Reissues: Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise)

May 10, 2016

One of the more radically transformed entries in the book, with good reason. This was the “cut up” entry of the blog, and it didn’t quite work (well, maybe you thought it did).

I’d planned to do one Diamond Dogs entry in the spirit of 1974: assembling it through Bowie’s favorite method of cutting up lines of verse, jumbling them, selecting the pieces in random order and then pasting together something new from the sequences. Originally it was going to be “We Are the Dead,” but the need for that entry to spell out the George Orwell connections of Diamond Dogs required some coherence and form. In its place: the big triptych of the album.

So I wrote out a “straight” entry on paper and then cut it up, typically in paragraphs but sometimes just sentences. I also cut up quotes that I found in a few books, particularly in Jonathan Raban’s wonderful urban study Soft City and also in a couple of London histories. The Thatcher stuff came from (I believe) Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed. Other bits came from a never-finished 1974 entry on my old blog, Locust St., and from other things that I’ve since forgotten.

I cut it all up, tossed the pieces of paper in a cap, pulled them out one by one and…it was weirdly coherent. The Bowie stuff was all together, generally in order, and most of the quotes were in one clump in the “middle.” Not cut-up enough! So I did it again, then again. At last it was far more jumbled, which was nice. But then I started tinkering with the sequence—it’s got to make some kinda sense, I thought—and wound up smoothing and rejiggering things until I had the below entry. In retrospect, this was likely how Bowie worked as well.

The book entry is far better, I believe, or at least it’s more expansive, delving into things like the guitar solo, John Rechy’s City of Night (a big influence on the lyric), the draft lyric, more on the 1974 tour and the end of Bowie’s life in the UK, and so forth. But the beast below is the untouched original.

A last note: the source of the photos (some of my favorites in the blog’s history) has vanished due to the death of Picasa, and I can’t locate who “Bruce” was anymore. So the blog at present has become the only place on the web to find Maggie Sollars of Brixton, in 1974. I hope she’s doing well these days.

Originally posted on 23 September 2010, it’s:

Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise).
Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise) (live, 1974).

The rotten heart of Diamond Dogs; a triptych where prostitutes are the only lovers left, where street hustlers double as politicians.

Tony Newman, who drummed on most of the record, recalled Bowie switching off all the lights in the studio save those directly over his microphone. So Bowie sang “Sweet Thing” in a spotlight, the musicians around him mere shadows.

During the summer ’74 Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie sang the “Sweet Thing” suite from a catwalk above the stage. He preened, writhed as though being electrocuted; he looked like Baron Samedi gone Hollywood.

It’s Bowie on guitar (and sax), Mike Garson on piano, Herbie Flowers on bass, Tony Newman on drums. Bowie coached his players like actors. For the first 32 bars of “Candidate,” up until Bowie smells “the blood of les Tricoteuses,” he told Newman to play his snare rolls as if he was a French drummer boy watching his first guillotining during the Terror.

The suite opens with thirty seconds of a slowly-emerging wash of backwards tapes. It closes, after the “Zion” mellotron line and Garson playing a bar’s worth of “Changes”, with a minute of musical violence.

It’s safe in the city/to love in a doorway. “Sweet Thing/Candidate,” an urban debasement, is part of a long English tradition of city nightmares. So Thomas Hardy, describing an 1879 Lord Mayor’s Show: As the crowd grows denser, it loses its character of an aggregate of countless units, and becomes an organic whole, a molluscous black creature having nothing in common with humanity, that takes the shape of the streets along which it has lain itself, and throws out horrid excrescences and limbs into neighboring alleys.

In the two verses of “Sweet Thing,” Bowie’s voice rises from the depths (the basso profundo of the opening verse), settling first on a conversational tone (“isn’t it me”) then vaulting to high, long-held notes, starting with “will you see.” There’s the cartoon New Yorkese voice he uses in the first bridge (“if you wannit, boys”) and he nearly laughs when he sings the cut-up-produced nonsense of “turn to the crossroads and hamburgers.” (Or is it “of Hamburg”?) This isn’t the step-by-step graded elation of something like Carol Douglas’ “Doctor’s Orders,” where the song seems to be willing its singer to keep moving higher. It’s more a menagerie of voices that Bowie barely can keep under control.

George Gissing, on Farringdon Road, in The Nether World: Pass by in the night, and strain imagination to picture the weltering mass of human weariness, of bestiality, of unmerited dolour, of hopeless hope, of crushed surrender, tumbled together within those forbidding walls.

There’s a funereal tone to the suite, fitting for its year of creation. Nick Drake, after recording hisfour last songs” in February, died in November. Duke Ellington died in May. Archigram closed. Candy Darling died, age 25. Gene Ammons recorded Goodbye and departed. It was the year of Shostakovitch’s last quartet, Syd Barrett’s last-ever studio session. All that came out of the latter were a few brief guitar pieces. One, known as “If You Go #2,” (3:00 in the preceding link) is a jaunty hint of a song, incidental music for an impossible life.

