Bowie: Object/ David Bowie Is…

October 26, 2016


I’ve still not read an autobiography by a rock person that had the same degree of presumptuousness and arrogance that a rock & roll record used to have. So I’ve decided to write my autobiography as a way of life. It may be a series of books. I’m so incredibly methodical that I would be able to categorize each section and make it a bleedin’ encyclopedia. You know what I mean? David Bowie as the microcosm of all matter.

Bowie to Cameron Crowe, 1975.

We will never have a book from Bowie, apparently. One of the most literate rock musicians, one insightful and charming whenever he wrote about his music, has left no memoir behind.

Not that he hadn’t tried. He began an autobiography in 1975 while filming The Man Who Fell To Earth. It was a bizarre cocaine-fueled fantasy/memoir called The Return of the Thin White Duke; an excerpt was included in Crowe’s 1976 Rolling Stone profile of Bowie.


In 2015, Martin Schneider discovered that Bowie had given a draft of the first chapter of Thin White Duke to Crowe, who’d subsequently donated it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame archives in Cleveland. Schneider quoted a few paragraphs from the nine-page typewritten document, including an apparently autobiographical passage about the 14-year-old Bowie in Bromley, 1961:

My grey flannel pants have been tapered at the cuffs to a tight thirteen inches. Waiving aside the Perry Como, I chose for class today the thin blue on white accountants stripe with its starched white collar.

I catch sight of myself in the living room mirror and take pride in those buttocks. My cock looks bulgy and tough.

Denis, all wreathed in smiles under his short curly hair, tells me that if I just pinned the badge to my school blazer, silk and wool, I can take the badge off when catching the bus home.

Schneider describes the draft as alternating between such fairly lucid passages and wild, grandiloquent rants in the tortured register of “Future Legend.” It’s unknown whether Bowie completed the manuscript; odds are no (if he gave a chapter draft to a reporter, it’s a sign he didn’t consider the work to be that essential at the time).

But much like his long-announced ambition to direct a film, a Bowie book seemed inevitable one day. Surely at some point, especially once he’d retired from performing and making albums, he’d get down to work at last. After all, he’d kept everything—costumes, lyrics, studio outtakes, posters, set designs. It would just be a matter of assembling the pieces of his past and sparking some memories from them.

Writing could be a salvage job. In the late Nineties, Bowie had talked up a 30th anniversary Ziggy Stardust film/ play/ remake spectacle. It came to nothing except for a 15,000 word introduction he wrote for Mick Rock’s Moonage Daydream, in 2002 (sample anecdote: “When the TV series Bewitched went into colour in the late 1960s, for some strange reason Samantha occasionally wore tiny tattoos on her face. I thought it looked really odd, but inspired. So I used a little anchor on my face myself for the ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ Video.”) Autobiography, especially if centered on his music, seemed feasible for him.


News about Bowie: Object broke in September 2010 when word spread at the Frankfurt Book Fair that Bowie, via agent Andrew Wylie, was shopping a book around. Wylie reportedly told publishers that Bowie’s book would be just “the first in a series designed to explore his creative process.” Penguin Books soon had Bowie under contract.

A 28 September 2010 post on Bowie’s website announced that “We still don’t want to give too much away just yet, suffice to say that David Bowie has been working on a book called ‘Bowie: Object’…a collection of pieces from the Bowie archive, wherein, for the first time, fans and all those interested in popular culture will have the opportunity to understand more about the Bowie creative process and his impact on modern popular music.”

It would be designed by Jonathan Barnbrook; its structure would be a list of 100 objects which told the history of David Bowie.”The book’s pictorial content is annotated with insightful, witty and personal text written by Bowie himself,” as per his website. One example, included in the announcement, was the notorious Kirlian photograph of Bowie’s cocaine-enhanced fingertip.


The book proposal came off as a parody of A History of the World in 100 Objects, a Radio 4/British Museum documentary series that began in early 2010 and was issued as a book later that year. You can see Bowie’s mordant sense of humor. Where in 100 Objects, the rise of science and literature is represented by No. 16, Iraq Flood Tablet (700-600 BC) and No. 19, Mold Gold Cape (Wales, 1900-1600 BC), Bowie : Object would represent his LA years via No. 29, Cocaine Spoon (ca. 1975) and Labyrinth as No. 65, Jareth’s Codpiece (1985).

He needed some kind of organizing structure (in Thin White Duke, Bowie used Hebrew letters to separate autobiographical paragraphs from fictional ones). One of his self-admitted weaknesses was an inability to follow through on long-term projects, so a pseudo-museum catalog concept seemed like a good way to get a book done: pick 100 things, write a few paragraphs about each, hit ‘send.’ A piece he’d written for the Daily Mail in 2008 seems like an early draft in retrospect, offering a few sharp, funny paragraphs for a handful of songs:


What followed was a long period of rumor about the book’s progress. In July 2011, The Guardian claimed that Bowie’s deadline for turning in the manuscript to Wylie had been December 2010. In January 2012, the Daily Mirror reported, in an article to commemorate Bowie’s 65th birthday, that Object would be published that October. “His first piece of public creativity in a decade (sic).” But nothing was confirmed, and the years went on.


A wonderful hoax appeared in 2012, when a website called Bowie Myths ran a scoop: the site manager had managed to obtain some sample material Bowie had submitted to Penguin. The excerpt builds slowly, starting with a straight-faced “object” description (“22. Minimoog. “The tilting control panel is truly iconic, the wood finish superb, the feel of the dials top-notch, and the 44-key (F to C) keyboard is a delight“) on through a set of increasingly absurd entries, closing with a taxonomy of Garden Gnomes.

Some fans thought this was the real thing, prompting message board battles and eventually requiring Bowie Myths to write a disclaimer. The hoax’s timing was perfect: 2012 was swirling with rumor, in part because Bowie was planning to launch something and news of his return had started to seep out, in quiet ways. The spoof also highlighted the absurdity of the Object concept, to the point where you wonder if Bowie didn’t read it, have a good laugh and say, “well, that’s been done well enough.”

Because there would never be an Object, not even a posthumous one. Days after Bowie’s death, Penguin spokesman Matthew Hutchinson told Newsweek, “Penguin is not expecting it to happen,” while Newsweek quoted a source allegedly close to Bowie as saying Bowie didn’t complete the book before he died. (One presumes a biographer will turn up the full story one day—the book world is a chatty one). The closest Bowie would ever come to an autobiography was the list of 100 favorite books that he offered in 2013, a collection that ranged from Mishima to Kerouac, Nancy Mitford to Homer; it’s essentially a bibliography of key Bowie influences, obsessions and points of reference.

Object became a ghost of a book that never was. On Amazon Canada, it’s still going to be published in some lost 2011. According to Amazon UK, it came out earlier this month.

David Bowie exhibition

The most obvious theory about the fate of Object was that the book was subsumed by David Bowie Is…, an exhibition that premiered at the Victoria & Albert Museum in March 2013 (Victoria Broackes, co-curator, said she thought this was the case). After all, the exhibit includes what presumably would have made the cut for Object—Bowie’s paintings of Iggy Pop and Mishima, his stage outfits, his lyric sheets, set designs and even his coke spoon.

Again there was mystery and misinformation. Initially The Guardian claimed, when it broke the story in August 2012, that Bowie would co-curate the exhibit (“the V&A’s director confirmed that Bowie is involved”). This prompted a rare public statement by Bowie to deny this. “I am not co-curator and did not participate in any decisions relating to the exhibition…A close friend of mine tells me that I am neither ‘devastated,’ ‘heartbroken’ nor ‘uncontrollably furious’ by this news item.”


During the 2000s, Bowie had hired a private archivist to finally catalog all of his holdings. Then he began quietly looking for a venue to make use of it. The V&A was an obvious choice, as they’d done an exhibit on Kylie Minogue in 2007. In late 2010, a Bowie assistant contacted the V&A to see if they were interested. Curators Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh flew to New York to discover a 75,000-piece collection, from which Bowie let them take whatever they wanted (presumably with some sort of veto power). It was much like how he’d let Ryko go through his studio outtakes in the late Eighties.

The deal was that we could borrow anything from the archive but that he would have nothing to do with the exhibition, that all the text must be checked for factual accuracy by the archivist but the interpretation is ours,” Marsh told the New York Times.

The exhibit would be constructed around roughly chronological “rooms” (the layout didn’t alter much when the exhibit moved to other cities, though Berlin got a new “Berlin room”), from his childhood bedroom to the dressing room of The Elephant Man to a recording studio. It worked well enough to symbolize Bowie’s life: a man whose early days were spent in a series of small rooms, the dreams that he built hanging on the walls or in images swirling around the ceilings.


Ever since Col. Tom Parker sent Elvis Presley’s gold-plated Cadillac on a worldwide tour, in lieu of Presley making live appearances in the mid-Sixties, rock stars have had objects replace themselves. It’s rather medieval, sending reliquaries around to the shrines while the saints stay at home (or are happily dead). See the Beatles, using albums and promo films in place of live shows in the late Sixties, or Bowie here—David Bowie Is would be his last global tour, going from the UK to Canada, Brazil to France, Japan to Italy, and will run until decade’s end at least. It’s the sort of tour where just the roadies, sets and costumes are needed. The musicians exist only in the past, trapped in film loops, heard performing in headphones the exhibit gives you.

Bowie’s lack of involvement in the exhibit, where he’d once been intending to select and annotate the “objects” himself, can be read in a number of ways. He simply may have found it too much work, and happily outsourced it to professionals. He may have had a falling out with the curators after initially planning to take part. And as some reviewers of the show argued, there was a grand funereal sense to some of the exhibit—the stage costumes worn by blank-faced mannequins, like guardians of some restored temple; the handwritten lyric sheets mounted under glass, like butterfly specimens. It was the detailed recreation of a creative spirit that seemed to have departed, leaving rooms of marvelous relics behind.

And Bowie’s last years, with their frenetic activity, pushed against this idea. Who knows when he was diagnosed, what health issues he’d dealt with in the late 2000s. But it’s easy to see why he’d be writing a play at last, and keep making new albums and videos, rather than spend time curating himself. As he sang on “The Next Day,” he wasn’t quite dying yet. Leave the commemorations to someone else, there’s still work to do.

First opened: 23 March 2013, The Victoria & Albert Museum. Subsequent exhibitions: 25 September-19 November 2013, Art Gallery of Ontario; 31 January-20 April 2014, Museum of Image and Sound, Sao Paulo; 20 May-24 August 2014, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin; 23 September 2014-4 January 2015, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; 2 March-31 May 2015 Philharmonie de Paris; 16 July-1 November 2015, Australian Centre For the Moving Image, Melbourne; 11 December 2015-10 April 2016, Groninger Museum, Groningen, Netherlands; 14 July-13 November 2016, Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna. Upcoming: 8 January–9 April 2017, Warehouse TERRADA G1 Building, Tokyo; Barcelona, spring 2017, hopefully NYC at some point after that, so I can finally see it. In comments, would love to hear the thoughts of those who have seen the exhibit.


October 12, 2016



1. Mirror Contract

The photograph shows a room in a flat in West Berlin—155 Hauptstraße, Schöneberg. David Bowie lies on his side on his bed. Thirty years old, his face is that of a beautiful sleeping child.

This is Bowie-in-Berlin, in a stolen moment (or was it? was the photograph staged for possible use? I don’t know who took it). A man gone from the world, hiding in his bedroom. The headboard is a wooden sunrise. All that’s on the yellow (not electric blue) wall is an enormous canvas: Bowie’s portrait of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.

One of Bowie’s favorite paintings, arguably his best, it’s a severe crop of Mishima’s head, which seems carved from stone. The almond eyes have a penetrating sadness.


Well before he first toured the country in spring 1973, Bowie had immersed in Japan (he always did the research). He loved its art, photography (Sukita), fashion (Yamamoto), food, music (Toru Takemitsu), kabuki (Bando), film (Oshima), temples, and likely more than a few of its citizens. Perhaps above all, the work of Mishima, whose last books were being translated into English in the early Seventies.

For Bowie, Mishima was the extremity of Japan’s artistic culture. He stands most openly in Bowie’s “Berlin” songs. A tributary of “Heroes” is The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, of whose sailor Mishima wrote “he was perfectly aware he would leave [his lover] in a day yet he was ready to happily die for her sake” (and recall that “sailor” was Bowie’s internet handle in the Nineties).

