No One Calls

November 20, 2013

99wallingerecce

Awakened 2.
No One Calls.

Of all the tracks issued under the general ‘Hours’ banner, “No One Calls,” stuffed away on the “Thursday’s Child” CD single, seems the most likely candidate to have emerged from one of Bowie and Brian Eno’s lost Outside sequel sessions. It was as though Bowie assembled the track with the intention of recapturing the dark murmurings of “Wishful Beginnings.”

This could well be true. What’s also true is that Bowie raided the Labyrinth soundtrack for the song: Nicholas Pegg’s argument that “No One Calls” is in part a rewrite of Trevor Jones’s “Thirteen O’Clock” is pretty undeniable (the melodic line of “no-body-calls” is essentially the first synthesizer melody in the Jones piece). And “No One Calls” also appears, in instrumental form, as a piece of incidental music in the Omikron video game, listed in the CD sequencing as “Awakened 2.”

Further, it’s as “plastic” a track as “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” only here the reference book isn’t the glam years or Tin Machine rawk but the tasteful “European” Bowie, the Bowie of Side 2 of Low and “Heroes,” the minimalist of Buddha of Suburbia, with Bowie using a vintage 1980s drum machine, the Roland TR-707, as the track’s chassis.

Not that this is a bad thing: Bowie in austere self-parody mode can still work small wonders. “No One Calls” (an odd title, as Bowie actually sings “nobody calls” throughout) is one of the subtlest and more intriguing pieces to emerge from the ‘Hours’ period. The fragmented lyric, which Bowie sings in his sad Pierrot voice via loose, four- and five-syllable lines (and echoed, per usual, by distorted ghost voices), can be read in a host of ways: as an isolated, depressed person’s internal monologue; as the thoughts of someone facing the repercussions of something horrific they’ve done (why does no one call anymore? why is the singer having to be photographed?). It could even be post-apocalyptic: counting the windows (left unshattered); nobody phones anyone at all (because there are no phones, or people, left).

Built over a twinned eerie repeating keyboard melody, one strain of which seems to have crept out of a Dario Argento horror film, and with a processed Reeves Gabrels guitar, sounding like an Indian esraj, that echoes, then pilfers the top melody (and which soon divides into two competing lines) “No One Calls” seems to be building to a climax but instead loses heart, with Bowie left to repeat his last doleful “not at alls” as the track slowly fades away into synthetic rainfall.

Recorded ca. January-February 1999, London; poss. May 1999, Seaview Studios, with overdubs at Chung King Studios and Looking Glass Studios. Released 20 September 1999 as a B-side of various “Thursday’s Child” CD singles (Virgin 7243 8 96268 2 7/VSCDT 1753) and offered as a freebie to fans who downloaded the album via Liquid Audio; later included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours.

Top: Mark Wallinger, Ecce Homo, 1999 (displayed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square; another angle here).


The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell

November 18, 2013

99eminbed

The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Omikron: The Nomad Soul (Stigmata mix)).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (TOTP, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Late Show with David Letterman, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (live, NetAid, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Musique Plus, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (TVE 2, 1999).
The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell (live, 1999).

Then there’s “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.” That’s not a song, that’s a CV.

Ha ha! That was really dangling a carrot, wasn’t it?

Bowie, Q interview, October 1999.

Rock as put-down or stand-up, “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” began as a guitar riff that Reeves Gabrels cut in 20 minutes in February 1999, then earmarked the developing track for his solo album. In May, during the ‘Hours’ sessions in Bermuda, Bowie came up with a vocal; soon afterward in New York, Mark Plati added what he called a “boneheaded” bassline. Soon enough Bowie claimed the song, considering it a likely single, a good fit for a section of the Omikron video game “where they want[ed] something more rambunctious” and a potentially hot live piece.

He could have called it something like “The Dirty Things Are In Your Face” and let the track sink or swim by its own merits. Instead he impishly made it a reference/homage to (take your pick) the Stooges’ “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell,” the band the Pretty Things, the Bo Diddley song which named said band, the two Pretty Things songs that Bowie covered on Pin Ups, Tin Machine’s “Pretty Thing” and his own.

Upon the album’s release, Bowie kept throwing out scenarios: it was like he was playing a game of charades with his song. In interviews (and on stage at the Roseland in 2000) he called the song a take-off (or “put-down”) of the early glam era. And talking to Chris Roberts for an Uncut feature, Bowie said he’d been inspired by Evelyn Waugh’s “bright young things” from Vile Bodies, itself the impetus of “Aladdin Sane.” “I think their day is numbered,” Bowie said of Waugh’s lovelies. “So I thought, well, let’s close them off. They wore it well but they did wear themselves out, y’know, there’s not much room for that now. It’s a very serious little world.” So “Pretty Things” was a coda for the pre-millennial blues of Outside: a world, hardening and shrinking, that has no space left for the glamsters and assorted fops who’d made the 20th Century remotely tolerable.

