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

November 14, 2014

nothing has changed,

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

What I wrote a few weeks ago:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




October 2, 2013

ultimos amarres

Safe (remake of “Safe in this Sky Life”).

It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths. Images and symbolic constructs of the past are imprinted, almost in the manner of genetic information, on our sensibility. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past or of a past borrowed from other cultures…

George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, 1971.1

The past, it almost shimmers down


What happened in 1998?

The president of the United States was impeached for perjuring himself about a shabby affair. Around the world: wars, calamities, children, television, the usual things. Never mind that. What happened to Bowie? It was the year he finally was consumed by the past.

He entered 1998 still talking up jungle, still acting out Earthling, but he left it readying his next face. This would be the “street clothes” Bowie of the turn of the millennium: flannel shirts, his hair a rat-brown fringe, granny glasses. And as a variant, a wan majordomo figure first seen on the cover of Hours. In either case, this new Bowie came off as something like a decommissioned rock star; an aging hipster caretaker of his past lives.

Sure, he’d changed his look before; he’d soon change it again. But any subsequent changes would be minor cosmetic variations on this image. The “new” Bowie of 1999 would be his last edition. He stopped here. As the cliche has it, he finally fell to earth.

He’d always had a curatorial side, surprising fans with the carefully-deployed antique, weaving a fresh song over the bones of an old one. But there was also his obverse: the man devoted to the present, seemingly bent on claiming a stake in the future: an artist happy to be a tuning fork for more discordant sounds, the ambassador of the weird to the straight world.

Now the future side of him went into remission. Rather than make another evasive maneuver like Tin Machine, he went inward, back into his old music. Not all at once (his next album would shuttle between a world-weary tone and the last squawks of his mapgie self); he edged into rock classicism as one does a hot bath. But his music became, more and more, extensions to and rewrites of his old work, rather than attempts to claim new territories. It began, as these things do, with the cartoon Rugrats.


Karyn Rachtman, an executive producer and musical director of the first Rugrats film, asked Bowie to contribute a song. Rachtman (sister of Ricky, late of Headbanger’s Ball) wanted to make the soundtrack hip. This was the coming thing: children’s entertainment had to appeal to parents, to assure them they hadn’t lost their souls by reproducing. So she got Iggy Pop, Beck, Patti Smith, No Doubt and Elvis Costello (the last two in a duet). From Bowie, she wanted a proper “David Bowie song.” Ziggy Stardust guitars, sweeping strings, the Thin White Duke croon. (“A little bit of ‘Space Oddity,’ ‘”Heroes”‘ and ‘Absolute Beginners’ rolled into one,” its producer said). An amalgam of the popular imagination’s Bowie. And Bowie gave her what she wanted.

As the song, “Safe In This Sky Life,” was never released or bootlegged, all we have to go by are descriptions of its making, which was elaborate. The track featured a 24-piece string section, Reeves Gabrels on guitar (he’d co-written the song), harmony vocals by Richard Barone (the Bongos), drums by Clem Burke (Blondie) and keyboards by Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater). To produce it, Bowie had dialed up his past.

Tony Visconti hadn’t worked with, or even talked to, Bowie in 15 years. There were reportedly sore feelings on both sides, Visconti for being elbowed out of Let’s Dance and for his contributions to the “Berlin” records erased in the press; Bowie for Visconti’s alleged verbosity in interviews.2 Visconti said the reconciliation, when it came, was simple: Bowie just called him up one day and asked him to make a record. As it happened, Visconti reappeared just as Bowie’s relationship with Gabrels had begun to fray. By the end of 1999, Gabrels was gone; Visconti has been Bowie’s collaborator ever since.

“Safe in This Sky Life” was cut from the Rugrats film during editing, after the sequence for which it was intended was deleted. There was apparently nowhere else in the movie for the song to go (not even over the end credits?). “He delivered a song far beyond my wildest dreams, and now I can’t even use it,” Rachtman lamented to the press. Bowie, saying that the song “doesn’t fit in with what I’m doing at the moment,” put it on the shelf.


The released version of “Safe” is one Bowie and Visconti recorded during the Heathen sessions in 2001. All that remains in it from the 1998 take are the string tracks, Visconti said.

So it’s difficult, even foolhardy, to speculate what the original sounded like based on its remake. The guitars, played possibly by Mark Plati or Bowie himself, do sound as if they’re tracing over Gabrels’ original lines. But much of  “Safe” feels as if you’ve heard it somewhere before in the Bowie catalog. The verses begin with close to the same top melody as “The Supermen” (cf. “When all the world was heavy hung” to “frozen to the glass again“). There’s a “period” synthesizer effect that sounds like the Stylophone of “Space Oddity” at times. Visconti’s strings, anticipating and parrying the vocal, have a massed lushness that calls back to the likes of “Win” or “In the Heat of the Morning.”

It’s a song as a series of sensory triggers: its dramatic moments—the rising chord progression in the verses, the guitar-smeared shifts to the chorus, the long-held “skyyyliiiiiifes”—suggest a common idea of a “great” Bowie song. “Safe” rewarded your perseverance as a fan: this is what you wanted, and here it is, better than you imagined. (Matt Chamberlain’s drumming could power a small city). It’s Bowie starring as “Bowie”; it was as if he was covering himself. The lyric also carefully matches a gentle conservatism (safety, acceptance, resignation) with a spiritual yearning—after all, it began as a song for hip parents. It’s a lovely song, one of his best of the period, and there’s something hollow inside it.


So what did he think about Glam being big again?

“Was it really?” he says in his campest ‘suits you sir’ voice. “I felt that it was a synthetic recycling on the back of the belief that Velvet Goldmine would be a smash movie and be able to sell all those spin-off books and records. It was PR led. It didn’t come from the streets. When I saw the film I thought the best thing about it was the gay scenes, the only successful part of the film frankly. The film didn’t understand how innocent everyone was then about what they were getting into,” he says, pausing for a moment. “Also there was a lot more shopping.”

Bowie, interview by Andrew Davies, The Big Issue, January 1999.

When Bowie and Visconti first cut “Safe,” glam nostalgia was thick in the air, thanks in part to Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, released in autumn 1998. A barely-veiled Bowie biopic as directed by an obsessive Bowiephile (it even has characters based on Kenneth Pitt and Corrinne Schwab), Velvet Goldmine was the middle piece of a trilogy Haynes made about pop stars and stardom. Superstar enacted the tragedy of Karen Carpenter via Barbie dolls; I’m Not There would split Bob Dylan into six incarnations of fan myths, from amphetamine hipster to Guthrie disciple.4

Haynes had sent Bowie an early version of Velvet Goldmine’s script and had asked to use seven songs (“All the Young Dudes,” “Sweet Thing,” “Lady Stardust,” “Moonage Daydream,” Bowie’s cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Lady Grinning Soul,” and the title track). Despite lobbying by Michael Stipe and Kim Gordon, Bowie denied Haynes permission. He didn’t like the script, he said: all that his analogue character, Brian Slade, did was give blow jobs.

