The Beatles Covers

July 2, 2010

This Boy (live, 1972).
Love Me Do (live, w/”Jean Genie,” 1973).
Love Me Do (live, w/”Jean Genie,” 1974).
Love Me Do (live, w/”Jean Genie,” 2000).

In the late summer of 1972, when David Bowie was becoming a pop star, he would throw The Beatles’ “This Boy” into the occasional Ziggy-Spiders From Mars set. One of The Beatles’ first B-sides (for “I Want to Hold Your Hand”), “This Boy” was their attempt at ’50s doo-wop (also inspired by early Miracles records, especially in its bridge), with its close three-part harmonies and rickety 12/8 time. Bowie mainly sang it solo, with Ronson coming in for occasional harmonies. Surfacing amidst the Ziggy Stardust numbers, “This Boy” seemed like a lullaby suddenly recalled from childhood, Bowie offering the crowd a memory.

The following summer, a gaunt, weary Bowie, with his blood-orange mullet and his Japanese lounging robes, made his final tour of Britain as Ziggy Stardust. He had sold the world and now he was resigning. In some of the last Ziggy shows, the Spiders extended “The Jean Genie” for over ten minutes, teasing it out, and, cued by Bowie’s harmonica, often segued into “Love Me Do.” It was an expedition to find the source. “Love Me Do,” the first Beatles single, was a raw, modern record upon its release: it was pure expectation and promise. At the final Ziggy show, Bowie sang “Love Me Do” simply, letting his audience finish the chorus, then crept back into his own song. The show ended, Bowie broke up the band and, looking for an escape route, burrowed into the past.

“This Boy” was played in a few ’72 shows, with the murky recording linked above from a 27 August concert in Bristol. “Love Me Do” appeared throughout the last Ziggy Stardust UK tour, including the last-ever Spiders show at the Hammersmith, on 3 July (it was cut from the concert film, either due to Jeff Beck’s resistance or copyright issues). Bowie also threw “Love Me Do” into “Jean Genie” performances during his 1974 tour and again in 2000.

Top: Paul McCartney, Band On The Run sessions, Lagos, Nigeria, ca. September 1973.

Watch That Man

June 8, 2010

Watch That Man.
Watch That Man (live, 1973).
Watch That Man (Lulu, 1973).
Watch That Man (live, 1974).

Lester Bangs, while calling Bowie “that chickenhearted straw man of suck rock you love to hate so much,” admitted in the same article (Creem, December ’73) that Bowie had outplayed the Rolling Stones with “Watch That Man,” Bowie’s annexation of their sound. The Stones settled matters by issuing their first utterly mediocre LP, Goats Head Soup, in response. (Things were catching up to the Stones—during the Soup sessions, producer Jimmy Miller was carving swastikas onto the recording console, while Keith Richards once tried to play a lead guitar solo on a bass and didn’t realize his mistake for 15 minutes.)

“Watch That Man”‘s mix is blatant Exile on Main St.-vintage murk, Bowie’s vocal submerged beneath Mick Ronson’s guitars: at times Bowie sounds like a trebly part of the horn section. Ken Scott, trying to get a wall of sound, pushed all the instruments up in the mix, drowning Bowie’s vocal in the process. MainMan, Bowie’s management company, balked and asked Scott to bring Bowie’s vocal up front. A few weeks later RCA (or Bowie) overruled them, finding the new mix lacked a punch, and so asked Scott to bring back the mud.

Written in the last days of September 1972, while Bowie was holding court in New York before resuming his American tour, “Watch That Man” reflects Bowie’s new A-list status while recounting his initial round of decadence when visiting New York the previous fall. It’s set at a celebrity party where most of the game is being seen by the right people (“No one took their eyes off Lorraine/she shimmered and she strolled like a Chicago moll,” Bowie sings, likely referring to Cyrinda Foxe (cf. “Jean Genie”).

It’s a typical rock & roll party song, as the music’s loud, the champagne bottles and cocaine mirrors are on the table and a gaggle of drunks are hanging together in a corner of the room, stealing glances at the imperious singer arranged on the couch (Bowie seems to be watching TV most of the time). With Bowie, though, it usually comes down to who has the best angle, and by the chorus you realize there’s someone hipper than him in the room. Whether it’s the party host, Shakey, or a drug dealer, or a record exec (maybe he’s all of the above), the “Man” of the title unsettles Bowie, takes him off his game. Finally, he flees the party, heading down to the street. As much swagger as “Watch That Man” has, it ends with Bowie losing face.

The song’s all forward motion—the verses move from A to F#m, while the chorus begins with a slap, three big steps up (“Watch! That! Man!”, over A/D/G). Ronson uses both speakers to dominate the room, Woodmansey gives one of his meatier performances, Bolder keeps the swampy tide of sound moving. Newcomers include pianist Mike Garson, who breaks into Ronson’s flow of conversation, and the backing singers—Linda Lewis and Juanita “Honey” Franklin. The latter head out the door with Bowie, but they sound as captivated by his rival as he is.