The interpretation Bowie offered that struck closest to home, though, was that “Pretty Things” was a comedy song: rock ‘n’ roll as a creaky burlesque. It was a dig at his current status and what had become of a once-“revolutionary” music at the end of the century. Picking through his career in a SPIN interview at the time, Bowie said “I wasn’t sure if I was doing songs or stand-up. Not that I minded. There’s a British thing where rock singers and comedians are envious of each other’s careers.” (True, that: how many rockers wished they were as cool as Peter Cook?).

Bowie complained to Addicted to Noise‘s Gil Kaufman that reviewers had bungled his favorite pun in the song, writing that he was moaning “life’s a bitch and then you die” when he actually was singing “life’s a bit and sometimes you die.” It’s stand-up! I wrote a song about stand-up! he snapped. You can go further on this line: what’s a stand-up routine but a man standing center-stage, trying to convert an indifferent, even hostile crowd of strangers to his side? It was a reminder that Bowie’s greatest achievement of the Nineties wasn’t the would-be concept albums or the hip collaborations. He had remade himself into a formidable live performer, and without using the crutch of nostalgia. “Pretty Things” may have been a spoof, but the few times he played it on stage in 1999 and 2000 it had a pushy, boisterous life in it.

pt

What would have furthered the sense of “Pretty Things” being a dark comic send-up is if Bowie hadn’t scrapped its Dom & Nic-helmed video, shot in September 1999. Bowie hired Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to design four puppets (allegedly for £28,000): the dress-wearing neo-Pre-Raphaelite of Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and the Scary Monsters Pierrot (the latter two just turned up in the “Love Is Lost” video). In the video, the “current” Bowie was stalked and battered by the puppets of his past lives. In an on-line chat in October 2000, Bowie said he killed the video because “the puppets wound up looking like puppets” and thus failed to achieve the intended “Eastern European” vibe that Dom and Nic rather tediously had wanted. Admitting that parts of the video were “downright funny,” Bowie said he expected the video to leak: so far, it hasn’t.

Then there’s the song itself, a rock ‘n’ roll dunce-show where everything’s kept at meathead level: the barely-there C major progression that nods out on an F major chord for the entire verse and pre-chorus (the only spice is an A-flat chord swapped in from the parallel minor in the chorus (“don’t know why,” “just can’t tell”)); Gabrels’ lead riff is essentially a bend and release of a single string, tarted up with various artificial harmonics, while his thudding verse power chords are panto heavy metal—it’s like a shiver of sharks traveling in formation. His two solos are confined to corners of the mix, scribbles in the margins. Plati described his bassline as being “low and ugly and simple—and perfect” (“it’s harder to do than you think—it’s always easier to play loads of things,” he told David Buckley.) Only Mike Leveseque, under the influence of a Keith Moon biography he’d read recently, isn’t playing in quotations. His drumming, agitated with tambourine in the choruses and by cowbell during Gabrels’ breaks, keeps the track honest, punishing each beat. When he sneaks in the occasional fill, it’s like getting a punch in the ribs.

As a studio track, “Pretty Things” goes on far too long (the single edit mercifully crops a bridge repeat) and its mix grows progressively cluttered and wearying on the ear, especially once Bowie starts double-tracking his lead vocal with zombified, distorted voices. There are some subtle puns and occasional wit in the lyric (the singer’s looking for a dance partner on a wild Sunday night) but there’s also some portentous hooey (“I am a dragon, I am the sky…what is eternal, what is damned“). Back in his glam years, Bowie had said he made “plastic” rock ‘n’ roll and soul music, but his bands had been too alive, too irreconcilable, to merit the label. Here, making a hard rock preset track for video games and horror movies, he made as good on the claim as he ever would.

Recorded February 1999, London; May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass and Chung King Studios. A different “Pretty Things” (essentially the same track given a dreadful, murky mix, with an occasional sub-Nine Inch Nails loop for variety) was issued on 24 August 1999 on the Stigmata soundtrack, though perversely another mix (jacked up in tempo) was used in the actual film (both tracks are on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours’); the Omikron: Nomad Soul “performance” is the Stigmata soundtrack version. An edit of the “Hours” “Pretty Things” was issued as the album’s lead-off single in Japan and Australia, and as a promo-only CD single in the US. The live NYC version linked above (from the Kit Kat Club, 19 November 1999) was included on the “Seven” single. (Bless the Illustrated DB Discography for making sense of this one.)

