Reissues: Memory of a Free Festival

February 5, 2016

On a day in which I appear to be snowed in, why not revive a memory of summer? This is a hybrid reissue—the main entry is that of the book (which Repeater excerpted back when the book was released), while the “bonus tracks” are mostly appended from the original blog post.

Originally published on December 11, 2009: “Memory of a Free Festival.”

Memory of a Free Festival.
Memory of a Free Festival (extended version).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 1).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2).
Memory of a Free Festival (BBC, 1970).
Memory of a Free Festival (“Mike Garson Band,” live, 1974).

Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time: miniature utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from a grey morass of mundane, inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence…The most lively [young people] escape geographically and physically to the ‘Never Never Land’ of a free festival where they become citizens, indeed rulers, in a new reality.

Anonymous leaflet ca. 1980, quoted in George McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties.

Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?
Or just twenty thousand people standing in a field?

Pulp, “Sorted For E’s and Wizz.”

The free festival was an open-air concert and fair, held on the Croydon Road Recreational Ground in Beckenham on 16 August 1969 (across an ocean, the Woodstock Festival was underway). Bowie performed, his set allegedly including a reggae version of “Space Oddity,” as did groups like the Strawbs. There were puppet shows, Tibetan goods vendors and coconut shies; his new girlfriend Angela Barnett cooked hamburgers in a wheelbarrow. The festival was peaceful and a success, with some 3,000 attending. Beckenham’s mayor and chief of police complimented Bowie for pulling it off.

The song he recorded three weeks later, sequenced to close Space Oddity as his last word on the Sixties, depicted a golden afternoon in which he wandered through a blissful crowd of flower children, exchanging kisses and greeting passing Venusians. In reality Bowie, who’d buried his father only five days before, had swung between near-catatonia and a foul temper, calling his partners “materialistic arseholes” for profiting off hamburgers and concert posters, complaining about the PA system and skipping the after-party. Mary Finnigan, Bowie’s once-lover and collaborator in the Beckenham Arts Lab, later called Bowie a hypocrite for writing a peace-and-love song for a festival at which he’d been so abrasive.

A contrary set of feelings, a man trying to reconstitute a bad day as the hope it ought to have been, gave “Memory of a Free Festival” depth and even bite, with Bowie making some deprecating asides about the holy tribe: “We claimed the very source of joy ran through/it didn’t, but it seemed that way.” The warmth, the easy unity, of the Free Festival is already in the past. If the hippies are the “children of the summer’s end,” they should ready for winter.

Like the Arts Labs, the free concert was a child of the late Sixties. In summer 1968, the promoter Blackhill Enterprises began putting on monthly free rock shows in Hyde Park with the likes of Pink Floyd and the Move. The Rolling Stones hired Blackhill to run their own free Hyde Park concert the following summer (described by Richard Neville as “free, courtesy of Blackhill, of Granada’s groovy camera team, Marshall’s great amplification system and triple-priced Lyon’s ice cream.”) The Beckenham festival was a homespun version of this and it actually was free, unlike Woodstock, which had been forcibly converted into a free show. The happy chaos of Woodstock, soon followed by the 1969 Isle of Wight concert and the violent chaos of the Stones’ free show in Altamont that December, made the free festival yet another fault line between straight and hippie worlds. Parliament soon passed an act banning gatherings of over 5,000 at the Isle of Wight.

“Memory of a Free Festival” opens with Bowie playing a Rosedale electric chord organ that he’d found at Woolworths. As with the Stylophone, he gave a toy instrument dignity. The sole accompaniment of the song’s four verses, the organ was his voice’s rickety, ecclesiastic complement, making him sound like a wandering sermonizer.

Composing on the organ, even a toy like the Rosedale, liberated Bowie from the guitar’s melodic consistency; it foreshadowed the freedom he’d find when writing on the piano a year later. After politely announcing the piece’s title, he started by playing variations on E minor while nudging up the bassline stepwise from C to F. Settling into a loose 3/4 time, he sang the first two verses over a descending, nebulous chord sequence, shifting from B minor to B-flat (“felt the Lon/don sky,” “source of/joy”) while anchored on a D bass. The third verse gained momentum, Bowie singing more hurriedly while mainly keeping on an E note (pushing up slightly on “ecstasy”), slackening at the end of each phrase. A shift to D major (“scanned the skies”) marked the peak of the festival: the aliens arrive, the joints get passed around, the revelers “walk back to the [Croydon] road, unchained.”

