Sex and the Church

December 10, 2012

zurich 93

Sex and the Church.

Sex I loved; like drugs, it was play, headiness. I’d grown up with lads who taught me that sex was disgusting. It was smells, smut, embarrassment and horse laughs.

The Buddha of Suburbia.

An open marriage of Prince’s The Black Album and Laurie Anderson, “Sex and the Church” is an intriguing, if far overlong, Bowie studio experiment. As Anderson did on “O Superman” (which Bowie later covered live), Bowie spoke his lines through a vocoder and then treated the vocal track, speeding it up and down at times. The backing track is a demonstration manual of Mountain Studios’ inventory of drum machines, keyboards and sequencers, and there’s enough space in the six-minutes-plus of playing time for a Bowie saxophone solo (later in the track Bowie offers a fat Eighties sax hook, as if he’d been listening to Sade or Michael Bolton records) and for Erdal Kizilcay to show off his chops on organ, trumpet and bass. As with “South Horizon,” weak beats hobble the track, while its lackadaisical sense of development doesn’t make time pass any swifter.

Bowie’s lyric took a cue from the struggles of Buddha of Suburbia‘s lead character, Karim, who goes through the book (and series) sleeping with whoever he can, male or female. A second-generation Indian immigrant, Karim is irreligious, unburdened by any sense of morality or custom, but the spiritual emptiness he suffers at times suggests that the “classless” bed-hopping of Seventies London was a culture unable to sustain itself. Hanif Kureishi’s next novel, The Black Album, delved into one unforeseen response to this: the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism in Nineties London as a means for some children of immigrants to regain a sense of purpose.

There’s nothing that nuanced in Bowie’s lyric, which is an arid musing on sexual freedom and spiritual responsibility, with the singer eventually coming to a happy humanist conclusion: Give me the freedom of spirit/And the joys of the flesh/And sex. Nice work if you can get it. Bowie closed out “Sex and the Church” with a callback to glam (the rave-up ending of “Jean Genie”) and some moans, but the whole production had a cold, disassociated feel, the sound of a virtual reality sex program punched up by a Philip K. Dick character.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux.

Top: Stefan Bucher, “Street Parade #2,” Zurich, August 1993.