God Only Knows

December 20, 2011

God Only Knows (The Beach Boys, 1966).
God Only Knows (Andy Williams, 1967).
God Only Knows (Ava Cherry and the Astronettes, 1973).
God Only Knows (Bowie, 1984).

When you listen to “Smile” now, what words come to mind?

Childhood. Freedom. A rejection of adult rules and adult conformity. Our message was, “Adults keep out. This is about the spirit of youth.”

Brian Wilson, Wall Street Journal interview, October 2011.

Brian Wilson, who is nearly 70 years old, talked recently about the latest salvage of his would-have-been masterwork Smile. He has been asked about this “lost” record for much of his life, and he’s long run out of stories to tell. Never the most articulate of people, Wilson typically recalls half-remembered things that others have said about him. So here Wilson repeated, yet again, the statement that Smile was meant to be “a teenage symphony to God.” But then Wilson kept on that thought. “It’s a teen’s expression of joy and amazement. It’s unrestrained. We thought of ourselves as teens then, even though we were in our 20s….Van Dyke [Parks] and I wanted “Smile” to be a musical tour of America through the eyes of kids—from Plymouth Rock to Diamond Head.

We thought of ourselves as teens then, even though we were in our twenties. A simple statement that has a world in it: the Sixties ideal of the teen, with adulthood now an afterthought, a curse, something to be put off as long as possible. In Wilson’s case, he has permanently put it off—he is a senior citizen who still sings about being a teenager, and his life is a teenager’s idea of an adult’s. He is Bowie’s Uncle Arthur made flesh.

Odd Victorians—butterfly collectors, mathematicians, table rappers, quietly heretical parsons—had idealized children. Somewhere in the Sixties, in California, that cult was overturned, the child was supplanted by the teen, by the beautiful, corrupted child, one pure with appetites. It was a happy usurpation. Adolescence—a brilliant dream-version of it, at least—was now the peak of life. Catalogs of songs were made in its honor.

Wilson’s Smile, intended as a hymnal for the new religion, was never released, although fragments of it have been around since 1967. The record collapsed for a host of reasons—too many drugs; the exhaustion of its composer; the resistance of the Beach Boys’ reactionary wing, led by Mike Love; the fact that some of its songs weren’t that good. And maybe because it was just unnecessary. Wilson had already written a teenage symphony to God in miniature: his and Tony Asher’s “God Only Knows,” his most perfect song.

Recorded in March 1966, when Wilson was only 23, “God Only Knows” is a prayer in a love song. This wasn’t anything new. What was soul music but singers using expressions and phrasings crafted to praise God and pressing them into service for baser ends, to pronounce lust and love? It was a heresy far older than soul: in 1939, The Ink Spots offered “My Prayer,” which wasn’t to commune with God but simply to “linger with you, at the end of each day.”

So “God Only Knows” falls in this line, but what makes it special is its awkwardness, its honesty. Asher’s lyric captures the tumult of an adolescent’s thoughts: the sudden revisions, the stumbling, the defensiveness. I may not always love you, the song begins. What a start! The kid has to back his way into a vow of eternal commitment, but the bluntness of the opening line (Wilson initially hated it, and had wanted Asher to rewrite it) defines the song’s core ambiguity. It’s an eternal pledge made by a kid with a weak grasp on eternity. The second verse even opens with bluster: If you should ever leave me/though life would still go on, believe me! And again, the singer has to work his way back into pledging his love. The lyric, intentionally or no, is bled through with a teenager’s manic narcissism: every line in the second verse ends with “me” (it’s the only rhyme).

Wilson’s music and arranging for “God Only Knows” deepens the sense of love-as-confusion. The song is tonally vague (it’s a sway between E major, the key of the verse, and A major, the apparent key of the refrain), while its instrumentation is a series of blends, of instruments whose tones bleed into each other in the mono mix. The opening melody is carried on a fusion of accordion, French horn and strings; the staccato quarter notes that undergird the track are a motley of sleigh bells, pizzicato strings, organ, harpsichord and slap-echoed piano and bass (the latter sometimes played so high it sounds like an electric guitar).

