Running Gun Blues

January 11, 2010

Running Gun Blues.

An early entrant in the distinguished “crazy Vietnam veteran” genre, “Running Gun Blues” features an ex-soldier turned serial killer. Bowie sounds unhinged in the verses, tries for menace in the choruses, going on about cracking the heads of “gooks.” It’s satire fit for (and seemingly written by) a squalid 13-year-old boy.

Mick Ronson offers amends—beefing up the D-C-G riff that Bowie first offers on his acoustic, locking in with Tony Visconti’s bass to ride out the track. It’s no use, as the track’s nothing but cheap, loud burlesque with “social commentary” pretensions. Angela Bowie recalled that her husband wrote the lyrics to “Running Gun Blues” over an afternoon when he kept being interrupted to do interviews, and it shows (“for I promote oblivion/and I’ll plug a few civilians”). As rancid as it is forgettable.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970; never performed again by Bowie, or anyone else.

Top: Lt. William Calley goes on trial, November 1970.


Saviour Machine

January 7, 2010

Saviour Machine.

“Saviour Machine” is The Man Who Sold The World‘s topical song, as computers controlling every aspect of society and (without fail) eventually weakening, conquering and/or exterminating the human race was a basic doomsday scenario in 1970.

This fear now seems dated and mildly ridiculous, a nightmare of the Great Society era. By the late ’60s it seemed that, at least in US and UK science fiction, world government and centralized computer control of the planet were just around the corner. Patrick Troughton- and Jon Pertwee-era Doctor Who (1967-1974), for example, was often set on a standard near-future Earth (say, 1985) where the United Nations is the world’s government and military force, while various Controllers and Supervisors run the massive mainframe networks that control shipping, the weather, the moon colonies, and so forth.

The massive growth of government between 1940 and 1970, with the parallel rise of the mainframe computer network (the idea of a “personal computer” seemed absurd to all but a few cranks), had only one logical outcome: with power continuing to centralize, and with society growing ever more complex and burdensome (overpopulation, pollution, wars, crime, etc.), only a super-computer would eventually be able to keep things running.

Naturally, however, even the computers would crack under the strain. Bowie’s “Saviour Machine” opens with a liberal U.S. “President Joe” elected on a platform of installing a computer system, called “The Prayer,” to end war and hunger. The twist is that while The Prayer easily handles the job, perfection bores it; The Prayer contemplates introducing new wars and plagues simply as a bit of distraction, and because it’s grown to despise its human subjects, chastising them like an officious Old Testament God.

As a performance, “Saviour Machine” is unrelentingly strange. It makes constant demands on a listener, with its complex time changes (it opens in what seems to be 15/8 time (more likely 6/8, see comments), goes to 3/4 (or not) in the bridges*) and Bowie’s eerie seesawing vocal, which seems designed to thwart anyone else from attempting to sing it. Even the song’s structure is odd—there’s only one verse, followed by alternating bridges and choruses (in the former, Bowie continually holds notes, draining the blood from his words, as if fighting against his song’s rhythms).

Ronson gets a solo after nearly every sung section—the first and third (at 1:28 and 3:08), each 24 bars, reuse the wordless chorus of Bowie’s old “Ching a Ling,” the melody first carried on Ronson’s guitar, then by Ralph Mace’s Moog synthesizer. Ronson’s second solo is a dance between Am7 and D, while his outro performance grows noisier and more manic as the track fades out.

Recorded between 18 April-22 May 1970, on the second side of The Man Who Sold the World. “Saviour Machine” has generally been forgotten, though Redd Kross covered it in the ’80s and its name was appropriated by a Christian goth band.

Top: The IBM 360, made obsolescent in 1970 by the introduction of the System/370.

* I’ve never been able to determine musical time—these are just guesses, and likely very wrong ones.


The Supermen

January 5, 2010

The Supermen (LP version).
The Supermen (1971 remake).
The Supermen (live, 1972).
The Supermen (live, 2004).

I teach you the superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed. What have you done to surpass man?…

Lo, I teach you the superman: he is this lightning, he is this madness!

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra: “Zarathustra’s Prologue.”

His other great inspiration is mythology. He has a great need to believe in the legends of the past, particularly those of Atlantis; and for the same need he has crafted a myth of the future, a belief in an imminent race of supermen called homo superior. It’s his only glimpse of hope, he says—“all the things that we can’t do they will.”