You can see his point: Slade, played blankly by Jonathan Rhys-Myers, has no inner life; he’s just a series of beautiful reactions. Haynes’ film was sharp, some of its casting was inspired (Toni Colette’s tragic Angela Bowie), and it was lovingly detailed.5 But for Bowie Goldmine came off as obnoxious and cynical (in perhaps the same way he would find this project misguided and tone-deaf.)6 Haynes film was an aging glam fan’s perspective, rewriting the glam era as a collective fan myth (hence Slade winds up as an Eighties fascist global pop icon, sporting Billy Idol hair). The film’s language was half-remembered Bowie gossip; it played with pieces of Bowie’s life for sport. It cast Bowie as a character in someone else’s drama, where Bowie had always written his own lines.

That said, there was another reason for Bowie’s rejection. In 1998, he was planning a Ziggy Stardust film of his own, and didn’t want his songs appear in what he considered a competitor picture.


This Ziggy Stardust project was first mentioned in autumn 1998, and it seems to have filled the gap left by the collapse of the Outside sequels and concerts (see the upcoming “Seven”). The grandiosity of the Ziggy plan, its wild scope matched by apparently nothing resembling a budget or a workable blueprint, suited Bowie’s restless mood of the time: his jumping from film to film; his agreeing to host a season of The Hunger; his various immersions in the Internet and video games.

It’s hard to tell just how far the Ziggy project ever got: were there scripts commissioned? sets designed? (probably the latter: he always loved making set models.) Ziggy was supposed to appear in 2002 to commemorate the album’s 30th anniversary. It would be a three-pronged attack. A film (“an objective piece about how [Ziggy] is viewed and perceived by his audience,” Bowie said—so, in other words, Velvet Goldmine), a theater piece (“more internal, more reflective of the immediate repercussions of Ziggy and his effect on the people around him…his close intimates, how he thinks and what his perception of the world really is,” possibly including mime sequences) and “Internet” (the latter would be “pure fun, with hypertext links so you can find out who his mum was, and things like that—a huge exploration of his background. It’s sort of factground, and startlingly info-packed maps and photographs“).

Naturally, there would be tie-ins: a new book of photos by Mick Rock, a DVD with rare concert footage and a double-CD with unearthed and re-recorded Ziggy Stardust outtakes (including the legendary “Black Hole Kids”). In an interview with Radio One’s The Net in 1998, Bowie waxed effusive: “..I’ve found bits and pieces of songs that I obviously had written for [Ziggy Stardust] but never finished off. It’s as if I’ll be complementing what’s already there with other pieces that were started but not actually finished at the time, so they have an authenticity of the period about them. For me, I think it’ll be an extraordinary thing to see what kind of animal it becomes eventually!…It’s just a question of finishing off what might be a 90-second or a two-minute piece, taking it obviously the way it wanted to go and finishing it off and keeping the sound of the material in the period.”

(This idea—Bowie taking a scrap from an old session and working it into a releasable track, is the closest he’s come to explaining alleged “Berlin-era” outtakes like “I Pray Ole.“)

Gabrels thought the project had the potential for disaster. The only way it could have worked, he later said, would be to record the new Ziggy songs at Trident Studios with Ken Scott or Visconti, using only 16-track decks and keeping to the instruments that Mick Ronson and Bowie had used in 1971: Mellotron, Moog, recorder, 12-string acoustic, a single Les Paul guitar with a Cry Baby Wah-Wah pedal. If you’re going for nostalgia, get the details as right as Todd Haynes did. If not, Bowie’s new Ziggy tracks risked sounding like the surviving Beatles’ ghost-duets with John Lennon in the Anthology series: a glossy simulacrum of his old music, made palatable by nostalgia and the indulgence of fans.

The Ziggy project apparently died around the turn of the century. By 2002, when Ziggy Stardust‘s 30th anniversary was only commemorated by a CD that repackaged the Rykodisc extras, Bowie told Rolling Stone that “I’m running like fuck from that [idea]…Can you imagine anything uglier than a nearly 60-year-old Ziggy Stardust? I don’t think so! We actually tried a few years ago to pull a movie together but at every turn it was like…” Ziggy Stardust deserved to remain an idea, a fan memory, he said, rather than “presenting some nerd in a red wig, having run through a really slack arsed movie script.”


So: a seeming debacle avoided. Yet the Ziggy project still had consumed much of Bowie’s time around the turn of the millennium, and it paralleled his decision to rerecord his old Mod songs for Toy. Both of these, his biggest ambitions in 1999-2000, would wind up as unreleased failures; both were excavations and reworkings of past glories. It’s easy to see why he didn’t have much time for the present. He’d been used to making knight’s moves across the board; now, with his pieces depleted, he was left to devise workable defenses.

“Safe,” a “Bowie-sings-‘Bowie'” track intended for and scrapped by a cartoon soundtrack, and which wound up being issued as its own obscure cover, sums up this period as well as anything could. There’s a majesty in “Safe,” but it’s a borrowed majesty. One line from it in particular could serve as the credo of Bowie’s post-millennial years:

…From now on,
The things will move more slowly…

Recorded (“Safe in This Sky Life”) ca. August 1998, unreleased. “Safe,” cut during the Heathen sessions of July-September 2001, was released as a download for BowieNet subscribers in June 2002, then as a B-side of the “Everybody Says ‘Hi'” CD single on 16 September 2002. The only edition of Heathen on which it appears (in a longer edit) is the rare SACD.

The Ziggy Stardust Companion was especially valuable for this entry, as it’s compiled the most details about Bowie’s reaction to Velvet Goldmine as well as the ill-fated Ziggy revival.

1 Cited by Bowie as one of his top 100 books. The list is as much an exhibition piece as the Ziggy Stardust costumes of Bowie’s ongoing show: it’s a scavenger hunt for fans.

2: There’s a detail in Marcello Carlin’s wonderful piece on ABC’s The Lexicon of Love: that Visconti and Bowie visited ABC during Lexicon‘s recording, and that Bowie was taken by “The Look of Love” in particular. You wonder if Bowie had stuck with Visconti for Let’s Dance (recorded in late 1982) instead of using Nile Rodgers, whether that record would’ve been more in line with what Martin Fry et al were doing at the time.

3 The biographer Dave Thompson claims, citing an anonymous “latter-day associate,” that Bowie had been irritated by Visconti spilling the beans in interviews over the years. However, this theory is weakened by the fact that a few months before Bowie contacted Visconti, Mojo ran an article in which Visconti was on record saying essentially that he and Mick Ronson had co-written The Man Who Sold the World (this was the article that inspired Bowie to snap at journalists to go back to the record and listen again: “no one writes chord changes like that“). If Bowie was so irked by such statements, this was a pretty big one.

