The Pink Floyd Set

April 27, 2015

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Arnold Layne (Bowie and David Gilmour, live, 2006).
Comfortably Numb (Bowie and David Gilmour, live, 2006).

David Gilmour was touring in the spring of 2006 as a solo artist, as Pink Floyd, the band whose name and leadership he’d assumed since the mid-Eighties, was finally in the grave. “I’m at liberty to play with Rick [Wright] and Nick [Mason] any time,” he said in 2001. “But the weight of the whole Pink Floyd thing is something that I don’t feel like lifting these days…I just think I’ve grown out of it. Finally.”

He and Roger Waters had sniped at each other for decades over who “owned” Pink Floyd. Waters, the band’s neurotic auteur, had left in acrimony in 1983 and Waters partisans considered the Gilmour-led, still-platinum-selling Pink Floyd to be a shell of its former self. Gilmour and Waters buried the hatchet (at least for a night) in 2005, when Pink Floyd reunited for Live 8, but Gilmour used the occasion as a public burial for the band. There were offers of £150 million for a series of reunion gigs, but Gilmour was done: no more tours, no more Floyd albums.

In 2006 Gilmour put out his first solo record in two decades, On an Island, and it hit #1 in the UK (given the collapse in record sales by 2006, if you had any sort of fanbase, you had a good shot to top the chart on your album’s release week).* He played the Royal Albert Hall for three nights at the end of May, with a band and set list full of guests—David Crosby and Graham Nash, Robert Wyatt, Phil Manzanera. And at the first show, with no fanfare or pre-show hype, David Bowie walked out on stage to help sing the encores.

Gilmour said he chose his collaborators that night from “people I grew up loving…David Bowie might not have worked with Pink Floyd,” he said in 2007. “But it fits with me.” Afterward on BowieNet, “sailor” wrote that “I had a ball tonight singing with David Gilmour and the band. He invited me up to do Arnold Layne and Uncomfortably Numb.” (Bowie felt obligated to note, in a follow-up post, that the latter title was a joke.)

Bowie’s appearance at the Royal Albert Hall, following his performances with Arcade Fire the previous autumn, hinted that he was testing the waters for a return to public life. Soon enough would come the announcements: a new album, even a new tour, perhaps? Any day now, certainly.

BowieGilmour

We’re doing this for everyone who’s not here. Particularly, of course, for Syd.

Roger Waters, Live 8, 2005, before “Wish You Were Here.”

The encore songs were both Pink Floyd pieces: two points far apart on the band’s spectrum, though symbolically linked. Both addressed the man who wasn’t there; a man who, in two months, would finally die, though he’d left the world far earlier.

“Comfortably Numb” is a moment of grace on Waters’ misanthropic The Wall, perhaps in part because Gilmour wrote most of the music. Its lyric was pure Waters: isolation as defense mechanism, using dope-induced quietude to find a lost, better self, exalted self-pity. The B minor verses found Waters in a favorite role as a manipulative bureaucrat—here, a doctor trying to revive the catatonic “Pink” and get him functioning enough to perform (inspiration came from Waters getting a tranquilizer injection before a show during the Animals tour). The Gilmour-sung D major refrain was the release, the needle hitting the vein, the clouds lifting for a moment.

Behind it all was Syd Barrett. Was there ever more heartbroken a band than Pink Floyd? Spending decades mourning a man who’d left them, making album after album in his image. “Brain Damage,” “Wish You Were Here,” “Comfortably Numb” were all Waters trying to contact his lost boyhood friend, to try to see the world as he imagined Barrett did. Barrett’s continued presence on the margins was a rebuke: the fact that he kept on living and enduring (“[Syd] found his own mind so absorbing that he didn’t want to be distracted,” his sister Rosemary Barrett said after his death), that he didn’t need Pink Floyd a tenth as much as they apparently needed him. “When people called [Syd] a recluse they were really only projecting their own disappointment. He knew what they wanted but he wasn’t willing to give it to them,” as Rosemary Barrett said.

Bowie struggled to find his footing in “Comfortably Numb,” in part because he was miscast for the verses. Given the near-conversational melody that Waters wrote to fit his cracked recorder of a voice (it started as something of a Dylan parody, as a studio demo shows), Bowie elevated his phrasings and wound up worrying his way through the song; he’s a doctor who knows he’s a quack.

But before that he’d sung “Arnold Layne,” Pink Floyd’s first single, a Barrett masterpiece. Though it was recorded after Bowie had cut his first album, “Arnold Layne” distilled the latter—Bowie’s little bombardier, cross-dressing barkeep and Uncle Arthur are the children of Barrett’s knicker-thief and jailbird Arnold. Bowie’s songs share Barrett’s empathy for his oddball, his knowledge that there’s little separating him from the official freaks of the world—why can’t you see? Barrett had sung to a silent England. Like “Waiting for the Man,” “Arnold Layne” could seem like a song that Bowie wished he’d written, to the point where he named his “fake” rock band the Arnold Corns in homage to it. Finally singing “Arnold Layne” here, at the apparent end of his stage career, came off as an intro melody reappearing in a closing movement.

