If There Is Something

June 28, 2012

If There Is Something (Roxy Music, Peel Session, 1972).
If There Is Something (Roxy Music, 1972).
If There Is Something (Roxy Music, live, 1974).
If There Is Something (Tin Machine, 1991).
If There Is Something (Oy Vey Baby, 1991).
If There Is Something (live, 1991).

One of the great strengths of the early ’70s was its sense of irony; Marc Bolan was an extremely funny, witty man. There was a very strong sense of humour that ran throughout the early British bands: myself, Roxy Music, Marc. We really thought a lot of it was a jest, and I think that hadn’t happened for a few years in rock. Whatever came out of early ’70s music that had any longevity to it generally had a sense of humour underlying it. Like The Sweet were everything we loathed; they dressed themselves up as early ’70s but there was no sense of humour there.

David Bowie, International Musician interview, December 1991.

In the summer of 1972, the arriviste pop star David Bowie offered a supporting slot on his Spiders from Mars tour to a band that had been around for less than a year. So Roxy Music opened for Bowie at the Greyhound, in Croydon (where Bowie met Brian Eno for the first time). But by a month later, when Roxy was opening Bowie’s showcase Rainbow Theatre shows, Bowie apparently had cooled to them—denying them soundcheck time, snubbing their sets.

It’s not surprising: Roxy suddenly had become competition. By the time of the Rainbow shows in August, “Virginia Plain” was on the charts, reviving their debut album’s sales, and the band had become an intoxicatingly strange live act, whether trading fours on “Remake/Remodel” with synthesizer babbles and saxophone quotations of “Deutschland Uber Alles,” or offering a love ballad to an android that opened as a fusion of Xenakis and Debussy on a synth-altered oboe: it was meant to sound like the lunar landing.

Roxy Music was in essence what Bowie never quite had: a fully integrated band of autonomous brilliant musicians, with a central figure, Bryan Ferry, serving as ringmaster but also, especially on stage, as a supporting player. While Ferry wrote most of the songs and directed the band’s visuals, he had enough confidence to cede control of performances to his bandmates—Phil Manzanera, Andy Mackay, the fantastic drummer Paul Thompson—who kept him honest, or at least funny. There had been a limit—Eno, who made a claim to Ferry’s authority, was soon gone—but Roxy in the early Seventies was an ironist collective that could swing harder than any other glam band.

For Bowie, this was a golden ideal of a band—calling the shots, yet being constantly challenged by your collaborators—and in a perverse way Tin Machine seemed Bowie’s subconscious attempt to finally attempt this scenario. The difference would be, as Bowie admitted in the last days of Tin Machine, humor.*

Roxy had begun as a Pop Art project, with Ferry (who had studied under Richard Hamilton) taking an ironic, parodic approach to pop music. “If There Is Something,” off Roxy’s debut LP, is quintessential Roxy. It begins as an apparently straight-faced attempt at country music, with Ferry drawling and Manzanera offering sprightly asides on slide guitar. Things start to go “off” soon into the second verse—the lyric, which began in sentiment, becomes increasingly abstract, and echo is applied to Ferry’s voice as he starts constricting his phrases. A 18-bar solo follows in a “Southern rock” style, Ferry and Manzanera still wearing their cowboy hats, but with the arrival of a new, worrying motif (carried on sax and guitar) the song molts into a torch ballad. “I would do anything for you, I would climb MOUNTAINS,” Ferry wails, applying ludicrous vibrato to the ends of his phrases (“oceans BLLLLUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUE”) to match the gigantism of his lyric: he’ll swim oceans, climb Everest, and most wonderfully, he’ll plant potatoes BY THE SCORE (it’s a sudden reversion to the country song, now sung by Gargantua).

Eno’s synth takes up the guitar motif, Graham Simpson’s bass rambles chromatically, and without realizing it you’re suddenly in the middle of a massive 40-bar prog rock solo. When Ferry finally returns, it’s as yet another character, a jaded lover recalling an expired romance, a wasted soul man supported by an all-male chorus, a singer who threatens to pole-vault into an unexpected pitch at any moment. Again, the lyric is a series of one-up laments, the gigantism of the second section still here: the hills were higher, the grass was greener (when you were young, the singers keep noting, not anymore). “Something” expires with nothing resolved—youth is over, accept your fate—and a few mocking squiggles on Eno’s synth.

