Fly

January 12, 2015

03apts

Fly.

Written seemingly as a counterpart to “She’ll Drive the Big Car,” “Fly” (a desperate husband’s tale, with another A major refrain) was knocked down to a bonus track. By this point in Bowie’s career, one expects this sort of thing. Given a choice, he’ll always cut a self-penned track from an album before a questionable cover (see “It Ain’t Easy,” “Across the Universe,” “Bang Bang,” etc.).

That said, “Fly” would have been a tough fit on Reality, even more than “Queen of All the Tarts.” Despite its depressive lyrical scenario, it’s a cheery track, a clatter-fest in a hurry to get somewhere. In keeping with Bowie’s apparent desire to sneakily remake Never Let Me Down, “Fly” is one of the most “Eighties” Bowie tracks since, well, the Eighties. The main guitar riff (Carlos Alomar, see below) seems a bit derived from Devo’s “Whip It,”* while a holiday camp keyboard is just one voice in a mix overrun by stray instruments. There are even some little party bits, like the “dying for the WEEKEND” tag.

A father’s in his driveway weeping in his car, watching the TV play to an empty room in his house. His wife is bored or distracted, his son might be on drugs. The kids down the street are playing “on their decks”** in the garage, working up a set for an “all-night rave” (seems like Bowie hasn’t been getting out too much in the early 2000s). None of this seems that tragic, even the verse about some kid overdosing. It’s more like Stewart Copeland’s “On Any Other Day“—a suburban dystopia played for laughs.

It’s fun to see Bowie back in suburbia again, for what would be one of his last visits. As a kid in Bromley, like the father in “Fly,” he took refuge in his mind. He stayed up in his room and read Beat novels, looked for UFOs, played records, scrawled in notebooks, practiced astral projections. He once described his teenage home as having to pass through purgatory (his parents’ living room) to get upstairs into his private haven. Dana Gillespie recalled how cold the Jones’ house was—she found it a loveless place, a house without life, as if Bowie’s parents were actors who went off stage when no one was around.

So Bowie stayed in his room until he could fly. Away he went: Haddon Hall, Chelsea, Los Angeles. Berlin, Montreux, New York. As Momus wrote, much of these “last” Bowie albums are Bowie regarding his aging contemporaries as one would creatures in a zoo. What’s it like to have failed, to have fed on dreams but starved instead? Even his own success had nearly snuffed out a few times. He’d rolled the right number, but what if he hadn’t?

Hence the refrain of “Fly,” Bowie taking grandiose refuge in his dreams (in the last refrain, an unexpected D# minor chord (“but I can fly”) rattles the sequence, making Bowie alter his flight path to stay in the air). Dreams are in a provisional tense, offering that the present isn’t real, that the future isn’t set. But dreams are lies, of course. Those that come true are simply lies we’ve willed ourselves (and other people) into believing.

alomar

In spring 1974, a young British singer/songwriter met a guitarist at a session in New York the singer was producing for Lulu. Bowie found in Carlos Alomar his ambassador to the New York R&B and funk scenes; Alomar saw Bowie as a way off the R&B circuit.

The timing was perfect. Having split with Mick Ronson, Bowie needed a new sous-chef. But he didn’t want another Ronson (if he had, he’d just have kept Ronson). He wanted someone who kept behind the scenes (no worries that Alomar would get more fan mail than Bowie) and who could handle new twists in Bowie’s songwriting. To Ronson, Bowie typically presented lyrics, top melodies and even guitar or basslines—at the least, Bowie would offer a complete chord sequence. Ronson’s role was to smooth, kick up, embellish and refine, to find counterpoints and add effects, to broaden and sweeten the song, to give it a public face.

By Station to Station and Low, Alomar was charged with creating the basics of a song. Bowie would offer some chords, a provisional title, some mood directions, and let Alomar take it from there. Bowie would monitor him rigorously and approve or discard whatever Alomar came up with, and much of the work was now in “post-production” (Alomar rarely heard Bowie’s vocals until the record came out). But essentially this was songwriting as delegation: Bowie as foreman/engineer, Alomar as shop steward. Scott Walker once described Bowie’s work as being something like a factory: He comes up with the goods and makes sure of delivery all down the line. Bowie couldn’t have done this without Alomar, who was his translator, research team, legwork man and studio engine.

Nearly becoming a victim of Bowie’s changing tastes in the early Eighties, Alomar persevered, playing on Tonight and Never Let Me Down, touring Glass Spider. He hung on until Outside and the subsequent tour, which finally made him know he was done. Even after that, he added a few guitar lines to Heathen and Reality tracks. Towards the end, Bowie spoke of Alomar a bit coldly (“Carlos is always good value for money,” he said on a webchat in 2001), and the two haven’t reconnected yet in Bowie’s current revival.

Alomar’s lead riff on “Fly” is barbed with hooks, as always, but it’s a rather hollow last act, like Ronson’s farewell solo on “I Feel Free” in 1993. No matter. What’s important is that Alomar got a last act, and that he’s slowly won the recognition he deserves. Let’s hope “Fly” isn’t the end of Bowie and Alomar’s days together. But if it is, hail and farewell, Carlos Alomar: Bowie’s finest collaborator.

Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003, (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on the 2-CD version of Reality.

* Nicholas Pegg suggested the riff owes a bit to Abba’s “On and On and On” too.

** See LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge,” which Bowie almost certainly heard before making this. “I’m losing my edge…to the kids whose footsteps I hear when they get on the decks.”

Top: James Welling, “Apartments, West Los Angeles,” 2003; Carlos Alomar teaching kids music at the Summer Science and Rainbow Camp, Anatolia College, 2011.

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I Have Not Been to Oxford Town

April 22, 2013

95staten

I Have Not Been to Oxford Town.
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (rehearsal, fragment, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (first live performance, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (live, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (live, 1996).

It began as “Trio,” a rhythm track that Brian Eno, Carlos Alomar and the drummer Joey Baron worked up at the Hit Factory on 17 January 1995, one of the last days of the Outside sessions. Waiting around for Bowie, they knocked a song together to kill time. This was a recurring theme: Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson, waiting for Bowie in Trident Studios during Man Who Sold the World; Alomar, Andy Newmark, Willie Weeks, David Sanborn and Mike Garson waiting in Sigma Sound during Young Americans. It’s likely a tactic, Bowie running his studio sessions like a psychology lab. Delay the appearance of the lead actor, let the supporting players work something out of his absence.

Two days later, Bowie heard “Trio” for the first time. He sat down, started writing, asked for another playback, said he’d need five tracks set aside for his vocals. As Eno wrote in his diary, “then he went into the vocal booth and sang the most obscure thing imaginable—long spaces, little incomplete lines. He unfolded the whole thing in reverse, keeping us in suspense for the main song. Within half an hour he’d substantially finished what may be the most infectious song we’ve ever written together, currently called ‘Toll the Bell.’

There was a simple G major harmonic structure to work with: the verses held on G, with a descending turnaround through F and A minor; the refrain just shifted between G and its IV chord, C major; the bridge finally introduced the dominant (V) chord, a D major. As per Eno’s account, Bowie seems to have sewed together a vocal out of rhythms (one likely starting point was using the F-Am turnaround to underpin the two-note backing vocal melody: “all’s…well“), auditioning meters, playing with vowel alignments and consonance: e.g., my attorney seems sincere, with the little internal rhyme of “ney” and “seem” and the four consecutive “ess” sounds. There’s a severity to his verse phrasings, with their short vowels and Bowie’s curt appraisal of each syllable, letting some pass, haranguing others (Baby Grace is the victimm). And it’s countered by the almost jovial lightness in the chorus, one long dancing line of melody, with its easy phrases and rich rhymes: take “toll the bell,” both a consonant rhyme and onomatopoeiac (& the tolling’s echoed by the “all’s well” hook two bars later).

The fact that Bowie came up with the lyric (and top melody?) in a half-hour is witness to his creative strength at the time. Working at a steady pace since Buddha of Suburbia, gaining the confidence and insight to abandon most of one idea (the Leon suites) in favor of, at the relatively last minute, new, improvised material, it’s as if Bowie had physically willed himself back into an earlier state of creativity. It couldn’t, and it didn’t, last for long. But it produced “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” which is a marvel, the best song Bowie wrote in the Nineties.

oxfrd

As a rhythm guitarist, I do my stuff knowing a lead guitarist will come in. So I stay away from certain frequencies, concentrate on making a sturdy frame.

