Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud

November 30, 2009

Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (B-side).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (LP).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (live, 1973).

“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is another of Bowie’s Tibetan songs, completing a cycle that began in fact (“Silly Boy Blue”), evolved into half-myth (“Karma Man”) and now ends as a fable, fit for a bedtime story or a puppet show. The ancestor of “Freecloud” is Bowie’s mime piece Yet San and the Eagle, the story of a Tibetan boy living under Chinese Communist oppression, and “Freecloud” seems as if it was meant to accompany the movements of actors, with the lyric sometimes doubling as stage directions (the hangman “folds the rope into its bag” or “so the village dreadful yawns”).

But the wild boy of Freecloud isn’t just a Tibetan monk under an assumed name—he’s also uncorrupted youth in nature, whose very existence offends the worldlings who live meanly in the village below him. Bowie described his storyline in an October 1969 interview with Disc & Music Echo: the boy “lives on a mountain and has developed a beautiful way of life…I suppose in a way he’s rather a prophet figure. The villagers disapprove of the things he has to say and they decide to hang him.” The boy resigns himself to death, only to watch in horror as the mountain takes revenge for him. “So in fact everything the boy says is taken the wrong way—both by those who fear him and those who love him.”

Feral children and noble savages cropped up everywhere in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, from Kaspar Hauser in Herzog’s Jeder Für Sich und Gott Gegen Alle, to Truffaut’s L’enfant Sauvage, to the reclamation of Henry David Thoreau as ur-hippie and draft-dodger (e.g., The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail). The wild boys, hippie Christ figures and other “naturals” served as court jesters for the modern age, or as walking rebukes to a conformist, plastic culture. Society usually converts or kills these types, though as the Wild Boy in Bowie’s song eventually leaves the town in rubble, you can’t really blame society.

“Freecloud” marries Bowie’s theatrical sensibilities with his recent folk leanings—Anthony Newley and Jacques Brel sit alongside Fairport Convention in the gallery. The result is an odd combination of staginess (“as the night…begins for ONE!” the narrator intones, hangman exits stage left) and naturalism, the lyric ranging from the carefully-observed details of the opening verses to the Streisand-esque self-acclamation in the bridge (the “REALLLY YOU and REALLY MEEEE” bit). The whole piece is a catalog of influences: the stage setting of a night before a hanging is out of the Child Ballads, the sense of divine retribution levied on a damned town hails from Brecht/Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” and the loftiness of the lyric describing the mountain (“where the eagle dare not fly” and so on) has a bit of Tolkien in it. (“Freecloud” was Tolkien-head Marc Bolan’s favorite Bowie song).

The Battle of Freecloud

“Freecloud” opens with Bowie playing variations on the D chord—D to Dmaj7 to D7 to D6—basically just supplementing a D chord on his 12-string acoustic guitar with additional notes. The pattern repeats throughout the song: it opens the verses and circles three times through them, the relative similarity of the chords creating a feeling of stasis (they occur even while the boy is singing that he’s really free, suggesting he’s just as trapped as the rest of us). The guitar intro also has the song’s other major motif: a sudden push to C, which Bowie later uses to dramatically end the verses and begin the refrain.

The song’s built like an inverted pyramid, opening with two long descriptive verses, each 11 lines long with no rhymes and no real meter; the pattern is finally broken when Bowie goes into the bridge, which, rhyme-strewn and full of long-held notes, comes as a relief to the ear. The song spirals downward faster and faster, first with something of a refrain (handclaps, the title finally sung), then a turbulent pair of verses that contain the destruction of the village within them. It ends with a quiet 10-bar coda, the boy picking his way free from the rubble while the guitar pattern of the intro reappears, suggesting the cycle will begin again, here or elsewhere.

“Freecloud” was first recorded on 20 June 1969 as the b-side of the “Space Oddity” single and a revised version for the LP was cut roughly a month later. Consider the two versions a struggle between Bowie’s two main producers of the ’60s—Gus Dudgeon, who helmed the spare guitar-and-bass initial recording, and Tony Visconti, who seemed hell-bent on trumping Dudgeon for the LP remake.

Visconti called the Dudgeon recording a “throwaway” (it had been recorded in about twenty minutes) while hearing “a Wagnerian orchestra in my head” for his remake, and the LP version of “Freecloud” is an elaborate one-upmanship to Dudgeon’s “Space Oddity” production: Dudgeon has eight tracks on “Space Oddity”? Visconti has 16 for the new “Freecloud”! Dudgeon uses a dozen or so string and wind players? Visconti gets Philips to fund a 50-piece orchestra, including harp and tympani!

But the orchestral arrangement has an overbearing presence—it begins at top volume and goes upward, so that the chaos of the later verses lacks the dramatic force it should have. It’s a crowded party in which each guest tries to dominate the conversation: nearly every line Bowie sings is accompanied by some swoop of strings, brass blast, harp plucks, or tympani crashes. It may be the old punk purist in me, but I find the original B-side recording—a duet between Bowie’s 12-string acoustic guitar and Paul Buckmaster on Arco bass (not cello, as many references have it)—has a cold severity and power that eludes the Visconti production. Because a fable only really needs a voice.

The Ronson-led 1973 live performance linked above, in which “Freecloud” segues into “All the Young Dudes” as if it was always meant to do, is a marvel.

Top: “Vietnamese civilians, countryside,” taken by Lt. Commander Charles H. Roszel, 1969.


End of Chapter One (1964-1968)

November 6, 2009

68maxmin

This seems a good place to pause and take a breath. Next in line is the first Big Bowie Song (oh, you know which one it is), so I’ll need some time to get the entry together.

For four years, David Bowie had been trying to become a pop star. He made nine singles, one LP, and went through six bands, three managers and four labels. By the end of 1968 he was in a folk trio scrounging for gigs, didn’t have a record contract and had a girlfriend who wanted him to get into something more respectable. The Bowie story easily could have ended right then…

For what it’s worth, here’s my Top 10 from this period. What’s yours?

Silly Boy Blue.
The Laughing Gnome.
The London Boys.
There Is a Happy Land.
London Bye Ta-Ta.
Baby Loves That Way.
Karma Man.
I Dig Everything.
Can’t Help Thinking About Me.
Liza Jane.

Top: changing of the guard, London, 1968.


In the Heat of the Morning

October 27, 2009

25506A

In the Heat of the Morning (BBC performance, 1967).
In the Heat of the Morning.
In the Heat of the Morning (Toy, 2000).

This marks the end of the line for David Bowie and his label Deram: it was the second single Bowie recorded that Deram rejected, despite the fact that, as with “Let Me Sleep Beside You,” Bowie was writing more commercial songs than he had in the past. It didn’t matter: Deram just wanted rid of him and Bowie left the label in April 1968.

So “In the Heat of the Morning” is a fragment of an uncompleted work. It was meant to be the centerpiece of Bowie’s second Deram LP, and Bowie and Tony Visconti do their best to shine it up: another luxurious strings arrangement, some odd instrumentation (guitar doubled with the Sooty Pixie Xylophone, the latter played by Tyrannosaurus Rex’s Steve Peregrin Took, who dubbed it the “Pixiephone”) and a Bowie vocal that’s ditched the Anthony Newley-isms for a sultrier, more commanding tone. Like “Sleep Beside You,” it’s basically a come-on with pretensions, but, hey, those can work sometimes.

