No Control

April 8, 2013

95berlin

No Control.

“No Control” came together quickly, at the tail end of the last Outside sessions in New York: it was possibly the last track completed for the album. In his diary, Eno said much of the track was done in an hour, including a Bowie vocal that left him in awe: “Watching him tune it to just the right pitch of sincerity and parody was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen in a studio.”

Bowie starts with an octave-doubled vocal for the verses; it’s a warning to a collective “you” from someone already condemned, the melody confined to a handful of notes and tethered to the song’s basic harmonic progression (A major moving to its flattened VII chord, G, on “deranged“). He shifts to a wider-ranging, ascending melody in the bridge, with a loftiness in his now-single-tracked intonation (“If I could control…tomorrow’s haze“), over the same progression in G major (a move to F on “darkened shore“).

But in the second bridge, Bowie introduces what Eno had noticed him fine-tuning: a blend of camp and “realism.” You’ve gotta have a scheme, You’ve gotta have a plan! It’s as if a minor character from Oklahoma! has turned up in Oxford Town, trying to impart some homespun common sense (is he exhorting the likes of Leon Blank or Ramona Stone to plan their murders more thoroughly?). Repeating this move in the final bridge, which extends into the coda, Bowie concludes in a run where he scrapes out every vowel he comes across: “I caaan’t be-lieeeve…I’ve noo con-trool…it’s all de-raaaaaanged, DE-raaaaaanged.”

This was an old Bowie trick, going back to “I’m Not Losing Sleep” and “London Boys”: setting up a lyrical scenario (often a “street” scene) and then pulling back to reveal the stage lights and scrim, ending with a Judy Garland moment in the coda. (Garland’s version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” an interpretation of which Bowie used to close sets in 1966, was the godmother of all of this.) The arrangement of “No Control” at times parallels Bowie’s vocal strategy—the purling synthesizers in the intro and verse are disrupted by Reeves Gabrels’ distorted, singing guitar and a squalling keyboard that crops up in the bridge, eats into the following verse and finally gets an eight-bar solo. Bowie’s move to “Broadway” vocalese in the second bridge comes during a feeling of dislocation in the music, as the harmonic “pad” on keyboard vanishes, leaving only Carlos Alomar’s rhythm guitar to tack things down.

The closing “I’m deranged” line suggests that “No Control” came out of that slightly-older composition. As with his other last-minute songs for Outside, Bowie sharpened his writing by ditching his Verbasiser cut-up lyric generator and, in most cases, his art-murder “narrative.” Instead he trusted his instincts, free-associating lyrics, even at times in the vocal booth: lines like “stay away from the future” or “don’t tell God your plans” have the aphoristic oddness of the best of his Seventies songs. “No Control” is one of the Bowie tracks that sum up his career in miniature (which is also to say if you hate Bowie, it will remind you why). But it got lost in the over-heaped platter that is Outside, Bowie never played the song live, and “No Control” became a footnote.

Recorded 20 January-February 1995. An instrumental mix appeared on a Dutch promo CD in 1998.

Top: Ted Sherarts, “March 29, 1995, Berlin.”