Top: Tracey Emin, My Bed, 1998-1999; “Pretty Things” US promo CD.


1917

November 8, 2013

99london

Thrust (Omikron, 1999).
1917.

Issued as a B-side of “Thursday’s Child,” “1917” (Russian Revolution? Duchamp’s Fountain? the first jazz records?) was an elaboration of “Thrust,” a synth piece Bowie and Reeves Gabrels wrote to score a demon battle in the Omikron game. Reincarnating the string/brass/Mellotron line of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” as a synthesizer loop that’s flavored in spots by Gabrels’ guitar, Bowie mumble-sings a guide vocal while being piped through various means of distortion. (He seems to be singing “I’m a man” for much of it: was this whole thing some cracked tribute to Jimmy Page?) Mark Plati’s bass and a keyboard line do most of the harmonic lifting; Gabrels shows up midway through for a boiling tea-kettle impression.

As throwaways go, “1917” has hooks and brevity in its corner, if its punch is sapped by the onion-skin-thick beats that Sterling Campbell’s (or Mike Levesque’s) drums do what they can to bolster. While including it on ‘Hours’ could have helped lessen the record’s world-weariness, “1917” was best suited as the happy obscurity it still is.

Recorded ca. January 1999, London/Paris; April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios and Chung King Studios, NYC. Released 20 September 1999 on the “Thursday’s Child” 2-CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96266 0 5) and later included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours.’

Top: “Tom,” “Turning Point Starts Here,” London 1999.


New Angels of Promise

November 7, 2013

99ricecake

New Angels of Promise.
New Angels of Promise (Omikron intro sequence).
New Angels of Promise (full Omikron version).

To the Angel of Approved Estimates,
to the Angels of Promise Across the Entire
Spectrum. To the Surplus Angels of Acquisition,
I cannot hear the new instructions,
let alone obey them.

Geoffrey Hill, The Triumph of Love, 1998.

“New Angels of Promise,” used to score the opening credits of the Omikron: the Nomad Soul video game, has a reservoir of memory to give it depth: it’s a direct descendent of, and answer to, “Sons of the Silent Age” and “Look Back in Anger.” As with several ‘Hours’ tracks, Bowie seems to be presuming a familiar audience here. The drive to convert new listeners, or to aggravate old ones, is no longer a factor: this is Bowie making a “Bowie song” intended for the faithful. It’s a song so riddled through with the past that it’s barely coherent as its own piece.

“Sons” gave “New Angels” melodies—Bowie used some of the same phrasings (“I am a blind man, she is my eyes” is almost note-for-note “Sam Therapy and King Dice“)—and structure. Both songs have a snaky instrumental opening; an eight-line verse, where Bowie’s almost conversational voice alternates with a guitar/keyboard establishing the chords; a sudden modulation to a harmonized chorus. “New Angels” sits within the traces of “Sons”: it’s as if the 1999 song inhabits the same radio frequency at a different point in time.

And lyrically, “New Angels” is a sequel of “Look Back in Anger.” In the latter, Bowie had encountered a bored, bureaucratic angel who’d indifferently summoned him: the world could be ending, or at least the singer’s part in it, but hey, there’s no hurry. This was an “angel of promise,” a vague concept in Christian theology, essentially an angel who comes in advance of some covenant with God being enacted. Take, for instance, the angels who heralded, to their respective parents, the births of John the Baptist and Christ. As the centuries went on, and particularly once America got going, the angel of promise was often domesticated, reduced to something like a guardian angel, a soul’s personal advocate or a genial harbinger of prosperity.

But the angels of promise aren’t necessarily bringing good news: any memos from the top office should fill we temporary employees with foreboding. Their growing rarity also indicated a spiritually diminished time: as per a late 19th Century sermon by George Davis Herron, these angels are actually found all over time and space, just unseen: “the angels of promise are always on the wing. God is always speaking, but man does not hear.”

So Bowie sets his new angels (God having rebranded his angels like a box of cereal) as a pair of cold, despairing passersby, lost in a crowd: one’s blind, the other serves as his eyes. In the last verse he calls them, in a wonderful phrase, “tabular lovers.” An obvious play on his earlier “fabulous lovers,” it conveys an image of the angels being immovable objects, like two pillars (or the stone and wax Bewlay Brothers), as well as being two lines of data, rows of binary code. They haunt the song, but they’re motionless figures; if they’ve made a judgment, it’s happened already and they’re just sticking around to see how it plays out.

