Queen Of All the Tarts (Overture)

December 19, 2014

queen is dead of all the tarts

Queen Of All the Tarts (Overture).

As its recording was used as pre-show music for much of the Reality Tour, was “Queen Of All the Tarts (Overture)” once intended as an album intro? If so, its demotion to bonus track was likely owed to sequencing—the Queen doesn’t sit comfortably amidst the more common tracks.

A track whose centerpiece is a two-tiered (possibly two-fingered) synth solo courtesy of the artiste himself, “Queen of All the Tarts” features the usual Reality impasto of guitar overdubs (Earl Slick, David Torn and Gerry Leonard all seem to make an appearance: is Torn playing the militant, jabbing line towards the outro?). The bassist (Mark Plati or Tony Visconti) sounds like he’s downed a few espressos; Sterling Campbell tracks in some thudding tom fills (there are also low-mixed sleigh bells).

Its lyric’s a repeated one-line refrain, essentially a vocalized keyboard line, with odd two-note harmonies (a multi-tracked Bowie souped in with Gail Ann Dorsey and Catherine Russell). It comes off like Bowie’s version of Queen’s “Flash’s Theme.” And don’t forget the parenthetical: if it’s an Overture, for which glam opera? It’s as if Bowie’s written an intro piece for a younger self, casting the song back in time. So Queen Bitch walks again, having grown more regal, if wearier, in her waning years.

Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003, (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on the 2-CD version of Reality.

Top: Jonathan Monk, Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before, 2003 (MoMA).

Book hype footnote: pre-orders available now, see top right box. Non US/UK people: check out Book Depository, which allegedly ships free worldwide.


Looking For Water

December 16, 2014

looking for water

Looking For Water.
Looking For Water (A Reality Tour, 2003).
Looking For Water (live, 2004).

Asked about “Looking For Water” in 2003, Bowie said he’d started with the cartoon-strip image of a man lost in the desert, crawling around under the boiling sun hoping to see palm trees, signifying an oasis. Instead he spies in the distance a row of oil derricks—an American perversion of deliverance, machines pumping oil from the earth, not trees sustained by water underground.

The last of the set of post-9/11 songs he’d written for Reality, “Looking For Water” moves the setting from a numbed, burned Manhattan to an anonymous Middle East country, which would answer for the crime (regardless of its guilt) for the rest of the decade. The conceit is some Manhattanite wandering in the desert, a few traces of his old life still in his head (a piece of “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Autumn Leaves”): an innocent abroad, wandering through a hell of his own making, wandering in circles.

A “virtually looped, chordwise” (Bowie) song that shuttles between D major and F# minor* throughout and whose structure is a piled-up set of agitated verses and guitar breaks, it became a tapestry of guitar tracks, primarily by David Torn and Earl Slick. Starting with a single left-mixed guitar keeping to its top three strings, the set soon expands to include a blunt Slick retort, a descending main riff doubled on bass (Mark Plati, tracing a Tony Visconti bassline from the demo) and some ferocious counterpoint figures, as if Torn is trying to rip his way out of the song (starting around 1:40). Sterling Campbell is a piston engine, giving a punishing crack to his snare on every beat. And the fever breaks: the track ends with a double-tracked Bowie, still lost in the desert.

It was a fresh sound—bright, punchy, unsentimental—and it proved long-lasting, serving as a template a decade later for some The Next Day tracks like “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).”

Recorded: (backing tracks) January-February 2003,(lead guitars, vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.

* You could make the case for either being the key, either D major orbiting to its mediant (iii) chord, F#m, or an F#m tonic chord set against its submediant (VI), D major. In either case it’s a “strong” force pitted against a “weak” one, as opposed to a favorite Bowie habit of having two major chords duke it out (“Rebel Rebel,” “Golden Years”).

Top: Ashey Gilbertson, “A U.S. soldier walks in a Baghdad, Iraq airbase with a stuffed tiger on his back,” October 16, 2003.


New Killer Star

December 9, 2014

new killer star

New Killer Star.
New Killer Star (single edit, video).
New Killer Star (Jonathan Ross, 2003).
New Killer Star (Today Show, 2003).
New Killer Star (France 2, 2003).
New Killer Star (Late Show With David Letterman, 2003).
New Killer Star (Last Call with Carson Daly, 2003).
New Killer Star (A Reality Tour, 2003).
New Killer Star (Die Harald Schmidt Show (@36:50 in), 2003).
New Killer Star (Rove Live, 2004).
New Killer Star (live, 2004).

17 March 2003: Walked around Battery Park at lunchtime. Tourists wearing Statue of Liberty headbands; two Ghanese men selling watches from suitcases; a strange lifelessness to everything. Walked through Castle Clinton, west to the shattered globe that used to stand in the plaza of the Trade Center. Went to a bar after work with D, H and G for a St. Patrick’s drink. “When we’ve taken out Hussein, we’re going to take out that guy in North Korea,” D said. But he didn’t want the NCAA tournament to begin only to have to be postponed.

Instead of heading north, he walks down to Canal Street, with its scaffolds and traffic, men selling bootleg DVDs and CDs on blankets spread on the sidewalk (he spies a ChangesBowie, its cover art in the wan smear-colors of an aging printer; he considers buying it, realizes he has no cash). He takes Church Street. He picks up the old burning smell around the time he crosses Chambers and at Barclay he stops. Barriers fence barriers. Behind steel and aluminum grates ten or twenty feet high are long-necked cranes, a tortoise-like dump truck porting dirt around. People move in sagging lines, making lethargic pilgrimage. They take pictures of themselves and their friends in front of a construction site. Men in American-flag hats and bald eagle sweatshirts sell photographs of an exploding building.

The words come soon enough. See the great white scar/over Battery Park… Or is it great white star? The bloodied earth or the place we dream of escaping to?

A white scar is one that’s nearly healed, but the skin can lie. His friends call up to see if he’s ready to go out yet: I’m not better, he says. I’m not going to be better. He keeps a lost city in its head and every day he loses another piece of it. Was there ever a guy with a cobbler stand on Dey Street? Where were the non-fiction books in the Borders: upstairs or downstairs? Were there trees in the lobbies? What kind? How tall were they? What color were the walls of the Cortlandt St. station? Who but we remember these? No, we forget them, too.

gz2002

5 April 2003: It is strange–you wouldn’t know this conflict was raging from any walk through New York. Few conversations are about it; protests are generally small and confined. Some graffiti—Bush Is Hitler sort of thing. The war has become this sort of abstract, bad news from far away, like daily reports of a great forest fire somewhere.

I’m not a political commenter, but I think there are times when I’m stretched to at least implicate what’s happening, politically,” Bowie told an interviewer in 2003. “There was some need, in a very abstract way, towards the wrongs that are being made at the moment.”

“New Killer Star” shares qualities of other “public” Bowie songs. The lyric’s run of sharp, disconnected details call back to the shell-shocked narrator of “Time Will Crawl“; its lyrical tone is a muted, older version of the raging, bewildered man who’s flipping through TV channels in “It’s No Game.” Only its first verse addresses a political “subject”: the empty bowl that once was the World Trade Center, the sutured hole in the ground. The rest of the song’s a man trying to distract and persuade himself by watching the skies, watching television, cottoning his memory with scenes from old films.

There is a feeling [in NYC] that it’s not over yet,” Bowie told Virgin Radio back home in June 2003. “I think everyone’s sort of expecting something to happen. I think the idea of terrorist action in bars and restaurants and that kind of thing, being cited as targets, is somewhere in everyone’s mind.”

