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.


Reissues: All the Madmen

January 29, 2016

The unearthing of a never-before-published interview [which I believe is legit, not a clever fiction] with Bowie from February 1971 inspired this reposting. In it, when asked about “All the Madmen,” Bowie said:

“The guy in that story has been placed in a mental institution and there are a number of people in that institution being released each week that are his friends. Now they’ve said that he can leave as well. But he wants to stay there, ’cause he gets a lot more enjoyment out of staying there with the people he considers sane. He doesn’t want to go through the psychic compromises imposed on him by the outer world. [Pauses.] Ah, it’s my brother. ’Cause that’s where he’s at.”

The book revision of this post goes more into Nietzsche, R.D. Laing, the  song’s bizarre and very Bowie chord progressions, the (possible) influence of flamenco on Visconti and Ronson here, and other fun things.

Originally posted on January 18, 2010: “All the Madmen”:

All the Madmen.
All the Madmen (single edit).
All the Madmen (live, fragment, 1971).
All the Madmen (live, 1987).

In a closet of that church, there is at this day St. Hilary’s bed to be seen, to which they bring all the madmen in the country, and after some prayers and other ceremonies, they lay them down there to sleep, and so they recover.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy.

In a general way, then, madness is not linked to the world and its subterranean forms, but rather to man, his weaknesses and illusions…There is no madness but which is in every man, since it is man who constitutes madness in the attachment he bears for himself and the illusions he entertains…In this delusive attachment to himself, man generates his madness like a mirage.

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization.

Everyone says, ‘Oh yes, my family is quite mad.’ Mine really is.

David Bowie, to Cameron Crowe, 1975.

Bowie’s family, on his mother’s side, was riddled with mental illness: his aunt Una had been institutionalized for depression and schizophrenia, was given electro-shock treatment and had died in her late thirties; another aunt had schizophrenic episodes; a third had been lobotomized.

Most of all there was his mother’s son, his older half-brother Terry Burns, who eventually was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In 1966, while Bowie and Burns were walking to a Cream concert, Burns fell to the street and screamed, claiming he saw flames rising up from cracks in the pavement. By the time Bowie recorded The Man Who Sold the World, Burns had been confined to London’s Cane Hill Hospital.

So Bowie believed, at the age of 23, that he had perhaps even odds of going mad. The prospect naturally terrified him and would lie behind much of his work in the ’70s—writing songs about identity, control, lunacy and fear; devising personae as various means of escape, as conduits for insanity (Ziggy Stardust was partially based on the mad rock & roller Vince Taylor—Bowie once saw Taylor on his hands and knees outside Charing Cross, using a magnifying glass to pinpoint UFO landing sites on a city map he had spread on the pavement).

“All the Madmen” is Bowie’s first attempt to grapple with what he regarded as his sad inheritance, but it also reflects broader cultural movements; in the quarter century since the war, how society regarded and treated the insane had begun to change, in some cases radically.

(Two films stand on either end of the divide: Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), where the asylum is a stately Vermont manor, the “mad” are the misdiagnosed, the repressed and the malformed, and the face of modern psychiatry is the gorgeous Ingrid Bergman in a white lab coat; and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), where the asylum is a jail, and the insane are no longer puzzles to be solved or worthy citizens to be rehabilitated, but truth-tellers, the last honest men, who society hates and demands silenced and locked away. The face of mental illness treatment is now the sadistic bureaucrat Nurse Ratched.)

Ken Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest was just one of several 1960s books that questioned the treatment of the mentally ill and helped drive the anti-psychiatric movement: along with Foucault’s Madness and Civilization and Erving Goffman’s Asylums, Cuckoo’s Nest showed the asylum as society’s means of isolating the mad from mainstream life, so as to streamline and better enforce cultural norms (e.g., sending homosexuals to be “cured” in asylums via shock treatment). Asylums were hypocrite’s prisons, in which the quiet compromises the “sane” made to conform with society were replaced by brute force.

“All the Madmen” falls in this line. In the lyric, Bowie casts his lot with the insane, following Kerouac’s lines in On the Road (a favorite of Terry Burns) that “the only people for me are the mad ones…the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles.” Bowie’s madmen, locked in their asylums, are “organic minds” hidden in a cellar. Bowie first acts like a lunatic to escape detection and show solidarity, as he’s realized he lives in a society of lunatics. It’s no use: his captors (his doctors, one and the same) remove pieces of his mind, until he truly descends into madness. He ends the song by chanting, over and over, the Dadaist refrain: “Zane zane zane! Ouvre le chien!!”

Aversos Compono Animos

“All The Madmen” is one of the more intricately-arranged tracks on The Man Who Sold the World, opening with Bowie on his acoustic (a brusque, scattered intro with several ringing open strings), leading into the first verse. A descant recorder appears in the second verse, played by Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson (it’s eventually supplanted by synthesizer in the final chorus), and the ominous quiet of the early verses is shattered when Mick Ronson kicks in to lead the band into the long bridge (three separate sections, 24 bars in all).

The chorus (one of the catchiest on the record) is dominated by Ronson’s guitar in its first appearance, with Visconti’s freely-roaming bass as a counterweight, and it leads to a brief two-harmonized-guitar solo. A spoken interlude reminiscent of “We Are Hungry Men” follows, but soon enough it’s Ronson’s show again, with another harmonized-guitar solo replacing the first section of the bridge. The track ends in glorious chaos: Ronson repeating a riff from his first solo, Bowie chanting “Ouvre le chien,” madmen voices swirling around, Woody Woodmansey keeping on ride cymbals ’til the fadeout.

Recorded 18 April-22 May 1970. While Bowie’s American label Mercury released it as a promo single in December 1970 to accompany Bowie’s first-ever American press tour, the only contemporary live recording of “All the Madmen” was captured at a party by the Los Angeles DJ Rodney Bingenheimer in early 1971—part of the poor-sounding recording turned up in a 2004 documentary on Bingenheimer’s life, Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Bowie let “Madmen” lie fallow for the rest of the ’70s, but garishly revived it for his Glass Spider tour in 1987. He’s left it alone since.