First recorded in a BBC session on 18 December 1967, though the lyric was different and worse (“where cunning magpies steal your name“) and the opening riff hadn’t been developed yet. The proposed Deram single version was cut on 12 March 1968 and another BBC version was recorded a day later (as with “Karma Man,” the BBC version of this song might be its definitive recording—there’s more guitar, and Bowie’s vocal and the beat are much stronger, IMO). On Deram Anthology. Covered by The Last Shadow Puppets on their 2008 EP “The Age of The Understatement.”

Top: Shopping on King’s Road, 1968 (Another Nickel In the Machine).


Chapter Nine: In the Realms of the Unreal (1994-1995)

December 17, 2018

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Epigraphs   Johnson: quoted in Dwell, March 2007; Rodgers: quoted in Ted Fox’s In the Groove, 334; Robbe-Grillet: to Susha Guppy, Paris Review, “The Art of Fiction, No. 91”; Mac Liammoir: quoted in Simon Callow’s The Road to Xanadu, 168.

370  The unreleased Leon tapes and the “Segue” tracks that appear on 1. Outside are the work of the improvising set of musicians/co-composers in the initial March 1994 sessions at Mountain Studios. That said, I’ve also included in these credits musicians from the January 1995 New York sessions to cover what sound like, on occasion, different overdubs and rhythm tracks on the officially-released segues—in particular the first Nathan Adler segue—and on “Nothing to Be Desired.” It’s possible these overdubs were recorded in the West Side Studios sessions of late spring 1994, but given that Eno was working on “Segue” mixes and backing tracks in late 1994, there’s a decent chance that at least a few overdubs hail from January 1995; Eno: gear (including transistor radio) as per Eno to Musician, November 1995; commandeered the DJ’s system: as per DB to Steven Wheeler, Music Connection, September 1995. “We spent most of our time at the party afterwards talking about what we were both doing musically. We were going back and forth to the DJ putting on different tracks that we were both writing [laughs]. It almost became a listening session, with people dancing until the record was taken off, and then another one would go on”; distressed instruments: DB interview tape with Simon Witter, 4 October 1995; on the same course again: to Dominic Wells, Time Out, 23-30 August 1995; crank out a record of songs: to John Schaefer for “New Sounds,” 15 September 1989, reprinted in Opal No. 15 (Winter/Spring 1990). I wrote about Wrong Way Up for Pitchfork in 2017.

371  stop mucking about: Jones, David Bowie: A Life, 394; why am I like this?: Rose to Kerrang!, 21-28 April 1990. (Soon after the “I’m gonna kill you Tin Man!” exchange, Rose and Bowie made up); extreme positions: to David Gritten, LA Times, 27 September 1992; mini manifestosboring and bland in popular music: to Ingrid Sischy, Interview, September 1995; songs in 11/8: as Gabrels described it to Trebuchet, 22 November 2014, adding that he sometimes used graph paper to figure it out; bigger landscape in play: to Mark Rowland, Musician, November 1995; full participation creatively: 1 July 1994, “Hollywood Online” web chat (Bowie’s first-ever web Q&A); disastrous new media adventure: to Paul Schütze, The Wire, September 1995.

372  you sort it out: LA Times, 27 September 1992; make the medium fail: to Robert L. Doerschuk, Keyboard, March 1995; evolving on the cuspSim Earth: to Kevin Kelly, Wired, May 1995; endless puzzles: DB’s London press conference for the Outside tour, 14 November 1995; armed with fodder: Interview, September 1995; it’s a visual society now: to David Lister, The Independent, 24 September 1994; musicians always have to be catching up: McLaren’s “end of the Eighties” essay for the Village Voice, 2 January 1990; periphery of the mainstream: Witter interview tape, 4 October 1995; Rudolf Schwarzkogler: (1940-1969). In 1965, he and other Viennese artists—Hermann Nitsch, Otto Mühl, Günter Brus—formed the Wiener Aktionsgruppe (‘Vienna Action Group’). The self-castration myth apparently began with a 1972 Robert Hughes article in Time, which described Schwarzkogler as the “Vincent Van Gogh of body art.. [who] amputated his own penis while a photographer recorded the act as an art event.” Needless to say, the castration imagery in Schwarzkogler’s Aktion series was simulated. Further, the model was Heinz Cibulka—they weren’t self-portraits; Nitsch: (1938-). The artist whose work Bowie most drew on for Outside, as the ritual murder of Baby Grace seems influenced by descriptions of Nitsch’s Orgies Mysterien Theater. Nitsch and Bowie met several times, including a 1997 concert in Vienna (“Here was a short, plump, red cheeked, long gray bearded perky Prof…The tiny baby soft hands. Full of crinkly smiles and of sparkling eye he came over as a little like Santa on a night off. Try as I might, I could not combine the beautific (sic) face in front of me with the barely whispered of horrors of his chosen artistic expression. For even today, in this post-Hirstian era, his 1970s’ exploits still leave one’s mind whirling and the blood curdling.. After our show, with band in tow, we all went off to an industrial style club where, my goodness yes, Herman cut-a-rug, jiggling like some frenzied Friar Tuck.” (Bowie web journal, 23 August 1998)); Ron Athey: (1961-) his “crown of thorns” is referenced in the “Hearts Filthy Lesson” video, and a computer-manipulated image of Athey appeared in Bowie’s “Diary of Nathan Adler” article in Q.

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373  O.J. Simpson: Humo, 5 December 1995; role playing is essential: Witter interview tape, 4 October 1995; Whole Earth Review: e.g., “A new profession, meme-inspector, comes into being”; characters: descriptions from Eno’s “Notes on the Vernacular Music of the Acrux Region” (an appendix of his 1995 diary) cross-referenced with Trynka’s various interviews in Starman (364-365); all the events of the day: Interview, September 1995; Oriental stuff: Trynka, Starman, 364; cannot even play four bars: Spitz, 359.

374  inhibiting or embarrassing position: to Paul Gorman, Music Week, 26 September 1995; fellow pirates: Interview, September 1995; weren’t any good: Jones, 394; over-coherent: Dominic Wells DB/Eno interview, Q, January 1995; archive of strange sounds: Witter interview tape, 4 October 1995.

375  3 March 1994: journal entry was part of the David Bowie Is exhibit; blindingly orgiastic: Ray Gun, October 1995; entirely different spin: to Chris Roberts, Ikon, October 1995; had to do with the art world: to Melinda Newman, Billboard, 19 August 1995; bootlegged: details on the development of Leon, its bootlegging and the assessment of its bootlegger are per Gabrels to CO, August 2018. By the early 2010s, the “I Am With Name” suite was circulating in full, while the other two suites only existed as fragments on various bootlegs. When I began writing blog entries about Leon in January 2013, a mysterious figure (who has never emailed me again, at least via that same address) contacted me and sent me the full three “suites,” with the caveat that I could not share them with anyone, nor post audio excerpts of them on the blog. While this was a bit cheeky for someone sharing pilfered goods, I upheld my end of the deal—the subsequent leaking of the three “full’ suites wasn’t my doing.

dpwghrrwaamp2ue

379  incredibly boring: Billboard, 19 August 1995 (“because we did all our recording in Switzerland, it’s about ‘Day One: went skiing, looked at mountain, looked at lake Day Two: bought fromage’”); what the lyric contentafter the fact: Gabrels email to Nicholas Greco, 25 January 2000; cut up the tape: Jones, 397; all based on me: Ray Gun, October 1995; great skeleton…around in 1995: Music Week, 26 August 1995.

