Mother

October 4, 2013

1998_10-Urlaub London mit Bruno

Mother (John Lennon, 1970).
Mother (Bowie, 1998).

At the corner of the settee nearest the fire, beneath a television which has long ceased to flicker its soundless images, sits a familiar figure, eyes half closed, head bowed, nodding gently, almost imperceptibly, to the pain and anger of John Lennon’s “Mother”, growling out of a loudspeaker at each corner of the spacious hunting lodge room…you might think he was falling asleep were it not for the slight tightening of the eyebrowless forehead at the compelling anguish of the shrieking fade-out.

Martin Hayman, “Outside David Bowie…Is The Closest You’re Gonna Get,” Rock, 8 October 1973.

Hayman was interviewing David Bowie at the Château d’Hérouville during the making of Pin-Ups. Twenty-five years later, Bowie was still taken by Lennon’s “Mother,” enough to record a version of the song with Tony Visconti.

Bowie’s “Mother” was intended for a tribute album meant to mark Lennon’s would-have-been 60th birthday in October 2000. The commemorative Lennon industry was thriving in the late Nineties. Following the Beatles’ Anthology series and Lennon’s return to the pop charts, albeit in ghost form, via “Free As a Bird,” there was the Lennon Anthology, a four-disc box of outtakes released for Christmas 1998. The all-star Lennon tribute CD, intended as the counterpart of an all-star tribute birthday concert, would cap this latest exhumation.

At the center of all that fame and wealth and adulation was just a lonely little kid.

Arthur Janov, on Lennon in 1970.

“Mother” had led off Lennon’s first solo LP, Plastic Ono Band (it was also the single). It was a purge of a song. Neither his mother Julia nor his father Alf had been capable of raising him, flitting in and out of his childhood, using him as a bargaining chip in their chaotic relationship. His father eventually abandoned him; Julia was struck by a car and killed in 1958.

Her death set the 18-year-old Lennon off; it hardened him, made him caustic, cruel, obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll (“rock and roll was real: everything else was unreal,” he later said). As critics like Ian MacDonald noted, Julia was a muse for Lennon the composer: her image, a nurturing artistic mother/lover figure, lies at the heart of songs like “Yes It Is” and “Girl.” Upon meeting Yoko Ono, his muse made flesh, Lennon could finally relinquish Julia, which he did in the gorgeous song he titled after her on the White Album, a love ballad and elegy in one (“her hair of floating sky is shimmering, glimmering..in the sun,” both the sight of a lover and of his mother lying dead in a Liverpool street).

But he wasn’t done with her yet. The Plastic Ono Band album came out of Lennon and Ono’s “primal scream” sessions with Arthur Janov in 1970. The therapy, which entailed sitting in a room and screaming at the top of your lungs for hours, a sort of bloodletting for the soul, also helped Lennon get over his usual dislike of his singing voice, giving him license to shriek his songs out. So “Mother,” a curse on childhood, builds from ruminative verses to splenetic refrains, the latter growing in fervor with each repeat, Lennon’s larynx-scraping “dooon’t GOOOOs” matched by the descending knife-blows of “daddy-come-home.”* While its lyric was open, so that anyone could see themselves in the words, the pain that Lennon inflicted on his phrasings made it an intensely, uncomfortably personal recording, in a way that “Girl” or even “Julia” wasn’t. “Mother” seemed uncoverable. Naturally, Bowie tried.

mother

Lennon had been Bowie’s inspiration and friend, and perhaps because of this, Bowie proved incapable of interpreting Lennon’s songs with any perspective. He fell into gush or blundered through them: his takes on “Across the Universe,” “Imagine,” and “Working Class Hero” range from the misguided to the dreadful.

For “Mother” he recorded a demo in Nassau with Reeves Gabrels, an unknown session organ player and Andy Newmark (the latter’s first appearance on a Bowie record since Young Americans) on drums, then took the tape to New York to have Visconti craft it into releasable shape during the “Safe In This Sky Life” sessions. He and Visconti decided to keep his original vocal from the demo, despite it having some bleed-through from Newmark’s drums (Bowie did a few punch-ins, which required Visconti to track down the same microphone that Bowie had used in the Bahamas). They added Jordan Rudess’ piano (which quotes from Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels” in the second verse) and Visconti’s bass and harmony vocals (along with Richard Barone). Visconti later said that “it’s [not] the most polished production of our careers. The recording was made on that now defunct digital system ADAT and it was one of my first attempts at manipulating music in a computer.”

It’s not the murky production that’s most at fault here, nor the arrangement (though Gabrels’ guitar in the choruses is a garish interloper at a wake). It’s that Bowie had set himself an impossible task: he couldn’t physically sing with as much mania and spleen as Lennon had (even Lennon couldn’t have done it after 1971 or so), but the song’s emotive fury, its petulance and its raw neediness (it’s an adult regressed to a child, screaming demands at his absent parents) demanded some unhinged passion from its interpreter.