So he winches up a routine. The song structure is the four-panel-grid of a comic strip (the bubbles and actions/the little details in color): establishing shot, start joke, build joke, punchline. So here: riff, verse, pre-chorus, two-part refrain (punchline: the title’s a British musician mocking the way the President of the United States pronounces “nuclear”). Eight-bar break. Repeat. The backing singers and the drums follow the same shifting patterns throughout, as if keeping to a map. The guitar/bass riff becomes the pre-chorus vocal melody (duh-DAH DAH, “I’m READ-Y”). In the refrains, the singers are replaced by a high keyboard line, then they’re called back in for the closer (cue tambourine). Do it twice and you’re out. The only variables in the mix are some thin, distorted, sometimes looped guitar atmospherics by David Torn, which sing through the track like telephone wires.

03trip

I read someone a while back (blanking on the name) who said that Bowie should ideally lack nationality—that he was best as a Swiss resident, a man seemingly without a country or culture. But Bowie’s life in Switzerland was a set of lost, comfortable years. He’d been more alive as an artist when he was a Beckenhamite and a Londoner, when he was a Berliner, even a Los Angeleno. In Switzerland he’d been clean. He needed a city’s dirt in his blood again. So without even intending it, he’d become a New Yorker. By 2003, the only residence he owned was in the city. He’d raise his child there. He’s still pretty much there.

It’s a bit like being on holiday in a place I’ve always wanted to go to, that doesn’t come to an end,” he said of living in New York. “I always feel like a stranger here. I am an outsider. I really am still a Brit, there’s no avoiding it. But I’ve got friends here. I probably know this town better than I know the new LondonI can walk around here and find my way far better than I can in Chelsea. I’ve forgotten all the streets. [He mimes befuddlement]. Where did Clareville Grove used to be?

The album he assembled in early 2003 was his “New York” album. Not in the way “Heroes” had been, he told Interview: “In Berlin, I was really dealing with a lot of negativity that I had to lose.” Whereas in New York “there’s a certain energy you get here. I really felt the sidewalk,” he told Mikel Jollett. (You could say Bowie hedged his bets, buying in 2003 a 64-acre mountain near Woodstock with the rumored intention of building a retreat there, though apparently he never has.)

So “New Killer Star” distilled a New Yorker’s emotional reaction to her city becoming the stage of a national tragedy, used as the justification for national retribution (which includes the torture report whose grotesque details have leaked on a slow drip the day I finished this piece).

NYC was, and still is, disliked by much of its country. Two examples from my Nineties: a security guard at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, asking me my final destination, then coldly shaking his head and saying “I’m very sorry to hear that.” A man in an Amtrak train bar car outside Philadelphia, asking me where I’m from, growing agitated, pushing into me. “I was in that city once and I did not like it. Me and that city do not get along.” There was a compact of sorts. People who lived in NYC were pitied but were generally left alone. There’s a David Johansen song written during the Guiliani years, in which Johansen complains that the old order—guys like him ranging around on the street, tourists on buses gawking at him—had started breaking down. They had started getting off the buses, he said. After 9/11, it got worse.

Others are watching us [now]. I don’t think we ever felt that before,” Bowie told Anthony DeCurtis soon after he finished Reality. “There’s a slight unease. We really felt freewheeling and that ‘tomorrow belongs to us,’ anything can happen. Now there’s not quite that swaying surge of hopefulness.

nks

4 May 2003: We went to the Village Underground to see Hammell on Trial, a middle-aged bald man who swears a lot and punishes his acoustic guitar. “Where were the weapons of mass destruction?” he yelled. “A few guys in a tent with gasoline is not a weapon of mass destruction!” “What do you know, man?”: drunk voice in audience.

“New Killer Star” was a typical magpie construction for Bowie: its bass/guitar riff (in part by Tony Visconti, retained from the demos) was essentially the chorus hook of Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him,” with a touch of Blur’s “Coffee and TV.” Nicholas Pegg noted how some of the song was lifted from “”87 and Cry,” from melodies to chorus hooks (and you realize how much the “disgraced” Never Let Me Down is resurfacing on this album).

It was Reality‘s lead single, and it had some hooks: Torn’s “stuttering” opening guitar riff, the vocal tags that enliven the verses, the subtle way the verse’s A minor chord is swapped for a bright A major in the pre-chorus, the grand refrain that promises an escape route. “Iiiii’ve discovered a star!” Bowie sings, Gail Ann Dorsey and Catherine Russell cheer him on. Even if it turns out to be another thing to lay waste to a chunk of the city, it still shines nicely, hanging in the sky above the park. He’ll be optimistic even if it kills him. “The ghost of the tragedy that happened [in NYC] is reflected in the song, but I’m trying to make something more positive out of it,” he told Performing Songwriter. “We have to assume that for every piece of awfulness there’s a good thing…[but] I’m telling you it’s a struggle to find a ray of hope.”

Maybe it was there on the ground, on the streets, somewhere still in the beaten-up, gentrified, overpriced, domesticated old bird of a city. “I still love this town. I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Bowie admitted to DeCurtis. “I am a New Yorker: It’s strange; I never thought I would be.”

new killa

Recorded: (backing tracks) January-February 2003,(lead guitars, vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality and as the album’s lead-off single on 29 September (the single edit, which trims intro and outro, appears on Nothing Has Changed): because it was released as a DVD single, “New Killer Star” didn’t qualify for singles charts, so it officially charted nowhere in the world).

Top: Beth Keiser, “Fritz Koenig’s Sphere Dedicated in Battery Park,” March 2002; Joshua James Arcady, “Ground Zero” 9/11/02; Christian Brothers High School band visits Ground Zero, March 2003.

All journal entries by me: NYC, 2003.


An Announcement

December 3, 2014

tumblr_nfzcvmGBlb1qaszffo1_500

Longtime blog readers may recall that from roughly the dawn of time I’ve been mentioning that the blog was being turned into a book. Well, that day has finally come. Rebel Rebel (essentially Bowiesongs Book One) will be published on 27 March 2015.

I’m likely to create a separate website for the book soon, and I’ll let you know about it when it’s done. But, you might ask, what’s so exciting about this book then?

* At last count, it was 574 pages! That’s a brick of Bowie for you, perfect for long train trips or island exiles. It’s longer than my copy of Tristram Shandy. And we only get up to the 1976 tour!

* Every entry on this blog from “Liza Jane” to “Station to Station” was revised, updated, corrected, scrubbed up, and made leaner or thicker, more funny or more ambitious (“Alternative Candidate” comes to mind for the latter). There are also a few new entries for songs that weren’t circulating when the blog started in ’09 (e.g., “April’s Tooth of Gold”).

* There’s “The Unheard Music” section, in which I try to catalog, in chronological order, all of the “lost” Bowie songs, from the numbers that he sang in a skiffle band in 1958 to the legendary Man Who Fell to Earth soundtrack. Also, a brief summary of the “Bowipochrypha”—songs that fans have thought or hoped were by Bowie but sadly aren’t.

* A lengthy Bowie discography, 1964-1976.

* A huge bibliography of Bowie-related and other material, for fans of bibliographies.

* A rather elephantine notes section, featuring everything from Trevor Bolder’s preferred basses in 1972 to various fine points on chord progressions of Bowie songs to some long, occasionally bizarre digressions (Thomas Paine shows up in one).

And more! I hope you enjoy it. Back to Reality in a few days.

