Is It Any Wonder/ Fun/Funhouse

September 10, 2013

97crossingted

Is It Any Wonder (live, 1997).
Is It Any Wonder (studio?, 1997).
Fun (Dillinja Mix).
Funhouse.

In the 17 years between Lodger and Outside, Bowie treated touring as a politician would re-election campaigns. He had three grand efforts (Serious Moonlight, Glass Spider, Sound + Vision) and two small-scale ones (Tin Machine), and he’d mounted the larger productions as global carnivals, with exhausting rounds of publicity to make the shows “events.” At the close of each, he’d been spent: it would take him years to play live again.

Then in the mid-Nineties he became a road dog, following up his lengthy Outside tour with a round of summer festival gigs in 1996, then spending another five months touring from Germany to Argentina in 1997. It was his most sustained period of live performance since the Ziggy Stardust days.

So by the Earthling tour, the novelty of a “revived” Bowie playing live had waned a bit. With essentially the same band that he’d had since 1995, he used some of the same stage props, and his set lists, despite the new Earthling material and a few revived pieces, weren’t radically different from those of the Outside tour. So the 1997 tour tends to be forgotten, or folded into the overall “Outside” period; none of the Bowie bios devote more than a couple of paragraphs to it.

What the tour was, however, was a chance for fans to see Bowie with essentially nothing left to prove, on a more intimate scale and with a lower price-tag (this time round, he mainly played mid-size ballrooms and clubs rather than try to fill arenas). The shows were more casual in feel and wider in scope than the Outside gigs. There was more overt use of DATs for supplemental beats, vocal choruses and synthesizer lines, which freed up the players: Gail Ann Dorsey shifted to keyboard at times, and she had two vocal spotlights (“Under Pressure” and the next entry). The tour wound up as the blueprint for most of his subsequent shows: a set list ranging across the catalog, performed by a tight, crack band with little choreography and no more “concepts.”

thethinker

The Earthling tour was a compromise. In his “dress rehearsal” concerts (four gigs in Dublin and London), Bowie unveiled his original template for the tour. There were would be two sets, a traditional “rock” set and a “drum ‘n’ bass” dance set. So for instance, at the Hanover in London (2 June), the drum ‘n’ bass set began with “I’m Deranged,” moved through “Pallas Athena” and a revived “V-2 Schneider” and closed with “The Last Thing You Should Do” and “Telling Lies.”

The split sets got a mixed response. Reportedly, much of the audience at the first Hanover gig left after the “rock” set was over, prompting Bowie to open with the dance set the following night. Some journalists attending the shows wrote up the drum ‘n’ bass sets as if Bowie had been igniting farts on stage. (The Observer‘s Barbara Ellen: “we all have to stand around for an aeon to what sounds like the cast of Star Wars falling down a fire escape…for God’s sake man, you’re a living legend. In future, play the old stuff and stop trying so hard.”)

After a few German dates, Bowie scrapped the split-set plan,* with the drum ‘n’ bass pieces now interwoven with the rock songs. This arguably improved the shows, as Bowie could create an arc—starting shows playing “Quicksand” alone on acoustic guitar and building to the dance songs midway through, so that a “Last Thing You Should Do” would be chased by “Under Pressure.” This made the newer pieces seem less like alien artifacts and more elaborations on his earlier work.

During the drum ‘n’ bass sets, the band had played an instrumental jam which apparently had come out of rehearsals of “Fame.” It opened with a DAT-generated beat that Zach Alford supplemented on drums, and had occasional vocal hooks (included what sounded like a vocoded Dorsey singing “is it any wonder?”); Bowie played tenor saxophone, then switched to baritone. As the first link above shows, he was often barely audible over the barrage, though he managed to make the bari sax groan like a trumpeting elephant.

This piece’s subsequent life is one of the more confounding in the Bowie catalog. As he’d intended to release a live album from the Earthling tour, “Is It Any Wonder” seemed a likely candidate for inclusion, either as a live take or a studio remake (or both: take the alleged “live” version taped at the Paradiso in Amsterdam on 10 June 1997. I agree with the Illustrated DB site that this recording seems like a studio take with canned applause mixed in).

