Bang Bang

March 20, 2012

Bang Bang (Iggy Pop, 1981).
Bang Bang (Pop, live, 1981).
Bang Bang (Bowie).
Bang Bang (Bowie, live, 1987).

Iggy Pop and Ivan Kral wrote “Bang Bang” in 1980 as a potential single for Pop’s album Party. After the initial sessions for Party had petered out due to Pop’s self-sabotage and uninspired performances, his exasperated label Arista brought in Tommy Boyce (who had co-written “Last Train to Clarksville”) to make something useable out of the material. Boyce allegedly spent much of the time scoring drugs with Pop (the pair once even locked Kral in a closet when he tried to hinder them), but he liked “Bang Bang” and turned it into a passable New Wave single by reducing it to a collection of hooks: the repeated title phrase, coming down like two hammer blows; the ominous descending organ/bass line; the strings; the strategically-placed tambourine.

The result sounded as if Pop had joined some Satanic incarnation of the Cars. Released as a single in the summer of 1981, “Bang Bang” had potential to be a left-field New Wave hit in the vein of “Turning Japanese” but it lacked the sharpness and punch to hit on the radio and it flopped (it did make the lower reaches of Billboard’s club chart). There was even a video made for it, though the result was so creepy (see first link above) that I wonder if even the starved-for-content MTV of 1981 aired it.*

Kral (a Patti Smith Group veteran, who played organ on the track) had originally written the lyric, which he later described as being “a song about the emancipation of women.” Pop rewrote it to address his usual themes—underage heartbreaker girls; TV as corrupter and comforter (“I keep a good friend on videotape“); insatiable greed and pride as core American virtues. “Bang bang! I got mine!…Bang bang! that’s all it means, man…/here, have a glass of wine.”

Five years later, Bowie cut a version of “Bang Bang” and made it the album closer for Never Let Me Down. It was an odd choice to end the record, if an understandable one: given the pileup of disasters on Side 2, “Bang Bang” at least had hooks and some energy. Still, this made for the third record in a row in which Bowie had padded things out with a Pop cover, and journalists were calling Bowie on it. Bowie’s response was basically ‘Eric Clapton regularly covers Robert Johnson, so I cover Iggy Pop.’ “I always try to do my bit, do something of his,” he said. And he was assuming that he would work with Pop again soon—Bowie talked vaguely about another collaboration in 1988 or 1989, after both of their tours were over.

“Bang Bang” should’ve been a hit single in the first place, Bowie said, so all he was doing was giving a lost gem more exposure. But his interpretation coated the song in glitz and forced arena-rock posturing, starting with how Bowie replaced Pop’s sullen intro, in which Pop sounds like he’s being dragged into the song against his will, with peppy holiday-camp instructor banter: “Wow! This ain’t the right thing to do! So…let’s…so let’s…so let’s GO!” For much of the song Bowie sings higher than Pop’s baritone, with some odd emphases and phrasings—the pipped “weee’ll have a hot time,” the sorta-country twang on “you all oughtta be in pic-shuhs,” whatever the hell he’s going for on “I wander lonely to the sea.”

Bowie didn’t alter much of the song’s structure, retaining its cycling descending three-chord sequence (Em-D-C) in G major for both verse and chorus, only tweaking the lyric here and there, and dutifully repeating nearly every Pop aside. But every alteration he made to the arrangement lessens the song in some way: replacing the organ during the guitar solos with a chorus, who sound like they’re singing the backing vocals of the Eagles’ “Already Gone”; having Erdal Kizilcay overwork the pizzicato string line that’s kept spare and intriguing in Pop’s version; throwing in a rising “sitar” riff in the verse (I think it’s Frampton on electric sitar); using synth horn fills for punctuation; and as usual for Never Let Me Down, dragging the song out a minute longer than it should’ve run. While “Bang Bang” is more an overworked disappointment than disaster, it’s a shame that it marks the Pop/Bowie partnership’s tombstone.

Recorded ca. September-November 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux and the Power Station, NYC. On Never Let Me Down and a regular part of the Glass Spider tour, featuring a routine in which Bowie pulled a “random” girl (one of the dancing troupe) from the crowd, danced with her, then groped her.

* I don’t know what’s more disturbing about the video—Pop having what looks like a 10-year-old girl in his harem of sister-wives or his earring. Or his puffy shirt. Or that he seems to be missing a front tooth. The whole thing looks like a cult initiation ceremony shown on public access cable, and I’m just glad that (to my knowledge) nothing was killed during its making.

Top: Ed Aust, “Elementary School, Zhengzhou, 1986.”


February 17, 2012

Blah-Blah-Blah (broadcast, 1986).

I thought, ‘why am I in this in the first place?’…to try to create a type of music that could explode me—like a rocket!—out of the type of life that was planned for me, as an American middle-class person.

Interviewer: Why the title, Blah-Blah-Blah?

It’s a way of saying that I disrespect the things that the media and the world in general are saying to me. It’s a very polite way of saying ‘fuck you.’

Iggy Pop, 1987.

Iggy Pop had been yelling at the television for most of his life, from the Stooges’ “TV Eye” [edit: uh, not quite…see comments] to Bowie’s “TVC-15”, inspired by a Pop dream about a TV consuming his girlfriend. And on Blah-Blah-Blah, TV kept infiltrating Pop’s lyrics—“bad TV that insults me freely” (“Cry for Love”), “raw greed and king TV” (“Hideaway”), “I have no time to watch TV” (“Fire Girl”)—until he made the title track a stream of rants and curses at TV: pacing around the box, hurling abuse at it.