Top: Marcello Mastroianni in John Boorman’s Leo The Last; an alternate cover of The Man Who Sold The World LP, with the administrative wing of Cane Hill Hospital in the background.


Reissues: Conversation Piece

January 26, 2016

69paris

One of the few Sixties Bowie songs to make the reader top 100 song poll, “Conversation Piece” was one of DB’s “lost gems,” a B-side never compiled until the Ryko Space Oddity reissue in 1990. But is it finally starting to come into its own?

This entry isn’t that different from the book revision: in the latter, there’s more on the arrangement, the rather inept musical breakdown offered here is corrected, and more attention is paid to the remake, to which I give short shrift here. Likely the only piece of rock criticism to open with a quote from the 2nd president of the U.S.

Originally posted November 23, 2009: “Conversation Piece.”

Conversation Piece (1969 demo).
Conversation Piece.
Conversation Piece (Toy remake, 2000).


[The poor man] feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind take no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market, at a play, at an execution, or coronation: he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or cellar. He is not disapproved, censured or reproached; he is only not seen.

John Adams, Discourses on Davila.

I get lonesome right in the middle of a crowd.

Elvis Presley.

There have been few songs written about academics, whether tenured or failed. All that comes to mind are REM’s “Sad Professor” and this one, and “Conversation Piece” may not be about an academic at all. An independent scholar, let’s say—a shabby young man with an old man’s habits, who lives above an Austrian grocer: his rug is scattered with the pages of unpublished essays, and he spends his time wandering the streets begrudging life. He may throw himself off a bridge at song’s end.

“Conversation Piece” was Bowie’s most recent composition when he made a demo tape in April 1969 (John Hutchinson calls it “a new one” and Bowie has to prompt him with the opening guitar chords (“G-D-G”).) It’s unlike most of the songs written in this period, which are either love ballads or self-mythical explorations, as it hearkens back to the oddball character sketches of the first Bowie LP, like “Little Bombardier” or “She’s Got Medals.” (That said, some, like Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, have said the song is fairly autobiographical, a sketch of the frustrated composer and failed pop singer Bowie of 1968.)

Most of all, it captures well the curse of urban anonymity—its title is a cruel joke, the “conversation” only going on in the singer’s head. Once during a hard spell while living in NYC I spent a weekend almost entirely out of doors, going from shop to cafe to library, and realized at some point during it that I had talked to absolutely no one, except maybe to mutter thanks to a ticket-taker or cashier. The sense of moving among a great mass of people and feeling utterly invisible and isolated from them is almost addicting at first, and then it can just sink your soul.

It’s a fairly simple song—three meandering verses, three tight eight-bar choruses (half lyric, half wordless). For the final verse, Bowie uses a standard trick and changes key, bumping all the chords up one step (so while the third line of the verse—for example, “he often calls me down to eat“—has been C/G, it’s now D/A (“and they walk in twos and threes or more“), and so forth). To further the sense that the singer is breaking down, the last verse extends into a faster-paced section with shorter sung phrases until collapsing into the final chorus.

The studio take, recorded during the Space Oddity sessions ca. July-September 1969, was eventually released as the B-side to “The Prettiest Star” in March 1970. It’s unclear why “Conversation Piece” was left off the Space Oddity LP, as it’s stronger than most of the other cuts, and if LP time was an issue, they could’ve shaved at least three minutes off “Memory of a Free Festival” and no one would’ve wept. Over the years, it’s become many people’s favorite Bowie obscurity (Stuart Murdoch seems to have lived in this song at some point).

Bowie revived “Conversation Piece” in 2000 for his scotched LP Toy, and eventually released it on a bonus disc for his 2002 Heathen album. He sings it in a lower register and without much emotion. The flailing scholar of the original recording at least had energy in his desperation; here, all is resigned, empty despair.

Top: Pascal Grob, “Paris, 1969.”


Reissues: Changes

January 18, 2016

dc

So there’s been interest in reprinting some old entries that weren’t read much way back when. Why not start with the credo song? (see Momus’ original comment.)

This entry was substantially revised in the book, to the better (one hopes): the personal narrative got axed but there’s a more accurate and sharper analysis of the music (one hopes). Nick Drake wound up in it, and I also address the version that DB sang on with Butterfly Boucher in the early 2000s, which I find charming.

As with all of these older entries, keep in mind that if you find inaccuracies, I likely corrected them in the book. I was also snarky and glib at times, which I regret. Well, sometimes.

This piece now seems a remnant of a lost time, when I hadn’t figured out the voice of the blog yet. I still have no idea where Mark M. is these days.

Originally posted on April 6, 2010: ch-ch-ch-Changes.

Changes (demo).
Changes.
Changes (live, 1973).
Changes (live, 1974).
Changes (rehearsal, 1976).
Changes (live, 1990).
Changes (live, 1999).
Changes (live, Glastonbury, 2000).
Changes (A&E Live By Request, 2002).
Changes (live, 2002).
Changes (Ellen, 2004).
Changes (Butterfly Boucher with David Bowie, 2004).
Changes (with Mike Garson and Alicia Keys (Bowie’s last performed song), 2006.)
Changes (Cristin Milioti, Lazarus (fragment), 2015).

I’ve seen David Bowie perform only once: Hartford, in the summer of 1990. This was the “Sound and Vision” tour, whose premise was that Bowie would be playing nothing but his hits…for the last time ever. The ultimatum caused a lot of fuss at the time, though the idea that Bowie would never sing something like “Young Americans” again for the rest of his life seemed ludicrous on its face. Bowie was back to the hits again in a few years.

I went with a friend from work. It was a friendship of happenstance and convenience, one our mothers seemed to have arranged. “Mark, you like the New York Dolls—here’s the only other kid in our town who knows who they are.” Mark was two years older than I; he was cutting, brutal, handsome and drove an enormous white Ford LTD. Strangers at stoplights would challenge him to race. He once went so fast on Rt. 11, a dead-end Connecticut highway that the cops neglected, that the needle had circled around to 0 mph. [VOICE OF 2016: Or so M. said.]