380  Adler: another likely reference is to Albert Adler, founder of the individual psychology school; fragmented kind of state: Ray Gun, October 1995.

381  wants to be God: 2003 interview with Koenig; Baby Grace’s voice…that kind of man each time: Humo, 5 December 1995.

interviewsept95

382 Blair Witch Project: “I really wanted to give it a chance but I completely lost interest around fifteen minutes in. Iman was far more objective and felt that without all the hype it would have worked for her a lot better and that there was ‘the kernel of a good idea in there’. Nuts!!” (Bowie web journal, 16 August 1999); Charrington: From Bowie’s interview with George Petros and Steven Blush, Seconds, August/September 1995. S: Do I detect a character from 1984 lurking on your new album? B: Not intentionally. The guy who rents the room… A-ha – Catshriek! Yes, the guy who owns the store in 1984. That’s a little bit of him, I thought. It is very much. A very English character, he’s almost the stereotypical shop owner. 1984’s dystopian imagery has always played a role in your music. It has, indeed. I think it comes out of my background. For those of us born in South London, you always felt you were in 1984. That’s the kind of gloom and immovable society that a lot of us felt we grew up in.”

383  held back a year: New Zealand Herald, 26 June 1999; pissed off more people than Tin Machine: Reevz.net, ca. 2003.

384  Nicholas Nickelby: Ray Gun, October 1995; Grand Guignol: Billboard, 19 August 1995.

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385  Small plot of new land: A Thousand Plateaus, 161. The phrase was a potential response to a question posited a page before: “how can we unhook ourselves from the points of subjectification that secure us, nail us down to a dominant reality?” (Chapter title is “How Do You Make Yourself a Body Without Organs?”) Duncan Jones was a philosophy major at college around this time, though ATP‘s absolutely the sort of book Bowie would love in any regard; Thou Swell: by Rodgers and Hart; functional theatricality: Gabrels email to Greco, 19 March 2000.

386  Hearts Filthy Lesson along with the single edit, it has five remixes found on various single issues—most on the UK 12″ (Trent Reznor’s Alternative Mix; Tim Simenon’s mix (called, variously, the Simenon Mix and the Good Karma Mix); and Tony Maserati’s Rubber Mix, Simple Test Mix and Filthy Mix); juxtapositions and fragments…it makes things a lot clearer: Outside promotional video, 1995; more hooklike: Gabrels email to Greco, 23 January 2000.

388  Thru these Architects Eyes   Live: only performed twice in the 1995 tour, at Tacoma and Hollywood dates in October.

389  boys in leather: quoted in Gregory Woods’ Homintern, 158; we, the best: in Johnson’s review of Mein Kampf for the Examiner, quoted by Kazys Varnelis in “Philip Johnson’s Politics and Cynical Survival,” Journal of Architectural Education, November 1994.

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391  Wishful Beginnings its exile (cut from the second European CD issue of the album) was short-lived, as it was restored to the 2003-2004 reissues; Joni Ve Sadd…Macintosh Quadra 650: shown as part of the David Bowie Is exhibit; going back to the Romans: Seconds, August/September 1995; Rothko: stomach-churning details on his suicide are in James E.B. Breslin’s biography; many sources inaccurately say that Rothko slashed his wrists.

392 called 1. Outside: BowieNet chat, 13 November 1998.

394 The Motel    could occupy the territory of Bowie’s: Eno diary, 11 April 1995; NME offices: recalled in the Walker documentary 30 Century Man; traitors to themselves: Humo, 5 December 1995.

vox95

395 Outside  outsider art: In early 1972, Cardinal, a teacher from the University of Kent in Canterbury, published a survey of “marginalized” artists that he wanted to title Art Brut, referencing how the painter Jean Dubuffet had classed similar artists. His publisher wanted “something more easy to get on with the English ear”: hence Outsider Art. Reviewing the book, Corinne Robins (“A Vocation for Madness and Art,” NY Times, 8 April 1973) pinpointed the flaws of Cardinal’s approach, that he conflated surreal, obscure artists with those who suffered from schizophrenia, and treated the latter as Noble Madmen. Some claimed that “outsider art,” because of its lack of technique, was more pure, spontaneous, and resonant (Dubuffet in 1951: “Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses—where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere—are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals.”) Once the art world became a wing of the stock market in the Eighties, the idea of “outsider” purity became even more alluring. The only remaining real artists were Sunday painters, weird retirees, Jesus enthusiasts, and assorted hermits; Tuchmanhappy looking at them: Parallel Visions, 10; exhilaration watching them work: quoted in Thompson, Hallo Spaceboy, 118.

396  Wild Man Fischer: A Frank Zappa discovery from the late Sixties (how Bowie heard of him). Fischer was a typical “outsider” artist  in that he recorded sporadically, was bipolar and diagnosed with schizophrenia, and later in life was on the street for a time. He died in 2011; no longer felt scrambled: Q, January 1995; Henry Darger: the full title of his opus was The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Its influence on early 21st Century culture is inescapable, from the band Vivian Girls to the cover art of Animal Collective’s Feels to John Ashbery’s poem sequence Girls on the Run; strong, muddy, prolix…wish it was shorter: Eno diary, 18 June 1995; Armstrong: while Armstrong is credited on “Thru These Architects Eyes” (an overdub from the West Side sessions in summer 1994), he apparently isn’t heard on his own song, “Outside.”

397 We Prick You    full of tangential ideas: Eno diary, 11 January 1995.

398  something to be desired…lovely melodies in his rhythm lines: Eno diary, 16 January 1995.

399  I’m Deranged  a remixed/edited (2:37) version appeared on the Lost Highway OST, released 18 February 1997 (a longer edit was used for end credits); just after lunch…totally reborn: Ray Gun, October 1995; serious orchestrated guitar stuff: Musician, November 1995; the bit you liked never happens again: Eno diary, 17 January 1995; F minor progression: i-II7-v-III-i (Fm-G7-Cm-A flat-Fm), with the major chords delaying the progress of F minor to its dominant chord, C minor, and its return home again.

1995_NME_Outside_Review_1500

400  really rather disturbed words: Detour, March 1997. Hallo Spaceboy the Pet Shop Boys remix was issued as 1. Outside‘s third single in February 1996 (four other remixes appear on a Virgin promo 12″ and were collected on the 2004 2-CD album reissue).

401 buried in moondust: Gysin, The Process, 35. There’s an unsubstantiated report that “if I die, moondust will cover me” were Gysin’s last words in 1986 (over the years, I’ve grown dubious of anything that’s allegedly a famous person’s last words). Gabrels’ reference to Bowie finding “moondust” in a book of poems, possibly John Giorno, was possibly a misremembering of seeing Bowie reading Gysin; long sustain guitars…middle eastern scale…pretty much forgotten about it: Gabrels’ response to a query on his website, Reevz.net, ca. 2003 (some quoted in Pegg, 103).

