Working Class Hero

May 22, 2012

Working Class Hero (John Lennon, 1970).
Working Class Hero (Tin Machine).
Working Class Hero (live, 1989).

[John] was not the big working-class hero he liked to make out. He was the least working class of the Beatles actually. He was the poshest because his family almost owned Woolton at one time.

Paul McCartney, 1983.

Even by the standards of Bowie’s earlier misreadings (“I Can’t Explain,” “God Only Knows”), Tin Machine’s version of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” seems oblivious, even hostile, to the original song’s ironies. Bowie covered “Working Class Hero” for admirable reasons. Sean Lennon, having become friends with his son, was around during the Tin Machine sessions in Nassau, so Tin Machine started playing the song as a tribute. Bowie decided to put it on the record, telling an interviewer he wanted to bring back into circulation a neglected Lennon masterpiece.

Timing was also part of it. Two months before Tin Machine recorded their cover, Albert Goldman had released a rancid biography, The Lives of John Lennon. Serialized over two weeks in August 1988 in People magazine, Goldman’s book used the formula of his earlier biographies (Elvis Presley and Lenny Bruce): Goldman, having first posited himself as a “fan” of his subject, sadly discovers that the subject was in fact a vile, repellent human being with no redeeming qualities. Goldman was a decent researcher and a cynical biographer; he cherry-picked the most salacious anecdotes and the tawdriest stories that he found and strung them together.

Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney urged a boycott of the book (you can’t blame them, as Goldman portrayed each as being conniving and horrific), while Bono compared Goldman to Satan (“his kind are like a curse”) in a bad song rushed out on Rattle and Hum in October. In America, if the angry letters that People and Rolling Stone received about the book offered any consensus, there was dismay and bewilderment. Had Lennon, rather than the martyr he’d been considered since his murder, actually been a brute, a lecher, a goon, a reckless fraud? The “controversy” helped sell Goldman’s book, which was forgotten in a year, but it ultimately did little to sour Lennon’s posthumous reputation. The whole episode seemed an ugly, ridiculous epilogue to the Sixties, played out over the last months of Reagan’s second term.

Lennon, had he lived, may have been more sanguine about Goldman’s biography. After all, no one could rubbish his reputation as well as he could. In interviews he gave with Playboy soon before his death in 1980, Lennon went through the Beatles canon song-by-song and dispatched some classics with assessments like “that didn’t work,” “crap,” or “that was Paul completely—I would never even dream of writing something like that.” The post-Beatles-breakup, post-Primal-Scream-therapy Lennon of Plastic Ono Band had been even harsher, with Lennon as the vicious debunker of Beatles and Sixties myths, in his litany of denunciation “God” and in his more subtle “Working Class Hero.”

“Working Class Hero” is Lennon at his most unreadable. Its lyric seems a lament of working class life: the narrow paths left open for the masses, their exposure to fortune and exploitation, their continual gulling by the ruling class. But there’s a cold disdain for “working class life” as well: keep you doped with religion and sex and TV…you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see. The song’s title refrain mocks the traditional strengths of working class life, of finding dignity in being “real” and in the nobility of work. A working class hero is something to be, with Lennon stressing the latter words with a phrasing that’s both sympathetic and cutting, suggesting the goal is both unobtainable and not worth the struggle.

Its five verses are Life According To Lennon: birth, school, the Hobson’s choice of picking your “career,” and the scant narcotic comforts of adulthood. The final verse is the sanctioned way out of the trap, the few clauses which allow a handful of the working class to escape their lives, whether lottery tickets or “entrepreneurialism” or getting rich via sports or pop music, as Lennon had. This is the cruelest delusion of all (“there’s room at the top, they’re telling you still”), as by striving out of your working class world, you discard the noblest part of yourself, which may be in turn another delusion.

Throughout the song, Lennon plays a game of bluffs as to his own sympathies. He’d grown up middle-class in Liverpool, as his childhood, though chaotic, had been the most comfortable of all of his bandmates.’ During the early Beatles years, Lennon had been emblematic of the “classless” Britain of Swinging London: he was both provincial (keeping the Scouse accent) and worldly (writing sophisticated pop music and “avant garde” books). And in 1970, as he was becoming involved in radical leftist politics, Lennon talked as though he had come from the streets. “I’m working class and I use few words,” he said on the Dick Cavett Show. “I‘m not an intellectual, I’m not articulate.” The point of view of the song’s narrator is fluid: he moves between disdain, empathy, mockery and sadness on any given phrasing.