Michael Watts, Bowie profile in Melody Maker, 22 January 1972.

Bowie, who never had the sunniest of dispositions, grew apocalyptic at the dawn of the 1970s. He knew what was coming: neo-fascism, nuclear war, authoritarian cults of personality, decadence, civilization’s end (he gave the human race 40 years to live, soon cut it down to five). Worse, he had started reading Nietzsche, mainly Also Sprach Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil, and took from the former the concept of a new race of overmen who would supplant homo sapiens. For Bowie, this was cause for slight optimism.

“The Supermen,” the first fruit of this new infatuation, isn’t as much future prediction as it is primordial memory, with overmen at the dawn of time on their “loveless isle,” playing and battling (which seem to be one and the same). It’s akin to Donovan’s “Atlantis,” from 1968, but where Donovan had envisioned the few survivors of Atlantis bestowing art and civilization upon the human race, Bowie’s supermen are brutes, nightmare Teutonic demigods. In a 1976 interview, Bowie called the song “pre-fascist.”

Nietzsche wasn’t the only influence: Bowie’s overmen also have (no surprise) some resemblance to the Buddhist monks of his ’60s songs, like the carnival sage of “Karma Man.” Bowie also was likely inspired by the supermen and mutants who populated postwar SF novels and comics, whether The Mule, the superhuman of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, who is the unforeseen variable that alters the predicted path of “psycho-history,” or the mutant children of Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, who discover that together they form a new entity, homo gestalt, a plural form of human being (cf. Bowie’s line: “where all were minds in uni-thought.”)

Even though he is immortal…mankind is affected by mortality…above the cosmic framework, he became a slave in it…He never sleeps because he comes from one who is sleepless. Yet love and sleep are his masters.

Poimandres, the Shepherd of Men.

Bowie’s supermen, however, are locked in the past, once-gods who became mortal. As the very Gnostic lyric says, they are “wondrous beings chained to life.” The song chronicles their fall: the chorus boasts that the perfect men cannot die, but then the overmen dream of murder and rotting flesh; in the last repeat of the chorus, Bowie alters the final word and releases his supermen into death.

Strange games

Jimmy Page allegedly gave Bowie the lumbering riff that opens “The Supermen”—a primal sway between F and G—which on the LP is first played on Tony Visconti’s bass, then Mick Ronson’s guitar. (Page supposedly gave Bowie the riff during the session for Bowie’s 1965 single “I Pity the Fool“—if true, you have to admire Bowie’s packrat sensibilities, stowing away the riff for half a decade.)

For the album cut, Bowie, Ronson and Visconti made, as Visconti later said, an “outrageous sonic landscape.” The track opens with a fanfare on echo-tracked drums, which, like the end of “Width of a Circle,” suggests the tympani of the first movement of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” (This marks the debut of Woody Woodmansey, who Ronson brought in to replace John Cambridge on drums after Cambridge couldn’t master the song’s odd time signatures.) There’s a wordless, moaning chorus soaring throughout, while Ronson offers a solo constructed from three harmonized guitar tracks.

Bowie, for whatever perverse reason, sings his lyric in an exaggerated, nasal, near-Cockney tone (“strAYnge gAYmes thAY would plAY then”), even gasping horribly while he sings “nightmAYre dreams no mortal mind could ‘OLD”. It causes the track to war between self-parody and stone-faced seriousness.

Bowie re-recorded “The Supermen” in November 1971 during the Ziggy Stardust sessions, and gave the track to a compilation LP to benefit the Glastonbury Fair (causing at times the remake to be erroneously labeled as a live recording). The new arrangement suggests a rethink of the song, with the verses now only carried by Bowie’s acoustic guitar while Ronson comes in hard on the choruses. The band would use this arrangement in most of its 1972-1973 live performances (see the 1972 recording from Boston above). Bowie has occasionally exhumed his master race on a few recent tours.

“The Supermen” was first recorded at a BBC session on 25 March 1970 (I’ve not heard it, but Nicholas Pegg writes that it’s close to the studio version, with a few slightly altered lyrics and Cambridge’s “dodgy” drumming); the studio track (sequenced as the final cut on the LP, and so ending the record with the death of gods) was recorded between 18 April-22 May 1970. The remake, recorded on 12 November 1971, was first included on Glastonbury Fayre and is now on the reissue of Ziggy Stardust; the Boston recording, from 1 October 1972, is on the 30th anniversary issue of Aladdin Sane.

