Fame

November 22, 2010

Fame.
Fame (single edit).
Fame (Soul Train, 1975).
Fame (Cher, 1975).
James Brown, Hot (I Need to Be Loved Loved Loved), 1976.
Fame (live, 1976).
Fame (live, 1978).
Fame (live, 1983).
Fame (live, 1990).
Fame (live, 1997).
Fame (Howard Stern’s Birthday Bash, 1998).
Fame (Live at the BBC, 2000).
Fame (TOTP2, 2002).
Fame (Live By Request, 2002).
Fame (live, 2004).

“Fame,” one of David Bowie’s two US chart-toppers, is a freak and a fluke. It’s more in line with experimental Bowie works like Low than it is with the “soul” album to which it was appended. Its groove, so compelling that James Brown stole it, and its back story (the John Lennon connection likely spurred airplay) made it a smash, but “Fame” just as easily could’ve been consigned to Bowie’s pile of studio outtakes.

Because Bowie wasn’t sure what he had with it: a minimalist funk improvisation, a mutant hybrid of “Foot Stompin’,” the odd result of a few hours of studio jamming. He later called “Fame” his least favorite track on Young Americans, a sentiment that some of his players shared—Andy Newmark, who drummed on most of Young Americans (but not “Fame”), dismissed “Fame” as “just a vamp, a groove. It’s not the essence of what [Bowie] represents in my mind. “Young Americans” is more of the persona I associate with him.”

“Fame” is as dry as it is cynical, the opposite of what Bowie had been attempting when he started Young Americans in Philadelphia, with the dense gospel- and soul-inspired tracks cut at Sigma Sound. Now here was a track clarified to vocals, guitars, bass and drums; it was funk seemingly arrived at via a William Burroughs cut-up. Its sonic landscape, using the wide stereo separation typical of contemporary funk tracks (like Lyn Collins’ “Rock Me Again & Again & Again & Again & Again”) is broad and clear.

The track is nothing but a set of muscles and ligaments. There are no horns, no backing chorus singers (just Lennon’s squeaked-out “fame” and the varispeed vocals at the end), no keyboards save for a backwards piano track that appears in the intro and briefly shows up later. Primarily built on one chord (F7), the song’s either one long chorus or an extended, repeating verse, the only contrast being the two-bar move to B-flat: “It’s not your brain/it’s just the flame”, etc.). The rhythm, apart from two bars of 3/4 that open the track, is straight 4/4, hammered down by Emir Ksasan’s bass and Dennis Davis’ drums hitting on alternating beats.

The lyric came out of Lennon’s cynical take on the star-maker-machine process, with Bowie contributing his own paranoid thoughts on the business, particularly his gripes with his manager, Tony Defries. (Bowie, having discovered that the massive expenses incurred by Defries’ company Mainman were coming out of his own pocket, formally severed ties with Defries about ten days after recording “Fame,” kicking off a legal war.)

Two rock stars complaining about being famous are a potentially awful set of parents, but Lennon and Bowie’s lines are harsh enough, and lurid enough (“lets [a man] loose and hard to swallow”), to be compelling. There’s no self-pity in “Fame,” as there is in something like Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” where playing the star is a weary business, one Seger shoulders like a burden. In “Fame,” the lyric is a series of dry observations that culminate in the key line of the last verse—is it any wonder I reject you first? In the first verse, “fame” is an active force, a possession (it “makes,” “puts,” “lets”), while in the second verse, Bowie pits “what you like” against “what you get” and “what you need”—fame may satisfy the first, but it puts you on the hook for the rest. (There’s a dying Sixties echo in these lines, a play on the Stones’ you can’t always get what you want (but sometimes you get what you need) (which already suggested that sometimes you get nothing at all), or on Dylan’s line from “Memphis Blues Again”: your debutante knows what you need/but I know what you want.)

The song’s poison can be distilled down to how Bowie and Lennon sing the title word. They elongate the “ay” sound while pulling the word down (it sinks a half-step between syllables), so that it’s not an affirmation, an exclamation—it’s a hook that initially sounds like a phasing mistake. It sags, it withers, it blights the rest of the verse. Bowie spends much of each verse trying to scrabble back up to the initial high note (& only doing so on each phrase’s last syllable (for instance “take things ov-ER“)).