Given this dense interweaving of Bowie memory and favorite symbolism, the music seems almost secondary. Its arrangement and rhythms are uninspired, the repetition of an entire verse is overkill, the odd synthesizer squeaks (“hey, remember I made Earthling?”) are just clutter, its production is oddly murky and thin in places. Sterling Campbell sounds like he’s playing through a wall; Reeves Gabrels’ rhythm guitar in the chorus is parked so far back in the mix it’s as if it’s bleeding through from an earlier take. (To be fair, the Omikron mix is much livelier: it’s far and away the best version.) The verse chords are essentially those of “Survive”: a tonic and flatted VII chord gravitating off each other, while the chorus’ shift to F# minor is a dogged advance through the key, like someone climbing a hill only to fall back to the ground.*

Still there are some pleasures to be found: take the intricacies of Bowie’s backing vocals in the verses, like the descending “sooo-far” that collides with the start of a phrase, and it’s good for a game of spot-the-reference. Is the descending “oh-oh-oh-oh” hook in the verse from Elvis Costello’s “Blue Chair”? Is its Mellotron intro a tweak of Peter Gabriel’s “San Jacinto”? It’s as if the music is enacting the spiritually-barren, memory-clotted world of the lyric. Its parts are greater than its sum.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studios, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios. Released on ‘Hours’; the Omikron version was later included on a 2004 reissue (Bowie flew in “suspicious minds” to replace “Omikron” to start the ‘Hours’ version’s chorus. It was apparently a last-minute call, as the lyric sheet still has “Omikron”). Never performed live.

* (F#m/G/G#/A/F#m, or i-IIb-II-III-i—though you could make the case the intro/chorus is still in the verse’s A major (it would be vi-VIIb-VII-I-vi in that case).

Top: “Corey,” “New Year Rice Cake, January 1999.”


Survive

November 1, 2013

Anloo wheat field

Survive.
Survive (Omikron sequence).
Survive (video).
Survive (instrumental).
Survive (Marius DeVries UK single mix).
Survive (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Survive (Top of the Pops 2, rehearsal, 1999). (& another rehearsal.)
Survive (Top of the Pops 2, 1999).
Survive (TFI Friday, 1999).
Survive (live, Net Aid, 1999).
Survive (Cosas Que Importan, 1999).
Survive (Nulle Parte Ailleurs, 1999.)
Survive (live, 1999, later on single).
Survive (Musique Plus, 1999).
Survive (Later With Jools Holland, 1999).
Survive (live, 1999).
Survive (Quelli Che Il Calcio,’ 1999).
Survive (Inte Bara Blix, 1999).
Survive (TVE Spain, 1999).
Survive (Bowie at the Beeb, 2000).
Survive (live, 2002).

The End

We did record an awful lot of stuff, and there really was every intention of going through it and putting out Part II and Part III. The second title was Contamination, and boy was that accurate. And it would have been nice to have somehow done it as a theatrical trilogy. I just don’t have the patience. I think Brian would have the patience.

Bowie, interview by Ken Scrudato, SOMA, July 2003.

For two years after the release of 1. Outside, Bowie kept promising its sequel albums would appear by the end of the millennium, in conjunction with a theatrical production commissioned by the Salzburg Festival, to be staged in Vienna in 1999 or 2000. There also would be a CD-ROM piece of the Outside puzzle, optimistically scheduled for 1996.

Interviewed by Ray Gun at the end of that year, Bowie said 2. Contamination (“hopefully that should be out by spring ’97“) would have “some bearing on the first one, but it’s completely different. It goes backwards and forwards between Indonesian pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries and today…it’s really becoming a peculiar piece of work.” There were at least 25 characters in the piece now: whether these included the likes of Nathan Adler and Ramona Stone was unclear, possibly even to its composer.

Life intervened. Brian Eno sold his house in Britain and relocated his family to St. Petersburg1, while Bowie spent much of 1997 touring Earthling. The more unfeasible the Outside project seemed, the grander Bowie’s plans for it became.

In an April 1997 interview on the Mr. Showbiz website, Bowie said he and Eno had “formulated the storyline and decided to do it ourselves with no other musicians and to not meet while we’re making it…we’ll send the tracks back and forth between St. Petersburg and wherever I am.” Contamination’s Internet arm was carrying much of the dramatic weight by now (“we’d like to bump up all kinds of stuff on the Internet, so you get lots of photographic references…it’s kind of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not premise.”) While the 17th Century pirates were still in the mix, the “narrative” now also included diseases (“Ebola, AIDS, that new tuberculosis“), hence the title. Trent Reznor and Goldie were rumored to have been roped into it.