Carlos Alomar, 1995.

It’s all just paint, right?

Nile Rodgers, on making recordings.

“Oxford Town” isn’t the end of Carlos Alomar’s work with Bowie: he would play on the subsequent Outside tour and he’ll turn up to take two last bows in the early 2000s. But “Oxford Town” is his finale, his last great accompaniment.

Reeves Gabrels is in the mix as well: he’s likely playing the distorted, seething line, mixed left, that lingers throughout the first verse and chorus like a bad conscience. Alomar’s first unmistakably heard* in the second pre-chorus, playing a little dancing line, mixed center, that jabs against the verse melody, and then, gathering confidence, he starts conniving against the beat in the main chorus. There’s the nervy arpeggios in the bridge and then, when the verse returns, Alomar stays on, riffing, converting Gabrels in the process (or is it another Alomar track? Whoever’s responsible, the distorted guitar stops sulking and begins dancing as well).

And the coda is a last duet, Bowie and arguably his finest collaborator. By the last forty seconds of the track, there are at least three Alomar guitar dubs, talking to each other, making filigrees around the sturdy, constant melody that Bowie sings. Alomar, either on his Parker Fly or, even more fitting, his classic Alembic Maverick, plays bright, hook-filled lines, mainly keeping to the top three strings. The last few seconds of “Oxford Town” are Alomar alone, a sideman having taken the spotlight by force, hooked into a riff that seems like it will never end until it drops dead.

dbb

There’s a ghost in “Oxford Town,” too. Bowie’s vocal echoes someone who he’d never acknowledged before: David Byrne (compare Bowie’s “lord, get me out of here” to Byrne’s phrasing on lines like “wasting precious time” in “Found a Job”).

Bowie and Byrne had kept to separate worlds, with Eno as their only nexus point (edit: “DJ” is allegedly Bowie imitating Byrne, as per a Talking Heads bio—see comments). But as Outside was supposed to be an American album, Leon Blank an alleged American suspect, this gave Bowie a way to use Byrne, particularly his vocal on “Once In a Lifetime,” as a thread in his backdrop. And Bowie and Byrne’s takes on America were fundamentally similar. Byrne was born in Scotland, grew up in Ontario before winding up in Maryland. For him, America would always be a foreign country, especially the vast heartland that he spied from airplanes or bus windows (“I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to,” he’d later sing.) This alienation gave him a way to appreciate “native” American artifacts as works of art: he transcribed game shows and acted them out, and in the late Seventies, he became fascinated by radio broadcasts of evangelical preachers.

Like “Oxford Town,” “Once in a Lifetime” had started as a rhythm track, anchored on Tina Weymouth’s alternating three-note bassline. What Bowie mainly took from “Lifetime” was Byrne’s patter in the verses, a chant-like phrasing Byrne himself had taken from evangelical radio**: You may find yourself! in another part of the world! Hectoring repetition, mainly keeping to one note (“you may find yourself”), balanced with elated, upward-tugging, rhyme-heavy phrases (“behind the wheel of a large automobile!“) You can hear Byrne in Bowie’s last verse, the repetition and rhythmic variations as”Leon” confesses/denies his crimes, sounding as if the words are ripping out of him. If I had not ripped the fabric…if I had not met Ramona…

There’s also a similarity in the two songs’ refrains, which offer a way out from the claustrophobia of their verses. In “Once in a Lifetime,” the exit’s through water: whether metaphor (the aridity of materialist America in the verse met by the communist bounty of water) or religion (Christian baptism, the Islamic ideal of submission to God) or just signalling the freer, more rhythmically dense music (Byrne was referencing Fela Kuti’s “Water Get No Enemy”) that the Heads had started playing.

In “Oxford Town,” the escape is through sound: tolling bells, collective hums, chants (and after all, only sound can escape a prison cell). But who’s in the cell, anyhow? Time for Leon Blank to speak.

six

Manager: I should like to know if anyone has ever heard of a character who gets right out of his part and perorates and speechifies as you do. Have you ever heard of a case? I haven’t.

Father: You have never met such a case, sir, because authors, as a rule, hide the labor of their creations…Imagine such a misfortune as I have described to you: to be born of an author’s fantasy, and be denied life by him; and then answer me if these characters left alive, and yet without life, weren’t right in doing what they did do and are doing now to persuade him to give them their stage life.

Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Act III.

Outside was the first time “in 20 years” (or so he told Billboard) that Bowie had played characters. It was different from Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, where he’d gone too deep into the characters, tailored their costumes too tightly to his “real” self, he said. On Outside, Bowie would play a more traditional narrator/author role.

But the characters couldn’t even attain the depth of cartoons. Those that had the most signs of life were those that had something akin to Bowie: the alternate-life suburban dreamer in Algeria Touchshriek and the all-conquering artistic ego in Ramona Stone. The nebulous narrator figures, the Artist and Minotaur, were just Bowie “doing the police in different voices.” The rest were press-ganged from movies that Bowie liked: Baby Grace was Bowie imitating David Lynch’s Laura Palmer, while Nathan Adler was a private-eye mingle: Rick Deckard, Philip Marlowe (more Elliott Gould than Bogart), Gary Oldman’s Jack Grimaldi.

This left Leon Blank, accused killer. Leon began as Bowie riffing on Tricky (with a bit of Jean-Michel Basquiat thrown in) but the character was reactive, passive, only seen through the eyes of others. Then Bowie, dashing out the lyric that became “Oxford Town,” finally gave Leon a monologue. The character took on life, began pushing back against its erstwhile creator.

“Oxford Town” is a condemned man’s song, some last words from a jailhouse, which had been a favorite scenario of Bowie’s youth (see “Bars of the County Jail” and “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud”). The first verses find Leon pacing his cell, giving a sketch of his confinement: the food’s foul, the bedsheets are decent, his attorney means well, the priest seems willing to listen. The cold, slightly hectoring tone that Bowie uses makes Leon’s report seem like a man ticking off a list before he goes on a trip.

Then there’s a bridge, and Leon stops reading his lines and starts talking to his author:

This is your shadow on my wall…
This is what I could have been.

I have not been to Oxford Town isn’t just an alibi, it’s a criticism. Bowie failed to give his creations life, stuck them in ridiculous situations, gave them nothing to feed on. Leon kicks against the cheap story that he was folded into: If I had not met Ramona (who was Ramona anyhow?)….If I had not ripped the fabric. “Oxford Town” is a condemned man’s retort: yes, look at the blankets and the priest you gave me—they’re just cheap props. What did you really give me? Nothing. Here, this is what I could have been.

On stage in Paris a year later, Bowie gave one possible ending. Someone threw a white scarf on stage and Bowie, with his old mime’s instincts, played with the scarf, twining it around his neck, making a sling with it for his arm. Then he strung it into a noose, and, while singing the end choruses, aped hanging himself.

lb

[Outside] is only symbolically anguished. I think we are in for a very good time when we get to the next millennium.

Bowie, press conference, 1995.

There would be no sequel albums to Outside, no 2. Inside or 3. Afrikaans or A Night in Oxford Town. No more clues or red herrings or murder revelations or narratives. No grand concert with Eno to mark the millennium in Vienna. No more work (ever?) with Eno. Outside was, arguably, a failure. The album that came out of the implosion of the Leon project was hard to digest: even its die-hard fans may admit it’s overlong and oddly sequenced.

Still, perhaps this unwieldy apparatus, this compilation of role-playing games and Verbasized cut-up lyrics, of computer-generated portraits and vocoded voices, Minotaur paintings and barely-readable “diaries,” was what Bowie needed to finally work on a grand scale again. It’s as if a man who’d once been able to fly now needed some great jerry-rigged dirigible to get him off the ground. But he was still flying. If this was the price paid to get “Oxford Town” and “Hearts Filthy Lesson,“The Motel” and “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” and “Hallo Spaceboy,” well, it wasn’t that dear a price.

In Bowie’s promotional interviews for Outside, he kept saying that his millennial obsessions, the blood and mayhem and piercings and scarifications of the Nineties art world and pop culture, were a purging. We needed to burn the dross and relics of the old century to clear a way for the new one, which would be a calmer time. It didn’t quite turn out that way. The Nineties can now seem like a soap bubble, a playtime in which a world that could have gone anywhere scared itself with trifles and serial killer stories and “art murders.” Despite the murdered girl at the heart of it, Outside generally sounds optimistic, open. It was of its time: the Nineties sometimes felt like they were the gangway to the future we’d imagined, certainly not the future we got.

