Something In the Air

December 16, 2013

99riotponcho

Something In the Air.
Something In the Air (Omikron sequence).
Something In the Air (Jools Holland, 1999).
Something In the Air (Nulle Part Ailleurs, 1999).
Something In the Air (Musique Plus, 1999).
Something In the Air (live, 1999).
Something In the Air (American Psycho remix, 2000).

I haven’t given that up, but it’s a dream; a dream that can come true. It came true once and it can come true again…And all the time I wander round this plot of land, and I still keep the dream…We all move on, all of us. You, you should have taken your chances, made the most of it—always make the most of it, never let go, it might be the only one, ever…I’m in another city. And it’s wonderful. It might be the last. It might be the only one. Any road, I’m not letting go. Make the most of it. I’m not letting go, not ever.

Ray Gosling, Sum Total, 1962.

I don’t think people take much time to look back these days. They don’t look back anywhere near as much as we used to, as I used to. History has receded into the distance, and so has the future.

Bowie, Uncut interview, 1999.

Ray Gosling died last month, a lifetime after he wrote an autobiography at age 22, Sum Total. As the title said, it was a short life tallied up, biography as a few jottings on a map. The moves and wanderings of the Me towards some point of definition, some lines of discipline. Gosling would spend his life chronicling movements, making films and radio documentaries, a life that he foreshadowed in the jittery staccato rhythms of his prose. The England I love is an England of constant change.

And in 1956 and 1957, in lorry driver caffs and in shabby pubs in shabby corners of towns, he felt a new change coming on. When he saw Rock Around the Clock in a Northampton cinema, when he heard the first Elvis singles at a “Yank pub” on its great German-made jukebox, it was the start of something. Everyone felt this—the start of the teenage thing. It was like the start of a revolution; coming in with the big noise right at the beginning of the whole thing.

It was a revolution that worked, he wrote. Pop, for lack of a better word, offered a new way of living that worked–primary passions, primary colours. The idea that the world could be new again, or at least that you could be; that the new was something actual, something real, something coming, unexpected. That tradition held no power over you anymore. That you weren’t fated to be your parents; you weren’t a serf. I don’t want to be ground down, Gosling wrote in 1962. Don’t drag me down. And when the bastards get their hands on you, you’ve got to fight them.

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Bowie was a student at Bromley Tech when Sum Total came out. Seven years later, when Bowie was running an Arts Lab in Beckenham whose aim was to “turn on” kids and convert their parents, a #1 hit of that summer was Thunderclap Newman’s “Something In the Air,” a fragile pop record that called for mass insurrection—block up the streets and houses, hand out the arms and ammo (“we’re going to blast our way through here!“)—with a Goon Show arrangement: its brass band and “Lonely Surfer” horns, its temporary cease-fire for a barrelhouse piano solo. (It was a Pete Townshend solo record in all but name: he assembled the band from his ex-chauffeur (John “Speedy” Keen); a post office engineer and Dixieland pianist whom Townshend had idolized since art school (Andy “Thunderclap” Newman) and a 15-year old guitarist, Jimmy McCulloch.)

As the revolution that Gosling had seen in its cradle seemed about to push over—a dusty world swept away for a clean one—there was a fatal lack of nerve. Or perhaps those doing the pushing woke up in time. “Something In the Air” captures the feeling of imminence that suffused the late Sixties, as Dave Marsh once wrote, but it also knows that nothing will ever arrive. “You know it’s right,” Keen sang, sounding like he couldn’t convince himself anymore, that he was more desperate to believe again than he was in the rightness of the cause. Time was tight. Pretty soon you’d have to start rationing it. “We have got to get it together…now,” a line echoed by Mick Jagger on stage at Altamont that December: “let’s get it together, people. Who’s fighting, and what for?” A girl in the crowd yelled back: “Everybody!”

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Bowie said of his “Something In the Air,” recorded three decades after the year of the Arts Lab and Major Tom, of Thunderclap Newman and Altamont, that “there’s a terrible conflict there…it’s probably the most tragic song on the album.” The song autopsied a relationship. A man tells a woman that he wants to love her but he doesn’t know how to do it anymore. He’d worshiped his life with her; now he’s an unbeliever. Bowie summarized the man’s plight to Gil Kaufman: “‘I can’t believe I’m asking you to go, you, my entire life. I imbued you with so many future inspirations.’ It’s terrible.”