The sailor washes up in Lodger (“Red Sails”), an album with a Mishima counterpoint in “Fantastic Voyage” (Mishima, of the samurai: “there is dignity in serenity, there is dignity in clenched teeth and flashing eyes”; Bowie: “dignity is valuable, but our lives are valuable, too”), Mishima’s decayed angel in “Look Back in Anger” and reference in “Yassassin” (“Look at us—sun and steel“). “Because You’re Young” and “Teenage Wildlife” tick to the quickened pulse of Mishima novels like Thieves, with their passionate, beautiful young suicides.

Consider Mishima’s description of a samurai preparing for seppuku (“the sense of beauty was always connected with death…the samurai was requested to make up his face by powder or lipstick, in order to keep his face beautiful after suffering death“) and Bowie’s makeup for the last Ziggy Stardust shows.

At dinner with Arcade Fire in New York in 2005, Bowie talked of his love of Mishima’s work and said he’d been in Tokyo when Mishima died. Like many Bowie stories, it was a perfect synchrony and quite untrue: on 25 November 1970, Bowie was likely sitting at his piano in Beckenham while Mishima stabbed himself in an army commander’s office in Tokyo.

2. Entrance to the Stage


I had a desire to turn myself into my own opposite, even in real life…I cannot be certain whether I actually created my own opposite or merely an aspect of myself which until then had been ignored.

Mishima, The Sound of Waves.

Like David Bowie, Yukio Mishima is a stage name. He was born Kimitake Hiraoka in 1925, to a family of samurai heritage. Fifty days after his birth, his formidable grandmother essentially kidnapped him, having his cradle moved into her sickroom. He lived in her house, rarely seeing his parents or siblings, until he was 12 years old.

Allowed dolls and origami for playthings, his few friends (all girls) severely vetted, he was left alone to dream and read fairy tales. When his grandmother determined she finally was going to die, she returned him to his parents. His siblings saw him as a lodger; his father considered the would-be decadent scribbler a disgrace.

During World War II, Mishima was in college, waiting to be called up for the last battles of the Pacific. “A genius destined for death,” he described his 20-year-old self. “It was a rare time when my personal nihilism and the nihilism of the age perfectly corresponded.” His memory of 1945, the year of the atom bomb and surrender, was of merciless sunlight. “The summer sunlight poured down prodigally on all creation alike. The war ended yet the deep green weeds were lit exactly as before.” A sympathetic army recruiter rejected him (Mishima had played up a recent bout of tuberculosis), so Mishima never fought. The world gained a writer who wished he’d died a soldier.


What people regarded as a pose on my part was actually an expression of my need to assert my own true nature. And it was precisely what people regarded as my true self which was masquerade.

Mishima, Confessions of a Mask.

By the Fifties, he was Japan’s best-selling author. His books, full of death, scandal and glamour, were so popular that slang for an adulterous woman, yoromeki fujin (“lady misstep”), came from his novel A Misstepping of Virtue. He wrote and directed plays; he wrote, directed and/or starred in dozens of films (he liked playing toughs and gangsters) and once sang a film’s theme despite being tone deaf. “How wonderful to be a star!” he once said while sprawled upon a sofa backstage at one of his plays.

In whatever little compartment—as a clown (which he liked to be), as an actor, as a gangster, as an aristocrat—every little thing he tried be, he also resisted,” the writer Nobuko Albery said. To the actress Hideko Muramatsu, Mishima said human beings are made of opposite halves: love and cruelty, tenderness and hatred. “Try to express both sides at the same time. Then the personality you create will be more profoundly expressed.”


He was a gay man who married a woman and had two children; a Europe-loving aesthete obsessed with restoring traditional Japanese culture, the sovereignty of the emperor and the Japanese army (now with nuclear weapons). His dogged, precise work schedule was that of a banker while he dressed, as his biographer John Nathan described, in a “blend of Hollywood cool and Roman drugstore cowboy,” favoring shades, loud sport shirts, black pegged trousers, gold chains. (Nathan, who went to discos with Mishima in the Sixties, said “it was like watching a studied imitation of a dancer; he always looked horrifyingly sober“). Within his Western-style house with a statue of Apollo in its garden (“my despicable symbol of the rational“), Mishima wrote on a metal desk in a small, spartan room. At parties, he’d roll on his back to do impressions of a dog treeing a cat, would imitate Marlon Brando in One-Eyed Jacks. Then he’d dismiss everyone before midnight so he could get in his writing hours.

Frail in build after the hothouse years of his childhood, driven by his shame of failing the draft (and being kidded in gay clubs about being so skinny), Mishima began exercising and weight-training until he had the body of a lean Charles Atlas. He seemed to have custom-designed each muscle as he had each room of his house.

In Sun and Steel, he wrote that he began life as nothing but mind. “I was to learn the language of the flesh, much as one might learn a foreign language.” Once he’d learned it, he knew he would lose it—the idea of his body’s inevitable decay appalled him. “I was the final heir to the tradition of Japanese beauty.”


By the mid-Sixties, he’d set upon two goals: he would write his masterpiece and would die by ritual suicide. At first he thought these irreconcilable, but found a means to entwine them and bring them to fruition.

While writing Spring Snow, the first of his quartet of novels The Sea of Fertility, he befriended a group of nationalist students, whom he’d incorporate into his next book, Runaway Horses. He joined the Army Self-Defense Force (roughly Japan’s equivalent to the National Guard), going to boot camp at age 42. As he wrote The Temple of Dawn he created a civilian counterpart to the ASDF—-a private 90-man army called the Shield Society (he wrote their theme song). He debated left-wing students, starred as a terrorist in a film, hoped a leftist uprising would cause his civilian army to be activated.

He was playing war, which had a special excitement for him because he hadn’t been allowed to do so as a child,” his brother later said.


On the 25th of November 1970, Mishima and four Shield Society disciples went to the ASDF headquarters and held the commander hostage. Mishima stood on the balcony to orate to the soldiers. He called on them to overthrow the Japanese government and restore the emperor; they mostly jeered him: “Stop trying to be a hero!” “We can’t act in common with fellows like you!” He’d contacted the media to be sure the news cameras were there. Returning to the commander’s office, he knelt and drove a foot-long dagger into his left side, then drew it across his abdomen. His disciple fumbled the killing blow, failing twice to decapitate him as Mishima shook in pain and gushed blood and intestines. Another would-be hero finished the job.

That morning, Mishima had left home wearing his dress uniform. On his desk was the finished manuscript of the last book of his quartet, The Decay of the Angel, and a note: “Human life is limited, but I want to live forever.”

3. Sightseer’s Misfortune


Then we saw
Mishima’s dog
Trapped between the rocks
Blocking the waterfall

The first lines of “Heat,” the last song on Bowie’s The Next Day (the last next day), refer to a scene early in Mishima’s Spring Snow.

Mishima’s quartet is the life of Japanese man, Shigekuni Honda, and his friend, Kiyoaki Matsugae, who dies each novel to be reincarnated in the following book. Kiyoaki, dead of heartbreak and illness in 1914, is reborn as Isao, a nationalist fanatic who commits seppuku in 1931. Isao is reborn as Ying Chan, a Thai princess who barely seems to exist in the world until she no longer does (snake bite, 1952). She reincarnates as Tōru, an arrogant shipping clerk whom an aged Honda adopts in 1970.

Honda—rational, dull, slave to routine, dedicated worker, faithful husband in a loveless marriage, reader, voyeur, survivor—is the control. The experiment is his reincarnated friend, whose various lives embody passion, beauty, bravery, depravity, improvisation, a will for death. Honda “was certain he had played a part in the crystallization of Kiyoaki and Isao’s transparent lives…he was a kind of harbor and not a ship,” (The Temple of Dawn). The quartet is Mishima’s life of opposites split into two beings—one continual, one reoccurring, each needing the other.


Spring Snow begins with Honda and Kiyoaki as teenagers on the latter’s family estate in 1912. They’re part of an entourage walking to a waterfall on a hill overlooking the manor. “It’s a beautiful day,” Honda says. “In all our lives, we may not have many like this.”

Though the hill has been sculpted to provide a gently-flowing waterfall, water is being diverted midway up the slope. A black dog that “probably had been mortally sick or wounded when it came to the stream to drink, had fallen in. The force of the current had wedged the corpse into the cleft of rocks at the top of the falls…[Honda] felt oppressed by the sight of the dog hanging dead in the falls under a bright sky only faintly flecked with cloud.” The party gives the dog a burial, an abbess leads the funeral blessing.

A water-washed corpse of an aimless dog spoils the careful designs of human beings. It harbingers Kiyoaki’s death, his subsequent deaths, and the slow corruption of his various reincarnations; it foretells the Kiyoaki estate being bombed to pieces by American planes during the war and Honda’s sad withering. It is time and doom.

Bowie uses “we”: his perspective both Honda and Kiyoaki, Mishima’s halves in a single eye. But the oppressive mood of “Heat” is far from that of Spring Snow, whose setting is a jewel of a prewar Japanese world. “Heat” is more a blasted landscape.

Referencing a Mishima novel was in keeping with how Bowie wrote much of The Next Day. His circle reduced, since the mid-2000s, to his family and a few friends, Bowie seems to have retreated into books (in a way, he lived Mishima’s childhood as an older man). So lines from Nabokov and Evelyn Waugh turn up in “I’d Rather Be High,” Carole Anne Duffy and Svetlana Alliluyeva in “How Does the Grass Grow?,” Robert Palmer (writer, not singer) in “The Next Day,” Mishima here.

It was an older type of songwriting—he’d written many of his first album’s songs by taking stories and characters from Alan Sillitoe and Keith Waterhouse. But it’s done far more obliquely and disjointedly here: a traceable reference links to an untraceable one, forming a lattice of broken images. The dog in the waterfall is the first square on the board; the rest of Bowie’s words are a series of jumps.

4. Hailstones From a Clear Sky


So in the first verse of “Heat,” after the Mishima lines, come some purgatorial images—songs of dust, the night always falling. Then “the peacock in the snow,” suggesting a shot from Fellini’s Amarcord (a film about children growing up in a surreal Fascist Italy):


Which in turn, as the artist Tanja Stark noted, has echoes in one of Jimmy King’s photo shoots of Bowie, from winter 2013:


And jump-cut to Scott Walker’s “Jolson and Jones,” from 2006’s The Drift:

Gardens with fountains where peacocks had strutted
Where dead children were born

It’s not that Bowie set out a map and said, “all right, x will take you to y, from which you can find z.” He’d always worked at angles, in shadows, never spelling things out (even to himself), making the listener do the work. It was a holdover from his glam rock years. The crowd had made Ziggy Stardust; here, the crowd (no longer a crowd, but a group of solitudes listening to his songs on computers or phones) decides which path a song like “Heat” takes.

There was a parallel in the work of an old influence. The later songs of Scott Walker are full of lines with little to tether them but their being sung by the same keening voice. Walker wrote bloody histories via arcane words quarried from the OED or from art movies, set to apocalyptic music.

5. Calamity To Jane Is Calamity To John


The exile thing is within yourself.

Scott Walker.

This blog’s gone at length into the connections between Scott Walker and David Bowie (see “Nite Flights” and “The Motel”; pack a lunch). For Walker, Bowie was of interest while he was making his 1978 album Nite Flights. For Bowie, Walker was nearly a lifelong influence.

A pop star in the Sixties, Walker spent much of his artistic life on the margins, while Bowie remained a genial mainstream presence (with some exceptions) whose secret ambitions were to be something like Scott Walker. In 1997, Bowie exhibited a painting titled The Walker Brothers Triptych. The three “brothers” were x-rays of himself, bracketed by then-collaborator Reeves Gabrels and the artist Tony Oursler. It’s a remnant of his most Walker-esque avant-garde period, the years of Outside and Modern Painters.

Then a funny thing happened in the 21st Century—the two swapped places. Bowie grew furtive, was out of the public eye; his life became speculation. Walker was, by his standards, a public figure.

Walker cut a song for a Pierce Brosnan Bond film, soundtracked Leos Carax’s Pola X, curated the Meltdown Festival in 2000, produced Pulp’s final album We Love Life, recorded a song with Bat For Lashes. He participated in a documentary about himself which he said he’s never watched, and let cameras into the studio as he recorded The Drift. Thanks to a sympathetic generation of music journalists, there are more interviews promoting The Drift and Bish Bosch than there are for the whole of his solo career pre-2006. He patiently explained what his intentions were, how the albums were recorded, how he was using his voice.