Recorded ca. 20-25 January 1973: it was the natural lead-off track for Aladdin Sane. Lulu recorded a version later that year, which became the B-side to her “Man Who Sold the World.” Bowie retired the song after his 1974 tour, with a Philadelphia concert recording collected on David Live.

Top: Garry Winogrand, “Untitled,” New York City, 1972.

John, I’m Only Dancing

May 27, 2010

John, I’m Only Dancing.
John, I’m Only Dancing (“sax” version, 1973).

John, I’m Only Dancing (live, 1972).

David’s present image is to come on like a swishy queen, a gorgeously effeminate boy. He’s as camp as a row of tents, with his limp hand and trolling vocabulary. “I’m gay,” he says, “and always have been, even when I was David Jones.” But there’s a sly jollity about how he says it, a secret smile at the corners of his mouth. He knows that in these times it’s permissible to act like a male tart.

David Bowie, Melody Maker interview, 22 January 1972.

Some forty years later, it’s still Bowie’s most famous interview: “I’m gay, and always have been” seemed a casual aside but it was as deliberate as a Spassky chess move.

Bowie had an acute sense of cultural timing, able to move just ahead of the beat, so January 1972 was the perfect time to out himself. Homosexuality had been decriminalized in the UK for five years, gay liberation had become public after the Stonewall riots in ’69, men wearing glitter and makeup were hitting the top of the charts. Also, Bowie was still a relative unknown. His public image had only begun to coalesce; he had few fans who would desert him when they read the news, and he’d gain just as many through the subsequent publicity.

One thing, though—Bowie wasn’t gay. This blog doesn’t wish to delve into Bowie’s personal life (there are a dozen-odd bios, some quite lurid, if you want that), but it’s fair enough to say that, from the vantage point of 2010, Bowie appears to have been a mild bisexual who only chose women for long-term relationships. Throughout the ’70s, he was perceived as gay (The Gay News in 1972 hoped that Bowie would gain popularity so that “gay rock [will have] a potent spokesman,” while Jon Savage wrote in a 1980 article for The Face that “just as Bowie’s massive contribution to fashion was in the fact that you can still see the glam uniform of baggies, tank-top and platforms on provincial streets, so the spice in his image was gayness“), and Bowie did little to dispel that impression. Then in the reactionary early ’80s, with the AIDS panic at its height, he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone with the coy, repellent headline “DAVID BOWIE STRAIGHT” and never hinted at being gay again.

“John, I’m Only Dancing,” Bowie’s follow-up single to Ziggy Stardust, has been claimed as one of Bowie’s gay songs: a subversive, oft-banned anthem. But the single charted without incident in the UK, and it wasn’t released in the US as much for its unusual sound and Bowie’s poor commercial history as for its controversial lyric. And “John” has little in common with the likes of “Glad to Be Gay,” or “Smalltown Boy,” or “It’s a Sin” —it lacks the Tom Robinson’s track polemical urgency and anger; it has nothing like the Bronski Beat and Pet Shop Boys tracks’ sense of lived experience. “John, I’m Only Dancing” is a vague, shadowy and unreadable performance; its promo video, filmed by Mick Rock, features a writhing male-and-female pair of dancers, while Bowie and the Spiders look like they’ve stepped out of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. If anything, “John” is basically Son of Suffragette City, its lyric again (as in “Queen Bitch,” too) depicting a man in a possibly gay relationship flirting with a woman and trying to make excuses.

This is all late-in-the-day speculation, of course. When he publicly came out, regardless of whether he did it purely for spectacle and money, Bowie opened up a world. His essential moment in “John, I’m Only Dancing” is when he sings, with wryness, sexiness and longing, another man’s name in the chorus. “For gay musicians, Bowie was seismic. To hell with whether he disowned us later,” Tom Robinson later said (as quoted in Buckley’s Strange Fascination). Even John Gill, in his Queer Noises (which brutally sums up “Queer David” as an opportunist and a fraud), admits that “I belong to a generation that probably has to thank Queer David for the comparative ease with which we came out…[his] clever packaging of sexual outrage created a safe space where many of us, gay, bi or straight, could play out games and experiment with difference.”

As for the single, it mainly belongs to the Spiders. Mick Ronson’s verse riff updates Eddie Cochran, while he offers a siren wail in the chorus and his coda solo ends with Ronson using the toggle switch on his guitar to create staccato bursts of feedback. He’s mixed to knife out of the speakers. (“A guitar like sawing through metal,” Ian Rankin wrote in one of his Rebus novels, Black and Blue.) The rhythm section is also inspired: Woody Woodmansey, who used mallets for most of the drumming, recalled it was the first time he ever did a drum overdub for Bowie, tracking a couple different tom fills. And Trevor Bolder’s bassline is one of the track’s main hooks, especially in the chorus, where he starts with a slow rise-and-fall and then shifts to bars of octave-jumping runs.