Top: Jack Kirby’s New Gods #1; detail from cover of Sturgeon’s More Than Human.


The Width of a Circle

January 3, 2010

The Width of a Circle (Man Who Sold the World).
The Width of a Circle (live, 1972).
The Width of a Circle (live, 1973).
The Width of a Circle (live, last Spiders gig, 1973.)
The Width of a Circle (live, 1974).

The devil has the most extensive perspectives for God; on that account he keeps so far away from him.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: “Apothegms and Interludes.”

Circumference: Much of David Bowie’s ’60s music was weak (compared to his contemporaries), partly because Bowie was young and unformed, partly because he lacked a creative equal as a collaborator. Sixties Bowie can seem isolated, his records the work of an autodidact. In the first months of 1970, Bowie finally found, to quote Charlie Parker, a worthy constituent.

Mick Ronson was from Hull. As a child he played piano, violin and recorder until settling on the guitar (one reason, he later said, was that you got grief for walking around Hull with a violin case). He had played in local bands in the ’60s, but at the start of the ’70s he was working as a groundsman for the Hull City Council, marking rugby pitches. One of his old bandmates, Bowie’s drummer John Cambridge, told him that Bowie was looking for a new lead guitarist. Ronson came to London and met Bowie again (the two had first crossed paths at a 1969 recording session); two days afterward Bowie and Ronson first played together at a concert taped for the BBC. One song was a new Bowie composition, “The Width of a Circle.”

Bowie likely wrote “Circle” in late 1969, as its first draft is a surreal folkie excursion (centered on Bowie’s 12-string acoustic) in the vein of Space Oddity LP tracks like “Cygnet Committee” or “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed.”

On the BBC track, the first recorded version of “Width,” you can hear Ronson thinking aloud—filling in spaces, working out angles. He would turn “Width of a Circle” into a high mass for the electric guitar, leaving Bowie a bystander in his own song. By 1973 Bowie was letting Ronson solo for ten minutes on “Width” while he went backstage for a costume change.

Diameter: Ronson broke and reassembled “Width,” opening it (and The Man Who Sold the World LP, as it turned out) with an ominous, sliding guitar riff. Ronson loved Led Zeppelin, the Hendrix Experience and Cream, and took from their records how to anchor a track with a titanic riff. While Ronson’s opening “Width” riff appears in the first BBC recording, it emerges tentatively after eight bars of Bowie’s strumming, and soon is lost in the sprawl of the ramshackle performance (the under-rehearsed players seem to be running through ideas and using whatever they can remember: a riff from “Unwashed” flashes by at 1:25).

By the time the studio take of “Width” was recorded two months later, Ronson had made his riff the cornerstone of the track. After a brief squall of feedback, Ronson slides along his A string to his fifth, fourth and second frets. He repeats the riff, now mirrored by Bowie’s acoustic guitar, now shadowed by Tony Visconti’s bass, now with the entire band hitting on it.

The riff only appears once more (after the third verse, just before the “second half” of the song), but Ronson’s guitar dominates the rest of the track by various means. In the first three verses, Ronson repeatedly uses another motif, a bit of fast riffing (E-E7-E), to fill in after Bowie’s pauses and to rev up the ends of lines. Most of all, there’s his first solo, a 40-bar series of staggered explosions that begins with Ronson bending a G string as if he intends to snap it off. Loud, fleet (Ronson plays the same lick nine times in five seconds) and magnificent, the solo is Ronson’s grand debut: nothing of its like had ever been on a Bowie record.

Secant: “Width of a Circle” lacked an ending. Bowie’s original version petered out after two verses (listen to the first BBC recording, where, after a Ronson solo, everyone trudges along for a minute-plus of aimless guitar). Ronson and Visconti, who did much of the arranging, mixing and playing on The Man Who Sold The World, decided that “Width” needed a second half. On one take, they played what Visconti described as a “spontaneous boogie riff,” which they liked so much they appended it to the song and asked Bowie to come up with melodies and lyrics for it.

