February 2, 2011

Nightclubbing (Grace Jones and Iggy Pop, live, 2009).

“Nightclubbing,” likely the last track recorded for The Idiot, foreshadows Bowie’s Low, with its fragmented lyric, its minimalist chord structure, its stark arrangement (the vocal starts after the song’s been underway for over a minute, suggesting it just as easily could have been an instrumental, cf. “Sound and Vision”). The track, assembled from drum machine, bass, piano and synthesizer, with occasional frenzied guitar interjections, was basically improvised. Most of the backing musicians had gone, most of the gear had been packed up (Bowie and Pop were heading back to France), and Bowie was killing time, sitting at a piano playing “some old Hoagy Carmichael stuff,” Pop recalled. Pop wrote a two-verse lyric in about ten minutes*, and they recorded the song, set to what Pop described as “a lousy drum machine.”

They later added Laurent Thibault’s bass, Phil Palmer’s guitar and some reverb-laden synthesizer overdubs, but when Bowie suggested they recut the rhythm track with a real drummer, Pop balked. (That said, Bradley Banks argues that there are some actual drums, though heavily processed, in the final mix). The deadened-sounding drum track was both motor and hook, a pulsebeat to underpin Pop’s draggy, vampiric vocal, which often moves back and forth, stepwise (so “night-clubbing, we’re night-clubbing” is F-F-G, F-F-F-G (on a G7 chord)); he lets the ends of phrases trail off, like the utterly deadpan “oh isn’t it wild?” The harmony vocals that come in on the second verse (Pop and Bowie) offer some slight melodic variety to Pop’s deadened lead, yet wind up sounding deranged. (It’s also a messy mix, with a count-in audible at the start, while sometimes Pop’s vocals lurch off-balance.)

“Nightclubbing” suggests that even debauchery has its predictable rhythms, offers no real variation from the norm. Its beat is both ancestor and successor: it’s similar to the motorik pulse of bands like Neu! and Harmonia, which Bowie would use further in his next two records, as well as a decayed form of glam rock (it’s essentially a slowed-down version of Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Pt. 1.”, which the Human League noted, doing a medley of the songs.)

It’s also a work of anticipation—Bowie and Pop were planning to live in West Berlin, to play the artist, to hang out in cafes and clubs, and (hopefully) to kick their various addictions, but they didn’t move there until fall 1976. So the West Berlin clubland of the song is largely imaginary, its sounds and imagery imported (they told the guitarist Phil Palmer to craft a solo by imagining walking down Wardour Street in London, hearing music blasting from various clubs). Before funtime, there was another album to make.

Recorded (most likely) in August 1976 at Musicland, Munich. Covered by the Human League in 1980 and Grace Jones in 1981, and probably best known for being on the Trainspotting soundtrack. Trent Reznor sampled the bass drum for “Closer,” while the likes of Marilyn Manson owe their entire careers to it.

* Pop credited Bowie with some of the lines, like “we walk like a ghost.”

Top: Bowie and Iggy sampling the Berlin nightlife, ca. 1977 (or 1931).

Mass Production

January 31, 2011

Mass Production.

I would always talk to [Bowie] about how much I admired the beauty of the American industrial culture that was rotting away where I grew up. Like the beautiful smokestacks and factories—whole cities devoted to factories.

Iggy Pop, quoted in Jim Ambrose’s Gimme Danger.

The first thing you hear on “Mass Production,” the eight-minute industrial horror movie that finishes off The Idiot, is a synthesizer fading in, like a machine drawing breath; it’s suddenly confined to the right channel, where it now drones a single note, like a foghorn, and it’s answered by four piping notes in the left channel, a mechanical birdsong that repeats through much of the track (though often drowned in the mix). Dennis Davis’ drum fill kicks the song into a semblance of life, and Iggy Pop appears, sounding like a man holding a hostage. “Beforrrre you GO,” he drones, “Do me a FAV-orrr…Give me a NUM-berrr…”

Pop initially sings his lyric for “Mass Production” (modern life is so dehumanizing that finding a new girl is like finding a new toaster, while the singer eventually realizes he’s just as disposable a commodity) in a voice that Lester Bangs, reviewing the record for Stereo Review, called “synthezomboid.” Pop eventually builds to a groaning run of phrases that he inflicts more than he sings, placing emphasis on whichever sounds he can strangle the most: “you’re not NOTHING NEW,” “it’s THERE in the MIRROR,” “breasts turn BROWN—so WARM and so BROWN.”