“Working Class Hero” is in Dorian A minor, a folk modal key that consists of two tonal centers, A minor and G major. So it deliberately sounds “old,” as though Lennon has revived some Leveller ballad (it’s the same scale as classic British folk songs like “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor” or “Scarborough Fair”) and it has a cyclical feel, suggesting that the song has no escape, in both its construction—it just shuttles from A minor to G major and back again*—and Lennon’s acoustic guitar playing, which allows no freedom of movement, ushering verse through refrain through verse until the close (paced by regularly-sounded bass notes on an open fifth string)**. Yet “Hero” is also sharply modern in its subject matter—nothing like it would have been allowed on a record as recently as 1965—and in its language: it was the first time that “fucking” was heard on a British rock record.

In theory, taking on “Working Class Hero” had potential. Tin Machine could play the typical Sixties game of electrifying a folk song into a hard rock number, and Bowie was an inspired choice to sing the lyric. Like Lennon, he had been raised solidly middle-class, but unlike Lennon, he had never made a fetish out of pretending otherwise: his perspectives had been either surreal suburban or, as he grew in fame and wealth, that of a “classless” aspirational figure. Even his occasional “Mockney” accents had been obvious stage costumes. So a cutting Bowie take on Lennon’s own conflicted song could have added further nuances to the piece.

The problem was Tin Machine. Bowie had a vehicle incapable of subtlety; he could use them as a weapon, as a goad to get him out of his bad habits, but unchecked, they easily slumped into loud obliviousness and tastelessness. Bowie sounds drowned out in the recording, having to howl out lines just to be heard, and the band hustles him through the lyric, with Bowie discarding Lennon’s incisive phrasing in favor of a bellow or a sneer. Take how Lennon, in the third verse, precisely sounds each consonant of “pick a career,” and teases out the last vowels, making the phrase as piercing as a needle; he’s savoring the bureaucratic coldness of the words and also playing on the double meaning of “career”—as something spinning out of control. Bowie just blunders through: “PICK-uh C’REER.” He also flatly sings or mumbles the lyric’s two curses, which Lennon had deployed like land mines. And Bowie’s strangled, hoarse screaming at the end seems mere bluster compared with Lennon’s measured anger and pity.

The result seems a collaborative effort to worsen the song. Bowie and the Machine recast the song in standard A minor (so using the V chord of Am, E minor, instead of the G major of the original); they replaced the ominous, waltzing tempo of Lennon’s track with a fat, bluesy vamp; they shoehorned in a Gabrels guitar solo after the third verse, squandering whatever momentum had remained; and they book-ended the track with the usual Hunt Sales snare drubbing. It’s a dreadful, witless recording that should’ve been a B-side at best.

Recorded at Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988.

* There are some slight variations: the last refrain line is Am-G-D-Am, suggesting a slight shift to G major (although the D major is barely there, it’s just used as a passing chord on the way back to A minor).

** The recording of “Hero” is a classic example of Lennon’s indifference to time (the song’s not quite in 3/4— it’s something like one bar of 9/8, 2 bars of 6/8) and studio perfection, as he’s often not intoning the bass notes “properly.”

Top: Alistair Berg, “Scottish fans make their way to Wembley for the Rous Cup game against England,” London, 1988; Helen Levitt, “New York, 1988.”


I Can’t Read

May 17, 2012

I Can’t Read.
I Can’t Read (rehearsal, fragment, 1989).
I Can’t Read (live, 1989).
I Can’t Read (live, Oy Vey Baby, 1991).
I Can’t Read (Bridge School Benefit, 1996).
I Can’t Read (Bowie and Gabrels, acoustic, radio broadcast, 1997).
I Can’t Read (remake, 1997).
I Can’t Read (remake, video, 1997).
I Can’t Read (live, 1999).

Bowie, a keen judge of his own work, singled out “I Can’t Read” as the best song on Tin Machine: he brought up the track in mid-Nineties interviews as an example of what Tin Machine had gotten right, and he revised it in 1996, keeping it in his live sets for the rest of the decade.