All’s well. A town crier’s words, after all. Let the old century die, move on. Bowie did: he went on tour to promote Outside, fell in love with his band, made his next record a tribute to them. Pay off Nathan Adler, write him out of the series. Toll the bell, strike the set, say goodbye, baby, and amen.

Recorded 17-20 January (poss. overdubs in February) 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. Covered as “I Have Not Been to Paradise” by Zoe Poledouris on the Starship Troopers soundtrack in 1996.

* I’m thinking that Alomar also plays the sliding hook that begins in the first verse, but it could’ve been Gabrels.

**Byrne was taping broadcasts of these preachers around 1979-1980 for what later became My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

Top: Andreas Freund, “Staten Island Ferry,” 1995; Jean-Baptiste Mondino, back cover of David Byrne, 1994; Ian McKellen, Alison Prior, Margaret Drabble and John Fortune rehearse Six Characters in Search of an Author, ADC Theatre, Cambridge, 1959; “Oxford Town” lyrics (in theory); Bowie/Leon.


Never Let Me Down

April 9, 2012

Never Let Me Down.
Never Let Me Down (video).
Never Let Me Down (Top of the Pops (US), 1987).
Never Let Me Down (dub/”a capella” mix).
Never Let Me Down (live, 1987).

Written and recorded in little over a day during the mixing sessions for Never Let Me Down, the last-minute title song* was spontaneous where much of the album was labored and was lyrically and emotionally blunt by Bowie’s standards, which may have helped “Never” be the last Bowie single to chart higher in America than in the UK. (It’s also Bowie’s last US Top 40 single.)

Bowie said in contemporary interviews that his vocal was meant as a tribute to John Lennon, and the track’s harmonica solo and the whistling in its coda also both work as Lennon shorthand. But of which Lennon? Lennon’s son, Julian, had a uptempo hit in 1985, “Too Late For Goodbyes,” which shares with “Never” a vocal line that darts up to falsetto, a mild, bouncing rhythm sparked with bass flourishes, and a harmonica solo in place of a verse.

While displaced as Lennon’s heir presumptive once Lennon and Yoko Ono had had a son of their own, Julian Lennon suddenly emerged in late 1984 with a debut record on Atlantic. Its timing was perfect (its singles seemed like follow-ups to the last, posthumous John Lennon hit, “Nobody Told Me”) and it had a pedigree: recorded at Muscle Shoals Studios, produced by Phil Ramone, with a cast of top session players including Michael Brecker and Toots Thielemans (who played harmonica on “Goodbyes”). Its videos were directed by Sam Peckinpah in his dotage. The full press worked: Valotte went platinum and produced two Top 10 hits. But Julian’s fame was only of a moment. His next three records sold weakly. By 1990 his career, barely begun, seemed that of a fading songwriter twice his age.

Much of the hullabaloo around “Valotte” at the time was that it seemed like a generic public conception of a “John Lennon song,” that Julian sounded like Mind Games-era Lennon and that in the video he looked like a softened, newly-hatched version of his father. As Ben Greenman wrote recently, Julian ably served as a “psychic replacement” for his father, just when the public had begun to accept John was gone.

So if Bowie was slightly referencing Julian, some of it was a mercenary’s sense of knowing where the action was: Julian was getting hits in ’85-’86, and Bowie had intended “Never” to be the lead-off single. But it’s also nice to imagine that the old faker Bowie appreciated the odd mimicry that Julian had pulled off, and that he was taken by the idea that the post-Sixties generation had demanded their own toy edition of John Lennon—a Lennon who was fresh, young and single again, but also neutered: no weird political stunts, no screaming about his mother, no feminist broadsides, no public embarrassments. (A letter to Rolling Stone at the time came from a Boomer mother who lovingly recounted what her teenage daughter had told her: “Mom, you had John Lennon and now we have Julian.” (“Good luck kid, I thought,” Greil Marcus spat in response. “What kind of life can you make out of these pathetic little Family Favorites tunes about nothing? It made me sick to read that letter, not because Julian Lennon is corrupt, fake or dishonest, but because he probably worthy, sincere and true…when Julian sings badly, emptily, which is all he does, you hear success.“)

On the surface, “Never Let Me Down” is transparent enough: a tribute to John Lennon musically, a tribute to Coco Schwab** lyrically. But if the Lennon being homaged is an echo of the “real” Lennon, can the lyric be read so directly either? The singer traffics in a shared nostalgia (with the subject of his song, as well as his audience) as a means to sell his pleas, and the song seems sentimental because it’s in part playing with our memories of sentimental songs. So while the last verse finds the singer pledging that it’s his turn to return the favors, there’s a sadness more than a reassurance in his voice (it doesn’t help that Bowie sings “never let me down” as a run of ascending stepwise notes until he falls on “down,” and so not quite selling the commitment). While it would be foolish to dismiss the apparent heartfelt sentiments that inspired the song, “Never” is also guarded and contradictory: that is, classic Bowie.

“Never Let Me Down” began as a discarded drum track from the album’s earlier Montreux sessions. Bowie was mulling writing a new song during its mixing at the Power Station (given some of the material he was mixing, that’s not surprising), so while Bob Clearmountain mixed “Zeroes,” Bowie and David Richards found another open studio and soon built up a track, with Bowie doing much of the synth work, and quickly writing and cutting a vocal. The three-verse lyric moves from distant recollection (in the first verse the singer refers to “her” and “she” helping him out) to close by making of direct pledge of his own (the last verse has him singing to “you”). It’s sung and phrased well: in the pre-chorus a bobbing run of notes buoy “dance a little dance,” which also is the start of a long fall down an octave, though Bowie’s attempts at a Lennon (pater or fils) falsetto sound strained at times.

In the evening Bowie and Richards brought in Crusher Bennett for percussion and Carlos Alomar for guitar dubs, including some of his trademark percussive fills in the choruses. And fitting for Bowie’s “thanks for the memories” song, “Never Let Me Down” became the last Bowie/Alomar co-composition. When Alomar arrived, Bowie asked him to spice up what he later called a “funereal” chord progression, with Alomar ransacking a discarded piece of his own, “I’m Tired.” It’s hard to determine who wrote what, though if I were to guess, the F major ninths, sevenths and sixths in the intro and pre-chorus (which culminate in a pounded-home G seventh chord) feels like a guitarist’s doing, while the B-flat in the chorus that pulls the song out of C major towards a vague but inconclusive F major seems a typical Bowie move.

Alomar’s work with Bowie didn’t end here: he was a major part of the Glass Spider tour, perhaps too major, as Bowie’s unhappiness with that tour led him to cut ties with nearly everyone involved with it. Alomar turned up next (after once again being snubbed for a Nile Rodgers-produced Bowie record) in 1995, where he played a minor role on Outside and its subsequent tour, apparently to his frustration. Thankfully, like Tony Visconti, he and Bowie seemed to have made up by the end of the century, with Alomar’s contributions to both Heathen and Reality adding to those albums’ feel of recapitulation and finality.

But in the future, Alomar would always be a sideman, a second-tier player; he would no longer be a translator or a voice for Bowie to sing in. “Never Let Me Down” inadvertently became a document of Bowie and Alomar parting company, and so the knowledge of this can’t help but add to the sense that Bowie’s eternal pledges of the last verse won’t come true. The song’s a bittersweet thank-you, a dismissal in a kiss.

Recorded ca. September-November 1986, mainly at the Power Station, NYC. On the album that it titled and also released in July 1987 as a single (EA 239 c/w “’87 and Cry,” UK #34, #27 US). The video, with its dance marathon setting, was directed by Jean-Baptiste Modino and was by far the best of the lot from Never Let Me Down. Performed live during the Glass Spider tour.

*A Bowie tradition by this point (see “The Man Who Sold the World”).

** Schwab was of course Bowie’s longtime assistant, who had helped take care of his son, had paid the bills, had arranged transportation and housing and had generally served as the representative of sanity in an often insane life.

Top: Ted Barron, “Jesus Saves, New York, 1986.”