The bedrock of the track was a tape loop of “overloaded industrial noises” that Laurent Thibault had assembled for Bowie and Pop—Thibault pieced the tape together in sections, then made a master tape of the sets of mixes. Thibault recalled Bowie sitting for an hour watching the tape spool around and around. “Like a child transfixed by a train set,” he told Paul Trynka. The tape, unrolled, would run the length of the room.

Bowie and Pop were inspired by Pop’s memories of seeing a machine press at Ford Motor’s River Rouge plant. “A great piece of heavy metal cut in a form,” pounding out a new fender every minute, as Pop later described it. The oppressive “Mass Production,” however, is far from any sort of triumphal Futurism; there’s no nobility of the machine found here, just a nihilistic realization that even the cold promise of machinery is a lie. If “Mass Production” has a visual analogue, it’s David Lynch’s street sets for Eraserhead: a city seemingly purged of human beings and reduced to abandoned train tracks, lifeless tenements and an encroaching darkness.

“Mass Production” is four verses (one instrumental) centered on a single chord (F7) and a single riff (on guitar and synthesizer, both likely played by Bowie), and two 12-bar bridges, which come as the track’s meager relief, with guitar arpeggios and the release of a chord change, while Pop’s vocal has a shred of warmth in it despite singing lines “though I try to die/you put me back on the line”: salvation as reprogramming. The instrumental verse is dominated by detuned synthesizers, which return towards the fadeout, their singsong patterns sounding like mockery; the track ends where it began, with the foghorn and birdsong noises, industry and industrialized. Draining to listen to and willfully abrasive, “Mass Production” offered the future: Joy Division, among others, starts here.

Recorded July-August 1976, at Château d’Hérouville, Musicland, Munich and possibly Hansa Studios, Berlin.

Top: Jean-Luc Weber, “La Sablière, Rouen, France,” 1976.

China Girl

January 26, 2011

China Girl (Iggy Pop, 1976).
China Girl (Pop and Bowie, live, 1977).
China Girl (Bowie, 1983).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 1983).
China Girl (Pop, live, 1986).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 1987).
China Girl (Pop, live, 1991).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 1996).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 1999).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 2000).
China Girl (Bowie, live, 2002).

It began when Iggy Pop and David Bowie were drunk one summer night. “Politely drunk, after-dinner drunk,” Pop recalled. One glass of wine too many. The two stumbled into a room at the Château d’Hérouville, the haunted Val-d’Oise castle in which they were making Pop’s record. Pop sat down behind a child’s drum kit and Bowie at a toy piano. They started playing, hit upon a groove, got it on tape; they called the piece—barely a riff—“Borderline.”

Pop kept the tape, tried to craft a lyric. He was having an affair at the time with another guest at the castle, Kuelan Nguyen, the girlfriend of a French actor/singer, Jacques Higelin. Nguyen spoke no English, Pop no French, so the two communicated in gestures, expressions and pidgin reductions of each other’s language. Pop would grow frustrated trying to get through to Nguyen in sign language and brutalized French; she once put a finger to her lips and shushed him.

Pop spent days working out the vocal (he would improvise much of the final lyric while standing at the mike, Bowie recalled). As with “Dum Dum Boys,” Pop was working in a pop tradition: here, a song with language as an obstacle hindering lovers, like the Beatles’ “Michelle” or Chuck Berry’s “La Juanda,” where Berry asks a Mexican girl to dance, but neither understands the other (or pretend not to—she may be a prostitute, he may be negotiating).

Yet in “China Girl” broken communication is besides the point; it’s what happens when the two manage to connect that ruins the singer. Pop was using stereotypes older than Victoria, casting “Nguyen” as the mysterious, sensual Orient and himself (“Jimmy”) as an unwilling agent of the corrupt West. In the song, there’s a decline from natural elements—the falling stars, or heartbeats as “loud as thunder,” which Pop sings softly and slowly, letting space in between each note—in the first verses to the modern effluence in the bridge and final verses: Marlon Brando1, swastikas (another Eastern symbol perverted by the West), television, cosmetics, even juice boxes (see Bowie’s video).

“I’ll ruin everything you are,” Pop sings. Yet he can’t avoid doing so—his passion’s too addicting and consuming—and it’s not clear what’s he ruining. He’s more in love with his own depiction of her than whatever reality she offers; he’s the man who fears he’s poisoning his dreams, and spends his days raking through half-memories of them for impurities. The wordplay of the title line—with “china” also being pure heroin, as well as being a reference to the girl’s fragility (though she seems far more together than Iggy is)—muddies things further, and a widening of the lens finds Pop playing on the West’s views of China itself (a stand-in for “the East,” as Nguyen was Vietnamese): a mirror reflecting its own flaws, a canvas on which it can project its own fantasies2.

