Love Missile F1-11

November 25, 2014

lovemissle

Love Missile F1-11 (Sigue Sigue Sputnik).
Love Missile F1-11 (Sigue Sigue Sputnik, video).
Love Missile F1-11 (Bowie).

I want to be successful and yet never out of touch with things. I don’t want to be someone who’s made into a pop icon and then doesn’t know how to save himself. I don’t want to become David Bowie or Mick Jagger.

What do you think is wrong with them?

I think they’ve cheated an awful lot of people. They’ve manipulated an awful lot of people and they’ve become cliches of themselves.

Martin Degville (Sigue Sigue Sputnik), “Starry Eyed and Laughing,” Paul Morley, NME, 8 March 1986.

Bowie’s cover of Sigue Sigue Sputnik‘s “Love Missile F1-11,” cut during the Reality sessions, was likely never in serious consideration to make the album, but it proved ideal for a B-side (issued on the European/Canadian “New Killer Star” singles). His cover’s cheekiness surpassed that of his take on “Pablo Picasso,” but Bowie wisely didn’t try to match the Sputnik track in excess. Instead his take seemed more an attempt to replicate “the anarchic dub sound of the [track’s] Portastudio demos,” as Sputnik head Tony James described them.

Sputnik began in 1982 when Generation X bassist James, seeing how much fun his old singer was having selling out, put together a band dedicated to scavenging pop junk from the past three decades and stringing bits of it together like Christmas lights. Elvis Costello, with some admiration, summarized the plan in 1986: It’s like Tony James was saying (assumes thick-ear drawl), “we thought we’d get some designer violence, mix it up with some BMX bikes and computer games, models with big tits, fast cars.”.. It’s funny. As long as you don’t have to listen to the record.”

EMI soon signed them, according to legend for £4 million* (Costello: “this daft record company EMI—how can they fall for it twice in ten years?”). For its investment, EMI got a #3 single (“Love Missile”), a Top 10 LP and a brief tour that was sporadically marked by performative violence**. Sputnik took too long to make a follow-up and were over by 1988. Yet the band (or, perhaps more correctly, the project) was well ahead of its time, whether in its use of “found” film dialogue or in its crass commercialism, with Sputnik offering corporations the opportunity to buy ad space between tracks on its LP (L’Oreal and i-D Magazine did). Its sense of pop music as a game that one can win by following a corrupt rulebook, of pop consuming itself and spitting itself back out, was a rough draft of what the KLF would soon pull off.

Sputnik’s epitaph was “Love Missile,” with its Cold War sex and drugs lyric (nuclear missiles as both erect penises and heroin needles), its shameless recycling of Bo Diddley rhythms and Eddie Cochran guitar riffs, its Giorgio Moroder mix littered with chunks of repurposed dialogue from the likes of Scarface and A Clockwork Orange. Bowie recognized the song for what it was—the Ziggy Stardust of 1986, and a sleeker and flashier beast than his old plastic rocker ever had been. He sang it straight, digging into the song (“there goes MY love ROCKET RED!” he boasts in admiration), and you wish he’d sandwiched the track into Reality as a nose-tweak for yet another American war getting underway. One of his fizziest, loopiest, most committed and most enjoyable covers.

Recorded January-February 2003, March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 29 September 2003 on the “New Killer Star” CD single (ISO-Columbia COL 674275 9/ ISO-Columbia 38K 3445).

* The £4 million figure was a complete fabrication, James later said: “Journalist Chris Salewitz had randomly plucked that figure out of the air for a piece he was writing about us in the Sunday Times and four million pounds translated into six million dollars, so we became the “six million dollar band” which appealed to me because I loved the “Six Million Dollar Man.”

** From an NME review of a Sputnik gig in Reading, 1986: “It was a fairly normal pop concert. Apart, that is, from the purple-faced Nazi on my left who screamed obscenities at a girl he barged past on his way to the front, or the rotund drunk who clutched his real ale and hollered “Bastards! Wankers! Violence!” while flailing towards the stage, and the Fleet Street photographers who eagerly raced around the building after a young man with a bloody head.

Costello quotes from an interview in Sounds, 1 March 1986.

Top: “Torbakhopper,” “what’s in your window : ishootwindows, new york city (2003).”


Is It Any Wonder/ Fun/Funhouse

September 10, 2013

97crossingted

Is It Any Wonder (live, 1997).
Is It Any Wonder (studio?, 1997).
Fun (Dillinja Mix).
Funhouse.

