Perfect Day

September 16, 2013

London_1997

Perfect Day (Lou Reed, 1972).
Perfect Day (BBC promotional film, 1997).

In an ideal world, it probably wouldn’t be necessary for the BBC to advertise itself like this.

Jane Frost, 1999.

Blame Trainspotting: Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” arranged and produced in 1972 by Mick Ronson and Bowie, had a second life a quarter of a century later, thanks in part to Danny Boyle’s film. As Boyle used it to score a heroin overdose sequence, “Perfect Day” was subsequently interpreted by an entire generation as being a song about scag.

Sure, maybe it was: you could read the song that way. But it’s more interesting to take “Perfect Day” at its word. An alienated, drugged-out wastrel spends a day in the park with his girlfriend or boyfriend. He does “normal” things—goes to a zoo, sees a film, has a picnic—which seem surreal to him. His life is so bent out of shape, his way of viewing the world so corroded, that banal existence has become strange and beautiful. The perfect day for him is one that the good and prosperous people of the world would forget about in a week. And what to make of the closing line? You’re going to reap just what you sow, Reed sings sweetly and ominously. Has he reformed? Or is he just clearing his head to ruin his partner’s life with greater force?

A few months after the first Labour parliamentary victory in nearly 20 years, the BBC made a celebration and a justification of itself, a four-minute promotional film featuring the stars of pop, country, R&B, jazz (well, they got Courtney Pine) and classical. All singing lines from “Perfect Day.” The promo film was masterfully shot and cut (Simon Hanhart produced the music), making a smooth whole out of what could have been an ungainly patchwork. There was a clamoring for the track to be released as a single, and soon enough it was, with all proceeds going to Children in Need: it would be Bowie’s last (collaborative) #1.

Jane Frost, the BBC’s head of corporate marketing, was the force behind it. After tenures in marketing for Lever Brothers and Shell, Frost was recruited by the BBC in 1995: her main job was to explain the service’s role to a new generation, using the language of pop videos and advertisements. The BBC had just won a battle to raise its license fee (the fee for color TVs would increase from £71 in 1990 to £104 in 2000) and in Frost’s words, it wanted to remind viewers what they would miss if it ever went away (“if it disappeared, you really would be losing something”).*

Assembling an all-star cast to sing Reed’s “Perfect Day” was Frost’s first big set-piece. “The production values are high, because we want to catch people’s attention—they’ve got to be a cut above the standard of the old public information films,” she told the Guardian in 1999. “But you’d be surprised how cheaply you can make something when the goodwill is there.” Most performers accepted standard minimum Equity payments of £250, while Bowie went one further: he waived his fee, citing the “years of pleasure” given to him by The Flower Pot Men.

reaping what you sow

As for the production itself, it’s easy enough to criticize: its overstuffed wedding cake of an arrangement, the pomposity of some of its performers (Bono, giving off a comfortable smugness here, takes the crown, though Huey Morgan is a viable contender), its inadvertent comic moments (Reed apparently doing a Stevie Wonder impersonation; a ludicrous Evan Dando cameo). For Bowie fans, his two lines, which he sings with a trace of wry bemusement, was evidence that Bowie should’ve covered the song himself, though there’s no evidence he ever considered it.

Still, of all the Bowie collaborations, “Perfect Day” contains the greatest amount of sheer vocal talent (Tammy Wynette, Heather Small, Emmylou Harris, Gabrielle) and it’s the only Bowie duet, if only by montage, with the likes of Brett Anderson, Boyzone, Dr. John, Shane MacGowan (appearing with great comic timing) and Tom Jones, the latter filmed singing “you’re gonna REEEAAAAP” as if auditioning for the part of Galactus.

Amid all the exquisitely-framed shots and cheery goodwill and sense of “culture,” was there someone forgotten? The man from Hull who, sitting down and hearing Reed play “Perfect Day” on guitar at Trident Studios, had suggested it would work better as a piano song? And who’d then played the piano line himself, and later scored the strings? So take the Beeb’s “Perfect Day” for whatever you’d like—as a fine or a ludicrous spectacle, as a pleasant way to support charity, as a latter-day career boost for Reed, as a fine public service message. I’ll take it as a secret requiem for Mick Ronson; a world’s worth of performers unknowingly singing their respects to him.

Recorded ca. summer 1997 and released as a single on 3 October 1997 (Chrysalis CDNEED01, UK #1). (& so I’ve passed Tom Ewing at last (happy 10th birthday, Popular!)).

* In this context, a few critics at the time noted an implied threat in the increasingly ecstatic repeats of “you’re going to reap what you sow.”

Top: promo poster for Toby Mott’s “Made in London” exhibition, Maureen Paley Interim Art, autumn 1997.


O Superman

September 12, 2013

97telemarketr

O Superman (Laurie Anderson, 1981).
O Superman (Anderson, live, 1983).
O Superman (Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey, 1997).
O Superman (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 1997).
O Superman (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 1997).
O Superman (Anderson, live, NYC, 19 September 2001).

Bowie chose Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman (For Massenet)” as the token cover song for the Earthling tour: it was in the set of the first preview gig in Dublin and it would stay there until the tour’s penultimate show in Santiago. He intended it as Gail Ann Dorsey’s solo moment, often sequencing the song late in sets as a climactic piece.

Dorsey sang it as if she’d summoned it (even if at times she’d have trouble precisely hitting Anderson’s first “O JUUUUdge”–she could be a bit sharp)*, and when Bowie joined her, providing a lower harmony for the voices of the mothers and the mad on Anderson’s answering machine, the effect could be stunning. Supplanting Anderson’s rhythmic pulse—her voice looped on an Eventide sampler (Isaac Butler: “a pulmonic egressive ha repeats, calling out from 1981, exhaling middle C”)—with first a thudding kick drum and then some jittery drum ‘n’ bass loops, Bowie also introduced a few new secondary players: Reeves Gabrels’ guitar, the wailing of his own baritone saxophone.

Anderson’s “O Superman” was nearly a #1 single in Britain in 1981; it hit the Top 10 in Holland and the Top 20 in Ireland (if MTV had had more of a foothold in the US then, “Superman” could’ve even charted in America). It was downtown boho synth-pop, a span between “high” culture (Philip Glass, from whose Einstein at the Beach Anderson derived her “ha ha has” and the track’s organ tone and Jules Massenet, whose Le Cid she directly references in her lyric—“O superman, O judge, O mom and dad” plays off Massenet’s aria “Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père“) and “low” culture (answering machines, Top of the Pops performances, vocoders).

I can say little more about the song than Butler did in his piece “Here Come the Planes,” which I recommend reading. As Butler wrote, “O Superman” is, for all its sublime weirdness, a straight narrative. A woman sits at home, the phone rings, she lets her machine get it. The first call is from her worried mother; the second is from a mysterious voice that mutters prophecies and warnings. These unnerve her so much that she finally picks up the phone: Who is this really? The voice says: This is the hand. The hand that takes. The rest of the song is a lullaby, the woman falling under the spell of the voice, falling in love with a pure, abstracted power, a power that’s like a refined religion. Anderson even corrupts the language of the Tao te Ching: when justice is gone, there’s always force.

“O Superman” was “a dream about imperialism—about a supernation that has done with the rest of the world and has turned back to colonize itself,” Greil Marcus wrote in 1987. “Beginning, as dreams do, in triviality, the song becomes a totality: an impenetrable whole,” he wrote, a whole made of natural life (the sounds of birds and cats, hunted and hunters), private life (Hi mom!) and public life (Anderson recites the unofficial creed of the US Mail, carved onto the James Farley Post Office in NYC, and which equally could be the creed of the drone planes that the US hunts with today).

“O Superman” is also a horror movie, domestic technology fallen into darkness. First there’s the answering machine, which, while it turned out to be merely a transitional technology, inspired some crack songs in its time: see the Replacements‘ and Green Velvet‘s respective “Answering Machines.” There are no comparable songs about texting or email (yet): perhaps the aesthetic of the answering machine (broken, distorted communication) was more compelling than that of smart phones (constant, trivial communication). The allure of the answering machine was control and removal: you could put up a screen against the outside world, you didn’t have to be a slave to the ringing phone anymore. You set the terms. But the machine also recorded: a stray call by a crank may have gone unheard in the past; a threat could only be heard once. Now the voices were permanent, if you wanted them to be; you could preserve the intrusions of the world so that they could have greater purchase in you.

Then there are the planes. (American planes, made in America!) Death, fear and airplanes have been intertwined since the Wright Brothers; as Orson Welles once said, there are only two emotions in a plane, boredom and terror. And when heard in the context of Anderson’s “United States Live” show, “O Superman” was another variation on the JG Ballardian plane crashes that Anderson used as motifs throughout: using her vocoder to impersonate the voice of a pilot calmly telling his passengers they’re about to crash, for instance. The airplane had always been an aesthetic as much as it was a simple means of transport; Anderson’s use of them was part of a century-long tradition.

And then, despite its creator’s influences and intentions (Anderson had written the song in part about Operation Eagle Claw, the failed rescue mission from the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980), the song became horrifically prophetic after 9/11. The line Here come the planes. They’re American planes. Made in America. Smoking…or non-smoking? was now tainted. There was no going back to whatever images the words had conveyed before that morning. History had brutally colonized them; the hand that takes had taken them. You can hear Anderson, performing “O Superman” a week after the attacks, singing the lines with reserve, with a palpable sadness; the song’s not hers anymore, and she knows it: she sings it and lets it go.

