Fall in Love With Me

April 14, 2011

Fall in Love With Me.
Fall In Love With Me (Pop, live, 1982).
Fall In Love With Me (Pop, live, 2016).

During a lull in the Lust for Life sessions, the players swapped roles for a laugh. Ricky Gardiner sat behind the drum kit, Hunt Sales took his brother’s bass and Tony Sales played guitar. They jammed for a while, fell into a shambling groove. Carlos Alomar came in on lead guitar, while Bowie, on organ, played yet another variation of his “Laughing Gnome”/”Speed of Life” descending riff. Iggy Pop went into the booth and free-associated a lyric. Edited down to six minutes and change, the jam became the album closer.

Sure, “Fall in Love With Me” falls in the minor rock & roll tradition of padding out an LP with an extended studio jam or mashing a few half-written songs into a closer medley. It’s a throwaway performance, but the record would be weaker without its welcoming groove, its sense of earned ease. Pop’s lyric is alternately goofy (“a table made of wood,” sung blankly as if it’s an odd thing to find), cutting (“you’re younger than you look”) and touching (“when you’re tumbling down, you just look finer”). It’s addressed to the same girl as in “China Girl” or “Baby” or “Sixteen” or “Tiny Girls,” it’s always the same girl, for Iggy—young, pure, yet somehow broken. What’s missing here is the obsessiveness; “Fall in Love” is an open-ended seduction.*

And for an album filler “Fall in Love” was influential enough. Bowie, noting how Pop could improv a vocal on the mike, how the musicians could shake out a song seemingly on a whim, rethought how to make a record. He would go beyond the experiments of Low: no more demos, no more neatly written-out lyrics, no more arrangements. During the summer of 1977, in Hansa Studios, Bowie went out on the wire.

Some unions end in recrimination and slander, others just wither. The great creative partnership of Pop and Bowie ends here, as well as it could have, with a vamp cooked up over a long afternoon in West Berlin. It’s loose talk over beers, tall tales, gibes, idle confessions, shot glass epiphanies. Then someone looks at the clock, a few excuses and goodbyes are exchanged, and the party breaks up.

Recorded 4-20 June 1977, Hansa, Berlin.

* Julian Casablancas owes his career to this and a few other Pop vocals on Lust.

Top: Ulrich Joho, “Rummelmädchen, Berlin, 1977.”


After Today

October 14, 2010

After Today (earlier studio take, fragment).
After Today.

Within days of Bowie starting work at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, a routine had developed. Bowie’s musicians, particularly Mike Garson, David Sanborn and Carlos Alomar, would show up in the late morning or early afternoon and would record overdubs, jam, try out arrangements. Bowie tended to arrive late, around 11 pm, and, fueled by cocaine, would usually work through the following morning. The grueling pace took its toll on many players (Garson recalled being one of the few who had the stamina to endure Bowie’s all-nighters) as well as on Tony Visconti, who had what he thought was a heart attack while driving home from the studio one morning.

Bowie went through the day’s takes upon his arrival, picked what he thought worked, then usually sang live in the studio with his band. The communal, spontaneous nature of the Sigma sessions, with songs often coming together out of jam sessions, played by a free-flowing group of musicians and singers, and with Bowie fans camped outside the studio (he eventually let them come in to hear rough mixes), was a contrast to the Diamond Dogs period, in which Bowie was often isolated, producing and playing much of that record himself.

“After Today” is typical of the freewheeling Sigma sessions, as it was tried out both as a slow, moody ballad and as an uptempo piece, with a take of the latter version eventually released on Bowie’s career retrospective Sound + Vision (the decision seemed to be Rykodisc’s, who preferred the faster take).

Bowie’s decision to sing much of “After Today” in falsetto turned out to be overly ambitious, and likely doomed the song to being an outtake, but “After Today” remains a showcase for Andy Newmark’s drumming. Newmark, who was a replacement behind the kit for both Sly and The Family Stone and Roxy Music, had started out in a ten-piece soul band. His playing was so dynamic that, at an impromptu audition, he got the wasted Sly Stone out of his bed and dancing. Newmark often played a stripped-down kit—a bass drum, snare, hi-hat and one cymbal doing double-duty as a ride and crash—and got a sharp, cracking sound via a tightened snare head and by constantly hitting rim-shots. He once described his sound as being “either super low or super high—super bottom or super top. Everything cuts through the band. The bass drum and the floor tom are like volcanos.” An earlier take of “After Today,” which turned up on the “Shilling the Rubes” tape, has a ferocious 4-bar intro by Newmark that could have kicked off a punk song.

Recorded 13-18 August 1974, though it’s possible the Ryko version was cut later that year. Released on the Sound + Vision boxed set in 1989, but oddly enough “After Today” has never been included on various Young Americans reissues.

Top: Pete Dexter, Philadelphia, 1974.


Where Have All The Good Times Gone

July 28, 2010

Where Have All the Good Times Gone (The Kinks, 1965).
Where Have All the Good Times Gone (Bowie).

“Where Have All the Good Times Gone” was the B-side of the Kinks’ November 1965 single “Till the End of the Day” and soon afterward was tucked away on the LP The Kink Kontroversy. It’s one of the first Ray Davies compositions to suggest Davies’ primary theme for the ’60s: “ordinary” English people’s reactions to a shifting world that they no longer quite understood. In “Good Times Gone,” a kid faces frustration and loss for what feels like the first time in his life, and so he turns inward; feeling old, he waxes nostalgic for a youth that he discarded the day before. He can even empathize with his parents, who he’s now able to imagine as being human, too, and pining for their own youth.

The song’s also a wry comment on the London pop world, ca. summer 1965, which was moving from regional scenes to cross-Atlantic mass audience fare, from the Liverpool docks to the Hollywood Bowl. In particular, it’s a slight send-up of the Beatles’ world-weary “Yesterday.” Davies first hints at this in the second verse (“let it be like yesterday,” he sings with a groan, while the song, which has been mainly shuttling between the home key G and F, moves briefly to A) while his last verse almost directly quotes from McCartney’s lyric. (The Stones get a nod, too, with “time was on our side.”)

Bowie’s cover is dominated by Mick Ronson, who, after nodding out in the last few Pin Ups tracks, seems back in form. Ronson heralds the first verse with a long slide down his guitar neck, and he fills the verses/choruses with a simple, nagging riff, a push from F to G and back. The riff and Aynsley Dunbar’s drums give some muscle to the song, whose original performance was ramshackle even by Kinks standards.

Van Halen did a cover on their 1982 filler LP Diver Down (David Lee Roth sang the lyric with indifferent contempt, sounding like a malicious wedding toastmaster—watch him almost roll his eyes while he sings “will this depression last for long” in the live clip here). It seems far more inspired by Bowie’s version than the original, with Eddie Van Halen unmistakably playing the Ronson riff.

The One-Year Mark

Tomorrow (Jul. 29) marks the one-year anniversary of this blog, which I began on a whim and which I half-expected to abandon long before reaching “Space Oddity.” And somehow I’m still here, having made it from “Liza Jane” to nearly the end of Pin Ups. I’ll celebrate by going to NYC and avoiding the Internet for a few days.

Thanks in particular to Tom Ewing, who was one of the first to take note of the blog and helped give it an audience; Bowietweet, which graciously retweets pretty much every post I do; and anyone who’s left a comment or dropped me a line. Onward, onward.

Top: PM Ted Heath confers with the ghosts of Christmases Past during the economic crisis of late 1973.


All The Young Dudes

May 20, 2010

All The Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople, with Bowie guide vocal).
All The Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople).
All The Young Dudes (Bowie).
Wide-Eyed Boy From Freecloud/ All The Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 1973).
All The Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 1974).
All The Young Dudes (Mott and Bowie, 1992).
All the Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 1996).
All the Young Dudes (Bowie and Billy Corgan, live, 1997).
All the Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 2004).

If you make a revolution, make it for fun,
don’t make it in ghastly seriousness,
don’t do it in deadly earnest,
do it for fun.

D.H. Lawrence, “A Sane Revolution.”

Why did David Bowie give away his best song? Mott the Hoople didn’t know. The band, watching Bowie demo “All the Young Dudes” on guitar in his manager’s Regent Street office, were baffled by his generosity. Asked if they wanted the song, “we broke our necks to say yes,” Mott’s drummer Dale Griffin later said. One reason was simply timing: in early 1972, Bowie still considered himself as much a songwriter as a performer and wanted to place a song with an established act like Mott. He had pitched them “Suffragette City,” but the band had passed on it, telling him they were breaking up. And so Bowie wrote “All the Young Dudes” partly to rescue one of his favorite bands.

“All The Young Dudes” was born larger than its creator. It’s not just that Bowie’s own version of the song, cut later in 1972, is a wan reflection of the Mott record (the only time Bowie came close to the power of the Mott single was onstage at the last Ziggy Stardust concert). “Dudes” is a band’s song, its power derived in part from its performers’ own mythology and history; take the way, as the song winds down, Ian Hunter riffs against the chorus that his bandmates repeat. The chorus gives the come-on, Hunter closes the sale, picking out faces in the crowd, pointing at them, baiting them, drawing them in.

Pop music is as tribal as it can be universal, and “All the Young Dudes” is one of the great tribal songs: it draws a line in the dirt and says, “this is where we stand,” or “this is far as we go.” On its surface, it’s an attempt to make a secessionist movement of the younger Baby Boom kids, severing them from their hippie older brothers and sisters. Bowie had hinted at this strategy with the line “look out you rock & rollers—pretty soon, you’re gonna get older” in “Changes,” but here he puts it right out:

My brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones
We never got it off on that revolution stuff
What a drag
Too many snags

The cold contempt in Hunter’s voice as he sings the last two lines brings it home. The house has burned down, so let’s just play in the ashes. It’s telling that the hippie brother is sitting around at home, considering himself a revolutionary but lost in his fantasies, while the Young Dudes are out on the streets and starring in their own dramas. Their revolution, if they even want one, is the one D.H. Lawrence proposed in “A Sane Revolution” (“it would be fun to upset the apple-cart/and see which way the apples would go a-rolling”), a poem that Mott the Hoople would quote on their last great record.