So Bowie, faced with a suddenly-elongated song, had to write a batch of fresh lyrics. And where his original verses are odd and nightmarish (the two opening stanzas, which are filled with dreamscapes, Nietzchean steals (“the monster was me”), a few striking lines (“God’s a young man, too”) and hip references (Khalil Gibran, whose A Tear and a Smile was standard-issue for a hippie’s library, along with Brautigan poems and Watership Down)), the newer ones grow increasingly ridiculous. The quartet of verses Bowie wrote for the “boogie riff” section—in which his narrator has rough sex with a demon (or a god, or himself, or all of the above), with lines like “his tongue swollen with devils’ love” or “I smelled the burning pit of fear”—are worthy of Spinal Tap.

Ronson and Visconti mortared in the cracks, trying to make the second half sound like a natural extension of the earlier song. Ronson piled on yet more guitar, whether in his second solo, an elaboration on the dirty D-based blues riff that he used to propel the “boogie” verses forward, or in the way he introduces the new section with a soaring guitar line that Bowie then sings. Visconti’s bass is mixed so high in the track (Ronson’s doing, Visconti later claimed) that at times it’s the lead melodic instrument, hitting against Bowie’s vocal in the final verses, tolling under Ronson’s first solo.

The track ends with a quotation (on drums) from Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Given what’s come before, it doesn’t seem too over the top.

Tangent: On stage, “Width of a Circle” became even more grandiose. In a concert recorded in Santa Monica in late 1972, Ronson is all vicious power chording and shredding; by the final Spiders from Mars show in July 1973, Ronson’s opening solo has become a primer for metal guitarists—one-handed playing, steeplechase runs, often accompanied by Ronson’s classic “guitar face.” It’s as impressive as it is wearying.

After Bowie and Ronson parted company, Bowie rearranged “Width” for his “Diamond Dogs” tour of summer 1974. As if he was trying to reclaim his song, Bowie downplayed guitar in favor of saxophone and keyboards. But Bowie’s new guitarist Earl Slick delivered a squalling solo of his own midway through the performances—Ronson had made the song a guitarist’s feast, and Slick wasn’t one to abstain.

Arc: “Width” was recorded twice in BBC sessions, on 5 February and 25 March 1970 (the former, hosted by John Peel, is on Bowie at the Beeb); the LP cut is from April-May 1970; the recording from Santa Monica, Calif., 20 October 1972, was put out on disc a few years ago; the version from the last Spiders From Mars concert at the Hammersmith, 3 July 1973, is on Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture; the “Diamond Dogs” tour recording, from Philadelphia on 11-12 July 1974 , is on David Live.

Top: Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty,” completed in 1970.


Amsterdam

December 21, 2009

Amsterdam (Jacques Brel).
Amsterdam (Scott Walker, 1967).
Amsterdam (David Bowie, BBC, February 1970).
Amsterdam (Bowie, studio version 1971).

Jacques Brel, according to legend, composed “Amsterdam” in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in a house overlooking the Mediterranean. He read the completed lyrics to a fisherman friend, who wept and cut open some sea urchins. After Robert Guillaume first sang “Amsterdam” at the Village Gate in January 1968, he recalled in his memoir there was a “disconcertingly long hush—followed by a roar so damn loud I jumped.”

Brel never recorded “Amsterdam,” despite it being one of his best-known songs: its only official release is on a 1964 live LP of Brel at the Olympia, in Paris. Bowie likely first heard “Amsterdam” via Scott Walker’s cover recording, which was the final track on Walker’s 1967 debut LP. Bowie also attended the stage show Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which, having debuted at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, had come to London in the summer of 1968. The play had no libretto, just a series of performances of Brel compositions, with Mort Shuman (who also performed in the play) and Eric Blau translating Brel’s lyrics (freely and racily).

In late 1968 Bowie began covering “Amsterdam” with his folk trio, keeping the song in his stage repertoire until 1972 (he replaced it with Brel’s “My Death,” which better suited the times). Bowie even originally intended to end side 1 of Ziggy Stardust with his studio version of “Amsterdam,” with Side 2’s closing song, “Rock and Roll Suicide,” being a thematic twin of sorts, Bowie’s own rock & roll Brel song.