4: Though Haynes braced for Dylan to freeze him out like Bowie had, Dylan instead let Haynes use whatever songs he wanted, including the Basement Tapes era title song, released for the first time on the film’s soundtrack.

5: Curt Wild’s band is the Rats; Slade’s first words to Mandy, “do you jive?” were allegedly Bowie’s first words to Angela; a boy recites the Hughes Mearns poem that inspired “Man Who Sold the World”; one of Slade’s press conferences has him say, almost word for word, a notorious line Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1971; and so on and so on.

6: According to David Buckley’s bio, Brian Eno was spied at the cinema, laughing his way through Velvet Goldmine.

Top: Dante Busquets, “Últimos Amarres: Laurie, Mariana y Leslie, Cuernavaca, Mor, 1998”; various shots from The Rugrats Movie (Kovalyov/Virgien, 1998) and Velvet Goldmine (Haynes, 1998).

Telling Lies

May 23, 2013


Telling Lies (debut performance, Nagoya, Japan, 1996).
Telling Lies (live, Loreley Festival, 1996).
Telling Lies (live, Phoenix Festival, 1996).
Telling Lies.
Telling Lies (Adam F. mix).
Telling Lies (A Guy Called Gerald “Paradox” mix).
Telling Lies (50th Birthday concert, 1997).
Telling Lies (NPA Canal, 1997).
Telling Lies (live, 1997).

He had dreaded the idea of touring but now found he’d acquired a taste for it again. Four months after the Outside shows ended, Bowie was back at it, playing a string of Asian dates and European festivals during the summer of 1996. He’d fleshed out his new songs, he’d gotten a kick from the warring audiences that he and Nine Inch Nails had summoned. And he’d fallen in love with the core of his touring band: Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford, Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson.

So when Bowie played the Budokan in June 1996, he’d winnowed the band down to this quartet (“this is the band that it probably should have been when we started,” Bowie told Ray Gun. “This is the best band I’ve had the pleasure to work with since the Spiders.”) Gone were the keyboardist Peter Schwartz, the singer George Simms and, most of all, Carlos Alomar. Alomar later told interviewers that he’d been unhappy for much of the Outside tour, that the new songs weren’t working for him and that Bowie was inaccessible. A cornerstone of Bowie’s music since 1974, Alomar now felt superfluous and lonely: even the friends he’d made on the road during the tours of the Seventies and Eighties were mostly gone. “It’s really upsetting to come into town and your friends have died of AIDS or they’re no longer there, or it’s been so long since the last time that they still think it’s Tin Machine so they don’t even show up,” he told David Buckley. “It became a question of, when will I have a chance to leave?”

With Alomar gone, it fell upon Gabrels to play all of the guitar parts, which led to ever more flamboyant, effects-heavy performances. The set-lists were punchier in the Festivals tour: Bowie debuted his version of “Lust for Life” and went back to glam with “Aladdin Sane,” “All the Young Dudes” and “White Light/White Heat.” Having to compensate for losing Alomar’s rhythm playing also let Bowie indulge in a new interest: jungle-inspired percussion loops. Having already experimented with jungle-esque beats on Outside tracks like “I’m Deranged” and “We Prick You,” Bowie and Gabrels, working with the producer Mark Plati, spent a few weeks before the tour crafting samples of beats, synth patterns and guitar lines for use on stage.


What’s great about him in that he’s constantly looking for new input. There’s all this stuff going on around us, and it’s so easy to just shut it out because it’s too much. Instead, he just wades right in, like an old lady at a basement sale. Instead of going through racks of clothes, he’s going through racks of ideas, pulling out what interests him.

Reeves Gabrels, on Bowie, 1997.

Whenever Earthling is disparaged, it’s often due to Bowie’s incursion into drum ‘n’ bass: “Bowie’s jungle safari.” “Grandad playing at break-beats,” etc. Why did this particular vampirism earn ridicule while Bowie’s earlier absorptions of funk, Krautrock,  etc. were acceptable? Sure, some of it was age. Bowie was nearing 50, and to some he looked like a man in flagrant denial of that fact: dying his hair copper (to let fans see him better on stage during daylight shows, he said) and growing a satyr’s goatee, flailing around on stage in Alexander McQueen frock coats.

For the writer Mat Snow, in an interview in Buckley’s bio, Bowie’s embracing of jungle seemed “like a fairly cold decision…Earthling felt slightly like an arranged marriage.” It was a fair point: moving into jungle was something you expected Bowie to do in 1996—it was a hip, relatively underground genre that still had gotten attention in the press. It seemed tailor-cut for Bowie’s use. And Bowie’s statements about jungle tended towards the hyperbolic; they had the overheated flavor of the press release. Jungle was “the great cry of the twentieth century…it had this incredible pulse in the bottom like a heartbeat and this kind of chattering dialogue going on over the top…I thought this is an incredibly pertinent music to our times.

Bowie said that drum ‘n’ bass (which he allegedly first heard in London in late 1992) was the most exciting thing he’d heard since reggae. Which was an odd comparison: Bowie had rarely mentioned reggae before, had seemed little in tune with it, and his few attempts at reggae in the mid-Eighties had resulted in some of the worst recordings of his life. (Arguably his best reggae track is “Ashes to Ashes.”) He’d always been a dilettante, a proud one, but he’d been a consistent one. Buddhism, mime, Krautrock, science fiction, soul, Scott Walker, chanson, the Velvet Underground, etc.: these were all long-established channels of influence, ones that Bowie could return to whenever he was running dry. By comparison, his immersion in drum ‘n’ bass seemed synthetic—a new grafting onto an old tree trunk.

Another factor in the reaction to Earthling was how jungle was treated by the music press (again, I offer an American perspective here). There seemed to be a press consensus that pop music moved in easily-definable cycles, usually coming in four- or five-year increments, so by the mid-Nineties it was time for a fresh spin. Grunge was dead, Britpop was going nowhere in the US, so the apparent pact was to make “electronica” the Next Big Thing. Hence lots of features and hype on Roni Size and the Chemical Brothers, ca. 1996, which didn’t translate much into radio play or record sales.

So Bowie’s dabbling with drum ‘n’ bass came as the original underground scene was drying up and smack-dab in the middle of the press overkill: it was a mid-air collision that left Earthling tainted as a sad bandwagon-chaser of a record. It ‘s an unfair criticism, one that ignores how fun and sharp much of the record is (and how much of Earthling really is about Bowie’s reconnection with Britain). And it’s not that he intended being a fervent acolyte of jungle. It would just be a new table-setting. As Bowie said in 1997, “I’m not a purist. Nothing I do is hardcore in any genre.”

lies lies lies yeah

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning.