Pop was a lower-middle-class kid from Michigan, who had grown up in the Fifties and Sixties, and while he and the Stooges had done their generational duty and had consumed countless hours of television (Ron Asheton was a huge Star Trek fan), Pop came to consider TV a bad narcotic and the rotten ad-man’s heart of the whole American enterprise. Sure, some of this was the sharp self-righteousness of a newly-sober guy living a fairly ascetic existence in New York. But Pop had no illusions that his own field, rock and roll, wasn’t just as complicit. As he said in an interview with Belgian TV at the time of Blah‘s release:

That phrase, ‘rock and roll,’ doesn’t mean anything to me now. All the governments have gotten behind it, all the corporations are behind it. In America, they use Fifties rock songs to sell corn flakes and baby diapers…I can see a day when rock music could be used during civil riots just to keep people quiet.

Pop said this two years before Navy SEALs, during the Panama invasion, besieged the Vatican embassy, where Manuel Noriega was taking refuge, and blasted, day and night, songs like “Welcome to the Jungle,” Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” Billy Idol’s “Flesh for Fantasy” and the Clash’s “I Fought the Law.” It worked: Guns ‘n’ Roses soon wore down the Vatican, who turned Noriega over to the Americans. If you wanted to say when rock and roll died, Panama City in 1989 is as good a place as any, when loud “rebel” rock anthems were used as sonic weapons by the military to beat down a church’s embassy.

So while “Blah-Blah-Blah” began as a sneer at television, its targets grew as Pop developed his rant. Designers, celebrities, politicians, frozen food manufacturers, commentators: all purveyors of garbage. Its singer is tarred as well. Who is “Iggy Pop”? Just another registered and approved provider of “danger” (it’s as though Pop was predicting becoming the TV pitchman of his old age). At the center of the muck was the corrosive idea of information itself—with Pop howling that we are drowning in televised nonsense, with insurmountable problems reduced to “issues” (“Johnny Can’t Read!!! BLAH BLAH BLAH!!!” and later Pop groans “WE ARE THE WORLD!“); that we have become a fundamentally unserious people, and we deserve whatever ills that we bring upon ourselves. The most spoiled brats on God’s green earth, as Pop mumbles towards the fade. And all of this was before the Internet, mind.

“Blah” has one of Pop’s most prescient and gonzo lyrics, one that would be mainly incomprehensible without the lyric sheet, as Pop’s vocal is sunk in the mix and attacked from all sides by echoes of his voice and rival noisemakers. The first verse finds Pop riffing on his stage name—“Pop” was the ground that he chose to fight on, serving as an off-key voice in pop culture, while “Iggy” symbolizes the grotesque dirty animal that he thought lurked within all of us. “I’m a bull mongrel—that’s me.” The later verses are a string of insults, inside jokes, names torn out of headlines and spat on (Israeli PM Shimon Peres or “Senator Rambo,” which Pop sings like “Rimbaud”)—there’s even an apparent dig at Bowie’s “Blue Jean.”

The song’s a variation of the unceasing stomp of “Lust for Life”, while it also seems a reworking of the vulgar goof “Dancing with the Big Boys,” the improvised two-chord rant session with Bowie that was one of the few human moments on Bowie’s Tonight. Like “Big Boys,” “Blah” is filled with whatever geegaws were on hand in the studio, so Pop’s echoed, distorted, delayed and reverbed vocal fights for space with Casio dog-barks, canned laughs, skips and Kevin Armstrong’s guitar, confined to the right channel, which gives a running commentary of shrieks, hammerings, feedback and little barbed riffs (some of them sound like scraps of rehearsal takes thrown into the soup). The vocal mix is so chaotic at points that it suggests the jumble and clatter of a Mekons track like “Trouble Down South.” Keeping a semblance of order is the Linn Drum and Erdal Kizilcay’s simple bass groove, while his garage band organ riff is pure Steve Nieve, suggesting another rant-inspiration for the track: Costello’s “Pump It Up.”

And for Bowie, the track is the clearest indication of his intentions for his upcoming album: Never Let Me Down, with its “topical” protest songs, its over-crowded production and its barrage of name-dropping, profanity and would-be social commentaries, seems one overlong sequel to “Blah.”

We have drifted away from each other, and in a way I understand why. I’ve never talked to him about this and I probably shouldn’t talk to you about it…I think there was a moment where Jim [Iggy] decided that he couldn’t do a fucking article without my name being mentioned, and I don’t think that’s a very comfortable feeling. I completely understand—I really, really do. Unfortunately, I think Jim took it personally, and that’s a shame because I would have liked to remain closer to him.

David Bowie, interview with, 5 October 1999.

Is he still pals with Bowie? “No.” When did he last see him? “I can’t remember. I spoke with him on the phone about seven years ago, he got my number and we caught up, had a very cordial, nice conversation. He’s living a certain life, I’m living a certain life, there’s not a cross there right now.”

“Iggy Pop at 62,” Times Online, 17 April 2010.

Blah-Blah-Blah is the end of a partnership that had begun in 1971, when Bowie first met Iggy Pop at Max’s Kansas City, and which had created Raw Power, The Idiot, and Lust for Life. Pop and Bowie would never make another record together, would never again collaborate on songs. Along with the dispatching of Mick Ronson and the soon-to-come severing from Carlos Alomar, it’s one of the saddest moments in Bowie’s career, the sudden close of a generous era.

In this case, the break was apparently Pop’s doing. His sobriety had given him a clearer head, and he now had a taste, at last, of commercial success, which bred in him a desire to succeed “on his own” and not as David Bowie’s occasional reclamation project (so Brick by Brick, Pop’s best-selling (and Bowie-free) record, was a vindication.) Bowie and Pop’s friendship apparently has waned in the past two decades: whatever uses that the two had once found for each other, whatever roles that each had once played for the other, no longer worked.

So here marks the end of Iggy Pop’s intersection with this blog, though there’s a sad footnote on Never Let Me Down, which we’ll get to soon enough. It’s a shame, as he’s been fine company. Here’s to you, Jim Osterberg: hail and farewell.

