Ricochet

November 7, 2011

Ricochet.
Ricochet (portion of tour film).

As Genesis evolved from a progressive rock theatrical troupe into Phil Collins’ off-year backing band, the remaining trio of Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks offered a meager recompense: each new Genesis record, no matter how much schlock it contained, still had at least one “prog” track for old times’ sake. These mainly served to irritate new fans and disappoint old ones.

“Ricochet” has a similar sense of obligation, as it’s the only song on Let’s Dance to suggest Bowie’s art rock past. If “Shake It” is a trailer for Tonight (thanks Maj), “Ricochet” seems like a “previously on” recap reminding you of characters last seen five years before. (“Hi, I’m David Bowie. Do you remember me? I wrote “Joe the Lion” and “Subterraneans.“) The portentous”Ricochet” was one of Bowie’s favorite tracks on the record, though he later regretted turning over some of its creation to Nile Rodgers. “The beat wasn’t quite right. It didn’t roll the way it should have, the syncopation was wrong. It had an ungainly gait; it should have flowed,” Bowie said in 1987.*

That Rodgers, a man who likely blows his nose in perfect time, was flummoxed by “Ricochet” shows how awkward a composition it is. As no demos or outtakes from the Let’s Dance sessions have surfaced, it’s hard to guess at how the track developed in the studio (it seems like it was a struggle—the singer Frank Simms recalled “Ricochet” having the most difficult vocals to master). The final track’s bass and drums are locked in place, as if cast in iron. The drum pattern, nearly unchanging throughout the track’s five-minute-plus length, is a snare hit on the first beat (+ a crash cymbal on every other bar), two bass drum hits on the third beat and four triplets played on the hi-hat. The bassist generally plays four quarter notes per bar: low root, octave jump, two more low roots.

Yet there’s no weight or presence in this repetition. The beats quickly dissipate in the mix: the bass drum, altered and probably gated, is nearly interchangeable with the gated snare and the combination of the two sounds more like arcade game incidental music than any grim “march of time” that Bowie may have envisioned. (Only later in the track, with the appearance of Sammy Figueroa’s bongos and an occasional needling Rodgers guitar part, is there any variation). The rest of the musicians are colliding or turning up at odd moments: the saxophones seem to have wandered in from a jazz fusion session in an adjacent studio, Stevie Ray Vaughan ducks in only at the fade and the Simms brothers (and David Spinner) on backing vocals repeatedly go over the top, from the choral harmonies in the last refrains to the Manhattan Transfer-esque “RI-co-chet it’s-not-the-end-of-the-WURRLD” free-time tag.

Its title a possible play off Marc Bolan’s “Spaceball Ricochet,” the lyric is Bowie’s most ambitious on the record, though leaden and awkward in parts, especially the spoken lines (“Modern Love” is far more disturbing and cutting). A take on unemployment, the callousness of late capitalism or some jumble of the same, it offers either surrender or a vague humanist hope as a resolution. The title suggests that Bowie’s main theme is collateral cultural damage—a ricochet, after all, is what happens when someone misses a target, and there’s the sense that the beaten-down men in the song are just drive-by casualties of some broader game.

Bleak enough sentiments for 1983. But as with “Repetition” and some other upcoming “topical” songs of the Eighties, Bowie seems to have no clue as to how ordinary working people live, and so draws on plays, novels or newspaper articles for stock footage (“dreaming of tramlines, factories, pieces of machinery, mine shafts, things like that”). There’s more at stake in Bowie’s songs about aliens and supermen, more heart in the lines that Bowie pasted together via cut-ups. An artist whose primary muse and subject was himself, Bowie often went missing when attempting to plumb the common world, though this growing (and at times desperate) need for connection would drive much of his later work.

A fairly standard composition that travels through the basic stops of D major, its long bridge/refrain muddies things slightly with a suggested move to A minor. But “Ricochet” plods more than it develops, not helped by the identical chord progressions of the 8-bar bridge and the refrain and a two-minute draggy coda stalled in A minor. The nursery rhyme-like refrain (“march of flowers, march of dimes,” etc) is a simple three-note descending phrase, while Bowie’s vocal on the verses mainly keeps to his lower register.

I’ve no clue who did the Scottish [edit: Welsh?]-sounding muttered vocal cycling through the track—it’s possibly Bowie’s voice altered beyond recognition, but it’s more likely a backing singer. The closing line “who can bear to be forgotten” is a near-steal from WH Auden’s “Night Mail,” as are a few others (compare Bowie’s “Men wait for news while thousands are still asleep” to Auden’s “men long for news“). “Night Mail” seems key to the whole track, as “Richochet”‘s refrain’s meter is the same as Auden’s verses, and the former’s ungainly rhythm seems an attempt to imitate the sound of a juddering train.

Recorded at the Power Station, NYC, ca. 1-20 December 1982. Fitting  for its outsider status, it was the only Let’s Dance track not to be released on a single. “Ricochet” also inspired a series of sculptures by the artist Ray Rapp in the mid-Eighties and it titled an odd promotional short film, directed by Gerry Troyna, that documented Bowie’s Asian tour in late 1983 (in which he never performed “Ricochet” live—in fact, he’s never done it on stage). A highlight of the film was Bowie being ritually spit on in Bangkok (see here.)

* Bowie, throughout the Eighties, would promote a new record by first admitting the previous few had been crap. This 1987 interview in Musician, where Bowie tore apart Tonight and didn’t have much good to say about Let’s Dance, was done to promote Never Let Me Down, a record that Bowie subsequently disowned. See also: Mick Jagger.

Top: Alan Denney, “Stoke Newington High Street,” 1983.