As with many of The Idiot‘s tracks, “China Girl”‘s vocal, a twisted nerve of a performance, is set against a dense, distortion-filled musical backdrop, and it’s the variable element in a circular, minimal song structure—the song’s mainly built on a trio of repeating 4-bar chord progressions, and sometimes the chords (G6, E minor and Em7) are the same set of notes, just arranged in different sequences. The track erupts more than it starts, with Pop suddenly lurching into view a beat into the song, his singing drenched in distortion and submerged in the mix as if it was one of Phil Palmer’s guitar overdubs. Pop’s voice finally becomes distinct at the moment he goes mad: I stumble into town, just like a sacred cow (yet another Eastern holy object debased), building to the scream on “it’s in the whites of my eyes!” which blows out the mike preamp.

Over Laurent Thibault and Michel Santangeli’s bass and drums tracks, Bowie and Pop overlaid stabs of Palmer’s guitar buttressed by Bowie’s distorted Baldwin piano, while synthesizers, serving as a string section, drone through the final minutes, while at least two dubs of Bowie’s saxophone appear in the last verses (at times, it sounds like Andy Mackay’s work on early Roxy Music records). The chirping riff that Bowie had played on toy piano (owned by Thibault’s 8-year-old daughter) is prominent in the final mix.

Of course, “China Girl,” for most of the world, is a David Bowie song. The Bowie single’s popularity has made the original “China Girl” into a successor: Pop’s recording now sounds like a bizarre sequel to Bowie’s, a piece of sonic vandalism done to an ’80s classic.

Bowie’s “China Girl” was one of his trio of MTV-fueled hit singles in 1983, the glossy new testament appended to his knottier early work. And where “Let’s Dance” was a rousing call to the floor and “Modern Love” cloaked its paranoiac sentiments with a call-and-response chorus, “China Girl” was slick anomie. The track’s sonic perfection, a feeling that all impurities had been refined away, furthered its cold sense of irony, its deliberate invocation of stereotypes, from Nile Rodgers’ “Chinese” guitar riff that opens the song, to the way Bowie mocks how the girl says “mouth,” to its high-end video, where Bowie, dressed like an Old Etonian, pats the head of his pyjama-clad “Chinese” girl as if he had bagged her on safari (while also making a disturbing visual play on Eddie Adams’ “Execution of a Vietcong Guerrilla” photograph); the girl has dragon lady fingernails, Bowie courts her by slanting his eyes, and it culminates in a scene shot in Sydney’s Chinatown district, where Bowie hurls a bowl of rice into the air.

Bowie cut “China Girl” in part to help Pop, who was broke and barely recording in the early ’80s, and he’d record a half-dozen more Pop compositions or co-compositions over the next five years. It wasn’t just altruism: Bowie’s frequent recycling of Pop collaborations, and increased use of covers in general, suggested a vicious decline in the pace and quality of Bowie’s songwriting in the ’80s, a decade Bowie spent in comfortable indifference, shot through with occasional bursts of midlife anxiety.

In 1982 Bowie, with a newly-signed EMI contract, recognized in “China Girl” a potential smash that he and Pop had obscured in the studio. Even the live versions of the song the two had played in 1977 sounded far more commercial, driven by Hunt Sales’ frenetic drumming and Bowie’s organ playing, more “96 Tears” than Krautrock drone. (Bowie had intended “China Girl” to be the lead-off single of Let’s Dance until Rodgers convinced him to go with the title track).

Where Pop sings the original in a building frenzy, Bowie’s vocal in the remake is cool, assured, even playful (the lilting run of high notes on “wake up in the mor-ning,” the repetition of “she says…” ), while the build to the “whites of my eyes” bridge is more a demonstration of power. Everything fits, everything has its place, from the way Carmine Rojas’ bass lags the beat (and moves to a staccato sequence in the last verses), to the precise drum fills (either Tony Thompson or Omar Hakim) imbued with the Power Station’s trademark ambient sound, to the placid wash of synthesizers and keyboards that suffuse the track. Bowie and Rodgers layered the track with a string of hooks (the new ‘oh-oh-oh-OH-oh-oh” intro, Rodgers’ “Chinese” guitar riff, echoed on keyboards3, and two Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar solos to close it out).