Recorded late April-May 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland. On the album that it named. (Tom Petty and Bob Dylan’s “Jammin’ Me” seems like a response to “Blah”—with Dylan and Petty piecing together a lyric out of television spots and newspaper articles. & I just realized that there’s a dig at Steve Jobs (?!) in the song).

Top: Jeff Koons, Rabbit, 1986.


February 14, 2012

Hideaway (live, 1988).

Much of Blah-Blah-Blah is a man trying to stand still for once in his life, shoring up what he has left, and the backdrop is kept vague—an apartment in a city somewhere, with a TV flickering in the corner. But once in a while Iggy Pop turns and watches the set, first with irritation, then becoming consumed with disgust and fear. The title track finds Pop ranting in front of his television, cursing everything that’s hurled at him, while “Hideaway” finds him at his limit, considering fleeing into Mexico.

So “Hideaway” is another of the album’s pledges of commitment and renewal, driven here by the shopworn hope that love will serve as a makeshift refuge from an awful world. The lyric moves from an opening lament about how “big industry” has blighted the earth to Pop’s realization that he’s been complicit in the ruin—the last verse, which Pop sings supported only by an unchanging synth line and the Linn Drum, finds him pledging that he won’t waste the one resource he has left. (Try to ignore the cliché-infested bridge, where Pop is moved upon hearing children’s voices). It comes down to a typical Pop aphorism: “They say, ‘So what?’/I say, ‘So this.’

Anchored on the Linn, a run of parrying riffs on keyboard by Erdal Kizilcay and Kevin Armstrong’s over-busy guitar (there’s a hint of Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared” in his main riff), “Hideaway” builds to a simple, stone-solid melody–only eight sung notes in 12 bars—in its chorus, with Bowie again heard in the backing choir. With songs like this as album cuts, Blah really was the great lost classic rock record: it could’ve dominated AOR radio in the late Eighties as much as, say, Back in the High Life did.

Recorded late April-May 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland. On Blah Blah Blah, and performed on Pop’s 1986-1988 tours; a recording from the Whiskey-a-Go-Go in LA on 9 July 1988 is on the Official Live Experience Vol. 2.

Top: S. Fitzstephens, “Jaco Pastorius, Gerde’s Folk City, March 1986.”


February 9, 2012

Isolation (single edit, video).

“Isolation” was an Iggy Pop-dominated composition, as Pop pointedly told an interviewer at the time that its melody was all his. During his exile year in Greenwich Village (which paralleled Bowie’s dry-out period in Berlin the decade before, down to Pop speaking about the joys of buying his own groceries and cleaning up his own apartment), Pop had wanted to “work up my sense of melody,” something he felt he’d neglected in his earlier songs. And Bowie had wanted to make Pop “better aware of the qualities of his own voice,” to know that “he didn’t have to be so histrionic in what he was doing physically or with sound, and still have the same kind of weight as a performer and artist.” So Bowie pushed Pop to sustain notes, extend phrases, to expand his range beyond the typical growling baritone.

“Isolation” was a success on both fronts, with a sturdy, steadily-building melody for which Pop gives his strongest vocal on the record. But while Pop declared “Isolation” mainly his doing, it’s arguably one of the most Bowie-sounding tracks on Blah-Blah-Blah, and its origins went back to the start of their collaboration: “Isolation” had been the original title of “What in the World,” a song first intended for The Idiot.

While the dumb-brilliant lyric (“I need some lovin’, like a fastball needs control“) and the song’s no-frills C major-based chord structure seem Iggy’s doing, Bowie took over the song in the studio. He seems the force behind the backing vocals, whose ranks audibly include him and whose staggered responses push against Pop’s longer-held phrases, as well as the gorgeous, grandiose build to the chorus (was Thom Yorke listening? there’s a trace of “Isolation” in the end chorus of “Let Down.”)

And while the saxophone, which first crops up in the chorus and later briefly trades phrases with Pop, is uncredited (and so conceivably is played by the one-man-band Erdal Kizilcay), you know it’s Bowie—it’s one of his most visible fingerprints on the album. “Isolation” is their purest collaboration on Blah, even if both took pains to deny it.

Recorded late April-May 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland. On Blah-Blah-Blah. “Isolation” was released in June 1987 as the album’s second UK single (AMY 397 c/w “Hideaway,” didn’t chart) and given another strange, cheap video.

Top: Hamish Reid, “Hungerford Bridge, London, 1986.”

Little Miss Emperor

February 6, 2012

Little Miss Emperor.

One seeming goal of Blah-Blah-Blah was to outplay Billy Idol at his own game—a game for which Iggy Pop had drafted the board and written the rules. And it worked: “Cry for Love” and “Real Wild Child” were the best Idol singles released in ’86, while the latter’s B-side, “Little Miss Emperor,” also annexed Idol territory. (“Emperor” was appended* to the CD and cassette versions of Blah and so spoiled the sequencing, as “Winners and Losers,” Blah‘s would-be epic closer, was now relegated to next-to-last.)

On “Emperor,” Erdal Kizilcay gave one of his most ferocious bass performances in the Blah sessions, a thunder-thudding line that locks into (but also pushes against) the Linn programming, and he has some other nice touches: the barren little piano line that transitions from chorus to verse, the synth violin phrase that crops up after Pop’s finished, or the panned L-to-R synth washes at the fade. Even the cliched staccato string samples (the Casio again?) are kept in moderation until the coda, where Kizilcay apparently was given the green light to pad things out for a minute.

Pop’s lyric, with lines like “your open arms they flinch/Joan Crawford style” and which riffs off the opening of Ginsberg’s “Howl,” is fine, if the subject—yet another imperious heartbreaker that Iggy’s obsessed with—is old news. The song’s just a bit dull, with the chorus melody in particular stuck in one gear, and the frenetic mix seems intended to distract the ear. But as B-side material (or album filler) “Emperor” works well enough.

