Bowie’s Sixties pop tribute “Zeroes” is the ambition, creative anxiety and bungled execution of Never Let Me Down in microcosm. Bowie considered “Zeroes” one of the album’s major songs, sequenced it to close the first side and labored over it, crowding the track with everything from Peter Frampton’s electric sitar to a 10-person vocal chorus whose members likely included his son Duncan and his assistant Coco.* It’s telling that Bowie kept “Zeroes” at its full length (just shy of six minutes) on the LP release, where he’d trimmed a majority of the other cuts.
Bowie described his intention for “Zeroes” as “stripping away all the meanness of rock and coming back to the spirit with which one entered the thing. It’s the ultimate happy-go-lucky rock tune, based in the nonsensical period of psychedelia. So it’s a naivete song about rock, using a lot of cliches.” It’s always a mug’s game to accept a composer’s description of his/her work as gospel, and this quote is such a misreading that it seems like a deliberate feint, much as how Bowie regularly knocked “The Bewlay Brothers” for being gibberish. Because there’s little that’s “happy-go-lucky” in the song, which opens with demonic, distorted screams in lieu of actual audience noises, and whose first verse and chorus is a sharp self-assessment of Bowie’s battered aesthetic condition and where he stood in regard to “The Sixties.”
The latter, by 1986-1987, had been cast into a hollow, brightly-colored tomb, a ceremonial contrast to the political and cultural mood of the era. “The Sixties” was an opposition party happily exiled to the past. And while a number of underground bands were exploring the legacy of “nonsensical psychedelia” and appropriating pieces of it for their own ends, the official “Sixties” narrative was used to shame the allegedly frivolous and/or derivative pop music of the Eighties. There was a sense, pushed by the “classic rock” radio stations and the major rock magazines (blessedly not Spin, the oasis of the era), of Sixties music as being a perfected strain of rock & roll, the High Canon, to which no music afterward could be compared. All that was left for younger musicians was to pay homage, and for Sixties survivors to occasionally reunite and demonstrate “real” music to kids.
In “Zeroes” Bowie tries to position himself, shiftily as usual, as someone who had been both part of the era and yet always outside of it, and one who was trying to escape the decade’s long shadow while simultaneously exploiting it. The first verse is the lay of the battlefield: all the bright young heroes are dead, their memories a curse on the survivors, who are stuck between an unknowable bleak future and a “toothless past” that still has a wounding power. And the chorus begins as a self-flagellation, an aging musician acknowledging that while his muse and his youth have deserted him, his audience hasn’t, and they still have lists of demands: another tour, yet another record (“don’t you know we’re back on trial again today?” he sings later, drawing out the sharp vowels of “trial”).
The chorus builds to a refrain, the singer gamely making a go of it, singing cliches: it’s all for you, tonight I’m yours, this music was meant for you, everybody is a star. That the band on stage is called the Zeroes is one of Bowie’s better jokes: the rock band reduced to a cipher that holds no value. The Spiders from Mars were a holy conceit, a “fake” band that had more life than the bluejeans- and drum-solos groups of the early Seventies. The Zeroes are faceless, nameless; they are no ones, place-fillers for memories.
“Zeroes” finds Bowie pushing back against the official media narrative of the Sixties. He’s trying to recapture the frivolity and gimcrackery of the era, the lost Sixties of “Laughing Gnome” and “Green Tambourine,” as opposed to the solemnized hippie New Testament with its songs of revolution and freedom. So when Bowie references Prince in the lyric, it’s in the context of Prince as a fellow Sixties pastichist, another musician raiding the era for a few shiny trinkets. (Bowie wrote “Zeroes” while Prince was at the peak of this, with Around the World in a Day and Parade). And Bowie tries to turn the Beatles back into pop merchants, plastering the track with shards of their songs (helped by Erdal Kizilcay, whose “knowledge of rock music begins and stops with the Beatles,” Bowie said),** with Dylan also getting a few nods (Bowie tweaks lines from both “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Ballad of a Thin Man”).
Much of “Zeroes” is able mimicry, with Bowie using Frampton’s Coral electric sitar as a curtain-raiser between verses and choruses (the sitar, which had Danelectro pickups, had an impeccable Sixties pedigree, as it was formerly owned by Jimi Hendrix. Frampton got it from the owner of Electric Lady Studios), or having Crusher Bennett play what sounds like a tabla during the droning “psychedelic” outro. And Bowie churns up his own classics as well, adding them to the broth. He was an old hand at this by now: what was Scary Monsters but a rummaging in the cupboard, twisting old discarded folk and soul songs into brutal new shapes? So the song’s opening, with its vampirish screams and applause, calls back to the start of “Diamond Dogs,” while “Zeroes” seems a diminution of both the Spiders and of “Heroes,” a song that offered, in Bowie’s words, the sound of a bright future which would never come to pass. Now the future had come, “Zeroes” suggests, and it’s a broken mirror.
It soon becomes overwhelming: the denseness of the mix, its claustrophobic clutter of sounds, makes Bowie seem like he’s suffocating in a compost of old songs.
