I Wanna Be Your Dog

April 12, 2012

I Wanna Be Your Dog (Iggy Pop with Bowie, live, 1977).
I Wanna Be Your Dog (Bowie with Charlie Sexton, live, 1987).

I had all these thwarted dreams of what I’d tried to do with rock ‘n roll in the early ’70s, and I was trying to do all that a bit late.

David Bowie, 1991.

Glass Spider was a supernova of a concert which saw the old version of Bowie finally explode under the weight of self-parody, only to shrink to the red dwarf of Tin Machine.

David Buckley.

The Glass Spider tour, 1987: 86 shows, six months, three continents. The spider itself, designed by Mark Ravitz, was 60 feet high and 64 feet wide, spun out of fiberglass and metal, with vacuum tubes for legs. Bowie began each concert by descending in a chair from its maw, while on the encore (“Time”) he sang from atop the structure’s head, precariously standing on a three-foot-square steel plate. When the winds were up, it was too dangerous for him to be there; after a while, Bowie began hoping each night that the winds would be up.

The summer of 1987, in Europe and the UK, was soured by winds and rain, and as it generally stayed light until 10 PM, it meant that the Spider often wouldn’t be fully lit until the concert was nearly over, while the video-projected backdrops were often hard to see (worse, many of the open-air arenas that Bowie played in Britain had strict 10:30 PM or 11 PM curfews, causing Bowie to sprint through his encores). Most concertgoers just saw an enormous, immobile, occasionally-glowing spider and, beneath it, some dozen performers running around in circles. Bowie wore bright red and gold suits in part so that those in the nosebleed seats could at least determine which speck he was. (See below, a photograph from a Manchester show in July 1987.)

The tour was plagued by technical foul-ups. The limitations of the sound system and of the headsets that Bowie and his dancers wore meant that their spoken “dialogue” often sounded like babble punctuated by the occasional burst of feedback. Bowie took to miming a pre-recorded vocal track on his opening “Glass Spider” as he was generally inaudible singing into his headset mike while in his chair. Carlos Alomar and Peter Frampton groused that the dancers kept pushing them up-stage and sometimes stepped on their effects pedals—once, during a quiet song, a dancer turned on Frampton’s fuzzbox by accident. There were also a string of greater disasters—a lighting engineer fell to his death in Florence, there was a riot in Milan, Bowie was sued for sexual assault in America (a grand jury later cleared him of all charges).

And the mood backstage was raw at times. Carlos Alomar, at last fed up with being the eternally-agreeable sidekick, gave a few truculent interviews in which he emphasized his importance to Bowie’s records (undeniable, but this was never a good thing for your long-term health in Bowie’s organization), and he asked to start off the concert with an extended squalling guitar solo to show that he was Frampton’s equal: “On that tour I was tired of being the sideman. I wanted my place. Give me a bone, Jesus!” he told David Buckley years later. Alomar and the bassist Carmine Rojas formed a hard-partying, irreverent faction (much to the alleged ire of Coco Schwab), while Frampton and Erdal Kizilcay, by contrast, were reserved and often worn out, and even thought about bailing once the tour had reached America.

And Bowie? He was both tour manager and ringmaster, dancer as well as director: painstakingly mapping out choreographed dance and lighting sequences during soundchecks. He had to sing while performing like a triathlete (climbing up to a catwalk on “Scary Monsters,” being thrown around like a sack of grain by his dancers on “Fashion”). To no surprise, Bowie grew exhausted and irritable, especially once the bad reviews poured in (the NME: “unmemorable tedium,” Melody Maker: “the paucity of ideas is quite incredible,” Sounds: “frenzied schlock”), and his voice occasionally gave out as the months wore on. A member of Big Country, one of Bowie’s opening acts, recalled to Marc Spitz a time when Bowie had a “volcanic” meltdown because the hair stylist had used the wrong lacquer on his mullet. Bowie publicly dressed down Alomar, even once the genial Kizilcay.