On the way to the show Mark said, “All I know is, Bowie better play ‘Changes’.” Bowie opened with “Space Oddity” and went on through his basics, all except “Changes.” He went off stage. Mark sat in ominous silence. “Oh well, you know it’s the encore,” I said. Encore, no “Changes.” “Well, it’s gotta be the show-ender,” I said. Second encore, another strike-out. The house lights coming on felt like a slap. Mark drove home with an inspired recklessness, sharking the LTD across lanes. It was bleak inside the car. All Mark said during the drive was, “Why didn’t that fucker play it?! Fuck Bowie!”

I also felt at odds, the passive victim of an injustice. “Changes” was Bowie’s teenage anthem, where Bowie, usually such a cold, unknowable artist, had met us halfway: “Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it!!”. Sure, part of “Changes”‘ resonance was because lines from the second verse were the preamble to The Breakfast Club (oh you know, “these children that you spit on/as they try to change their worlds…”), but the song also still sounded current, its angst unresolved. While cut the year before I was born, “Changes” didn’t feel like a hippie leftover—it wasn’t “Both Sides Now” or “Hey Jude”; it didn’t have the clammy taste of forced nostalgia (it even seemed anti-Boomer: “Where’s your shame? You’ve left us up to our necks in it!”). While it was played regularly on the radio and even my grandmother probably would have recognized it, “Changes” felt somehow as if it had sneaked through.

Listening to the song 20 years later, I’m struck by how personal and how odd a track it is: “Changes” isn’t far removed from “Quicksand” in that its lyric reads like a transcribed Bowie internal monologue. The few lines Bowie offers to make the song more universal just serve as bait, in the way the song’s hooks distract the ear from its bizarre construction. “All the Young Dudes,” by comparison, is far more solid and enduring an adolescent hymn. “Changes” is something of a cuckoo’s egg.

Did it matter, really? Not then, likely not now. As Levon Helm once sang, you take what you need and you leave the rest.

Bowie was becoming more shrewd about his work’s commercial viability, and knew he had something with “Changes”: he led off Hunky Dory with it, chose it as his first RCA single, and made it the centerpiece of his tours (er, except Hartford ’90) and greatest-hits albums. Its lyric begins as reminiscence (Bowie recalling his career’s various false starts (“a million dead-end streets”), flops, trend-hops, self-reinventions), expands into Bowie trying to fix his current state, as if plotting a cloud’s progress on a map, and finally rewards its adolescent audience with a few identification lines.

The straightforward lyric is set against a twisted harmonic backdrop (parts of the song are even “anarchic,” Wilfrid Mellers wrote [VOICE OF 2016: not really true; more in the book]). It opens with a 9-bar intro moving from Cmaj7 up to F7, and whose main hook (two of five alternating bars of piano and bass) doesn’t appear again until after the chorus, then never heard from again. (Nothing in the song is evenly-constructed: both the chorus and verses are 15 bars, while the outro (which features Bowie’s first-ever saxophone solo) is seven). Its chorus sways between 4/4, 2/4 (on “different man” or “necks in it”) and 3/4 time (starting with “time may change me”), while its chord changes are relentless (the “I can’t trace” bar has a different chord for each of three beats—C/E, G/D and F/A).

Bowie makes it go down easily by layering in multiple hooks: the stuttered “changes,” or the way Trevor Bolder’s bassline, descending a half-step with each two notes, echoes the vocal harmonies, or Rick Wakeman’s piano that serves as the chorus’ rhythmic engine.

And the chorus is the accessible part! The verses are even wilder: irregular sets of 15 bars that seem to expand and contract at whim (the second bar “waiting for, and my…” is only five sung notes, while its counterpart, the sixth bar, has six notes but just feels much longer: “got it maaaaade, it seemed the…”). Bowie delivers the lines freely, in a conversational tone, making rhymes out of shadows—the way he mates “glimpse” with “test,” or the internal rhymes of “time” and “wild.” And sometimes the lines don’t even scan—take how Bowie has to swallow the “the” in “how others must see the faker,” or sing “Strange fascination fascinating me” as “fass-ating me.” (Singing “Changes” live, especially in the last Ziggy Stardust shows of 1973, Bowie went further, reciting the verses like beat poetry over free-form piano.)

This relentless strangeness, the way the song’s structure seems intent on upsetting the lyric, and yet weaves everything together to form one of Bowie’s more melodic choruses, may lie at the root of why “Changes” has never quite become a classic rock warhorse. It promises, it flatters, it offers you back your own thoughts, but the song remains unknowable. It seems to be speaking to you, but is instead conversing with the mirror. It recreates its listeners in its own image, casts them off, reclaims them.

Changing

The studio demo (with Mick Ronson singing harmonies) and the LP cut are from June-August 1971, while “Changes” was released as Bowie’s first RCA single in January 1972 (RCA 2160). While it initially flopped both in the UK and the US, “Changes” would eventually become Bowie’s official theme song. How many TV rock retrospectives have featured a montage of Bowie, cutting from Ziggy to Soul Bowie to Thin White Duke to “Modern Love” Lothario, set to the “Changes” chorus? The literalness of it all makes you weep: look, he keeps Ch-ch-Changing! Live versions were recorded in 1972, 1973 and 1974 (the latter, from David Live, was the B-side of “Knock On Wood”), [VOICE OF 2016: and many more times, see links] while covers range from Ian McCulloch to Lindsay Lohan.

The Bowie concert would be the last time Mark and I hung out, as I went off to college a few weeks later and I never saw him again. “Changes,” in its absence, was our epitaph.


Album Poll, Day 2: 19-11

January 5, 2016

jimmyk

We reach the middleweight section of the album poll: those that wound up ranked between 19 and 11, by you (don’t blame me).

We begin with what was once, for a time, Bowie’s “last” album:

reality

19. Reality (25 points/votes).

It is ironic. You haven’t seen the artwork yet, but there’s a fakeness to the cover that undermines that. It’s the old chestnut: What is real and what isn’t? It’s actually about who’s stolen this world.

