The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)

March 21, 2013

hell

The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (alternate mix).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (rehearsal, 1995).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (The White Room, 1995).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (Taratata, 1995).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (Karel, 1996).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (live, 1996).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (live, 50th Birthday Concert, 1997).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (live, 1997).

Given one of the most ungainly titles in the Bowie catalog, “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)” also got a tough sequencing—the only song on Outside to be bracketed between character segues (“Algeria Touchshriek” and “I Am With Name”). So “Voyeur” can often be overlooked, especially by those wearied of the album by track 11, as it can seem superfluous, tilling in the same grim field as “The Motel,” “Small Plot of Land” and “Wishful Beginnings.

“Voyeur,” which Bowie wrote with Brian Eno and apparently cut in the latter Outside sessions, is the last of the Scott Walker-haunted pieces on the record (see the High Scott phrasing of “as the sooohber Philistine“) and it’s the last song in this survey which could have fit into the original Leon. That said, “Voyeur” also feels transitional, open. With its subtle devotion to rhythm (see Joey Baron’s tom fills, holding ground against buzzing insurgencies of electronic percussion) and the density and flash of its production—it has the feel of being a few Eno loops that flowered into something colossal—“Voyeur” points towards Earthling as much as “Hallo Spaceboy” does.

Said to be the perspective of Bowie’s nebulous Artist/Minotaur figure (see “Wishful Beginnings”), the lyric references various Bowie hobbyhorses of the time: body art, scarification, possibly consensual torture (“the screw….is a tightening atrocity…the research has pierced all extremes of my sex“). The chorus hook, “turn and turn again,” is a pre-millennial blues, suggesting that all this angst and bloody tribalism is just a reiteration, weak echoes of patterns from centuries before. The chorus line’s also a Dylan call-back (see “Percy’s Song”) while the song’s last line, “call it a day,” sings back to the coda of “Bewlay Brothers.”

As a performance it’s a group devotion to sudden movements–the “O Superman” vocal loops, Bowie’s stage magician phrasing in the first verses, Mike Garson’s inflictions on the treble keys of his piano, a propulsive bassline by Erdal Kizilcay and the song’s climactic, jarring key change, followed by a new, eerie Bowie top melody and the sudden incursion of Reeves Gabrels, whose guitar first obscures [edit: his own] twin-tracked arpeggios and then lays the track to waste over its closing minute. It’s the sonic parallel to an implied brutality in the title: Harry Truman’s declaration to Japan, in July 1945, that the alternative to its unconditional surrender “is prompt and utter destruction.” The A-bombs fell two weeks later.

Recorded ca. January-February 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. Bowie enjoyed playing “Voyeur” live, and many of its recorded performances are the match of the studio take. Performed on the Outside tour, The White Room (Channel 4) on 14 December 1995, Taratata (France) on 26 January 1996 (but possibly recorded on 10 December 1995), Karel (Dutch TV) on 29 January 1996 and during the Earthling tour, including Bowie’s 50th Anniversary concert. A live version from Rio, 2 November 1997, is on liveandwell.com.

Top: Dr. Gull makes a house call, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, From Hell (Vol. 7, April 1995).