Recorded 26 June 1972 and released in September as RCA 2263 c/w “Hang Onto Yourself.” It hit #12. A remake, with a faster tempo and Bowie’s saxophone accompaniment, was recorded on 20 January 1973 in the final Aladdin Sane sessions (it was slated to be the LP’s final track until scratched at the last minute). This version, bizarrely, was also released as a single in April 1973 with the same catalog number. RCA, with malice or neglect, randomly alternated the two takes for much of the decade (e.g., both versions appear on various copies of ChangesOneBowie), then released yet another version, a remix of the original track with less echo on Bowie’s vocal, as a 1979 B-side (it’s on the Ryko Ziggy Stardust). Bowie’s 1974 sequel, “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” will get its own entry in a bit.

Pick your cover: The Chameleons, Paul Westerberg, the Polecats, Vivian Girls.

Top: George Best, fashion plate, April 1972.

White Light/White Heat

May 25, 2010

White Light/White Heat (BBC, 1972).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1972).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1973).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1983).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1987).
White Light/White Heat (live, 1990).
White Light/White Heat (BBC, 1997).
White Light/White Heat (Bowie with Lou Reed, 1997).
White Light/White Heat (live, 2003).

Covering “Waiting For the Man” gave the young David Bowie a hint of street cred, covering “White Light/White Heat” just gave him power. As Bowie and the Spiders honed their live act, they swapped out the likes of “Starman” and “Andy Warhol” for bruising workouts like “White Light,” whose relentless drone rhythm and severity of design (mainly just thrashing on G and D chords, then thrashing on F at the end) made it a hard contrast to the more fanciful Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust songs. It was a staple of the Ziggy tour by May 1972, and Bowie would play it for decades.

Giving prominence to “White Light/White Heat” and “Waiting for The Man” also helped Bowie bring Lou Reed into his rapidly-expanding sphere of influence and in July 1972, Reed played his first-ever UK concert as Bowie’s guest. Bowie and Mick Ronson produced Reed’s Transformer* over a manic six weeks in the summer of ’72, working with Reed during the day, playing concerts across the UK at night. Reed, drugged into near-catatonia, needed a translator to understand Ronson; Bowie sometimes was found in the studio bathroom weeping; Ronson did much of the work and his touches are all over the record, like the soaring string arrangement on “Perfect Day.”

“White Light/White Heat” is mainly about the joys of speed, though VU chronicler Richie Unterberger said in a Well interview last year that another possible influence was Alice Bailey’s “A Treatise on White Magic,” which delves into astral projection “all down a stream of pure White Light.'” (Reed reportedly mentioned the book in radio interviews and Unterberger interviewed a fan who recalled Reed babbling about psychic healing via “light projection.”) Bowie likely had no clue about this when he covered the song, though it’s fitting given his own interest in astral projection (“Did You Ever Have a Dream”). “White Light” was transcendence, chemical or no.

Bowie recorded two versions of “White Light/White Heat” in May 1972 for the BBC, and the song was central to the 1972-1973 Ziggy tours; a recording from the last Spiders concert in July 1973 was issued as a single a decade later (RCA 372) to promote the concert film Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture. Bowie recorded a version of “White Light” in 1973 for his covers LP Pin-Ups but eventually scrapped it, with Ronson using the backing track for his own cover on 1975’s Play Don’t Worry.

Top: L to R: The top student, the feral child, the dark master (Mick Rock, 1972).

* It’s been repeatedly claimed, even in credible Bowie biographies like Strange Fascination, that Bowie secretly wrote “Wagon Wheel,” a forgotten track on Reed’s Transformer. To my knowledge, this is bunk (seriously, “Wagon Wheel”?), and there appears to be some proof dispelling the rumor—a tape allegedly exists of Reed singing “Wagon Wheel” in New York in 1971, a time when he had only met Bowie once at a nightclub—but doubtless this bizarre legend will persist for decades to come.

All The Young Dudes

May 20, 2010

All The Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople, with Bowie guide vocal).
All The Young Dudes (Mott the Hoople).
All The Young Dudes (Bowie).
Wide-Eyed Boy From Freecloud/ All The Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 1973).
All The Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 1974).
All The Young Dudes (Mott and Bowie, 1992).
All the Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 1996).
All the Young Dudes (Bowie and Billy Corgan, live, 1997).
All the Young Dudes (Bowie, live, 2004).

If you make a revolution, make it for fun,
don’t make it in ghastly seriousness,
don’t do it in deadly earnest,
do it for fun.

D.H. Lawrence, “A Sane Revolution.”

Why did David Bowie give away his best song? Mott the Hoople didn’t know. The band, watching Bowie demo “All the Young Dudes” on guitar in his manager’s Regent Street office, were baffled by his generosity. Asked if they wanted the song, “we broke our necks to say yes,” Mott’s drummer Dale Griffin later said. One reason was simply timing: in early 1972, Bowie still considered himself as much a songwriter as a performer and wanted to place a song with an established act like Mott. He had pitched them “Suffragette City,” but the band had passed on it, telling him they were breaking up. And so Bowie wrote “All the Young Dudes” partly to rescue one of his favorite bands.

