Moonage Daydream

February 19, 2010

Moonage Daydream (Arnold Corns single).
Moonage Daydream (Ziggy Stardust LP).
Moonage Daydream (BBC, May 1972).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1972).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1972).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1973).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1974).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1996).
Moonage Daydream (live, 1997).
Moonage Daydream (live, 2002).

I first heard “Moonage Daydream” when I was 16 years old, which is when you should first hear it. I was in my car, listening to some dubbed cassette of Bowie hits, when suddenly:

I’m an ALLIGATOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I’m a MAMMAPAPA coming FOR YOU!!!

Teenage bliss. I can’t remember what my exact response was, but it was along the lines of “Jesus! What is this?”

I had bought in. “Moonage Daydream” intends to shock, its spectacular opening a battle between power chords (Mick Ronson hitting hard twice on D, then F#) and Bowie’s dramatics (the excitement furthered by the taste of silence between each chord and sung line). But the track quickly settles down into a groove and its choruses are moody and wistful—it delays the fireworks that Ronson and Bowie promise in its first four bars. The first solo isn’t Ronson but a duet between a pennywhistle and a baritone saxophone.

So “Moonage Daydream” can stand for all of Ziggy Stardust, a vaguely conceptual rock LP about a fake rock star whose songs both parody and subsume rock & roll. As Ziggy is pop music about pop music, so the lyric of “Moonage Daydream” is fused from old rock & roll phrases—“I’m an alligator” come from “See you later alligator,” all the “far outs” and “freak outs” are pilfered from the hippie LPs, while a bizarre line like “you’re squawking like a pink monkey bird” sounds like it was lifted from a lost novelty hit of 1960 (as the solo was, see below). It also could be the pseudo-Russian pop music of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, or a botched translation—as if an extra-terrestrial who had been monitoring our radio and TV broadcasts had fashioned an imitation of what it took to be our national musics. Bowie later claimed that was the idea all along.

Bowie wrote “Moonage Daydream” to be the debut single of his “fake band” project, The Arnold Corns, and then refigured it as part of Ziggy Stardust‘s early conception as a West End stage show. So from its inception, the song was meant to serve as entrance music, a character piece for a fraudulent character, whether impostor pop idol (the Corns’ non-singer Freddi Buretti) or plastic rock star (Ziggy Stardust, who Bowie would later claim on stage was the song’s author).

The Arnold Corns project petered out after two singles, only one of which was released, as Bowie focused on designing the Ziggy character and his never-quite-comprehensible storyline (Hunky Dory and Ziggy were recorded back-to-back, with some Ziggy songs preceding Hunky Dory ones, hence the timeline confusion).

What’s missing from the Corns “Moonage Daydream” (beyond Ronson’s guitar) is the sense that anything’s at stake—the Corns single, voiced by Bowie but allegedly sung by the cherubic Buretti (he’s the male equivalent of Chantale Goya in Godard’s Masculin-Feminin), is drearier than much of the music it’s mocking. The Ziggy “Moonage Daydream” works in part because the song was taken out of Bowie’s head and invigorated by Ronson, whose guitar heroics are matched by his string arrangements, bassist Trevor Bolder and producer Ken Scott (who put the phasing effect on the swirling strings at the end of the track).

By the time of the Spiders’ last concert at the Hammersmith in July 1973, teenage girls and boys in the audience were singing along to every word of “Moonage Daydream,” holding their hands to their faces while they sang the chorus, falling in love with themselves as much as they were with Ziggy. Using the strength and delusion of adolescence, the belief that the world somehow has been left open for you, they took the lie and made it sing to them.

Every night you knew that “Moonage Daydream” was going to be the one that really lifted them. Then we’d go and follow on from there to the end.

Trevor Bolder, 1976.

The Ziggy recording is the sum of its players. Bolder doesn’t get that much credit as a bassist, but his work on “Moonage Daydream” in particular is assured and inventive—he starts by anchoring Ronson’s opening chords, then serves as the main melodic voice in the choruses (his descending line, going down the frets from the D string to the A to the E, mirrors the wordless harmony vocals).