Was Bowie’s remake was a desecration of Pop’s desperate original? Did it turn Pop’s self-evisceration into “a cheesy pop song” (as Hugo Wilcken wrote)? Or was it somehow closer, via its mandarin disco sound, to what Pop had been trying to get at? Bowie, talking about the song at the end of the last century, said “China Girl” was about “invasion and exploitation,” and if so, Bowie was by far the more adept exploiter. His perspective was wider, his sense of self-loathing, though far more cloaked than Pop’s, was possibly greater. Pop was too much in his own shadow; Bowie saw the rot, the sense of love as corruption, as being just a lesser form of cultural toxin, far more clearly—he shone it up, he sold it well.

Pop’s “China Girl” was recorded in July-August 1976, in Château d’Hérouville and Musicland, Munich, and was released as a single in the UK in May 1977 (RCA PB  9093). The Bowie remake was cut at the Power Station in autumn 1982 and was issued as a single in May 1983 (EA 157, #2 UK, #10 US), its performance helped by the David Mallett-directed video, featuring the New Zealand model Geeling Ng (who Bowie briefly dated) and an often-censored shot of Bowie’s ass. Bowie and Pop would both play the song regularly on tour, with Bowie performing it alone on acoustic guitar for the Bridge benefit concert in 1996.

1 Neil Young’s “Pocahontas,” which is a lost cousin to “China Girl,” was written around the same time, and also features a cameo appearance by Marlon Brando.

2 This entry appears at the peak of the “Tiger Mother” mania, which is the latest incarnation of “the Chinese will bury us” national death-crisis storyline that’s been a regular feature in the U.S. over the past decade. Oliver Wang’s twopart response is worth a read.

3 Nile Rodgers, interviewed by David Buckley, said he wrote his “Chinese” guitar riff in part because he was flummoxed by the song’s ambiguities. “In black music, if you have a song called ‘China Girl’ it had damn better convey some message about a girl you met in China or something…You call a song ‘Let’s Dance’ you damn well better make sure people dance to it.” While Rodgers feared he was “putting some bubblegum over some great artistic heavy record,” Bowie said he loved the riff.

Thanks to SEP for kicking up some ideas, and to Lance Hoskins for the Japanese band score to the Bowie “China Girl.”

Top: The first meeting of Ambassador Duke and his translator, Honey Huan, in China; Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, 22 January 1976.

Dum Dum Boys

January 19, 2011

Dum Dum Boys.
Dum Dum Boys (Pop, live, 1981).

Iggy Pop was stuck at the piano during the early Idiot sessions at the Château d’Hérouville. He played the same set of notes over and over again, at a loss at where to go next. Bowie told him he should write a song about the Stooges, and offered a title: “Dum Dum Days.”

There’s a long tradition of self-mythologizing rock & roll songs, like the Barbarians’ “Moulty,” the Raiders “Legend of Paul Revere,”* or the Mammas & Pappas’ “Creeque Alley,” with variations like Creedence Clearwater’s “Lodi,” where John Fogerty offers an alternate life in which he never made it and was stuck playing one-night stands in bars. These songs usually end in the triumphant present, with the band on top, sometimes mocking their success, sometimes still tainted with dreams. “So I learned to play the drums, and got myself a band, and now we’re starting to make it,” sang Moulty, the Barbarians’ drummer.

But by the time of “Dum Dum Boys,” the Stooges’ story was long over; it had ended in recriminations, death, and wasted promise. Their records had never sold, many of the band had become junkies, and the Stooges hadn’t broken up as much as they had disintegrated. “Dum Dum Boys” opens with the tally: the dead, Zeke Zettner, who overdosed on heroin in 1973, and Dave Alexander, the Stooges’ original bassist, who died of pneumonia after being admitted to a hospital for alcohol-fueled pancreatitis in 1975; and the discarded, Ron Asheton, stuck at home in Ann Arbor, and his successor James Williamson, who Pop curtly notes has “gone straight.”

Pop offered legend based on fact: he did first see Ron and Scott Asheton standing on an Ann Arbor street (in front of Discount Records, where the then-James Osterberg worked), and they were a set of wild boys, described as Ann Arbor’s own set of droogs by those who knew them. Iggy gave them ambition, the Ashetons gave him ugly reality (Iggy “felt he was an outcast, but Ronnie, Scotty and I, we were outcasts,” Stooge Bill Cheatham told Pop’s biographer Paul Trynka.)

For Bowie, Pop offered in “Dum Dum Boys” a non-fictional rewrite of “Ziggy Stardust,” its lyric the perspective of a Ziggy who had somehow survived, digging up shards of the past, wondering whatever had become of the Spiders, who he had feasted on, then abandoned. Bowie was responsible for “that guitar arpeggio that metal groups love today,” as Iggy later said. Bowie had the guitarist Phil Palmer replay the arpeggio, mimicking his original performance note for note. (Bowie had Palmer recut the opening line for dozens upon dozens of takes, with exacting instructions, like “bend that note more,” Palmer recalled to Trynka.)

