Reissues: Golden Years

April 11, 2016

As you likely know, Dennis Davis died last week, furthering this year’s ambition to be the worst year ever. In his honor, I’ve revived one of his first performances for Bowie, the “Golden Years” single, and included his isolated drum track (listen to the hi-hat!).

Though it was one of the huge Bowie Seventies hits, “Golden Years” can sometimes feel overlooked (was it because it was so rarely performed live)? My mother, a high school teacher, says most of her kids only know it because of A Knight’s Tale. Seems right.

Also, my thanks to the blog readers who came to my Iggy Pop panel last weekend: it was great meeting you all!

Originally posted 30 November 2010: run for the shadows.

Golden Years.
Golden Years (Dennis Davis drum track).
Golden Years (Soul Train).
Golden Years (live, 1983).
Golden Years (live, 1990).
Golden Years (live, 2000).

Having spent summer 1975 in New Mexico making The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie returned to Los Angeles in late August, already under pressure to follow up his #1 single. Disturbed by stories circulating about Bowie’s erratic behavior, RCA sent executives to the movie set to check on him. He told them to pack off. As “Fame” had done the trick, Bowie rounded up the same producer, Harry Maslin, and most of the same group—Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick on guitar and the drummer Dennis Davis, with the bassist George Murray recruited from Weldon Irvine’s jazz/funk outfit.

For a studio, Bowie and Maslin investigated Cherokee, which had opened the previous January in the former MGM studios on Fairfax Avenue. It swiftly had become one of LA’s premier studios, inheriting MGM clients like Frank Sinatra (see “Wild is the Wind”). Bowie sang in its cavernous Studio One, played a piano chord and said “this will do nicely.” Unlike Sigma Sound, where he’d cut most of Young Americans, Cherokee prided itself on space, tech and amenities—five studio rooms, 24-track consoles, 24-hour sessions, a fully-stocked bar in the lounge.

First order of business was a prospective single, “Golden Years,” a song he’d started writing in May before leaving for the film shoot. His friend Geoff MacCormack, for whom Bowie tried out the song, suggested a trombone-like WAH-wah-WAH tag for the refrains. At Cherokee, MacCormack added more embellishments like a “go-oh-oh-old” phrase as a tag for the bridge and a similarly descending “run for the shadows” hook. MacCormack even wound up filling in for Bowie on the falsetto for the bridge’s backing vocal (at :45, for example), which was torture for him to sing.

The last time Bowie followed up a career-altering hit he’d cut “The Prettiest Star” as an ill-fated sequel to “Space Oddity.” Time had made him sharper and cannier in his approach. “Golden Years” was both a natural response to “Fame,” keeping the latter’s icy disco sound, but also a swerve back towards the sounds of his early adolescence. He used the Diamonds’ “Happy Years,” a 1958 doo-wop hymn to teenagerdom, and two “Broadway” songs—the Drifters’ “On Broadway,” which Alomar recalled Bowie playing on piano during rehearsals and throwing in a “come buh-buh-buh baby” after each line, and Dyke and the Blazers’ “Funky Broadway,” which Slick raided for a few riffs.* Fittingly, Bowie wrote “Golden Years” with Elvis Presley’s vocal range in mind, although he never submitted the song to Elvis, as negotiations with his manager Col. Tom Parker went nowhere (though Bowie once told Dwight Yoakam, of all people, that Elvis had asked him to produce an album in 1977).

Yet any golden oldie he nicked was nearly unrecognizable, as it was blended with his interpretation of the sound of Kraftwerk and Neu!, heard in the conversation of guitars and its cycling progression: an F-sharp chord downshifting to E major on the third beat of each bar. Bowie described his aim years later when he talked of his love of Donna Summer’s records: “this incredible sound, half-Kraftwerk, half-American soul. An amazing incongruous juxtaposition.”

Cut in roughly ten days at the start of the Station to Station sessions, “Golden Years” was issued as a single less than two months later: it charted while Bowie was still at Cherokee finishing the album. Maslin said “Golden Years” came together with little fuss, especially by comparison to the endless number of retakes and overdubs on the rest of the album. The single was mixed full of small pleasures: Dennis Davis’ hi-hat lifts (right on the beat in the verse/refrains, he moves to slightly hang behind on the bridges) and other echo-slathered percussion (handclaps, vibraslap, melodica); Bowie and MacCormack’s “round-sounding” backing vocals via an old RCA mike Maslin dusted off. The dueling guitars—one right-mixed playing variations on the opening riff throughout while a left-mixed phased guitar (likely Alomar) keeps a gliding rhythm until moving, after the bridges, to a three-chord riff that echoes MacCormack’s “WAH-wah-WAH.”

Bowie played little games with the song structure, making the bridge either two or six bars. The longer bridge had the song’s only real progression, a run from G major (“nothing’s gonna touch you”) through A minor (“golden”) and an E minor seventh (“yeeeears”) capped off with a 2/4 bar: Bowie singing the descending “go-oh-oh-ollld” hook shadowed by a Murray bass slide he overlaid with Moog. He did the same to his lyric, altering phrasings and rhythms. In the third verse, he moves from a word-packed, near-rap to surge up to an F# on “all the WAY!”, then tumbles right into a fresh chorus hook, the harmonized “run for the shadows.”

Here’s my baby, lost that’s all

“Golden Years” opens as a blessing, with Bowie and MacCormack cooing the title phrase, and its opening verses are Bowie in huckster mode (see “Right”), singing sharply enunciated syllables stepping down in pitch. There’s the bustling consonance of “in walked luck and you looked in time” and an octave leap to “AN-gel”matched, four bars later, by a depths-dredging “yuh-uh-unnng.”

The promise of “golden years” isn’t communal here. The chance is offered only to one person: the hope of being sealed off in a limousine from the street. His life in Los Angeles added to the lyric’s anomie—long paranoid days in his mansion; making an appearance on Dinah Shore with the Fonz. Angela Bowie, busy with her own celebrity, said the song was Bowie’s blessing for her and perhaps it was, as there was a threat in it. You want fame? Here, take it: it will eat you up. Last night they loved you, opening doors and pulling some strings, Bowie sang, snarling out the gees. The following night, the doors could well be shut. A rap of materialist promises becomes a desperate prayer to God, followed by a murmured warning to run for the shadows. At first caressing the words “golden years,” Bowie began to put them to the rack, rattling consonants, rotting vowels—“years” was a strangled curse heard beneath the backing vocals (esp. at 2:58).

Its video complement was Bowie’s performance on Soul Train, where he’s a wraithlike spiv barely able to keep his balance, let alone mime his vocal. It’s as though he’s hearing the song for the first time, that he’s still in character from The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s his loneliest, saddest television appearance: a crowd of magnificent strangers dance around him, as if communally denying his presence.

Recorded ca. late September 1975, released 17 November 1975 as RCA 2640 c/w “Can You Hear Me” (#8 UK, #10 US). For whatever reasons (its difficulty of singing, perhaps), he never performed “Golden Years” on the Isolar tour of 1976 (there’s one show at which he allegedly sang it, but no proof), waiting until 1983 to debut it live. He played it very sporadically thereafter: just a handful of times in 1990 and 2000.

Top: Peter Turnley, “San Diego, 1975.” (From the collection “The Other California.”)

*There’s of course the chance that Alomar and Slick, both of whom have admitted to not remembering much of the sessions, are confusing their respective “Broadway” songs.