And then there’s Ronson. In the studio, Bowie drew a diagram for how Ronson’s guitar solo should sound—it started out as a flat line, grew to form “a fat megaphone-type shape, and ended in sprays of disassociated and broken lines,” Bowie recalled years later. Ronson looked at the chart, went off somewhere (he often wrote arrangements in the bathroom), and came back and performed a solo that exactly followed Bowie’s directions.

The Arnold Corns single version was recorded in April 1971 and released as B&C CB149; the Ziggy Stardust track was cut on 12 November 1971. (Bowie was inspired to suggest a baritone sax/pennywhistle solo from the B-side of The Hollywood Argyles’ “Alley Oop,” “Sho’ Know a Lot About Love,” which featured a fife and bari sax. “I thought that’s the greatest combination of instruments. It’s so ludicrous—you’ve got this tiny sparrow of a voice on top and a huge grunting pig-ox of a thing at the bottom,” Bowie said in 1997.) Bonus note: the solo’s descending minor-chord sequence (Bm/A/G/F#) is cited by Wikipedia as an example of the “Andalusian cadence.”

Bowie debuted “Moonage Daydream” on a BBC session of 16 May 1972, and played it in most shows of the Ziggy tour (the performances linked above are from Dunstable, UK (21 June 1972), Santa Monica, Calif. (20 Sept. 1972) and the final Spiders show of 3 July 1973, which features Ronson’s ultimate version of his guitar solo, all delays and feints). It’s turned up in a few tours (mainly the Diamond Dogs tour ’74, and some of Bowie’s ’90s shows) since.

Hang Onto Yourself

February 15, 2010

Hang Onto Yourself (demo).
Hang Onto Yourself (The Arnold Corns single, 1971).
Hang Onto Yourself (Ziggy Stardust).
Hang Onto Yourself (live, 1972).
Hang Onto Yourself (live, 1973).
Hang Onto Yourself (live, 1978).
Hang Onto Yourself (live, 2004).

America is the noisiest country that ever existed.

Oscar Wilde, Impressions of America.

On 27 January 1971 David Bowie finally came to America. He had dreamed of an entrance like Oscar Wilde’s: Wilde had stepped upon a New York City dock after a cross-Atlantic cruise and was met with a mob of reporters eager for choice witticisms. Instead Bowie had to endure a flight (which he hated) and when he landed at Dulles Airport, with his Lauren Bacall haircut and “wearing a purple maxi-coat and a white chiffon scarf” (Christopher Sandford), he was detained by customs agents, who searched him, sniggered at him and finally released him after an hour. Only Mercury publicist Ron Oberman and his immediate family were there to meet him (here’s a great photo from Bowie’s first night in the U.S., during which Bowie went to a kosher deli in Silver Spring, Md.).

Bowie was in the U.S. to promote The Man Who Sold the World. He brought only his guitar, a satchel of notebooks and few dresses selected by his wife. He went from Washington DC to New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, where he made friends with DJ/scenester Rodney Bingenheimer. He also met RCA house producer Tom Ayers, which set in motion a courtship that culminated in RCA signing Bowie later that year.

The United States of Bowie’s first visit was a fantastically prosperous country that had gone mad and now seemed to be at war with itself. Nineteen seventy-one would see the Attica prison uprising; anti-busing forces in Detroit blowing up school buses with dynamite; a radical group called Movement for Amerika planting bombs in banks across the country; the Weather Underground bombing the U.S. Capitol; another leftist group called Rise planning to poison the Chicago water supply. In Wilmington, NC, a band of vigilantes called Rights of White People assembled. Hippies were occasionally lynched in New Mexico—for example, a sixteen-year-old hippie girl who passed a bad check was shot to death by a storekeeper in Albuquerque (no charges filed). Crime rates hit staggering new levels, fueling a general belief that violence in America had become as common as it was random (in LA, a man drew a gun on Bowie and told him to “kiss my ass”).*

Bowie traveled through America in absorption: listening to top 40 radio (“Rose Garden,” “Stoney End,” “Groove Me”), meeting producers and starlets, gorging on new records (in San Francisco, Bowie heard a Stooges LP for the first time). On sheets of hotel stationery he wrote out his ideas for a fake rock star, inspired by another new find, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Perhaps he’d name the plastic rock singer Iggy.

