Reissues: Life On Mars?

February 25, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Bowie on “Life on Mars,” 2008.

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

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

An anomic heroine

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

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

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

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

Striking for fame

There is an art to the building up of suspense.

Tom Stoppard, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

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

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

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

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

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

Top: The Nottingham Odeon, 1971.


Reissues: Changes

January 18, 2016

dc

So there’s been interest in reprinting some old entries that weren’t read much way back when. Why not start with the credo song? (see Momus’ original comment.)

This entry was substantially revised in the book, to the better (one hopes): the personal narrative got axed but there’s a more accurate and sharper analysis of the music (one hopes). Nick Drake wound up in it, and I also address the version that DB sang on with Butterfly Boucher in the early 2000s, which I find charming.

As with all of these older entries, keep in mind that if you find inaccuracies, I likely corrected them in the book. I was also snarky and glib at times, which I regret. Well, sometimes.

This piece now seems a remnant of a lost time, when I hadn’t figured out the voice of the blog yet. I still have no idea where Mark M. is these days.

Originally posted on April 6, 2010: ch-ch-ch-Changes.

Changes (demo).
Changes.
Changes (live, 1973).
Changes (live, 1974).
Changes (rehearsal, 1976).
Changes (live, 1990).
Changes (live, 1999).
Changes (live, Glastonbury, 2000).
Changes (A&E Live By Request, 2002).
Changes (live, 2002).
Changes (Ellen, 2004).
Changes (Butterfly Boucher with David Bowie, 2004).
Changes (with Mike Garson and Alicia Keys (Bowie’s last performed song), 2006.)
Changes (Cristin Milioti, Lazarus (fragment), 2015).

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

I went with a friend from work. It was a friendship of happenstance and convenience, one our mothers seemed to have arranged. “Mark, you like the New York Dolls—here’s the only other kid in our town who knows who they are.” Mark was two years older than I; he was cutting, brutal, handsome and drove an enormous white Ford LTD. Strangers at stoplights would challenge him to race. He once went so fast on Rt. 11, a dead-end Connecticut highway that the cops neglected, that the needle had circled around to 0 mph. [VOICE OF 2016: Or so M. said.]

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

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

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

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

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

The straightforward lyric is set against a twisted harmonic backdrop (parts of the song are even “anarchic,” Wilfrid Mellers wrote [VOICE OF 2016: not really true; more in the book]). It opens with a 9-bar intro moving from Cmaj7 up to F7, and whose main hook (two of five alternating bars of piano and bass) doesn’t appear again until after the chorus, then never heard from again. (Nothing in the song is evenly-constructed: both the chorus and verses are 15 bars, while the outro (which features Bowie’s first-ever saxophone solo) is seven). Its chorus sways between 4/4, 2/4 (on “different man” or “necks in it”) and 3/4 time (starting with “time may change me”), while its chord changes are relentless (the “I can’t trace” bar has a different chord for each of three beats—C/E, G/D and F/A).

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

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

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

Changing

The studio demo (with Mick Ronson singing harmonies) and the LP cut are from June-August 1971, while “Changes” was released as Bowie’s first RCA single in January 1972 (RCA 2160). While it initially flopped both in the UK and the US, “Changes” would eventually become Bowie’s official theme song. How many TV rock retrospectives have featured a montage of Bowie, cutting from Ziggy to Soul Bowie to Thin White Duke to “Modern Love” Lothario, set to the “Changes” chorus? The literalness of it all makes you weep: look, he keeps Ch-ch-Changing! Live versions were recorded in 1972, 1973 and 1974 (the latter, from David Live, was the B-side of “Knock On Wood”), [VOICE OF 2016: and many more times, see links] while covers range from Ian McCulloch to Lindsay Lohan.

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


Sweet Head

April 19, 2010

Sweet Head.