But Bowie treated the song with reverence, as if making a church piece of it; he was careful not to embarrass himself, singing the verses in his rich lower register and not going too far over the top for the choruses. Where Lennon sang his lines as if arguing with ghosts, Bowie sang as if he was back in the Château d’Hérouville, singing along to Lennon’s record on the turntable. His “Mother” is tasteful and pointless: it gives nothing back to the song, it just takes. Not that it mattered. For still-obscure reasons, Ono scrapped the tribute CD idea and Bowie’s final Lennon tribute remains, as of this date, unreleased.

Recorded ca. August-September 1998, Nassau and New York.

* There’s also the sad irony that while Lennon was singing this, he was barely in touch with his own seven-year-old son, who he’d named after his late mother.

Top: “ShreddtoHell,” “London mit Bruno,” 1998; “Mother” US 45 sleeve.

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Working Class Hero

May 22, 2012

Working Class Hero (John Lennon, 1970).
Working Class Hero (Tin Machine).
Working Class Hero (live, 1989).

[John] was not the big working-class hero he liked to make out. He was the least working class of the Beatles actually. He was the poshest because his family almost owned Woolton at one time.

Paul McCartney, 1983.

Even by the standards of Bowie’s earlier misreadings (“I Can’t Explain,” “God Only Knows”), Tin Machine’s version of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” seems oblivious, even hostile, to the original song’s ironies. Bowie covered “Working Class Hero” for admirable reasons. Sean Lennon, having become friends with his son, was around during the Tin Machine sessions in Nassau, so Tin Machine started playing the song as a tribute. Bowie decided to put it on the record, telling an interviewer he wanted to bring back into circulation a neglected Lennon masterpiece.

Timing was also part of it. Two months before Tin Machine recorded their cover, Albert Goldman had released a rancid biography, The Lives of John Lennon. Serialized over two weeks in August 1988 in People magazine, Goldman’s book used the formula of his earlier biographies (Elvis Presley and Lenny Bruce): Goldman, having first posited himself as a “fan” of his subject, sadly discovers that the subject was in fact a vile, repellent human being with no redeeming qualities. Goldman was a decent researcher and a cynical biographer; he cherry-picked the most salacious anecdotes and the tawdriest stories that he found and strung them together.

Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney urged a boycott of the book (you can’t blame them, as Goldman portrayed each as being conniving and horrific), while Bono compared Goldman to Satan (“his kind are like a curse”) in a bad song rushed out on Rattle and Hum in October. In America, if the angry letters that People and Rolling Stone received about the book offered any consensus, there was dismay and bewilderment. Had Lennon, rather than the martyr he’d been considered since his murder, actually been a brute, a lecher, a goon, a reckless fraud? The “controversy” helped sell Goldman’s book, which was forgotten in a year, but it ultimately did little to sour Lennon’s posthumous reputation. The whole episode seemed an ugly, ridiculous epilogue to the Sixties, played out over the last months of Reagan’s second term.

Lennon, had he lived, may have been more sanguine about Goldman’s biography. After all, no one could rubbish his reputation as well as he could. In interviews he gave with Playboy soon before his death in 1980, Lennon went through the Beatles canon song-by-song and dispatched some classics with assessments like “that didn’t work,” “crap,” or “that was Paul completely—I would never even dream of writing something like that.” The post-Beatles-breakup, post-Primal-Scream-therapy Lennon of Plastic Ono Band had been even harsher, with Lennon as the vicious debunker of Beatles and Sixties myths, in his litany of denunciation “God” and in his more subtle “Working Class Hero.”

“Working Class Hero” is Lennon at his most unreadable. Its lyric seems a lament of working class life: the narrow paths left open for the masses, their exposure to fortune and exploitation, their continual gulling by the ruling class. But there’s a cold disdain for “working class life” as well: keep you doped with religion and sex and TV…you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see. The song’s title refrain mocks the traditional strengths of working class life, of finding dignity in being “real” and in the nobility of work. A working class hero is something to be, with Lennon stressing the latter words with a phrasing that’s both sympathetic and cutting, suggesting the goal is both unobtainable and not worth the struggle.

Its five verses are Life According To Lennon: birth, school, the Hobson’s choice of picking your “career,” and the scant narcotic comforts of adulthood. The final verse is the sanctioned way out of the trap, the few clauses which allow a handful of the working class to escape their lives, whether lottery tickets or “entrepreneurialism” or getting rich via sports or pop music, as Lennon had. This is the cruelest delusion of all (“there’s room at the top, they’re telling you still”), as by striving out of your working class world, you discard the noblest part of yourself, which may be in turn another delusion.

Throughout the song, Lennon plays a game of bluffs as to his own sympathies. He’d grown up middle-class in Liverpool, as his childhood, though chaotic, had been the most comfortable of all of his bandmates.’ During the early Beatles years, Lennon had been emblematic of the “classless” Britain of Swinging London: he was both provincial (keeping the Scouse accent) and worldly (writing sophisticated pop music and “avant garde” books). And in 1970, as he was becoming involved in radical leftist politics, Lennon talked as though he had come from the streets. “I’m working class and I use few words,” he said on the Dick Cavett Show. “I‘m not an intellectual, I’m not articulate.” The point of view of the song’s narrator is fluid: he moves between disdain, empathy, mockery and sadness on any given phrasing.