Kafka, The Trial.*

Before Earthling, before the summer festival tour, there was “Telling Lies.” It was a laboratory experiment: Bowie wrote most of it in Switzerland in the spring of 1996, intending to play with the song in the studio and build it out on stage. Bowie called “Telling Lies” “my first formal approach to juxtaposition between jungle and aggressive rock, and using a melodic line as a kind of easing the situation…it became an exercise piece, it kind of mutated throughout the tour.

Before the tour resumed, Bowie assembled his band in New York in mid-May 1996 to rehearse and to do some recording (including samples for the upcoming live shows), including cutting a basic version of “Telling Lies.” The band played it throughout the tour, generally the version that wound up on Earthling,** while Bowie farmed out a mix of “Telling Lies” to a few DJs and producers for prospective mixes.

So like “I’m Afraid of Americans,” “Telling Lies” lacks a definitive version. Instead it has four faces: a drum-happy mix by Bowie and Plati, originally called the “Feelgood Mix,” which was the first version of “Lies” to be released (free on the Internet, a decade before In Rainbows–we’ll get into Bowie’s pioneer work with downloading in a later entry); a Guy Called Gerald’s “Paradox” mix (dub and ambient brewed in a kettle, with Bowie’s vocal twisted into odd shapes); Adam F.’s buoyant, airy take, with a better chorus/verse join than the LP track. For the album, Bowie went with a “heavier” rock mix: “I thought it was the most successful of the juxtapositions,” he said. “It’s not so dance oriented. it has a very dark atmosphere to it.


As a song, “Telling Lies” suffered from being a guinea pig. A vague shamble between A minor and E major, its structure consisted of two intriguing verses affixed to bludgeoning, overlong choruses. Bowie’s vocal melody was a stitchwork of some obvious steals: the verses had the rhythm and melodic flavor of Leonard Cohen’s “The Future,” and, more subtly, Eno’s “Fat Lady of Limbourg,” while the chorus even had a pinch of the Beach Boys’ “I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” (cf. “sometimes I feel very sad” in the latter to “feels like something’s gonna happen this year“). And there’s a heavy-handedness to the “rock” choruses, with Bowie discarding the intricate dialogue of heavy bass/clattering, pilled-up treble of the best jungle tracks in favor of a sludgier bottom end.

Much as how the percussion loops were barely-altered versions of those on “We Prick You,” most of its lyric seemed like Outside rejects. But if baffling and clunky on record, lines like “gasping for my resurrection” and “come straggling in your tattered remnants” came alive on tour, with Bowie playing a Satanic figure in his performance, coming across as an aging imp of the perverse. As a transition piece, “Lies” worked well, getting the band into the frame of mind for what would become Earthling. When they got off the road, Bowie hustled to take a “sonic photograph” of them in the studio before they lost their tour-hardened sound.

Recorded ca. March-April 1996, Mountain Studios, Montreux; ca. mid-May 1996, August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released, in Mark Plati’s “Feelgood Mix,” as a download on 11 September 1996 and as a 12″ single (RCA/BMG 74321397412) in November 1996. A Guy Called Gerald’s “Paradox Mix” and the “Adam F mix” also were issued as downloads in September. The album mix is, unsurprisingly, on Earthling.

* One thought on where the title line may have come from; likely a wrong guess. For those interested in the minutiae of translation, I recommend this piece on the perils of translating Kafka (the opening line of Der Prozess should more accurately read “slandered” instead of “telling lies,” which gives a more bureaucratic, legal flavor to the clause).

** The main differences between the 1996 live performances and the LP version was a different opening line for the second verse (the very Outside-sounding “see me bowing to torture’s pain“) and Bowie occasionally singing “starting fires!” in the chorus, an obvious nod to the Prodigy (at Loreley, Bowie made the sign of the horns in tribute).

RIP: Trevor Bolder.

Top: Christian de Prost, “Belgique, Leuven,” 1996; lies, lies, lies.

Real Cool World

September 17, 2012

Real Cool World (single mix, video).
Real Cool World (soundtrack LP).
Real Cool World (Cool Dub Overture).
Real Cool World (Cool Dub Thing #2).

Prologue: Three Scenes From a Public Life in the Early Nineties

11 November 1991: Tin Machine are en route to the Brixton Academy for their last UK gig. Bowie has asked the bus driver to take a “scenic” way to get there, so that he can see what’s become of the neighborhood of his early childhood. The bus goes along Stansfield Road. Eric Schermerhorn, the Machine’s rhythm guitarist, notices Bowie quietly weeping. “It’s a miracle,” Bowie says. “I probably should have been an accountant. I don’t know how this all happened.”

20 April 1992: Bowie plays the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. He sings “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox, who’s dressed as a mingle of his discarded selves. He plays saxophone on “All the Young Dudes.” As Ian Hunter lurches into the song, Bowie sings along with him, not into the mike but absently, murmuring into the air, as though he’s only now recalling the words that he’d written for Hunter, the words which are the only reason Hunter’s on stage this evening. Later in the performance, Bowie pulls Mick Ronson over to him, in a slight echo of the Top of the Pops “Starman” moment. But they’re only sharing a private joke here.

Bowie plays “Heroes” with Ronson, who uses an E-bow to mimic Robert Fripp’s keening lines, and for a moment you can imagine some alternate 1977 where Bowie and Ronson had made “Heroes.” Ronson will be dead in a year. Bowie thanks the crowd, sinks to his knees and recites the Lord’s Prayer. Some guy yells “whoo-hoo” after Bowie intones “who art in heaven,” then Wembley seemingly holds its breath until he finishes. Bowie’s friend, a playwright named Craig, had slipped into an AIDS-related coma the day before—he would die two days after the show. Bowie had the bad taste to remind a stadium that the concert they’ve been screaming at is supposed to be a requiem. He later said offering the prayer was a spontaneous decision (Brian May: “I remember thinking that it would have been nice if he’d warned me about that”) and called it the most “rock and roll” episode of his latter-day career. Call it a humble moment of submission or galling pantomime, it’s one of the last moments that the general public will recall from Bowie’s life.

6 June 1992: Bowie marries Iman for a second time, in Florence (they had been married by a magistrate in Lausanne in April). He grants Hello! magazine exclusive rights to the coverage, which results in a 23-page spread. The second wedding is a public art installation: two celebrities, the groom’s teeth newly capped, pledging their troth to flashing cameras and to the sound of screaming fans, massed outside the St. James Episcopal Church.* In the Hello! photographs, the couple are stunningly beautiful mannequins; the wedding party is a taxidermist’s masterpiece.

Brian Eno attends. “It was a lovely wedding,” he said later. “And I was totally confused.” During his stay, Bowie plays Eno a tape of what he calls his “wedding songs.”

We used to laugh about Nile Rodgers and then it’s funny he goes back and works with him…Nile Rodgers is a very talented guy. [Bowie’s] idea to work with him was to recapture what they had, but that’s bullshit. You can never go home again.

Hunt Sales.

