20th Century Boy

October 8, 2013

bedlam

20th Century Boy (T. Rex, 1973).
20th Century Boy (Placebo, Velvet Goldmine, 1998).
20th Century Boy (Placebo and Bowie, BRIT Awards, 1999).

Placebo formed in 1994 when Brian Molko, waiting for a train at the South Kensington tube station, spied Stefan Olsdal, who’d gone to school with him at the American International School of Luxembourg (Molko was Scottish and American, Olsdal a Swede). Noting that Olsdal was carrying a guitar, Molko called him over to invite him to a gig. Soon enough the two had formed their own band, Olsdal shifting to bass.

Two years later, Placebo had cut their first album and were opening for Bowie on some of the later Outside tour dates. He’d been the band’s advocate since he’d heard their demo, touting them in the press, even having them as the opening act of his 50th birthday concert in 1997. For Bowie, Placebo offered a third way for British rock in the late Nineties, avoiding both the laddishness of Oasis and the growing hermeticism of Radiohead. Placebo were eye-liner-sporting Goth scamps who favored bizarre guitar tunings that suggested they’d been holed up with Silkworm and Slint records. Visually, they were a Mutt & Jeff double act: Molko was small, nasally and pushy; Olsdal was built like a totem pole yet carried himself with elegance. (They went through a few drummers.) Placebo got a few pop hits but kept up a vaguely disreputable image; Bowie’s love for them seemed genuine.

A collaboration between Bowie and Placebo seemed inevitable, and it was. First came a joint performance at the 1999 BRIT Awards of T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” which Placebo had covered for the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack (Molko said his work on the film was something he and Bowie “agreed never to talk about”).

“20th Century Boy” had been Marc Bolan’s last great pop moment, the end of a run of singles that had kicked off with “Hot Love” in 1971. Essentially the Bolan formula distilled to its basic elements—a guitar hook so overwhelming that the song barely needs a chorus, a lyric of precisely nonsensical boasts and come-ons, garnished by wailing harmony vocals—“20th Century Boy” had become something like “Louie Louie” for Nineties British bands: a song you could play in your sleep, one you could pull out at a gig whenever you were losing the room.

The Bowie/Placebo cover is a bit shambling (“We weren’t too bad, we were in key at least,” Molko told Melody Maker. “But we could never really get the lyrics right. We were doing ’20th Century Boy’. We had a fucking laugh.”) Molko was being diplomatic: he was letter-perfect, where Bowie cheerfully bungled his way through one of his verses. It’s in part due to the imbalanced sound mix, but Molko’s the dominant figure in this performance. Bowie, playing his Tin Machine-era “headless” Steinberger, seems happy to be on stage as his guest.

Broadcast 16 February 1999, at the London Docklands Arena. Bowie and Placebo performed the song again a month later at a New York gig. Tony Visconti mixed the BRIT Awards performance for possible use as the B-side of…

Top: Lou O’Bedlam, “Amanda and the Wall ’98.”

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The Bolan Collaborations

June 1, 2011

Madman.
Jam (Standing Next to You) (rehearsal).
Jam (Standing Next to You) (broadcast).

Bowie and Marc Bolan first met in July 1964. He was still David Jones then, while Mark Feld had gone through one pseudonym already and would soon acquire another. They were both prospects of the promoter Leslie Conn, who put them to work painting an office (when Conn returned after lunch he found them gone and only half the walls painted). Born within nine months of each other, Bolan and Bowie became fast friends, rummaging through discard bins on Carnaby Street for clothes, grabbing crumbs from the great banquet that was London in the Sixties. They wanted to be pop stars, but their various singles and albums didn’t sell; they spent the decade off-stage, in the wings.

