We Are The Dead

September 3, 2010

We Are the Dead.

The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing. All around the world, in London and New York, in Africa and Brazil, and in the mysterious, forbidden lands beyond the frontiers…everywhere stood the same unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing. Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come. You were the dead; theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body, and passed on the secret doctrine that two plus two make four.

“We are the dead,” he said.

“We are the dead,” echoed Julia dutifully.

“You are the dead,” said an iron voice behind them.

George Orwell, Nineteen-Eighty Four.

Of Bowie’s Nineteen Eighty-Four songs, “We Are the Dead” seems to have been the most rewritten after the musical was scrapped, as much of its final lyric is a series of William Burroughs-inspired cut-up lines. This technique, which Bowie used for other Diamond Dogs tracks, entailed writing a lyric on paper, cutting the lines into strips, drawing the strips randomly (say, from a hat), then pasting the rearranged lines together to make a new lyric. The goal was to use blind chance as a midwife, to create bizarre juxtapositions that the conscious mind wouldn’t have considered. So you get lines like you’re dancing where the dogs decay/defecating ecstasy or I love you in your fuck-me pumps/and your nimble dress that trails or the legendary curtains/are drawn round Baby Bankrupt.

This was an outgrowth of a ’60s obsession with the spontaneous, the random prized over the deliberate—a belief summed up in an Allen Ginsberg quote: “first thought, best thought.” For Bowie, using cut-up was a way to get out of a creative hole, and it generally worked well for him. After all, Bowie had never been much of a traditional lyricist, and his lines often sounded better out of context. (It’s telling that Bowie’s cut-up lyrics don’t seem radically different from ones he wrote out start to finish.) The problem was that Bowie was still committed to these conceptual LP ideas, and so was stuck trying to make a narrative out of a set of, in some cases, deliberately nonsensical songs.

“We Are the Dead” is reminiscent of Bowie’s late 1960s rant-epics like “Cygnet Committee” in that it forgoes a verse-chorus-verse structure in favor of a rambling trellis of verses that, only twice in the song, culminate in a weak 4-bar refrain. The song, as all of Bowie’s Orwell pieces are, is a minor key (Gm): it opens with two eerie eight-bar verses, dominated by Mike Garson’s electric piano and sung in a stage whisper by Bowie—these first two verses move through nearly every pitch in the key, from Gm to B flat (III) to D (V) to E flat (VI), back to Gm until they end, unresolved, on F (VII).

Yet just when you assume Bowie will move to a bridge or chorus, he instead keeps going with a new 14-bar verse, spewing lines over a circular harmonic sequence, his vocal mainly accompanied by grating bursts of guitar while, every second bar, the title line sweeps by like a ghost on a stairwell. As if to counter the randomness of his lyrics, Bowie keeps to a fairly strict rhythm, singing a six-beat line for each bar (though as he goes on, his timing gets looser—he starts cramming in more words). A breath, and then the entire sequence repeats again, with the refrain dragged out a bit longer for the outro.

There are only traces left of the Orwell narrative—for instance, “I hear them on the stairs”—but in its way “We Are the Dead” is the truest of Bowie’s Orwell adaptations. Winston Smith, with the Thought Police closing in on him, hopes that revolution lies in the working-class proles, who keep alive the freedom of the body, while Smith’s class will somehow keep alive the freedom of the mind—a belief that Smith’s subsequent conversion shows to be a cruel folly. But as John Huntington wrote in The Logic of Fantasy, a study of the Orwell novel, “to transform a dystopia to a utopia requires discovering a different set of images.” Bowie’s bilious, chaotic lyric, formed by deliberate chance, could also be a passkey.

Recorded 16 January 1974, never performed live.

Top: Erik Van Straten, “London, Thames, 1974.”


Big Brother

August 31, 2010

Big Brother.
Big Brother (live, 1974).
Big Brother (live, 1987.)

A love song to abasement, a fascist hymn, a cocaine song: “Big Brother” apparently was, in the scheme of Bowie’s Nineteen Eighty-Four adaptation, meant as an end piece to accompany the broken Winston Smith’s submission at last to Big Brother. It may well have been intended as the show’s closing song.

“Big Brother” is built like a flowchart, designed to move the listener from doubt (the verses open in B minor, move slowly up to A at the end of the first two lines, a structure repeated in the chorus, though Bowie sings the latter in a much higher register) to desire (the first bridge, “please savior, savior show us”) to, in the choruses, an ecstatic submission to power. Once you move past a certain point, there’s no way back: take how the verse never reoccurs after Bowie sings the chorus. There’s only the four-bar second bridge (Bowie singing alone on acoustic guitar, “I know you think you’re awful square”…) that serves as a final breath before the song completely gives itself over.

