The Bolan Collaborations

June 1, 2011

Jam (Standing Next to You) (rehearsal).
Jam (Standing Next to You) (broadcast).

Bowie and Marc Bolan first met in July 1964. He was still David Jones then, while Mark Feld had gone through one pseudonym already and would soon acquire another. They were both prospects of the promoter Leslie Conn, who put them to work painting an office (when Conn returned after lunch he found them gone and only half the walls painted). Born within nine months of each other, Bolan and Bowie became fast friends, rummaging through discard bins on Carnaby Street for clothes, grabbing crumbs from the great banquet that was London in the Sixties. They wanted to be pop stars, but their various singles and albums didn’t sell; they spent the decade off-stage, in the wings.

Then, as the hippie summer was fading, they began to strike. Bowie first, with his “Space Oddity” novelty hit, then Bolan, who ditched his Tyrannosaurus Rex mummery and his 20-word album titles and, using Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti, became the new decade’s first pop idol. Bolan’s success inspired and nettled Bowie, who aped Bolan’s singing voice on “Black Country Rock” and got Bolan to play lead guitar on his flop single “The Prettiest Star.” Bowie’s song for Bolan (“Lady Stardust”) was both a tribute to a fellow traveler and an attempt to press Bolan into legend, making him a predecessor to Bowie’s own creation, Ziggy, the last rock star. For a brief moment in 1972-73, they were on top together—Bowie breaking through with “Starman” while T. Rex was in the midst of its streak of top-charting singles. Paupers in the Sixties, they had suddenly come into their inheritances.

When glam died, though, Bolan was left stranded, a drunken host desperately trying to keep a waning party going. His attempt at futuristic glam R&B, Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow—A Creamed Cage in August (not a good sign that the elephantine LP titles were back) was a dud, while some subsequent LPs didn’t even chart. He alienated Visconti, who stopped producing him; he lived on brandy and cocaine, got fat, seemed a spent force. All the while Bowie had moved on: breaking America, where Bolan had only been a minor presence, and recording his masterpieces.

So when Bolan and Bowie reunited in early 1977, the balance of power had shifted fully to Bowie’s side, to the point where Bowie could feel charitable. Staying at Bolan’s London flat during the Iggy Pop tour in March ’77, Bowie offered to co-write a song with Bolan, and the half-song (tentatively called “Madman”) that resulted had promise. With a raw, vicious opening riff that sounds like it’s inventing the Gang of Four, the best surviving version of “Madman” has Bolan’s shredding guitar fills and Bowie snarling lines like “when a man is a man, he’s destructive/when a man is a man he’s seductive.” Bolan would play the tape for friends: he was going to rework it, make it the center of his next record.

Bolan had cleaned up by the summer of 1977. Inspired by the new punk groups, who generally revered him, he was writing again, going out to shows. Landing a TV variety show with Granada, Bolan brought on The Jam, X-Ray Spex, the Boomtown Rats, Generation X. And for a finale, he would have Bowie, who had just completed “Heroes.”

The taping started off well, with Bowie catching up with Bolan’s backing band (who included his former drummer Tony Newman and Herbie Flowers, who played bass on some of Bowie’s early ’70s songs, as well as Lou Reed’s Transformer). Bowie and Bolan worked on a jam to close out the show. It wasn’t much (it didn’t even have a title, though bootleggers over the years have called it “Standing Next to You” or “Sleeping Next to You”) but they were having a good time. Then Bowie started running the band through “Heroes,” became consumed with getting the right feedback sound, and it soon was clear there was no place for Bolan, whose guitar would just clutter up the song. Bolan, irritated, went back to his dressing room, drank some wine. Bowie’s security men and assistants began taking over the show, preventing Bolan’s friends and staff from coming in the studio. Bowie, caught up in his new song, didn’t notice.

By the time they were to tape the jam sequence (which would run out the end credits), Bolan and Bowie were barely speaking. Mustering himself for the cameras, Bolan introduced the “new song,” and for a minute the two of them were equals again, scrubs playing a blues riff, making faces, calling each other out. Bolan went to strike a move and fell off stage, Bowie cracked up. The crew refused to do a retake, so the great reunion would end with a goof and a laugh.