Then, as the hippie summer was fading, they began to strike. Bowie first, with his “Space Oddity” novelty hit, then Bolan, who ditched his Tyrannosaurus Rex mummery and his 20-word album titles and, using Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti, became the new decade’s first pop idol. Bolan’s success inspired and nettled Bowie, who aped Bolan’s singing voice on “Black Country Rock” and got Bolan to play lead guitar on his flop single “The Prettiest Star.” Bowie’s song for Bolan (“Lady Stardust”) was both a tribute to a fellow traveler and an attempt to press Bolan into legend, making him a predecessor to Bowie’s own creation, Ziggy, the last rock star. For a brief moment in 1972-73, they were on top together—Bowie breaking through with “Starman” while T. Rex was in the midst of its streak of top-charting singles. Paupers in the Sixties, they had suddenly come into their inheritances.

When glam died, though, Bolan was left stranded, a drunken host desperately trying to keep a waning party going. His attempt at futuristic glam R&B, Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow—A Creamed Cage in August (not a good sign that the elephantine LP titles were back) was a dud, while some subsequent LPs didn’t even chart. He alienated Visconti, who stopped producing him; he lived on brandy and cocaine, got fat, seemed a spent force. All the while Bowie had moved on: breaking America, where Bolan had only been a minor presence, and recording his masterpieces.

So when Bolan and Bowie reunited in early 1977, the balance of power had shifted fully to Bowie’s side, to the point where Bowie could feel charitable. Staying at Bolan’s London flat during the Iggy Pop tour in March ’77, Bowie offered to co-write a song with Bolan, and the half-song (tentatively called “Madman”) that resulted had promise. With a raw, vicious opening riff that sounds like it’s inventing the Gang of Four, the best surviving version of “Madman” has Bolan’s shredding guitar fills and Bowie snarling lines like “when a man is a man, he’s destructive/when a man is a man he’s seductive.” Bolan would play the tape for friends: he was going to rework it, make it the center of his next record.

Bolan had cleaned up by the summer of 1977. Inspired by the new punk groups, who generally revered him, he was writing again, going out to shows. Landing a TV variety show with Granada, Bolan brought on The Jam, X-Ray Spex, the Boomtown Rats, Generation X. And for a finale, he would have Bowie, who had just completed “Heroes.”

The taping started off well, with Bowie catching up with Bolan’s backing band (who included his former drummer Tony Newman and Herbie Flowers, who played bass on some of Bowie’s early ’70s songs, as well as Lou Reed’s Transformer). Bowie and Bolan worked on a jam to close out the show. It wasn’t much (it didn’t even have a title, though bootleggers over the years have called it “Standing Next to You” or “Sleeping Next to You”) but they were having a good time. Then Bowie started running the band through “Heroes,” became consumed with getting the right feedback sound, and it soon was clear there was no place for Bolan, whose guitar would just clutter up the song. Bolan, irritated, went back to his dressing room, drank some wine. Bowie’s security men and assistants began taking over the show, preventing Bolan’s friends and staff from coming in the studio. Bowie, caught up in his new song, didn’t notice.

By the time they were to tape the jam sequence (which would run out the end credits), Bolan and Bowie were barely speaking. Mustering himself for the cameras, Bolan introduced the “new song,” and for a minute the two of them were equals again, scrubs playing a blues riff, making faces, calling each other out. Bolan went to strike a move and fell off stage, Bowie cracked up. The crew refused to do a retake, so the great reunion would end with a goof and a laugh.

The two made it up over dinner that night, set out plans. Bowie was going to tour, Bolan was going to make a record that would put him back in the center. A week later, Bolan and his girlfriend, Gloria Jones, went out for a night of drinking. At 5 in the morning, Jones crashed Bolan’s Mini GT into a sycamore tree on Barnes Common, striking the tree with enough force to crush Bolan into the back of the car. He was dead in a second, having not reached his 30th birthday.

Bowie went to Bolan’s funeral, set up a trust fund for Bolan’s son. The game had lost another player; Bowie had lost a friend, an influence, a rival, and one of the last who had known him when all he had was ambition.