As Tom Ewing wrote about “Ashes to Ashes,” Bowie’s pop was always at its strongest when it was him alone in his house of mirrors, and “I Can’t Read” is the Beckettian epilogue to Bowie’s run of songs-of-songwriting: “Quicksand,” written at the early vertiginous height of Bowie’s compositional powers; “Sound and Vision” where a weakened Bowie summons a possibly-departed muse; “Ashes”, where Bowie entombed himself in his work. “I Can’t Read” is the end of the line—a man bled clean of inspiration, left only to mutter curses at an audience that inexplicably wants something more from him.

“I Can’t Read” came out of Bowie’s summer 1988 demo sessions with Reeves Gabrels (who co-wrote the music) and it stings of the wounds left from the Never Let Me Down/Glass Spider debacle. With that record and tour, Bowie had thought he’d ended his creative drought: Never was supposed to be his grand counter-move, his third-quarter rejuvenation. But the critics had disliked it, the public had been indifferent to it. He had played for stakes and lost. In the past, even when he felt dried up, he had tacked down and delivered. This time it just didn’t work, he had failed to eclipse himself; he faced the hard prospect that he could no longer write well.

As always with Bowie, there are mirrors reflecting mirrors—it’s a mistake to consider “I Can’t Read” being directly autobiographical. Rather, “Bowie-the-composer” had been a reoccurring character in his songs, whether as a central figure or popping up in Hitchcock-esque cameos (as in “Life on Mars?,” whose last verse ends with the camera rolling back, revealing “Bowie” as the director giving cues to his mousy-haired lead actress (“it’s about to writ again/as I ask you to focus on…“)). If Major Tom had been Bowie’s symbol of the lost promise of the Sixties, Bowie-the-composer had been his aesthetic surrogate, as “Nathan Zuckerman” was for Philip Roth, the vehicle through which Bowie showed the struggles of a belated artist, of being an inheritor wandering through an abandoned property, or, as here, being an emptied man in a dry season.

In “I Can’t Read” Bowie has illiteracy stand for creative barrenness—it’s a latter-day illiteracy, as a facility which had once come so easily is now lost. “Bowie” tries to capture a melody he’s come up with, but finds he can’t read music anymore, that he can’t play it, that even the constituent parts of music—the flats and sharps, chords, guitar tones, vocal phrasings—no longer make any sense. Much of the track is howling waves of feedback, as though noise is the only sound that Bowie can still find any meaning in. He watches TV, flicks from cop show to newscast. Going for a jog, he sees himself on a magazine cover. He’s a man reduced to his famous face, a mask with nothing behind it.

There are tastes of his former glories in the lyric: “countdown” calling back to Major Tom, or another reference to the buried “Shadow Man.” And Andy Warhol, having died in 1987, appears as a ghost. The obvious reference is Bowie’s tribute to Warhol from nearly two decades earlier. There Bowie had held all the power, dancing Warhol through his song like a marionette, using Warhol’s maxims about art and fakery to build his own plastic rock singers. Now Bowie’s reduced to arbitration: Andy, where’s my fifteen minutes? If all that remains open is a cheap celebrity high, come, let’s have it.

The only means forward is to move at a crawl, with a song that sounds like it’s going to collapse after every verse. “I Can’t Read” takes nearly a minute to get started: a basic 4/4 drumbeat, an occasionally querying bass, squalls of feedback. Finally Bowie begins to sing, keeping on a single note (just above the chord, E minor’s, root note) until he sinks a step down to close each phrase (“I-can’t-read-and-I-can’t-write down“). It’s a voice drained of any audible emotion, just a blank, observational tone; it’s like a man who’s survived a car crash calmly recounting the details to a policeman. Each meager vocal phrase trails off, leaving empty bars for Gabrels to fill—first with a primitive grinding riff, like a car stuck between gears, then even more inchoate lines.

The chorus finally comes, summoned by Hunt Sales’ table-rapping. Bowie, roused momentarily from his stasis, soars up a fifth and sounds light-headed. “I—can’t read shit anymore…I just can’t get it right, can’t get it right,” delivering the latter lines in a mocking sing-song, as though he’s taunting the listener. You want a melody? Here: blah blah blah. (The chords are also meat-and-potatoes rock & roll, just I-IV-V all the way through). And then, as if he can feel pain in his bones again for a moment, Bowie suddenly closes the chorus in exasperation: I CAN’T read SHIT, I CAN’T READ SHIT.

There seems nowhere to go next. The players meander, decide on running through the long intro again, but there’s the sense that anyone could just stop playing and let the song expire. You wonder if Bowie’s done with the thing too, but he comes back for another verse and chorus. After the last I CAN’T READ SHIT, the song is finally allowed to die.