“Working Class Hero” is in Dorian A minor, a folk modal key that consists of two tonal centers, A minor and G major. So it deliberately sounds “old,” as though Lennon has revived some Leveller ballad (it’s the same scale as classic British folk songs like “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor” or “Scarborough Fair”) and it has a cyclical feel, suggesting that the song has no escape, in both its construction—it just shuttles from A minor to G major and back again*—and Lennon’s acoustic guitar playing, which allows no freedom of movement, ushering verse through refrain through verse until the close (paced by regularly-sounded bass notes on an open fifth string)**. Yet “Hero” is also sharply modern in its subject matter—nothing like it would have been allowed on a record as recently as 1965—and in its language: it was the first time that “fucking” was heard on a British rock record.

In theory, taking on “Working Class Hero” had potential. Tin Machine could play the typical Sixties game of electrifying a folk song into a hard rock number, and Bowie was an inspired choice to sing the lyric. Like Lennon, he had been raised solidly middle-class, but unlike Lennon, he had never made a fetish out of pretending otherwise: his perspectives had been either surreal suburban or, as he grew in fame and wealth, that of a “classless” aspirational figure. Even his occasional “Mockney” accents had been obvious stage costumes. So a cutting Bowie take on Lennon’s own conflicted song could have added further nuances to the piece.

The problem was Tin Machine. Bowie had a vehicle incapable of subtlety; he could use them as a weapon, as a goad to get him out of his bad habits, but unchecked, they easily slumped into loud obliviousness and tastelessness. Bowie sounds drowned out in the recording, having to howl out lines just to be heard, and the band hustles him through the lyric, with Bowie discarding Lennon’s incisive phrasing in favor of a bellow or a sneer. Take how Lennon, in the third verse, precisely sounds each consonant of “pick a career,” and teases out the last vowels, making the phrase as piercing as a needle; he’s savoring the bureaucratic coldness of the words and also playing on the double meaning of “career”—as something spinning out of control. Bowie just blunders through: “PICK-uh C’REER.” He also flatly sings or mumbles the lyric’s two curses, which Lennon had deployed like land mines. And Bowie’s strangled, hoarse screaming at the end seems mere bluster compared with Lennon’s measured anger and pity.

The result seems a collaborative effort to worsen the song. Bowie and the Machine recast the song in standard A minor (so using the V chord of Am, E minor, instead of the G major of the original); they replaced the ominous, waltzing tempo of Lennon’s track with a fat, bluesy vamp; they shoehorned in a Gabrels guitar solo after the third verse, squandering whatever momentum had remained; and they book-ended the track with the usual Hunt Sales snare drubbing. It’s a dreadful, witless recording that should’ve been a B-side at best.

Recorded at Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988.

* There are some slight variations: the last refrain line is Am-G-D-Am, suggesting a slight shift to G major (although the D major is barely there, it’s just used as a passing chord on the way back to A minor).

** The recording of “Hero” is a classic example of Lennon’s indifference to time (the song’s not quite in 3/4— it’s something like one bar of 9/8, 2 bars of 6/8) and studio perfection, as he’s often not intoning the bass notes “properly.”

Top: Alistair Berg, “Scottish fans make their way to Wembley for the Rous Cup game against England,” London, 1988; Helen Levitt, “New York, 1988.”


Never Let Me Down

April 9, 2012

Never Let Me Down.
Never Let Me Down (video).
Never Let Me Down (Top of the Pops (US), 1987).
Never Let Me Down (dub/”a capella” mix).
Never Let Me Down (live, 1987).

Written and recorded in little over a day during the mixing sessions for Never Let Me Down, the last-minute title song* was spontaneous where much of the album was labored and was lyrically and emotionally blunt by Bowie’s standards, which may have helped “Never” be the last Bowie single to chart higher in America than in the UK. (It’s also Bowie’s last US Top 40 single.)

Bowie said in contemporary interviews that his vocal was meant as a tribute to John Lennon, and the track’s harmonica solo and the whistling in its coda also both work as Lennon shorthand. But of which Lennon? Lennon’s son, Julian, had a uptempo hit in 1985, “Too Late For Goodbyes,” which shares with “Never” a vocal line that darts up to falsetto, a mild, bouncing rhythm sparked with bass flourishes, and a harmonica solo in place of a verse.

While displaced as Lennon’s heir presumptive once Lennon and Yoko Ono had had a son of their own, Julian Lennon suddenly emerged in late 1984 with a debut record on Atlantic. Its timing was perfect (its singles seemed like follow-ups to the last, posthumous John Lennon hit, “Nobody Told Me”) and it had a pedigree: recorded at Muscle Shoals Studios, produced by Phil Ramone, with a cast of top session players including Michael Brecker and Toots Thielemans (who played harmonica on “Goodbyes”). Its videos were directed by Sam Peckinpah in his dotage. The full press worked: Valotte went platinum and produced two Top 10 hits. But Julian’s fame was only of a moment. His next three records sold weakly. By 1990 his career, barely begun, seemed that of a fading songwriter twice his age.