“Madman” was recorded ca. 4-7 March 1977 at Bolan’s flat, where Bowie was staying during the Iggy Pop tour’s stop in London. The Cuddly Toys covered it in 1980. “Standing Next to You,” or whatever it’s called, was rehearsed and taped on 7 September 1977, a week before Bolan’s death. Neither’s been released officially. Paul Trynka’s Starman has the best synopsis of the muddle that was the Bowie/Bolan reunion.

There have been a number of other rumored Bowie and Bolan recordings from this period, though most seem spurious. The most credible-sounding, a track called “Walking Through That Door,” allegedly a supergroup recording of Bowie, Bolan, Gloria Jones and Tony Visconti from around the time of Bolan’s death, is most likely instead a demo of Jones’ brother, Richard, ca. 1975, with Bolan on guitar/vox.

Top: Jones and Feld, class reunion, September 1977.


Lady Stardust

April 22, 2010


Song For Marc (He Was Alright).
Lady Stardust.
Lady Stardust (live, 1972).

Lady Stardust (remake, 1997).

Bowie was fascinated by his contemporaries—dropping their names, covering their songs, producing their records. He traced their steps, aped their movements; he sought to remake them in his own image, or at least dress them in his own clothes. So Bowie turned Lou Reed into a glam rock icon, while making Iggy Pop an ongoing rehabilitation project. (Whether Bowie’s mix of Raw Power was salvage or vandalism is still a weary topic of debate). Bowie sparked Mick Jagger and was a shadow on John Lennon.

Most of all, there was Marc Bolan, Bowie’s greatest creative rival and, for a time, inspiration. While in early 1972 Bowie was still relatively unknown, Bolan had become a pop star (four consecutive UK #1s in 14 months) and the Ziggy Stardust storyline is in part a weird parody of Bolan’s rise to fame. Bowie watched Bolan as through a one-way mirror, mimicking his voice on “Black Country Rock,” drafting variations on Bolan in songs. A commenter noted that “The Prettiest Star” was likely as much a homage to Bolan as it (allegedly) was to Angela Bowie. “Lady Stardust,” originally called “Song For Marc,” was more overt: at the Rainbow Theater in August 1972, Bowie sang “Lady Stardust” while Bolan’s face was projected on a screen behind him.

“Lady Stardust” has a taste of fatality and loss; the song seems like a faded remnant of a lost era, Bowie imagining the future as a blighted past. The verses begin in A major and descend into the relative minor, F-sharp, while the chorus also has minor chords in its middle bars. “Lady Stardust” himself, whether Bolan or Ziggy, is both an object of worship for the boys and girls in the stalls, and a subject of abuse. In turn, he curses his audience, singing death ballads and imprecations with a smile, then withers into a black memory while still on stage.

As Nicholas Pegg noted, the lyric seems written in an “American” voice, with all its “outta sites” and “awful nice”s (also, Bowie mutters “get some pussy now” at 2:53 on the Ziggy cut). Mick Ronson’s piano playing has the somber, relaxed tone of an after-hours cabaret performance, while Bowie sounds a bit like Elton John.

“Song For Marc” was taped ca. April 1971 and eventually appeared on the Ryko Ziggy Stardust CD reissue. The Ziggy “Lady Stardust” was recorded on 12 November 1971. Bowie cut two versions of the song for the BBC in 1972, the latter of which is on Bowie At the Beeb. In January 1997, Bowie taped a remake of “Lady Stardust” with bass and backing vocals by Gail Ann Dorsey; it’s on ChangesNowBowie.

Top: Keith Morris, “Marc Bolan arriving at JFK Airport, February 1972.”


Black Country Rock

January 24, 2010

Black Country Rock.

“Black Country Rock” was the provisional title Mick Ronson and Tony Visconti gave to a riff-happy jam they had worked up in the studio, and Bowie, facing a deadline, dashed out a single verse and chorus based on the title.