He’s become, at 73, something of a cultural institution. While a few older fans may still harass him on the tube because “the stuff you’re doing now I fucking hate,” he’s mostly escaped at last being the glamorous Mod London Scott. Sporting skinny jeans and caps like a Williamsburg grandfather, he makes inscrutable albums that critics generally like.

Signing with 4AD in the 2000s, Walker was free to do whatever he wanted (if anything, 4AD pushed for “weird”). His late albums are as much a brand identity as the Scott albums of the Sixties. Their covers have muted colors, with photographs that could be lunar surfaces or microbe slides; tracks have titles like “Epizootics!” and “Psoriatic” and “Herod 2014.” You come to expect the sudden shifts in dynamics, esoteric percussion as primary rhythmic pulse, keening lead vocals that follow melodic lines unsupported by the backing music (or noises), abstract violence as organizing principle.

The Drift is a slasher film as art rock record. Listening to each track, you wait for the blow to strike—Satanic Donald Duck voice, horse-massacre horn, winter armies, massed strings summoned like ringwraiths. Walker’s voice is the only constant in a sequence of rapid set changes, his plaintive, haunted phrasings fall over telltale-heartbeat drums or gales of atonal strings. The Drift is the culmination of what he’d been moving towards since “The Electrician.” His masterpiece, it’s a brutalizing album to endure from start to finish.


Bish Bosch, from 2012, works along the same lines, but there’s a growing sense of absurdity, as if the Walker project has reached its red giant phase (the title, Walker said, meant in part “job done, sorted”). Songs are longer, more ridiculous, goofier—the dog barks, fart and piss noises in “Corps de Blah” or how Walker’s ode to the fall of the Ceaucescus, “The Day the ‘Conducator’ Died,” has a lyric of multiple-choice personality test questions and ends with a snatch of “Jingle Bells.” At the same time, there’s a paring down—fewer strings, diminished basslines. “We just need to find silence and stillness to experience it,” Walker said.

Its gonzo peak is the 21-minute “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter),” an oblique history of a 5th Century jester dwarf, stuck on a pole, who becomes a brown dwarf star. Much of the lyric is a historical catalog of insults, from Catullan digs like “for gross Gauls, who won’t leave our sheep alone” to Don Rickles jibes like “does your face hurt? Cause it’s killing me.” What best survives the long centuries? The put-down jokes.


After decades of frustration, Walker had found a way of working that suited him. Keeping to a tight budget (he had to record all the strings in a single day, would have to wait months for a few days of studio time to open up), he would use a small group of studio pros who knew what to expect from him, and could process his instructions quickly. Machetes as percussion? Electroshock guitar? Crickets? It got done.

His albums sold enough to justify their production costs; he got enough press. He was as free as any artist can be in the 2010s. So he could sit at home and write his dark Saturday-crossword-clue lyrics (there’s a similarity to Mishima’s prose: Mishima “knew the exact word for everything,” friends recalled, and loved archaic and obscure terms, making his books difficult to translate). Then he’d map out chords on his keyboard, get much of the song set in his head, go to the studio and have his musicians give the rest of it to him.

A workable aesthetic. One that Bowie followed as if using a blueprint when making Blackstar.

6. The First Step Toward Salvation


Don’t confuse the stage with the dressing room.

Mishima, Forbidden Colors.

I think authors should be sought in the books they put their names to, not in the physical person who is writing or in his or her private life. Outside the texts and their expressive techniques, there is only idle gossip.

Elena Ferrante, 2015.

As I write this, on a nearby table is Mick Rock’s photo collection of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period. The book is the size of a small tombstone. It’s a public life in glam stills, whether Bowie applying makeup backstage, on a train somewhere, or out on stage. A record of Bowie assembling a grand personality, as if building a temple, then walking around in it.

The critic Donald Richie once said of his friend Mishima: “He knew one of the great and best-kept secrets of being alive is that if you behave the way you want to be, you will become it. You become who you are by practicing it and, little by little, you will turn into who you want to be.”

Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period was him rigging himself into being a star. For the rest of his life, he’d tear down the stage dressing and do it again, and again. It wasn’t the way of Mishima, who’d spent the whole of his life building to his suicidal climax. His books, films, plays, interviews, actions feel aligned in a single rising movement, a unified performance, all his halves fusing to form the man standing on the balcony in 1970. When he killed himself, the Japanese were stunned; he had acted. “Mishima has gone and actually done what these rightists only talk about,” a Japanese policeman told journalists. “And it is not only the rightists who are stirred. Here in Japan, there must be thousands of frustrated people. They have no outlet for their pent‐up feelings.”

Mishima doing karate, practicing kendo, flying in subsonic aircraft, plotting revolutions, gutting himself, making sure the camera caught his right profile. For Bowie, he existed as image: heat and light, sun and steel. By contrast, there was Scott Walker, hiding in London studios, having drummers thwack sides of meat. Existing, as he had since the early Walker Brothers singles, as voice, as form without being, artist without biography. “I’m just trying to be a person singing without any personality or anything else particularly,” Walker said.


‘A rare outcry
makes you lead
a larger life’

Scott Walker, “Cossacks Are

In 1982, in the months before he made Let’s Dance, Bowie starred in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, directed by Nagisa Oshima. Oshima had been Mishima’s leftist political rival in the Sixties. Bowie said he once saw a TV interview in which the two fervently argued with each other for what boiled down to the same ideals. “I qualify that by saying that the Japanese left and right are quite different from Western ideas of left and right, where it is estranged left and estranged right,” Bowie said in 1983. “In Japan both would have probably have roots in the same source than they might have over here. They both say, let’s stay Japanese. And when you’ve got that, you’re almost cancelling out everything else!”

In Mr. Lawrence, Oshima cast the musician Ryuichi Sakamoto as Captain Yonoi, head of a World War II prison camp for British soldiers. Sakamoto essentially plays Mishima (call the movie a battle for aesthetic supremacy between Bowie and Mishima, a war fought via actors). Yonoi is a pop star out of time, obsessed with his own honor and Bowie’s character, the prisoner of war Jack Celliers; he’s consumed by Celliers’ blond purity, his beauty, his refusal to obey. Both characters are driven by past shames: Celliers’ betrayal of his younger brother, Yonoi failing to die honorably after the failure of a coup he participated in.

At the film’s climax, to prevent the POW commander from being executed, Celliers breaks ranks and walks up to Yonoi, kissing him on both cheeks. Yonoi, outraged and in love, can’t act. He collapses in disgrace. Celliers is killed by being buried alive; Yonoi is executed at the end of the war, perhaps with the lock of hair he’d cut from Celliers still in his pocket.

7. The False Account and the True


With its austere F-sharp major key, “Heat” seems like an outpost when compared to the rest of its loud, compressed album. It seems to play the curtain-closing role that “Bring Me the Disco King” did on Reality.

It’s a mix of Walker tropes. The usual “Electrician” moods, the Climate of Hunter fretless bass (Gail Ann Dorsey, playing an instrument she was unfamiliar with), the blurred instrumentation and semitonal shifts in melody and chords. The latter’s been a Walker trait since the Sixties—his hope of making “new chords” by binding contrasting tones together, strings hovering between tones.

The chord structure of “Heat” is sparse: a long stay on the home F# chord, then moving to the IV chord (B major, “songs of dust”) to a D major refrain (“I tell myself”); it’s a shift between E and F# for the coda (“I am a seer..”). But the F# chord shades, sometimes every two bars, to an alteration with a flattened fifth (so where an F# chord is F#-A#-C#, here it’s F#-A#-C). It creates tension throughout the track; it’s as if a landscape is being shrouded in mist, then uncovered.

Bowie sings a handful of notes, making pawn’s moves (rising only by second or third intervals). He does this often on The Next Day, hunkering down on a few notes instead of writing his usual octave-spanning lines, as if unwilling to stray out of his confines. A movement repeats like Morse code: a two-note rise for each phrase, F# to G# (“Mi-shima’s dog,” “tell my-self,” “love is theft“)). He only moves to a third note to close a section, whether circularly (“blocking the water-fall” is F#-G#-F#) or ambiguously (“pea-cock in the snow” ends on an A note).


The arrangement clouds things further. The rhythm is a brusque acoustic guitar (Bowie?), the drums embellish (cymbals hiss on the chord changes), Dorsey’s bass is a softly persistent querying voice. Despite Bowie’s dominant position in the mix, the background—meshes of keyboards that hold on a wavering chord, guitars making solitary gestures, vocal loops, wary strings that finally burst into flight in the coda—is as much central to the track.

And while Walker is there in “Heat,” it’s a frozen conception of him. This is still the Scott of “It’s Raining Today” and “Nite Flights,” not the man howling and laughing on his latter records. The 21st Century’s Walker doesn’t exist here. Much of The Next Day is Bowie assessing his past, “sampling” it, playing cut-up with it. He does the same to Walker here—“Heat” feels like the end of a long admiration. A man finally packing things up, starting to look beyond the horizon.

8. Problems Spiritual and Financial


All art is like the evening glow. It’s the burnt offering of all the best things of an era. Even the clearest logic that has long thrived in daylight is completely destroyed by the meaningless lavish explosion of color in the evening sky, even history, apparently destined to endure forever, is abruptly made aware of its own end. Beauty stands before everyone; it renders human endeavor completely futile…The present moment is all; the air is filled with a poison of color. What’s beginning? Nothing. Everything is ending.

Mishima, The Temple of Dawn.

Of “Heat,” Tony Visconti said “the lyrics are so bleak that I asked David what he was talking about. ‘Oh, it’s not about me,’ he said. None of these songs are. He’s an observer…He’s singing in his handsomest voice, a very deep, very sonorous voice. I can’t give too much away about it because honestly, I don’t know exactly what it’s about, if it’s about being in a real prison or being imprisoned in your mind.

“Tragic, Nerve, Mystification” are the last words in the list that Bowie gave the writer Rick Moody, in what would be his only public statement on The Next Day. The 42 words, in order, seem to have a structure: each three-word set corresponds to the equivalent song on the LP sequence. If this is “Heat” in miniature, the words fit. A tragic loss of nerve. Making an end by fading into the mystic.

The violence throughout The Next Day—dying men shoved in trees, high school shooters, traitors dangling from ropes—comes to a rest in “Heat,” which is a world bled free of killing as much as anything else. If The Next Day is a war album, the sad tale of how the 21st Century became more like the religious-war-plagued 16th Century than the world of Major Tom and the Saviour Machine, “Heat” is its tattered epilogue, its cease-fire.


It has one of Bowie’s winking self-epitaphs: I am a seer, and I am a liar. A pun: a see-er, a seer. A man who only sees what’s right before him, or a prophet. And a liar, which he always claimed he was.

My father ran the prison. I’m not guilty, but you can’t believe a word I say, mind. I never wanted to be a rock star, he said in 1974. But I was there, that’s what happened.

It became a personal song in the sense of Self. Not ego-self or knowable self but in the way of whatever the Self is,” Walker once said of his song “Cue.” Who is singing “Heat”?

If much of The Next Day is a romp with his touring band, getting the gang back together for one last caper, “Heat” points to the end of Bowie’s recording life. You could call it a dock, from which he went off on a last trip.

Or a pier, which, as James Joyce once wrote, is a disappointed bridge.

9. Grand Finale


You hear all these sounds that have just emerged since we started talking about the supernatural? That’s the sound of death … that’s what it sounds like when you’re dead … doors opening.

Bowie, “Bring Me the Disco King” video, 2003.

In 2014, Scott Walker recorded with a band, Sunn O))). The album, Soused, has the usual droning guitars and obscure lyrics but there’s something fresh in it. It’s an artist who’s been locked in his mind having to balance himself against a set of younger players (all members of Sunn O))) were born after the Scott albums were released). Though it’s a drone record, there’s a lightness of tone, a looseness of structure, that other Late Scott albums lack. It could be a one-off; it could be his future.

The same year, David Bowie was at a New York jazz club, sizing up a combo of musicians a generation or two younger than him. Donny McCaslin, after Bowie had hired his group for his new album, began exploring Bowie’s back catalog (he only knew the Eighties hits). But Bowie warned him off. “That’s old stuff. I’m into different things now.”


In the autumn of 1970, a few months before his suicide, Yukio Mishima mounts an exhibition of himself in a department store. It ranges from photographs of his stolen childhood to a recent series of homoerotic shots in which he’s posed as St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows.

In 2008, Scott Walker helps create Drifting and Tilting at the Barbican, in which his post-Eighties songs are performed live for the first time. He doesn’t sing them, nor does he appear on stage. Instead singers inspired by him (Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn) perform his songs. Walker is at the sound desk, watching his music escape him. He notes that most of the audience is well under 50.

