Hole In the Ground

February 17, 2014

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Hole In the Ground.

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!” He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house…

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

Be like the sun
Never gone
Sleep long and fast
Let the past be the past

Broadcast, “Long Was the Year.”

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Aaargh, that Tony Newley stuff, how cringey. No, I haven’t much to say about that in its favor.

Bowie, Musician, 1990.

For a long time, Bowie’s Sixties had begun in 1969: he hadn’t existed prior to “Space Oddity.” Whatever came before that record was mere juvenilia. His Decca, Parlophone and Pye singles, his Deram album, “The Laughing Gnome,” the King Bees and Manish Boys and the Buzz and the Riot Squad, five years of candled ambition: all of it was buried, its obscurity encouraged.

It was also hard to find some of these records—they crept in and out of print, the tracks shuffled through decades’ worth of shabby collections. Bowie didn’t own the rights to the songs, and seemed indisposed to licensing them, so “The London Boys” was never on any career retrospective despite the song being a foundational work—“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and Diamond Dogs, among a fleet of others, are inconceivable without it.

A few things aligned at last. His pre-Philips material was thoroughly compiled on two CD reissues: Rhino’s 1991 Early On and 1997’s Deram Anthology (Bowie was involved in producing the latter, which unfortunately meant two outtakes from David Bowie—“Bunny Thing” and “Pussy Cat”—were cut from the track list). And the Sixties affectations of high Britpop—Blur’s “Country House” wasn’t that far removed from “Join the Gang“— gave the oldest Bowie records a context: they had somehow become hip. It’s surprising one of Bowie’s Pye singles didn’t wind up on the Rushmore soundtrack. “Some of my recent albums have been picked up by the ’90s generation, but they don’t know the early stuff,” Bowie told GQ in 2000. “I think it’s a surprise when they hear them…and think ‘did he write that?‘”

It could’ve been a preemptive strike, covering himself before someone like Oasis did. Bowie, taping a VH1 Storytellers in August 1999, resurrected his first major composition, “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” playing it for the first time since the Marquee Club days of 1966. While he introduced the song by ridiculing its lyric, it cooked on stage, thanks to Sterling Campbell’s drumming—it felt fresher than the ‘hours’ songs he was debuting. (Playing it allowed Mark Plati “to work out a lot of Who fantasies on stage, thank you very much.”) And in a few live dates later that year, Bowie revived “I Dig Everything.” (Mike Garson said they played “Karma Man” and “Conversation Piece” in rehearsals.)

So Bowie’s first web journal entry of the new century noted that he would re-record songs he’d released between 1964-1969, “not so much a Pin Ups II as an Up Date I.” As typical with Bowie, the idea quickly ballooned in scope. As with “What’s Really Happening?” the recording sessions for Up Date I would be broadcast via webcam. And he wouldn’t only remake his old singles, he’d revive songs which hadn’t even made the cut back then. He would draw from his legion of ghost songs, those that fans knew only as their titles: Ernie Johnson, “Black Hole Kids,” “It’s Gonna Rain Again” and, see below, “Hole In the Ground.”

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“I know what happens when I play the classics,” he sneers a little impatiently. “So why would I want to do it again? Other than for financial remuneration, which I frankly don’t need.”

Bowie, Q interview, 1997.

In February 2000, Bowie and Iman told the press that she was pregnant. He would be a father again at 53. He also said he would play the Glastonbury Festival for the first time since 1971 (when he’d also been a new father). Soon afterward he hired Earl Slick, who hadn’t played with him since the Serious Moonlight tour, as his new lead guitarist: a sharp swerve from the now-confirmed-departed Reeves Gabrels.

As Iman was due in August, Bowie planned a burst of activity for June and early July: a handful of NYC live shows that would double as rehearsals for the Glastonbury gig and for what he was now calling “the Sixties album,” which he planned to cut immediately upon his return to New York. “I hate to waste the energy of a show-honed band,” he told Time Out. “I’ve pulled together a selection of songs from a somewhat unusual reservoir and booked time in a studio. I still get really elated by the spontaneous event and cannot wait to sit in a claustrophobic space with seven other energetic people and sing till my tits drop off.” Plati would go to work mixing Bowie’s 1968-1972 BBC sessions (yet another reclamation: Bowie at the Beeb would be issued in September) and then would pivot to mixing “the Sixties album” in the fall.

During rehearsals, Bowie worked his band (the Hours touring unit plus Slick) through his abandoned catalog, reviving all but two of his 1964-1966 singles (“I Pity the Fool” was superfluous, “Do Anything You Say” perhaps too dire a composition to salvage) and the cream of the Deram years (sadly, not the Gnome). He didn’t want the band to be reverent; he wanted them to crack their way into the songs, pull them out of their shells. “We weren’t out to duplicate the original tracks at all,” Plati said.

As a prelude, Bowie fully gave himself over to his past, with setlists meant to make old Bowie fans weep. The first Roseland gig, a three-hour extravagance that blew out Bowie’s voice, opened with the four-shot of “Wild Is the Wind,” “Life on Mars?” “Golden Years” and “Changes,” most of which he’d hadn’t played in a decade. He unearthed rarely-played classics (“Absolute Beginners,” not performed since 1987) and debuted “This Is Not America” on stage; at the June 19 gig, he played “London Boys” for the first time in nearly 35 years. It also gave Gail Ann Dorsey a rare chance to play clarinet.

He flew to the UK, where he sang “Starman” on television for the first time since the Heath ministry (why not? it was getting to the point where you expected him to appear in Ziggy Stardust makeup); two days later, he headlined Glastonbury.

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I haven’t been here for 30 years and I’m having a fucking great time!

Bowie, quoted by the NME at Glastonbury.

In the year of its birth, 1971, Glastonbury was among the free festivals starting to crop up around Britain. Fitting for a show held in the shadow of Glastonbury Tor, its pyramid-shaped stage was constructed on a ley-line. It was free admission for the 12,000 or so hippies who’d made their way out to Somerset. Bowie played a set at dawn: just him, his 12-string acoustic and a piano. For the wakening crowd, he offered, for the first time, the breadth of Hunky Dory, from “Quicksand” to “Kooks.”

Glastonbury was in retrospect one of Bowie’s most critical live performances: the sunny reception he got was the best experience he’d had in years. He’d stopped solo live performance after his acoustic/mime shows had bombed in 1969. In the summer of 1971, Bowie was still unsure whether he wanted to be a performer at all. Given the songs he was now racking up, he thought he could be primarily a songwriter, like his friend Lesley Duncan. But that morning in Glastonbury confirmed him as a stageman: Ziggy Stardust would play his first show half a year later.

In 2000, Glastonbury was charging £87 tickets and drawing crowds of 100,000. Its recent headliners had included Blur, Oasis, Primal Scream, Pulp and Prodigy. Bowie came back as some lost king regnant of British music, wearing what looked like an eccentric bishop’s vestments, his hair in flowing golden locks; he gently proceeded to make everyone else on the bill (his co-headliners were Travis and the Chemical Brothers) look second-rate. He led off with “Wild Is the Wind,” exorcised “Station to Station” with Slick in tow: for an encore he did “Ziggy Stardust,” “‘Heroes’,” “Let’s Dance” and a stonking “I’m Afraid of Americans.” The papers went mad: “a masterclass of superstardom” (the Mirror), “an object lesson in How to Be a Rock Star”(the Times); “a level beyond and above everyone else at this festival” (NME).

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BBC executive producer Mark Cooper, who was recording the festival, was frustrated that Bowie’s management let him only broadcast six songs from the set (presumably because they were considering releasing the Glastonbury show as a live CD). “It was painful” to cut away from Bowie, he told Paul Trynka. “An artist can be reborn with a performance like that, get another 10 years in their career…I think [denying the full broadcast] was a mistake. Because this was the moment.”

But what was the moment? Was there something sad in all of this ecstatic reclamation, this genial reconquest, with Bowie even wearing his hair at Hunky Dory length? You could regard it as some traveling grand self-entombment. In the year 2000, which he’d feared and talked up and prophesied for much of his life, Bowie wound up playing the nostalgist. A stunningly capable one, sure, but still, he was someone who’d greeted the new millennium by playing songs from 1966 again.

That said, he was in line with one mood of the time. The hooks of the old century were still barbed in the new one: it was as if the culture still couldn’t shake the Sixties’ idea of the future, a future that, of course, hadn’t come true, but one which still seemed more of a “real” future than the one we were now living in. There were still ghosts everywhere. Take the through-line of “Sixties” droning organ across a swath of 2000 records: Broadcast’s “Come On Let’s Go,” Yo La Tengo’s “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” Blonde Redhead’s “This Is Not,” Ladytron’s “Another Breakfast with You,” Clinic’s “Distortions,” Radiohead’s “Morning Bell.” (If you wanted the sound of a new future, you had to listen to Aaliyah or OutKast.)