Where does Bowie and Dorsey’s “O Superman” fit into the picture? An alternate reading, a more humane revision, the hand in a glove? Dorsey lacked Anderson’s precise alienation: her voice of Mom was warm and funny. The deepness and richness of her voice made “the hand that takes” seem even more alluring than Anderson had; she gave it a gorgeous power. The song builds and builds. So hold me now…in your long arms, she sings, as Anderson did: as a broken surrender, a woman being assaulted, a submission to power. The 21st Century was being summoned again, building on Anderson’s first incantation. Almost every night during the 1997 tour, Bowie and Dorsey stood on stage and hurled the prophecy to their audiences. All of this is coming, and there’s nothing you can do about it. So dance: later on, we might play “Heroes.”

* Acc. to the sheet music it’s a high G, but Anderson’s vocoder makes it more slippery. Other alterations included a shift of Anderson’s 2/4 to (mainly) 4/4, and to play the “ha ha ha” bass pedal as a waltzing figure.

First performed at the Factory, Dublin, 17 May 1997.

Top: Karen Kasmauski, “Teenage Telemarketer, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1997.”


Is It Any Wonder/ Fun/Funhouse

September 10, 2013

97crossingted

Is It Any Wonder (live, 1997).
Is It Any Wonder (studio?, 1997).
Fun (Dillinja Mix).
Funhouse.

In the 17 years between Lodger and Outside, Bowie treated touring as a politician would re-election campaigns. He had three grand efforts (Serious Moonlight, Glass Spider, Sound + Vision) and two small-scale ones (Tin Machine), and he’d mounted the larger productions as global carnivals, with exhausting rounds of publicity to make the shows “events.” At the close of each, he’d been spent: it would take him years to play live again.

Then in the mid-Nineties he became a road dog, following up his lengthy Outside tour with a round of summer festival gigs in 1996, then spending another five months touring from Germany to Argentina in 1997. It was his most sustained period of live performance since the Ziggy Stardust days.

So by the Earthling tour, the novelty of a “revived” Bowie playing live had waned a bit. With essentially the same band that he’d had since 1995, he used some of the same stage props, and his set lists, despite the new Earthling material and a few revived pieces, weren’t radically different from those of the Outside tour. So the 1997 tour tends to be forgotten, or folded into the overall “Outside” period; none of the Bowie bios devote more than a couple of paragraphs to it.

What the tour was, however, was a chance for fans to see Bowie with essentially nothing left to prove, on a more intimate scale and with a lower price-tag (this time round, he mainly played mid-size ballrooms and clubs rather than try to fill arenas). The shows were more casual in feel and wider in scope than the Outside gigs. There was more overt use of DATs for supplemental beats, vocal choruses and synthesizer lines, which freed up the players: Gail Ann Dorsey shifted to keyboard at times, and she had two vocal spotlights (“Under Pressure” and the next entry). The tour wound up as the blueprint for most of his subsequent shows: a set list ranging across the catalog, performed by a tight, crack band with little choreography and no more “concepts.”

thethinker

The Earthling tour was a compromise. In his “dress rehearsal” concerts (four gigs in Dublin and London), Bowie unveiled his original template for the tour. There were would be two sets, a traditional “rock” set and a “drum ‘n’ bass” dance set. So for instance, at the Hanover in London (2 June), the drum ‘n’ bass set began with “I’m Deranged,” moved through “Pallas Athena” and a revived “V-2 Schneider” and closed with “The Last Thing You Should Do” and “Telling Lies.”

The split sets got a mixed response. Reportedly, much of the audience at the first Hanover gig left after the “rock” set was over, prompting Bowie to open with the dance set the following night. Some journalists attending the shows wrote up the drum ‘n’ bass sets as if Bowie had been igniting farts on stage. (The Observer‘s Barbara Ellen: “we all have to stand around for an aeon to what sounds like the cast of Star Wars falling down a fire escape…for God’s sake man, you’re a living legend. In future, play the old stuff and stop trying so hard.”)

After a few German dates, Bowie scrapped the split-set plan,* with the drum ‘n’ bass pieces now interwoven with the rock songs. This arguably improved the shows, as Bowie could create an arc—starting shows playing “Quicksand” alone on acoustic guitar and building to the dance songs midway through, so that a “Last Thing You Should Do” would be chased by “Under Pressure.” This made the newer pieces seem less like alien artifacts and more elaborations on his earlier work.

During the drum ‘n’ bass sets, the band had played an instrumental jam which apparently had come out of rehearsals of “Fame.” It opened with a DAT-generated beat that Zach Alford supplemented on drums, and had occasional vocal hooks (included what sounded like a vocoded Dorsey singing “is it any wonder?”); Bowie played tenor saxophone, then switched to baritone. As the first link above shows, he was often barely audible over the barrage, though he managed to make the bari sax groan like a trumpeting elephant.

This piece’s subsequent life is one of the more confounding in the Bowie catalog. As he’d intended to release a live album from the Earthling tour, “Is It Any Wonder” seemed a likely candidate for inclusion, either as a live take or a studio remake (or both: take the alleged “live” version taped at the Paradiso in Amsterdam on 10 June 1997. I agree with the Illustrated DB site that this recording seems like a studio take with canned applause mixed in).

Then in 1998 a 3:31 studio take of “Is It Any Wonder,” now retitled “Fun” (or “Funhouse,” as Gabrels once called it) was issued to BowieNet subscribers on a CD-ROM (you had to log onto the site first before you could play the track—in the days of dial-up Internet, this may have consumed an entire evening). By now, Bowie had come up with a few random lyrics for the track, referencing his old work with Iggy Pop (“Funtime”) and throwing in a pinch of world weariness (“my summer turns to fall…and I’ll miss you”).

A remix of the track by Dillinja, presumably from the same era, was included on the 2000 liveandwell.com CD. (Five other “Clownboy” mixes of “Fun” were made, though none were officially released). In all of its incarnations, the track never escaped being an enjoyable live filler promoted to being a fairly dull record.

First performed (“Is It Any Wonder”) at the Hanover, London, on 2 June 1997. “Fun” was likely recorded/mixed ca. January 1998 during the “Earthling Live” mixing sessions.

* The last show to use the template was apparently the Utrecht gig on 11 June. The following show, in Dortmund on 13 June, had an incorporated set and the French concerts (14-19 June) solidified what would be the main set of the European leg of the tour, with “Is It Any Wonder” often slated midway through.

Top: Ted Barron, “Crossing, Brooklyn, NY” 1997; Bowie does his best Rodin at the Q Club, Birmingham, UK, 1 August 1997 (via “bowieinleith”).


The “Bowie Bonds”

August 27, 2013

gold star

Warning: this is a long digression about, among other things, mortgage finance and royalties securitizations. If the post on Tibet was too much for you, perhaps give this one a miss. See you next week.

David Bowie released a new album and toured three continents in 1997, but this was of little interest to the press when compared to the state of his finances. In February of that year, news broke that Bowie was lending Wall Street his song catalog for $55 million.

At the time, I was working at 2 World Trade Center, writing for a financial industry newsletter. The Bowie story was a rare moment when the public took notice of our obscure world. I recall an editor standing at his cubicle, asking for headline ideas: “Glass-Steagall Spider?” “The Man Who Sold the Bonds?” It helped that the banker organizing the sale, David Pullman, would return a phone call seemingly a minute after it was placed, and was eminently quotable. He was a bull of self-promotion and got great press.

There have been a few misconceptions about the Bowie securitizations over the years. I’ll try to describe, in relatively plain English, what happened.

lonely at the top

1) They weren’t exactly “bonds”. While Pullman pushed for reporters to use his (trademarked) “Bowie Bond” name, the Bowie deal was, technically, a privately-placed securitization of music royalties future receivables. This isn’t the “bond” of vague public imagination: a piece of stock paper, issued by the electric company or Sears, that your grandmother kept in the family strongbox along with birth certificates, marriage licenses and Mercury dimes.

What Bowie did begins in home mortgages. Go back to 1969 and buy a house. You make a substantial down payment (20% or more) and get a 15-year or 30-year mortgage, at a fixed interest rate, from a bank. The bank keeps your mortgage on its books. You mail your payment to them each month. The bank sometimes will sell your mortgage, in a portfolio of similar mortgages, to another bank, but that’s often a headache involving reams of paperwork. Home finance is a quiet, modest and “illiquid” world.

In the early Seventies, banks began to pool their mortgages into a new type of security (called a “pass-through”). This made it easier to compile and sell mortgages to investors or other banks; as the name implied, banks just “passed through” mortgage payments to some new owner. A decade later, this concept had mushroomed, mutating into more complex securities, in great part due to a man named Lewis Ranieri, who worked at Salomon Brothers. Ranieri, who allegedly coined the word “securitization” to describe the process and who once boasted that “mortgages are math,” was the first banker to realize the implications of packaging hundreds and thousands of disparate mortgages, dicing them into sections and selling them to investors as high-rated securities. This wasn’t just home finance made easier; this was one of the biggest trading markets in the world. (The book to read is Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker.)