Bowie, 2003.

Reality ends up changing in the wake of Bowie’s return. The fact was that his disappearance made Reality a better album. Not that it was bad, ever, but the only reason it was important at all was because of its status as “The Last One.”…The Next Day was hell on Reality because it made Reality have to stand on its own legs as an album for almost the first time. In its defense, the only real difference is that now we *really* wish ‘Try Some Buy Some’ was a B-Side.

Ian McDuffie.

R-2476469-1449887234-7440.png

18. David Bowie aka Space Oddity aka Man of Words/Man of Music (28 points/votes).

I’ve been the male equivalent of the dumb blonde for a few years, and I was beginning to despair of people accepting me for my music. It may be fine for a male model to be told he’s a great looking guy, but that doesn’t help a singer much, especially now that the pretty boy personality cult seems to be on the way out.

My songs are all from the heart, and they are wholly personal to me, and I would like people to accept them as such. I dearly want to be recognized as a writer, but I would ask them not to get too deeply into my songs. As likely as not, there’s nothing there but the words and music you hear at one listening…I see you’ve noticed that my songs are seldom about boy and girl relationships. That’s because I’ve never had any traumas with girls.

Bowie, NME interview, 1969.

David Bowie can be viewed in retrospect as all that Bowie had been and a little of what he would become, all jumbled up and fighting for control: a rag-bag of ideas all getting in each other’s way.

Charles Shaar Murray and Roy Carr.

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17. The Buddha of Suburbia (42 points, 34 votes, 2 #1 votes).

One idea pulled another behind it, like conjurers’ handkerchiefs…I felt more solid myself, and not as if my mind were just a kind of cinema for myriad impressions and emotions to flicker through.

Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.

I spent so much time in my bedroom [in Bromley]. It really was my entire world. I had books up there, my music up there, my record player. Going from my world upstairs out onto the street, I had to pass through this no-man’s-land of the living room, you know, and out the front hall.

Bowie, 1990.

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16. Let’s Dance (50 points/votes, highest-ranked LP to get no #1s).

A friend of mine who heard this record before I did told me that he was rather disappointed by it. “It’s got guitar solos all over it,” he announced in the sort of tone that you might use for telling somebody that there is a large, maggoty dog turd on their new jacket. Despite the expectation that the combination of Bowie and Nile Rodgers would result in the kind of immaculately tortured but immaculately deft angst-funk that seems in vogue in certain quarters, the actual result is something quite different: some of the strongest, simplest and least complicated music that Bowie has ever made. Let’s Dance is clean, straight and…huge.

Charles Shaar Murray, LP review, NME, 1983.

I think I’m just a little tired of experimentation now…there is a proliferation of synthetic instruments being used in that kind of, er, Me generation icy cold vein. I feel it’s very hard to use those instruments without a kind of preconditioning already there. That if you use the synthesizer it means this particular thing; that I’m part of this angular society.

So that’s why I’ve used a very organic, basic instrumentation on this new album. Such instrumentation doesn’t say anything other than it comes from a hybrid of white and black culture. That is the only underlying subtext it has really…As I say, experimentation can be rewarding for finding awkward stances musically. But it just isn’t satisfying after a while. And it’s not satisfying because it’s not very useful, except – as Brian Eno would say – for setting up a new kind of vocabulary. Now I’ve got the vocabulary I’m supposed to do something with it! Ha ha!

Bowie, 1983.

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15. Earthling (57 points, 49 votes, 2 #1 votes).

I’ve been featured in a long-running cartoon in Britain as being a rather disengaged culture vulture. A bit of a mad pilot that kind of flies from avant-garde trees, making this nest out of glittering jewels that belong to other beings. Well, I guess that’s me. The thing is, I agree with all that, and I don’t see anything wrong in that. Yes, that’s what I do. I’m a contagious, infectious enthusiast. It’s what I like doing.

Bowie, 1997.

What’s great about him in that he’s constantly looking for new input. There’s all this stuff going on around us, and it’s so easy to just shut it out because it’s too much. Instead, he just wades right in, like an old lady at a basement sale. Instead of going through racks of clothes, he’s going through racks of ideas, pulling out what interests him.

Reeves Gabrels, on Bowie, 1997.

and the first notable jump in votes:

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14. The Next Day (98 points, 94 votes, 1 #1 vote, 2 voters specified Next Day Extra).

Effigies Indulgences Anarchist Violence Chthonic Intimidation Vampyric Pantheon Succubus Hostage Transference Identity Mauer Interface Flitting Isolation Revenge Osmosis Crusade Tyrant Domination Indifference Miasma Pressgang Displaced Flight Resettlement Funereal Glide Trace Balkan Burial Reverse Manipulate Origin Text Traitor Urban Comeuppance Tragic Nerve Mystification

Bowie’s “work flow diagram” for The Next Day, sent to Rick Moody, 2013.

Stay-At-Home Bowie isn’t boring, however…In fact, it’s one of the most interesting evolutions of Bowie’s public persona. He’s taken a conception of himself forced upon him by popular culture, an idea created in his absence from the public eye. It’s also a character that is forced upon him by the passage of time: he simply is older now. And he’s playing up to that, to a degree. He’s also raging against it, subverting it, adding to it, and generally not doing the sort of things you’d expect David Bowie to do. Plus, Bowie getting old and revelling in it: that has the same sort of rebellious spirit as modern-day Bob Dylan, his protest song period long behind him, putting out a record of Christmas standards.

“A Sitting Ovation.”

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13. The Man Who Sold The World (112 points, 104 votes, 2 #1 votes).

Tony Visconti’s compressed production gives the album an utterly synthetic audio quality: few records this simply played sound as studio-created.

Trouser Press Record Guide, 3rd edition.

It’s clearly the beginning of the Spiders from Mars…Though that band was yet to be invented, technically, it’s a logical extension of what was going on with The Man Who Sold The World. It was a pivotal album in that it gave [Bowie] a taste of what it was like to be in a rock band.