Recorded late April-May 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland. First issued in October 1986 as the B-side of “Real Wild Child,” and on the cassette/CD releases of Blah-Blah-Blah.

* The death of vinyl, well underway by ’86, was hastened by record companies offering conversion bribes in the form of cassette/CD-only bonus tracks. (“Murder by Numbers,” on Synchronicity, is the first of these I remember, though the practice dates back to 8-tracks.) Cassettes had been outselling vinyl since 1983, CDs would pass LPs in 1988, and by the spring of 1989, my mall record store had refitted their LP racks for CD longboxes and left their remaining vinyl stock in milk crates by the door, as if to encourage shoplifters. Bowie did his part, including extended mixes of many tracks on the CD Never Let Me Down, while the first Tin Machine album has two CD-only tracks. So the last Bowie album primarily sequenced for vinyl was Tonight, which is sad.

Top: “Subway, New York City,” 1986. I clipped this photograph from the New York Times nearly a decade ago, and don’t know who took it—if anyone does know, tell me and I’ll add the info. Also: video footage of the NYC subway in 1986.

Baby, It Can’t Fall

February 2, 2012

Baby, It Can’t Fall.
Baby, It Can’t Fall (live, 1986).

Before recording Blah-Blah-Blah, Bowie, Iggy Pop and David Richards went through a stack of contemporary albums to find a sound. They liked the drums on Springsteen’s Born In the USA and Prince’s mid-Eighties records, but they were especially taken by Public Image Ltd.’s Album (or Cassette, or Compact Disc, depending on its medium),* with Bill Laswell’s massive production on the record. John Lydon had sacked his touring band for studio guns like Steve Vai and legends like Tony Williams and Ginger Baker, whose drums Laswell mixed so loudly that they were like a sustained aerial bombardment. Album was, in a way, the culmination of Lydon’s goal with PiL: to make an anonymous, vicious corporate rock record, one that jeered at the people it made dance; it was a faceless board of directors issuing songs about torture, capitalism-as-narcotic, betrayal.

But where Laswell had a cast of top players (including Miles Davis, who he didn’t even use) on call in New York’s premier studios, Bowie and Pop were making a record on the cheap in Switzerland (as Pop didn’t have a record deal, Blah was entirely self-funded), reusing chips on Roger Taylor’s Linn, and leaning on Erdal Kizilcay to do the work of ten players.

Kizilcay was a Turk, born in 1950, who had gone to Istanbul’s equivalent of Julliard, where he was required to learn every instrument in the standard orchestra. So he could play everything from violin to French horn to oboe to vibes to drums (though his specialty was bass and guitar). Bowie met him in Switzerland, where Kizilcay was playing at a local club and, as a gimmick, switched instruments throughout the evening. For Bowie (and fellow Swiss exile Freddie Mercury), Kizilcay was a godsend—as he could play any instrument required, he could serve as a one-man band for demos, enabling Bowie to quickly get new material down without the bother of hiring or shipping in players. So Kizilcay helped Bowie make the Let’s Dance demos, and designed the template for what would be Never Let Me Down (which caused some trouble, as we’ll see).

But where Kizilcay’s strengths lay in his versatility and improvisational skill, using him to basically sub for a rock band but on a budget, had its downsides. “Baby, It Can’t Fall,” a song for which Bowie wrote the music, in particular suffers from a sense of cutting corners, as there’s a flatness, a tinniness to the sound that the overcrowded mix, with its yo-yoing Pop vocals and occasional synth whooshes, can’t disguise. Pop’s wild declaration of love in the chorus—defying the world, defying death—demands something mightier than a Casio horn riff (even the Borneo Horns would’ve been better). The cheery opening hook seems out of place; worse, it’s almost directly lifted from Huey Lewis and the News’ “Heart and Soul.”

Still Pop sings “Baby It Can’t Fall” compellingly, with power and muscle, Kevin Armstrong has a gritty solo that you wish would go on for longer (there’s a brief moment in the coda where it seems like there’s going to be a duel between Armstrong’s guitar and Kizilcay on organ, but it goes nowhere), and the song itself is fine, another of Blah‘s testaments to perseverance, of elation at being alive and betting the house on the promise of the present. Pop took the song on the road in late 1986, and some recordings of it—recast as a sparring match between guitar and organ—have more weight and presence than the studio take (even if Armstrong seems to forget the opening riff in the NYC Ritz recording).

Recorded late April-May 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland. Released 23 October 1986 on Blah-Blah-Blah and in 1987 as the B-side of “Shades.”

* By rights, the collection should called MP3 or RAR on iTunes/Amazon.

Top: Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels, Something Wild (Demme, 1986).


January 31, 2012

Shades (Iggy Pop).
Shades (Iggy Pop, single edit, video).
Shades (Iggy Pop, live, 1986).
Shades (Iggy Pop, live, 1987).
Shades (Pop, live, 2017).

He sees me as a character. Probably an American beatnik who survived, Kerouac thirty years later. And I see him as one of the only representatives of the enfranchised world that understands me or that I can stand.

Iggy Pop, on David Bowie, 1987.

Bowie’s last public act of goodwill for Iggy Pop was to make him a hit record, which Bowie did with economy, selecting some Pop demos, writing a few other songs with him and recording the lot over three weeks with a skeleton crew. Kevin Armstrong provided the guitar, while the jack-of-all-trades Erdal Kizilcay essentially made the rest of the album: playing bass, synths, keyboards and drums, writing a string arrangement and, along with Armstrong, singing backing vocals. Co-producer David Richards programmed the Linn Drum. Bowie and Pop were the roadies, hauling gear in and out of the studio.