For once Tin Machine makes sense, as the players’ indulgences, their lack of a common language, act out the song’s mood of self-loathing and resentment. The hiss of Hunt Sales’ ride cymbals in the chorus, his intrusive fills, add a cracked joy to Bowie’s admission of defeat. Tony Sales’ bassline hook in the chorus suggests Trevor Bolder’s jaunty line that drove “Suffragette City”: it’s as if the sound of Bowie’s past triumphs is eating through the recording. Kevin Armstrong, again low in the mix, adds perspective and nuance, sometimes paralleling the barely-there vocal melody on guitar. And the exuberant noise that Gabrels crafts is the counterpart to Bowie’s dispassionate vocal. It’s the way out, staring in Bowie’s face the whole time.

Bowie revised “I Can’t Read” as soon as he began playing it live. He told an interviewer that the Tin Machine tracks were works in progress, that the album versions of the songs were just initial attempts to capture them, and that the songs would be developed further on stage.

So in their short 1989 tour, the Machine slowed the tempo (the original “Read” goes at a fairly fast clip), letting it brood, as if to make the song more purgatorial, with Bowie throwing in lines from Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” (which they were covering at the time). In 1991, the Machine flayed “Read” open on stage, letting Tony Sales’ bass sing through the intro. They gave it pantomime—Gabrels played a police car wail over the “watch the police car” line, Bowie mimed being crucified while singing “when you see a famous smile”—especially in the chorus, which they trashed up, making it sound like a piece of a Ziggy Stardust outtake, killing it off as it crested.

Bowie’s studio revision of “I Can’t Read,” recorded during the Earthling sessions in mid-1996 (he gave a preview of the new version at the Bridge School Benefit in California later that year), was intended to give the song a second chance to find an audience, so he sweetened it, gave it a studied melancholy, anchoring the verses on acoustic guitar strums, with Gabrels having an elegant acoustic solo midway through, and calming the mood with washes of synthesizer. The new “I Can’t Read” was tasteful (“I can’t read shit” had already been replaced by “I can’t reach it” during the live Machine shows): it was somber, proper music for exit titles, which it literally became, for Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. Bowie altered the lyric, moving the second verse to the last, while in his new second verse, he replaced lines that had the soreness of memory with those filled with empty abstractions: Can I see the family smile? Can I reach tomorrow? Can I walk a missing mile? Can I feel, can I please? It was dull and false, an odd misreading of his own work. Even Warhol had gone missing.

Bowie rallied, though, restoring “I Can’t Read” to its original form for the “Hours” tour in 1999 (Bowie sang the Warhol line with venom this time, as if cursing over Warhol’s grave) and the chorus had a quiet majesty to it, a sense of faded glories being collectively recalled.

Yet none of these rewrites and rethinks surpassed the original, merciless Tin Machine version of the song. Recorded in under an hour one night in Nassau,* the original “I Can’t Read” is a singer dully picking at a wound while his band ignores him, screaming to themselves around him. Bowie’s long bid to reclaim his title in the Nineties is inconceivable without him having first made “I Can’t Read”—it was a reckoning, an exorcism, a confession; a song in which failure became a muse.

Recorded at Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. The live version recorded on 25 June 1989, at La Cigale, Paris was a B-side of the 12″ single version of “Tin Machine.” “I Can’t Read” was remade during the Earthling sessions in August-September 1996: it was released as a single (Velvel Records/ZYX 8757-8, #73 UK) in December 1997 and also appeared on The Ice Storm soundtrack.

* Either during a “gothic deluge” of a tropical storm (Trynka) or “under a full moon” (Buckley). Or perhaps on a less dramatic evening.

Top: Jim Kasson, “Paddington Station, London, 1988.”


Tin Machine

May 9, 2012

Tin Machine.
Tin Machine (edit, video).

Tin Machine is not a David Bowie record. Tin Machine is a band.

Hunt Sales, 1989.

In the Sixties, Bowie had gone through a string of bands: The Lower Third, the Riot Squad, the King Bees, the Kon-rads, the Manish Boys, the Buzz, Turquoise/Feathers. Each had failed in its own way. Some had been flawed propositions from the start, hamstrung by Bowie’s non-negotiable demand to be first among alleged equals. A few later editions, like the Buzz, assembled by Bowie and his manager via Melody Maker want ads, became a workable template—a band as a second unit orbiting its frontman, as with the Spiders from Mars. Even then, there was too much free movement: Bowie dispatched Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey within two years. Bowie’s most enduring band, his backing group of the late Seventies, were craftsmen who generally kept behind the scenes.