In the 17 years between Lodger and Outside, Bowie treated touring as a politician would re-election campaigns. He had three grand efforts (Serious Moonlight, Glass Spider, Sound + Vision) and two small-scale ones (Tin Machine), and he’d mounted the larger productions as global carnivals, with exhausting rounds of publicity to make the shows “events.” At the close of each, he’d been spent: it would take him years to play live again.

Then in the mid-Nineties he became a road dog, following up his lengthy Outside tour with a round of summer festival gigs in 1996, then spending another five months touring from Germany to Argentina in 1997. It was his most sustained period of live performance since the Ziggy Stardust days.

So by the Earthling tour, the novelty of a “revived” Bowie playing live had waned a bit. With essentially the same band that he’d had since 1995, he used some of the same stage props, and his set lists, despite the new Earthling material and a few revived pieces, weren’t radically different from those of the Outside tour. So the 1997 tour tends to be forgotten, or folded into the overall “Outside” period; none of the Bowie bios devote more than a couple of paragraphs to it.

What the tour was, however, was a chance for fans to see Bowie with essentially nothing left to prove, on a more intimate scale and with a lower price-tag (this time round, he mainly played mid-size ballrooms and clubs rather than try to fill arenas). The shows were more casual in feel and wider in scope than the Outside gigs. There was more overt use of DATs for supplemental beats, vocal choruses and synthesizer lines, which freed up the players: Gail Ann Dorsey shifted to keyboard at times, and she had two vocal spotlights (“Under Pressure” and the next entry). The tour wound up as the blueprint for most of his subsequent shows: a set list ranging across the catalog, performed by a tight, crack band with little choreography and no more “concepts.”

thethinker

The Earthling tour was a compromise. In his “dress rehearsal” concerts (four gigs in Dublin and London), Bowie unveiled his original template for the tour. There were would be two sets, a traditional “rock” set and a “drum ‘n’ bass” dance set. So for instance, at the Hanover in London (2 June), the drum ‘n’ bass set began with “I’m Deranged,” moved through “Pallas Athena” and a revived “V-2 Schneider” and closed with “The Last Thing You Should Do” and “Telling Lies.”

The split sets got a mixed response. Reportedly, much of the audience at the first Hanover gig left after the “rock” set was over, prompting Bowie to open with the dance set the following night. Some journalists attending the shows wrote up the drum ‘n’ bass sets as if Bowie had been igniting farts on stage. (The Observer‘s Barbara Ellen: “we all have to stand around for an aeon to what sounds like the cast of Star Wars falling down a fire escape…for God’s sake man, you’re a living legend. In future, play the old stuff and stop trying so hard.”)

After a few German dates, Bowie scrapped the split-set plan,* with the drum ‘n’ bass pieces now interwoven with the rock songs. This arguably improved the shows, as Bowie could create an arc—starting shows playing “Quicksand” alone on acoustic guitar and building to the dance songs midway through, so that a “Last Thing You Should Do” would be chased by “Under Pressure.” This made the newer pieces seem less like alien artifacts and more elaborations on his earlier work.

During the drum ‘n’ bass sets, the band had played an instrumental jam which apparently had come out of rehearsals of “Fame.” It opened with a DAT-generated beat that Zach Alford supplemented on drums, and had occasional vocal hooks (included what sounded like a vocoded Dorsey singing “is it any wonder?”); Bowie played tenor saxophone, then switched to baritone. As the first link above shows, he was often barely audible over the barrage, though he managed to make the bari sax groan like a trumpeting elephant.

This piece’s subsequent life is one of the more confounding in the Bowie catalog. As he’d intended to release a live album from the Earthling tour, “Is It Any Wonder” seemed a likely candidate for inclusion, either as a live take or a studio remake (or both: take the alleged “live” version taped at the Paradiso in Amsterdam on 10 June 1997. I agree with the Illustrated DB site that this recording seems like a studio take with canned applause mixed in).

Then in 1998 a 3:31 studio take of “Is It Any Wonder,” now retitled “Fun” (or “Funhouse,” as Gabrels once called it) was issued to BowieNet subscribers on a CD-ROM (you had to log onto the site first before you could play the track—in the days of dial-up Internet, this may have consumed an entire evening). By now, Bowie had come up with a few random lyrics for the track, referencing his old work with Iggy Pop (“Funtime”) and throwing in a pinch of world weariness (“my summer turns to fall…and I’ll miss you”).