Recording his vocal, Bowie decided to parody his friend/rival Marc Bolan, who was readying to become a pop star (T. Rex’s “Ride a White Swan,” their first top 10 hit, was recorded a few months after this), delivering a merciless imitation of Bolan’s singing voice (especially in the last chorus repeat, where Bowie bleats out “fond adieuuuuuuuuuuu”). Visconti, amused, thinned Bowie’s vocal track with an equalizer so that it sounded even more like Bolan’s (the “my friend” in the last chorus is so on the money you’d swear it was a Bolan vocal overdub).

“Black Country Rock,” straight-up album filler, is of interest mainly for Ronson, who makes the track a primer on how to economically arrange a song, deploying four guitar riffs as motifs. The first riff, a vault from his low to high strings in E, and the second (a needling little hook ending back in E) appear in Ronson’s intro, then serve as motifs in the verse, with riff 2 reappearing on every other bar, while riff 1 links each eight-bar verse together.

The chorus has the other two—the low-end riff 3 appears at the end of the first line, while riff 4 (mainly just two notes over and over again, sometimes bent) closes out the chorus and twice extends into a 16-bar solo (with riff 2 reappearing to transition back to the verse). For a throwaway track, it’s impressive enough: a number of mediocre ’70s rock bands would build whole careers out of this sort of thing.

Recorded ca. 12-22 May 1970; on side A of The Man Who Sold the World and issued as the B-side of “Holy Holy” in 1971.

Top: Mickey Finn, Marc Bolan and their jawlines practice LP cover poses, summer 1970.


The Prettiest Star

December 15, 2009

The Prettiest Star (single).
The Prettiest Star (Aladdin Sane remake).

Space Oddity” gave David Bowie a hit single at last and he had no clue how to follow it up. He dithered for months, considering “Janine,” among other Space Oddity tracks. The decision finally came down to either remaking “London Bye Ta-Ta” (his manager Ken Pitt’s choice) or cutting a new song that Bowie allegedly had just written for Angela Barnett, who he’d marry in a few months. Bowie went with the latter and got his old rival/colleague and emerging pop star Marc Bolan to play lead guitar on it. “The Prettiest Star” was simple, hummable, sweet and reassuring: it sold less than 800 copies.

Why did “The Prettiest Star” stiff so badly? Tony Visconti had warned about the danger of “Space Oddity”: it was such a dated one-off song that it threatened to consign Bowie into the bin of late ’60s novelties. Bowie resisted the obvious course, doing an SF-themed follow-up, but “Prettiest Star,” compared to “Oddity,” was quite square, its sentiments treacly, its tone warm and nostalgic. Many ’70s pop listeners would have a yen for those very qualities, but maybe March 1970 was a bit too soon. By the spring Bowie was recording heavy metal songs.

“The Prettiest Star,” lovely and neglected, is in retrospect the first sign of a countercurrent in Bowie’s ’70s work. Seventies Bowie is remembered mainly for glam rock anthems and “avant-garde” electronic records, for dressing as an alien or a Kabuki drag queen. But littered throughout all of that are the occasional regressions—stage ditties, warm reminiscences, tributes. Bowie followed his hard rock Man Who Sold the World LP with a return to music hall shenanigans, chased the sleazy glamour of Aladdin Sane with homage to his old Mod rivals and inspirations, and did a Christmas song with Bing Crosby while promoting “Heroes.”

“The Prettiest Star” has a basic verse-and-refrain structure, simple rhymes (“one day” with “someday”), dyslexic rhymes (“tried” and “tired”) and a pretty if unadventurous melody. There are a few tricks. Take the way the first three guitar notes serve as a count-in before the first bar of the intro, a pattern replicated before other verses by piano or strings. Or how in the first two verses Bowie stays on the C chord when it seems like he’s going to move up (“it can all but break your heart…in pieces,” “I moved up to take a place…near you”), only to break the pattern in the third verse, the chords moving to F and F7 as Bowie sings the title phrase. And the song’s other main part (the 10-bar section that begins “staying back in your memory“) is either a refrain or a bridge—it can serve either role.

