Reissues: Panic In Detroit

March 23, 2016

Here’s one that didn’t get many comments back when, and whose lyrical scenario seems more true to life today than it did in 1973, sadly. One of those songs whose simplicity, drive, power and wit kept it in the Bowie repertoire throughout his touring years.

Originally posted on 10 June 2010: It’s “Panic In Detroit.”

Panic In Detroit.
Panic in Detroit (live, 1973).
Panic In Detroit (live 1974).

Panic In Detroit (rehearsal, 1976).
Panic in Detroit (live, 1976 (here’s to Dennis Davis)).
Panic In Detroit (remake, 1979).
Panic In Detroit (live, 1990)
.
Panic In Detroit (live 1997).
Panic in Detroit (live, 2004).

In July 1972 Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman came to Miami for the Democratic National Convention, and whenever they went out on the street, a mob of policemen followed them. Rubin and Hoffman expected nothing less: at the 1968 convention, the Chicago police had made a sport of clubbing and gassing protesters outside the convention hall. This time, however, there was a rumor that a camera crew funded by Warner Bros. would be making a film of the Yippies’ adventures, so the police mainly just wanted to get into the movies. Each one hoped to be the cop on screen bashing Abbie Hoffman’s head in with a club. There was no movie crew, so it was a peaceful convention.

The leading man of “Panic In Detroit” is a fading revolutionary/sex symbol whose last act is suicide, though he graciously leaves behind a last autograph. Inspired by Iggy Pop’s stories of the 1967 Detroit riots and the rise of the White Panther Party, the song’s last main ingredient was Bowie’s encounter at his Carnegie Hall show with a former classmate from Bromley Tech. This nondescript middle-class British kid had become a drug dealer operating out of South America; he’d flown his private plane to the show.

“Panic In Detroit” came as the New Left was devolving into celebrity personality-cult terrorism. The White Panthers’ John Sinclair (former jazz critic and the MC5’s former manager, commemorated by John Lennon on Some Time in New York City) and the late world-trotting revolutionary Che Guevara (whose Korda photograph, once an icon for radicals, now hangs in dorm rooms) were just the starting rounds. Now there was the Weather Underground, whose internal politics were those of a touring, squabbling rock group; Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang (Baader, who owned a Che poster, paid a designer to make his group’s machine-gun-and-star logo), and California’s Symbionese Liberation Army, whose kidnapping of the heiress Patty Hearst in 1974 was one of America’s most popular TV programs.(See Camper Van Beethoven’s “Tania”:“How I long for the days when you [Hearst] came to liberate us from boredom/From driving around from five to seven in the evening.”)

Political violence was a means of self-expression; revolutionary cells became performance artists, their various alliances with criminal groups a form of patronage. It was catnip for Bowie. In “Panic In Detroit,” he gave his provincial Che (late of the perfectly-named National People’s Gang) a backdrop of riot-torn streets and bloodless authority, the latter embodied by a cringing teacher and a student who runs to smash a slot machine in the chaos.

“Panic In Detroit” is also Bowie’s snapshot of the America that he encountered in depth for the first time, touring through it in late 1972: an America he spied through bus and limo windows and from hotel balconies: a country of empty spaces and fallen cities.

“There were snipers all over America, on tops of buildings,” he recalled in 1990. (There weren’t, really; Bowie was likely remembering Charles Whitman, who killed 14 people in 1966 during his sniper rampage from Austin’s University Tower, or even the “Scorpio” killer of Dirty Harry, who opens that film by picking off a woman swimming in a rooftop pool.) For Bowie, America had validated his imagination—the dystopic worlds he had been describing in song for years had turned out to be real places, filled with glamorous decay and casual murder. In Texas, Los Angeles and New York, he’d been harassed and even attacked by strangers. “It was really happening. Suddenly my songs didn’t look out of place,” he said.

Opening with a power chord riff, its monstrous-sounding tone soon tracked with another Wah-Wahed guitar, Mick Ronson shadows Bowie with bombing runs down the scale that end with thick clots of E chordal figures. In the refrain he needles Bowie’s vocal with lines that expire in clouds of feedback. Given leave to solo in the bridge, he sneers.

Working on Ronson’s behalf are a rockabilly Trevor Bolder bassline and a mesh of percussion. Emboldened by his conversion to Scientology and bitter about his paltry wages, Woody Woodmansey refused to play a Bo Diddley-esque shuffle Ronson and Bowie had requested, saying it was corny. Instead he played 16ths on his medium toms and punctuated chorus phrases with his crash cymbal (phased, like the backing vocals). So Bowie brought in his friend Geoff MacCormack to play congas and maracas to cook up a Diddley-style “swamp” groove. The track’s central pulse is MacCormack’s moves between high and low congas, occasionally muting the high conga for effect, as on the title phrase. Gliding between B minor and D major, “Panic In Detroit” descends into the maelstrom for its minute-plus coda, with Ronson’s pick scratches, Woodmansey’s crashes, MacCormack’s congas and the wails of Juanita Franklin and Linda Lewis sounding like a collective murder.