“All The Young Dudes” was born larger than its creator. It’s not just that Bowie’s own version of the song, cut later in 1972, is a wan reflection of the Mott record (the only time Bowie came close to the power of the Mott single was onstage at the last Ziggy Stardust concert). “Dudes” is a band’s song, its power derived in part from its performers’ own mythology and history; take the way, as the song winds down, Ian Hunter riffs against the chorus that his bandmates repeat. The chorus gives the come-on, Hunter closes the sale, picking out faces in the crowd, pointing at them, baiting them, drawing them in.

Pop music is as tribal as it can be universal, and “All the Young Dudes” is one of the great tribal songs: it draws a line in the dirt and says, “this is where we stand,” or “this is far as we go.” On its surface, it’s an attempt to make a secessionist movement of the younger Baby Boom kids, severing them from their hippie older brothers and sisters. Bowie had hinted at this strategy with the line “look out you rock & rollers—pretty soon, you’re gonna get older” in “Changes,” but here he puts it right out:

My brother’s back at home with his Beatles and his Stones
We never got it off on that revolution stuff
What a drag
Too many snags

The cold contempt in Hunter’s voice as he sings the last two lines brings it home. The house has burned down, so let’s just play in the ashes. It’s telling that the hippie brother is sitting around at home, considering himself a revolutionary but lost in his fantasies, while the Young Dudes are out on the streets and starring in their own dramas. Their revolution, if they even want one, is the one D.H. Lawrence proposed in “A Sane Revolution” (“it would be fun to upset the apple-cart/and see which way the apples would go a-rolling”), a poem that Mott the Hoople would quote on their last great record.

The ancestors to “All the Young Dudes” are Bowie’s songs about children, “There Is a Happy Land” or “When I’m Five” or “After All.” As in those songs, “All the Young Dudes” ranks and marks its characters, watching them play out their tiny lives onstage (with some fine writing, like the detail about the kid scarring his face by ripping off stickers); again, there’s a sense of ominousness and loss, whether in the way the chorus, opening in triumph, soon descends into minor chords, or how the lyric opens with a kid rapping about how he’s going to kill himself when he gets old (25 years old).

The “news” the kids are carrying, Bowie later said, is the secret knowledge that the world is ending soon: the Young Dudes are the final generation, or at least believe they are. The world’s last children, they spend their days in happy revolt against the world, a life full of petty crimes, costumes and solidarity.

“All the Young Dudes” sounded like a smash from the start (“we knew we were singing a hit,” Hunter later said), and it’s constructed similarly to “Changes,” with a compelling melody set against a fairly complex chord structure. The song’s full of little touches: take the way the opening guitar riff becomes a series of triplets leading into the verse, or how while the verse and the chorus begin the same (moving from C to A minor to E minor to G), each then takes a different path, the verse moving to a D minor bridge (“television man is crazy,” etc.) while the chorus suddenly shifts to 3/4 time after “carry the news.”

The Mott single, produced by Bowie and Mick Ronson, was recorded on 14 May 1972 and released in July. It hit #3 in the UK and was collected on the LP of the same name, again produced by Bowie and Ronson and recorded in June-July ’72. (The Mott track with Bowie’s guide vocal is on the reissue of All the Young Dudes.) Bowie’s version, cut during the early Aladdin Sane sessions at the end of ’72, was an oft-bootlegged outtake until the 1990s, when it was collected on a greatest-hits disc—Bowie’s only “official” version until then was a 1974 concert recording on David Live.

Top: Schoolboys smoking, Hyde Park, 17 May 1972. (Another Nickel in the Machine).

The James Brown Covers

May 14, 2010

You Got to Have a Job (If You Don’t Work, You Can’t Eat)/ Hot Pants.

The first Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars concerts in the UK, from February to May 1972, were a series of small insurrections.

The tour began on 10 February at the Toby Jug in Tolworth (“a gaunt fortress of a pub, on the edge of an underpass,” as described in Alias David Bowie—it’s since been leveled). At Imperial College two days later, Bowie tried to crowd-surf (too few in the crowd, so he fell to the floor) while Mick Ronson let the front row caress his guitar. The band went north to Glasgow, west to Aberystwyth. In the Locarno Ballroom, in Sunderland, kids in wheelchairs rose to their feet when Bowie came on stage, a publicity stunt or a minor, unregistered miracle. In Bristol, they carried Bowie around on their shoulders after the show, as if he had made a winning goal. At the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, where righteous folkies had harassed Dylan six years earlier, Bowie threw an acoustic guitar into the crowd.

The tour was allegedly in support of Hunky Dory, which had been released in December 1971, but as the weeks went on, many Hunky Dory songs were swapped out for as-yet-unreleased Ziggy Stardust tracks. The typical set opened with “Hang Onto Yourself” and other rockers, quieted down for an interlude where Bowie and Ronson sat on stools and played the likes of “Space Oddity” or “Andy Warhol” and revved up for the usual finale of “Suffragette City”/“Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide.”

Bowie interspersed a few covers with his originals, including, for a month or so, a medley of James Brown’s “Hot Pants” and a relative obscurity, the 1969 single (King 6218) Brown had written for Marva Whitney, “You Got To Have a Job (If You Don’t Work, You Can’t Eat).” (Bobby Byrd also cut a version a year later.)