The two made it up over dinner that night, set out plans. Bowie was going to tour, Bolan was going to make a record that would put him back in the center. A week later, Bolan and his girlfriend, Gloria Jones, went out for a night of drinking. At 5 in the morning, Jones crashed Bolan’s Mini GT into a sycamore tree on Barnes Common, striking the tree with enough force to crush Bolan into the back of the car. He was dead in a second, having not reached his 30th birthday.

Bowie went to Bolan’s funeral, set up a trust fund for Bolan’s son. The game had lost another player; Bowie had lost a friend, an influence, a rival, and one of the last who had known him when all he had was ambition.

“Madman” was recorded ca. 4-7 March 1977 at Bolan’s flat, where Bowie was staying during the Iggy Pop tour’s stop in London. The Cuddly Toys covered it in 1980. “Standing Next to You,” or whatever it’s called, was rehearsed and taped on 7 September 1977, a week before Bolan’s death. Neither’s been released officially. Paul Trynka’s Starman has the best synopsis of the muddle that was the Bowie/Bolan reunion.

There have been a number of other rumored Bowie and Bolan recordings from this period, though most seem spurious. The most credible-sounding, a track called “Walking Through That Door,” allegedly a supergroup recording of Bowie, Bolan, Gloria Jones and Tony Visconti from around the time of Bolan’s death, is most likely instead a demo of Jones’ brother, Richard, ca. 1975, with Bolan on guitar/vox.

Top: Jones and Feld, class reunion, September 1977.

Sense of Doubt

May 20, 2011

Sense of Doubt.
Sense of Doubt (promo, 1977).
Sense of Doubt (live, 1978).
Sense of Doubt (broadcast, 1978).

The trilogy within the Berlin trilogy—“Sense of Doubt,” “Moss Garden” and “Neuköln”—are a suite as much as they are discrete songs, with the minimalism of “Doubt” giving way to the minor-scale beauties and wildlife humanity of the latter tracks.

Before starting what would become “Sense of Doubt,” Bowie and Brian Eno drew cards from Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck. Devised by Eno and Peter Schmidt, it was part-Tarot, part-Monopoly “Chance” cards. Its intention was to spur random, even chaotic creative moves, and Bowie, who spent the late ’70s trying to rethink how to write songs, to write in what he called a new musical language, welcomed another means to clear the board. While Eno would torment the likes of Carlos Alomar with Oblique cards during the Lodger sessions, during “Heroes” Eno only used the deck in the latter stages, when Bowie and Eno were devising the instrumentals.

Bowie and Eno agreed not to reveal their cards until they finished the track. As Bowie’s card read “Emphasize differences,” and Eno’s “Try to make everything as similar as possible,” they went to work unknowingly at loggerheads. “It was like a game. We took turns working on it; he’d do one overdub and I’d do the next, and he’d do the next…I was trying to smooth it out and make it into one continuum [while] he was trying to do the opposite,” Eno said in 1978.

“Sense of Doubt” seems like a sound-picture of this conflict, with, mixed in the left channel, an unchanging, descending four-note piano passage (C-B-Bb-A, at the bass end of the piano, a bit reminiscent of Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata”) set against the random appearances of synthetic wind and waves. The variables are the reoccurring Chamberlin/synthesizers, which at first seem to be locked in the same cycles as the piano, until the patterns mutate—chords are cut short, a stunning faded-in sequence (1:43) suggests a way out. Bowie in 1978 described the track as pitting an “organic sound” against a falsehood, a synthesizer section pretending to be a horn section, but the “artificial” provides the only glimpses of sunlight in the piece.

In the liner notes for his first ambient record, Music for Airports, Eno wrote “whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities” (my emphasis). He wrote this in September 1978, a year after he made this track, and “Sense of Doubt” seems an early attempt at this scenario—it’s providing background music that’s also a series of disturbing sounds, making it hard to serve as aural wallpaper yet having no real sense of progression. Locking the ominous piano pattern in an apparently endless cycle diminishes its power to surprise, yet its continual reappearance undermines whatever flashes of hope appear.