A bank could now funnel thousands of its mortgages into various mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and the likes of Salomon Brothers would arrange the MBS into “tranches” (ranks) of quality. The top tranche (rated AAA) would have the most protection if anything went to smash. The lowest tranche was, say, BBB-rated. If you bought that tranche, the issuer paid you a higher interest rate (“the coupon”) for the risk. [Edit: as a commenter on another site pointed out, I blundered earlier in describing the structure:  the AAA/BBB etc rating structure was not tied to borrower quality—that is, any losses that the mortgage pools took would simply hit the lowest tranche (BBB) first, and then go up the ladder of tranches,etc.]

Everyone benefited. Banks took mortgages off their books, reducing their risk, and got all of their money up-front. Bankers could charge higher fees to arrange, package and sell the MBS: Ranieri’s desk was an enormous profit generator for Salomon in the Eighties. Investors had a liquid (they could sell MBS easily, as there was a booming secondary trading market for them) and safe investment, implicitly guaranteed by the federal government (which had its fingers in most mortgages). And mortgage holders got easier credit terms, because banks wanted to make more and more mortgages to create more and more MBS.

So by 1997 mortgage finance had been nationalized (a mortgage made in Schenectady could be pooled in an MBS with a mortgage from Kankakee, with pieces of them owned by a pension fund based in Fresno and a hedge fund in Bermuda) and radicalized. A house was no longer a place in which you merely lived. It was an investment; it was your retirement package; it was an income generator. There were so many varieties of home debt now: no-money-down mortgages; adjustable-rate mortgages; “balloon” mortgages (pay little now, pay a hell of a lot later); “subprime” (i.e., you don’t need a job to buy a house) mortgages.

futureflow

I wish all our clients were as innovative as David Bowie…David’s ability to embrace new ideas is a testament to his position as a living rock legend.

David Pullman, quoted by Bloomberg, 4 February 1997.

The brilliance of the securitization concept was that it could be applied to seemingly anything, not just mortgages. All you needed was an asset that generated a predictable return over a set period of time. There were a lot of these assets around by now. By the Nineties, Americans had become, quietly and with little fuss, a nation of exuberant debtors. With wages deteriorating or stagnating, for middle-class Americans to keep being middle-class, to put a kid through college or buy a car, meant acquiring more debt. This was now easy. My mother recalled how hard it was to get a Sears credit card in 1971; it was like applying for a passport that you might well be denied. Whereas in today’s mail, I’ve received three offers for no-approval-needed credit cards.

So today, any debt that you owe any institution is likely packaged somewhere in a securitization. Your student loans: securitized. Your credit-card debt: securitized. Your home-improvement loan: securitized. Your car lease: securitized. And so on. Writing about this was my job. On down weeks, we would speculate about which market sector would be next: Shipping returns? Drug patents? Highway project finance? Baseball park revenues? And, thanks to David Bowie, music royalties.

chart

The “Bowie Bond” negotiations happened in late 1996. Pullman recalled to Bowie’s biographer Marc Spitz that it was a clandestine process, involving having to get his former manager Tony Defries to sign off on the project. While Pullman says the idea was his, Paul Trynka’s bio speculates that Bowie’s new financial manager, William Zysblat, was also heavily involved in its creation. By January 1997, the deal was assembled and pre-sold.

Bowie was fairly unusual among rock stars in that he owned both his master recordings and most of his music copyrights. His current arrangements were expiring, and normally he would’ve just signed another distribution agreement with a label and/or a song publisher. Instead, Zysblat and Pullman determined that a securitization would give him far more money up-front.

So Bowie, with Pullman’s bank Fahnestock as his representative, packaged 287 of his copyrights and recordings, from “Life on Mars? to “Ashes to Ashes” and “Sound and Vision,” into a security.* Every crumb of income that the songs generated—royalties from broadcast and performance, record sales, commercial use, licensing in films—would now go into a “special purpose vehicle” that would in turn give regular payments to whoever bought the bonds. To entice investors, the bonds paid a 7.9% rate of interest, which was higher than the 10-year Treasury note (6.37% at the time).

terms of psychic warfare

”This was a very good deal, offering a superior return compared to the risk,” said Rick Matthews, a spokesman for Prudential. ”And because it was the first, you’re going a higher rate than the next.”

Bowie’s Latest Hit,” New York Times, 21 February 1997.

2) You could never have owned them. Once the news broke, some Bowie fans thought they could own a Bowie Bond: imagine, the next time you heard “Let’s Dance” on TV, you’d receive 1/2,344th of its royalties. They never had a chance. It’s not as though the Bowie Bonds were bid on by traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange or were available on E-Trade. The bonds “changed hands” once. The securitization was issued by Fahnestock’s computer and purchased, in its entirety, by the computer of the Prudential Insurance Co. of America. Prudential held onto the bonds for their whole lifetime.

3) They (probably) were a mediocre investment? In 2004, the rating agency Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the Bowie bonds (to Baa1, a step above “junk” status). This was not due to anything Bowie had done but because by 2004 the music industry was up the creek, and any investment tied to music royalties looked like a bet gone badly wrong.

Yet this downgrade only would’ve been a problem had Prudential wanted to sell its bonds, as they were now considered to be of lesser credit quality. As far as we know, Prudential didn’t. Instead, the Bowie bonds sat in Prudential’s coffers, generating who knows how much in terms of royalty payments for a decade. It’s likely his royalties decreased in the early 2000s, but Bowie was never in any remote danger of losing his songs.

brixton-money-bowi

The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it’s not going to happen. I’m fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing…Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity. So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again.

Bowie, interview by Jon Pareles, New York Times, 9 June 2002.

4) They will never happen again (probably). Bowie’s sense of timing was uncanny here: 1997 was the ideal moment to issue these securities. Wall Street and the music industry were fat and happy. The labels were making billions by selling $17 CDs via armies of Tower Records and Sam Goody’s. Every few years a catalog artist like Bowie reissued his old albums in boxed sets or in remastered special editions. It was a never-ending stream of revenue, and already the industry was imagining how to get people to buy their old records yet again: SACD? Blu-Ray? The next year, Shawn Fanning started Napster.

(This reminds me, indirectly, of a conference I attended around 2000. One discussion was about how, as the United States was quickly paying down its federal budget deficit, there could be no need for the government to issue new Treasury notes. This would be a problem, as other bonds were priced off Treasurys. What could replace them? The Chairman of the Federal Reserve, speaking via satellite, suggested one idea would be to use Ford and General Motors corporate debt as a pricing peg. Why not? What could be steadier than the American automakers?)

The Bowie securitizations did kick off a small wave of similar deals in the late Nineties: James Brown, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ashford and Simpson. But the implosion of the music industry post-Napster, coupled with the lack of prospects for future top-name securitizations (the likes of the Beatles and the Stones couldn’t do it, as their catalogs were tied up with the likes of Michael Jackson and Allen Klein), meant that the deals dried up. And the worst excesses of securitization, of course, helped dynamite the global economy in 2008, from which it’s hardly recovered. The Bowie Bond was supposed to herald the future but it now seems like a relic from a shattered world (so, very Bowie).

wld

It’s horrible, it’s gross, it’s obscene. It turns his music into a commodity. It’s like [Bowie] could be a water company or gas company.

Dustan Bruce (Chumbawumba), quoted in People, 20 July 1998.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air…

Marx, Communist Manifesto.

There was much ado about Bowie’s financing at the time. Some wrote the deal up as another innovation by rock’s equivalent to Nicola Tesla; some even found tying Wall Street to rock and roll had sex appeal (see Linda Davies’ Something Wild, a 2001 novel in which the heroine investigates if the rock star securitizing his assets has a dark secret in his past). Others mocked Bowie for being a sell-out, a shill of the highest order: see the gruesome prose of Mark Steyn (Once upon a time, rock stars weren’t rated by Moody’s. They were moody.”). The deal was yet another way the Baby Boom generation had failed, yet another sign of rock ‘n’ roll gone corporate. It was gross and tasteless. How much more money did Bowie need, anyway?

And yes, it crumbles the spirit to look back through the thick catalog of Bowie songs—their happy inspirations, their twists of composition; the tone of Mick Ronson’s guitar, the sonic density of Dennis Davis’ kick drum; all of the distractions and karaoke heroics and fantasies that this music has given to countless people—and to know that this messy human ambition was reduced to a tradeable commodity. That a computer at Prudential tracked and collated the royalties of “Changes” as it did a pool of credit-card obligations by American Express. A moment in someone’s life (a song that David Bowie wrote on a piano in Haddon Hall, one afternoon in 1971, and recorded on tape with two now-dead fellow musicians) had been abstracted, had been reduced to a piece of a piece of a synthetic compilation of debts.

bustd

There’s another take on the story. A young man in Britain is a talented songwriter but is unable to manage himself and remains oblivious to finance. He acquires a manager and signs a typically egregious rock ‘n’ roll contract, in which the manager has, outright, 50% ownership of the singer’s catalog for a decade, and will retain ownership of a smaller portion of that (on a sliding scale, reportedly) for decades thereafter.