Bowie’s guitar keeps to the margins until “Candidate,” when begins to cut into the vocal, like an increasingly belligerent drunken party guest. Crude and insistent, possessed by an appalling truth. At first confined to the right speaker, the guitar starts bleeding through. Bowie’s vocal starts matching the guitar’s tone, his phrasing mimicking the riffing.

Making bullet-proof faces, Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay. 1974 was the wake for the Sixties. Everyone came wearing tatters or suits: they dressed as the person they pretended they once were. Bob Dylan and the Band, touring North America early in ’74, played songs that had earned boos and jeers in ’66, but the songs had become, blessed by time, victory anthems. Dylan sang in a bellow: he might as well have used a bullhorn. He played “All Along the Watchtower” in Boston as if he meant to roust Hendrix from the grave.

Bowie tugs and tears at words, particularly in “Sweet Thing”‘s first verse (“see that I’m scared and I’m lonely“), while he tumbles out other phrases in a bushel (“where the knowing one says” is muttered over three beats). In “Candidate,” the hustler starts out all business, with Bowie sounding confident, even wry, but as the verses keep coming, and he’s not closing the sale, he grows more desperate. He sounds as though he’s suppressing screams: his vocal becomes a run of slurs, colliding syllables, forced marriages of words not meant to rhyme (he mates “shop on” with “papier”). The “Sweet Thing” chorus returns, now only four bars long and taken at a hurried, less alluring pace—time’s running out. When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad I go to pieces. The merchant at the mercy of his customer.

Margaret Thatcher, in 1982, was Lent to the past Carnival: We are reaping what was sown in the sixties…fashionable theories and permissive claptrap set the scene for a society in which old values of discipline and restraint were denigrated.

Holly Woodlawn to the dying Candy Darling: “It’s okay, hon…you don’t have to talk. I know you’re tired.”

Candy: “Yeah. Putting on lipstick…it really takes it out of me.”

Mike Garson’s piano gives the second verse of “Sweet Thing” a few moments of grace and levity. The little winking run of notes after “you’re older than me,” the shards of melodies he plays in the spaces Bowie takes to breathe.

Do you think that your face looks the same? There’s pity in Bowie’s voice here.

On the whole there’s only room for two views in this country.

Education Secretary Thatcher’s election-night commentary, 28 February 1974.

“Candidate” is utterly essential to the suite, its centerpiece, and it also could be excised completely and you would never know it had existed. Play “Sweet Thing” and the Reprise back-to-back and it’s a near-seamless transition. “Candidate” is an outgrowth of “Sweet Thing”‘s chorus, as it’s built on the same chords (D minor, A minor, G); it’s also the inverse of the earlier song—mainly two long verses (24 bars), two brief 4-bar choruses.

James Thomson, in The Doom of a City (1857), came to the City of the Dead: The mighty City in vast silence slept,/dreaming away its tumult toil and strife…Within a buried City’s maze of stone; Whose peopling corpses, while they ever dream/Of birth and death—of complicated life/Whose days and months and years/Are wild with laughter, groans and tears/As with themselves and Doom…

My set is amazing, it even smells like a street. Bowie spent some time obsessively but fruitlessly working on test footage for a Diamond Dogs movie as a daytime distraction from his drinking and drugging social circle at the time (Bowie claims that some of the footage features an impatient John Lennon in the background, berating him with the words “What the bloody hell are you doing, Bowie, all this mutant crap?”, as Bowie tinkers with a clay model of Hunger City, the album’s post-apocalyptic setting). John Tatlock, on “Cracked Actor.”

Live, “Candidate” was introduced by Earl Slick’s guitar and David Sanborn’s saxophone, two peacock performances. On record, Bowie’s guitar solo that closes out “Sweet Thing” is far cruder yet more compelling: a hustler with grand ambitions.

To Thomas Hardy, London was a Wheel and a Beast. (George Whitter Sherman.)

The chorus of “Sweet Thing” is sung by a set of typical Bowie grotesques. The somber bass voices overtopped by tenors. The croaking flat voice that seems most prominent when you’re half-listening. A set of gargoyles, arranged as though on the parapet of a cathedral.

Later in the night Thomson returned home to his own city. Its awfulness of life oppressed my soul; the very air appeared no longer free/but dense and sultry in the close control/of such a mighty cloud of human breath.

“Sweet Thing (Reprise)” offers just one verse: it’s one of the loveliest things Bowie ever recorded, and it pays homage to cocaine, submits to the cruelties of the street. The hustler’s closed the deal at last, and the city takes another victim. It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you. The soaring final notes are reminiscent of “Life on Mars,” whose empathy, grace and beauty “Sweet Thing” suggests were all just vicious lies.

