Reissues: Golden Years

April 11, 2016

As you likely know, Dennis Davis died last week, furthering this year’s ambition to be the worst year ever. In his honor, I’ve revived one of his first performances for Bowie, the “Golden Years” single, and included his isolated drum track (listen to the hi-hat!).

Though it was one of the huge Bowie Seventies hits, “Golden Years” can sometimes feel overlooked (was it because it was so rarely performed live)? My mother, a high school teacher, says most of her kids only know it because of A Knight’s Tale. Seems right.

Also, my thanks to the blog readers who came to my Iggy Pop panel last weekend: it was great meeting you all!

Originally posted 30 November 2010: run for the shadows.

Golden Years.
Golden Years (Dennis Davis drum track).
Golden Years (Soul Train).
Golden Years (live, 1983).
Golden Years (live, 1990).
Golden Years (live, 2000).

Having spent summer 1975 in New Mexico making The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie returned to Los Angeles in late August, already under pressure to follow up his #1 single. Disturbed by stories circulating about Bowie’s erratic behavior, RCA sent executives to the movie set to check on him. He told them to pack off. As “Fame” had done the trick, Bowie rounded up the same producer, Harry Maslin, and most of the same group—Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick on guitar and the drummer Dennis Davis, with the bassist George Murray recruited from Weldon Irvine’s jazz/funk outfit.

For a studio, Bowie and Maslin investigated Cherokee, which had opened the previous January in the former MGM studios on Fairfax Avenue. It swiftly had become one of LA’s premier studios, inheriting MGM clients like Frank Sinatra (see “Wild is the Wind”). Bowie sang in its cavernous Studio One, played a piano chord and said “this will do nicely.” Unlike Sigma Sound, where he’d cut most of Young Americans, Cherokee prided itself on space, tech and amenities—five studio rooms, 24-track consoles, 24-hour sessions, a fully-stocked bar in the lounge.

First order of business was a prospective single, “Golden Years,” a song he’d started writing in May before leaving for the film shoot. His friend Geoff MacCormack, for whom Bowie tried out the song, suggested a trombone-like WAH-wah-WAH tag for the refrains. At Cherokee, MacCormack added more embellishments like a “go-oh-oh-old” phrase as a tag for the bridge and a similarly descending “run for the shadows” hook. MacCormack even wound up filling in for Bowie on the falsetto for the bridge’s backing vocal (at :45, for example), which was torture for him to sing.

The last time Bowie followed up a career-altering hit he’d cut “The Prettiest Star” as an ill-fated sequel to “Space Oddity.” Time had made him sharper and cannier in his approach. “Golden Years” was both a natural response to “Fame,” keeping the latter’s icy disco sound, but also a swerve back towards the sounds of his early adolescence. He used the Diamonds’ “Happy Years,” a 1958 doo-wop hymn to teenagerdom, and two “Broadway” songs—the Drifters’ “On Broadway,” which Alomar recalled Bowie playing on piano during rehearsals and throwing in a “come buh-buh-buh baby” after each line, and Dyke and the Blazers’ “Funky Broadway,” which Slick raided for a few riffs.* Fittingly, Bowie wrote “Golden Years” with Elvis Presley’s vocal range in mind, although he never submitted the song to Elvis, as negotiations with his manager Col. Tom Parker went nowhere (though Bowie once told Dwight Yoakam, of all people, that Elvis had asked him to produce an album in 1977).

Yet any golden oldie he nicked was nearly unrecognizable, as it was blended with his interpretation of the sound of Kraftwerk and Neu!, heard in the conversation of guitars and its cycling progression: an F-sharp chord downshifting to E major on the third beat of each bar. Bowie described his aim years later when he talked of his love of Donna Summer’s records: “this incredible sound, half-Kraftwerk, half-American soul. An amazing incongruous juxtaposition.”