And even when the century was done and nothing had come about, Bowie wouldn’t let Outside go. In a web-chat in late 1999, he said he and Eno had recorded “over 24 hours of material. Problem is finding the time to sift through.” In February 2000, he told BowieNet users that, yes, finally, this would be the year he “pieced together” Contamination. Instead he re-recorded some of his old Sixties songs.

thegrad

So in the end there was nothing: no CD-ROMs, no websites, no Robert Wilson-produced operas, no new Nathan Adler diaries, no new albums. Instead Bowie had spent the last years of the 20th Century trying his hand at seemingly everything else but Outside sequels: acting in films, hosting The Hunger, launching BowieNet, agreeing to BowieBanc, planning a Ziggy Stardust film/website/play, scoring the videogame Omikron: the Nomad Soul (see the past month’s entries).

No more Outside chapters may have been a blessing. 2. Contamination and 3. Afrikaans (a rumored but never confirmed title, likely a fan’s doing) could’ve been Bowie’s version of the Matrix sequels: more clues! more characters! more time-hopping! And smothering Outside‘s atmosphere in sub-Neal Stephenson exposition and garrulous mythology. When some fans distributed hoax sequences of 2. Contamination (“Ebola Jazz,” “Segue: The Mad Ramblings of Long Beard”) and even fake Nathan Adler diaries it was as inspired an end to the project as any Bowie could have offered.

Still, the slow collapse of the Outside trilogy left a hole in his ambitions. It’s arguable his frenetic activity in 1998-1999 was in part him looking for something, anything to replace his grand millennial folly. But the album he released in the waning months of the 20th Century was something far different from his and Eno’s projects. Its title could have been Inside.

hrs

Reeves Gabrels and I have written a lot in during the last few months and we might just record all these songs to see what will come out of it…We compose for the pleasure and our spectrum is wide, between purely electronic music and acoustic songs.

Bowie, Rock & Folk interview, 1998.

If ‘Hours’2 has a counterpart in the Bowie canon, it’s Diamond Dogs: both albums are salvage jobs, their tracks refugees from a set of other, mainly stillborn projects, assembled higgledy-piggledy yet somehow managing to have a unified tone.

‘Hours’ had a few tributaries. One was the aforementioned Outside sequels. If Bowie really had recorded a day’s worth of music with Eno for 2. Contamination, it’s possible that something from it—a chord sequence, a stray lyric or a top melody—wound up on ‘Hours.’3 David Buckley, who interviewed Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson in 1998-1999 for his biography, recalled in 2011 that both had told him there was still a lot of material recorded that had never been used (whether this was the Leon suites from 1994 or newer Contamination tracks is unclear).

Then there was Reeves Gabrels’ upcoming solo album. Gabrels had taken one for the team in 1995 by promoting Outside instead of his own debut solo LP, The Sacred Squall of Now. The plan was for Gabrels to finally have a big-ticket release, with an LP of songs co-composed with Bowie. He and Bowie, working in Bowie’s house in Bermuda in late 1998, wrote what Bowie estimated variously as anywhere from 30 or 100 songs, some of which were intended for Gabrels, including “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” “We All Go Through” and “Survive.”

Finally there was Omikron. Bowie and Gabrels also were writing pieces that had to serve two masters: the songs had to work as incidental music for a game sequence as well as on a Bowie or Gabrels album. The songs needed less abrasive guitar, more “ambient” synthesizer and steady basslines; they needed to be structurally loose, so that pieces (a bridge or a chorus, say) could repeat over and over again if a player got stuck on a particular screen.

surv

By now, Gabrels was becoming creatively frustrated. He felt there should have been a follow-up to Earthling, cut in early 1998, to be the Aladdin Sane to Earthling‘s Ziggy Stardust: an elaboration and expansion of a sound, honed by months on stage. “The music had evolved, the band was playing great, the window of opportunity was there,” he told Buckley. So all the time that he, Mark Plati and Bowie had spent sifting through live recordings for a rejected live album was wasted: why couldn’t they have gotten Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford into the studio and cut a trio record?

So when he went to Bermuda in autumn 1998, Gabrels hoped for another start, that this could be finally the album he and Bowie had thought of making a decade ago, before Tin Machine had come along. An open collaboration, ranging from electronic music to hard, avant-garde rock, with no record label interests considered. After all, Bowie had a website now: he could just distribute the tracks to his fans should Virgin get cold feet.

Yet Bowie had different aims. Beyond taking the needs of Omikron into consideration, he was in a more traditionalist frame of mind. He’d enjoyed a carnival phase in the mid-Nineties; now he was in a Lenten mood. “There was very little experimentation in the studio,” Bowie said. “A lot of it was just straightforward songwriting. I enjoy that; I still like writing that way.”

