stage before they became punks; others kept at it. By 1978, the main Bowie night in London was at Billy’s, where former Rich Kid Rusty Egan was the DJ and Steve Strange worked the door. As the Eighties began, the scene shifted to (and culminated at) the Blitz Club in Covent Garden. By then Bowie nights had gone from being an impulsive collective tribute to a competitive pose-off. Doing a variation on Bowie had become work. New bands were literally recruited off the Blitz floor, like Spandau Ballet and Visage, which Egan and Strange formed.

Bowie recognized his heirs, using Strange and three other Blitz kids one night in May 1980 to serve as mourners in the video of “Ashes to Ashes.” But his thoughts on becoming a influence weren’t always as noble, and understandably so. After all, paternity means that your genetic purpose is fulfilled: now you can shuffle off and die. There was Bowie’s notorious slagging-off of Gary Numan in the press, while he led off the B-side of Scary Monsters with “Teenage Wildlife,” the first Bowie midlife crisis on record.

Ironically, the lyric is something about taking a short view of life, not looking too far ahead and not predicting the oncoming hard knocks. The lyric might have been a note to a younger brother or my own adolescent self,” Bowie wrote of the song many years later, and in its most generous interpretation, “Teenage Wildlife” is Bowie’s bequest to his successors—be true to yourself, or at least to your favorite illusion; know that the crowd will mock your ambitions and will hunt you down if you have the bad taste to fulfill them.

Is fame even worth it, though? A kid with “squeaky clean eyes” is desperate for fame but he becomes a toy of commerce, just another ugly teenage millionaire, “a broken nosed mogul,” with nothing new to say. The “same old thing in brand new drag comes sweeping into view.” After that, all that remains is the fall: it’s a world of pop stars as a succession of Jane Greys, queens crowned and dispatched in a week. It’s a lurid, violent lyric, with its “midwives to history” in bloody robes, or the teenage millionaire left to bleed out on the floor and howl “like a wolf in a trap,” while his friends scamper past him, whispering to each other “he was great, yeah, but it was time, you know?” Or take the song’s title, a play on healthy adolescent abandon and the image of teenagers as feral beasts.

“Wildlife”‘s lyrical harshness is echoed by its structure. Much of the song is built on sharps: the opening verses first shuttle between G# and C# (e.g., “its promise of something hard to do,” “break open your million-dollar weapon and push your luck) then expand to F# (“blue skies above”) and D# (“new wave boys”). There’s a brittle, wavering feel to the track; nothing is stable, everything is on the verge of change.

You’ll take me aside, and say “well David, what shall I do?
They wait for me in the hallway.”
I’ll say “don’t ask me, I don’t know any hallways.”

The presence of Roy Bittan, recruited from Bruce Springsteen’s The River sessions in the adjacent studio of the Power Station, heightens the sense that “Wildlife” is in Springsteen waters, indulging in and undermining adolescent myth-making. As with Springsteen epics like “Jungleland” (which Springsteen was moving away from—The River was a mix of frat house anthems, re-imagined Four Seasons songs and the occasional quiet prediction of Nebraska), “Wildlife” has a loose, improvisatory structure; it’s as though Bowie is leaving enough space for whatever last-minute inspirations come to him. There’s not really a chorus, just meandering verses which only end when punctuated by the title phrase and a Robert Fripp solo.

Bowie sings the opening verse slowly and somberly, wringing whatever effects he can get from each phrase (the sudden swoop upward on “BLIND-ed”) but keeping within his bounds. Then, triggered by a brief Fripp interlude, Bowie unravels as he sings, summoning a different personality for each new line (he seems to be imitating/inspiring Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs on the first bridge), placing stresses helter-skelter on his words, forcing and suppressing rhymes. His bite sharpens, the song seems to feed off of him: the players drive at each other, the backing singers swirl out of time beneath him, until Bowie finally breaks the fourth wall, turning to the audience in exasperation when faced with the desperate vanity of youth. “David, what shall I do?” the kid asks. It sets Bowie off on an agitated monologue, as snarky as it’s paranoid (“I feel like a group of one–no-oh–they can’t do this to me!”),  spinning and spinning until he finally kills the verse off by howling the title phrase. The Fripp guitar solo that follows comes like a blessing.

Bowie said he wanted the guitars on “Wildlife” to be “a splintery little duel” between Fripp and Carlos Alomar, but the third element is Chuck Hammer’s guitar synthesizer (used to even greater effect in “Ashes to Ashes”), which adds an eerie choral tone; at times it supplements the chorus of Tony Visconti, Lynn Maitland and Chris Porter. Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis mainly keep their heads down, the latter two keeping a steady eighth-note pulse. And Fripp, in his most glorious appearance on Scary Monsters, essentially rewrites his lead work on “Heroes.” If the yearning, straining sound of Fripp’s “Heroes” playing suggested an unattainable perfection, his reworking of the line for “Teenage Wildlife” humanizes it, providing the comfort and strength that Bowie’s manic, badgering vocal denies.