“Hang Onto Yourself” (or “Hang On To Yourself,” depending which record it’s on) is the fruit of Bowie’s U.S. trip. A rock & roll blast, a groupie sex song, it was first recorded at a session where Bowie met Gene Vincent. Tom Ayers had introduced Bowie and Vincent in LA and, depending on who you believe, Bowie jammed with Vincent on a studio demo of “Hang Onto Yourself,” or Vincent was at the demo session but didn’t play, or Vincent had utterly nothing to do with it. Bowie would use one of Vincent’s signature stage moves (crouching at the mike with his injured leg behind him) in his Ziggy Stardust act; Vincent died of a stomach ulcer some eight months after meeting Bowie.

Rock and roll

Bowie came back to the UK with his demo of “Hang Onto Yourself,” which was still a sketch—just a single verse, a chorus and the makings of what would be the song’s guitar hook. Bowie initially used the song for the first draft of his “fake rock star” project, where he wrote and produced songs for a Dulwich College band The Arnold Corns and their cherubic lead non-singer Freddi Burretti (more on this when we reach “Moonage Daydream”).

The demo and the Corns versions of “Hang Onto Yourself” are plodding and underwritten, and seem to be a botched attempt to mimic the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” (the line “and me, I’m on the radio show” echoes Lou Reed’s “and me, I’m in a rock & roll band”). The Corns single ends with a minute or so of elaborate grunting, suggesting that once again Bowie was parodying Marc Bolan.

“Hang Onto Yourself”‘s main riff (it opens the track and follows the end of the choruses) is also storied plagiarism—it seems to be nicking The Move’s “Fire Brigade,” which in turn had raided Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else.” The tradition continued, as the Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” in part ripped off “Hang Onto Yourself” (Glen Matlock admitted the Pistols nicked a number of Spiders riffs, while future Pistols guitarist Steve Jones actually stole the Spiders’ gear, taking the line “the bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar” literally).

Throughout much of 1971 Bowie and his reconstituted band of Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder kept up a brutal rehearsal pace, often playing all night in the top room of a Beckenham pub. Over the months they honed Bowie’s tentative rockers like “Hang Onto Yourself” into hard shapes. The version of “Hang Onto Yourself” cut for the Ziggy Stardust LP is faster and has better dynamics—much of the chord structure has been moved up a step (so the signature riff is now D/C/G, compared with C/Bb/F in the Arnold Corns version), Bowie’s lyric is saucier (“she’s a funky-thigh collector,” “we move like tigers on vaseline”) and Bowie now softly insinuates the chorus, rather than belting it out. Trevor Bolder’s bass holds the track together in a tight grip, while Ronson, in his own words, strapped his guitar on “and thrashed it to death, basically.”

The “Gene Vincent” demo was recorded ca. mid-February 1971 in Los Angeles; the Arnold Corns single was recorded in April 1971 and released as B&C CB149; the Ziggy Stardust track was recorded on 8 November 1971. Much of the Ziggy Stardust record uses rock & roll as a concept more than offering it as a reality—“Hang Onto Yourself” has no such troubles.

It was a classic lead-off song, and Bowie opened most of the Spiders from Mars sets of 1972-1973 with it, as well as many of his 1978 concerts (a Philadelphia recording leads off Stage, the 2-LP live record culled from that tour). Bowie revived “Hang Onto Yourself” on his 1983 tour, letting his rent-a-gun guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan play with it, and brought it back again for his “Reality” tour of the mid-2000s.

Top:  Michael Caine in Get Carter.

* most examples of 1971 America are taken from Rick Perlstein’s essential Nixonland.