Then there are the moments of grace. The little instrumental bridge that briefly sends the song off into a new world. The sweet sighing of Brian Wilson’s voice. The extended coda, with its gorgeous, humble polyphony (just the Wilson brothers, with Bruce Johnston as the top voice): it’s a sense of awe inspired by a suddenly imaginable bliss.

Bowie, like many British musicians of his generation, had loved Pet Sounds—Paul McCartney’s infatuation with the record is one of the more shopworn facts in Beatles lore. The sweetness, the teenage grandeur of the Beach Boys’ records, their sense of a paradise effortlessly achieved by young people somewhere on the West Coast, were something alien to the UK. To no surprise, a cult soon formed around Wilson.

I believe you, Mr. Wilson, John Cale sang, I believe you anyway. Because by 1975, when Cale wrote the song, Wilson had become a zombified figure padding about in a bathrobe, writing songs about Johnny Carson, while the California mythland he had authored had gone to seed (already, in the promo film for “God Only Knows,” Dennis Wilson looks dissolute, Manson-like). When I listen to your music, you’re still thousands of miles away, Cale sang. The line was a play on Cale’s memory of being a nobody in Wales hearing Wilson’s Californian exotica for the first time, and on Wilson’s distance from the promises that his own music made.

The distance that McCartney, Cale and Bowie felt from (and in) Wilson—a dreamer who could never fall asleep, so he doled out his dreams to others—gave them a better vantage to appraise his work. They saw that the Beach Boys at their finest made a modern holy music; religious music for a generation that never thought it would die, one that would never grow old.

Bowie recognized that “God Only Knows,” one of his favorite Wilson tracks, was at heart a soul song. His first attempt to cover the song, with Ava Cherry and the Astronettes in 1973, got it half-right. Cherry was a marvelous singer who never got the chance to really prove it, and here she gives a fervor to the lyric yet doesn’t lose the sense of happy bewilderment and humility. But Bowie’s arrangement, with an odd mandolin accompaniment in the verse and a garrulous saxophone solo that nearly flat-out kills the song, was an ill omen.

A decade later, making Tonight, Bowie seemed to have lost everything that had once made him—his tactical intelligence as a singer, his innate good taste, the precision of his performances, his easy way of reconciling styles within himself. For whatever reason, he decided at last to cover “God Only Knows” himself. He sounds like a man lost in a cathedral who begins to deface the walls in panic.

Bowie’s inspiration seems to be Andy Williams’ version of the song, from 1967 (Bowie’s schmaltzy version of “Imagine” from 1983 seems an initial run-through). But Williams was respectful, cool: he lets himself sink into the song, letting the melody occasionally slip away from him, and whenever he moves to the grandiose, he quickly checks himself with his awed, quiet phrasings of the title refrain. Williams and Ava Cherry had known that the song was bigger than them, and wandered happily within its confines.

At first, Bowie’s version on Tonight seems adequate. He sounds somber and restrained in the opening verses, if seemingly doing a parody of Scott Walker, though the croaking begins to irritate after a time—the lyric is meant to be sung by someone bewildered by love; Bowie seems to be serenading a corpse. A few warning signs come: the grotesque way Bowie sings “stahhhrs,” like he’s gargling, or how he gets snagged on “sure,” rolling the word around on his tongue.

Then Bowie decided that the performance needed to build, that some act of professional grandiosity was required on the record, a contractual obligation that EMI had slipped in. So he and Hugh Padgham (and maybe Derek Bramble—no one’s claimed ownership, unsurprisingly) start to trowel things on. Strings, which had been part of the communal sound world on the Beach Boys’ version, just playing sustained chords and mixed with organ, are used on Bowie’s cover as offensive weapons, soon followed by the horns. One saxophone gets a little solo phrase that’s utterly hateful in its insipidness. Then the singers come in, up to no good. The thing is, everyone sounds so damned pleased with themselves. They’re vandals with delusions of artistry.