Palmer was Ray Davies’ nephew, and had been summoned by Bowie (via a 2 AM phone call) to Munich for overdub work. He recalled walking into a darkened room full of guitars and drum kits (the property of Thin Lizzy, who were recording during the day—Palmer would help himself to Thin Lizzy’s collection of pedals and other gear), while Bowie and Pop sat in the control room, giving cryptic instructions.

“Dum Dum Boys” was sequenced to lead off The Idiot‘s second side—it was the ruin of the past set against the airless future of the album’s closer “Mass Production.” A requiem and a feral boy’s tale, it’s the bruised heart of the record. Pop, like Keith Richards, would be fated to survive where so many of his friends fell, winding up a withered monument to excess. The song’s title was its greatest legacy, as it named a Norwegian band and, more recently (and gender-altered), a California one. It was also Stone Gossard’s suggested name for what would become Mother Love Bone, the ur-Pearl Jam.

Recorded July-August 1976, mainly at Musicland, Munich.

*The Raiders’ guitarist, Freddy Weller, cut his own “Legend of Paul Revere,” in 1979. The earlier “Legend of Paul Revere” was recorded when the group was at their peak and is slyly cynical, but Weller’s sequel is cold and lurid: the scorecard the band kept for groupies, the drugs, the eventual sell-outs (“Now Paul’s big in land deals and Mark is a company exec.”)

Top: Anthony Catalano, “Boro Park—Skateboards Old School Boys, 1976.”

Tiny Girls

January 17, 2011

Tiny Girls.

A genre experiment of sorts, “Tiny Girls” seems to have been Bowie’s attempt to merge the vocal line of a chanson (in particular Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas”) to the 6/8 rhythm of a standard ’50s doo-wop song, while encircling the song’s verses with two-chorus saxophone solos that Bowie played himself.

Bowie’s somber, melodic saxophone on “Tiny Girls” is one of his longest solo sax performances on record, and one of his finest, though it lacks the weary resolution of Bowie’s closing sax line on “Changes.” Bowie, over the years, has been generally dismissive of his technique, once saying he only played “composer’s guitar” and “composer’s piano,” and Bowie generally would get a session pro to redo performances he felt were under par (as was the case with other Idiot tracks like “Dum Dum Boys.”) Still, Bowie’s hummable sax line, laced with long-held notes (the first 12-bar solo chorus is repeated note-for-note in the second until the final bars, where Bowie soars up as if to announce Pop’s entrance) fits “Tiny Girls”‘ meager, pathetic sentiments, where some “professional” sax intro would have been jarring.

Pop’s lyric is blunt even by his standards (and true to life, as Iggy once had a 14-year-old girlfriend)—his girl’s giving him trouble, and all he wants is some younger, less jaded girl without “tricks” or a past, or a personality. But when he gets her, she’s just as greedy and clinging and poisoned by life, and so Pop’s likely on to the next, younger model. Funny how the circle is a wheel, as Gene Clark once sang.

Recorded July-August 1976, at either/both Château d’Hérouville, France, and Musicland, Munich. Another generally forgotten Idiot track, never performed live by either of its composers.

Top: Serge Gainsbourg directs Joe Dallesandro during the filming of Je t’aime… moi non plus, 1976.


January 13, 2011


As a counterweight to Bowie’s sonic experiments on The Idiot, Iggy Pop turned half of the songs on the LP into distress letters, pieces of messy humanity. The singer’s looking for sex, companionship, even some tenuous connection, yet there’s a grubby neediness and desire for control underneath his sentiments. “Baby” is the weariest of the lot, a song where Iggy, beaten down by experience, tries to preserve his girl’s innocence (“you’re so clean…you’re so young”) by warning her that the world’s intentions are unjust. He offers his own fallen, broken self as an alternative; it’s the devil she already knows.

Another of The Idiot‘s assembly-line song structures, “Baby” is in four sections that repeat until the fadeout, with only minor variations: a 4-bar intro with a schoolyard melody on synthesizer, a descending bassline (doubled by piano) and two guitars responding to each other’s terse phrases; an 8-bar chorus where Pop sings the opening melody while backing vocals moan (the latter mixed louder in subsequent repeats); a 6-bar verse with an unvarying lyric (“we’re walking down the street of chance…”); and a 4-bar bridge (“baby there’s nothing to see”) that offers the only real departure in the song, with Bowie doing a flourish on synth and Pop sounding in debt to Jim Morrison. It’s telling that the musical liberation comes while Iggy’s at his most nihilist.

