Little Wonder

August 7, 2013

tedchan

Little Wonder.
Little Wonder (single edit, video).
Little Wonder (Danny Saber Dance Mix).
Little Wonder (first live performance, 1996).
Little Wonder (VH1 Fashion Awards, 1996).
Little Wonder (50th Birthday concert, 1997).
Little Wonder (Saturday Night Live, 1997).
Little Wonder (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1997).
Little Wonder (San Remo Festival, 1997).
Little Wonder (Wetten Dass, 1997).

Little Wonder (live, 1997).
Little Wonder (GQ Awards, 1997).
Little Wonder (Live at the Beeb, 2000).

Grumpy

In the Eighties, the cartoonist Ray Lowry drew a strip called Note Oilskin Base, for which he often repurposed old newspaper ads and comics. In the first panel of a strip that ran in the 19 May 1984 issue of the NME, two women sit in a soda shop, looking with mild surprise at a figure who stands outside the window, a man in a trench coat and fedora. He looks like a premonition of Dave Gibbons’ Rorschach. “It’s that shabby old man with the tin whistle!,” the woman seated right says to her friend. Lowry drew a new speech balloon to let the shabby man yell: “I yam an Anti-Christ!”*

This was Lowry’s Monty Smith, “has-been, would-be pop savior,” a grubby old man on the margins of pop music, an irritant and a relic, someone reduced to ranting outside a tea room and inspiring little more than incredulity that he was still kicking around. In 1997, some considered David Bowie, now half a century old, to be something like the same.

In the Times, Caitlin Moran asked readers to imagine Bowie without a past, that Bowie was a Beckenham primary school teacher who’d recorded Earthling in his shed. “Do we really believe that record companies would eagerly sign up a 50-year-old man with no new ideas, wonky eyes, manky hair, LA teeth and a tartan suit, who talks like an animatronic statue in Picadilly’s Rock Circus?

So yes, see the wonky, manky, shabby old man jabbering on stage, wearing his professionally-shredded Union Jacket, his hair dyed copper. His latest single rips off the Prodigy. Its video has him crawling around, looking like a cathedral gnome given malevolent life. It’s bass drops, synthetic clatter, sampled guitars. Tits and explosions, he crows. Half of his band look like step-dads. His bass player looks like a hired assassin.

Bashful

His description of me was ‘coming on like someone’s nasty dad.’ And I thought, “that’s great. I really like that.”…I seem to be going into a kind of demented persona now on stage. I guess it’s ’cause I can’t sell youth. ‘Cause I’m not a youth. So I’m selling whatever it is I am as a persona, which tends to be this kind of ironically enthusiastic old guy who’s still into this crazed sound.

Bowie, 1997.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. If you were a rocker in your fifties, you needed to exploit dignity, the only resource left in abundance for the aging. You should become a curator of yourself. Talk about the old days but don’t take them seriously. Wear a well-cut suit, preface the old songs with wry introductions on stage: “this next one is called “Oh, You Pretty Things” (applause) and it’s about the rise of the homo superior. Remember the homo superior? (chuckles, applause) Ah you do, you do. Yes, well, it’s easy to imagine you are one of ’em when you’re able to get out of bed without groaning! (sympathetic laughs)”.

He would get there soon enough. But “Little Wonder” was the last time Bowie went for it: his last go at speaking rock’s current dialect, to get on MTV and make the cover of Spin and play summer festivals where kids take E and get drunk, rather than the ones where people bring their kids. Its meaty B major chorus, with its slamming guitars, echoed multi-tracked vocals and soaring synth lines, sounds like Bowie throwing down a gauntlet to U2 (themselves busy in 1997 trying to stay afloat), if not the Britpop bands: the “Helter Skelter”-esque backing vocals in the chorus are a nose-thumb at the likes of Noel Gallagher.

Yet as usual, he couldn’t just grab for the ring; he had to go about it sideways. So to get to the big chorus, the listener first has to make it through nearly two minutes of tortured guitars, drum ‘n’ bass loops, two skittering verses and a break filled with stomping feet, train whistles and other sonic bric-à-brac. And the melancholy of the verses never gets dispelled: the stadium-ready choruses are infected with it, they soon start to blanch and wither.

Because “Little Wonder,” despite its Prodigy stylings and its epileptic Floria Sigismondi video, is at heart a sad older man’s song: it’s a man freighted with the past, trapped in a vein of youth music. Bowie’s glum vocal in the verses is confined to a single octave, never venturing above a middle B (on the slight strain of “you little wonder”), often keeping to a three-note span until he sinks low to close his phrases (“grumpy gnomes,” “bashful but nude“). The song’s visual counterpart, the jittery “grumpy gnome” that Bowie plays in its video, is a distraction; a better analogue is his blank-faced, sour Pierrot of the “Be My Wife” film.

Doc

wonda

It’s as if “Little Wonder” is sung by an alternate Bowie, the Bowie whose “Love You Till Tuesday” was a #1 UK hit in 1967. The Bowie who was a British institution, who never translated well overseas (though the Dutch loved him). Some movie work, some stage revues, a TV special or two, a hit single every half a decade: a disco spoof; a soppy rendition of “Nobody’s Child” in the late Thatcher years. A grubby pantomime counterpart to Cliff Richard; an actor routinely rumored, and never chosen, to play the lead in Doctor Who.