Like “Waiting for the Man,” the other song Bowie obsessively covered in this period, “Amsterdam” offers street life as stage material, but where Lou Reed’s lyric is the narrow perceptions of its junkie narrator, Brel’s “Amsterdam” is sprawling, a Bruegelian vision: a port filled with drunken, paunchy sailors who chew fish heads with their rotten teeth, piss in the street, fight, sing in broken voices and use the port prostitutes “for a few dirty coins.” The sense of life as a canvas, the vulgar proletarians as actors in their own dramas, appealed to Bowie, whose ’60s lyrics had tended to be obscure or bloodless—he sensed a method, via Brel, to connect with reality more directly, to use stagecraft to build more resonant songs.

Bowie also took from “Amsterdam” its sense of apocalyptic timing (such as how “Amsterdam” begins quietly, with the port slowly waking up, and builds to a wild, drunken spectacle) and its exacting demands on a singer, who has to deliver the entire lyric without barely a pause in three minutes, the intoned words “in the port of Amsterdam” serving as the unchanging hub of the song.

Bowie’s various covers of “Amsterdam” are as much interpretations of Scott Walker’s recording as they are Brel’s. In all his attempts, Bowie seems too much in awe of the material: when he tries to outdo Brel in intensity and Walker in moodiness (particularly in the studio recording) his vocal is stagy and strained, the lyric’s judgments seem unearned. It’s Bowie’s last apprentice work.

Bowie first recorded “Amsterdam” for the BBC’s Sunday Show on 5 February 1970 (on Bowie at the Beeb), and also for “Sounds of the ’70s” on 21 September 1971. The studio recording of “Amsterdam,” made in the summer of 1971 during the early Ziggy Stardust sessions, was eventually cut from the LP (though it was on the first master recording) and wound up issued as the B-side of “Sorrow” in 1973.

Top: “Renard Livres Echanges, near Les Halles, Paris,” 1970.


Buzz The Fuzz

December 16, 2009

Buzz The Fuzz.

The next one to follow is also another Biff Rose number. I’m a bit keen on his songs, I think they are very good, very funny. He’s a very overrated, er, underrated songwriter, sorry Biff, and he’s been working in America for about five years and nobody over here is buying his records, and not many people in America seem to either, and the album this comes from is called The Thorn in Mrs. Rose’s Side and it’s a good album to buy. It’s called “Buzz The Fuzz” and it’s a Los Angeles song.

David Bowie, Friars Club, Aylesbury, 25 September 1971.

Bowie had a taste for musical eccentrics, those further out on the limb then he ever ventured, whether it was Ken Nordine’s “Word Jazz” LPs or the odd figure of Paul “Biff” Rose. Rose was a banjo-playing comedian, born in New Orleans, who worked with George Carlin on various TV shows in the ’60s, including Mort Sahl’s, while releasing a series of comedy records.

“Buzz The Fuzz” is off Rose’s 1968 LP The Thorn in Mrs. Rose’s Side (as was “Fill Your Heart,” which Bowie also covered) and the song’s your basic sort of hippie drug humor, involving a rookie LA cop and the femme fatale he encounters, Alice Dee (rim shot). Removed from its narrow cultural/generational niche (Robert Christgau, watching Rose tweak Johnny Carson in 1969, admired Rose’s “hip aplomb” and ended his blurb with “Hurray for longhairs”), the song now seems smug and unfunny—a poor translation from a dead language.

First played at a BBC session on 5 February 1970, where Bowie sings it in a sideshow freak’s voice. While he kept “Buzz the Fuzz” in his stage repertoire until 1972, he never recorded it.

Top: Nixon meets the Queen, 3 October 1970. Elizabeth seems nonplussed.


The Prettiest Star

December 15, 2009

The Prettiest Star (single).
The Prettiest Star (Aladdin Sane remake).

Space Oddity” gave David Bowie a hit single at last and he had no clue how to follow it up. He dithered for months, considering “Janine,” among other Space Oddity tracks. The decision finally came down to either remaking “London Bye Ta-Ta” (his manager Ken Pitt’s choice) or cutting a new song that Bowie allegedly had just written for Angela Barnett, who he’d marry in a few months. Bowie went with the latter and got his old rival/colleague and emerging pop star Marc Bolan to play lead guitar on it. “The Prettiest Star” was simple, hummable, sweet and reassuring: it sold less than 800 copies.

Why did “The Prettiest Star” stiff so badly? Tony Visconti had warned about the danger of “Space Oddity”: it was such a dated one-off song that it threatened to consign Bowie into the bin of late ’60s novelties. Bowie resisted the obvious course, doing an SF-themed follow-up, but “Prettiest Star,” compared to “Oddity,” was quite square, its sentiments treacly, its tone warm and nostalgic. Many ’70s pop listeners would have a yen for those very qualities, but maybe March 1970 was a bit too soon. By the spring Bowie was recording heavy metal songs.