The ancestors to “All the Young Dudes” are Bowie’s songs about children, “There Is a Happy Land” or “When I’m Five” or “After All.” As in those songs, “All the Young Dudes” ranks and marks its characters, watching them play out their tiny lives onstage (with some fine writing, like the detail about the kid scarring his face by ripping off stickers); again, there’s a sense of ominousness and loss, whether in the way the chorus, opening in triumph, soon descends into minor chords, or how the lyric opens with a kid rapping about how he’s going to kill himself when he gets old (25 years old).

The “news” the kids are carrying, Bowie later said, is the secret knowledge that the world is ending soon: the Young Dudes are the final generation, or at least believe they are. The world’s last children, they spend their days in happy revolt against the world, a life full of petty crimes, costumes and solidarity.

“All the Young Dudes” sounded like a smash from the start (“we knew we were singing a hit,” Hunter later said), and it’s constructed similarly to “Changes,” with a compelling melody set against a fairly complex chord structure. The song’s full of little touches: take the way the opening guitar riff becomes a series of triplets leading into the verse, or how while the verse and the chorus begin the same (moving from C to A minor to E minor to G), each then takes a different path, the verse moving to a D minor bridge (“television man is crazy,” etc.) while the chorus suddenly shifts to 3/4 time after “carry the news.”

The Mott single, produced by Bowie and Mick Ronson, was recorded on 14 May 1972 and released in July. It hit #3 in the UK and was collected on the LP of the same name, again produced by Bowie and Ronson and recorded in June-July ’72. (The Mott track with Bowie’s guide vocal is on the reissue of All the Young Dudes.) Bowie’s version, cut during the early Aladdin Sane sessions at the end of ’72, was an oft-bootlegged outtake until the 1990s, when it was collected on a greatest-hits disc—Bowie’s only “official” version until then was a 1974 concert recording on David Live.

Top: Schoolboys smoking, Hyde Park, 17 May 1972. (Another Nickel in the Machine).


All The Madmen

January 18, 2010

All the Madmen.
All the Madmen (live, 1987).

In a closet of that church, there is at this day St. Hilary’s bed to be seen, to which they bring all the madmen in the country, and after some prayers and other ceremonies, they lay them down there to sleep, and so they recover.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy.

In a general way, then, madness is not linked to the world and its subterranean forms, but rather to man, his weaknesses and illusions…There is no madness but which is in every man, since it is man who constitutes madness in the attachment he bears for himself and the illusions he entertains…In this delusive attachment to himself, man generates his madness like a mirage.

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization.

Everyone says, ‘Oh yes, my family is quite mad.’ Mine really is.

David Bowie, quoted in Sandford’s Loving the Alien.

Bowie’s family, on his mother’s side, was riddled with mental illness: his aunt Una had been institutionalized for depression and schizophrenia, was given electro-shock treatment and had died in her late thirties; another aunt had schizophrenic episodes; a third had been lobotomized.

Most of all there was his mother’s son, his older half-brother Terry Burns, who eventually was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In 1966, while Bowie and Burns were walking to a Cream concert, Burns fell to the street and screamed, claiming he saw flames rising up from cracks in the pavement. By the time Bowie recorded The Man Who Sold the World, Burns had been confined to London’s Cane Hill Hospital.

So Bowie believed, at the age of 23, that he had perhaps even odds of going mad. The prospect naturally terrified him and would lie behind much of his work in the ’70s—writing songs about identity, control, lunacy and fear; devising personae as various means of escape, as conduits for insanity (Ziggy Stardust was partially based on the mad rock & roller Vince Taylor—Bowie once saw Taylor on his hands and knees outside Charing Cross, using a magnifying glass to pinpoint UFO landing sites on a city map he had spread on the pavement).

“All the Madmen” is Bowie’s first attempt to grapple with what he regarded as his sad inheritance, but it also reflects broader cultural movements; in the quarter century since the war, how society regarded and treated the insane had begun to change, in some cases radically.

(Two films stand on either end of the divide: Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), where the asylum is a stately Vermont manor, the “mad” are the misdiagnosed, the repressed and the malformed, and the face of modern psychiatry is the gorgeous Ingrid Bergman in a white lab coat; and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), where the asylum is a jail, and the insane are no longer puzzles to be solved or worthy citizens to be rehabilitated, but truth-tellers, the last honest men, who society hates and demands silenced and locked away. The face of mental illness treatment is now the sadistic bureaucrat Nurse Ratched.)

Ken Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest was just one of several 1960s books that questioned the treatment of the mentally ill and helped drive the anti-psychiatric movement: along with Foucault’s Madness and Civilization and Erving Goffman’s Asylums, Cuckoo’s Nest showed the asylum as society’s means of isolating the mad from mainstream life, so as to streamline and better enforce cultural norms (e.g., sending homosexuals to be “cured” in asylums via shock treatment). Asylums were hypocrite’s prisons, in which the quiet compromises the “sane” made to conform with society were replaced by brute force.

“All the Madmen” falls in this line. In the lyric, Bowie casts his lot with the insane, following Kerouac’s lines in On the Road (a favorite of Terry Burns) that “the only people for me are the mad ones…the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles.” Bowie’s madmen, locked in their asylums, are “organic minds” hidden in a cellar. Bowie first acts like a lunatic to escape detection and show solidarity, as he’s realized he lives in a society of lunatics. It’s no use: his captors (his doctors, one and the same) remove pieces of his mind, until he truly descends into madness. He ends the song by chanting, over and over, the Dadaist refrain: “Zane zane zane! Ouvre le chien!!”


Aversos Compono Animos

“All The Madmen” is one of the more intricately-arranged tracks on The Man Who Sold the World, opening with Bowie on his acoustic (a brusque, scattered intro with several ringing open strings), leading into the first verse. A descant recorder appears in the second verse, played by Tony Visconti (it’s eventually supplanted by synthesizer in the final chorus), and the ominous quiet of the early verses is shattered when Mick Ronson kicks in to lead the band into the long bridge (three separate sections, 24 bars in all).

The chorus (one of the catchiest on the record) is dominated by Ronson’s guitar in its first appearance, with Visconti’s freely-roaming bass as a counterweight, and it leads to a brief two-harmonized-guitar solo. A spoken interlude reminiscent of “We Are Hungry Men” follows, but soon enough it’s Ronson’s show again, with another harmonized-guitar solo replacing the first section of the bridge. The track ends in glorious chaos: Ronson repeating a riff from his first solo, Bowie chanting “Ouvre le chien,” madmen voices swirling around, Woody Woodmansey keeping on the ride cymbals ’til the fadeout.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970. While Bowie’s American label Mercury released it as a promo single in December 1970 to accompany Bowie’s first-ever American press tour, the only contemporary live recording of “All the Madmen” was captured at a party by the Los Angeles DJ Rodney Bingenheimer in early 1971—part of the poor-sounding recording turned up in a 2004 documentary on Bingenheimer’s life, Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Bowie let “Madmen” lie fallow for the rest of the ’70s, but garishly revived it for his Glass Spider tour in 1987. He’s left it alone since.

Top: Marcello Mastroianni in John Boorman’s Leo The Last; an alternate cover of The Man Who Sold The World LP, with the administrative wing of Cane Hill Hospital in the background.


Chapter One: New People (1976-1977)

October 6, 2018

punkjul76

Epigraphs    Shaftesbury: pen name of Albert Webster Edgerly, late-19th-Century American reformer/con man who promoted healthy eating (particularly of whole grain cereal), “probationary marriage,” teeth brushing, and eugenics. He wrote over a hundred books: “The New Race” is an essay in one of them, Cultivation of the Chest; Or, The Highest Physical Development of the Human Form (1895); von Wolzogen: quoted in Berlin: Culture and Metropolis, 98; Kino-Eye: as per subtitles of the now out-of-print Image DVD.

20   Sister Midnight    Hansa Tonstudios: Hansa began as a label, production company, and publishing firm founded by the Meisel brothers in 1962. In the Sixties, the brothers regularly used the future Hansa by the Wall Meistersaal, booking time from its then-owner, the Ariola label. They also built their own studio, Hansa Tonstudio 1, where The Idiot would be mixed (and possibly have some last overdubs). Tonstudio 1 was not in the same building as Meistersaal Tonstudio 2 (where Low overdubs and mixing & vocals/tracking for “Heroes” were done) and the less grand Tonstudio 3 (where Lust for Life was cut), both of which were on Köthener Straße—Hansa had bought the latter studios in the mid-Seventies. The original Tonstudio 1 was located at Nestorstraße 8-9, in Halensee. When it closed at the end of the Seventies, a “new” Tonstudio 1 was built in the Köthener Straße location (sources include a Hansa profile in the 22 January 1977 Billboard.) As per Tobias Rüther, Hansa engineer Eduard Meyer’s diary lists Idiot mixing sessions for 21-22 and 28 August 1976—I gave a slightly broader range of dates; engineered: Meyer and Tony Visconti did enough significant work on the album that they likely should be credited, too; first release: Iggy album release dates of the period are harder to determine than Bowie’s. In this case, I went with Kevin Cann’s Chronology, published in 1983 and closer to the time than most other sources: Cann lists 18 March 1977, a Friday. The Idiot is reviewed in the 19 March 1977 Record World, the 26 March 1977 Billboard, the 28 March 1977 Village Voice, the 5 March 1977 Melody Maker, and Cash Box notes it first being added to radio playlists in its 19 March 1977 issue; live: while there are claims that Pop played Sister Midnight live in 1990, I didn’t find any bootlegs to verify this; trailer park: the Osterbergs lived there until 1982; Jim Bowie: Pop to Paul Trynka, Open Up and Bleed, 19. Trynka’s biography is by far the best depiction of Pop’s early life in Ann Arbor and a key source of details here; city administrator’s daughter: Sally Larcom. “It’s hilarious when I remember how straight and smart he was,” she recalled of her ex-boyfriend (Michigan Live, 23 June 2008); studded with rivets: recollection of Cub Koda to Trynka, Bleed, 39; sort of smelled out: 2009 Pop interview in Benjamin Piekut’s Experimentalism Otherwise, 182.