“Wildlife,” the longest track on Scary Monsters, is a series of hard demands on the listener (Visconti said it took him years to like the song, having first considered it a misstep), and it can be wearying. It sounds as though two decades of pop music cues were pulped within its vague confines—the Ronettes vocal hooks, the guitar heroics, the pseudo-Japanese melody in the second bridge. If “Wildlife” was a bequest to Bowie’s successors of the time, it’s a poisoned one: there’s a vicious challenge in its grudging transfer of power, a cold judgment on a lesser future. It ends with the godfather chuckling as he walks past the corpse of his would-be inheritor: “the fingerprints will prove that you couldn’t pass the test.”

Recorded February 1980, Power Station, NYC; April 1980, Good Earth Studios, London. Played as one of the few oldies on Bowie’s 1995-1996 tours, a gibe to the latest heirs apparent. “I’m still enamoured of this song and would give you two “Modern Loves” for it any time,” Bowie said in 2008.

Top: Boy George and Steve Strange at the Blitz Club, London, 1980.

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

August 30, 2011

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), early version.
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (rehearsal w/Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1983).
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (live, 1987).
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (with Nine Inch Nails, live, 1995).
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (with Frank Black, live, 1996).
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (live, 1996).
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (The Jack Docherty Show, 1997).
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (Live At the 10 Spot, 1997).
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (acoustic version, 1997).

“Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” is a corrupter corrupted: a contemporary Clarissa and Lovelace. A man plays havoc with a fragile girl, drumming up her insecurities, inciting her worst fears, making her dependent on him. She winds up broken, out on the street talking to herself and chased by demons, but by now he’s obsessed with her. Whatever depths she plummets, he’ll fall with her, hand in hand.

It’s Bowie’s most aggressive straight-up rock track since “Diamond Dogs.” He called “Scary Monsters” at the time “a piece of Londonism,” narrated by a “criminal with a conscience who talks about how he corrupted a fine young mind,” and he sang it in his Mockney accent (though not entirely—he sings “again” (at the close of the first verse) fairly flat, not as “ah-GAYN”). It’s an odd move, perhaps an attempt to give a “South London” realism to the track or add to its lurid horror-movie feel (the title was apparently inspired by a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes ad campaign—“Scary Monsters and Super Heroes”). Bowie, as always dedicated to his whims, kept the accent for all subsequent live performances of the song.

“Scary Monsters” is made of violent collisions of sound—the manic abrasiveness of Robert Fripp’s guitar tone as it snarls, screams, mocks the singer throughout; the descending dog-bark bassline in the intro; the feverish acoustic guitar strumming, as if played by someone with a gun trained on them; the hissing sibilance in Bowie’s vocal (“now she’s stupid in the street and she can’t socialize”); the occasional clanging in the left channel, the sonic equivalent of a strobe light*; Dennis Davis’ echoing tom fills punctuating each vocal phrase; the distorted, quavering backing vocals (all by Bowie) that sound like a violent argument cutting into a radio signal.

Along with “Teenage Wildlife,” “Scary Monsters” has Fripp’s best playing on the record: here, especially in his main 10-bar solo, he seems to be playing all the “wrong” notes—the solo comes when expected, a burst of energy after the second chorus, but it doesn’t provide release as much as it drags you further into the mire. Fripp later said that for his solo, he used as a starting point the chords of the bridge rather than of the intro, sounding the notes “D” and “B” as a sonic tribute to his collaborator. While there’s been some speculation that Fripp used his “new standard tuning” on Scary Monsters, tuning his guitar in fifths (CGDAEG), he didn’t start using the tuning until around 1984. Fripp’s work here appears to have just been his Les Paul, a few amps, room reverb, a handful of other tricks and assorted brilliance.

Tony Visconti thickened the mix: using an EDP “Wasp” synthesizer, he programmed the “barking dog” sound and had various instruments trigger others, making a concatenation of sounds. For instance Davis’ snare was fed into the “trigger circuit” of the Wasp, while Davis’ eighth notes on the kick drum triggered the sound of George Murray’s treated bass—the latter, though recorded conventionally in the early LP sessions, was routed through a Kepex noise gate during overdubs. Also “sometimes the kick drum and tom-toms that bled into the snare drum track also triggered the sequence,” Visconti wrote.