It’s an amazing song, a heartfelt and icy mockery of the conventions of a set of genres (it’s in part Ferry ridiculing the art rock scene that Roxy was part of, as the main solo seems like a parody of King Crimson), treating low art (country music) as a revered genre, while burlesquing academy-ready progressive rock music; it was funny, ridiculous and spectacular. In 1989, having assembled his own band of rivals, Bowie decided to cover it.

Their cover of “If There Is Something” is where a central weakness of Tin Machine was most obvious—the band could have a collective witlessness when they performed, despite the singer and guitarist both being intelligent men with a deep grasp of irony (Bowie even publicly said he loved Reeves Gabrels’ playing because of its irony, where Stevie Ray Vaughan, by contrast, “had meant every note he played.”). Covering a genre-parodist masterpiece like “Something” was an invitation to go anywhere—turn the song into a series of colliding sonic spectacles; rope in further and more outlandish genres; just play it completely straight and do the whole song as a country & western piece.

But no, Tin Machine just did what it always did: crank up the amps, speed up the pace, pound through it, leave the song for dead. Tin Machine was like a fully-equipped Maserati Gran Turismo which only had two gears—fifth and reverse. The allegedly anarchic band was here dull and reverent, even efficient: they streamlined “Something,” gutting most of the prog-rock mid-song solo.

The result, in the studio and on stage, was a fine, competent hard rock song, with Gabrels even introducing a hooky guitar riff in the latter section, while he and the Saleses abashedly sang the “when you were young” harmonies (the Machine had retained the song’s tripartite structure, but it was like a team assembling a Calder mobile with a set of Ikea instructions). Bowie sang the lyric straight-faced throughout, and when he tried to match Ferry’s insane vibrato in the middle section, he only sounded, like the whole performance, soured and ordinary.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, Studios 301, Sydney (w/overdubs throughout 1990 and at A&M Studios, March 1991). Performed throughout the 1991-1992 tour, with a version on Oy Vey Baby.

* Bowie had considered covering “Ladytron” on Pin Ups, a record which itself was direct competition to Ferry’s These Foolish Things. Ferry, like Pete Townshend, would prove to be an influence that Bowie never could get the drop on—Ferry did the world-weary rake far better than Bowie did in the Eighties, for example.

Top: JG Santos, “Grau de Castellon,” 1990-1991.


Drive-In Saturday

June 17, 2010

Drive-In Saturday (first performance, live 1972).
Drive-In Saturday.
Drive-In Saturday (Russell Harty Plus Pop, 1973).
Drive-In Saturday (live, 1973).
Drive-In Saturday (live, 1974).
Drive-In Saturday (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Drive-In Saturday (live, 1999).

The 1950s of 1970s pop wasn’t quite right and had a strange ambivalence…The style and content [of Glam] was rooted in an idea of pop musicians being mutants from the future who were trying to blend in with us by assembling “authentic” versions of period clothing and getting it wrong. They had ’50s shoulder pads and Elvis-like lamé suits, but also eyeliner and lipstick…the lyrics touched on clichés of ’30s gangster movies and Humphrey Bogart alongside spaceships, motorbikes, aliens and jukeboxes.

Tat Wood, About Time 3.

“The Fifties” were invented around 1972-1973. American Graffiti (which gave life to Happy Days) and its UK counterpart That’ll Be the Day were on screen; Elvis, Chuck Berry and Ricky Nelson topped the charts; The Rocky Horror Show opened on the West End and Grease on Broadway. The actual 1950s, in all their shadow, were converted into an Eden: a sparkling, innocent contrast to the weariness, grime and open sexuality of the early ’70s.

So “Drive-In Saturday” is Bowie’s ’50s pop pastiche, though as typical with Bowie there’s a twist: “Drive-In Saturday” is a ’50s song celebrating the freedoms of the subsequent decade, with Mick Jagger and Twiggy serving as erotic household gods. The premise is that a post-apocalyptic civilization, through fear or reactions from fallout, has forgotten how to have sex, so the kids watch Rolling Stones promos and old films to see how it was done.