Blah-Blah-Blah was intended as Pop’s own Let’s Dance—a contemporary-sounding album with a sure-fire single (in this case, Pop’s cover of Johnny O’Keefe’s “Real Wild Child”).* And Pop was a willing partner in his rehabilitation. “I wanted to write stuff people would hum,” he told Peter Antony in 1986. “[The album] sounds real good and I know it. It sounds good enough to be played on the radio.”

Blah was shopped around to labels, including Virgin and A&M, which started a bidding war.”[Blah-Blah-Blah] came in pretty much finished, and it was almost like a David Bowie record that, as a record company, you wished you’d had but never got,” said Nancy Jeffries, A&M’s talent head at the time. A&M got the record, reportedly for $500,000, including a good-sized producer’s fee for Bowie (his work wasn’t entirely altruistic). Its promotion staff, in a savvy bit of counter-Christmas programming, pushed “Wild Child” in the UK in December 1986 and it hit #10, the best chart performance of Pop’s life.**

In the years since its release, Blah has fallen into some critical neglect, its status not helped by Pop’s occasional public grousing about it (he once said “it’s not my favorite record, but it got me some hits, so maybe it should be“) while its echt-1986 sound, especially Kizilcay’s synthesizers and gated drums (and the Linn on loan from Queen’s Roger Taylor), has dated it. But Blah finds Pop in strong voice, dedicated to melody in a way he never had been before, and with a solid collection of songs. For once on a Pop album, there are no half-assed covers, no sloppy studio improvs, and at its best, Blah‘s a document of a hard-won middle age (Pop was 39 when he cut it).

And Bowie’s six co-contributions, while no classics, are still some of his best songs of the period. As with his soundtrack material, Bowie seemed liberated by having someone else’s name on the label, and the challenge of making Pop commercial seemed to shake him out of his torpor. Excited by what he’d accomplished with Pop and feeling creatively renewed, Bowie went on a writing binge, soon assembling a stack of material for a new record of his own, which he planned to make via the same efficient, minimalist method as Blah. It didn’t quite turn out that way.

After his chaotic early Eighties (drugs, voodoo), Pop was at a happy standstill. Living with his wife Suchi in a small Greenwich Village apartment, he spent his days “staying very straight”: reading novels, doing chores and writing. He clipped newspaper articles for cut-up verses, brought a portable typewriter to Washington Square Park. He took acting classes (and auditioned for parts, landing a cameo in Scorsese’s Color of Money), went to the gym. After Pop felt he’d written enough top-shelf material, he got in touch with Steve Jones, the former Sex Pistols guitarist, who, like Pop, was now sober. In LA, in the summer of 1985, Pop and Jones wrote two dozen songs and cut demos for nine (including Blah‘s “Cry for Love,” “Fire Girl,” and “Winners and Losers,” while “Beside You,” eventually recorded for American Caesar, also dates from this period).

Bowie and Pop met up in November 1985, when Bowie was in New York finishing the Labyrinth soundtrack (most likely doing the “Underground” vocal sessions). While initially skeptical when he learned that Pop had been working with Steve Jones, Bowie was impressed with the 8-track demos. But he feared that as they were all mid-tempo songs, it would make for a dull record. “You’ll need some fast ones and some slow ones,” he told Pop, and volunteered to write them. And Pop recognized that Bowie would provide a needed counterpoint to the very “basic guitar, drums and vocal” tracks that he and Jones had demoed.

So over three months, including trips to Mustique and Gstaad, Pop and Bowie wrote the remainder of Blah-Blah-Blah (while it’s not confirmed, they likely resuscitated some pieces begun during Pop’s visit to the Tonight sessions). Pop was determined that the new songs had to be demoed just like his and Jones’ earlier tapes, so Bowie went to the NYC musician’s haven Manny’s Music and bought a 4-track recorder, some Ovation guitars, a Roland drum synth, a Casio synth and a Boss digital sampler. He took the haul back to their rehearsal space, where he and Pop then spent hours reading manuals to try to figure out how the gear worked.

The album sessions, at Montreux’s Mountain Studios (conveniently near Bowie’s home), were run with brutal efficiency, as if by a team of Deutsche Grammophon engineers from the Fifties. According to Paul Trynka’s Pop bio, Bowie was full of “jittery intensity,” thanks to his incessant smoking and endless cups of espresso, and he walked around with a clipboard that held each day’s recording schedule, which Bowie would follow meticulously, checking off each successful take.

As Steve Jones couldn’t get a visa in time for the sessions, an element of potential chaos was eliminated (Jones’ lead solo on the demo of “Cry for Love” was used in the final mix), letting Bowie give the reins to Kizilcay and Armstrong. Bowie was already working with Kizilcay on some soundtrack material, and he had met Armstrong in the Absolute Beginners/”Dancing in the Street” sessions. Pop called Armstrong, who had played with Alien Sex Fiend, a “dedicated worker,” and one morning took him rowing on Lake Geneva. Armstrong recalled Pop matter-of-factly pointing out the Villa Diodati, where Mary Shelley had started Frankenstein.

Of the Bowie/Pop collaborations, “Shades” is mostly Bowie’s work, as he wrote the music and a good chunk of the lyric, including the entire first verse. Reportedly inspired by Bowie watching a delighted Pop give a present to his wife Suchi, and playing off the guitar riff of Jones/Pop’s “Cry for Love,” “Shades” is Bowie writing in the voice of Iggy the character: a humble, broken guy who’s stunned by a small act of human kindness, here his girlfriend giving him a pair of sunglasses.

Bowie kept the song simple, just a pair of melodic verses that easily link to a two-tiered, lovely chorus, where Pop’s baritone is tracked over an octave higher by Armstrong and Kizilcay’s vocals (it’s possible Bowie’s in the mix, too, but I don’t hear him). The accompaniment is mainly Kizilcay in a dozen guises—a bubbling synth pattern that, along with a unobtrusive bassline, serves as the bedrock of the track; the little organ riff that appears in the left channel, starting with the second verse, and which slowly gets more prominence in the mix; the “foghorn” sounding synth in the chorus; the wildly-compressed drum intro and the regular fills throughout the track.

