Baby Can Dance

May 3, 2012

Baby Can Dance.
Baby Can Dance (live, 1989).
Baby Can Dance (live, 1992).

I have moments of great frustration with this project, none more than when facing the paucity of information on Bowie’s later years. Ian MacDonald, for his song-by-song Beatles study, had as his Virgil Mark Lewisohn, who had annotated every single Beatles studio take. And various Dylan tomes by everyone from Greil Marcus to Michael Gray were nourished by the four-decades-long labors of anonymous bootleggers, who have distributed outtakes and demos from every Dylan period.

Not the case with Bowie, who has tried to keep every trace of his creative processes locked in a vault, and has generally succeeded. Even essential quasi-authorized reference works like Kevin Cann’s are spotty at times when it comes to studio data and, most of all, demos and outtakes, many of which are referred to by title alone. And that’s for the Sixties and early Seventies, an era when there actually are some circulating studio bootlegs. The post-Young Americans period is barren ground. Determining how songs developed becomes an inspired bluffwork. Everything I write at this phase of Bowie’s career is simply me squinting through a murky glass into a locked room, trying to make out shapes.

Which brings us to “Baby Can Dance,” for which Bowie has a sole songwriting credit and which allegedly was written and demoed before the Tin Machine sessions. Hearing the demo version of the song or its various studio run-throughs would be of immense help, as all we have is the murky final mix. Did Bowie decide on having the tempo clunkily shift between cut-time and 4/4, or was this an impulsive decision of the Saleses? Who came up with the jaundiced Bo Diddley-esque guitar riff that shags through the verses? Did Bowie have the lyric in place before the session, or did he dash out the Sixties-callback lines on the spot (referring back to his own “shadow man” and “Jumping Jack Flash” too)?

“Baby Can Dance” appears to have been earmarked for an album closer early on (maybe because of the long, strangled coda in which Bowie screams “it’s ooooover”), and bonus tracks on cassette/CD were sequenced before it, preserving its full-stop status. It was well-chosen, as “Dance” is a monstrous performance that would make anything following it seem anemic.

An oddly-structured piece that begins with an eight-bar chorus curtain-raiser and a 12-bar group solo (which appears again after the first chorus, then in a more elongated form after the second), it’s Bowie and Gabrels further developing the curtain-of-feedback idea they had crafted for the revised “Look Back in Anger” and which they would follow with the long, squalling metamorphosis of “Now” into “Outside”. The solos have a droning, circular feel, in part because the chord progressions keep on the same bass note, E (so the pre-verse group solo is E/F-E/E while the post-second-chorus solo is E/C-E/D-E).

Throughout the various solos, Gabrels annexes a section of the mix and howls to himself, though in the climactic solo he eventually builds to a run of piercing, feedback-laden notes that provide a sense of drama, while Bowie moans and the Saleses thunder around him (another nice Gabrels moment is the descending line he clashes against Bowie’s vocal melody in the chorus). Tony Sales’ walking bassline is a secondary hook to the Bo Diddley riff, while Hunt, though typically unsubtle and not quite mastering the various tempo shifts, is gargantuan—even the occasional thwack on a cowbell during the solos sounds as though he’s striking an iron support bar.

Bowie’s lyric, which riffs on a faceless heartbreaker who appears on a few other Tin Machine songs (though as Ian wrote, it’s Bowie playing with “classic” rock ‘n’ roll sexism as a signifier), builds to the chorus vocal hook, the whining stepwise push of “bay-bee can FLOAT….bay-bee can DANCE,” which is memorable if (intentionally) irritating. I prefer Bowie’s lugubrious, vampirish vocals on later live recordings of “Dance,” (such as the Osaka recording linked above, from 30 January 1992—one of the last Machine shows) which also have a more ominous “it’s over now” section, a “Flight of the Bumblebee”-esque Gabrels guitar solo and, bizarrely, better-mixed Tony Sales vocal harmonies than the studio track. The hell-for-leather coda, with Gabrels needling his way into the crushing, climactic group thud, slammed the door shut on Tin Machine Mark One as well as anything could have.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. Performed during both Tin Machine tours, 1989 and 1991-92. A live version from Paris in June 1989 was used as a B-side of the “Prisoner of Love” E.P. while a Hamburg recording from 1991 appeared on the ambitiously-titled 1993 compilation Best of Grunge Rock.

Top: Matt Weber, “Port Authority, [NYC], 1988.”


May 1, 2012

Amazing (live, Oy Vey Baby, 1991).

“Amazing” came out of Bowie and Reeves Gabrels’ composition binge of late summer 1988. Possibly inspired by Bowie’s relationship with Melissa Hurley, which was still in the honeymoon stage during the Tin Machine sessions, the lyric’s as plain-faced as Bowie ever got, though it’s not quite the unalloyed declaration of love—the singer fears his lover will finally realize their relationship is superficial (“I’m scared you’ll meet someone in whom you’ll confide,” while in the second verse he’s having nightmares about her leaving). Still, the (deliberately?) banal chorus keeps to the pleasures of the moment.