It’s 2015. David Bowie Is, a museum exhibition of David Bowie’s life, moves from Paris to Melbourne to the Netherlands. Among the works on display is the painting of Yukio Mishima that once hung on a West Berlin wall. Bowie’s last public appearance is at the opening night of his musical; he sits and watches actors sing his songs to him.

Clear the waterfall, let the stream go where it will.

Drawing our brine cart along, how briefly we live in this sad world, how fleetingly!

Mishima, Runaway Horses.


Recorded: (backing tracks) May 2011, The Magic Shop, Soho, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released: 8 March 2013, The Next Day.

Credits: (Mishima) John Nathan, Mishima-A Biography (1974); Naoki Inose, Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima (2013); The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima (Arena, 1985); Mishima: His Life and Literature; Philip Shabecof’s “You’ve Heard of Yukio Mishima…”from the NYT, 2 August 1970, and subsequent NYT articles after Mishima’s suicide. Of Mishima’s novels, essential works include: Confessions of a Mask (1949), Thirst For Love (1950), Forbidden Colors (1951), The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea (1963) and his last quartet: Spring Snow (1968), Runaway Horses (1969), The Temple of Dawn (1970) and The Decay of the Angel (posthumously p., 1971). The essay Sun and Steel (1968) is critical for a sense of Mishima’s philosophy. Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), a fusion of Mishima’s biography and fiction, is worth watching, as is Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, of course! (Walker) In addition to sources listed in the previous entries (esp. No Regrets and Anthony Reynolds’ biography), I’m indebted to articles and broadcasts, 1966-2016, that I’ve listed here. (Walker, DB and “Heat”) ‘Crayon to Crayon,’ as always. Tanja Stark’s “Confronting Bowie’s Mysterious Corpses,” collected in Exploring David Bowie, is a compelling analysis of mortality in Bowie’s work.

For Kevin Smith, 1972-2016. Tell me all about it on the next bardo, Kev. For Rahawa, defeater of mountains.

Photos inc.: 1. DB, 1977 (unknown photog.); Johannes Eisele, “David Bowie Is… exhibit, Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin,” 2014; 3. Jeff Wall, After ‘Spring Snow’, by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34 (2000-2005); 4:  King, 2013; Amarcord (Fellini, 1973). All DB shots: King, 2013; 8: Mishima, 1968. 9: Bowie: self-portrait “D Head V,” ca. 1995; “Walker Brothers Triptych” 1996,”Head of Mishima” 1977.

Reissues: Word On a Wing

September 1, 2016

A good place as any to close the “reissues” series, which I hope you’ve enjoyed or tolerated. This is one of the essential Bowie songs of the Seventies, and as such it’s weird, beautiful and a touch over-the-top.

As the man said at the end of the past century, “1975, 1976, and a bit of 1974, and the first few weeks of 1977, were singularly the darkest days of my life. I found myself up to my neck in such negativity. And it was so steeped in awfulness that recall is nigh on impossible, certainly painful…unwittingly this song was therefore a signal of distress. I’m sure it was a call for help.

Back “live” at some point this month. Have a good rest of the summer.

Originally posted on 16 December 2010, it’s “Word On a Wing”:

Word On a Wing.
Word On a Wing (rehearsal, 1976).
Word On a Wing (live, 1976).
Word On a Wing (live, 1999).
Word On a Wing (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).

With God he has very suspicious relations; they sometimes remind me of the relations of two bears in one den.

Maxim Gorky, on Tolstoy.

The heart and hymn of Station to Station, “Word On a Wing” is a petition to God, though as prayers go it’s more of an opening negotiation, Bowie attempting to use God as leverage in some larger scheme. Hence its warring moods, suppliant and audacious (see Bowie offering his own “word” against the received Word of Christ or the petulant tone of lines like “just because I believe don’t mean I don’t think as well”). As in his love-as-confusion “Stay,” Bowie denies himself from achieving any connection, no matter how desperately he wants it. Here, he’s playing for greater stakes.

He was only nominally Christian. When John Lennon said the Beatles had meant more to British kids than Jesus Christ did, it was the likes of Bowie he was talking about.* This didn’t mean Bowie was spiritually empty: he’d spent his twenties looking for some sort of God figure that met his high standards, a path that took him from Beat existentialism to Tibetan Buddhism to whatever brew of cabbalist Gnosticism he was imbibing in 1975 (see “Station to Station”). “I had this religious fervor,” Bowie recalled in 1993. “I was just looking for some answers. Some secret. Some life force.”

“Word On a Wing,” closing the first side of Station to Station, was Bowie’s (apparently) open plea for salvation from God. He’d been tempted at the time by some sort of evangelical Protestantism, into which Bob Dylan would dive headfirst a few years later. As Bowie began writing “Word On a Wing” while filming The Man Who Fell to Earth, there was a parallel to Lennon’s “Help!”—-both songs are pleas for deliverance written while their composers were stuck on a movie set, paranoid and depressed, wondering what they’d become. In an NME interview in 1980, Bowie regarded his dalliance with Christianity as a nearly-consummated romance: “There was a point when I very nearly got suckered into that narrow sort of looking…finding the cross as the salvation of mankind.”

This sounded similar to how he’d described past relationships to journalists at the time: as an all-consuming passion that had threatened his sense of self. To bend the knee to God, to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior, required humility, an acceptance that there are higher powers beyond your ken, to have faith and to not try to learn the trade secrets of the cosmos. Ultimately this wasn’t enough for Bowie; it was taking the sucker’s bet.

So like his reference to the Stations of the Cross in “Station to Station,” there was a touch of blasphemy in “Word On a Wing,” with Bowie using the imagery and musical trappings of Christian art for occult ends. Bowie crafted the song as white magic to set against the dark “Station to Station,” the two tracks spinning in parallel on an LP side, yin and yang in grooves (“Golden Years,” an ambiguous utopia, keeps them apart). The song was a “protection…something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations that I felt were happening on the film set.”

He felt he needed protection. He’d been under siege by “dark forces” since 1974 (once throwing away a doll his cousin had given him for fear it was a Satanic totem), a predicament worsened upon moving to Los Angeles. When his wife Angela found a house on North Doheny Drive, Bowie wanted it cleansed. Following the instructions of the New York witch Walli Elmlark (which required “a few hundred dollars’ worth of books, talismans and assorted items from Hollywood’s comprehensive selection of fine occult emporia”), Angela performed an exorcism on the house, including the indoor swimming pool, a natural repository for demons.

Bowie was using Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense as a bulwark. Fortune, a British mystic of the early 20th Century, wrote that man had two Angels, a Dark Angel (which she likened to the subconscious, “a dark temptation from the depths of our lower selves…we think thoughts, or even do deeds, of which we never would have believed ourselves capable”) and a Bright Angel. The mystic’s goal is to summon the latter angel in times of “spiritual crisis, when the very self is being swept away,” she wrote. “The Higher Self comes to the rescue, ‘terrible as an army with banners’.” If successful, one has an expanded consciousness, a sense of calm, “like a ship hove-to, securely riding out the storm.”

Compare this to Bowie’s various public statements about “Word On a Wing,” that it was “something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself” or “I wrote [it] when I felt very much at peace with the world….I wrote the whole thing as a hymn. What better way can a man give thanks for achieving something that he had dreamed of achieving, than doing it with a hymn?” “Word on a Wing” was his protective talisman encased in a song, much like the small crucifix he’d wear around his neck for decades.

Bowie’s brand of fascism, while it embraced irony, was basically serious; or was taken seriously by a certain hermetic compartment of his mind, wherein it dwelt. The rest of him…was deeply uneasy about it; so uneasy that he included on Station to Station a song, “Word On a Wing,” which semi-seriously kept a line open to God in case the demons evoked elsewhere in the album should get out of hand.

Ian MacDonald, “White Lines, Black Magic.”

“Word On a Wing” starts in somber opening verses, which Bowie sings in his low register (on stage in 1976, he sang-spoke the lines, sounding like Lou Reed); it’s in B major, an unusual and remote key for a rock song. He cradles the words “sweet name, you’re born once again” as if he’s consoling God. All at once comes a jolting move to D-flat major (on “Lord, I kneel and offer you…”) which continues for over a dozen unsettled bars until the song steadies in D (“Lord! Lord, my prayer flies…”). The latter section builds to the ornate rise-and-fall phrase that closes the refrain, with Bowie and Geoff MacCormack sounding like woodwinds. And then a swift fall down to earth, back to B major to start another verse. Only after further struggle is “Word On a Wing” content to stay in D major, concluding on the home chord as a celestial soprano bears the song away from its fallen creator.

This voice was generated by the Chamberlin, the precursor to the Mellotron, whose appearance here is similar to its role on the instrumentals of Bowie’s next two albums, Low and “Heroes.” In particular “Sense of Doubt” on the latter, a track that ends ambiguously, either to “resolve itself via faith into religious commitment or be left unresolved, freestanding and wordless,” as Momus once said. It would be a wary response to “Word On a Wing.”

The Chamberlin’s just one of the gorgeous touches, along with the left-mixed vibraphone that’s a counterpart to Roy Bittan’s piano or the acoustic guitar fills. The heart of the song, however, is a work for voice—see the astonishing harmonies by Bowie and MacCormack in the refrains—and piano. Whatever led to Bittan playing on Station to Station, his presence on “Word On a Wing” seems ordained. There are the child’s steps of melody Bittan plays in the intro, his steady chording in the verses, the cascading notes under the “sweet name” section, the sprightly two-note punctuation of the “word on a wing” prayer. A fellow pilgrim, Bittan’s piano has a grace that Bowie desperately craves, much as he spurns it.

Recorded October-November 1975, Cherokee Studios, LA. Performed on the 1976 “Isolar” tour, and revived in 1999.

Top: Close-up of Elizabeth Frink’s Shepherd and Sheep, 1975 (Photo: Steve Rutherford.)

* The decline in British churchgoers, notable even in the war years, was a cause of national concern and as such the subject of several books, the wittiest of which was R.C. Churchill’s The English Sunday (1954): “The Bible itself, however, has ceased in general to be read in England. What, then, do we read instead? Apart from Sunday newspapers a good many people, of course, read nothing at all on Sundays.”

Reissues: Cygnet Committee

May 31, 2016

In December 2009, I had been writing the blog for nearly half a year, at a steady pace. Readership was modest and comments were few—I imagine the majority of readers at the time were people who liked my old blog and wondered what the hell I was doing.

There’s an arc of inspiration when it comes to a sequential blog like this—initial burst of ambition and fleetness of movement; mild elation when the posts begin stacking up and you feel that the writing’s improved and that you’ve found the right tone; and the inevitable slackening of energy, “God, why am I doing this?,” inspired by a cold-eyed look at future obligations and knowing how much more unpaid work lies ahead of you.

So I likely would have given up around then had it not been for the wise choice to write about someone of whose early work I knew little, so that the blog was fueled by my curiosity as much as anything. I found late Sixties Bowie fascinating, even grim fare like “God Knows I’m Good.” But it was “Cygnet Committee” that did the business. I listened to it for the first time and thought it was just awful, an endless spiel of hippie blather. Further listens convinced me that it was brilliant, ghastly, draining, muddled, cutting, and so on. The blog entry wound up being a muddle itself, a cloudy response to a clouded song.

As I argue below (much of the book revision, minus the substantial end-noted material about Sixties radicalism [now there’s a selling point!]), I believe “Cygnet” was something of the same for Bowie—that it was a necessary song for him, a dark magic ritual, an extended middle finger to the Sixties. The Bowie we came to know would not have existed without it. Nor, as it turned out, would the blog, book, etc.

Originally posted on 8 December 2009, it’s the Cygnet Committee:

Lover To the Dawn.
Cygnet Committee.
Cygnet Committee (BBC, 1970).

“Cygnet Committee” was, consecutively, a break-up letter to a communal arts center Bowie co-founded, a scattershot attack on the counterculture and a desperate self-affirmation. Deep in this gnomic, nearly ten-minute screed was a struggle to find a workable design for the years ahead, Bowie pledging himself to a life of creative destruction while keeping clear of professional revolutionaries. It was the sound of Bowie willing himself to become a stronger artist, hollowing himself out to let a greater creative force, for good or ill, take hold in him. The possession took. In fleeting moments, you can hear the apocalyptic, utopian voice of “Five Years” and “Sweet Thing,” of “Station to Station” and “‘Heroes.’” The man who was able to write those songs had to go through the crucible of “Cygnet Committee” first.