So what did Bowie intend with his own “Sixties record”? He’d let in the past again: what was he going to do with it?

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The album soon got the working title of Toy (likely from “Baby Loves That Way” and/or “London Boys”). Its basic tracks were cut in about nine days in early July 2000 at Sear Sound, whose 2,500-square-foot studio boasted two isolation booths: one set aside for vocals, the other housing Mike Garson’s collection of keyboards, including a Fender Rhodes (which he hadn’t played since Young Americans) and a Hammond B3 organ. Earl Slick soon had a sense of déjà vu. A walk around the place made him realize that he was in the old Hit Factory, where he’d cut Double Fantasy with John Lennon twenty years earlier. “It really freaked him out,” Plati recalled.

True to his plans, Bowie had flown in his band days after the Glastonbury concert and essentially had them plug in and rip through the songs. (He’d ditched the webcast idea.) In roughly a week they cut 13 tracks, complete with full Bowie vocals. The engineer Pete Keppler recalled Bowie “belting his brains out while the band was just roaring away behind him,” while Plati hadn’t seen Bowie so excited since the first Earthling sessions (another album cut right after a tour to feed off a band’s energy). Bowie was economical beyond his usual habits: he’d cut a first-take lead vocal, then overdub himself on the second take, then add further harmonies for every further take (Plati: “his final vocal would be finished by the time the band had gotten it right!”). Bowie and Plati even managed to hustle in Tony Visconti to score a 14-piece string section for a few tracks.

What Bowie had at the end of the Sear Sound sessions almost certainly included these 11 revivals—a link to the Toy track, if extant, is found in the original entry (* = not circulating, but reportedly recorded):

“Liza Jane”
“You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”
“Baby Loves That Way”
“Can’t Help Thinking About Me”*
“I Dig Everything”
“The London Boys”
“Silly Boy Blue”
“Let Me Sleep Beside You”
“Karma Man”*
“In the Heat of the Morning”
“Conversation Piece”

There was also a track known as “Secret 1” (allegedly Dorsey’s favorite) which Nicholas Pegg rightly (IMO) surmises was likely the revived “Shadow Man.” My guess for the other completed track is another ghost song.

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‘Hole in the Ground’ was written by David, Herbie Flowers on bass, Tim Renwick on guitar and Terry Cox on drums. Also David was playing guitar on it. What year was it?…1971, I think. Apart from David, I think I have the only copy in existence.

George Underwood, May 2006 interview with The Voyeur.

It was fitting that George Underwood got caught up in Bowie’s Sixties revival, if indirectly. Underwood was one of Bowie’s oldest friends: he’d played with him in the King Bees; his girlfriend had inspired Bowie’s “Janine”; he’d accompanied Bowie on his first US tour (where he may have kicked off “Jean Genie” by playing Yardbirds songs on the bus). Most of all, Underwood was partially responsible for Bowie’s look (starting, of course, by hitting Bowie in the eye as a teenager and so leaving Bowie’s pupil permanently dilated): he drew the back cover of Space Oddity and designed the covers of albums from Hunky Dory to Low.

Underwood is the control in an experiment in which Bowie’s the radical element: his life can seem an alternate edition of Bowie’s. Considered as handsome, charismatic and talented as his bandmate in the King Bees, Underwood also cut an unsuccessful single or two in the mid-Sixties. But by the end of the decade, he’d become the artist that Bowie would occasionally play at being, founding the Main Artery Studio in 1971. And sometime in the Seventies, Underwood bailed out of the professional music game for good (one story is that a bad acid trip led to a nervous breakdown).

Bowie wrote “Hole in the Ground” for Underwood around 1970. It was his part of his bid to help Underwood make it as a singer—he also wrote “Song for Bob Dylan” and “We Should Be on By Now” (the ur-“Time”) for him—but it was also a feint to benefit his own career. In 1971, Bowie couldn’t release songs under his own name for a time due to his manager’s label/publisher negotiations, so he put out his new compositions under aliases (see the Arnold Corns) or used his friends as masks (see Mickey King’s “Rupert the Riley” or Dana Gillespie’s “Andy Warhol”).

As the original “Hole in the Ground” has never leaked, it’s impossible to know how much of it was altered for the Toy remake. Mike Garson described the Toy version as a jam that the band developed in the studio. If I had to guess, I’d say little fundamentally was changed. The lyric’s in line with Bowie’s lesser works of 1970-1971 (its title may homage Bernard Cribbins): it’s a depressive love ballad with some apocalyptic portents (the hole in the ground mirrors of the “crack in the sky” in “Oh! You Pretty Things”). Some of its vocal phrasing, and the acoustic guitar strum patterns in the verse, call back to “Janine,” and the song shares with “Janine” a slacking-off in lieu of an ending, with its chorus repeated long enough to double as a coda.

Its revival was performed well—Garson’s keyboards gave fresh backdrops to the verses and refrains, and Campbell and Dorsey (who homages Herbie Flowers’ bassline on “Walk on the Wild Side”* and gets in a nice sloping bass fill or two) shone in particular—but its reappearance mainly argued that Bowie had been right in deep-sixing “Hole In the Ground” back in 1970. Time hadn’t improved the song, only made it somewhat novel.

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So Bowie had the basics for a new record, one that would capstone a year he’d dedicated to his youth. After taking some time off to be a father, all he’d have to do is a cut few overdubs, mix the tracks and send Toy on its way. Then onto something new with Visconti. Toy would take its seat in the canon, and the past would be the past again… [to be continued]

* Of course the intriguing question is whether Flowers had originally come up with that bassline for “Hole in the Ground” and later recycled it for Lou Reed.

Sources: For this, and the upcoming run of entries, Dan LeRoy’s The Greatest Music Never Sold, which devotes a chapter to Toy, was invaluable. Also, Teenage Wildlife and Bowie Wonderworld, as each was founded in the late Nineties, serve as “real time” documentation of Bowie during this time: interviews, setlists, BowieNet comments, journal entries and chats, etc. Having spent some frustrating months trying to verify details from the shakily-remembered and legend-prone Diamond Dogs era, it’s a blessing to have such an amount of concrete information available.

Top to bottom: Bowie’s life in pictures, 2000.


Look Back In Anger

July 22, 2011

Look Back In Anger.
Look Back In Anger (live, 1983).
Look Back In Anger (remake, 1988).
Look Back In Anger (broadcast, 1988).
Look Back In Anger (live, 1995).
Look Back In Anger (live, 1996).
Look Back In Anger (live, 2002).

“Look Back In Anger” reflects Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”; each is the clouded mirror of the other. Like “Man,” “Anger” is the record of a visitation, one that, in “Anger”‘s case, ends with a death (or at least a proposed one). If Lodger and Scary Monsters are Bowie finally considering the prospect of decline and tearing himself up, sampling and dispersing himself, “Look Back In Anger” is at the heart of these records. It’s a dry, weird farewell to a muse, decades before Bowie (apparently) stopped recording and performing.

Bowie had written the lyric of “Man Who Sold the World” as he sat in a studio reception room, under pressure to get a vocal on tape so the album would be finished. With no time to second guess or overwrite, Bowie seemed to transcribe lines straight out of mind: it was a pop lyric as dream journal. Writing “Man” triggered something, it freed Bowie from the stiltedness and strain of much of his late ’60s work, and reconnected him to what he had first touched with “Space Oddity.” It was, in retrospect, the start of Bowie’s mature songwriting—in the months after he wrote “Man” suddenly came “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Quicksand,” “Life on Mars,” “Bewlay Brothers,” “Moonage Daydream.” “Man” was the key that fit the lock.

So on the far end of a decade that Bowie, in part, had authored was “Anger,” which sets the stage for the even grander renunciation of “Ashes to Ashes.” In “Man” the singer passes someone on the stair. They’ve already met, or they will one day. “I thought you died alone, a long, long time ago,” the other marvels. “Look Back in Anger” is, perhaps, when he died; it’s the same encounter, as seen from another perspective; it’s the second meeting of the two at a later time. It’s funny, too: an archangel appears and no one pays him any mind. So he flicks through a magazine and waits, bored, for whatever cataclysm he’s come to presage or deliver.

Bowie’s best lyrics can seem like fragments of overheard conversations with himself. The verse and refrain of “Anger” are some of the strangest, though they’re in simple and clear language:

“You know who I am,” he said.
The speaker was an angel.
He coughed and shook his crumpled wings, closed his eyes and moved his lips.
“It’s time we should be going.”