A power ballad of sorts in E major, “Amazing” has a touch of drama with its shift to the parallel minor in the chorus, and on the whole it’s not too far removed from post-comeback Aerosmith (even the title’s very Diane Warren). The Machine’s attempt at an Eighties hard rock ballad is full of tension and unease, however. Bowie likely took his initial verse melody from Gabrels’ ascending stepwise scale playing, while his later emphases are off-kilter at times—take his thudding “girl,” which he hammers as he sinks nearly an octave, disrupting the earlier, soaring sense of development. And the rhythm section is a ball of agitation, with Hunt Sales in particular seemingly on the verge of going off on a tear with every fill.

Still, there’s some fine acoustic guitar work here (likely Kevin Armstrong); Gabrels’ seagull-cry feedback in the intro is interesting, if pointless, while he gets off a couple of sonorous lines between choruses. The producer Tim Palmer said that Bowie shelved many of the more melodic pieces from the Tin Machine sessions so as to offer a bristling front for the Machine’s debut: this contributed to the sense of exhaustion one gets when enduring the record as a whole. In that context, the track’s place in the sequencing—leading off the album’s second side—makes “Amazing” seem like a happy spot of relief, even if the track is a barely-held ceasefire.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. A live version from the Academy, NYC, in 1991 is on Oy Vey Baby.

Top: Tim Richmond, “Emma Thompson,” 1988. During the era of her short-lived and fervently unfunny comedy show, Thompson.

Bus Stop

April 27, 2012

Bus Stop.
Bus Stop (video, fragment).
“Country Bus Stop” (live, 1989).
“Country Bus Stop” (live, 1991).

“Bus Stop” hailed from Bowie and Reeves Gabrels’ stillborn attempt to write a musical of Steven Berkoff’s West, but the song was lively enough that they kept it in the mix for Tin Machine, on which it served as an oasis of wit and brevity. It helped that as the song pre-dated the “first take” rule, “Bus Stop” had a polished lyric, with some of Bowie’s funniest and sharpest lines in years (the “shrieking and dancing till four AM/another night of muscles and pain” could refer to a number of activities, some spiritual, others not). A young East End man tries to reconcile his skepticism about God with his lover’s fervent belief, which seems to work for her; he’s on his knees with her at the bus stop, grunts out a muffled “hallelujah” at the end of it. It’s a spiritual song that’s almost entirely centered on the body, from the feet to the grumbling stomach.

Set firmly in D major, “Bus Stop” is just three chords, two 12-bar verses and two 8-bar refrains, with a brief outro.The version cut for Tin Machine was built on a tension-release guitar riff that calls back to the Damned’s “New Rose.” With Hunt Sales again dedicated to bludgeoning his snare four times a bar, his brother mainly provides fills on bass, like the fifth-spanning arc of notes to cue the move to G major in the verse (0:30, 1:03). The song spins to an end with a brief guitar battle between Gabrels and Kevin Armstrong—Armstrong holding his ground, Gabrels trying to outflank him.

When Tin Machine went on its 1989 tour, Bowie turned “Bus Stop” into a country music parody (an apparent inspiration was Mick Jagger’s country burlesques: “Dear Doctor” and “Far Away Eyes.”)  Of all the popular music genres, country had been the one no-go zone for Bowie: the closest that he’d ever come to it was “Bars of the County Jail,” a 1965 demo, which was more an English folk ballad with a few lines borrowed from imported TV Westerns. Still, working-class British culture had had a storied relationship with country music, with the likes of Jim Reeves and Slim Whitman getting #1 albums in the UK at the height of the counterculture (Marcello Carlin recently wrote an incisive piece on a Whitman LP that hit #1 in 1976). The countrified version, while fun, slightly oversold the joke.

The original “Bus Stop” was cut ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. “Country Bus Stop” was unveiled at the Machine’s first official concert in NYC on 14 June 1989 and a live version from Paris the same month was included as a B-side of the “Tin Machine” CD single. Bowie kept the countrified “Bus Stop” around for the Machine’s 1991-1992 tour, then never played it again.

Top: “Mikey G Ottawa,” “Boom Box, Montreal, 1987.”

Heaven’s In Here

April 25, 2012

Heaven’s In Here.
Heaven’s In Here (video).
Heaven’s In Here (fragment, rehearsal, 1989).
Heaven’s In Here (International Rock Awards, 1989).
Heaven’s In Here (Oy Vey Baby, 1991).
Heaven’s In Here (live, 1991).