Whitney had been a member of the James Brown Revue since 1967, and like other Brown proteges Vicki Anderson and Lynn Collins, cut a string of Brown-composed singles in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Who knows why Bowie chose to cover “You Got To Have a Job,” one of Brown’s bootstrapping communiques to the American black community: it’s just an excuse for Ronson to play a funk riff, Bowie to deliver a manic saxophone solo and The Spiders’ rhythm section to (leadenly) keep a groove.

The performances linked above are from the oft-bootlegged Kingston Polytechnic (Angela Bowie’s alma mater) concert of 6 May 1972.

Top: the Godfather lost in thought, Oakland, 1971.


May 12, 2010

Starman (Top Of the Pops, 1972).
Starman (live, 1972.)
Starman (live, 1990).
Starman (broadcast, 2000).
Starman (live, 2002).
Starman (broadcast, 2002).

“Starman” is David Bowie’s Christmas carol. It offers a promise of deliverance, that the human race has been redeemed by greater powers, with a chorus built for a crowd to sing it. It’s the song that finally broke Bowie, whose performance of it on a July 1972 Top of the Pops made him a nationwide, and soon worldwide, pop star. So while the Ziggy-era Bowie is remembered today for his outrageousness, the song that made his name is warm, reassuring and most of all familiar.

The latter’s key. For the average UK pop listener of 1972, David Bowie was still the weirdo who had had the song about Major Tom back in the ’60s, and suddenly, here he was back again with another astronaut song. It finally connected. And “Starman” seems like a revision of “Space Oddity”—“Space Oddity” had placed a frail human figure against the unfathomable expanse of space and cast him loose to drift into the unknown. It was submission to the void, the human race reaching its limits. In “Starman” the unknown is domesticated: the alien comes to visit us, in our homes, whispering through our radios, speaking softly, promising release. The stoicism of “Planet earth is blue/and there’s nothing I can do” is replaced by “he’s told us not to blow it/’cos he knows it’s all worthwhile.” The human race, or at least its children, turn out to be essential after all—the earth, once again, is the center of the universe.

Variations on this theme were common in the Seventies, from the popular Erich von Däniken theory that mysterious aliens had helped guide the progress of human civilization, to the benevolent star-children of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to even Doctor Who, where in the early ’70s the cosmos-traveling Doctor was exiled on present-day Earth and freelanced for the military.*

“Starman” is also a pop song about pop music. Bowie’s alien appears only as a voice on the radio (he’s basically a cosmic DJ), whispering secrets to a teenager listening late at night—it’s how pop music can instantly create secret societies, break up the tedium of your life, liberate you from your parents. And “Starman” the track seems fused from a pile of old records. The octave-leap opening of the chorus is a lift from “Over the Rainbow” (so much that Bowie cheekily merged the two songs during a ’72 concert at the Rainbow, linked to above), the guitar-keyboard hook linking the verse to the chorus is taken from the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” or The Five Americans’ “Western Union” (Nicholas Pegg suggests Blue Mink’s “Melting Pot”), while the long “LA-la-la-la-LA” outro is pure T. Rex, particularly “Hot Love.” It’s a greatest-hits compilation in a four-minute song.

For all its familiarity, “Starman” begins ominously enough, opening with an eleventh chord and slowly moving through eight bars in which Bowie hums along to his acoustic guitar, all ringing open strings. This intro keeps listeners on edge, getting them to wonder just where the track’s going, until a fill by Woody Woodmansey (just two toms and the snare) kicks off the verse. Bowie sings the two seven-bar verses softly, in a near-whisper in places, keeping to the middle of his range. He barbs a few vocal hooks (the four-note dips in the second and fourth bars (‘were low-oh-oh,” “di-oh-oh-oh”)), while a bar of fast acoustic strumming fills a gap.

The chorus starts with Bowie’s octave leap (F to F), much like the chorus of “Life On Mars,” but listeners were prepared for the “Mars” chorus via the build-up of its extravagant bridge. The “Starman” chorus just erupts after two bars of the “Hangin’ On” guitar-keys hook. Ronson’s solo (which repeats in the long outro) is typically melodic and crafty. I’ll let Jesse Gress, author of “10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Mick Ronson,” describe it: [it’s] a perfect example of how to build a strong, memorable melodic line over a simple IV-I-V-I progression (Bb-F-C-F). The idea is to target the 3 of each chord on every downbeat and connect them with adjacent F major scale tones, while “playing” the strategically placed rests and making the melody more guitar-y by adding bends and finger vibrato.

And like “Hot Love” or “Hey Jude,” the song seems unwilling to stop, its outro extended for over a minute while Ronson throws in some additional lead playing and Bowie leads a chorus in a circle.

After ‘Starman,’ everything changed.

Woody Woodmansey, 2008.

In 1972 I’d get girls on the bus saying to me, ‘Eh la, you got a lippy on?’ or ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ Until [Bowie] turned up, it was a nightmare. All my mates at school would say, ‘Did you see that bloke on Top of the Pops? He’s a right faggot, him!’ And I remember thinking ‘you pillocks.’…With people like me, it helped forge an identity and a perspective on things, helped us to walk in a different way, metaphorically…

Ian McCulloch, in David Buckley’s Strange Fascination.