“The Prettiest Star,” lovely and neglected, is in retrospect the first sign of a countercurrent in Bowie’s ’70s work. Seventies Bowie is remembered mainly for glam rock anthems and “avant-garde” electronic records, for dressing as an alien or a Kabuki drag queen. But littered throughout all of that are the occasional regressions—stage ditties, warm reminiscences, tributes. Bowie followed his hard rock Man Who Sold the World LP with a return to music hall shenanigans, chased the sleazy glamour of Aladdin Sane with homage to his old Mod rivals and inspirations, and did a Christmas song with Bing Crosby while promoting “Heroes.”

“The Prettiest Star” has a basic verse-and-refrain structure, simple rhymes (“one day” with “someday”), dyslexic rhymes (“tried” and “tired”) and a pretty if unadventurous melody. There are a few tricks. Take the way the first three guitar notes serve as a count-in before the first bar of the intro, a pattern replicated before other verses by piano or strings. Or how in the first two verses Bowie stays on the C chord when it seems like he’s going to move up (“it can all but break your heart…in pieces,” “I moved up to take a place…near you”), only to break the pattern in the third verse, the chords moving to F and F7 as Bowie sings the title phrase. And the song’s other main part (the 10-bar section that begins “staying back in your memory“) is either a refrain or a bridge—it can serve either role.

All of this is overshadowed by the lead guitar, whose eight-bar intro is both overture for the verse (it’s the same underlying chords) and the song’s central motif. In the original version, the guitar intro reappears after two verses and is granted three more repetitions at the end—as a result, the track can feel like padding between a series of guitar solos. (When Bowie and Mick Ronson remade “Prettiest Star,” they corrected this flaw—the original’s draggy midsection, with two back-to-back bridges glued together by the repeated opening riff, is streamlined with the third verse now separating the two bridges and the riff repeat eliminated (the final guitar repeats are also reduced by one).)

“The Prettiest Star” seems to offer a battle of two lead guitarists—Marc Bolan on the single, Mick Ronson on the remake—but comparison listening makes it pretty clear that Ronson ceded the field to Bolan. While some critics have claimed Ronson reproduces Bolan’s solo note-for-note, which isn’t quite the case I think, he comes pretty close (Ronson even plays a vibrato-laden chord against Bowie singing “HOW you moved” in the bridge, just as Bolan did).

You can see why Ronson didn’t change it up: Bolan’s vibrato-saturated solo is one of the most melodic guitar lines he ever recorded, and it’s more memorable than Bowie’s vocal. In January 1970 Bolan only recently had switched to electric guitar (one reason he agreed to the Bowie session was that Visconti and Bowie had flattered his playing) and he plays the near-identical riff throughout the song, changing it only in the final repeat.

Ronson, when he remade “Prettiest Star” in late 1972, had his own well-established sound—plug his Les Paul directly into a cranked-up amp (occasionally using just a single wah-wah pedal), and, like Jimmy Page, use precise overdubs to fatten out the track (here he puts in a scratchy, distorted second guitar at the end of the intro). Bolan’s lead had been supplemented by Bowie strumming on 12-string acoustic guitar, but Ronson has no need of that, as saxophones serve to beef up the verses, freeing Ronson to craft metallic washes of sound.

It’s unclear why Bowie remade “Prettiest Star” for Aladdin Sane: perhaps he was short of new material (this was when record companies wanted artists to churn out new LPs seemingly every nine months—today, Justin Timberlake gets half a decade between records) and for most record buyers “Prettiest Star” was basically an unreleased track, given its awful reception in 1970.

If the original version of “Prettiest Star” was a simple valentine, the remake is a rowdy, garish engagement party, with doo-wop backing vocals, a horn section, an aggressive piano and a heavier beat. They both have their appeal, though the Aladdin Sane edition sounds like a better time.

Recorded 8, 13-14 January 1970 (with Visconti on bass and Godfrey McClean on drums) and released in March as Mercury MF 1135 c/w “Conversation Piece”—the same group, including Bolan, also cut “London Bye Ta-Ta” but it was left on the shelf; the Aladdin Sane remake was recorded in New York between 3-10 December 1972, in one of the first sessions for the LP.