Then in 1998 a 3:31 studio take of “Is It Any Wonder,” now retitled “Fun” (or “Funhouse,” as Gabrels once called it) was issued to BowieNet subscribers on a CD-ROM (you had to log onto the site first before you could play the track—in the days of dial-up Internet, this may have consumed an entire evening). By now, Bowie had come up with a few random lyrics for the track, referencing his old work with Iggy Pop (“Funtime”) and throwing in a pinch of world weariness (“my summer turns to fall…and I’ll miss you”).

A remix of the track by Dillinja, presumably from the same era, was included on the 2000 liveandwell.com CD. (Five other “Clownboy” mixes of “Fun” were made, though none were officially released). In all of its incarnations, the track never escaped being an enjoyable live filler promoted to being a fairly dull record.

First performed (“Is It Any Wonder”) at the Hanover, London, on 2 June 1997. “Fun” was likely recorded/mixed ca. January 1998 during the “Earthling Live” mixing sessions.

* The last show to use the template was apparently the Utrecht gig on 11 June. The following show, in Dortmund on 13 June, had an incorporated set and the French concerts (14-19 June) solidified what would be the main set of the European leg of the tour, with “Is It Any Wonder” often slated midway through.

Top: Ted Barron, “Crossing, Brooklyn, NY” 1997; Bowie does his best Rodin at the Q Club, Birmingham, UK, 1 August 1997 (via “bowieinleith”).


Fame

November 22, 2010

Fame.
Fame (single edit).
Fame (Soul Train, 1975).
Fame (Cher, 1975).
James Brown, Hot (I Need to Be Loved Loved Loved), 1976.
Fame (live, 1976).
Fame (live, 1978).
Fame (live, 1983).
Fame (live, 1990).
Fame (live, 1997).
Fame (Howard Stern’s Birthday Bash, 1998).
Fame (Live at the BBC, 2000).
Fame (TOTP2, 2002).
Fame (Live By Request, 2002).
Fame (live, 2004).

“Fame,” one of David Bowie’s two US chart-toppers, is a freak and a fluke. It’s more in line with experimental Bowie works like Low than it is with the “soul” album to which it was appended. Its groove, so compelling that James Brown stole it, and its back story (the John Lennon connection likely spurred airplay) made it a smash, but “Fame” just as easily could’ve been consigned to Bowie’s pile of studio outtakes.

Because Bowie wasn’t sure what he had with it: a minimalist funk improvisation, a mutant hybrid of “Foot Stompin’,” the odd result of a few hours of studio jamming. He later called “Fame” his least favorite track on Young Americans, a sentiment that some of his players shared—Andy Newmark, who drummed on most of Young Americans (but not “Fame”), dismissed “Fame” as “just a vamp, a groove. It’s not the essence of what [Bowie] represents in my mind. “Young Americans” is more of the persona I associate with him.”

“Fame” is as dry as it is cynical, the opposite of what Bowie had been attempting when he started Young Americans in Philadelphia, with the dense gospel- and soul-inspired tracks cut at Sigma Sound. Now here was a track clarified to vocals, guitars, bass and drums; it was funk seemingly arrived at via a William Burroughs cut-up. Its sonic landscape, using the wide stereo separation typical of contemporary funk tracks (like Lyn Collins’ “Rock Me Again & Again & Again & Again & Again”) is broad and clear.

The track is nothing but a set of muscles and ligaments. There are no horns, no backing chorus singers (just Lennon’s squeaked-out “fame” and the varispeed vocals at the end), no keyboards save for a backwards piano track that appears in the intro and briefly shows up later. Primarily built on one chord (F7), the song’s either one long chorus or an extended, repeating verse, the only contrast being the two-bar move to B-flat: “It’s not your brain/it’s just the flame”, etc.). The rhythm, apart from two bars of 3/4 that open the track, is straight 4/4, hammered down by Emir Ksasan’s bass and Dennis Davis’ drums hitting on alternating beats.

The lyric came out of Lennon’s cynical take on the star-maker-machine process, with Bowie contributing his own paranoid thoughts on the business, particularly his gripes with his manager, Tony Defries. (Bowie, having discovered that the massive expenses incurred by Defries’ company Mainman were coming out of his own pocket, formally severed ties with Defries about ten days after recording “Fame,” kicking off a legal war.)