Conception

“Fame” was officially credited to Bowie, Lennon and Carlos Alomar, and in the 35 years since its creation, there’ve been about as many claims as to who contributed what to “Fame,” and especially who ripped off who.*

Lennon’s primary contributions seem to be a) playing an acoustic guitar only audible in the intro bars, b) supervising the backwards piano track and c) allegedly coming up with the line “fame” and sometimes singing it. Still, some writers have made Lennon (who was in the studio on a whim, having come in to hear “Across the Universe”) more of the creative mastermind. For example, here’s Philip Norman, from his 2008 Lennon biography, who claims: John attended the session at Electric Lady studio and improvised a three-note riff around the single word “fame.” Compare Lennon himself, who, interviewed soon after “Fame” was released in 1975, gave credit for the riff to Alomar: “This guitarist had a lick, so we sort of wrote this song, no big deal. Oh-boom-boom-boom. We made this lick into a song is what happened.”

Alomar recalled that “Fame” came about after Bowie finally decided that “Foot Stompin’,” which he’d been trying to cut in the studio for months, wasn’t going to work. “Foot Stompin'” “sounded like a plain, stupid, old rock & roll song,” Alomar told David Buckley in 2005. “David didn’t even like it. So what he did was to cut it up into blues changes, which is one-four-five-four, which is what “Fame” is. It cut it up so he just had drums, bass and that one guitar line.” Alomar also said Lennon, playing acoustic guitar, inadvertently inspired the lyric. Lennon “put his chin on the acoustic guitar when he played and just the breathing he did produced that funny noise. David thought he was saying “Fame”: “he’s saying Fame! I’m telling you!”

There are three primary guitar tracks on “Fame”: the Alomar “Foot Stompin'” riff that repeats through the verses (mainly confined to the left channel), Bowie’s central electric guitar, which, in Bowie’s words, “makes the long Wah and the echoed Bomp! sound,” and which serves as the track’s brass section (there’s also a “telephoning ringing” guitar fill mixed in the center), and a third electric guitar, mainly confined to the right channel, that keeps to the high end. There are secondary guitar tracks as well—Lennon’s barely-there acoustic, and what Alomar has claimed (and Bowie has disputed) as a series of guitar overdubs that Alomar did after Bowie left the studio.

Bowie added dabs of color (the backwards piano and rattlesnake percussion that drop in after the third verse) to help the track avoid monotony, and he ended “Fame” with a new varispeed vocal experiment (see “The Bewlay Brothers,”The Laughing Gnome,” “After All”). Here a repeated “fame” (Lennon and Bowie’s vocals) descends stepwise from the air to the earth over six bars. So the vocal, initially sped up to Gnome level, starts up in the stratosphere on a high E flat, falls an octave over two bars, then falls another octave in the next two (going from D to D), until finally the vocal, now at molasses speed, ends in the depths, stopping on a low D (tweaked a beat later by a Lennon “fame!” interjection). The idea’s an old Bowie trick, as the same melodic fall appears in “Gnome’s” opening bassoon line and it will soon crop up again in “Speed of Life.”

Reaction/Revision

Released in August 1975, “Fame” hit #1 in the US a month later. It was his long-desired passport. “Fame” landed him on Soul Train, where Bowie was so wrecked that he required multiple takes to lip-sync it and “Golden Years,” and an even more prestigious/egregious tribute was James Brown’s outright theft of much of the song—Alomar’s riff, the “telephone” guitar fills—for his 1976 single “Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved).” (Some stories have claimed Brown actually put on the Bowie record for his band, and said “play this.”) For Alomar, who had played with Brown in the late ’60s, it must have seemed a particularly strange turning of the circle. Alomar once said Bowie told him “if it charts, we’ll sue [Brown],” a spectacle avoided by “Hot”‘s weak performance (#31 R&B).

Fame 90 (remake).
Fame 90 (Arthur Baker, house mix).
Fame 90 (‘hip hop’ mix).
Fame 90 (with Queen Latifah).