Much of the hullabaloo around “Valotte” at the time was that it seemed like a generic public conception of a “John Lennon song,” that Julian sounded like Mind Games-era Lennon and that in the video he looked like a softened, newly-hatched version of his father. As Ben Greenman wrote recently, Julian ably served as a “psychic replacement” for his father, just when the public had begun to accept John was gone.

So if Bowie was slightly referencing Julian, some of it was a mercenary’s sense of knowing where the action was: Julian was getting hits in ’85-’86, and Bowie had intended “Never” to be the lead-off single. But it’s also nice to imagine that the old faker Bowie appreciated the odd mimicry that Julian had pulled off, and that he was taken by the idea that the post-Sixties generation had demanded their own toy edition of John Lennon—a Lennon who was fresh, young and single again, but also neutered: no weird political stunts, no screaming about his mother, no feminist broadsides, no public embarrassments. (A letter to Rolling Stone at the time came from a Boomer mother who lovingly recounted what her teenage daughter had told her: “Mom, you had John Lennon and now we have Julian.” (“Good luck kid, I thought,” Greil Marcus spat in response. “What kind of life can you make out of these pathetic little Family Favorites tunes about nothing? It made me sick to read that letter, not because Julian Lennon is corrupt, fake or dishonest, but because he probably worthy, sincere and true…when Julian sings badly, emptily, which is all he does, you hear success.“)

On the surface, “Never Let Me Down” is transparent enough: a tribute to John Lennon musically, a tribute to Coco Schwab** lyrically. But if the Lennon being homaged is an echo of the “real” Lennon, can the lyric be read so directly either? The singer traffics in a shared nostalgia (with the subject of his song, as well as his audience) as a means to sell his pleas, and the song seems sentimental because it’s in part playing with our memories of sentimental songs. So while the last verse finds the singer pledging that it’s his turn to return the favors, there’s a sadness more than a reassurance in his voice (it doesn’t help that Bowie sings “never let me down” as a run of ascending stepwise notes until he falls on “down,” and so not quite selling the commitment). While it would be foolish to dismiss the apparent heartfelt sentiments that inspired the song, “Never” is also guarded and contradictory: that is, classic Bowie.

“Never Let Me Down” began as a discarded drum track from the album’s earlier Montreux sessions. Bowie was mulling writing a new song during its mixing at the Power Station (given some of the material he was mixing, that’s not surprising), so while Bob Clearmountain mixed “Zeroes,” Bowie and David Richards found another open studio and soon built up a track, with Bowie doing much of the synth work, and quickly writing and cutting a vocal. The three-verse lyric moves from distant recollection (in the first verse the singer refers to “her” and “she” helping him out) to close by making of direct pledge of his own (the last verse has him singing to “you”). It’s sung and phrased well: in the pre-chorus a bobbing run of notes buoy “dance a little dance,” which also is the start of a long fall down an octave, though Bowie’s attempts at a Lennon (pater or fils) falsetto sound strained at times.

In the evening Bowie and Richards brought in Crusher Bennett for percussion and Carlos Alomar for guitar dubs, including some of his trademark percussive fills in the choruses. And fitting for Bowie’s “thanks for the memories” song, “Never Let Me Down” became the last Bowie/Alomar co-composition. When Alomar arrived, Bowie asked him to spice up what he later called a “funereal” chord progression, with Alomar ransacking a discarded piece of his own, “I’m Tired.” It’s hard to determine who wrote what, though if I were to guess, the F major ninths, sevenths and sixths in the intro and pre-chorus (which culminate in a pounded-home G seventh chord) feels like a guitarist’s doing, while the B-flat in the chorus that pulls the song out of C major towards a vague but inconclusive F major seems a typical Bowie move.

Alomar’s work with Bowie didn’t end here: he was a major part of the Glass Spider tour, perhaps too major, as Bowie’s unhappiness with that tour led him to cut ties with nearly everyone involved with it. Alomar turned up next (after once again being snubbed for a Nile Rodgers-produced Bowie record) in 1995, where he played a minor role on Outside and its subsequent tour, apparently to his frustration. Thankfully, like Tony Visconti, he and Bowie seemed to have made up by the end of the century, with Alomar’s contributions to both Heathen and Reality adding to those albums’ feel of recapitulation and finality.

But in the future, Alomar would always be a sideman, a second-tier player; he would no longer be a translator or a voice for Bowie to sing in. “Never Let Me Down” inadvertently became a document of Bowie and Alomar parting company, and so the knowledge of this can’t help but add to the sense that Bowie’s eternal pledges of the last verse won’t come true. The song’s a bittersweet thank-you, a dismissal in a kiss.

Recorded ca. September-November 1986, mainly at the Power Station, NYC. On the album that it titled and also released in July 1987 as a single (EA 239 c/w “’87 and Cry,” UK #34, #27 US). The video, with its dance marathon setting, was directed by Jean-Baptiste Modino and was by far the best of the lot from Never Let Me Down. Performed live during the Glass Spider tour.

*A Bowie tradition by this point (see “The Man Who Sold the World”).