Look Back In Anger

July 22, 2011

Look Back In Anger.
Look Back In Anger (live, 1983).
Look Back In Anger (remake, 1988).
Look Back In Anger (broadcast, 1988).
Look Back In Anger (live, 1995).
Look Back In Anger (live, 1996).
Look Back In Anger (live, 2002).

“Look Back In Anger” reflects Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World”; each is the clouded mirror of the other. Like “Man,” “Anger” is the record of a visitation, one that, in “Anger”‘s case, ends with a death (or at least a proposed one). If Lodger and Scary Monsters are Bowie finally considering the prospect of decline and tearing himself up, sampling and dispersing himself, “Look Back In Anger” is at the heart of these records. It’s a dry, weird farewell to a muse, decades before Bowie (apparently) stopped recording and performing.

Bowie had written the lyric of “Man Who Sold the World” as he sat in a studio reception room, under pressure to get a vocal on tape so the album would be finished. With no time to second guess or overwrite, Bowie seemed to transcribe lines straight out of mind: it was a pop lyric as dream journal. Writing “Man” triggered something, it freed Bowie from the stiltedness and strain of much of his late ’60s work, and reconnected him to what he had first touched with “Space Oddity.” It was, in retrospect, the start of Bowie’s mature songwriting—in the months after he wrote “Man” suddenly came “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Quicksand,” “Life on Mars,” “Bewlay Brothers,” “Moonage Daydream.” “Man” was the key that fit the lock.

So on the far end of a decade that Bowie, in part, had authored was “Anger,” which sets the stage for the even grander renunciation of “Ashes to Ashes.” In “Man” the singer passes someone on the stair. They’ve already met, or they will one day. “I thought you died alone, a long, long time ago,” the other marvels. “Look Back in Anger” is, perhaps, when he died; it’s the same encounter, as seen from another perspective; it’s the second meeting of the two at a later time. It’s funny, too: an archangel appears and no one pays him any mind. So he flicks through a magazine and waits, bored, for whatever cataclysm he’s come to presage or deliver.

Bowie’s best lyrics can seem like fragments of overheard conversations with himself. The verse and refrain of “Anger” are some of the strangest, though they’re in simple and clear language:

“You know who I am,” he said.
The speaker was an angel.
He coughed and shook his crumpled wings, closed his eyes and moved his lips.
“It’s time we should be going.”

It’s recitative: no rhymes, no rhythms, a disjunct melody. The pacing is also off: there’s a two-bar gap between the first and second lines, enough time to make you wonder if “you know who I am” is the only line in the verse, then there’s a sudden tumble of words. Bowie’s performance hangs between the sublime and the ludicrous. As with “Station to Station,” Bowie is the only rock singer who could sing lines like these with a straight face and not, somehow, seem like a buffoon. He sounds like he’s trying to do the voice of Yahweh, then croaks out “angel” (an echo back to “Golden Years”) and “going.”

The eight-bar refrain is a statement: Bowie placed it within quotation marks on the LP lyric sheet. But who says it? Only the angel has spoken so far. If the chorus is his, then the refrain commands the singer to assess the ruins of his life before departing it. Look back in anger—see how much you’ve wasted, look what never came to be. But the refrain could equally be the narrator’s fervent response, the words of someone who’s long awaited death, who seems to have craved it since birth. The title phrase becomes a dark joke, a dying man indignant at ever having been alive.*

Fittingly, the refrain’s a duet. Tony Visconti’s backing vocals open the chorus: plaintive, narrow in range, sounding like John Lennon’s sped-up backing vocals on Sgt. Pepper tracks like “She’s Leaving Home.” Then in the fourth bar Bowie sweeps on stage, almost an octave higher than Visconti. Bowie’s part is a long fall to earth. He sings the title line as a descending triplet (“look-back-in“, G#-F#-E) then strangles out “anger,” which again falls over three notes; he breaks the pattern with the upward push of “driven by the” (or “see it in my“) that sags on its last note (“night” or “eyes”), and he ends the chorus with another descending triplet, now an octave lower than his arrival (“till-you-come“), coming to a stop on the root note, F#.

That’s all the song is, really, barring the four-bar bridge (“no one seemed to hear him“) that passes in a flash, and Carlos Alomar’s 16-bar guitar solo (see below). “Anger,” in E major, follows a basic progression of E/D/A/F#m/C/G, used for both verse and chorus, while the bridge is simply the last two chords of the sequence severed from the original progression.

“Anger,” cerebral and odd, could’ve expired on the heights but it’s invigorated by a strong, propulsive rhythm track—Sean Mayes pounding the bass end of his piano, Alomar’s guitar darting and jabbing around Dennis Davis’ drumming (George Murray’s bass seems to have gone missing, though, a victim of one of the muddier mixes on the album).

When Bowie asked him for a guitar break to fill a chorus, Alomar, weary of the lead guitar acrobatics that defined much of Bowie’s’70s records, instead thought “if I’m going to take a solo, I’m going to take a rhythm guitar solo,” as he told David Buckley, adding that his inspiration was Lennon’s rhythm work on Beatles’ records. Another influence or, more directly, challenge was Nile Rodgers, who by late ’78 was making his name with Chic. Alomar and Rodgers were the same age and had been friends as teenagers in New York, and both had cut their teeth in session work and journeyman R&B bands. Rodgers’ guitar style—building riffs out of a set of syncopated chords with shortened tones, as he tended to only strum three strings at a time (see here)—echoed Alomar’s, and “Anger” can seem like Alomar translating Rodgers, or going him one better: Alomar’s solo is a volley between two contrasted, but fairly similar, lightning-fast riffs. Again, a pairing in a song full of them.

Davis doesn’t drive the track as much as he ferments it: ringing the bell on his ride cymbal throughout, playing a rolling fill that matches Bowie’s sudden run of words. He annexes whatever spaces he finds open, using every type of fill imaginable, hi-hat, snare, toms. Davis kicks off the track a beat before the rest of the band, similar to how he had punched in “What in the World.”

Eno’s contributions are smears of sound, giving the track an ominous, gauzy backdrop. Sifting through Mountain Studios’ brass collection, Eno had found a huntsman’s horn (called “horse trumpet” on the sleeve) and a French horn that he renamed the “Eroica horn,” referencing the horn’s prominence in Beethoven’s 3rd.** Each horn is so processed and distorted they could as well be guitars or synthesizers. There’s also a theremin (a real one, or a simulation?), first appearing at 2:30 in the video linked above, just after the final refrain ends.

Bowie and David Mallet filmed a promo for the song in 1979, where Bowie, in an artist’s loft, paints himself as an angel and then, reverse-Dorian Gray style, transforms into a grotesque with paint- and clay-encrusted skin. In the final shot, Bowie drags himself up the stairs and crawls under his bed. It’s as though he’s been made leprous by his art, and he’s sickened by himself.

It’s one resolution, at least—the song itself offers none. The narrative just stops, as there’s no second verse after the bridge where the angel, bored, seemed indifferent to how the encounter played out. Bowie’s singing, however, adds a last piece of drama, as the final refrain finds him breaking the descending vocal pattern, instead willing himself to push upward: look BACK in AN-ger! Feel it in my VOICE! with the final “till you come” a slow, final surrender.

“Anger,” one of Bowie’s major songs of the late ’70s, never got the attention it merited, so it’s similar to “Man Who Sold the World” in that regard (though it never had a revival like Nirvana gave the latter). Released as a single only in the US and Canada, it went nowhere.

Bowie went back to it in 1988, revising “Anger” for a series of concerts and, soon afterward, he cut a new version of the song, extending it over seven minutes. The attempt seems to have been to make the song more epic but it just seems longer, with Bowie not altering the vocal line in any substantive way, leaving Erdal Kizilcay on drums and bass to add some flash, though his metronomic drumming suffers when compared with Davis’ exuberant performance. The revised “Anger” is also the first appearance on a Bowie record of Reeves Gabrels, and it previews Gabrels’ work with Bowie over the next decade—Gabrels offers a mix of go-for-broke adventurism and a lack of restraint.

Recorded September 1978 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and March 1979 at the Record Plant, NYC. Released as a single in the US and Canada in August 1979 (RCA PB 11724, c/w “Repetition,” didn’t chart). The 1988 studio remake first appeared on the Ryko CD issue of Lodger in 1991; it’s currently out of print. Played during the 1983 tour, in 1988, the mid-’90s tours and in 2002, including a BBC Radio 2 special on 18 September 2002 (eventually issued on An Evening With David Bowie).