Bowie savored the song’s Mockney rhymes (“now ‘ees CORT/a nahsty SORT,” “LAYNE..had a STRAYNGE ‘obby” (see his “The Supermen”: “straynge gaymes thay would play”) and he jibed the refrains. “Takes two to know! TWO to KNOW!” flashing a V-for-victory sign. The freaks and the oddballs had won out, or at least they’d persevered, if keeping to their own worlds, as Syd had. By 2006, Arnold Layne had become a late 20th Century saint: Bowie, Gilmour and Richard Wright sang his name over and over again in tribute.

Two months after this performance, Barrett died of complications related to diabetes. Wright died of cancer in 2008. Gilmour keeps on; he revived Pink Floyd one last time in 2014 for a scrap reclamation effort; he’s got a new album coming this year, it’ll probably hit #1. Waters tours The Wall endlessly (it’s lasted longer now than the old Berlin one). And David Bowie has never performed live in Britain again.

Recorded 29 May 2006, RAH, London. “Arnold Layne” was released 25 December 2006 as a UK/European single (EM 717), with Bowie and Rick Wright’s versions of the song and Gilmour’s take on “Dark Globe.” “Arnold Layne” and “Comfortably Numb” were released 17 September 2007 on the DVD/Blu-Ray Remember That Night: David Gilmour, Live at the Royal Albert Hall.

* For instance, see other one-week UK LP #1s of early 2006: Morrissey’s Ringleader of the Tormentors, the Strokes’ First Impressions of Earth, The Streets’ Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, etc.

Top: “Tom,” “South Bank Portrait,” London, 13 October 2006.

BOOK HYPE: As I think I’ve mentioned, the e-book version of Rebel Rebel‘s now available, for everything from Kindle to iTunes to Nook to Google Play. See the “electronic” list on the book page.

And I’ll be the guest of Evan “Funk” Davies on WFMU this Wednesday, 29 April, from 9 to midnight EDT. So tune in: there should be a lot of Bowie played. The show will be archived on Evan’s page afterward.


See Emily Play

August 10, 2010

See Emily Play (Pink Floyd, 1967).
See Emily Play (Bowie).

Syd Barrett’s masterpiece “See Emily Play” was one of the last songs he wrote for Pink Floyd. As with other psychedelic songs of the era, “See Emily Play” equated the images received by a mind under the influence of LSD with a child’s developing perception of the world, so its lyric centers on a lost girl (it’s never said she’s a child, though she’s very much a modern Alice in Wonderland) who could be having a bad trip; its chorus is a nursery rhyme, and the track is stuffed with a nursery’s worth of clatter, from music-box chimes to sped-up pianos to guitars that mimic clocks ticking.

Acid use had worsened Barrett’s fragile mental state, and he was reaching the point of no return by the time of “See Emily Play” (David Gilmour, his soon-to-be replacement, visited Abbey Road during its recording and was shocked by Barrett’s deteriorated condition). So the song’s pastoral is undermined by various ominous warnings—the image of Emily lost and crying in the woods at night, or the bluntly-stated “you’ll lose your mind and play.”

Bowie, when he covered “See Emily Play” for Pin Ups, followed this darker path, making the song a schizophrenic nightmare occasionally broken by moments of clarity and restraint. While Bowie sings the verses plainly, even languidly, the chorus is overwhelmed by a choir of ghouls (see our old friend “The Laughing Gnome” or “The Bewlay Brothers”): Bowie overdubs that were altered, via varispeed, to lurk an octave beneath his lead vocal.

Bowie’s cover is also a sonic tribute to Barrett, the one artist covered on Pin Ups who had been a direct influence on Bowie, from Barrett’s singing voice with its unaltered English accent to his fevered, shambling stage appearances (Bowie said Barrett was the first man he saw wearing make-up on stage). Mick Ronson’s guitar echoes Barrett’s own playing on early Pink Floyd tracks (take the descending, twisting lead riff of “Lucifer Sam,” which is close to surf music, or the harsh chording of “Astronomy Domine”). Mike Garson, on piano and synths, provides the color, while Trevor Bolder and Aynsley Dunbar’s backing is more solid and fluid than the original track’s.

The track ends with the taste of a sprightly arrangement for strings, suggesting either that the madness has abated for now, or that it’s become all-consuming, blotting out reality forever and leaving the singer stranded in a permanent dream (the psychotic varispeed voices bleeding into the final verse, eating away at Bowie’s lead vocal, suggest the latter). Despite its bizarre, garish trappings, “See Emily Play” is the only Bowie cover on Pin Ups bold enough to be nuanced.