But the worst crimes are left to Bowie. Too much of an egoist here to share the vocals, he has to carry the coda by himself. He starts singing the title phrase in a hectoring tone, souring the pleasures of the long vowels—the way “OHN-lee” and “KNOWS” are warm sisters, a communal reassurance following the initial hard, short vowel of “God.” Instead Bowie places his weight upon “God” and rushes through the rest of the phrase, letting it expire in a sickly gasp on “with-out you.” The last repeat, in which Bowie brutalizes each word, wringing whatever effect he can from each syllable, is the apex of the dreadful performance. It’s astonishing in its tastelessness.

The story goes that Bowie was too young for the Sixties, he was always outside of it. But maybe, as this terrible record shows, he was just always too old.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec.

Top: Steve Kagan: Anthony Michael Hall, John Hughes and Molly Ringwald on the set of The Breakfast Club, filmed 1984; Molly Ringwald in Hughes’ Sixteen Candles (1984); Eric Fischl, The Brat II, 1984.

Loving the Alien

December 14, 2011

Loving the Alien.
Loving the Alien (single edit, video).
Loving the Alien (live, 1987).
Loving the Alien (remix, “The Scumfrog vs. Bowie,” 2002).
Loving the Alien (live, 2003).
Loving the Alien (live, Tibet House Benefit, 2003).

“Loving the Alien” is a deliberate “Bowie masterpiece” that aims for the heights of “Station to Station” and “Heroes” and misses. “Alien” obviously meant a great deal to its composer, as he worked to hone the song throughout the Tonight sessions, he led off the record with it, he spent a chunk of his most substantive interview in 1984 trying to make sense of it and he later refitted the song with a simpler arrangement that better suited it. But in all of its incarnations “Alien” seems ultimately a failed promise: it yearns to be more substantial than it is.

On the album, the sheen of the track’s production and its somnolent tempo smothered the song, but “Alien” also had some fundamental flaws that its later, tasteful arrangements couldn’t disguise, either. As a song it doesn’t quite hold together: it feels padded and its joins are shaky, while its frustrating lyric ranges from banality to brilliance in the course of a line.

“Alien” began as a full-band demo that Bowie cut in Switzerland before the Tonight sessions. Known as “Demo No. 1,” cutting a releasable version of it became a focal point of the Tonight sessions. Bowie realized that “Alien,” obviously one of the better-quality pieces on the album, would have to serve double duty—not only the Epic Bowie Song of the record (“Ricochet” had this role last time around), it also had to be a potential single. So the version of “Alien” that wound up on Tonight is, in its somber way, compromised. It can seem like a down-tempo remake of “Let’s Dance” in places—Carmine Rojas’ near-identical descending bass hook is there, and the guitar solo that closes out the track sounds like an outtake from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s work.

Bowie wrote the song out of anger, he said. He had worn a crucifix since his chaotic days in Los Angeles and had come to believe the cross held some beneficial power over him—not as a religious symbol (Bowie wasn’t a Christian except in the nominal sense) but as a good-luck charm, a tangible piece of white magic. Musing on this, he began to piece together a vague theory on religion: that much of it, from Judaism to Islam, had been built on a consecutive series of mistranslations.

“Loving the Alien” is Bowie’s last Los Angeles song, as he later admitted. Its lyric is a pulp of a variety of crackpot religious “hidden history” books popular in the Seventies and Eighties—Hugh Schonfield’s The Passover Plot, Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail and, most of all, Donovan Joyce’s The Jesus Scroll, which Bowie mentioned in his interview with Shaar Murray. The common thread of these books (from which Dan Brown cherry-picked conspiracies for his Da Vinci Code) is that the official Christian Gospel is a lie, with Jesus Christ having not died on the cross but having fake-engineered his own death for political reasons (Schonfield) or having lived in obscurity until 80, dying a forgotten mortal (Joyce), his descendents still around today (Baigent –> Brown).