Top: The Bowies wed each other, Bromley Registry Office, 19 March 1970.


Memory of a Free Festival

December 11, 2009

Memory of a Free Festival (LP).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 1).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2).

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 Whizz.”

“Memory of a Free Festival” is a false memory, experience refurbished by regret. The festival in question was an open-air concert and fair held at the Croydon Road Recreational Ground in Beckenham on 16 August 1969 (the same weekend the Woodstock Festival was happening) that featured performances by Bowie—including a reggae version of “Space Oddity,” thankfully not recorded—and other groups like The Strawbs, all introduced by John Peel, puppet shows (of course), Tibetan goods (natch) and coconut shies. Bowie’s new girlfriend Angela Barnett cooked hamburgers in a wheelbarrow. The festival was peaceful and a relative success, with some 3,000 attendees (Bowie was complimented by Bromley’s mayor and chief of police, who also showed up).

The song David Bowie wrote about the festival soon afterward, which became the last song of the Space Oddity LP and was possibly the last song he recorded in the ’60s, depicts a blissful afternoon in which Bowie’s narrator wanders through a happy crowd of flower children, exchanging kisses, greeting Venusians. It ends with a communal worship of the setting sun and hopes for pleasures in the night ahead.

This wasn’t quite the case in reality. The festival was held five days after Bowie had buried his father, and he was in a foul mood, calling his partners “materialistic arseholes” for making money on hamburgers and T-shirts, complaining about the lousy PA system and eventually storming off in a black cloud at the end of the night. Mary Finnegan, Bowie’s once-lover and collaborator in the Beckenham Arts Lab, later called Bowie a hypocrite for writing a peace-and-love anthem about a festival at which he had been such a bore.

But “Memory of a Free Festival” is a requiem more than it is a celebration, the first clue being in the title—the naivete, the warmth, the easy unity that the song commemorates are already receding into the past. Bowie calls the hippies “children of the summer’s end,” suggesting they will soon have to return home for the impending winter. And Bowie’s narrator has a touch of wit in his descriptions, with lines like “We claimed the very source of joy ran through/it didn’t, but it seemed that way” or “Satori must be something like the same.”

Free “spontaneous” festivals first appeared in the UK in the summer of 1969, with free concerts given in Hyde Park by Humble Pie and, more famously, the Rolling Stones; the template for the model became Woodstock, though of course Woodstock, like the 1970 Isle of Wight concert, was a for-profit event forcibly converted into a free one by the assembled mob. It’s arguable that the Arts Lab festival was the first intentionally free festival held in Britain, one that served as a vanguard for later editions like the Phun City festival in July 1970 and the Windsor Free Festivals of the early ’70s, which eventually were shut down by the police.

The insistence on a concert being free was both idealistic (music is meant to be free, it gets corrupted by the capitalists, etc.: the same sort of thing a pro-Napster person was writing on a message board in 2001) and hipper-than-thou purist (how very bourgeois to make money on hamburgers and ticket sales). Cynics would claim the free festival’s natural endpoint is the disastrous Altamont concert, with Hell’s Angels murdering concertgoers, though the dream of a spontaneous gathering of the tribes, something medieval in our souls, has kept the dream alive in the forty years since.

“Memory of a Free Festival”‘s original recording starts with Bowie playing the Rosedale electric chord organ (a sort-of electric harmonium that only has about twelve playable chords), which serves as the main accompaniment for the song’s four verses, offering a humble ecclesiastical complement to Bowie’s wavering vocal. A interlude of organ swirls, snippets of chatter and laughter and guitar grunts follows (this chord chart aptly terms it “WEIRD BIT”), leading to a four-bar refrain (D-G-C-D, repeat ad infinitum) that carries the song to its end: The sun machine is coming down and we’re gonna have a party!. Yes, it was 1969.

Bowie loved “Hey Jude” (having included the “na na na” refrain in his demo of “Janine”) and this is his obvious attempt to imitate McCartney’s structure—extend a three-minute song into an epic via five minutes or more of ragged communal chanting over three repeated chords (according to Pegg, some of the backing singers included future Sony VP Tony Woollcott and Radio 1 DJ “Whispering” Bob Harris).

