Zeroes

April 4, 2012

Zeroes.
Zeroes (live, 1987).

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.


Sorrow

August 4, 2010

Sorrow (The McCoys, 1965).
Sorrow (The Merseys, 1966).
Sorrow (Bowie).
Sorrow (Bowie, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
Sorrow (Bowie, live, 1974).
Sorrow (Bowie, live, 1983).

A few weeks before Bowie began recording Pin Ups in France, Bryan Ferry made a covers album in London. It would be Ferry’s first solo record; he cut it as he was reconfiguring Roxy Music into its less anarchic second edition (minus Brian Eno). When he learned Bowie was doing his own covers LP, Ferry grew paranoid. “It’s a rip-off,” he allegedly said, and wanted his label, Island, to file an injunction against RCA to prevent Pin Ups from being released before his record.*

Ferry needn’t have worried, as These Foolish Things is what Pin Ups should have been. Bold where Bowie’s record was timid (Ferry took on the heavyweights: Elvis, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Smokey Robinson, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones), brilliantly arranged where Pin Ups was often flat, These Foolish Things is most of all superior in the scope and execution of its ambitions. Ferry considered his covers “readymades”: he interpreted each song in a similar glam rococo style, delivering the lyric in what Greil Marcus called his “Dracula-has-risen-from-the-grave voice,” bolstered by a female chorus who sounded like they could have backed Andy Williams. However, the aim wasn’t cheap parody. Ferry strove to keep each song’s dignity intact within its new glitter casing, and often made the songs more pathetic and moving than they had been in their former incarnations. (Ferry’s “It’s My Party” seems tragic.)

‘A Hard Rain’ being a three-chord folk song, Ferry not only saw the possibilities of pounding it into a three-chord rock song, but the opportunity to add all the touches so characteristic of his work at that moment: grand camp gestures that the song just had to lie down and take.

Robert Forster, “Bryan Looks Back,” 2007.

Ferry’s treatment leveled pop hierarchies, elevating “trashy” songs like “I Love How You Love Me” and lowering “serious” rock songs (so “Sympathy for the Devil” becomes a Vegas revue number, exposing the lyric’s silliness). He sang “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” at a gallop, his croon highlighting the surrealism in Dylan’s lyric, making the case that “Hard Rain” was far more aligned with “Tombstone Blues” or “Visions of Johanna” than it was with traditional folk; he placed “Don’t Worry Baby” deeper inside the singer’s head, where Brian Wilson had intended it to be. He closed the record with a cover of Maschwitz/Strachey’s standard “These Foolish Things,” which served as the legend to his map: how the ephemeral contains the essential. “The smile of Garbo and the scent of roses/The waiters whistling as the last bar closes/The song that Crosby sings…”

These Foolish Things made Pin Ups seem scatter-shot. One of the latter’s main failings is Bowie’s inability or unwillingness to settle on a coherent vocal style, even within a single song (Bowie was notorious for only doing one- or two-take vocals, which didn’t serve him well in these sessions). The overall feeling is that Bowie is just throwing out whatever he can think of at the moment, and it’s not surprising that the best Bowie managed was to match a few of the hard rock songs in attitude and volume (mainly the Pretty Things tracks).

The exception is “Sorrow,” a series of reflections and removes—Bowie, who seems to be channeling Ferry, is covering a cover. It’s the only enduring piece of music to emerge from the Pin Ups sessions.

“Sorrow” was written in 1965 by the team of Richard Gottehrer, Bob Feldman and Jerry Goldstein, who had written hits like “My Boyfriend’s Back” and, in the guise of their fake Australian group The Strangeloves, “I Want Candy.” It was the B-side of “Fever,” the follow-up single for the McCoys, an Indiana garage band (led by Rick Derringer) who had had a smash with “Hang On Sloopy.” As a composition, it’s not much—a cliche-filled lyric over mainly two chords (the song mostly stays on G, only venturing briefly to C on the title line, which is also the four-bar chorus). Derringer sang reservedly, swallowing the word “sorrow” like a pill, while the track, anchored on harmonica and a twining guitar line, hinted at despair but mainly kept on the surface.

In England, Tony Crane and Billy Kinsley had formed a duo, The Merseys, out of remnants of their old group The Merseybeats, which, like the Mojos, had formed in Liverpool during the first stirrings of Beatlemania. Their 1966 cover of “Sorrow” transformed the song. Opening with a bowed bass intro (originally played by Jack Bruce), the Merseys’ version combines aggression—the insistent four-to-the-bar guitar and piano—and longing. Crane and Kinsley let the last syllable of “sorrow” hang in the air, and center the song around two phrases, the title line and “your long blonde hair,” which they circle back to, obsessively, as the song ends. The Merseys also used delayed echoing vocals in the last verse, while their instrumental middle eight pits horns against guitars (the earlier version not only has Bruce’s bass intro, but likely has Jimmy Page doing the guitar solo and John Paul Jones on bass).

It hit #4 in the UK, and was a favorite of a number of bands, particularly the Beatles. George Harrison sang its opening lines in his “It’s All Too Much,” while Ian MacDonald suggested that the “rolling swing” of the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” was possibly based on the tempo of the Merseys’ track.

Bowie’s version is a further refinement of the Merseys’ cover, which had already changed the song from mumbling teenage blues into a more florid piece of romanticism. Now Bowie turned “Sorrow” into a grandiose, DeLuxe-colored production, where a sudden sweep of strings erupts in the last verse, while Bowie seems to be imitating Ferry in his swooning, over-the-top vocal—he nearly weeps out “sorrow” towards the end. He made the Merseys’ echoing vocal into a hall of mirrors and used Ken Fordham’s melodic saxophone solo as the calm heart of the track. And Bowie extended the song with a thirty-second ruminative outro over F chords, where Mike Garson on piano struggles to piece together a new melody as the fadeout slowly silences him.

Recorded July-early August 1973, and released as a single in October 1973 (RCA 2424 c/w “Amsterdam,” it hit #3 in the UK). On Pin Ups, it was oddly sequenced between the garish “Friday On My Mind” and the brutal “Don’t Bring Me Down” (whose opening guitar riff kills off “Sorrow”‘s fadeout) . Bowie performed it in his “1980 Floor Show” (with Roxy Music cover model Amanda Lear playing the heartbreaker) and in his 1974 and 1983 tours.

* This account is only mentioned in Christopher Sandford’s biography. By contrast, David Buckley’s bio depicts Ferry (who Buckley interviewed) as being far less combative, quoting him as saying he was only “apprehensive” when hearing about Pin Ups, with Ferry recalling that Bowie had phoned him first to settle any potential problems. Another bio, Stardust, claims Bowie told a companion he wanted “to get a jump on Ferry” after learning about the latter’s album.

Top: Bryan Ferry in blue silhouette, back cover of These Foolish Things.