Much like “Diamond Dogs,” the result is a murky, frenetic, repurposed-sounding track, but the energy of the players, Bowie’s sly, scraping vocal and, most of all, the pure hooks of the chorus (the godfather of many Pixies and Nine Inch Nails choruses—when Frank Black and Trent Reznor sang “Scary Monsters” with Bowie in the mid-’90s, it was like they were covering themselves) made it a rock standard despite its dedicated strangeness.

Recorded February 1980 at the Power Station, NYC, and April 1980 at Good Earth Studios. Released as a single in January 1981 (RCA BOW 8, #20 UK). Played live in 1983, 1987, 1995 and 1997. In the latter year, “Scary Monsters” became a centerpiece of Bowie’s Earthling tour, and was a go-to performance for TV appearances: The Jack Docherty Show, Live at the 10 Spot, Saturday Night Live, etc.

* This is a cowbell run through a guitar distortion pedal, very indebted to Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control.” (See links in comments.) Thanks to Marion Brent for finding this.

Top: Still from untitled short film documenting New York City (see here), shot during autumn 1980. Filmmaker(s) unknown.

Up the Hill Backwards

August 19, 2011

Cameras in Brooklyn (early studio take, rough mix).
Up the Hill Backwards.
Up the Hill Backwards (live, 1987).

“Up the Hill Backwards” is a cryptic anti-self-help manual (Bowie mocks the quintessential ’70s life guide I’m OK,  You’re OK in the lyric), its central message suggesting a late Dylan line: I was born here and I’ll die here/against my will. Accept that you have no control, that the course that life takes has little, if anything, to do with you, and gain some hard comfort. Whatever you believe, the earth keeps on turning, the witnesses of its endless cycles keep dying off.

That’s what the four verses suggest; the refrain denies them. “Up the hill backwards—it’ll be alright” seems like a booster—keep on keeping on—but it’s a dark form of encouragement. There’s a poem for children that begins, “He walked up the hill backwards/So as not to see how high it was.” That’s how we make do, stumbling blindly towards a future that we can’t (or won’t) imagine, our eyes trained on the ground that we’ve already crossed. Up the hill backwards! A pep talk that tells us to blind ourselves.

The lyric is chanted/sung by Bowie, Tony Visconti and Lynn Maitland, Bowie’s voice submerged in the collective. It’s the first time in his recorded life that Bowie’s truly shared the vocal spotlight; his voice is a flavor, rather than dominating the mix (the vocal sound is close to the David Byrne-Tina Weymouth chorus in the Talking Heads’ “The Good Thing”). Bowie said he intended “Backwards” to be “very MOR voiced,” so as to sound like the “epitome of indifference,” and never more so than in its first verse:

The vacuum created by the arrival of freedom
And the possibilities it seems to offer,
It’s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it.

“Backwards” has a cyclical chord structure to match its lyrical saṃsāra: the song is built of three variations of four-chord groupings. Its 8-bar verses alternate lines of A-D-E-A (I-IV-V-I) “the vacuum created by the arrival of freedom,” and A-F# minor-E-D (I-VI-V-IV), as on “we’re legally crippled, it’s the death of love.” The refrain is the last variant, D-E-D-A (IV-V-IV-I). At times the lyric ironically complements the harmonics, with the “arrival of freedom” landing on the return to the tonic, A major, suggesting retreat rather than escape.

“Backwards” started life as “Cameras in Brooklyn,” though its lyric was nearly the same (Bowie originally sang “Skylabs are falling”—Skylab, the “space hotel” satellite that fell to earth in 1979, was an all-purpose symbol of American decline).*

The raw mix of an early version that escaped on bootlegs documents the contributions of George Murray and Dennis Davis—Murray’s melodic playing in the verses reduces the harshness of the narrow-ranged vocal line (as does the bed provided by the organ), while his funky freer lines in the outro are a counterweight to Robert Fripp’s soloing. Davis, after holding together the tricky rhythms of the opening, drives the verses like a drill sergeant, with calls to order on his snare; as with Murray, Davis is finally free to cut loose during the closing guitar jam. His performance is aided, in the final mix, by an intricate percussion track—what sounds like claves (like the Who’s “Magic Bus”) in the intro, while open spaces in the refrain are injected with what sound like steam whistles or synthesized machine noises (Harmonized cymbals?).

Angus MacKinnon: In ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ on the new album there’s more than a suggestion of admitting defeat, or if not that them implying that there’s bugger all you or I or anybody can do about the state of things.