21   guys were over my head: to McCain and McNeil, Please Kill Me (PKM), 367; used to work off the age: to Roy Trakin, New York Rocker, No. 25, December 1979/January 1980; Corrs: eyewitness account on this ILX thread, 23 July 2002; hear words musically: to Chris Roberts, Sounds, 18 October 1986; I was the worker: to Mat Snow, Q, September 1988; 24-hour job: Cynthia Rose interview with Pop, from an undated 1980 issue of Viz (a UK art and fashion magazine, published 1979-1981); who cares if we’re not the best: one of the Whiskey a Go-Go shows in September 1973; against the wall: to Dave Marsh, Zig Zag, December 1970; one-piece life: NY Rocker, Dec. 1979/Jan. 1980; proximity of the electric hum: I Need More, 60.

22  need the freedom: quoted in Joe Ambrose’s Gimme Danger, 31; rock and roll reality that Iggy lived: PKM, 122; both escaped from LA…no fixed address: to Jim Sullivan, Boston Globe, 8 July 1990; watching Bowie doing: NME, 12 March 1977; never showed bad form: Bleed, 202; all the shit I know: PKM, 252; I think that was liberating for him: to Edwin Pouncey, The Wire, November 1999; important young actors: to Ben Edmonds, Circus, 27 April 1976.

rw77

23  sweet but stupid: to Lester Bangs, Creem, March 1975; Hunter: Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 5 April 1975; Château d’Hérouville: for more on Bowie’s history there, see the Pin Ups chapter in Rebel Rebel. Bad Company cut Burnin’ Sky there between the making of The Idiot and Low; the Bee Gees wrote “Stayin’ Alive” there not long afterward. Having closed in 1985, the studio was abandoned “to weeds and squatters” for nearly two decades until being put on the market in 2013 and sold to a trio of French musicians. A restored studio was set to open in 2018 but as per its website, it remains “currently under restoration”; great rock ‘n’ roll studio: recalled by Thibault to Trynka, Starman, 253; compositional drought: “I was very unhappy with my writing style by the end of Station to Station. I thought my work was deteriorating,” Bowie told Lisa Robinson (Hit Parader, June 1978). Station to Station had only five original songs, one of which, “Stay,” was essentially a rewrite of “John, I’m Only Dancing”; fought for royalty advances: despite having just had a successful tour, Bowie was nearly broke at times in summer 1976. His MainMan-era royalties were reportedly in escrow due to his split with Tony Defries, and Thibault recalled Bowie having no cash for day-to-day expenses; first days of June: Bowie was in Switzerland for his son’s birthday on 30 May 1976: The Idiot sessions began within days after that; poor Jim: to Kurt Loder, Sound + Vision booklet interview, September 1989; Santangeli…suivons!: Bleed, 206-207. Thibault told Trynka that French musician/engineer Michel Marie played guitar in some tracking sessions, including the unreleased “Iggy Pop Don’t Stop” (see appendix). Edgar Froese also was slated to play synthesizer on the album but never got called to the studio—he went home after getting sunburned by the pool.

24  not seeing superheroes…godlike: Circus, 27 April 1976; cut your hair: Hughes, writing in Classic Rock, 26 September 2016; I was a guinea pig: to David Fricke, Rolling Stone, 19 April 2007; you fucking idiot: to Glenn O’Brien, Interview, April 1990; point of view of an idiot: to Thomas Vinterberg, 4 July 2002 TV interview; a little too much of me: Radio One interview with Stuart Grundy (Rock On), broadcast 29 October 1977.

22e25249cb4cd54c5240577212f58b6d

25   possibly demoed: Pop recalled that Bowie played him a four-track demo of “Sister Midnight” in LA in February 1976, so the song almost certainly preceded the tour; gigantic system built at Olympic [Alembic? see next]: Alomar to John Schaefer, WNYC Soundcheck, September 2010; sounds I was fascinated with: to Trynka, Mojo 219, February 2012 [someone on Tumblr had a good point—this may likely be an Alembic system, though it’s written as “Olympic” in Mojo—they’re homonyms, so it’s easy to see how the error happened if so]; Sister Midnight: shot between 1967-1974, its director Mays described the film as being about five young people who get high, then “enter as a group into a series of multiplexed dreams.” One girl, “Sister Midnight, allows one of the guys to enter her mind. As a result of this invasion she is reborn” (Mays, Film Works). See the NSFW trailer (soundtracked to “Baba O’Reilly”). It’s quite plausible that Bowie knew of the film, as it reportedly premiered in LA in June 1975, before he left for New Mexico to shoot The Man Who Fell to Earth; played live: debuted in Vancouver, 2 February 1976 (video footage exists of a rehearsal performance there). Its last extant concert recording is Philadelphia, 16 March 1976 (it’s not in the set in Boston, the following night). While it may have been performed in one of the last, un-bootlegged US shows that month (New Haven or Springfield), it didn’t survive the crossing to Europe; Radio-Activity: along with the Ramones’ debut, which Bowie told Pop showed that “the world hasn’t forgotten the Stooges”; Stacy Heydon: one of quite a few musicians whose name has been misspelled in Bowie or Bowie-related LP liner notes. It’s Stacy, not Stacey: that’s how he’s referred to in a CBC profile in 2016.

26  this record is bent: to Stephen Demorest, Phonograph Record, April 1977; mother: Pop sang that he’d made love to potatoes (or maybe? the Turtles—it’s a muddy vocal) during his Dinah Shore performance in 1977; Harrison console: a solid chance it was the same 3232 Harrison desk on which Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” was recorded; I love noises: Thibault to Bradley Banks (http://idiotlust.blogspot.com), 23 January 2008.

C7NafTWXQAEPvI2.jpg large

27  Funtime   Dinah!: it aired on 6 May 1977. Other guests included Rosemary Clooney and the Miracles. A note (within a note): though I’ve listed Iggy Pop live performances, I didn’t do the same for solo Iggy broadcasts. The data on the latter is spotty, and it just was taking up way too much research time for a book about Bowie’s songs, not Iggy’s; we want flesh: The Ticket That Exploded, 54; my love song: Phonograph Record, April 1977; range of a fourth: with emphasis on the root (D) note of the D5 chord. When the chord shifts to E major for the solo, the spoken “we’re havin’ fun” is on that chord’s dominant note (B); make moneylittle gay: quoted in Adams, Complete Iggy Pop, 87; Lila Engel: inspired suggestion of Greg Smith.

28  Baby   live: he debuted it at the Teragram Ballroom, LA, on 9 March 2016. “This is a good little song off The Idiot”; torn apart in his heart: to Hideaki Okada, Music Life, 23 April 1977 (an interview tape that was on YouTube for a time, but appears to be gone. Some excerpts are transcribed in Roger Griffin’s Golden Years).

29  Tiny Girls   there’s allegedly a bootleg of Pop singing “Tiny Girls” for the only time in his life on stage—at Tsubaki House in Tokyo, 22 June 1983. As I couldn’t track down this tape, I didn’t feel there was enough evidence to mark the song as having been sung live. If the setlist is indeed genuine, it appears that “Tiny Girls” was sung as part of a medley that also included the standard “One For My Baby”; released: a quasi-official Iggy box set issued in the mid-2000s has an alternate mix roughly 15 seconds longer, with a slightly-different saxophone track; she destroyed me, man: NME, 3 May 1975. In 1979 Pop ranted to Kent that “all the bitches, all the women, want me now…Well, I hate women!”; little girls in Berlin: NY Rocker, Dec. 1979/Jan. 1980.

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30   Dum Dum Boys   broken-up group: unspecified 1997 interview, quoted in Wilcken’s Low, 42; Straight: a play on Williamson’s nickname, “Straight James”; we were outcasts: Bleed, 58; basic Archie Bunker juniors: quoted by Jon Savage, Dazed & Confused, 1997.

31   wandering tribe: to Bill Holdship, Detroit Metro Times, 7 October 2009; like a sociologist looking back: Phonograph Record, April 1977; intro: Bowie would get Pop in the vocal booth and tape him recounting stories of his misspent youth, with the vague idea of making a spoken-word album. It’s possible the opening of “Dum Dum Boys” came out of this; you jerk!: quoted in Dave Thompson’s Pretty Face Is Going to Hell, 259. “You know that little part on ‘Dum Dum Boys,’ that Boweeeewaaah? That’s his part, that’s David doing that.” (“Boweeewaah” was his guitar trademark, as he’d contributed a similar sound to “Fame”); Palmer…bend that note more: Bleed, 210. Ray and Dave Davies’ nephew, Palmer was summoned via a 2 AM Bowie phone call to Munich in early August 1976. He recalled to Trynka walking into a darkened room full of guitars and drum kits (property of Thin Lizzy, who were recording Johnny the Fox during the day—Palmer helped himself to their effects pedals), while Bowie and Pop sat in the control room, giving cryptic instructions; metal groups: unspecified 1997 interview, quoted by Wilcken and Ambrose; it’ll be me: Pop to Nick Kent, NME, 3 May 1975; Dum Dum Boys: the song would name a Norwegian and a California band, and it was Stone Gossard’s suggested name for what became Mother Love Bone, the ur-Pearl Jam.