Recorded July-mid-August 1977 at Hansa, Berlin. Performed during the 1978 tour (often as the pre-intermission finale) and used in Christiane F.

Top: Ute Mahler, “Motofoto für Sibylle,” Berlin Prenzlauer Berg, 1978.


May 11, 2011

“Heroes” (single edit).
“Helden” (German single, 1977).
“Héros” (French single, 1977).
“Heroes” (Marc, 1977).
“Heroes” (Top of the Pops, 1977).
“Heroes” (Musikladen, 1978).
“Heroes” (live, 1983).
“Heroes” (Live Aid, 1985).
“Heroes” (live in West Berlin, 1987).
“Heroes” (live, 1990).
“Heroes” (with Mick Ronson and Queen, Freddie Mercury Tribute, 1992).
“Heroes” (live, acoustic, 1996).
“Heroes” (live, 1997).
“Heroes” (live, 2000).
“Heroes” (live, Concert for New York City, 2001).
“Heroes” (live in Berlin, 2002).
“Heroes” (live, 2003).
“Heroes” (final performance (to date), June 2004).

Berlin, Bowie observes, reflecting upon the environments in which he has produced his last two albums, is a city made up of bars for sad disillusioned people to get drunk in.

“…It’s hard to sing “Let’s all think of peace and love… ” “No, David, why did you say that? That is a stupid remark.” Because that’s exactly where you should arrive…You arrive at a sense of compassion. The title track of “Heroes” is about facing that kind of reality and standing up to it. The only heroic act one can fucking well pull out of the bag in a situation like that is to get on with life from the very simple pleasure of remaining alive, despite every attempt being made to kill you.”

Allan Jones, “Goodbye to Ziggy and All That,” Melody Maker, 29 October 1977.

1. Regions (Nothing Will Drive Them Away)

“Heroes” in the United States, and to a lesser extent in the UK, was a failure. It got only marginal commercial airplay in the US in the ’70s and ’80s (the single even didn’t crack the top 100), with most Americans likely unaware “Heroes” existed until Bowie’s performance of it on Live Aid, if even then. “Heroes” gradually became a global Bowie standard, a consensus masterpiece, but it’s also a late revision to the canon.* In the US, at least, “Heroes” was the Bowie song that was famous somewhere else.

That was Europe (even Bowie noted that “Heroes” “seems to have a special resonance” in Europe, and he certainly tried to sell the single there, cutting German and French versions of the song). Maybe its motorik-inspired groove, indebted to Neu! and Kraftwerk, or Bowie’s at-times declamatory, harsh singing just sounded more familiar, or maybe “Heroes” tapped into something broader, an ominous general mood. In 1977, Europe’s fate was the property of others. Even the continent’s flash point, Berlin, the alleged centerpiece of the Cold War, was irrelevant. If there was to be a war, West Berlin would fall to the Soviets in a day and it likely would be annihilated soon afterward. All of the pointed decadence in West Berlin, all of the parades and drills in the Eastern half, seemed pantomimes by actors out of work.

There’s a lassitude, an echoing, fading grandeur, in the sound of “Heroes”: its dragging beat; its backdrop of squalls and what sound like wayward radio signals;  its lyric, set at the continent’s scarred heart; Bowie’s extravagant, metal-edged vocal; Robert Fripp’s feedback ostinato. “Heroes” is Bowie at his most empathic and at his most desperate, a wish-chant that offers, at best, some tiny regency for the spirit. Bowie, who had once had filled his songs with starmen and calamity children, seems reduced here to a minor scale, despite the talk of kings and dolphins. Any hope “Heroes” offers is meager: we can be better than we are. Only sometimes, and not for long.

2. Reductions (I Drink All the Time)

Interviewer: I remember one lyric [of yours]: “all the nobody people, all the somebody people. I need them.”

DB: Yes, well, that character definitely did, ’cause his world was exploding…That was definitely a character. That was Ziggy Stardust. He was the archetype needing-people rock star.