The lyric, while clunky in places, was cold and precise about life in a dead marriage: We smile too fast/then can’t think of a thing to say. Mark Plati’s bassline, twinned with a synthesizer, paces the couple through their last days as one, ticking away the cold seconds and minutes. In a 1999 interview, Bowie said the future now seemed far away to him, that the world had a “present sensibility now.” The couple in “Something In the Air” live in this airless present tense, with no hope of movement. The song’s chord progressions are sets of arguing couples: a C minor moves to a C minor ninth and back, a D minor to an F major and back, an F#, reduced to an F major, sharpens again. Scraps of melody from “The Motel,” another Bowie purgatory, turn up in the pre-chorus.

You could stay, if you’d like, with this faceless couple, with Bowie playing his hand at being a “faux novelist,” in his words. A Bowie take on John Updike: middle-aged people having middle-aged crises. But there’s all this other information in the song: what to do with it? How its title references a long-failed revolution (“Something In the Air” wound up used for an ad in the late 2000s, the “revolution” now a faster mobile service). How Reeves Gabrels’ guitar calls up another languid ghost of 1969, Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross.” How Bowie sings the opening line, “your coat and hat are gone,” so that it sounds like “you’re cold and had a gun.” How buried in the verses is the jabbing guitar riff of “Straight to Hell” (“we can’t avoid the Clash,” Bowie regrets in the second verse), a song by another band of failed would-be pop revolutionaries.

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Or how its coda references Annette Peacock’s “I’m the One.” Back in his Beckenham days, Bowie had loved Peacock’s music; he’d had her signed by MainMan, he’d wanted her to to support him on the “Aladdin Sane” tour. She spent two decades making brilliant, uncompromising records and supporting radical movements. But even she, by 1989, was done with any hope of societal change: I used to be extremely optimistic. Now I’m more realistic about man’s ability to transcend his basic nature, or his basic conditioning,” Peacock said. “Unless people start becoming active, in terms of doing what they can actually do in their own sphere of activity (within their family, socially, within their circle of friends, whatever), yeah, there is no hope.

A failed marriage, a failed revolution, a failed world: they nest within each other. Ray Gosling’s revolution, the shiny liberating promise of Mod and Pop, was supposed to be fun. When the promise reached Thunderclap Newman, when it was caught up with the barricades and letter bombs, it was already too far gone, too weighed down by the muck of history. It was already a beautiful failure. But what did Bowie have to mourn? He’d never been much of a hippie and the counterculture’s collapse had been the best thing for his career: his public image in the Seventies was of the man who came after everything went south.

Perhaps having invested so much in the future, having been the future’s champion, or at least its logo, for so long, he was tired of it. The future hadn’t been worth it, after all. Let me go. Let me go back into history, let someone else for once offer some alternatives. His “Something In the Air” is a goodbye to failure dressed as a goodbye to a dead marriage; it’s a goodbye to the future and all its oppressive what-could-bes. Danced with you too long, Bowie sings. Nothing left to save. Let’s take what we can.

Bowie sings the song, especially its latter half, in a scraping, brooding performance. He seems to be singing under the melody that he wrote; he distorts his voice on some lines via a ring modulator, making him sound like a radio signal cutting out. He sounds deflated, mopey, spent: he’s the sad Pierrot again. It’s a happily married man mourning a fictional lifeless marriage, it’s a reflection on a lost revolution by someone who kept far away from the barricades: fittingly it’s one of the songs his band of video-game rebels performs in Omikron. It’s a song carved out of old dreamers’ songs (recall how much Bowie uses “dreamers” as a motif on this record) but it has no dreams in it. Goodbye 20th Century.

Recorded April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios and Chung King Studios, NY. A Mark Plati remix appeared on the American Psycho soundtrack. Performed live only twice, in 1999.

Top: “Go Jake,” “Riot Police with Ponchos,” Seattle (during the WTO protests), 30 November 1999; Gosling’s Sum Total; Terence Stamp, The Limey (Soderbergh, 1999).