We’d put all this effort into trying to get rid of the stuff that followed Let’s Dance to change expectations and allow David to be an artist again. So I was irritated by the notion, but, for whatever reason, they decided to do it.

Reeves Gabrels.

These quotes can seem like grumblings of a pair of discarded suitors. But let’s grant them the argument: what had been the point of the abrasive Tin Machine records and tours, of the grand public funeral of “Sound + Vision,” if the next move was just to make Let’s Dance II?

Bowie’s decision to reunite with Nile Rodgers to make a “mainstream” pop album was in some part financial. Bowie no longer had an EMI contract, he’d funded the “It’s My Life” tour out of his own pocket, and he was a married man now, buying houses around the world for the setting of his new domestic life. And he admitted to friends that he missed it sometimes, regretted he was no longer part of the pop conversation, missed hearing himself on the radio. He got a new contract with Savage Records that was predicated on delivering a radio-ready album.

But Black Tie White Noise, though it briefly hit #1 in the UK and produced Bowie’s last Top 10 UK hit, was a global dud, much to Rodgers’ and Savage’s frustration (though the latter was in great part to blame, as we’ll see). Bowie had steeled himself to become a mainstream entertainer again, then had seemed to balk in the process, sabotaging his own compromises. He consigned the best pop song of the sessions to a CD bonus track and left another possible hit on the shelf, not to revive it for a decade; he filled half the record with instrumentals and covers.

So BTWN is one of the stranger albums of Bowie’s life: a pop record that seems intent on denying itself; an album jammed full of ghosts and memories, with a restless creative spirit running through it, along with a seeming indifference to quality at times; it’s a funeral album as much as a wedding album, its moods ranging from glossy pap to uxoriousness on a global scale to ham-handed public commentary to a studied alienation. Bowie would alter his voice beyond recognition, sing on some tracks as a seeming parody of his public self, sing on others as though he’s desperately answering a question someone had posed years before. He seemed to have trawled through his past and picked up whatever came to hand: it’s an album on which not only Mick Ronson and Mike Garson reappear but also the Tonight-era Frank Simms and Phillipe Saisse. While making BTWN Bowie seemed incredibly happy, a man sunk into domestic bliss, and one who also was vaguely disgusted with having to recompose himself, yet again, as a public figure.

Bowie had been writing the BTWN material throughout late 1991 and 1992. The first track that emerged from a desultory series of sessions (Rodgers later groaned that where Let’s Dance took three weeks to make, BTWN “took a year”) was “Real Cool World,” a song written for Cool World, Ralph Bakshi’s disastrous animated film, a crass rip-off of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, complete with a cartoon temptress (Kim Basinger’s “Holli Wood”) and human-toon interactions (a bewildered Gabriel Byrne and a sadly game Brad Pitt). While the title obviously came from the movie’s title, there’s a chance Bowie was also referencing the Greatest Show on Earth hit of the same name from 1970.

“Real Cool World” was a try-out session to see if Rodgers and Bowie could work together again (Rodgers had just finished a new Chic record, Chic-ism, and was in the mood for reunions), and the result was enough to convince Bowie to have Rodgers run the album sessions, which would stretch into late 1992, alternating between Bowie’s home base in Switzerland and Rodgers’ at the Power Station in New York.

The appearance of “Real Cool World” was well received at the time by the likes of Billboard, as it showed that the “real” Bowie (there’s always a “real” Bowie who’s gone missing) was back, not the scowling man who had been hiding out in some rock band. Along with Bowie’s sudden return to celebrity A-list status with his wedding, “Cool World” was a sign that Bowie intended to be a commercial force again, although the single charted modestly.

And “Cool World” did sound as though Bowie had gone to sleep around 1985 and had woken up seven years later at the Power Station, lying on a stack of R&B and house promo CDs. There was a crispness and a buoyancy to the track, a vibrancy that Bowie’s music had lacked for ages: if he was playing Rip Van Winkle, he was a sprightly one at least. Rodgers’ intro alone, with its mesh of percussive synthesizers (a hi-hat pattern in the left channel that’s soon drowned out by snares), two syncopated sequencer lines and a third synthesizer keeping on a high root note, and a staggered introduction of bass and Bowie’s saxophone, was the sharpest production that Bowie’d had in a decade. There were instrumental callbacks in the mix—a truncated version of the stepwise descending “Laughing Gnome” line on synthesizer, and another synth fill suggestive of “Speed of Life” (the former appearing towards the close of each verse, the latter midway through).

The track’s B minor verses are hooked to a lower-register Bowie vocal (doubled and tripled in some phrases, with what sounds like a synth bass effect applied to the lowest harmony) that’s a series of progressively sinking phrases, with Bowie plummeting to a low B on the last “world” of the verse, while the chorus, even with a cheery “do-Do-do-do-do” refrain, remains muted in sentiment. Only in the bridge/refrains, which shift to a bright C major, does Bowie seem to rouse himself, but even then he hardly ventures above a middle C. It suits the tentativeness of the lyric, in which the singer finds himself in love but can’t bring himself to fully accept it, trying to verify that what he’s feeling is real. “Color me doubtful,” he murmurs towards the end, still listening for footsteps: it’s a sentiment that could apply to the album that he was about to make.

Recorded ca. spring-June 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or Power Station, NYC. Released in August 1992 as Warner W0127 (#53, UK) and on Songs From the Cool World OST (the latter is an impressively hip soundtrack for DB to be associated with in this era, including the Future Sound of London’s “Papua New Guinea,” My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult’s “Sex on Wheelz”, and some early Moby tracks.)

The BTWN tracks have a bewildering set of remixes and edits. So for “Cool World” there is: a) the single edit (4:14), used for the video; b) the album cut, used for the closing credits of Cool World and found on the OST—this version later appeared on the 2-CD reissue of BTWN; c) Satoshi Tomiie’s five remixes, including “Cool Dub Thing” Nos. 1 and 2, the “Cool Thing” 12″ club mix and “Cool Dub Overture,” which were on the CD single; d) an instrumental version used for the B-side of a few 7″ singles.

* Commonly known as “the American Church” in Florence. It’s a colorful place. The church’s first rector was Pierce Connelly, who abandoned his wife and children to become a Catholic priest, only later to change his mind, becoming an Episcopalian, and then suing his wife (who’d become a nun in the meantime) for “restitution of conjugal rights.” (from Alta Macadam’s Americans in Florence.) Sinclair Lewis described weekly services there in World So Wide as a hour when assembled US expats “are betrayed into being American again…[though with] their flippant unfaith to their lean and bitter mother, America, there is yet more faith than in their zest for Europe, their opulent mistress.”

Sources: first anecdote is from Trynka’s Starman. The Sales quote is from Spitz’s biography, the Gabrels from Trynka’s.

Top: Shimon and Lindemann, “Hutch With His Bowling Ball,” Manitowoc, Wisconsin, 1992; Bowie and Lennox at Wembley, April 1992.