It’s recitative: no rhymes, no rhythms, a disjunct melody. The pacing is also off: there’s a two-bar gap between the first and second lines, enough time to make you wonder if “you know who I am” is the only line in the verse, then there’s a sudden tumble of words. Bowie’s performance hangs between the sublime and the ludicrous. As with “Station to Station,” Bowie is the only rock singer who could sing lines like these with a straight face and not, somehow, seem like a buffoon. He sounds like he’s trying to do the voice of Yahweh, then croaks out “angel” (an echo back to “Golden Years”) and “going.”

The eight-bar refrain is a statement: Bowie placed it within quotation marks on the LP lyric sheet. But who says it? Only the angel has spoken so far. If the chorus is his, then the refrain commands the singer to assess the ruins of his life before departing it. Look back in anger—see how much you’ve wasted, look what never came to be. But the refrain could equally be the narrator’s fervent response, the words of someone who’s long awaited death, who seems to have craved it since birth. The title phrase becomes a dark joke, a dying man indignant at ever having been alive.*

Fittingly, the refrain’s a duet. Tony Visconti’s backing vocals open the chorus: plaintive, narrow in range, sounding like John Lennon’s sped-up backing vocals on Sgt. Pepper tracks like “She’s Leaving Home.” Then in the fourth bar Bowie sweeps on stage, almost an octave higher than Visconti. Bowie’s part is a long fall to earth. He sings the title line as a descending triplet (“look-back-in“, G#-F#-E) then strangles out “anger,” which again falls over three notes; he breaks the pattern with the upward push of “driven by the” (or “see it in my“) that sags on its last note (“night” or “eyes”), and he ends the chorus with another descending triplet, now an octave lower than his arrival (“till-you-come“), coming to a stop on the root note, F#.

That’s all the song is, really, barring the four-bar bridge (“no one seemed to hear him“) that passes in a flash, and Carlos Alomar’s 16-bar guitar solo (see below). “Anger,” in E major, follows a basic progression of E/D/A/F#m/C/G, used for both verse and chorus, while the bridge is simply the last two chords of the sequence severed from the original progression.

“Anger,” cerebral and odd, could’ve expired on the heights but it’s invigorated by a strong, propulsive rhythm track—Sean Mayes pounding the bass end of his piano, Alomar’s guitar darting and jabbing around Dennis Davis’ drumming (George Murray’s bass seems to have gone missing, though, a victim of one of the muddier mixes on the album).

When Bowie asked him for a guitar break to fill a chorus, Alomar, weary of the lead guitar acrobatics that defined much of Bowie’s’70s records, instead thought “if I’m going to take a solo, I’m going to take a rhythm guitar solo,” as he told David Buckley, adding that his inspiration was Lennon’s rhythm work on Beatles’ records. Another influence or, more directly, challenge was Nile Rodgers, who by late ’78 was making his name with Chic. Alomar and Rodgers were the same age and had been friends as teenagers in New York, and both had cut their teeth in session work and journeyman R&B bands. Rodgers’ guitar style—building riffs out of a set of syncopated chords with shortened tones, as he tended to only strum three strings at a time (see here)—echoed Alomar’s, and “Anger” can seem like Alomar translating Rodgers, or going him one better: Alomar’s solo is a volley between two contrasted, but fairly similar, lightning-fast riffs. Again, a pairing in a song full of them.

Davis doesn’t drive the track as much as he ferments it: ringing the bell on his ride cymbal throughout, playing a rolling fill that matches Bowie’s sudden run of words. He annexes whatever spaces he finds open, using every type of fill imaginable, hi-hat, snare, toms. Davis kicks off the track a beat before the rest of the band, similar to how he had punched in “What in the World.”

Eno’s contributions are smears of sound, giving the track an ominous, gauzy backdrop. Sifting through Mountain Studios’ brass collection, Eno had found a huntsman’s horn (called “horse trumpet” on the sleeve) and a French horn that he renamed the “Eroica horn,” referencing the horn’s prominence in Beethoven’s 3rd.** Each horn is so processed and distorted they could as well be guitars or synthesizers. There’s also a theremin (a real one, or a simulation?), first appearing at 2:30 in the video linked above, just after the final refrain ends.

Bowie and David Mallet filmed a promo for the song in 1979, where Bowie, in an artist’s loft, paints himself as an angel and then, reverse-Dorian Gray style, transforms into a grotesque with paint- and clay-encrusted skin. In the final shot, Bowie drags himself up the stairs and crawls under his bed. It’s as though he’s been made leprous by his art, and he’s sickened by himself.

It’s one resolution, at least—the song itself offers none. The narrative just stops, as there’s no second verse after the bridge where the angel, bored, seemed indifferent to how the encounter played out. Bowie’s singing, however, adds a last piece of drama, as the final refrain finds him breaking the descending vocal pattern, instead willing himself to push upward: look BACK in AN-ger! Feel it in my VOICE! with the final “till you come” a slow, final surrender.

“Anger,” one of Bowie’s major songs of the late ’70s, never got the attention it merited, so it’s similar to “Man Who Sold the World” in that regard (though it never had a revival like Nirvana gave the latter). Released as a single only in the US and Canada, it went nowhere.

Bowie went back to it in 1988, revising “Anger” for a series of concerts and, soon afterward, he cut a new version of the song, extending it over seven minutes. The attempt seems to have been to make the song more epic but it just seems longer, with Bowie not altering the vocal line in any substantive way, leaving Erdal Kizilcay on drums and bass to add some flash, though his metronomic drumming suffers when compared with Davis’ exuberant performance. The revised “Anger” is also the first appearance on a Bowie record of Reeves Gabrels, and it previews Gabrels’ work with Bowie over the next decade—Gabrels offers a mix of go-for-broke adventurism and a lack of restraint.

Recorded September 1978 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and March 1979 at the Record Plant, NYC. Released as a single in the US and Canada in August 1979 (RCA PB 11724, c/w “Repetition,” didn’t chart). The 1988 studio remake first appeared on the Ryko CD issue of Lodger in 1991; it’s currently out of print. Played during the 1983 tour, in 1988, the mid-’90s tours and in 2002, including a BBC Radio 2 special on 18 September 2002 (eventually issued on An Evening With David Bowie).

* Of course the title is also referencing John Osbourne‘s classic 1957 play, though as one commenter said, the lyric of “Repetition” is far more a reference to Osbourne’s work than “Anger” is.

** Especially the French horn’s “mistaken” early theme recapitulation in the first movement (around 5:40 in Bernstein’s performance of it here).

Top: Alan Denney, “Michael Ferreira Funeral,” Stoke Newington, December 1978.


Station To Station

December 23, 2010

Station to Station.
Station to Station (rehearsal, 1976).
Station to Station (live, 1976).
Station to Station (live, 1978).
Station to Station (’78 live edit, from Christiane F., 1981).
Station to Station (live, 1983).
Station to Station (live, 1990).
Station to Station (live, 2004).

1. One of the many lies we tell children is that there’s no limit to the imagination. Of course there is. Even the most consuming and perceptive of minds reaches its borders and retreats. Expanding the mind is dog’s work, as grueling as it’s often fruitless; few attempt it, fewer succeed in it, and those who do often come out twisted and torn. In 1975, binging on cocaine, living in paranoid isolation and making a rock record, David Bowie succeeded.

Not sleeping for days, unable to turn off his mind, Bowie instead read, book after book: on the occult (Aleister Crowley, Pauwels and Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians), on tarot and defensive magic (Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense), on the historic/symbolic obsessions of Nazis (Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny), on numerology, on the secret history of Christianity, on UFOs, on the Kabbalah, on political conspiracies (it’s unknown whether Bowie picked up The Illuminatus! Trilogy, first published in 1975, but it sure seems like he did). He supplemented his diet with Krautrock records (especially Neu! and Kraftwerk’s Autobahn) and German Expressionist films.

So by the time he wrote “Station to Station,” mainly in the studio, Bowie’s mind was like a swath of exposed film in a camera whose shutter was stuck open. “Station to Station” inventories his obsessions, makes a mandala of his loose thoughts. The lyric often reads like grandiose gibberish and yet it hits upon the sublime. “Station to Station” seems the culmination of Bowie’s musical life; it’s his masterpiece, for better or worse. Bowie’s previous work seems like preludes to it, his subsequent music lives in its shadow.

2.

Uprooted from his native context in the cultural artifice of Europe, isolated in a largely unironic and cultureless alien land, Bowie was forced back on himself, a self he didn’t much like.

Ian MacDonald.