Bowie had never put on a show on the level of “Glass Spider” and he soon came to feel trapped within it. In 1974, he had ditched the Diamond Dogs concept three months into the tour, scrapping the Hunger City sets in favor of soul-inspired group performances. But now Pepsi was footing much of the bill, and everyone expected the spectacle: the giant spider, the routine where Bowie pulled his girlfriend out of the crowd on “Bang Bang,” the abseiling and kickboxing dancers.

So the “Glass Spider” tour became an extended acting-out of the conflicting impulses that had bedeviled Never Let Me Down. On one hand, the tour was meant to be an arena-based summer hot-ticket event (and the shows generally sold out—Bowie didn’t lose money on it, by any means), but Bowie also intended it to be a traveling performance-art show, an avant-garde rock and roll circus, featuring modern dances inspired by Pina Bausch: he originally wanted the Canadian troupe La La La Human Steps to be his dancers, but they were unavailable (he would work with them in 1988).

The band generally turned in solid, even inspired performances (“Heroes” in the Berlin concert in June 1987 remains one of Bowie’s most resonant moments), while the set list was fresh, with few nostalgic favorites or greatest hits on the bill. In the “Serious Moonlight” tour, Bowie had performed only the hits off of Let’s Dance and had filled the rest of his set with classics. Even in 1978, he had leavened the Low/”Heroes” material with Ziggy Stardust songs. But “Glass Spider” featured almost all of Never Let Me Down (except, wisely, “Shining Star” and “Too Dizzy”), while its older songs were as much obscurities (“Sons of the Silent Age,” “All the Madmen,” “Big Brother”) as they were hits (“Let’s Dance,” “China Girl,” “Fame”).*

As the tour wound down in Europe, Bowie began swapping out some of his new material for storied rockers (“Jean Genie,” “White Light/White Heat”), in part because he didn’t have to dance during the new numbers: he could just stay in one place on stage and even strap on a guitar. And soon into the American leg of the tour, he began playing the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” in encores (the first set list that I found with it is, appropriately, Iggy Pop’s backyard: Pontiac, Michigan, on 12 September 1987).

It’s not that Bowie’s performances of “Wanna Be Your Dog” were revelatory—in fact, they were often dull, especially compared to the caustic performances that he and Pop had unleashed a decade before. The all-star celebrity revue performance with Charlie Sexton (filmed in Sydney for the Glass Spider video), with its almost cheery uptempo rhythms, and with Sexton and Frampton vying to out-cliche each other, is particularly grating. But reviving “White Light” and “Wanna Be Your Dog” served a purpose for Bowie: it let him revel in a fantasy that, for a moment, he was happily reduced to being in a rock band again, that the only spectacle he had to pull off was the song itself.

The tour ended in Auckland on 28 November 1987. Bowie would never attempt anything of its like again (though “Glass Spider” would be the template for a host of succeeding tours, from Paula Abdul‘s abseiling dancers to U2’s PopMart and 360 tours). It had been a long, hard purging of illusions. Bowie would never again attempt to so fully reconcile his avant-garde theatrical side with the hard business of filling arenas. He had been ridiculed for it, the process had nearly broken him, and now he was done. Bowie the global pop icon died on the same night that he torched the spider in a New Zealand field.

Still, there were a few moments during 1987 when Bowie stumbled upon his future. At a party to celebrate the end of the tour, a depressed-looking Bowie saw Hunt Sales across the room and embraced him like a lost brother. And before he left for the last leg in Australia, his publicist Sara handed him a cassette. It was a few demos by her husband, who Bowie had befriended during the tour. Bowie was bemused: he had thought that Reeves Gabrels was a painter. He put the tape in his coat pocket and soon forgot about it. Six months later, back home in Switzerland, Bowie came across the tape and figured it was worth a listen…

*In rehearsals, Bowie tried out “Scream Like a Baby” (Frampton again taking part of the vocals), “Because You’re Young,” and “Joe the Lion.”

The version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” linked above was filmed by David Mallet in Sydney on 6 November 1987, and released as part of the Glass Spider concert video.

Photos (top to bottom): unknown show/photog. (let me know);  pommieken (Manchester,UK, 14 or 15 July 1987); Wikipedia (Nürburgring, Germany, 7 June 1987);  Turistadeguerra (Madison Square Garden, NYC, 1 or 2 September 1987).