This new album would be his severance from his Nineties obscurantist period: to make it obvious, he had the cover of “Hours” play on Michelangelo’s Pietà, with his new, somber curator persona cradling the dying “rave uncle” of Earthling. Both videos for the album would set Bowie in surreal domestic situations, with muted colors and lighting; the actor looking his age for once.

Gabrels conceded. As the album, as it took shape, was becoming somber and introspective, he needed to dampen down the guitars, to be sure that he wasn’t undermining the songs. It’s a small irony that the one album for which Gabrels received full co-composition credit is the one on which he’s essentially muted on guitar. And Bowie in turn wanted his vocals not to sound mannered. “I wanted to approach them just like a bloke. To give them a feeling of: anybody could sing these songs. They’re not difficult.”

hurr

Once he’d assembled enough songs for his own album (and so claiming the lion’s share of them—sorry, Reeves), Bowie began working on a narrative voice. He described this as being a distillation of some of his friends who, at age 50, were regretting their lives. “I’ve watched them flounder a little over the last 10 years, when they’re reaching that stage where it’s very, very hard to start a new life,” he told Gil Kaufman. “Some of them are affected with resignation and some of them, a certain bitterness maybe…they found themselves in relationships that aren’t what they had expected to be in when they were younger.”

You could call this a bluff, the equivalent of the man who asks a doctor about an embarrassing rash “a friend” has contracted. Sure Bowie was, by all accounts, happily married and would soon be a father again. He was rich, established, world-famous. Not that these conditions will prevent depression and regret from striking. But he was also creatively exhausted. He had fought and fought, for years, to make his music new again, to risk making a fool of himself on stage. Now his latest spectacle had failed due, in part, to his own lack of commitment; perhaps he was left wondering what he even had left to say anymore.

That said, the voice that Bowie used on much of ‘Hours,’ a melancholy sad sack, does seem crafted, even affected. The vocals are restrained, the lyrics are more quotidian, with dull rhymes and shopworn images. Was this in character, or was Bowie papering over, in his interviews, a sharp decline in his own songwriting? Was he charging his generation with his own creative depletion?

I’ll argue that ‘Hours’ is a flawed experiment, a secret parody: it’s Bowie attempting to do a record “proper” for a man of his age and stature. It’s his aging Baby Boomer lament album, his “September Songs” for a generation (the title played on unforgiving time and a common bond: hours/ours). He’d listened to nothing but his old songs before he wrote this album, he claimed, but he’d also obviously listened to his aging peers. Because ‘Hours’ is riddled with ghosts of old songs, with strains of lost singers: he’s mocking them, answering them, humbled by them. It’s one of his hardest albums to grasp, because it can be dull and ordinary and can feel strained: it’s like watching a once-great track runner struggling to run a 5k race. The question, left to each listener, is whether this mood is intentional: if the diminished figure in these songs is a subtle mask or if it’s simply the only voice Bowie could muster.

singl

“Survive” was the first track to be released from the ‘Hours’ sessions. Its title wasn’t promising.

As I wrote in the “Heroes” entry, Greil Marcus around 1975 had noticed the growing popularity of the word “survivor,” in films, on TV chat shows, and especially rock music: “Soul Survivor,” Street Survivors, “Survival,” “I Will Survive.” It seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the seventies, to stand for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. “Survivor” had once meant someone who had endured an unspeakable horror; it became an aging person’s self-deprecating boast. “I will get by…I will survive,” Jerry Garcia had tootled in 1987 (he didn’t, but again, neither will any of us in the long run).

So a song in which a 52-year old man sings about surviving seems emblematic of this rot: a reduction of life to its greyest elements. It could have been a song about his failing digestion. What saves “Survive” is the sour, occasionally defiant sense of regret in it: the singer’s not regretting a path he didn’t take, but simply noting that there are no more paths left for him anymore. In one interview, Bowie said that “there was a time in my life where I was desperately in love with a girl—and I met her, as it happens, quite a number of years later. And boy, was the flame dead! ” So it’s tempting to speculate that the woman in “Survive” came from a retrieved memory of Hermione Farthingale, Bowie’s lost love, who he’d used to symbolize everything he’d left behind in the Sixties. But the woman in “Survive” is still abstract to the singer, a place-filler he uses to stand for something else he can’t quite explain: a loss of his own potential.

surv

There are a few Sixties shadows in the track: Mark Plati’s Mellotron, the Beatles playing clubs, “Time Is On My Side,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (the guitar hook heard at the fade, of course referencing Bowie’s nicking of it for “Starman” too). But the song “Survive” answers, very obliquely, is Nick Drake’s “One of These Things First.