What followed was a free-time interlude of organ swirls, snippets of chatter, laughs and guitar fills while John Cambridge kept loose order with his ride cymbal. A memory so far, the festival shifts to the present, a party as much ominous as joyful. The sequence’s real purpose was more practical: it had to glue the “Free Festival” verses to a three-chord (D-C-G) “sun machine” refrain possibly once intended for another song. Having considered using the “Hey Jude” refrain for “Janine,” Bowie now made the long coda of “Free Festival” in its image: loops of ragged communal chanting, with Bowie in Paul McCartney’s soul cheerleader role.

In early 1970, Mercury’s American wing asked Bowie to re- record “Memory of a Free Festival” as a single, requesting a faster tempo and to get to the refrain sooner. The compromise was to cut the track in half, devoting the B-side entirely to the sun machine. This new “Free Festival” found Bowie outshone by his backing band, who tromped in singly during the intro. Even with the Sixties fresh in the grave, there’s a feeling of getting down to business. Guitar, bass and drums kick in before the first verse starts, the Moog rolls over the humble Rosedale organ like a Panzer tank, the psychedelic interlude gets deep-sixed, the chanted backing vocals of the refrains could be from a football terrace. Mick Ronson, Tony Visconti’s free-flowing bass and Ralph Mace’s Moog used the long fadeout as a preview of coming attractions. “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1 and 2” was the sound of The Man Who Sold the World, hard glam rock, and a bit too hard and glam for summer 1970, as the single sold dismally.

The Beatles ended the Sixties by breaking up, the last record they made showing them walk single-file off stage. The Stones ended with blood and fire and the sense they’d survive it all (and they would). The Who had a messiah pulled down by his followers, the Kinks emigrated to Australia, Dylan and Van Morrison and a host of others went to ground in the country. Bowie closed a decade in which he’d been a footnote by throwing a party, singing a jaded memory of the summer’s end: the fun-fair of the Sixties was just prelude, his work’s troubled childhood. His “Memory of a Free Festival,” a last gathering of the tribes, had a sad, faded grandeur. Forty-five years on, it can still touch a medieval chord in the soul.

Recorded: 8-9 September 1969, Trident. Bowie: lead vocal, Rosedale electric chord organ; Mick Wayne: lead guitar; Tim Renwick: rhythm guitar; John Lodge: bass; John Cambridge: drums, tambourine; unknown musician(s): baritone saxophone; Visconti, Bob Harris, Sue Harris, Tony Woollcott, Marc Bolan, “Girl”: backing vocals. Produced, arranged: Visconti; engineered: Sheffield, Scott or Toft; (remake, as “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1 & Pt. 2”) 21, 23 March, 3, 14-15 April 1970, Trident and Advision Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar, Rosedale organ; Ronson: lead guitar, backing vocal; Ralph Mace: Moog; Visconti: bass, backing vocal; Cambridge: drums; unknown musicians: strings (arr. Visconti). Produced: Visconti.

First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity; (single) 26 June 1970 (Mercury 6052 026). Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show; ca. June 1970, Six-O-One: Newsday; 15 August 1970, Eddy Ready Go! Live: 1969-1971, 1973-1974.

Children of the Sun Machine

E-Zee Possee, The Sun Machine.
Dario G, Sunmachine.
The Polyphonic Spree, Memory of a Free Festival (live, 2004).

The “sun machine” chant, having evanesced at the end of the ’60s, returned a generation later. “Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2),” a trance-inducing earworm, was a natural ancestor of a rave chant, and in 1990 E-Zee Possee had a minor hit with “The Sun Machine,” in which the “sun machine” chant was sung over house piano.

Then there was the UK dance trio Dario G’s 1998 “Sunmachine.” As Dario G’s Paul Spencer said, “We had this idea to sample bits of Bowie’s ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ over an ambient track of ‘Sunchyme.’ But we quickly discovered that the sample was so brilliant that it needed a brand new track–with some rock elements. There was only one problem: the sample we were using had all of Bowie’s instrumentation in it, which was too noisy for our purpose. So, we sent a demo of the song to Bowie and he liked our idea so much that he sent us the song’s original tape, which allowed us to sample only his vocals. He couldn’t have been a better chap!” As an added bonus, Bowie producer, Tony Visconti, played all the flute parts on the track.” (Thanks to Daniel Simon for this link.)

I’m not sure we’re done with the sun machine yet—expect Animal Collective to use it at some point. [NOTE: this was 2009.]

Top to bottom: The Stones bury the Sixties at Altamont, December 1969; “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1” single; bathers in the Serpentine, Hyde Park, 1969.

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Reissues: All the Madmen

January 29, 2016

The unearthing of a never-before-published interview [which I believe is legit, not a clever fiction] with Bowie from February 1971 inspired this reposting. In it, when asked about “All the Madmen,” Bowie said:

“The guy in that story has been placed in a mental institution and there are a number of people in that institution being released each week that are his friends. Now they’ve said that he can leave as well. But he wants to stay there, ’cause he gets a lot more enjoyment out of staying there with the people he considers sane. He doesn’t want to go through the psychic compromises imposed on him by the outer world. [Pauses.] Ah, it’s my brother. ’Cause that’s where he’s at.”