Bowie: Well, admitting it? I don’t actually agree with that viewpoint, you see. To digress completely for a moment—I still adopt the view that music itself carries its own message, instrumentally I mean…That’s why I’m furious you didn’t get to hear the album because the lyrics taken on their own are nothing without the secondary sub-text of what the musical arrangement has to say…

NME, “The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be,” September 1980.

Bowie bookended “Backwards” with what he called “a high-energy Fripp quasi-Bo Diddley thing,” two guitar breaks, starting in 7/4 time (Visconti, playing acoustic guitar, recalled gritting his teeth and counting “1&2&3&4&5&6&7” throughout the takes). These free the song from its cycles. Fripp’s closing solo, which he described at the time as “a system of echo repeats, fairly fast, on the guitar,” is fairly constrained, melodically, but Fripp’s power, his aggressive tone, expand the song; he won’t let the other players settle.

That was the intention. Bowie later said the Fripp guitar breaks “give [“Backwards’] another kind of switch: it has far more power than it would first seem. In fact it has a very strong commitment, but it’s disguised in indifference.” It’s not just Fripp who offers a way out, as the collective sound of the track—the trio of voices finally relaxing in the last verse and building up together in the refrain; the liberation of the rhythm section—eventually denies the lyric’s fatalism. It’s making common cause against the void, loudly.

Recorded February 1980, Power Station, NYC; April 1980, Good Earth Studios, London. Released as the last Scary Monsters single in March 1981 (RCA BOW 9, c/w “Crystal Japan,” #32 UK); the TOTP interpretive dance performance by Legs & Co. is a marvel—dry ice, Tomahawk chops, writhing; it’s likely the only dance routine ever choreographed to a Fripp guitar solo. Performed live only on the Glass Spider tour of 1987, as part of a medley with the Spider.

* “Skylab could fall on your head right now and you’d go down saying the government had done its best.” Harry tries to picture this happening and agrees, “Maybe so. They’re strapped these days like everybody else.” John Updike, Rabbit Is Rich, 1981.

Dedicated to my friend and neighbor J. Johnson.

Top: Michael Sean Edwards, “Subway, Grand Central Station” NYC, 1980.

Kingdom Come

August 16, 2011

Kingdom Come (Tom Verlaine, 1979).
Kingdom Come (David Bowie, early take, rough mix, 1980).
Kingdom Come (Bowie, 1980).
Kingdom Come (Verlaine, live, ca. 1984).
Kingdom Come (Verlaine, live, 2006).

The great New York band Television broke up in 1978 due to the standard reasons: drugs, egos, money (lack of). Tom Verlaine, the band’s singer, lyricist and co-lead guitarist, soon got a record deal with Television’s label Elektra and in the fall of 1979 released his first solo album.

Bowie was a fan, calling Verlaine one of “New York’s finest new writers…I wish he had a bigger audience.” Verlaine’s solo albums, which he released at a regular clip in the ’80s, document a career that never had the audience it deserved. He was a critical middleweight. In the Village Voice “Pazz and Jop” year-end polls of the era, Verlaine’s albums consistently fall in the 20 to 30 range: he was respected, not revered or even disliked. His albums didn’t sell well and he eventually moved to the UK, where a few more people bought his records.

Verlaine had started as a poet, and his best songs were full of casual epiphanies, words like an inspired run of notes on his guitar: Broadway looked so medieval. I fell sideways laughing. I remember how the darkness doubled, I recall lightning struck itself. I’m uncertain when beauty meets abuse. She put on her boxing gloves and went to sleep. The standout on Tom Verlaine was “Kingdom Come,” his purgatorial song, with the daily business of life like being on a chain gang: breaking rocks, cutting hay, all while watched from a tower by a man with a gun. The only hope of escape is death, or judgement day, whichever comes first.*

Carlos Alomar suggested Bowie cover “Kingdom Come,” which would be the first cover on a Bowie record since Station to Station. Bowie asked Verlaine to play guitar on his song but things apparently went awry, as little, if any, Verlaine is on the final record (Robert Fripp instead does the lead guitar work on Bowie’s “Kingdom Come,” mainly keeping to the margins). Tony Visconti recalled Verlaine showing up at the Power Station looking “a little down on his luck and lugubrious.” Verlaine said he had some ideas for overdubs but needed the right sound first, so he began to try out every single amp in the studio, playing the same phrase on over 30 of them. Visconti said he and Bowie had lunch, watched TV and ultimately left Verlaine in the studio, still auditioning amps. “I don’t think we ever used a note of his playing, even if we recorded him,” Visconti wrote.