In Drake’s song, a young man sits and thumbs through possible lives: he’s like a boy watching soap bubbles floating in the air. “Could’ve been a sailor, could’ve been a cook.” He could have been reliable, steady; he chose not to be. He’s callous in how much he could hurt the person he’s speaking to. Could’ve been a real live lover, not the half-one that you got. “Could have been your friend,” he sings, attaching as much weight to that word as to his musings about being clocks and books. “A whole long lifetime/could have been the end.” Committing to someone would mean the end of his freedom, closing off all the other avenues that snake out beyond him. Drake wants to remain in the conditional perfect, in a happy state of possibility. He sings with graceful lightness, supported by Paul Harris’ piano, itself eager to break off into yet another line of thought, while Ed Carter’s bass is a squirrelly movement underground.

“Survive” turns up that singer again, finds him at the ebb of his life. No more mornings left for him. But he’s still committed to the what-could-have been, still bluntly denying reality, still wanting his space. “I should’ve kept you,” he mumbles. “I should’ve tried.” The verses seem to run out of breath, slouching into dull rhymes (“I should’ve been a wiser kind of guy“) and weary expiration phrases: “Iiii love you.” The choruses, feinting at a move to A major but winding up stuck back in the verse’s D major, struggle to voice the man’s few hopes. A descending bassline tugs him down to earth.

(Gabrels, who’d written much of the song’s music for his solo album, gets the best part in the play: the lead guitar, representing the noblest piece of the man who’s singing. Gabrels is the only bright color in the song: the little dancing phrase after “I miss you,” the counter-melody in the second chorus, the eight-bar solo that’s like a puff of hope uncorked from a bottle, the descending arpeggios that shadow the man’s growing ambivalence.)

He sees a woman across the floor somewhere, maybe at some class reunion. They could’ve been something once: they both know it, they both may not regret it. You’re the mistake I never made, he sings. She sees through him, as an old fraud, as someone who never settled for life in the hopes of finding something better. And he knows how she sees him, and that she’s right. But I’ll survive your naked eyes, as the song ends. There’s nothing but delusion, never was anything else but it (the song itself is a loop: opening and ending on the same Dadd9 chord, the two choruses bracketed by the two verses)4. The song ends with an older man’s sad defiance, which loses strength each time he says it, until he gives up and lets the song expire in his place.

Recorded April-early May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios and Chung King Studios, NYC. It was the first release from ‘Hours,’ issued on a promo giveaway with the 8-14 September 1999 issue of Les Inrockuptibles. Subsequently on ‘Hours’ and as a 2-CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96486 0 7, 7243 8 96487 0 6) released on 17 January 2000, which included Marius de Vries’ mix, the Walter Stern-directed video clip and a live performance of the song from the Elysée Montmartre, 14 October 1999. Performed on a host of TV and radio shows and played live in 1999, 2000 and 2002.

1: Eno told Mojo in May 1997 that he moved to Russia because “since London is now the hippest city in the world, I thought I’d get out for a bit…If you live in England and you finally scale the thorny path to celebrity, finally the critics decide, ‘Fuck me, he’s been around so long I guess we should leave him alone.’ You then find you get invited to do every stupid, pathetic thing going—you know, judge this competition, award this, and so on—and I just saw my life turning into a series of small events. I thought I’d go somewhere else where there aren’t any small events.”

2: Yeah, the official title of the album is ‘hours…’ I’ll refer to it simply as ‘Hours’ in all further references because the lower-case affectation irritates me and having to put in three ellipses every bloody time I mention the album would be a bother.

3: That said, the most obvious candidate for a Contamination leftover, the instrumental “Brilliant Adventure,” is confirmed by Bowie to have been written in Bermuda and was intended as part of the Omikron soundtrack.

4: Both verse and chorus open shuttling between tonic and flatted VII chords (so D to C in the verse, A to G in the chorus), darken midway through with a run of minor chords and each closes by setting up the opposing key (so the verse ends with a G that the A major opening of the chorus resolves; the chorus just sinks back to D).

Top: Thierry Gregorius, “Anloo wheat field, Holland, 1999”; Bowie receiving honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music, May 1999; ‘Hours’ cover photos (Tim Bret Day); still from “Survive” video (Walter Stern); “Survive” CD sleeve.


Without You I’m Nothing

October 11, 2013

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Without You I’m Nothing (Placebo).
Without You I’m Nothing (Placebo and David Bowie, single).
Without You I’m Nothing (Placebo and Bowie, “live” video).
Without You I’m Nothing (Placebo and Bowie, UNKLE remix).
Without You I’m Nothing (Placebo and Bowie, Flexirol Mix.)