Still, submitting to a higher power—a dictator, a president (the chorus promises that the divine ruler will be “someone to fool us, someone like you”), even a line of coke—can be beautiful, “Big Brother” argues. Its final chorus repeats are glorious, soaring with melody (Bowie’s upward leaps at the start of each bar), with each chorus offering something to further the excitement—a new counter-melody emerging on guitar or a great rolling drum fill by Aynsley Dunbar in the final repeat. It’s a stunning resolution to a game that’s been rigged to lead you there all along, from the one-bar gaps between the bridges and chorus that give an illusion of space and freedom, to how the saxophones are present throughout the song, prodding the listener along like warders.

Are there signs of resistance? The scrappy acoustic guitar playing, barely discernible, under most of the track? Bowie’s octave-doubled lead vocal, with his more resonant voice shadowed by a thinner, lower one, like a bad conscience? Or the realization that the “trumpet” whose fanfare opens the track and which gets the solo, is a fraud, a synthesizer in disguise? And is there a sly sense of humor under it all? Nicholas Pegg makes the excellent call that one of “Big Brother”‘s ancestors is The Bonzo Dog Band’s 1969 parody of Charles Atlas ads, “Mr. Apollo,” a track Dunbar drummed on. (“He’s the strongest man/the world has ever seen…follow Mr. Apollo/everybody knows he’s the greatest man!)

If so, they’re wiped out by the efficiency, beauty and power of Bowie’s song, whose three and a half minutes culminate in its final line, a simply-sung “we want you Big Brother,” which immediately segues into the tribal celebration of “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family.” Broken and emptied, the once-human being is brought to his feet and made to dance.

Recorded 14-15 January 1974, a regular during the ’74 tour, revived for the Glass Spider tour of 1987.

Top: Augusto Pinochet and friends, Santiago, Chile, ca. September 1973.


1984, Dodo

August 26, 2010

1984/Dodo (first performance, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
1984/Dodo (studio outtake, 1973).
1984 (Diamond Dogs).
Dodo (studio outtake, 1973).
Dodo (studio outtake, with Lulu & Bowie co-lead vocals, 1973).
1984 (live, 1974).
1984 (The Dick Cavett Show, 1974).

Orwell in 1948 understood that despite the Axis defeat, the will to fascism had not gone away, that far from having seen its day it had perhaps not even come into its own—the corruption of spirit, the irresistible human addiction to power, were already long in place, all well-known aspects of the third Reich and Stalin’s USSR, even the British Labour party—like first drafts of a terrible future.

Thomas Pynchon, introduction to the 2003 edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Diamond Dogs is a salvage job, a compilation of scraps from stillborn Bowie projects. There are remnants of a Ziggy Stardust musical (“Rebel Rebel” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me”), pieces of a barely comprehensible Oliver Twist-by-JG Ballard scenario (“Diamond Dogs,” “Future Legend” and “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”), and fragments of Bowie’s grandest failed ambition, a musical of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “We Are the Dead,” “Big Brother” and, of course, “1984” itself.

Orwell’s widow, Sonia Brownell, vetoed Bowie’s proposed musical, considering it to be in poor taste. (Brownell died in 1980, depriving Orwell’s works of a gatekeeper: it was good news for the Eurythmics.) So we can only guess, via its few surviving songs, as to what Bowie’s adaptation would have been like. He seems most intrigued by the concept of absolute authority, the quisling culture over which it rules and how the mind seems eager to condone and accept it. What fascinated Bowie, what was arguably the only thing that truly interested him in the mid-’70s, was power, and the schizophrenic manner of thinking—double-thought, basically—that allows, even encourages its abuses. “1984” is a homage to power, with Bowie singing the title year like a man beseeching a lover (it’s a perverse echo of Roy Orbison’s “Leah”).

The title of Orwell’s book, of course, is the year of its composition with the last two digits reversed, with the world of Big Brother being essentially postwar Britain, with its bombed-out city centers, its food and electricity rationing, its grubbiness (watery coffee, half-cigarettes) and exhaustion. Drawing on the bureaucracy and hive-mind that he had encountered working in BBC propaganda during the war, Orwell suggested that even the well-meaning Labour Party, busy in 1948 erecting the welfare state, would be concerned with establishing and bolstering its power at the expense of everything else.

So it’s not surprising to find Bowie writing his version of Nineteen-Eighty-Four in late 1973, which was something of a bookend to 1948. It was an anemic sequel to the war years, with, once again, government-mandated rationing (PM Heath’s Three-Day Week power cuts, which lasted from January to March ’74), food shortages and price hikes, even bombs going off regularly in London, courtesy of the IRA.

No coup will take place in this country until it is one that would be welcomed or quietly acquiesced in by a majority or a very large minority of the people…in my judgment, we have gone measurably down the road to such acceptance in the last decade, and we have travelled very quickly along it in the last year.

Patrick Cosgrave, “Could the Army Take Over?” The Spectator, 22 December 1973.