David Bowie, press conference in Holland, October 1977.

Around 1975, the writer Greil Marcus noticed the rise of “survivors.” He heard the phrase used in TV shows (the title often bestowed upon middle-aged actors promoting a new project), in politics (“Reagan was a survivor,” as per Lou Cannon’s bio), in films and particularly in rock music, where “survivors” were suddenly inescapable: “Soul Survivor,” Street Survivors, “Survival” (the O’Jays single and the Wailers record), “I Will Survive,” with the culmination being a band actually called Survivor.

I grew obsessed with the phenomenon, Marcus wrote at the decade’s end. I seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the seventies, to stand for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. Language was being debased. “Survivor” had once meant someone who had endured a horror that had killed a great many others—a concentration camp survivor, a plane crash survivor. Now the word applied to anyone remotely competent at living (Queen’s first hit, “Keep Yourself Alive,” could’ve been the motto of the ’70s).

There was something off putting about the sudden prominence of “survivors,” of odes to the simple life and of people being called “heroes” for the mildest of reasons. It was as if, in the decades after WWII, people had come to want too much, had attempted too great a height, and they were now being herded back down, their ambitions reduced to the scope of mere living. Going to work, paying your bills, raising your children, hitting 30, enduring an awful disease—these became “heroic” acts. Everyone alive became a survivor. Common life, as its radical prospects diminished, was exalted.

Bowie’s “Heroes” could seem part of this reduction, an ancestor to the wave of “you’re MY hero” kitsch of the late 20th Century, of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and it certainly has been interpreted as such.** What saves Bowie’s song from cheap sentimentality is its coldness, the sense that it’s been compromised from the start. We can be kings, we can be heroes, nothing will hurt us, the singer offers at the start of each verse, but he soon backtracks, equivocating, willing to settle for less. We can be us, he sings at last, his voice hissing out the last syllable: could we even venture that?

When Bowie first saw the lovers who inspired his song’s climactic verse, sitting on a bench by the Berlin Wall, he had wondered why they had chosen such a grim place. Did the pair feel shame at what they were doing? Were they meeting where they figured no one would see them? Or were they just bored or restless, pawns playing at being rooks?

The latter wouldn’t be unusual, as West Berlin was where one could play at life. Bowie would describe his Berlin period, which ended in late 1977, as the time when he fell to earth. West Berlin was “a womb,” he said, “a therapeutic city, with a real street level.” Bowie often myth-tinted his doings and so his Berlin years became an exile with the common people: “I had to go down the road and buy food in a shop,” he incredulously told an interviewer in late ’77. So the myth of “Bowie in Berlin,” who lived in a working-class Turkish neighborhood (not quite) and drank in workingmen’s bars unrecognized (not really—only once during the Hansa sessions, when Tony Visconti cropped Bowie’s hair, was Bowie able to walk around without attracting much notice). Still, it was a potent myth: Berlin as the place one went to be a human. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and Faraway So Close!, where angels become mortals in Cold War and post-Cold War Berlin, have a trace of Bowie in them.

It’s a shame that “Heroes” is best known in its maimed form, the 7″ single edit, which lops off about two minutes of the track so that the song begins with its third verse (“I wish you could swim”). It’s the version used for Stanley Dorfman’s promo film, included on ChangesBowie and the version Bowie would perform most often on stage.

The edit weakens the song. It’s not just that the buildup to the last two verses is now too brief (the Bowie vocal fireworks start at 1:23 in the single, but don’t appear until 3:16 in the original), but the lyric’s also thrown out of whack. The original song opens with a grandiose claim: “I, I will be king” (the wording deliberately stilted, calling back to ’60s pop dramas like “I Who Have Nothing”). Then in the second verse, the artifice suddenly falls away:

And you, you can be mean
And I, I drink all the time.
‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact
Yes we’re lovers, and that is that.