Tony Visconti.

It was all family problems and analogies put into science-fiction form.

Bowie, on MWSTW, 1976.

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12. Heathen (150 points, 134 votes, 4 #1 votes).

Especially in one’s mid-fifties, you’re very aware that that’s the moment you have to leave off the idea of being young. You’ve got to let it go.

Bowie, Interview, 2002.

Heathen will surely be condemned by those who cannot forgive him for his past greatness, and will likely be loved by a few who still imagine strains of “Space Oddity” beneath its refrains. It’s hard to shake the thought that even thirty years later, some people still seem to be expecting another Ziggy.

Eric Carr, review, Pitchfork, 2002.

Heathen was written in the mountains, and kind of feels like that, I think.

Bowie, 2002.

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11. Young Americans (157 points, 137 votes, 5 #1 votes).

Bowie played [Young Americans] for the ten blissed-out, formerly camped-out, devotees, who’d been ushered into the studio, finally, at 5 am by Stuart George. With wine, tears and adulation flowing around and from the blessed, Bowie was an affable host as he signed more autographs, apologized for the unfinished mix of the album and agreed to play it a second time, at which point the party erupted into dance. Bowie took center floor with a foxy stomp.

Rolling Stone, 1974.

My own recent music has been good, plastic soul, I think. It’s not very complex, but it’s enjoyable to write. I did most of it in the studio. It doesn’t take very long to write…about ten, 15 minutes a song. I mean, with Young Americans I thought I’d better make a hit album to cement myself over here [the U.S.], so I went in and did it. It wasn’t too hard, really.

Bowie, Melody Maker, 1976.

Next: the Top 10. Oy Vey Baby still has a shot.

Photos: mostly Discogs. Also: amateur painter, 2014 (Jimmy King); “According to G,” Next Day promo posters, NYC, 2013; Bowie at an HMV promo for Heathen, 2002 (unknown photog); Ms. Swift & Young Americans (ASOS).


Album Poll, Day 1: One-Votes to 30-20

January 4, 2016

If the song poll was a cavalry battle, the “readers’ favorite Bowie albums” poll was trench warfare.

The song poll’s results came after many sweeps and shifts, with a wide range of songs jockeying for position during the vote tallying. The album poll, by contrast, quickly settled into a long slog between two LPs for the top slot, while three albums slugged it out in the middle of the top 10. The rest of the list soon sorted itself out, position-wise. The top 15 was cemented by the time I’d compiled 100 ballots (out of roughly 350 cast).

So, at least within the confines of this poll, there’s a substantial consensus on what the top Bowie albums are. You’ll find out soon enough.

But first, as in the song poll, here are the single-vote picks: those albums loved by one single voter. Mainly a list of bootlegs and compilations:

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Blackstar (one clairvoyant, or optimistic, voter). ChangesTwoBowie. Christiane F. (soundtrack). Images: 1966-1967. iSelect. Nothing Has Changed. Peter and the Wolf. A Reality Tour. Live Santa Monica ’72. A Portrait in Flesh (bootleg: Los Angeles, 5 September 1974). 50th Birthday Bash (bootleg: New York, 8 January 1997). Heaven’s In Here (bootleg: Tin Machine, Chicago, 7 December 1991). Sound + Vision (voter specified the original 1989 set).

Then the handful-favorites:

Lust for Life; Glass Spider (2 points/votes each); All Saints; Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture (soundtrack) (3 points/votes); Labyrinth (soundtrack), Bowie at the Beeb (4 points/votes); Baal (5 points/votes); Deram Anthology (5 points, 1 vote—its sole vote was a #1); Tin Machine II (6 points/votes); ChangesOneBowie (6 points, 2 votes, 1 #1 vote).

Now, we reach the outer regions. The top 30-20 Bowie albums, starting with the last “underrated” Bowie LP?:

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30. ‘hours…’ (7 points/votes).

I’ve watched [friends] flounder a little over the last 10 years, when they’re reaching that stage where it’s very, very hard to start a new life. Some of them are affected with resignation and some of them, a certain bitterness maybe…they found themselves in relationships that aren’t what they had expected to be in when they were younger.

Bowie, 1999.

‘Hours . . .’ wafts into the room, breezily delivers its angsty arabesques and afterlife lullabies, and then luminously bows out in a succinct 45:42… an album that improves with each new hearing…further confirmation of Richard Pryor’s observation that they call them old wise men because all them young wise men are dead.

Greg Tate, Rolling Stone, 1999.

THREE WAY TIE, 29-27, among albums that have little to do with each other:

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Stage (10 points/votes).

This particular package, extravagant yet minimal, arrives hard on the heels of a critically and commercially successful world tour: to capitalise on the thousands thirsting for vinyl souvenirs – love me, love my records – and to conveniently fill the contract quota. Spanning four sides and six years, it’s an obvious complement to the earlier, more fraught ‘David Live’ – there being no reduplication of any songs therein – and serves as a suitably ‘weighty’ and timely summary to the latest (and to many, the most interesting) stage.

Jon Savage, Sounds, 1978.

David Bowie

Leon (10 points, 6 votes, 1 #1 vote).

(For new readers asking ‘wait, what the hell is Leon?’ A not-quite-album, Leon is a bootleg collection of three 20-minute mood/song suites that were later cut up and diced into Outside.)

Our conceptual parameters are not that dissimilar. Brian would often set tasks which would define the movements of the day and then we would work according to that plan, which he would redefine in the studio. This is a great way to start because, as Brian often says, “When you ask musicians to jam, the common ground will always be the bloody blues.” So you always end up with these endless, boring bloody blues pieces. Brian’s thing is to break the structure from the beginning of the day and enter into a feeling of improvisation from new places.

Bowie, 1994.

Never Let Me Down (10 points, 6 votes, 1 #1 vote).