Now at age 41 Bowie finally wanted to submerge himself in a group, to go in hiding in a crowd. Tin Machine was credited to the band, not “David Bowie and Tin Machine” (though EMI affixed the album with stickers reminding buyers the bearded man on the cover had made “Let’s Dance”).* Duties were communal: songwriting, solos, singing. Tony Sales would often introduce the band on stage. In TV interviews of the time you can see Bowie restraining himself from talking over his bandmates. This deliberate anonymity pleased few in the Bowie organization or his label (Tin Machine would be the last EMI record). Reeves Gabrels later said that even Bowie’s assistant Coco Schwab “felt Tin Machine was bringing down the value of the currency of the David Bowie name.”

The name itself was an afterthought. “We couldn’t think of a good name, so we picked [one] from a song on the album,” Bowie said in a 1989 radio interview. “Tin Machine” was the obvious choice (though in an alternate life, Bowie fronted Crack City), as it worked as a play on the likes of Led Zeppelin and Iron Butterfly and signaled Bowie’s intentions: an automobile, i.e., a tin machine, is a means to get you out of town and on the road heading somewhere else.

Gabrels, interviewed by Spin at the album’s release, said “tin” was symbolic because while it seems like an “archaic material” it’s actually found everywhere—cans in supermarkets, rusted scraps on the street. The band in turn tried to be deliberately archaic, reactionary, not using synthesizers or sequencers (“we were sick of turning on the radio and hearing disco and dance music and drum machines, which I think in the business they call ‘crap,'” Tony Sales said in the same interview); Gabrels and Bowie favored older gear, like a 1963 Stratocaster once owned by Marc Bolan and a Marshall 100-watt Super Lead amp that Bowie had lying around in Switzerland. Bowie, Gabrels and second guitarist Kevin Armstrong even tried to limit their use of chorus and delay effects (Gabrels claimed no guitar effects he used were post-1974). That said, they weren’t entirely Luddites, as Gabrels often played a prototype Steinberger guitar with a transposing tremolo mechanism on its neck.

So Tin Machine the band came after “Tin Machine” the song. The Sales brothers liked the idea of having a theme song like the Monkees (Hunt, who emblazoned his kick drum with his first name, was especially keen). It added a hint of silliness to a deadpan group, as there’s often something inherently ridiculous when a band uses its name for a chorus: take Bad Company’s “Bad Company” or the Clash, who kept at it with diminishing returns (“Clash City Rockers,” “This is Radio Clash,” “We Are the Clash,” a sad declaration issued after half the band had quit).

But a key ancestor here is Minor Threat’s 1981 hardcore anthem “Minor Threat,” (though in this case the band’s name—a joke about Ian MacKaye et al‘s youth and unassuming appearance—had preceded the song), as “Tin Machine” is arguably Bowie and crew having a run at making hardcore. So I asked my cousin Robb, who played in hardcore bands in his youth, what he thought:

It’s like [Bowie] listened to a 1987/88 New York Hardcore compilation once and decided to emulate it. It sounds like it’s the “idea” of hardcore—“We’ll make it simple, short and fast”—but DB’s idea of simple and fast has key changes, too many chords, and is still too slow. Also, there’s no real conclusion—no buildup or breakdown, it just kind of ends. [This is in reference to the “single” edit of the video, which cuts the track off after its first chorus. Upon hearing the full version of “Tin Machine,” Robb said it was an improvement but was now far too long. I agree—by the time Bowie’s scatting what sounds like “dooby dooby dooby” in the coda, you’re praying for the engineer to stop the tape.]

The riff at the end [in the bridge, starting at 1:09 on the album cut] could work as hardcore, but the rest of the song sounds like a regular rock song with extra distortion. I suppose you could claim it’s the first “Art Core” song, but it sounds more like a hastily put together attempt to associate Tin Machine with the next big underground, up-and-coming genre. I can’t tell if it’s a sincere failure or a cynical failure.