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32   China Girl   Pop’s “China Girl” was issued as a single in the UK in May 1977 (RCA PB 9093); Bowie’s remake in May 1983. The latter’s David Mallet-directed video included a homage to the beach scene in From Here to Eternity, with an oft-censored shot of Bowie’s ass; live, 1985: an unrecorded Pop/Bowie performance with Ron Wood and Steve Winwood at a Pop gig at the China Club, NYC, 5 November 1985; politely drunk: Pop, interviewed in Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany (BBC, 2009), where he uses a power drill to open coconuts between questions; blundering blustering: Phonograph Record, April 1977.

33   Brando: Neil Young’s “Pocahontas” has parallels to “China Girl”— written around the same time, with a similar relationship between the white singer and his non-white title subject, and a Marlon Brando cameo.

34  bubblegum: to Buckley, Strange Fascination, 338; misjudged the length: Bob Clearmountain recalled “I could see the wince on Vaughan’s face. I said, ‘I’ll fix it,’ but David jumped in and said, ‘Don’t touch it. It’s perfect.’ We looked at each other, but David insisted. He loved the spontaneity.” (Wall Street Journal, 26 March 2011); invasion and exploitation: DB intro to VH1 Storytellers performance, 23 August 1999; fairly angry but it’s loving: Musiek Expres interview tape for a June 1983 feature, apparently conducted ca. March 1983, as Bowie references Vaughan as being in his touring band; Nguyen: “David Bowie m’a embrassée. Il était beau, j’ai pris peur…” Journal du Dimanche, 17 January 2016. Nguyen also wrote that she played “devil’s advocate” in a dinner conversation with Bowie (translated by Higelin? did Bowie speak enough French to communicate with her?) by defending Soviet communism—“in the name of this utopian, beautiful idea of ​​sacred unity for human beings”—against Bowie, who “was obsessed with the loss of freedom, he never missed a criticism of the Soviet regime.” The argument began when Bowie heard her reciting Pushkin in Russian, and it’s possible the idea of using a Dostoevsky novel’s title started here.

35  Mass Production   a child transfixed: Bleed, 210; zombie deadpan: Kent, NME, 12 March 1975; cities devoted to factories: Gimme Danger, 176.

 36  Nightclubbing    live: Pop sometimes sang the first verse in German during 1977 performances. Scott Thurston didn’t want to play “Nightclubbing” on Pop’s late 1977 tour because “I thought it was too drippy” (PKM, 434); lyric: Pop credited Bowie with “we walk like a ghost”; lousy drum machine: Pop remembered it as an “odd little Roland.” Trent Reznor sampled it for “Closer”; only Iggy Fucking Pop: South Bank Show interview, December 2004.

37   incredible coldness and deathly feeling: Phonograph Record, April 1977; Wardour Street: Bleed, 209.

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38  What in the World    ARP: Bowie and Eno never said which ARP synthesizers were used on Low. Top candidates are the ARP 2600 (a three-oscillator analog synth dating to 1971), the Odyssey Mark I (ca. 1972: a “suitcase” edition (two oscillators) of the 2600 that was meant to compete with the more affordable Minimoog; Roger Powell played one of the former on Bowie’s 1978 tour), and the Axxe (a smaller version (one oscillator) of the Odyssey, and reportedly used on The Idiot). One clue is the apparent use of a ring modulator (found on the 2600 and Odyssey but not the Axxe) on tracks like “Speed of Life” and “Weeping Wall,” though the latter most likely had an ARP Pro Soloist (ca. 1972) as its main synth. A commenter on the Vintage Synth boards noted that the Pro Soloist’s “Fuzz Guitar 1” preset is almost certainly heard on the track, adding “you can hear that Bowie has put Vibrato as a Touch Sensor effect in both cases, which you can hear him pressing harder then releasing in places, and then around 2:15 you can hear that he has added Growl as a Touch Sensor effect on the Clarinet preset.” The ARP Solina String Ensemble is a strong candidate for “Sound and Vision” at the least. The Solina, with a four-octave keyboard on which you could play violin, viola, trumpet, horn, cello and contrabass sounds, was popular among disco producers of the late Seventies; Rimmer EMI: possibly Eno’s EMS Synthi AKS temporarily renamed in honor of the composer John Rimmer; engineered: no credits listed, so my surmise is Thibault and Visconti for the French sessions, Meyer and Visconti for Hansa; Musikladen: a date maddeningly hard to verify. Consensus has it at 30 May 1978, but 29 May has also been cited. Maybe they shot it at midnight; tempo: Bowie’s last live versions, in 2002 as part of his revival of Low, restored the studio version’s tempo; Roy Young: A member of the Rebel Rousers in the early Sixties, Young was once called “England’s Little Richard.” He was in the house band of Hamburg’s Top Ten Club in 1962, playing with Tony Sheridan and Ringo Starr, and occasionally with the Beatles at the neighboring Star Club. (He and the Beatles cut backing tracks for an unreleased Sheridan single (“Sweet Georgia Brown”) in May 1962.) Young was still a hellion in 1976, making gin and tonics between takes at the Chateau, keeping a bucket of ice on his piano. Sending up cocktails to the control room proved disastrous, with Bowie found asleep or drunk at the console soon afterward; Farfisa: used on Eno’s Another Green World, the organ was being revived at the time by Jimmy Destri in Blondie and Jools Holland in Squeeze; Syd Barrett: he was “singing through the gloom,” which Barrett in turn had taken from James Joyce’s poem “Lean Out of the Window.”

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39   anima: a concept by Carl Jung, and an inspired suggestion of a commenter known only as “Norsey.”   Speed of Life    descending progression: Eb-Db-Bb-Ab, or I-VIIb-V-IV. Compare any 1978 live version to the Low track. The former are easier on the ear, with the verses given a rich, flowing bed of synthesizers to make the chord changes fall more smoothly.

41   A New Career in a New Town   Lennon: his earthy playing (he treated his chromatic harmonica like a one-key blues harp) is a key part of the sound of the early Beatles, from their first singles to album cuts like “Chains,” “Little Child,” and “I Should Have Known Better.” There’s a sharp drop-off in Beatles harmonica by late 1964, with the Dylan-tinged “I’m a Loser” marking the end of the line: a sign that the band thought the sound was becoming old hat. Lennon’s harmonica is heard only a few times more in the Beatles years (“All Together Now,” “Rocky Raccoon”), and his last recorded harmonica performance was his glorious solo on “Oh Yoko!”; chord progression: C-Am-F-G, or I-vi-IV-V, the “Fifties” progression (see “Five Years” in Rebel Rebel); Mr. Bloe: The B-side of an early Tony Orlando single, “Make Believe.” As songwriter Kenny Laguna recalled, he and his partner Bo Gentry dusted off the backing track of a “Mony Mony” knock-off single called “Bingo Bingo” and “improvised a haphazard harmonica and melodica overdub” (via Laguna’s website.) Called “Groovin’ With Mr. Bloe,” as performed by “Mr. Bloe,” the track became a UK #2. David J, in a Facebook post (1 June 2016), recounted that there was a Fifties-style jukebox outside Bowie’s dressing room during The Hunger shoot. After J punched up the Bloe 45, “Bowie was smiling all the while and well . . . grooving with Mister Bloe. Somehow I summoned up the audacity to make a statement. “This reminds me of something.” To which D.B. responded: “Oh, yeah? What’s that then?” “It’s one of yours!” “Yeah? Which one?” “It’s off of ‘Low.” “Yeah? Well, which track?” “Eh, ‘A New Career In A New Town?” And with that, Bowie put a finger to his lips, winked and carried on dancing!”

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42   Always Crashing in the Same Car    crashed Mercedes: Thibault to Trynka, 2005 “He told us he has to sell his Mercedes…It was a big class Mercedes and the value of the car was terrible because he’d had a car crash. So they offered only a very low price. David was very angry because he said that the Mercedes was paid for by RCA as an advance in royalties and it was very, very expensive and they wanted him to sell it for nothing”; like being in a car: The David Bowie Story, 1993; hardest one to get right: Mojo, February 2012.

43  spooky, not funny: Visconti, response to query on his old website (https://archive.is/YtKC8)   Sound and Vision   Low’s first single, it did well in the UK but died in the US—by April 1977, RCA took out ads in industry trades all but begging for Top 40 disc jockeys to play it. Top of the Pops 2: performed in the set, as per fans who attended the taping, but never aired; live: sung once on the 1978 tour, at Earl’s Court, a recording that first appeared on the semi-bootleg RarestOneBowie. Revived at the end of the Eighties, “Sound and Vision” titled Bowie’s career compilation and subsequent greatest-hits tour. A ghastly 1991 remix appears on the Rykodisc Low, while 808 State’s remix was issued as a David Bowie vs. 808 State 12″/CD-single the same year. A 1’50” reworking for a Sony’s Xperia Z was released as “Sound And Vision 2013,” and with hope, that’s the end of it; ultimate retreat song: to Michael Watts, Melody Maker, 18 February 1978; deep blue: this excerpt, which Bowie gave to Cameron Crowe in 1975, is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Archives. Quoted by Martin Schneider in Dangerous Minds, 31 July 2015; hand-cranked gramophone: “David had some odd requests, and it was my job to fulfill them. He was a vegan (sic) and more or less lived on milk and large amounts of cocaine which isn’t that easy to come across in the desert. I also found him a wind up gramophone. He used to sit alone in the white sands winding it up and listening to vinyl records for hours on end.” David Cammell, Man Who Fell to Earth’s producer (Daily Telegraph, 10 November 2016); greenie-grey light…buy your own groceries: to Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 12 November 1977.