Bowie had played “Fame” for most of his tours between 1976 and 1990, and, needing bait for Ryko’s CD reissue campaign, he reworked “Fame” at the end of the ’80s. While attempting to maintain the original’s minimalism, Bowie larded his new mix with gewgaws and glitter, put the rhythm on steroids, mercilessly included a vocal “stutter,” and then turned his own sins over for other parties to amplify. While “Fame” would seem to be ideal raw material for a hip-hop update, Bowie wound up with a Queen Latifah performance that achieves mediocrity in its better moments. The best of the new lot is probably the Baker house mix, which uses Bowie’s vocal as just another piece of percussion.

“Fame” was recorded ca. 12-15 January 1975. Released in August 1975 as RCA 2479 c/w “Win.” (While hitting #1 in the US, it only reached #17 in the UK. The British, in a nostalgic contrarian mood, instead sent a re-release of “Space Oddity” to the top in the same period.) “Fame 90″ came out in its various incarnations in March 1990 (a 7″ single, a 7″ picture disc and a 12” single/CD all featured different mixes), and served as the traditional crap “remake” cuckoo egg track on the hits collection ChangesBowie (there’s usually one on every greatest hits compilation, cf. the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me ’86”.)

Top: Bowie’s choreographer, Toni Basil, on the cover of the Sept. 1974 issue of After Dark, the apparent inspiration for Eric Stephen Jacobs’ Young Americans cover photograph. Bowie allegedly had wanted to commission a Norman Rockwell painting for the cover, but balked when he was told Rockwell needed at least six months to do the job.

A postscript on “Shame” and plagiarism:

Shirley & Company’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” has been called a key influence on “Fame,” and some Bowie biographers claim that “Fame” actually rips “Shame” off, e.g. Christopher Sandford: [Fame] evolved, via Carlos Alomar and a riff lifted from Shirley and Company (my emphasis) through a half-dozen makeovers and a last-minute name change from “Footstompin’.” (“Footstompin’ was another song, but never mind that.)

Sandford’s source appears to be Tony Zanetta and Henry Edwards’ bio Stardust, from 1986. In this account, Lennon “while David was out of the room” starts playing the “Shame, Shame, Shame” riff, and is soon joined by Alomar, who “picks up the riff, and the two men played together.” Bowie allegedly comes in, asks what they’re playing, is told it’s “Shame, Shame, Shame,” then leaves the room and comes back a half-hour later with the complete lyrics for “Fame.”

If true, this scenario would have the wily Alomar riffing with Lennon on a song that he’s already ripped off. Because Alomar had been playing his “Foot Stompin'” riff, the direct ancestor of the “Fame” riff, since late October ’74. The timing doesn’t really work. “Shame, Shame, Shame”‘s first reference in Billboard is the issue of 21 December ’74, where it’s reviewed as a new-release single, and “Shame” didn’t chart nationally until 18 January 1975, days after the “Fame” recording session. Sure, pro musicians often get new releases ahead of the public, and “Shame” was likely getting NYC airplay in December ’74, but, really, the 35-year-old John Lennon was that up on new disco records? And wouldn’t Alomar, instead of “picking up” the riff, maybe have said something like, “yeah, I love this song—in fact, I’ve been jamming it for months on tour already.”

My guess: “Shame, Shame, Shame” has really nothing to do with “Fame.”[CO, 2014: I was wrong: see Trynka in comments.] I expect the confusion began when people first heard “Fame” in summer ’75 (when it was released as a single) and thought it was a nick on “Shame,” a hit song from the previous winter. Now James Brown, on the other hand—the Godfather committed robbery in broad daylight, no denying it.


Across The Universe

November 17, 2010

Across the Universe.

Bowie’s cover of John Lennon’s “Across the Universe” was a blatant, and successful, attempt to lure Lennon into the studio. Bowie and Lennon had first met in late 1974 at a small party in Bowie’s New York hotel suite. The two didn’t converse for hours until, cocaine- and Cognac-fueled, they began sketching caricatures of each other on notepads. Tony Visconti (who met his future wife, Lennon’s then-girlfriend May Pang, that night) recalled that the party ended with everyone in the room getting into “a dismally dark conversation about ‘what does it all mean,’ ‘it’ being life, which left us all staring dejectedly at the floor.”