I knew David wanted to do a different kind of music. [But] I always thought if I gave it back to him, it would end up going back to the Spiders from Mars. That’s exactly what happened.

Carlos Alomar.

…even Baudelaire’s Voyagers, who set out to look for the unheard-of and were ready to face shipwreck in the attempt, found in the unknown, and in spite of every unforeseen disaster, precisely the same tedium they had left at home. To be on the move, however, is better than nothing…The air creeps into one’s clothes. The ego dilates and contracts like a Portuguese man-of-war. This gentle loosening of the bonds, which replaces the uniform with a pair of pyjamas, is more like an hour’s break in the school timetable than the promise of the great demobilization.

Claudio Magris, Danube.

Bowie flew to Los Angeles in the spring of 1988 to try out a prospective band of studio guns picked by Bon Jovi’s producer, Bruce Fairbairn. These included two members of Bryan Adams’ band, guitarist Keith Scott and drummer Mickey Curry, the bassist Rene Worst and the keyboardist John Webster. Bowie and the group cut a few demos—an early version of “Pretty Pink Rose,” a song Bowie later reworked and gave to Adrian Belew; “Lucille Can’t Dance,” the ur-“Lucy Can’t Dance,” which Bowie would throw away as a bonus track on Black Tie White Noise; and a cover of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which Mick Ronson would later salvage.* Bowie found the sessions, intended to map out his next EMI album, dull and unrewarding. A few months after he’d burned the Glass Spider, he was falling into the same trap again: a fresh round of recording with top professionals, another glum search for a single, another turn on the treadmill.

So he returned to Switzerland, unearthed Reeves Gabrels. Once Gabrels and Bowie began working on songs in late summer 1988 (they soon discarded the West musical idea in favor of original compositions), Bowie found a producer, Tim Palmer, who had made a name recording the Cult and the Mission. As for the rhythm section, some provisional names included players with art-rock bona fides: Terry Bozzio, a Mothers of Invention veteran who had drummed for the Missing Persons, and an old Brian Eno hand, the bassist Percy Jones. After some consideration, Bowie balked again. He could do a new album of “edgy” rock, a Scary Monsters 2, and vie to outplay Peter Gabriel at the art-pop game, but wasn’t that just another version of the trap?

Bowie went back to his records, listening to Low and “Heroes” for the first time in years. What struck him was their emotional immediacy, their sense of having no mediation between the songs and the listener, of little forethought to the music: the records sounded as though they had been created and recorded in one fluid motion.

Of course that wasn’t true. He’d had top professional musicians working for him then, but they were men of an R&B/funk/jazz background who Bowie challenged by throwing odd, harmonically-vague, fragmented and at times highly personal pieces at them. They responded by translating the pieces into their language and playing them back for him. It was a conversation: neither party had known how it would end. But now Bowie felt that any musician that he chose, when offered an “envelope-pushing” Bowie song, would think, “oh, like “Heroes”” and play in that style. His avant-garde material had become a genre.

The answer came from Iggy Pop in absentia. Bowie listened to Lust for Life and had an inspiration: Hunt and Tony Sales, the Katzenjammer Kids of rhythm sections, whose antics had proved even too much for Iggy at the time (Pop had dismissed them during a 1977 tour, saying “you guys are like heroin.”) The Sales’ had been around the record industry, he knew their brutalist style well enough, but they weren’t “cheque-book musicians,” as Bowie later sniffed about the type of pros Bruce Fairbairn had offered him. Bowie also knew they wouldn’t treat him with any reverence. Subconsciously or no, Bowie was surrounding himself with people—Gabrels, Palmer and the Sales’—who all thought that his Eighties records and tours had been weak.

Tin Machine began in part as Bowie attempt to make an Iggy Pop album without Iggy: Pop is the ghost in the well. What else is the album’s lead-off track, “Heaven’s In Here,” than a six-minute Pop homage, with Bowie singing verses in a Pop-like croon (or summoning Pop’s own influence, Jim Morrison)? He even called back to their old collaboration “Tumble and Twirl” in the last verse.

Bowie had met Tony Sales again in Los Angeles, at a party for the end of the Glass Spider tour. Sales recalled Bowie sitting around looking bored, but he perked up once he saw Tony (the last time they’d met was the US Festival). He started bubbling about the new guitarist he’d found, and soon enough he recruited Tony and his brother into coming out to Switzerland.

Gabrels and Bowie had been working at a clip for about a week at Mountain Studios. They had written “Bus Stop,” the music for “Baby Universal,” and most of “Amazing,” “Baby Can Dance” and “I Can’t Read.” Then the Sales brothers arrived. They were like two sides of a vicious charismatic personality—Hunt, who walked into the studio wearing a “Fuck You I’m From Texas” T-shirt and had a knife tucked into his belt, was a walking piece of chaos, while Tony, who had nearly died in a car accident some years before, was cold order. He had become nearly straight-edge, even once lecturing Bowie about the perils of alcohol when he saw Bowie drinking a glass of wine.