“Velvet Goldmine” was barely a secret—journalists had heard about it before Ziggy Stardust was released and “Goldmine” eventually was issued as a B-side. But the other major Ziggy outtake, “Sweet Head,” was utterly forgotten. No one outside the Bowie circle knew the song even existed until it turned up on Ryko’s 1990 CD release of Ziggy. Ken Scott, who produced Ziggy, says he has no memory of recording it. Bowie has seemed ambivalent about it at best—he’s never performed the song live, and came close to yanking the track off the Ryko CD.

Yet “Sweet Head” is not only a great rocker, capturing the power of Mick Ronson and the Spiders better than most of the actual Ziggy tracks, but it’s also a polished recording, one whose lyric mentions “Ziggy” by name. It’s not some obscure studio jam: it seems as if it could’ve been the centerpiece of the whole record. Then Bowie dropped it into a well and pretended he never made it.

Blame the lyric. It’s nasty throughout, from the first verse’s Clockwork Orange-inspired violence and racist slurs to the double entendres (barely) of the chorus to later lines like “I’m your rubber peacock angelic whore.” You can’t blame Bowie for trying to forget a track where he sang “my guitar and Mr. Fag, we can give you sweet head.” (“It was about oral sex, and it was one I don’t think RCA particularly wanted,” Bowie told Musician in 1990.)

Shame, though, as the track’s as ferocious as Bowie and the Spiders ever got. Ronson opens with a twining guitar figure (moving between A and A6) that he extends into the verses, while he slams on the off-beats during the long chorus and outro. The lyric, while vulgar and ridiculous, also captures the Ziggy character arguably better than”Ziggy Stardust,” as it throws together blasphemy (“’til there was rock, you only had God”), sex and celebrity and ends with a verse that’s pure rock & roll:

You and I have a mutual vow,
We both like young and we both like loud.
I got pretty shoes and I’m kid and proud,
I’m street-side out with my ear to the crowd.

Recorded 11 November 1971. Finally released on the 1990 Ryko CD issue of Ziggy Stardust.

Top: Slade, 1972.


Velvet Goldmine

April 16, 2010

Velvet Goldmine.

Those unfamiliar with Bowie (if you’re reading this blog, that likely disqualifies you) might assume that “Velvet Goldmine,” which Todd Haynes used as the title for his glam fantasia, was an essential track on Ziggy Stardust. But it’s an outtake from the Ziggy sessions, finally sneaked out as a B-side a few years later.

“Velvet Goldmine,” originally called “He’s a Goldmine,” had been slated for Ziggy‘s second side until Bowie recorded a new batch of songs in January 1972 to shore up the record. Rather than cutting an obvious dud (cough, “It Ain’t Easy”), Bowie gave “Velvet Goldmine” the chop. He said “the lyrics are a little bit too provocative” during a radio interview in February 1972. Really? “Sweet Head,” the other great Ziggy outtake, likely wasn’t fit for public consumption at the time, but “Goldmine,” while salacious enough (“you got the width of my tongue,” “I had to ravish your capsule, suck you dry”), isn’t much worse than, say, “Suffragette City.” Some writers have wondered whether Bowie felt the song was too openly gay: if so, that’s also odd since Bowie soon announced his homosexuality to Melody Maker and released an undeniably gay single (“John, I’m Only Dancing”) a few months later.

Bowie may have axed “Goldmine” because he thought it sounded a bit retrograde compared to the other Ziggy tracks. (And the thumping, eight-to-the-bar piano in the chorus does give it a music-hall feel, reminiscent of Hunky Dory tracks like “Oh! You Pretty Things.”) Still, “Goldmine”‘s got a moody, minor-key chorus; Ronson’s guitar smeared over the verses and culminating in a solo that sounds as if it was recorded underwater; a saucy Bowie vocal over a knotty verse (i.e., the sudden 3/4 bar on “close to my breast”); a wonderfully bizarre outro with massed whistles, hums, laughs and moans; and a lyric filled with lines like “I’ll be your king volcano.” One of the best tracks from the Ziggy period—cutting it was a blunder.

Recorded 11 November 1971. Released in September 1975 as a B-side to a “Space Oddity” single repackage (which would be Bowie’s first UK #1). Bowie later said the mix was rushed out without his approval. Included on various Ziggy Stardust CD reissues.