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44  Crusaders tune: to Ralph Denyer, Sound International, September 1978; chords: in G major, so G-Am-D-G (I-ii-V-I), with the subdominant chord held back until the refrain, where it’s pitted against the tonic chord (C6 (“I will”) G (“sit right down”).)

45  theme from Deep Throat: a truly inspired discovery by Owen Maercks in 2017; not become a casualty: David Bowie Story, 1993.    Be My Wife   a promo shot by Stanley Dorfman in Paris in late June 1977 appears to reference earlier Bowie videos—Bowie’s flailing, awkward body movements parody his Jagger-esque moves on “Let Me Sleep Beside You” while the white-room setting and washed-out lighting invoke the promo for “Life On Mars?”; he just can’t be bothered: Momus comment on ILX, 10 October 2004.

46  genuinely anguished, I think: Melody Maker, 18 February 1978; merely sad: recalled by Annie McDuffie, who saw DB’s 5 February 2004 show in Phoenix.

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47  Breaking Glass   mangled treatment: to Chris Roberts, Uncut, October 1999; aggressive guitar drone: to Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton, Uncut, April 2001; hit one A note: Music Tech, 26 November 2014.

48  Eventide H910: Unveiled in 1974 (Yes’ Jon Anderson advised on the prototype), it had four knobs (input level, feedback, anti-feedback, and manual control) and eight buttons to regulate delay and output. It was invented by Eventide engineer Tony Agnello, who envisioned it as a means to pitch-correct wayward vocals or brass (NYC’s Channel 5 would use a Harmonizer to downward pitch-shift audio of I Love Lucy reruns that they’d sped up to squeeze in more commercials). Visconti had already used earlier-model signal distorters, like the Digital Delay and the Keypex, on his mixing of Diamond Dogs; fucks with the fabric of time: see any Visconti interview in the past 15 years; feedback of the tone…man hit in the stomach: Visconti, Brooklyn Boy, 237; how hard he hit his snare: to Michael Molenda, Electronic Musician, 19 April 2007; as big as a house: Sound International, September 1978; eccentric and listenable: to Rüther, Heroes, 48. Meyer added that “the glissando lowered the punch on the (snare) drum down to the basement.” In 1978, Bowie took credit for the sound!, telling Michael Watts that “I mixed up the bass very high…and did very extraordinary and naughty things to the snare drum sound…I wanted the snare drum to disintegrate. I was incredibly bored with the drum sound one hears, especially the American drum sound of the last 4, 5 years, the big, heavy, upfront bass drum, the make-it-sound-like-a-wooden-box that’s been there ever since “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” It doesn’t cut it anymore. So we fooled around with the drums and found that when we treated the whole drum kit it started to get back to a sort of psychedelic sound so we picked out different drums and treated them all individually. We found that corrupting the snare drum definitely put the whole thing out of focus with the normal perspective on how drums have sounded”; punky…did that shit the day before!: Five Years.

49  don’t normalize it: David Bowie Story, 1993; Tree of Life: to Uncut in 2001, Bowie said “it is a contrived image…it refers to both the Kabbalistic drawings of the Tree of Life and the conjuring of spirits.”   Subterraneans    Used as the opening movement of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 1, premiered in August 1992. Scored for: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, 4 percussion (side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, glockenspiel, triangle, chimes, tambourine, cymbals, castanets, tam-tam, woodblock), harp, piano, strings (8 first violins, 6 second violins, 4 violas, 4 celli, 2 double bass).   Strick: Circus, 28 February 1977; New Music: the album’s name apparently changed late in the day, as New Music was the title on first-run cassette labels in Canada, and it was also apparently on some promo issues, as  Ian MacDonald, reviewing the record in January 1977, referred to that name as if it was the album’s subtitle; manic disco…interesting shapes: to Miles, NME, 27 November 1976.

50  hence he brought in Eno: to George Cole, Record Collector, January 2017; soundtrack work: Music for Films was issued in a limited edition in 1976 and, with a revised track list, to the general public in 1978; David, Peter and me: Record Collector, January 2017; back into music again: Alan Yentob TV interview (Arena Rock), filmed in Cologne and broadcast 29 May 1978; faint jazz saxophones: to Tim Lott, Record Mirror, 24 September 1977.

51   16-bar refrain: As per the 1977 Low songbook, the sequence is: bars one to four: 3/4, 4/4, 4/4, 3/4 (“A”); bars five to eight: 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 3/4 (“B”); bars nine to twelve: 3/4, 4/4, 4/4, 3/4 (“A”); bars thirteen to sixteen: 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 3/4 (“B”); phonetics: Melody Maker, 29 January 1977.

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52  Art Decade  It was credited solely to Bowie until being changed to “Bowie-Eno” on All Saints in 1993 (the original, privately-issued version of this compilation) and subsequently on the European 2005 reissue of Stage. Possibly the latter was an error caused by referencing the first All Saints, as the credit had never changed on various Low reissues. The recent box set has restored the original sole-Bowie credit; sound made completely physical: quoted in Sheppard, Faraway Beach, 63-64; blast of synthesizer nonsense: to Lenny Henry, GQ, September 1996.

53  fecundity: Eno’s work of the 1973-1976 period includes (solo vocal LPs) Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) and Another Green World, (solo vocal singles) “Seven Deadly Finns” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” (instrumental albums) No Pussyfooting, Discreet Music, Evening Star, and the original Music for Films, (producing & “Eno-izing”) John Cale’s Fear, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Phil Manzanera’s Diamond Head, the first Penguin Café Orchestra album, Robert Calvert’s Lucky Leif and the Longships and more; more of a technologist: to Steven Davy, Beetle, January 1975; credited: It was happening before the first album came out (e.g., “Bowie’s newest, produced by Eno,” in a Low preview in the Soho Weekly News, 9 December 1976.) In 1999, Visconti told Uncut “David’s set the record straight many times since, and of course my name is in the credits as co-producer with David. How rock journalists continue to make that mistake is beyond me. Come to think of it, I don’t recall Brian ever setting the record straight.” In his NME review of Low, MacDonald praised “Eno’s treated snare drum” sound; German music: Bowie claimed in 1999 that “I took it upon myself to introduce Eno to the Dusseldorf sound with which he was very taken,” a recollection that may have surprised Eno; in Germany, he found something: to Stubbs, Future Days, 347.

54  wasn’t associated with rock: to Rob Patterson, “The Real David Bowie Stands Up,” Indiana Gazette, 7 January 1978 (this article was syndicated, so it wasn’t done for this newspaper); I needed somebody to work with…empathetic git: Rock On, 29 October 1977; cello: Meyer interviewed in Mike Christie’s Hansa Studios: By the Wall, 1976-90. “So when you listen to the track, you listen to a cello orchestra, played by myself.”

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 55  no hope of retribution: Record Mirror, 24 September 1977.  Warszawa  It was used as the basis of the third movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 1.  pockmarked with bullet holes: as described to Trynka, Bleed, 205.

56  Żoliborz: A northern district, west of the Vistula river and a roughly twenty-minute walk from the station; Plac Komuny Paryskiej: Paris Commune Square. It was restored to an earlier name, Plac Wilsona (after American president Woodrow Wilson, proponent of Polish independence), in the Nineties. I differed from my usual approach in recounting this story, which remains legend—to my knowledge there are no photographs of Bowie walking in Warsaw in 1976, nor has anyone else on that trip (e.g., Pop, Andrew Kent, Schwab) recalled this walk, I believe. But it’s far from improbable—it seems very much like the thing Bowie would have done. The story feels true, and ought to be in any regard; emotive, almost religious feel: Melody Maker, 18 February 1978; sonic scenarios: BBC Hard Talk, 11 May 2016; single notes: NME, 27 November 1976; melody against bass: JazzTimes, 15 May 2016; root notes instead of chords: In September 2016, a blog commenter “Tyrell” broke down the song’s structure brilliantly and greatly improved my original analysis. So: the opening melody is A-D-G-F. From F the melody goes to E, but as the root note remains A, this now sounds like an A major chord. When the melody started by Visconti’s son appears— A-B-C—the underlying chord changes to C major. The main melody (or first part of the “theme”) moves from F# major to D# minor to C# major, reaching a peak with an A# chord. After a repeat, there’s a third sparkling little melody, an upward movement that begins B, F#, B, F#, etc. After the theme section, the chords are F# major, F# minor, E major. The root note is now E, so the “solo vie milejo” section seems as if it’s in E major (Bowie sings a G#) while the “cheli venco deho” section feels more like E minor (Bowie sings a G). “After “malio” the root note goes from E to A (E-F-G-A) and it remains A during the second part of the sung section. At the end of this (after the last “malio”) it goes back via A-G-C and C# to the key of the main melody, which closes the song; musical picture of countryside in Poland: Melody Maker, 18 February 1978.

58  Polish folk songs: to Filip Łobodziński, Machina, January 1997; Polish choir as a child: to Watts, Melody Maker, 29 January 1977. Over the years, this statement has evolved into Bowie playing a “Balkan boys choir” album at the studio; phonetic language that doesn’t exist…different kinds of tensions: Okada Music Life interview, 23 April 1977; nice-sounding words: NME, 27 November 1976.

59  sinister: Pyzik to CO, February 2011. Her Poor But Sexy expands upon her thoughts here & is greatly recommended.    Some Are  Currently only available on the All Saints and iSelect compilations. The basis of the second movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 1.   bittersweet songs: Wilcken, 129, citing a “recent biography” that claimed this.