About a week into New Year ’75, Bowie called up Lennon and said he was in Electric Lady Studios doing a cover of “Across the Universe” (the whole thing seems like a set-up, as there was no need for another track on Young Americans; Visconti, oblivious to these developments, was in London doing string arrangements for a record he thought was completed). So Lennon went down, played acoustic guitar on “Universe,” then stuck around to jam on another attempted take of “Foot Stompin'” and wound up co-writing a #1 hit, “Fame.”

Bowie still kept “Across the Universe” on Young Americans after it had served its purpose. It was likely a matter of Bowie being star-struck: how could he deny the temptation to include his very own Beatle collaboration? He told the NME later that year that he was proud of his performance on the track despite the fact that “not many people like it.”

The only problem was, John wasn’t entirely sure how to capture on tape the sounds he was hearing in his head.

Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles Recording Sessions, on “Across the Universe.”

“Across the Universe,” like a vivid dream, had never quite translated to reality. Originally slated as the Beatles’ spring 1968 single, “Across the Universe,” after two days of studio work, emerged as a ramshackle performance with chirping backing vocals by two teenage Beatles fans recruited off the street. Lennon second-guessed himself at every turn, erasing vocals, wiping instruments (he scrapped a backwards bass guitar track, as well as George Martin’s contributions on organ and his own mellotron work). As the Beatles were about to get on a plane to India, “Across the Universe” was shelved (“Lady Madonna” was the single choice). Upon his return, Lennon seemed indifferent to “Across the Universe”—he didn’t attempt to rerecord it during the White Album sessions, or even on Abbey Road, where he used scraps he’d had around for years. The inclusion of a run-through of “Across the Universe” in the Let It Be film led to the track’s official release on the subsequent soundtrack record.

“Across the Universe” had first appeared on a World Wildlife Fund record in late 1969, where the ’68 recording (in D) was moved up to E flat and layered with wildlife noises. A few months later, Phil Spector took the same ’68 recording, brought it down to D flat, and globbed on a choir and strings. This version, also included on the “Blue Album” Beatles hits compilation in 1973, became, by default, the canonical version of the song, and the model for Bowie’s cover.

“Across the Universe” is the product of Lennon in a weakened state of lysergic bliss, its lyric a child’s perspective. My friend has a three-year-old daughter who’s started waking up in the morning yelling “No! No! No!” When he asked her what was wrong, she said that she didn’t want to be asleep anymore. “Across the Universe” is in this spirit, Lennon’s POV being of someone whose self-absorption is so deep that he achieves satori in contemplating himself, delighting in how his mind interprets the world: it’s a rejection of the material world by someone entranced by the world’s colors and sounds.

It was maybe too personal a song for Lennon, who later said he’d never been happy with any recording of it (he didn’t think much of Bowie’s version either, as it turned out). Bowie’s interpretation seems to be a bungled attempt to mine the song’s thin vein of defiance. Calling the Beatles original “watery” (no foul there), he decided instead to “hammer the hell out of it.” So he discarded Lennon’s “jai guru deva” mantra as being too flower-power and yelled out the lyric, trodding over the intricate syllabic rhythms of Lennon’s three verses. Bowie’s appalling vocal is a series of consecutive abuses, with Bowie hollering lines, putting his weight on seemingly random phrases. The appearance of a second vocal track creates new dimensions of misery, and Bowie finishes the track off with an extended tantrum.

This is the first appearance on a Bowie record of Dennis Davis, a brilliant drummer who would back Bowie for the rest of the ’70s: Davis does what he can to resuscitate things here, offering fill after fill while the song wobbles to its finish. One of Bowie’s low points of the decade, just excruciatingly bad.

Recorded in New York, ca. 10-15 January 1975. On Young Americans.

Top: Songwriter, singer at the Grammys, March 1975.


Win

November 15, 2010

Win.
Win (live, 1974).
Win (live, tantalizing fragment, 2004).