We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/then jump in the river holding hands.

Recorded January-February 1974. The entire suite was performed during the “Diamond Dogs” tour of summer ’74, and never again. A new edit of “Candidate” was made for Patrice Chéreau’s 2001 film Intimacy.

Top and bottom: “Bruce,” “Maggie Sollars, Brixton, 1974”; Middle: Ted Heath faces the public, 28 February 1974.


November 10, 2010

Funky Music (Is a Part of Me), Mike Garson Band with Luther Vandross (live, 1974).
Funky Music, Luther Vandross, 1976.

The Sigma Sound sessions of August 1974 didn’t produce enough for an album. While there were some obvious winners, like “Young Americans,” other songs hadn’t evolved out of the jam stage, and the sessions, over time, had tended toward the slow and brooding. An album consisting mainly of seven-minute-long soul torch ballads would have been a hard sell, especially for someone still considered a glam rock star by most of the public. So in early December ’74, Bowie and Tony Visconti reconvened most of the original cast (with a new rhythm section) at the Record Plant in New York.

The goal appears to have been to cut some uptempo tracks to leaven the record, especially as “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” a track once slated to start off the LP, wasn’t panning out. Bowie struggled to cut a studio version of crowd-pleaser “Footstompin’,” while another inspiration, rewriting a song performed on tour by his backing singer Luther Vandross, proved easier to execute.

Vandross had sung his “Funky Music (Is a Part of Me)” during the opening set of Bowie’s Philly Dogs tour, as part of “the Mike Garson Band” (basically, Bowie’s touring band minus Bowie). Bowie had first heard Vandross’ song during the Sigma sessions, as Vandross sometimes ran his fellow backing singers through it during studio downtime. When Bowie asked Vandross his permission to record “Funky Music,” the latter was incredulous. “What do you mean, ‘let’ you record it. I’m living in the Bronx in a building with an elevator that barely works and you’re asking me to ‘let’ you record one of my songs.” (From Craig Seymour’s Luther: the Life and Longing of Luther Vandross.)

Bowie had picked up on an incongruity between Vandross’ music, with its snaky bass hook, its volleying choruses and the way it teeters on the ominous, and its simple, goofy lyric. “Funky Music” was one of Vandross’ first compositions, and it reflects that: the writer (and singer’s) love of music lets him escape his everyday life; he indulges in a daydream that ultimately would get him out of the Bronx. “Funky Music” is a sales pitch for himself, a classic New York hustle. The line I do the singing, just give me a beat! is pure George M. Cohan.

Bowie’s thoughts on performing music were, by contrast, a bit jaundiced. He also worried he would seem ridiculous singing something called “Funky Music” (“He said he didn’t want to be so presumptuous as to say “funky music” since he was a rock artist,” Vandross said in an early ’80s interview.) So he rewrote “Funky Music” as “Fascination,” turning Vandross’ infatuation into an obsession: the singer consumed by a passion, as much about cocaine (“I’ve got to use her”) as it is sex.

Bowie’s lyrical edits were a light touch, as Bowie kept much of Vandross’ framework (many of the verse lines are Vandross’ originals). He turned the image of the singer walking down the street, dancing and drawing attention to himself whenever he hears a good song, into a darker scenario in which the singer seems to be prowling around looking for a fix. In the chorus, Bowie replaced Vandross’ sales pitch with the telling “How can a heartbeat/live in a fever?”

The arrangement seems roughly the same as how “Funky Music” was performed on stage, with Carlos Alomar (presumably) coming up with another sharp rhythm guitar riff to spar against the opening descending bass hook. An inspired move was to replace David Sanborn’s saxophone with a clavinet, giving the track a harsher, more synthetic sound. It’s in keeping with the song’s overall transformation: dreams coarsened into ambition, then desperation.

Recorded early-mid December 1974. On Young Americans. Vandross recorded “Funky Music” for his first record, 1976’s Luther.

Top: Harry Caul on sax (Coppola’s The Conversation, 1974).

Foot Stompin’/I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate

November 8, 2010

Foot Stompin’/I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate (Dick Cavett Show, 1974).
Foot Stompin’ (live, 1974).

Bowie, driven by boredom, frustration and financial mismanagement, used his final run of concerts in 1974 to repudiate everything he’d done that year. He scrapped the elaborate Hunger City sets of his Diamond Dogs tour (they were given away to a Philadelphia school) and recast much of his stage band. As the tour began in early October, Bowie purged his set lists of the grandiose and melancholic: gone were “Sweet Thing,” “Aladdin Sane,” “Time,” and “Big Brother.” The only survivors from Diamond Dogs, the album Bowie allegedly was promoting, were “Rebel Rebel,” “1984,” the title track and “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me.” Bowie instead sang covers, reclaimed a few of his older songs, and sifted in a fair amount of new material from the ongoing Young Americans sessions.

