The Informer

December 3, 2015

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The Informer.

Starting as a reworking/development of the instrumental “Plan,” “The Informer” wound up with a dozen vocal tracks (all Bowie) and a lyric possibly inspired by Martin McDonagh’s black comedy In Bruges. In the latter, two Irish killers are hiding out in Belgium after a hit goes wrong; their refuge Bruges soon reveals itself as a Dantean purgatory, for both them and their boss (who shows up in the third act to wreak havoc).*

The verse lyric (built on strides between C major and a fluctuating G major (from a suspended fourth back to the major chord)) seems written for Colin Farrell’s character in the film, a neophyte hitman whose debut assignment is to dispatch a priest, with a young boy winding up in the crossfire. “I’ll be telling myself…that you brought it on yourself” (or see later in the bridge, “you were the prime assignment/ so help me Christ“).

By the last verse, Bowie’s character study has given way to broader speculation/gripes about God, Satan, Christianity in general (there’s even a U2 dig in the last verse: “I still don’t know/what we were looking for“), with Bowie in his well-worn role of addressing an absent God like a lover to be abandoned or a false friend that he’s cutting. It’s “Word on a Wing” four decades on, its singer having grown ever more embittered and defensive over the years.

As with the other Next Day Extra tracks, there’s the mandatory dose of self-reference: see the “Satellite of Love” backing vocal line or how the dramatic build in the bridge calls back to the climax of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.” Yet with its crackling, swooshing guitar atmospherics, brusque rhythm section, its backing vocal tracks neatly arranged like a set of miniatures, the compression and harsh brightness of the mix, “The Informer” seems like the end of a long run. It’s the feel of Heathen and Reality pushed to the point of exhaustion, with Bowie having a last go in a played-out style. He pulls it off with aplomb, but in retrospect it was the closing number of Bowie’s millennial show, with the lead actor already plotting to tear down the set and bring in a new pit orchestra.

Recorded: (rhythm tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, spring 2013, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 4 November 2013 on The Next Day Extra. Credits: “Crayon to Crayon” for some musical finds & I believe it was commenter “Dave L” who first noticed the In Bruges connection.

* Not even the first possible reference to Bruges in a Bowie song, as the Georges Rodenbach line in “Dancing Out in Space” could tie to Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte (which is very much the Bruges of McDonagh’s film).

Various business: Last weekend for the poll. As of this writing (Thurs. morning), 220 ballots are in and the top 2 songs are TIED, people. So vote if you haven’t already. Deadline is 8 PM EST, Monday 7 December. Poll results will be the week of 14 December: I’ll likely space the song winners out over a couple of days, and may do the top 100 instead of top 50. We’ll see.

Top: “Faungg,” “Bruges, Belgium,” 2011.


Like a Rocket Man

November 24, 2015

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Like a Rocket Man.

Given the new direction revealed in “Blackstar” and (possibly) its upcoming album, the Next Day Extra tracks now seem, particularly in the winning “Like a Rocket Man,” as a last (?) winking goodbye to the past, to the point where they barely exist as songs. They’re more bright coalitions of memories, in which everything from lyric to title to vocal to chords has an analogue somewhere back in the dead 20th Century.

“Like a Rocket Man” ticks off more boxes than even the other past-obsessed songs of The Next Day. The title’s a dig at an Elton John single Bowie had groused about being a “Space Oddity” ripoff from the day it charted; the verse melody is a near-actionable steal of the Beatles’ “Help“; the lyric references (again) the Kinks’ “Days,” while much of it’s a brutal recollection of what it was like to be a cocaine addict in the mid-Seventies.

As in “Fascination,” Bowie personifies cocaine (quite literally: “Little Wendy Cocaine”) as the consuming passion of his life in the Young Americans/ Station to Station years. His sunny top melody shines up his lines describing the joys of coke, its delusions, its agonies (“I’m lead, oh, I’m sand…I’m crawling down the wall: I’m happy screaming, yes I am!…I have no shape nor color, I’m God’s lonely man…I don’t want to die but I don’t want to live”). Of course, it’s easy to get lost in Bowie’s house of mirrors here: he’s playing openly with his own myths, tweaking the Coke Dark Magus Bowie tabloid image that gets drummed into service whenever a new album, single or biography is released.