The best of Young Americans‘ tortured soul ballads, “Win,” an abstracted dissection of a relationship, is Bowie’s most successful attempt to use the sound of contemporary R&B to flesh out his favorite concerns: obsession, power, betrayal, control.

With some of Bowie’s most inspired lines on the record (“someone like you should not be allowed to start any fires,” “life lies dumb on its heroes,” the opener “Me, I hope that I’m crazy”), “Win” also has a gorgeous, intricate production: the entire track seems swathed in cotton. Motifs (saxophone, strings (pizzicato towards the fadeout), arpeggiated guitar) occur throughout, often matched to Bowie’s every vocal pause. David Sanborn’s saxophone, garrulous and inescapable on earlier tracks like “Young Americans,” is now set back from center stage; Sanborn’s opening line is a gorgeous roller-coaster swirl of notes.

“Win” marks a move away from the loose, jam-inspired material of the Sigma sessions towards a colder, luxurious sound—it’s the track that most seems like a blueprint for Station to Station. It also suggests an end to Bowie’s American soul project. “Things like ‘Win’–the chord structures are much more of a European thing than an American thing,” Bowie said in 1993 (“Win”‘s verses are built mainly on sixth chords–G6, F6, A6).

Bowie’s vocal is more restrained and less would-be-soul boy than on earlier Young Americans tracks: where something like “Fascination” is full of short, rhythmic vocal phrases, “Win” has an extended, meandering vocal melody in the verse, Bowie keeping mainly to his lower register. Where Bowie once was matched and sometimes drowned out by his backing singers, here he keeps them in check. In later chorus repeats he undermines them, growling out his lines in a low, threatening voice.

The verses find the singer and his lover passively vying for control, with a masochistic feel to the proceedings; the chorus, a set of precisely-aimed knife blows, finds the singer rigging his zero-sum game, yet not really caring how it plays out. He sings “all…you’ve got…to do…is…win like a piece of extortion; there’s a marvelous sense of contempt in it, yet Bowie dreamily lingers on the last word, savoring it. Just before the end, Bowie sings “it ain’t over” with a different melody than he’s used in the rest of the song. He’s not nearly exhausted his reserves, and the fadeout comes as a small mercy.

Recorded early-mid December 1974. On Young Americans. Debuted on 1 December 1974 at the Omni in Atlanta, on what would be the last night of the Philly Dogs tour, and its only live performance.

Top: Tammy Hackney, “Death,” ca. 1974-75. Death’s newly unearthed recordings reveal a remarkable missing link between Detroit bands like the Stooges and MC5 from the late 1960s and early ’70s and the high-velocity assault of punk.


Young Americans

October 12, 2010

Young American (take 3, fragment).
Young Americans.
Young Americans (live, 1974).
Young Americans (The Dick Cavett Show, 1974).
Young Americans (live, 1983).
Young Americans (live, 1987).
Young Americans (live, 1990).

Americans love flattery and youth, so it’s no surprise that David Bowie finally cracked the US Top 40 with this song. Bowie always performed it on stage with an acoustic guitar, making the song seem like a remnant of his folkie days, and eventually “Young Americans” was tumbled in with other congratulatory good-time songs of its era. Yet “Young Americans” is a cold piece of work, a ballad that becomes a diatribe, its bite kissed away by Bowie’s American backing singers.

Asked by the NME in summer 1975 about the song, Bowie said: “No story. Just young Americans. It’s about a newly-wed couple who don’t know if they really like each other. Well, they do, but they don’t know if they do or don’t.” (cf. Sly Stone’s “Family Affair”: “Newly-wed a year ago, but you’re still checkin’ each other out.”) In the opening verses, a young, bewildered couple finds solace in sex (though not much: it took him minutes, took her nowhere) and eventually squander all they have going for them, their youth. At least that’s what the final line of the third, shortened verse suggests: We live for just these twenty years, do we have to die for the fifty more?