As a child in Bromley, Bowie had wanted to be an American. This was a fairly common aspiration among his generation, but Bowie took it seriously, as he did most things. The first public mention of David Robert Jones is the Bromley Kentish Times of 11 November 1960 (“Limey Kid Loves Yank Football”), in which the 13-year-old Jones is shown introducing American football into his London suburb, equipped with shoulder pads and a helmet that he received from the US Embassy. A few years later, Bowie and his friend George Underwood would walk around Bromley pretending they were Yanks, so as to better pull girls. And the first Bowie singles were fumbling attempts at code cracking—“Liza Jane,” a noisy ghost of an American Civil War-era ballad; “Take My Tip”’s milkbar beatnik vamp; Bowie’s attempts in “I Pity The Fool,” or “And I Say to Myself” to mimic a black American’s singing voice.

Now, in ’75, Bowie was living in America, feted by Americans, a regular guest star on American TV. He wasn’t just living in America: he was in Hollywood, in the westernmost reaches of an ungovernable, adolescent country. To get there, he had left behind seemingly everyone who had helped to form him—his wife, his child, his half-brother Terry, his mother, his old manager Ken Pitt, the mime Lindsay Kemp. His old fellow players: Hutch, Bolan, Ronno, Bolder and Woodmansey. To live in America, even as a guest or an observer, was for Bowie something like becoming an original Christian—divesting yourself of everything you own or love. And he was left with himself.

In the opening lines of “Station to Station,” Bowie paints himself as a Prospero in an exile of his own devising. Here am I,” Bowie sang. Tall in my room overlooking the ocean.” As uncanny, as wonderfully weird, as these first incantatory lines of “Station to Station” are, they ultimately suggest a diminished figure, a man reduced to his shadow. Bowie had once sung about exploring space, transcending time, becoming a rock god: now he’s confined to a room, casting spells that flash back on himself, pacing in his circle.

3.

Oh, Mother Goose,
she’s on the skids.
Shoe ain’t happy,
neither are the kids.

Neil Young, “Ambulance Blues.”

For much of this time, Bowie was living as a guest in a mansion in Benedict Canyon, Hollywood. The stories of his confinement have piled up over the years, rumors and half-lies and intricate fictions. They make the fleshy center of most Bowie biographies, of course, because it’s the juicy stuff: Bowie was convinced someone was trying to kill him and kept a loaded gun in the house. Bowie saw UFOs daily, often at sunset. A groupie recalled him tracing swastikas on windows. He lit candles, drew pentagrams on the floors. He thought he was being tailed by the CIA, who sent undercover agents into his home in the guise of aspiring scriptwriters. Bowie stored his piss in jars in his refrigerator. He was convinced the Rolling Stones were talking to him via their LP covers. Bowie believed he was in a secret duel with Jimmy Page to become head warlock and chief Aleister Crowley acolyte. He thought he would be named Prime Minister of the UK after some transition to neo-Fascism.

Most of these tales weren’t true, but they could have been. Bowie was living in a fetid pool of rumors, echoes, junkie laments; he was holding court in a circle of vampires. Having staked his lot with the future, Bowie instead wound up shackled by the past, lost in the old heresies, the moonlit religions, tales from the plague years. The Sixties had churned much of this stuff up: it had risen to the surface in the wake of the failed revolutions, had been reborn in airport paperbacks, radio call-in programs, newspaper astrology columns.

So “Station to Station” is filled with the wrack of a dozen religions and cults. Flashing no color—the Golden Dawn Tattva, a meditational system. Does my face show some kind of glowKirlian photography, with which Bowie was enamored, photographing his fingertips before and after using cocaine. The European canon—a play on the Pāli Canon, a set of Theravadan Buddhist scriptures. The stations to stations themselves, both of the Cross and, perhaps, of the train trip Bowie had made across the USSR and Eastern Europe in 1973. Making sure white stains—an Aleister Crowley poem (who also, according to legend, once threw a dart at a pair of lovers). Drink to the men who protect you and I—fascist icons, or the seven world-bringing Archons of the Gnostics, or Buddhist lamas (Bowie reportedly telephoned his old mentor, Chimi Rinpoche (“Silly Boy Blue”) and begged him to come to Los Angeles to rescue him). And the reference to the 10 sephirot of the Kabbalistic tree of life, with Bowie falling from kether, the godhead, to malkuth, the material world, the sphere at the greatest remove from God.*

As such,”Station” is reminiscent of Bowie’s earlier “Quicksand,” another inventory of obsessions, another dalliance with Crowley and Nazi imagery. Yet the singer of “Quicksand” seems harrowed, terrified of going mad: the man singing “Station to Station” already is, or welcomes it.

4.

Like over here, it’s bright young Americans, you know, the lilting phrase before the crashing crescendo. In England it’s a dirge—the days are all grey over there. It’s a bit worrying.

Bowie, interviewed in the NME, 1975.

The return of the Thin White Duke. Bowie’s agent of liberation from America was a wastrel aristocrat, some collateral descendant of minor royalty, roaming from city to city, leaving behind a string of rent boys and unpaid hotel bills. (A “thin white duke” could also be read as a line of cocaine, but really, about every line in the song could double as a coke metaphor.)

The visual inspiration for Bowie’s Thin White Duke character—emaciated, ghoulish, dapper—seems partly to have been Joel Grey’s Emcee from Cabaret. Most of all, though, the Duke seems like a disco-era Edward VIII, who Bowie mildly resembled. Like Bowie’s Duke, Edward VIII (who became a Duke after his abdication) had an air of shabby gentility, impeccable manners masking an amoral heart, and had the taint of Nazism—here the former king is reviewing SS troopers on a pleasant visit to Germany in 1937.

So Bowie spent some of America’s bicentennial year touring around the country in the guise of some rotten offspring of Junkers and counts, a walking revenge from the Old World. Even if Bowie had intended to curse or mock his adopted country, it hardly mattered, because the music he was performing was so compelling, so merciless in its precision and power. He opened nearly every show with “Station to Station,” making his audiences witnesses to a nightly communal exorcism.

Of course Bowie, like his old costume Ziggy, soon took it too far. When he returned to England in the summer of 1976, he gave interviews intimating that a great fascist power was coming soon to the UK, which he approved of, and called Hitler the first rock star. Rumors spread of Bowie giving a Nazi salute upon his arrival in Victoria Station (unconvincing video here), and biographers later dug up Bowie’s mother’s flirtation with the British Union of Fascists in the ’30s as evidence of original sin.

Bowie was tasting what was already in the air in Europe, a resurgence of interest in fascism and Nazism. The compromises and shames of the war, the allure of fascist imagery (often mixed with sadism), as seen in Bertolucci’s The Conformist, or Cavani’s The Night Porter, or Malle’s Lacombe Lucien, which treated Vichy collaborators with a measure of sympathy, culminating in Pasolini’s repellent fascist nightmare Salò, premiered at the same time Bowie was cutting Station. A year later, some British punks would be wearing swastikas on their clothing as a ready-made outrage.

Still, Bowie’s acts proved too outrageous even for the times (the Rock Against Racism coalition would cite Bowie as a main offender), and he spent the next few decades publicly repenting. Far from having escaped from delusions and bad magic in Los Angeles, Bowie had turned out to be an infected host, bringing his cocaine-fueled necromancy back to Europe.

5.

Hermes teaches that the seven spheres of the stars enclose the soul of man like a prison…But man is a brother to those strong daemons who rule the spheres; he is a power like them, though he has forgotten this…For if the sun is at the center and not the earth, then there are no crystal spheres to hold us in; we have only and always fooled ourselves, we men, kept ourselves within the spheres which our own flawed and insufficient senses perceived, but which were never there at all.

John Crowley, The Solitudes.

What was at the root of it all? As MacDonald suggested, since the mid-’60s, Bowie had been moving towards some form of Gnosticism—a belief that we were born elsewhere, in a higher realm, and have fallen into this world, conquered by what a nameless Gnostic prophet termed “love and sleep,” with only a self-elected few aware of the true nature of things. Gnosticism lies behind Bowie’s early Tibetan songs (“Karma Man,” “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”), his generational changing-of-the-guard songs like “Oh! You Pretty Things,” the Teutonic cod-myths of “The Supermen,” and culminates in the dream journals “Quicksand” and its monolithic successor “Station to Station.”

Yet “Station” is also the end. The iciness of Bowie’s singing in its early sections, the sense of confinement and the joy of an eventual escape, with release only coming from renouncing magic and getting out of town, suggests that the promises of Gnosticism—the belief that somewhere in us is a fragment of the original, true God, that the material world is a prison without a lock—wound up not being enough for Bowie. He had unlocked doors that led to further doors, he translated symbols into further symbols, and he came out of it all as lost as he began. What if there was nothing, after all? What if all there was was the world, its sordid histories, its empty words?