Never Let Me Down

April 9, 2012

Never Let Me Down.
Never Let Me Down (video).
Never Let Me Down (Top of the Pops (US), 1987).
Never Let Me Down (dub/”a capella” mix).
Never Let Me Down (live, 1987).

Written and recorded in little over a day during the mixing sessions for Never Let Me Down, the last-minute title song* was spontaneous where much of the album was labored and was lyrically and emotionally blunt by Bowie’s standards, which may have helped “Never” be the last Bowie single to chart higher in America than in the UK. (It’s also Bowie’s last US Top 40 single.)

Bowie said in contemporary interviews that his vocal was meant as a tribute to John Lennon, and the track’s harmonica solo and the whistling in its coda also both work as Lennon shorthand. But of which Lennon? Lennon’s son, Julian, had a uptempo hit in 1985, “Too Late For Goodbyes,” which shares with “Never” a vocal line that darts up to falsetto, a mild, bouncing rhythm sparked with bass flourishes, and a harmonica solo in place of a verse.

While displaced as Lennon’s heir presumptive once Lennon and Yoko Ono had had a son of their own, Julian Lennon suddenly emerged in late 1984 with a debut record on Atlantic. Its timing was perfect (its singles seemed like follow-ups to the last, posthumous John Lennon hit, “Nobody Told Me”) and it had a pedigree: recorded at Muscle Shoals Studios, produced by Phil Ramone, with a cast of top session players including Michael Brecker and Toots Thielemans (who played harmonica on “Goodbyes”). Its videos were directed by Sam Peckinpah in his dotage. The full press worked: Valotte went platinum and produced two Top 10 hits. But Julian’s fame was only of a moment. His next three records sold weakly. By 1990 his career, barely begun, seemed that of a fading songwriter twice his age.

Much of the hullabaloo around “Valotte” at the time was that it seemed like a generic public conception of a “John Lennon song,” that Julian sounded like Mind Games-era Lennon and that in the video he looked like a softened, newly-hatched version of his father. As Ben Greenman wrote recently, Julian ably served as a “psychic replacement” for his father, just when the public had begun to accept John was gone.

So if Bowie was slightly referencing Julian, some of it was a mercenary’s sense of knowing where the action was: Julian was getting hits in ’85-’86, and Bowie had intended “Never” to be the lead-off single. But it’s also nice to imagine that the old faker Bowie appreciated the odd mimicry that Julian had pulled off, and that he was taken by the idea that the post-Sixties generation had demanded their own toy edition of John Lennon—a Lennon who was fresh, young and single again, but also neutered: no weird political stunts, no screaming about his mother, no feminist broadsides, no public embarrassments. (A letter to Rolling Stone at the time came from a Boomer mother who lovingly recounted what her teenage daughter had told her: “Mom, you had John Lennon and now we have Julian.” (“Good luck kid, I thought,” Greil Marcus spat in response. “What kind of life can you make out of these pathetic little Family Favorites tunes about nothing? It made me sick to read that letter, not because Julian Lennon is corrupt, fake or dishonest, but because he probably worthy, sincere and true…when Julian sings badly, emptily, which is all he does, you hear success.“)

On the surface, “Never Let Me Down” is transparent enough: a tribute to John Lennon musically, a tribute to Coco Schwab** lyrically. But if the Lennon being homaged is an echo of the “real” Lennon, can the lyric be read so directly either? The singer traffics in a shared nostalgia (with the subject of his song, as well as his audience) as a means to sell his pleas, and the song seems sentimental because it’s in part playing with our memories of sentimental songs. So while the last verse finds the singer pledging that it’s his turn to return the favors, there’s a sadness more than a reassurance in his voice (it doesn’t help that Bowie sings “never let me down” as a run of ascending stepwise notes until he falls on “down,” and so not quite selling the commitment). While it would be foolish to dismiss the apparent heartfelt sentiments that inspired the song, “Never” is also guarded and contradictory: that is, classic Bowie.