The young man grew older. He became a parent. He had a costly split from his manager. He moved to Switzerland to reduce his taxes. He had a costly split from his wife. He married again, he would have another child. Now he was 50. How long could he keep at his racket? The papers had wanted him gone years before. So he and his financial adviser devised a scheme. He would give away the royalties to his songs for a decade in exchange for a considerable pile of money. As much as half of which, some $27 million, reportedly would buy out his old manager for once and for all. Then he (and his children) would finally and wholly own his songs.

Consider the course Bowie took in the years that he worked, indirectly, for Prudential. He performed his older songs more. He supervised new releases of his old CDs in 1999 and various 30th Anniversary reissues in the early 2000s. He recorded an album where he reworked his obscure Sixties compositions (though his label shot it down). He played 83 shows in 1997 and from 2002 to 2004, he toured almost ceaselessly, racking up over 150 dates, to the apparent detriment of his health.

And around 2006, the bonds matured and his songs returned to him, and now to him alone. By then he’d stopped recording and playing live. He had (temporarily) retired; you could say that he’d earned it.

Released February 1997.

* As it was a private deal and had no prospectus, it’s never been revealed which songs were in the package. I’m assuming that Bowie’s co-compositions, including “Fame,” “Breaking Glass,” much of the Berlin-era Eno-Bowie instrumentals, the Tin Machine stuff and the immortal “Too Dizzy,” were not part of the securitization, due to the complication of having to get a co-author’s approval, but who knows.

“Bowie Bonds” are trademarked by Pullman & Co.

Sources:

James Damron and Joseph Labbadia, “Comments on Music Royalty Securitizations,” Duff & Phelps Special Report, September 1999.

Karen Richardson, “Bankers Hope for a Reprise of ‘Bowie Bonds’,” Wall Street Journal, 23 August 2005.

Jennifer Sylva, Comment, Bowie Bonds Sold for Far More Than a Song: The Securitization of Intellectual Property as a Super-Charged Vehicle for High Technology Financing, 15 Santa Clara Computer & High Tech. L.J. 195 (1999). (Sylva must have been a fan: one subhead is a play on “Sweet Thing/Candidate”)

Paul Trynka, Starman; Marc Spitz, Bowie.

Top to bottom: Starman gets star on Hollywood Blvd., February 1997; Pullman promo, 1999; chart of the beanstalk-like growth of the ABS market, 1990-2001 (Bond Market Association); Bowie bond schematics (via Dr. Martin Kretschmer’s 2001 paper here);  Brixton’s 10-pound Bowie note; cover of Linda Davies’ Something Wild, 2001; Bowie and Goldie acquire working capital in Everybody Loves Sunshine (aka BUSTED), 1998.


Dirty Blvd.

August 21, 2013

bdaybowie

Dirty Blvd. (Lou Reed, 1989).
Dirty Blvd. (Bowie and Reed, 50th Birthday concert, 1997).

How will David Bowie face up to his unmasked, lined face at 50?

“I shall welcome it, Lord yes,” he said. “Pop stars are capable of growing old. Mick Jagger at 50 will be marvellous—a battered old roué—I can just see him. An aging rock star doesn’t have to opt out of life. When I’m 50, I’ll prove it.”

Jean Rook, “Bowie Reborn,” Daily Express, 14 February 1979.

His other milestone birthdays had passed privately, but for his 50th Bowie threw himself a celebration at Madison Square Garden; it was simulcast via pay-per-view television. As a consolation prize to Britain, he, Gail Ann Dorsey and Reeves Gabrels cut ten songs during rehearsals to be played on a Radio One special to air on the same day as the New York show. ChangesNowBowie was ruminative and fresh, a paging through the back catalog: he revived “The Supermen,” “Lady Stardust” and “Quicksand,” pulled “Repetition” from out of nowhere, rehabilitated Tin Machine with “Shopping for Girls” and “I Can’t Read.”

The big party itself was another matter: its location and guests were chosen for practical reasons. Most of his musicians and support staff were based around New York, and Bowie was still doing final mixes on Earthling while rehearsing the show.* Two weeks after the concert he would release the new album and he was planning to tour it for much of 1997. So the concert’s organizing theme was to offer audiences a preview of Earthling and to establish Bowie as an “alternative rock” icon, with most of his guests a generation younger than him.

Bowie opened with “Little Wonder,” dug into “Hearts Filthy Lesson”. Some guests were a subtle nod at Tin Machine’s influences: Frank Black, who came on to sing “Scary Monsters” and “Fashion,” and Sonic Youth, who bloodied up “I’m Afraid of Americans.” Dave Grohl (seemingly a stand-in for the late Kurt Cobain—a Cobain/Bowie duet on “Man Who Sold the World” would’ve been inevitable) added munitions to “Seven Years in Tibet” and “Hallo Spaceboy.” Robert Smith, the most inspired guest choice, sang “The Last Thing You Should Do” and an oddly heartening “Quicksand” (Smith had lobbied to sing “Young Americans”). Billy Corgan helped close out the show like a kid who’d won a contest.

For some fans, this immersion in the present tense was disappointing. The biographer David Buckley made a case for the prosecution: Just for once, it would have been a poignant and magnanimous gesture to have filled the bill with musicians who were actually part and parcel of [Bowie’s] history. Imagine Bowie singing “Breaking Glass” and “Station to Station” again with Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray. Bringing John Hutchinson on stage to sing “Space Oddity,” Luther Vandross to sing “Young Americans” or “Fascination.” Playing “Moonage Daydream” with Bolder and Woodmansey. Playing live with Iggy Pop for the first time in 20 years. Playing live with Robert Fripp and Brian Eno for the first time ever. Bringing on Nile Rodgers for “Let’s Dance.”

Alomar, for one, was irritated. “I wasn’t asked to play,” he told Buckley. “He could have had asked Luther Vandross, who’s now a superstar. But that whole thing was a political thing for him, to get together with the people who he thought would project him into the future…Sonic Youth? Come on, give me a break! They’re brain dead!…Who are these people?”

David is generally more about the present than the past,” Gabrels told Buckley, adding that, contra Alomar, “I was concerned that the list of participants would end up being too mainstream. For the longest time Madonna was expected to perform.”

So you have the case of a fanbase (and a peer group) whose nostalgia for Bowie’s past was apparently far greater than his own. Or the case of a fanbase that, despite how long they’d been dealing with Bowie’s zigs and zags, still fundamentally misunderstood him. The idea of Bowie doing a Last Waltz-style “This Is My Life” retrospective (Buckley even suggested that the Lower Third should’ve been there) was an improbable conceit. Bowie would catalog his past, keep all his old reviews and stage sets and outtakes, and he would shamelessly raid from his past whenever it suited him. But he wasn’t going to star in a revue about himself (it’s telling that during Bowie’s comeback year of 2013, people will stand in line for hours to see an exhibit of his clothes).

97andcry

The only person who’d been invited that night who actually hailed from Bowie’s past, who had been Bowie’s influence, was Lou Reed. Introduced as “the king of New York,” Reed played “Queen Bitch,” Bowie’s annexation of his and Sterling Morrison’s sound. He looked bemused, as if wondering whether he’d written the song (he had, in a way). Gail Ann Dorsey wore a smile that could’ve powered the Chrysler Building. “Waiting for the Man” seemed freighted with history. It had been 30 years since Bowie had first heard it and he still seemed in awe of the song. Then, with one more duet to go, the choice was obvious: something from Transformer. “Walk on the Wild Side.” “Perfect Day.” “Vicious.” Instead, Reed and Bowie went into “Dirty Boulevard,” a track off Reed’s 1989 New York.

Reed had had a stronger Eighties than Bowie (even his “sellout” pop album, Mistrial, seems like Haydn compared with Tonight). He’d gotten married, moved out to New Jersey. Rather than putting a chill on his writing, domestic suburban life seemed to liberate him. The records came out at an almost yearly clip, like issues of an anthology: The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, New Sensations.

So New York wasn’t the “return to form” of, say, Neil Young’s Freedom: it was a mild course correction rather than a career revival. But it was lumped with the other albums of the Boomer Counter-Reformation (Steel Wheels, Oh Mercy, Now and Zen, Flowers in the Dirt, etc etc.); it was another example of an older legend bringing things back to basics (“nothing beats 2 guitars bass drums,” Reed wrote on the liner) after the fey, synthesized Eighties. “Dirty Boulevard,” the lead-off single, had a thick muscle of a guitar riff that compensated for a lyric whose last verse is so on the nose that it feels like it was workshopped (in another life, Reed was a professor of creative writing at the University of Iowa).

The performance of “Dirty Blvd.” at Bowie’s concert had the feel of Bowie guesting at a Reed concert: at times, Bowie appears to have learned his verses during the soundcheck. Still, there was the riff and the visible enjoyment the two of them took from their mere proximity. Maybe doing “Dirty Boulevard” was a whim (or a requirement by Lou), and Bowie considered that following a whim on stage would make a far better self-tribute than reuniting the Spiders.

At the end of the show, Bowie made a concession: he came out alone with his 12-string acoustic guitar and sang “Space Oddity,” the song that made him. Without Major Tom, without the sway on guitar from F major 7 to E minor, none of it—the show, the crowd, the life—would have existed. “I don’t know where I’m going from here,” he said. “But I promise I won’t bore you.” Then he was off for another year of tours and TV spots. He’d dodged the snare, at least this time.