Bowie’s “Kingdom Come” is an attempt to give the song grandeur, with layers of guitars and, first in the chorus and then in the verses, call-and-response backing vocals by a quartet (Bowie, Visconti, Lynn Maitland and Chris Porter).** Some of the changes work well enough, like transferring Verlaine’s drum hook to George Murray’s bass, freeing Dennis Davis to pound on the beat while doing fills to lighten the track’s monotonous tendencies. Other changes seem either sloppy (Bowie weirdly made “the face of doom” the “voice of doom,” while still keeping the next line about the voice “shining”) or perverse, like Bowie removing the title line hook from the chorus and not singing it until 3:15 in, almost as the song starts to fade out.

It all seems like a great misreading of the song. Verlaine’s “when the kingdom comes” refrain, which Bowie discarded, is unchanging and barely melodic, suggesting the ceaseless labor of being. Instead Bowie’s vocal is an over-the-top vibrato-heavy extravagance that seems deliberately unhinged; it’s fascinating and kind of awful. Verlaine, even when he approached the cosmic, had a penitential tone in his singing, the sound of someone consistently being humbled and delighted by the oddness of life. Bowie just savages each line he sings—placing long, brutal stresses on the end of each phrase (“well i wa-haw-haw-alllked in the pouring ray-hay-hay-hayn”) building to the note-killing agonies of the bridge—“wall’s a miiiiile HII-yi-i-IIGH,” singing “hoping I’m gonna die-ay-ay-ay” like Ronnie Spector. A bewildering cover, “Kingdom Come” seems the primary inspiration for Bowie own, finer “Up the Hill Backwards.”

Recorded February 1980, Power Station, NYC, and April 1980, Good Earth Studios, London.

* Verlaine’s song reused the title of an unreleased Television song, but the two “Kingdom Comes” are otherwise unrelated.

** It was a random collection of amateur singers: Maitland was a mutual friend, while Porter was Visconti’s assistant engineer.

Top: Ann Summa, “Tom Verlaine,” ca. 1979-1980.

Because You’re Young

August 11, 2011

Because I’m Young (early studio take).
Because You’re Young.
Because You’re Young (tour rehearsal, 1987).

“Townshend’s coming in today.” Bowie and Tony Visconti waited in the studio, with some dread.

Bowie and Pete Townshend had met in Bournemouth in 1965, when Bowie was 18 and Townshend 20. It was a minor humiliation for Bowie. Townshend watched Bowie play his just-issued single “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving,” then noted sharply that it sounded like a rip-off of one of his songs (it was). Townshend went off to help write the Sixties, a decade where Bowie was a footnote.

Now 15 years later, Townshend, after laboring to immortalize the Mods with Quadrophenia—a 2-LP monument for a mayfly—had weakened. His subject became decline, both his own (creatively, spiritually, bodily) and his band’s. The Who By Numbersterrace singalongs were crowded out by midlife agonies (“How Many Friends,”However Much I Booze”); Who Are You was just a long slog, worsened by the ailing Keith Moon. I write the same old song with a few new lines, and everybody wants to cheer it: the record started with a sad, wry boast; the title track, based on Townshend’s drunken self-flagellating night with half of the Sex Pistols (“I remember throwing punches around and preaching from my chair”), was a hungover man talking to the mirror. It got worse: Moon died at 32, looking 20 years older; 11 kids were trampled to death at a Who concert in Cincinnati.

Drinking heavily and trapped in his image, trashing hotel rooms as though required by his contract, Townshend tried to write himself out, saving his better songs for his solo albums. Before Bowie asked him to play, Townshend had just finished Empty Glass, which had a pop hit on it, along with “Jools and Jim,” a still-fun piss-take on Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, and “I Am an Animal,” a strange rant that hung between grandiosity and amazing self-loathing.

Townshend showed up in a “foul, laconic” mood, Visconti recalled, and drank some red wine (“there’s no such thing as white wine!” he had snapped when Visconti offered him a choice of bottles). After the small talk ebbed, there was nothing else to do but record. It’s worth quoting Visconti at length here:

[Townshend] asked what we wanted him to do on this track. David looked at me kind of puzzled and asked, “chords?” Townshend asked, “What kind of chords?” I think both David and I were a little afraid to state the obvious but I finally offered, “er, Pete Townshend chords.” Townshend shrugged, “oh, windmills,” and did a perfect windmill on his guitar.

So Townshend, the great dervish of the Sixties, was asked to play like his trademark self, and dutifully went along with it. It’s as though he was auditioning for a musical adaptation of his life. And the fast chording Townshend put down, jolting back and forth from E minor to C, is a strangely anonymous performance—it could have been Carlos Alomar, it could have been any hired studio gun.