“Starman” wasn’t meant for Ziggy Stardust. Bowie went into the studio in early February ’72 to cut the song as a single, but RCA’s “contemporary music” VP Dennis Katz loved “Starman” so much he mandated its inclusion on the LP (a sign that RCA’s US operations were calling the shots, as American labels always had been baffled by the UK practice of keeping singles off the album). Released in April, “Starman” had a slow journey up the charts but thanks in part to Bowie’s touring, it reached the top 10 by late June. Two television appearances by Bowie and the Spiders to support the single did the rest.

The first was Granada TV’s Lift-Off With Ayshea on 15 June, but the one everyone remembers is the Top of the Pops performance, recorded on 5 July and broadcast the following day. For a generation of British teenagers, it was nothing short of the revolution, televised. Marc Riley, later of The Fall, recalled his grandmother shouting insults at the TV while Bowie performed (“something she usually saved for Labour Party broadcasts” he told David Buckley). The 15-year-old Susan Ballion, soon to call herself Siouxsie Sioux, watched Bowie’s Top of the Pops while in the hospital recovering from colitis; the 15-year-old Gary Numan watched it, stunned, in his East London living room; in Liverpool, the 13-year old Ian McCulloch stared at the TV and “thought maybe I was Ziggy Stardust all along,” as he told Marc Spitz.

The performance isn’t just about Bowie, though he’s striking with his copper-colored mullet, his leotard and his effortless charisma (twirling his finger at the camera while singing “picked on you-ooh-ooo”, and connecting with every susceptible kid in the UK). The essential moment comes when Bowie starts to sing the first chorus and Ronson tentatively approaches the mike. Bowie notices him and sweeps his arm over Ronson’s shoulder, pulls him to the mike. It’s a sweet moment of inclusion, the alien embracing the rocker, and, by proxy, all of the nation’s misfits. “Starman” left community in its wake; its promise came true.

“Starman” was recorded on 4 February 1972 and released in April (RCA 2199) c/w “Suffragette City.” It hit #10. “Starman” wasn’t a regular feature of the Ziggy tour; Bowie stopped playing it by the end of 1972 and there are some other signs (such as its odd exclusion from the greatest hits LP ChangesOneBowie) that Bowie didn’t think much of it at the time. He wouldn’t play “Starman” live again until his greatest-hits tour of 1990, though it became a standard in Bowie’s early 2000s shows.

* An indulgent, long footnote on Bowie and Doctor Who. Bowie’s career has many parallels with the history of the UK’s finest SF show (let alone the fact that Bowie’s best chronicler, Nicholas Pegg, is a Dalek operator in his spare time). Bowie’s recording career begins soon after the start of Who in  late 1963, and the odd psychedelia of his late ’60s work is something akin to the whimsy of Patrick Troughton-era Who (cf. “The Laughing Gnome” with “The Mind Robber”). Bowie’s glam era coincides with the Pertwee years (the back cover of Ziggy Stardust even has Bowie standing in a police box!) (well, no, this is a cock-up of a statement—see comments), his most ambitious, influential work with the Tom Baker years (Low and the great Baker Season 14 are synchronous), Bowie’s MTV-era reign with Peter Davison’s. And Bowie’s fall into mediocrity is matched by Who‘s own descent into the pit (and cancellation) in the mid- to late-’80s. Oddly enough, Bowie’s current exile from performing and recording started just as Who was successfully revived in 2005.

Top: Jon Pertwee banters with Nicholas Courtney while an engrossed Katy Manning pays them no mind (Day of the Daleks, January 1972).

Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide

May 9, 2010

Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (live, 1973).
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (live, 1974).
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (live, 1978).
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (live, 1990).

The preposterous finale to Ziggy Stardust, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” is an exotic forced marriage of theater pieces. It begins as a pastiche of Jacques Brel, then erupts into a grandiose Judy Garland finale that feeds its audience’s narcissism at the expense of its performer’s.

“Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” isn’t much of a rock & roll song, either. As with much of Ziggy Stardust, “rock ‘n’ roll” happens off-stage, like naval battles in Shakespeare plays. Bowie first envisioned “Suicide” as a chanson, and the track was something of a last-stage replacement for a cover of Brel’s “Amsterdam.” For “Suicide,” obvious inspirations include Brel’s 1964 “Jef,” which begins “Non, jef, t’es pas tout seul,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (esp. Garland’s version), while the opening verse, in which time takes cigarettes and pulls on your fingers, seems a poor translation of the Spanish poet Manuel Machado‘s “Tonás y livianas”: “Life is a cigarette…some smoke it in a hurry.”

Bowie saw “Suicide” as the ember stage of a rock singer’s life, a plastic rock star wandering, burned-out, through the streets, realizing he’s suddenly no longer young; he’s discarded, and destroyed, by his audience. This idea survives in the song’s three verses, then collides head-to-head with the need for a rousing final number for the Ziggy LP, and his wife Angela’s suggestion that he write a piece to stoke an audience, with lines like “give me your hands, ‘cos you’re wonderful!!” So Brel is dethroned by James Brown, whose Live At the Apollo gave Bowie cues in how to bait and break an audience to his will.