Looking for another uptempo R&B song, one that would showcase his backing singers, Bowie hit upon doing a medley of The Flares’ 1961 “Foot Stompin'” and a ’20s jazz standard, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.” (The inspiration for the medley might have come from the line about “sister May” in “Foot Stompin’.”*) “Kate” wasn’t that left-field of a choice: it had been popular in the early ’60s London club circuit—the Beatles often had played it during their Hamburg residencies. Bowie used as his prime reference The Olympics’ version, “Shimmy Like Kate,” from 1960 (the tell is Bowie playing off the Olympics’ line “north-west-south-east/gonna go west,” which appears on no other version of “Kate” I’ve heard).

The Flares (Foot Stompin’ Pt. 1, 1961).

The original Flares track hails from a time when dance novelty songs came with the frequency and the cut-throat drive of city tabloids. Each single tried to kill off its competitors, each pushing to be more immediate, more compelling, than its rivals. The records as a whole helped create the foundation of Pop, centering the dance floor, and eventually teenage life itself, on the ever-changing Now, on the pure pleasures of a community built on that promise. The records offered nothing but an enormous beat and usually a single, inescapable hook (meant to be sung or chanted by a whole dance floor of people), and were as revolutionary as they were disposable.

The Flares’ record erupts with a saxophone conga line by session ace Plas Johnson followed by two bars’ worth of tromping (the Flares and everyone else in the studio contributing their feet). The vocals are a compact between the lead vocalists and the bassman, the latter providing comic relief and necessary ballast; the chorus is simple and undeniable, and there’s a demented ecstasy to the singing. A guitar solo and sax break offer tiny distractions, and the whole thing is over in little over two minutes.

To update “Foot Stompin'” for 1974, Bowie’s guitarist Carlos Alomar picked up the tempo and anchored the song on a new guitar riff: a needling, repeating line that ran like Morse code underneath the vocals. (Spoiler: if you haven’t heard Bowie’s “Foot Stompin'” before, listen to it now, as Alomar’s riff went on to greater things.) Bowie usually sang the medley with two of his male backing singers (typically Geoff MacCormack and Anthony Hinton), with Bowie as the center, the singers bounding over him.

Some Sisters Kate:
Eva Taylor and Clarence Williams, 1922.
Ray Miller Orchestra, 1928.
Betty Grable, 1950.
The Olympics, 1960.

“Sister Kate” provided backstory and pedigree. Louis Armstrong once claimed that its alleged composer, New Orleans musician Armand Piron, had stolen it from him (Sidney Bechet, in his autobiography, backed Armstrong). Piron, asked about Armstrong’s accusation, said “that tune is older than all of us,” suggesting Armstrong was trying to take credit for a traditional folk song (though of course Piron got paid for his copyright). Piron was ultimately proved right: “Sister Kate” went from novelty to tradition without changing, it was a speakeasy number that could be played, with only a few additions, at Studio 54.

So Bowie’s dance medley, a mayfly of a piece that only a handful of audiences heard, and which has survived only as bootleg footage from the Dick Cavett Show, was one of the more communal things he’d ever perform, and it tied him directly to American popular music, in a way all of his Young Americans efforts never quite did. In a few minutes, Bowie linked the black dance music of the ’20s to that of the late ’50s, and, via his guitarist, brought it into the ’70s: he was more an ambassador than he was an interpreter.

The “Foot Stompin'” medley was played in most of Bowie’s late ’74 concerts, possibly debuted during his residency at Radio City Music Hall (the first surviving bootleg performance is from a 28 October show there.) The Cavett performance was recorded on 2 November 1974, broadcast on 4 December 1974.

Bowie cut at least two attempts at “Foot Stompin'” in the studio in November-December ’74, while another go at “Foot Stompin'” in January 1975 led, circuitously, to Bowie’s first US #1, as we’ll see soon enough. The Cavett Show recording was included on the “official” bootleg RarestOneBowie, while the Cavett “Foot Stompin'” was left off the recent Young Americans CD/DVD reissue, which included all of the other Cavett performances.

* Though imagine if Bowie had used “Sister Ray” in the medley instead of “Kate.”

John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)

November 1, 2010

John, I’m Only Dancing (Again).
John, I’m Only Dancing (Again) (live, 1974).

Disco, omnivore of music genres, ingested anything given it. So there were disco records based on Beethoven symphonies, ’40s swing tunes, country stomps, Italian police thriller themes, cartoon noises, and, Bowie’s contribution, glam rock songs.