Top: Roxy Music, 1972.


Shadow Man

April 12, 2010

Shadow Man (studio demo, 1971).
Shadow Man (Toy, 2000).

“Shadow Man” was demoed in an early session for a Hunky Dory sequel LP. As Bowie had yet to develop the Ziggy Stardust concept, the new record began as a random collection of songs, including some Arnold Corns leftovers, remakes of “Holy Holy” and “The Supermen,” Biff Rose, Chuck Berry and Jacques Brel covers, and a couple new pieces (which include “It’s Gonna Rain Again” and “Only One Paper Left,” tracks the bootleggers still haven’t unearthed).

Bowie soon shelved the Neil Young-influenced “Shadow Man” once the Ziggy concept took hold and never attempted a full studio version. While its messiah-superhero title figure seems like a rough draft of the Ziggy character, “Shadow Man” comes off a bit stale, hobbled by the dreary earnestness of its lyric and its plodding tempo.

Recorded on 14 September 1971 and never released. In 2000, Bowie cut a grandiose revision of “Shadow Man” for his aborted Toy LP and later issued it as a B-side of  the 2002 singles “Slow Burn” and “Everyone Says ‘Hi’.”

Top: Doisneau, “Les Jambes du Métro, Paris, 1971.”


The Bewlay Brothers

April 9, 2010

The Bewlay Brothers.
The Bewlay Brothers (broadcast, 2002).

The only pipe I have ever smoked was a cheap Bewlay. It was a common item in the late Sixties and for this song I used Bewlay as a cognomen in place of my own. This wasn’t just a song about brotherhood so I didn’t want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It’s a palimpsest, then.

David Bowie, 2008.

“The Bewlay Brothers” was one of the last songs cut for Hunky Dory and the only song of the lot Bowie wrote in the studio (he had demoed the rest of the tracks, often months before the LP sessions). Decades later, Bowie described the song’s creation as being impulsive, almost emetic: “I had a whole wad of words that I had been writing all day. I had felt distanced and unsteady all evening, something settling in my mind.” He recorded the song after the rest of the band had gone home (though obviously there were overdubs later), and then went out drinking at “the Sombrero in Kensington High Street or possibly Wardour Street’s crumbling La Chasse.”

Bowie called it a song for the American market. Asked why by his producer, Bowie said that as Americans loved over-analyzing records, finding clues on LP sleeves and in throwaway phrases, he wrote a song to baffle them. He was dismissive of “Bewlay Brothers” at first, describing it as “Star Trek in a leather jacket,” calling his own lyric incomprehensible. In retrospect it seems like Bowie was deliberately evasive, trying to dilute the song’s power, keeping his audience from getting too close to it.

Biographers have offered definitive interpretations of the lyric, mainly focusing on Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother, Terry. (Christopher Sandford: “The song, in fact, dealt with the schizophrenic Terry Burns,” while George Tremlett went further, specifying that the song was about a seance Terry and Bowie held in the ’60s). Certainly the ill-fated Burns (who Bowie would soon effectively disown, cutting off all contact with him) is at the heart of the song, as lines like “My brother lays upon the rocks/he could be dead, he could be not…” or “we’d frighten the small children away” suggest the times when Burns would have seizures on the street, writhing on the pavement while his step-brother watched him, helpless. But mere autobiography is too narrow a lens—the Bewlay Brothers could as well be gay hustlers, or daemons, or the two sides of a fractured personality. (Bowie, interviewed in 2000: “I was never quite sure what real position Terry had in my life, whether Terry was a real person or whether I was actually referring to another part of me.”)

The truth, if there’s any truth to be found, will never be disclosed: it’s buried somewhere within Bowie’s masterful song, which offers as recompense shards of imagery, passwords whispered in dreams, titles of lost paintings: “stalking time for the Moonboys”; “the grim face on the cathedral floor”; “the whale of a lie like the hope it was”; “kings of oblivion”; “they bought their positions with saccharin and trust”; “the crust of the sun”. The weary loss felt in a line like “And the solid book we wrote/cannot be found today.”