My nadir was Never Let Me Down. It was such an awful album. I’ve gotten to a place now where I’m not very judgmental about myself. I put out what I do, whether it’s in visual arts or in music, because I know that everything I do is really heartfelt. Even if it’s a failure artistically, it doesn’t bother me in the same way that Never Let Me Down bothers me. I really shouldn’t have even bothered going into the studio to record it. [laughs] In fact, when I play it, I wonder if I did sometimes.

Bowie, 1995.

Never Let Me Down is an inspired and brilliantly crafted work. It’s charged with a spirit that makes art soul food; imbued with the contagious energy that gives ideas a leg to stand on.

Glenn O’Brien, Spin review, 1987.

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26. Tin Machine (11 points/votes).

We were sick of turning on the radio and hearing disco and dance music and drum machines, which I think in the business they call “crap.”

Tony Sales, 1989.

I’ve never been worried about losing fans. I just haven’t bothered to put that into practice recently. My strength has always been that I never gave a shit about what people thought of what I was doing. I’d be prepared to completely change from album to album and ostracize everybody that may have been pulled in to the last album. That didn’t ever bother me one iota. I’m sort of back to that again…

Bowie, 1989.

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25. The Idiot (13 points, 9 votes, 1 #1 vote).

Iggy is in great shape – he’s not the drug-crazed lunatic of yore. Iggy is very together…he’s still got mischief forever. And it’s a great album. David plays saxophone on it. Everybody’s gonna find out where all the punk bands that are making it did their homework. I mean, Iggy’s so far ahead of everybody…

RCA official, to Wesley Strick, Circus, 1977.

I was happy to be a guinea pig if [Bowie] had a new idea. The more obscure and weird the idea, that’s what I wanted.

Iggy Pop.

CAREER SPANNING TWO-WAY TIE for 24-23: young man; rich man:

David Bowie (1967) (14 points, 10 votes, 1 #1 vote).

It was such a weird album. I can’t believe it got released.

Gus Dudgeon, 1993.

Oh, that thing… that was on a very semi-professional basis. I was still working as a commercial artist then, and I made that kind of in my spare time, taking days off work and all that. I never followed it up, did any stage work or anything. I just did an album, ’cause I’d been writing, y’know, sent my tape into Decca and they said they’d make an album. Thought it was original.

Bowie, to Lenny Kaye, 1973.

Tonight (14 points, 10 votes, 1 #1 vote).

It was rushed. The process wasn’t rushed; we actually took our time recording the thing; Let’s Dance was done in three weeks, Tonight took five weeks or something, which for me is a really long time. I like to work fast in the studio. There wasn’t much of my writing on it ’cause I can’t write on tour and I hadn’t assembled anything to put out. But I thought it a kind of violent effort at a kind of Pin Ups.

Bowie, 1987.

Tonight is not a great album. It is, however, a good album, and perhaps more importantly, it’s a much better album than you think it is, or may have been led to believe. Bowie’s made some subpar records, but this isn’t one of them—and frankly, even its failures aren’t boring, because, well, it’s an ‘80s Bowie album, from a decade in which he was wildly inconsistent, but also never dull. And remember: your family is a football team.

Thomas Inskeep, 2005.

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22. David Live (17 points, 9 votes, 2 #1 votes).

The artiste at his laryngeal nadir, mired in bullshit pessimism and arena-rock pandering–and the soul frills just make it worse.

Robert Christgau.

The first track, “1984” burst into the room, and again Bowie settled back in a chair to listen. While the album was playing, several of the musicians traveling with him and some of the MainMan staff came into the room to hear it. Bowie was very much a musician, not a “personality” in the manner of so many rock stars when they listen to their own music. He was like a fan pointing out special touches – some crisp guitar lick or a particularly hot saxophone solo – that delighted him. There were, quite justifiably, many reasons for his delight. Though it is a bit dangerous making such judgements on the basis of a single listening, David Live is quite possibly the best live rock album I’ve ever heard – an urgent, highly accessible, brilliantly performed collection.

Robert Hilburn, Melody Maker, 1974.

WE END ON ONE LAST TIE, 21-20:

Black Tie White Noise (19 points/votes).

I knew what people would think when they heard I was going back in to work with Nile. But I was thinking, ‘I hope this doesn’t turn into another ‘Let’s Dance’,’ and that probably drove me even harder. It is a very personal album.

Bowie, 1993.

Black Tie is a very straight album. The skills which were once Bowie’s by default have been irretrievably passed on to the kind of talents he used to eat for breakfast, and he is left flapping alone, a mudskipper when the mud’s dried up. Welcome to the middle-aged disco, welcome to the dehydrated dance and, once past the hopeful roar of the instrumental opening ‘Wedding’, welcome to the disinherited second cousin of Let’s Dance again (like we did last summer).

Dave Thompson, The Rocket, 1993.

Pin Ups (19 points/votes).

This flashy tribute to the English scene, ca. 1966, remains Bowie’s quirky triumph–not that he’d come up with any other kind of triumph. I mean, who else could sing ‘Here Comes the Night’ as a raging queen and make it sound right?

Greil Marcus.

In those days [the 1960s] I was an audience, but I never dressed like anybody that was in the rock business.

Bowie, 1973.

Next: Bowie albums, 19-11 (I think—unless I find enough time to put it all together tomorrow. but most likely 19-11).


The Informer

December 3, 2015

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The Informer.

Starting as a reworking/development of the instrumental “Plan,” “The Informer” wound up with a dozen vocal tracks (all Bowie) and a lyric possibly inspired by Martin McDonagh’s black comedy In Bruges. In the latter, two Irish killers are hiding out in Belgium after a hit goes wrong; their refuge Bruges soon reveals itself as a Dantean purgatory, for both them and their boss (who shows up in the third act to wreak havoc).*

The verse lyric (built on strides between C major and a fluctuating G major (from a suspended fourth back to the major chord)) seems written for Colin Farrell’s character in the film, a neophyte hitman whose debut assignment is to dispatch a priest, with a young boy winding up in the crossfire. “I’ll be telling myself…that you brought it on yourself” (or see later in the bridge, “you were the prime assignment/ so help me Christ“).