“John, I’m Only Dancing,” a UK #12 in 1972, hadn’t been released in the US, so Bowie considered it a potential breakthrough single there. It was just a matter of resuiting “John” for the times, the sexual ambiguity of the original making it ideal for a disco revision. Bowie even slotted “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)” as a potential lead-off track for his new record, which at one point was going to be called Dancin‘. As the sessions went on, though, and after Bowie had played “John (Again)” on tour in September-October ’74, his enthusiasm for the remake seemed to cool. The happy appearance of “Fame” at the eleventh hour made “John (Again)” seem a bit redundant, and the latter was left off Young Americans and shelved. In 1979, just as disco was peaking, Bowie issued “John (Again)” as a stand-alone single, and it charted the same as the original.

For “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)” Bowie fit a new set of verses to the original track’s chorus. While both “Johns” are in the same key, the rhythm, naturally, radically changed in the remake. The original “John” was built on a chassis of chugging acoustic guitar and sharp Mick Ronson interjections, where “John (Again)” is four-on-the-floor classic disco, with Ronson’s signature riff converted to a keyboard line. The original’s constantly moving bassline (which provided the melodic hook in the chorus) was replaced by a repeated four-beat line wedded to the bass drum.

And where the original “John, I’m Only Dancing”‘s two brief verses were miniature character sketches, evoking a world of seedy nightclubs and quick assignations (“I saw you watching from the stairs,” “Annie’s very sweet, always eats her meat”), the remake has five hectoring verses, in which Bowie, spurred by his backing singers, seems like a demented MC, calling back to T. Rex and Chuck Berry hits, getting off the occasional joke (the first line’s pretty good). Where the original “John” constantly moved and evaded, the remake is far more static, the only curveball being a bar of 3/4 that ends each verse.

There’s a feeling everyone is working a bit too hard on the remake—the groove ‘s impressive, but where the original “John” had a sense of space and depth, this track seems cluttered, the playing too agitated, with Bowie venturing into disco burlesque at times. Only the latter half of the track, when the chorus singers urge each other on, Bowie growls out some affirmations, and Carlos Alomar lets loose with some fine rhythm guitar, really seems fit for the dance floor.

Recorded 11-18 August, 20-24 November 1974. Released as RCA BOW 4 (#12) in December 1979 and later collected on ChangesTwoBowie and reissues of Young Americans.

Top: Patrick Davies, “Ric Briggs, a Fashionable High School Student,” 1975.


October 28, 2010

Right (“Never No Turnin’ Back,” early take).

Near the end of Alan Yentob’s documentary Cracked Actor, Bowie is filmed rehearsing a new song. Luther Vandross, Robin Clark and Ava Cherry are gathered in a semi-circle around him, everyone glancing at their lyric sheets as though they’re actors about to go off book. Bowie guides them through the rapids of his call-and-response vocal bridge, and seems delighted and slightly abashed by what he’s done.

“Right,” the song being rehearsed, is the first of Bowie’s Sigma Sound tracks to work primarily as a groove piece, and so marks the break between the early Sigma recordings, which were basically standard Bowie songs with an R&B tinge, and the more committed funk tracks cut later in the sessions (“Fascination,” “Fame”). Where the first batch of Sigma recordings, like “Young Americans” and “It’s Gonna Be Me,” feature Bowie’s usual time shifts and rapid harmonic rhythms, “Right” is only two chords, twined back-to-back, played relentlessly through the song—and structurally “Right” is basically just a repeated chorus (with two sets of lyrics) interrupted only by a 16-bar vocal “breakdown” section and a guitar solo.

‘Right’ is putting a positive drone over. People forget what the sound of Man’s instinct is—it’s a drone, a mantra. And people, say: ‘Why are so many things popular that just drone on and on’. But that’s the point really.

Bowie, 1975.

“Right”‘s relaxed, circular feel is owed mainly to Carlos Alomar’s guitar line, which spreads out over six bars and mirrors the vocal. Willie Weeks’ bass and David Sanborn’s saxophone, the latter thankfully mixed down, churn the rhythm and offer supplementary colors, while Mike Garson, on clavinet*, dedicates himself to the groove. The blissed-out confidence of Bowie’s lead vocal in the first chorus is shaken during the call-and-response section, the singers forcing Bowie out of his comfort zone, making him make his case. Bowie cedes the song to them for its last minute.

First recorded ca. 11-18 August 1974 (a take that got out on bootlegs has “Right” in near-final shape, though Bowie initially sang the opening chorus higher), then recut in November-December ’74. “Right” ended the A side of Young Americans and was never performed live.

Top: Joseph Beuys, “I Like America and America Likes Me,” 1974. (Beuys’ most famous Action took place in May 1974, when he spent three days in a room with a coyote. After flying into New York, he was swathed in felt and loaded into an ambulance, then driven to the gallery where the Action took place, without having once touched American soil. As Beuys later explained: ‘I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote.’)

* Is Garson playing a clavinet here? Really sounds like one, but could find no evidence.

Somebody Up There Likes Me

October 26, 2010

Somebody Up There Likes Me.
Somebody Up There Likes Me (live, 1974).

‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ is a ‘Watch out mate, Hitler’s on his way back’… it’s your rock and roll sociological bit.

David Bowie, NME, August 1975.

Bowie had entered the Seventies fascinated by supermen, dictators and Big Brothers, and the times suited his obsessions. But by mid-decade the old bogeymen seemed to be all going away, as if written out en masse by an author wrapping up an overlong book. Nixon, the Estado Novo, the Greek Junta, Franco, Mao: all gone between 1974 and 1976.

Of course there would be new, grotesque tyrants to come (Idi Amin and Pol Pot were still in early innings), but there was perhaps a moment, around 1975, of exhausted reprieve. Time, a meager but dedicated prosecutor, was ridding the world of its shabby emperors: even those who had died in their palaces were dead all the same. Or, as Bowie sang, carrying the news,

Leaders come, they hate [that] all
the people know,
that given time
the leaders go.

“Somebody Up There Likes Me” seems like Bowie’s recalibration, taking the image of a Futurist superman (which had become a bit shopworn by Diamond Dogs) and reincarnating it as a media figure, a TV “personality,” a handsome politician kissing babies and women, existing purely as an image, capturing the hearts of millions. He’s common (“[he] looked a lot like you and me,” much like how Bowie once described Bob Dylan’s voice), yet he’s also a star-chosen celebrity messiah, his song’s title taken from a Paul Newman boxing film of the ’50s, whose tagline was “a girl can lift a fellow to the skies!”

The ruler promises the same. He flatters his subjects, saying they’re the elect as well, that his celebrity is their doing, that the common people now choose their own deities. It culminates in the title line, which equally could be said by governor or governed; it’s a wedding vow, binding the people to their ruler in a way that makes the old tyrannies seem boorish.

For “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” Bowie reused some of “I Am Divine,” one of his Astronettes compositions. “I Am Divine” is a piece of swagger in which the cocksure singer tries to seduce a girl by telling her how great he is, as though he’s selling futures in himself. The perspective of “Somebody Up There” is third-person, the now-besotted singer making the case for his political messiah, though occasionally visited by doubts. By the chorus, he’s been joined by his backing singers, who pop in and out like advertisements (the piping “what they look like” sounds like a TV station ident).

Bowie’s song is a series of withheld pleasures. Bowie’s voice appears towards the end of an 8-bar intro, apparently signaling the onset of the verse, only to have the saxophone keep going. The chorus is a repeated descending chord progression that’s only broken by a move to F on the title line. And Bowie sings the full title phrase only twice in the six-minute track, while the backing singers often start the line but never quite finish it. When Bowie sings “somebody up there likes me” for the last time, savoring the high notes of “likes,” the song moves into a two-minute coda of exhortations and praise.

For Young Americans, Bowie had wanted to hire MFSB, the Sigma Sound house band, but couldn’t get them due to scheduling conflicts. So tracks like “Somebody Out There” seem like Bowie’s attempts to mimic the MFSB sound, with organ subbing for the string section and the chorus of (primarily) Luther Vandross, Ava Cherry and Robin Clark as the equivalent of the Three Degrees. (David Sanborn’s saxophone has to fill in for MFSB’s entire 10-plus horn section, which gets wearying, but Carlos Alomar on guitar, often hitting on downbeats, gives a needed kick to the track—he holds his own with mainstay MSFB guitarists like Norman Harris).

As with “Right,” another of his Sigma tracks, Bowie uses his vocal chorus in a pinpoint fashion, dropping in a single voice a beat before his lead, dotting his songs with varying interjections—sometimes Vandross or Bowie singing low, sometimes Cherry and Clark soaring up. The track’s sumptuous dedication to pleasure, its slick hedonism put to fascist ends, makes it one of Bowie’s more chilling songs of the period.

Recorded in Philadelphia ca. 11-18 August 1974, and it led off the B-side of Young Americans. Debuted on stage in early October ’74, and part of the setlist for roughly a month.

Top: Washington DC, 8 August 1974.

Who Can I Be Now?

October 21, 2010

Who Can I Be Now?

“Who Can I Be Now?” should have been dedicated to Bowie’s prospective biographers (though no one’s used it for a title yet). While “Changes,” Bowie’s quirky self-assessment from 1971, became the soundtrack of Bowie career clip montages, the outtake “Who Can I Be Now?” is an even more obvious fit, a song in which Bowie seems to assess his talent for fraud, and where he wonders, even as he’s donning his “soul boy” garb, what sort of role to play next.