“Baby”‘s a generally-forgotten song, which Pop never performed live, with its monotony (it probably could’ve been cut by a minute) weakening any sense of menace. With Laurent Thibault on bass and Michel Santangeli on the barely-there drums, and a typically murky and distorted mix (a snippet of Bowie studio chatter is left in at 0:46).

Recorded June-August 1976, and served as the B-side to both of The Idiot‘s singles, “Sister Midnight” and “Funtime.”

Top: Jenny Agutter on the street of chance, Logan’s Run, 1976.


January 11, 2011

Funtime (Iggy Pop, 1976).
Funtime (Pop and Bowie, Dinah!, 1977).
Funtime (Pop and Bowie, live, 1977).
Funtime (Pop and Bowie, live, 1977).
Funtime (Pop, live, 1979).

Can I have some fun time? Might get killed!

Iggy Pop, 1977.

The last song that the Sex Pistols played before they split was the Stooges’ “No Fun.” Squatting on stage at the Winterland in San Francisco, glaring at the audience as if willing death upon them all, John Lydon tore open the song, singing the lines flatly but with malice, cursing himself, cursing his band, his manager, seemingly rock music itself. The word “fun” itself seemed to disgust Lydon—he had always hated rock & roll’s promises of hedonism, its easy good times, its unearned freedoms. At Winterland, exhausted and about to quit the band, Lydon used “No Fun” to flagellate himself, as well as anyone trying to enjoy his performance.

Iggy Pop’s “Funtime,” recorded two years earlier, is an echo of this performance, upstream in time. On its surface (and in some of its subsequent live performances and covers) it’s a basic rock & roll smash-it-up song, in line with something like Little Richard’s “Rip It Up” (“I don’t need no heavy trips/I just do what I want to do”). A guy’s out on the town, leering at girls, looking for action, his friends goading him on. But something’s off about the song, which is sordid and menacing. The lyric starts out in the first person singular, then moves to the plural (“we want some! we want some!”), giving the song a taste of the mob.

Bowie had told Iggy to sing the track “like Mae West,” to play the bawd, not the john, and whenever Bowie and Iggy shout “fun!” on the downbeat of every other bar, they sound like bouncers. The distorted chorus vocals churn around in the mix, with Bowie’s vocal starting out on top and Pop finishing off the phrase—they seem to be mimicking a train whistle in part, on the “all aboard!” lines, as well as some late-night television commercial aired from hell.

As with many of the Idiot tracks, there’s a mechanical circularity to the song—a four-bar chorus loops into a four-bar verse, over and over again (as with “Sister Midnight,” it’s mainly a one-chord song (the power chord D5—just the root note and the fifth), with the only variations being the Bb and C chords that begin the chorus, and the E chord in the bridge). The pattern’s only interrupted by a guitar eruption in the bridge, likely Bowie; it starts with two slashing chords and then trails off, unable or unwilling to advance, let alone resolve. Neither do the drums vary their deadened assault, with only processed cymbal hits as accents: the drums’ airless, dense sound is likely due to the Eventide Harmonizer (an ancestor of Autotune, and an important tool for the Idiot/Low period, as we’ll see). Piano and bass drone underneath it all, while guitar overdubs are smeared over the track, with a taste of Keith Richards’ “Satisfaction” riff buried in the mix (which Blondie, when they covered “Funtime” in 1979, made obvious). Iggy finishes it off with a scream.

Recorded July-August 1976, at either/both Château d’Hérouville, France, and Musicland, Munich. A recording from Iggy’s 1977 tour (the Agora in Cleveland) was included on Iggy’s contractual obligation live record TV Eye Live 1977.

Top: Ulrike Ottinger, “Lil Picard’s birthday party at the gallery Werner Kunze, Berlin, 1976.”

Sister Midnight

January 7, 2011

Sister Midnight (Bowie, rehearsal, 1976).
Sister Midnight (Bowie, live, 1976).
Sister Midnight (Iggy Pop, 1976).
Sister Midnight (Pop and Bowie, Dinah!, 1977).
Sister Midnight (Pop and Bowie, live, 1977).
Sister Midnight (Pop, live, 1996).
Sister Midnight (Bowie, live, 2003.)
Sister Midnight (Bowie, live, 2004).
Sister Midnight (Iggy Pop, live, 2014).