All of this is overshadowed by the lead guitar, whose eight-bar intro is both overture for the verse (it’s the same underlying chords) and the song’s central motif. In the original version, the guitar intro reappears after two verses and is granted three more repetitions at the end—as a result, the track can feel like padding between a series of guitar solos. (When Bowie and Mick Ronson remade “Prettiest Star,” they corrected this flaw—the original’s draggy midsection, with two back-to-back bridges glued together by the repeated opening riff, is streamlined with the third verse now separating the two bridges and the riff repeat eliminated (the final guitar repeats are also reduced by one).)

“The Prettiest Star” seems to offer a battle of two lead guitarists—Marc Bolan on the single, Mick Ronson on the remake—but comparison listening makes it pretty clear that Ronson ceded the field to Bolan. While some critics have claimed Ronson reproduces Bolan’s solo note-for-note, which isn’t quite the case I think, he comes pretty close (Ronson even plays a vibrato-laden chord against Bowie singing “HOW you moved” in the bridge, just as Bolan did).

You can see why Ronson didn’t change it up: Bolan’s vibrato-saturated solo is one of the most melodic guitar lines he ever recorded, and it’s more memorable than Bowie’s vocal. In January 1970 Bolan only recently had switched to electric guitar (one reason he agreed to the Bowie session was that Visconti and Bowie had flattered his playing) and he plays the near-identical riff throughout the song, changing it only in the final repeat.

Ronson, when he remade “Prettiest Star” in late 1972, had his own well-established sound—plug his Les Paul directly into a cranked-up amp (occasionally using just a single wah-wah pedal), and, like Jimmy Page, use precise overdubs to fatten out the track (here he puts in a scratchy, distorted second guitar at the end of the intro). Bolan’s lead had been supplemented by Bowie strumming on 12-string acoustic guitar, but Ronson has no need of that, as saxophones serve to beef up the verses, freeing Ronson to craft metallic washes of sound.

It’s unclear why Bowie remade “Prettiest Star” for Aladdin Sane: perhaps he was short of new material (this was when record companies wanted artists to churn out new LPs seemingly every nine months—today, Justin Timberlake gets half a decade between records) and for most record buyers “Prettiest Star” was basically an unreleased track, given its awful reception in 1970.

If the original version of “Prettiest Star” was a simple valentine, the remake is a rowdy, garish engagement party, with doo-wop backing vocals, a horn section, an aggressive piano and a heavier beat. They both have their appeal, though the Aladdin Sane edition sounds like a better time.

Recorded 8, 13-14 January 1970 (with Visconti on bass and Godfrey McClean on drums) and released in March as Mercury MF 1135 c/w “Conversation Piece”—the same group, including Bolan, also cut “London Bye Ta-Ta” but it was left on the shelf; the Aladdin Sane remake was recorded in New York between 3-10 December 1972, in one of the first sessions for the LP.

Top: The Bowies wed each other, Bromley Registry Office, 19 March 1970.


Let Me Sleep Beside You

October 16, 2009

kf1

Let Me Sleep Beside You.
Let Me Sleep Beside You (live, BBC, 1969).
Let Me Sleep Beside You (Toy, 2000).

Tony Visconti, a 22-year-old bass player from Brooklyn, came to the UK in April 1967 to illegally work as an apprentice record producer. He managed to convince Customs that he was traveling with four guitars because he was a dedicated vacationing musician who had to practice on each guitar daily. In New York he had caught the eye of British producer Denny Cordell by writing a complete arrangement for a Georgie Fame overdub session in an hour’s time, and once in the UK Visconti was put to work on tracks by The Move (“Cherry Blossom Clinic,” “Flowers In the Rain,” “Mist on a Monday Morning“) and Manfred Mann (“So Long Dad“).