** Schwab was of course Bowie’s longtime assistant, who had helped take care of his son, had paid the bills, had arranged transportation and housing and had generally served as the representative of sanity in an often insane life.

Top: Ted Barron, “Jesus Saves, New York, 1986.”


Imagine

November 22, 2011

Imagine (live, 8 December 1983).

A few days after John Lennon was murdered, the battle for his afterlife began. Charles M. Young, Rolling Stone‘s ambassador to the punk scene, walked into the RS office complaining about the tribute vigils in Central Park. The songs that everyone kept singing—“Imagine,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Give Peace a Chance”—were Lennon at his most maudlin and sappy, Young said. (Lester Bangs made the same point around the same time.) The real Lennon, the scabrous rocker, the cutting observer of human folly, was nowhere to be found in his own tributes. That “wouldn’t have been appropriate,” his boss Jann Wenner allegedly replied. (From Robert Draper’s Rolling Stone: the Uncensored History).

“Inappropriate” Lennon, unsurprisingly, soon packed off. In his place was a myth-gone-man, John Lennon as the greatest (and last) of the Sixties martyrs. Sure, every five years or so, some new book or film appears to show Lennon as he could be: pissy, ridiculous, righteous, delusive, outrageous and self-deflating. And those discordant notes fade soon enough, while remaining, unblemished, is the peace-sign flashing Lennon of dorm room posters and T-shirts, the glasses-and-hair caricature on coffee mugs.

On the third anniversary of Lennon’s murder, at the end of the last show of his triumphant world tour, Bowie sang “Imagine” to a Hong Kong audience. It was an apt tribute, as “Imagine” was becoming myth-Lennon’s greatest hit, another way that the Sixties were being reduced to a collectible set of soundbites and slogans.

Lennon’s killing had horrified Bowie, and Bowie’s presence in the Eighties—the sense of immaculate distance, his cultivating of a bland commercial sound, his apparent determination to mean less to people, to defang his cult—seems in part a reaction to that December night. Lennon had been vulnerable, walking the streets without bodyguards, his home address common knowledge to fans. He had spent the latter half of the Seventies quietly humanizing himself, living in exile in plain sight, surfacing in 1980 to promote his and Yoko’s new record by reminding his fans that the memory cheats, that the past is dead.

We were the hip ones of the Sixties, he said in one of his last interviews. But the world is not like the Sixties. The whole world has changed…Produce your own dream. It’s quite possible to do anything…the unknown is what it is. And to be frightened of it is what sends everybody scurrying around chasing dreams, illusions.” The cruelest legacy of his murder was that Lennon’s open commitment to the future was overshadowed as he became a mythic trademark of the lost, glorious past.

And considering the vicious rocker Lennon to be the “true” Lennon was just another type of myth, conveniently ignoring Lennon’s sappy side (he wrote “Good Night,” remember). Lennon was a sentimentalist as much as he was an iconoclast, filling his last records with odes to his wife and son. He had intended “Imagine” to be schlocky, calling the song his sugar-coated bit of poison, a little nihilist-utopian message fit for Andy Williams or Robert Goulet to sing; it would have delighted him that the artless naif David Archuleta sang “Imagine” on “American Idol” a few years ago (even with the atheist lyrics carefully omitted).

So Bowie’s version of “Imagine,” which comes close to Vegas schmaltz—the saxophone fanfare, the Simms brothers emoting, Bowie doing such an uncanny Lennon imitation that it sounds like he’s auditioning for “Beatlemania”—is true enough to Lennon’s intentions. In its broad, tasteless way, it’s as fitting an elegy as Lennon ever received.

Recorded 8 December 1983 at the Hong Kong Colosseum. Though “Imagine” appears to have been recorded professionally (Bowie was considering releasing a live album of the tour, and “Imagine” could have been a sales hook), it’s still only found on bootlegs.

That’s all until after Thanksgiving. Have a great holiday: for those who don’t celebrate it, have a great Thursday.

Top: The World Trade Center, NYC, 1983. “The towers didn’t seem permanent. They remained concepts, no less transient for all their bulk than some routine distortion of light,” Don DeLillo, Players, 1977.


Fame

November 22, 2010

Fame.
Fame (single edit).
Fame (Soul Train, 1975).
Fame (Cher, 1975).
James Brown, Hot (I Need to Be Loved Loved Loved), 1976.
Fame (live, 1976).
Fame (live, 1978).
Fame (live, 1983).
Fame (live, 1990).
Fame (live, 1997).
Fame (Howard Stern’s Birthday Bash, 1998).
Fame (Live at the BBC, 2000).
Fame (TOTP2, 2002).
Fame (Live By Request, 2002).
Fame (live, 2004).

“Fame,” one of David Bowie’s two US chart-toppers, is a freak and a fluke. It’s more in line with experimental Bowie works like Low than it is with the “soul” album to which it was appended. Its groove, so compelling that James Brown stole it, and its back story (the John Lennon connection likely spurred airplay) made it a smash, but “Fame” just as easily could’ve been consigned to Bowie’s pile of studio outtakes.

