February 23, 2012

Girls (Tina Turner, 1986).
Girls (Bowie).
Girls (Bowie, Japanese version).

Tina Turner credited David Bowie with helping to revive her fortunes, as Bowie had recommended that EMI sign Turner, which led to the all-conquering Private Dancer. So it’s a shame that Bowie and Turner’s collaborations are all such duds, whether their somnolent duet on “Tonight,” their Pepsi commercial that was soon yanked, or “Girls,” a dreary song that Bowie co-wrote for Turner’s follow-up record, Break Every Rule, and which he later recorded himself as a B-side.

Was ever there a record more unworthy of its title than Break Every Rule? Replicating the formula of Private Dancer (aptly described by R. Christgau as “the archetypal all-singles all-hits multiproducer crossover”), Turner’s people apparently summoned every sentient MOR hitmaker on Earth to write a song or to play on the record. Bowie, Rupert Hine, Bryan Adams, Mark Knopfler and Paul Brady contributed songs; studio hands included Steve Winwood, Phil Collins and Eric Clapton; Steve Lillywhite and Bob Clearmountain were among the horde who put it all together. The record went platinum, spawned seven singles (all targeted to various regional markets—“Girls” was big in Poland) and was forgotten in a couple of years.

To give Bowie some credit, his contribution “Girls” (co-written with Erdal Kizilcay) wasn’t a blatant Turner retread like Terry Britten and Graham Lyle’s “Typical Male” or uninspired hard rock like Adams’ “Back Where You Started.” Instead, Bowie had the urge to write a Jacques Brel-style chanson again, then passed the thing on to Turner, for whom it was unsuited.

Some of it’s the lyric (a weirdly jejune effort from a 40-year-old man),* some of it’s the music and production, in which a slow, “dramatic” verse is patched to a set of increasingly bludgeoning climaxes.”Girls” finds Turner brooding about the caprices of her own sex, and not very convincingly, as she’s soon forced to jump through a series of hoops (take the ridiculous dead stop at 2:28). Turner was a gifted interpreter, if narrow in her intentions: she knew how to make a song effortlessly frenetic—pinpointing just where a performance could reach the berserk, as in “Proud Mary”—while the best of her later work had a weary, scorched-earth quality. But here she just seems at the mercy of an ungainly song. When she’s finally allowed to just holler at the end, she sounds relieved.

Bowie cut a version of “Girls” during the Never Let Me Down sessions (maybe as a hedge—if Turner’s version had been a hit, Bowie could’ve ridden in its slipstream). The song was far better suited to its author, as Bowie made “Girls” a revival of the cabaret camp of “Time” and “My Death.” And it’s fine enough in its first minutes, with the proceedings dominated by Kizilcay (or possibly Carlos Alomar) playing scales on his guitar, a falling (fretless?) bass and piano. But once the choruses really get underway around 2:00, with backing singers, a garrulous saxophone and a guitar track that might as well be a Fairlight simulacrum, the song slips away from Bowie, as it did Turner. There’s a sense that Bowie’s going through his recent back catalog and lobbing in whatever he thinks might work: a bit of “China Girl” in the rhythm guitar, the bassline of “Criminal World,” an accordion to revive the sense of a Brel pastiche.

By the four-minute mark, the song seems ready to expire out of exhaustion (and there’s thankfully a single edit which pulled the plug around here). But on the full edit, there’s still nearly two minutes to come, including a guitar solo so devoted to wankery that I hope whoever played it got a repetitive strain injury. A composition of moderate potential that was murdered in the making, “Girls” is a preview of coming miseries.

Turner’s “Girls” was released in September 1986 on Break Every Rule, and later issued as a single, while Bowie’s version, recorded at Mountain Studios, Montreux, ca. September-November 1986, was released as the B-side of “Time Will Crawl” in June 1987. (Perhaps driven by market research, Bowie recorded a Japanese vocal for “Girls” as well.) “Girls” later appeared on CD reissues of Never Let Me Down.

*And as Nicholas Pegg noted, some of the lines (“you vanish like tears in the rain”) are near-direct lifts from Rutger Hauer’s death speech in Blade Runner, a soliloquy that Bowie had also quoted on a funeral wreath for his half-brother, Terry Burns.

Top: A-ha makes an in-store appearance at HMV, London, January 1986.