One of Bowie’s consistent themes, from the start of his mature work, was the allure and abuses of power. So he took from this jumble of religious hearsay the idea of a Church holding dominion over the dreams and desires of countless generations of human beings, despite its teachings being at heart false, or based on botched translations. For Bowie, the Church is the ultimate Saviour Machine, having the same contempt for the people that it’s allegedly serving (remember that Bowie’s super-computer in that song was called “The Prayer”).

The existence of extra-terrestrial intelligences would have a profound impact on religion, shattering completely the traditional perspective on God’s relationship with man. The difficulties are particularly acute for Christianity, which postulates that Jesus Christ was God incarnate whose mission was to provide salvation for man on Earth. The prospect of a host of “alien Christs” systematically visiting every planet in the physical form of the local creatures has a rather absurd aspect. Yet otherwise how are the aliens to be saved?

Paul Davies, God and the New Physics.

“Loving the Alien” “had to do with Major Tom,” Carlos Alomar once told David Buckley. This was an error—the lyric has nothing in it to suggest a follow-up to “Space Oddity,” and there’s no evidence that Bowie had intended “Alien” to fall in the sequence after “Ashes to Ashes.” But Alomar hit home indirectly, as “Alien” does seem like an apocryphal sequel to “Space Oddity,” in which a transformed man (a Major Tom come home) is misinterpreted as a savior, Bowie drawing on various cod-mythic histories in which Jesus Christ was said to literally be an alien being worshiped by an ignorant population—a Starman waiting in the sky.

Bowie sets his lyric in the Holy Land, with Crusaders and Saracens, and their counterparts in Israel/Palestine a millennium later, battling to hold a place that may not have been holy at all (in the Murray interview, Bowie also said he was reading a “historian” who claimed that Ancient Israel was actually in today’s Saudi Arabia—I couldn’t determine who he was talking about). If the verses are a jumbled historical narrative, actors caught up in an endless cycle, time folding into itself, the chorus offers escape: salvation by collective delusion. But if you pray, all your sins are hooked upon the sky, Bowie sings, in his best line of the song. Pray away your enemies, pray away your sins, by loving something you don’t understand, even something false, he sings. Then again, prayers sometimes work. Bowie didn’t get rid of his crucifix, after all.

Bowie had always had a soft spot for conspiracies and wild, speculative cod-histories, with “Quicksand” and “Station to Station” being compendiums of the strands of thought that the books had generated in his mind. But the strength, the uncanny power, of those earlier songs is their interiority—they are more dream journals and stream-of-consciousness fictions than they are any valid speculations on life. They are, in their gnomic ways, true, because everything is true in the mind.

Where “Alien” goes astray is its attempt to impose this sort of dream-speculative scheme upon a real, bloody political situation, especially in its weak second verse—the Middle East of 1984, with the Lebanese Civil War raging and the First Intifada only a few years away. Doing so brings Bowie’s muddled thoughts out into the sharp air, where they expire—his speculations seem trite, his viewpoint that a privileged, rich man idly wondering why people act the way they do, with the abstracted air of someone watching the convulsions of an anthill. The sympathies he has in the chorus, the way Bowie joins with the desire for prayer and release, removes some of this coldness, but there’s still a slight condescension in it.

It’s a fortunate thing in music that so much of the subconscious comes through with the melody and the placement of a particular word on a particular note. For better or for worse, the information is inherent in the song, not in the writer or his intentions or even in the lyrics. It’s probably my strongest point that I write evocatively in terms of musical and verbal expression.

Bowie, Rolling Stone interview, 1984.

“Loving the Alien” was intended as an epic, so it opens with an extended 20-bar intro sequence broken into three stages—an assembling of players, then a brief vocal hook of repeating “ah ah ah”s—inspired by Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach via Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” a song Bowie covered on stage a decade later.* Then Guy St. Onge plays the opening riff on marimba (a bit suggestive of the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” from two years before), and the song coalesces with Alomar’s arpeggios set against Rojas’ bassline.