I went on about Iggy and Bowie, and [Lou Reed] surprised me with a totally unexpected blast at the Pop. “David tried to help the cat. David’s brilliant and Iggy is…stupid. Very sweet but very stupid. If he’d listened to David or me, if he’d asked questions every once in a while…I’d say, ‘Man, just make a one-five change, and I’ll put it together for you. You can take all the credit. It’s so simple, but the way you’re doin’ it now you’re just making a fool out of yourself. And it’s just gonna get worse and worse.’ He’s not even a good imitation of a bad Jim Morrison…

Lester Bangs, Creem, March 1975.

Iggy Pop’s first solo record, The Idiot, is equally a David Bowie album with a guest singer/composer; Bowie co-wrote all of the songs, played many of the instruments and produced it (rather chaotically, requiring Tony Visconti to try and salvage the often over-modulated tapes at the mixing stage). Though once considered a footnote (it gets dismissed in one line in the ’90s Bowie bio Living On the Brink), it’s an essential piece of Bowie’s ’70s work, and I’d argue that the real “Berlin” trilogy is The Idiot, Low and “Heroes,” with Pop’s Lust For Life as a supplement and Lodger as an afterword.

Pop was a guinea pig. Bowie was tired of writing songs, of coming up with the next narrative or mask, so he used the guise of making an Iggy solo record as a means to start tearing things apart. Pop and Bowie worked well as a team, with Iggy playing the id to Bowie’s super-ego. There’s a risk in oversimplifying the relationship, though, as Bowie could be just as erratic as Iggy, while Iggy’s wild man persona could be as much of an act as Ziggy Stardust was (Bowie’s touring musicians in ’76 would sometimes find Iggy at breakfast, wearing glasses, drinking coffee and reading political columns in European newspapers).

Bowie and Pop had first tried to record together in Los Angeles in spring 1975, a period when neither of them were fit for human company, even by their own standards. Pop was addicted to heroin while Bowie was at the height of his coke-inspired estrangement. The sessions fell apart after a day or so, as Pop stopped showing up, and it yielded only a few half-finished songs, including Bowie’s never-released “Moving On,” “Sell Your Love,” which Pop reworked for Kill City, and “Turn Blue,” later resuscitated for Lust For Life. Later in 1975, Pop went into a LA mental institution to help dry out, with Bowie and Dean Stockwell among his few visitors. Broke and needing distractions to keep clean, Pop joined Bowie’s “Station to Station” tour, in part because Bowie had played him a cassette demo of a song he was writing, proposing that Pop cover it after the tour.

This was “Sister Midnight,” which began as a Bowie and Carlos Alomar sequel to “Fame”—another one-chord vamp built on an Alomar guitar riff. “Fame” had swagger and coiled precision; while cold, it could move a dance floor. “Sister Midnight,” with its bludgeoning rhythms, its murky production and sense of confinement, seems intent on keeping you locked in place. The track suggests what a possible post-Station to Station LP would have sounded like, had Bowie had remained in Los Angeles—funk reduced to brutality.

Bowie was listening incessantly to Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity at the time (he played it in his car for Pop during drives around the US), and there’s a sense in “Sister Midnight” that Bowie was attempting to ape Kraftwerk’s man-machinery: the guitar riff that mirrors the vocal line, the barely-changing drum pattern, the bassist playing two alternating lines throughout the entire song (only playing six notes in all), while waves of guitar overdubs come and go (a typically snappy Alomar riff at :35 in, a shearing two-chord riff (likely Bowie) in the last verse). When it was played on the ’76 tour, “Sister Midnight” featured as a centerpiece an extravagant guitar solo by Stacey Heydon, but the solos on record are minimal and struggle to be heard in the mix. The song itself is just a single verse-refrain, built entirely on the G7 chord, the feeling of endless repetition broken only by the guitar solos and Pop’s slowly-building vocal.

“Sister Midnight,” sequenced to kick off The Idiot, is a summoning; it’s Bowie invoking a muse, though with the intention of snaring it, pinning it down and dissecting it. Much of what Bowie would record over the following three years would uproot the act of making music, querying inspiration, reducing a melody to a child’s initial perceptions of organized sound, making instruments speak in tongues, finally erasing “Bowie” from the equation completely, with Low and “Heroes”‘ nearly-instrumental sides. (“Bowie was never meant to be. He’s like a Lego kit. I’m convinced I wouldn’t like him, because he’s too vacuous and undisciplined,” Bowie told People in 1976.)