Two rock stars complaining about being famous are a potentially awful set of parents, but Lennon and Bowie’s lines are harsh enough, and lurid enough (“lets [a man] loose and hard to swallow”), to be compelling. There’s no self-pity in “Fame,” as there is in something like Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” where playing the star is a weary business, one Seger shoulders like a burden. In “Fame,” the lyric is a series of dry observations that culminate in the key line of the last verse—is it any wonder I reject you first? In the first verse, “fame” is an active force, a possession (it “makes,” “puts,” “lets”), while in the second verse, Bowie pits “what you like” against “what you get” and “what you need”—fame may satisfy the first, but it puts you on the hook for the rest. (There’s a dying Sixties echo in these lines, a play on the Stones’ you can’t always get what you want (but sometimes you get what you need) (which already suggested that sometimes you get nothing at all), or on Dylan’s line from “Memphis Blues Again”: your debutante knows what you need/but I know what you want.)

The song’s poison can be distilled down to how Bowie and Lennon sing the title word. They elongate the “ay” sound while pulling the word down (it sinks a half-step between syllables), so that it’s not an affirmation, an exclamation—it’s a hook that initially sounds like a phasing mistake. It sags, it withers, it blights the rest of the verse. Bowie spends much of each verse trying to scrabble back up to the initial high note (& only doing so on each phrase’s last syllable (for instance “take things ov-ER“)).

Conception

“Fame” was officially credited to Bowie, Lennon and Carlos Alomar, and in the 35 years since its creation, there’ve been about as many claims as to who contributed what to “Fame,” and especially who ripped off who.*

Lennon’s primary contributions seem to be a) playing an acoustic guitar only audible in the intro bars, b) supervising the backwards piano track and c) allegedly coming up with the line “fame” and sometimes singing it. Still, some writers have made Lennon (who was in the studio on a whim, having come in to hear “Across the Universe”) more of the creative mastermind. For example, here’s Philip Norman, from his 2008 Lennon biography, who claims: John attended the session at Electric Lady studio and improvised a three-note riff around the single word “fame.” Compare Lennon himself, who, interviewed soon after “Fame” was released in 1975, gave credit for the riff to Alomar: “This guitarist had a lick, so we sort of wrote this song, no big deal. Oh-boom-boom-boom. We made this lick into a song is what happened.”

Alomar recalled that “Fame” came about after Bowie finally decided that “Foot Stompin’,” which he’d been trying to cut in the studio for months, wasn’t going to work. “Foot Stompin'” “sounded like a plain, stupid, old rock & roll song,” Alomar told David Buckley in 2005. “David didn’t even like it. So what he did was to cut it up into blues changes, which is one-four-five-four, which is what “Fame” is. It cut it up so he just had drums, bass and that one guitar line.” Alomar also said Lennon, playing acoustic guitar, inadvertently inspired the lyric. Lennon “put his chin on the acoustic guitar when he played and just the breathing he did produced that funny noise. David thought he was saying “Fame”: “he’s saying Fame! I’m telling you!”

There are three primary guitar tracks on “Fame”: the Alomar “Foot Stompin'” riff that repeats through the verses (mainly confined to the left channel), Bowie’s central electric guitar, which, in Bowie’s words, “makes the long Wah and the echoed Bomp! sound,” and which serves as the track’s brass section (there’s also a “telephoning ringing” guitar fill mixed in the center), and a third electric guitar, mainly confined to the right channel, that keeps to the high end. There are secondary guitar tracks as well—Lennon’s barely-there acoustic, and what Alomar has claimed (and Bowie has disputed) as a series of guitar overdubs that Alomar did after Bowie left the studio.

Bowie added dabs of color (the backwards piano and rattlesnake percussion that drop in after the third verse) to help the track avoid monotony, and he ended “Fame” with a new varispeed vocal experiment (see “The Bewlay Brothers,”The Laughing Gnome,” “After All”). Here a repeated “fame” (Lennon and Bowie’s vocals) descends stepwise from the air to the earth over six bars. So the vocal, initially sped up to Gnome level, starts up in the stratosphere on a high E flat, falls an octave over two bars, then falls another octave in the next two (going from D to D), until finally the vocal, now at molasses speed, ends in the depths, stopping on a low D (tweaked a beat later by a Lennon “fame!” interjection). The idea’s an old Bowie trick, as the same melodic fall appears in “Gnome’s” opening bassoon line and it will soon crop up again in “Speed of Life.”