Cut in roughly ten days at the start of the Station to Station sessions, “Golden Years” was issued as a single less than two months later: it charted while Bowie was still at Cherokee finishing the album. Maslin said “Golden Years” came together with little fuss, especially by comparison to the endless number of retakes and overdubs on the rest of the album. The single was mixed full of small pleasures: Dennis Davis’ hi-hat lifts (right on the beat in the verse/refrains, he moves to slightly hang behind on the bridges) and other echo-slathered percussion (handclaps, vibraslap, melodica); Bowie and MacCormack’s “round-sounding” backing vocals via an old RCA mike Maslin dusted off. The dueling guitars—one right-mixed playing variations on the opening riff throughout while a left-mixed phased guitar (likely Alomar) keeps a gliding rhythm until moving, after the bridges, to a three-chord riff that echoes MacCormack’s “WAH-wah-WAH.”

Bowie played little games with the song structure, making the bridge either two or six bars. The longer bridge had the song’s only real progression, a run from G major (“nothing’s gonna touch you”) through A minor (“golden”) and an E minor seventh (“yeeeears”) capped off with a 2/4 bar: Bowie singing the descending “go-oh-oh-ollld” hook shadowed by a Murray bass slide he overlaid with Moog. He did the same to his lyric, altering phrasings and rhythms. In the third verse, he moves from a word-packed, near-rap to surge up to an F# on “all the WAY!”, then tumbles right into a fresh chorus hook, the harmonized “run for the shadows.”

Here’s my baby, lost that’s all

“Golden Years” opens as a blessing, with Bowie and MacCormack cooing the title phrase, and its opening verses are Bowie in huckster mode (see “Right”), singing sharply enunciated syllables stepping down in pitch. There’s the bustling consonance of “in walked luck and you looked in time” and an octave leap to “AN-gel”matched, four bars later, by a depths-dredging “yuh-uh-unnng.”

The promise of “golden years” isn’t communal here. The chance is offered only to one person: the hope of being sealed off in a limousine from the street. His life in Los Angeles added to the lyric’s anomie—long paranoid days in his mansion; making an appearance on Dinah Shore with the Fonz. Angela Bowie, busy with her own celebrity, said the song was Bowie’s blessing for her and perhaps it was, as there was a threat in it. You want fame? Here, take it: it will eat you up. Last night they loved you, opening doors and pulling some strings, Bowie sang, snarling out the gees. The following night, the doors could well be shut. A rap of materialist promises becomes a desperate prayer to God, followed by a murmured warning to run for the shadows. At first caressing the words “golden years,” Bowie began to put them to the rack, rattling consonants, rotting vowels—“years” was a strangled curse heard beneath the backing vocals (esp. at 2:58).

Its video complement was Bowie’s performance on Soul Train, where he’s a wraithlike spiv barely able to keep his balance, let alone mime his vocal. It’s as though he’s hearing the song for the first time, that he’s still in character from The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s his loneliest, saddest television appearance: a crowd of magnificent strangers dance around him, as if communally denying his presence.

Recorded ca. late September 1975, released 17 November 1975 as RCA 2640 c/w “Can You Hear Me” (#8 UK, #10 US). For whatever reasons (its difficulty of singing, perhaps), he never performed “Golden Years” on the Isolar tour of 1976 (there’s one show at which he allegedly sang it, but no proof), waiting until 1983 to debut it live. He played it very sporadically thereafter: just a handful of times in 1990 and 2000.

Top: Peter Turnley, “San Diego, 1975.” (From the collection “The Other California.”)

*There’s of course the chance that Alomar and Slick, both of whom have admitted to not remembering much of the sessions, are confusing their respective “Broadway” songs.

Tiny Girls

January 17, 2011

Tiny Girls.

A genre experiment of sorts, “Tiny Girls” seems to have been Bowie’s attempt to merge the vocal line of a chanson (in particular Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas”) to the 6/8 rhythm of a standard ’50s doo-wop song, while encircling the song’s verses with two-chorus saxophone solos that Bowie played himself.