It’s the first Bowie song to reflect the challenge of Roxy Music, whose first LP (and hit single “Virginia Plain”) had come out in the summer of ’72. The phased synthesizer lines owe something to Brian Eno’s squiggles and groans, while Bowie’s approach to the material—parodic, subversive, yet done entirely straight-faced—is similar to Bryan Ferry’s fractured takes on country-western (“If There Is Something”) and torch ballads (“Chance Meeting”).

Bowie wrote “Drive-In Saturday” during a train ride from Seattle to Phoenix in early November 1972. He was unable to sleep and, looking out the window at night while the train was somewhere in the desert, he saw a row of nearly 20 enormous silver domes off in the distance, moonlight dancing on their roofs. It intrigued him: what were they? Government post-nuclear-war prep facilities? Secret laboratories? (Most likely feed silos.)

As with “Oh! You Pretty Things,” Bowie’s SF narrative is a cover for a more basic human predicament—how kids, who typically have no idea about sex, have to improvise and fake their way through it, often using film stars and pop music as cues and instruction guides. The idea of groups of teenagers in cars, watching erotic films at a drive-in as though attending a church, is one of his sadder, more haunting images. Bowie also predicted that the Sixties would be enshrined, in the following decades, as the unsurpassed height of glamor and sexual freedom, and so used to belittle the kids who would grow up in the Sixties’ shadow. As much as the past can be warped to serve the present’s needs, the past is also toxic.

“Drive-In Saturday” opens with a pure period reconstruction: there’s a saxophone, swooning backing vocals, a basic chord structure in which the home key A steadily rises to the dominant (E), and it’s in 12/8 time (the standard meter for doo-wop, and used in other ’50s pastiches like The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling” and Madonna’s “True Blue”). The opening lines are a feint, too, offering timeless, banal romantic sentiments (“don’t forget to turn on the light/don’t laugh babe, it’ll be alright”).

Then things unsettle—a synthesizer splash in the verse’s seventh bar becomes a high, wailing note like an air-raid siren, while Bowie sings about “strange ones in the dome” and video-films. The second verse is entirely bizarre SF, with “Jung the foreman” gazing at the dried-up sea, worrying about fallout and guarding “the Bureau Supply for aging men” (Viagra?), The chorus, which changes key to G, is harmonically complex and time-shifting (so the two-bar “drive-in Sa-tur-day” alone is C/G-B/Am7/C-G/D-F#/D-E, with a move to 6/8 on “tur-day”).

The arrangement is typically intricate: take how the backing vocals often mirror Trevor Bolder’s bass (singing/playing three-note fills at the end of some verse bars, and making parallel downward steps in the long outro) or how Bowie’s vocal riffs off the saxophone, singing the same two-note pattern near the fadeout. The saxophone plays a sweet counter-melody to the vocal in the 4-bar bridges, while Mick Ronson’s guitar mainly serves as color: after his metronomic opening, he only rouses himself at the start of each chorus. It’s one of Bowie’s better vocals on Aladdin Sane, with Bowie first singing the title line softly, mainly keeping on one note, and then opening up in subsequent repeats, hitting a high G on “drive.”

Bowie introduced “Drive-In Saturday” days after he wrote it, playing it in several of his last ’72 American concerts. There are claims he debuted it in Phoenix, on 4 November, though the first surviving concert recording is from Bowie’s 17 November show at Pirate’s World, near Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. (Another recording, from Cleveland on 25 November, is on the 30th anniversary reissue of Aladdin Sane). He sang it alone on acoustic guitar, introducing it as “a song from the year 2033.” There are conflicting stories about whether he offered “Drive-In Saturday” to Mott the Hoople, with some claiming that Bowie soon rescinded the offer, others that Ian Hunter rejected it.

Recorded in New York on 9 December 1972, and issued as Aladdin Sane‘s second single (RCA 2352, c/w “Round and Round’). While it was one of Bowie’s highest-charting UK hits (#3), “Drive-In Saturday” was rejected as a single by RCA’s US division (which weirdly chose to issue “Time” instead). So “Drive-In Saturday” became something of a lost single for Bowie,  not included on any greatest-hits compilation until the ’90s. A shame, as it’s one of the finer songs he wrote in the period.

Top: Elvis Presley takes Mary Kathleen Selph for a ride, Memphis, 30 June 1972. (She was killed in an auto accident 18 days later.)