After two albums of fairly basic chord progressions, here Bowie offers a murky one worthy of Space Oddity. “Alien” has an indeterminate key. While the sheet music sets it in G major, its tonality is much vaguer—the verse fits in with G major (Bm/D/Cmaj7/D6, which is III-V-IVmaj7-V6 in G), but the chorus ranges far outside that key, with the arrival of a B-flat, a C minor and an F minor 7th, all of which suggest a move to C minor. The change fits Bowie’s lyrical shift from “earth” in the verses to “heaven” in the choruses.

Bowie’s vocal is also crafted well, with his verse lines often starting with hopeful slight ascents and then descending whenever he hits a piece of reality, a Saracen or a telegram. Or take the way he slightly lowers the high note with each repetition of “pray” or “prayer” in the chorus, as if dialing down expectations—the initial “if you PRAY” has Bowie hitting a high G (the dominant note in the C minor chord the band is playing), the subsequent “PRAY and the heathen” falls to a natural F, and “PRAYERS they hide” falls to an E. And he sings his lines well and passionately, ripping his voice on “SKY.”

But there’s a real strain in “Alien’s” construction at times: take the brutal way the pre-chorus is dragged to the chorus, with three bars of upward jolts in quintuplets. Or how the extended coda sequence, which drags on for two minutes, goes nowhere at all, just recycling the intro sequence and eventually throwing in an uninspired guitar solo.

Of course, there’s much to admire in “Alien”: it’s cryptic in the best Bowie way, and it sounds good, with Arif Mardin’s strings tasteful by the standards of Tonight, and the vocal chorus, usually a catastrophic force on the record, is put to fine use here, with the choir-sounding backing vocals. But there’s something off about “Alien”: there’s a sense of misfiring, of the song pushing for a grandiosity it doesn’t quite earn. It’s a magician not quite pulling off an old trick, though believing that the cards are still speaking to him.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec. Released as a single in May 1985 (EA 195, #19 UK)—its video, with its mix of surreal imagery (the backing band out of de Chirico paintings) and Eighties cheese (Bowie’s outfit and ur-Rick Astley dancing) sums up the song’s muddled impact. Performed during the Glass Spider tour and, in a somber reincarnation, in some of the Reality Tour shows.

* While Bowie took pains to dismiss “O Superman”‘s influence on “Alien,” saying that Glass was the only inspiration, this seems a bit too Anxiety of Influence, as “Superman” has obvious lyrical affinities with “Alien” and plays with the same themes of faith and power. Anderson’s opening lyrics (“O Superman, O Judge, O Mom and Dad”) are her play on Le Cid’s aria “O Souverain, O Juge, O Pere.” “In the opera, these words are uttered as a prayer of resignation, the hero putting his fate in God’s hands. In the Anderson song, the three O’s change meaning. First, she prays to Superman (Truth! Justice! The American Way!) but by the end she longs for Mom and Dad.” (Isaac Butler, “Here Come the Planes.”).

Top: Sibylle Bergemann, “Ohne Titel (Gummlin, Usedom),” 1984; from the series Das Denkmal (A Monument), 1975–86. (Reportedly statues of Marx and Engels, East Germany).

Blue Jean

December 7, 2011

Blue Jean.
Blue Jean (alternate video).
Jazzin’ For Blue Jean.
Blue Jean (12″ remix, Jellybean Benitez).
Blue Jean (live, 1987).
Blue Jean (live, 1990).
Blue Jean (live, 2004).

You can’t take me on my own. You can only use me as a form of reference.

David Bowie, interview, 1984.

“Blue Jean,” the only track to escape the morass of Tonight, was written off as a cheap score by its creators. Hugh Padgham regretted that of all the promising demos he’d heard, “Blue Jean” was one of the handful that Bowie developed. It was Padgham’s least favorite of the lot. Padgham had always wanted to work with Bowie; cruel fate assigned him Tonight (it’s like a lifelong Hitchcock fan collaborating on Topaz).