In this scenario, “Little Wonder” is just the latest rumble of contemporary pop sounds by Britain’s national holiday-camp director. “Let’s have the Laughing Gnome go to a rave!” Bowie says in the studio. So they import some drum ‘n’ bass loops, rent a guitarist with an effects pedal rack and off he goes, mumbling and winking through his lyric in his trademark Mockney: “Sit on my karma, lurve! Dayme meditation! Tayke me away!” It’s the sound of a man happy being ridiculous, a man so sewn through with the past that the present seems surreal, and he takes it as such.

Sneezy

“Little Wonder,” like much of Earthling, is Bowie and Reeves Gabrels papering over the gap between (aspirational) jungle and hard rock. The alleged jungle is in the verses, which are built on a repeating four-chord progression (E-C#minor-A-C)** established by a dry-sounding keyboard while drum ‘n’ bass loops clatter overhead in the mix. Where jungle was built on tension and contrast–double-time loops crashing against half-time bass drops, the sudden flanging of a drum line, a stereo-panned counter-rhythm that scurries in and out—it’s used here as ornamentation, or worse, as a timestamp, in the way that TV channels have a permanent logo in the bottom-right corner of the screen.

While the instrumental breaks get you in shape for the choruses and the transition to B major, they were dwarfs of Bowie’s original ambitions. “Little Wonder” was meant to be a nine-minute “jungle epic,” Mark Plati said, with the second break in particular crafted to explode into a spray of sound effects, samples, atmospheres (One tiny piece of the original sound-scrap left in the mix is a snippet of the drunken roadie Jerome Aniton, introducing Steely Dan to Santa Monica in 1974 before a live recording of the Dan’s “Bodhisattva”).*** Instead the “big break” winds up being fairly pedestrian stuff—bass yawns, an X-Files-esque rising synthesizer line—and much of its excision in the single edit isn’t a loss.

It’s part of what makes “Little Wonder” so frustrating: intended to be loud, remorseless, irritating, it wound up being charming, odd, minor.

Happy

bowie

My playing on this record is like making head cheese.

Reeves Gabrels, 1997.

The first thing you hear is a three-note Gabrels guitar riff that sounds like a roar, a muffled scream and a dog whistle. Gabrels sat down with the assistant engineer to make a half-hour DAT of “guitar stuff I like to do, things like the whammy aspect of the [Roland] VG-8,” he told Guitar Player. “I figured if we were going to use samples, we might as well make our own.” So the first note is Gabrels playing his E string with an envelope filter and distortion via the VG-8, the second note is the same tone but shifted two octaves up and set aflutter with a whammy bar, the third is a exosphere-high E played on the 24th fret of his Parker and kicked another octave up via the Fernandes Sustainer.

The rest of the track was built in a similar grab-bag fashion: stolen sounds, distorted instruments, studio verite footage. Much of the bass track, for instance, was Gail Ann Dorsey caught unawares, trying to get a sound from her pedalboard without knowing she was being recorded. “We constructed the track by grabbing bits of her bass line,” Gabrels said. (That said, Dorsey gets the most striking moment of the track: her sharply whispered “little wonder you” break).

The vocal came together along the same lines: what you’re hearing for the most part is just Bowie’s guide vocal. His lyric began as an exercise: to use all of the names of the Seven Dwarfs in the verses (he did: find them all—it’s like a word search in a pop lyric). Bowie soon ran out of names, at one point adding “Stinky” and “Scummy” to the mix. Having some sort of guidance apart from the random edicts of the word-generating Verbasizer program gave Bowie’s lines some melodic life: he takes care with his vowel sounds, plays off consonances and alliteration, and even the weak pun of the title line works thanks to the neat precision of his singing.

Dopey

damemeditation

Bowie got to #14 in the UK with the single, topped the Japanese charts with it, got some minor airplay on US alternative stations. Its video, with Bowie playing the familiar of a reincarnated Ziggy Stardust, aired often enough to be remembered, living on glam nostalgia: it turned out to be a preview trailer for 1998’s Velvet Goldmine. And “Little Wonder”/Earthling became the last image of Bowie to make an impression on the public imagination. For a time, this copper-haired grubby rave granddad version of Bowie came to mind when you thought: What’s Bowie doing these days? It was his last notable pop disguise.

He would keep at it for the rest of the Nineties, trying his hand at any new toy sent his way: the Internet, the booming stock market, more jungle and dance collaborations. By the close of the century, he stopped kicking and let himself get tugged back to the past. It was inevitable; it was sad all the same. Bowie had once seemed predicated on change, on an allegiance to the future. “Little Wonder,” a catchy but fraying single, was an indication that he couldn’t take as much nourishment from change anymore. He would become a curator despite his best intentions.

Sleepy

Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Played live a few times in autumn 1996, and issued as Earthling‘s lead-off single on 27 January 1997 (Arista 74321 452072, UK #14). There were the usual gang of mixes, mainly by Junior Vasquez, who did the Ambient, 4/4 and Club Dub. Danny Saber’s mix, which featured a cello played by David Coleman, appeared on the soundtrack to the Val Kilmer edition of The Saint.

* The panel is reprinted on the first page of Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces.

*** The E major verse progression is a steady tromp back home (I-vi-IV) that’s intercepted at the end by the C major chord, borrowed from the parallel minor (so I-vi-IV-VI then back to I). While the whole song could be in E, the dominance of B major in the choruses (the fact that the song never feels like it’s yearning to resolve back to E, but is happy to stay hunkered down on B) argues for a modulation of sorts. Insights (as usual): Dave Depper.

** Originally issued as the B-side of “Hey Nineteen” in 1980 and later included on the Citizen Steely Dan boxed set.

Top: Ted Barron, “Chan Marshall (Cat Power), 1996.”