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“[It] has a deceptively bouncy beat but lyrically it goes to more dark places,” Tony Visconti said of the track, “and this time David sings it with a cheeky smile.” And Bowie savors his rhymes: the consonance of “shaking hips and cuckoo eyes” and the title line; the triple runs of “doxy/ trolly/ poxy” and “anything/ dealing/ heaven sings.”

The feel, musically, is a brief tour through a shadow Sixties via the Nineties, with a latticework of guitars: a brisk acoustic matched to the dry snare/cymbal drum figure; a low-mixed bass; ominous David Torn atmospheres heard in the middle distance; Gerry Leonard’s wistfully arpeggiated opening riff (packed off after being played once) and the groaning, retorting twin-guitar riff (Torn) that stamps itself on the coda.

Bowie provides his usual backdrop of “commenter” backing vocals (Elvis-like low asides, a few Ronnie Spector tics), while his lead vocal, particularly when single-tracked, has the nasally timbre of a fledgling work like “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” with some raw-sounding grazed notes left in the mix (see the high notes on “just tooo-ma-row” at 1:25) . It’s a fitting performance for a slight bonus track that wound up being a secret wake for a half-century’s worth of personae and memories.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. July 2012, The Magic Shop, NYC?; (overdubs) fall 2012-spring 2013, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 4 November 2013 on The Next Day Extra.

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Pictures: From various chapters of Casanova: Avaritia (Matt Fraction/Gabriel Bá), 2011-2012. Things have come full circle: this book of Casanova was partially inspired (so Fraction says) by a look at “Pushing Ahead of the Dame” some years ago (Bowie fans will have a field day with the amount of references piled into this comic). So here we have it: the blog using for illustrations something that the blog itself played a (very) small role in. Yet another sign my work’s almost done. Thanks, Matt!

Also: don’t forget there’s a poll going on. And Happy Thanksgiving.


Atomica

November 16, 2015

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Atomica.

Ziggy Stardust was, in his creator’s words, a prefab rock star, a plastic rocker. Bowie tended to work out of sequence: he’d create something, kill it off, then look back in interviews and devise what his intentions had been. So Ziggy, he later said, was his fabricated rock performer, fashioned out of collective rock memory; he was a mannequin who sang on a few records and was soon dispatched.

Thing was, the sound of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars isn’t prefab 1971-1972 rock at all, with the possible exception of “It Ain’t Easy,” its bog-standard rock moment. Ziggy Stardust is shabby provincial music hall pop, shot through with bolts of Mick Ronson’s guitar, and lifting lines and sounds from horror movies, Fifties novelty singles, Beat poets and Kubrick films. You could find Ziggy a clunk-work of irreconcilable influences, but you really couldn’t argue it was “plastic.” It sounded too snippy and weird; it’s unassimilable. Even today, when “Suffragette City” turns up on a Pandora “Classic Rock” playlist, it stands out from “Lay Down Sally” or “Whipping Post” or what have you. It sounds like a vicious knock-off of classic rock standards: a track scrapped together by feral theater kids who managed to snare an ace guitarist and a Moog.

It’s one of the central ironies of Bowie’s work. Even when he tried to create mediocre, keep-your-head-down music, he kept making stuff that couldn’t quite pass. His mannequins would bother and even unnerve shoppers. “Shake It” is pretty dire 1983 R&B, but it wouldn’t have passed muster on many R&B stations of the time—its odd lyric, which Bowie seems to lovingly mock as he sings it, stringing phrases across bars; its fanatic castrati backing vocals; its lumpen rhythms.

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On a bonus track released in 2013, Bowie seemed to pull off the trick at last. “Atomica” begins as simulacrum, drawing from the past three decades of music without grounding itself in any. Its opening 30 seconds could play anywhere—an Urban Outfitters, a Cheesecake Factory, or in the background of a home improvement show or a Korean cartoon—and wouldn’t draw attention. The lead guitar riff, nicely keeping in bounds; the tastefully popped bass; the seemingly programmed cymbal fill; the first lines—I’m just a rock star, stabbing away. All safely anonymous, as is the refrain, whose lyric seems to have been generated by bots.