The intimacy of these lines, sung by Bowie close to the mic, in his lower register (and obscured in the mix, so the first line sounds like “you could be me”) are key to the song. This verse is the reality: a pair of lovers trapped in routine, seeing no way out. A man and a woman face each other across a table, reading each other’s faces for signs, their only freedom left in dreams. It’s all in the way Bowie sings “that is that,” quietly, with no emotion, a settled fact in a settled life.

This is what makes the later verses, which, starting with the fourth (the repeat of “I will be king”), are sung in Bowie’s “epic” register (see below), all the sadder. The singer, growing increasingly desperate, can barely keep his fantasies from blurring together. I will be king! You will be queen!, he nearly shrieks, while the following line brings the ominous “nothing will drive them away.” Who are “them”? Is it some further delusion that their love is so precious someone would want to kill it?

Until the last verse, the song’s been abstract, its setting could be anywhere (like the empty backdrop in Bowie’s promo film for it). Then the lovers are suddenly by the Wall, the guns firing above them: they’re brave, and could be about to die. Bowie sings the lines in one sustained, howling scream. It’s cathartic as it is baffling. Are the guards shooting at them, or is their meeting so insignificant that the guards don’t even notice them? Some have interpreted the lines as meaning the lovers are separated by the Wall, like some Pyramus and Thisbe in Berlin, others that the pair is trying to escape East Berlin (but then why is “all the shame on the other side,” where they’re trying to flee?). I’d say the details don’t really matter: the Wall verse is as much a fantasy as being a king for a day or swimming like a dolphin. It’s the dream of someone in the muddle of life, wishing that his empty days and his shabby love affair had some grandeur, finding dignity even in tyranny.

3. Reconnoiterings (Nothing Will Keep Us Together)

“Heroes” began out of pique. Bowie, irritated by Iggy Pop scrapping much of his original music for “Success,” was still toying with a G-C-D chord sequence and a vocal melody, reworking the piece with Brian Eno in rehearsals. Eno soon wanted to call it “Heroes,” as the song, even in embryo, had a rousing, propulsive feel (also, “Heroes” would also reference Neu!’s “Hero,” (from Neu! 75), complementing the Kraftwerk tribute “V-2 Schneider”).

At Hansa Studios, Bowie tried out “Heroes,” existing mainly in fragments, with his regular band: Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar and George Murray. In a few hours they had built up the song, Alomar working out guitar riffs that would become the track’s underlying rhythmic hooks (like the twining, dancing three-part figure that plays over lines like “nothing will keep us together”). “Heroes” had a “plodding rhythm and tempo,” Bowie later said, which was intentional: it was another reworking of “I’m Waiting For the Man,” a song that had obsessed Bowie for ten years. Eno and Bowie, considering the ’70s German bands the natural heirs to the Velvet Underground, had taken the VU drone and translated it into motorik.

Eno’s main contribution was his EMS synthesizer, which plays throughout the track, its oscillators reduced to a low frequency rate (Visconti estimated five cycles per second) and using a noise filter: the result, Visconti said, was the “shuddering, chattering effect [that] slowly builds up and gets more and more obvious towards the end.”

As with many of Bowie’s songs on “Heroes”, the title song’s foundation is simple: five verses, some expanded with a six-bar chorus tag, and finally a refrain of sorts to close things out. “Heroes,” in D major, is primarily the three-chord sequence proposed for “Success”: the verses (and the intro/solo sections) move between D and G major, with the arrival of C major (on, for example, “nothing, nothing will keep us together”) and a two-bar foray into A minor and E minor (on “beat them” and “forever”), briefly disrupting the pattern.

(“Heroes” appears to be in the “D mixolydian” mode—basically, Bowie drops what would be the dominant (V) chord, A major, and replaces it with A minor (and follows it up with E minor). So he’s essentially swapping chords from D major’s parallel minor, D minor, then quickly shuttling back to the major tonic chord, D (so the verse’s climactic sequence of Am-Em-D is v-ii-I)).

It’s unclear if “Heroes” was originally intended as an instrumental. Eno has said he thought it was, and that Robert Fripp’s guitar work was crafted with this in mind, hence Fripp playing all the way through the song.

