Big Brother

August 31, 2010

Big Brother.
Big Brother (live, 1974).
Big Brother (live, 1987.)

A love song to abasement, a fascist hymn, a cocaine song: “Big Brother” apparently was, in the scheme of Bowie’s Nineteen Eighty-Four adaptation, meant as an end piece to accompany the broken Winston Smith’s submission at last to Big Brother. It may well have been intended as the show’s closing song.

“Big Brother” is built like a flowchart, designed to move the listener from doubt (the verses open in B minor, move slowly up to A at the end of the first two lines, a structure repeated in the chorus, though Bowie sings the latter in a much higher register) to desire (the first bridge, “please savior, savior show us”) to, in the choruses, an ecstatic submission to power. Once you move past a certain point, there’s no way back: take how the verse never reoccurs after Bowie sings the chorus. There’s only the four-bar second bridge (Bowie singing alone on acoustic guitar, “I know you think you’re awful square”…) that serves as a final breath before the song completely gives itself over.

Still, submitting to a higher power—a dictator, a president (the chorus promises that the divine ruler will be “someone to fool us, someone like you”), even a line of coke—can be beautiful, “Big Brother” argues. Its final chorus repeats are glorious, soaring with melody (Bowie’s upward leaps at the start of each bar), with each chorus offering something to further the excitement—a new counter-melody emerging on guitar or a great rolling drum fill by Aynsley Dunbar in the final repeat. It’s a stunning resolution to a game that’s been rigged to lead you there all along, from the one-bar gaps between the bridges and chorus that give an illusion of space and freedom, to how the saxophones are present throughout the song, prodding the listener along like warders.

Are there signs of resistance? The scrappy acoustic guitar playing, barely discernible, under most of the track? Bowie’s octave-doubled lead vocal, with his more resonant voice shadowed by a thinner, lower one, like a bad conscience? Or the realization that the “trumpet” whose fanfare opens the track and which gets the solo, is a fraud, a synthesizer in disguise? And is there a sly sense of humor under it all? Nicholas Pegg makes the excellent call that one of “Big Brother”‘s ancestors is The Bonzo Dog Band’s 1969 parody of Charles Atlas ads, “Mr. Apollo,” a track Dunbar drummed on. (“He’s the strongest man/the world has ever seen…follow Mr. Apollo/everybody knows he’s the greatest man!)

If so, they’re wiped out by the efficiency, beauty and power of Bowie’s song, whose three and a half minutes culminate in its final line, a simply-sung “we want you Big Brother,” which immediately segues into the tribal celebration of “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family.” Broken and emptied, the once-human being is brought to his feet and made to dance.

Recorded 14-15 January 1974, a regular during the ’74 tour, revived for the Glass Spider tour of 1987.

Top: Augusto Pinochet and friends, Santiago, Chile, ca. September 1973.