 


Love Missile F1-11

November 25, 2014

lovemissle

Love Missile F1-11 (Sigue Sigue Sputnik).
Love Missile F1-11 (Sigue Sigue Sputnik, video).
Love Missile F1-11 (Bowie).

I want to be successful and yet never out of touch with things. I don’t want to be someone who’s made into a pop icon and then doesn’t know how to save himself. I don’t want to become David Bowie or Mick Jagger.

What do you think is wrong with them?

I think they’ve cheated an awful lot of people. They’ve manipulated an awful lot of people and they’ve become cliches of themselves.

Martin Degville (Sigue Sigue Sputnik), “Starry Eyed and Laughing,” Paul Morley, NME, 8 March 1986.

Bowie’s cover of Sigue Sigue Sputnik‘s “Love Missile F1-11,” cut during the Reality sessions, was likely never in serious consideration to make the album, but it proved ideal for a B-side (issued on the European/Canadian “New Killer Star” singles). His cover’s cheekiness surpassed that of his take on “Pablo Picasso,” but Bowie wisely didn’t try to match the Sputnik track in excess. Instead his take seemed more an attempt to replicate “the anarchic dub sound of the [track’s] Portastudio demos,” as Sputnik head Tony James described them.

Sputnik began in 1982 when Generation X bassist James, seeing how much fun his old singer was having selling out, put together a band dedicated to scavenging pop junk from the past three decades and stringing bits of it together like Christmas lights. Elvis Costello, with some admiration, summarized the plan in 1986: It’s like Tony James was saying (assumes thick-ear drawl), “we thought we’d get some designer violence, mix it up with some BMX bikes and computer games, models with big tits, fast cars.”.. It’s funny. As long as you don’t have to listen to the record.”

EMI soon signed them, according to legend for £4 million* (Costello: “this daft record company EMI—how can they fall for it twice in ten years?”). For its investment, EMI got a #3 single (“Love Missile”), a Top 10 LP and a brief tour that was sporadically marked by performative violence**. Sputnik took too long to make a follow-up and were over by 1988. Yet the band (or, perhaps more correctly, the project) was well ahead of its time, whether in its use of “found” film dialogue or in its crass commercialism, with Sputnik offering corporations the opportunity to buy ad space between tracks on its LP (L’Oreal and i-D Magazine did). Its sense of pop music as a game that one can win by following a corrupt rulebook, of pop consuming itself and spitting itself back out, was a rough draft of what the KLF would soon pull off.

Sputnik’s epitaph was “Love Missile,” with its Cold War sex and drugs lyric (nuclear missiles as both erect penises and heroin needles), its shameless recycling of Bo Diddley rhythms and Eddie Cochran guitar riffs, its Giorgio Moroder mix littered with chunks of repurposed dialogue from the likes of Scarface and A Clockwork Orange. Bowie recognized the song for what it was—the Ziggy Stardust of 1986, and a sleeker and flashier beast than his old plastic rocker ever had been. He sang it straight, digging into the song (“there goes MY love ROCKET RED!” he boasts in admiration), and you wish he’d sandwiched the track into Reality as a nose-tweak for yet another American war getting underway. One of his fizziest, loopiest, most committed and most enjoyable covers.

Recorded January-February 2003, March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 29 September 2003 on the “New Killer Star” CD single (ISO-Columbia COL 674275 9/ ISO-Columbia 38K 3445).

* The £4 million figure was a complete fabrication, James later said: “Journalist Chris Salewitz had randomly plucked that figure out of the air for a piece he was writing about us in the Sunday Times and four million pounds translated into six million dollars, so we became the “six million dollar band” which appealed to me because I loved the “Six Million Dollar Man.”

** From an NME review of a Sputnik gig in Reading, 1986: “It was a fairly normal pop concert. Apart, that is, from the purple-faced Nazi on my left who screamed obscenities at a girl he barged past on his way to the front, or the rotund drunk who clutched his real ale and hollered “Bastards! Wankers! Violence!” while flailing towards the stage, and the Fleet Street photographers who eagerly raced around the building after a young man with a bloody head.

Costello quotes from an interview in Sounds, 1 March 1986.

Top: “Torbakhopper,” “what’s in your window : ishootwindows, new york city (2003).”


Fall Dog Bombs the Moon

November 21, 2014

03victory

Fall Dog Bombs the Moon.
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon (live, 2003).
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon (acoustic performance, AOL Sessions, 2003).
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon (live, 2003).
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon (live, 2004).

The sword…is unsheathed. The blade…stands ready.

Oliver North, Fox News, 18 March 2003.

Reality was a wartime album, written and cut during the United States’ invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. It was the record of a man living in a city whose attack had provided the justification for the war; it was the work of a British expatriate sickened by the war’s long, seemingly orchestrated media buildup.

Bowie told interviewers he’d turned to using an alternative news service called TruthOut. “A fabulous storehouse of information of what’s written in the alternative press, or the rest of the world’s press, that never really sees the light of day here,” he said to Ken Scrudato. Among the articles that had caught his eye were those about how the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root had won the assignment of restoring and operating Iraq’s oil fields post-invasion. KBR had a long, illustrious career in supplying and cleaning up after various US wars, and on occasion being accused (and sometimes convicted) of bribery, shoddy workmanship, expense padding and sexual abuse and intimidation of its employees.* Its parent Halliburton had, until July 2000 (four days before his nomination), been run by the current vice-president, Dick Cheney.

Cheney was a 21st Century version of Shakespeare’s Richard III, if lacking the wit or taste for theatrics. What distinguished Cheney from his former boss Richard Nixon was that Cheney disclosed none of Nixon’s paranoia or long-collected resentments. Nixon was a brilliant man who was desperate that you knew he was; his pettiness was superhuman. Cheney was unreadable, shameless, unperturbed, placid. He seemingly existed to claim power and once he had it, he brooked no checks on it and moved in his own world. He didn’t care what anyone thought of him; it didn’t matter. Carping about something like Halliburton was merely a sign that you weren’t serious. His public persona was calm, genial, a wry smile often on his face.

What tends to happen is that a thing like an issue or a policy manifests itself as a guide,” Bowie told Interview. “It becomes a character of some kind.” Bowie began with a Cheney-like caricature. “There’s this guy saying, ‘I’m goddam rich…throw anything you like at me, baby, because I’m goddam rich. It doesn’t bother me.’ It’s an ugly song sung by an ugly man.” He wrote the lyric in a half-hour.

falldog

“Fall Dog Bombs the Moon,” similar harmonically and rhythmically to “New Killer Star” in its verses (was one spun out of the other? derived from the same demo?), came together quickly as well: it’s the roughest-sounding of Reality tracks, with no keyboard dubs and its drums lacking reverb or even much presence in the mix. Bowie kept Tony Visconti’s original bassline (heard retorting to the guitar riff in breaks) from the studio demo and layered on guitars: his own scrappy rhythm playing, Earl Slick, Mark Plati and David Torn’s various overdubs, with various center- or right-mixed guitars vying to be the lead, and a harmonized solo for the outro. “Fall Dog” sounded like a collective memory of the past 20 years of “alternative” rock—a touch of “The Killing Moon” in the bassline, some Sonic Youth, Pixies and Yo La Tengo in its tangle of guitar tones, some late-period Lou Reed in the semi-spoken “what a dog” tags.