402  almost nothing…we had something…Lagos Mack-truck weight: Eno diary, 17 January 1995; follows the chord changes: Reevz.net, ca. 2003; Space Oddity, frankly: London press conference, 14 November 1995.

403 Oxford Town  hunter to my pastoralist: Eno diary, 17 January 1995; kept us in suspense: Eno diary, 19 January 1995; text almost turned into music: Byrne, Stop Making Sense DVD commentary.

timeout

404  No Control  sturdy frame: Musician, November 1995.

405  body of a great song…extended to the future: Eno diary, 20 January 1995; down a chordal slope: Momus on the “No Control” blog entry, 8 April 2013; Jonathan Coulton: in a very minor coincidence, Coulton and I went to high school together—he graduated the year before me.

406  Onion: written by Nathan Rabin, 21 April 1999; vaguely offered financial backing: Eno diary, 19 January 1995; Indonesian pirates…a peculiar piece of work: Ray Gun, March 1997; Saint Petersburg: Eno told Mojo in May 1997 that he’d moved to Russia because “London is now the hippest city in the world [and] if you live in England and you finally scale the thorny path to celebrity, finally the critics decide, ‘Fuck me, he’s been around so long I guess we should leave him alone.’ You then find you get invited to do every stupid, pathetic thing going—you know, judge this competition, award this, and so on—and I just saw my life turning into a series of small events. I thought I’d go somewhere else where there aren’t any small events”; far out…put it on at a party: Music Connection, September 1995; St. Petersburg and wherever I amRipley’s Believe It Or Not…that new tuberculosis: USA Today, 12 March 1997.

407  Salzburg cancelled: in August 1998, Gerard Mortier, the director of the Salzburg Festival, was quoted in the Austrian press that the Bowie/Wilson opera concept was “stagnating” and that he wouldn’t have the Festival finance Bowie’s proposed stage design, describing the opera’s progress as being at an “impasse”; over 24 hours of material: BowieNet web chat, 17 October 1999; pieced together: Eden.vmg chat, 2 February 2000 (I realize I mistakenly called this a BowieNet chat in the text—pedants get a half-point); Afrikaans: this title apparently originated from a fan’s posting on a long-defunct Bowie message board in July 1997; Ebola Jazz: the origin of this 17-track fake setlist was apparently an anonymous email sent to the Teenage Wildlife site in March 1999. You’ll still find the occasional bootleg or torrent listing these names: caveat non-emptor!; falsifying a concert: a March 1994 diary entry displayed in David Bowie Is; never took place: London press conference, 14 November 1995; I think Brian would have the patience: Soma, July 2003.


Little Wonder

August 7, 2013

tedchan

Little Wonder.
Little Wonder (single edit, video).
Little Wonder (Danny Saber Dance Mix).
Little Wonder (first live performance, 1996).
Little Wonder (VH1 Fashion Awards, 1996).
Little Wonder (50th Birthday concert, 1997).
Little Wonder (Saturday Night Live, 1997).
Little Wonder (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1997).
Little Wonder (San Remo Festival, 1997).
Little Wonder (Wetten Dass, 1997).

Little Wonder (live, 1997).
Little Wonder (GQ Awards, 1997).
Little Wonder (Live at the Beeb, 2000).

Grumpy

In the Eighties, the cartoonist Ray Lowry drew a strip called Note Oilskin Base, for which he often repurposed old newspaper ads and comics. In the first panel of a strip that ran in the 19 May 1984 issue of the NME, two women sit in a soda shop, looking with mild surprise at a figure who stands outside the window, a man in a trench coat and fedora. He looks like a premonition of Dave Gibbons’ Rorschach. “It’s that shabby old man with the tin whistle!,” the woman seated right says to her friend. Lowry drew a new speech balloon to let the shabby man yell: “I yam an Anti-Christ!”*

This was Lowry’s Monty Smith, “has-been, would-be pop savior,” a grubby old man on the margins of pop music, an irritant and a relic, someone reduced to ranting outside a tea room and inspiring little more than incredulity that he was still kicking around. In 1997, some considered David Bowie, now half a century old, to be something like the same.

In the Times, Caitlin Moran asked readers to imagine Bowie without a past, that Bowie was a Beckenham primary school teacher who’d recorded Earthling in his shed. “Do we really believe that record companies would eagerly sign up a 50-year-old man with no new ideas, wonky eyes, manky hair, LA teeth and a tartan suit, who talks like an animatronic statue in Picadilly’s Rock Circus?

So yes, see the wonky, manky, shabby old man jabbering on stage, wearing his professionally-shredded Union Jacket, his hair dyed copper. His latest single rips off the Prodigy. Its video has him crawling around, looking like a cathedral gnome given malevolent life. It’s bass drops, synthetic clatter, sampled guitars. Tits and explosions, he crows. Half of his band look like step-dads. His bass player looks like a hired assassin.

Bashful

His description of me was ‘coming on like someone’s nasty dad.’ And I thought, “that’s great. I really like that.”…I seem to be going into a kind of demented persona now on stage. I guess it’s ’cause I can’t sell youth. ‘Cause I’m not a youth. So I’m selling whatever it is I am as a persona, which tends to be this kind of ironically enthusiastic old guy who’s still into this crazed sound.

Bowie, 1997.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. If you were a rocker in your fifties, you needed to exploit dignity, the only resource left in abundance for the aging. You should become a curator of yourself. Talk about the old days but don’t take them seriously. Wear a well-cut suit, preface the old songs with wry introductions on stage: “this next one is called “Oh, You Pretty Things” (applause) and it’s about the rise of the homo superior. Remember the homo superior? (chuckles, applause) Ah you do, you do. Yes, well, it’s easy to imagine you are one of ’em when you’re able to get out of bed without groaning! (sympathetic laughs)”.

He would get there soon enough. But “Little Wonder” was the last time Bowie went for it: his last go at speaking rock’s current dialect, to get on MTV and make the cover of Spin and play summer festivals where kids take E and get drunk, rather than the ones where people bring their kids. Its meaty B major chorus, with its slamming guitars, echoed multi-tracked vocals and soaring synth lines, sounds like Bowie throwing down a gauntlet to U2 (themselves busy in 1997 trying to stay afloat), if not the Britpop bands: the “Helter Skelter”-esque backing vocals in the chorus are a nose-thumb at the likes of Noel Gallagher.

Yet as usual, he couldn’t just grab for the ring; he had to go about it sideways. So to get to the big chorus, the listener first has to make it through nearly two minutes of tortured guitars, drum ‘n’ bass loops, two skittering verses and a break filled with stomping feet, train whistles and other sonic bric-à-brac. And the melancholy of the verses never gets dispelled: the stadium-ready choruses are infected with it, they soon start to blanch and wither.

Because “Little Wonder,” despite its Prodigy stylings and its epileptic Floria Sigismondi video, is at heart a sad older man’s song: it’s a man freighted with the past, trapped in a vein of youth music. Bowie’s glum vocal in the verses is confined to a single octave, never venturing above a middle B (on the slight strain of “you little wonder”), often keeping to a three-note span until he sinks low to close his phrases (“grumpy gnomes,” “bashful but nude“). The song’s visual counterpart, the jittery “grumpy gnome” that Bowie plays in its video, is a distraction; a better analogue is his blank-faced, sour Pierrot of the “Be My Wife” film.