There was a sense that the center couldn’t hold for much longer, that the government would fall either to the Communists or the neo-fascists, each of whom at least had some vitality left. The Establishment was old and crazed: in early 1974, Sir William Armstrong, the Head of the Home Civil Service, at a weekend government seminar in Oxfordshire, stripped off his clothes, lay on the floor and, in Francis Wheen‘s words, began “chain-smoking and expostulating wildly about the collapse of democracy and the end of the world…about moving the Red Army from here and Blue Army from there.” The Christmas ’73 issue of The Spectator speculated on the likelihood of a military coup in the UK; it quoted a Tory lobby hack who said that Britain “had seen our last general election, since from now on the Prime Minister would merely need to continue to prolong various states of emergency and elongate the life of this parliament.” A few weeks later, the Spectator editorialized that “Britain is on a Chilean brink.”

For Bowie, this situation only meant that the endgame he had imagined as far back as “The Supermen” or “Cygnet Committee” was coming to pass soon, and in songs like “1984” he seemed to welcome it. “I’m looking for the treason that I knew in ’65,” he sings at one point, but don’t believe him. His Winston Smith wouldn’t have required conversion—he would have shoved his face into the rat cage without prompting.

“1984” is a milestone for Bowie; it’s the most rhythmically ambitious track he’d ever made. Rhythm was underdeveloped in most of Bowie’s early records, as Bowie concentrated on harmonic progression, developing melodies and juxtapositions—playing out odd chord changes, creating intricate vocal lines, building off riffs, crafting tracks out of sound effects (from Stylophones to varispeed vocals). It didn’t help that Bowie’s first studio drummers were under par, while Woody Woodmansey (and Trevor Bolder) mainly followed Mick Ronson’s lead, serving as the equivalent to a rhythm guitar. With Aynsley Dunbar, Bowie’s first top-rate drummer, Bowie was able to work through ideas he was picking up from James Brown and Isaac Hayes records.

So the opening of “1984,” with its Shaft-inspired chicken-scratch guitar (by Alan Parker), its staggered four-note bassline, Dunbar’s sizzling cymbal work and sweeps of violins (the latter arranged by Tony Visconti, back in the Bowie fold after a few years), is a pure groove—it spins in place for ten bars, and feels like it could go on for hours. The essential “1984” performance, for me, is the Dick Cavett Show performance in November ’74, where the band is so tight and fluid that Bowie just bounces off of them.

There’s a similar richness in the vocals. Bowie’s developing the sonorous timbre he would use for much of the next decade—it’s the dawn of his imperious Thin White Duke voice, which he uses here craftily (his vocal is full of feints and unusual phrasings: take the way Bowie sings the highest note on the penultimate beat of a phrase, e.g. “you said it WOULD last/but I guess we EN-rolled” or “nine-teen eigh-TY four”). He wraps his vocal in a web of call-and-response backing vocals by the Astronettes, which gives the track a sense of grandeur, particularly in the bridge, where Bowie’s high register contrasts with the basso chorus.

Bowie overlaid these rhythm and vocal innovations on a slightly-off song structure. The verse’s progression from the home key of D minor to F is broken by an odd swerve to E minor, while the chorus is a four-bar extension of the verses, built on a move up to the sixth and seventh intervals—Bb (“be-ware the”) and C (“savage”)—before falling back home to Dm (“lure”). The bridge, the track’s melodic and dramatic high point, starts in 5/4 time (“see, come see, remember”), slows to a bar of 2/4 (“me”), then finally settles on 4/4.

“1984” was born conjoined with “Dodo,” the latter song originally titled “You Didn’t Hear It From Me.” The pairing worked, thematically—“1984” set the scene, then “Dodo” narrowed the scope, focusing on a particular doomed man about to be brainwashed. At some point Bowie excised “Dodo” and shelved the song after trying it out as a possible single for Lulu.

Cutting “Dodo” was the right move, as “1984”s power lies in the force of its sweep, how the verses tumble into the choruses, how the intro groove returns to ease transitions between the oddly-timed bridges. In the original medley, “Dodo” emerged after the first bridge of “1984”—its appearance was surprising yet still felt like a natural progression, but it also sapped the tempo and the song never quite recovered. When “1984” returned at the end, its force had lessened.

“Dodo” on its own still had potential as a narrow, jaundiced piece of funk, but Bowie’s studio version didn’t gel—it sounded sluggish and underdeveloped. Bowie may have considered it too similar, melodically, to “1984,” while “Big Brother” had gone over similar ground, making the aptly-named “Dodo” superfluous for Diamond Dogs.

The first performance of “1984/Dodo” was recorded at the 1980 Floor Show on 18 October 1973, while the studio “1984/Dodo” medley was cut in November 1973 (it was the last hurrah of the old gang, as the track featured Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder and was the last Bowie recording produced by Ken Scott). Unreleased at the time, it wound up on the Sound + Vision set.

The revised “1984,” divorced from “Dodo,” was likely cut between 14-16 January 1974 and is the centerpiece of Diamond Dogs‘ B-side. It was released as a single in the US and Japan (RCA PB 10026) and performed throughout Bowie’s ’74 tour. Bowie, showing amazing restraint, didn’t perform the song once during its title year.

Top: Piccadilly Circus with much of its lights out due to power cuts, 1 February 1974.