Under Pressure

September 27, 2011

Feel Like (Queen studio demo, 1981).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Queen).
Under Pressure (Queen, live, 1986).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Annie Lennox, rehearsal, 1992).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Annie Lennox w/Queen, live, 1992).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey, broadcast, 1995).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 1996).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 1997).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 2003).

The comic book Marvel Team-Up (above is the first issue I ever bought, at age 9) had a simple narrative formula: in each issue Spider Man met another hero, usually fought him/her by mistake, then the two combined forces to defeat whatever villain turned up in the third act. MTU often felt like a make-work program for Marvel characters, as Spider Man’s co-stars were generally third-tier superheroes (or even TV actors), but once in a while there was an above-the-marquee pairing, a real event.

“Under Pressure” is the Marvel Team-Up of Bowie songs,* with Bowie sharing the mike with Freddie Mercury, a duet seemingly financed by Rolling Stone for a “Seventies legends” retrospective issue. “Under Pressure” easily lends itself to metaphor: Tom Ewing, in his review of the track, aptly compared it to an exhibition football match (“Sir Fred’s mighty “Why can’t we give ourselves one more chance?” is the song’s most ridiculous, glorious moment: a stunning strike from the Queen frontman whose over-the-top goal celebration (“why can’t we give love, give love, give love”) just prolongs the joy.“)

A vague protest song about modern life, “Pressure” was recorded by an aging rock star and a fading rock group who met one summer in a Swiss studio. Bowie was there working with Giorgio Moroder on “Cat People,” while Queen was recording a follow-up to The Game. After chatting about record advances, Bowie recorded backing vocals for a dreadful Queen track called “Cool Cat” (his contribution was erased before the final mix). This led to a jam session on another unassuming song, provisionally titled “Feel Like,” that Queen was working up in the studio. With contributions by Bowie (who likely wrote the bridge melodies), the song developed into “Under Pressure,” which remains at heart a studio jam: Brian May’s guitar is little more than the arpeggiated pattern he was toying with on “Feel Like,” while Mercury’s peacock scatting in his verse sections disguises the fact that he didn’t bother to write a lyric for them.

And for all its world-encompassing lyrical pretensions and its bravura vocals, “Pressure” is a fairly minimal record, in line with Queen’s new taste for simpler, dance-oriented sounds. Keeping within the confines of D major (until the second bridge, “Pressure” is just tonic (D), subdominant (G) and dominant (A)), “Pressure” is only two verses and two bridges, the second of the latter extended to become the grand climax to the song—after the final Bowie blowout, there’s nowhere to go but offstage.

A few motifs are cycled throughout—the two-note synth line that sounds like a French horn (in the intro, verses and outro) and a two-note piano quote—and the rhythms build steadily, with the piano moving from brief interjections to a steady vamping in the verses, or Roger Taylor going from hi-hat in the intro to pounding his snare in the verses to the drum crescendo for Mercury’s bird of prey howls in the bridge (with Bowie yelling “no! no! no!” as though an air raid’s about to begin).

Neither Bowie nor Queen were enthusiastic at first about “Pressure,” most of which was completed in a day (then given some overdubs a few weeks later in New York). But “Pressure” had quite a few things in its favor, like its superstar co-billing and John Deacon’s minimalist bassline (six D notes, then an A; repeat, with minor variations, ad infinitum) which, especially when set against the bare-bones rhythm base in the intro (claps, fingersnaps, hi-hat), was a natural hook.** And once EMI learned it had a Bowie and Queen duet, the label pushed for it to be a single.

The once-David Jones and the once-Farrokh Bulsara first met in the late Sixties, when Bowie was an obscure would-be folkie and Mercury was selling second-hand clothes in a Kensington Market stall. Little more than a decade later, after having become pop demigods and having lived on a galactic scale, Bowie and Mercury were the last glam superstars left standing. Meeting by chance at the turn of a decade, the two seemed compelled deliver a pronouncement, some kind of state of the union address.

A problem with many rock star “social commentaries” is that the star, long isolated by money and sycophants, speaks in generalities, with human life reduced to a series of abstractions, as though the star’s fearful of alienating constituencies with an inappropriate detail. So we get things like: Feed the world. We are the world. People need to be free. The children are our future.

“Under Pressure” seems a case in point. People on streets, Mercury and Bowie sing, over and over again; it’s a phrase so abstracted that it lacks a definite article. “Pressure”*** is so ill-defined a concept that it’s both a physical force—burning buildings down—and a spiritual blight, causing divorce and homelessness. The brutal syntax of Bowie’s insanity laughs, under pressure we’re breaking doesn’t help things, while the song builds to the climactic flattery of Mercury’s why can’t we give ourselves one more chance?, offering unearned forgiveness for indeterminate sins. So it’s easy to ridicule the lyric as the gassings-on of two pantomime actors playing at being statesmen.

That judgement would miss something essential, I think. Nick Lowe, in 1974, wrote a parody of the Last Hippie called “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding?,” which Lowe’s protege Elvis Costello covered five years later. Lowe’s song is the lament of a hippie sad sack, lost in a cruel world and wondering where the good times have gone—there’s a touch of cruelty in it. Costello instead took the lyric utterly seriously, and the song, warming to its interpreter, became heartbreaking. “Where are the strong? and who are the trusted?” became hard indictments, questions more relevant than ever today.

Something similar happens in “Under Pressure,” which is a sad hippie song beneath its arias and cannonades, and it’s owed entirely to its singers.

Bowie and Mercury simply will “Under Pressure” into being far better than the material deserves. Take how Mercury sings the cliche “it never rains but it pours,” in an impossibly light falsetto, making it sound like a lament for the world, or how he soars to the diva high note that even Annie Lennox would struggle to hit. It’s a man carving his own monument.

But (given our biases here, this should be no surprise) it’s Bowie who really salvages the song. The sudden ferocity of his appearance on the first bridge (“it’s the terror of knowing what this world is about“) dispels some of the vagaries of the verse. Then there’s Bowie’s crescendo performance in the second bridge. It’s a melody that Bowie’s held back until now like an ace of trumps, the magnificent staircase-climb of “love’s..such an..old fashioned…WORD/and love..DARES YOU to CARE FOR…” It’s a beautiful moment: in the middle of what has been a superstar jam session, there suddenly appears Bowie’s new hymn for all the young dudes, buried away in plain sight. Watch George Michael start singing along in awe during Bowie’s rehearsal performance at the Mercury tribute—he can’t help himself.

“Under Pressure” is a day’s indulgence by two men past their prime, who were entering a decade that would reward and diminish them; Mercury had only a decade more to live. So there’s a sadness along with the bravado, a sense of loss to go with the heroics. Something is going away, going away for good, and Bowie and Mercury see it, if only in shadows. Anthony Miccio once called “Under Pressure” “the best song of all time,” and there are a few days when I think he was right. It’s the last song of the titans, one that needs grandiose claims made on its behalf.