Yet Pop, when he recorded “Sister Midnight” for The Idiot, undermined this sense of cloistered withdrawal. He put bile and blood into the song, as he did for much of The Idiot, combating the sonic alienation with odes to teenage lust, violence, drugs, junkie camaraderie. For “Sister Midnight,” Pop sharpened Bowie’s barely-there lyric, which was basically just the opening lines and yet another reference to The Man Who Fell to Earth, inserting daggers of phrases like “I’m a breakage inside” or “you put a beggar in my heart” or “what can I do about my dreams?” At the heart of the song, Pop offered a Oedipal sequence where he sleeps with his mother, then dodges his father’s gunshots (this was based on another disturbing Pop dream (see “TVC 15”)).

Pop’s vocal begins with him seemingly trying to out-basso profundo Bowie (singing even lower than Bowie’s opening lines on “Sweet Thing”), then he steadily builds up until, when the father aims his gun at him, Pop finally reaches his “normal” voice (all the while, Bowie’s been piping in on occasion with a demented-sounding falsetto). It culminates in the final “can you hear me at all,” the last three words one long string of sound, dragged over three bars and eventually plummeting an octave. Again and again on The Idiot (see “China Girl”), Pop would start quietly and build up to a howl that nearly blew out the microphone pre-amp: it’s the man thwarting the machine.

“I love noises”

When you’re making records, you’re looking to distort things, basically. That’s the freedom recording gives you, to fuck around with the sound…Hey, this is a nice mike, but if we put it a little closer to the amp and then take a smaller amp instead of the big one and shove the mike in front of it, cover the mike with a towel, let’s see what we get. What you’re looking for is where the sounds just melt into each other and you’ve got that beat behind it, and the rest of it just has to squirm and roll its way through.

Keith Richards, Life.

Something similar’s at play in Bowie’s “Berlin” records—a sense of trying to warp sound, to deaden or coarsen the tones of instruments, to make vocals sound like the work of mad computers. “Sister Midnight” is an early experiment. The piano barely sounds like one, though according to Laurent Thilbaut, who engineered the sessions, it’s a standard Yamaha Acoustic piano, albeit miked into a Harrison console* and equalized and distorted. The guitars (Alomar, possibly Phil Palmer, possibly Bowie) are also processed through various effects pedals and amps, including a Leslie speaker. And the thick, dead drum sound is the work of a severely dampened kit: the hi-hat sounds like synthetic percussion and, as the musician Bradley Banks noted, whenever the drummer hits the crash cymbal, there’s almost no reverberation, as if the sound is eaten up at once (Banks wondered if someone’s job in the studio was to grab the cymbal immediately after each hit).

The mix also included its share of  happy accidents. While Bowie was recording a piano track, Thibault hit an equalization button on the console, which created a ‘bip’ noise that delighted Bowie when he heard it during playback (it’s at 1:05 in). Bowie told Thibault not to remove the bleep:  “It’s nice! We’ll keep it. I love noises,” Bowie reportedly said (as per Banks’ blog). In the mix, the bleep works perfectly, as a second later a burst of guitar feedback comes like an answering note.

Bowie rewrote “Sister Midnight” as “Red Money” in 1979, even using the same backing tracks as the Pop recording. The symmetry is too much to be accidental. “Sister Midnight,” the very first “Berlin” song completed, is the lead-off track on The Idiot, while “Red Money,” its regeneration, is sequenced as the last song on Lodger. It’s the last Bowie song of the ’70s, and the “Berlin” era  as well, a period that opens with an invocation of dark, animal spirits and ends with panic and surrender, the sound of an aborted liftoff.

Debuted on stage in Seattle on 3 February 1976 (the only other extant concert recording is from the 15 March ’76 Philadelphia show). “Sister Midnight” was recorded in Château d’Hérouville, France, in July 1976 and/or Musicland Studios in Munich, August ’76 (though Alomar and George Murray may have dubbed their parts later, in Hansa Studios). The live ’77 recording linked above was recorded by a Chicago radio station on 23 March 1977, in the empty Mantra Theater, with Bowie, Pop, and the Sales brothers. Pop’s sung it live for decades and Bowie revived “Sister Midnight” for his to-date final tour in 2003-2004.

A couple of years ago, Bradley Banks started a blog detailing The Idiot, track by track, a project that he unfortunately seems to have abandoned halfway through (I sympathize, brother!). Still, the technical details he unearthed via interviews with Laurent Thibault, as well as his own insights, are excellent. Here’s hoping he completes the blog one day.

* Possibly the same 3232 Harrison desk on which Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” was recorded.

Top: Bowie and Iggy agree on the terms of their alliance, Moscow, April 1976.