And Bowie didn’t think much of “Blue Jean” either—it was the single, it got him on the radio again and let him do a slapstick extended video. It was a vehicle: he used it, he had no love for it. Bit of a sexist rock & roll thing, he later said. Music for picking up girls.

Bowie seemed mired in vague nostalgia at the time of Tonight, pining for the London of his teenage years. He liked working on the “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” video with Julien Temple because he got to play-act being caught up in London life again (he hadn’t lived there for over a decade now), and he felt Temple was part of a fresh pack. Temple, along with Alex Cox, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh, was waking up the moribund British film industry, so working with him made Bowie feel contemporary again. (Bowie soon had a role in Temple’s Absolute Beginners.)

Missing what he called the vitality of the Sixties, the smartness in dress, the sudden dominance of youth, Bowie found in Thatcherite London at least a simulacrum of it. After all, there was money, fashion, swinging parties, respectable drugs. But Sixties London also had taken its savor from working-class life and provincial imports, creating, if for a moment, a “classless” society of the young, wild and hip. Not quite the case in aspirational Eighties London, an after-hours playground for young professionals.

So “Blue Jean” is a throwback in a period of throwbacks. It’s even more retro than “Let’s Dance,” taking cues from Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else,” Sam Cooke (“somebody send me“), Sixties rock & roll (Carlos Alomar’s arpeggiated guitar in the verses has echoes of “If I Needed Someone”). Bowie’s low-pitched word-tumbling vocal in the verse suggests an uptempo Jacques Dutronc, the alto saxophonist sounds like a Georgie Fame player who’s been given a slightly longer leash. Taking Robin Clark out of the vocal chorus alters its sound, making the now-all-male backing singers sound conspiratorial and even slightly lustful.

“Blue Jean” herself is an exotic temptress out of a Frankie Laine song, or, worse, a Tom Jones track (she’s got “Latin roots”). If she has an ancestor in the Bowie catalog, it’s the original manic pixie hippie girl “Janine.”

A basic workout in D major (the slight tension in the early bars of each verse is owed to a wavering between D and a D suspended fourth), “Blue Jean”‘s chorus moves between the dominant, A major, and the mediant, F# minor—so the song is mainly keeping to the basic tones of the D chord (D, F#, A); there are no real surprises except swapping in a natural C (on “police bike”) for a sharp one. Two verses, three choruses, no bridges or solos save a four-bar Alomar riffing transition. “Blue Jean” ends just when you get sick of it.

There’s a lot of small pleasures to be found: take how Omar Hakim slightly varies the climactic drum fill at the end of each verse—first hard on the snare, then quick on the bass drum. Or Alomar’s typically crafty rhythm playing (there’s the sweet way that he lags against the beat midway through the verse (as on “always let you down when you need ’em“)). And the marimba player Guy St. Onge makes the track, accenting Alomar’s guitar in the verses, meshing with the drums to build up to the chorus, where it plays counter-melodies to the vocals. “Blue Jean” is fun, catchy, flash; it moves well, it does its business quickly. One of the best second-rate Bowie hits.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec. Released as a single in September 1984 (EA 181, #6 UK, #8 US). The Temple-directed 20-minute “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” promotional video used the age-old “doppleganger” formula where the star plays both nerd and cool kid (for a more recent example, see Taylor Swift). Look for the Right Said Fred guy playing Bowie’s bassist, though the highlight for me is “Screamin’ Lord Byron” applying his makeup while listening to “Warszawa.”

Top: Miami police officer Tina Hicks in simulator training, November 1984. (via the fantastic If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger… blog).

1984, Dodo

August 26, 2010

1984/Dodo (first performance, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
1984/Dodo (studio outtake, 1973).
1984 (Diamond Dogs).
Dodo (studio outtake, 1973).
Dodo (studio outtake, with Lulu & Bowie co-lead vocals, 1973).
1984 (live, 1974).
1984 (The Dick Cavett Show, 1974).