Bowie was covering Bruce Springsteen songs (he’d cut “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” in a later Young Americans session), so “Young Americans” conceivably started as a tribute or a rip of something off The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. But Springsteen was in love with his characters, making myths of their meager lives, and even his walk-on roles have pathos, like Madame Marie in “4th of July, Asbury Park.” In “Young Americans,” the boy and the girl lack names, jobs, desires, histories, friends. They’re not even types. Vocal uncertainty (does Bowie sing “they pulled in just behind the bridge” or “behind the fridge” in the first line?) makes even the song’s setting unknowable: the story could open in the backseat of a car, or in some squalid apartment. It doesn’t matter.

The boy and girl move in jump cuts, speak in stilted language, as if they’re hostages reading from a script. It’s just poster love, as Bowie sings later in the song. “Am I still too young?” the girl asks. “Where have all papa’s heroes gone?” she says later. He’s referred to as “her bread-winner.” She’s no more than a talking Barbie doll (her heart’s been broken, just like you have). Even the chorus reads like Maoist agitprop: She wants the young American! I want the young American!

And after the bridge and saxophone break, Bowie knocks his pieces off the board. Instead of continuing his story, he uses his last two verses to riff, offering quips, shorthand, signifiers. In “Life On Mars?” Bowie began with a close-up on the mousy girl in the movie theater stalls, then zoomed out for a wider, more surreal picture, but “Young Americans” begins far away from its subjects. Their fates aren’t important, because the boy and girl didn’t exist in the first place. They were just mere impressions, as ephemeral as the other fleeting images that the singer sees as he watches a country spool past his limousine window: Ford Mustangs, Americans on buses, Caddys, Chryslers. Americans blacklisted, those just back from Washington, whites on Soul Train. Americans using Afro-Sheen, Americans contemplating suicide, carrying razors in their briefcases.

In Serge Gainsbourg’s “Ford Mustang,” from 1968, Gainsbourg and his co-singer whisper and chant to each other American ad slogans, catch phrases and comic book dialogue: Pickup! Keep cool! Fluid makeup! Coca Cola! Ford Mus-tang! But it wasn’t just parody, as Gainsbourg was playing off the hipness and vitality American imagery still had in mid-’60s Europe. In “Young Americans,” that power is gone, long dissipated. Bowie is a tourist who came in the off season, and he leaves with a curse. Leather, leather everywhere and not a myth left from the ghetto.

Richard Nixon’s sudden appearance in the song’s bridge (a line that Bowie would update on stage to Reagan or Bush the Elder) is partly just a contemporary note, as Bowie cut “Young Americans” a week after Nixon’s resignation. Yet it’s also another dismissal, with Bowie accurately predicting that the downfall and disgrace of Richard Nixon, the grand finale of The Sixties, would soon enough be reduced to history, to be fought over by partisans and barely remembered by the masses. (The Clash offered a similar barb in “White Man In Hammersmith Palais” a few years later: “If Adolf Hitler flew in today/they’d send a limousine anyway”) .

As the song closes down, other ghosts appear. The chorus, out of nowhere, sings the opening line of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” in the final verse, a further alienation (the song reminding us it’s just another song, and a lesser one at that). John Lennon originally sang the line as a beautiful, floating reverie, though he was noting how the media turns tragedy into wallpaper, how a crowd watching a car crash only considers it in terms of the victim’s possible celebrity. “Young Americans” views an entire world this way, a flattening of perception.

And then Bowie’s final costume change, a last irony: before the end chorus, Bowie moves to free time and sings, suddenly all alone, “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me…break down and cry?,” the last four words a jolt up to a high D, then a slight descent to a run of high A notes. Bowie’s become Johnnie Ray, who, as Dexy’s Midnight Runners sang, once broke a million hearts in mono. Bowie, interpreting black music, crafting it with primarily black musicians, channels Ray, who he turns into an earlier, flawed incarnation. Ray, a white boy from Oregon, was first taken up by patrons of a black club in Detroit and later signed to Columbia’s “race” label, OKeh: his singles topped the R&B charts. Ray didn’t imitate black singers as much as he did wild, fevered interpretations of them, fueling his art with his own tortured experience (he had a punctured eardrum, was a closeted bisexual); Ray burned out quickly but lingered for decades, dying in Los Angeles in 1990.

