Mass Production

January 31, 2011

Mass Production.

I would always talk to [Bowie] about how much I admired the beauty of the American industrial culture that was rotting away where I grew up. Like the beautiful smokestacks and factories—whole cities devoted to factories.

Iggy Pop, quoted in Jim Ambrose’s Gimme Danger.

The first thing you hear on “Mass Production,” the eight-minute industrial horror movie that finishes off The Idiot, is a synthesizer fading in, like a machine drawing breath; it’s suddenly confined to the right channel, where it now drones a single note, like a foghorn, and it’s answered by four piping notes in the left channel, a mechanical birdsong that repeats through much of the track (though often drowned in the mix). Dennis Davis’ drum fill kicks the song into a semblance of life, and Iggy Pop appears, sounding like a man holding a hostage. “Beforrrre you GO,” he drones, “Do me a FAV-orrr…Give me a NUM-berrr…”

Pop initially sings his lyric for “Mass Production” (modern life is so dehumanizing that finding a new girl is like finding a new toaster, while the singer eventually realizes he’s just as disposable a commodity) in a voice that Lester Bangs, reviewing the record for Stereo Review, called “synthezomboid.” Pop eventually builds to a groaning run of phrases that he inflicts more than he sings, placing emphasis on whichever sounds he can strangle the most: “you’re not NOTHING NEW,” “it’s THERE in the MIRROR,” “breasts turn BROWN—so WARM and so BROWN.”

The bedrock of the track was a tape loop of “overloaded industrial noises” that Laurent Thibault had assembled for Bowie and Pop—Thibault pieced the tape together in sections, then made a master tape of the sets of mixes. Thibault recalled Bowie sitting for an hour watching the tape spool around and around. “Like a child transfixed by a train set,” he told Paul Trynka. The tape, unrolled, would run the length of the room.

Bowie and Pop were inspired by Pop’s memories of seeing a machine press at Ford Motor’s River Rouge plant. “A great piece of heavy metal cut in a form,” pounding out a new fender every minute, as Pop later described it. The oppressive “Mass Production,” however, is far from any sort of triumphal Futurism; there’s no nobility of the machine found here, just a nihilistic realization that even the cold promise of machinery is a lie. If “Mass Production” has a visual analogue, it’s David Lynch’s street sets for Eraserhead: a city seemingly purged of human beings and reduced to abandoned train tracks, lifeless tenements and an encroaching darkness.

“Mass Production” is four verses (one instrumental) centered on a single chord (F7) and a single riff (on guitar and synthesizer, both likely played by Bowie), and two 12-bar bridges, which come as the track’s meager relief, with guitar arpeggios and the release of a chord change, while Pop’s vocal has a shred of warmth in it despite singing lines “though I try to die/you put me back on the line”: salvation as reprogramming. The instrumental verse is dominated by detuned synthesizers, which return towards the fadeout, their singsong patterns sounding like mockery; the track ends where it began, with the foghorn and birdsong noises, industry and industrialized. Draining to listen to and willfully abrasive, “Mass Production” offered the future: Joy Division, among others, starts here.

Recorded July-August 1976, at Château d’Hérouville, Musicland, Munich and possibly Hansa Studios, Berlin.

Top: Jean-Luc Weber, “La Sablière, Rouen, France,” 1976.