* Of course the title is also referencing John Osbourne‘s classic 1957 play, though as one commenter said, the lyric of “Repetition” is far more a reference to Osbourne’s work than “Anger” is.

** Especially the French horn’s “mistaken” early theme recapitulation in the first movement (around 5:40 in Bernstein’s performance of it here).

Top: Alan Denney, “Michael Ferreira Funeral,” Stoke Newington, December 1978.


“Heroes”

May 11, 2011

“Heroes.”
“Heroes” (single edit).
“Helden” (German single, 1977).
“Héros” (French single, 1977).
“Heroes” (broadcast, “The Marc Bolan Show,” 1977).
“Heroes” (broadcast, “Top of the Pops,” 1977).
“Heroes” (live, 1978).
“Heroes” (live, 1983).
“Heroes” (Live Aid, 1985).
“Heroes” (live in Berlin, 1987).
“Heroes” (live, 1990).
“Heroes” (with Mick Ronson and Queen, Freddie Mercury Tribute, 1992).
“Heroes” (live, acoustic, 1996).
“Heroes” (live, 1997).
“Heroes” (live, 2000).
“Heroes” (live, Concert for New York City, 2001).
“Heroes” (live, 2002).
“Heroes” (live, 2003).
“Heroes” (final performance (to date), June 2004).

Berlin, Bowie observes, reflecting upon the environments in which he has produced his last two albums, is a city made up of bars for sad disillusioned people to get drunk in.

“…It’s hard to sing “Let’s all think of peace and love… ” “No, David, why did you say that? That is a stupid remark.” Because that’s exactly where you should arrive…You arrive at a sense of compassion. The title track of “Heroes” is about facing that kind of reality and standing up to it. The only heroic act one can fucking well pull out of the bag in a situation like that is to get on with life from the very simple pleasure of remaining alive, despite every attempt being made to kill you.”

Allan Jones, “Goodbye to Ziggy and All That,” Melody Maker, 29 October 1977.

1. Regions (Nothing Will Drive Them Away)

“Heroes” in the United States, and to a lesser extent in the UK, was a failure. It got only marginal commercial airplay in the US in the ’70s and ’80s (the single even didn’t crack the top 100), with most Americans likely unaware “Heroes” existed until Bowie’s performance of it on Live Aid, if even then. “Heroes” gradually became a global Bowie standard, a consensus masterpiece, but it’s also a late revision to the canon.* In the US, at least, “Heroes” was the Bowie song that was famous somewhere else.

That was Europe (even Bowie noted that “Heroes” “seems to have a special resonance” in Europe, and he certainly tried to sell the single there, cutting German and French versions of the song). Maybe its motorik-inspired groove, indebted to Neu! and Kraftwerk, or Bowie’s at-times declamatory, harsh singing just sounded more familiar, or maybe “Heroes” tapped into something broader, an ominous general mood. In 1977, Europe’s fate was the property of others. Even the continent’s flash point, Berlin, the alleged centerpiece of the Cold War, was irrelevant. If there was to be a war, West Berlin would fall to the Soviets in a day and it likely would be annihilated soon afterward. All of the pointed decadence in West Berlin, all of the parades and drills in the Eastern half, seemed pantomimes by actors out of work.

There’s a lassitude, an echoing, fading grandeur, in the sound of “Heroes”: its dragging beat; its backdrop of squalls and what sound like wayward radio signals;  its lyric, set at the continent’s scarred heart; Bowie’s extravagant, metal-edged vocal; Robert Fripp’s feedback ostinato. “Heroes” is Bowie at his most empathic and at his most desperate, a wish-chant that offers, at best, some tiny regency for the spirit. Bowie, who had once had filled his songs with starmen and calamity children, seems reduced here to a minor scale, despite the talk of kings and dolphins. Any hope “Heroes” offers is meager: we can be better than we are. Only sometimes, and not for long.

2. Reductions (I Drink All the Time)

Interviewer: I remember one lyric [of yours]: “all the nobody people, all the somebody people. I need them.”

DB: Yes, well, that character definitely did, ’cause his world was exploding…That was definitely a character. That was Ziggy Stardust. He was the archetype needing-people rock star.

David Bowie, press conference in Holland, October 1977.

Around 1975, the writer Greil Marcus noticed the rise of “survivors.” He heard the phrase used in TV shows (the title often bestowed upon middle-aged actors promoting a new project), in politics (“Reagan was a survivor,” as per Lou Cannon’s bio), in films and particularly in rock music, where “survivors” were suddenly inescapable: “Soul Survivor,” Street Survivors, “Survival” (the O’Jays single and the Wailers record), “I Will Survive,” with the culmination being a band actually called Survivor.

I grew obsessed with the phenomenon, Marcus wrote at the decade’s end. I seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the seventies, to stand for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. Language was being debased. “Survivor” had once meant someone who had endured a horror that had killed a great many others—a concentration camp survivor, a plane crash survivor. Now the word applied to anyone remotely competent at living (Queen’s first hit, “Keep Yourself Alive,” could’ve been the motto of the ’70s).

There was something off putting about the sudden prominence of “survivors,” of odes to the simple life and of people being called “heroes” for the mildest of reasons. It was as if, in the decades after WWII, people had come to want too much, had attempted too great a height, and they were now being herded back down, their ambitions reduced to the scope of mere living. Going to work, paying your bills, raising your children, hitting 30, enduring an awful disease—these became “heroic” acts. Everyone alive became a survivor. Common life, as its radical prospects diminished, was exalted.

Bowie’s “Heroes” could seem part of this reduction, an ancestor to the wave of “you’re MY hero” kitsch of the late 20th Century, of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and it certainly has been interpreted as such.** What saves Bowie’s song from cheap sentimentality is its coldness, the sense that it’s been compromised from the start. We can be kings, we can be heroes, nothing will hurt us, the singer offers at the start of each verse, but he soon backtracks, equivocating, willing to settle for less. We can be us, he sings at last, his voice hissing out the last syllable: could we even venture that?

When Bowie first saw the lovers who inspired his song’s climactic verse, sitting on a bench by the Berlin Wall, he had wondered why they had chosen such a grim place. Did the pair feel shame at what they were doing? Were they meeting where they figured no one would see them? Or were they just bored or restless, pawns playing at being rooks?

The latter wouldn’t be unusual, as West Berlin was where one could play at life. Bowie would describe his Berlin period, which ended in late 1977, as the time when he fell to earth. West Berlin was “a womb,” he said, “a therapeutic city, with a real street level.” Bowie often myth-tinted his doings and so his Berlin years became an exile with the common people: “I had to go down the road and buy food in a shop,” he incredulously told an interviewer in late ’77. So the myth of “Bowie in Berlin,” who lived in a working-class Turkish neighborhood (not quite) and drank in workingmen’s bars unrecognized (not really—only once during the Hansa sessions, when Tony Visconti cropped Bowie’s hair, was Bowie able to walk around without attracting much notice). Still, it was a potent myth: Berlin as the place one went to be a human. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and Faraway So Close!, where angels become mortals in Cold War and post-Cold War Berlin, have a trace of Bowie in them.

It’s a shame that “Heroes” is best known in its maimed form, the 7″ single edit, which lops off about two minutes of the track so that the song begins with its third verse (“I wish you could swim”). It’s the version used for Stanley Dorfman’s promo film, included on ChangesBowie and the version Bowie would perform most often on stage.

The edit weakens the song. It’s not just that the buildup to the last two verses is now too brief (the Bowie vocal fireworks start at 1:23 in the single, but don’t appear until 3:16 in the original), but the lyric’s also thrown out of whack. The original song opens with a grandiose claim: “I, I will be king” (the wording deliberately stilted, calling back to ’60s pop dramas like “I Who Have Nothing”). Then in the second verse, the artifice suddenly falls away:

And you, you can be mean
And I, I drink all the time.
‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact
Yes we’re lovers, and that is that.

The intimacy of these lines, sung by Bowie close to the mic, in his lower register (and obscured in the mix, so the first line sounds like “you could be me”) are key to the song. This verse is the reality: a pair of lovers trapped in routine, seeing no way out. A man and a woman face each other across a table, reading each other’s faces for signs, their only freedom left in dreams. It’s all in the way Bowie sings “that is that,” quietly, with no emotion, a settled fact in a settled life.