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60  wolf: Mail on Sunday, 28 June 2008; free-association: idea from Anthony Teague (whose name I misspelled as “Heague” in Rebel Rebel; apologies again, Anthony).

61   All Saints   electronic loops: to Pegg, 18 (all references in these notes are to Pegg’s seventh edition, from 2016);  label: the label in turn was named after All Saints Road in Notting Hill. Its first releases were holdovers from Eno’s Opal Records, which had closed in 1991.   Weeping Wall    works it out in his head: Heroes, 76; Meta-Musik Festival: after the performance, Bowie introduced himself to Reich. “And [he] then writes “Weeping Wall,” which sounds like “Music for 18 Musicians,” Reich told Alex Tween of The Gothamist (15 November 2013). The date of the 1976 festival is oddly hard to determine: one source has it as 5 October. Held in West Berlin in 1974, 1976 and 1978, the Festival was programmed by Walter Bachauer, an appointee of the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutsche Akademischer Austauschdienst, or DAAD), a government-run body indirectly funded by the Ford Foundation. The DAAD favored avant-garde and American artists to foment “freedom of expression” as part of West Germany’s cultural war with its eastern half; no regular beat…Bach, Stravinsky…irrational relationship: Reich interview with Jonathan Cott, 1996.

62  phasing: “What you really have is a unison canon or round where the rhythmic interval between the first and second voices is variable and constantly changing. “Phase” was just a technical word I used at the time to refer to the function of the tape recorders” (to Cott, 1996); out of phase with the original…new timbre that is both instrumental and vocal: Reich, Writings on Music, 76; vibraphone: “lying around in the studio,” as Meyer recalled to Rüther. It was an early version of the vibraphone (a marimbaphone with a distinct vibrato), built by the instrument’s creator, Herman Winterhoff, in 1916; bassline: in standard notation in the Low songbook, “Weeping Wall” is 97 bars of 3/4 time (the same time as much of “Mallet Instruments”), with a 16-bar outro faded halfway through. The synthetic bassline is four measures of a single note that’s repeated six times per bar—it starts with D, then A, F, B, G, B, G, E, G# and so on, patterns emerging as the piece proceeds; accumulative piece: David Bowie Story, 1993.


Let There Be a Book

July 19, 2018

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Hello! Happy summer. A brief update (I didn’t realize the last blog post was in April!)

Ashes To Ashes, the second and final book of my Bowie song-by-song criticism, is now done. Well, pretty much. There’s still a last, hard round of editing to come, then proofing, and likely some last-minute alterations in the autumn. But the work is finished. It’s strange to say that after all these years. All the Bowie songs are done.

Yes, yes: “but what about ‘Blaze’ or the 35 outtakes they’re going to release as soon as this publishes?” All power to them! I hope that they release tons of great Bowie music. But I consider this book my final word on the subject. Sure, many years down the road, if there have been substantial releases of currently-unheard music that would make me reconsider ideas or correct assertions, maybe I’d do a revision. And if they put out “Ernie Johnson” or “Black Hole Kids” or something, I’ll put an entry up on this blog to let people talk about it.

Two things about Ashes To Ashes:

  •  It’s publishing in early 2019, most likely in February. The date isn’t quite set yet, due to some variable factors. I’ll keep you updated.
  • It covers everything from “Sister Midnight” to “Blackstar.” It’ll be a big book.

Two things about the blog’s future:

  • There are five songs that I’ve written about for the book that I haven’t done as blog entries. I’m not sure what I’m going to do. I’ll likely put up one or two later this year, but you’re going to have to get the book to read some of them. Sorry. To quote the man, I can’t give everything away.
  • I’ve revised everything, sometimes radically, in the book. But the blog entries will remain as is, so don’t worry if you’re a fan of those versions. And the site will always be here. I’ll try to keep links up to date if I can, but that’s an endless, very tedious task. Given that the great majority of Bowie songs are on streaming services, the need for YouTube links isn’t as much a necessity for most entries anymore.

Thanks for your support over the years, and I hope you’ll enjoy the book. If you liked Rebel Rebel, you probably will. Talk soon.


Bowie: Object/ David Bowie Is…

October 26, 2016

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I’ve still not read an autobiography by a rock person that had the same degree of presumptuousness and arrogance that a rock & roll record used to have. So I’ve decided to write my autobiography as a way of life. It may be a series of books. I’m so incredibly methodical that I would be able to categorize each section and make it a bleedin’ encyclopedia. You know what I mean? David Bowie as the microcosm of all matter.

Bowie to Cameron Crowe, 1975.

We will never have a book from Bowie, apparently. One of the most literate rock musicians, one insightful and charming whenever he wrote about his music, has left no memoir behind.

Not that he hadn’t tried. He began an autobiography in 1975 while filming The Man Who Fell To Earth. It was a bizarre cocaine-fueled fantasy/memoir called The Return of the Thin White Duke; an excerpt was included in Crowe’s 1976 Rolling Stone profile of Bowie.

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In 2015, Martin Schneider discovered that Bowie had given a draft of the first chapter of Thin White Duke to Crowe, who’d subsequently donated it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame archives in Cleveland. Schneider quoted a few paragraphs from the nine-page typewritten document, including an apparently autobiographical passage about the 14-year-old Bowie in Bromley, 1961:

My grey flannel pants have been tapered at the cuffs to a tight thirteen inches. Waiving aside the Perry Como, I chose for class today the thin blue on white accountants stripe with its starched white collar.

I catch sight of myself in the living room mirror and take pride in those buttocks. My cock looks bulgy and tough.

Denis, all wreathed in smiles under his short curly hair, tells me that if I just pinned the badge to my school blazer, silk and wool, I can take the badge off when catching the bus home.

Schneider describes the draft as alternating between such fairly lucid passages and wild, grandiloquent rants in the tortured register of “Future Legend.” It’s unknown whether Bowie completed the manuscript; odds are no (if he gave a chapter draft to a reporter, it’s a sign he didn’t consider the work to be that essential at the time).

But much like his long-announced ambition to direct a film, a Bowie book seemed inevitable one day. Surely at some point, especially once he’d retired from performing and making albums, he’d get down to work at last. After all, he’d kept everything—costumes, lyrics, studio outtakes, posters, set designs. It would just be a matter of assembling the pieces of his past and sparking some memories from them.

Writing could be a salvage job. In the late Nineties, Bowie had talked up a 30th anniversary Ziggy Stardust film/ play/ remake spectacle. It came to nothing except for a 15,000 word introduction he wrote for Mick Rock’s Moonage Daydream, in 2002 (sample anecdote: “When the TV series Bewitched went into colour in the late 1960s, for some strange reason Samantha occasionally wore tiny tattoos on her face. I thought it looked really odd, but inspired. So I used a little anchor on my face myself for the ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ Video.”) Autobiography, especially if centered on his music, seemed feasible for him.

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News about Bowie: Object broke in September 2010 when word spread at the Frankfurt Book Fair that Bowie, via agent Andrew Wylie, was shopping a book around. Wylie reportedly told publishers that Bowie’s book would be just “the first in a series designed to explore his creative process.” Penguin Books soon had Bowie under contract.

A 28 September 2010 post on Bowie’s website announced that “We still don’t want to give too much away just yet, suffice to say that David Bowie has been working on a book called ‘Bowie: Object’…a collection of pieces from the Bowie archive, wherein, for the first time, fans and all those interested in popular culture will have the opportunity to understand more about the Bowie creative process and his impact on modern popular music.”

It would be designed by Jonathan Barnbrook; its structure would be a list of 100 objects which told the history of David Bowie.”The book’s pictorial content is annotated with insightful, witty and personal text written by Bowie himself,” as per his website. One example, included in the announcement, was the notorious Kirlian photograph of Bowie’s cocaine-enhanced fingertip.

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The book proposal came off as a parody of A History of the World in 100 Objects, a Radio 4/British Museum documentary series that began in early 2010 and was issued as a book later that year. You can see Bowie’s mordant sense of humor. Where in 100 Objects, the rise of science and literature is represented by No. 16, Iraq Flood Tablet (700-600 BC) and No. 19, Mold Gold Cape (Wales, 1900-1600 BC), Bowie : Object would represent his LA years via No. 29, Cocaine Spoon (ca. 1975) and Labyrinth as No. 65, Jareth’s Codpiece (1985).

He needed some kind of organizing structure (in Thin White Duke, Bowie used Hebrew letters to separate autobiographical paragraphs from fictional ones). One of his self-admitted weaknesses was an inability to follow through on long-term projects, so a pseudo-museum catalog concept seemed like a good way to get a book done: pick 100 things, write a few paragraphs about each, hit ‘send.’ A piece he’d written for the Daily Mail in 2008 seems like an early draft in retrospect, offering a few sharp, funny paragraphs for a handful of songs:

somear

What followed was a long period of rumor about the book’s progress. In July 2011, The Guardian claimed that Bowie’s deadline for turning in the manuscript to Wylie had been December 2010. In January 2012, the Daily Mirror reported, in an article to commemorate Bowie’s 65th birthday, that Object would be published that October. “His first piece of public creativity in a decade (sic).” But nothing was confirmed, and the years went on.

ojet

A wonderful hoax appeared in 2012, when a website called Bowie Myths ran a scoop: the site manager had managed to obtain some sample material Bowie had submitted to Penguin. The excerpt builds slowly, starting with a straight-faced “object” description (“22. Minimoog. “The tilting control panel is truly iconic, the wood finish superb, the feel of the dials top-notch, and the 44-key (F to C) keyboard is a delight“) on through a set of increasingly absurd entries, closing with a taxonomy of Garden Gnomes.