Because Bowie wasn’t sure what he had with it: a minimalist funk improvisation, a mutant hybrid of “Foot Stompin’,” the odd result of a few hours of studio jamming. He later called “Fame” his least favorite track on Young Americans, a sentiment that some of his players shared—Andy Newmark, who drummed on most of Young Americans (but not “Fame”), dismissed “Fame” as “just a vamp, a groove. It’s not the essence of what [Bowie] represents in my mind. “Young Americans” is more of the persona I associate with him.”

“Fame” is as dry as it is cynical, the opposite of what Bowie had been attempting when he started Young Americans in Philadelphia, with the dense gospel- and soul-inspired tracks cut at Sigma Sound. Now here was a track clarified to vocals, guitars, bass and drums; it was funk seemingly arrived at via a William Burroughs cut-up. Its sonic landscape, using the wide stereo separation typical of contemporary funk tracks (like Lyn Collins’ “Rock Me Again & Again & Again & Again & Again”) is broad and clear.

The track is nothing but a set of muscles and ligaments. There are no horns, no backing chorus singers (just Lennon’s squeaked-out “fame” and the varispeed vocals at the end), no keyboards save for a backwards piano track that appears in the intro and briefly shows up later. Primarily built on one chord (F7), the song’s either one long chorus or an extended, repeating verse, the only contrast being the two-bar move to B-flat: “It’s not your brain/it’s just the flame”, etc.). The rhythm, apart from two bars of 3/4 that open the track, is straight 4/4, hammered down by Emir Ksasan’s bass and Dennis Davis’ drums hitting on alternating beats.

The lyric came out of Lennon’s cynical take on the star-maker-machine process, with Bowie contributing his own paranoid thoughts on the business, particularly his gripes with his manager, Tony Defries. (Bowie, having discovered that the massive expenses incurred by Defries’ company Mainman were coming out of his own pocket, formally severed ties with Defries about ten days after recording “Fame,” kicking off a legal war.)

Two rock stars complaining about being famous are a potentially awful set of parents, but Lennon and Bowie’s lines are harsh enough, and lurid enough (“lets [a man] loose and hard to swallow”), to be compelling. There’s no self-pity in “Fame,” as there is in something like Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” where playing the star is a weary business, one Seger shoulders like a burden. In “Fame,” the lyric is a series of dry observations that culminate in the key line of the last verse—is it any wonder I reject you first? In the first verse, “fame” is an active force, a possession (it “makes,” “puts,” “lets”), while in the second verse, Bowie pits “what you like” against “what you get” and “what you need”—fame may satisfy the first, but it puts you on the hook for the rest. (There’s a dying Sixties echo in these lines, a play on the Stones’ you can’t always get what you want (but sometimes you get what you need) (which already suggested that sometimes you get nothing at all), or on Dylan’s line from “Memphis Blues Again”: your debutante knows what you need/but I know what you want.)

The song’s poison can be distilled down to how Bowie and Lennon sing the title word. They elongate the “ay” sound while pulling the word down (it sinks a half-step between syllables), so that it’s not an affirmation, an exclamation—it’s a hook that initially sounds like a phasing mistake. It sags, it withers, it blights the rest of the verse. Bowie spends much of each verse trying to scrabble back up to the initial high note (& only doing so on each phrase’s last syllable (for instance “take things ov-ER“)).

Conception

“Fame” was officially credited to Bowie, Lennon and Carlos Alomar, and in the 35 years since its creation, there’ve been about as many claims as to who contributed what to “Fame,” and especially who ripped off who.*

Lennon’s primary contributions seem to be a) playing an acoustic guitar only audible in the intro bars, b) supervising the backwards piano track and c) allegedly coming up with the line “fame” and sometimes singing it. Still, some writers have made Lennon (who was in the studio on a whim, having come in to hear “Across the Universe”) more of the creative mastermind. For example, here’s Philip Norman, from his 2008 Lennon biography, who claims: John attended the session at Electric Lady studio and improvised a three-note riff around the single word “fame.” Compare Lennon himself, who, interviewed soon after “Fame” was released in 1975, gave credit for the riff to Alomar: “This guitarist had a lick, so we sort of wrote this song, no big deal. Oh-boom-boom-boom. We made this lick into a song is what happened.”

Alomar recalled that “Fame” came about after Bowie finally decided that “Foot Stompin’,” which he’d been trying to cut in the studio for months, wasn’t going to work. “Foot Stompin'” “sounded like a plain, stupid, old rock & roll song,” Alomar told David Buckley in 2005. “David didn’t even like it. So what he did was to cut it up into blues changes, which is one-four-five-four, which is what “Fame” is. It cut it up so he just had drums, bass and that one guitar line.” Alomar also said Lennon, playing acoustic guitar, inadvertently inspired the lyric. Lennon “put his chin on the acoustic guitar when he played and just the breathing he did produced that funny noise. David thought he was saying “Fame”: “he’s saying Fame! I’m telling you!”