Bowie and his lover/flatmate Mary Finnigan founded the Beckenham Arts Lab in May 1969, one of roughly 50 such Labs in Britain at the time. Along with weekly musical performances at the Three Tuns pub, the Lab (aka “Growth”) offered tie-dying lessons, poetry readings, puppet shows, lectures and mime routines. Hoping to attract local kids and subsequently “turn on their parents,” the Lab’s slogan was “Growth is people, Growth is revolution.” Bowie envisioned an escape valve for suburban dreamers; perhaps he saw the Lab as a way to find younger versions of himself. “There was nothing in Beckenham, just television,” he told a Dutch journalist at the time. “The lab is for extroverts who wish to express themselves, not for established artists.” This was Bowie as proud counter-cultural Beckenhamite, a character out of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, which would gently satirize this era.

In August 1969, interviewed by Finnigan for the International Times, Bowie said he hoped “Space Oddity” became a hit because it would mean exposure and capital for the Lab. Using sparkling ad-man copy, he claimed “Arts Labs should be for everybody, not just the so-called turned-on minority. We need energy from all directions, from heads and skin-heads alike.” It could be a bit much. The guitarist Keith Christmas, who would play on Space Oddity, recalled Bowie being “a twerp in those days…strum[ming] a few folk songs in between a lot of crap about changing the world.


Nothing in particular soured Bowie on the Lab, at which he’d play regularly until March 1970. By then he’d assembled a hand- picked artistic community at his house in Haddon Hall and no longer had to publicly recruit followers. Yet he was noticeably estranged early on. Roger Wootton, a Lab regular, recalled Bowie as being an “outsider” in the pot-reeking, student-infested Three Tuns shows. “He was never really a part of what was going on. He didn’t seem to be one of the other people.” As the most talented and charismatic figure in the room, Bowie resented the apathetic types the Lab attracted upon its (relative) success. He’d wanted collaborators and got spectators; his encounters with mediocrities in hippie garb spouting “revolutionary” slogans became a drain on him.

As he told the journalist Patrick Salvo, Bowie intended the first harmonically free section of “Cygnet Committee” to symbolize the ideal of the Lab. “It was saying—Fellow man I do love you— I love humanity, I adore it, it’s sensational, sensuous, exciting—it sparkled and it’s also pathetic at the same time.” His players make a staggered entrance, as if plugging in when the mood strikes them. Over a murmuring backdrop of Three Tuns-esque chatter, Bowie sang arcing, eleventh-spanning phrases while Mick Wayne, using a volume pedal, played off a descending chromatic bassline.


The leak of a Bowie & Hutch composition called “Lover to the Dawn,” demoed on the same tape as “Space Oddity” revealed Bowie had used “Dawn” as the basis of the opening sections of “Cygnet Committee,” from the opening riff and bassline (itself taken from Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come”) through the “they drained her [my] very soul…dry” section. And the long closing section Bowie appended to the reconstituted “Lover to the Dawn” was a bog-standard rock ‘n’ roll progression, the “Stand By Me” I-vi-IV-V sequence he’d used before (see “And I Say to Myself”). Regardless of its length and furor, “Cygnet Committee” was a folk number bluntly welded to a rock song.

“Lover to the Dawn” also shed light on what happened in the mutation that created “Cygnet Committee.” The original song starred yet another “Hermione” figure, called “bitter girl” in its refrains: a woman weary of the incessant demands of her lovers, who’ve drained her soul dry. The original refrain had a sympathetic Bowie and Hutch (“you gave too much and you got nothing!”) urging the bitter girl to get on with her life—it’s something of a hippie “Georgie Girl.”

In “Cygnet Committee,” Bowie cast himself as the bitter girl (not for the last time) and there was no larking Hutchinson to tell him to grow up and out of it. Instead, the self-pity of “Lover to the Dawn” got blown up to widescreen proportions. Bitter Boy isn’t just heartbroken, he’s set upon by parasites of all shapes; his tragedy isn’t personal but that of an entire generation. Its last venomous C major verse became a jeremiad, calling out New Leftists, cult leaders and cult followers, cursing hippie capitalists and their slogans (including “kick out the jams” and “love is all we need,” the revolution brought to you by, respectively, Columbia and EMI).

This extended damning of a movement of which Bowie was barely part requires a touch of context. The British underground lived in a bubble. Unlike in France, China and the US, British youth (apart from those in Northern Ireland) were passive and quiet, if discontented, in the late Sixties. There was nothing equivalent to the violence of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 or the May 1968 student riots in Paris. Colin Crouch, the student union president at the London School of Economics, saw the few substantial protests of the time quickly devolve into games of dress-up. British radicals seemed to get stuck on the idea of protest, raising protest “to a position of value in its own right,” Crouch wrote. “The sit-in became not so much a part of the sojourn in the wilderness for the chosen people of the revolution, but a trailer for the Promised Land.


Bowie used this failure, the failure of the Arts Lab writ large, as a means to rid himself of the suffocating cant and pretense of the counterculture. In December 1969 he lamented the hippie set as being “the laziest people I’ve met in my life. They don’t know what to do with themselves. Looking all the time for people to show them the way. They wear anything they’re told, and listen to any music they’re told to.” As he sang, they knew not the words of the Free States’ refrain. He’d spent the last years of the Sixties burying himself in committees (“submerging myself,” as he told Mary Finnigan); now he was free.

So with its dead fathers and sons of dirt, the 39-bar-long closing verse of “Cygnet Committee” was the radical faction that took over the whole enterprise. The faceless villains who turned up, busy slitting throats, killing children and betraying friends, predicted the underground’s slide into cheap criminality. Yet the lyric, in turns grandiose, mocking (of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” among others) and fanatic, was more Bowie purging himself of “taste” and “narrative,” ridding himself of the stink of bedsit laments and cabaret, and exploring a inner darkness, calling up images of supermen, ringleaders, wraiths. The “talking man,” a summoned demon who gives the singer access to his “many powers,” would be the dark muse of The Man Who Sold the World.

As on “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” “Cygnet Committee” suffered from an under-rehearsed band, having to master a lengthy, harmonically dense song, that couldn’t deliver the searing accompaniment its vocal demanded (if you’re going to quote the MC5, you should lay down heavier fire than this, or at least ditch the harpsichord). The production did the song little favors, as the drums sound like paper and John Lodge’s bass goes missing towards the close. Bowie gave a more vital, if still ragged performance for a John Peel BBC broadcast of the following year. Despite occasionally bungling lines from his ramble of a lyric, he sang with an eerie sense of self-possession. “Cygnet Committee” had spent itself out in its making, its recording the afterimage of some lost primal inspiration. Still, in its tortuous way, it was as critical to Bowie’s development as “Space Oddity.”

Recorded: (“Lover to the Dawn,”) ca. mid-April 1969, 24 Foxgrove Road; (album) ca. late August-early September 1969, Trident. First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity. Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show. Live: 1969-70.

Top: Bernardine Dohrn, La Pasionaria of the Weather Underground, Chicago, September 1969; Bowie at the Arts Lab, Three Tuns Pub, Beckenham (Rex Stevenson), 1969; John May, the Worthing Workshop, ca. 1969.

Reissues: Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise)

May 10, 2016

One of the more radically transformed entries in the book, with good reason. This was the “cut up” entry of the blog, and it didn’t quite work (well, maybe you thought it did).

I’d planned to do one Diamond Dogs entry in the spirit of 1974: assembling it through Bowie’s favorite method of cutting up lines of verse, jumbling them, selecting the pieces in random order and then pasting together something new from the sequences. Originally it was going to be “We Are the Dead,” but the need for that entry to spell out the George Orwell connections of Diamond Dogs required some coherence and form. In its place: the big triptych of the album.

So I wrote out a “straight” entry on paper and then cut it up, typically in paragraphs but sometimes just sentences. I also cut up quotes that I found in a few books, particularly in Jonathan Raban’s wonderful urban study Soft City and also in a couple of London histories. The Thatcher stuff came from (I believe) Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed. Other bits came from a never-finished 1974 entry on my old blog, Locust St., and from other things that I’ve since forgotten.

I cut it all up, tossed the pieces of paper in a cap, pulled them out one by one and…it was weirdly coherent. The Bowie stuff was all together, generally in order, and most of the quotes were in one clump in the “middle.” Not cut-up enough! So I did it again, then again. At last it was far more jumbled, which was nice. But then I started tinkering with the sequence—it’s got to make some kinda sense, I thought—and wound up smoothing and rejiggering things until I had the below entry. In retrospect, this was likely how Bowie worked as well.

The book entry is far better, I believe, or at least it’s more expansive, delving into things like the guitar solo, John Rechy’s City of Night (a big influence on the lyric), the draft lyric, more on the 1974 tour and the end of Bowie’s life in the UK, and so forth. But the beast below is the untouched original.

A last note: the source of the photos (some of my favorites in the blog’s history) has vanished due to the death of Picasa, and I can’t locate who “Bruce” was anymore. So the blog at present has become the only place on the web to find Maggie Sollars of Brixton, in 1974. I hope she’s doing well these days.

Originally posted on 23 September 2010, it’s:

Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise).
Sweet Thing—Candidate—Sweet Thing (Reprise) (live, 1974).

The rotten heart of Diamond Dogs; a triptych where prostitutes are the only lovers left, where street hustlers double as politicians.

Tony Newman, who drummed on most of the record, recalled Bowie switching off all the lights in the studio save those directly over his microphone. So Bowie sang “Sweet Thing” in a spotlight, the musicians around him mere shadows.

During the summer ’74 Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie sang the “Sweet Thing” suite from a catwalk above the stage. He preened, writhed as though being electrocuted; he looked like Baron Samedi gone Hollywood.

It’s Bowie on guitar (and sax), Mike Garson on piano, Herbie Flowers on bass, Tony Newman on drums. Bowie coached his players like actors. For the first 32 bars of “Candidate,” up until Bowie smells “the blood of les Tricoteuses,” he told Newman to play his snare rolls as if he was a French drummer boy watching his first guillotining during the Terror.

The suite opens with thirty seconds of a slowly-emerging wash of backwards tapes. It closes, after the “Zion” mellotron line and Garson playing a bar’s worth of “Changes”, with a minute of musical violence.

It’s safe in the city/to love in a doorway. “Sweet Thing/Candidate,” an urban debasement, is part of a long English tradition of city nightmares. So Thomas Hardy, describing an 1879 Lord Mayor’s Show: As the crowd grows denser, it loses its character of an aggregate of countless units, and becomes an organic whole, a molluscous black creature having nothing in common with humanity, that takes the shape of the streets along which it has lain itself, and throws out horrid excrescences and limbs into neighboring alleys.

In the two verses of “Sweet Thing,” Bowie’s voice rises from the depths (the basso profundo of the opening verse), settling first on a conversational tone (“isn’t it me”) then vaulting to high, long-held notes, starting with “will you see.” There’s the cartoon New Yorkese voice he uses in the first bridge (“if you wannit, boys”) and he nearly laughs when he sings the cut-up-produced nonsense of “turn to the crossroads and hamburgers.” (Or is it “of Hamburg”?) This isn’t the step-by-step graded elation of something like Carol Douglas’ “Doctor’s Orders,” where the song seems to be willing its singer to keep moving higher. It’s more a menagerie of voices that Bowie barely can keep under control.

George Gissing, on Farringdon Road, in The Nether World: Pass by in the night, and strain imagination to picture the weltering mass of human weariness, of bestiality, of unmerited dolour, of hopeless hope, of crushed surrender, tumbled together within those forbidding walls.

There’s a funereal tone to the suite, fitting for its year of creation. Nick Drake, after recording hisfour last songs” in February, died in November. Duke Ellington died in May. Archigram closed. Candy Darling died, age 25. Gene Ammons recorded Goodbye and departed. It was the year of Shostakovitch’s last quartet, Syd Barrett’s last-ever studio session. All that came out of the latter were a few brief guitar pieces. One, known as “If You Go #2,” (3:00 in the preceding link) is a jaunty hint of a song, incidental music for an impossible life.

Bowie’s guitar keeps to the margins until “Candidate,” when begins to cut into the vocal, like an increasingly belligerent drunken party guest. Crude and insistent, possessed by an appalling truth. At first confined to the right speaker, the guitar starts bleeding through. Bowie’s vocal starts matching the guitar’s tone, his phrasing mimicking the riffing.

