Beauty and the Beast

April 29, 2011

Beauty and the Beast.
Beauty and the Beat (12″ edit, 1977).
Beauty and the Beast (live, 1978).
Beauty and the Beast (Musikladen, 1978).

I asked them what they thought of Bowie’s interpretation. They said it was not rock n roll. It was cabaret. Behind my shades I can imagine him. There in Berlin. In the abandoned section. I imagine him stumbling through old boxes and props in the street. I imagine him in love with the whole world or totally dead.

Patti Smith, “Heroes: A Communiqué,” Hit Parader, April 1978.

“This song is somewhat schizophrenic in nature,” Bowie quipped before going into “Beauty and the Beast” on a German TV show in May 1978, but a better diagnosis would have been bipolar: “Heroes,” side A at least, is the manic side to Low‘s depression, particularly with its crackpot opening track.

“Beast” opens in grandiosity, like a parody of Roxy Music’s “The Thrill of It All” or Bowie’s own “Station to Station.” There’s eight measures of Bowie playing a simple pattern on the bass end of a piano, just a dyad (mainly E-G) and a single note (usually A), a pattern that occurs throughout the song. There’s a nudge of Robert Fripp’s treated guitar in the third bar (very similar to his work on Eno’s “Sky Saw”). Then George Murray’s bass (and a repeating pattern of octaves on the piano) builds momentum until Bowie’s entrance, an “oooooh!” glissando spanning over five bars and neatly tumbling into the opening verse.

Which is cracked and jittery, sung by a man reduced to a series of broken movements. “Walking down a by-road, singing the song,” Bowie begins, his vocal, though kept to a two-note range, sounding strained. Later verses find Bowie moving to his lower register, running his lines together, building to hysteria (the brief chorus) or mockery, or both.

Patti Smith’s review of “Heroes” for Hit Parader quoted a group of German teenagers who kicked Bowie out of “rock n roll,” calling him cabaret. And sure, “Beast” makes their case: it is cabaret, a piece of avant-garde pop with backing vocals by the Berlin club singer Antonia Maass, who at one point swoons out “Liebling!” and other times sounds like a hawk shrieking. The counterweight is Carlos Alomar, who does what he can to keep “Beast” a dance song, almost against Bowie’s will: there’s a funk riff buried under one of Fripp’s groaning solos, while the sly line that crops up after “Liebling” could have been the central riff of the whole song.

“Beast” mainly keeps to one chord, an A seventh*, with a move to C and C7 only on the “I wanted to believe” eight-bar bridge. It sums up how Bowie, by his “Berlin” period, had rethought his writing methods, moving away from the harmonic adventurousness of his early work. Bowie was a musical autodidact, with many of his early songs coming out of experiments on the guitar or piano, Bowie pitting various chords against each other. Or, while listening to Ronson or Alomar play guitar, Bowie would fasten onto whatever random progression intrigued him, whether it made musical “sense” or no.

So Bowie’s songs from 1966 to 1975 are filled with intricate, at times bizarre structures: a trifle like “Join the Gang” has five key changes; the dippy blues “The Gospel According to Tony Day” has a thirteenth in it; “Changes” is a tumble of altering time signatures; the Space Oddity LP has so many augmented and inverted chords it seems to have been designed as a guitarist’s advanced training module.

By the time he wrote “Beast,” Bowie had discarded this type of songwriting (whether because he couldn’t do it anymore, or was just bored with it) to concentrate on establishing a groove and directing a series of actions to play out over it, whether an odd vocal or one of Fripp’s Eno-fied guitar solos. Bowie’s lyrics had changed as well: no more characters or fractured stories, just a series of non-sequiturs and cryptic jokes that sang well together (Tony Visconti’s regular curse of exasperation during the LP sessions—“someone fuck a priest!”—inspired one of the best lines).

Some, like Thomas Seabrook, argue that “Beast”‘s lyric is an exhumation of the Thin White Duke, Bowie reviving the days of black magic and finally burying his book. I think it’s a bit more random than that, but there’s certainly something cold and malevolent about the track in its final form. “Something in the air,” Bowie sings, calling back to Thunderclap Newman. “Slaughter in the air, protest on the wind.” Despite his dedication to the random, Bowie was still storytelling. Bowie issued “Beast” as the follow-up single to “Heroes” and it flopped: even in a year of portent and noise like 1977, “Beast” proved a bit too much to take.

Recorded July-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin. A 12″ single with a longer edit, c/w “Fame,” was released in the US in December 1977, while also released as a 7″ single c/w “Sense of Doubt” (RCA PB 1190) in January 1978. Performed throughout 1978, with a version from Philadelphia on Stage. The live versions are a credit to Adrian Belew, who had to play in one go the various guitar parts that Fripp had overdubbed and Eno and Bowie had pieced together.

*According to the sheet music. Some tabbers have it as a B-flat.

Top: William Newton, “Eeyore’s Birthday Party,” April 1978.