Saviour Machine

January 7, 2010

Saviour Machine.

“Saviour Machine” is The Man Who Sold The World‘s topical song, as computers controlling every aspect of society and (without fail) eventually weakening, conquering and/or exterminating the human race was a basic doomsday scenario in 1970.

This fear now seems dated and mildly ridiculous, a nightmare of the Great Society era. By the late ’60s it seemed that, at least in US and UK science fiction, world government and centralized computer control of the planet were just around the corner. Patrick Troughton- and Jon Pertwee-era Doctor Who (1967-1974), for example, was often set on a standard near-future Earth (say, 1985) where the United Nations is the world’s government and military force, while various Controllers and Supervisors run the massive mainframe networks that control shipping, the weather, the moon colonies, and so forth.

The massive growth of government between 1940 and 1970, with the parallel rise of the mainframe computer network (the idea of a “personal computer” seemed absurd to all but a few cranks), had only one logical outcome: with power continuing to centralize, and with society growing ever more complex and burdensome (overpopulation, pollution, wars, crime, etc.), only a super-computer would eventually be able to keep things running.

Naturally, however, even the computers would crack under the strain. Bowie’s “Saviour Machine” opens with a liberal U.S. “President Joe” elected on a platform of installing a computer system, called “The Prayer,” to end war and hunger. The twist is that while The Prayer easily handles the job, perfection bores it; The Prayer contemplates introducing new wars and plagues simply as a bit of distraction, and because it’s grown to despise its human subjects, chastising them like an officious Old Testament God.

As a performance, “Saviour Machine” is unrelentingly strange. It makes constant demands on a listener, with its complex time changes (it opens in what seems to be 15/8 time (more likely 6/8, see comments), goes to 3/4 (or not) in the bridges*) and Bowie’s eerie seesawing vocal, which seems designed to thwart anyone else from attempting to sing it. Even the song’s structure is odd—there’s only one verse, followed by alternating bridges and choruses (in the former, Bowie continually holds notes, draining the blood from his words, as if fighting against his song’s rhythms).

Ronson gets a solo after nearly every sung section—the first and third (at 1:28 and 3:08), each 24 bars, reuse the wordless chorus of Bowie’s old “Ching a Ling,” the melody first carried on Ronson’s guitar, then by Ralph Mace’s Moog synthesizer. Ronson’s second solo is a dance between Am7 and D, while his outro performance grows noisier and more manic as the track fades out.

Recorded between 18 April-22 May 1970, on the second side of The Man Who Sold the World. “Saviour Machine” has generally been forgotten, though Redd Kross covered it in the ’80s and its name was appropriated by a Christian goth band.

Top: The IBM 360, made obsolescent in 1970 by the introduction of the System/370.

* I’ve never been able to determine musical time—these are just guesses, and likely very wrong ones.

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Ching-a-Ling

November 4, 2009

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Ching-a-Ling.
Ching-a-Ling (edited version, promo film).
Ching-a-Ling (demo, 1969).

He had avoided it as long as possible, but by the summer of 1968 David Bowie had become a hippie. He grew his hair down to his shoulders, sat around his manager’s house naked, cooked macrobiotic meals, joined a communal arts lab and, saddest of all, formed a folk music trio.

This was Turquoise, soon to be rechristened Feathers. Turquoise was founded by Bowie, his first serious girlfriend Hermione Farthingale, ballet dancer and amateur singer, and London folkie (and former guitarist for The Misunderstood) Tony Hill, who soon was replaced by John “Hutch” Hutchinson, former lead guitarist of Bowie’s old band The Buzz. Hutchinson had recently returned to the UK from Canada, his head full of the new Canadian folk music (Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen), and he found that Bowie now “was into softer things…he didn’t need a band to pump it out anymore.”

Following in the path of grubby hippie groups before them and the countless numbers after them, Feathers played a meager circuit of university halls and folk clubs. It was a bit of passive rebellion on Bowie’s part—his manager Ken Pitt, desperate to get Bowie some paying gigs, had pushed him to develop a cabaret act, which went nowhere, and landed him a brief spot in a Lyons Maid “Luv” ice cream commercial (directed by Ridley Scott!). Bowie later described Turquoise/Feathers as being in part just a device to spend more time with his girlfriend, but the group also reflected Bowie’s belief that since he wasn’t getting paid anyhow, why not form a “non-commercial” band that performed just for the joy of it?

So Feathers played sets consisting of recited poetry, a few recent Bowie compositions (like “When I’m Five”) and some Jacques Brel covers, interspersed with mime routines. “Ghastly,” the mime Lindsay Kemp recalls in Marc Spitz’s new Bowie biography. The band’s enforced democratic vibe (everyone sang, everyone played guitar) resulted in, as it typically does, a determined sense of mediocrity.

The only Feathers record was “Ching-a-ling,” which Tony Visconti recorded on the sly—booking a session at Trident Studios without managerial approval and hoping the track would get picked up by a label. The b-side was meant to be Tony Hill’s “Back to Where You’ve Never Been,” but as Hill was suddenly replaced by Hutchinson, that idea naturally fell through. “Ching-a-Ling” is not bad and not memorable: it simply floats along like a soap bubble. It may be the most depressing thing that Bowie recorded in the entire decade.

Recorded on 24 October 1968 (Bowie’s sung verse is cut on most versions of the track; it’s no loss); on Deram Anthology (the full version finally appeared on the David Bowie reissue). Bowie and Hutchinson recorded a demo version in mid-April 1969.

Top: (l to r) Hermione Farthingale, David Bowie (cropped hair due to his role as an extra in The Virgin Soldiers), Tony Visconti, John Hutchinson. Ca. October 1968.