Doc

wonda

It’s as if “Little Wonder” is sung by an alternate Bowie, the Bowie whose “Love You Till Tuesday” was a #1 UK hit in 1967. The Bowie who was a British institution, who never translated well overseas (though the Dutch loved him). Some movie work, some stage revues, a TV special or two, a hit single every half a decade: a disco spoof; a soppy rendition of “Nobody’s Child” in the late Thatcher years. A grubby pantomime counterpart to Cliff Richard; an actor routinely rumored, and never chosen, to play the lead in Doctor Who.

In this scenario, “Little Wonder” is just the latest rumble of contemporary pop sounds by Britain’s national holiday-camp director. “Let’s have the Laughing Gnome go to a rave!” Bowie says in the studio. So they import some drum ‘n’ bass loops, rent a guitarist with an effects pedal rack and off he goes, mumbling and winking through his lyric in his trademark Mockney: “Sit on my karma, lurve! Dayme meditation! Tayke me away!” It’s the sound of a man happy being ridiculous, a man so sewn through with the past that the present seems surreal, and he takes it as such.

Sneezy

“Little Wonder,” like much of Earthling, is Bowie and Reeves Gabrels papering over the gap between (aspirational) jungle and hard rock. The alleged jungle is in the verses, which are built on a repeating four-chord progression (E-C#minor-A-C)** established by a dry-sounding keyboard while drum ‘n’ bass loops clatter overhead in the mix. Where jungle was built on tension and contrast–double-time loops crashing against half-time bass drops, the sudden flanging of a drum line, a stereo-panned counter-rhythm that scurries in and out—it’s used here as ornamentation, or worse, as a timestamp, in the way that TV channels have a permanent logo in the bottom-right corner of the screen.

While the instrumental breaks get you in shape for the choruses and the transition to B major, they were dwarfs of Bowie’s original ambitions. “Little Wonder” was meant to be a nine-minute “jungle epic,” Mark Plati said, with the second break in particular crafted to explode into a spray of sound effects, samples, atmospheres (One tiny piece of the original sound-scrap left in the mix is a snippet of the drunken roadie Jerome Aniton, introducing Steely Dan to Santa Monica in 1974 before a live recording of the Dan’s “Bodhisattva”).*** Instead the “big break” winds up being fairly pedestrian stuff—bass yawns, an X-Files-esque rising synthesizer line—and much of its excision in the single edit isn’t a loss.

It’s part of what makes “Little Wonder” so frustrating: intended to be loud, remorseless, irritating, it wound up being charming, odd, minor.

Happy

bowie

My playing on this record is like making head cheese.

Reeves Gabrels, 1997.

The first thing you hear is a three-note Gabrels guitar riff that sounds like a roar, a muffled scream and a dog whistle. Gabrels sat down with the assistant engineer to make a half-hour DAT of “guitar stuff I like to do, things like the whammy aspect of the [Roland] VG-8,” he told Guitar Player. “I figured if we were going to use samples, we might as well make our own.” So the first note is Gabrels playing his E string with an envelope filter and distortion via the VG-8, the second note is the same tone but shifted two octaves up and set aflutter with a whammy bar, the third is a exosphere-high E played on the 24th fret of his Parker and kicked another octave up via the Fernandes Sustainer.

The rest of the track was built in a similar grab-bag fashion: stolen sounds, distorted instruments, studio verite footage. Much of the bass track, for instance, was Gail Ann Dorsey caught unawares, trying to get a sound from her pedalboard without knowing she was being recorded. “We constructed the track by grabbing bits of her bass line,” Gabrels said. (That said, Dorsey gets the most striking moment of the track: her sharply whispered “little wonder you” break).

The vocal came together along the same lines: what you’re hearing for the most part is just Bowie’s guide vocal. His lyric began as an exercise: to use all of the names of the Seven Dwarfs in the verses (he did: find them all—it’s like a word search in a pop lyric). Bowie soon ran out of names, at one point adding “Stinky” and “Scummy” to the mix. Having some sort of guidance apart from the random edicts of the word-generating Verbasizer program gave Bowie’s lines some melodic life: he takes care with his vowel sounds, plays off consonances and alliteration, and even the weak pun of the title line works thanks to the neat precision of his singing.

Dopey

damemeditation

Bowie got to #14 in the UK with the single, topped the Japanese charts with it, got some minor airplay on US alternative stations. Its video, with Bowie playing the familiar of a reincarnated Ziggy Stardust, aired often enough to be remembered, living on glam nostalgia: it turned out to be a preview trailer for 1998’s Velvet Goldmine. And “Little Wonder”/Earthling became the last image of Bowie to make an impression on the public imagination. For a time, this copper-haired grubby rave granddad version of Bowie came to mind when you thought: What’s Bowie doing these days? It was his last notable pop disguise.

He would keep at it for the rest of the Nineties, trying his hand at any new toy sent his way: the Internet, the booming stock market, more jungle and dance collaborations. By the close of the century, he stopped kicking and let himself get tugged back to the past. It was inevitable; it was sad all the same. Bowie had once seemed predicated on change, on an allegiance to the future. “Little Wonder,” a catchy but fraying single, was an indication that he couldn’t take as much nourishment from change anymore. He would become a curator despite his best intentions.

Sleepy

Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Played live a few times in autumn 1996, and issued as Earthling‘s lead-off single on 27 January 1997 (Arista 74321 452072, UK #14). There were the usual gang of mixes, mainly by Junior Vasquez, who did the Ambient, 4/4 and Club Dub. Danny Saber’s mix, which featured a cello played by David Coleman, appeared on the soundtrack to the Val Kilmer edition of The Saint.

* The panel is reprinted on the first page of Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces.

*** The E major verse progression is a steady tromp back home (I-vi-IV) that’s intercepted at the end by the C major chord, borrowed from the parallel minor (so I-vi-IV-VI then back to I). While the whole song could be in E, the dominance of B major in the choruses (the fact that the song never feels like it’s yearning to resolve back to E, but is happy to stay hunkered down on B) argues for a modulation of sorts. Insights (as usual): Dave Depper.

** Originally issued as the B-side of “Hey Nineteen” in 1980 and later included on the Citizen Steely Dan boxed set.

Top: Ted Barron, “Chan Marshall (Cat Power), 1996.”


The “Narratives”

February 11, 2013

Dear Diary: today I met a number one packet sniffer

The Diary of Nathan Adler (Bowie performance, fragment, CBC, 1995).
The Diary of Nathan Adler, Or the Art Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A Non-Linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle. (plus annotations!)
“You Don’t Wanna Be Painting Your Face Like That…” Or, The Beautiful, It Won’t Rap, She Won’t Dance, Very Tricky Piece.

As I’ve said before, all this is true. Not that I’ve got anything against fiction—which is easily said, because nobody is writing it any more anyway. Nobody—they’re simply writing nonfiction that never happened.

James McCourt, Time Remaining.

At the end of 1994, Q magazine was preparing its 100th issue, a celebration of itself. Q asked Bowie to contribute, wanting him to keep a diary for 10 days and to send them the entries. As he was recording in Switzerland at the time, Bowie figured that a day-to-day account of his life would be “incredibly boring.” Instead, he asked himself “what would Nathan Adler be doing?” As Q warned its readers, “he’s written a short, strange, story, bits of which may or may not be autobiographical. The computer illustrations/portraits are by him as well.”