Orwell in 1948 understood that despite the Axis defeat, the will to fascism had not gone away, that far from having seen its day it had perhaps not even come into its own—the corruption of spirit, the irresistible human addiction to power, were already long in place, all well-known aspects of the third Reich and Stalin’s USSR, even the British Labour party—like first drafts of a terrible future.

Thomas Pynchon, introduction to the 2003 edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Diamond Dogs is a salvage job, a compilation of scraps from stillborn Bowie projects. There are remnants of a Ziggy Stardust musical (“Rebel Rebel” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me”), pieces of a barely comprehensible Oliver Twist-by-JG Ballard scenario (“Diamond Dogs,” “Future Legend” and “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”), and fragments of Bowie’s grandest failed ambition, a musical of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “We Are the Dead,” “Big Brother” and, of course, “1984” itself.

Orwell’s widow, Sonia Brownell, vetoed Bowie’s proposed musical, considering it to be in poor taste. (Brownell died in 1980, depriving Orwell’s works of a gatekeeper: it was good news for the Eurythmics.) So we can only guess, via its few surviving songs, as to what Bowie’s adaptation would have been like. He seems most intrigued by the concept of absolute authority, the quisling culture over which it rules and how the mind seems eager to condone and accept it. What fascinated Bowie, what was arguably the only thing that truly interested him in the mid-’70s, was power, and the schizophrenic manner of thinking—double-thought, basically—that allows, even encourages its abuses. “1984” is a homage to power, with Bowie singing the title year like a man beseeching a lover (it’s a perverse echo of Roy Orbison’s “Leah”).

The title of Orwell’s book, of course, is the year of its composition with the last two digits reversed, with the world of Big Brother being essentially postwar Britain, with its bombed-out city centers, its food and electricity rationing, its grubbiness (watery coffee, half-cigarettes) and exhaustion. Drawing on the bureaucracy and hive-mind that he had encountered working in BBC propaganda during the war, Orwell suggested that even the well-meaning Labour Party, busy in 1948 erecting the welfare state, would be concerned with establishing and bolstering its power at the expense of everything else.

So it’s not surprising to find Bowie writing his version of Nineteen-Eighty-Four in late 1973, which was something of a bookend to 1948. It was an anemic sequel to the war years, with, once again, government-mandated rationing (PM Heath’s Three-Day Week power cuts, which lasted from January to March ’74), food shortages and price hikes, even bombs going off regularly in London, courtesy of the IRA.

No coup will take place in this country until it is one that would be welcomed or quietly acquiesced in by a majority or a very large minority of the people…in my judgment, we have gone measurably down the road to such acceptance in the last decade, and we have travelled very quickly along it in the last year.

Patrick Cosgrave, “Could the Army Take Over?” The Spectator, 22 December 1973.

There was a sense that the center couldn’t hold for much longer, that the government would fall either to the Communists or the neo-fascists, each of whom at least had some vitality left. The Establishment was old and crazed: in early 1974, Sir William Armstrong, the Head of the Home Civil Service, at a weekend government seminar in Oxfordshire, stripped off his clothes, lay on the floor and, in Francis Wheen‘s words, began “chain-smoking and expostulating wildly about the collapse of democracy and the end of the world…about moving the Red Army from here and Blue Army from there.” The Christmas ’73 issue of The Spectator speculated on the likelihood of a military coup in the UK; it quoted a Tory lobby hack who said that Britain “had seen our last general election, since from now on the Prime Minister would merely need to continue to prolong various states of emergency and elongate the life of this parliament.” A few weeks later, the Spectator editorialized that “Britain is on a Chilean brink.”

For Bowie, this situation only meant that the endgame he had imagined as far back as “The Supermen” or “Cygnet Committee” was coming to pass soon, and in songs like “1984” he seemed to welcome it. “I’m looking for the treason that I knew in ’65,” he sings at one point, but don’t believe him. His Winston Smith wouldn’t have required conversion—he would have shoved his face into the rat cage without prompting.