By the last verse, Bowie’s character study has given way to broader speculation/gripes about God, Satan, Christianity in general (there’s even a U2 dig in the last verse: “I still don’t know/what we were looking for“), with Bowie in his well-worn role of addressing an absent God like a lover to be abandoned or a false friend that he’s cutting. It’s “Word on a Wing” four decades on, its singer having grown ever more embittered and defensive over the years.

As with the other Next Day Extra tracks, there’s the mandatory dose of self-reference: see the “Satellite of Love” backing vocal line or how the dramatic build in the bridge calls back to the climax of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.” Yet with its crackling, swooshing guitar atmospherics, brusque rhythm section, its backing vocal tracks neatly arranged like a set of miniatures, the compression and harsh brightness of the mix, “The Informer” seems like the end of a long run. It’s the feel of Heathen and Reality pushed to the point of exhaustion, with Bowie having a last go in a played-out style. He pulls it off with aplomb, but in retrospect it was the closing number of Bowie’s millennial show, with the lead actor already plotting to tear down the set and bring in a new pit orchestra.

Recorded: (rhythm tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, spring 2013, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 4 November 2013 on The Next Day Extra. Credits: “Crayon to Crayon” for some musical finds & I believe it was commenter “Dave L” who first noticed the In Bruges connection.

* Not even the first possible reference to Bruges in a Bowie song, as the Georges Rodenbach line in “Dancing Out in Space” could tie to Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte (which is very much the Bruges of McDonagh’s film).

Various business: Last weekend for the poll. As of this writing (Thurs. morning), 220 ballots are in and the top 2 songs are TIED, people. So vote if you haven’t already. Deadline is 8 PM EST, Monday 7 December. Poll results will be the week of 14 December: I’ll likely space the song winners out over a couple of days, and may do the top 100 instead of top 50. We’ll see.

Top: “Faungg,” “Bruges, Belgium,” 2011.


Like a Rocket Man

November 24, 2015

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Like a Rocket Man.

Given the new direction revealed in “Blackstar” and (possibly) its upcoming album, the Next Day Extra tracks now seem, particularly in the winning “Like a Rocket Man,” as a last (?) winking goodbye to the past, to the point where they barely exist as songs. They’re more bright coalitions of memories, in which everything from lyric to title to vocal to chords has an analogue somewhere back in the dead 20th Century.

“Like a Rocket Man” ticks off more boxes than even the other past-obsessed songs of The Next Day. The title’s a dig at an Elton John single Bowie had groused about being a “Space Oddity” ripoff from the day it charted; the verse melody is a near-actionable steal of the Beatles’ “Help“; the lyric references (again) the Kinks’ “Days,” while much of it’s a brutal recollection of what it was like to be a cocaine addict in the mid-Seventies.

As in “Fascination,” Bowie personifies cocaine (quite literally: “Little Wendy Cocaine”) as the consuming passion of his life in the Young Americans/ Station to Station years. His sunny top melody shines up his lines describing the joys of coke, its delusions, its agonies (“I’m lead, oh, I’m sand…I’m crawling down the wall: I’m happy screaming, yes I am!…I have no shape nor color, I’m God’s lonely man…I don’t want to die but I don’t want to live”). Of course, it’s easy to get lost in Bowie’s house of mirrors here: he’s playing openly with his own myths, tweaking the Coke Dark Magus Bowie tabloid image that gets drummed into service whenever a new album, single or biography is released.

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“[It] has a deceptively bouncy beat but lyrically it goes to more dark places,” Tony Visconti said of the track, “and this time David sings it with a cheeky smile.” And Bowie savors his rhymes: the consonance of “shaking hips and cuckoo eyes” and the title line; the triple runs of “doxy/ trolly/ poxy” and “anything/ dealing/ heaven sings.”

The feel, musically, is a brief tour through a shadow Sixties via the Nineties, with a latticework of guitars: a brisk acoustic matched to the dry snare/cymbal drum figure; a low-mixed bass; ominous David Torn atmospheres heard in the middle distance; Gerry Leonard’s wistfully arpeggiated opening riff (packed off after being played once) and the groaning, retorting twin-guitar riff (Torn) that stamps itself on the coda.

Bowie provides his usual backdrop of “commenter” backing vocals (Elvis-like low asides, a few Ronnie Spector tics), while his lead vocal, particularly when single-tracked, has the nasally timbre of a fledgling work like “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” with some raw-sounding grazed notes left in the mix (see the high notes on “just tooo-ma-row” at 1:25) . It’s a fitting performance for a slight bonus track that wound up being a secret wake for a half-century’s worth of personae and memories.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. July 2012, The Magic Shop, NYC?; (overdubs) fall 2012-spring 2013, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 4 November 2013 on The Next Day Extra.

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Pictures: From various chapters of Casanova: Avaritia (Matt Fraction/Gabriel Bá), 2011-2012. Things have come full circle: this book of Casanova was partially inspired (so Fraction says) by a look at “Pushing Ahead of the Dame” some years ago (Bowie fans will have a field day with the amount of references piled into this comic). So here we have it: the blog using for illustrations something that the blog itself played a (very) small role in. Yet another sign my work’s almost done. Thanks, Matt!

Also: don’t forget there’s a poll going on. And Happy Thanksgiving.


Atomica

November 16, 2015

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Atomica.

Ziggy Stardust was, in his creator’s words, a prefab rock star, a plastic rocker. Bowie tended to work out of sequence: he’d create something, kill it off, then look back in interviews and devise what his intentions had been. So Ziggy, he later said, was his fabricated rock performer, fashioned out of collective rock memory; he was a mannequin who sang on a few records and was soon dispatched.

Thing was, the sound of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars isn’t prefab 1971-1972 rock at all, with the possible exception of “It Ain’t Easy,” its bog-standard rock moment. Ziggy Stardust is shabby provincial music hall pop, shot through with bolts of Mick Ronson’s guitar, and lifting lines and sounds from horror movies, Fifties novelty singles, Beat poets and Kubrick films. You could find Ziggy a clunk-work of irreconcilable influences, but you really couldn’t argue it was “plastic.” It sounded too snippy and weird; it’s unassimilable. Even today, when “Suffragette City” turns up on a Pandora “Classic Rock” playlist, it stands out from “Lay Down Sally” or “Whipping Post” or what have you. It sounds like a vicious knock-off of classic rock standards: a track scrapped together by feral theater kids who managed to snare an ace guitarist and a Moog.