Performed at Madison Square Garden, 9 January 1997. The complete concert was never issued on CD or DVD, though plenty of “official” bootlegs are out there.

* Thurston Moore, to Marc Spitz: “We just sort of sat down and he blasted the track to us.” Rehearsals took place in an empty sports arena in Hartford. “They were pre-creating the show. Who the fuck rents out a fucking arena? People with his kind of revenue…they have airplanes…they rent out arenas.”

Top: birthday imp; crowd’s eye view of birthday imp (via turistadeguerra).


The Last Thing You Should Do

August 8, 2013

96winter

The Last Thing You Should Do.
The Last Thing You Should Do (with Robert Smith, 50th Birthday concert).
The Last Thing You Should Do (live, 1997).

“The Last Thing You Should Do” nearly didn’t make Earthling: it was slotted as a B-side until receiving a late-in-the-day promotion. Bowie had intended to put a reworked Tin Machine track on the album, cutting during the Earthling sessions new versions of “Baby Universal” (still unreleased) and a stripped-down “I Can’t Read” that was diverted to the soundtrack of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. There was also another try at “Bring Me the Disco King,” a song that Bowie never seemed able to realize in the studio and which would be a ghost for another half-decade.*

Bowie had a sharp sense for personal narrative and maybe he thought that the time to rehabilitate Tin Machine hadn’t quite arrived. But he later said that “Last Thing You Should Do” had become one of his favorite tracks by the time of album sequencing, and that it better fit the mood. And true, the track was Earthling in miniature: drum ‘n’ bass-inspired percussion loops, melancholic verses with a word-game lyric, savage guitar breaks, the occasionally-deployed shriek and groan, Mike Garson trying to worm his way in. Its various pieces didn’t quite hold together; they seemed in a tense non-aggression pact.

So listening to the track felt like crossing borders, which sharpened the flavor of each section. The Reeves Gabrels guitar break is Gabrels throwing taste and restraint further out the window than usual, with his slashing progress through three power chords encouraged by spliced-in Bowie “yeahs!” and slightly mocked by Garson slowly creeping his way down to the bass end of his keyboard. The “jungle” break is Mark Plati and Zach Alford frenetically trying to create the drum loops/ live beats master duel that the record had promised and had never quite delivered.

And the three verses, built on a foxing progression that hangs between F minor, F# minor and A-flat major, are the weariest on the album, with a two-chord synthesizer drone hanging overhead like a storm cloud. Bowie started with a question: What have you been doing to yourself? and answered it with the title line. “I think it’s very much of its time as a song: one has to be very selfish and protective about oneself if you’re going to survive these days,” he told Andy Gill in 1997.

Singing into an empty water bottle for effect, Bowie glumly repeated a line three times, then closed it off with the title phrase, whose last syllables he bloated and contorted. It’s the sound of an unwanted daybreak, clubtime over; it’s sung by a man who should’ve been in bed hours ago, waiting for a bus or a cab, wondering what he’s doing with his life (it’s also the closest Bowie ever came to doing a Neil Tennant impression). Though “Last Thing” was sequenced midway through Earthling, its title was true: it’s the album’s spent-out coda.

Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Performed on the Earthling tour, 1997.

* Reportedly “Disco King” was tried out as a samba, a tango and a march during these sessions.

Top: CO, Blizzard of 1996, from the vantage pt of 83rd St and First Ave., NYC (my old neighborhood).


Little Wonder

August 7, 2013

tedchan

Little Wonder.
Little Wonder (single edit, video).
Little Wonder (Danny Saber Dance Mix).
Little Wonder (first live performance, 1996).
Little Wonder (VH1 Fashion Awards, 1996).
Little Wonder (50th Birthday concert, 1997).
Little Wonder (Saturday Night Live, 1997).
Little Wonder (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1997).
Little Wonder (San Remo Festival, 1997).
Little Wonder (Wetten Dass, 1997).

Little Wonder (live, 1997).
Little Wonder (GQ Awards, 1997).
Little Wonder (Live at the Beeb, 2000).

Grumpy

In the Eighties, the cartoonist Ray Lowry drew a strip called Note Oilskin Base, for which he often repurposed old newspaper ads and comics. In the first panel of a strip that ran in the 19 May 1984 issue of the NME, two women sit in a soda shop, looking with mild surprise at a figure who stands outside the window, a man in a trench coat and fedora. He looks like a premonition of Dave Gibbons’ Rorschach. “It’s that shabby old man with the tin whistle!,” the woman seated right says to her friend. Lowry drew a new speech balloon to let the shabby man yell: “I yam an Anti-Christ!”*

This was Lowry’s Monty Smith, “has-been, would-be pop savior,” a grubby old man on the margins of pop music, an irritant and a relic, someone reduced to ranting outside a tea room and inspiring little more than incredulity that he was still kicking around. In 1997, some considered David Bowie, now half a century old, to be something like the same.

In the Times, Caitlin Moran asked readers to imagine Bowie without a past, that Bowie was a Beckenham primary school teacher who’d recorded Earthling in his shed. “Do we really believe that record companies would eagerly sign up a 50-year-old man with no new ideas, wonky eyes, manky hair, LA teeth and a tartan suit, who talks like an animatronic statue in Picadilly’s Rock Circus?

So yes, see the wonky, manky, shabby old man jabbering on stage, wearing his professionally-shredded Union Jacket, his hair dyed copper. His latest single rips off the Prodigy. Its video has him crawling around, looking like a cathedral gnome given malevolent life. It’s bass drops, synthetic clatter, sampled guitars. Tits and explosions, he crows. Half of his band look like step-dads. His bass player looks like a hired assassin.

Bashful

His description of me was ‘coming on like someone’s nasty dad.’ And I thought, “that’s great. I really like that.”…I seem to be going into a kind of demented persona now on stage. I guess it’s ’cause I can’t sell youth. ‘Cause I’m not a youth. So I’m selling whatever it is I am as a persona, which tends to be this kind of ironically enthusiastic old guy who’s still into this crazed sound.

Bowie, 1997.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. If you were a rocker in your fifties, you needed to exploit dignity, the only resource left in abundance for the aging. You should become a curator of yourself. Talk about the old days but don’t take them seriously. Wear a well-cut suit, preface the old songs with wry introductions on stage: “this next one is called “Oh, You Pretty Things” (applause) and it’s about the rise of the homo superior. Remember the homo superior? (chuckles, applause) Ah you do, you do. Yes, well, it’s easy to imagine you are one of ’em when you’re able to get out of bed without groaning! (sympathetic laughs)”.

He would get there soon enough. But “Little Wonder” was the last time Bowie went for it: his last go at speaking rock’s current dialect, to get on MTV and make the cover of Spin and play summer festivals where kids take E and get drunk, rather than the ones where people bring their kids. Its meaty B major chorus, with its slamming guitars, echoed multi-tracked vocals and soaring synth lines, sounds like Bowie throwing down a gauntlet to U2 (themselves busy in 1997 trying to stay afloat), if not the Britpop bands: the “Helter Skelter”-esque backing vocals in the chorus are a nose-thumb at the likes of Noel Gallagher.

Yet as usual, he couldn’t just grab for the ring; he had to go about it sideways. So to get to the big chorus, the listener first has to make it through nearly two minutes of tortured guitars, drum ‘n’ bass loops, two skittering verses and a break filled with stomping feet, train whistles and other sonic bric-à-brac. And the melancholy of the verses never gets dispelled: the stadium-ready choruses are infected with it, they soon start to blanch and wither.

Because “Little Wonder,” despite its Prodigy stylings and its epileptic Floria Sigismondi video, is at heart a sad older man’s song: it’s a man freighted with the past, trapped in a vein of youth music. Bowie’s glum vocal in the verses is confined to a single octave, never venturing above a middle B (on the slight strain of “you little wonder”), often keeping to a three-note span until he sinks low to close his phrases (“grumpy gnomes,” “bashful but nude“). The song’s visual counterpart, the jittery “grumpy gnome” that Bowie plays in its video, is a distraction; a better analogue is his blank-faced, sour Pierrot of the “Be My Wife” film.

Doc

wonda

It’s as if “Little Wonder” is sung by an alternate Bowie, the Bowie whose “Love You Till Tuesday” was a #1 UK hit in 1967. The Bowie who was a British institution, who never translated well overseas (though the Dutch loved him). Some movie work, some stage revues, a TV special or two, a hit single every half a decade: a disco spoof; a soppy rendition of “Nobody’s Child” in the late Thatcher years. A grubby pantomime counterpart to Cliff Richard; an actor routinely rumored, and never chosen, to play the lead in Doctor Who.

In this scenario, “Little Wonder” is just the latest rumble of contemporary pop sounds by Britain’s national holiday-camp director. “Let’s have the Laughing Gnome go to a rave!” Bowie says in the studio. So they import some drum ‘n’ bass loops, rent a guitarist with an effects pedal rack and off he goes, mumbling and winking through his lyric in his trademark Mockney: “Sit on my karma, lurve! Dayme meditation! Tayke me away!” It’s the sound of a man happy being ridiculous, a man so sewn through with the past that the present seems surreal, and he takes it as such.