“Never Let Me Down” began as a discarded drum track from the album’s earlier Montreux sessions. Bowie was mulling writing a new song during its mixing at the Power Station (given some of the material he was mixing, that’s not surprising), so while Bob Clearmountain mixed “Zeroes,” Bowie and David Richards found another open studio and soon built up a track, with Bowie doing much of the synth work, and quickly writing and cutting a vocal. The three-verse lyric moves from distant recollection (in the first verse the singer refers to “her” and “she” helping him out) to close by making of direct pledge of his own (the last verse has him singing to “you”). It’s sung and phrased well: in the pre-chorus a bobbing run of notes buoy “dance a little dance,” which also is the start of a long fall down an octave, though Bowie’s attempts at a Lennon (pater or fils) falsetto sound strained at times.

In the evening Bowie and Richards brought in Crusher Bennett for percussion and Carlos Alomar for guitar dubs, including some of his trademark percussive fills in the choruses. And fitting for Bowie’s “thanks for the memories” song, “Never Let Me Down” became the last Bowie/Alomar co-composition. When Alomar arrived, Bowie asked him to spice up what he later called a “funereal” chord progression, with Alomar ransacking a discarded piece of his own, “I’m Tired.” It’s hard to determine who wrote what, though if I were to guess, the F major ninths, sevenths and sixths in the intro and pre-chorus (which culminate in a pounded-home G seventh chord) feels like a guitarist’s doing, while the B-flat in the chorus that pulls the song out of C major towards a vague but inconclusive F major seems a typical Bowie move.

Alomar’s work with Bowie didn’t end here: he was a major part of the Glass Spider tour, perhaps too major, as Bowie’s unhappiness with that tour led him to cut ties with nearly everyone involved with it. Alomar turned up next (after once again being snubbed for a Nile Rodgers-produced Bowie record) in 1995, where he played a minor role on Outside and its subsequent tour, apparently to his frustration. Thankfully, like Tony Visconti, he and Bowie seemed to have made up by the end of the century, with Alomar’s contributions to both Heathen and Reality adding to those albums’ feel of recapitulation and finality.

But in the future, Alomar would always be a sideman, a second-tier player; he would no longer be a translator or a voice for Bowie to sing in. “Never Let Me Down” inadvertently became a document of Bowie and Alomar parting company, and so the knowledge of this can’t help but add to the sense that Bowie’s eternal pledges of the last verse won’t come true. The song’s a bittersweet thank-you, a dismissal in a kiss.

Recorded ca. September-November 1986, mainly at the Power Station, NYC. On the album that it titled and also released in July 1987 as a single (EA 239 c/w “’87 and Cry,” UK #34, #27 US). The video, with its dance marathon setting, was directed by Jean-Baptiste Modino and was by far the best of the lot from Never Let Me Down. Performed live during the Glass Spider tour.

*A Bowie tradition by this point (see “The Man Who Sold the World”).

** Schwab was of course Bowie’s longtime assistant, who had helped take care of his son, had paid the bills, had arranged transportation and housing and had generally served as the representative of sanity in an often insane life.

Top: Ted Barron, “Jesus Saves, New York, 1986.”


April 4, 2012

Zeroes (live, 1987).

Bowie’s Sixties pop tribute “Zeroes” is the ambition, creative anxiety and bungled execution of Never Let Me Down in microcosm. Bowie considered “Zeroes” one of the album’s major songs, sequenced it to close the first side and labored over it, crowding the track with everything from Peter Frampton’s electric sitar to a 10-person vocal chorus whose members likely included his son Duncan and his assistant Coco.* It’s telling that Bowie kept “Zeroes” at its full length (just shy of six minutes) on the LP release, where he’d trimmed a majority of the other cuts.

