Round and Round

May 4, 2010

Around and Around (Chuck Berry, 1958).
Around and Around (Rolling Stones, 1964).
Round and Round (Bowie, studio, 1971).
Round and Round (Bowie, live w/Jeff Beck, 1973).

“Round and Round” (Bowie’s diminution of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around”) nearly made Ziggy Stardust and nearly even titled the album. Sequenced to follow the annunciation of “Moonage Daydream,” the song was essentially footage of the Spiders in action. By the time Bowie returned to Trident Studios in early 1972 to finish the album, he’d worked up “Suffragette City.” As the latter sounded like Chuck Berry lost in a William Burroughs novel, it made an actual Berry cover redundant. Bowie stockpiled “Round and Round” for a future B-side.

Born from a jam and likely to expire in one, “Around and Around” had come out of Berry hanging out before a concert with some “on-the-ball musicians…playing standard sweet songs to gut-bucket rock and boogie.” Issued as the B-side to “Johnny B. Goode” and included on the 1959 LP Chuck Berry Is On Top, “Around and Around” was in the repertoire of any half-competent British beat group. (In June 1964 the Rolling Stones, in an act of competitive worship, cut a version of it at Chess Studios in front of Berry himself.) It was audience bait: its stop-time verses tantalizing dancers, its chorus releasing them. Offering the sweet promise of a club that’s never heard of closing time (until the cops kick in the doors), “Around and Around” was Mod solidarity: there are no girls to impress, no boys making a scene.

Where the Stones’ and the Animals’ covers had prominent piano, the Bowie/Spiders take hangs entirely on Ronson’s distorted Les Paul and Trevor Bolder’s bassline. Ken Scott recalled the track needing the fewest overdubs of any Ziggy Stardust-era cut. With little hope of matching Berry’s rhythms, the band set about clobbering the song, pushing up the tempo, knocking the guitar solo back until after the second verse, letting the track expire in a Ronson fusillade. It was the template for how Bowie and Ronson would record Pin Ups the following year.

Recorded ca. 8-11 November 1971. Issued as the B-side to “Drive In Saturday” in April 1973, and also included on the Sound + Vision box set. It was the final song of the final “Ziggy Stardust” show at the Hammersmith on 3 July 1973, though it was cut from the subsequent concert film (allegedly at the orders of Jeff Beck).

Top: Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry at Madison Square Garden, 6 May 1972.

Almost Grown

February 26, 2010

Almost Grown (Chuck Berry, 1959).
Almost Grown (Geoff MacCormack with David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars, 1971.

It’s my love of poetry. A lyric is poetry with a melody—a message with a melody. And phrasing is all mathematics. If it’s eight beats to two bars, then you can sing 18 syllables. It’s always best to sing 15, though, so you can grab a breath now and then. In fact—you won’t believe it—but my biggest influence was my mathematics teacher. Music is so much mathematics that it’s pathetic.

Chuck Berry, interview with Guitar Player, February 1971.

At David Bowie’s June 1971 BBC performance, his friend Geoffrey MacCormack sang Chuck Berry’s “Almost Grown.” Berry was back in vogue, part of a rock ‘n’ roll revival coinciding with the rise of glam: Marc Bolan closed T. Rex’s “Get It On” quoting Berry’s “Little Queenie” and Berry himself got a cross-Atlantic #1 in 1972 with the atrocious “My Ding a Ling.”

“Almost Grown” hymned middle-class respectability: a teenager’s got a job and a car, he’s doing okay in school and by the last verse he’s domesticated. Finely attuned to his audience’s moods, Berry saw by the end of the Fifties that many were graduating, getting drafted or married and having children. So in “Almost Grown” Berry flattered them, told them adulthood hasn’t snuffed them out yet. He sang his aspirational middle-class narrative over a dirty jump blues, winking that beneath the kid’s vows of responsibility are dreams about sex (Berry leers “got my eye on a little gurrrrl”) and spending money.

The BBC session was the first time Bowie, Mick Ronson and Woody Woodmansey had played together in over a year and it was Trevor Bolder’s first-ever (nerve-wracked) performance with Bowie-—he bungles a few transitions and gets taken by surprise when Ronson (and possibly Mark Pritchard?) plows into a second solo chorus. A third-rate performance when compared with Berry’s single (which, to be fair, boasted backing vocals by the Moonglows, Etta James, and Marvin Gaye), the BBC broadcast documents a band listening to itself and working out kinks. While Bowie and the Spiders would play “Almost Grown” at a few gigs in 1971, they soon swapped it out for Berry’s more raucous “Around and Around,” whose stop-time structure they used in the last verse.

Recorded 3 June 1971. MacCormack, who was going by “Geoffrey Alexander” at the gig and later went under the name Warren Peace, would continue to work with Bowie, co-writing “Rock and Roll With Me” and singing on tours and Station to Station.