Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me

September 7, 2010

Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me.
Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me (live, 1974).

“Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” is an island of melody and reassurance on an otherwise diseased-sounding record. It seems to be playing the role reserved for cover songs on Bowie’s earlier albums (see “Fill Your Heart,” “It Ain’t Easy,” “Let’s Spend The Night Together”): a spot of familiarity in a strange landscape. “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” even sounds like a cover. Bowie chose it to lead off Diamond Dogs‘ second side, thus making whatever LP concept remained even more incomprehensible*; its relative prominence was likely a commercial move, as the song seems like a possible single (& a live version of it would be).

Co-composed by Bowie’s close friend Geoff MacCormack, who wrote some of the verse melody and chord sequences, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” was originally slated for the vaguest of Bowie’s mid-’70s projects, a stage (and/or TV) musical version of Ziggy Stardust. In Bowie’s interview with William S. Burroughs in November ’73, Bowie said he intended to create a “cut-up” musical performance of Ziggy. He would write some 40 scenes, which he would then “shuffle around in a hat the afternoon of the performance and just perform it as the scenes come out. I got this all from you Bill… so it would change every night…”

Like some Ziggy tracks (“Star,” for example), “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” refers to rock & roll as something occurring elsewhere—it’s more a stage direction than a description of the actual record. But the song’s also a fairly artless (for Bowie) rumination on the transactions of stardom. A rock star flatters his audience, thanking them for his fame, giving them in recompense a singalong chorus that puts them on stage with him for a moment. Performing the song in Boston in November ’74 (link above), Bowie broke off halfway through and tried to spell out his intentions: “This one is very much for you, this song…are you people? I’m people.” (“It’s about me, and singing,” he said during another performance of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” that year.)

By Bowie’s standards of the time, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” is a fairly basic composition and performance, from its “Lean On Me” inspired piano intro, to Bowie’s familiar vocal strategy (low and rich in the first verse, high and dramatic in the second, and in the chorus repeats), to the chord sequence of the chorus (C/E minor/F/C), which is the same as a host of pop standards, like “Kiss the Boys Goodbye” (it’s also a simplified version of “Over the Rainbow”‘s chorus).

Still, it’s not as warm a song as it first seems—Bowie’s lyric is ultimately ambivalent about his audience, despite his flattery (“they sold us for the likes of you”), and some surviving cut-up-inspired lines like “lizards lay crying in the heat” further confuse things, while Bowie’s brutal lead guitar playing eats away at the melody’s sweetness.

* A far more coherent Side 2 of Diamond Dogs would have been: 1984/Dodo/We Are the Dead/Big Brother/Chant.

Recorded 15 January 1974. The David Live version, recorded in July ’74, was released as a North American single (PB 10105) in September; it was a rush-job meant to compete with Donovan’s cover, though neither single charted.

Top: Elton John breaks in the piano in his new Surrey mansion, June 1974.