I Feel Free

May 17, 2010

I Feel Free (live, 1972).
I Feel Free (backing track, 1980).
I Feel Free (Black Tie White Noise, 1993).

Cream’s “I Feel Free,” a staple of the early Spiders From Mars shows, was both a crowd-pleaser (it was a hit song in a set mainly consisting of unreleased material) and a means to let Mick Ronson solo like a madman (“Width of a Circle” later filled this role). “I Feel Free” was a memory chain for Bowie, as his half-brother Terry had suffered an attack during a Cream concert in Bromley, as well as for Ronson, who had worshiped Cream as a teenager and who, in The Man Who Sold The World, had made a tribute album to them.

Bowie made a habit of almost covering the song on record. “I Feel Free” nearly made the cut for Pin-Ups, while another attempt during the Scary Monsters sessions in 1980 survives in bootlegs as an instrumental track. In 1992, Bowie finally cut “I Feel Free” for Black Tie White Noise. By then it had become an elegy for Terry Burns, who had killed himself in 1985, and a tribute to Ronson, who was dying of cancer and whose guitar solo on the track was among his last-recorded performances. Ronson died at age 47, a few days after the record was released.

The “I Feel Free” performance from Kingston Polytechnic on 6 May 1972 was later collected on RarestOneBowie, a semi-official bootleg released in the ’90s by Bowie’s estranged former management company. The Black Tie White Noise recording, an attempt at contemporary R&B as perpetuated by Nile Rodgers and with Bowie intoning the lyric in his lowest register, was cut ca. autumn 1992 and released in April 1993. The video features a 46-year-old Bowie at the height of his Dorian Gray period and a motley backing band that includes the Manhattan Transfer’s stunt doubles, an eyepatch-wearing man apparently hired to gyrate in place, and a Jimi Hendrix impersonator who mimes Ronson’s guitar solo.

Top: March by the Schools’ Action Union and the National Union of School Students, Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park, 17 May 1972.

She Shook Me Cold

January 20, 2010

She Shook Me Cold.

Bowie was absent for much of The Man Who Sold The World. He was a happy newlywed (sometimes going antique shopping with his wife Angela during sessions), was living a mildly decadent life in his new rooms at Haddon Hall, a Victorian mansion in Beckenham, and was busy sacking his longtime manager Ken Pitt and replacing him with Tony Defries, the sort of remorseless borderline-criminal impresario who thrived in the mid-20th Century pop music industry.

Bowie had come up with some rough lyrics and chord progressions for songs, which he gave Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson during album rehearsals at Haddon Hall, but he left Visconti and Ronson to arrange the sessions, play most of the instruments, edit and overdub the tracks, and sometimes even provide titles (“Black Country Rock,” for example). Only at the end, mainly during the mixing stage, did Bowie show up (sometimes having just scrawled out a final lyric) to record his vocals, Visconti and Bowie’s biographers have claimed.

“She Shook Me Cold” in particular is Bowie guest-starring on his own record, as the track is essentially Mick Ronson fulfilling the dream of a struggling provincial guitarist suddenly given the run of Trident Studios—“She Shook Me Cold” is his Cream tribute (its direct inspiration likely being Cream’s live performances of “Spoonful”), with Ronson constructing his own power trio in their image (for example, he encouraged Visconti to listen to Jack Bruce’s bass playing).

Embodied by The Who, Cream and the Hendrix Experience, the power trio (sometimes equipped with additional lead singer, e.g., Robert Plant) was the child of new technology (louder amps, more guitar effects pedals, better recording techniques) and expanding musician egos. Trios typically dispensed with the rhythm guitarist slot, with often a more aggressive and fluid bass guitar taking the rhythm guitar’s place in the mix (or in The Who’s case, Keith Moon’s drums would sometimes be the lead instrument, while Pete Townshend’s guitar filled in on rhythm).

The trio would become rock’s standard format (The Police, U2, Nirvana, etc.), but some critics argued that as (the now-redundant) rhythm guitarists often had been songwriters and arrangers, their absence led to, as Ian MacDonald wrote, “a degradation of texture and a decline in musical subtlety…the average power trio was in effect an excuse to replace songs with riffs and discard nuance for noise.” (This wouldn’t be Bowie’s fate, as Bowie, as if in retribution for the excesses of Man Who Sold the World, would center his following LP on the piano and acoustic guitar.)

So consider “She Shook Me Cold” a fun, vulgar one-off, Bowie’s accidental voyage into heavy metal. When Bowie arrived to finish the track, he gleefully went along with the pantomime, writing a ridiculous bad sex lyric (“I broke the gentle hearts of many young virgins,” “she sucked my dormant will/mother, she blew my brain,” culminating in a verse of moaning).

The track opens with Ronson’s homage to Jimi Hendrix (cf. the opening of “Voodoo Child”), sliding from his B string to his low E string: the intro kicks off two 12-bar verses that have a trip-and-lurch rhythm and an odd harmonic layout—if the song is in E (as it seems to be), within a measure or so its subdominant and dominant chords appear, jammed together back-to-back (they’re A and B, “uh-PON A hill” in the first line), followed by a retreat directly back to the tonic E chord.

A bridge dominated by Visconti’s bass (he really takes off around when Bowie sings “she took my head”), and the “orgasmic” verse serve as the lead-in to Ronson’s 64-bar, nearly two-minute-long extravagance of a guitar solo, during which, when he’s not trying to outdo Visconti’s bass, Ronson develops some fine riffs (listen to the one around 3:26 in). Afterward all Bowie can do is get out the last verse and crawl off to the shower.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970; on side B of The Man Who Sold the World.

Top: Julian Wasser, “Joan Didion sitting inside white Stingray, with cigarette,” 1970.