The book revision of this post goes more into Nietzsche, R.D. Laing, the  song’s bizarre and very Bowie chord progressions, the (possible) influence of flamenco on Visconti and Ronson here, and other fun things.

Originally posted on January 18, 2010: “All the Madmen”:

All the Madmen.
All the Madmen (single edit).
All the Madmen (live, fragment, 1971).
All the Madmen (live, 1987).

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

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy.

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

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization.

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

David Bowie, to Cameron Crowe, 1975.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aversos Compono Animos

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

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

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

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


Fill Your Heart

February 9, 2010


Fill Your Heart.
Fill Your Heart (live, 1971).

Bowie seemed to adore “Fill Your Heart,” a collaboration between the hippie comedian Biff Rose and ’70s malignance Paul Williams: it was in his live sets by early 1970 and he led off the second side of Hunky Dory with it, his first cover song on record since “I Pity The Fool.”

Where the other Rose song Bowie covered, “Buzz the Fuzz,” was a hippie drug joke, “Fill Your Heart” is music for squares. It goes far beyond the realm of squares, really: it seems best suited to appeal to delusional old people, toddlers and good-tempered dogs. But you can see why “Fill Your Heart” entranced Bowie—its lyric offers comfort and peace (“fear is in your head/only in your head, so forget your head”), promising that the pain of consciousness can be alleviated by love, by losing yourself entirely in someone else. Lovers never lose, as the song goes.

Rose delivered those lines with the trace of a smirk, while Tiny Tim, who covered the song as the b-side of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” sang it with glee and amazement, as though he’d finally found a lyric that topped his own extravagant persona. Bowie, on Hunky Dory, is so committed to the song’s treacly philosophy that he descends into pure tastelessness—at times gurning like a gruesome holiday camp performer. In its way, “Fill Your Heart” is the most disturbing track on the record.

Mick Ronson does the light-orchestra arrangements (the LP sleeve credits the influence of Arthur G. Wright, who had arranged Rose’s recording),  Rick Wakeman gets the showcase piano solo and Bowie provides the saxophone.

First performed at the BBC on 2 February 1970, and again on 21 September 1971; the Hunky Dory version, recorded ca. July-August 1971, was a last-minute addition to the LP, replacing “Bombers” (probably still the right call); Bowie opened his set at Aylesbury with it, on 25 September 1971.

Top: “Drunk NCOs, Osnabruck,” 1970.


Holy Holy

January 31, 2010

Holy Holy (single).
Holy Holy (remake).

The nightmare world of Christianity vanished at the dawn. I fell in with a girl of the theatre in the first ten days at Torquay, and at that touch of human love the detestable mysteries of sex were transformed into joy and beauty. The obsession of sin fell from my shoulders into the sea of oblivion. I had been almost overwhelmed by the appalling responsibility of ensuring my own damnation and helping others to escape from Jesus. I found that the world was, after all, full of delightful damned souls…

The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, ch. 7.

“Holy Holy,” yet another flop Bowie single, seems (in theory) like a sure thing: a dark conflation of sex and religion with a catchy chorus. Its timing was perfect, too—“Spirit In the Sky” had hit #1 in the UK a month before Bowie recorded this, Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” (of which Bowie’s song seems like a slight parody) was also a recent hit, and Jesus Christ Superstar would come out in the fall of 1970. But instead “Holy Holy” suffered the fate of every Bowie 45 barring “Space Oddity” and failed to chart.

Philips/Mercury sat on the record for six months, finally putting it out in January 1971, in part because of contract negotiations but also because the track sounds a bit dull: its timing seems off and the playing is leaden, whether due to exhaustion or indifference (Tony Visconti had just left Bowie’s band, and Mick Ronson and Woody Woodmansey likely knew by this point that Bowie was sending them back to Hull, possibly for good).

Bowie knew that he had whiffed this one, though, and went back to “Holy Holy” in September 1971 with his new Spiders from Mars (Ronson, Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder). The remake is leagues better than the original—Ronson in particular is inspired, moving from an ominous locomotive intro riff to his sleek solo, a different (though harmonized) guitar track for each speaker. The remade “Holy Holy” was good enough to have made the cut for Ziggy Stardust, but instead wound up as a B-side a few years later. Seemingly of its moment, “Holy Holy”‘s time never quite came.