Some fans thought this was the real thing, prompting message board battles and eventually requiring Bowie Myths to write a disclaimer. The hoax’s timing was perfect: 2012 was swirling with rumor, in part because Bowie was planning to launch something and news of his return had started to seep out, in quiet ways. The spoof also highlighted the absurdity of the Object concept, to the point where you wonder if Bowie didn’t read it, have a good laugh and say, “well, that’s been done well enough.”

Because there would never be an Object, not even a posthumous one. Days after Bowie’s death, Penguin spokesman Matthew Hutchinson told Newsweek, “Penguin is not expecting it to happen,” while Newsweek quoted a source allegedly close to Bowie as saying Bowie didn’t complete the book before he died. (One presumes a biographer will turn up the full story one day—the book world is a chatty one). The closest Bowie would ever come to an autobiography was the list of 100 favorite books that he offered in 2013, a collection that ranged from Mishima to Kerouac, Nancy Mitford to Homer; it’s essentially a bibliography of key Bowie influences, obsessions and points of reference.

Object became a ghost of a book that never was. On Amazon Canada, it’s still going to be published in some lost 2011. According to Amazon UK, it came out earlier this month.

David Bowie exhibition

The most obvious theory about the fate of Object was that the book was subsumed by David Bowie Is…, an exhibition that premiered at the Victoria & Albert Museum in March 2013 (Victoria Broackes, co-curator, said she thought this was the case). After all, the exhibit includes what presumably would have made the cut for Object—Bowie’s paintings of Iggy Pop and Mishima, his stage outfits, his lyric sheets, set designs and even his coke spoon.

Again there was mystery and misinformation. Initially The Guardian claimed, when it broke the story in August 2012, that Bowie would co-curate the exhibit (“the V&A’s director confirmed that Bowie is involved”). This prompted a rare public statement by Bowie to deny this. “I am not co-curator and did not participate in any decisions relating to the exhibition…A close friend of mine tells me that I am neither ‘devastated,’ ‘heartbroken’ nor ‘uncontrollably furious’ by this news item.”

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During the 2000s, Bowie had hired a private archivist to finally catalog all of his holdings. Then he began quietly looking for a venue to make use of it. The V&A was an obvious choice, as they’d done an exhibit on Kylie Minogue in 2007. In late 2010, a Bowie assistant contacted the V&A to see if they were interested. Curators Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh flew to New York to discover a 75,000-piece collection, from which Bowie let them take whatever they wanted (presumably with some sort of veto power). It was much like how he’d let Ryko go through his studio outtakes in the late Eighties.

The deal was that we could borrow anything from the archive but that he would have nothing to do with the exhibition, that all the text must be checked for factual accuracy by the archivist but the interpretation is ours,” Marsh told the New York Times.

The exhibit would be constructed around roughly chronological “rooms” (the layout didn’t alter much when the exhibit moved to other cities, though Berlin got a new “Berlin room”), from his childhood bedroom to the dressing room of The Elephant Man to a recording studio. It worked well enough to symbolize Bowie’s life: a man whose early days were spent in a series of small rooms, the dreams that he built hanging on the walls or in images swirling around the ceilings.

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Ever since Col. Tom Parker sent Elvis Presley’s gold-plated Cadillac on a worldwide tour, in lieu of Presley making live appearances in the mid-Sixties, rock stars have had objects replace themselves. It’s rather medieval, sending reliquaries around to the shrines while the saints stay at home (or are happily dead). See the Beatles, using albums and promo films in place of live shows in the late Sixties, or Bowie here—David Bowie Is would be his last global tour, going from the UK to Canada, Brazil to France, Japan to Italy, and will run until decade’s end at least. It’s the sort of tour where just the roadies, sets and costumes are needed. The musicians exist only in the past, trapped in film loops, heard performing in headphones the exhibit gives you.

Bowie’s lack of involvement in the exhibit, where he’d once been intending to select and annotate the “objects” himself, can be read in a number of ways. He simply may have found it too much work, and happily outsourced it to professionals. He may have had a falling out with the curators after initially planning to take part. And as some reviewers of the show argued, there was a grand funereal sense to some of the exhibit—the stage costumes worn by blank-faced mannequins, like guardians of some restored temple; the handwritten lyric sheets mounted under glass, like butterfly specimens. It was the detailed recreation of a creative spirit that seemed to have departed, leaving rooms of marvelous relics behind.

And Bowie’s last years, with their frenetic activity, pushed against this idea. Who knows when he was diagnosed, what health issues he’d dealt with in the late 2000s. But it’s easy to see why he’d be writing a play at last, and keep making new albums and videos, rather than spend time curating himself. As he sang on “The Next Day,” he wasn’t quite dying yet. Leave the commemorations to someone else, there’s still work to do.

First opened: 23 March 2013, The Victoria & Albert Museum. Subsequent exhibitions: 25 September-19 November 2013, Art Gallery of Ontario; 31 January-20 April 2014, Museum of Image and Sound, Sao Paulo; 20 May-24 August 2014, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin; 23 September 2014-4 January 2015, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; 2 March-31 May 2015 Philharmonie de Paris; 16 July-1 November 2015, Australian Centre For the Moving Image, Melbourne; 11 December 2015-10 April 2016, Groninger Museum, Groningen, Netherlands; 14 July-13 November 2016, Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna. Upcoming: 8 January–9 April 2017, Warehouse TERRADA G1 Building, Tokyo; Barcelona, spring 2017, hopefully NYC at some point after that, so I can finally see it. In comments, would love to hear the thoughts of those who have seen the exhibit.


Reissues: The Laughing Gnome

April 1, 2016

Bowiegnome

Fitting for April Fool’s Day, it’s the one of the most knocked-about and belittled songs in the Bowie canon. But I stand by what I wrote in 2009, and the book version has even more love for the song. Below is a mingle of the two versions:

The Laughing Gnome!

Let’s come straight to it: yes, “The Laughing Gnome” is about a man meeting a gnome and, a bit later, the gnome’s brother. It has sped-up gnome voices (à la Alvin and the Chipmunks) by Bowie and engineer Gus Dudgeon. For the refrains, Bowie and the gnomes duet. There are gnome puns, many of them.

During a state visit to Washington, DC in 1994, Boris Yeltsin was found dead drunk late one night, standing on Pennsylvania Avenue wearing only his underwear, trying to hail a cab because he wanted to get a pizza. Many consider “The Laughing Gnome” to be something of an equivalent in Bowie’s life. “Undoubtedly the most embarrassing example of Bowie juvenilia,” wrote Charles Shaar Murray. “WORST SONG EVER LOL, know SERIOUSLY WORST,” wrote Techtester45 on YouTube.

At the apex of Bowie’s global fame in 1984, Mick Farren (who’d known Bowie in the Sixties) wrote that “whenever [Bowie] comes under discussion and the folks around the bar start to get rapturous, a still, small voice pipes up in the back of my mind to remind me: This is the man who recorded ‘The Laughing Gnome.’” When Bowie asked fans to vote for which songs he’d perform on his “greatest hits” tour of 1990, the NME launched a write-in campaign to humiliate him by making him sing “Laughing Gnome” on stage.

Stuff and nonsense, I say. After “Space Oddity,” it was Bowie’s best single of the Sixties.

Why “The Laughing Gnome” is brilliant

1. It rocks. It was Bowie’s best Mod soul single: its propulsive 4/4 slammed home by drums, bass, harpsichord and guitar all locked in, the guitar shifting from topping the bassline to biting down hard on each beat. (It was the first of many Bowie attempts to match the drone of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man.”) Even the gnome voices were basically drum fills. His melody, reminiscent of “The Tennessee Waltz,” was a rhythm guitar line in a vocal. Bowie started each verse with short upward moves (“I was walk-ing, down the high street”), took a long stride down an octave (“heard-foot-steps-be-hind-me”) echoed by a closing set of short, descending lines (“scarlet and grey, chuckling a-way”). The refrains were a four-part harmony: soaring oboe, playing whole or half notes; huffing bassoon happy to act the clown; Bowie’s lead vocal; the gnome chorus.

2. The puns. Come on, they’re not bad. Some are even inspired.

“Haven’t you got an ‘ome to go to?”
‘No, we’re gnomads!’
“Didn’t they need you to get your hair cut at school, you look like a Rolling Gnome!”
‘No, not at the London School of EcoGnomics!

It’s a quadruple gnome pun score! Eighteen points, plus a bonus for making an LSE joke about Mick Jagger.

3. Credible dark interpretations. Momus, in the early 2000s, offered the intriguing theory that “Laughing Gnome” may be about a man losing his mind, a schizophrenic’s conversation with himself. The storyline fits. The man’s walking down the street, hears a strange voice, sees a vision. Then he starts having visions at home. He tries to rally, puts the gnome “on a train to Eastbourne.” No luck. The visions return and multiply: there are two gnomes now! Finally, descent into madness. The man’s at home, believing his gnomes have made him wealthy and famous, but is actually curled in a ball on the floor. If you come close you can hear him whisper “HA HA HA…hee hee hee…”

4. Gnomic synchronicity. The son of a half-century’s worth of British novelty records, from Charles Penrose’s “laughing” discs in the Twenties to Anthony Newley’s “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “That Noise,” “Laughing Gnome” suited the frothy mood of its time, preceding Pink Floyd’s “The Gnome” by a few months. Syd Barrett’s gnome is named Grimble Gromble and is more of a stay-at-home than Bowie’s. Both gnomes like their booze, though. They’re color-coordinated, too: Grimble wears a “scarlet tunic [and] a blue green hood” while the Laughing Gnome sports “scarlet and grey.” Barrett offers a general benediction, honoring the other meaning of the word gnome, that is, “a brief reflection or maxim; a wise pithy saying”:

Look at the sky, look at the river,
Isn’t it good?