This is what makes the later verses, which, starting with the fourth (the repeat of “I will be king”), are sung in Bowie’s “epic” register (see below), all the sadder. The singer, growing increasingly desperate, can barely keep his fantasies from blurring together. I will be king! You will be queen!, he nearly shrieks, while the following line brings the ominous “nothing will drive them away.” Who are “them”? Is it some further delusion that their love is so precious someone would want to kill it?

Until the last verse, the song’s been abstract, its setting could be anywhere (like the empty backdrop in Bowie’s promo film for it). Then the lovers are suddenly by the Wall, the guns firing above them: they’re brave, and could be about to die. Bowie sings the lines in one sustained, howling scream. It’s cathartic as it is baffling. Are the guards shooting at them, or is their meeting so insignificant that the guards don’t even notice them? Some have interpreted the lines as meaning the lovers are separated by the Wall, like some Pyramus and Thisbe in Berlin, others that the pair is trying to escape East Berlin (but then why is “all the shame on the other side,” where they’re trying to flee?). I’d say the details don’t really matter: the Wall verse is as much a fantasy as being a king for a day or swimming like a dolphin. It’s the dream of someone in the muddle of life, wishing that his empty days and his shabby love affair had some grandeur, finding dignity even in tyranny.

3. Reconnoiterings (Nothing Will Keep Us Together)

“Heroes” began out of pique. Bowie, irritated by Iggy Pop scrapping much of his original music for “Success,” was still toying with a G-C-D chord sequence and a vocal melody, reworking the piece with Brian Eno in rehearsals. Eno soon wanted to call it “Heroes,” as the song, even in embryo, had a rousing, propulsive feel (also, “Heroes” would also reference Neu!’s “Hero,” (from Neu! 75), complementing the Kraftwerk tribute “V-2 Schneider”).

At Hansa Studios, Bowie tried out “Heroes,” existing mainly in fragments, with his regular band: Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar and George Murray. In a few hours they had built up the song, Alomar working out guitar riffs that would become the track’s underlying rhythmic hooks (like the twining, dancing three-part figure that plays over lines like “nothing will keep us together”). “Heroes” had a “plodding rhythm and tempo,” Bowie later said, which was intentional: it was another reworking of “I’m Waiting For the Man,” a song that had obsessed Bowie for ten years. Eno and Bowie, considering the ’70s German bands the natural heirs to the Velvet Underground, had taken the VU drone and translated it into motorik.

Eno’s main contribution was his EMS synthesizer, which plays throughout the track, its oscillators reduced to a low frequency rate (Visconti estimated five cycles per second) and using a noise filter: the result, Visconti said, was the “shuddering, chattering effect [that] slowly builds up and gets more and more obvious towards the end.”

As with many of Bowie’s songs on “Heroes”, the title song’s foundation is simple: five verses, some expanded with a six-bar chorus tag, and finally a refrain of sorts to close things out. “Heroes,” in D major, is primarily the three-chord sequence proposed for “Success”: the verses (and the intro/solo sections) move between D and G major, with the arrival of C major (on, for example, “nothing, nothing will keep us together”) and a two-bar foray into A minor and E minor (on “beat them” and “forever”), briefly disrupting the pattern.

(“Heroes” appears to be in the “D mixolydian” mode—basically, Bowie drops what would be the dominant (V) chord, A major, and replaces it with A minor (and follows it up with E minor). So he’s essentially swapping chords from D major’s parallel minor, D minor, then quickly shuttling back to the major tonic chord, D (so the verse’s climactic sequence of Am-Em-D is v-ii-I)).

It’s unclear if “Heroes” was originally intended as an instrumental. Eno has said he thought it was, and that Robert Fripp’s guitar work was crafted with this in mind, hence Fripp playing all the way through the song.

As it turned out, Fripp’s guitar became a high chorus to Bowie’s multi-gated vocal. On Eno’s Another Green World or other “Heroes” tracks like “Joe the Lion,” Fripp was the variable, breaking open songs, his guitar coming in like a thunderclap. On “Heroes,” he’s there from the beginning, his guitar hanging in the upper atmosphere throughout, singing to itself; his feedback-laden lines suggesting the arrival of a grand melody that never quite comes. It’s a continual promise, never fulfilled.

While most guitarists that took on “Heroes” had to use an Ebow to get Fripp’s sound, playing a sustained run of A notes, Fripp had worked out the feedback patterns on foot, literally. Standing in Hansa’s Studio 2, his guitar routed through Eno’s EMS synthesizer, Fripp marked with tape the places on the studio floor where he could get a feedback loop on any given note. So four feet away from his amp was an A, three feet away was a G, and so on. Fripp stepped and swayed through the song, his sound owed to a simple cartography.

Fripp ran through three takes, and the trebly nature of his playing (further distorted live by Eno’s EMS) meant that each solo on its own sounded thin and wavering. So Tony Visconti blended all three together, eventually bouncing them down to a single track, to achieve what Visconti called “a dreamy, floaty effect.”

As “Heroes” developed, Visconti further emphasized the pulsating drone by tweaking the rhythm tracks. Typically kick drum and snare drums are put in the forefront of a rock mix, but now Visconti buried Dennis Davis’ kick and instead brought up the bassline (played both by Murray’s bass and on one of Alomar’s guitar tracks), so that the latter bolstered the shuddering feel of Fripp’s guitar tracks and Eno’s low-oscillating synthesizer.

So much of “Heroes” is owed to improvisations. An intended horn section (at the start of the second verse) was replaced by a “brass” noise on Bowie’s Chamberlin (“it sounds more like a weedy little violin patch,” Visconti later said), while the Alomar/Murray basslines had been originally considered as string parts. When overdubbing percussion Bowie and Visconti even made do without a cowbell, instead using an empty tape canister that Visconti thwacked with a drumstick (it first appears at 2:55). The only other percussion is a tambourine that crops up in the final verse (at 3:56) and runs through the remainder of the track.

4. Reverberations (You Will Be Queen)

Though the backing track was finished, Bowie waited for weeks to write a lyric, then patched it together in one go. Listening to playback in his headphones, Bowie would write a line or two and swiftly get his vocal down on tape. Visconti would rewind to where Bowie had left off, then he’d write and record another line. (It’s in part why Bowie’s singing on “Heroes” doesn’t flow as much as it seems like a series of dramatic pauses and sudden stabs of phrases.)

Where the lyric of “Station to Station” had been a profusion of imagery hauled out of Bowie’s inventory of obsessions, “Heroes” is far more minimal, its words simple and precisely chosen. Bowie drew from two main sources, both European, both postwar(s). One was the short story “A Grave For A Dolphin” by the Italian aristocrat Alberto Denti Di Pirajno, which details a doomed affair between an Italian soldier and an Somalian girl during the Second World War (it inspired the “dolphins can swim” verse).*** (Bowie also nicked the occasional line from elsewhere: “I will be king, you will be queen” is from the English folk song “Lavender’s Blue,” which Bowie would sing onstage sometimes as a prelude to “Heroes.”)

Bowie had also been taken with an Otto Mueller painting he had seen in Die Brücke Museum, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern (Lovers Between Garden Walls), which Mueller had painted as World War I was ending. Bowie transplanted Meuller’s image of two lovers embracing by a high stone wall, placing them before the Wall that Bowie saw every day from Hansa’s control room window. As legend has it, Bowie was looking out that very window when he spied Visconti (who was married at the time, to Mary Hopkin) and the singer Antonia Maass embracing by the Wall. At once he had found his lyric’s resolution, a snapshot of love and bravery set against the concrete madness of governments, despite it being a shabby act, a man cheating on his wife. (The story, essential to the legend of “Heroes,” might not be true.****)

With Fripp, who usually provided the dramatics, instead working in the chorus line, it was left to Bowie to provide the contrast to the track’s overall stasis. The drama had to come with the vocal, and Bowie planned his singing as though he meant to take an entrenched position from a rival force.

Visconti set up three Neumann microphones in Studio 2, placing the first, a valve U47, directly in front of Bowie, about nine inches away from his face (using “fairly heavy compression, because I knew beforehand that he really was going to shout”). The second, a U87 stood about 15 to 20 feet away from Bowie and the third, another U87, was at the end of the room, some 50 feet away. The latter two mics had electronic gates: they would be switched off until triggered by Bowie hitting a certain volume. Once they were turned on, they would capture the sound of the entire room ringing with Bowie’s voice. (This also meant that Bowie, once he had triggered the other mics, had to go at full blast to keep them on, hence the histrionic tone of his singing—he sounds unhinged at times.)