What was a “fall dog” anyhow? Some fans at the time took the line to be a thinly-veiled George W. Bush, a “fall dog” instead of a fall guy, while the “moon” could work as a reference to the Islamist star and crescent. “An exploding man” suggests a terrorist bomber, but also recall “The Motel,” with its climactic “re-exploding you” refrain (and the line follows “I’m goddam rich”—the dog’s so sated that he’s ready to blow). The lyrical perspective spins and weaves. An American soldier sees a girl in a marketplace with a bomb strapped to her. She runs towards him, he waits resignedly (“I don’t care much: I’ll win anyway“). A verse later he’s the exploding man (victim or bomber?).

Yet despite Bowie framing his song as a picture of some late capitalist monster (and sometimes it sounds as if he’s singing “full dog”), his phrasing undermined this reading. He keeps to a small vocal range, sounding wistful, not getting worked up, letting lines trail off. Or take the image of the Fall Dog itself, rich in rock ‘n’ roll history—is it a scamp like the Everly Brothers’ “Bird Dog” (possibly where Bowie took the “what a dog” tags from) or Bowie’s own “Diamond Dogs“? Or is it more like Iggy Pop’s dog—a man who yearns to submit?

The second verse—there’s always a moron, someone to hate—was taken as a comment on the United States’ endless need for a fresh enemy, but you could equally turn the line back on the antiwar protesters. Who was George W. Bush but a convenient “moron,” a comical authority figure taking the heat? Having a Bush or a Cheney in power gives the American citizen a day pass. I didn’t vote for this fool, and look what he’s done now! What a mess.

A line in Bowie’s earlier “Slow Burn” had called up a future: So small, in times such as these. It echoed in “Fall Dog”: These blackest of years…No shape, no depth, no underground. It’s life in the early 2000s, when even the villains lack stature.

Recorded: (backing tracks) January-February 2003,(lead guitars, vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.

* “We need to be fearful of companies that get so big that they can actually be directing policy…When the Iraq War started, Halliburton got a billion-dollar no-bid contract. Some of the stuff has been so shoddy and so sloppy that our soldiers are over there dying in the shower from electrocution. I mean, it shouldn’t be sloppy work; it shouldn’t be bad procurement process. But it really shouldn’t be that these people are so powerful that they direct even policy.” Sen. Rand Paul, April 2009.

Top: Cherie A. Thurlby, “Victory Sign in Iraq,” 28 April 2003.


Nothing Has Changed Open Thread (& “‘Tis Pity” too, why not)

November 14, 2014

nothing has changed,

A place for discussion about the new compilation, plus the new B side, which is not found on said compilation.

What I wrote a few weeks ago:

The reversed-time sequencing (Disc 1: “Sue” to the Outside “Strangers When We Meet”; Disc 2: “Buddha of Suburbia” to “Wild Is the Wind”; Disc 3: “Fame” to “Liza Jane”) is a fascinating gambit. It’s not just that Bowie’s opening the set with the long recitative piece “Sue.” After “Where Are We Now” the first real “hit” comes 13 tracks in (“Thursday’s Child”). For casual American fans, the entire first disc could prove a blank: only “I’m Afraid of Americans” may register.

All compilations wind up creating narratives, if inadvertent ones: even a hack job by an estranged label can still tell a story. The earlier major Bowie career retrospectives (ChangesBowie, The Singles) centered on establishing “classic” Bowie parameters: pretending Bowie didn’t record anything before 1969; lots of Ziggy and Scary Monsters; proposing the idea Bowie took long sabbaticals in the late Eighties and Nineties.

So a new twist here with Bowie placing accents on latter-day work. Ziggy gets dispatched in three songs (as many as …hours gets), The “Berlin” albums get one song apiece (there as many songs from the Toy sessions). Tin Machine gets written out (as, essentially, does Reeves Gabrels: the …hours singles are mixes that excised much of Gabrels’ guitar work; “Hallo Spaceboy” is the Pet Shop Boys remix, etc). There’s no “John I’m Only Dancing” or “Holy Holy,” no “Station to Station” or “Quicksand.” But “Silly Boy Blue” is there, as is the gawky “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving.”

The second disc is the Bowie pop sequence spooled backward: the peak of “Absolute Beginners” crumbles into “Dancing In the Street” and “Blue Jean” before coalescing again into the bright run of “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance,” “Under Pressure” and “Fashion.” Following this group, the Berlin pieces seem like fractured pop songs, odd, distorted echoes of what’s come “before” (esp. “Boys Keep Swinging” and “Sound and Vision”).

And the last disc is like the old legend about Merlin aging in reverse: you begin with the mature wizard (“Diamond Dogs,” “Young Americans”) and watch him sink into adolescence (“All the Young Dudes” “Drive-In Saturday”) and childhood: “Starman” and “Space Oddity” seem more like kid’s songs than ever. Back and back you go, until you end with “Liza Jane,” with a barely 18-year-old amateur screaming his way into an ancient American piece of minstrelsy and theft.

Some of the sequencing is inspired: the opening trio of “Sue”–>“Where Are We Now”–>Murphy remix of “Love Is Lost” works marvelously. There’s a decade-long jump-cut from “Stars Are Out Tonight” to “New Killer Star,” and a lovely melancholic sequence of “Your Turn to Drive” (with a slightly longer fade than the original release) to “Shadow Man” to “Seven.” “Loving the Alien” and “This Is Not America” make a fine shadow pair.

And some of it’s not. “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” seems like thin gruel when bracketed by “New Killer Star” and “Slow Burn.” The overdone remake “Let Me Sleep Beside You” (a different, more “upfront” mix than the Toy bootleg, with some notable changes (a new backing vocal on the chorus, for example)). “Time Will Crawl” stands bewildered and alone, like a survivor of an airplane crash. The block of …hours songs sap the comp’s energy. Using the single edits of the likes of “Young Americans” and “Ashes to Ashes” (presumably for CD space reasons?) is cutting corners for no reason in 2014. Outside and Earthling get shortchanged. And damn it, “Laughing Gnome” should’ve been on here.

Nothing_Has_Changed

Thoughts?


Pablo Picasso

November 12, 2014

02tony

Pablo Picasso (The Modern Lovers, 1972).
Pablo Picasso (The Modern Lovers, live, ca. 1971).
Pablo Picasso (John Cale, 1975).
Pablo Picasso (Cale, live, 1976).
Pablo Picasso (Talking Heads, live, 1976).
Pablo Picasso (Simple Minds, live, 1980).
Pablo Picasso (Burning Sensations, 1984).
Pablo Picasso (Cale, Rockpalast, 1984).
Pablo Picasso (Iggy Pop, broadcast, 1994).

Pablo Picasso (Television Personalities, ca. 1995).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, 2003).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, Riverside Studios performance, 2003).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, live, 2003).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, live, 2004).
Pablo Picasso (Jonathan Richman, live, 2007).

BGN: Who do you get your direction from in life and music? Does your song “Pablo Picasso” give us an idea? Do you love his paintings so much….(Jonathan starts shaking his head)…no, you don’t love his paintings so much. He was just not an asshole?

Jonathan Richman: I read about him when I was 18. I moved to New York and was intimidated by these girls who I thought were attractive. I was afraid to approach them. I didn’t have too high a self-image. I was self-conscious and I thought “well Pablo Picasso, he’s only 5 foot 3 but he didn’t let things like that bother him.” So I made up this song right after I saw those girls. You can picture it; I had this sad little look on my face and I was thinking ‘Why am I so scared to approach these girls?’ That was a song of courage for me.

Boston Groupie News, 1980.