The lyric hints that Bowie’s been reading some Aleister Crowley—the line about “just the righteous brother” isn’t only a play on the Bill Medley/Bobby Hatfield duo’s name but a reference to the Order of the Golden Dawn, to which Crowley had belonged. The whole song is a paean to sex magick, with the lyric moving from basic seduction (the verse) to an orgy in the chorus (which ends “but let go of me!!!”—suggesting the singer’s either under a spell or is moving onto fresher prospects nearby).

The original “Holy Holy” was cut in June 1970 (with the bassist Herbie Flowers, who produced the session) and released in January 1971 as Mercury 6052 049 (c/w “Black Country Rock”). The remake was cut ca. August/September 1971 and, originally slated for the Ziggy Stardust LP, finally surfaced as the B-side to “Diamond Dogs” in June 1974 (it was included on the Ryko reissue of The Man Who Sold the World, although the remake was mislabeled as the original cut, which has never been re-released).

Top: Terry O’Neill, “Margaret Thatcher ca. 1970.”


Tired Of My Life

January 29, 2010

Tired of My Life.

No one’s sure when exactly this dreary thing was recorded—the best guess (by Nicholas Pegg, the most reliable of Bowie chroniclers) is that it was taped around the time of The Man Who Sold The World, ca. May 1970, at Bowie’s residence in Haddon Hall. The song’s a return to the folkie ruminations of Space Oddity, now with a more pronounced Crosby, Stills & Nash influence (especially in the bridge). Mick Ronson likely sings harmony.

Bowie left it in the bottom drawer for a decade, then dragged it out and tarted it up (recycling a few lines and the vocal melody) for a much better song on Scary Monsters, “It’s No Game.”

Top: Harold Chapman, “Glasgow, the Gorbals,” (slum neighborhood cleared in 1970).


The Man Who Sold The World

January 27, 2010

The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie, 1970).
The Man Who Sold the World (Lulu, 1974).
The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, 1979).
The Man Who Sold the World (Nirvana, 1993, rehearsal).
The Man Who Sold the World (Nirvana, 1993, broadcast).
The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie, live, 1995).
The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie, broadcast, 2000).
The Man Who Sold the World (Bowie, live, 2004).

I. Metrobolist

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away.

Hughes Mearns, “Antigonish” (1922).

Bowie’s third LP was going to be called Metrobolist, a play on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: it was the title of Mike Weller’s proposed cover illustration, a Letterist cartoon in which a man (whose image was based on a photo of John Wayne) walking past Cane Hill Asylum and carrying a rifle offers an aside in a speech bubble whose words have been erased. It originally read, according to Weller, “ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES, TAKE A LOOK AT YOUR ARMS.”

On the last day of mixing the LP, Bowie had yet to come up with a lyric for a final track that was cued up on the deck. Tony Visconti recalled waiting, tapping his fingers at the console, while Bowie sat in the reception area of Advision Studios, scratching out a lyric on paper. Bowie ran into the booth to record his vocal, the track was mixed in a few hours and the tapes were sent off the same night. You’d expect something like “Black Country Rock” from these straightened circumstances: instead, it was “The Man Who Sold the World,” Bowie’s finest lyric of the record.

Bowie had found his album’s real name. “The Man Who Sold The World,” nearly an afterthought, had turned out to be the prime mover of the LP all along, like a song whose key is only revealed in its last bars.

While it’s basically a first draft (and it shows at times: “I gazed a gazely stare” is pretty rough), the lyric’s forcibly-spontaneous origins also created its uncanny resonance. Metrobolist could be a play on somnambulist, and “The Man Who Sold the World” could be a sleepwalker’s journal entry, a piece of automatic writing.

Like a dream, “The Man Who Sold the World” has a score of fathers—its title is likely from Robert Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold the Moon; its opening lines suggest Hughes Mearns’ “Antigonish,” as quoted above, or, even more likely, the WWII-era song based on the poem, “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There“; its image of a man meeting his double, spiritual or corporeal, derives from everything from Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting” to Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” to Ray Bradbury’s “Night Meeting,” in which a man and Martian cross paths in the deserts of Mars one night, each convinced that the other hails from the distant past.

And the song’s symbolic twin was a film from the same year (while shot in 1968, it finally premiered a few months after Bowie wrote his song): Performance (fittingly, the film had two directors: Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammell), in which a glamorous gangster (James Fox) holes up in the mansion of a decadent pop singer (Mick Jagger), with the two playing out each other’s roles—a talented criminal, the film suggests, is as much an artist as a true artist can be a criminal.

Nothing is true, everything is permitted.

Turner (Mick Jagger), in Performance.

“The Man Who Sold the World” has two verses (one pairing in a song filled with them: for example, Bowie sings two pairs of notes at the start of each line of the chorus): the first is Now, with the narrator encountering himself or Another (cf. Rimbaud’s “Je est une autre”), the second verse is Afterward (or Before). Where most of Bowie’s lyrics on the LP are oddly-phrased and filled with bizarre imagery, “The Man Who Sold The World,” two verses of eight modest lines and a chorus of four, has a cold simplicity, its tone that of an old riddle.

