October 28, 2010

Right (“Never No Turnin’ Back,” early take).

Near the end of Alan Yentob’s documentary Cracked Actor, Bowie is filmed rehearsing a new song. Luther Vandross, Robin Clark and Ava Cherry are gathered in a semi-circle around him, everyone glancing at their lyric sheets as though they’re actors about to go off book. Bowie guides them through the rapids of his call-and-response vocal bridge, and seems delighted and slightly abashed by what he’s done.

“Right,” the song being rehearsed, is the first of Bowie’s Sigma Sound tracks to work primarily as a groove piece, and so marks the break between the early Sigma recordings, which were basically standard Bowie songs with an R&B tinge, and the more committed funk tracks cut later in the sessions (“Fascination,” “Fame”). Where the first batch of Sigma recordings, like “Young Americans” and “It’s Gonna Be Me,” feature Bowie’s usual time shifts and rapid harmonic rhythms, “Right” is only two chords, twined back-to-back, played relentlessly through the song—and structurally “Right” is basically just a repeated chorus (with two sets of lyrics) interrupted only by a 16-bar vocal “breakdown” section and a guitar solo.

‘Right’ is putting a positive drone over. People forget what the sound of Man’s instinct is—it’s a drone, a mantra. And people, say: ‘Why are so many things popular that just drone on and on’. But that’s the point really.

Bowie, 1975.

“Right”‘s relaxed, circular feel is owed mainly to Carlos Alomar’s guitar line, which spreads out over six bars and mirrors the vocal. Willie Weeks’ bass and David Sanborn’s saxophone, the latter thankfully mixed down, churn the rhythm and offer supplementary colors, while Mike Garson, on clavinet*, dedicates himself to the groove. The blissed-out confidence of Bowie’s lead vocal in the first chorus is shaken during the call-and-response section, the singers forcing Bowie out of his comfort zone, making him make his case. Bowie cedes the song to them for its last minute.

First recorded ca. 11-18 August 1974 (a take that got out on bootlegs has “Right” in near-final shape, though Bowie initially sang the opening chorus higher), then recut in November-December ’74. “Right” ended the A side of Young Americans and was never performed live.

Top: Joseph Beuys, “I Like America and America Likes Me,” 1974. (Beuys’ most famous Action took place in May 1974, when he spent three days in a room with a coyote. After flying into New York, he was swathed in felt and loaded into an ambulance, then driven to the gallery where the Action took place, without having once touched American soil. As Beuys later explained: ‘I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote.’)

* Is Garson playing a clavinet here? Really sounds like one, but could find no evidence.