Bowie described his intention for “Zeroes” as “stripping away all the meanness of rock and coming back to the spirit with which one entered the thing. It’s the ultimate happy-go-lucky rock tune, based in the nonsensical period of psychedelia. So it’s a naivete song about rock, using a lot of cliches.” It’s always a mug’s game to accept a composer’s description of his/her work as gospel, and this quote is such a misreading that it seems like a deliberate feint, much as how Bowie regularly knocked “The Bewlay Brothers” for being gibberish. Because there’s little that’s “happy-go-lucky” in the song, which opens with demonic, distorted screams in lieu of actual audience noises, and whose first verse and chorus is a sharp self-assessment of Bowie’s battered aesthetic condition and where he stood in regard to “The Sixties.”

The latter, by 1986-1987, had been cast into a hollow, brightly-colored tomb, a ceremonial contrast to the political and cultural mood of the era. “The Sixties” was an opposition party happily exiled to the past. And while a number of underground bands were exploring the legacy of “nonsensical psychedelia” and appropriating pieces of it for their own ends, the official “Sixties” narrative was used to shame the allegedly frivolous and/or derivative pop music of the Eighties. There was a sense, pushed by the “classic rock” radio stations and the major rock magazines (blessedly not Spin, the oasis of the era), of Sixties music as being a perfected strain of rock & roll, the High Canon, to which no music afterward could be compared. All that was left for younger musicians was to pay homage, and for Sixties survivors to occasionally reunite and demonstrate “real” music to kids.

In “Zeroes” Bowie tries to position himself, shiftily as usual, as someone who had been both part of the era and yet always outside of it, and one who was trying to escape the decade’s long shadow while simultaneously exploiting it. The first verse is the lay of the battlefield: all the bright young heroes are dead, their memories a curse on the survivors, who are stuck between an unknowable bleak future and a “toothless past” that still has a wounding power. And the chorus begins as a self-flagellation, an aging musician acknowledging that while his muse and his youth have deserted him, his audience hasn’t, and they still have lists of demands: another tour, yet another record (“don’t you know we’re back on trial again today?” he sings later, drawing out the sharp vowels of “trial”).

The chorus builds to a refrain, the singer gamely making a go of it, singing cliches: it’s all for you, tonight I’m yours, this music was meant for you, everybody is a star. That the band on stage is called the Zeroes is one of Bowie’s better jokes: the rock band reduced to a cipher that holds no value. The Spiders from Mars were a holy conceit, a “fake” band that had more life than the bluejeans- and drum-solos groups of the early Seventies. The Zeroes are faceless, nameless; they are no ones, place-fillers for memories.

“Zeroes” finds Bowie pushing back against the official media narrative of the Sixties. He’s trying to recapture the frivolity and gimcrackery of the era, the lost Sixties of “Laughing Gnome” and “Green Tambourine,” as opposed to the solemnized hippie New Testament with its songs of revolution and freedom. So when Bowie references Prince in the lyric, it’s in the context of Prince as a fellow Sixties pastichist, another musician raiding the era for a few shiny trinkets. (Bowie wrote “Zeroes” while Prince was at the peak of this, with Around the World in a Day and Parade). And Bowie tries to turn the Beatles back into pop merchants, plastering the track with shards of their songs (helped by Erdal Kizilcay, whose “knowledge of rock music begins and stops with the Beatles,” Bowie said),** with Dylan also getting a few nods (Bowie tweaks lines from both “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Ballad of a Thin Man”).

Much of “Zeroes” is able mimicry, with Bowie using Frampton’s Coral electric sitar as a curtain-raiser between verses and choruses (the sitar, which had Danelectro pickups, had an impeccable Sixties pedigree, as it was formerly owned by Jimi Hendrix. Frampton got it from the owner of Electric Lady Studios), or having Crusher Bennett play what sounds like a tabla during the droning “psychedelic” outro. And Bowie churns up his own classics as well, adding them to the broth. He was an old hand at this by now: what was Scary Monsters but a rummaging in the cupboard, twisting old discarded folk and soul songs into brutal new shapes? So the song’s opening, with its vampirish screams and applause, calls back to the start of “Diamond Dogs,” while “Zeroes” seems a diminution of both the Spiders and of “Heroes,” a song that offered, in Bowie’s words, the sound of a bright future which would never come to pass. Now the future had come, “Zeroes” suggests, and it’s a broken mirror.