Lester Bangs: “I saw Bowie the other night.”

Lou Reed: “Lucky you. I think it’s very sad.”

LB: “He ripped off all your riffs, obviously.”

LR: “Everybody steals riffs. You steal yours. David wrote some really great songs.”

LB: “Aw c’mon. Anybody can write great songs! Sam the Sham wrote great songs! Did David write anything better than ‘Wooly Bully’?

LR: “You ever listen to ‘The Bewlay Brothers,’ shithead?”

“Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves,” Creem, March 1975.

“Bewlay Brothers,” after a somber intro of acoustic guitar and distorted piano, consists of three long verses whose last 14 bars also serve as choruses (a structure similar to earlier songs like “Cygnet Committee”); the verses are separated by four-bar guitar breaks, and are finished off by the bizarre coda sung by a vari-speeded choir of grotesques, the return of the Laughing Gnomes as specters.

Consider the track a series of doubles—the song begins in two dueling keys, modulating from D to E minor and back again; Bowie’s voice is echoed on occasional lines; the piano and Mick Ronson’s guitar are so distorted at times they could substitute for each other; Bowie builds the first lines of each verse out of paired one-syllable beats (i.e.,SO it GOES/we WORE the CLOTHES/they SAID the THINGS/that MADE it SEEM, etc.); the two guitar breaks pit the musings of Ronson’s elegant lead guitar against the regular strums of Bowie’s acoustic. And the coda shifts between B minor and F, chords not fit for each other (if B minor is the key, then it should be F-sharp, or if it’s F, it should be B-flat): it’s an irreconcilable pairing, much like the Brothers themselves.

Recorded ca. July-August 1971. An alternate mix (hardly different from the LP cut: the voices are just mixed louder in the coda) appeared on the Ryko CD reissue of Hunky Dory. Bowie never played the song live until 2002, when he recorded a version for BBC radio, joking that the lyric had more words than War and Peace. He spoke like a man who wouldn’t recognize his younger self if he passed it on the street.

Top: Peter Brook’s King Lear, 1971.


Changes

April 6, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changing

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

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


Quicksand

March 26, 2010

Quicksand (demo).
Quicksand (LP).
Quicksand (live, 1973).
Quicksand (with Robert Smith, 1997).
Quicksand (live, 1997).
Quicksand (live,2004).

Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master. This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master.

David Foster Wallace, 2005.

“Quicksand” is sugar-coated poison: a lushly-arranged, lovely tune about despair and delusion, with Nazi references, and whose chorus tells its listeners to give up all hope. Compare it to another song recorded in 1971—John Lennon’s hippie standard “Imagine,” of which Lennon later claimed “[it’s an] anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic [song], but because it’s sugar-coated, it’s accepted.” True enough, but “Imagine” also flatters its listeners by inviting them to be part of the elect, those who have no need of God or countries, those who have transcended the pettiness of life.

“Quicksand” offers no such assurances and has no community. Its singer could be a madman on the verge of total collapse, or someone (like the heroine of “Life on Mars?”) sitting a theater seat and being bombarded with ceaseless, awful images. The lyric suggests that life’s not only an illusion but one whose purpose will never be revealed, regardless of your religion, your guru or your imagination. “Knowledge comes with death’s release” is its only positive statement.

The lyric is also a look into the cluttered mind of David Bowie, age 24, as we get references to Aleister Crowley, The Order of the Golden Dawn, film stars*, Nietzschean overmen, and Buddhism (“you can tell me all about it in the next Bardo). What’s new, and what seems a natural if unpleasant progression from Bowie’s Nietzsche obsession, is the reference to Heinrich Himmler (and the odd line about “Churchill’s lies”) and the “sacred” Nazi realm of mythology. This will culminate in Bowie’s open flirtation with Nazi imagery in the mid-’70s and in Station to Station, which is arguably his fascist record.