The song Townshend guested on, “Because You’re Young,” was thematically suited for him—an older man watching young lovers make mistakes, saddened by what’s to come for them, longing for the freedom to be just as foolish. Shame it’s a dud, the weakest track on Scary Monsters, despite the band’s efforts (especially George Murray’s frenetic, octave-vaulting bassline). One flaw is that the most interesting bits, melodically, are the opening lines of the verses, the extended stepwise rise and fall of “psychodelicate* girl, come out to play,”, with a triplet pushing to the highest note. As the song builds, ever so lengthily, towards its 18-bar chorus, it grows duller and the payoffs—the multi-tracked title phrase and the ending refrain “a million dreeeeams, a million scahhhhrs“—don’t seem worth the effort.

Bowie had tried to salvage the song at the overdub stage, scrapping an earlier lyric with a first-person teenager POV in favor of an older, removed perspective—as he said on a promo disc, “I guess I’ve adopted the role of a sort of old roué in that one, looking down on these two young mad things and knowing that it’s all gonna fizzle out. God, I’m a depressive person!” (He also recycled the original opening lines “look in my eyes, nobody home!” into “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)”.) Andy Clark’s synthesizer fills all the open spaces in the mix, leaving “Because You’re Young” with no room to breathe.

Recorded February 1980 at the Power Station, NYC, and April 1980, Good Earth Studios, London. Issued as the B-side of “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).”

* It’s possible this sparked the idea for Townshend’s ’90s album title Psychoderelict, though it’s just as likely Townshend’s never listened to “Because You’re Young” in his life.

Top:  “Pink Party,” Athens, Ga., 1980. (ciao manhattan).

It’s No Game (Pts. 1 & 2)

August 8, 2011

It’s No Game (Part 2) (early vocal, rough mix).
It’s No Game (Part 2).
It’s No Game (Part 1).

There are an awful lot of mistakes on that album that I went with, rather than cut them out. One tries as much as possible to put oneself on the line artistically. But after the Dadaists, who pronounced that art is dead…Once you’ve said art is dead, it’s very hard to get more radical than that. Since 1924 art’s been dead, so what the hell can we do with it from there on? One tries to at least keep readdressing the thing…

David Bowie, promo disc for Scary Monsters, 1980.

Scary Monsters,* the last consensus “great” Bowie album, is Bowie and Tony Visconti bent on correcting the flaws of Lodger. Visconti wanted a better sound and mix, using the just-opened Power Station in New York for rhythm tracks and his own Good Earth Studios in London for vocals and overdubs. Bowie cut back on the vocal-booth improvisation and took time to actually write; once the backing tracks were down, Bowie spent two months working on top melodies and lyrics.

So Bowie and Visconti honed Scary Monsters to an edge: a joke song about Jamaica turned into an indictment of fashion; something called “People Are Turning to Gold” became the return of Major Tom and a career summary/epitaph. Regardless of what Bowie said about Scary Monsters being full of “mistakes,” the record was his most commercially-minded album since Young Americans. Chuck Hammer, recruited from Lou Reed’s band for guitar/synth overdubs, recalled an intense mood in the studio, with Visconti charting the record’s progress as though he was running a lunar survey. (Scary Monsters was “Bowie’s decision to take his work in rock & roll seriously,” Robert Fripp said at the time. “Anyone who goes to New York takes his work seriously—the city certainly has that effect.“)

It worked, mostly. Monsters restored Bowie’s fortunes in the UK, where he got a #1 and two other hit singles from it (it didn’t do much in the US, which had only taken to disco Bowie). Monsters has a more unified, more clarified sound: there’s an exuberant anger in its tight performances and a dedication to rhythm not seen since Station to Station. If a bit front-loaded (Side A >> Side B), it’s weathered the past thirty years as well as anything of its time has—Monsters still sounds like Bowie’s “modern” record. Unfairly or no, it became the watermark: everything Bowie’s made since has been measured against it.

Lodger was Bowie processing himself as an influence. Scary Monsters went further: it’s a rummaging through an overgrown estate. Three of its ten tracks recycle Bowie outtakes of the early ’70s, other songs call back to everything from “Heroes” to “Laughing Gnome” to “Rupert the Riley,” and course, the lead single is a sequel to “Space Oddity.” Even the LP sleeve is retrospective, with the return of “Berlin” Bowie’s various emblems—Low‘s Man Who Fell to Earth, the Roquairol tribute of “Heroes” and the mugging victim from Lodger (attached to Aladdin Sane’s body)—now smeared, shrunken and distorted. It’s a touring company disbanding. Even Bowie’s latest incarnation as a grim clown was a nod to the past, to Bowie’s time with Lindsay Kemp in the late ’60s (“The Mime Songs”), when, as he recalled, Bowie had “joined the circus.” But there are two clowns on the cover: the somber, dignified one who looks straight out at you and the disheveled one hiding behind, casting a shadow that fills half of the frame.