All that remained certain was work. However outlandish his imagination grew, however much he punished his body, Bowie still was able, night after night, to slavishly craft his music. “Station to Station,” a transcription of a man shaking off madness, is also a near-perfect studio recording. Most crack-ups happen off screen, with unusable studio tapes or half-finished manuscripts their only evidence, but Bowie’s was mixed as brightly as an ELO record.

6.

Like a child, playing with sound.

Harry Maslin, on David Bowie.

“Station to Station” opens with a minute of train noises, a juddering and whistling that wends from right to left speaker: Bowie’s tribute to Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, which started with a car engine revving to life. It’s an ironic tribute. Bowie’s response to a West German car on the sparkling Autobahn, driving through the Ruhr valley in purring bliss, is the ominous iron sound of the locomotive, which, not so far off in the European past, had meant troop movements and mass deportations. The train intro, later reproduced on stage with synthesizers, was taken from a sound-effects LP, with producer Harry Maslin and Bowie first equalizing the recording, then doctoring it with phasing methods.

As the train fades into the distance, a single note on Earl Slick’s guitar bleeds into feedback. A rhythm assembles in arithmetic: four quiet beats, a metronomic two-note piano pattern (which, eventually bolstered by guitar tracks, underlies much of the opening section), a trio of notes repeated on bass. Carlos Alomar offers minimalist arpeggios, a ghostly organ plays chords, and then, with four kicks of Dennis Davis’ bass drum, the song lurches to life.

Alomar, as he had with most of Station to Station, served as Bowie’s creative interpreter, especially in the opening section, layering in guitars once the rhythm tracks were completed. Earl Slick, called on to provide the guitar feedback that hangs like a metallic cloud over much of the opening, struggled at first. Slick “was trying to hold this note for about two minutes for that opening section,” Alomar later told David Buckley, and kept being defeated by the limits of sound, unable to sustain guitar notes for that long. The solution was, as Alomar recalled, “Plug in another amplifier! Just keep the chain of amplifiers going until the sound just keeps going.” So Slick and Bowie eventually played via a “row of amps chained together,” six in all, each amp with a different effect, with a single microphone to capture the din. For the final mix, Maslin took some of Bowie and Slick’s guitar tracks and merged them together, along with additional Alomar overdubs.

Set in cut time in A minor, the opening section is built on a five-bar repeat (the band, like Bowie, going in a circle): three bars of A minor, centered on the two-note pattern originally played on piano, then a roller-coaster ride over two bars (F to G), capped off each time with an octave leap-and-drop in the bass. A six-bar “thin white duke” section opens and closes the sequence, but otherwise, the entire section is nothing but the repeated five-bar pattern, with Bowie’s vocal sometimes flowing against the song structure (so for instance, “dreams are/wo-ven” bridges over the end of one pattern repeat and the start of the next). Bowie’s vocal is precise down to its basic elements, with Bowie ending verses either harshly (a dental fricative like “mal-kuth“) or with a caress (‘wo-ven, “Ohh-cean”), and often acting out his lines (singing “bending sound” with an extended half note and a fall over four tones).

7.

Have you sought fortune, evasive and shy?

After Bowie quietly sings “white stains” and Alomar’s guitar dances for three more bars, the world opens up. A key change and a slamming shift to 4/4 begins the middle section, essentially a 21-bar bridge. In MacDonald’s words, there’s a “drunken grandiloquence” to this part of the song, an audible sense of escape from the bad mojo of Los Angeles. With a romping piano line (the two-note water torture finally over) and Bowie’s soaring, waltzing vocal, almost entirely consisting of triplets (“once-there-were moun-tains-on /mount-ains-and once-there-were/sun-birds-to soar-with-and…”)

After two-bar break (drum fills, a spray of piano notes, a tongue-twister (‘wonder-who-wonder who-wonder when“)), comes the peak of the section and the song, Bowie offering a question, a toast, and a command, each of his lines followed by a rapid chord progression over six beats, from station to station, C/D/E/A/E/F#m, leading to the G chord that starts the next phrase. At the end of this, there’s a seamless move (only a bar of 5/4 lets on that another change is coming) to the final section, which opens with Bowie’s best lines in the song, if not his life:

8.

It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine!
I’m thinking that it must be love.

On stage, Bowie typically hurled out these lines—as a joke, a defiance, a happy mockery of romance. But the way Bowie originally sings them on the record is the first human moment of the song. His voice hiccups on “cocaine” and it croaks out “love,” as if he’s so unaware of the latter that he can’t conceive of how to properly say the word.

And the more resigned the lyric grows—it’s too late for hate, for hope, for anything, really—the more elated the music becomes. Roy Bittan’s piano dances, Dennis Davis and George Murray slam down the foundation, Slick and Alomar drag race. Bowie gets caught up in it—rushing through his lines, savoring the repetitive locomotive sounds of “the European canon is here.” The song ends in a long vamp, a romp; it’s a retreat by a deliriously happy army.

9.

This is from back in the Seventies. Well, my Seventies, they weren’t necessarily your Seventies.

David Bowie, introducing “Station to Station,” Atlantic City, 2004.

Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY, 23 March 1976. Rather than with train noises, this version opens with a four-minute-plus Stacy Heydon guitar fusillade, part “Flight of the Bumblebee,” part surf music, part heavy metal, finally brought to a close by the Duke’s belated appearance. The band, mainly the same unit that cut the studio version, aims here for pure power, all subjugation and spectacle. Bowie already delivers the “side effects of the cocaine” line with bravado. The Duke returns in the outro, which becomes the template for every subsequent live version. On the Station to Station reissue.

Tower Theatre, Philadephia, 28-29 May 1978. From a mammoth synth train reproduction to the young Adrian Belew staking his claim as the song’s definitive guitarist to a Bowie vocal that’s all sinew, it’s arguably the song’s finest performance. The band uses the key change as a signal to rocket off: there’s an intense communal joy to this music, and even Bowie gets carried away by it. This is the recording used in the 1981 German film Christiane F., as mimed by Bowie’s then-current band (with G.E. Smith on lead guitar). In the film, the audience seems mainly comprised of kids coming off bad highs; the enigmatic junkie Christiane makes her way to the stage and stares at Bowie as if she’s far older than he is. Later on Stage.

Pacific National Exhibition Colosseum, Vancouver, 11-12 September 1983. By this point, the Thin White Duke, drained of menace, had been incorporated into the menagerie of official Bowie personae, which in the ’80s were a sort of Super Friends contingent Bowie would bring out when given musical cues. This is the least essential version of “Station” by a long shot, with twinkling keyboard fills, a superfluous brass section, a solo by a guitarist who seems an amalgamation of Born In the USA Springsteen and a ’70s Keith Richards with routine medical check-ups, and a Bowie vocal that, while still sturdy, veers into Anthony Newley-isms on certain lines. Later on Serious Moonlight.

Tokyo Dome, 19 May 1990. For the greatest-hits tour, it’s Belew again, now with a decade of prog rock under his belt, so what were once habits are now vices. Somewhat akin to the ’76 version, with an emphasis on brute force. Bowie comes in on rhythm guitar towards the end.

Jones Beach Theatre, Wantagh, NY, 4 June 2004. Bowie’s second-to-last (to date) American concert, with Earl Slick back on lead guitar after nearly three decades and the excellent Gail Ann Dorsey enveloping Bowie’s vocals. Though it’s possibly one of the last times Bowie will ever perform “Station,” it’s a youthful-sounding, muscular performance, with no claims made and no debts collected.

10. Sephirah Kether. The Crown, The Summit, 1.

The tree-top at last! Here we are at the very apex of the Middle Pillar where we can make no further progress on the Tree of Life unless we leave it altogether into the Nothing above, or fall back to Malkuth and start all over again.

William G. Gray, The Ladder of Lights (1968).

In February 1976, taking a break from his ongoing tour, Bowie went back to Los Angeles, packed up everything he owned, and shipped it to Switzerland. He was going to live there, partly on advice from his accountants, who wanted him to go into tax exile, and partly because he wanted to get as far away from Los Angeles as humanly possible. On 28 March, he left New York via ocean liner, heading for Italy. He was casting his lot with Europe, burrowing back into history, going back to the weary Old World, rededicating himself to the European canon—he was done with being an American. Of course Bowie would return to the US again, and he’s lived in New York for over a decade now. But whenever he returned it would be on his own terms.