Still, the lyric’s coldness and sense of despair are kept in check by the song’s structure (it moves from G in the first verse up to A in the second, where it stays for the chorus) and the gorgeousness of the recording. Compare Bowie’s studio demo to the finished track, and you hear how much Bowie, Mick Ronson and producer Ken Scott softened the song: Bowie moderated the harsh acoustic guitar strumming of the demo to a quieter, more intricate performance (for example, Bowie now arpeggiates two lines of the verse), while vibes now accompany Bowie’s guitar from the start. Ronson’s string arrangement and Rick Wakeman’s piano alternate in providing counter-melodies in the verse and in linking choruses and verses together.

Hunky Dory was Scott’s first job as a solo producer, and he would stay on to produce most of Bowie’s glam-era records (the two had only a professional relationship, with Bowie later describing Scott as being a “suit and tie” type who went home to his wife every night). Scott was part of the generation of producers who had cut their teeth at Abbey Road under the Beatles and George Martin (along with Alan Parsons, Geoff Emerick, Chris Thomas). He had just come off George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, which he engineered under Phil Spector, and took from that record the Spectorian trick of massively overlaying instruments (both live in the studio and via overdubs)—so there are something like seven acoustic guitars alone on “Quicksand.”

Recorded June-August 1971 (the studio demo was included on the Ryko reissue of Hunky Dory). Bowie played “Quicksand” as part of a medley in 1973, and then retired it for over two decades until 1997, when he recorded a new version for the BBC and began performing it on stage again.

*Like everyone else, I’ve assumed the “Garbo” referenced in the lyric is Greta, but Wikipedia, citing a Mojo article that I’ve not read, says that it’s actually a reference to the WWII British double-agent Juan Pujol, code-name Garbo. If true, this wins the most obscure reference to date in Bowie’s catalog.

Top: Sean Hickin, “Mouth organist, Tottenham Court Rd., ca. 1971.”


Life On Mars?

March 23, 2010

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

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

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

David Bowie on “Life on Mars,” 2008.

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

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

An anomic heroine

In Bowie’s lyric, a sullen teenage girl is sent off to the movies by her distracted parents, gets stood up by her friend (maybe her boyfriend) and dejectedly takes her seat in the stalls. It’s one of the few early rock-era songs in which a girl is simply the subject of a song, not an object of beauty or lust or distraction, and Bowie also neatly captures the essence of a teenager’s life: filled with slights and petty injustices, the constant restlessness (take the way nearly each line starts with a new conjunction), the ingrained tedium of your narrow world.

And the song also captures a teenager’s ability to suddenly and completely lose themselves in art, to a degree we can never quite do again. It’s what happens, suddenly, as the girl sits bored in her seat—the movie screen comes alive, showers her with images, flatters her, distracts her, wins her over against her will. It’s what happens in the song as well. Bowie constructs an 8-bar bridge designed to build anticipation in the listener—the strings, the pounding piano, the rising chords in each new bar—and then makes good on his promise: the chorus, starting with Bowie vaulting nearly an octave to a high B-flat and ending with another high Bb, held for a brief eternity, is one of the most gorgeous melodies he ever wrote.

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

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

Striking for fame

There is an art to the building up of suspense.

Tom Stoppard, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

“Life on Mars?” is a case in point. The suspense starts in the very first bar, where there’s a single piano note (A), a rest and then two notes that Bowie uses as the first words of his verse (It’s a/godawful small affair”) and every following line has the same two-note intro (“But her/friend is…,” “And her/daddy…,” “And she’s/hooked to the…,” “She could/spit in the eyes…,”). The result is that there’s always a sense of motion, with these “empty” bars suddenly leading to the next line. In the bridge, Bowie drives toward the chorus slowly and relentlessly: there’s the two-note intro again (But the/film is a saddening bore”) and suddenly strings hit on the first beat (on “film”), as does Bolder’s bass, while Rick Wakeman’s piano, which has up until now been offering brief ascending and descending lines of notes, drums out chords.