Lester Bangs, watching a Bowie performance in Detroit in 1974, picked up on the parallel: I peered and peered, trying to catch the ultimate vibe…Johnny Ray. Johnny Ray on cocaine singing about 1984. The audacity of it all made Bangs tip his hat. Don’t be fooled: Bowie is as cold as ever, and if you get off on his particular brand of lunar antibody you may well be disappointed in his latest incarnation, because he’s doubling back on himself.

So is “Young Americans,” at its cold heart, Bowie reflecting himself, making a mirror play of his own preoccupations, disgusts, betrayals? And yet he did so in a song that American audiences loved, one they took to be a communal tribute, a gift left by a party guest. As the years went on, Bowie accepted this: at the height of his ’80s fame, he sang “Young Americans” on stage as if he was covering Springsteen, asking the crowd to sing his Johnny Ray line back to him. “Young Americans” is a guide to a foreign country by a man who never left his house, one beloved by those he never really visited.

Of course “Young Americans” is also good-time music, founded on a steady groove, sweetened by David Sanborn’s alto saxophone obbligato and blessed with a vocal hook, a bar-long exaltation so compelling that all of Bowie’s bile and alienation seem to melt away whenever the chorus sings.

The hook was mainly Luther Vandross’ doing. Vandross, listening to studio rehearsals of “Young Americans,” said to his friend, the singer Robin Clark, ‘what if there was a phrase that went ‘young Americans, young Americans, he was the young American—all right!’ Now when ‘all right’ comes up, jump over me and go into harmony,” Vandross told Musician in 1987. Bowie overheard Clark and Vandross singing this, and, intrigued, brought them into the session. Soon enough, Bowie had reworked the chorus to include the hook.

“Young Americans” is built out of standard materials, its verses moving from the home key, C, up to the dominant, G, in 4-bar repeats, and after the bridge and sax/guitar breaks, there’s a key change up to D, which parallels Bowie discarding his characters in favor of his rolling impressions. The groove slides through most of the song, built on Andy Newmark’s drums, Willie Weeks’ bass (mainly playing repeating two-note patterns) and a running duet between Carlos Alomar’s rhythm guitar and Mike Garson’s piano. Garson had tried to get the taste of more avant-garde material like “Aladdin Sane” out of his playing, establishing a groove “that had a bit of a Latin feel, without going over the top into salsa music,” he told David Buckley.

If the groove feels slightly restrained (Garson’s piano doesn’t swing that much), and while Sanborn later said that his sax playing was under par, calling “a bit repetitive,” any drawbacks are erased by the sense of narrative motion. The verses are quickly answered by choruses, the choruses are broken up by first a 4-bar sax/piano break, the “Nixon” bridge and another 4-bar break dominated by Alomar’s guitar. Bowie’s singing is also a marvel, zipping up to falsetto and, in his final verses, Bowie reels out strings of language, like someone possessed by prophecy (each bar seems to fill up with more sung notes: 11 in “you ain’t a pimp and you ain’t a hustler, a”, 13 in “pimp’s got a Caddy and a lady’s got a Chrysler,” to the point you expect Bowie to finally shatter the song’s sense of rhythm).

Recorded 11-13 August 1974* and released in February 1975 as a single c/w “Suffragette City” (RCA 2523, #18 UK, #28 US) and a month later as the lead-off track of the album it titled. First performed on stage in Los Angeles on 2 September 1974, with the Dick Cavett Show performance taped on 2 November. While a staple of Bowie’s 1980s tours, Bowie hasn’t played “Young Americans” in over 20 years.

Top: William Eggleston, “Two Girls on a Couch,” 1974. A few years later the women [in this photo] sang in a Memphis punk band called Gangrene and the Scurvy Girls.”

* “Young Americans,” according to Tony Visconti’s autobiography and researchers like Nicholas Pegg, was said to be the first track completed at the Sigma Sound sessions, finished on the first night, 11 August 1974. But the newly-surfaced “Shilling the Rubes” reel contains what almost certainly sounds like an earlier take of “Young Americans,” recorded on 13 August (Newmark’s drum intro isn’t quite there yet, for instance).


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.