I’d put my chips on sincere, as the track seems to be a valiant attempt, in Bowie’s words, at making [Glenn] “Branca-sonic,” with its multi-tracked pack of guitars and Bowie’s flat, clipped-out vocal, which mainly keeps to a two-note range in the verse/refrain. The problem was that Tin Machine had too much collective chops to let the song lie. So “Tin Machine” is more harmonically “dense” than it needs to be—the 44-bar opening refrain/verse shifts between G and A major, while the “bridge” moves to a run of B minor/E minor, with a A/D/G tag at the turnaround back to the verse.

It also sounds as if the not-fast-enough tempo is still leaving the Machine winded, though it’s one of the few tracks that suits Hunt Sales’ drumming, which has some nuance—Hunt’s sparing use of crash cymbals or the little fill that fuels the track midway through the second verse (after “glare”). Gabrels also got crafty: he created the sound of “facsimile bagpipes” for his main riff by playing his guitar like a slide in his lap, “fingering from the top, with one foot on his Wah-Wah pedal and the other pumping volume.” (Spin).

And Bowie’s likely first-draft lyric is a choice example of the allegedly topical, “fractured word” writing that blighted much of Tin Machine, with lines including “mindless maggot glare,” “night that spews out watchmen” (DB reading Moore/Gibbons?), and the fan favorite, “humping Tories/spittle on their cheeks.” There’s wordplay of sorts (“blue-suede tuneless“) and callbacks to old songs, here the recently-revived “All the Madmen” (“I’m not exactly well“) As with the guitars, Bowie’s at his most convincing when he’s raging in the bridges, his spray of descending lines culminating in a choked-out “hell.”

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. Performed during both Tin Machine tours, 1989 and 1991-92.

* Later reissues reclaimed the album as a “David Bowie” release.

Top: Misha Erwitt, “Marilyns, New York, 1988.”


Baby Can Dance

May 3, 2012

Baby Can Dance.
Baby Can Dance (live, 1989).
Baby Can Dance (live, 1992).

I have moments of great frustration with this project, none more than when facing the paucity of information on Bowie’s later years. Ian MacDonald, for his song-by-song Beatles study, had as his Virgil Mark Lewisohn, who had annotated every single Beatles studio take. And various Dylan tomes by everyone from Greil Marcus to Michael Gray were nourished by the four-decades-long labors of anonymous bootleggers, who have distributed outtakes and demos from every Dylan period.

Not the case with Bowie, who has tried to keep every trace of his creative processes locked in a vault, and has generally succeeded. Even essential quasi-authorized reference works like Kevin Cann’s are spotty at times when it comes to studio data and, most of all, demos and outtakes, many of which are referred to by title alone. And that’s for the Sixties and early Seventies, an era when there actually are some circulating studio bootlegs. The post-Young Americans period is barren ground. Determining how songs developed becomes an inspired bluffwork. Everything I write at this phase of Bowie’s career is simply me squinting through a murky glass into a locked room, trying to make out shapes.

Which brings us to “Baby Can Dance,” for which Bowie has a sole songwriting credit and which allegedly was written and demoed before the Tin Machine sessions. Hearing the demo version of the song or its various studio run-throughs would be of immense help, as all we have is the murky final mix. Did Bowie decide on having the tempo clunkily shift between cut-time and 4/4, or was this an impulsive decision of the Saleses? Who came up with the jaundiced Bo Diddley-esque guitar riff that shags through the verses? Did Bowie have the lyric in place before the session, or did he dash out the Sixties-callback lines on the spot (referring back to his own “shadow man” and “Jumping Jack Flash” too)?

“Baby Can Dance” appears to have been earmarked for an album closer early on (maybe because of the long, strangled coda in which Bowie screams “it’s ooooover”), and bonus tracks on cassette/CD were sequenced before it, preserving its full-stop status. It was well-chosen, as “Dance” is a monstrous performance that would make anything following it seem anemic.

An oddly-structured piece that begins with an eight-bar chorus curtain-raiser and a 12-bar group solo (which appears again after the first chorus, then in a more elongated form after the second), it’s Bowie and Gabrels further developing the curtain-of-feedback idea they had crafted for the revised “Look Back in Anger” and which they would follow with the long, squalling metamorphosis of “Now” into “Outside”. The solos have a droning, circular feel, in part because the chord progressions keep on the same bass note, E (so the pre-verse group solo is E/F-E/E while the post-second-chorus solo is E/C-E/D-E).

