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.”