Pallas Athena

September 28, 2012

Pallas Athena.
Pallas Athena (Arsenio Hall Show, 1993).
Pallas Athena (Don’t Stop Praying remix No. 2).
Pallas Athena (live, 1997).

For Black Tie White Noise, Bowie in the UK was negotiating with a few labels, including BMG/Arista. During one meeting at Arista, when Bowie was playing DATs of the rough mixes, the Arista team brought in their secret weapon: Martyn Watson, an A&R consultant and a complete Bowie fanatic (among his bona fides: attending all six Wembley shows in 1976). They sat Watson next to Bowie. While the rest of the table was nodding along and deferentially complimenting the music, Watson was actually listening to it, and at one point, he leaned over to Bowie and said “is that something from ‘Heroes’ there?

Bowie reached over and snapped off the tape. The room fell silent. Watson feared for his professional life. Then Bowie smiled, put his arm around Watson and said: “This guy’s got ears!” “I went from persona non grata to top boy,” Watson recalled. “We got the gig.”* He recalls a charming Bowie who occasionally stopped by the office and offered to make coffee for staffers, and a man who seemed engaged in his record, eager to push it as best he could.

Watson proved to be a key piece of Arista’s strategy to promote the record, as he had connections throughout UK clubland and was instrumental in distributing copies of the first track to be released from BTWN, “Pallas Athena.” Arista cut some promo 12″ singles that were only stamped with the track’s title, and Watson and others in the Arista crew delivered them personally to a hand-selected group of influential DJs. The gambit worked in part—“Pallas Athena” was a hit in the clubs—but there wasn’t quite enough time to get out the news that it was David Bowie responsible for the groaning “God…is on top of it all” over a throbbing beat.

The simple goal for Arista, Watson said, was to try to make David Bowie cool again. “I loved him more than my mum,” he said, but he noted that being a publicly identified Bowie fan in the UK in the late Eighties meant to expose yourself to ridicule. So having various remixes of BTWN tracks by the likes of Meat Beat Manifesto, Back to Basics and Leftfield (Watson lobbied for Underworld, to no avail—there was a divide in Arista between mainstream dance pop and the underground clubbers) were in part Arista’s means of wrapping up Bowie in something current, to sneak him past the tastemakers and let him be judged on his own merits again.

“Pallas” was one of the most radical tracks Bowie had made in years. For one thing, it hardly sounded like Bowie at all, with the disassociated voices akin to the clips of televangelist speeches that Eno and David Byrne had used on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. (The big question is: is the “God” voice a sample or is it Bowie’s distorted, down-sped voice? I think it’s the latter, but have not found any concrete evidence either way).

Its structure seemed influenced not just by whatever house and techno records Bowie had heard, but by minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass (see “Weeping Wall”): it’s the link between the second side of Low and Earthling. The melodic material, including the vocal lines, is used stringently and is constantly recycled, subtly changing in the process. Over a bassline that sounds four G notes per bar, a four-note pattern (B-flat-G-A-G) runs throughout the track: it’s carried first via four-bar sets of whole notes on synth and “live” ‘cello, which is then joined by repeating sets of quarter notes on synth violins (triggered by the move to “that’s all”), which in turn is capped by runs of eighth notes on high synth violins (in sync with the drumbeat kicking in), and, lastly, by Bowie’s own distorted “we-are we-are,” singing the same note pattern. The only alteration is the occasional tweak to the bass pattern (changing to Bb-Bb-G-Bb at times).

Over this are the chanted refrains: “God is on top of it all,” “that’s all,” and “we are, we are.” The initial run of “God is on top of it all” sounds definitive, striking, even reassuring; God is in control, relax. But as the chant goes on, the message becomes vaguer, more disturbing: is just a map reference, with God simply located at the top level, far removed from us, indifferent to our pleas? The vocal lines start to bleed together. At times the sequence is “that’s all that’s all we are,” other times “we are praying,” (or is it “ready“?), other times, it’s “we are we are God.” The title adds another element: Pallas Athena was hatched from the head of a god (“from the brow of the super-brain,” see “Song for Bob Dylan”). It gives weight to the vague Gnosticism implied here, that God may be at the top of it all, but we may also be above him. Or it could be a reference to the temple of Athena Nike at the top of the Akropolis, which, if so, then God is an empty ruin standing above a city that no longer worships her.

The only free agent is Bowie’s saxophone, which goes on a series of excursions, its phrases often starting with a rising triplet figure and ending with a downward glissando. In the closing minute of the track, the saxophone is joined by Lester Bowie’s trumpet, forming an island of raucous community in an otherwise chaotic song.

Recorded ca. summer-autumn 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC.  Released in March 1993 as Arista MEAT 1 (the Don’t Stop Praying Remixes #1 and #2 and the Gone Midnight Mix): these later appeared as the B-side of “Jump They Say,” as a bonus track on the 2003 reissue of BTWN, and on the 2003 reissue of Sound + Vision, respectively. These remixes, along with the album version of “Pallas,” were also released as a digital EP in 2010. A live version of “Pallas,” recorded at Club Paradiso in Amsterdam on 10 June 1997, was issued as the B-side of “Seven Years in Tibet” that same August (it’s also on the revised Sound + Vision).

* As Watson noted, it helped that Arista at the time was loaded with money (dropping £10,000 to hold a “rave” promotional party in the summer of 1993), thanks to just having one of the biggest radio hits of all time, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”

Thanks to Martyn Watson, a longtime blog reader and a very nice guy, for his time and his stories. If you have any more questions for him, I’m sure he’ll respond in the comments.

Top: Bastienne Schmidt, “Two Drunk Women, Puno, Peru,” 1992.