So the singer passes a man on the stair, although the singer isn’t truly present at the meeting. Is he asleep, dead, exiled from his own time? Whatever his own situation, the singer is more bewildered by the man he encounters. “I thought you died alone, a long, long time ago,” he says in astonishment, as though he has met a lost self, or the self he once imagined he would be, or the self he one day will be.

The chorus is the other’s response. “Oh no, not me” the specter (or the man) says, happily denying the charge. You could read it as “Death hasn’t come for me, it never will.” After all he’s the Man Who Sold the World, the extremity of all the extremities that this odd LP has offered. He could be a con man, like Delos Harriman, Heinlein’s Man Who Sold the Moon, who swindles the masses into financing his dream, only to be denied fulfilling it. He could be the Bowie of 1975, who has become world-famous at the price of his sanity. Or alternately, he could be, as he says, the one who never lost control, the man who never let his imagination take him where it would. Just common David Jones, living out a quiet life in Bromley, rebuking his extravagant alternate self.

The second verse broadens the scope, moving from the stairwell to the world. Bowie wanders, in exile or heading home (one and the same), and tries to find community in the fact that others are in the same straights as he. But the singer’s questions remain open, the riddles only answer themselves, and there’s no resolution. The song fades out with wordless moans and an cycling guitar, seeming to end before it began.

II. The Stairwell

I passed on with an inward shudder. I was so identified with my secret double that I did not even mention the fact in those scanty, fearful whispers we exchanged. I suppose he had made some slight noise of some kind or other. It would have been miraculous if he hadn’t at one time or another. And yet, haggard as he appeared, he looked always perfectly self-controlled, more than calm—almost invulnerable.

Joseph Conrad, “The Secret Sharer,” (1909).

Mick Ronson and Visconti’s arrangements, like Bowie’s language, had been heavy, dark and convulsive for much of the record, but as with “The Man Who Sold The World”‘s lyric, suddenly all is simplicity and clarity. Ronson’s opening guitar riff is basic enough that guitar teachers use it as a lesson for beginners—hold the G string down and play three notes (A), lift your finger up and play a fourth note as an open string, then simply slide your finger along the same string from the second to the third fret and back again, lifting your finger up at the end (which creates the circular hook).

The riff is constant throughout the song, moving, like Bowie’s narrator, across a moving landscape, its appearance seemingly altered with its changing surroundings. So the riff travels, in the intro, from A to D minor (the home key of the song; Bowie, likely unintentionally, sings “made my way back home” over one return to D minor) to F and back to D minor; it does the same in the break after the first chorus, and again, seemingly endlessly, in the long outro. As the author Chet Williamson wrote, in an appreciation of the song: “The melody of the riff is unchangeable. It seems to owe nothing to any key, and stands alone, adapting itself to the darkness of D minor, the brightness of F, and the intermediary and transitory character of A.

The chorus is even simpler. Visconti on bass, then Ronson, then Ralph Mace (or Visconti) on keyboards, all follow the same path: they are simply playing scales, as if pupils in a band class—first the C major scale, then the F major scale. A sudden move to B flat casts a shadow for two bars, and then the cycles resume.

III. The Buyer

Sometime in the late 1980s Chad Channing, a Seattle-based drummer, found a mint The Man Who Sold the World LP in a shop and dubbed it onto cassette, as you did in those days. He played the tape while driving around his bandmates, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic, and Channing recalled that when Cobain first heard “The Man Who Sold the World,” Cobain was baffled to learn David Bowie was singing it (this was the era of the “Let’s Dance” MTV icon Bowie, who seemed light years removed from the likes of The Man Who Sold the World).

In November 1993, as Cobain and Novoselic’s band Nirvana (Channing had left in 1990) began what would be their final tour, they came to New York to record a session for MTV’s Unplugged. Determined to irritate the biggest commercial force in music at the time, Nirvana told Unplugged‘s producers that not only would they not perform “Smells Like Teen Spirit” acoustically (thus defeating the whole purpose of Unplugged, which was for bands (and MTV) to cash in by turning their greatest hits into easy-listening standards, like Eric Clapton turning “Layla” into a cocktail-hour blues), but also that half of their set would be obscure covers: three Meat Puppets songs, a Vaselines track, a Leadbelly blues and “Man Who Sold The World,” which, as far as MTV was concerned, might as well have been a Bowie outtake.

