Suffragette City

May 5, 2010

Suffragette City.
Suffragette City (BBC, 1972).
Suffragette City (live, 1972).
Suffragette City (live, 1973).
Suffragette City (rehearsal, 1976).
Suffragette City (live, 1978).
Suffragette City (live, 1990).

HEY man” is the first thing you hear after the engine-revving intro. It’s not the singer, but his friend or his roommate or his lover. It’s a flat, stoned-sounding, but insistent request—it disrupts the singer’s flow, gets him flustered. (The line pans from left to right speaker, as if the ‘roommate’ is buzzing around the singer.) The needling is just one of the singer’s problems. “Suffragette City” is a ball of agitation, the frenzied thoughts and speech of someone who’s sure he’s going to get laid if only things would work out for him, if his deadbeat roommate would just get the hell out of the house for once, or if his boyfriend wouldn’t mind if he just brought this chick over for a bit. “She’s a total blam-blam!” he pleads, realizes how ridiculous he sounds, and keeps going.

Bowie first offered “Suffragette City” to Mott the Hoople (Ian Hunter: “I didn’t think it was good enough” (?!?)) and then reclaimed it for the last Ziggy Stardust sessions in early 1972. While “Starman” replaced Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round” in the LP’s final sequence, “Suffragette City” is the latter’s true substitute—it’s a simulacrum of 1950s rock & roll, from the Jerry Lee Lewis piano line to the synthesizer subbing for a saxophone section (see below) to the fake ending that erupts in “Wham! Bam! Thank you ma’am!”, a line Bowie stole from a Charles Mingus record.

But I wanted it back home on my stereo to slooshy on my oddy knocky, greedy as hell. I fumbled out the deng to pay and one of the little ptitas said: “Who you getten, bratty? What biggy, what only?” These young devotchkas had their own like way of govoreeting…Then an idea hit me and made me near fall over with the anguish and ecstasy of it, O my brothers, so I could not breathe for near ten seconds….What was actually done that afternoon there is no need to describe brothers, as you may easily guess all.

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange.

Bowie and Mick Ronson saw A Clockwork Orange soon after it opened in London in mid-January 1972, and while Bowie already had written “Suffragette City,” Stanley Kubrick’s film influenced the final track, which was completed in early February, as well as the imagery of the Ziggy concept. Bowie would open most of his “Ziggy Stardust” shows with the film’s Moog rendition of Beethoven’s 9th, while the droog-wear of Malcolm McDowell and friends inspired the Spiders From Mars’ stage outfits—what Bowie called in 1993 a “terrorist we-are-ready-for-action look.”

I liked the malicious kind of malevolent, viscous quality of those four guys [in ACO] although the aspects of violence themselves didn’t turn me on particularly…Even the inset photographs of the inside sleeve for Ziggy owed a lot to the Malcolm McDowell look from the poster—the sort of sinister looking photograph somewhere between a beetle, not a Beatle person, but a real beetle and violence.

(So “Suffragette City” continues the Kubrick/Bowie parallels (2001/“Space Oddity”), though the pattern ends here. However, I’ll give a no-prize to anyone who finds a link between Barry Lyndon and Young Americans.)

The whole idea of having this phony-speak thing—mock Anthony Burgess-Russian speak that drew on Russian words and put them into the English language, and twisted old Shakespearean words around—this kind of fake language…fitted in perfectly with what I was trying to do in creating this fake world or this world that hadn’t happened yet. (Bowie, 1993).

Burgess’ nadsat dialect in Clockwork Orange turns up in Bowie’s lyric (“say droogie don’t crash here!”), while another influence is the hard-boiled SF patois of William Burroughs novels like Nova Express and Naked Lunch (the whole concept of a “Suffragette City” is very Burroughsian). I wish the lyric was even more nonsensical—when I first heard the song, many years ago, I figured Bowie was just making up words out of whole-cloth, so it was a shame to realize “mallofied chick” was really “mellow-thighed chick.”

“Suffragette City” is a sex comedy more than it’s any sort of incitement to violence, while any glamour it has is second-hand, courtesy of the guitars. Rather than being a menacing, smooth figure like Alex in Clockwork Orange, the singer is an adolescent mess (he stammers in the first verse, repeating “I gotta,” and can’t finish his thoughts) and he’s at the mercy of everyone around him—his roommate/lover (“Henry”?) and most importantly, the woman who’s bewitched him, a woman who’s happy to toy with the singer and, best-case scenario, to use and dispose of him in an afternoon. (The “wham! bam!” ending suggests she did just that.) To the flustered singer, she hails from “Suffragette City,” suggesting a brave new world of liberated women who exist purely to torture him.

“Suffragette City” is in A major, and it’s mainly built around ascending chord sequences (A-F-G in the verses, A-D-F-C-G in the chorus) over which Ronson rules. His opening riff is another of his classics, brutal in its simplicity (mainly sliding along the D string, further guitar wankery here) and relentless in its power. The guitars are bolstered by the piano, which drums out eighth notes for nearly the whole track, and Bolder and Woodmansey’s rhythm tracks, which Woodmansey later said were tailored to be as streamlined as possible, a clean contrast to the vocal’s desperate sleaze.

Bowie had wanted a massive saxophone sound to work against the guitars, a design thwarted by the limits of Bowie’s playing. Rather than hiring a brass section, Ken Scott got a hold of an ARP 2600 synthesizer, “fiddled around until we got the closest sound to a sax as possible” and let Ronson do the rest. (The BBC performance cut on 16 May 1972, with Nicky Graham on piano, offers an analog version of the song).

Recorded 12-18 January, 4 February 1972. Released as the B-side of “Starman” and as a reissued single in 1976 (to promote the hits compilation ChangesOneBowie, which included “Suffragette City” but oddly enough not “Starman”). “Suffragette City” was a staple of most ’70s Bowie concerts and returned in his 1990 and 2003-2004 tours.

Top: A Clockwork Orange: droogs on the town; young Alex (Bowie: “instead of just having one eyelash I went the whole hog and had two eyelashes”); Kubrick shoots the Korova Milk Bar sequence.