Jonathan Richman was born in Natick, a suburb west of Boston, in 1951. Like Lewis Reed of Freeport, Long Island (born a decade earlier), Richman was a suburban Jew estranged from his parents who used rock ‘n’ roll music as a passkey. Richman’s catalyst was Reed’s band the Velvet Underground, whom Richman saw whenever they played Boston. By 1971 Richman had formed his own band, the Modern Lovers; a year later, they were recording demos with John Cale.

Like Ray Davies, a spiritual counterpart across the Atlantic, Richman wrote about the straights of the Sixties, those getting left behind, the suburbanites who read about the counterculture in newsweeklies. Richman’s masterpiece “Roadrunner” isn’t celebrating the freedom of the open road, as a drive around Natick or on the name-checked Route 128 (a traffic-calcified beltway that encircles Boston—its early Seventies incarnation aptly described by Joshua Clover as “a scungy corridor of doughnut shops and furniture stores”) will demonstrate. “Roadrunner” is about finding traces of the sublime in suburbia, taking refuge in your car when you drive through it: Stop ‘n’ Shop supermarkets, AM radio, McDonald’s, decaying tire outlets and car dealerships (“the spirit of 1956″). Richman sang about the dead Fifties, the dignity of old people, the secretaries and functionaries of Boston’s charmless Government Center. Hippies, when they showed up, were wastrels and creeps.

Yet Richman didn’t celebrate this prosperous middlebrow America (also the world of They Might Be Giants—Johns Linnell and Flansburgh were growing up in nearby Lincoln) as much he saw the beauty in its oddness, its sobriety, and saw how he stood apart from it. There’s darkness in his early songs. Richman’s girls get institutionalized (“She Cracked,” “Hospital“) and his first-person characters aren’t as guileless and sweet as they say they are. Instead they often come off as early-edition “nice guys,” putting girls on pedestals and growing resentful they aren’t appreciated for their efforts. “Hippie Johnny,” Richman’s rival on “I’m Straight,” sounds more fun than clingy straight-edge Jojo does, to be honest.

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“Pablo Picasso,” written around 1970, was one of the Cale demos later released on the 1976 Modern Lovers (a time-bomb of a record—while the band had broken up years before its issue, and Richman had moved to a softer style by ’76, the likes of “Roadrunner” and “Picasso” suddenly appeared for the fledgling punks to take up). As Richman said, he didn’t know anything about Picasso except what any suburban kid could’ve gleaned at the time. This was the Picasso of Life magazine profiles: an intense, bald, short man who lived with a string of impossibly beautiful women in canvas-strewn ateliers. He seemed older than America: he’d known Braque, James Joyce, Hemingway, probably King Henry VIII. He was often photographed shirtless, thrusting his chest out, striking poses like a boxer. He made painting seem like a war he’d won in single combat. A caricature of masculinity, king gorilla of the art world.

The song came from a trip to New York that Richman made right after graduating high school. Hoping to find a place in NYC bohemia, he instead was mainly left on his own. He found his idol Lou Reed distant and soon gone (Reed left the VU to go home to Long Island, working for his dad for a while). Richman hung around Warhol’s Factory but was merely tolerated. After a month, Richman went to Israel, where he only found a more intense degree of loneliness. Standing out in the desert, he realized “he had to start a band,” his friend (and bandmate) John Felice recalled. “He wanted people around him.”

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They were like the Velvet Underground, except with whimsy.

Bowie on the Modern Lovers.

When I started out, I was kind of lonely…when I had more success with girls, I had less need to be hostile, so the volume came down, and I needed happier songs with more melody.

Jonathan Richman, to Julia Sweeney, SPIN, February 1993.

“Pablo Picasso” was funny (Picasso as king greaser on the block, scoping out women while driving a Cadillac), envious, a piece of dating advice (be confident, don’t be a schmuck, get out of your head), prophetic—it’s a song that barely seems to exist as one (just jamming on one easy-to-play chord), a joke that goes on forever.

It was Richman’s low-rent take on a VU track like “Sister Ray”: a clattering vamp on E minor. On the demo, Cale establishes the drone on piano, offering a few variations as the song goes on; the drums (David Robinson) keep to one chugging pattern (Richman wanted the feel of a New York subway train), Jerry Harrison’s bassline is mainly one string bothered for four minutes; the guitar solos (Richman and Ernie Brooks) are screaming, whining jitters along the Em scale. “The original is a little dirgelike,” Bowie told Interview in 2003. “It doesn’t move much, which gives it a power, but it gives it the power of another era.”

In its various covers over the years, you can hear others trying to channel and variate its power. Cale* (officially the song’s debut performer, as his cover on Helen of Troy came out half a year before Modern Lovers) hardened the drone with a whinnying Chris Spedding guitar riff and shook up the percussion line—some tom fills, some little jumpy start-stops on guitar and bass (playing “Picasso” live, Cale kept things simpler, hanging the song back on a hammered Em chord). Coke-fueled and frustrated, Cale howled out the lyric: “never GOT called an ARSEHOLE—TOO BAD!!!…NOT LIKE YEEEW!!” The LA band Burning Sensations, for the soundtrack of Alex Cox’s Repo Man, changed the bassline, throwing in a bit of the “Peter Gunn Theme.” Television Personalities’ Daniel Treacy, centering “Picasso” on haunted-house piano and filling the mix with sirens, phone rings and wails, made it obsessive.

Bowie wanted “a more contemporary feel,” so he changed the lyric (no big deal: everyone from Iggy Pop to Richman himself already had done so) and added some chords. While Bowie’s “Picasso” still keeps for long stretches on a single chord (E-flat), Bowie threw in a new sequence (Bb-C#-G#-Bb-G#-F#) for a “refrain” (“swinging on the back porch, jumping off a big log…”) that’s has a touch of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” And he sang Richman’s verses over a three-chord shift: (F#)”girls could not resist his stare/(G#)Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole/(Eb) Not in New York!”

For an intro, Gerry Leonard added an out-of-phase, panned “Spanish” lead guitar,** which later gets a solo with glum backing by Bowie’s foghorn of a baritone saxophone. There’s a chirpy hook on Yamaha Digital piano that sounds like it was incidental music for a Dell desktop, and some scraping rhythm guitar dubs mixed right (possibly Bowie’s refurbished Supro). Sterling Campbell’s drum tracks were among those Bowie had remixed at Allaire Studios to get a “bigger,” reverb-laden sound.

Bowie took “Picasso” at a brisk tempo (Cale had always wanted Richman to play the song faster) and sang it like a carnival barker with long, loopy phrases—he seems to be always trying to get one step ahead of the song. He said it was meant to be Reality‘s equivalent to his cover of the Pixies’ “Cactus” on Heathen, but his fizzy “Picasso” was more like the latter album’s goofy take on “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship.” Filming a concert in Rotterdam in 2003, a fan kept panning into the audience during this song—you can see various people singing “never got called an ASSHOLE!” at the top of their lungs. “Pablo Picasso” was always an anthem in spirit. Bowie just gave it some amplification, some bits of sweetening, kicked it out into the world again.

It’s a fitting bookend to Bowie’s other painter song, “Andy Warhol.” The latter is Bowie peering into a man who isn’t there, the song of a chancer looking to pick up a few tricks. “Pablo Picasso” is a happy cartoon, a bit of advice from a man who knows. After all, you could replace “Pablo Picasso” with “David Bowie” in the lyric and it would work nearly as well. Good luck coming up with a better rhyme, though.

pablo

Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003; (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.