The songs Nirvana performed that night were tainted and distorted after Cobain’s suicide five months later, forced into new shapes—“All Apologies” became a self-requiem, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” a final curse, “Plateau” and “Lake of Fire” visions of the afterlife. And “Man Who Sold the World” became Cobain’s catechism.

Where Bowie had sung “The Man Who Sold The World” dispassionately, as if at a remove from his own terror, Cobain sounds betrayed and disgusted (with himself, with whatever alternatives he’s presented with on the stair); whatever fear the figure on the stair means to invoke by saying he’s The Man Who Sold The World, Cobain simply deflates. He’s done his share of selling, after all. But Cobain’s voice catches on lines like “He said I was his friend,” which he offers in a tone of weary disbelief, and he plays his allegedly unplugged guitar through a hidden amplifier.

The time leading up to [Cobain’s] death was really strange. He disappeared. He just seemed like he wanted to get away. He bailed. I honestly did not think he was going to kill himself. I just thought he was on someone’s floor in Olympia, listening to albums. Or something.

Dave Grohl, interviewed by Austin Scaggs, 2005.

Nirvana kept “The Man Who Sold The World” in its set throughout the following tour (here’s Inglewood, Calif. (30 Dec 1993) and Modena, Italy (21 Feb 1994), including their final concert in Munich. The tour ended: Cobain made his way back home to Seattle, where he died alone.

IV. Transit

“Let us agree to disagree,” said the Martian. “What does it matter who is Past or Future, if we are both alive, for what follows will follow, tomorrow or in ten thousand years. How do you know that those temples are not the temples of your own civilization one hundred centuries from now, tumbled and broken? You do not know. Then don’t ask. But the night is very short. There go the festival fires in the sky, and the birds.”

Tomas put out his hand. The Martian did likewise in imitation. Their hands did not touch; they melted through each other.
“Will we meet again?”

“Who knows? Perhaps some other night.”

Ray Bradbury, “Night Meeting,” (1950).

Before this, Bowie had revisited “The Man Who Sold the World” only twice. In 1973, embarking on a mild Svengali relationship with the Scot belter Lulu, Bowie revised the song as glam disco, centering it on a new Ronson riff and a saxophone he played himself. Lulu sang the hell out of it (in the studio, Bowie had told her to smoke cigarettes to make her voice raspier), dressed up for the promo video in a gangster suit. But the song was flattened out and distorted, its questions barely discernible beneath the flash and glare.

And on one of the last weekends of the Seventies, Bowie played Saturday Night Live. Those watching TV that night must have wondered if a European avant-garde theater troupe briefly had commandeered SNL—Bowie, in a giant Dadaist tuxedo (inspired by a Hugo Ball performance in which Ball had been carried onstage in a tube, as well as Sonia Delaunay’s costumes for a 1923 Tristan Tzara play), was hoisted like a placard by two vampires in red and black dresses (Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias), and backed by a band including Blondie’s Jimmy Destri (filmed making ridiculous faces while playing two keyboards). The gorgeous outro, with Nomi and Arias’ counter-tenors swirling around Bowie’s voice, had a severe finality to it, a sense of being a last aria. You could imagine, at the performance’s end, that Bowie never intended to play the song again.

But Nirvana’s cover, played on TV throughout the spring of 1994 (MTV was running “Nirvana Unplugged” seemingly around the clock), suddenly exhumed the song, and “The Man Who Sold The World” was out of Bowie’s hands. Many kids even thought the song was a Nirvana track (despite Cobain’s earnest introductions on stage that “this is a David Booooie song”), placing Bowie in the odd position of, if he revived the now-popular song, being accused of covering his own composition.

A year later Bowie made his move: he gutted the song, making what he did in the Lulu version seem like minor outpatient surgery. Erasing everything familiar (the vocal melody, Ronson’s riff, the chorus scales) as if it was the speech bubble of Weller’s cartoon, Bowie left only the lyric, stripped bare over a minimalist electronic beat. He sang it quietly and sadly, the puzzles that the song once offered now not even worth trying to solve.

Finally Bowie seemed to make peace with the song, offering a fairly “traditional” version in 2000 for a BBC performance (a version that, to be honest, sounds like a Nirvana cover). By the time of Bowie’s Reality tour of 2003-2004, “The Man Who Sold the World” had become part of Bowie’s canon, along with “Changes” and “Young Americans” and “Ashes to Ashes.” Bowie sang it as if had been one of his standards all along: he had reclaimed a child who had been stolen from him and, in the process, had outgrown him.