“1984” is a milestone for Bowie; it’s the most rhythmically ambitious track he’d ever made. Rhythm was underdeveloped in most of Bowie’s early records, as Bowie concentrated on harmonic progression, developing melodies and juxtapositions—playing out odd chord changes, creating intricate vocal lines, building off riffs, crafting tracks out of sound effects (from Stylophones to varispeed vocals). It didn’t help that Bowie’s first studio drummers were under par, while Woody Woodmansey (and Trevor Bolder) mainly followed Mick Ronson’s lead, serving as the equivalent to a rhythm guitar. With Aynsley Dunbar, Bowie’s first top-rate drummer, Bowie was able to work through ideas he was picking up from James Brown and Isaac Hayes records.

So the opening of “1984,” with its Shaft-inspired chicken-scratch guitar (by Alan Parker), its staggered four-note bassline, Dunbar’s sizzling cymbal work and sweeps of violins (the latter arranged by Tony Visconti, back in the Bowie fold after a few years), is a pure groove—it spins in place for ten bars, and feels like it could go on for hours. The essential “1984” performance, for me, is the Dick Cavett Show performance in November ’74, where the band is so tight and fluid that Bowie just bounces off of them.

There’s a similar richness in the vocals. Bowie’s developing the sonorous timbre he would use for much of the next decade—it’s the dawn of his imperious Thin White Duke voice, which he uses here craftily (his vocal is full of feints and unusual phrasings: take the way Bowie sings the highest note on the penultimate beat of a phrase, e.g. “you said it WOULD last/but I guess we EN-rolled” or “nine-teen eigh-TY four”). He wraps his vocal in a web of call-and-response backing vocals by the Astronettes, which gives the track a sense of grandeur, particularly in the bridge, where Bowie’s high register contrasts with the basso chorus.

Bowie overlaid these rhythm and vocal innovations on a slightly-off song structure. The verse’s progression from the home key of D minor to F is broken by an odd swerve to E minor, while the chorus is a four-bar extension of the verses, built on a move up to the sixth and seventh intervals—Bb (“be-ware the”) and C (“savage”)—before falling back home to Dm (“lure”). The bridge, the track’s melodic and dramatic high point, starts in 5/4 time (“see, come see, remember”), slows to a bar of 2/4 (“me”), then finally settles on 4/4.

“1984” was born conjoined with “Dodo,” the latter song originally titled “You Didn’t Hear It From Me.” The pairing worked, thematically—“1984” set the scene, then “Dodo” narrowed the scope, focusing on a particular doomed man about to be brainwashed. At some point Bowie excised “Dodo” and shelved the song after trying it out as a possible single for Lulu.

Cutting “Dodo” was the right move, as “1984”s power lies in the force of its sweep, how the verses tumble into the choruses, how the intro groove returns to ease transitions between the oddly-timed bridges. In the original medley, “Dodo” emerged after the first bridge of “1984”—its appearance was surprising yet still felt like a natural progression, but it also sapped the tempo and the song never quite recovered. When “1984” returned at the end, its force had lessened.

“Dodo” on its own still had potential as a narrow, jaundiced piece of funk, but Bowie’s studio version didn’t gel—it sounded sluggish and underdeveloped. Bowie may have considered it too similar, melodically, to “1984,” while “Big Brother” had gone over similar ground, making the aptly-named “Dodo” superfluous for Diamond Dogs.

The first performance of “1984/Dodo” was recorded at the 1980 Floor Show on 18 October 1973, while the studio “1984/Dodo” medley was cut in November 1973 (it was the last hurrah of the old gang, as the track featured Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder and was the last Bowie recording produced by Ken Scott). Unreleased at the time, it wound up on the Sound + Vision set.

The revised “1984,” divorced from “Dodo,” was likely cut between 14-16 January 1974 and is the centerpiece of Diamond Dogs‘ B-side. It was released as a single in the US and Japan (RCA PB 10026) and performed throughout Bowie’s ’74 tour. Bowie, showing amazing restraint, didn’t perform the song once during its title year.

Top: Piccadilly Circus with much of its lights out due to power cuts, 1 February 1974.