Sources: Steven Lee Beeber’s The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk is good for Richman backstory; Joshua Clover’s “Terrorflu” (collected in Best Music Writing 2009) has a great one-page encapsulation on Richman’s “Roadrunner.” Any Richman interview that you come across is charming and funny.

* Cale was the band’s evangelist, distributing cassettes of the demo sessions to journalists and musicians in the mid-Seventies; it’s possible Bowie first heard the Modern Lovers this way.

** As you’ll see in the last clip, Richman also played cod-Spanish acoustic guitar solos when performing “Picasso” live in the 2000s.

Top: Tony Soprano, never called an asshole (well, sometimes). From Sopranos Season 4: “Mergers and Acquisitions,” first aired 3 November 2002; virile Pablo; Danny Fields, “Modern Lovers on the beach” ca. 1972.


Never Get Old

November 5, 2014

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Never Get Old.
Never Get Old (video).
Never Get Old (Vittel ad, edit).
Never Get Old (Today Show, 2003).
Never Get Old (Last Call With Carson Daly, 2003).
Never Get Old (Riverside Studio performance, 2003).
Never Get Old (Die Harald Schmidt Show, 2003).
Never Get Old (live, 2003).
Never Get Old (The Tonight Show, 2004).
Never Get Old (live, 2004).
Rebel Never Gets Old (2004).

Issued as a hook for Bowie’s first world tour in nearly 15 years, Reality became something else by the late 2000s: Bowie’s Last Album. With Bowie seemingly in retirement, there was a fair bit of fan resentment and bewilderment about this. Reality was really going to be the end? This was his Abbey Road, his Avalon? A “thrusty” (Bowie’s official adjective for it) album with a few covers? It would be as if he’d left the stage with Lodger, another oft-unloved record with which Reality has some affinities.

His return in 2013 loosed Reality from this trap. Now you can consider the record on more favorable terms: as an album whose songs were built to be blasted on stage, whose compositions were written quickly and fairly loosely, its tracks assembled like an Ikea table. The album of an older working artist, of a man used to himself, at an armistice with himself; someone happy not to take himself seriously (hope you’re happy, too). It’s the work of a man pissed off at the world but trying to keep it together for his kid’s sake. Not Bowie’s last album, but his latest album.

In interviews, Bowie hammered home that Reality lacked the thematic arc of Heathen, that there was “no through line” (he said this a half-dozen times) in the album, that it was just a collection of songs and a few covers pulled from a “Pin Ups 2” list. Yet as he said in the album’s promotional video, “going back on my word is part and parcel of what I do for you. Part of my entertaining factor is lying to you.”

There’s far more thematic structure in Reality than Bowie let on. Like Man Who Sold the World, it’s full of extreme figures—Picasso as a cock of the walk; a gluttonous rock star vampire (see below); a Dick Cheney stand-in—and diminished ones: disappointed wives and desperate husbands; various lonelyhearts. There’s death and scars and a long, shadowy sub-sequence in which David Jones buries David Bowie, one more time. And Bowie pulled all of this off lightly, even flippantly, as if he would keep doing it forever.

Some jokes, too. Take the Tezuka-eyed anime figure on the album cover: a record called Reality with a video-game avatar as its marquee artist. Another was the TV ad Bowie made for Vittel water (he had no qualms about this—“basic” TV was a primary means of promotion left to him, as radio and MTV wouldn’t play his new songs). Here he’s a chic brownstone owner (playing on the press’ current image of him) sharing house with his discarded personae. He walks off into the Soho morning, out for a coffee or a Bikram yoga session, leaving the old freaks back at home. He still looks great; he’s in on the joke.

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For some time, Bowie had been planning a major world tour, his first since Sound + Vision in 1990, once his daughter was old enough to travel regularly. The Heathen/Low-dominated sets of the 2002 tour needed an overhaul: some more oldies, but also some new, uptempo material. The fast pace and smaller clubs of his “Five Boroughs” NYC shows in October 2002 invigorated him. By year’s end, he was “percolating” with new songs, making demos via his home setup at the time: a Korg Trinity and a Seventies ARP Odyssey, a Korg Pandora effects processor and a lifetime’s accumulation of guitars (“I was back at home with the baby and wife and doing daily things, and I started writing immediately,” he told the Miami Herald). He got Tony Visconti back in the studio in January 2003.

At the time, Visconti was often renting the small Studio B in Philip Glass’ Looking Glass Studios on Broadway, walking distance from Bowie’s Soho home. So Bowie could keep to a domestic schedule—Internet binging or neighborhood walks in the early morning, breakfast with his daughter, off to the studio around 10 or 11 AM and back home by 7 PM for dinner. He could try out something on a keyboard at home, play it in the studio a few hours later, take the file home and listen to it that night.

Bowie and Visconti demoed about seven tracks (top melody sketches and scratch keyboard, bass and guitars over a click track), then began some overdubs, mainly guitar, vocals and keyboards. “Inevitably we’d hardly redo anything,” Visconti recalled to Sound on Sound. “I always record things carefully in the first place because I know we’re not going to redo them, and so a lot of the demo parts ended up on the final version.” (Visconti said “the bulk” of Reality was recorded into Logic Audio, with the Looking Glass Studio B board mainly used for monitoring tracks.)

After a break in which Bowie wrote and demoed more songs, he assembled a small group for rhythm tracks (cutting eight tracks in about eight days). It was just Bowie and Visconti, drummer Sterling Campbell and bassist/guitarist Mark Plati, all cramped into Studio B, with its 12′ x 10′ isolation booth. While Bowie could have rented the more spacious Studio A, he preferred being boxed in to get “a real tight New York sound,” as Visconti called it (Visconti also said he could better judge bass-end tones in the smaller studio).

This was the end of Plati’s work with Bowie. In the late Nineties, Plati had positioned himself as Bowie’s new right-hand man, and once Bowie and Reeves Gabrels parted company in 1999, Plati was ready to move up. But he hadn’t banked on the return of Tony Visconti to the fold, and the collapse of Toy (Plati’s baby) meant Visconti had the dominant hand. A source familiar with most of the musicians at the time noted Visconti had been gunning for Plati for a while and that Bowie had enjoyed the rivalry, as it bred good creative energy (he was an old hand at this, pitting Earl Slick against Carlos Alomar, Eno against Alomar, Reeves Gabrels against Mike Garson, etc.)

For Reality, Visconti recorded all the bass parts at the demo stage, often leaving Plati to have to trace over his lines (and Bowie preferred Visconti’s original takes on “The Loneliest Guy,” “Days” and “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon”). Visconti had looked a bit askance at Plati’s use of the Line 6 Bass Pod (a preamp that could let the player “dial up” the sound of whichever bass amp and cabinet they wanted), preferring to direct-inject his “very souped up ’67 [Fender] Precision” into the console.

Plati left before the Reality tour to take a gig with Robbie Williams, which he later regretted. He’d been used to Bowie fans, who were so devoted to the music that they knew every player’s name and backstory; now he was just an anonymous face backing a Star.

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By February 2003, a good chunk of the record was cut, though Bowie and Visconti weren’t happy with the drum sound, ultimately driving up to Allaire Studios near Woodstock, where they’d cut Heathen, to play Campbell’s drum tracks over Allaire’s massive ATC SCM150 monitors, then mixing that reverbed sound into Logic Audio.