As it turned out, Fripp’s guitar became a high chorus to Bowie’s multi-gated vocal. On Eno’s Another Green World or other “Heroes” tracks like “Joe the Lion,” Fripp was the variable, breaking open songs, his guitar coming in like a thunderclap. On “Heroes,” he’s there from the beginning, his guitar hanging in the upper atmosphere throughout, singing to itself; his feedback-laden lines suggesting the arrival of a grand melody that never quite comes. It’s a continual promise, never fulfilled.

While most guitarists that took on “Heroes” had to use an Ebow to get Fripp’s sound, playing a sustained run of A notes, Fripp had worked out the feedback patterns on foot, literally. Standing in Hansa’s Studio 2, his guitar routed through Eno’s EMS synthesizer, Fripp marked with tape the places on the studio floor where he could get a feedback loop on any given note. So four feet away from his amp was an A, three feet away was a G, and so on. Fripp stepped and swayed through the song, his sound owed to a simple cartography.

Fripp ran through three takes, and the trebly nature of his playing (further distorted live by Eno’s EMS) meant that each solo on its own sounded thin and wavering. So Tony Visconti blended all three together, eventually bouncing them down to a single track, to achieve what Visconti called “a dreamy, floaty effect.”

As “Heroes” developed, Visconti further emphasized the pulsating drone by tweaking the rhythm tracks. Typically kick drum and snare drums are put in the forefront of a rock mix, but now Visconti buried Dennis Davis’ kick and instead brought up the bassline (played both by Murray’s bass and on one of Alomar’s guitar tracks), so that the latter bolstered the shuddering feel of Fripp’s guitar tracks and Eno’s low-oscillating synthesizer.

So much of “Heroes” is owed to improvisations. An intended horn section (at the start of the second verse) was replaced by a “brass” noise on Bowie’s Chamberlin (“it sounds more like a weedy little violin patch,” Visconti later said), while the Alomar/Murray basslines had been originally considered as string parts. When overdubbing percussion Bowie and Visconti even made do without a cowbell, instead using an empty tape canister that Visconti thwacked with a drumstick (it first appears at 2:55). The only other percussion is a tambourine that crops up in the final verse (at 3:56) and runs through the remainder of the track.

4. Reverberations (You Will Be Queen)

Though the backing track was finished, Bowie waited for weeks to write a lyric, then patched it together in one go. Listening to playback in his headphones, Bowie would write a line or two and swiftly get his vocal down on tape. Visconti would rewind to where Bowie had left off, then he’d write and record another line. (It’s in part why Bowie’s singing on “Heroes” doesn’t flow as much as it seems like a series of dramatic pauses and sudden stabs of phrases.)

Where the lyric of “Station to Station” had been a profusion of imagery hauled out of Bowie’s inventory of obsessions, “Heroes” is far more minimal, its words simple and precisely chosen. Bowie drew from two main sources, both European, both postwar(s). One was the short story “A Grave For A Dolphin” by the Italian aristocrat Alberto Denti Di Pirajno, which details a doomed affair between an Italian soldier and an Somalian girl during the Second World War (it inspired the “dolphins can swim” verse).*** (Bowie also nicked the occasional line from elsewhere: “I will be king, you will be queen” is from the English folk song “Lavender’s Blue,” which Bowie would sing onstage sometimes as a prelude to “Heroes.”)

Bowie had also been taken with an Otto Mueller painting he had seen in Die Brücke Museum, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern (Lovers Between Garden Walls), which Mueller had painted as World War I was ending. Bowie transplanted Meuller’s image of two lovers embracing by a high stone wall, placing them before the Wall that Bowie saw every day from Hansa’s control room window. As legend has it, Bowie was looking out that very window when he spied Visconti (who was married at the time, to Mary Hopkin) and the singer Antonia Maass embracing by the Wall. At once he had found his lyric’s resolution, a snapshot of love and bravery set against the concrete madness of governments, despite it being a shabby act, a man cheating on his wife. (The story, essential to the legend of “Heroes,” might not be true.****)

With Fripp, who usually provided the dramatics, instead working in the chorus line, it was left to Bowie to provide the contrast to the track’s overall stasis. The drama had to come with the vocal, and Bowie planned his singing as though he meant to take an entrenched position from a rival force.