“Under Pressure” slipped out in late 1981: a collective anonymous act. The single sleeve had no photographs, its video was cobbled together by David Mallet from stock footage, Queen and Bowie never performed it live together and never gave a single interview about “Under Pressure.” And it hit #1.

Recorded July 1981 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, with overdubs a few weeks later at the Power Station, NYC. Released 26 October 1981 as EMI 5250 (#1 UK, #29 US); later on Queen’s 1982 Hot Space, as well as being collected in a few Bowie anthologies. Bowie never played it live until the tribute to Mercury in April 1992, with his grand duet with Annie Lennox. Bowie then fashioned “Pressure” into a duet that he would perform with Gail Ann Dorsey throughout his last decade of touring.

* Of course, there’s another edition of Bowie Team-Up coming in 1985, one that’s far less sublime. Brace yourselves.

** Deacon was supplanting Brian May as Queen’s dominant instrumental voice: his Chic-inspired bassline had owned “Another One Bites the Dust.” Who wrote the mighty “Pressure” bassline? Various authors have been proposed (or proposed themselves) over the years, but according to May and Taylor, Deacon came up with it. However Deacon once said that Bowie wrote it. And yes, there’s Vanilla Ice—let’s not get into it. [Supplementary note: I failed to mention that in the recent Paul Trynka DB bio, Trynka bolsters the Bowie-as-author case, claiming that a) the bassline was actually recorded late in the game, in New York during overdubs and B) Bowie “sang” the entire bassline to Deacon. No direct attribution as to where this info came from, though.]

*** See also Billy Joel’s even more incoherent “Pressure,” from 1982.

Top: MTU #110, Oct. 1981; Kim Aldis, Brixton riots, UK, April 1981.

Move On

June 8, 2011

Move On.

Lodger is the last and arguably the most neglected of Bowie’s ’70s records. “A certified nonclassic,” Robert Christgau once called it. Bowie and Tony Visconti both have said they regret how it was recorded and mixed, while its performers, like Carlos Alomar, have described its production as being frustrating at times, with Brian Eno’s attempts to upend the sessions more irritating than inspiring.

Lodger‘s forcible inclusion in a so-called trilogy with Low and “Heroes” hasn’t helped its reputation,* as it has little in common with those records and so winds up being the Godfather III of the lot. While its cast of characters—Visconti, Eno, Alomar & crew—is mostly the same as the other “Berlin” records, Lodger mainly was recorded in a cramped, overheated studio in Switzerland, rather than in a haunted French castle or in walking distance of the Berlin Wall. And where “Heroes” and Low had been cut fast, in under two months, Lodger was a more leisurely affair: the backing tracks were cut in September 1978, while vocals and overdubs weren’t finished until March of the following year.

However, considered on its own terms, as a transition LP overflowing with ideas, some fine, some kooky, Lodger has its rewards; the songwriting is still inspired, the playing is strong and there’s a sense of what-the-hell adventurism to it all—“African Night Flight” and “Yassassin” are some of the weirdest things Bowie had ever recorded. And beneath the official narrative of the record, of Bowie as world traveler, sampling various “ethnic” musics with little vérité (it’s the sort of album where the white musicians had to teach the black ones how to play reggae), lies a more acute one: when you become an influence, does that make you obsolete?

Lodger is Bowie, at age 32, trying to come to terms with being “David Bowie,” inspiration to a horde of new bands. There’s a line from Updike’s Rabbit, Run that applies: the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up. Bowie, touring throughout 1978 and sampling the new scenes in London and New York, could see the kids coming, and it unnerved him as much as it flattered him. His past was being disassembled and used for parts: the Cuddly Toys took Ziggy Stardust, as did Bauhaus, who also drew from Man Who Sold the World; the soon-to-form Duran Duran would feast on Young Americans, while Gary Numan seemed to have stolen a set of “Heroes” outtakes. (Numan in particular rubbed Bowie the wrong way, with Bowie allegedly having Numan kicked off a TV show that the two were slated to appear on together).

Bowie’s reaction was inspired: if he was fated to be an influence, then he would draw upon himself as well. He would take his share of the Bowie estate and reinvest it. Jon Savage called Lodger “self-plagiarism,” but it’s more Bowie self-sampling (“I am a DJ, I am what I play“), rewriting old lines, recasting players. So Bowie reused “Sister Midnight”‘s backing track, sang over the vocal chorus of “All the Young Dudes” played backwards, made three different songs out of the same chord progression. He camped up his recent inspirations (“Red Sails” is Neu! on holiday), slipped out a latter-day glam anthem while no one was looking. He even called a song “Repetition.”

“Move On” is a travelogue whose lyric was inspired by Bowie’s recent journeys to Kenya (on vacation with his son), Japan and Australia; it’s also a record of a man fearful of being trapped in the past and, more pressingly, himself and so he pushes onward, without a plan, and with only vague fantasies to guide him. “Feeling like a shadow, drifting like a leaf,” Bowie sings as the song winds out; a new territory exacts a harsh cost.

The song, in D major, consists of a verse, two choruses and a bridge, along with a hybrid instrumental section that’s half a verse plus a full chorus (a quick A-C-G progression usually serves as the scene-changer). The 18-bar verse, which opens the song, is restrained in tone, with Bowie keeping to a three-note range at first and always closing phrases on the root note, D (on “feel,” “move,” “train”, etc.). Carlos Alomar plays a simple riff that fills each vocal pause, while Dennis Davis provides a rumbling counterpoint on toms (he keeps the pattern going throughout the track), with fills at the verse’s midpoint and close.

A working title for Lodger was Planned Accidents; “Move On” was an inspired one. Bowie had been sitting listening to some old tapes and accidentally played “All the Young Dudes” backwards. He was taken by the odd, strangled melody that resulted, and had Alomar write out the “inverted” chord changes and had the band learn to play it. Then Bowie crafted a vocal that would push against the new flow. Visconti, in his autobiography, described its recording: David and I flipped the new version’s tape over and played it backwards, and sang the melody of “All the Young Dudes” forwards—I know I’ve lost most of you—and that became “Move On.”

So Bowie’s vocal, which is caged in the verse, meanders through the choruses (which, starting with “somewhere someone’s calling me,” is the inverted chord sequence of C/F/G/A minor/D/B minor)—he sings the vocal over seven phrases, each of which differs in length and in notes. The bridge (“Africa is sleepy people”) is equally roaming and random, with a lyric lacking rhymes and which scans oddly. It suggests a song that’s gone out of phase, with bars of 2/4 time (on “matted” and “place like”) further unsettling things. George Murray’s bass, kept low in the mix, is the track’s secret melodist.