5. The Gnome saved Bowie from a life of cabaret. “Bowie included the song in his ill-fated cabaret audition, with the assistance of a glove-puppet gnome.” (Nicholas Pegg; my emphasis.)

6. A bassoon is a lead instrument. The chromatic three-octave-descending oboe/bassoon riff would be a through-line in Bowie’s songs, heard in everything from “Fame,” “Speed of Life” and “Fall in Love With Me” to “Scream Like a Baby” and “Real Cool World.” And the varisped gnome voices returned as ghouls in “After All,” “The Bewlay Brothers” and Bowie’s cover of “See Emily Play,” among others.

7. It’s a testament to a lost friendship. Gus Dudgeon, architect of “Gnome,” became close to Bowie over the course of making Bowie’s first LP. He recalled Bowie walking into his flat at Christmas and shaking a branch of Dudgeon’s tree in greeting. (“All the bloody pine needles came off.”) For “Laughing Gnome” Bowie and Dudgeon spent weeks coming up with puns and experimenting with tape speeds, cutting multiple versions of the track (the musician Mike Scott said he once slowed down the track enough to hear that Dudgeon’s doing most of the gnome voices). Bowie and Dudgeon even were proud of the single until the world told them it was a mistake. “For a brief period I enjoyed it, but then when the record came out and everyone said how awful it was I realized it was pretty terrible,” Bowie recalled in 1993.

The single’s failure to chart and some critical pasting pushed Bowie towards a darker path: soon enough came Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World. This would become his regular maneuver. Whenever he did something too silly (say, Labyrinth or the Glass Spider Tour) he’d make amends by dressing as a “serious” artiste for a time. While the cracked, gleeful spirit of the “Gnome” went missing for much of the Seventies, Bowie kept quietly drawing from its stores.

Dudgeon and Bowie eventually had a falling out. But when Dudgeon was killed in a car crash in 2002, Bowie sent flowers to his funeral with the note “Farewell to the Laughing Gnome.” Because Bowie, deep down, knew the track was one of the finest things he ever did.

Recorded 26 January, 7 & 10 February and 8 March 1967 and released on 14 April 1967 as Deram DM 123. It flopped upon first release, but reached #6 in the UK when Deram reissued it at the height of Ziggydom in 1973. The Gnome will rise again, one day.

See also: “Requiem For a Laughing Gnome.


Reissues: Life On Mars?

February 25, 2016

Given Lorde’s tribute to Bowie at the BRIT Awards, it feels like the right time to revive this grand dame.

It was one of the book revisions that took seemingly forever to finish, and then it wound up being not that different from the blog entry. Just a touch more concise, I suppose, and a few new quotes and such. I’ve swapped in the book’s paragraphs on the chords, etc., as the original entry was clunky. If you want to see the warts-and-all version, it’s back here.

Originally posted on 23 March 2010, it’s “Life On Mars?”

Life On Mars?
Life On Mars? (live, 1972).
Life On Mars? (rehearsal, 1976).
Life On Mars? (Tonight Show, 1980).
Life On Mars? (live, 1983).
Life On Mars? (broadcast, 1999).
Life On Mars? (Net Aid, 1999).
Life On Mars? (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Life On Mars? (Glastonbury, 2000).
Life On Mars? (Parkinson, 2002).
Life On Mars? (live, 2005).
Life On Mars (The Bad Plus, 2007).
Life on Mars? (Lorde, 2016).

This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.

Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.

David Bowie on “Life on Mars,” 2008.

Nice indeed. “Life on Mars?,” as fits its cinematic lyric, has become the Citizen Kane of Bowie songs—the youthful masterpiece, the epic, the best thing he ever did. Popular television shows have been named after it, people have gotten married to it.

It (quite literally) is Bowie’s own version of “My Way”—longtime readers may recall Bowie’s chrisom child “Even a Fool Learns to Love,” his attempt to write English lyrics for Claude François’ “Comme d’Habitude.” Bowie’s translation was trumped by Paul Anka’s, which turned François’ stoic Gallic lyric into a grandiose self-assessment, perfect for Frank Sinatra’s late imperial phase. Bowie was nettled by the snub though, and a few years later he rewrote the song as “Life On Mars?”—brazen enough in his theft that he wrote “Inspired by Frankie” on the LP cover.

An anomic heroine

A sullen teenage girl goes to the movies, gets stood up by her friend and dejectedly takes her seat. She’s the subject of the song, not the typical rock ‘n’ roll object of beauty or lust or distraction. In a few lines, Bowie captures a teenager’s life, its slights, its cosmic sense of injustice, its losing war against tedium, its restlessness (he starts nearly every line with a conjunction), its uneasy cynicism. The movie screen flickers to life, showers the girl with images. The song becomes the screen, its pre-chorus is an extended trailer—soaring strings, thunderous piano, ascending chords—for the refrain, one of the most shameless, gorgeous melodies he ever wrote.

And the song also captures a teenager’s ability to suddenly and completely lose themselves in art, to a degree we can never quite do again. It’s what happens in the song as well. Bowie constructs an 8-bar bridge designed to build anticipation in the listener—the strings, the pounding piano, the rising chords in each new bar—and then makes good on his promise: the chorus, with Bowie vaulting nearly an octave to a high B-flat and ending with another high Bb, held for a brief eternity.

The careful imagery and the intricate design of the first verse—its movie theater setting, its mousy heroine—vanishes in the second, replaced by a string of jokes (“Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow” made Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey crack up in the studio), esoteric references and gibberish (“my mother, my dogs and clowns”). A cynic would argue that Bowie didn’t have a second verse and just free-associated in the studio [voice of 2016: a cynic would be partially wrong, as there were further verses written, but Bowie rewrote them at some point before recording]; a more charitable interpretation is that the second verse is from the point of view of the movie screen itself. Blank and fecund, the screen offers nothing but a string of disconnected, vivid, absurd images: the masses scurrying from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads (from a hip summer holiday destination to an old-fashioned one), Mickey Mouse, “Alley Oop” (from which Bowie stole the “look at those cavemen go” line ), crooked cops and honest robbers.

It could be a curse on modern life, in which a discontented girl is stunned into silence by colors and noise, or it could argue that even the basest pleasures have nobility in them. I’d say “Life on Mars?” turns out to be a love song after all—the girl in the stalls, the screen providing her cheap dreams, and the song that unites them.

Striking for fame

There is an art to the building up of suspense.

Tom Stoppard, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

It starts with a cold opening—a single piano note, a rest, two sung notes to kick-start the verse (“It’s a/god-awful”), the latter becoming a rhythmic motif (“But her/friend is…,” “She could/spit”). A harmony vocal appears, a third below Bowie’s lead; Bolder deepens “sunken dream” with a bass fill. By the pre-chorus, a sense of movement has become relentless. All of its players are conscripted: strings and bass slam downbeats; Rick Wakeman’s piano drums out chords; Bowie vaults from a D to a high B-flat (“fo-cus on/SAI-LORS”) as a last flourish. Yet the refrain plays another game of suspense. After his opening gymnastic, Bowie feigns as if he’s losing strength, as he hits the next Bb briefly (“OH man”) and his next leap is a shorter interval, from E to B (“law-man”). It’s all a ruse: his final jump is his grandest—holding a three-bars-long Bb on “MARS!” The whole song is a clockwork. Everything has led up to this glorious indulgence. All that’s left to do is replay the whole sequence and close with fireworks.

There’s a parallel game in the song’s structure. The verses are comfortably in F major, with a C7 chord (“told her to go”) shuttling back home to F (“but her friend”) but at the close, a now-C9 chord jarringly leads to A-flat chords (“lived it ten times”). The pre-chorus becomes a battle for control between waning F major and B-flat, which assures its victory with a triumphant B-flat that opens the refrain as Bowie leaps to sing its root note. Bolder’s bass prepares the ear: in the pre-chorus, his rising chromatic line (inching up from Eb to E, from F to Gb) heralds the transition; in the refrain he tacks things down, keeping to the roots of the newly-established Bb key.

Ronson’s cascading string arrangement was based in part on the descending bassline that Bolder had worked out in rehearsals, while in turn Woodmansey’s drums respond to the strings—he does some tympani-like fills to match the staccato string bursts, and even ends the track by quoting the tympani of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (a Bowie perennial by this point—similar tributes are in “Width of a Circle” and “The Supermen”). Wakeman, playing the same piano that Paul McCartney used for “Hey Jude,” offers a secondary melody line for much of the verses. Ah, you can spend hours on the details: the lovely double-recorder accompaniment in the second verse; or Ronson’s gorgeous,vibrato-filled guitar solo that links the chorus and the verse.

“Life on Mars?” naturally gets a Hollywood ending: sweeping strings, the 2001 drum fanfare and a fadeout. But we still hear Wakeman’s piano in the distance, playing a bit of his chorus line, until a phone rings, someone mutters and we’re left awake and alone.

Recorded June-July 1971; released as a single by RCA in June 1973 (RCA 2316; it hit #3 in the UK, helped by the Mick Rock promo). While a huge hit in the UK, it was never that popular in America, oddly enough. Bowie performed it occasionally during the Ziggy tours of ’72-’73  and in’76 and then retired it until a Tonight Show performance on 5 September 1980 that has, for me, Bowie’s finest vocal for the song. Also revived in 1983, 1990 and the last tours. It’s been regularly covered over the years, even by Barbra Streisand. The version by The Bad Plus (from Prog) is highly recommended.

Top: The Nottingham Odeon, 1971.