Don’t Look Down

November 30, 2011

Don’t Look Down (Iggy Pop, 1979).
Don’t Look Down (Bowie, 1984).

At its worst, which is often, Tonight is wearying to listen to, with its frenetic overstuffed mixes; its lack of space or depth, with everything smeared together in the foreground; the sheer trebleness of it all. It’s like a revue in which everyone is hamming it up, even the stagehands. (See “Neighborhood Threat.“)

So to be fair, Bowie’s version of Iggy Pop’s “Don’t Look Down” sounds better than the average Tonight track. Whoever was responsible for the mix—Hugh Padgham or Derek Bramble—captured the low end well, giving Bramble’s six-note basslines a nice snap, and there’s a clean precision to much of the mix: take the way Sammy Figueroa’s blocks crisply accent the beat, and you can hear every breath the saxophonist draws. That said, this is an awful cover, a mild variation on the genteel vandalism Bowie did to Pop’s “Tonight.”

“Don’t Look Down” was a brooding, weird track on Pop’s underrated New Values (it was co-written and produced by former Stooge James Williamson): it’s a louche piece of nightlife, Pop muttering a survivalist’s credo for himself, something scrapped together late one night in a club he didn’t remember entering: don’t look down, because you’re standing over a pit. The bleary sentimentality is kept in check by Scott Thurston’s guitar; the Alfono Sisters are sympathetic sirens; the saxophonist’s looking for clues, or at least a way out of the room.

Bowie seemed at a loss as to how to interpret “Don’t Look Down,” settling on sub-Bryan Ferry world-weariness set to a Carnival cruiseline reggae beat. He told Charles Shaar Murray (in an interview in which Bowie seems to writing off Tonight while he promotes it) that he tried out “everything”—jazz rock, a “march”—until he chose a light reggae groove. Having Bramble in the studio, who could play “proper reggae lines” for once (uh, remember George Murray??), was an inspiration, Bowie said, adding that he found “taking energy away from the musical side of things reinforced the lyrics and gave them their own energy.”

Taking the song out of its vampirish setting, cleaning up its cocaine squalor, Bowie was left with a set of empty reassurances, polite cocktail hour murmurings and even pantomime (take Bowie’s quasi-“Jamaican” phrasing of lines like “Central Park to shanty town” or the cheery band signoff in the last bar). A limp, pointless performance, “Down” is sequenced poorly, too, as it’s a baffling segue between “Loving the Alien” and “God Only Knows” on the A side.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec.

Top: Billy Bragg, one-angry-young-man-band, New York? (see comments), 1984.