A remix of the track by Dillinja, presumably from the same era, was included on the 2000 liveandwell.com CD. (Five other “Clownboy” mixes of “Fun” were made, though none were officially released). In all of its incarnations, the track never escaped being an enjoyable live filler promoted to being a fairly dull record.

First performed (“Is It Any Wonder”) at the Hanover, London, on 2 June 1997. “Fun” was likely recorded/mixed ca. January 1998 during the “Earthling Live” mixing sessions.

* The last show to use the template was apparently the Utrecht gig on 11 June. The following show, in Dortmund on 13 June, had an incorporated set and the French concerts (14-19 June) solidified what would be the main set of the European leg of the tour, with “Is It Any Wonder” often slated midway through.

Top: Ted Barron, “Crossing, Brooklyn, NY” 1997; Bowie does his best Rodin at the Q Club, Birmingham, UK, 1 August 1997 (via “bowieinleith”).


The Drowned Girl

October 11, 2011

Ballade vom Ertrunkenen Mädchen (Lotte Lenya, 1957).
Ballade vom Ertrunkenen Mädchen (Gisela May, 1969).
The Drowned Girl.

The cabaret performer Carl Zuckmayer once saw Brecht at a party in Munich in late 1923. When Brecht reached for his guitar, conversations died, the tango dancers stopped and “everyone sat on the floor around him caught up in his spell,” he said. With a “raw and cutting” voice, while clasping his guitar against his stomach as though using it to stanch a wound, Brecht sang “Remembering Marie A.,” the vicious “Ballad of the Pirates” and his harrowing “Ballad of the Drowned Girl.” Zuckmayer said he felt hypnotized, his mind reeling in the performance’s wake. By now Brecht “had become an almost totally irresistible seductive force,” John Fuegi wrote. “He could now usually impose his will on virtually anybody.”

“Drowned Girl” had become one of Brecht’s most potent setpieces. It was inspired by the murder of the Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg in the suppression of the Spartacist Uprising in Berlin in January 1919 (Brecht had originally titled the poem “On the Girl Beaten to Death”—Luxemburg had been clubbed and shot by Freikorps soldiers, her body hurled into the Landwehr Canal). But Brecht’s poem isn’t any sort of keep-the-faith revolutionary epitaph or a maudlin lament. With the same asperity and coldness as his “Marie A.” (it’s also referencing the drowning of Ophelia in Hamlet), Brecht instead lovingly details the slow decomposition of the girl’s body as she floats down the river, her body growing weighed down with seaweed, small fish eating pieces of her flesh until she’s reached such a state that “God forgets her.”

Brecht later recycled “Drowned Girl” into Baal; Baal sings it while tramping in the forest. At this point in the play (Scene 15), a girl who Baal seduced has killed herself, and “Drowned Girl” is Baal’s eerie tribute to her, taking a cold delight in the business of death and a satisfaction in being able to turn the latest corpse into a workable song. It was set to music by Kurt Weill in 1928 for Berliner Requiem, a cantata for chorus and orchestra, whose aim was to express what “the urban man of our era has to say about the phenomenon of death,” Weill wrote.

For Bowie’s Baal, he and Dominic Muldowney kept Weill’s music for “Drowned Girl.” Muldowney was struck by Bowie’s nearly improvised yet masterful technique (inspired by Lotte Lenya’s performance), from the opening verses where Bowie, at times singing staccato, keeps low in his baritone range as the girl’s body slowly moves, slowly grows heavier and heavier (Brecht once had instructed these lines to be whispered) to how Bowie disperses the haziness of “when the sky that same evening grew dark as smoke” with the sharply-sung “k” in “smoke,” which kicks off a climb up the octave (a very Sinatra-esque move). One of Bowie’s finest vocals of the era.

*Lotte Lenya sang her version of “Drowned Girl” to Brecht shortly before the latter died in 1955. She wondered if her performance had suited his idea of epic theater, to which Brecht replied: “Lenya, you are always epic enough for me.”

Baal was taped on 8-12 August 1981, BBC Television Centre; shown on BBC1, 2 February 1982. Studio version recorded in September 1981 at Hansa on the Wall, Berlin; EP released 13 February 1982. Amazingly RCA requested a video for “Drowned Girl.” Shot by David Mallett, it has a cast of ringers in the supporting band, including Tony Visconti (on guitar), the Simple Minds’ drummer Mel Gaynor and Bowie’s legendary majordomo Coco Schwab as one of the wind players.

Top: George and Poppy Plemper, “Unknown Girls 1 &2, Woolwich Dockyard, 1981.”