Monsters, intended to establish Bowie as an Eighties artist, seemed equally like a closing statement, sampling, mocking and mourning the Sixties and Seventies, with guests ranging from Pete Townshend to old hands like Roy Bittan and Robert Fripp to (relative) newcomers like Tom Verlaine. The record also marks a casting change, with Monsters being the last round for various supporting players. Fripp would never work with Bowie again; it’s the last time Bowie would ever record with his brilliant rhythm section, George Murray and Dennis Davis; it’s the last Visconti-produced Bowie album until Bush the Younger’s administration.

Versions of “It’s No Game” open and close Scary Monsters, and the two tracks in turn are framed by the stereo-miked sounds of Visconti’s Lyrec 24-track tape deck. The first sound heard on the record is Visconti rewinding the deck and pressing “play”; the last is the tape spooling out.

“Part 2,” confusingly, was the first version of “It’s No Game,” the only track completed during the Power Station sessions in February 1980. The song’s chronology recalled John Lennon’s “Revolution,” recorded first as a mid-tempo, acoustic guitar-based track (the White Album version) and then reconstituted a month later as a compressed, sped-up electric rocker for the single. Lennon, who Bowie saw often during the Monsters sessions, inspired the sound of “Game,” as Bowie later admitted—the shrieked, bellowed lines in “Pt. 1” was Bowie’s attempt at the righteous zeal of “Instant Karma,” the catharsis of Plastic Ono Band. It’s no coincidence that “Pt. 1” is sung by an Englishman and a Japanese woman.

“It’s No Game” is the latest development in Bowie’s taste for protest songs, an angrier “Fantastic Voyage,” a broader “Repetition.” A man is woken up by a noise in the street. He sits, flicking through TV channels, disgusted and bewildered by what he’s seeing—the latest set of brownshirts, protesters clubbed on the streets, old dictators, new presidents (he turns from a documentary on refugees to a dish-soap advertisement). The world is reduced to flickering images, silhouettes and shadow, but as awful as the world is, the singer’s still in exile from it. “I am barred from the event,” he starts screaming. “I really don’t understand the situation.” One verse ends with a line seemingly out of Noel Coward: “To be insulted by these fascists—it’s so degrading.

The two “It’s No Games” also are parodies of protest songs (Bowie can’t resist throwing in some wordplay either, with a pun on Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven”). “Game Pt. 2,” the elder of the pair, is a worn-out rant. As Bowie said in 1980: What happens when a protest or angry statement is thrown against the wall (like “camel shit,” apparently) so many times is that the speaker finds that he has no energy to give any impact anymore. It comes over in that very lilting, very melodic kind of superficial level [of “Part 2”]. The sentiment is exactly the same as in the first part but the ambiance has changed, with a gentle, almost nostalgic quality to it, rather than being an angry vehement statement.

“Game Pt. 2,” with its measured, restrained vocal, its precise guitars (Carlos Alomar playing three miniature riffs at various points in the verses) and steady rhythms, seems like a sanctioned protest, a nostalgic fit of controlled anger. Fittingly, the chorus and bridge rework Bowie’s “Tired of My Life,” a maudlin, self-pitying song dating back to Bowie’s teens; the singer’s wearied by life in the way only a barely-grown man would be. Bowie had cut a demo of it around the time of the Hunky Dory sessions with Mick Ronson on harmonies (it’s sadly in debt to Crosby, Stills & Nash), but had set it aside.

The reused pieces of “Tired of My Life” add to the lassitude of “Game Pt. 2,” the former’s wordless chorus melody taken up by the soaring backing vocals (Bowie and Visconti, with Visconti singing the higher notes). A key change to E major comes before Carlos Alomar’s solo (like “Look Back in Anger,” it’s a neat little rhythm guitar run, with as much empty space as notes), then a fall back to D major for the last verse. The track closes neatly and resoundingly, with nothing changed; the tape runs out, the record sticks in its groove, the disc turns off, another MP3 starts.

A world, or at least a side, away is the manic revision of “Game,” its cracked remix, the sinister clown to “Pt. 2″‘s somber one. “Game Pt. 1,” once the tape starts rolling, jump cuts to Dennis Davis waving a soccer ratchet over his head while he counts the band in. For the first time since Low, Visconti used the 910 Harmonizer in force (it’s even applied to the ratchet). The new ingredient is the Power Station, whose room ambiance, mikes and consoles would create the ’80s gated drum sound. If Visconti and Davis arguably pioneered that sound on Low, their work on Monsters seems a blueprint designed for common use.