Bowie’s somber, melodic saxophone on “Tiny Girls” is one of his longest solo sax performances on record, and one of his finest, though it lacks the weary resolution of Bowie’s closing sax line on “Changes.” Bowie, over the years, has been generally dismissive of his technique, once saying he only played “composer’s guitar” and “composer’s piano,” and Bowie generally would get a session pro to redo performances he felt were under par (as was the case with other Idiot tracks like “Dum Dum Boys.”) Still, Bowie’s hummable sax line, laced with long-held notes (the first 12-bar solo chorus is repeated note-for-note in the second until the final bars, where Bowie soars up as if to announce Pop’s entrance) fits “Tiny Girls”‘ meager, pathetic sentiments, where some “professional” sax intro would have been jarring.

Pop’s lyric is blunt even by his standards (and true to life, as Iggy once had a 14-year-old girlfriend)—his girl’s giving him trouble, and all he wants is some younger, less jaded girl without “tricks” or a past, or a personality. But when he gets her, she’s just as greedy and clinging and poisoned by life, and so Pop’s likely on to the next, younger model. Funny how the circle is a wheel, as Gene Clark once sang.

Recorded July-August 1976, at either/both Château d’Hérouville, France, and Musicland, Munich. Another generally forgotten Idiot track, never performed live by either of its composers.

Top: Serge Gainsbourg directs Joe Dallesandro during the filming of Je t’aime… moi non plus, 1976.


January 11, 2011

Funtime (Iggy Pop, 1976).
Funtime (Pop and Bowie, Dinah!, 1977).
Funtime (Pop and Bowie, live, 1977).
Funtime (Pop and Bowie, live, 1977).
Funtime (Pop, live, 1979).

Can I have some fun time? Might get killed!

Iggy Pop, 1977.

The last song that the Sex Pistols played before they split was the Stooges’ “No Fun.” Squatting on stage at the Winterland in San Francisco, glaring at the audience as if willing death upon them all, John Lydon tore open the song, singing the lines flatly but with malice, cursing himself, cursing his band, his manager, seemingly rock music itself. The word “fun” itself seemed to disgust Lydon—he had always hated rock & roll’s promises of hedonism, its easy good times, its unearned freedoms. At Winterland, exhausted and about to quit the band, Lydon used “No Fun” to flagellate himself, as well as anyone trying to enjoy his performance.

Iggy Pop’s “Funtime,” recorded two years earlier, is an echo of this performance, upstream in time. On its surface (and in some of its subsequent live performances and covers) it’s a basic rock & roll smash-it-up song, in line with something like Little Richard’s “Rip It Up” (“I don’t need no heavy trips/I just do what I want to do”). A guy’s out on the town, leering at girls, looking for action, his friends goading him on. But something’s off about the song, which is sordid and menacing. The lyric starts out in the first person singular, then moves to the plural (“we want some! we want some!”), giving the song a taste of the mob.

Bowie had told Iggy to sing the track “like Mae West,” to play the bawd, not the john, and whenever Bowie and Iggy shout “fun!” on the downbeat of every other bar, they sound like bouncers. The distorted chorus vocals churn around in the mix, with Bowie’s vocal starting out on top and Pop finishing off the phrase—they seem to be mimicking a train whistle in part, on the “all aboard!” lines, as well as some late-night television commercial aired from hell.

As with many of the Idiot tracks, there’s a mechanical circularity to the song—a four-bar chorus loops into a four-bar verse, over and over again (as with “Sister Midnight,” it’s mainly a one-chord song (the power chord D5—just the root note and the fifth), with the only variations being the Bb and C chords that begin the chorus, and the E chord in the bridge). The pattern’s only interrupted by a guitar eruption in the bridge, likely Bowie; it starts with two slashing chords and then trails off, unable or unwilling to advance, let alone resolve. Neither do the drums vary their deadened assault, with only processed cymbal hits as accents: the drums’ airless, dense sound is likely due to the Eventide Harmonizer (an ancestor of Autotune, and an important tool for the Idiot/Low period, as we’ll see). Piano and bass drone underneath it all, while guitar overdubs are smeared over the track, with a taste of Keith Richards’ “Satisfaction” riff buried in the mix (which Blondie, when they covered “Funtime” in 1979, made obvious). Iggy finishes it off with a scream.