The Sales’ made it clear they weren’t going to be sidemen. They were going to sing, they were going to write songs, and they were going to veto whatever they didn’t like. They began by hazing Gabrels mercilessly, shooting down his solo ideas, until he learned to just ignore them. In an act of blunt symbolism, Hunt set up his massive drum kit on a 20-foot-high riser (he had to use a ladder to reach it) in the studio. He played so loudly, had such prominence in the room, that the guitarists Gabrels and Kevin Armstrong could barely hear themselves play. The Tin Machine mix wound up being drum-conquered.

The Sales’ also pushed for a punishing first-take philosophy, which Bowie found enticing. No overdubs unless necessary for guitar solos, no synths (the old Queen boast), and most of all, no lyric rewrites. The band would go to lunch and return to find that Bowie had written out a complete provisional lyric for whatever song they were working on. But that was as far as he was allowed to go: he was forced to keep to his first instincts. Sometimes this worked out, sometimes it didn’t (see “Crack City”).

Given these strictures, Bowie and the band stuck to music “that didn’t have too much orchestration about it,” as Bowie said in a 1989 interview. “If it got too chordy and arranged, it wouldn’t be anything what we wanted to do. The structure had to be as loose as possible so that we could improvise.” Rather than reworking songs, they just kept cutting more, with as many as 35 to 40 pieces coming out of the sessions. So most of Tin Machine is basic blues-centered rock, with the average song having no more than five chords: it lacked the harmonic ambiguity and structural games of Bowie’s older work. While the record often worked on a song level, with 14 tracks on the CD version, the album was a wearying listen. Few records are as exciting in miniature and as draining as a whole as Tin Machine.

The first track that the band completed, rehearsed and cut in a single day in Montreux, was the bluesy “Heaven’s In Here.”

It opens promisingly: a taste of studio ambiance, a hint of feedback, then a snarling riff (either Bowie or Kevin Armstrong, the ringer brought in to play the rhythm guitar parts that Bowie said he couldn’t do well enough) that’s overshadowed four bars later by the Sales’ bludgeoning entrance, while Gabrels plays a singing lead. Bowie’s first appearance is confident and poised, a sly, mid-register insinuation that’s escorted by Gabrels’ slide playing. Bowie often keeps to the third notes of the chord (so singing a G note (“dream,” “blade,” “stumble”) when the song’s in E), while the chorus finds him channeling Morrison (especially on “rock-et TO Mars“). He seems enlivened by the music (“I’m telling you loud but selling it small“): his lyric, an ode to sexual healing, is plain and artless by Bowie standards, thanks to the first-take rule.

Gabrels’ first solo is nice bit of peacocking offset by Hunt Sales’ blunt snare chastisements, and the “rave up” section after the second chorus, while a bit leaden, gives the track some punch. But after the last chorus, the track extends for another two minutes of soloing. And here we find a core problem with the Tin Machine material: the tortured interplay between Gabrels and Hunt Sales. It’s a pair of rivals trying to outplay each other, criticizing each other, failing to respond to each other’s cues, and sometimes actively working to undermine each other. Gabrels seems lost in his own squall-world while Hunt’s turnaround fills are often club-footed and seem like they’re trying to kill off the song every eight bars. As most of the tracks were cut live in the studio, they lack the nuances that overdubs could’ve provided while Hunt’s elephantine drums serve as a dictatorial presence in the mix.

So the first completed track from Bowie’s attempt at enforced community found him being sidelined in his own song, with one of his better vocals in years overrun by a fight between his shrieking guitarist and his madman drummer. The Tin Machine project began with Bowie under siege, which soon forced him to devise some sallies of his own.

On tour, the band would extend “Heaven” over ten minutes, making it a vehicle for mutual excess. The Oy Vey Baby version features a two-minute-plus Gabrels jackplug feedback solo, during which Hunt Sales seems about to nod off, while Bowie took over stretches by cobbling together bits of songs, everything from Sly Stone’s “You Caught Me Smilin'” to Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home A Heartache” to Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere.”

Recorded ca. August 1988, Mountain Studios, Montreux. Released May 1989 on Tin Machine, while an edited version (4:14) was issued as a US-only promo 12″/CD (EMI SPRO 4374). The live version released on the Oy Vey Baby album and video was recorded at NYC’s Academy on 29 November 1991, and the Machine also played “Heaven” for the BBC in 1991.

* I’ll get to these songs when it makes more thematic sense to do so: during the Sound + Vision era and the Black Tie/White Noise era, respectively.

Top to bottom: the various editions of Tin Machine: LP, CD, cassette. [Edit]: the fourth variation, which I neglected to find, was on the CD longbox (see comments).