Making bullet-proof faces, Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay. 1974 was the wake for the Sixties. Everyone came wearing tatters or suits: they dressed as the person they pretended they once were. Bob Dylan and the Band, touring North America early in ’74, played songs that had earned boos and jeers in ’66, but the songs had become, blessed by time, victory anthems. Dylan sang in a bellow: he might as well have used a bullhorn. He played “All Along the Watchtower” in Boston as if he meant to roust Hendrix from the grave.

Bowie tugs and tears at words, particularly in “Sweet Thing”‘s first verse (“see that I’m scared and I’m lonely“), while he tumbles out other phrases in a bushel (“where the knowing one says” is muttered over three beats). In “Candidate,” the hustler starts out all business, with Bowie sounding confident, even wry, but as the verses keep coming, and he’s not closing the sale, he grows more desperate. He sounds as though he’s suppressing screams: his vocal becomes a run of slurs, colliding syllables, forced marriages of words not meant to rhyme (he mates “shop on” with “papier”). The “Sweet Thing” chorus returns, now only four bars long and taken at a hurried, less alluring pace—time’s running out. When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad I go to pieces. The merchant at the mercy of his customer.

Margaret Thatcher, in 1982, was Lent to the past Carnival: We are reaping what was sown in the sixties…fashionable theories and permissive claptrap set the scene for a society in which old values of discipline and restraint were denigrated.

Holly Woodlawn to the dying Candy Darling: “It’s okay, hon…you don’t have to talk. I know you’re tired.”

Candy: “Yeah. Putting on lipstick…it really takes it out of me.”

Mike Garson’s piano gives the second verse of “Sweet Thing” a few moments of grace and levity. The little winking run of notes after “you’re older than me,” the shards of melodies he plays in the spaces Bowie takes to breathe.

Do you think that your face looks the same? There’s pity in Bowie’s voice here.

On the whole there’s only room for two views in this country.

Education Secretary Thatcher’s election-night commentary, 28 February 1974.

“Candidate” is utterly essential to the suite, its centerpiece, and it also could be excised completely and you would never know it had existed. Play “Sweet Thing” and the Reprise back-to-back and it’s a near-seamless transition. “Candidate” is an outgrowth of “Sweet Thing”‘s chorus, as it’s built on the same chords (D minor, A minor, G); it’s also the inverse of the earlier song—mainly two long verses (24 bars), two brief 4-bar choruses.

James Thomson, in The Doom of a City (1857), came to the City of the Dead: The mighty City in vast silence slept,/dreaming away its tumult toil and strife…Within a buried City’s maze of stone; Whose peopling corpses, while they ever dream/Of birth and death—of complicated life/Whose days and months and years/Are wild with laughter, groans and tears/As with themselves and Doom…

My set is amazing, it even smells like a street. Bowie spent some time obsessively but fruitlessly working on test footage for a Diamond Dogs movie as a daytime distraction from his drinking and drugging social circle at the time (Bowie claims that some of the footage features an impatient John Lennon in the background, berating him with the words “What the bloody hell are you doing, Bowie, all this mutant crap?”, as Bowie tinkers with a clay model of Hunger City, the album’s post-apocalyptic setting). John Tatlock, on “Cracked Actor.”

Live, “Candidate” was introduced by Earl Slick’s guitar and David Sanborn’s saxophone, two peacock performances. On record, Bowie’s guitar solo that closes out “Sweet Thing” is far cruder yet more compelling: a hustler with grand ambitions.

To Thomas Hardy, London was a Wheel and a Beast. (George Whitter Sherman.)

The chorus of “Sweet Thing” is sung by a set of typical Bowie grotesques. The somber bass voices overtopped by tenors. The croaking flat voice that seems most prominent when you’re half-listening. A set of gargoyles, arranged as though on the parapet of a cathedral.

Later in the night Thomson returned home to his own city. Its awfulness of life oppressed my soul; the very air appeared no longer free/but dense and sultry in the close control/of such a mighty cloud of human breath.

“Sweet Thing (Reprise)” offers just one verse: it’s one of the loveliest things Bowie ever recorded, and it pays homage to cocaine, submits to the cruelties of the street. The hustler’s closed the deal at last, and the city takes another victim. It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you. The soaring final notes are reminiscent of “Life on Mars,” whose empathy, grace and beauty “Sweet Thing” suggests were all just vicious lies.

We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/then jump in the river holding hands.

Recorded January-February 1974. The entire suite was performed during the “Diamond Dogs” tour of summer ’74, and never again. A new edit of “Candidate” was made for Patrice Chéreau’s 2001 film Intimacy.

Top and bottom: “Bruce,” “Maggie Sollars, Brixton, 1974”; Middle: Ted Heath faces the public, 28 February 1974.

Reissues: Golden Years

April 11, 2016

As you likely know, Dennis Davis died last week, furthering this year’s ambition to be the worst year ever. In his honor, I’ve revived one of his first performances for Bowie, the “Golden Years” single, and included his isolated drum track (listen to the hi-hat!).

Though it was one of the huge Bowie Seventies hits, “Golden Years” can sometimes feel overlooked (was it because it was so rarely performed live)? My mother, a high school teacher, says most of her kids only know it because of A Knight’s Tale. Seems right.

Also, my thanks to the blog readers who came to my Iggy Pop panel last weekend: it was great meeting you all!

Originally posted 30 November 2010: run for the shadows.

Golden Years.
Golden Years (Dennis Davis drum track).
Golden Years (Soul Train).
Golden Years (live, 1983).
Golden Years (live, 1990).
Golden Years (live, 2000).

Having spent summer 1975 in New Mexico making The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie returned to Los Angeles in late August, already under pressure to follow up his #1 single. Disturbed by stories circulating about Bowie’s erratic behavior, RCA sent executives to the movie set to check on him. He told them to pack off. As “Fame” had done the trick, Bowie rounded up the same producer, Harry Maslin, and most of the same group—Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick on guitar and the drummer Dennis Davis, with the bassist George Murray recruited from Weldon Irvine’s jazz/funk outfit.

For a studio, Bowie and Maslin investigated Cherokee, which had opened the previous January in the former MGM studios on Fairfax Avenue. It swiftly had become one of LA’s premier studios, inheriting MGM clients like Frank Sinatra (see “Wild is the Wind”). Bowie sang in its cavernous Studio One, played a piano chord and said “this will do nicely.” Unlike Sigma Sound, where he’d cut most of Young Americans, Cherokee prided itself on space, tech and amenities—five studio rooms, 24-track consoles, 24-hour sessions, a fully-stocked bar in the lounge.

First order of business was a prospective single, “Golden Years,” a song he’d started writing in May before leaving for the film shoot. His friend Geoff MacCormack, for whom Bowie tried out the song, suggested a trombone-like WAH-wah-WAH tag for the refrains. At Cherokee, MacCormack added more embellishments like a “go-oh-oh-old” phrase as a tag for the bridge and a similarly descending “run for the shadows” hook. MacCormack even wound up filling in for Bowie on the falsetto for the bridge’s backing vocal (at :45, for example), which was torture for him to sing.

The last time Bowie followed up a career-altering hit he’d cut “The Prettiest Star” as an ill-fated sequel to “Space Oddity.” Time had made him sharper and cannier in his approach. “Golden Years” was both a natural response to “Fame,” keeping the latter’s icy disco sound, but also a swerve back towards the sounds of his early adolescence. He used the Diamonds’ “Happy Years,” a 1958 doo-wop hymn to teenagerdom, and two “Broadway” songs—the Drifters’ “On Broadway,” which Alomar recalled Bowie playing on piano during rehearsals and throwing in a “come buh-buh-buh baby” after each line, and Dyke and the Blazers’ “Funky Broadway,” which Slick raided for a few riffs.* Fittingly, Bowie wrote “Golden Years” with Elvis Presley’s vocal range in mind, although he never submitted the song to Elvis, as negotiations with his manager Col. Tom Parker went nowhere (though Bowie once told Dwight Yoakam, of all people, that Elvis had asked him to produce an album in 1977).

Yet any golden oldie he nicked was nearly unrecognizable, as it was blended with his interpretation of the sound of Kraftwerk and Neu!, heard in the conversation of guitars and its cycling progression: an F-sharp chord downshifting to E major on the third beat of each bar. Bowie described his aim years later when he talked of his love of Donna Summer’s records: “this incredible sound, half-Kraftwerk, half-American soul. An amazing incongruous juxtaposition.”

Cut in roughly ten days at the start of the Station to Station sessions, “Golden Years” was issued as a single less than two months later: it charted while Bowie was still at Cherokee finishing the album. Maslin said “Golden Years” came together with little fuss, especially by comparison to the endless number of retakes and overdubs on the rest of the album. The single was mixed full of small pleasures: Dennis Davis’ hi-hat lifts (right on the beat in the verse/refrains, he moves to slightly hang behind on the bridges) and other echo-slathered percussion (handclaps, vibraslap, melodica); Bowie and MacCormack’s “round-sounding” backing vocals via an old RCA mike Maslin dusted off. The dueling guitars—one right-mixed playing variations on the opening riff throughout while a left-mixed phased guitar (likely Alomar) keeps a gliding rhythm until moving, after the bridges, to a three-chord riff that echoes MacCormack’s “WAH-wah-WAH.”

Bowie played little games with the song structure, making the bridge either two or six bars. The longer bridge had the song’s only real progression, a run from G major (“nothing’s gonna touch you”) through A minor (“golden”) and an E minor seventh (“yeeeears”) capped off with a 2/4 bar: Bowie singing the descending “go-oh-oh-ollld” hook shadowed by a Murray bass slide he overlaid with Moog. He did the same to his lyric, altering phrasings and rhythms. In the third verse, he moves from a word-packed, near-rap to surge up to an F# on “all the WAY!”, then tumbles right into a fresh chorus hook, the harmonized “run for the shadows.”

Here’s my baby, lost that’s all

“Golden Years” opens as a blessing, with Bowie and MacCormack cooing the title phrase, and its opening verses are Bowie in huckster mode (see “Right”), singing sharply enunciated syllables stepping down in pitch. There’s the bustling consonance of “in walked luck and you looked in time” and an octave leap to “AN-gel”matched, four bars later, by a depths-dredging “yuh-uh-unnng.”

The promise of “golden years” isn’t communal here. The chance is offered only to one person: the hope of being sealed off in a limousine from the street. His life in Los Angeles added to the lyric’s anomie—long paranoid days in his mansion; making an appearance on Dinah Shore with the Fonz. Angela Bowie, busy with her own celebrity, said the song was Bowie’s blessing for her and perhaps it was, as there was a threat in it. You want fame? Here, take it: it will eat you up. Last night they loved you, opening doors and pulling some strings, Bowie sang, snarling out the gees. The following night, the doors could well be shut. A rap of materialist promises becomes a desperate prayer to God, followed by a murmured warning to run for the shadows. At first caressing the words “golden years,” Bowie began to put them to the rack, rattling consonants, rotting vowels—“years” was a strangled curse heard beneath the backing vocals (esp. at 2:58).

Its video complement was Bowie’s performance on Soul Train, where he’s a wraithlike spiv barely able to keep his balance, let alone mime his vocal. It’s as though he’s hearing the song for the first time, that he’s still in character from The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s his loneliest, saddest television appearance: a crowd of magnificent strangers dance around him, as if communally denying his presence.

Recorded ca. late September 1975, released 17 November 1975 as RCA 2640 c/w “Can You Hear Me” (#8 UK, #10 US). For whatever reasons (its difficulty of singing, perhaps), he never performed “Golden Years” on the Isolar tour of 1976 (there’s one show at which he allegedly sang it, but no proof), waiting until 1983 to debut it live. He played it very sporadically thereafter: just a handful of times in 1990 and 2000.

Top: Peter Turnley, “San Diego, 1975.” (From the collection “The Other California.”)

*There’s of course the chance that Alomar and Slick, both of whom have admitted to not remembering much of the sessions, are confusing their respective “Broadway” songs.

Reissues: The Laughing Gnome

April 1, 2016


Fitting for April Fool’s Day, it’s the one of the most knocked-about and belittled songs in the Bowie canon. But I stand by what I wrote in 2009, and the book version has even more love for the song. Below is a mingle of the two versions:

The Laughing Gnome!

Let’s come straight to it: yes, “The Laughing Gnome” is about a man meeting a gnome and, a bit later, the gnome’s brother. It has sped-up gnome voices (à la Alvin and the Chipmunks) by Bowie and engineer Gus Dudgeon. For the refrains, Bowie and the gnomes duet. There are gnome puns, many of them.