For lead guitars, they brought in Earl Slick (cranking out his lines through an “enormous” Marshall stack), David Torn (charged with providing “atmospheres” as on Heathen, though he also got some lead riffs, like “New Killer Star”) and Gerry Leonard (mainly incidental work and solo spots, like the “Spanish” guitar on “Pablo Picasso”). Bowie also was keen to get into the mix some old Supro guitars that he’d bought on eBay, including a 1957 Dual Tone retrofitted by Flip Scipio and another patched-up 12-string Supro (heard on “Never Get Old,” among other tracks). Bowie also played scads of Korg Trinity, retrieved his old Selmer baritone saxophone for a few tracks and tried his hand at harmonica again (not heard since “Never Let Me Down” unless I’m (likely) forgetting something).

By May, Bowie and Visconti had pasted together a record, mixing sounds from a wide palette. Mike Garson recorded both synth and piano parts (the latter in California, with Garson putting the finished pieces into a ProTools file). Bowie typically sang three lead vocals for each track—one right after the rhythm tracks were cut, one midway through the sessions and one towards the start of mixing. Visconti synced them up (he’d made sure Bowie had used the same mic, a Manley Gold, for all takes) so that he could make a neat stitching job for a last vocal, following a line Bowie had sung in February with one he’d sung in May. And Bowie was in strong voice—having finally given up cigarettes, he’d recovered at least five semitones.

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You gotta stay young, man, you can never be old.

Mott the Hoople, “All the Way From Memphis.”

Unlike every other great genre of American pop, rock is all about being young or (if you are poor Mick Jagger) pretending to be young.

James Miller.

Wouldn’t that be fun, to age disgracefully?

Bowie, to the Sydney Morning Herald, 2003.

In 2001, the New York Press editor John Strausbaugh issued a manifesto, Rock ’til You Drop, attacking “colostomy rock” (the book had a cover photo of a wizened, grotesque-looking Mick Jagger): “Rock should simply not be played by 55-year-old men with triple chins wearing bad wighats, pretending to still be excited about playing songs they wrote 30 or 35 years ago…its prime audience should not be middle-aged, balding, jelly-bellied dads…Rock ‘n’ roll is not family entertainment.” (Bowie got a few brickbats, with Strausbaugh labeling him a “self-serving, egomaniacal, 52-year-old creep [conflating] all of rock ‘n’ roll with his own way-past-prime career”).

This was a sharper-pitched (Strausbaugh’s book is full of lurid Hogarth-esque descriptions of sadly aging musicians) version of an old argument: can a youth music grow old with dignity? Should there be some sort of Logan’s Run scenario where rock stars, after they hit 35, agree to kill themselves to spare us the sight of their aging? Bowie had avoided some of this by staying thin, keeping his hair and simply not seeming to age that much (even Strausbaugh admitted Bowie still looked hale in his 50s). But his sheer perseverance rankled Strausbaugh and other critics. Didn’t he know it was over? Wasn’t it a bit embarrassing, all the Internet Bowiebanc Omikron drum’n’bass business?

“Never Get Old” is Bowie’s response (did he read the book? you never know). Fuck you: I am the aging letch you hate, and there’s nothing you can do about it. “It’s a rather silly song,” he told Kurt Orzeck. “It’s kind of [about] a petulant 56-year-old.” To the Sun, Bowie added that “there’s the image of a petulant rock singer sitting in a half-darkened room saying, ‘I’m not gonna get old.’ I thought it was a funny image and I had to write it before someone else my age did.”

After all, this sort of “get off the stage, old man” warfare was in great part intra-generational: it was late Baby Boomers attacking early Baby Boomers. “Today we’re a generation of angry old men,” Bowie told Der Stern. He had a three-year old daughter for whom Joe Strummer, Johnny Cash, Lady Miss Keir and Trent Reznor would all be one great jumble, a collective past that would be as easy to pare and remix as he’d done for his latest album. But playing an aging, vain Baby Boomer egomaniacal creep was too juicy a role not to take on.

Singing “Never Get Old” was part of a growing cheekiness, a lack of reverence for his legend. Bowie had become grand enough of a monument that he could scrawl on it. Around this time he cut a remake of “Changes” with Butterfly Boucher, where he sang “look out, you rock ‘n rollers—pretty soon you’re gonna get older!” with gusto and happy irony. He recut “Rebel Rebel” as an aging rocker still playing at youth, then had it mashed up into “Never Get Old” for a tawdry single that would have made the likes of Strausbaugh retch.

never_get_old

“Never Get Old” is a bipolar song. The E major refrains are hectoring and bloated, with their set of whining guitars stuck in second gear. A grotesque rock star refuses to leave the table, instead filling his belly with more: cash, food, drugs, women (live, Bowie sang “never gonna be enough bullets!” while making a gun shape with his fingers: you’re never gonna be able to kill all of us). Underneath the latter half of the refrains is a grunting, moaning distorted bass figure: the gurgling stomach of the singer, or the factory work keeping his enterprise going.

He’s also feeding on his past. The winding verse melody is similar to that of “Karma Man,” while there’s a pun on old glories (“never gonna get Low“) and maybe even an Iggy Pop nod (“street of life” calls back to the “street of chance” of Pop/Bowie’s “Baby“). And not just his past. The last vocal tag, a soaring bit by Gail Ann Dorsey and Catherine Russell, mirrors the close of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Yet the verses and pre-choruses have none of this cheek. They’re built on tentative shifts up and down, like a man struck with doubts on a stairway. The verse starts on G major (“better take care”), sharpens the chord (“I think I’d better go better”) and in a breath makes it natural again (“get a room better take”) then moves down to F major (“care of me”). The second time round’s a lower descent, to E minor (..”history”). The pre-chorus does the same moves with C major (C: “forever,” C#: “this feeling that we’re going to be,” C: “living until the,” B-flat: “end of time”), then in a classic “really, Bowie?” progression, there’s a jarring shift from Bb to G# (“head hangs low”) to E-flat (“all over”) to E major to clear the path for the chorus.

These qualified, shaky movements, paced by a rhythm guitar (Torn?) that mainly nags at its G string, underscores a lyric marked by regret and loneliness. A man locks himself up in his room (painted blue, blue electric blue?). He goes to the movies, like the mousy-haired girl of “Life on Mars?,” hoping that when the star turns around for his close-up, he’ll acknowledge the little man in the stalls. The moon floats along with its stolen light (its airy progress the little piano break). The refrain is a lie.

A while ago, someone wrote on the “Space Oddity” post, arguing with my choice of words. I’d written “when Bowie dies” and the commenter took me to task: “surely you meant if?” It’s a wonderful protest, and a true one. It seems wrong to write that Bowie will ever die. He can’t die, he won’t die: we just won’t let him.

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Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003, (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality (ISO/Columbia COL 512555 2/ CK 90576, UK #3, US #29). A video for the song is included on the DualDisc version, one of the several supplemental editions of Reality, whose numbers also include the 2-CD version (with bonus tracks “Fly,” “Queen of the Tarts” and a remade “Rebel Rebel”), the “tour” version (which had a bonus DVD with the LP sequence performed live at Riverside Studio, plus “Waterloo Sunset” as a bonus (the Japanese CD also had the latter track)) and the SACD, which had Visconti’s Dolby 5.1 mixes for all tracks.

“Rebel Never Gets Old,” a mash-up assembled by Mark Vidler ca. March 2004, was issued as a single in the EU later that year (ISO-Columbia COL 674971) and also was available as an iTunes download.

Sources: Of particular help (to this and upcoming entries) was the marvelously detailed piece “Recording Reality” by Richard Buskin in the October 2003 issue of Sound on Sound. All technical details come from this article.

Top: Damiano, “Rainbow [Gathering] in Italia, 2002″; art for Reality (photos: Frank W. Ockenfels; design: Jonathan Barnbrook; illustrations: Rex Ray).


