One night in 1999, a British pianist named Clifford Slapper was walking to a gig in London. To do so, he had to go past the Astoria, where David Bowie was playing the same night. Slapper had wanted to go to the show but had his prior obligation. So instead he stopped for a moment, heard Bowie’s voice ringing out from the venue, and walked on. Later that night he returned, talked with someone who he later realized was likely Bowie’s guitarist Mark Plati, and regretted missing the gig.
But seven years later, he played piano with Bowie on a television show, so sometimes things work out.
“During production of the second season of Extras, I was contacted by the producer, Charlie Hanson, and was told that David Bowie would be flying over from New York to film an episode, and would be singing and playing the piano, but that he’d specified that he wanted an ‘English rock pianist’ to be brought in to actually play the piano track,” Slapper told me.
Extras was Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s follow-up to The Office. Where The Office was a sad little world, a place where failure and humiliation came as often as the rains fell on Slough, Extras was on a broader canvas. It diagnosed a wider malaise: millennial Britain’s obsession with fame (or at least notoriety), money, status.
For Gervais, Extras was a sign of his upgraded celebrity rating. The Office had a strong cult following in the US and had spawned an American version, and the BBC had partnered with HBO for Gervais and Merchant’s new series, which meant there was a substantial production budget (which likely enabled Bowie’s scene to have the entire Extras crew relocate to an actual club in Hertfordshire (see below) instead of just filming the scene on a soundstage in London, which helped Bowie avoid the paparazzi). And Gervais had acquired some famous fans, letting him stud Extras with celebrity cameos: Ben Stiller, Patrick Stewart, Kate Winslet, Robert DeNiro and, of course, David Bowie.
It’s not surprising that Bowie agreed to appear on Extras, whose jaundiced sensibility and humor (its plots centered on the accumulated humiliations and grievances of Gervais’ character, striving actor Andy Millman) reminded him of what he enjoyed most about Britain. He’d loved The Rutles, screening All You Need Is Cash and playing the soundtrack for his band during his 1978 tour; he’d name-dropped Dudley Moore and Peter Cook’s Behind the Fridge in “Young Americans” and had spent the Low and “Heroes” sessions doing “Pete and Dud” impressions with Eno. And he’d done a few comic turns himself, from his flamboyant director “Sir Roland Moorecock” on HBO’s Dream On to his “Requiem for a Laughing Gnome” on Comic Relief.
For Extras, Gervais and Merchant wrote Bowie as a figure of refined fame, an avatar of impeccable cool. The set-up had the slightly-famous Millman (he has a role in a sitcom that requires him to say a catchphrase, which he hates) visiting a high-end bar and looking for a sympathetic ear from Bowie, who, after a few nods, instead turns to a conveniently-located grand piano and performs what, until 2013, was his last public composition: “Little fat man, who sold his soul…chubby little loser…the clown that no one laughs at…he blows his stupid brains out…see his pug nosed face!”
The scenario’s brilliance lies in that it’s a fan’s worst nightmare: failing Bowie’s hip test and then being stilettoed in public. Certainly, about every account of Bowie over the past 40 years has been of a professional and charming man, whether meeting fans or greeting fellow artists or celebrities (indeed, Bowie’s often been the put-upon one, such as in his ill-fated dinner with Frank Zappa in 1978). But the Bowie mystique is such that you still fear, somehow, you’ll have failed Bowie by coming off as too eager, too boorish, too familiar, and then you’ll pay for it.
“Pug Nosed Face” (still, as of this writing, Bowie’s last television appearance) also encapsulates a common perception of Bowie the artist: someone who regards life as a collection of images to exploit, a man who can take a stray line and wind a song around it and one who can move, in a few bars, from dramatic, ominous phrases to a knees-up singalong refrain. For a time, I thought “Pug Nosed Face” would be the blog’s last entry, and it seemed fitting: Bowie going out with a bout of wickedly funny, slightly surreal cruelty.
The lyrics were already written as part of Gervais and Merchant’s script.
“I’ve been into Bowie since I was about sixteen,” Gervais told Rolling Stone in 2007. “I sent the lyrics and called him up and asked him if he got them, and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah …'” (switching to a slightly spaced-out, ruminative voice.) And I said to him, ‘We’re thinking of the music to be sort of retro, like “Life on Mars”—and Bowie said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just knock off a “Life on Mars” for you, shall I?'”
Having received the lyric in New York, Bowie “was asked to write chords to the song and bring them over,” Slapper says. “I was also sent a script and was asked to do the same, in case he declined to do so. One of the first things that happened after we met is that he asked to see what chords I had come up with, and compared them with his. It turned out that they were almost exactly the same, which he found spooky.”