There are three primary guitar tracks on “Fame”: the Alomar “Foot Stompin'” riff that repeats through the verses (mainly confined to the left channel), Bowie’s central electric guitar, which, in Bowie’s words, “makes the long Wah and the echoed Bomp! sound,” and which serves as the track’s brass section (there’s also a “telephoning ringing” guitar fill mixed in the center), and a third electric guitar, mainly confined to the right channel, that keeps to the high end. There are secondary guitar tracks as well—Lennon’s barely-there acoustic, and what Alomar has claimed (and Bowie has disputed) as a series of guitar overdubs that Alomar did after Bowie left the studio.

Bowie added dabs of color (the backwards piano and rattlesnake percussion that drop in after the third verse) to help the track avoid monotony, and he ended “Fame” with a new varispeed vocal experiment (see “The Bewlay Brothers,”The Laughing Gnome,” “After All”). Here a repeated “fame” (Lennon and Bowie’s vocals) descends stepwise from the air to the earth over six bars. So the vocal, initially sped up to Gnome level, starts up in the stratosphere on a high E flat, falls an octave over two bars, then falls another octave in the next two (going from D to D), until finally the vocal, now at molasses speed, ends in the depths, stopping on a low D (tweaked a beat later by a Lennon “fame!” interjection). The idea’s an old Bowie trick, as the same melodic fall appears in “Gnome’s” opening bassoon line and it will soon crop up again in “Speed of Life.”

Reaction/Revision

Released in August 1975, “Fame” hit #1 in the US a month later. It was his long-desired passport. “Fame” landed him on Soul Train, where Bowie was so wrecked that he required multiple takes to lip-sync it and “Golden Years,” and an even more prestigious/egregious tribute was James Brown’s outright theft of much of the song—Alomar’s riff, the “telephone” guitar fills—for his 1976 single “Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved).” (Some stories have claimed Brown actually put on the Bowie record for his band, and said “play this.”) For Alomar, who had played with Brown in the late ’60s, it must have seemed a particularly strange turning of the circle. Alomar once said Bowie told him “if it charts, we’ll sue [Brown],” a spectacle avoided by “Hot”‘s weak performance (#31 R&B).

Fame 90 (remake).
Fame 90 (Arthur Baker, house mix).
Fame 90 (‘hip hop’ mix).
Fame 90 (with Queen Latifah).

Bowie had played “Fame” for most of his tours between 1976 and 1990, and, needing bait for Ryko’s CD reissue campaign, he reworked “Fame” at the end of the ’80s. While attempting to maintain the original’s minimalism, Bowie larded his new mix with gewgaws and glitter, put the rhythm on steroids, mercilessly included a vocal “stutter,” and then turned his own sins over for other parties to amplify. While “Fame” would seem to be ideal raw material for a hip-hop update, Bowie wound up with a Queen Latifah performance that achieves mediocrity in its better moments. The best of the new lot is probably the Baker house mix, which uses Bowie’s vocal as just another piece of percussion.

“Fame” was recorded ca. 12-15 January 1975. Released in August 1975 as RCA 2479 c/w “Win.” (While hitting #1 in the US, it only reached #17 in the UK. The British, in a nostalgic contrarian mood, instead sent a re-release of “Space Oddity” to the top in the same period.) “Fame 90″ came out in its various incarnations in March 1990 (a 7″ single, a 7″ picture disc and a 12” single/CD all featured different mixes), and served as the traditional crap “remake” cuckoo egg track on the hits collection ChangesBowie (there’s usually one on every greatest hits compilation, cf. the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me ’86”.)

Top: Bowie’s choreographer, Toni Basil, on the cover of the Sept. 1974 issue of After Dark, the apparent inspiration for Eric Stephen Jacobs’ Young Americans cover photograph. Bowie allegedly had wanted to commission a Norman Rockwell painting for the cover, but balked when he was told Rockwell needed at least six months to do the job.

A postscript on “Shame” and plagiarism:

Shirley & Company’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” has been called a key influence on “Fame,” and some Bowie biographers claim that “Fame” actually rips “Shame” off, e.g. Christopher Sandford: [Fame] evolved, via Carlos Alomar and a riff lifted from Shirley and Company (my emphasis) through a half-dozen makeovers and a last-minute name change from “Footstompin’.” (“Footstompin’ was another song, but never mind that.)

Sandford’s source appears to be Tony Zanetta and Henry Edwards’ bio Stardust, from 1986. In this account, Lennon “while David was out of the room” starts playing the “Shame, Shame, Shame” riff, and is soon joined by Alomar, who “picks up the riff, and the two men played together.” Bowie allegedly comes in, asks what they’re playing, is told it’s “Shame, Shame, Shame,” then leaves the room and comes back a half-hour later with the complete lyrics for “Fame.”

If true, this scenario would have the wily Alomar riffing with Lennon on a song that he’s already ripped off. Because Alomar had been playing his “Foot Stompin'” riff, the direct ancestor of the “Fame” riff, since late October ’74. The timing doesn’t really work. “Shame, Shame, Shame”‘s first reference in Billboard is the issue of 21 December ’74, where it’s reviewed as a new-release single, and “Shame” didn’t chart nationally until 18 January 1975, days after the “Fame” recording session. Sure, pro musicians often get new releases ahead of the public, and “Shame” was likely getting NYC airplay in December ’74, but, really, the 35-year-old John Lennon was that up on new disco records? And wouldn’t Alomar, instead of “picking up” the riff, maybe have said something like, “yeah, I love this song—in fact, I’ve been jamming it for months on tour already.”

