David Bowie will likely never tour again, may never even sing live again. If so, the last song that he ever performed on stage was “Fantastic Voyage,” a neglected song from a neglected record. It’s a fitting choice. “Fantastic Voyage,” though sequenced as Lodger‘s lead-off track, could have easily served as its closer, and it also works as Bowie’s final statement, a cranky humanist manifesto.
In “Voyage” there’s a striking change of tone from the other Berlin records or Station to Station: Bowie’s no longer at a remove. He’s on the ground, restored to humanity, admitting his powerlessness, reduced to observing and making asides. He sounds both warmer (the slow, generous phrasing of the opening lines) and less calculating; he lets scattered, volatile emotions overrun his song.
Bowie had once seemed to welcome the apocalypse, as it held the potential for transformation. Now in “Fantastic Voyage” he seems older and generally pissed off (“think of us as fatherless scum“), with such delusions drummed out of him. He’s grasped a peasant realism: we are largely governed by killers and fools, our lives hang on their arbitrary mercies.
What apparently roused Bowie out of himself was the renewed threat of nuclear war (’79, the year of Afghanistan, was in retrospect the start of the final innings of Cold War madness—the MX missiles, Reagan’s “we begin bombing in five minutes” joke, the Korean airliner downing, etc.) So “Fantastic Voyage” was the harbinger of the run of early ’80s Cold War answer records, youth against homicidal statesmen: The Young Marble Giants’ “Final Day,” XTC’s “Living Through Another Cuba,” Prince’s “1999,” the Fixx’s “Stand or Fall,” Alphaville’s “Forever Young.” Even “99 Luftballoons.”*
Bowie’s lyric is ironic from its opening lines: “We never get old” is normally a lovers’ wish in a song, but here it’s the fact that we might die, horribly, en masse. There’s something akilter in Bowie’s singing as well—the formality, even stilted delivery, of certain lines (“dig-ni-ty is val-u-a-ble“). As the song builds it sways from resignation to anger to resignation, never losing its sense of absurdity. It’s a criminal world, it’s a very modern world.** The backing vocals (Bowie and Tony Visconti) try to rouse the singer (“They wipe out an entire race! It won’t be forgotten!”) but all he can do in the end is write a few lines down, make a pop song out of it.
And an odd pop song at that (while it’s in the same key and uses nearly the same chord sequence as “Boys Keep Swinging,” the latter seems much more conventional). While “Voyage” is basically two verses and two choruses, the verses barely scan and hardly rhyme, while the chorus soon goes off the rails. Bowie begins with a bouncy refrain (“We’re—/learning to live with somebody’s depression”) but then seems to give up, repeating the line and making it a dry joke, then meandering, discarding the opening melody while the song stalls, harmonically: the band stays on an A major chord for the rest of the chorus. Bowie and the backing vocals overlap, spur each other on, until a final release of tension—the piano, bass and drums speeding up while Bowie, after a slow ascent of nearly an octave, holds the last note for two bars.
The song is held together by Sean Mayes’ piano and George Murray’s bass: Carlos Alomar and Dennis Davis’ drums (whose fills are often panned right to left) are supporting players. “Voyage” has a three-mandolin arrangement that Visconti wrote one night over a bottle of Tequila (Bowie had to send his driver around Montreux looking for mandolins to borrow). The mandolins, played by Visconti, House and Adrian Belew, were each tracked three times, making nine mandolins in all. Perversely (deliberately?) the final arrangement is all but buried in the mix, its intricacies only audible in headphones.
Recorded September 1978 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and March 1979 at the Record Plant, NYC. Released as the B-side of its twin song “Boys Keep Swinging” in April 1979. Played during Bowie’s tours of 2003-2004 and in the final (to date) Bowie performance at the Black Ball in NYC on 9 November 2006. (I believe a duet with Alicia Keys on “Changes” was the last song Bowie did.)
* It seemed for a moment that the world was unraveling in 1979. Two great calypso records of the following year—Mighty Sparrow’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” and Explainer’s “Table Turning“—document the near-simultaneous falls, by coup or assassination, of Idi Amin, Park Chung-Hee in South Korea, Eric Gairy in Grenada, Bokassa in the CAE, the Shah, Somoza in Nicaragua. Explainer: The table turning, sir/Now the oppressor/is the oppressed one. Yet there was no sense that the new rulers would be any better. Sparrow: The Shah have a short time to live/Because the Ayotollah don’t forgive/When you see church ruling state/with pure vengeance and hate/situation must be explosive!
** “Criminal World” was a 1977 single by Metro that Bowie would cover on Let’s Dance, so it’s possible he’s already name-checking it here.
Top: John le Carré and Alec Guinness on the set of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, 1979.