But by the refrain, things have started going awry. Bowie jams twice as many syllables as should fit into his verse lines (“when-you’re-head-o-ver-heels-and-the-magic-is-there-but-im-POSS-i-ble–POSS-i-BLE”). He sings “police” like “puh-leeze,” rhymes “covered-up pool” with “purple tulle.” And after the second refrain, the track sinks into a hole of fixation, with Bowie moaning that “I….hold myself…like a god,” over and over again, until he looks ready to abandon the song. Snare drum fills and synthetic strings don’t rouse him. It takes the opening guitar riff, working as a defibrillator. “Atomica” marches out in its crooked way, stamped as yet another Bowie song.

“Atomica” started in the first wave of Next Day sessions in May 2011 (Gail Ann Dorsey’s on bass) but it needed more work, Tony Visconti said. Released as one of the Extras, it shares with its fellow bonus tracks a cheekiness, a sense of randomly-aimed parody, a labored looseness. “How others must see the faker,” Bowie once sang. But he was never a good faker, it turned out. He was the sort of counterfeiter who couldn’t resist altering whatever piece he was fabricating, so that any close look would reveal a forgery with its own strange intentions.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, early 2013, The Magic Shop, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 4 November 2013 on The Next Day Extra.

Top: Paramore, live in Dallas, 27 October 2013 (Antiquiet).


Born In a UFO

November 6, 2015

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Born In a UFO.

Half a year after Bowie’s surprise return, it turned out that the surprise return wasn’t quite done yet. The Next Day Extra, announced in September 2013, offered four new tracks, along with compiling previous bonus tracks and remixes. It was, cynically, a means to get fans to buy the album again and, generously, a way for Bowie to get more songs out, rather than letting them languish for decades in his vaults, like all the alleged Lodger outtakes.

So what was The Next Day Extra? How should it be considered? As a new EP? As a digestif for an overstuffed album? As just more ones and zeroes sent into the ether, more disconnected music for a time when sequenced albums are antiquated?

The Extra tracks were mainly cut during the Next Day sessions but had needed more time to cook, Tony Visconti said, with further overdubs done in early 2013. But they didn’t sound too labored over. If anything united the Extra tracks, it was a sense of Bowie letting his hair down. No longer having to establish the Back-From-the-Dead Bowie, he could sneak out a couple of loopy, SF-themed songs that few people (relatively) would ever hear. Sharing an overbearing, blotto production aesthetic, the four Extra tracks now seem, with two years’ distance, to be a brief loud party held before the next scene change.

“Born In a UFO” is a case in point: a cracked parody of Bruce Springsteen (obviously in its refrain, but the verse melody also has a pinch of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint In the City“), with a Dylan nod (“‘there’s no direction home,’ she pleads”) and even some of Toni Basil’s “Mickey” in the rising keyboard lines (played by Bowie). A homage to SF serials Bowie had watched as a boy in Beckenham and Fifties novelty songs like the Earth Boys’ “Space Girl,”, it’s also a workable metaphor for falling in love with the “right” person at last: she or he can seem like they fell out of a spaceship one day, sent here to upend your life.

Zachary Alford said the song began as a reworking of a “leftover from Lodger,” (though there’s a chance he was recalling another song whose title Bowie later shifted to the released “UFO”). If so, you can see a few common threads—“UFO” shares the gonzo mood of “Red Sails” and has some vague similarities, chord-wise, to “DJ”: more in its sense of movement, with three rising chords as a hook (F-G-Ab in “UFO”, Am-Bm-C in “DJ”). Visconti and Alford (or Sterling Campbell) hammer the hell out of things; Earl Slick gets the “Andalusian” guitar solos. Bowie plays a suburban loser made hysterical by lust, though more for his alien inamorata’s fashion sense (“an a-line skirt,” “her clutch bag,” “silver hair, trapezoid flanks” and, best of all, “I was so in love with her lavender vest!“). All she’s missing is a bipperty-bopperty hat.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. July 2012, The Magic Shop, NYC?; (overdubs) fall 2012-spring 2013, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 4 November 2013 on The Next Day Extra. Thanks to “Crayon to Crayon” for musical insight, as often.

Top: Maj Halova, “Žižkov Television Tower,” Prague, January 2015 (“there are babies climbing our rocket-like TV tower”). Maj has been commenting for many years, and it’s always nice to see her take on a new post. Thanks, Maj.

POLL POLL POLL: closing in on 100 ballots received so far. Plenty of time for you to add to the pile! Again: bowiesongs@gmail.com, subject line: POLL. Your 30 favorite Bowie songs, 10 favorite albums.