The song’s progression (which Slapper still has and recalls was in A major) was “classic” Bowie in its modulations. Hence the nearly-identical works of Bowie and Slapper, who naturally was writing in a Bowie vein, much as how Gervais and Merchant were writing a “Bowie” lyric.
“It was perfect!” Gervais recalled of the song to Rolling Stone. “All the little bits to it. It was amazing, because what he did was, he gave us Bowie!”
Already in London for his performance with David Gilmour in late May 2006, Bowie filmed his Extras scene in the first week of June.
“We had one day of rehearsal and one day of filming for the scene, which was tricky as it was filmed ‘live’ (without overdubs) with a second piano off-camera for me to play, and it was important for us to synchronize so that his arm movements coincided perfectly with my playing,” Slapper says. “It soon became clear that it would be easier for him to mime to my playing if his fingers were allowed to sometimes make contact with the keys on the piano he sat at. But obviously since it was being filmed as a live performance with sound, we could not have any sound from that piano being heard. I suggested that we simply disengage the action of that piano, and showed the crew how to do this.”
“The rehearsal and filming all took place in a real nightclub [Elberts on Pegs Lane*] not far from London, which was still in use, though obviously closed down for those few days. The club was in Hertford but the base for filming was established at a location a couple of miles away at the small town of Ware in Hertfordshire, which gave rise to some amusement, as I would ask the producer where we would be, and he would say “Ware”, and I would say, ‘yes, where?'”
The song was registered as a three-way split among Bowie, Gervais and Merchant, with “Pug Nosed Face” chosen as its official title (though I imagine many fans call it “Little Fat Man”—Gervais sometimes still refers to it as such in interviews).
I asked Clifford if it felt odd to know that he’d played on possibly the “last” Bowie recording until The Next Day appeared. But he corrected me in noting “this was in 2006, only about three years after Reality, so there was not that sense of a long absence or hiatus from recording on his part, as there might have been if it had been 2011. Nevertheless, I was excited and honored to play on this. Bowie was charming, intelligent, modest, efficient, creative, perceptive. He was a delight to work with: polite, funny, witty and sharp. In rehearsal, we worked out the arrangement in a way which he guided and directed whilst at the same time allowing me to express myself in the way I played it.”
“Pug Nosed Face” would be the last public image of Bowie for over six years: healthy, well-dressed, sitting in a nightclub and leading a pack of yuppies through an eviscerating song. The story could have ended here; indeed, for a time, it seemed that it really had. Not bad, as endings go.
Recorded 5-7 June 2006, Elberts, Hertford, Hertfordshire. First broadcast on BBC2 on 21 September 2006. Bowie’s brief rendition of “Pug Nosed Face” in his introduction of Gervais at the Theater at Madison Square Garden (for the Bowie-curated High Line Festival) on 19 May 2007 remains, to date, his last appearance on stage.
* Elberts relocated in 2009; the original bar is now apparently an art gallery.
Thanks again to Clifford Slapper, who’s also just published a biography of Mike Garson. This came about in part because of Extras, as when Slapper met Garson for the first time in LA in the late 2000s, “a strange and funny coincidence happened. Without knowing about my participation in Extras, Garson started to tell me a story of how he had, a couple of years earlier, enjoyed an English comedy on cable TV, and had seen David Bowie in it, apparently playing piano. Garson spoke to Bowie around that time and had joked with him about it, “I see you’re playing the piano pretty well yourself, now. I guess you won’t be needing me any more!” Garson told me that Bowie had replied, “No, Mike, that wasn’t me! That was some English guy playing the piano.” It was a lovely twist to be able to interrupt Mike’s musings and to say, “Well, I was that guy!” We bonded over this coincidence. Mike and I found that we had a great deal of shared experiences as pianists and as working musicians generally. After hours of conversation, on our first meeting, I pointed out what a fascinating life he’d had and how inspiring his experiences and outlook on life could be. I asked whether there were any biographies of him and he replied that there had not been any yet, but that he thought I would be the perfect person to write it. I started work on it that day.”
You can buy Clifford’s biography, Bowie’s Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson (Fantom Books) here (UK) and here (USA and elsewhere). Any Bowie fan should enjoy it. I regret that I wasn’t able to read it before I published my book, as it sheds a great deal of light on Garson and his playing.
Top: Bowie on set, Extras; Bowie and Gervais, NYC, 2007; Clifford Slapper and David Bowie (photo: Ray Burmiston).