Recorded September 1978 in Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland and March 1979 at Record Plant Studios, NYC; it was the B-side of “Ashes to Ashes,” September 1980. It’s never been performed live, the same as nearly half the Lodger tracks.

* Bowie, not critics, is to blame here, as he was calling Lodger part of a “triptych” soon after it was released. Eno also referred to the records as being a trilogy around the same time.

Top: Ted Bobosh, “Market Day, Western Kenya,” 1978.

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).

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.


April 6, 2010

Changes (demo).
Changes (LP).
Changes (live, 1973).
Changes (live, 1974).
Changes (rehearsal, 1976).
Changes (live, 1990).
Changes (live, 2002).

I’ve seen David Bowie perform only once: Hartford, in the summer of 1990. This was the “Sound and Vision” tour, whose premise was that Bowie would be playing nothing but his hits…for the last time ever. The ultimatum caused a lot of fuss at the time, though the idea that Bowie would never sing something like “Young Americans” again for the rest of his life seemed ludicrous on its face. Bowie was back to the hits again in a few years.

I went with a friend from work. It was a friendship of happenstance and convenience, one our mothers seemed to have arranged. “Mark, you like the New York Dolls—here’s the only other kid in our town who knows who they are.” Mark was two years older than I; he was cutting, brutal, handsome and drove an enormous white Ford LTD. Strangers at stoplights would challenge him to race. He once went so fast on Rt. 11, a dead-end Connecticut highway that the cops neglected, that the needle had circled around to 0 mph.

On the way to the show Mark said, “All I know is, Bowie better play ‘Changes’.” Bowie opened with “Space Oddity” and went on through his basics, all except “Changes.” He went off stage. Mark sat in ominous silence. “Oh well, you know it’s the encore,” I said. Encore, no “Changes.” “Well, it’s gotta be the show-ender,” I said. Second encore, another strike-out. The house lights coming on felt like a slap. Mark drove home with an inspired recklessness, sharking the LTD across lanes. It was bleak inside the car. All Mark said during the drive was, “Why didn’t that fucker play it?! Fuck Bowie!”

I also felt at odds, the passive victim of an injustice. “Changes” was Bowie’s teenage anthem, where Bowie, usually such a cold, unknowable artist, had met us halfway: “Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it!!”. Sure, part of “Changes”‘ resonance was because lines from the second verse were the preamble to The Breakfast Club (oh you know, “these children that you spit on/as they try to change their worlds…”), but the song also still sounded current, its angst unresolved. While cut the year before I was born, “Changes” didn’t feel like a hippie leftover—it wasn’t “Both Sides Now” or “Hey Jude”; it didn’t have the clammy taste of forced nostalgia (it even seemed anti-Boomer: “Where’s your shame? You’ve left us up to our necks in it!”). While it was played regularly on the radio and even my grandmother probably would have recognized it, “Changes” felt somehow as if it had sneaked through.

Listening to the song 20 years later, I’m struck by how personal and how odd a track it is: “Changes” isn’t far removed from “Quicksand” in that its lyric reads like a transcribed Bowie internal monologue. The few lines Bowie offers to make the song more universal just serve as bait, in the way the song’s hooks distract the ear from its bizarre construction. “All the Young Dudes,” by comparison, is far more solid and enduring an adolescent hymn. “Changes” is something of a cuckoo’s egg.

Did it matter, really? Not then, likely not now. As Levon Helm once sang, you take what you need and you leave the rest.

Bowie was becoming more shrewd about his work’s commercial viability, and knew he had something with “Changes”: he led off Hunky Dory with it, chose it as his first RCA single, and made it the centerpiece of his tours (er, except Hartford ’90) and greatest hits albums. Its lyric begins as reminiscence (Bowie recalling his career’s various false starts (“a million dead-end streets”), flops, trend-hops, self-reinventions), expands into Bowie trying to fix his current state, as if plotting a cloud’s progress on a map, and finally rewards its adolescent audience with a few identification lines.

The straightforward lyric is set against a twisted harmonic backdrop (parts of the song are even “anarchic,” Wilfrid Mellers wrote). It opens with a 9-bar intro moving from Cmaj7 up to F7, and whose main hook (two of five alternating bars of piano and bass) doesn’t appear again until after the chorus, then never heard from again. (Nothing in the song is evenly-constructed: both the chorus and verses are 15 bars, while the outro (which features Bowie’s first-ever saxophone solo) is seven). Its chorus sways between 4/4, 2/4 (on “different man” or “necks in it”) and 3/4 time (starting with “time may change me”), while its chord changes are relentless (the “I can’t trace” bar has a different chord for each of three beats—C/E, G/D and F/A).

Bowie makes it go down easily by layering in multiple hooks: the stuttered “changes,” or the way Trevor Bolder’s bassline, descending a half-step with each two notes, echoes the vocal harmonies, or Rick Wakeman’s eight-to-the-bar piano that serves as the chorus’ rhythmic engine.

And the chorus is the accessible part! The verses are even wilder: irregular sets of 15 bars that seem to expand and contract at whim (the second bar “waiting for, and my…” is only five sung notes, while its counterpart, the sixth bar, has six notes but just feels much longer: “got it maaaaade, it seemed the…”). Bowie delivers the lines freely, in a conversational tone, making rhymes out of shadows—the way he mates “glimpse” with “test,” or the internal rhymes of “time” and “wild.” And sometimes the lines don’t even scan—take how Bowie has to swallow the “the” in “how others must see the faker,” or sing “Strange fascination fascinating me” as “fass-ating me.” (Singing “Changes” live, especially in the last Ziggy Stardust shows of 1973, Bowie went further, reciting the verses like beat poetry over free-form piano.)

This relentless strangeness, the way the song’s structure seems intent on upsetting the lyric, and yet weaves everything together to form one of Bowie’s more melodic choruses, may lie at the root of why “Changes” has never quite become a classic rock warhorse. It promises, it flatters, it offers you back your own thoughts, but the song remains unknowable. It seems to be speaking to you, but is instead conversing with the mirror. It recreates its listeners in its own image, casts them off, reclaims them.


The studio demo (with Mick Ronson singing harmonies) and the LP cut are from June-August 1971, while “Changes” was released as Bowie’s first RCA single in January 1972 (RCA 2160). While it initially flopped both in the UK and the US, “Changes” would eventually become something of Bowie’s official theme song. How many TV rock retrospectives have featured a montage of Bowie, cutting from Ziggy to Soul Bowie to Thin White Duke to “Modern Love” Lothario, set to the “Changes” chorus? The literalness of it all makes you weep: look, he keeps Ch-ch-Changing! Live versions were recorded in 1972, 1973 and 1974 (the latter, from David Live, was the B-side of “Knock On Wood”), while covers range from Ian McCullough to Lindsay Lohan.

The Bowie concert would be the last time Mark and I hung out, as I went off to college a few weeks later and I never saw him again. “Changes,” in its absence, was our epitaph.