In the spring of 1970, Bowie’s American label Mercury asked him to re-record “Memory of a Free Festival” as a single. Mercury thought it had potential to be a hit, instructing Tony Visconti to pick up the tempo and move the “sun machine” refrain to about two minutes into the track. The compromise was to break the track into two parts, with the single’s B-side being simply the “sun machine” bit. It’s a stronger record, with Mick Ronson quickly establishing himself as lead guitarist and a sumptuous Visconti string arrangement, though the fragile naivete of the original has been swallowed by grandeur and spectacle. Here come the Seventies.

The original was recorded ca. September 1969, on Space Oddity; the remake single was recorded on 3, 14-15 April 1970 and released as Mercury 6052 026 (it was a colossal flop, as Pegg found that it sold a mere 240 copies in the US in its first month of release).

Children of the Sun Machine

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

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 repetition of a meaningless 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. Dario G’s 1998 “Sunmachine” is something of an officially-approved sequel to “Free Festival,” with Visconti playing flute and Bowie graciously sending Dario G the master tape so they could isolate his vocal for the new recording. I’m not sure we’re done with the sun machine yet—expect Animal Collective to use it at some point.

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


Conversation Piece

November 23, 2009

69paris

Conversation Piece (1969 demo).
Conversation Piece.
Conversation Piece (Toy remake, 2000).


[The poor man] feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind take no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market, at a play, at an execution, or coronation: he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or cellar. He is not disapproved, censured or reproached; he is only not seen.

John Adams, Discourses on Davila.

I get lonesome right in the middle of a crowd.

Elvis Presley.

There have been few songs written about academics, whether tenured or failed. All that comes to mind are REM’s “Sad Professor” and this one, and “Conversation Piece” may not be about an academic at all. An independent scholar, let’s say—a shabby young man with an old man’s habits, who lives above an Austrian grocer: his rug is scattered with the pages of unpublished essays, and he spends his time wandering the streets begrudging life. He may throw himself off a bridge at song’s end.

“Conversation Piece” was Bowie’s most recent composition when he made a demo tape in April 1969 (John Hutchinson calls it “a new one” and Bowie has to prompt him with the opening guitar chords (“G-D-G”).) It’s unlike most of the songs written in this period, which are either love ballads or self-mythical explorations, as it hearkens back to the oddball character sketches of the first Bowie LP, like “Little Bombardier” or “She’s Got Medals.” (That said, some, like Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, have said the song is fairly autobiographical, a sketch of the frustrated composer and failed pop singer Bowie of 1968.)

Most of all, it captures well the curse of urban anonymity—its title is a cruel joke, the “conversation” only going on in the singer’s head. Once during a hard spell while living in NYC I spent a weekend almost entirely out of doors, going from shop to cafe to library, and realized at some point during it that I had talked to absolutely no one, except maybe to mutter thanks to a ticket-taker or cashier. The sense of moving among a great mass of people and feeling utterly invisible and isolated from them is almost addicting at first, and then it can just sink your soul.

It’s a fairly simple song—three meandering verses, three tight eight-bar choruses (half lyric, half wordless). For the final verse, Bowie uses a standard trick and changes key, bumping all the chords up one step (so while the third line of the verse—for example, “he often calls me down to eat“—has been C/G, it’s now D/A (“and they walk in twos and threes or more“), and so forth). To further the sense that the singer is breaking down, the last verse extends into a faster-paced section with shorter sung phrases until collapsing into the final chorus.

The studio take, recorded during the Space Oddity sessions ca. July-September 1969, was eventually released as the B-side to “The Prettiest Star” in March 1970. It’s unclear why “Conversation Piece” was left off the Space Oddity LP, as it’s stronger than most of the other cuts, and if LP time was an issue, they could’ve shaved at least three minutes off “Memory of a Free Festival” and no one would’ve wept. Over the years, it’s become many people’s favorite Bowie obscurity (Stuart Murdoch seems to have lived in this song at some point).

Bowie revived “Conversation Piece” in 2000 for his scotched LP Toy, and eventually released it on a bonus disc for his 2002 Heathen album. He sings it in a lower register and without much emotion. The flailing scholar of the original recording at least had energy in his desperation; here, all is resigned, empty despair.

Top: Pascal Grob, “Paris, 1969.”

That’s it until after the holiday. Happy Thanksgiving. For non-U.S. readers, happy Thursday.