Saviour Machine

January 7, 2010

Saviour Machine.

“Saviour Machine” is The Man Who Sold The World‘s topical song, as computers controlling every aspect of society and (without fail) eventually weakening, conquering and/or exterminating the human race was a basic doomsday scenario in 1970.

This fear now seems dated and mildly ridiculous, a nightmare of the Great Society era. By the late ’60s it seemed that, at least in US and UK science fiction, world government and centralized computer control of the planet were just around the corner. Patrick Troughton- and Jon Pertwee-era Doctor Who (1967-1974), for example, was often set on a standard near-future Earth (say, 1985) where the United Nations is the world’s government and military force, while various Controllers and Supervisors run the massive mainframe networks that control shipping, the weather, the moon colonies, and so forth.

The massive growth of government between 1940 and 1970, with the parallel rise of the mainframe computer network (the idea of a “personal computer” seemed absurd to all but a few cranks), had only one logical outcome: with power continuing to centralize, and with society growing ever more complex and burdensome (overpopulation, pollution, wars, crime, etc.), only a super-computer would eventually be able to keep things running.

Naturally, however, even the computers would crack under the strain. Bowie’s “Saviour Machine” opens with a liberal U.S. “President Joe” elected on a platform of installing a computer system, called “The Prayer,” to end war and hunger. The twist is that while The Prayer easily handles the job, perfection bores it; The Prayer contemplates introducing new wars and plagues simply as a bit of distraction, and because it’s grown to despise its human subjects, chastising them like an officious Old Testament God.

As a performance, “Saviour Machine” is unrelentingly strange. It makes constant demands on a listener, with its complex time changes (it opens in what seems to be 15/8 time (more likely 6/8, see comments), goes to 3/4 (or not) in the bridges*) and Bowie’s eerie seesawing vocal, which seems designed to thwart anyone else from attempting to sing it. Even the song’s structure is odd—there’s only one verse, followed by alternating bridges and choruses (in the former, Bowie continually holds notes, draining the blood from his words, as if fighting against his song’s rhythms).

Ronson gets a solo after nearly every sung section—the first and third (at 1:28 and 3:08), each 24 bars, reuse the wordless chorus of Bowie’s old “Ching a Ling,” the melody first carried on Ronson’s guitar, then by Ralph Mace’s Moog synthesizer. Ronson’s second solo is a dance between Am7 and D, while his outro performance grows noisier and more manic as the track fades out.

Recorded between 18 April-22 May 1970, on the second side of The Man Who Sold the World. “Saviour Machine” has generally been forgotten, though Redd Kross covered it in the ’80s and its name was appropriated by a Christian goth band.

Top: The IBM 360, made obsolescent in 1970 by the introduction of the System/370.

* I’ve never been able to determine musical time—these are just guesses, and likely very wrong ones.

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We Are Hungry Men

September 13, 2009

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We Are Hungry Men.

On the oddly-sequenced LP David Bowie, sandwiched between the hushed, eerie “There is a Happy Land” and the saccharine “When I Live My Dream” is Bowie’s abrasive science-fiction radio play “We Are Hungry Men,” which opens with a frantic “BBC announcer” bewildered by cities apparently overpopulating by the hour, offers a comic-book Nazi rant interlude and reaches its insane peak with Bowie chanting like a Dalek, over shrieking horns:

I’ve prepared a document legalizing mass abortion!
We will turn a blind eye to infanticide!

“We Are Hungry Men” may be one of the more embarrassing things Bowie has ever recorded but it’s also a spectacular car wreck of a track, whose chorus is, perversely, one of the album’s catchiest. As with “She’s Got Medals,” it’s Bowie’s first crack at a theme that will preoccupy him for much of the following decade—here, messianic fascist political figures and the dystopias in which they come to power (“Cygnet Committee,” “The Supermen,” much of Diamond Dogs).

The lyric’s specific enough (people arrested for breathing too much air, etc.) that Bowie must have been reading some contemporary science fiction. So here’s a brief generalization on postwar SF, which you can feel free to skip.

Where much of US postwar science fiction is visionary, po-faced, curious about drugs, ultra-masculine and often rife with can-do positivism (Alas, Babylon offers nuclear war as a means of restoring America’s pioneer spirit), UK SF is far more pessimistic, full of ruin and doomed societies.

The UK of the ’50s and early ’60s produced John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (grains disappear, civilization ends) and John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (plague, then plants kill almost everyone) and The Midwich Cuckoos (your children are evil—they will kill you). Most of all, there were the great postwar British dystopians JG Ballard (Jonathan Lethem: “Ballard in a grain of sand — the visual poetry of ruin…the convergence of the technological and the natural worlds into a stage where human life flits as a violent, temporary shadow“) and Brian Aldiss. Aldiss, by 1965, had written novels about humanity being reduced to a bestial state and hunted by insects (Hothouse), human civilization as a generations-long sham (Starship) and the grim spectacle of a world with no children, only the aged (Greybeard).

So in “We Are Hungry Men” Bowie is working in an already well-tilled field. He’s also flashing on a hip topic of concern in the mid-’60s: global overpopulation. This would come to mainstream attention with Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb in 1968, but the concept was already in wide circulation before then. Images of humans packed like sardines in cities, living ten to a room in teeming high rises, are all over the late ’60s: the Star Trek episode “The Mark of Gideon” and John Brunner’s novel Stand on Zanzibar, both from 1968, being just two examples.

But the key inspiration for Bowie’s lyric may have been Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!, serialized in the August to October 1966 issues of the British SF magazine Impulse. Make Room! (set in 1999, in a New York City overrun by 35 million people) is better known as its movie adaptation, Soylent Green. “Soylent Green is people!” is a better catch phrase than “we are hungry men!,” though.

Recorded 24 November 1966; released on David Bowie.