During a state visit to Washington, DC in 1994, Boris Yeltsin was found dead drunk late one night, standing on Pennsylvania Avenue wearing only his underwear, trying to hail a cab because he wanted to get a pizza. Many consider “The Laughing Gnome” to be something of an equivalent in Bowie’s life. “Undoubtedly the most embarrassing example of Bowie juvenilia,” wrote Charles Shaar Murray. “WORST SONG EVER LOL, know SERIOUSLY WORST,” wrote Techtester45 on YouTube.

At the apex of Bowie’s global fame in 1984, Mick Farren (who’d known Bowie in the Sixties) wrote that “whenever [Bowie] comes under discussion and the folks around the bar start to get rapturous, a still, small voice pipes up in the back of my mind to remind me: This is the man who recorded ‘The Laughing Gnome.’” When Bowie asked fans to vote for which songs he’d perform on his “greatest hits” tour of 1990, the NME launched a write-in campaign to humiliate him by making him sing “Laughing Gnome” on stage.

Stuff and nonsense, I say. After “Space Oddity,” it was Bowie’s best single of the Sixties.

Why “The Laughing Gnome” is brilliant

1. It rocks. It was Bowie’s best Mod soul single: its propulsive 4/4 slammed home by drums, bass, harpsichord and guitar all locked in, the guitar shifting from topping the bassline to biting down hard on each beat. (It was the first of many Bowie attempts to match the drone of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man.”) Even the gnome voices were basically drum fills. His melody, reminiscent of “The Tennessee Waltz,” was a rhythm guitar line in a vocal. Bowie started each verse with short upward moves (“I was walk-ing, down the high street”), took a long stride down an octave (“heard-foot-steps-be-hind-me”) echoed by a closing set of short, descending lines (“scarlet and grey, chuckling a-way”). The refrains were a four-part harmony: soaring oboe, playing whole or half notes; huffing bassoon happy to act the clown; Bowie’s lead vocal; the gnome chorus.

2. The puns. Come on, they’re not bad. Some are even inspired.

“Haven’t you got an ‘ome to go to?”
‘No, we’re gnomads!’
“Didn’t they need you to get your hair cut at school, you look like a Rolling Gnome!”
‘No, not at the London School of EcoGnomics!

It’s a quadruple gnome pun score! Eighteen points, plus a bonus for making an LSE joke about Mick Jagger.

3. Credible dark interpretations. Momus, in the early 2000s, offered the intriguing theory that “Laughing Gnome” may be about a man losing his mind, a schizophrenic’s conversation with himself. The storyline fits. The man’s walking down the street, hears a strange voice, sees a vision. Then he starts having visions at home. He tries to rally, puts the gnome “on a train to Eastbourne.” No luck. The visions return and multiply: there are two gnomes now! Finally, descent into madness. The man’s at home, believing his gnomes have made him wealthy and famous, but is actually curled in a ball on the floor. If you come close you can hear him whisper “HA HA HA…hee hee hee…”

4. Gnomic synchronicity. The son of a half-century’s worth of British novelty records, from Charles Penrose’s “laughing” discs in the Twenties to Anthony Newley’s “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “That Noise,” “Laughing Gnome” suited the frothy mood of its time, preceding Pink Floyd’s “The Gnome” by a few months. Syd Barrett’s gnome is named Grimble Gromble and is more of a stay-at-home than Bowie’s. Both gnomes like their booze, though. They’re color-coordinated, too: Grimble wears a “scarlet tunic [and] a blue green hood” while the Laughing Gnome sports “scarlet and grey.” Barrett offers a general benediction, honoring the other meaning of the word gnome, that is, “a brief reflection or maxim; a wise pithy saying”:

Look at the sky, look at the river,
Isn’t it good?

5. The Gnome saved Bowie from a life of cabaret. “Bowie included the song in his ill-fated cabaret audition, with the assistance of a glove-puppet gnome.” (Nicholas Pegg; my emphasis.)

6. A bassoon is a lead instrument. The chromatic three-octave-descending oboe/bassoon riff would be a through-line in Bowie’s songs, heard in everything from “Fame,” “Speed of Life” and “Fall in Love With Me” to “Scream Like a Baby” and “Real Cool World.” And the varisped gnome voices returned as ghouls in “After All,” “The Bewlay Brothers” and Bowie’s cover of “See Emily Play,” among others.

7. It’s a testament to a lost friendship. Gus Dudgeon, architect of “Gnome,” became close to Bowie over the course of making Bowie’s first LP. He recalled Bowie walking into his flat at Christmas and shaking a branch of Dudgeon’s tree in greeting. (“All the bloody pine needles came off.”) For “Laughing Gnome” Bowie and Dudgeon spent weeks coming up with puns and experimenting with tape speeds, cutting multiple versions of the track (the musician Mike Scott said he once slowed down the track enough to hear that Dudgeon’s doing most of the gnome voices). Bowie and Dudgeon even were proud of the single until the world told them it was a mistake. “For a brief period I enjoyed it, but then when the record came out and everyone said how awful it was I realized it was pretty terrible,” Bowie recalled in 1993.

The single’s failure to chart and some critical pasting pushed Bowie towards a darker path: soon enough came Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World. This would become his regular maneuver. Whenever he did something too silly (say, Labyrinth or the Glass Spider Tour) he’d make amends by dressing as a “serious” artiste for a time. While the cracked, gleeful spirit of the “Gnome” went missing for much of the Seventies, Bowie kept quietly drawing from its stores.

Dudgeon and Bowie eventually had a falling out. But when Dudgeon was killed in a car crash in 2002, Bowie sent flowers to his funeral with the note “Farewell to the Laughing Gnome.” Because Bowie, deep down, knew the track was one of the finest things he ever did.

Recorded 26 January, 7 & 10 February and 8 March 1967 and released on 14 April 1967 as Deram DM 123. It flopped upon first release, but reached #6 in the UK when Deram reissued it at the height of Ziggydom in 1973. The Gnome will rise again, one day.

See also: “Requiem For a Laughing Gnome.

Reissues: Panic In Detroit

March 23, 2016

Here’s one that didn’t get many comments back when, and whose lyrical scenario seems more true to life today than it did in 1973, sadly. One of those songs whose simplicity, drive, power and wit kept it in the Bowie repertoire throughout his touring years.

Originally posted on 10 June 2010: It’s “Panic In Detroit.”

Panic In Detroit.
Panic in Detroit (live, 1973).
Panic In Detroit (live 1974).

Panic In Detroit (rehearsal, 1976).
Panic in Detroit (live, 1976 (here’s to Dennis Davis)).
Panic In Detroit (remake, 1979).
Panic In Detroit (live, 1990)
Panic In Detroit (live 1997).
Panic in Detroit (live, 2004).

In July 1972 Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman came to Miami for the Democratic National Convention, and whenever they went out on the street, a mob of policemen followed them. Rubin and Hoffman expected nothing less: at the 1968 convention, the Chicago police had made a sport of clubbing and gassing protesters outside the convention hall. This time, however, there was a rumor that a camera crew funded by Warner Bros. would be making a film of the Yippies’ adventures, so the police mainly just wanted to get into the movies. Each one hoped to be the cop on screen bashing Abbie Hoffman’s head in with a club. There was no movie crew, so it was a peaceful convention.

The leading man of “Panic In Detroit” is a fading revolutionary/sex symbol whose last act is suicide, though he graciously leaves behind a last autograph. Inspired by Iggy Pop’s stories of the 1967 Detroit riots and the rise of the White Panther Party, the song’s last main ingredient was Bowie’s encounter at his Carnegie Hall show with a former classmate from Bromley Tech. This nondescript middle-class British kid had become a drug dealer operating out of South America; he’d flown his private plane to the show.

“Panic In Detroit” came as the New Left was devolving into celebrity personality-cult terrorism. The White Panthers’ John Sinclair (former jazz critic and the MC5’s former manager, commemorated by John Lennon on Some Time in New York City) and the late world-trotting revolutionary Che Guevara (whose Korda photograph, once an icon for radicals, now hangs in dorm rooms) were just the starting rounds. Now there was the Weather Underground, whose internal politics were those of a touring, squabbling rock group; Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang (Baader, who owned a Che poster, paid a designer to make his group’s machine-gun-and-star logo), and California’s Symbionese Liberation Army, whose kidnapping of the heiress Patty Hearst in 1974 was one of America’s most popular TV programs.(See Camper Van Beethoven’s “Tania”:“How I long for the days when you [Hearst] came to liberate us from boredom/From driving around from five to seven in the evening.”)

Political violence was a means of self-expression; revolutionary cells became performance artists, their various alliances with criminal groups a form of patronage. It was catnip for Bowie. In “Panic In Detroit,” he gave his provincial Che (late of the perfectly-named National People’s Gang) a backdrop of riot-torn streets and bloodless authority, the latter embodied by a cringing teacher and a student who runs to smash a slot machine in the chaos.

“Panic In Detroit” is also Bowie’s snapshot of the America that he encountered in depth for the first time, touring through it in late 1972: an America he spied through bus and limo windows and from hotel balconies: a country of empty spaces and fallen cities.

“There were snipers all over America, on tops of buildings,” he recalled in 1990. (There weren’t, really; Bowie was likely remembering Charles Whitman, who killed 14 people in 1966 during his sniper rampage from Austin’s University Tower, or even the “Scorpio” killer of Dirty Harry, who opens that film by picking off a woman swimming in a rooftop pool.) For Bowie, America had validated his imagination—the dystopic worlds he had been describing in song for years had turned out to be real places, filled with glamorous decay and casual murder. In Texas, Los Angeles and New York, he’d been harassed and even attacked by strangers. “It was really happening. Suddenly my songs didn’t look out of place,” he said.

Opening with a power chord riff, its monstrous-sounding tone soon tracked with another Wah-Wahed guitar, Mick Ronson shadows Bowie with bombing runs down the scale that end with thick clots of E chordal figures. In the refrain he needles Bowie’s vocal with lines that expire in clouds of feedback. Given leave to solo in the bridge, he sneers.

Working on Ronson’s behalf are a rockabilly Trevor Bolder bassline and a mesh of percussion. Emboldened by his conversion to Scientology and bitter about his paltry wages, Woody Woodmansey refused to play a Bo Diddley-esque shuffle Ronson and Bowie had requested, saying it was corny. Instead he played 16ths on his medium toms and punctuated chorus phrases with his crash cymbal (phased, like the backing vocals). So Bowie brought in his friend Geoff MacCormack to play congas and maracas to cook up a Diddley-style “swamp” groove. The track’s central pulse is MacCormack’s moves between high and low congas, occasionally muting the high conga for effect, as on the title phrase. Gliding between B minor and D major, “Panic In Detroit” descends into the maelstrom for its minute-plus coda, with Ronson’s pick scratches, Woodmansey’s crashes, MacCormack’s congas and the wails of Juanita Franklin and Linda Lewis sounding like a collective murder.

Mostly composed in Detroit during the Spiders’ first visit there (8 October 1972), “Panic In Detroit” was completed on 24 January 1973. A rarity in the last Ziggy Stardust shows, it was a regular in the 1974 tour (a live Philadelphia recording was the B-side of “Knock on Wood”) and in many later tours: Bowie played it up until the end. He also remade the song with Tony Visconti, Zaine Griff and Andy Duncan in 1979 for Kenny Everett’s New Year’s Eve show, but another remake (of “Space Oddity”) took its place in the show —this revised “Panic in Detroit” (with a cameo by either a Speak n Spell or an imitation of one) later appeared on reissues of Scary Monsters and Heathen.

Top: “Anarchistische Gewalttäter”: wanted poster for the Baader-Meinhof Gang, ca. 1972? “Beware! These violent criminals will make ruthless use of guns!” (GHDI).

Reissues: Amsterdam

March 11, 2016

Along with the VU’s “Waiting For the Man,” Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” (and Scott Walker’s interpretation of it) is one of the essential building blocks of Bowie’s development as a songwriter. Diamond Dogs couldn’t exist without it, nor could “Time”; “Amsterdam” was even once slotted to appear on  Ziggy Stardust: Bowie wrote “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” in part as his Brel substitute.