The lyric also has some faint traces of Gnostic imagery—mankind in chains, being raised in blindness—that Bowie would develop much further in “Station to Station,” though it seems like stage dressing for a man who, unmasked by someone he’s in love with, fears that he might not be able to exist as himself. Unlike its fellow Young Americans outtake “It’s Gonna Be Me,” “Who Can I Be Now?” is fairly restrained in tone and tightly-constructed, with a confident, wide-ranging Bowie vocal and a chorus whose main vocal melody is so basic and sturdy it could support a highway. While there are some flaws (the mix on the chorus is a bit crowded, with David Sanborn’s saxophone apparently determined to fill every last bit of open space), discarding a track like this for the likes of “Across the Universe” was a minor injustice.

Recorded 11-18 August 1974, and cut from the final version of Young Americans; it first appeared on the 1991 Ryko reissue.

Top: Jim Brickett, “Washington Square Park, 1974.”

After Today

October 14, 2010

After Today (earlier studio take, fragment).
After Today.

Within days of Bowie starting work at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, a routine had developed. Bowie’s musicians, particularly Mike Garson, David Sanborn and Carlos Alomar, would show up in the late morning or early afternoon and would record overdubs, jam, try out arrangements. Bowie tended to arrive late, around 11 pm, and, fueled by cocaine, would usually work through the following morning. The grueling pace took its toll on many players (Garson recalled being one of the few who had the stamina to endure Bowie’s all-nighters) as well as on Tony Visconti, who had what he thought was a heart attack while driving home from the studio one morning.

Bowie went through the day’s takes upon his arrival, picked what he thought worked, then usually sang live in the studio with his band. The communal, spontaneous nature of the Sigma sessions, with songs often coming together out of jam sessions, played by a free-flowing group of musicians and singers, and with Bowie fans camped outside the studio (he eventually let them come in to hear rough mixes), was a contrast to the Diamond Dogs period, in which Bowie was often isolated, producing and playing much of that record himself.

“After Today” is typical of the freewheeling Sigma sessions, as it was tried out both as a slow, moody ballad and as an uptempo piece, with a take of the latter version eventually released on Bowie’s career retrospective Sound + Vision (the decision seemed to be Rykodisc’s, who preferred the faster take).

Bowie’s decision to sing much of “After Today” in falsetto turned out to be overly ambitious, and likely doomed the song to being an outtake, but “After Today” remains a showcase for Andy Newmark’s drumming. Newmark, who was a replacement behind the kit for both Sly and The Family Stone and Roxy Music, had started out in a ten-piece soul band. His playing was so dynamic that, at an impromptu audition, he got the wasted Sly Stone out of his bed and dancing. Newmark often played a stripped-down kit—a bass drum, snare, hi-hat and one cymbal doing double-duty as a ride and crash—and got a sharp, cracking sound via a tightened snare head and by constantly hitting rim-shots. He once described his sound as being “either super low or super high—super bottom or super top. Everything cuts through the band. The bass drum and the floor tom are like volcanos.” An earlier take of “After Today,” which turned up on the “Shilling the Rubes” tape, has a ferocious 4-bar intro by Newmark that could have kicked off a punk song.

Recorded 13-18 August 1974, though it’s possible the Ryko version was cut later that year. Released on the Sound + Vision boxed set in 1989, but oddly enough “After Today” has never been included on various Young Americans reissues.

Top: Pete Dexter, Philadelphia, 1974.

Shilling The Rubes

October 7, 2010

Shilling The Rubes (fragment).

The rumors were true. Many Bowie researchers had concluded that “Shilling the Rubes,” long considered to be a lost Bowie classic, was only just a working title for Young Americans, a name that bootleggers occasionally slapped upon another outtake. Then in 2009, a reel from Bowie’s Sigma sessions supposedly turned up in a Philadelphia street fair (it’s speculated that the tape went astray (cough) from the rest of the Sigma reels, which are housed in the Drexel University Audio Archive) and it subsequently sold on eBay for $15,000.

The tape, apparently a rough mix from early in the sessions (13 August), featured an early take of “Young Americans,” a rewrite of the Astronettes song “I Am a Laser,” an early version of known YA outtake “After Today” and the grail itself: “Shilling the Rubes.”

Only about a minute’s worth of each track circulated, apparently as a sampler for prospective buyers on eBay. So all we have of “Rubes” are an eight-bar intro in which Mike Garson’s piano faces off against Andy Newmark’s drums, and the first verse, which is an intriguing bit of sleaze by Bowie, suggesting that “Rubes” was revisiting the love-as-prostitution theme of “Sweet Thing.” The fragment cuts off before the chorus (if there was one), thus retaining “Rubes”‘ status as the great unheard Bowie song. One imagines the whole four-minute track will turn up someday (though there’s already been a gold-plated reissue of Young Americans), but until then “Shilling The Rubes” will remain largely imaginary.

Recorded 13 August 1974. Perhaps only one person on the planet besides Bowie can listen to “Rubes” in its entirety. And there’s of course the chance that the whole story’s fraudulent (though the outtake really sounds genuine), which would be fitting given the song’s title, an equivalent to “fooling the suckers.”