The chords are stacked upward to the chorus, moving from A flat to an augmented E to G flat to an augmented A, leading to the sudden vault (in Bowie’s vocal) from D to B flat (“fo-cus on/SAIL-ORS“). Even in the chorus Bowie’s not done with the anticipation, as he comes back to the high B-flat again but now briefer (“OH man”), repeats his first leap, now moving from E to B  (“LAW-man”). Finally, at last, comes the release—the three-bars-long B on “MARS!”, a brutal endurance test (Bowie’s voice slightly wavers on the first chorus of the LP cut) that ends the chorus and seems what the whole song has been leading up to.

Ronson’s cascading string arrangement was based in part on the descending bassline that Bolder had worked out in rehearsals, while in turn Woodmansey’s drums respond to the strings—he does some tympani-like fills to match the staccato string bursts, and even ends the track by quoting the tympani of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (a Bowie perennial by this point—similar tributes are in “Width of a Circle” and “The Supermen”). Wakeman, playing the same piano that Paul McCartney used for “Hey Jude,” offers a secondary melody line for much of the verses. Ah, you can spend hours on the details: the lovely wind (or is a synth?) accompaniment in the second verse; or Ronson’s gorgeous,vibrato-filled guitar solo that links the chorus and the verse; or the way Wakeman suddenly drives the rhythm midway through the chorus, pounding eight identical chords over four beats (while the piece oddly moves from F major to F minor).

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

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

Top: The Nottingham Odeon, 1971.


Kooks

March 18, 2010

Kooks (BBC).
Kooks (demo).
Kooks (LP).

The baby was born and it looked like me and it looked like Angie, and the song came out like—if you’re gonna stay with us, you’re gonna grow up bananas.

David Bowie, promotional sheet for Hunky Dory.

On the last day of May 1971, David Bowie was sitting at home listening to a Neil Young record when someone from the hospital rang to tell him he had become a father. Angela Bowie, after a 30-hour labor, had given birth to a son, who would be named Duncan Zowie Haywood Jones. Over the next day or so Bowie wrote a song about his son—he debuted it at a BBC session less than a week after Duncan’s birth. It was Bowie’s Neil Young piece, or so he said. “For Small Z.,” he wrote on the LP sleeve.

“Kooks” is the obverse of “Oh! You Pretty Things,” in which parenthood is something odd and catastrophic, an unavoidable pre-determined obsolescence. “Kooks” is awkward, warm, funny and welcoming, and its lyric captures the bewilderment that many people (I’m assuming, not being a father) face upon becoming a parent—I’m such a complete mess myself, how on earth can I raise another human being?* With classic lines like:

Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads
‘cos I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads.

The song is basically a set of choruses occasionally broken up by four-bar “intros,” while the two verses serve more as bridges. “Kooks” opens with Bowie alternating between the D and Dsus4 chords on his guitar (just moving the middle finger between two frets)—this continues into the chorus until Bowie finally breaks the pattern by moving to C on “we believe in you.”

The song’s harmonic stasis (both choruses and verses start in D, with Bowie moving up a step finally in the fourth chorus repeat) is masked by a dense arrangement: Trevor Bolder doubles on bass (a very busy performance, full of runs and octave leaps) and trumpet—the latter mainly bridges the intros and choruses, with Bolder playing the vocal line of the chorus, though he gets a tiny solo when Bowie mentions the trumpet in the lyric. Rick Wakeman’s piano dominates the verses, veering between the cutesy and the slightly abrasive, while Mick Ronson’s string arrangements, a typically lovely, melodic accompaniment, sweeten the choruses.

Ken Scott, Bowie’s producer, loved the track and thought Bowie should do a whole album of children’s songs—Bowie allegedly considered the idea but sadly never followed through on it.

First performed 3 June 1971 at the BBC; recorded June-July 1971 (the early mix linked above was done for a promo version of Hunky Dory issued in August). Duncan Jones managed to have a fairly normal life, as lives go, and went into the film industry: his first picture, Moon, is worth viewing.

* Well, that’s not the only interpretation. James Perone offers the theory that “Kooks” is about a couple offering an invitation to a ménage à trois to “an individual of indeterminate gender.” If so, that would make lines like “we bought you…a funny old crib on which the paint won’t dry” a bit perverse.

Top: The three Bowies, June 1971.