John Lennon had proclaimed the ’60s dream over in 1970, but Bowie had, in his odd way, remained a believer for far longer. Tom Carson wrote, some 20 years ago: That is, [Bowie] took it for granted that the music would always be consequential and associated with radical impulses towards change. Even his most revisionist Seventies work depended for its point and urgency on having those Sixties assumptions constant in the background. It’s hardly unprecedented…for a figure originally perceived as breaking with tradition to be understood in the long run as that tradition’s last upholder—which, in relation to Sixties utopianism, was just what Bowie was.

There’s a real pain, a sense of a grand disillusion, underlying much of “Station to Station,” an abdication in a song, an imaginative disarmament. Retreating to Europe and a hoped-for anonymity, Bowie would spend the next few years breaking apart his music while trying to piece together himself again. He would go on to make some of his finest records, certainly some of his most popular. But “Station to Station” is the terminus, if not of some utopian or Gnostic dream, perhaps at least a belief that such dreams were viable. If you were to draft a map of Bowie’s complete works, “Station to Station,” plotted somewhere near the margins, would be marked: here he went no further.

Recorded October-November 1975.

Ian MacDonald’s 1999 article, “White Lines, Black Magic” originally published in Uncut, is one of the finest pieces written about Bowie in this era, and this essay is in hock to it. Available in the collection The People’s Music. Other sources: Marc Spitz’s Bowie (Spitz uncovered the “Yank Football” article), Hugo Wilcken’s Low, Richard Cromelin’s “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” in the March 1976 Circus, David Buckley’s Strange Facscination and liner notes to the reisssued StoS, Tom Carson’s essay on Bowie in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (1992 edition).

Top to bottom: Bowie in New Mexico, summer 1975 (Geoff MacCormack); the infamous return to Victoria Station, May 1976; Bowie in Cherokee Studios, fall 1975; Bowie drawing the tree of life (first used as back cover of the Ryko StoS reissue) ca. late 1975; newspaper ad for the Isolar tour, 1976. Otherwise, stills from Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, filmed summer 1975, released 1976.

* At the time of its release, I doubt few knew what Bowie was singing about here, though he always accompanied the line on stage with a hand movement sliding from “top” to “bottom.” Robert Matthew-Walker, apparently lacking a lyric sheet, thought Bowie had just made up the words “kettner” and “malkuth.” I originally heard “Melkur,” which is a Doctor Who monster.


The Ronson Songs

August 16, 2010

Growing Up and I’m Fine.
Music Is Lethal.
Hey Ma, Get Papa.

The creative partnership of David Bowie and Mick Ronson, which in four years had produced The Man Who Sold The World, Hunky Dory, Transformer, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane (Pin Ups is a footnote), withered and died in the last months of 1973.

The “Starman” performance on Top of the Pops that had made Bowie a UK pop star had also spotlit Ronson, who was regarded as Bowie’s rock & roll straight man (in various senses). Ronson’s reputation grew during the ’72 and ’73 tours: he was doing 10-minute guitar solos while Bowie went off to change costumes, and was getting as nearly as much fan mail as Bowie. Stories circulated that most of Bowie’s records were Ronson’s doing, with Bowie sometimes depicted as the studio creation of Ronson and producer Ken Scott. (Bowie arguably recorded much of Diamond Dogs alone in part to kill these rumors.)

Also, Bowie’s manager Tony Defries started grooming Ronson as a solo act, in part as insurance against Bowie becoming a commercial has-been (Marc Bolan’s singles were barely cracking the top 40 by late ’73). If glam had reached its sell-by date, Defries’ MainMan would have a rock guitar god ready for the shops. “They told me I could be the next David Cassidy,” Ronson later said. MainMan would have Ronson’s face plastered on billboards in LA and Times Square.

Finally, Bowie felt he needed to clean house, and acted swiftly and brutally. He had already dropped Woody Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder, was about to end his relationship with Ken Scott, and was considering leaving his wife; he moved out of his longtime home Haddon Hall and, in March 1974, left England for good. So Ronson, despite his past and his potential (you can imagine Ronson on Station to Station or Low), was consigned to Bowie’s discarded life.

Ronson began recording his solo record, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, in August 1973. It’s unclear whether Defries prodded Bowie to provide some new material for it, or whether Bowie volunteered some songs (Bowie did suggest that Ronson cover Richard Rodgers, which became the title track). Relations between the two hadn’t deteriorated yet. That said, where Bowie, in a more fruitful era, was content to give away “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “All the Young Dudes,” his Ronson contributions were a cut below his regular work.

“Music is Lethal” is Bowie’s return to translation (see “Pancho” or “Even a Fool Learns to Love”), providing English lyrics for Lucio Battisti’s 1972 “Io vorrei…non vorrei…ma se vuoi.” Bowie combined Jacques Brel’s waterfront with his own developing Hunger City, with Ronson wandering through a cityscape full of “mulatto hookers/cocaine bookers, troubled husbands.” (A shame Bowie and Ronson didn’t choose to cover Battisti’s “Ma é un canto Brasilero,” instead.)

“Hey Ma, Get Papa” is mainly Bowie’s words fitted to Ronson’s music, with Ronson seemingly inventing Queen in the process. The best of the lot was Bowie’s only sole composition on the record, “Growing Up and I’m Fine,” which in retrospect seems like Bowie’s farewell note and blessing to a man who was once, to quote Charlie Parker on Dizzy Gillespie, his worthy constituent.

Top: Mick Rock, “David Bowie and Mick Ronson, lunch on train, 1973.”


End of Chapter Three (1971-1973)

July 6, 2010

In the last months of 1970 David Bowie sat alone at his piano in Haddon Hall in Bromley, day after day, writing songs. No one knew him when he went out into the street. He was composing more for others than for himself. The songs piled up around him, fictions for an inhospitable world.

By July 1973 Bowie had become a name and a face: he was as striking and as recognizable as a cereal box logo. He had sold-out shows, had five LPs in the UK Top 40 (including #1, Aladdin Sane), and even a reissued “The Laughing Gnome” would hit the Top 10.

And it was ending just (seemingly) as it was starting. The band he had casually assembled in 1970 was breaking apart. Woody Woodmansey (radicalized by his conversion to Scientology, and asking for more money) was gone, Trevor Bolder would soon follow him. Even Mick Ronson was wondering where he stood.

So five days after he announced his retirement on stage at the Hammersmith, Bowie left for France, for the Château d’Hérouville in Val-d’Oise. He was going to make a covers record.

My Top Ten of the period. A tough call:

Queen Bitch.
Life On Mars?
Suffragette City.
The Bewlay Brothers.
All the Young Dudes.

The Jean Genie.
John, I’m Only Dancing.

Sweet Head.
Panic In Detroit.
Oh! You Pretty Things.

Top: Ilsa (l) narrowly won the contest, having used the most square yardage of polyester curtain fabric to make her leisure suit. Heike (2nd from r) smiled but was consumed with silent hatred. She had thought her maxi-dress was a sure winner, and later that day she set fire to it in a trash barrel (Bundesarchiv: “Leipzig, Messe, neue Mode,” September 1972).


Drive-In Saturday

June 17, 2010

Drive-In Saturday (first performance, live 1972).
Drive-In Saturday.
Drive-In Saturday (Russell Harty Plus Pop, 1973).
Drive-In Saturday (live, 1973).
Drive-In Saturday (live, 1974).
Drive-In Saturday (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Drive-In Saturday (live, 1999).

The 1950s of 1970s pop wasn’t quite right and had a strange ambivalence…The style and content [of Glam] was rooted in an idea of pop musicians being mutants from the future who were trying to blend in with us by assembling “authentic” versions of period clothing and getting it wrong. They had ’50s shoulder pads and Elvis-like lamé suits, but also eyeliner and lipstick…the lyrics touched on clichés of ’30s gangster movies and Humphrey Bogart alongside spaceships, motorbikes, aliens and jukeboxes.

Tat Wood, About Time 3.

“The Fifties” were invented around 1972-1973. American Graffiti (which gave life to Happy Days) and its UK counterpart That’ll Be the Day were on screen; Elvis, Chuck Berry and Ricky Nelson topped the charts; The Rocky Horror Show opened on the West End and Grease on Broadway. The actual 1950s, in all their shadow, were converted into an Eden: a sparkling, innocent contrast to the weariness, grime and open sexuality of the early ’70s.

So “Drive-In Saturday” is Bowie’s ’50s pop pastiche, though as typical with Bowie there’s a twist: “Drive-In Saturday” is a ’50s song celebrating the freedoms of the subsequent decade, with Mick Jagger and Twiggy serving as erotic household gods. The premise is that a post-apocalyptic civilization, through fear or reactions from fallout, has forgotten how to have sex, so the kids watch Rolling Stones promos and old films to see how it was done.