It’s one of the central ironies of Bowie’s work. Even when he tried to create mediocre, keep-your-head-down music, he kept making stuff that couldn’t quite pass. His mannequins would bother and even unnerve shoppers. “Shake It” is pretty dire 1983 R&B, but it wouldn’t have passed muster on many R&B stations of the time—its odd lyric, which Bowie seems to lovingly mock as he sings it, stringing phrases across bars; its fanatic castrati backing vocals; its lumpen rhythms.

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On a bonus track released in 2013, Bowie seemed to pull off the trick at last. “Atomica” begins as simulacrum, drawing from the past three decades of music without grounding itself in any. Its opening 30 seconds could play anywhere—an Urban Outfitters, a Cheesecake Factory, or in the background of a home improvement show or a Korean cartoon—and wouldn’t draw attention. The lead guitar riff, nicely keeping in bounds; the tastefully popped bass; the seemingly programmed cymbal fill; the first lines—I’m just a rock star, stabbing away. All safely anonymous, as is the refrain, whose lyric seems to have been generated by bots.

But by the refrain, things have started going awry. Bowie jams twice as many syllables as should fit into his verse lines (“when-you’re-head-o-ver-heels-and-the-magic-is-there-but-im-POSS-i-ble–POSS-i-BLE”). He sings “police” like “puh-leeze,” rhymes “covered-up pool” with “purple tulle.” And after the second refrain, the track sinks into a hole of fixation, with Bowie moaning that “I….hold myself…like a god,” over and over again, until he looks ready to abandon the song. Snare drum fills and synthetic strings don’t rouse him. It takes the opening guitar riff, working as a defibrillator. “Atomica” marches out in its crooked way, stamped as yet another Bowie song.

“Atomica” started in the first wave of Next Day sessions in May 2011 (Gail Ann Dorsey’s on bass) but it needed more work, Tony Visconti said. Released as one of the Extras, it shares with its fellow bonus tracks a cheekiness, a sense of randomly-aimed parody, a labored looseness. “How others must see the faker,” Bowie once sang. But he was never a good faker, it turned out. He was the sort of counterfeiter who couldn’t resist altering whatever piece he was fabricating, so that any close look would reveal a forgery with its own strange intentions.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, early 2013, The Magic Shop, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 4 November 2013 on The Next Day Extra.

Top: Paramore, live in Dallas, 27 October 2013 (Antiquiet).


Born In a UFO

November 6, 2015

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Born In a UFO.

Half a year after Bowie’s surprise return, it turned out that the surprise return wasn’t quite done yet. The Next Day Extra, announced in September 2013, offered four new tracks, along with compiling previous bonus tracks and remixes. It was, cynically, a means to get fans to buy the album again and, generously, a way for Bowie to get more songs out, rather than letting them languish for decades in his vaults, like all the alleged Lodger outtakes.

So what was The Next Day Extra? How should it be considered? As a new EP? As a digestif for an overstuffed album? As just more ones and zeroes sent into the ether, more disconnected music for a time when sequenced albums are antiquated?

The Extra tracks were mainly cut during the Next Day sessions but had needed more time to cook, Tony Visconti said, with further overdubs done in early 2013. But they didn’t sound too labored over. If anything united the Extra tracks, it was a sense of Bowie letting his hair down. No longer having to establish the Back-From-the-Dead Bowie, he could sneak out a couple of loopy, SF-themed songs that few people (relatively) would ever hear. Sharing an overbearing, blotto production aesthetic, the four Extra tracks now seem, with two years’ distance, to be a brief loud party held before the next scene change.

“Born In a UFO” is a case in point: a cracked parody of Bruce Springsteen (obviously in its refrain, but the verse melody also has a pinch of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint In the City“), with a Dylan nod (“‘there’s no direction home,’ she pleads”) and even some of Toni Basil’s “Mickey” in the rising keyboard lines (played by Bowie). A homage to SF serials Bowie had watched as a boy in Beckenham and Fifties novelty songs like the Earth Boys’ “Space Girl,”, it’s also a workable metaphor for falling in love with the “right” person at last: she or he can seem like they fell out of a spaceship one day, sent here to upend your life.

Zachary Alford said the song began as a reworking of a “leftover from Lodger,” (though there’s a chance he was recalling another song whose title Bowie later shifted to the released “UFO”). If so, you can see a few common threads—“UFO” shares the gonzo mood of “Red Sails” and has some vague similarities, chord-wise, to “DJ”: more in its sense of movement, with three rising chords as a hook (F-G-Ab in “UFO”, Am-Bm-C in “DJ”). Visconti and Alford (or Sterling Campbell) hammer the hell out of things; Earl Slick gets the “Andalusian” guitar solos. Bowie plays a suburban loser made hysterical by lust, though more for his alien inamorata’s fashion sense (“an a-line skirt,” “her clutch bag,” “silver hair, trapezoid flanks” and, best of all, “I was so in love with her lavender vest!“). All she’s missing is a bipperty-bopperty hat.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. July 2012, The Magic Shop, NYC?; (overdubs) fall 2012-spring 2013, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 4 November 2013 on The Next Day Extra. Thanks to “Crayon to Crayon” for musical insight, as often.

Top: Maj Halova, “Žižkov Television Tower,” Prague, January 2015 (“there are babies climbing our rocket-like TV tower”). Maj has been commenting for many years, and it’s always nice to see her take on a new post. Thanks, Maj.

POLL POLL POLL: closing in on 100 ballots received so far. Plenty of time for you to add to the pile! Again: bowiesongs@gmail.com, subject line: POLL. Your 30 favorite Bowie songs, 10 favorite albums.


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