Sneezy

“Little Wonder,” like much of Earthling, is Bowie and Reeves Gabrels papering over the gap between (aspirational) jungle and hard rock. The alleged jungle is in the verses, which are built on a repeating four-chord progression (E-C#minor-A-C)** established by a dry-sounding keyboard while drum ‘n’ bass loops clatter overhead in the mix. Where jungle was built on tension and contrast–double-time loops crashing against half-time bass drops, the sudden flanging of a drum line, a stereo-panned counter-rhythm that scurries in and out—it’s used here as ornamentation, or worse, as a timestamp, in the way that TV channels have a permanent logo in the bottom-right corner of the screen.

While the instrumental breaks get you in shape for the choruses and the transition to B major, they were dwarfs of Bowie’s original ambitions. “Little Wonder” was meant to be a nine-minute “jungle epic,” Mark Plati said, with the second break in particular crafted to explode into a spray of sound effects, samples, atmospheres (One tiny piece of the original sound-scrap left in the mix is a snippet of the drunken roadie Jerome Aniton, introducing Steely Dan to Santa Monica in 1974 before a live recording of the Dan’s “Bodhisattva”).*** Instead the “big break” winds up being fairly pedestrian stuff—bass yawns, an X-Files-esque rising synthesizer line—and much of its excision in the single edit isn’t a loss.

It’s part of what makes “Little Wonder” so frustrating: intended to be loud, remorseless, irritating, it wound up being charming, odd, minor.

Happy

bowie

My playing on this record is like making head cheese.

Reeves Gabrels, 1997.

The first thing you hear is a three-note Gabrels guitar riff that sounds like a roar, a muffled scream and a dog whistle. Gabrels sat down with the assistant engineer to make a half-hour DAT of “guitar stuff I like to do, things like the whammy aspect of the [Roland] VG-8,” he told Guitar Player. “I figured if we were going to use samples, we might as well make our own.” So the first note is Gabrels playing his E string with an envelope filter and distortion via the VG-8, the second note is the same tone but shifted two octaves up and set aflutter with a whammy bar, the third is a exosphere-high E played on the 24th fret of his Parker and kicked another octave up via the Fernandes Sustainer.

The rest of the track was built in a similar grab-bag fashion: stolen sounds, distorted instruments, studio verite footage. Much of the bass track, for instance, was Gail Ann Dorsey caught unawares, trying to get a sound from her pedalboard without knowing she was being recorded. “We constructed the track by grabbing bits of her bass line,” Gabrels said. (That said, Dorsey gets the most striking moment of the track: her sharply whispered “little wonder you” break).

The vocal came together along the same lines: what you’re hearing for the most part is just Bowie’s guide vocal. His lyric began as an exercise: to use all of the names of the Seven Dwarfs in the verses (he did: find them all—it’s like a word search in a pop lyric). Bowie soon ran out of names, at one point adding “Stinky” and “Scummy” to the mix. Having some sort of guidance apart from the random edicts of the word-generating Verbasizer program gave Bowie’s lines some melodic life: he takes care with his vowel sounds, plays off consonances and alliteration, and even the weak pun of the title line works thanks to the neat precision of his singing.

Dopey

damemeditation

Bowie got to #14 in the UK with the single, topped the Japanese charts with it, got some minor airplay on US alternative stations. Its video, with Bowie playing the familiar of a reincarnated Ziggy Stardust, aired often enough to be remembered, living on glam nostalgia: it turned out to be a preview trailer for 1998’s Velvet Goldmine. And “Little Wonder”/Earthling became the last image of Bowie to make an impression on the public imagination. For a time, this copper-haired grubby rave granddad version of Bowie came to mind when you thought: What’s Bowie doing these days? It was his last notable pop disguise.

He would keep at it for the rest of the Nineties, trying his hand at any new toy sent his way: the Internet, the booming stock market, more jungle and dance collaborations. By the close of the century, he stopped kicking and let himself get tugged back to the past. It was inevitable; it was sad all the same. Bowie had once seemed predicated on change, on an allegiance to the future. “Little Wonder,” a catchy but fraying single, was an indication that he couldn’t take as much nourishment from change anymore. He would become a curator despite his best intentions.

Sleepy

Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Played live a few times in autumn 1996, and issued as Earthling‘s lead-off single on 27 January 1997 (Arista 74321 452072, UK #14). There were the usual gang of mixes, mainly by Junior Vasquez, who did the Ambient, 4/4 and Club Dub. Danny Saber’s mix, which featured a cello played by David Coleman, appeared on the soundtrack to the Val Kilmer edition of The Saint.

* The panel is reprinted on the first page of Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces.

*** The E major verse progression is a steady tromp back home (I-vi-IV) that’s intercepted at the end by the C major chord, borrowed from the parallel minor (so I-vi-IV-VI then back to I). While the whole song could be in E, the dominance of B major in the choruses (the fact that the song never feels like it’s yearning to resolve back to E, but is happy to stay hunkered down on B) argues for a modulation of sorts. Insights (as usual): Dave Depper.

** Originally issued as the B-side of “Hey Nineteen” in 1980 and later included on the Citizen Steely Dan boxed set.

Top: Ted Barron, “Chan Marshall (Cat Power), 1996.”


Battle for Britain (the Letter)

July 24, 2013

london96

Battle for Britain (the Letter).
Battle for Britain (50th Birthday Concert, 1997).
Battle for Britain (live, 1997).
Battle for Britain (GQ Awards, 1997).
Battle for Britain (live, 2004).

Many music celebrities simply chose to leave Britain, and it wasn’t all about tax; American was the main global market for music and, after all, the country where rock ‘n’ roll began. I had considered moving to America myself, but I didn’t want to leave home. Everything I am and have done for myself, all my artistic work, was rooted in the British way of life, the two world wars and the hidden damage they had done to four generations. I knew I’d never leave Britain. My roots were too deep.

Pete Townshend, Who I Am, 2012.

Taking an ocean liner to America in the spring of 1974, leaving as a soiled goodbye note Diamond Dogs, Bowie never came back to Britain. Sure, he’d get the occasional flat or lodge in a London hotel for some project or other, but he rarely recorded in Britain again* and when his tours played the UK, they were revivals, a traveler stopping by a town he’d grown up in, showing relations (estranged or worshipful) what he’d found out in the world, eager to get moving again.

If Townshend felt he needed Britain, that his work would wither if he was away from it, Bowie had been itching to leave by the mid-Seventies. It was as if he’d spent himself out of his home. Out he went: Los Angeles, Berlin, Java. He had a pleasure dome in Mustique. Most of all, he spent a long, comfortable isolation in Switzerland. Once he’d been among the most deliberately “British” of British pop singers, taking cues from Anthony Newley and Ivor Cutler and Peter Cook. His records up to Diamond Dogs are a world in which the United States is only a rumor, a radio broadcast or an LP test pressing. His records after it are a British exile’s.

He never downplayed his heritage in his music: take the Mockney accent that would turn up seemingly on every record, like a photo watermark. Even while filming in Australia or Polynesia he came across more as a genteel Englishman in the tropics than any stateless world traveler. Yet statelessness, the sense of being an artistic embodiment of global capital, was his apparent aim in the Eighties: if not wished for, achieved anyhow.

Then he had a homeward arc in the Nineties, starting with an impromptu bus tour of Brixton one night in 1991 with Tin Machine and ending with him sporting a fashionably-shredded Union Jack frock coat on the cover of Earthling (echoing Townshend, predicting Geri Halliwell), where he stood, back to camera and hands clasped, like an alien surveyor assessing the fields of Kent. The center of it was Buddha of Suburbia, a project that had sent him back to his past, making him become, for a moment, the aging Beckenham hippie he could have been. He seemed in love with his home country again. At least he told reporters this.

There’s so much energy there. It’s as if we’ve finally understood that we don’t have the rest of the Commonwealth, or the world, to support and comfort us, that we have to do things on our own now to prove who we are,” he said to Andy Gill. Britain has “the greatest architects in the world…In the fashion world, we’re taking over; in the art scene, there’s nobody to touch us and the best music is coming out of Britain now. In every aspect of world culture we are leaders. Quite rightly! The whole thing will all fall down in a year or two when we realize that, once again, we have no idea how to market it, and all our original ideas will run off to Italy and America, and we’ll get all whiney about it.”

This effusion reads like ad copy for “Cool Britannia”: Swinging London redux, with Britpop and Damien Hirst, culminating in an election in which Tony Blair played a slimmed-down (in various senses) Harold Wilson. It’s not surprising that Bowie wanted to align himself with what he considered a renaissance in the UK. Being a tax exile in Switzerland was a bit played out by 1996.

But despite Bowie’s belief that British pop music was on an upswing, his connection to it seemed more tenuous than ever. He talked up Tricky, A Guy Called Gerald, Prodigy, but his own works seemed tributes to their sound at best, never rivals or viable contemporaries. And Cool Britannia was a world of A-list Sixties revivals: Beatles, Stones, Kinks, not oddballs like Bowie who’d come along in their wake. By 1996, the young musicians who’d been most inspired by him (Suede and the Auteurs come to mind) were being obscured in the music press by the likes of the Gallagher brothers, who seemed to hail from a Britain in which David Bowie had barely existed. Bowie’s 50th birthday was even an occasion for fresh scorn.