The first voice on the track is the Japanese actress Michi Hirota (she’s on the cover of Sparks’ Kimono My House), snapping “Shirueto ya kagega!” (“silhouettes and shadows,” full translation here). Hirota originally was to coach Bowie in voicing the Japanese translation (by the professor Hisahi Miura). But as the translation was literal, it was hard for Hirota to make the lines fit the vocal melody—there were just too many syllables. The obstacle became an inspiration: Bowie asked Hirota to recite the lyric herself, but in an aggressive “masculine” manner, shouting and barking out the words.

The Japanese language has a sharply defined gender separation, with men and women (and older men/younger men, etc.) using different words, tenses and phrasings. If a woman was to speak the way Hirota does on “Game,” it would still be startling in today’s Japan; more than that, it just wouldn’t be done. For example, Hirota says “ore,” the pronoun for “I” which only an older Japanese man would use; she also uses more direct verb endings than a woman typically would. Her whole delivery is an aggressive, exaggerated masculine tone (it’s basically how a Japanese teenage boy would speak).

So Bowie intended Hirota to be the song’s secret revolutionary: I wanted to break down a particular type of sexist attitude about women. I thought the [idea of] the “Japanese girl” typifies it, where everyone pictures them as a geisha girl, very sweet, demure and non-thinking, when in fact that’s the absolute opposite of what women are like. They think an awful lot!, with quite as much strength as any man. I wanted to caricature that attitude by having a very forceful Japanese voice on it. So I had [Hirota] come out with a very samurai kind of thing.

Hirota’s first barrage of words triggers Bowie, whose voice seems blown out by rage, to a disturbing and eventually comic extent. Bowie’s voice strangles on the octave leaps and falls of “GAME!!” while he seems to tear his vocal chords with his long screams on “HEAVVVEN” or “SIT-u-a-SHUUUUUUN”. The “Tired of My Life” vocal harmonies, when they arrive, serve as an island of stability for the ear. Bowie’s performance is both acting out the “Western” equivalent to Hirota’s aggressive performance, and also mocking the high-octane rants of the punks. More sound, more fury, ending the same way.

Into all this barges Robert Fripp, asked by Bowie to imagine trying to outplay B.B. King in a guitar duel. Along with his stunning work on Another Green World, Scary Monsters is Fripp’s peak: he never quite sounded as good as this again, whether it was due to Visconti’s use of room mikes, Harmonizers and other tools, or Fripp’s frame of mind, or the material he had to work with. Fripp’s eight-bar solo in “Game,” fired by the key change after the “makes all the papers” line, is as simple as it’s craftily melodic: it suggests the track’s on the verge of moving somewhere unintended, until Davis’ thudding fills yoke it back. Fripp gets off another round in the coda (where the time shifts to 3/4),  spiraling and spiraling until Bowie howls at him to shut up.

“Put a bullet in my brain, and it makes all the papers.” It’s one of the oldest lines in the song, written for “Tired of My Life” at a time when Bowie was still living in Beckenham, walking the streets unnoticed, his name only his name. In “Pt 2” Bowie sings the line as a melancholy descending phrase; in “Pt. 1” Bowie (who’s double-tracked with himself) sneers the line out, biting on the “s” in “papers,” and a beat later Hirota spikes in with “shinbun wa kakitateru!!, lacerating her last vowels.

On December 8, 1980, Bowie was performing The Elephant Man at the Booth Theatre, 20 or so blocks away from the Dakota on 72nd Street where, arriving home around 11, John Lennon was shot three times. He died in the ambulance that came for him. His killer reportedly had attended an Elephant Man show a few days before. Bowie found his way to May Pang’s apartment and kept screaming “what the fuck is going on in this world!!” Then he sat and watched television coverage of the Lennon killing until dawn.

Many thanks to Stephen Ryan for his translation and various insights, as well as my favorite globetrotter Sarah.

Recorded February 1980 at the Power Station, NYC and (for Pt. 1) April 1980 at Good Earth Studios, London. On Scary Monsters. Bonus: an interesting (if muddy) fan remix of the two, “It’s No Game (Pt. 3).”

* Utter minutia: the album is sometimes referred to as Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) but it’s only identified as Scary Monsters on the LP spine and disc label (though “Super Creeps” is on the back cover).

Top: Steve Lubetkin, “Democratic National Convention,” New York, 1980; Monsters; Bowie as early incarnation of Shakes the Clown; onna-bugeisha; “Ys Boutique, Tokyo,” 1980 (Mafia-Hunt); Scary.