Throughout the various solos, Gabrels annexes a section of the mix and howls to himself, though in the climactic solo he eventually builds to a run of piercing, feedback-laden notes that provide a sense of drama, while Bowie moans and the Saleses thunder around him (another nice Gabrels moment is the descending line he clashes against Bowie’s vocal melody in the chorus). Tony Sales’ walking bassline is a secondary hook to the Bo Diddley riff, while Hunt, though typically unsubtle and not quite mastering the various tempo shifts, is gargantuan—even the occasional thwack on a cowbell during the solos sounds as though he’s striking an iron support bar.

Bowie’s lyric, which riffs on a faceless heartbreaker who appears on a few other Tin Machine songs (though as Ian wrote, it’s Bowie playing with “classic” rock ‘n’ roll sexism as a signifier), builds to the chorus vocal hook, the whining stepwise push of “bay-bee can FLOAT….bay-bee can DANCE,” which is memorable if (intentionally) irritating. I prefer Bowie’s lugubrious, vampirish vocals on later live recordings of “Dance,” (such as the Osaka recording linked above, from 30 January 1992—one of the last Machine shows) which also have a more ominous “it’s over now” section, a “Flight of the Bumblebee”-esque Gabrels guitar solo and, bizarrely, better-mixed Tony Sales vocal harmonies than the studio track. The hell-for-leather coda, with Gabrels needling his way into the crushing, climactic group thud, slammed the door shut on Tin Machine Mark One as well as anything could have.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. Performed during both Tin Machine tours, 1989 and 1991-92. A live version from Paris in June 1989 was used as a B-side of the “Prisoner of Love” E.P. while a Hamburg recording from 1991 appeared on the ambitiously-titled 1993 compilation Best of Grunge Rock.

Top: Matt Weber, “Port Authority, [NYC], 1988.”


Bus Stop

April 27, 2012

Bus Stop.
Bus Stop (video, fragment).
“Country Bus Stop” (live, 1989).
“Country Bus Stop” (live, 1991).

“Bus Stop” hailed from Bowie and Reeves Gabrels’ stillborn attempt to write a musical of Steven Berkoff’s West, but the song was lively enough that they kept it in the mix for Tin Machine, on which it served as an oasis of wit and brevity. It helped that as the song pre-dated the “first take” rule, “Bus Stop” had a polished lyric, with some of Bowie’s funniest and sharpest lines in years (the “shrieking and dancing till four AM/another night of muscles and pain” could refer to a number of activities, some spiritual, others not). A young East End man tries to reconcile his skepticism about God with his lover’s fervent belief, which seems to work for her; he’s on his knees with her at the bus stop, grunts out a muffled “hallelujah” at the end of it. It’s a spiritual song that’s almost entirely centered on the body, from the feet to the grumbling stomach.

Set firmly in D major, “Bus Stop” is just three chords, two 12-bar verses and two 8-bar refrains, with a brief outro.The version cut for Tin Machine was built on a tension-release guitar riff that calls back to the Damned’s “New Rose.” With Hunt Sales again dedicated to bludgeoning his snare four times a bar, his brother mainly provides fills on bass, like the fifth-spanning arc of notes to cue the move to G major in the verse (0:30, 1:03). The song spins to an end with a brief guitar battle between Gabrels and Kevin Armstrong—Armstrong holding his ground, Gabrels trying to outflank him.

When Tin Machine went on its 1989 tour, Bowie turned “Bus Stop” into a country music parody (an apparent inspiration was Mick Jagger’s country burlesques: “Dear Doctor” and “Far Away Eyes.”)  Of all the popular music genres, country had been the one no-go zone for Bowie: the closest that he’d ever come to it was “Bars of the County Jail,” a 1965 demo, which was more an English folk ballad with a few lines borrowed from imported TV Westerns. Still, working-class British culture had had a storied relationship with country music, with the likes of Jim Reeves and Slim Whitman getting #1 albums in the UK at the height of the counterculture (Marcello Carlin recently wrote an incisive piece on a Whitman LP that hit #1 in 1976). The countrified version, while fun, slightly oversold the joke.

The original “Bus Stop” was cut ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. “Country Bus Stop” was unveiled at the Machine’s first official concert in NYC on 14 June 1989 and a live version from Paris the same month was included as a B-side of the “Tin Machine” CD single. Bowie kept the countrified “Bus Stop” around for the Machine’s 1991-1992 tour, then never played it again.

Top: “Mikey G Ottawa,” “Boom Box, Montreal, 1987.”