Waterloo Sunset

October 21, 2014

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Waterloo Sunset (The Kinks, 1967).
Waterloo Sunset (The Kinks, live, 1973).
Waterloo Sunset (Bowie and Ray Davies, live, 2003).
Waterloo Sunset (Bowie).

At his final (to date) Tibet House benefit concert in February 2003, Bowie duetted with Ray Davies on the latter’s “Waterloo Sunset.” Soon afterward Bowie recorded a cover of the song, at first slotted for Reality and ultimately issued as a bonus track. Apart from his cover of “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” on Pin Ups, it’s Bowie’s only overt Kinks homage,* but Davies was far greater an influence than this suggests. He was a fundamental element for Bowie; he’s in the bedrock of Bowie’s songwriting.

Bowie had met Davies in 1964, when the former’s King Bees were on the same bill as the Kinks for a brief tour of southern Britain, and for a time Bowie and Davies shared a producer in Shel Talmy. But Davies existed more as a guide on records for Bowie, teaching him how to structure songs, write top melodies, set up riffs, spin lyrical scenarios. You see it anywhere you look in Bowie’s Sixties work, from how the lovelorn “Baby Loves That Way” answers the Kinks’ “Nothing In This World” to how “See My Friends” haunts “The London Boys,” from the Davies-esque third-person character pieces of Bowie’s debut LP to the melodic and harmonic flavors from Kinks songs that turn up in later Bowie pieces (e.g., Iggy Pop’s “Baby,” which Bowie co-wrote, has bits of “Dead End Street” and “Sunny Afternoon” in it).

Yet covering “Waterloo Sunset” was still rather ambitious for Bowie: it would be like attempting to finally crack “A Day In the Life” in late middle age. “Waterloo Sunset” was a Kinks masterpiece, a capstone for an era. “I started writing a song about Liverpool that implied that the era of Merseybeat was coming to an end, but I changed it to ‘Waterloo Sunset’ not only because that gave me a bigger canvas to work on but because it was about London, the place where I had actually grown up,” Davies wrote in his “autobiography” X-Ray.

He’d felt possessive of the song as he wrote it, refusing to let his bandmates hear his lyric until backing tracks and backing vocals were cut.** “Even when the record was finished, it felt like a secret,” Davies wrote. “It was like an extract of a diary nobody was allowed to read.” When asked by a critic what the next Kinks single was, Davies pretended to have forgotten the song’s title.

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It came from a teenage memory: Davies standing on Waterloo Bridge, watching the brown Thames flow beneath him, having a vision of the river cresting its banks and submerging the Houses of Parliament.*** Many of his great Sixties songs share the sense that an older, homelier England is getting washed away by a fresh tide, leaving the “common” British man or woman stranded and wondering how to get home (if home’s even still there). While often using his large, ructious family as characters (Rosy, or his brother Dave as his swinging sister), Davies used for his lead actors in “Waterloo Sunset” the actors Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, beautiful gods of Swinging London (if there was a Wicked + Divine set in Sixties London, they’d be in the pantheon for sure). He cast himself as narrator, a shut-in who spends his days in his flat, watching life go by, turning the nameless people he sees into stories.

So “Waterloo Sunset” is a songwriter’s workbook. The composer sits at home alone, watching the young go about the business of life as he scratches out ideas in his notebook. There’s too much relentless life out there: the dirty river, flowing ever eastward to the sea (counterpoint to the lazy old sun, ever ballooning westward). The millions of people entering Waterloo Station, pooling from all across London and streaming in veins outward to the suburbs. Waterloo Bridge itself (the opening and closing scene of Alfie), its name Britain’s fading glory, now a commuter’s walkway and a meeting place for lovers, a still point for old dreamers.

Davies was often depressed in the Sixties, worn down by band and managerial politics, struggling with financial problems (he was writing #1 hits yet was often broke). He said he felt he was supposed to have given up years before. The Kinks were just meant to get a few top hits and break up, letting the record company move on to brighter things. But he kept at it. In 1967 he was still writing songs in the shadow of the favored likes of the Beatles. The Beatles promised the world could be new; Davies stayed home to keep a record of what was being decommissioned: steam trains, china shops, Victoriana, palais halls, dance bands. Must you keep flowing? As long as you have one corner of London to claim, you’re not dead yet. Sunset’s the end of the day, but it lingers for a while in the summer.

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The Kinks’ recording of “Waterloo Sunset” was marked by happenstance and their typically erratic studio habits. After puzzling how to process Dave Davies’ lead guitar, they wound up piping it through tape delay (“almost like a Fifties-type ‘triplet’ delay,” Dave recalled) while Ray’s rhythm guitar was a scrappy undercurrent in the mix, barely audible at times. The song’s beautiful melancholia was in the backing vocals–the Davies brothers and the essential Rasa Davies, the grace of many Sixties’ Kinks tracks—which soar upward while the chromatic bassline trudges downward.

Having sung “Waterloo Sunset” as a joyous full-band piece at the Tibetan concert, with Bowie serving as the high end of the harmonies, Bowie crafted a bright, even peppy version of the song in the studio. Why he felt the need to chase away the blues of the song, to make essentially a “Waterloo Sunrise,” is another question. There was something of a precedent: a Kinks TV version from 1973 with horns and a host of singers, where the refrains were a carnival retort to Davies’ humble verses.

But Bowie mainly just scrubbed away the soot, his embellishments including a nagging two-note synthesizer riff, a handclap-fattened Sterling Campbell hitting on every beat in the intro, and a “theremin” squiggle to transition back to verses. The song hustled, sparkled; it pushed you along. Bowie discarded most of the Kinks’ harmonies, only doubling himself at the octave in refrains (one of his voices was almost conversational). He wrote a new set of backing vocals for the last verse, some “ooh-LA-las” in slight debt to the Beatles’ “You Won’t See Me.” Only in the coda did he finally bring in the echoing, plangent harmonies of the original. He sounded as if he was in competition with himself.

The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” offered that in a world consumed with movement, often going nowhere, sometimes you could find an escape hole, like Terry and Julie do (were they catching a train out of town?) Bowie’s version has no need for hideaways. It’s the sound of a winner’s Sixties, a flattened Sixties; it seems intended as cheery in-flight music for Virgin Airlines.

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Bowie and Davies’ performance was at Carnegie Hall, 28 February 2003. Bowie’s version was recorded ca. January-April 2003, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 November 2003 as a “cyber-single” download in the UK (some BowieNet members got the track earlier on a promo CD), and also included on the “tour” edition of Reality, which included a DVD with the entire album sequence played live at Riverside Studios in Sept. 2003.

* Bowie also played Kinks hits on stage with the likes of the Manish Boys and the Lower Third in the mid-Sixties, and he’s thrown in bits of “All Day and All of the Night” in a few live performances over the years.

** Likely some poetic license here on Davies’ part (X-Ray is far from an “official” autobiography), as his brother recalled Ray playing the developing “Waterloo Sunset” to him and “we started ad-libbing vocal parts around the chorus.”

*** Davies described the Thames as “bright brown, almost red…like blood flowing through a great vein,” which does suggest another lament for a “lost” England, Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech from 1968.

Top: “Gadget (Ben),” “London, Mayday 2003;” “Waterloo Station, 1967“; Waterloo Sta., still from John Schlesinger’s Terminus (1961); dirty old river, still flowing under Waterloo Bridge, 2003 (Bruno Girin).


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