Reaction/Revision

Released in August 1975, “Fame” hit #1 in the US a month later. It was his long-desired passport. “Fame” landed him on Soul Train, where Bowie was so wrecked that he required multiple takes to lip-sync it and “Golden Years,” and an even more prestigious/egregious tribute was James Brown’s outright theft of much of the song—Alomar’s riff, the “telephone” guitar fills—for his 1976 single “Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved).” (Some stories have claimed Brown actually put on the Bowie record for his band, and said “play this.”) For Alomar, who had played with Brown in the late ’60s, it must have seemed a particularly strange turning of the circle. Alomar once said Bowie told him “if it charts, we’ll sue [Brown],” a spectacle avoided by “Hot”‘s weak performance (#31 R&B).

Fame 90 (remake).
Fame 90 (Arthur Baker, house mix).
Fame 90 (‘hip hop’ mix).
Fame 90 (with Queen Latifah).

Bowie had played “Fame” for most of his tours between 1976 and 1990, and, needing bait for Ryko’s CD reissue campaign, he reworked “Fame” at the end of the ’80s. While attempting to maintain the original’s minimalism, Bowie larded his new mix with gewgaws and glitter, put the rhythm on steroids, mercilessly included a vocal “stutter,” and then turned his own sins over for other parties to amplify. While “Fame” would seem to be ideal raw material for a hip-hop update, Bowie wound up with a Queen Latifah performance that achieves mediocrity in its better moments. The best of the new lot is probably the Baker house mix, which uses Bowie’s vocal as just another piece of percussion.

“Fame” was recorded ca. 12-15 January 1975. Released in August 1975 as RCA 2479 c/w “Win.” (While hitting #1 in the US, it only reached #17 in the UK. The British, in a nostalgic contrarian mood, instead sent a re-release of “Space Oddity” to the top in the same period.) “Fame 90″ came out in its various incarnations in March 1990 (a 7″ single, a 7″ picture disc and a 12” single/CD all featured different mixes), and served as the traditional crap “remake” cuckoo egg track on the hits collection ChangesBowie (there’s usually one on every greatest hits compilation, cf. the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me ’86”.)

Top: Bowie’s choreographer, Toni Basil, on the cover of the Sept. 1974 issue of After Dark, the apparent inspiration for Eric Stephen Jacobs’ Young Americans cover photograph. Bowie allegedly had wanted to commission a Norman Rockwell painting for the cover, but balked when he was told Rockwell needed at least six months to do the job.

A postscript on “Shame” and plagiarism:

Shirley & Company’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” has been called a key influence on “Fame,” and some Bowie biographers claim that “Fame” actually rips “Shame” off, e.g. Christopher Sandford: [Fame] evolved, via Carlos Alomar and a riff lifted from Shirley and Company (my emphasis) through a half-dozen makeovers and a last-minute name change from “Footstompin’.” (“Footstompin’ was another song, but never mind that.)

Sandford’s source appears to be Tony Zanetta and Henry Edwards’ bio Stardust, from 1986. In this account, Lennon “while David was out of the room” starts playing the “Shame, Shame, Shame” riff, and is soon joined by Alomar, who “picks up the riff, and the two men played together.” Bowie allegedly comes in, asks what they’re playing, is told it’s “Shame, Shame, Shame,” then leaves the room and comes back a half-hour later with the complete lyrics for “Fame.”

If true, this scenario would have the wily Alomar riffing with Lennon on a song that he’s already ripped off. Because Alomar had been playing his “Foot Stompin'” riff, the direct ancestor of the “Fame” riff, since late October ’74. The timing doesn’t really work. “Shame, Shame, Shame”‘s first reference in Billboard is the issue of 21 December ’74, where it’s reviewed as a new-release single, and “Shame” didn’t chart nationally until 18 January 1975, days after the “Fame” recording session. Sure, pro musicians often get new releases ahead of the public, and “Shame” was likely getting NYC airplay in December ’74, but, really, the 35-year-old John Lennon was that up on new disco records? And wouldn’t Alomar, instead of “picking up” the riff, maybe have said something like, “yeah, I love this song—in fact, I’ve been jamming it for months on tour already.”

My guess: “Shame, Shame, Shame” has really nothing to do with “Fame.”[CO, 2014: I was wrong: see Trynka in comments.] I expect the confusion began when people first heard “Fame” in summer ’75 (when it was released as a single) and thought it was a nick on “Shame,” a hit song from the previous winter. Now James Brown, on the other hand—the Godfather committed robbery in broad daylight, no denying it.