Teenage Wildlife

September 7, 2011

Teenage Wildlife (earlier studio take, rough mix).
Teenage Wildlife.
Teenage Wildlife (live, 1995).
Teenage Wildlife (live, 1996).

Only last summer, a group was on the stage of a more liberal Manchester club; called Spurtz, they featured two girls who knew what they were doing and one chap who didn’t really. They weren’t much—noisy and atonal—but what struck me was that the lead singer, banging around in a lurex mini-dress, was drawing entirely from a vocabulary invented by Bowie. And people stood and took it.

Jon Savage, “David Bowie: The Gender Bender,” The Face, November 1980.

Around 1976, a few London clubs began having “Bowie nights,” where DJs would play Bowie records and clubgoers would come dressed as an edition of him. For some kids, it was the pupal stage before they became punks; others kept at it. By 1978, the main Bowie night in London was at Billy’s, where former Rich Kid Rusty Egan was the DJ and Steve Strange worked the door. As the Eighties began, the scene shifted to (and culminated at) the Blitz Club in Covent Garden. By then Bowie nights had gone from being an impulsive collective tribute to a competitive pose-off. Doing a variation on Bowie had become work. New bands were literally recruited off the Blitz floor, like Spandau Ballet and Visage, which Egan and Strange formed.

Bowie recognized his heirs, using Strange and three other Blitz kids one night in May 1980 to serve as mourners in the video of “Ashes to Ashes.” But his thoughts on becoming a influence weren’t always as noble, and understandably so. After all, paternity means that your genetic purpose is fulfilled: now you can shuffle off and die. There was Bowie’s notorious slagging-off of Gary Numan in the press, while he led off the B-side of Scary Monsters with “Teenage Wildlife,” the first Bowie midlife crisis on record.

Ironically, the lyric is something about taking a short view of life, not looking too far ahead and not predicting the oncoming hard knocks. The lyric might have been a note to a younger brother or my own adolescent self,” Bowie wrote of the song many years later, and in its most generous interpretation, “Teenage Wildlife” is Bowie’s bequest to his successors—be true to yourself, or at least to your favorite illusion; know that the crowd will mock your ambitions and will hunt you down if you have the bad taste to fulfill them.

Is fame even worth it, though? A kid with “squeaky clean eyes” is desperate for fame but he becomes a toy of commerce, just another ugly teenage millionaire, “a broken nosed mogul,” with nothing new to say. The “same old thing in brand new drag comes sweeping into view.” After that, all that remains is the fall: it’s a world of pop stars as a succession of Jane Greys, queens crowned and dispatched in a week. It’s a lurid, violent lyric, with its “midwives to history” in bloody robes, or the teenage millionaire left to bleed out on the floor and howl “like a wolf in a trap,” while his friends scamper past him, whispering to each other “he was great, yeah, but it was time, you know?” Or take the song’s title, a play on healthy adolescent abandon and the image of teenagers as feral beasts.

“Wildlife”‘s lyrical harshness is echoed by its structure. Much of the song is built on sharps: the opening verses first shuttle between G# and C# (e.g., “its promise of something hard to do,” “break open your million-dollar weapon and push your luck) then expand to F# (“blue skies above”) and D# (“new wave boys”). There’s a brittle, wavering feel to the track; nothing is stable, everything is on the verge of change.

You’ll take me aside, and say “well David, what shall I do?
They wait for me in the hallway.”
I’ll say “don’t ask me, I don’t know any hallways.”

The presence of Roy Bittan, recruited from Bruce Springsteen’s The River sessions in the adjacent studio of the Power Station, heightens the sense that “Wildlife” is in Springsteen waters, indulging in and undermining adolescent myth-making. As with Springsteen epics like “Jungleland” (which Springsteen was moving away from—The River was a mix of frat house anthems, re-imagined Four Seasons songs and the occasional quiet prediction of Nebraska), “Wildlife” has a loose, improvisatory structure; it’s as though Bowie is leaving enough space for whatever last-minute inspirations come to him. There’s not really a chorus, just meandering verses which only end when punctuated by the title phrase and a Robert Fripp solo.

Bowie sings the opening verse slowly and somberly, wringing whatever effects he can get from each phrase (the sudden swoop upward on “BLIND-ed”) but keeping within his bounds. Then, triggered by a brief Fripp interlude, Bowie unravels as he sings, summoning a different personality for each new line (he seems to be imitating/inspiring Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs on the first bridge), placing stresses helter-skelter on his words, forcing and suppressing rhymes. His bite sharpens, the song seems to feed off of him: the players drive at each other, the backing singers swirl out of time beneath him, until Bowie finally breaks the fourth wall, turning to the audience in exasperation when faced with the desperate vanity of youth. “David, what shall I do?” the kid asks. It sets Bowie off on an agitated monologue, as snarky as it’s paranoid (“I feel like a group of one–no-oh–they can’t do this to me!”),  spinning and spinning until he finally kills the verse off by howling the title phrase. The Fripp guitar solo that follows comes like a blessing.

Bowie said he wanted the guitars on “Wildlife” to be “a splintery little duel” between Fripp and Carlos Alomar, but the third element is Chuck Hammer’s guitar synthesizer (used to even greater effect in “Ashes to Ashes”), which adds an eerie choral tone; at times it supplements the chorus of Tony Visconti, Lynn Maitland and Chris Porter. Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis mainly keep their heads down, the latter two keeping a steady eighth-note pulse. And Fripp, in his most glorious appearance on Scary Monsters, essentially rewrites his lead work on “Heroes.” If the yearning, straining sound of Fripp’s “Heroes” playing suggested an unattainable perfection, his reworking of the line for “Teenage Wildlife” humanizes it, providing the comfort and strength that Bowie’s manic, badgering vocal denies.

“Wildlife,” the longest track on Scary Monsters, is a series of hard demands on the listener (Visconti said it took him years to like the song, having first considered it a misstep), and it can be wearying. It sounds as though two decades of pop music cues were pulped within its vague confines—the Ronettes vocal hooks, the guitar heroics, the pseudo-Japanese melody in the second bridge. If “Wildlife” was a bequest to Bowie’s successors of the time, it’s a poisoned one: there’s a vicious challenge in its grudging transfer of power, a cold judgment on a lesser future. It ends with the godfather chuckling as he walks past the corpse of his would-be inheritor: “the fingerprints will prove that you couldn’t pass the test.”

Recorded February 1980, Power Station, NYC; April 1980, Good Earth Studios, London. Played as one of the few oldies on Bowie’s 1995-1996 tours, a gibe to the latest heirs apparent. “I’m still enamoured of this song and would give you two “Modern Loves” for it any time,” Bowie said in 2008.

Top: Boy George and Steve Strange at the Blitz Club, London, 1980.