The “Diary of Nathan Adler, Or the Art Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Belew”* which Bowie reprinted in the CD booklet of Outside, became the “storyline” of Outside, the intersection between its characters and the songs that ingested them. Bowie had come up with names, voices and possible motives, and in the “Diary” he arranged the characters in a narrative. Well, not really. There are a number of ways you can consider the Diary. Here are a few to start:

1) Anti-Mystery.

The difference is that in the traditional detective novel there must be a solution, whereas in ours there is just the principle of investigation. Detective novels are consumer products, sold by millions, and are made in the following way: there are clues to an event, say a murder, and someone comes along and puts the the pieces together in order that truth may be revealed. Then it all makes sense. In our novels what is missing is “sense.” There is a constant appeal to sense, but it remains unfulfilled, because the pieces keep moving and shifting and when “sense” appears it is transitory. Therefore, what is important is not to discover the truth at the end of the investigation, but the process itself.

Alain Robbe-Grillet, interview by Susha Guppy, Paris Review, The Art of Fiction, No. 91.

While some of the Diary comes out of what Bowie had been watching, like Twin Peaks, Romeo Is Bleeding and possibly Wings of Desire (in the latter Peter Falk, essentially playing Columbo on vacation, walks around Berlin talking to fallen angels), there’s also the taste of French “Nouveau Roman” authors like Robbe-Grillet, who used the template of the detective story but withheld things like a plot and a resolution.( Robbe-Grillet’s Le Voyeur (1955) is about a crime that may not have occurred: the details change with every chapter.) So Bowie constructed the Diary in this vein: a set of contradictory flashbacks, precise “meaningless” details and vague “critical” ones, the reader forced to play detective, to no avail. It ends on a cliffhanger.

2) Analog Web Page. The Diary is a transcription on paper of what should have been a Web page, where its sentences would have been sewn through with dozens of links. The Diary breathes only through its portals. Confined to paper, it dies.

3) Art-World Snooker.

I favour the clever con artist who remains intact to the committed Fine Artist who ends up with his arms cut off or even worse (in the case of that Austrian blockhead—he would be Austrian, wouldn’t he?—with his dick cut off). I mean this is so romantic, it’s ridiculous…”the artist must suffer for his art.”

Brian Eno, “Internet conversation with David Bowie,” Q, January 1995.

Bowie had joined the board of Modern Painters, was conducting interviews with the likes of Balthus and was collaborating with Damien Hirst (standing on step-ladders and throwing paint at a spinning canvas). In 1995, Bowie had his first solo exhibition, at the Gallery on Cork Street (“New Afro-Pagan and Work, 1975-1995″; we’ll get a bit more into this in a later entry). So the Diary is a vicious little satire of the contemporary art world. Read in chronological order, the Diary lists the ante-raisings of a generation of “body” artists, from the Viennese mutilationist/fakers like Schwarzkogler to Chris Burden getting crucified on a VW Bug to Ron Athey’s “scarification” art. It also includes Hirst’s shark and lamb cadavers and the return to vogue of the death-obsessed fashion photographer Guy Bourdin (the heroin-chic waif look of the mid-Nineties was derived from Bourdin). So Ramona Stone’s alleged “art murder” of Baby Grace is just the next stop on an increasingly desperate line, and one soon outfoxed by reality. (Bowie in 1995: “Murder may be art. If you get away with it. Like, perhaps O.J. Simpson.”)

There are mixed motives here. Bowie was trying to break into a new game, hanging out with the hip new British artists like Hirst and Tracey Emin, and he seemingly wanted to be taken seriously as a painter. But the Diary and his later gleeful contributions to the “Nat Tate” hoax, in which the writer William Boyd created a fake Abstract Expressionist painter who’d supposedly killed himself in 1960, also suggested that Bowie thought the contemporary art world was credulous and ridiculous.

4) “Verbasised” Babel. The Diary is simply Bowie arranging sets of random words spewed out by his automatic cut-up word dispenser program, the “Verbasiser.” One tell is the “11:15 AM” entry, in which appears a raw block of Verbasiser text that includes the repeated words “RA Stone,” “Caucasian,” “saints,” “martyrs,” “tyrannical,” etc. The subsequent entry, “June 15 1977,” is what Bowie conjures out of those words. Note how many words from the Verbasiser stack he uses (e.g., “Caucasian Suicide Temple”) in it. The Diary is a crazed copybook of randomly-generated sentences.

5) Musemapping; Pre-Criticism.

I suppose you can never tell what an artist will do once he’s peaked.

The Diary dates in the “past” (July 1977, October 1994) coincide with periods of high creativity for Bowie. In the summer of ’77, he had been in Berlin, finishing Lust for Life and about to start “Heroes,” while in autumn 1994 he was deep in the distillation process, turning the raw Leon material into Outside. The Diary is an indication that in late ’94, Bowie felt the most inspired that he’d been in well over a decade. But it was also a way for Bowie to craftily frame critical discussion about Outside, directly linking the album to his Berlin period. And it worked: it’s all but impossible to find any review of Outside, past or present, that doesn’t mention the Berlin-era albums (this blog included, natch).

6) Tragedy. The world of Nathan Adler is a cruel, bloody and empty one. Fourteen-year old girls are eviscerated for art; Mark Rothko delicately slashes his wrists; mothers go missing, children are snuffed out. The young pierce and ink themselves, unconsciously following ancient tribal rituals but lacking the religious transformations those rituals had enabled; they merely believe that their bodies are the only sacred thing left to them. There are severed limbs, diamond-studded umbilical cords, webs of intestines, bloodstained tissues hung on wires. The galleries are full of bleeding men and the bisected corpses of cows. There’s no one noble in this world except sad Adler, a last soldier of narrative. He wanders along, serving as a witness and inadvertently as a conscience.

7) Gag Reel. Bowie wrote the Diary in a couple of days as a way to irritate/befuddle Q and his fans. After he released Outside, he never thought about it again. Well, there are a few nights when he will laugh over a bottle of Malbec, recalling how absurd the whole thing was and how wonderful that it’s become the subject of tortured, tedious blog analyses. He sips his wine, then flips open his laptop to write some more one-star reviews of Morrissey albums on Amazon.

bowie meets tricky!

Don’t hide the fragments. They’re all we’ve got left.

Q was a sucker for punishment. A few months after it published the Diary, it asked Bowie to contribute another article. This time, the assignment was for Bowie to interview the musician Tricky. Q possibly envisioned “Paul Weller Meets Noel Gallagher” or “Ray Davies Meets Damon Albarn”: a dues-paid member of an Important Pop Generation bestowing his credentials upon a worthy young aspirant. Instead, Bowie turned in something completely batshit.

“”You Don’t Wanna Be Painting Your Face Like That…” Or, The Beautiful, It Won’t Rap, She Won’t Dance, Very Tricky Piece” is a fiction (were it not for the accompanying photos of the two, you’d never guess Bowie and Tricky had really met) and the sequel to the “Diary of Nathan Adler,” with Bowie casting Tricky as Leon Blank (so Tricky as a character he inspired) and himself as a British Adler.