It’s the first Bowie song to reflect the challenge of Roxy Music, whose first LP (and hit single “Virginia Plain”) had come out in the summer of ’72. The phased synthesizer lines owe something to Brian Eno’s squiggles and groans, while Bowie’s approach to the material—parodic, subversive, yet done entirely straight-faced—is similar to Bryan Ferry’s fractured takes on country-western (“If There Is Something”) and torch ballads (“Chance Meeting”).

Bowie wrote “Drive-In Saturday” during a train ride from Seattle to Phoenix in early November 1972. He was unable to sleep and, looking out the window at night while the train was somewhere in the desert, he saw a row of nearly 20 enormous silver domes off in the distance, moonlight dancing on their roofs. It intrigued him: what were they? Government post-nuclear-war prep facilities? Secret laboratories? (Most likely feed silos.)

As with “Oh! You Pretty Things,” Bowie’s SF narrative is a cover for a more basic human predicament—how kids, who typically have no idea about sex, have to improvise and fake their way through it, often using film stars and pop music as cues and instruction guides. The idea of groups of teenagers in cars, watching erotic films at a drive-in as though attending a church, is one of his sadder, more haunting images. Bowie also predicted that the Sixties would be enshrined, in the following decades, as the unsurpassed height of glamor and sexual freedom, and so used to belittle the kids who would grow up in the Sixties’ shadow. As much as the past can be warped to serve the present’s needs, the past is also toxic.

“Drive-In Saturday” opens with a pure period reconstruction: there’s a saxophone, swooning backing vocals, a basic chord structure in which the home key A steadily rises to the dominant (E), and it’s in 12/8 time (the standard meter for doo-wop, and used in other ’50s pastiches like The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling” and Madonna’s “True Blue”). The opening lines are a feint, too, offering timeless, banal romantic sentiments (“don’t forget to turn on the light/don’t laugh babe, it’ll be alright”).

Then things unsettle—a synthesizer splash in the verse’s seventh bar becomes a high, wailing note like an air-raid siren, while Bowie sings about “strange ones in the dome” and video-films. The second verse is entirely bizarre SF, with “Jung the foreman” gazing at the dried-up sea, worrying about fallout and guarding “the Bureau Supply for aging men” (Viagra?), The chorus, which changes key to G, is harmonically complex and time-shifting (so the two-bar “drive-in Sa-tur-day” alone is C/G-B/Am7/C-G/D-F#/D-E, with a move to 6/8 on “tur-day”).

The arrangement is typically intricate: take how the backing vocals often mirror Trevor Bolder’s bass (singing/playing three-note fills at the end of some verse bars, and making parallel downward steps in the long outro) or how Bowie’s vocal riffs off the saxophone, singing the same two-note pattern near the fadeout. The saxophone plays a sweet counter-melody to the vocal in the 4-bar bridges, while Mick Ronson’s guitar mainly serves as color: after his metronomic opening, he only rouses himself at the start of each chorus. It’s one of Bowie’s better vocals on Aladdin Sane, with Bowie first singing the title line softly, mainly keeping on one note, and then opening up in subsequent repeats, hitting a high G on “drive.”

Bowie introduced “Drive-In Saturday” days after he wrote it, playing it in several of his last ’72 American concerts. There are claims he debuted it in Phoenix, on 4 November, though the first surviving concert recording is from Bowie’s 17 November show at Pirate’s World, near Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. (Another recording, from Cleveland on 25 November, is on the 30th anniversary reissue of Aladdin Sane). He sang it alone on acoustic guitar, introducing it as “a song from the year 2033.” There are conflicting stories about whether he offered “Drive-In Saturday” to Mott the Hoople, with some claiming that Bowie soon rescinded the offer, others that Ian Hunter rejected it.

Recorded in New York on 9 December 1972, and issued as Aladdin Sane‘s second single (RCA 2352, c/w “Round and Round’). While it was one of Bowie’s highest-charting UK hits (#3), “Drive-In Saturday” was rejected as a single by RCA’s US division (which weirdly chose to issue “Time” instead). So “Drive-In Saturday” became something of a lost single for Bowie,  not included on any greatest-hits compilation until the ’90s. A shame, as it’s one of the finer songs he wrote in the period.

Top: Elvis Presley takes Mary Kathleen Selph for a ride, Memphis, 30 June 1972. (She was killed in an auto accident 18 days later.)


Five Years

April 30, 2010

Five Years.
Five Years (The Old Grey Whistle Test, 1972).
Five Years (live, 1973).
Five Years (Dinah!, 1976).
Five Years (rehearsal, 1976).
Five Years (live, 1978).
Five Years (live, 2003).
Five Years (with Arcade Fire, 2005).

The cycle of the Earth (indeed, of the universe, if the truth had been known) was nearing its end and the human race had at last ceased to take itself seriously. Having inherited millennia of scientific and technological knowledge it used this knowledge to indulge in its richest fantasies…An earlier age would have seen the inhabitants of this world as ‘decadent’ or ‘amoral,’ to say the least. But even if these inhabitants were not conscious of the fact that they lived at the end of time some unconscious knowledge informed their attitudes and made them lose interest in ideals, creeds, philosophies and the conflicts to which such things gave rise.

Michael Moorcock, An Alien Heat, 1972.

Our planet’s stock of minerals and fossil fuels, for instance, is already sadly depleted, and it is only a question of time before it is totally exhausted. Once this occurs, that already tottering technological superstructure—the “technosphere”—that is relentlessly swallowing up our biosphere, will collapse like a house of cards, and the swarming human masses brought into being to sustain it, will in turn find themselves deprived of even this imperfect means of sustenance.

Edward “Teddy” Goldsmith, editorial, inaugural issue of The Ecologist, July 1970.

I don’t see much of a future for the human race. I think we’ll probably disappear in the next fifty years.

Goldsmith to Andy Beckett, 2005. (Goldsmith predeceased the human race last year.)

Of all of Bowie’s dystopic and apocalyptic songs (and we’ve many to go), “Five Years” is the most unsettling. The key’s in the details, what Bowie discloses and, more importantly, what he doesn’t—that is, why the world is going to end. It’s as though the planet has received a terminal prognosis and has to get its affairs in order. And Bowie also wisely keeps his perspective on the street, on the masses who, having gotten the news (the same news that “all the young dudes” are carrying, Bowie later said), despair, collapse, debase themselves.

Yet there’s a joy in the refrains of “five years!!” that ring out the song. It’s a final jubilee, a celebration that the miserable struggles of the human race are finally over. The singalong chorus, which Bowie withholds for over half the song, comes as a relief after the string of despairing verses after despairing bridges. All of it is anchored by Woody Woodmansey’s unchanging drum pattern* (Woodmansey said he tried to put “hopelessness into a drumbeat”) and Mick Ronson’s piano chords.

In “Five Years” Bowie tapped into a current of pessimism and resignation that would define 1970s Britain, in novels, films, music and even newscasts (like a 1976 episode of the BBC’s The Money Programme that predicted a 1980 Britain in which “capitalism is but a fond memory”). It wasn’t a solely British phenomenon, of course. US science fiction of the early ’70s was chock full of societal collapses, whether the Planet of the Apes movies or The Omega Man, or novels like Wilson Tucker’s Year of the Quiet Sun, in which time-travelers discover that 20 years is all it takes for America to fall into utter barbarism. An iconic image of the early 1970s is a man standing alone, holding a gun, in a litter-strewn, gutted and empty downtown street.

The millennial fear (hope?) that Western civilization was on the brink of collapse came from all corners, from disillusioned hippies and embattled Leftist sects, from population-boom Cassandras and anti-urbanists (like Robert Allen, an associate editor for The Ecologist who in July 1975 wrote admiringly of the Khmer Rouge, as they were cleansing the cities and taking Cambodian civilization back to nature—“they deserve our best wishes, our sympathy and our attention”), as well as those on the Right who regarded such a collapse as the inevitable end to an indulgent, weak society. Take a film like Dirty Harry, whose contemporary San Francisco setting—a cesspool of muggers, perverts and killers, and the weak government that enables them—already seems post-apocalyptic.

Plus time was running at a Benzedrine pace. It was quite imaginable that human civilization could end in five years, as it seemed as though an age already had expired during the preceding five. To some in 1972, 1967 looked like a lost childhood while 1957 seemed to have occurred on another planet. The future was coming, mercilessly and quickly, to dispatch the present.

The buspeople, and there were many of them,
were shockedandsurprised and amused and annoyed, but when the
word got around that the world was coming to an end at
lunchtime, they put their pride in their pockets with their bustickets and
madelove one with the other.

Roger McGough, “At Lunchtime–A Story of Love,” 1967.