My guess: “Shame, Shame, Shame” has really nothing to do with “Fame.”[CO, 2014: I was wrong: see Trynka in comments.] I expect the confusion began when people first heard “Fame” in summer ’75 (when it was released as a single) and thought it was a nick on “Shame,” a hit song from the previous winter. Now James Brown, on the other hand—the Godfather committed robbery in broad daylight, no denying it.


Across The Universe

November 17, 2010

Across the Universe.

Bowie’s cover of John Lennon’s “Across the Universe” was a blatant, and successful, attempt to lure Lennon into the studio. Bowie and Lennon had first met in late 1974 at a small party in Bowie’s New York hotel suite. The two didn’t converse for hours until, cocaine- and Cognac-fueled, they began sketching caricatures of each other on notepads. Tony Visconti (who met his future wife, Lennon’s then-girlfriend May Pang, that night) recalled that the party ended with everyone in the room getting into “a dismally dark conversation about ‘what does it all mean,’ ‘it’ being life, which left us all staring dejectedly at the floor.”

About a week into New Year ’75, Bowie called up Lennon and said he was in Electric Lady Studios doing a cover of “Across the Universe” (the whole thing seems like a set-up, as there was no need for another track on Young Americans; Visconti, oblivious to these developments, was in London doing string arrangements for a record he thought was completed). So Lennon went down, played acoustic guitar on “Universe,” then stuck around to jam on another attempted take of “Foot Stompin'” and wound up co-writing a #1 hit, “Fame.”

Bowie still kept “Across the Universe” on Young Americans after it had served its purpose. It was likely a matter of Bowie being star-struck: how could he deny the temptation to include his very own Beatle collaboration? He told the NME later that year that he was proud of his performance on the track despite the fact that “not many people like it.”

The only problem was, John wasn’t entirely sure how to capture on tape the sounds he was hearing in his head.

Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles Recording Sessions, on “Across the Universe.”

“Across the Universe,” like a vivid dream, had never quite translated to reality. Originally slated as the Beatles’ spring 1968 single, “Across the Universe,” after two days of studio work, emerged as a ramshackle performance with chirping backing vocals by two teenage Beatles fans recruited off the street. Lennon second-guessed himself at every turn, erasing vocals, wiping instruments (he scrapped a backwards bass guitar track, as well as George Martin’s contributions on organ and his own mellotron work). As the Beatles were about to get on a plane to India, “Across the Universe” was shelved (“Lady Madonna” was the single choice). Upon his return, Lennon seemed indifferent to “Across the Universe”—he didn’t attempt to rerecord it during the White Album sessions, or even on Abbey Road, where he used scraps he’d had around for years. The inclusion of a run-through of “Across the Universe” in the Let It Be film led to the track’s official release on the subsequent soundtrack record.

“Across the Universe” had first appeared on a World Wildlife Fund record in late 1969, where the ’68 recording (in D) was moved up to E flat and layered with wildlife noises. A few months later, Phil Spector took the same ’68 recording, brought it down to D flat, and globbed on a choir and strings. This version, also included on the “Blue Album” Beatles hits compilation in 1973, became, by default, the canonical version of the song, and the model for Bowie’s cover.

“Across the Universe” is the product of Lennon in a weakened state of lysergic bliss, its lyric a child’s perspective. My friend has a three-year-old daughter who’s started waking up in the morning yelling “No! No! No!” When he asked her what was wrong, she said that she didn’t want to be asleep anymore. “Across the Universe” is in this spirit, Lennon’s POV being of someone whose self-absorption is so deep that he achieves satori in contemplating himself, delighting in how his mind interprets the world: it’s a rejection of the material world by someone entranced by the world’s colors and sounds.

It was maybe too personal a song for Lennon, who later said he’d never been happy with any recording of it (he didn’t think much of Bowie’s version either, as it turned out). Bowie’s interpretation seems to be a bungled attempt to mine the song’s thin vein of defiance. Calling the Beatles original “watery” (no foul there), he decided instead to “hammer the hell out of it.” So he discarded Lennon’s “jai guru deva” mantra as being too flower-power and yelled out the lyric, trodding over the intricate syllabic rhythms of Lennon’s three verses. Bowie’s appalling vocal is a series of consecutive abuses, with Bowie hollering lines, putting his weight on seemingly random phrases. The appearance of a second vocal track creates new dimensions of misery, and Bowie finishes the track off with an extended tantrum.

This is the first appearance on a Bowie record of Dennis Davis, a brilliant drummer who would back Bowie for the rest of the ’70s: Davis does what he can to resuscitate things here, offering fill after fill while the song wobbles to its finish. One of Bowie’s low points of the decade, just excruciatingly bad.

Recorded in New York, ca. 10-15 January 1975. On Young Americans.

Top: Songwriter, singer at the Grammys, March 1975.