Opening with an ode to Tricky’s muse, his singer/partner Martina Topley-Bird (You, Martina, sang me down, under the turf”), the piece has “Bowie” looking for “Tricky,” prowling through the “low bars of Bristol,” being told that Tricky’s left for America, although he’d been “spied by the Magpie girl only last Thursday, slipping in and out of shadows down by the quay, drawing black lines on his own posters…the phantom was known to move as a group of one.”

jones and thaws

So Bowie sets off, gumshoe style, on the trail of Tricky Thaws. What follows is a text stuffed full of industrially-mixed metaphors (“the dark wisps of rumor trailed him like two-ropes and now I was reeling him in“), name-drops of other Bowie current faves (“round the corner of the building disappears a guy called Gerald“), an Easter Egg hunt’s worth of Massive Attack and Tricky titles: blue lines, black steel, Karmacoma, Maxinquaye, round the corner. And a few lines which have the flavor of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow:

But meanwhile the quiet English faces on the front row, in what could have been the glow of shepherds’ fire-baskets, nodded out their fleeting thoughts as they were Overcome. So this is the slow shimmering speed that loaned a few moments of the future to us all?

Bowie eventually finds his man. They climb a 97-story building, chatting as they ascend, occasionally scaring the cleaning ladies. They talk of “the War,” of the “haunting ’90s,” of the perils of being young again (“you’re tweeny-little, just a speck of a spindly-stick…by the time you are a teen, you’re in your renegade chapter”). Then Tricky, whether out of malice or mercy, kicks Bowie in the arm and Bowie falls to his death. His appointed successor has claimed his throne, and it’s a fine thing. This album is over. It was the best of chimes. It was the hearse of chimes. Here come the horse to drag me to bed. Here come the Tricky to fuck up my head.

“Nathan Adler” first appeared in Q 100, January 1995 and became the liner notes of Outside; “You Don’t Wanna Be Painting…” was in Q 109, October 1995.

*I don’t have the issue of Q, just a transcription of the Diary from it, and so to my knowledge very few, if any, alterations were made to the text when it was reprinted in Outside. While some sources have the Diary originally subtitled “The Art Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Belew,” a majority have it as “Blue.” Was there originally a joke about Adrian Belew in the title? Anyone who has the issue, please let me know. [edit: and it was Belew after all—see comments.]

Thanks to commenter Sean MacGabhann, who made the Romeo Is Bleeding connection in the previous entry.

Photos: Text in a sea of subtext; oblivious young men; masked marvel bums cigarette from spiv, 1995.


It’s No Game (Pts. 1 & 2)

August 8, 2011

It’s No Game (Part 2) (early vocal, rough mix).
It’s No Game (Part 2).
It’s No Game (Part 1).

There are an awful lot of mistakes on that album that I went with, rather than cut them out. One tries as much as possible to put oneself on the line artistically. But after the Dadaists, who pronounced that art is dead…Once you’ve said art is dead, it’s very hard to get more radical than that. Since 1924 art’s been dead, so what the hell can we do with it from there on? One tries to at least keep readdressing the thing…

David Bowie, promo disc for Scary Monsters, 1980.

Scary Monsters,* the last consensus “great” Bowie album, is Bowie and Tony Visconti bent on correcting the flaws of Lodger. Visconti wanted a better sound and mix, using the just-opened Power Station in New York for rhythm tracks and his own Good Earth Studios in London for vocals and overdubs. Bowie cut back on the vocal-booth improvisation and took time to actually write; once the backing tracks were down, Bowie spent two months working on top melodies and lyrics.

So Bowie and Visconti honed Scary Monsters to an edge: a joke song about Jamaica turned into an indictment of fashion; something called “People Are Turning to Gold” became the return of Major Tom and a career summary/epitaph. Regardless of what Bowie said about Scary Monsters being full of “mistakes,” the record was his most commercially-minded album since Young Americans. Chuck Hammer, recruited from Lou Reed’s band for guitar/synth overdubs, recalled an intense mood in the studio, with Visconti charting the record’s progress as though he was running a lunar survey. (Scary Monsters was “Bowie’s decision to take his work in rock & roll seriously,” Robert Fripp said at the time. “Anyone who goes to New York takes his work seriously—the city certainly has that effect.“)

It worked, mostly. Monsters restored Bowie’s fortunes in the UK, where he got a #1 and two other hit singles from it (it didn’t do much in the US, which had only taken to disco Bowie). Monsters has a more unified, more clarified sound: there’s an exuberant anger in its tight performances and a dedication to rhythm not seen since Station to Station. If a bit front-loaded (Side A >> Side B), it’s weathered the past thirty years as well as anything of its time has—Monsters still sounds like Bowie’s “modern” record. Unfairly or no, it became the watermark: everything Bowie’s made since has been measured against it.

Lodger was Bowie processing himself as an influence. Scary Monsters went further: it’s a rummaging through an overgrown estate. Three of its ten tracks recycle Bowie outtakes of the early ’70s, other songs call back to everything from “Heroes” to “Laughing Gnome” to “Rupert the Riley,” and course, the lead single is a sequel to “Space Oddity.” Even the LP sleeve is retrospective, with the return of “Berlin” Bowie’s various emblems—Low‘s Man Who Fell to Earth, the Roquairol tribute of “Heroes” and the mugging victim from Lodger (attached to Aladdin Sane’s body)—now smeared, shrunken and distorted. It’s a touring company disbanding. Even Bowie’s latest incarnation as a grim clown was a nod to the past, to Bowie’s time with Lindsay Kemp in the late ’60s (“The Mime Songs”), when, as he recalled, Bowie had “joined the circus.” But there are two clowns on the cover: the somber, dignified one who looks straight out at you and the disheveled one hiding behind, casting a shadow that fills half of the frame.

Monsters, intended to establish Bowie as an Eighties artist, seemed equally like a closing statement, sampling, mocking and mourning the Sixties and Seventies, with guests ranging from Pete Townshend to old hands like Roy Bittan and Robert Fripp to (relative) newcomers like Tom Verlaine. The record also marks a casting change, with Monsters being the last round for various supporting players. Fripp would never work with Bowie again; it’s the last time Bowie would ever record with his brilliant rhythm section, George Murray and Dennis Davis; it’s the last Visconti-produced Bowie album until Bush the Younger’s administration.

Versions of “It’s No Game” open and close Scary Monsters, and the two tracks in turn are framed by the stereo-miked sounds of Visconti’s Lyrec 24-track tape deck. The first sound heard on the record is Visconti rewinding the deck and pressing “play”; the last is the tape spooling out.

“Part 2,” confusingly, was the first version of “It’s No Game,” the only track completed during the Power Station sessions in February 1980. The song’s chronology recalled John Lennon’s “Revolution,” recorded first as a mid-tempo, acoustic guitar-based track (the White Album version) and then reconstituted a month later as a compressed, sped-up electric rocker for the single. Lennon, who Bowie saw often during the Monsters sessions, inspired the sound of “Game,” as Bowie later admitted—the shrieked, bellowed lines in “Pt. 1” was Bowie’s attempt at the righteous zeal of “Instant Karma,” the catharsis of Plastic Ono Band. It’s no coincidence that “Pt. 1” is sung by an Englishman and a Japanese woman.