For “Five Years,” along with the novels and films that had inspired earlier songs like “We Are Hungry Men” or “Oh! You Pretty Things,” Bowie drew from a 1967 Roger McGough poem, “At Lunchtime—A Story of Love.” (Bowie had recited it during his cabaret audition in 1968.) The poem’s set on a bus whose riders, learning the world will end at lunchtime, start having random sex. There’s a funny twist at the end, which I won’t spoil.

In “Five Years” the world also turns upside-down upon hearing the news—policemen kneel to priests, teenage girls try to kill children. Bowie’s narrator makes his way through the wrack covering the streets, trying to chronicle whatever he sees (“my brain hurt like a warehouse”), and only despairs when he remembers seeing a friend (or a former lover) in an ice-cream shop, a moment of insignificance now made unbearably poignant. He joins in the chorus with the rest of the crowd, and sings down the world.

As with other Ziggy Stardust tracks, Bowie uses American slang (“news guy” and “TV” rather than “telly”) in the lyric. Even the clunky phrases (“all the fat skinny people” etc.) work, as they read as the discombobulated thoughts of an overwhelmed kid. Another Ziggy staple is the song’s diatonic chord progression, with G often set against E minor (James Perone pegs it as the “Heart and Soul” chord progression (I-vi-ii-V), the “harmonic core” of the 1950s.)

Bowie cut his vocal track in two takes—the first for the verses and bridges, the second for the chorus—because Ken Scott had to reset the sound levels for the throat-tearing chorus. Ronson mainly keeps to piano, while his scoring (a cello-heavy string section) for the track is a typically fine arrangement.

Recorded 8-15 November 1971. A version was cut for the BBC in January 1972,  while the Old Grey Whistle Test TV performance is from 8 February. Featured on Bowie’s 1972-3, 1976 and 1978 tours, along with a stunning performance on the Dinah Shore Show on 3 January 1976. Revived for Bowie’s 2003 tour, while the Arcade Fire duet is from “Fashion Rocks” (if ever an audience deserved an apocalyptic death-curse of a song, it was that one) on 8 September 2005.

Top: Miner’s strike rally in Trafalgar Square, 6 February 1972 (University of Warwick Library).

* Sheet music says 3/4, other sources (the producer Pip Williams) say it’s in 6/8.

Much credit is owed to Andy Beckett’s essential ’70s history When The Lights Went Out, which will be an ongoing reference for this blog.


Velvet Goldmine

April 16, 2010

Velvet Goldmine.

Those unfamiliar with Bowie (if you’re reading this blog, that likely disqualifies you) might assume that “Velvet Goldmine,” which Todd Haynes used as the title for his glam fantasia, was an essential track on Ziggy Stardust. But it’s an outtake from the Ziggy sessions, finally sneaked out as a B-side a few years later.

“Velvet Goldmine,” originally called “He’s a Goldmine,” had been slated for Ziggy‘s second side until Bowie recorded a new batch of songs in January 1972 to shore up the record. Rather than cutting an obvious dud (cough, “It Ain’t Easy”), Bowie gave “Velvet Goldmine” the chop. He said “the lyrics are a little bit too provocative” during a radio interview in February 1972. Really? “Sweet Head,” the other great Ziggy outtake, likely wasn’t fit for public consumption at the time, but “Goldmine,” while salacious enough (“you got the width of my tongue,” “I had to ravish your capsule, suck you dry”), isn’t much worse than, say, “Suffragette City.” Some writers have wondered whether Bowie felt the song was too openly gay: if so, that’s also odd since Bowie soon announced his homosexuality to Melody Maker and released an undeniably gay single (“John, I’m Only Dancing”) a few months later.

Bowie may have axed “Goldmine” because he thought it sounded a bit retrograde compared to the other Ziggy tracks. (And the thumping, eight-to-the-bar piano in the chorus does give it a music-hall feel, reminiscent of Hunky Dory tracks like “Oh! You Pretty Things.”) Still, “Goldmine”‘s got a moody, minor-key chorus; Ronson’s guitar smeared over the verses and culminating in a solo that sounds as if it was recorded underwater; a saucy Bowie vocal over a knotty verse (i.e., the sudden 3/4 bar on “close to my breast”); a wonderfully bizarre outro with massed whistles, hums, laughs and moans; and a lyric filled with lines like “I’ll be your king volcano.” One of the best tracks from the Ziggy period—cutting it was a blunder.

Recorded 11 November 1971. Released in September 1975 as a B-side to a “Space Oddity” single repackage (which would be Bowie’s first UK #1). Bowie later said the mix was rushed out without his approval. Included on various Ziggy Stardust CD reissues.

Top: Roxy Music, 1972.


Eight Line Poem

March 31, 2010

Eight Line Poem (LP).
Eight Line Poem (BBC, 1971).

Or “Trio for guitar, piano and voice.”

Mick Ronson gives his most beautiful performance on the record—his minute-long intro, where he moves through all of the song’s chords (starting and ending in the home key of C) is studded with little melodies (take the gem-like trios of notes he plays at 0:30 or 0:40).

Bowie has a new face for each line he sings, from fledgling soul crooner to speech coach to plastic cowboy.

If Bowie is the experiment, Rick Wakeman is the control: for much of the track, he plays the same piano line, like a tide crashing upon a glass beach.

“Eight Line Poem” complements the track it follows on the LP, “Oh! You Pretty Things”—its opening F chord resolves the earlier song, while its lyric reverses the image: where the singer of “Pretty Things” looked out his window to watch the world dissolve, here he’s watched in turn, by his cactus and his cat—the great doings of the universe replaced by the arid emptiness of his apartment.

William S. Burroughs: “Well, I read this ‘Eight line poem’ of yours and it is very reminiscent of T.S. Eliot.” Bowie: “Never read him.”

Recorded June-August 1971; rarely performed live (Aylesbury on 25 September 1971 or the BBC four days earlier).

Top: David Hockney, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, 1970-1971.


Kooks

March 18, 2010

Kooks (BBC).
Kooks (demo).
Kooks (LP).

The baby was born and it looked like me and it looked like Angie, and the song came out like—if you’re gonna stay with us, you’re gonna grow up bananas.

David Bowie, promotional sheet for Hunky Dory.

On the last day of May 1971, David Bowie was sitting at home listening to a Neil Young record when someone from the hospital rang to tell him he had become a father. Angela Bowie, after a 30-hour labor, had given birth to a son, who would be named Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones. Over the next day or so Bowie wrote a song about his son—he debuted it at a BBC session less than a week after Duncan’s birth. It was Bowie’s Neil Young piece, or so he said. “For Small Z.,” he wrote on the LP sleeve.

“Kooks” is the obverse of “Oh! You Pretty Things,” in which parenthood is something odd and catastrophic, an unavoidable pre-determined obsolescence. “Kooks” is awkward, warm, funny and welcoming, and its lyric captures the bewilderment that many people (I’m assuming, not being a father) face upon becoming a parent—I’m such a complete mess myself, how on earth can I raise another human being?* With classic lines like:

Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads
‘cos I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads.

The song is basically a set of choruses occasionally broken up by four-bar “intros,” while the two verses serve more as bridges. “Kooks” opens with Bowie alternating between the D and Dsus4 chords on his guitar (just moving the middle finger between two frets)—this continues into the chorus until Bowie finally breaks the pattern by moving to C on “we believe in you.”

The song’s harmonic stasis (both choruses and verses start in D, with Bowie moving up a step finally in the fourth chorus repeat) is masked by a dense arrangement: Trevor Bolder doubles on bass (a very busy performance, full of runs and octave leaps) and trumpet—the latter mainly bridges the intros and choruses, with Bolder playing the vocal line of the chorus, though he gets a tiny solo when Bowie mentions the trumpet in the lyric. Rick Wakeman’s piano dominates the verses, veering between the cutesy and the slightly abrasive, while Mick Ronson’s string arrangements, a typically lovely, melodic accompaniment, sweeten the choruses.

Ken Scott, Bowie’s producer, loved the track and thought Bowie should do a whole album of children’s songs—Bowie allegedly considered the idea but sadly never followed through on it.

First performed 3 June 1971 at the BBC; recorded June-July 1971 (the early mix linked above was done for a promo version of Hunky Dory issued in August). Duncan Jones managed to have a fairly normal life, as lives go, and went into the film industry: his first picture, Moon, is worth viewing.

* Well, that’s not the only interpretation. James Perone offers the theory that “Kooks” is about a couple offering an invitation to a ménage à trois to “an individual of indeterminate gender.” If so, that would make lines like “we bought you…a funny old crib on which the paint won’t dry” a bit perverse.

Top: The three Bowies, June 1971.