Having played live with Placebo on “20th Century Boy,” Bowie now wanted to cut something with them in the studio. Yet as the band had just put out their second album and with Bowie consumed by his own growing heap of new projects, there was no time to work on a fresh track.

The original plan had been to do a studio take of “20th Century Boy.” Then, perhaps recognizing how superfluous this recording would have been (and with Tony Visconti mixing the BRIT Award performance of “20th Century Boy” for possible use anyhow), Bowie said he wanted to sing harmony vocals on a remix of “Without You I’m Nothing,” the title track of Placebo’s new record. Brian Molko, on vacation when he heard this change of plans, rolled with it. “When [Bowie] calls up and asks to sing on something, you don’t say no.”

Molko later admitted there had been “too many slow songs for a second album,” and there were few slower than the title track, a brooding obsessional whose title the band had taken from a Sandra Bernhard film and which was also meant “as a message to each other. And it’s a message to our fans—-which is that old Judy Garland thing,” Molko later said.

Bowie’s vocal begins as a lower harmony to Molko’s lead, holding back his strength until the chorus, when he swoops over Molko. Bowie gave a gravity to the song, but it had too much gravity already; he wound up being an intriguing color in a washed-out landscape. The liveliest version of the track was the eight-minute Flexirol Mix, which isolates Bowie’ s most dramatic vocal spots and uses them as sound effects.

Recorded (Bowie vocal) 28 March 1999, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 16 August 1999 as FLOORCD 10. The video used footage of Bowie and Placebo’s live performance of “Nothing” during an encore on 29 March 1999 at Irving Plaza, NYC.

Top: Placebo, a cheery Bowie, a pensive Visconti pose for insert of CD single (Frank Ockenfeld).


20th Century Boy

October 8, 2013

bedlam

20th Century Boy (T. Rex, 1973).
20th Century Boy (Placebo, Velvet Goldmine, 1998).
20th Century Boy (Placebo and Bowie, BRIT Awards, 1999).

Placebo formed in 1994 when Brian Molko, waiting for a train at the South Kensington tube station, spied Stefan Olsdal, who’d gone to school with him at the American International School of Luxembourg (Molko was Scottish and American, Olsdal a Swede). Noting that Olsdal was carrying a guitar, Molko called him over to invite him to a gig. Soon enough the two had formed their own band, Olsdal shifting to bass.

Two years later, Placebo had cut their first album and were opening for Bowie on some of the later Outside tour dates. He’d been the band’s advocate since he’d heard their demo, touting them in the press, even having them as the opening act of his 50th birthday concert in 1997. For Bowie, Placebo offered a third way for British rock in the late Nineties, avoiding both the laddishness of Oasis and the growing hermeticism of Radiohead. Placebo were eye-liner-sporting Goth scamps who favored bizarre guitar tunings that suggested they’d been holed up with Silkworm and Slint records. Visually, they were a Mutt & Jeff double act: Molko was small, nasally and pushy; Olsdal was built like a totem pole yet carried himself with elegance. (They went through a few drummers.) Placebo got a few pop hits but kept up a vaguely disreputable image; Bowie’s love for them seemed genuine.

A collaboration between Bowie and Placebo seemed inevitable, and it was. First came a joint performance at the 1999 BRIT Awards of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” which Placebo had covered for the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack (Molko said his work on the film was something he and Bowie “agreed never to talk about”).

“20th Century Boy” had been Marc Bolan’s last great pop moment, the end of a run of singles that had kicked off with “Hot Love” in 1971. Essentially the Bolan formula distilled to its basic elements—a guitar hook so overwhelming that the song barely needs a chorus, a lyric of precisely nonsensical boasts and come-ons, garnished by wailing harmony vocals—“20th Century Boy” had become something like “Louie Louie” for Nineties British bands: a song you could play in your sleep, one you could pull out at a gig whenever you were losing the room.

The Bowie/Placebo cover is a bit shambling (“We weren’t too bad, we were in key at least,” Molko told Melody Maker. “But we could never really get the lyrics right. We were doing ’20th Century Boy’. We had a fucking laugh.”) Molko was being diplomatic: he was letter-perfect, where Bowie cheerfully bungled his way through one of his verses. It’s in part due to the imbalanced sound mix, but Molko’s the dominant figure in this performance. Bowie, playing his Tin Machine-era “headless” Steinberger, seems happy to be on stage as his guest.

Broadcast 16 February 1999, at the London Docklands Arena. Bowie and Placebo performed the song again a month later at a New York gig. Tony Visconti mixed the BRIT Awards performance for possible use as the B-side of…

Top: Lou O’Bedlam, “Amanda and the Wall ’98.”