Recorded July-August 1976, at either/both Château d’Hérouville, France, and Musicland, Munich. A recording from Iggy’s 1977 tour (the Agora in Cleveland) was included on Iggy’s contractual obligation live record TV Eye Live 1977.

Top: Ulrike Ottinger, “Lil Picard’s birthday party at the gallery Werner Kunze, Berlin, 1976.”

TVC 15

December 7, 2010

TVC 15.
TVC 15 (rehearsal, 1976).
TVC 15 (live, 1976).
TVC 15 (live (video fragment), 1976).
TVC 15 (live, 1978).
TVC 15 (Saturday Night Live, with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, 1979).
TVC 15 (Live Aid, 1985).
TVC 15 (live, 1990).

The strange thing about television is that it doesn’t tell you everything. It shows you everything about life on Earth, but the true mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s in the nature of television. Just waves in space.

Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), The Man Who Fell To Earth.

And, in her living room, her husband sat before the TV set, an enraptured child, listening to, following with devout attention, the nightly report from Whale’s Mouth. Watching the new, the next world.

Philip K. Dick, Lies, Inc.

“TVC 15” is an avant-garde novelty song, a joke delivered in a series of abrasions. Bowie’s mordant sense of humor hasn’t been this visible since Hunky Dory. Inspired by Iggy Pop’s dream of a TV devouring his girlfriend, “TVC 15” also likely came out of Bowie’s work on The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie’s extraterrestrial character fills rooms with televisions, sometimes a dozen, and sits watching them all, each on a different channel (an image lifted by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons for Watchmen a decade later).

Despite the references to quadraphonic sound and hologramic televisions, “TVC 15” is at heart a parody of the ’50s-’60s teenage death ballad, with the same scenario as “Teen Angel,” “Endless Sleep” or “Last Kiss”: the narrator recalls how his girl perished, usually in some horrible, inexplicable way, and now he’s all alone, wondering whether or not to join her in death.

So in “TVC 15” the singer brings his girlfriend over to watch his new TV set, which at first bores her, then transfixes her, then consumes her: she crawls in through the screen, and he’s left with the choice of mourning her forever or “jump[ing] down that rainbow way” himself. The teen death song usually offers some reassurance from the afterlife—the dead girlfriend calling the boy’s name, etc.—but here the TVC 15 “just stares back unblinking.”My baby’s in there someplace,” is the singer’s meager hope.

Bowie, playing the revivalist, outfits the track in early rock ‘n’ roll trappings, from the I-IV-V chord progression of its verses (with F minor swapped in for F in a bar, when Bowie first sings “TVC 15”) to Roy Bittan’s piano, seemingly airlifted from ’50s New Orleans (Robert Christgau once described “TVC 15” as Huey “Piano” Smith & the Clowns crossed with Lou Reed), to an opening “oh-OH-oh-OH-OH” line nicked from the Yardbirds’ “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.”

The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right…It grows you any shape it wishes. It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is the truth.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451.

Television as a malevolent artificial intelligence, offering a more compelling reality than the actual one, is nearly as common as UFOs in postwar science-fiction—take the four-wall TV “parlors” and their besotted viewers in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or the demagogic/theocratic TV talk show hosts who populate Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron and Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Dick’s work in particular is full of associations of TV with grotesque evil, such as the gruesome passage in Lies, Inc. where a politician on TV transforms into a monster who consumes a series of eyeballs.)