There’s a spot of confusion as to when the released Bowie studio take of “Amsterdam” was recorded: the reliable Kevin Cann slots it into the Pin Ups sessions of summer 1973, which is possible (that’s when it finally came out, as a B-side) but that seems like a rare error on his part. Unless the “Amsterdam” recorded in 1971 for Ziggy Stardust was a different take from the B-side version? There’s also another studio version circulating (see below) which sounds like a demo. And the version included on Rare is yet another take, of unknown origin: was this the Ziggy take? One day, perhaps, it will all get cleared up.

Originally posted on 21 December 2009, it’s “Amsterdam” (or “Port of Amsterdam,” if you prefer):

Amsterdam (Jacques Brel, 1964).
Amsterdam (Scott Walker, 1967).
Amsterdam (Bowie, demo? 1971?).
Amsterdam (Bowie, BBC, February 1970).
Amsterdam (Bowie, studio, 1971).
Amsterdam (alternate studio take?, 1971?).
Amsterdam (Bowie, live, 1971).
Amsterdam (live, 1990).

Jacques Brel composed “Amsterdam” in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in a villa overlooking the Mediterranean. He read his lyric to a fisherman friend, who wept while he carved open sea urchins. “Amsterdam” inspired these sort of visceral responses. After Robert Guillaume debuted the English version of “Amsterdam” at the Village Gate in January 1968, there was a “disconcertingly long hush—followed by a roar so damn loud I jumped.”

Brel never recorded “Amsterdam,” despite it being one of his best-known songs: its only official release is on a 1964 live LP of Brel at the Olympia, in Paris. Bowie first heard “Amsterdam” via Scott Walker’s cover recording, the final track on Walker’s 1967 debut LP. Bowie also attended the stage show Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which, having debuted at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, had come to London in the summer of 1968. The play had no libretto, just a series of performances of Brel compositions, with Mort Shuman (who also performed in the play) and Eric Blau translating Brel’s lyrics (freely and racily).

By late 1968 Bowie was playing “Amsterdam” with his folk trio and he’d keep the song in his stage repertoire until 1972 (he replaced it with Brel’s “My Death,” which better suited the times). Like “Waiting for the Man,” another song Bowie was obsessed with during the glam years, “Amsterdam” offered street life as stage material. Where “Waiting For the Man” was confined to the narrow lens of its junkie narrator, “Amsterdam” was a sprawling Brueghelian canvas: a port overrun with drunk, paunchy sailors who gnaw on fish heads, piss and fight in the street and use the port prostitutes “for a few dirty coins.” “Amsterdam” also gave Bowie a primer in how to craft an apocalypse in song, as it opened quietly, with the port waking up, and steadily built to a wild, drunken carnival (it was the template for everything from “Five Years” to “Station to Station.”)

After performing the song twice for the BBC, Bowie cut a studio take of “Amsterdam” that was issued as a B-side in 1973. Where Walker’s “Amsterdam” had been a reel of accordion, strings and horns, Bowie sang accompanied only by his (and in the studio take, possibly Mick Ronson’s) acoustic guitar. In early live recordings Bowie seemed in awe of the song, but by the studio take and his last live performances, he’d developed a saucy tone for the opening verses, boldly inflating and compressing phrases. Yet when he vied to match Brel and Walker in intensity in the last verse, he still audibly strained for effect. His last apprentice work.

Recorded (presumably) autumn 1971. Released 12 October 1973 (RCA 2424). Broadcast on 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show and 21 September 1971, Sounds of the 70s. After retiring “Amsterdam” as a stage piece in 1972, Bowie gave it a very brief revival for the Sound + Vision tour of 1990: its only appearance, I believe, was the aborted attempt in Brussels, linked above.

Top: “Renard Livres Echanges, near Les Halles, Paris,” 1970.

Reissues: Memory of a Free Festival

February 5, 2016

On a day in which I appear to be snowed in, why not revive a memory of summer? This is a hybrid reissue—the main entry is that of the book (which Repeater excerpted back when the book was released), while the “bonus tracks” are mostly appended from the original blog post.

Originally published on December 11, 2009: “Memory of a Free Festival.”

Memory of a Free Festival.
Memory of a Free Festival (extended version).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 1).
Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2).
Memory of a Free Festival (BBC, 1970).
Memory of a Free Festival (“Mike Garson Band,” live, 1974).

Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time: miniature utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from a grey morass of mundane, inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence…The most lively [young people] escape geographically and physically to the ‘Never Never Land’ of a free festival where they become citizens, indeed rulers, in a new reality.

Anonymous leaflet ca. 1980, quoted in George McKay’s Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance Since the Sixties.

Is this the way they say the future’s meant to feel?
Or just twenty thousand people standing in a field?

Pulp, “Sorted For E’s and Wizz.”

The free festival was an open-air concert and fair, held on the Croydon Road Recreational Ground in Beckenham on 16 August 1969 (across an ocean, the Woodstock Festival was underway). Bowie performed, his set allegedly including a reggae version of “Space Oddity,” as did groups like the Strawbs. There were puppet shows, Tibetan goods vendors and coconut shies; his new girlfriend Angela Barnett cooked hamburgers in a wheelbarrow. The festival was peaceful and a success, with some 3,000 attending. Beckenham’s mayor and chief of police complimented Bowie for pulling it off.

The song he recorded three weeks later, sequenced to close Space Oddity as his last word on the Sixties, depicted a golden afternoon in which he wandered through a blissful crowd of flower children, exchanging kisses and greeting passing Venusians. In reality Bowie, who’d buried his father only five days before, had swung between near-catatonia and a foul temper, calling his partners “materialistic arseholes” for profiting off hamburgers and concert posters, complaining about the PA system and skipping the after-party. Mary Finnigan, Bowie’s once-lover and collaborator in the Beckenham Arts Lab, later called Bowie a hypocrite for writing a peace-and-love song for a festival at which he’d been so abrasive.

A contrary set of feelings, a man trying to reconstitute a bad day as the hope it ought to have been, gave “Memory of a Free Festival” depth and even bite, with Bowie making some deprecating asides about the holy tribe: “We claimed the very source of joy ran through/it didn’t, but it seemed that way.” The warmth, the easy unity, of the Free Festival is already in the past. If the hippies are the “children of the summer’s end,” they should ready for winter.

Like the Arts Labs, the free concert was a child of the late Sixties. In summer 1968, the promoter Blackhill Enterprises began putting on monthly free rock shows in Hyde Park with the likes of Pink Floyd and the Move. The Rolling Stones hired Blackhill to run their own free Hyde Park concert the following summer (described by Richard Neville as “free, courtesy of Blackhill, of Granada’s groovy camera team, Marshall’s great amplification system and triple-priced Lyon’s ice cream.”) The Beckenham festival was a homespun version of this and it actually was free, unlike Woodstock, which had been forcibly converted into a free show. The happy chaos of Woodstock, soon followed by the 1969 Isle of Wight concert and the violent chaos of the Stones’ free show in Altamont that December, made the free festival yet another fault line between straight and hippie worlds. Parliament soon passed an act banning gatherings of over 5,000 at the Isle of Wight.

“Memory of a Free Festival” opens with Bowie playing a Rosedale electric chord organ that he’d found at Woolworths. As with the Stylophone, he gave a toy instrument dignity. The sole accompaniment of the song’s four verses, the organ was his voice’s rickety, ecclesiastic complement, making him sound like a wandering sermonizer.

Composing on the organ, even a toy like the Rosedale, liberated Bowie from the guitar’s melodic consistency; it foreshadowed the freedom he’d find when writing on the piano a year later. After politely announcing the piece’s title, he started by playing variations on E minor while nudging up the bassline stepwise from C to F. Settling into a loose 3/4 time, he sang the first two verses over a descending, nebulous chord sequence, shifting from B minor to B-flat (“felt the Lon/don sky,” “source of/joy”) while anchored on a D bass. The third verse gained momentum, Bowie singing more hurriedly while mainly keeping on an E note (pushing up slightly on “ecstasy”), slackening at the end of each phrase. A shift to D major (“scanned the skies”) marked the peak of the festival: the aliens arrive, the joints get passed around, the revelers “walk back to the [Croydon] road, unchained.”

What followed was a free-time interlude of organ swirls, snippets of chatter, laughs and guitar fills while John Cambridge kept loose order with his ride cymbal. A memory so far, the festival shifts to the present, a party as much ominous as joyful. The sequence’s real purpose was more practical: it had to glue the “Free Festival” verses to a three-chord (D-C-G) “sun machine” refrain possibly once intended for another song. Having considered using the “Hey Jude” refrain for “Janine,” Bowie now made the long coda of “Free Festival” in its image: loops of ragged communal chanting, with Bowie in Paul McCartney’s soul cheerleader role.

In early 1970, Mercury’s American wing asked Bowie to re- record “Memory of a Free Festival” as a single, requesting a faster tempo and to get to the refrain sooner. The compromise was to cut the track in half, devoting the B-side entirely to the sun machine. This new “Free Festival” found Bowie outshone by his backing band, who tromped in singly during the intro. Even with the Sixties fresh in the grave, there’s a feeling of getting down to business. Guitar, bass and drums kick in before the first verse starts, the Moog rolls over the humble Rosedale organ like a Panzer tank, the psychedelic interlude gets deep-sixed, the chanted backing vocals of the refrains could be from a football terrace. Mick Ronson, Tony Visconti’s free-flowing bass and Ralph Mace’s Moog used the long fadeout as a preview of coming attractions. “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1 and 2” was the sound of The Man Who Sold the World, hard glam rock, and a bit too hard and glam for summer 1970, as the single sold dismally.

The Beatles ended the Sixties by breaking up, the last record they made showing them walk single-file off stage. The Stones ended with blood and fire and the sense they’d survive it all (and they would). The Who had a messiah pulled down by his followers, the Kinks emigrated to Australia, Dylan and Van Morrison and a host of others went to ground in the country. Bowie closed a decade in which he’d been a footnote by throwing a party, singing a jaded memory of the summer’s end: the fun-fair of the Sixties was just prelude, his work’s troubled childhood. His “Memory of a Free Festival,” a last gathering of the tribes, had a sad, faded grandeur. Forty-five years on, it can still touch a medieval chord in the soul.

Recorded: 8-9 September 1969, Trident. Bowie: lead vocal, Rosedale electric chord organ; Mick Wayne: lead guitar; Tim Renwick: rhythm guitar; John Lodge: bass; John Cambridge: drums, tambourine; unknown musician(s): baritone saxophone; Visconti, Bob Harris, Sue Harris, Tony Woollcott, Marc Bolan, “Girl”: backing vocals. Produced, arranged: Visconti; engineered: Sheffield, Scott or Toft; (remake, as “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1 & Pt. 2”) 21, 23 March, 3, 14-15 April 1970, Trident and Advision Studios, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar, Rosedale organ; Ronson: lead guitar, backing vocal; Ralph Mace: Moog; Visconti: bass, backing vocal; Cambridge: drums; unknown musicians: strings (arr. Visconti). Produced: Visconti.

First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity; (single) 26 June 1970 (Mercury 6052 026). Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show; ca. June 1970, Six-O-One: Newsday; 15 August 1970, Eddy Ready Go! Live: 1969-1971, 1973-1974.

Children of the Sun Machine

E-Zee Possee, The Sun Machine.
Dario G, Sunmachine.
The Polyphonic Spree, Memory of a Free Festival (live, 2004).

The “sun machine” chant, having evanesced at the end of the ’60s, returned a generation later. “Memory of a Free Festival (Part 2),” a trance-inducing earworm, was a natural ancestor of a rave chant, and in 1990 E-Zee Possee had a minor hit with “The Sun Machine,” in which the “sun machine” chant was sung over house piano.

Then there was the UK dance trio Dario G’s 1998 “Sunmachine.” As Dario G’s Paul Spencer said, “We had this idea to sample bits of Bowie’s ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’ over an ambient track of ‘Sunchyme.’ But we quickly discovered that the sample was so brilliant that it needed a brand new track–with some rock elements. There was only one problem: the sample we were using had all of Bowie’s instrumentation in it, which was too noisy for our purpose. So, we sent a demo of the song to Bowie and he liked our idea so much that he sent us the song’s original tape, which allowed us to sample only his vocals. He couldn’t have been a better chap!” As an added bonus, Bowie producer, Tony Visconti, played all the flute parts on the track.” (Thanks to Daniel Simon for this link.)

I’m not sure we’re done with the sun machine yet—expect Animal Collective to use it at some point. [NOTE: this was 2009.]

Top to bottom: The Stones bury the Sixties at Altamont, December 1969; “Memory of a Free Festival Pt. 1” single; bathers in the Serpentine, Hyde Park, 1969.