Pop liked Bowie’s idea of doing “one of those ‘reformed guy’ kinda songs,” (it’s sequenced as a delayed response to “Real Wild Child”) and he sang it well, taking his time with the melody, building confidently to the peak at the end of the chorus. That said, Pop had to trim some of Bowie’s lyric to better fit his persona. Bowie originally wrote the chorus as “I know what kind of man I am/I’m not Saint Francis of Assisi or Baudelaire’s son,” which Pop felt would sound dubious coming from his mouth. Bowie “tends to be a little grand in his allusions,” Pop told an interviewer in 1987.

Recorded late April-May 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland. First released on 23 October 1986, on Blah-Blah-Blah, and in February 1987 as a single (AM 374, c/w “Baby, It Can’t Fall”) which got a slight edit (“it makes me come in the night” was too much for radio, evidently) and was given a dime-budget video in which Pop mimes the song while filmed through a chain-link fence in what looks like a batting cage.

Of great help for this entry was Paul Trynka’s essential Open Up and Bleed (it’s the source of the Jeffries quote and a few of the Pop ones). The rest of the Iggy quotes are from the various radio interviews he gave in promoting Blah, including a 30-minute 1986 interview on Radio Luxembourg and this amazing interview, taped in Japan in April 1987, which becomes Pop’s rambling but trenchant evaluation of his life and philosophy of music. “If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s some asshole singing a song describing his version of society in some crappy metaphor…like ‘The Windmills of Your Mind.’

* Also known as “Wild One,” it was recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis, whose version rivals O’Keefe‘s. Jerry Allison cut a punk rock single of it in 1958.

** While selling modestly in the UK and the US, Blah went gold in Canada, giving Pop his first-ever gold record. There’s a clip of a beaming, awkward, suit-wearing Iggy receiving the award at a Vancouver hotel. It’s oddly touching—it would be the final scene in the Hollywood biopic of his life (starring Johnny Depp).

Top: Paul W. Locke, “Suffolk Downs, East Boston, MA, 1986.”

Don’t Look Down

November 30, 2011

Don’t Look Down (Iggy Pop, 1979).
Don’t Look Down (Bowie, 1984).

At its worst, which is often, Tonight is wearying to listen to, with its frenetic overstuffed mixes; its lack of space or depth, with everything smeared together in the foreground; the sheer trebleness of it all. It’s like a revue in which everyone is hamming it up, even the stagehands. (See “Neighborhood Threat.“)

So to be fair, Bowie’s version of Iggy Pop’s “Don’t Look Down” sounds better than the average Tonight track. Whoever was responsible for the mix—Hugh Padgham or Derek Bramble—captured the low end well, giving Bramble’s six-note basslines a nice snap, and there’s a clean precision to much of the mix: take the way Sammy Figueroa’s blocks crisply accent the beat, and you can hear every breath the saxophonist draws. That said, this is an awful cover, a mild variation on the genteel vandalism Bowie did to Pop’s “Tonight.”

“Don’t Look Down” was a brooding, weird track on Pop’s underrated New Values (it was co-written and produced by former Stooge James Williamson): it’s a louche piece of nightlife, Pop muttering a survivalist’s credo for himself, something scrapped together late one night in a club he didn’t remember entering: don’t look down, because you’re standing over a pit. The bleary sentimentality is kept in check by Scott Thurston’s guitar; the Alfono Sisters are sympathetic sirens; the saxophonist’s looking for clues, or at least a way out of the room.

Bowie seemed at a loss as to how to interpret “Don’t Look Down,” settling on sub-Bryan Ferry world-weariness set to a Carnival cruiseline reggae beat. He told Charles Shaar Murray (in an interview in which Bowie seems to writing off Tonight while he promotes it) that he tried out “everything”—jazz rock, a “march”—until he chose a light reggae groove. Having Bramble in the studio, who could play “proper reggae lines” for once (uh, remember George Murray??), was an inspiration, Bowie said, adding that he found “taking energy away from the musical side of things reinforced the lyrics and gave them their own energy.”

Taking the song out of its vampirish setting, cleaning up its cocaine squalor, Bowie was left with a set of empty reassurances, polite cocktail hour murmurings and even pantomime (take Bowie’s quasi-“Jamaican” phrasing of lines like “Central Park to shanty town” or the cheery band signoff in the last bar). A limp, pointless performance, “Down” is sequenced poorly, too, as it’s a baffling segue between “Loving the Alien” and “God Only Knows” on the A side.

Recorded May 1984, Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec.

Top: Billy Bragg, one-angry-young-man-band, New York? (see comments), 1984.

Tumble and Twirl

November 28, 2011

Tumble and Twirl.
Tumble and Twirl (12″ dance mix).

Full of the rewards he received for his work, and seemingly without noticing, he exchanged passion for sentiment, the romance of sex for a tease, a reach for mysteries with tawdry posturing and was last seen parading his riches, his fame and his smugness, a sort of hip Englebert Humperdinck…Perhaps it makes sense. When Rod Stewart was learning the game, Simon Frith has said, the goal of show business was not to become a great artist, but to spend money and fuck movie stars. If it was necessary to become a great artist in order to get the money to spend and the stars to fuck, well, Rod was willing.

Greil Marcus, on Rod Stewart.

The first thought was a live album: Serious Moonlight. Take a breath, sell a souvenir record of a bank-breaking tour, recharge. Instead, five months after going off stage, Bowie was in a ski resort in Canada, making arguably the worst album of his life.

Tonight is perhaps the least-loved #1 pop record of its era. Its popularity was momentary: front-loaded in orders and going platinum in six weeks, the record’s sales cratered once it hit the shops and people had the misfortune to hear it. Producing a Top 10 single (“Blue Jean”) and a complete flop (the title track),1 Tonight is like the scrapbag albums that labels issued in the Sixties for their second-tier acts: a hit single buried in a mire of uninspired covers and bottom-drawer originals.