V. Transit Documents

“The Man Who Sold The World,” originally recorded ca. 8-22 May 1970, was the penultimate song of the LP it titled; lurking between the bombast of “She Shook Me Cold” and the closer “The Supermen,” its cold power was, if anything, magnified. It was the B-side of a few singles, including a 1973 RCA reissue of “Life on Mars?” Lulu’s 1974 single (Polydor 2001 490) hit #3 in the UK and was collected on her 1977 LP Heaven And Earth And the Stars. A truly god-awful cover, with the Lulu track as its apparent inspiration, was cut by the young John Cougar in 1977. The Bowie/Nomi/Arias recording, from 15 December 1979 (they also did “TVC-15” and “Boys Keep Swinging”) has never been released, either on DVD or CD.

Nirvana’s version was recorded on 18 November 1993 and is found on Unplugged in New York; Bowie’s 1995 remake, mixed by Brian Eno, was released as the B-side of “Strangers When We Meet”; the 2000 live performance, recorded 27 June 2000 at the BBC Radio Theatre, is on the bonus disc of Bowie at the Beeb; the final version featured here was recorded in Dublin on 22-23 November 2003 and is on the A Reality Tour DVD.

Top: Gov. Ronald Reagan debates Irving Wesley Hall, Sacramento, Calif., 1970.


Black Country Rock

January 24, 2010

Black Country Rock.

“Black Country Rock” was the provisional title Mick Ronson and Tony Visconti gave to a riff-happy jam they had worked up in the studio, and Bowie, facing a deadline, dashed out a single verse and chorus based on the title.

Recording his vocal, Bowie decided to parody his friend/rival Marc Bolan, who was readying to become a pop star (T. Rex’s “Ride a White Swan,” their first top 10 hit, was recorded a few months after this), delivering a merciless imitation of Bolan’s singing voice (especially in the last chorus repeat, where Bowie bleats out “fond adieuuuuuuuuuuu”). Visconti, amused, thinned Bowie’s vocal track with an equalizer so that it sounded even more like Bolan’s (the “my friend” in the last chorus is so on the money you’d swear it was a Bolan vocal overdub).

“Black Country Rock,” straight-up album filler, is of interest mainly for Ronson, who makes the track a primer on how to economically arrange a song, deploying four guitar riffs as motifs. The first riff, a vault from his low to high strings in E, and the second (a needling little hook ending back in E) appear in Ronson’s intro, then serve as motifs in the verse, with riff 2 reappearing on every other bar, while riff 1 links each eight-bar verse together.

The chorus has the other two—the low-end riff 3 appears at the end of the first line, while riff 4 (mainly just two notes over and over again, sometimes bent) closes out the chorus and twice extends into a 16-bar solo (with riff 2 reappearing to transition back to the verse). For a throwaway track, it’s impressive enough: a number of mediocre ’70s rock bands would build whole careers out of this sort of thing.

Recorded ca. 12-22 May 1970; on side A of The Man Who Sold the World and issued as the B-side of “Holy Holy” in 1971.

Top: Mickey Finn, Marc Bolan and their jawlines practice LP cover poses, summer 1970.


She Shook Me Cold

January 20, 2010

She Shook Me Cold.

Bowie was absent for much of The Man Who Sold The World. He was a happy newlywed (sometimes going antique shopping with his wife Angela during sessions), was living a mildly decadent life in his new rooms at Haddon Hall, a Victorian mansion in Beckenham, and was busy sacking his longtime manager Ken Pitt and replacing him with Tony Defries, the sort of remorseless borderline-criminal impresario who thrived in the mid-20th Century pop music industry.

Bowie had come up with some rough lyrics and chord progressions for songs, which he gave Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson during album rehearsals at Haddon Hall, but he left Visconti and Ronson to arrange the sessions, play most of the instruments, edit and overdub the tracks, and sometimes even provide titles (“Black Country Rock,” for example). Only at the end, mainly during the mixing stage, did Bowie show up (sometimes having just scrawled out a final lyric) to record his vocals, Visconti and Bowie’s biographers have claimed.

“She Shook Me Cold” in particular is Bowie guest-starring on his own record, as the track is essentially Mick Ronson fulfilling the dream of a struggling provincial guitarist suddenly given the run of Trident Studios—“She Shook Me Cold” is his Cream tribute (its direct inspiration likely being Cream’s live performances of “Spoonful”), with Ronson constructing his own power trio in their image (for example, he encouraged Visconti to listen to Jack Bruce’s bass playing).

Embodied by The Who, Cream and the Hendrix Experience, the power trio (sometimes equipped with additional lead singer, e.g., Robert Plant) was the child of new technology (louder amps, more guitar effects pedals, better recording techniques) and expanding musician egos. Trios typically dispensed with the rhythm guitarist slot, with often a more aggressive and fluid bass guitar taking the rhythm guitar’s place in the mix (or in The Who’s case, Keith Moon’s drums would sometimes be the lead instrument, while Pete Townshend’s guitar filled in on rhythm).