Recorded July-early August 1973.

Top: Children, under stress since 1973.


The Laughing Gnome

September 28, 2009

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The Laughing Gnome!

Let’s come straight to it: yes, “The Laughing Gnome” is about a man meeting a gnome, with sped-up gnome voices (à la Alvin and the Chipmunks) by Bowie (as the Laughing Gnome) and engineer Gus Dudgeon (as Fred). For the chorus, Bowie and the gnome(s) duet. There are gnome puns, many of them.

It recently came to light that in 1995 Boris Yeltsin was found on a Washington DC street in his underwear, dead drunk, trying to hail a cab because he wanted a pizza. Many consider “The Laughing Gnome” to be something of an equivalent for Bowie. “Undoubtedly the most embarrassing example of Bowie juvenalia,” wrote Charles Shaar Murray. “Downright stupid, though perversely endearing” scowled David Buckley. “WORST SONG EVER LOL, know SERIOUSLY WORST,” wrote Techtester45 on Youtube.

Stuff and nonsense, I say. Instead,

Why “The Laughing Gnome” is brilliant

1. It rocks. The beat’s the strongest Bowie’s had to date. Drums, piano, bass, guitar locked in, with a thick bottom end. Rhythm guitar hitting against the beat. Drum fills that kick into the chorus. You could dance to it, and you should.

2. The puns. Come on, they’re not bad. Some are even inspired. My favorite collection:

“Haven’t you got an ‘ome to go to?”
‘No, we’re gnomads!’
“Didn’t they need you to get your haircut at school, you look like a Rolling Gnome!”
‘No, not at the London School of EcoGnomics!

It’s a quadruple gnome pun score! Eighteen points, plus a bonus one for making an LSE joke about the Rolling Stones.

3. Credible dark interpretations. Momus, a commenter on this ILM Bowie thread, offered the intriguing theory that “Laughing Gnome” may be about a man losing his mind, a schizophrenic’s conversation with himself. The storyline fits. The man’s walking down the street, hears a strange voice, sees a vision. Then he starts having visions at home. He tries to rally, puts the gnome “on a train to Eastbourne.” No luck. The visions return and multiply: there are two gnomes now! Finally, descent into utter madness. The man’s at home, believing his gnomes have made him wealthy and famous, but is actually curled in a ball on the floor. If you come close you can hear him whisper “HA HA HA…hee hee hee…”

4. Gnomic synchronicity. Pink Floyd recorded Syd Barrett’s “The Gnome” a mere two months after Bowie cut his “Gnome.” Barrett’s gnome is named Grimble Gromble and is more of a stay-at-home than Bowie’s. Both gnomes like their booze, though. They’re color-coordinated, too: Grimble wears a “scarlet tunic [and] a blue green hood” while the Laughing Gnome sports “scarlet and grey.” Barrett offers something of a general benediction honoring the other meaning of the word gnome, that is, “a brief reflection or maxim; a wise pithy saying” (Webster’s Unabridged 20th C):

Look at the sky, look at the river,
Isn’t it good?

5. The Gnome saved Bowie from a life of cabaret. “Bowie included the song in his ill-fated cabaret audition, with the assistance of a glove-puppet gnome.” (Nicholas Pegg; my emphasis.)

6. A bassoon is a lead instrument. And as Buckley notes, it’s playing a riff that, mutated, would crop again and again in Bowie tracks, like “Speed of Life” and “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).”

7. It’s a testament to a lost friendship. Gus Dudgeon, architect of “Gnome,” became close to Bowie over the course of making Bowie’s first LP, as while the producer Mike Vernon was bewildered by the end of the sessions (he basically gave up and let Bowie do “Please Mr. Gravedigger” on his own), Dudgeon had become Bowie’s eager collaborator and straight man. He recalled Bowie walking into his flat at Christmas and shaking a branch of Dudgeon’s tree in greeting. (“All the bloody pine needles came off.”)

For “Laughing Gnome” Bowie and Dudgeon spent days coming up with puns and experimenting with tape speeds. They even were proud of the single until the world told them it was a mistake. “For a brief period I enjoyed it, but then when the record came out and everyone said how awful it was I realized it was pretty terrible,” he recalled in 1993. (From The Bowie Companion.)

Dudgeon and Bowie eventually had a falling out, in part because Dudgeon believed Bowie owed him money for “Space Oddity.” But when Dudgeon was killed in a car crash in 2002, Bowie sent flowers to his funeral with the note “Farewell to the Laughing Gnome.” Because Bowie, deep down, knows that the track’s one of the best things he’s ever done.

Recorded on 26 January 1967 and released as Deram DM 123; on Deram Anthology. It flopped upon first release, but reached #6 in the UK when Deram reissued it at the height of Ziggydom in 1973. And the Gnome will rise again, one day.