After two somber guitar-based verses in 12/8, the push begins. Drums and horns come in on the third verse, while a five-bar interlude finds the singer moving from cool sympathy to reassurance and flattery (“oh no love, you’re not alone/you’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair”). The singer’s been on the street, but the camera pulls back to reveal it’s merely a backdrop. The key leaps from C to D flat (on the second “no love, you’re not alone!!”), the accompaniment swells with brass and strings, a low chorus repeats a three-note motif (“won-der-ful”) to balance Bowie’s manic vocal.

Even as it started with Ziggy abandoned by his audience and his muse, the song ends with him in gaudy triumph, and it’s as cheap and ridiculous as it is moving. He’s resurrected before he dies. A brief dalliance of Mick Ronson’s guitar and strings, and a final descending sweep of strings on D-flat, end the track (and the LP) in a stolen moment of grace.

Recorded 12-18 January 1972. It was the Ziggy Stardust tour’s usual closing piece (Bowie’s announcement at the last Spiders show at the Hammersmith in July 1973, where he politely killed off his Ziggy character before his disbelieving fans, naturally preceded it); even more florid versions have come in the years since. RCA, grubbing for money, released it as a single in 1974; it did poorly.

Top: Vin Miles, The Reading Festival, 13 August 1972.

Suffragette City

May 5, 2010

Suffragette City.
Suffragette City (BBC, 1972).
Suffragette City (live, 1972).
Suffragette City (live, 1973).
Suffragette City (rehearsal, 1976).
Suffragette City (live, 1978).
Suffragette City (live, 1990).

HEY man” is the first thing you hear after the engine-revving intro. It’s not the singer, but his friend or his roommate or his lover. It’s a flat, stoned-sounding, but insistent request—it disrupts the singer’s flow, gets him flustered. (The line pans from left to right speaker, as if the ‘roommate’ is buzzing around the singer.) The needling is just one of the singer’s problems. “Suffragette City” is a ball of agitation, the frenzied thoughts and speech of someone who’s sure he’s going to get laid if only things would work out for him, if his deadbeat roommate would just get the hell out of the house for once, or if his boyfriend wouldn’t mind if he just brought this chick over for a bit. “She’s a total blam-blam!” he pleads, realizes how ridiculous he sounds, and keeps going.

Bowie first offered “Suffragette City” to Mott the Hoople (Ian Hunter: “I didn’t think it was good enough” (?!?)) and then reclaimed it for the last Ziggy Stardust sessions in early 1972. While “Starman” replaced Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round” in the LP’s final sequence, “Suffragette City” is the latter’s true substitute—it’s a simulacrum of 1950s rock & roll, from the Jerry Lee Lewis piano line to the synthesizer subbing for a saxophone section (see below) to the fake ending that erupts in “Wham! Bam! Thank you ma’am!”, a line Bowie stole from a Charles Mingus record.

But I wanted it back home on my stereo to slooshy on my oddy knocky, greedy as hell. I fumbled out the deng to pay and one of the little ptitas said: “Who you getten, bratty? What biggy, what only?” These young devotchkas had their own like way of govoreeting…Then an idea hit me and made me near fall over with the anguish and ecstasy of it, O my brothers, so I could not breathe for near ten seconds….What was actually done that afternoon there is no need to describe brothers, as you may easily guess all.

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange.

Bowie and Mick Ronson saw A Clockwork Orange soon after it opened in London in mid-January 1972, and while Bowie already had written “Suffragette City,” Stanley Kubrick’s film influenced the final track, which was completed in early February, as well as the imagery of the Ziggy concept. Bowie would open most of his “Ziggy Stardust” shows with the film’s Moog rendition of Beethoven’s 9th, while the droog-wear of Malcolm McDowell and friends inspired the Spiders From Mars’ stage outfits—what Bowie called in 1993 a “terrorist we-are-ready-for-action look.”

I liked the malicious kind of malevolent, viscous quality of those four guys [in ACO] although the aspects of violence themselves didn’t turn me on particularly…Even the inset photographs of the inside sleeve for Ziggy owed a lot to the Malcolm McDowell look from the poster—the sort of sinister looking photograph somewhere between a beetle, not a Beatle person, but a real beetle and violence.

(So “Suffragette City” continues the Kubrick/Bowie parallels (2001/“Space Oddity”), though the pattern ends here. However, I’ll give a no-prize to anyone who finds a link between Barry Lyndon and Young Americans.)

The whole idea of having this phony-speak thing—mock Anthony Burgess-Russian speak that drew on Russian words and put them into the English language, and twisted old Shakespearean words around—this kind of fake language…fitted in perfectly with what I was trying to do in creating this fake world or this world that hadn’t happened yet. (Bowie, 1993).