[“Battle for Britain”] is another cut-up, but it probably comes from a sense of  “Am I or am I not British?’, an inner war that wages in most expatriates. I’ve not lived in Britain since 1974, but I love the place, and I keep going back.

Bowie, 1997.

“Battle for Britain” is a letter from a man in exile, intended for no one in particular, as though its author had dropped it, addressed to ENGLAND, in an airport mailbox somewhere. My my, the time do fly, he begins, when it’s in another pair of hands. (In the second verse, he puns on “fly,” tweaking the last phrase to “pair of pants“; Gail Ann Dorsey responds with a slow, descending bassline as if she’s elegantly backing away from him.) He’s back home again, scuffing around the old neighborhood. He pops pills to manage his imaginary ailments, he’s broke and shabby. He doesn’t regret leaving. Better a beggarman on the shelf than be in a two-up, two-down here, he sniffs.

He recalls an old song from when he was young here. First heard it on the Carousel record every mother in his street seemed to have, then sung by Gerry Marsden (and a Bromley kid onstage at the Marquee Club). When you walk through a storm…don’t be afraid of the dark… Now with a sneering guitar goading him, he curdles the memory. Don’t be so forlorn..it’s just the payoffit’s the RAIN before the STORM! In “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” Marsden promised a golden sky after the rain; the expat here just promises more rain. It is England, after all.

Yet just when the song is teetering into spite, the last bars of the pre-chorus shift to a bright A major, pivoting to a refrain where the old man makes amends. Don’t you let my letter get you down, he sings, sounding remorseful over a resounding C major progression that’s guided by steady waves of Reeves Gabrels’ guitar. No one cares that he’s back; no one seems to remember he was gone. By the second verse, he’s boring himself, cutting off a line with a weary la-di-dah.

In all its seeming unfairness, what Britain is very good at is keeping people re-evaluating their own standards in a hostile and quite cruel fashion.

Bowie, 1997.

Like “Looking For Satellites,” “Britain” began as one of producer Mark Plati’s experiments. Here Plati was trying to create “a jazz-tinged jungle track,” as he told David Buckley, which eventually entailed Zach Alford playing “live” in half time against programmed double-time jungle figures. It’s Alford’s best performance on the record: take how he pushes his way into the track with a staggered artillery barrage, starting out with hissing ride cymbals, thundering a few tom fills, and finally settling on the snare pattern that becomes the track’s jumpy heartbeat.

Bowie heard a rough version of the rhythm track and soon scrapped Plati’s original chord sequence in favor of a constellation of B major (verses), G major (pre-chorus) and C major (refrain) progressions.** Plati was elated: “I felt this could be our first real ‘Bowie’ song,” he said, a sign that the sessions were creating an album rather than being a few odd jungle experiments. Bowie improvised a lyric from his Verbasizer, cut his vocal with the usual dispatch. For a finishing touch, Plati added a “Benefit of Mr. Kite”-inspired carousel of sound culled from his collection of studio scraps, capped off by a skipping Bowie vocal (at 3:33) seemingly intended to make a listener wonder if the CD’s scratched.

For the solo, Bowie gave a typically impossible brief to Mike Garson: play a piano solo like Stravinsky’s wind octet (unfamiliar with the piece, Garson had to walk up Broadway to Tower Records to buy the CD). Garson complied: thin-sounding atonal chords with a brass feel, spiky runs across the treble end of the keyboard, spidery traces of melody. The fresh element here is Alford, who starts challenging Garson halfway through, somehow slipping in snare fills between Garson’s notes, unsettling Garson’s runs with a rolling tom fill and finally bludgeoning the solo to a close.

“Battle for Britain” is a tight, sparkling group performance of a solitary exile’s song; it’s the community the singer has to replace what he’s long abandoned. Bowie’s return to Britain didn’t take. It was like an attempted reconciliation of a long-dead marriage: some lofty sentiments, some earnest attempts to reconnect. But too much time had flown by, in other pairs of hands (or pants). Instead, he chose the city where he recorded his last letter home. By the start of the century, Bowie was a New Yorker and has lived there, for the most part, ever since.

Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Debuted at the 50th birthday concert in Madison Square Garden, January 1997, and played in the Earthling and Reality tours.

* The only instances that come to mind are his remakes of “Space Oddity” and “Panic in Detroit” at Tony Visconti’s Good Earth Studios in London, summer/fall 1979, and the “Absolute Beginners”-era soundtrack material in the mid-Eighties, at Abbey Road.

** Most of the sequences use a flatted VII chord for a feint before moving back to the tonic—take the verse, which is I-V-VIIb (“(B) and a loser I will be, for I’ve (F#) never been a winner in my (A) life…”) or the I-V-VIIb-IV chorus ((C)”don’t you let my letter get you (G) down (Bb) (F) don’t you…”)

Top: “wcher,” “London, 1996.”


Dead Man Walking

July 9, 2013

Neil_Young_1996

Dead Man Walking.
Dead Man Walking (single edit, video).
Dead Man Walking (“house” mix).
Dead Man Walking (Moby Mix 1).
Dead Man Walking (Moby Mix 2).
Dead Man Walking (Top of the Pops, 1997).
Dead Man Walking (Late Night with Conan O’Brien, 1997).
Dead Man Walking (Jack Docherty Show, 1997).
Dead Man Walking (acoustic w/ Gabrels, radio, 1997).
Dead Man Walking (acoustic w/ Gabrels, Live 105, 1997).
Dead Man Walking (live, 1997).

There’s something sage-like about [Neil] Young, this grand old man of American rock, a pioneer loaded with integrity…

Bowie, 1997.

People my age, they don’t do the things I do.

Neil Young, “I’m the Ocean.”

He idly considered writing an ode to his former co-star Susan Sarandon, using as a kick-off point the title of her most recent film. But upon seeing Neil Young and Crazy Horse play one night,* Bowie found “Dead Man Walking” better suited someone who’d become the California redwood of rock musicians.

He’d discovered Young during his “oddball folkie” period of high influence, ca. 1970-1971, when other favorites on the Haddon Hall turntable were Biff Rose and Ron Davies. And it was Young’s After the Gold Rush Bowie was listening to when he learned his son Duncan was born. “Kooks,” the song he wrote in commemoration, was also a tribute to Young, both lyrically (“we believe in you“) and instrumentally (Trevor Bolder’s trumpet solo on the track is a close cousin to the one on Young’s “Till the Morning Comes.”)

Like Bowie, Young’s finest work came in the Seventies; unlike Bowie, his Eighties were commercially barren, his records seemed willfully obscure. In his crooked way, Young was doing what Bowie had tried with his “Berlin” records—to erase a persona that he felt trapped in. While in the Seventies he’d slaved to be contrarian, driving “into the ditch” after a time in the middle of the road, Young still mainly played two alternating roles: heavy rocker and somber folkie. So in the Eighties he rubbished the idea of “Neil Young.” He made a synthesizer album, a country record, a blues-bar album and a Fifties rock ‘n’ roll tribute LP that led his label’s head David Geffen to sue him for making “unrepresentative” albums.

Around the turn of the Nineties, Young seemed to settle on being “himself” again and soon was anointed the only Baby Boomer musician who wasn’t a joke. He was slower, craggier, he looked like someone’s hippie dad, stumping around on stage. But he became immaculately hip, recording with Pearl Jam, touring with Sonic Youth; he seemed more of the time than his counterparts a generation younger.

What Bowie seemed hell-bent on being in the Nineties—a 50-year-old rocker who was still in the bloodstream of current music—Young simply was. And he did this not by playing drum ‘n’ bass or Pixies riffs, but the same old first-gear/second-gear grind, feedback-bloodied, juddering, two-guitars-bass-drums music that he’d played in the Sixties. He had stood still and the world had revolved back around to him.

Bowie was taken by the idea of Young as some kind of shaman figure for audiences half his age. Watching Young and his old bandmates in Crazy Horse channel music seemingly through their bodies, he thought “there was a sense of grace and dignity about what they were doing, and also an incredible verve and energy. It was very moving, watching them work under the moon,” he said.

In another interview, he expanded on what he’d seen that night. During a long instrumental section of a song, “they began to dance, turning around, like in a tribal circle, very slowly. And it seemed to me that they were doing that to catch back their dreams, to find youth again, to not allow the energy to escape…”Dead Man Walking” is a sort of homage to rock and roll that is still young while we are all growing old.”

The song’s second verse is Bowie’s dream memory of that night, a realization that he, too, had become a crazy old man dancing under the moon:

Three old men dancing under the lamplight
Shaking their sex and their bones
And the boys that we were..

dead man yowling

So one tributary of “Dead Man Walking” began the night Bowie saw Young play. Another was a far older stream, starting in a London studio one day in January 1965.

