“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.