Burgess’ nadsat dialect in Clockwork Orange turns up in Bowie’s lyric (“say droogie don’t crash here!”), while another influence is the hard-boiled SF patois of William Burroughs novels like Nova Express and Naked Lunch (the whole concept of a “Suffragette City” is very Burroughsian). I wish the lyric was even more nonsensical—when I first heard the song, many years ago, I figured Bowie was just making up words out of whole-cloth, so it was a shame to realize “mallofied chick” was really “mellow-thighed chick.”

“Suffragette City” is a sex comedy more than it’s any sort of incitement to violence, while any glamour it has is second-hand, courtesy of the guitars. Rather than being a menacing, smooth figure like Alex in Clockwork Orange, the singer is an adolescent mess (he stammers in the first verse, repeating “I gotta,” and can’t finish his thoughts) and he’s at the mercy of everyone around him—his roommate/lover (“Henry”?) and most importantly, the woman who’s bewitched him, a woman who’s happy to toy with the singer and, best-case scenario, to use and dispose of him in an afternoon. (The “wham! bam!” ending suggests she did just that.) To the flustered singer, she hails from “Suffragette City,” suggesting a brave new world of liberated women who exist purely to torture him.

“Suffragette City” is in A major, and it’s mainly built around ascending chord sequences (A-F-G in the verses, A-D-F-C-G in the chorus) over which Ronson rules. His opening riff is another of his classics, brutal in its simplicity (mainly sliding along the D string, further guitar wankery here) and relentless in its power. The guitars are bolstered by the piano, which drums out eighth notes for nearly the whole track, and Bolder and Woodmansey’s rhythm tracks, which Woodmansey later said were tailored to be as streamlined as possible, a clean contrast to the vocal’s desperate sleaze.

Bowie had wanted a massive saxophone sound to work against the guitars, a design thwarted by the limits of Bowie’s playing. Rather than hiring a brass section, Ken Scott got a hold of an ARP 2600 synthesizer, “fiddled around until we got the closest sound to a sax as possible” and let Ronson do the rest. (The BBC performance cut on 16 May 1972, with Nicky Graham on piano, offers an analog version of the song).

Recorded 12-18 January, 4 February 1972. Released as the B-side of “Starman” and as a reissued single in 1976 (to promote the hits compilation ChangesOneBowie, which included “Suffragette City” but oddly enough not “Starman”). “Suffragette City” was a staple of most ’70s Bowie concerts and returned in his 1990 and 2003-2004 tours.

Top: A Clockwork Orange: droogs on the town; young Alex (Bowie: “instead of just having one eyelash I went the whole hog and had two eyelashes”); Kubrick shoots the Korova Milk Bar sequence.

Soul Love

April 27, 2010

Soul Love.
Soul Love (live, 1973)
Soul Love (live, 1978).
Soul Love (rehearsal, 1983).

I was in love once, maybe, and it was an awful experience. It rotted me, drained me, and it was a disease. Hateful thing, it was.

David Bowie, interviewed by Cameron Crowe in Playboy, September 1976.

“Soul Love,” so sweet on its surface, so often interpreted as a picture of “youthful romance” (as per 1001 Greatest Albums) or as a message of universal peace and brotherhood, is rather clinical at heart. Love, whether that of a mother, lover or priest, is shown as being amoral, delusive, pointless and ruinous. (Love is “sweeping over cross and baby,” as if it was a plague or an infestation.)

The song opens with a mother at her son’s tombstone (the son likely killed in a war, having died “to save the slogan”), with “stone love” suggesting both a resolute, enduring love and a lifeless emotion. The priest kneels at the altar in bliss and in blindness. The teenagers, who are so besotted they believe they’re the first to ever fall in love, are just the puppets of instinct (“idiot love will spark the fusion”).

Blessed with a fine melody and layered with harmonies and, after the second verse, Bowie’s alto saxophone, the track gets unsettled by odd time signatures in the verse—it’s either in 7/4 time or it moves to 2/4 time on every fourth bar (the sheet music says the latter)—while Bowie again pairs major and minor chords (G to E minor and B minor, the same as in “Ziggy Stardust”).

The track begins with Woody Woodmansey’s drum pattern (a contrast to the slower, ominous beat of “Five Years,” sequenced before it), supplemented by bongos and shakers, then by Bowie’s acoustic guitar strumming and Trevor Bolder’s five-note bassline. Bowie’s vocal parallels the arrangement in part, starting as just a sung whole note (“stone”), then two quarter notes in the next bar, then six notes in the third, etc. Mick Ronson keeps to the background until the chorus. He and Bowie each take a solo verse: Bowie gives a passable alto sax solo, Ronson mainly keeps to the vocal melody.

Recorded 12 November 1971. Played in a few 1973 shows, a fixture of the 1978 tour, a rarity of the 1983 “Serious Moonlight” tour. It was the B-side to a re-issue of “All the Madmen,” and the Stage version was released as a single in Japan. Mick Ronson’s 1975 country-ska remake, retitled “Stone Love,” was later included on reissues of Play Don’t Worry.

Top: Alan Merrill and Yoshiko Mandai, Meiji Park, Tokyo, 1972.