Two ambitious young men are in the room that day: one is an 18-year-old from Bromley who’s cutting his second-ever single, a muddled cover of Bobby Bland’s “I Pity the Fool.” The other, despite being just 21, is a storied professional guitarist, a studio hired gun who quietly exudes cool and who’s happy to show off his latest gear: in this case, a fuzzbox. So David Jones sings “Pity the Fool,” and Jimmy Page doubles on lead for it. Page doesn’t think it’s a hit, and it isn’t. As if in recompense he plays Jones a riff that he’s not going to use. It’s a lumbering sway between two chords, a brontosaurus stomp. Duh-nuh duh-nuh dunna-nuh duh-nuh. Page doesn’t realize just how much of a packrat he’s talking to. Jones will keep the riff in his head: he’ll use it on “The Supermen” five years later, then he’ll revive it in another lifetime, in New York in 1996.

In its old age, Page’s riff was still basically the same: E-flat and F major, a steady foot-clomp of harmonic rhythm. But on the studio take of “Dead Man Walking,” the riff is a beast in a cage. It collides with a second Reeves Gabrels synthesized guitar line, which buzzes along and jabs at it. Its rhythms are overwhelmed by synthesizer arpeggios, tea-kettle feedback noises, various percussive loops. Yet despite this it still has its power: whenever the riff plays to close out a chorus, it’s a gavel pounding, making the other jabbering voices fall in line for a moment.

gail

“Dead Man Walking” was nearly abandoned during the Earthling sessions until the co-producer Mark Plati spent five days salvaging the song, painstakingly putting a mix together that was built on a dramatic arc. As Plati said, the track “begins completely programmed and ends completely live.” It opens with solitary synthesizer flourishes and ends with the sound of live musicians making themselves heard above the din: Zachary Alford’s snare fills and hissing cymbals, Gail Ann Dorsey’s bass (she’s often gliding between notes, as if looking to outflank the rest of the band, and while she holds back during Alford’s solo, she slides in afterward and lays down a sinuous foundation for the outro) and Mike Garson, who closes out the song by playing a new, Latin-sounding melody on his piano, as if saying: no, look we could go here now just at the fade.

Bowie opens his verse with an older man, perhaps an entertainer, watching a clip of his youth on a screen, recalling some show or deal in Atlantic City. He gets up, dismisses his idle thoughts while he “walks down the aisle”: (he’s on an airplane? or maybe he’s getting married again). As the pre-chorus begins, with its downshift to E-flat minor, he feels oddly clear of the past, as if he’s suddenly outlived it: in a marvelous line, he feels “older than movies.” Like Young, he’s been around enough that the world’s swiveling back round to him. A counterpoint chorus, Bowie holding on two alternating notes, finds him hanging in mid-air, spinning slack through reality, falling “up” through time. Just before the riff kicks in (it’s the “earthling” of the song, its gravity well), as he sings across a four-chord descending progression (A-flat through G minor and F-sharp, ending on the riff’s bedrock F major), he tweaks his nose and dives away:

And I’m gone!
Like I’m dancing on angels
And I’m gone
through a crack in the past..
.

It’s bluster, playing japes: he can’t shed the weight of the past. He’ll wake up in his torn Union Jack coat and dried makeup and feel the hangover deep in his bones. (This is essentially the acoustic revision of “Dead Man Walking” that Bowie and Gabrels played for a number of TV and radio spots in 1997. It’s lovely and graceful but it’s an old man’s song now.) The chorus lines subtly acknowledge this, with their echoes of Young’s “Sleeps With Angels” (a man mourning a kid who took his old path and went astray) and, in perhaps the ultimate Bowie in-joke, his lost “Shilling the Rubes,” where a woman is played for a sucker by a man who’s skipped out on her (“Gone! the day he left town!”) The title line itself is a cruel joke: he’s escaped the past and wound up a zombie.

But there are a few moments in the song—whenever the riff’s playing (it’s like an extended middle finger pointed at time) or during Gabrels’ jabbing solo that has him relentlessly moving down his guitar neck, or when Alford slips in a sharp little tom-snare fill (4:52)—when Bowie seems free, when he’s gone lighter than air, toe-tapping on an angel’s head. It’s a youth of the mind, sure, but that’s really all youth ever was.

dbb

Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released as Earthling‘s third single in April 1997 (RCA 74321 475842, #32 UK). The single mix lops four lines from the pre-chorus (moving from “older than movies” straight to “And I know who’s there”), which does get to the chorus hook faster (Bowie used this edit for his acoustic versions as well), but diminishes the narrative of the song—its pleasures come a bit too easily.

There were a mind-fogging array of mixes. In Britain, there was a 12″ single with the House Mix and the Vigor Mortis remix (BMG/RCA 74321 475841 (oh, for the sunny days of “BOW 5″) as well as a promo single (RCA/BMG DMW02) that had the Moby Mix 1, the This One’s Not Dead Yet Remix as well as the two previous mixes. The EC and the US offered different variations, including a Moby Mix 2 on a US promo 12” that was later included on the 2004 reissue of Earthling. There were three acoustic versions of the song broadcast in 1997 subsequently issued on CD (including the Conan O’Brien performance): please see the Illustrated DB entry for more details.

Top: Shakey and Crazy Horse, ca. 1996 (found this on Tumblr–don’t know photog. if someone does, let me know.)

* Bowie claimed this was the Bridge Benefit Concert that he’d played with Young in October 1996. However, Earthling was mainly cut in August 1996. So perhaps Bowie rewrote the lyric to “Dead Man” after the Bridge show, or in interviews he confused that show with his memories of an earlier Young concert, or he was just making it up. All seem plausible.


Law (Earthlings On Fire)

July 2, 2013

les gens

Law (Earthlings On Fire).

Father died last Monday afternoon after an illness lasting just under a week…He lay in bed with the sweetpea all over his face, making great oaths that when he got better he would never do a stroke of work. He would drive to the top of Howth and lie in the bracken and fart.

Samuel Beckett, letter, 1933.

“Law (Earthlings On Fire)” is a Bowie dance track, so naturally one of its vocal hooks is a Bertrand Russell quote: I don’t want knowledge! I want certainty!* Delivered via a distorted vocal that sounds as if Bowie’s ranting through a megaphone, the line seems to mock the dancers that the track’s allegedly set into motion, the club as the empty certainty of the present while the tedious business of acquiring knowledge is left behind at home.

Bowie saw Russell as predicting the data avalanche of the Internet. You can attempt to use the information it generates to shore up your preconceptions, or you can simply sit on the banks and watch an endless, ever-broadening stream of information go by. Russell “was right, mean old bastard that he was,” Bowie said in 1997. “As you get older, you become more desperate for certainty. Or, you relax your hold on the idea of ever acquiring it and enjoy the process of gaining information. I’m quite happy with the latter. What-is-my-purpose? doesn’t hang so heavy in my sky.”

It’s odd to consider that a throwaway track like “Law” is the resolution of something that Bowie had grappled with as a young man, but in its way, it’s answering the tortured, questioning mind of “Quicksand” and “Station to Station” by saying: just let go. The sound of the sound with the sound of the ground, etc. “To me, it’s the avenue to insanity, to presume if you keep studying you’ll find the answers,” Bowie said in another interview at the time. “As I got older, I was more able to accept the idea that you don’t have certainty of this earth; rather than make you more perplexed and worried, it actually lightens the load when you realize there are no certainties.”

Basically “Son of ‘Pallas Athena,'” “Law” was sequenced to close Earthling, where it came off like a bonus track or a remix tacked onto the CD. It’s a series of eight or 16-bar breaks pasted together: the Russell quote refrain, built over a loop of synthesizer sixteenth notes; a “verse” that has a few murmured lines like “a wallet drops and money flies into the midday sun,” a jabbing two-note bassline and a chord sequence that suggests the James Bond theme; and a refrain/hook section with the chanted “sound of the ground” and the title line, which is the goofy dramatic peak of the song: Bowie sings it like he’s announcing a superhero.

Having little to do with the drum ‘n’ bass stylings of other Earthling tracks, “Law” is far more indebted to turn-of-the-decade industrial pop like My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult’s “Sex On Wheels,” with which it shares a taste for sonic trash littering the mix, like engine revving noises. The catalog of noises in the “Law” mix would fill a page: Bowie chanting “ja! ja! ja!”; synthetic vibraphones; the return of Bowie’s “Nathan Adler” voice to mutter “I get a little bit afraid, sometimes“; Reeves Gabrels guitar-synth yawps; the old standbys of shattering glass and iron-door-slams. Consider all of it to be a flow of “knowledge” that you can take or leave.

There’s another reference buried in the track. In the last “verse,” Bowie mutters Samuel Beckett’s father’s alleged last words: What a morning! (an inspired Beckett would soon write the story What a Misfortune). But Beckett’s father said something else on his deathbed that could be the credo of the whole Earthling record, despite Bowie’s public claims of being contented: “fight fight fight.”

Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Though “Law” seems intended to be a club single like “Pallas,” it wasn’t issued as one. It was also the only Earthling song never performed live, though it was used as pre-show music for the 50th Birthday Concert in January 1997.

* The exact quote was “what men really want is not knowledge, but certainty.” One of the most popular Russell quotes, it’s found in quote compilations, business studies and managerial how-to books, often grotesquely misconstrued in the latter. It doesn’t come from any of Russell’s published works but rather an interview he gave to the BBC magazine The Listener in 1964.

Top: Christian de Prost, “France, Limoux, 1997.”