The vocal was done in three takes (Visconti said most of the final vocal is from the last take, with a few punch-ins to correct stray notes). Bowie immediately moved to recording two tracks of backing vocals with Visconti (hence the faint Brooklyn accent you hear on “I remember” and “wall”), harmonizing in thirds and fifths below the lead vocal. The backing chorus, which generally comes in on the last note of each lead vocal phrase, is the last essential ingredient of the song—until now the singer’s been alone in his fantasies, so having another voice back him up adds a sense of reassurance at last. From the first line Bowie wrote and sang, to the last punch-in edit, it had taken about five hours.

5. Reputations (All the Shame Was On the Other Side)

For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds. In some ways, sadly, they really captured, unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass.

David Bowie, Uncut interview, 1999.

Bowie promoted “Heroes” across two continents, made a promo film, talked to any interviewer who would have him, but the single stiffed, only reaching #24 in the UK and not cracking the Billboard 100 in the US. “Heroes” soon took on another life, becoming a favorite on tour, and Bowie eventually would tailor it for grand moments—closing his Live Aid set with it, playing it in his tribute to Freddie Mercury and his tribute to the dead of 9/11. Of course “Heroes” has also been used to sell mobile phones, software, digital film, life insurance, football matches, HBO’s Latin American programming, hockey and rock star video games; it’s promoted a dopey comic book TV series, while a cover by the Wallflowers was used in an abysmal ’90s Godzilla remake.

None of this has reduced the original “Heroes.” One could argue it’s even strengthened the song. It seems to have been intended as a gift, crafted to be dispersed, to be carried in the air, used by whoever would have it.

At the Hurricane Festival in Scheeßel (the story ends back in Germany, as it seemingly had to), on 25 June 2004, Bowie closed his set with a restrained “Heroes.” He did a few other standards as encores, then he collapsed backstage, suffering what appears to have been a heart attack. Hurricane was the sudden end of the tour, and in retrospect seems the close of Bowie’s professional life. He’s appeared a couple more times on stage (last in 2006), but Hurricane was the terminus: there’ve been no more tours, no more records since.

So closing what could be his last show with “Heroes” seems fitting and just. “Heroes,” the most generous of Bowie’s songs, and possibly the saddest, sounds like Bowie’s farewell, fallen out of time.

Resources

Recorded at Hansa by the Wall, July-August 1977. Released as a single in September 1977 (RCA PB 1121, #24 UK), as were “Helden” (RCA PB 9168)—some argue it’s the definitive version of the song, and Bowie’s vocal is pretty tremendous (“ICH!!! ICH BIN DANN KOENIG!”)—and the French “Héros,” (RCA PB 9167), the dud of the bunch. Performed in every Bowie tour since 1978.

Along with the usual suspects in the “sources” list at the right side of the page (esp. Trynka, Pegg and Buckley), of great help for this entry was Phil Sutcliffe’s article on “Heroes” for Q, August 2005; Visconti’s essential interview with Sound on Sound, 2004, and his interview for the great, lost documentary Rock & Roll (1995: episode 7: “The Wild Side”); Mat Snow’s “Making ‘Heroes'” in Mojo‘s 60 Years of Bowie special (2007); guitar tabs in Play Guitar With David Bowie, which unfortunately is just for the single cut. Marcus’ “survivor” piece is his wonderful “Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes,” Village Voice, 17 December 1979 (later collected in Fascist Bathroom).

Photos, top to bottom: Sibylle Bergemann, “Berlin, Palast der Republik,” 1978; Mueller, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern (1919);  “Englehaftetraumstoffe,” “Berlin, Ost 1977”; John Spooner, “Berlin Wall, 1978”; Unknown photog. (Landesbildstelle), East Berlin border at Niederkirchner Strasse, January 1977; Christian Simonpietri, “Eno, Fripp and Bowie,” Hansa Studios, ca. July 1977; “Klaus183,” Berlin Wall, 1978; Masayoshi Sukita, cover of “Heroes” (referencing Heckel’s Roquairol (1917) (as was the cover of The Idiot); “Helden” sleeve, 1977.

* In the US, its closest counterpart would be “The Man Who Sold The World”: a relative obscurity until the mid-1990s, now a Bowie standard.

** Most recently, and most terribly, in the version by the X Factor contestants, who took it to #1 in the UK last year (imagine if “Stars on 45” had charted higher than any actual Beatles singles).

*** Of course, Bowie would eventually marry a Somalian woman. He referenced the Denti novel in his introduction to her I Am Iman (2001).

**** Tobias Rüther, in his Helden: David Bowie und Berlin (2008), interviewed Maass, who claimed the lines weren’t about her and Visconti, as “Heroes” had been completed before their affair started, and that Bowie couldn’t have seen them together anyhow. Someone should do a feminist reading of the song—the male gaze (Bowie), the male protagonist (Visconti) and the oft-forgotten woman who claims that none of the story is true.


Fame

November 22, 2010

Fame.
Fame (single edit).
Fame (Soul Train, 1975).
Fame (Cher, 1975).
James Brown, Hot (I Need to Be Loved Loved Loved), 1976.
Fame (live, 1976).
Fame (live, 1978).
Fame (live, 1983).
Fame (live, 1990).
Fame (live, 1997).
Fame (Howard Stern’s Birthday Bash, 1998).
Fame (Live at the BBC, 2000).
Fame (TOTP2, 2002).
Fame (Live By Request, 2002).
Fame (live, 2004).

“Fame,” one of David Bowie’s two US chart-toppers, is a freak and a fluke. It’s more in line with experimental Bowie works like Low than it is with the “soul” album to which it was appended. Its groove, so compelling that James Brown stole it, and its back story (the John Lennon connection likely spurred airplay) made it a smash, but “Fame” just as easily could’ve been consigned to Bowie’s pile of studio outtakes.

Because Bowie wasn’t sure what he had with it: a minimalist funk improvisation, a mutant hybrid of “Foot Stompin’,” the odd result of a few hours of studio jamming. He later called “Fame” his least favorite track on Young Americans, a sentiment that some of his players shared—Andy Newmark, who drummed on most of Young Americans (but not “Fame”), dismissed “Fame” as “just a vamp, a groove. It’s not the essence of what [Bowie] represents in my mind. “Young Americans” is more of the persona I associate with him.”

“Fame” is as dry as it is cynical, the opposite of what Bowie had been attempting when he started Young Americans in Philadelphia, with the dense gospel- and soul-inspired tracks cut at Sigma Sound. Now here was a track clarified to vocals, guitars, bass and drums; it was funk seemingly arrived at via a William Burroughs cut-up. Its sonic landscape, using the wide stereo separation typical of contemporary funk tracks (like Lyn Collins’ “Rock Me Again & Again & Again & Again & Again”) is broad and clear.

The track is nothing but a set of muscles and ligaments. There are no horns, no backing chorus singers (just Lennon’s squeaked-out “fame” and the varispeed vocals at the end), no keyboards save for a backwards piano track that appears in the intro and briefly shows up later. Primarily built on one chord (F7), the song’s either one long chorus or an extended, repeating verse, the only contrast being the two-bar move to B-flat: “It’s not your brain/it’s just the flame”, etc.). The rhythm, apart from two bars of 3/4 that open the track, is straight 4/4, hammered down by Emir Ksasan’s bass and Dennis Davis’ drums hitting on alternating beats.

The lyric came out of Lennon’s cynical take on the star-maker-machine process, with Bowie contributing his own paranoid thoughts on the business, particularly his gripes with his manager, Tony Defries. (Bowie, having discovered that the massive expenses incurred by Defries’ company Mainman were coming out of his own pocket, formally severed ties with Defries about ten days after recording “Fame,” kicking off a legal war.)

Two rock stars complaining about being famous are a potentially awful set of parents, but Lennon and Bowie’s lines are harsh enough, and lurid enough (“lets [a man] loose and hard to swallow”), to be compelling. There’s no self-pity in “Fame,” as there is in something like Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” where playing the star is a weary business, one Seger shoulders like a burden. In “Fame,” the lyric is a series of dry observations that culminate in the key line of the last verse—is it any wonder I reject you first? In the first verse, “fame” is an active force, a possession (it “makes,” “puts,” “lets”), while in the second verse, Bowie pits “what you like” against “what you get” and “what you need”—fame may satisfy the first, but it puts you on the hook for the rest. (There’s a dying Sixties echo in these lines, a play on the Stones’ you can’t always get what you want (but sometimes you get what you need) (which already suggested that sometimes you get nothing at all), or on Dylan’s line from “Memphis Blues Again”: your debutante knows what you need/but I know what you want.)