Visconti set up three Neumann microphones in Studio 2, placing the first, a valve U47, directly in front of Bowie, about nine inches away from his face (using “fairly heavy compression, because I knew beforehand that he really was going to shout”). The second, a U87 stood about 15 to 20 feet away from Bowie and the third, another U87, was at the end of the room, some 50 feet away. The latter two mics had electronic gates: they would be switched off until triggered by Bowie hitting a certain volume. Once they were turned on, they would capture the sound of the entire room ringing with Bowie’s voice. (This also meant that Bowie, once he had triggered the other mics, had to go at full blast to keep them on, hence the histrionic tone of his singing—he sounds unhinged at times.)

The vocal was done in three takes (Visconti said most of the final vocal is from the last take, with a few punch-ins to correct stray notes). Bowie immediately moved to recording two tracks of backing vocals with Visconti (hence the faint Brooklyn accent you hear on “I remember” and “wall”), harmonizing in thirds and fifths below the lead vocal. The backing chorus, which generally comes in on the last note of each lead vocal phrase, is the last essential ingredient of the song—until now the singer’s been alone in his fantasies, so having another voice back him up adds a sense of reassurance at last. From the first line Bowie wrote and sang, to the last punch-in edit, it had taken about five hours.

5. Reputations (All the Shame Was On the Other Side)

For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds. In some ways, sadly, they really captured, unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass.

David Bowie, Uncut interview, 1999.

Bowie promoted “Heroes” across two continents, made a promo film, talked to any interviewer who would have him, but the single stiffed, only reaching #24 in the UK and not cracking the Billboard 100 in the US. “Heroes” soon took on another life, becoming a favorite on tour, and Bowie eventually would tailor it for grand moments—closing his Live Aid set with it, playing it in his tribute to Freddie Mercury and his tribute to the dead of 9/11. Of course “Heroes” has also been used to sell mobile phones, software, digital film, life insurance, football matches, HBO’s Latin American programming, hockey and rock star video games; it’s promoted a dopey comic book TV series, while a cover by the Wallflowers was used in an abysmal ’90s Godzilla remake.

None of this has reduced the original “Heroes.” One could argue it’s even strengthened the song. It seems to have been intended as a gift, crafted to be dispersed, to be carried in the air, used by whoever would have it.

At the Hurricane Festival in Scheeßel (the story ends back in Germany, as it seemingly had to), on 25 June 2004, Bowie closed his set with a restrained “Heroes.” He did a few other standards as encores, then he collapsed backstage, suffering what appears to have been a heart attack. Hurricane was the sudden end of the tour, and in retrospect seems the close of Bowie’s professional life. He’s appeared a couple more times on stage (last in 2006), but Hurricane was the terminus: there’ve been no more tours, no more records since.

So closing what could be his last show with “Heroes” seems fitting and just. “Heroes,” the most generous of Bowie’s songs, and possibly the saddest, sounds like Bowie’s farewell, fallen out of time.


Recorded at Hansa by the Wall, July-August 1977. Released as a single in September 1977 (RCA PB 1121, #24 UK), as were “Helden” (RCA PB 9168)—some argue it’s the definitive version of the song, and Bowie’s vocal is pretty tremendous (“ICH!!! ICH BIN DANN KOENIG!”)—and the French “Héros,” (RCA PB 9167), the dud of the bunch. Performed in every Bowie tour since 1978.

Along with the usual suspects in the “sources” list at the right side of the page (esp. Trynka, Pegg and Buckley), of great help for this entry was Phil Sutcliffe’s article on “Heroes” for Q, August 2005; Visconti’s essential interview with Sound on Sound, 2004, and his interview for the great, lost documentary Rock & Roll (1995: episode 7: “The Wild Side”); Mat Snow’s “Making ‘Heroes'” in Mojo‘s 60 Years of Bowie special (2007); guitar tabs in Play Guitar With David Bowie, which unfortunately is just for the single cut. Marcus’ “survivor” piece is his wonderful “Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes,” Village Voice, 17 December 1979 (later collected in Fascist Bathroom).