Soon after David Bowie’s LP was released in June ’67, Visconti met Bowie at the office of David Platz, Cordell’s business partner and Bowie’s song publisher. Platz thought the two might hit it off as Visconti already had a reputation of being able to work with “hard to understand” artists (e.g., Marc Bolan, whose band Tyrannosaurus Rex Visconti would soon convince Cordell to sign). The first thing Visconti noticed was that Bowie had different-colored eyes. The two talked about American music for hours (both were fans of Ken Nordine‘s Word Jazz LPs), went for a walk in Chelsea, saw Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water together and had become fast friends by the end of the day. So when Bowie went in to record a new prospective single for Deram at summer’s end, he asked Visconti to arrange and produce it.

Bowie often has been reliant on his producers, using them as interpreters, mirrors, secondary composers, performers, muses and casting directors. Along with Gus Dudgeon, Visconti was the first of the major Bowie producers, and where Dudgeon’s work is that of someone fleshing out an unusual, occasionally brilliant sketchwork (the role George Martin often played with John Lennon), Visconti’s style is both practical in its studio realism and aggressive in its scope: feeding, then realizing, Bowie’s nascent ambitions.

Visconti helped convince Bowie to push “Let Me Sleep Beside You” as his next single, flattering Bowie by pronouncing the song “almost American.” Also, Bowie was dead broke—his LP had stiffed—so “Sleep Beside You” was a bald attempt to ape the success of the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (blunt requests were in vogue). It marks a turn away from the eccentricity and provincial theatrics of Bowie’s earlier Deram material, as “Sleep Beside You” is a basic rock & roll sex song, just sweetened up and given to putting on airs.

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It’s a fairly basic composition—the chord progression of the verse (C-Bb-F)  has become so cliched that it’s simply dubbed “the classic rock progression” in Richard Scott’s music theory guide (it’s used in everything from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” to ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man”). Visconti offers stage settings and mood lighting: a cello section; a dominant bass that doubles Bowie’s initial sung hook; and drums (by Alan White, later of the Plastic Ono Band and Yes) that serve as accents and occasional fireworks—the acoustic guitar (Bowie?) is what really drives the track. The strings are a moody, luxurious contrast to the wind-based arrangements that had dominated Bowie’s first LP and “Laughing Gnome” single. In the first verse, the strings repeat a five-note pattern, then offer a series of long-held notes until, after the song peaks with the bridge, Visconti gives the cellists a whole eight-bar verse to sweep through.

What works is the restraint: Bowie and Visconti set up hooks but don’t overuse them (the opening distorted guitar riff (likely played by John McLaughlin) doesn’t appear again until the fadeout, for instance), while Bowie’s figured out how to best display his voice—go low on the verses, high and imperious on the bridge, where he’s trying to close the sale.

“Let Me Sleep Beside You” is a rake’s come-on in the well-worn style of Andrew Marvell and Robert Herrick—the singer frames his seduction as being empowering, the rake merely serving as a means of liberation. He appeals to youth’s vanity; he flatters his conquest with the promise of her alleged maturity: “Brush the dust of youth from off your shoulder/because the years of threading daisies lie behind you now,” Bowie murmurs, keeping a straight face. “Lock away your childhood…child, you’re a woman now/your heart and soul are free.” (Neil Diamond’s “Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon” had been released as a single in April ’67, and so might have been an influence, but then again the late ’60s were rife with “girl, you’re a woman now” type of lyrics.)

It’s the most lustful Bowie song since “Liza Jane,” but as the track goes on, its aim seems less about Bowie bedding the girl than Bowie wanting to convince the listener that he really is a seductive, charismatic rock star (the promo film for the song, made in early 1969, has Bowie burlesquing the image of rock-star-as-sex-god, years before Ziggy). Bowie’s at last hit on the idea that a reflection, perfectly arranged, of an Elvis-Jagger figure will serve just as well as the original.

Recorded on 1 September 1967. Deram’s review board uniformly rejected it as a single, and it wouldn’t be released until the 1970 patchwork LP World of David Bowie that Deram issued to cash in on Bowie’s post-“Space Oddity” fame; on Deram Anthology.

Photos: Kim Farber, Miss February 1967, with winter flower arrangement; the author Adam Diment in a fertility dance, London, 1967.