Mostly composed in Detroit during the Spiders’ first visit there (8 October 1972), “Panic In Detroit” was completed on 24 January 1973. A rarity in the last Ziggy Stardust shows, it was a regular in the 1974 tour (a live Philadelphia recording was the B-side of “Knock on Wood”) and in many later tours: Bowie played it up until the end. He also remade the song with Tony Visconti, Zaine Griff and Andy Duncan in 1979 for Kenny Everett’s New Year’s Eve show, but another remake (of “Space Oddity”) took its place in the show —this revised “Panic in Detroit” (with a cameo by either a Speak n Spell or an imitation of one) later appeared on reissues of Scary Monsters and Heathen.

Top: “Anarchistische Gewalttäter”: wanted poster for the Baader-Meinhof Gang, ca. 1972? “Beware! These violent criminals will make ruthless use of guns!” (GHDI).


Panic In Detroit

June 10, 2010

Panic In Detroit.
Panic in Detroit (live, 1973).
Panic In Detroit (live 1974).

Panic In Detroit (rehearsal, 1976).
Panic in Detroit (live, 1976, with the King Kong of drum solos).
Panic In Detroit (remake, 1979).
Panic In Detroit (live, 1990)
.
Panic In Detroit (live 1997).
Panic in Detroit (live, 2004).

In July 1972 Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman came to Miami for the Democratic National Convention, and whenever they went out on the street, a mob of policemen followed them. Rubin and Hoffman expected nothing less: at the 1968 convention, the Chicago police had made a sport of clubbing and gassing protesters outside the convention hall. This time, however, there was a rumor that a camera crew funded by Warner Bros. would be making a film of the Yippies’ adventures, so the police mainly just wanted to get into the movies. Each one hoped to be the cop on screen bashing Abbie Hoffman’s head in with a club. There was no movie crew, so it was a peaceful convention.

“Panic In Detroit”‘s leading man is a revolutionary/sex symbol who “looked a lot like Che Guevara,” as the singer remembers him (Bowie predicting the hipster Che t-shirt, and even better, the Che store). His old group, the National People’s Gang, has been wiped out, so instead he signs autographs, leads a few riots, and finally shoots himself, though he graciously leaves one last autograph for the singer.

The fall of the last revolutionary hipster is set in a post-riot, even post-apocalypse Detroit, with the lyric partially inspired by Iggy Pop’s stories of the 1967 Detroit riots. Yet just as influential was Bowie’s backstage encounter in New York with a former classmate from Bromley Tech, an unassuming, middle-class British kid who had become a drug dealer based out of South America. Bowie was taken with the idea that anyone, through stylish violence, could reinvent themselves into a famous counter-cultural figure. It was the glittering devolution of the American Left, epitomized in the Patty Hearst saga, the greatest show on TV in 1974 (Camper Van Beethoven’s “Tania”:“How I long for the days when you [Hearst] came to liberate us from boredom/From driving around from five to seven in the evening”).

“Panic In Detroit” is also Bowie’s instant snapshot of the America he encountered in depth for the first time, touring through it in late ’72: a country of empty spaces, fallen cities and sporadic violence. He told Musician in 1990 that one image that had fascinated him was of a sniper perched on a rooftop, dispatching random people on the street below him. “There were snipers all over America, on tops of buildings,” Bowie recalled (there weren’t, really, but Bowie was likely remembering Charles Whitman, who killed 14 people in 1966 during his sniper rampage from Austin’s University Tower, or even the “Scorpio” killer of Dirty Harry, who opens that film picking off a woman in her rooftop pool).

For Bowie, this America had validated his imagination—the dystopic worlds he had been describing in song for years had turned out to be real places, filled with glamorous decay and casual murder. “It was really happening,” he said. “Suddenly my songs didn’t look out of place.”

The power and drive of “Panic In Detroit” owes as much to Mick Ronson and the backing singers Linda Lewis and Juanita “Honey” Franklin as it does to any of Bowie’s scenarios. Lewis and Franklin’s long-held notes in the choruses give way to a series of sharp, echoing wails and shrieks in the coda. Ronson opens the song’s 8-bar intro with a fairly simple riff, but that’s not his game here—he shades Bowie’s vocal lines with menace, often pitting two guitar tracks against each other (like the minimalist solo he gets after the bridge), and plays sets of rapid descending scales, like the shift from D to E that ends each chorus. Woody Woodmansey’s Bo Diddley tribute (one of the densest, murkiest rhythm tracks Bowie’s had to date) is bolstered by congas and shakers. Bowie sings long arcs of melody in the verses, culminating in the title phrase—the verses and choruses bleed into each other, separated by a single bridge and a repeat of the intro riff. After Bowie’s last lines, Ronson and the rest of the band descend into madness.

Allegedly composed in Detroit during the Spiders’ first visit there (8 October 1972), “Panic In Detroit” was completed on 24 January 1973. A rarity in the last Ziggy Stardust shows, a regular in the 1974 tour (a live Philadelphia recording was the b-side of “Knock on Wood,” and it’s on later versions of David Live). Bowie remade the song with Tony Visconti, Zaine Griff and Andy Duncan (with a cameo by the Speak and Spell) in December 1979 for Kenny Everett’s New Year’s Eve Show, but their remake of “Space Oddity” replaced it—the revised “Panic in Detroit” later turned up on reissues of Scary Monsters and, currently, Heathen.

Top: “Anarchistische Gewalttäter”: wanted poster for the Baader-Meinhof Gang, ca. 1972. ” Beware! These violent criminals will make ruthless use of guns!” (GHDI).