At the center of this was one of Bowie’s knottiest compositions in over a decade, a return to the tortuous structures and harmonic ambiguities of his early Seventies works. Each section of “Zeroes”—verse, chorus, coda—is in a different key. The keys themselves (A major, F major, D-flat major) are isolated from each other, sharing few common chords, while Bowie’s transitions between them sound abrupt, even disturbing. (A dense and possibly faulty musical theory section follows, so feel free to skip to the next section.)
“Zeroes” begins (intro and verse) in A major, with a fairly standard progression, A-B-D, repeated three times in the verse. Then as the verse closes, Bowie sets the stage for a key change in the chorus. A common move, when a change is approaching, is to use a pivot chord: a chord that fits both the current key and the upcoming new one. This helps your ears subconsciously process the change, so that it sounds “right” (much as how, when watching a film, the mind will accept a cut from a man settling his bill at a bar to a shot of him entering his apartment. The cut works on a subconscious level—we fill in the narrative gaps).
So at the end of the verse, instead of the expected D chord, there’s an E-flat diminished seventh chord (right after “how it feels”). There’s a building tension, as the chord, which is a weird, dissonant one, needs to be resolved—i.e., it needs to “go” somewhere. But instead of what you’d expect—a move into a key in which E-flat fits—the song instead shifts to F (whose only flatted tone is a B-flat). It’s an odd move, and it sounds “wrong.” And while we’re solidly in F for the chorus, immediately afterward comes another harsh transition: a four-bar solo break that veers out of F major (the chords are E-flat again, now followed by G-flat). Again, you expect this to lead somewhere, but no, instead it’s a hard landing back to A major for the second verse. The sequence repeats.
Only at the end of the second chorus, with a run of D-flat chords in the last three bars (on the last, long-held “you”) is there finally a “logical” transition, as the song’s closing section (a long coda) is in D-flat. So D-flat is already establishing itself in the expiring moments of the chorus, so that when the coda officially begins with a G-flat chord (the subdominant of the new tonic chord, Db), the move finally makes “sense,” the progression soon resolving to Db (on “to dooo”).
However, as often with Bowie, there’s a method to the apparent madness. The Eb chords at the end of the verses, and the Eb and Gbs in the solo? They all fit into the song’s ultimate key, D-flat (II and IV chords, respectively). So all along, “Zeroes” has been hinting at its ultimate destination, twice nearly leading you there, each time yanking you back. So when the sitar-heavy coda appears, it feels like a happy return home at last, and works with the lyric’s final collapse into submission and acceptance.
So “Zeroes” is ambitious enough, but you can’t escape the sense that it’s a flawed reduction of a song that sounded far grander in Bowie’s head. It seems compromised, overworked, and it’s an exhausting listen (despite being (or perhaps because it was) mixed by Bob Clearmountain), a victim of Bowie’s conflicting impulses—to make a dead-on parody of Sixties pop, to pit his old songs against each other, to undermine the idea of a holy Sixties crowding out the present, to feel diminished when placing yourself against the past.
And Bowie also faced the limitations of his collaborators. He no longer had Tony Visconti or Eno to play against and to use as interpreters; Carlos Alomar was no longer at peak fighting strength (and was hamstrung in the sessions anyhow); and he’d long disposed of the rhythm section of George Murray and Dennis Davis, who’d put in the pocket anything that Bowie had thrown at them. Instead Bowie mainly had Kizilcay, Frampton and David Richards: an admirable set of secondary translators.
It’s tempting to consider the closing minute of “Zeroes”—Bowie sinking into a trance of “doesn’t matter“s—as an exhausted surrender, Bowie unable to reconcile his narratives and admitting it’s all been just wasted effort. But making “Zeroes” had pushed Bowie, had made him struggle again, and while the track is a lesser version of what the Bowie of 1974 would have done, it still has a sense of moody life and grand intention. As with “Glass Spider,” it’s a testament that Bowie was finally willing to fail again.
Recorded ca. September-November 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. Played on the Glass Spider tour.
* I agree w/Nicholas Pegg that the “Joe” and “Coco” credited on the LP sleeve as part of the “Coquettes” chorus are likely to be Mr. Jones and Ms. Schwab.
** These include: the “Eight Days a Week”-inspired opening (Bowie copped to this in a Musician interview); in the first chorus, “the world is spinning round” (“Fool on the Hill”); in the second chorus, “yes they were” (very Lennonish, esp. Lennon’s phrasing of the climactic “Yes It Is” in that song’s bridge); also in the 2nd chorus, the last “singing for you” (same as the penultimate notes of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”); the swaying aaahs in the coda (cf. how Lennon sings “KNOW-ING” or “SHIN-ING” in “Tomorrow Never Knows”); and of course the sitar, which suggests every Harrison-penned song of the mid-Sixties, esp. “Within You Without You.”
Bowie also said the chord changes at the end of “Zeroes” “are real derivative” of Beatles songs, but I couldn’t find any direct parallels. That said, “When I’m Sixty Four” is also in D-flat major and has a similar progression in its verses as the coda of “Zeroes.”
Top to bottom: George Harrison at 44 (John Livzey), 1987; at 33 (unknown photog.), 1976; at 24 (Terry O’Neill), Paris, December 1967; at 15, with McCartney and Lennon, Liverpool, 30 December 1958.