Bowie later called it a “violent” sequel to his cover album Pin Ups, but that’s revisionist history: Tonight is so scatter-shot, so lacking in coherence, so impeccably rancid, that Pin Ups is a brilliant concept LP by comparison. Created, if there was any discernible reason, to sate a vague commercial demand, Tonight was conceived, recorded and issued as pure product: a Bowie record as a software upgrade, or a new edition coffee maker. Unlike any Bowie record in the past, there was utterly no reason for its existence. But Bowie, now in Rod Stewart territory, was following a clearly-burned path—put out a new record, grind a hit off it, make a flashy video, get on the cover of Rolling Stone again; sell, sell, sell again; repudiate your sins at your leisure.

The Tonight sessions were desultory by Bowie standards, dragging out for over five weeks and producing only nine releasable tracks. As with Let’s Dance, Bowie outsourced much of the music to his producers and studio guns, showing up at Le Studio to record a vocal or to throw the I Ching to determine whether a mix was finished.

Keeping to the Rod Stewart formula, Bowie had decided from the start to replicate the sound of his most recent hits, as it was what fans were expecting. But while retaining much of the Let’s Dance crew (one Simms brother, the “Borneo Horns,” the rhythm section of Carmine Rojas, Omar Hakim and Sammy Figueroa), Bowie dispensed with Nile Rodgers. Bowie had never been enamored with sidemen who got a substantial share of the credit, and more than one article had described Let’s Dance as the sound of Rodgers making Bowie relevant again.

To replace Rodgers, Bowie recruited Derek Bramble, the bassist of the British disco group Heatwave.2 Bramble was an inventive bassist but a neophyte producer—Tonight would be his first major album. As insurance (which he would need to use), Bowie got Hugh Padgham, who had just produced the Police’s massive Synchronicity, to engineer the sessions, and hired back Carlos Alomar as a sous-chef of sorts.

Bramble compensated for his lack of experience by covering his bases and second-guessing himself and his crew, asking for retake after retake of perfectly usable vocals and rhythm tracks (this was especially irritating for Bowie, master of the one- or two-take vocal). Alomar was blunt when interviewed by David Buckley: Bramble “was a nice guy, but he didn’t know jack-shit about producing.” By halfway through the sessions, Bramble was gone, with Padgham getting a battlefield promotion. Bowie asked him to salvage the record and mix it.

But by then, Padgham was frustrated by Bowie’s apparent indifference to his own material. Bowie had showed up fairly prepared for the sessions, having demoed about eight new songs (Alomar was stunned—this was the most prep work he’d ever seen Bowie do for an album), some of which were just known as track numbers. But as the sessions went on, Bowie seemed less and less inclined to work off the demos, which Padgham described as being bluesy and “raunchy” roughs, instead doing a series of covers that ranged from the explicable (the various Iggy Pop songs) to the left-field (“I Keep Forgetting”) to the baffling (“God Only Knows”).

Of the handful of original songs written for Tonight, the oldest was “Tumble and Twirl,” a collaboration between Bowie and Iggy Pop, their first in five years.

Pop had been in freefall since last encountered in this survey (“Play it Safe”). The twin commercial disasters of Soldier and Party had finished off his Arista contract; Pop seems to have intentionally ruined Party, for which he recorded bizarre dreck like “Happy Man” and covers of “Sea of Love” and “Time Won’t Let Me” (in retrospect, this really seems like the template for Tonight).

His commercial prospects shot, Pop took to the road whenever he could (Alomar joined a Pop tour in late 1981, and even by his jaded standards, Alomar was shocked at the debauchery on display (“at one point, I think [Pop] took a shit on stage right behind the speakers,” he told Paul Trynka). Things calmed briefly in 1982 with the completion of a half-decent record, the Chris Stein-produced Zombie Birdhouse, and Pop and his girlfriend Esther Friedmann went to Haiti on vacation. There Pop antagonized a local voodoo priest by dancing during a ceremony; the pair lost all of their money (Pop giving most of it away to locals), forcing Friedmann to work as a back-alley dentist’s assistant; they were nearly killed in a car crash; menacing strangers kept showing up at their house. Friedmann tried several times to get an ailing Pop off the island, with the pair failing to catch their plane in increasingly strange ways. (More in Trynka’s Open Up and Bleed).

Then in 1983, the cash began to come in. The success of Bowie’s “China Girl” brought in hundreds of thousands in royalties to Pop, who was even starting to get money from the Sex Pistols’ cover of “No Fun,” and Bowie’s excessive covering of Pop songs on Tonight (five out of nine tracks have a Pop credit), is Bowie generously extending a line of credit with no desire to be paid back.

“Tumble and Twirl” came out of a trip to Bali and Java that Pop and Bowie had taken (with Coco Schwab and Pop’s future wife, Suchi Asano) in Christmas 1983. It was a celebration of a commercial jubilee year for Bowie, a luxurious recuperation for Pop.

Described as a 50-50 composition between Bowie and Pop, “Tumble and Twirl”‘s lyric owes far more to Pop (only Iggy would’ve rhymed “dusky mulatto” and “nylons and tattoos“), while the chords suggest a typical Bowie swerve—while “Tumble” starts firmly in E minor (the only chord in the verse besides D major), the bridge unsettles things with the appearance of a G# minor (swapped in from the parallel major), and the tumbling/twirling chorus is a constant churn of D-Em-C-G.