Sure, some of it was just SF novelists belittling the new competition, but these books generally predicted how the 20th Century would play out. Before few others, writers like Bradbury sensed that television, far from being a modest evolution from radio and film, was a radically new creation, one that would rewire the human brain (though TV seems, in retrospect, to have just been pre-op for the Internet’s more aggressive surgery), would erode the old verities and would remake society in its own circus-house image. This transformation is what the human race, apparently, had always wanted, like our age-old dreams of flying. For many years now, television has been fairly indistinguishable from the alleged “real” world. The leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 is campaigning by starring in her own reality TV show: this is completely unsurprising, and is likely setting a precedent.

Bowie, born in 1947, had seen television evolve from the genteel incarnation of his childhood, where TV was a glorified wireless set—a large wooden box with an 8″ black-and-white screen that showed only one government-run channel a few hours a day (there even was a “toddlers’ truce” of no programming aired during the hour that young children were typically put to bed)— to become, by 1975 and especially in the U.S., an omnipresent box in every home and hotel room, a unblinking electric eye, offering a visual compost heap, churning old Hollywood films, riots, images of man and animals in nature, kung-fu exhibitions and cereal ads into a ceaseless stream of images and noises. So “TVC 15” is just Bowie expanding the map—of course the TV of the future would be even more compelling, more intoxicating, have more channels, be more diabolical; its reality would be finer and purer.

(And in turn, Bowie’s scenario of someone who, by turning on the TV, lets inside his home forces that destroy his life, would inspire, perhaps subconsciously, two films of the following decade—David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (one notorious scene, when James Woods makes out with Debbie Harry via a pulsating TV screen, is pure “TVC 15”), and Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, where, coming full circle to Iggy Pop’s nightmare, a girl is claimed by a TV set.)

“TVC 15″‘ sets its hooks against its disturbances. Four sets of eight-bar verses* offer noise experiments in miniature, with each bar of each verse sounding as if it’s starting the song anew: it’s like a series of first takes spliced together in a run. Bowie starts each bar on the same note, while guitars grind and lurch upward but are set back in place four beats later, their efforts like an engine failing to get in second gear (Carlos Alomar later described it as a drone: “the music would stay in one place and just keep going”). Yet over this Bowie’s vocal is generally buoyant, even loopy, as if he’s telling you the best story he’s ever heard, and maybe it is. Finally breaking free of its verses’ orbit, the song moves into its earworm of a chorus, a mild disco “tran-sition!….trans-mission!” sequence over eight bars of F7 and A7 that, once it falls back home to C major, becomes a chanted “Oh my TVC 15! oh-oh! TVC 15!,” Bowie’s mantra/ad jingle, set against first a vicious guitar riff and then a cascading Bittan piano figure. The title line, hinting at the future “I want my MTV” slogan, is so enticing that all thoughts of the vanished girl disappear—this is a valentine for a television set, and a passionate one.

The mix, with the standard Station to Station layout of two guitars set in opposing channels, is murky and dense in places, suggesting radio signals eating into each other’s airspace. The backing vocal beneath Bowie’s lead sometimes echoes him a beat late, or hums a different tune, sometimes whispers a barely audible line; multiple saxophone overdubs (Bowie and producer Harry Maslin) bay through the chorus like foghorns. It all makes a happy chaos, suggesting that Bowie’s recounting his tale after having been swallowed up by his television; he ends his terrestrial life in a flux of sound.

Recorded September-November 1975. Released on Station to Station and also as a single c/w “We Are the Dead” in April 1976 (RCA 2682, #33 UK). Performed on the 1976, 1978 and 1990 tours, and an inspired choice to kick off Bowie’s Live Aid set in 1985. Bowie’s “TVC 15” with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias for Saturday Night Live in late 1979, with Bowie wearing a tight pencil skirt and high heels, and featuring a pink toy poodle with a television monitor in its mouth, remains one of the odder musical performances ever shown on American television.

* In most subsequent live performances, Bowie broke up this long run of verses, usually moving the chorus to after the second verse.