The song’s poison can be distilled down to how Bowie and Lennon sing the title word. They elongate the “ay” sound while pulling the word down (it sinks a half-step between syllables), so that it’s not an affirmation, an exclamation—it’s a hook that initially sounds like a phasing mistake. It sags, it withers, it blights the rest of the verse. Bowie spends much of each verse trying to scrabble back up to the initial high note (& only doing so on each phrase’s last syllable (for instance “take things ov-ER“)).

Conception

“Fame” was officially credited to Bowie, Lennon and Carlos Alomar, and in the 35 years since its creation, there’ve been about as many claims as to who contributed what to “Fame,” and especially who ripped off who.*

Lennon’s primary contributions seem to be a) playing an acoustic guitar only audible in the intro bars, b) supervising the backwards piano track and c) allegedly coming up with the line “fame” and sometimes singing it. Still, some writers have made Lennon (who was in the studio on a whim, having come in to hear “Across the Universe”) more of the creative mastermind. For example, here’s Philip Norman, from his 2008 Lennon biography, who claims: John attended the session at Electric Lady studio and improvised a three-note riff around the single word “fame.” Compare Lennon himself, who, interviewed soon after “Fame” was released in 1975, gave credit for the riff to Alomar: “This guitarist had a lick, so we sort of wrote this song, no big deal. Oh-boom-boom-boom. We made this lick into a song is what happened.”

Alomar recalled that “Fame” came about after Bowie finally decided that “Foot Stompin’,” which he’d been trying to cut in the studio for months, wasn’t going to work. “Foot Stompin'” “sounded like a plain, stupid, old rock & roll song,” Alomar told David Buckley in 2005. “David didn’t even like it. So what he did was to cut it up into blues changes, which is one-four-five-four, which is what “Fame” is. It cut it up so he just had drums, bass and that one guitar line.” Alomar also said Lennon, playing acoustic guitar, inadvertently inspired the lyric. Lennon “put his chin on the acoustic guitar when he played and just the breathing he did produced that funny noise. David thought he was saying “Fame”: “he’s saying Fame! I’m telling you!”

There are three primary guitar tracks on “Fame”: the Alomar “Foot Stompin'” riff that repeats through the verses (mainly confined to the left channel), Bowie’s central electric guitar, which, in Bowie’s words, “makes the long Wah and the echoed Bomp! sound,” and which serves as the track’s brass section (there’s also a “telephoning ringing” guitar fill mixed in the center), and a third electric guitar, mainly confined to the right channel, that keeps to the high end. There are secondary guitar tracks as well—Lennon’s barely-there acoustic, and what Alomar has claimed (and Bowie has disputed) as a series of guitar overdubs that Alomar did after Bowie left the studio.

Bowie added dabs of color (the backwards piano and rattlesnake percussion that drop in after the third verse) to help the track avoid monotony, and he ended “Fame” with a new varispeed vocal experiment (see “The Bewlay Brothers,”The Laughing Gnome,” “After All”). Here a repeated “fame” (Lennon and Bowie’s vocals) descends stepwise from the air to the earth over six bars. So the vocal, initially sped up to Gnome level, starts up in the stratosphere on a high E flat, falls an octave over two bars, then falls another octave in the next two (going from D to D), until finally the vocal, now at molasses speed, ends in the depths, stopping on a low D (tweaked a beat later by a Lennon “fame!” interjection). The idea’s an old Bowie trick, as the same melodic fall appears in “Gnome’s” opening bassoon line and it will soon crop up again in “Speed of Life.”

Reaction/Revision

Released in August 1975, “Fame” hit #1 in the US a month later. It was his long-desired passport. “Fame” landed him on Soul Train, where Bowie was so wrecked that he required multiple takes to lip-sync it and “Golden Years,” and an even more prestigious/egregious tribute was James Brown’s outright theft of much of the song—Alomar’s riff, the “telephone” guitar fills—for his 1976 single “Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved).” (Some stories have claimed Brown actually put on the Bowie record for his band, and said “play this.”) For Alomar, who had played with Brown in the late ’60s, it must have seemed a particularly strange turning of the circle. Alomar once said Bowie told him “if it charts, we’ll sue [Brown],” a spectacle avoided by “Hot”‘s weak performance (#31 R&B).

Fame 90 (remake).
Fame 90 (Arthur Baker, house mix).
Fame 90 (‘hip hop’ mix).
Fame 90 (with Queen Latifah).

Bowie had played “Fame” for most of his tours between 1976 and 1990, and, needing bait for Ryko’s CD reissue campaign, he reworked “Fame” at the end of the ’80s. While attempting to maintain the original’s minimalism, Bowie larded his new mix with gewgaws and glitter, put the rhythm on steroids, mercilessly included a vocal “stutter,” and then turned his own sins over for other parties to amplify. While “Fame” would seem to be ideal raw material for a hip-hop update, Bowie wound up with a Queen Latifah performance that achieves mediocrity in its better moments. The best of the new lot is probably the Baker house mix, which uses Bowie’s vocal as just another piece of percussion.

“Fame” was recorded ca. 12-15 January 1975. Released in August 1975 as RCA 2479 c/w “Win.” (While hitting #1 in the US, it only reached #17 in the UK. The British, in a nostalgic contrarian mood, instead sent a re-release of “Space Oddity” to the top in the same period.) “Fame 90″ came out in its various incarnations in March 1990 (a 7″ single, a 7″ picture disc and a 12” single/CD all featured different mixes), and served as the traditional crap “remake” cuckoo egg track on the hits collection ChangesBowie (there’s usually one on every greatest hits compilation, cf. the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me ’86”.)

Top: Bowie’s choreographer, Toni Basil, on the cover of the Sept. 1974 issue of After Dark, the apparent inspiration for Eric Stephen Jacobs’ Young Americans cover photograph. Bowie allegedly had wanted to commission a Norman Rockwell painting for the cover, but balked when he was told Rockwell needed at least six months to do the job.

A postscript on “Shame” and plagiarism:

Shirley & Company’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” has been called a key influence on “Fame,” and some Bowie biographers claim that “Fame” actually rips “Shame” off, e.g. Christopher Sandford: [Fame] evolved, via Carlos Alomar and a riff lifted from Shirley and Company (my emphasis) through a half-dozen makeovers and a last-minute name change from “Footstompin’.” (“Footstompin’ was another song, but never mind that.)

Sandford’s source appears to be Tony Zanetta and Henry Edwards’ bio Stardust, from 1986. In this account, Lennon “while David was out of the room” starts playing the “Shame, Shame, Shame” riff, and is soon joined by Alomar, who “picks up the riff, and the two men played together.” Bowie allegedly comes in, asks what they’re playing, is told it’s “Shame, Shame, Shame,” then leaves the room and comes back a half-hour later with the complete lyrics for “Fame.”

If true, this scenario would have the wily Alomar riffing with Lennon on a song that he’s already ripped off. Because Alomar had been playing his “Foot Stompin'” riff, the direct ancestor of the “Fame” riff, since late October ’74. The timing doesn’t really work. “Shame, Shame, Shame”‘s first reference in Billboard is the issue of 21 December ’74, where it’s reviewed as a new-release single, and “Shame” didn’t chart nationally until 18 January 1975, days after the “Fame” recording session. Sure, pro musicians often get new releases ahead of the public, and “Shame” was likely getting NYC airplay in December ’74, but, really, the 35-year-old John Lennon was that up on new disco records? And wouldn’t Alomar, instead of “picking up” the riff, maybe have said something like, “yeah, I love this song—in fact, I’ve been jamming it for months on tour already.”

My guess: “Shame, Shame, Shame” has really nothing to do with “Fame.”[CO, 2014: I was wrong: see Trynka in comments.] I expect the confusion began when people first heard “Fame” in summer ’75 (when it was released as a single) and thought it was a nick on “Shame,” a hit song from the previous winter. Now James Brown, on the other hand—the Godfather committed robbery in broad daylight, no denying it.