Blackout

April 26, 2011

Blackout.
Blackout (live, 1978).

In one story, a man is thrown off his motorcycle after colliding with a car. As he’s sliding across the road, perhaps to his death, he hears his helmet bouncing against the asphalt. The sound has a catchy rhythm, he thinks, and he finds himself composing a little ditty to it in his head

…”The question is: do drummers have different brains from the rest of us?” Eno said. “Everyone who has ever worked in a band is sure to say they do.”

Burkhard Bilger, “The Possibilian,” The New Yorker, 25 April 2011.

Time again to praise Dennis Davis. Davis’ drums, distorted by Tony Visconti’s Harmonizer (see “Breaking Glass”), are the sonic trademark of much of Low. By contrast, Visconti used the Harmonizer sparingly on “Heroes,” and only at the mixing stage, so Davis’ drums were mainly cut live, with few overdubs. “Heroes” is the sound of Davis playing to the room.

It helped that it was a colossal room, Hansa Tonstudio 2, which had been built to house a 150-person orchestra. Rather than using a drum booth, Davis set up his kit on a riser that, in a past life, had been used for choirs. At one end of the room, sitting about five feet off the floor, Davis could see George Murray down to his right (whenever Davis used his kick drum, Murray felt like he was being hit in the face), Carlos Alomar to his left, and Bowie, on piano, directly in front of him. Everyone but Davis used “gobos” (isolation panels); Davis’ drums instead were meant to fill the room. At the far end of the room was another microphone, intended to pick up the aftershock of Davis’ drumming. It’s easy to see what happened: Davis soon became the bandleader, conducting with his wrists and his feet.

Davis also had expanded his kit. He found a set of congas in the corner of the studio, hauled some timpani up on the riser. There are times on “Heroes” when Davis sounds like a percussive orchestra, or his fills seem a painstaking series of drum overdubs. But it’s just him, most of his drumming cut live, like the series of crazy fills Davis does twice on “Blackout” (cued by Bowie’s “get me to the doctor!” at 1:01 and 2:02), where he spins like the second hand of a clock, moving from toms to congas back to toms. There’s the little fills Davis throws in throughout, as if providing regular infusions of oxygen, or his move to what sounds like cowbell on the “get me off the streets” verse. And during it all Davis keeps perfect time. A human jazz metronome, Visconti later called him: playing flawlessly, yet never the same way twice.

“Blackout” is as abrasive as “Heroes” gets—the track seems to have been battled over by waves of armies. The verses are a series of assaults, with something resembling a chorus appearing only a minute-half in. Robert Fripp’s guitar, which early on calls back to his solo on Eno’s “St. Elmo’s Fire,” later approaches dog whistle frequencies; it seems bent on undermining Bowie’s vocal. Eno’s synthesizer burbles in the right channel. The backing vocals are conscripted to keep the lead from disintegrating (Bowie seems to falter while singing “kiss me in the rain,” as if he’s so drained he can barely form the words—the backing singers (Bowie and Visconti) keep at him, but he stumbles, finally inching out “in…the…rain.”) Pieces of old Bowie songs are churned up—Alomar’s guitar (kept to the left channel, he sounds like the only sane man left in the room) offers a riff that seems a marriage of “Suffragette City” and “Boney Maronie,” while the “chorus” section reworks “Stay.”

Bowie sings long, meandering lines that he severs with shouts and mutters. It’s an even more bizarre and mannered performance than “Joe the Lion”—there’s the ranted-out “I’m under Japanese influence and my honor’s at STAKE!” or, even crazier, the lines where Bowie seems to be attempting a New York accent: “I’m getting some SKIN EXPOSHUH to the BLACK-OUT!”

“Blackout”‘s lyric was another live-at-the mic production, though the lines are so deliberately random that it’s likely Bowie did some cut-up experiments to get a few of them. The lyric is said to be inspired by all sorts of disasters, like Bowie, agitated after the appearance of his wife Angie, passing out from drink and being hospitalized in late 1976. Bowie, perhaps mischievously, later said the song was a reaction to the New York City power outage of July ’77. And “Blackout” feels like an urban song, all crowds and paranoia, with the streets of Berlin subbing for the purgatorial Los Angeles of Station to Station or “Always Crashing in the Same Car.”

Still, delving too much into the ways and means of the lyric seems beside the point. In the final mix, Bowie’s vocal, often harried by Fripp’s guitar, is just another contributor of incidental noise, the equivalent of one of Eno’s synthesizer lines; it’s one more signal in an overloaded frequency.

Recorded July-mid-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin. The version from Philadelphia, May 1978, collected on Stage, is arguably the definitive version of the song: Bowie’s vocal is tremendous and Davis sounds like a monster.

Note: most of the information on the recording of “Heroes” is from various interviews Tony Visconti has given over the years (particularly one with Sound on Sound in 2004) as well as his autobiography.

Top: The Burger Bistro adapts to the New York City power outage, 13 July 1977.