It soon becomes overwhelming: the denseness of the mix, its claustrophobic clutter of sounds, makes Bowie seem like he’s suffocating in a compost of old songs.

At the center of this was one of Bowie’s knottiest compositions in over a decade, a return to the tortuous structures and harmonic ambiguities of his early Seventies works. Each section of “Zeroes”—verse, chorus, coda—is in a different key. The keys themselves (A major, F major, D-flat major) are isolated from each other, sharing few common chords, while Bowie’s transitions between them sound abrupt, even disturbing. (A dense and possibly faulty musical theory section follows, so feel free to skip to the next section.)

“Zeroes” begins (intro and verse) in A major, with a fairly standard progression, A-B-D, repeated three times in the verse. Then as the verse closes, Bowie sets the stage for a key change in the chorus. A common move, when a change is approaching, is to use a pivot chord: a chord that fits both the current key and the upcoming new one. This helps your ears subconsciously process the change, so that it sounds “right” (much as how, when watching a film, the mind will accept a cut from a man settling his bill at a bar to a shot of him entering his apartment. The cut works on a subconscious level—we fill in the narrative gaps).

So at the end of the verse, instead of the expected D chord, there’s an E-flat diminished seventh chord (right after “how it feels”). There’s a building tension, as the chord, which is a weird, dissonant one, needs to be resolved—i.e., it needs to “go” somewhere. But instead of what you’d expect—a move into a key in which E-flat fits—the song instead shifts to F (whose only flatted tone is a B-flat). It’s an odd move, and it sounds “wrong.” And while we’re solidly in F for the chorus, immediately afterward comes another harsh transition: a four-bar solo break that veers out of F major (the chords are E-flat again, now followed by G-flat). Again, you expect this to lead somewhere, but no, instead it’s a hard landing back to A major for the second verse. The sequence repeats.

Only at the end of the second chorus, with a run of D-flat chords in the last three bars (on the last, long-held “you”) is there finally a “logical” transition, as the song’s closing section (a long coda) is in D-flat. So D-flat is already establishing itself in the expiring moments of the chorus, so that when the coda officially begins with a G-flat chord (the subdominant of the new tonic chord, Db), the move finally makes “sense,” the progression soon resolving to Db (on “to dooo”).

However, as often with Bowie, there’s a method to the apparent madness. The Eb chords at the end of the verses, and the Eb and Gbs in the solo? They all fit into the song’s ultimate key, D-flat (II and IV chords, respectively). So all along, “Zeroes” has been hinting at its ultimate destination, twice nearly leading you there, each time yanking you back. So when the sitar-heavy coda appears, it feels like a happy return home at last, and works with the lyric’s final collapse into submission and acceptance.

So “Zeroes” is ambitious enough, but you can’t escape the sense that it’s a flawed reduction of a song that sounded far grander in Bowie’s head. It seems compromised, overworked, and it’s an exhausting listen (despite being (or perhaps because it was) mixed by Bob Clearmountain), a victim of Bowie’s conflicting impulses—to make a dead-on parody of Sixties pop, to pit his old songs against each other, to undermine the idea of a holy Sixties crowding out the present, to feel diminished when placing yourself against the past.

And Bowie also faced the limitations of his collaborators. He no longer had Tony Visconti or Eno to play against and to use as interpreters; Carlos Alomar was no longer at peak fighting strength (and was hamstrung in the sessions anyhow); and he’d long disposed of the rhythm section of George Murray and Dennis Davis, who’d put in the pocket anything that Bowie had thrown at them. Instead Bowie mainly had Kizilcay, Frampton and David Richards: an admirable set of secondary translators.

It’s tempting to consider the closing minute of “Zeroes”—Bowie sinking into a trance of “doesn’t matter“s—as an exhausted surrender, Bowie unable to reconcile his narratives and admitting it’s all been just wasted effort. But making “Zeroes” had pushed Bowie, had made him struggle again, and while the track is a lesser version of what the Bowie of 1974 would have done, it still has a sense of moody life and grand intention. As with “Glass Spider,” it’s a testament that Bowie was finally willing to fail again.

