Isolation

February 9, 2012

Isolation.
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.”