The trio would become rock’s standard format (The Police, U2, Nirvana, etc.), but some critics argued that as (the now-redundant) rhythm guitarists often had been songwriters and arrangers, their absence led to, as Ian MacDonald wrote, “a degradation of texture and a decline in musical subtlety…the average power trio was in effect an excuse to replace songs with riffs and discard nuance for noise.” (This wouldn’t be Bowie’s fate, as Bowie, as if in retribution for the excesses of Man Who Sold the World, would center his following LP on the piano and acoustic guitar.)

So consider “She Shook Me Cold” a fun, vulgar one-off, Bowie’s accidental voyage into heavy metal. When Bowie arrived to finish the track, he gleefully went along with the pantomime, writing a ridiculous bad sex lyric (“I broke the gentle hearts of many young virgins,” “she sucked my dormant will/mother, she blew my brain,” culminating in a verse of moaning).

The track opens with Ronson’s homage to Jimi Hendrix (cf. the opening of “Voodoo Child”), sliding from his B string to his low E string: the intro kicks off two 12-bar verses that have a trip-and-lurch rhythm and an odd harmonic layout—if the song is in E (as it seems to be), within a measure or so its subdominant and dominant chords appear, jammed together back-to-back (they’re A and B, “uh-PON A hill” in the first line), followed by a retreat directly back to the tonic E chord.

A bridge dominated by Visconti’s bass (he really takes off around when Bowie sings “she took my head”), and the “orgasmic” verse serve as the lead-in to Ronson’s 64-bar, nearly two-minute-long extravagance of a guitar solo, during which, when he’s not trying to outdo Visconti’s bass, Ronson develops some fine riffs (listen to the one around 3:26 in). Afterward all Bowie can do is get out the last verse and crawl off to the shower.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970; on side B of The Man Who Sold the World.

Top: Julian Wasser, “Joan Didion sitting inside white Stingray, with cigarette,” 1970.


All The Madmen

January 18, 2010

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

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

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy.

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

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Aversos Compono Animos

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

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

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

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


After All

January 13, 2010

After All.

A curse on childhood, lifted on the flipside.

Greil Marcus, on The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” single.

“After All” offers a similar curse, except Bowie gives no subsequent reprieves: his vision of childhood, now extended into cold adolescence, offers no escape except the void and the grave.

The Man Who Sold the World is a record of extravagance and braggadocio—Bowie wrestles with a devil in “Width of a Circle,” while other tracks are filled with extremities: supermen, serial killers, sex maniacs, master computers. “After All,” by contrast, is quiet (Bowie sings much of it in a near-whisper), withdrawn, a requiem for the defeated. Its verses are built around minor chords—E minor to A minor, wearily rising to F under the “by jingo” refrain—and its rhythm is a somber 3/4 time, which extends into a decrepit fairground whirl during the 16-bar solo.

“After All” seems like an unwanted sequel to the early psychedelic records, the sunshine lullabies of 1966 and 1967, as well as Bowie’s own childhood ballads, “There Is a Happy Land” and “When I’m Five.” In those songs, there was wonder and delight amidst the shadows, but in “After All” there’s little but shadow. Bowie watches from his window as the hippies pass by, those who can’t or refuse to grow up, those who march together in protests without rationale or results, who “paint [their] faces and dress in thoughts from the skies, from paradise,” those who are nothing but taller children, children denied a feasible adulthood.

The curse eventually turns in on itself, as Bowie’s narrator in the final chorus and verse (there are three of each), admits that he holds no answers, that he’s wasted his listeners’ time, that even the music he’s crafted is just built of “impermanent chords” (as he sings the words, the chords naturally shift, either to E7 or E/G#). A prophet who disparages his own predictions, Bowie finally offers a grim perversion of the Buddhism that once had sustained him. “Live ’till your rebirth and do what you will,” he says, taking the latter words from Aleister Crowley. It’s as close to consolation as it comes.

“After All” has echoes of Bowie’s ’60s recordings—the varispeed choir of grotesques moaning “Oh by jingo” is a dark reflection of “Laughing Gnome,” while the Stylophone of “Space Oddity” returns at the end of each chorus, appearing with a flourish and then declining in three-note patterns. The track’s built around Bowie’s acoustic guitar and Tony Visconti’s bass, with Mick Ronson serving mainly as background color. Visconti said that he and Ronson took Bowie’s basic tracks (the acoustic-centered verses and the “oh by jingo” refrain) and overdubbed them repeatedly during the mixing stage, though the result doesn’t feel overdone in the slightest—the track sounds rather like parts of it have been erased.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970, the last song on side A of The Man Who Sold The World. Covered by Tori Amos in 2001.

Top: Boyd Lewis, “Girls encounter the hippie vans in Piedmont Park [Atlanta],” 1970.