Sacrifice Yourself

June 11, 2012

Sacrifice Yourself.
Sacrifice Yourself (live, 1991).

Although written by Bowie and the Sales brothers, “Sacrifice Yourself” is Reeves Gabrels’ show, the latter offering a performance as loud as it’s merciless and unprincipled. Given a slightly unusual chord structure* and a punishing tempo to work with, Gabrels begins by imitating an air-raid siren (veering from left to right speaker); he defaces the opening guitar riff with a wailing overdub, mocks Bowie’s two-note chorus melody with a set of exuberant guitar lines and, two minutes in, knocks the track down and throttles its life out.

Beneath the din (Hunt Sales fills whatever few spaces Gabrels has left open) is a three-verse Bowie lyric with some affinities to “I Can’t Read,” as its subject is a similar spent-out artist figure who’s become respectable, rich and empty, one who’s fumbling around for any sort of inspiration—God, or an eroticized death—which the chorus suggests isn’t worth it. Surprise yourself: keep yourself alive isn’t the most inspirational wisdom, but in a diminished, broken time as the Tin Machine period, it’s some form of solace. The last verse ends with a quote from “Suffragette City” and a collective moan.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. While it was initially downplayed—“Sacrifice Yourself” didn’t make the LP’s sequencing and was issued as a B-side to “Under the God”—it became a favorite of Tin Machine’s live sets.

* As “Sacrifice Yourself” is in A major, the B chord (II) here ought to be a B minor chord (ii). Instead, by becoming a major chord, B serves as the secondary dominant: the V chord of A major’s V chord (E, in this case). So much of the song, in both verse and chorus, is a struggle between secondary dominant and dominant (B and E): essentially a war between two equally-matched powers.

Top: Charles Peterson, “Nirvana, Bainbridge Island, 1988.”