Recorded ca. September-November 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. Played on the Glass Spider tour.

* I agree w/Nicholas Pegg that the “Joe” and “Coco” credited on the LP sleeve as part of the “Coquettes” chorus are likely to be Mr. Jones and Ms. Schwab.

** These include: the “Eight Days a Week”-inspired opening (Bowie copped to this in a Musician interview); in the first chorus, “the world is spinning round” (“Fool on the Hill”); in the second chorus, “yes they were” (very Lennonish, esp. Lennon’s phrasing of the climactic “Yes It Is” in that song’s bridge); also in the 2nd chorus, the last “singing for you” (same as the penultimate notes of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”); the swaying aaahs in the coda (cf. how Lennon sings “KNOW-ING” or “SHIN-ING” in “Tomorrow Never Knows”); and of course the sitar, which suggests every Harrison-penned song of the mid-Sixties, esp. “Within You Without You.”

Bowie also said the chord changes at the end of “Zeroes” “are real derivative” of Beatles songs, but I couldn’t find any direct parallels. That said, “When I’m Sixty Four” is also in D-flat major and has a similar progression in its verses as the coda of “Zeroes.”

Top to bottom: George Harrison at 44 (John Livzey), 1987; at 33 (unknown photog.), 1976; at 24 (Terry O’Neill), Paris, December 1967; at 15, with McCartney and Lennon, Liverpool, 30 December 1958.


March 12, 2012


A rare piece of subtlety from the Never Let Me Down sessions, “Julie” was naturally thrown away as a B-side (it was possibly cut because of its similarity in places to “Bang Bang,” suggesting that it began life as Bowie reworking Iggy Pop’s song). Like “Zeroes,” “Julie” seems intended as a “Sixties” pop song—as though Bowie wanted for the song to sound like a cover of a falsely-remembered older hit. It helped that the name “Julie” itself has a storied rock ‘n’ roll pedigree—the Crescendos, the Lettermen, Bobby Sherman and the Cuff Links all used it for singles, in part because it’s such an easy rhyme generator: “truly,” “you and me,” “eternally,” etc.*

There’s also a connection to “Janine,” an actual Bowie Sixties pop song also concerned with deception and ill-matched love. In “Janine,” however, there was a sense of play—Janine might be an affected ingenue, but the singer was just as much of a fraud, and there was a smile in Bowie’s singing, in all of his blustering attempts to win a round against her. It was a love affair in a house of mirrors. In “Julie” the lyric depicts a far sadder, if obscure scenario–the singer knows Julie doesn’t love him, that she’s consumed with another guy, but he’s willing to settle for the mere appearance of love, even in his imagination (there’s also the implication, in the second verse, that the singer killed the guy that Julie really loves, and that he’s desiring her while she’s mourning). The story’s more directly told in Bowie’s vocal, which is solitary and in a narrow range for the opening verse, double-tracked at the octave for the second, and which soars to his higher register for the delusive, desperate chorus, eventually joined by Robin Clark and/or Diva Gray.

While the track, with its synth bass and drums, is dated-sounding and the mix seems slightly off-balance (all the electric guitars are crammed into the right channel, while a lower-mixed acoustic in the left), its guitar tracks (Peter Frampton and Carlos Alomar, I’m assuming) give the song some blood and muscle, with Frampton giving some tasteful lead coloring in the chorus: it’s reminiscent of his sitar lines on “Zeroes.” One of the few late Eighties Bowie songs to have escaped its time with some dignity, its later inclusion on Never Let Me Down reissues was a minor injustice corrected.

Recorded ca. September-November 1986 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and the Power Station, NYC. Released 23 March 1987 as the B-side of “Day-In Day-Out” and on CD reissues of Never Let Me Down.

* Of course, there’s the chance Bowie’s inspiration came from more contemporary tracks: Daniel’s “Julie” from Eurovision 1983 and Shakin’ Stevens’ cod-zydeco UK #1 “Oh Julie” from 1982.

Top: Jeanette Montgomery Barron, “Beatrix Ost-Kuttner and Adeleheid Ost, Virginia, 1987.”