“Nightclubbing,” likely the last track recorded for The Idiot, foreshadows Bowie’s Low, with its fragmented lyric, its minimalist chord structure, its stark arrangement (the vocal starts after the song’s been underway for over a minute, suggesting it just as easily could have been an instrumental, cf. “Sound and Vision”). The track, assembled from drum machine, bass, piano and synthesizer, with occasional frenzied guitar interjections, was basically improvised. Most of the backing musicians had gone, most of the gear had been packed up (Bowie and Pop were heading back to France), and Bowie was killing time, sitting at a piano playing “some old Hoagy Carmichael stuff,” Pop recalled. Pop wrote a two-verse lyric in about ten minutes*, and they recorded the song, set to what Pop described as “a lousy drum machine.”
They later added Laurent Thibault’s bass, Phil Palmer’s guitar and some reverb-laden synthesizer overdubs, but when Bowie suggested they recut the rhythm track with a real drummer, Pop balked. (That said, Bradley Banks argues that there are some actual drums, though heavily processed, in the final mix). The deadened-sounding drum track was both motor and hook, a pulsebeat to underpin Pop’s draggy, vampiric vocal, which often moves back and forth, stepwise (so “night-clubbing, we’re night-clubbing” is F-F-G, F-F-F-G (on a G7 chord)); he lets the ends of phrases trail off, like the utterly deadpan “oh isn’t it wild?” The harmony vocals that come in on the second verse (Pop and Bowie) offer some slight melodic variety to Pop’s deadened lead, yet wind up sounding deranged. (It’s also a messy mix, with a count-in audible at the start, while sometimes Pop’s vocals lurch off-balance.)
“Nightclubbing” suggests that even debauchery has its predictable rhythms, offers no real variation from the norm. Its beat is both ancestor and successor: it’s similar to the motorik pulse of bands like Neu! and Harmonia, which Bowie would use further in his next two records, as well as a decayed form of glam rock (it’s essentially a slowed-down version of Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Pt. 1.”, which the Human League noted, doing a medley of the songs.)
It’s also a work of anticipation—Bowie and Pop were planning to live in West Berlin, to play the artist, to hang out in cafes and clubs, and (hopefully) to kick their various addictions, but they didn’t move there until fall 1976. So the West Berlin clubland of the song is largely imaginary, its sounds and imagery imported (they told the guitarist Phil Palmer to craft a solo by imagining walking down Wardour Street in London, hearing music blasting from various clubs). Before funtime, there was another album to make.
Recorded (most likely) in August 1976 at Musicland, Munich. Covered by the Human League in 1980 and Grace Jones in 1981, and probably best known for being on the Trainspotting soundtrack. Trent Reznor sampled the bass drum for “Closer,” while the likes of Marilyn Manson owe their entire careers to it.
* Pop credited Bowie with some of the lines, like “we walk like a ghost.”
Top: Bowie and Iggy sampling the Berlin nightlife, ca. 1977 (or 1931).