It could have worked. The idea of pampered Westerners in a corrupted paradise, a genial visit to a Club Med in Hell, was an inspired idea for a song and had a host of worthy ancestors, from Graham Greene to the Clash’s “Safe European Home.” And a few sharp details remain in the final lyric—the locals in their Playboy and Bob Marley t-shirts, the magnate’s mansion on a Borneo hill that pipes raw sewage down to the beach, the sense that the singer, safe in his first-class seat flying home, really has seen nothing at all: “Let me rise through the cloudy above with a book on Borneo.”

You could argue “Tumble,” as a track, is a broad, exuberant parody, the producers and players bouncing off the Jimmy Buffett trademarked “island” sound, swathing the lyric in self-conscious gloss and cheer. But as “Tumble” goes on and on, it feels that few people involved in the record are really in on the joke, and that there may not be a joke at all, with the track becoming a chamber of minor horrors: the “Bor-ne-oooh” vocal tag, the badgering horns, the supper-club singing on the bridge, with Bowie showing up eight bars in, as if he’d been visiting the john. Only Alomar’s tugging, nagging rhythm guitar lines and Mark King’s bass come through with any dignity.

Recorded May 1984 at Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec.3 Released in November 1984 as the B-side of “Tonight.” The “extended dance mix,” released on the 12″ single, is a more endurable version, as some of the backing vocals are wiped.

1 In the UK and in some of Europe, “Loving the Alien” was released as Tonight‘s third single; it charted passably (#19, UK).

2 Even by the standards of Seventies rock bands, Heatwave had a lurid, violent history. Their first rhythm guitarist was stabbed to death, their original bassist was also stabbed (by a girlfriend) and left temporarily blinded and paralyzed, and the lead singer was paralyzed from the neck down after an auto accident.

3 “Le Studio” was an “environmental” studio opened in 1974 with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall (Rush cut most of their records there—footage of Rush doing “Limelight” at Le Studio was used in the promo video). Today it stands abandoned and empty, a near-forgotten casualty of indifferent time, as is much of the record industry.

Top: Brendan Haley, “Me and Dad in the Mirror, Salamanca, Spain. Summer 1984.”

Play It Safe

July 28, 2011

Play It Safe (Iggy Pop).

If Bowie left the Seventies (relatively) cleaned up and prosperous, in gear for the upcoming decade, Iggy Pop exited in a shambles, with much of the salvage work of the Idiot/Lust for Life era unraveled by the typical chaos.

In late 1978, Pop was living a fairly domestic life in West Berlin with his girlfriend, the photographer Esther Friedmann. Things were on the up: he had a new contract with Arista and he released a fine, still-underrated record in April 1979, New Values, which was a minor success in the UK and produced a few FM radio hits like “I’m Bored.'” The next record, Iggy’s circle agreed, could be the big one—at last, a commercial smash. So Iggy set about assembling a punk rock supergroup for the sessions, including former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock, former Rich Kid Steve New and Barry Andrews, whose manic organ playing had defined the first two XTC albums.

But the result, Soldier, was a mess and didn’t sell. The album sessions, held in a remote Welsh farm, were plagued by sloth, drugs and paranoia, with producer/former Stooge James Williamson pacing the studio with a bottle of vodka and a gun, ordering retake after retake, or spending days trying to create a 48-track console by synchronizing tape machines. Iggy, who had just come off a tour and had little time to rehearse, was having trouble with lyrics. The general vibe was awful.

Then Bowie appeared—as Pop recalled to Paul Trynka, Bowie showed up looking like “the Scarlet Pimpernel,” wearing an all-red outfit (including a cape). Bowie, who was worried about Pop, soon tried to lighten the mood. Gathering the musicians around him (including some Simple Minds members who showed up when they heard Bowie had arrived), Bowie spun tales of London lowlife, particularly the notorious John Bindon, a former gangster (an alleged Kray Brothers enforcer) turned actor (Get Carter, Performance) who had once run security for Led Zeppelin and who was known for having an enormous penis, which, Bowie said, was a favorite of Princess Margaret’s.*

That was enough for Iggy. He went into the vocal booth and soon improvised an obscene rap about Bindon and the Princess that spread into a rant on how being a criminal was like being a rock star, was better than being a rock star. The refrain came from the idea that the safest thing you can be is a criminal. I’m gonna play it safe! Iggy beamed. The band perked up, found a groove centered around a droning synthesizer line. Bowie went around the studio, politely offering suggestions, tweaking sounds. Williamson, angered by what he saw as Bowie’s usurpation, retaliated by sending a dose of feedback into Bowie’s headphones.

Bowie (and the disgruntled Williamson) left Wales the next day. Later that year Bowie apparently had second thoughts, asking for “Play It Safe” to be cut from the album. Instead the track was edited, losing not only the Princess Margaret verses but most of Steve New’s guitar (Pop allegedly was angry that New wasn’t going to tour with him, though there’s an apocryphal story about New punching Bowie when New thought Bowie was hitting on his girlfriend**). The final Soldier, which limped out in early 1980 and promptly sank without a trace, suffered from a poor mix, with a batch of songs that ranged between the funny-dumb (“I’m a Conservative”) and the dumb-dumb (“Dog Food“).

Even in its bowdlerized form, “Play It Safe” was the best track on a mediocre record. Iggy’s improvised lyric starts with Dwight Eisenhower and ends with the Son of Sam and Jim Jones, and there’s a poignancy to how Pop sings the title line—it’s the sound of a man trapped in his own diminishing legend.

Recorded ca. September 1979, Rockfield Studios, Monmouthshire, Wales. On Soldier, released February 1980. Trynka’s Open Up and Bleed, particularly his interview with Barry Andrews, is the main source for this entry.

* Among Bindon’s many girlfriends were, reportedly, Christine Keeler, Dana Gillespie and Angela Bowie. The latter two, one assumes, provided Bowie with his anecdotes.

** If this story is true, 1979 was a year Bowie got punched out a lot, most notoriously in the Lou Reed brawl in London.

Top: Pete Shacky, “Four Afghan Hounds,” West Berlin, 1979.