“It’s No Game” is the latest development in Bowie’s taste for protest songs, an angrier “Fantastic Voyage,” a broader “Repetition.” A man is woken up by a noise in the street. He sits, flicking through TV channels, disgusted and bewildered by what he’s seeing—the latest set of brownshirts, protesters clubbed on the streets, old dictators, new presidents (he turns from a documentary on refugees to a dish-soap advertisement). The world is reduced to flickering images, silhouettes and shadow, but as awful as the world is, the singer’s still in exile from it. “I am barred from the event,” he starts screaming. “I really don’t understand the situation.” One verse ends with a line seemingly out of Noel Coward: “To be insulted by these fascists—it’s so degrading.

The two “It’s No Games” also are parodies of protest songs (Bowie can’t resist throwing in some wordplay either, with a pun on Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven”). “Game Pt. 2,” the elder of the pair, is a worn-out rant. As Bowie said in 1980: What happens when a protest or angry statement is thrown against the wall (like “camel shit,” apparently) so many times is that the speaker finds that he has no energy to give any impact anymore. It comes over in that very lilting, very melodic kind of superficial level [of “Part 2”]. The sentiment is exactly the same as in the first part but the ambiance has changed, with a gentle, almost nostalgic quality to it, rather than being an angry vehement statement.

“Game Pt. 2,” with its measured, restrained vocal, its precise guitars (Carlos Alomar playing three miniature riffs at various points in the verses) and steady rhythms, seems like a sanctioned protest, a nostalgic fit of controlled anger. Fittingly, the chorus and bridge rework Bowie’s “Tired of My Life,” a maudlin, self-pitying song dating back to Bowie’s teens; the singer’s wearied by life in the way only a barely-grown man would be. Bowie had cut a demo of it around the time of the Hunky Dory sessions with Mick Ronson on harmonies (it’s sadly in debt to Crosby, Stills & Nash), but had set it aside.

The reused pieces of “Tired of My Life” add to the lassitude of “Game Pt. 2,” the former’s wordless chorus melody taken up by the soaring backing vocals (Bowie and Visconti, with Visconti singing the higher notes). A key change to E major comes before Carlos Alomar’s solo (like “Look Back in Anger,” it’s a neat little rhythm guitar run, with as much empty space as notes), then a fall back to D major for the last verse. The track closes neatly and resoundingly, with nothing changed; the tape runs out, the record sticks in its groove, the disc turns off, another MP3 starts.

A world, or at least a side, away is the manic revision of “Game,” its cracked remix, the sinister clown to “Pt. 2″‘s somber one. “Game Pt. 1,” once the tape starts rolling, jump cuts to Dennis Davis waving a soccer ratchet over his head while he counts the band in. For the first time since Low, Visconti used the 910 Harmonizer in force (it’s even applied to the ratchet). The new ingredient is the Power Station, whose room ambiance, mikes and consoles would create the ’80s gated drum sound. If Visconti and Davis arguably pioneered that sound on Low, their work on Monsters seems a blueprint designed for common use.

The first voice on the track is the Japanese actress Michi Hirota (she’s on the cover of Sparks’ Kimono My House), snapping “Shirueto ya kagega!” (“silhouettes and shadows,” full translation here). Hirota originally was to coach Bowie in voicing the Japanese translation (by the professor Hisahi Miura). But as the translation was literal, it was hard for Hirota to make the lines fit the vocal melody—there were just too many syllables. The obstacle became an inspiration: Bowie asked Hirota to recite the lyric herself, but in an aggressive “masculine” manner, shouting and barking out the words.

The Japanese language has a sharply defined gender separation, with men and women (and older men/younger men, etc.) using different words, tenses and phrasings. If a woman was to speak the way Hirota does on “Game,” it would still be startling in today’s Japan; more than that, it just wouldn’t be done. For example, Hirota says “ore,” the pronoun for “I” which only an older Japanese man would use; she also uses more direct verb endings than a woman typically would. Her whole delivery is an aggressive, exaggerated masculine tone (it’s basically how a Japanese teenage boy would speak).

So Bowie intended Hirota to be the song’s secret revolutionary: I wanted to break down a particular type of sexist attitude about women. I thought the [idea of] the “Japanese girl” typifies it, where everyone pictures them as a geisha girl, very sweet, demure and non-thinking, when in fact that’s the absolute opposite of what women are like. They think an awful lot!, with quite as much strength as any man. I wanted to caricature that attitude by having a very forceful Japanese voice on it. So I had [Hirota] come out with a very samurai kind of thing.

Hirota’s first barrage of words triggers Bowie, whose voice seems blown out by rage, to a disturbing and eventually comic extent. Bowie’s voice strangles on the octave leaps and falls of “GAME!!” while he seems to tear his vocal chords with his long screams on “HEAVVVEN” or “SIT-u-a-SHUUUUUUN”. The “Tired of My Life” vocal harmonies, when they arrive, serve as an island of stability for the ear. Bowie’s performance is both acting out the “Western” equivalent to Hirota’s aggressive performance, and also mocking the high-octane rants of the punks. More sound, more fury, ending the same way.

Into all this barges Robert Fripp, asked by Bowie to imagine trying to outplay B.B. King in a guitar duel. Along with his stunning work on Another Green World, Scary Monsters is Fripp’s peak: he never quite sounded as good as this again, whether it was due to Visconti’s use of room mikes, Harmonizers and other tools, or Fripp’s frame of mind, or the material he had to work with. Fripp’s eight-bar solo in “Game,” fired by the key change after the “makes all the papers” line, is as simple as it’s craftily melodic: it suggests the track’s on the verge of moving somewhere unintended, until Davis’ thudding fills yoke it back. Fripp gets off another round in the coda (where the time shifts to 3/4),  spiraling and spiraling until Bowie howls at him to shut up.

“Put a bullet in my brain, and it makes all the papers.” It’s one of the oldest lines in the song, written for “Tired of My Life” at a time when Bowie was still living in Beckenham, walking the streets unnoticed, his name only his name. In “Pt 2” Bowie sings the line as a melancholy descending phrase; in “Pt. 1” Bowie (who’s double-tracked with himself) sneers the line out, biting on the “s” in “papers,” and a beat later Hirota spikes in with “shinbun wa kakitateru!!, lacerating her last vowels.

On December 8, 1980, Bowie was performing The Elephant Man at the Booth Theatre, 20 or so blocks away from the Dakota on 72nd Street where, arriving home around 11, John Lennon was shot three times. He died in the ambulance that came for him. His killer reportedly had attended an Elephant Man show a few days before. Bowie found his way to May Pang’s apartment and kept screaming “what the fuck is going on in this world!!” Then he sat and watched television coverage of the Lennon killing until dawn.

Many thanks to Stephen Ryan for his translation and various insights, as well as my favorite globetrotter Sarah.

Recorded February 1980 at the Power Station, NYC and (for Pt. 1) April 1980 at Good Earth Studios, London. On Scary Monsters. Bonus: an interesting (if muddy) fan remix of the two, “It’s No Game (Pt. 3).”

* Utter minutia: the album is sometimes referred to as Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) but it’s only identified as Scary Monsters on the LP spine and disc label (though “Super Creeps” is on the back cover).

Top: Steve Lubetkin, “Democratic National Convention,” New York, 1980; Monsters; Bowie as early incarnation of Shakes the Clown; onna-bugeisha; “Ys Boutique, Tokyo,” 1980 (Mafia-Hunt); Scary.