Can You Hear Me

October 6, 2010

Take It In Right (early studio version).
Can You Hear Me.
Can You Hear Me (live, 1974).
Can You Hear Me (with Cher, broadcast, 1975).

Bowie likely wrote “Can You Hear Me,” originally called “Take It In Right,” in late 1973 and he cut a studio demo of it on New Year’s Day 1974 (when he also taped “Alternative Candidate”). A few months later he tried the song out in New York as a possible single for Lulu. While nothing was released from the Lulu session, it did bear fruit: there Bowie first met the guitarist Carlos Alomar, who Bowie recruited for his next album.

In August ’74, Alomar came to Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound studios with his wife Robin Clark and their friend, a 23-year-old aspiring singer and songwriter named Luther Vandross. Before long, Clark and Vandross, who had come only to give “moral support” to Alomar, were drafted as singers, with Vandross soon becoming Bowie’s de facto singing coach and vocal arranger for the sessions.

So “Can You Hear Me” was an early test of the call-and-response vocal arrangements Bowie and Vandross would use for nearly every Young Americans track. The richness of the backing vocals here, the somber but warm assurance with which the singers hold notes, the way they work as a stronger melodic echo of Bowie’s vocal (while Bowie first introduces the “take it in right” hook, the chorus is who really sells it), all serves to center and anchor Bowie’s flighty, desperate lead vocal. As Bowie told David Buckley in 2006, “my drug problems were playing havoc with my voice, producing a real raspy sound that I fought all the time when I wanted to sing high, swooping into falsetto and such.”

And Bowie’s vocal here seems like a long battle. He first sings the title phrase, which starts the chorus, fairly low in his range, and when he finally goes up with four ascending notes on the first “take it in right” he drops down a half-octave two beats later. There’s his odd nasal phrasing in the second verse (“there’s been so many others,” where Bowie makes a rhyme out of thurrs and othurrs), his shaky falsetto in the later verses. On further repeats of “take it in right” Bowie again seems to struggle, falling back as soon as he reaches a new peak. Only the last chorus repeat of “take it in right” has a sense of release, as if Bowie’s willed himself to break through. The song ends with a 20-bar outro in which Bowie and the chorus trade lines: they’re finally left standing alone, singing the last seconds of the song a cappella.

“Can You Hear Me” is something of an answer song to the Ohio Players’ “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” which Bowie also tried out in the early Sigma sessions. Where “Here Today” has the singer lamenting a wayward lover, “Can You Hear Me” is told from the player’s perspective, someone who travels through “sixty new cities” and “wants love so badly” but still wants the person he’s singing to know they’re the only one. (Biographers have claimed it’s a barely-disguised message to Ava Cherry, who Bowie was involved with at the time.) There’s an unease to the performance: it’s a love song shot through with guilt, doubt and disgust, with its ornate production and cathedral of voices disguising a weak, pathetic man lurking at the heart of it, whose love may not even be genuine. I’m checking you out one day to see if I’m faking it all, he sings, pausing before the last three words. (Cher, while singing those lines in her duet with Bowie, smiles with malice.)

The arrangement seems inspired by the Kenneth Gamble/Leon Huff and Thom Bell productions for Philadelphia International Records, which Bowie was listening to incessantly during the Young Americans period. Bell in particular would clad soul songs in pristine, elaborate arrangements—Bell often would keep the strings or horns off-stage until the chorus, then drape them over the vocals, or he’d place unusual-sounding instruments high in the mix (like the sitar and French horn on the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” or the eerie marimba of the Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round”).

Bowie and Tony Visconti encircle “Can You Hear Me” with a parallel intro and outro, each centered on a C chord, with the tympanum sound of Andy Newmark’s drums in the intro mirrored in the outro by Willie Weeks’ bass, while Carlos Alomar plays the same guitar lines. In the verses, Visconti’s string arrangements duet with Alomar’s guitar, each filling out bars in the verse with descending or ascending figures (e.g., the ten-note downward guitar spiral after “closer than others, I was your…”); David Sanborn’s saxophone doesn’t appear until the third verse, then becomes another vocal line. There’s a good sense for drama as well, particularly the two-beat stage-clearing (everyone hitting, from piano to strings) before Bowie sings, alone in the spotlight: “take it in right.”

“Take It In Right” was cut on 1 January 1974 while the Lulu version, from April ’74, remains unreleased—the bootleggers haven’t unearthed it yet. “Can You Hear Me” was cut ca. 8-18 August 1974 at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia (an earlier studio take, minus strings, is on bootlegs like Absolutely Rare), and was on the second side of Young Americans. Performed during the subsequent Philly Dogs tour, while the Cher duet, from Cher, filmed on 23 November 1975, marks the song’s final appearance to date.

Top: Orson Welles, F For Fake, 1974.