Photos, top to bottom: Sibylle Bergemann, “Berlin, Palast der Republik,” 1978; Mueller, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern (1919);  “Englehaftetraumstoffe,” “Berlin, Ost 1977”; John Spooner, “Berlin Wall, 1978”; Unknown photog. (Landesbildstelle), East Berlin border at Niederkirchner Strasse, January 1977; Christian Simonpietri, “Eno, Fripp and Bowie,” Hansa Studios, ca. July 1977; “Klaus183,” Berlin Wall, 1978; Masayoshi Sukita, cover of “Heroes” (referencing Heckel’s Roquairol (1917) (as was the cover of The Idiot); “Helden” sleeve, 1977.

* In the US, its closest counterpart would be “The Man Who Sold The World”: a relative obscurity until the mid-1990s, now a Bowie standard.

** Most recently, and most terribly, in the version by the X Factor contestants, who took it to #1 in the UK last year (imagine if “Stars on 45” had charted higher than any actual Beatles singles).

*** Of course, Bowie would eventually marry a Somalian woman. He referenced the Denti novel in his introduction to her I Am Iman (2001).

**** Tobias Rüther, in his Helden: David Bowie und Berlin (2008), interviewed Maass, who claimed the lines weren’t about her and Visconti, as “Heroes” had been completed before their affair started, and that Bowie couldn’t have seen them together anyhow. Someone should do a feminist reading of the song—the male gaze (Bowie), the male protagonist (Visconti) and the oft-forgotten woman who claims that none of the story is true.

Speed of Life

February 14, 2011

Speed of Life.
Speed of Life (live, 1978).
Speed of Life (live, 2002).

Low begins mid-sentence, its opening track suddenly fading up, and soon enough “Speed of Life” establishes its strict parameters—it’s a grid whose sections are composed in turn of shorter repeated pieces. There’s a 16-bar “chorus” section built of 4-bar repeats, which in turn are sets of 2 bars of lead guitar riffs and 2 bars dominated by a descending synthesizer line. Then there’s a 5-bar “bridge,” where the song briefly moves to the relative minor (“Life” is in E-flat, and moves here to G minor), and an 8-bar “verse,” the loveliest section of the track, where two synthesizers duet, a soprano Chamberlin and a tenor ARP 2600 (it’s the most Kraftwerk-esque moment on Low—a sound straight off Radio-Activity).

Like its bookend “A New Career In a New Town,” “Speed of Life” was meant to have lyrics, but Bowie may have realized a vocal would only dilute the track’s strong melodic flavor. Instead “Life” serves as an overture to the record, the cast of characters tumbling out on stage at once—Dennis Davis’ thudding Harmonized drums, George Murray’s typically crafty bass playing (where the rest of the instruments are descending in the “chorus,” Murray moves up in the last bar of each repeat), more stock from Carlos Alomar’s endless supply of guitar riffs and Brian Eno’s precise chaos. Bowie, however, was likely responsible for the descending synth line, a sound seemingly generated by a piston steam engine, as it’s the reincarnated “Laughing Gnome” bassoon riff (also heard as a synthesized vocal line at the end of “Fame”).

As structured as “Life” is, there’s still a sense of flow and improvisation under it all, from the various ways Davis plays his brief fills to how the synthesizer line begins to break out of its established patterns in the final chorus repeat. The title, a play on “speed of light,” could also be a twist on “tree of Life,” the Kabbalistic image that Bowie had been obsessed with during Station to Station. It’s another hint that Low is in part Bowie’s send-up of his earlier occult ramblings, and that as depressive and stark as the record can be, there’s also a real sense of play in it.

Recorded September 1976 at Château d’Hérouville; overdubs September-October, Hansa, Berlin. Issued as the B-side of “Be My Wife,” April 1977. Performed live in 1978 (on Stage) and in the Heathen tour of 2002.

Top: Romy Schneider, Berlin, 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.”