Tumble and Twirl

November 28, 2011

Tumble and Twirl.
Tumble and Twirl (12″ dance mix).

Full of the rewards he received for his work, and seemingly without noticing, he exchanged passion for sentiment, the romance of sex for a tease, a reach for mysteries with tawdry posturing and was last seen parading his riches, his fame and his smugness, a sort of hip Englebert Humperdinck…Perhaps it makes sense. When Rod Stewart was learning the game, Simon Frith has said, the goal of show business was not to become a great artist, but to spend money and fuck movie stars. If it was necessary to become a great artist in order to get the money to spend and the stars to fuck, well, Rod was willing.

Greil Marcus, on Rod Stewart.

The first thought was a live album: Serious Moonlight. Take a breath, sell a souvenir record of a bank-breaking tour, recharge. Instead, five months after going off stage, Bowie was in a ski resort in Canada, making arguably the worst album of his life.

Tonight is perhaps the least-loved #1 pop record of its era. Its popularity was momentary: front-loaded in orders and going platinum in six weeks, the record’s sales cratered once it hit the shops and people had the misfortune to hear it. Producing a Top 10 single (“Blue Jean”) and a complete flop (the title track),1 Tonight is like the scrapbag albums that labels issued in the Sixties for their second-tier acts: a hit single buried in a mire of uninspired covers and bottom-drawer originals.

Bowie later called it a “violent” sequel to his cover album Pin Ups, but that’s revisionist history: Tonight is so scatter-shot, so lacking in coherence, so impeccably rancid, that Pin Ups is a brilliant concept LP by comparison. Created, if there was any discernible reason, to sate a vague commercial demand, Tonight was conceived, recorded and issued as pure product: a Bowie record as a software upgrade, or a new edition coffee maker. Unlike any Bowie record in the past, there was utterly no reason for its existence. But Bowie, now in Rod Stewart territory, was following a clearly-burned path—put out a new record, grind a hit off it, make a flashy video, get on the cover of Rolling Stone again; sell, sell, sell again; repudiate your sins at your leisure.

The Tonight sessions were desultory by Bowie standards, dragging out for over five weeks and producing only nine releasable tracks. As with Let’s Dance, Bowie outsourced much of the music to his producers and studio guns, showing up at Le Studio to record a vocal or to throw the I Ching to determine whether a mix was finished.

Keeping to the Rod Stewart formula, Bowie had decided from the start to replicate the sound of his most recent hits, as it was what fans were expecting. But while retaining much of the Let’s Dance crew (one Simms brother, the “Borneo Horns,” the rhythm section of Carmine Rojas, Omar Hakim and Sammy Figueroa), Bowie dispensed with Nile Rodgers. Bowie had never been enamored with sidemen who got a substantial share of the credit, and more than one article had described Let’s Dance as the sound of Rodgers making Bowie relevant again.

To replace Rodgers, Bowie recruited Derek Bramble, the bassist of the British disco group Heatwave.2 Bramble was an inventive bassist but a neophyte producer—Tonight would be his first major album. As insurance (which he would need to use), Bowie got Hugh Padgham, who had just produced the Police’s massive Synchronicity, to engineer the sessions, and hired back Carlos Alomar as a sous-chef of sorts.

Bramble compensated for his lack of experience by covering his bases and second-guessing himself and his crew, asking for retake after retake of perfectly usable vocals and rhythm tracks (this was especially irritating for Bowie, master of the one- or two-take vocal). Alomar was blunt when interviewed by David Buckley: Bramble “was a nice guy, but he didn’t know jack-shit about producing.” By halfway through the sessions, Bramble was gone, with Padgham getting a battlefield promotion. Bowie asked him to salvage the record and mix it.

But by then, Padgham was frustrated by Bowie’s apparent indifference to his own material. Bowie had showed up fairly prepared for the sessions, having demoed about eight new songs (Alomar was stunned—this was the most prep work he’d ever seen Bowie do for an album), some of which were just known as track numbers. But as the sessions went on, Bowie seemed less and less inclined to work off the demos, which Padgham described as being bluesy and “raunchy” roughs, instead doing a series of covers that ranged from the explicable (the various Iggy Pop songs) to the left-field (“I Keep Forgetting”) to the baffling (“God Only Knows”).

Of the handful of original songs written for Tonight, the oldest was “Tumble and Twirl,” a collaboration between Bowie and Iggy Pop, their first in five years.

Pop had been in freefall since last encountered in this survey (“Play it Safe”). The twin commercial disasters of Soldier and Party had finished off his Arista contract; Pop seems to have intentionally ruined Party, for which he recorded bizarre dreck like “Happy Man” and covers of “Sea of Love” and “Time Won’t Let Me” (in retrospect, this really seems like the template for Tonight).

His commercial prospects shot, Pop took to the road whenever he could (Alomar joined a Pop tour in late 1981, and even by his jaded standards, Alomar was shocked at the debauchery on display (“at one point, I think [Pop] took a shit on stage right behind the speakers,” he told Paul Trynka). Things calmed briefly in 1982 with the completion of a half-decent record, the Chris Stein-produced Zombie Birdhouse, and Pop and his girlfriend Esther Friedmann went to Haiti on vacation. There Pop antagonized a local voodoo priest by dancing during a ceremony; the pair lost all of their money (Pop giving most of it away to locals), forcing Friedmann to work as a back-alley dentist’s assistant; they were nearly killed in a car crash; menacing strangers kept showing up at their house. Friedmann tried several times to get an ailing Pop off the island, with the pair failing to catch their plane in increasingly strange ways. (More in Trynka’s Open Up and Bleed).

Then in 1983, the cash began to come in. The success of Bowie’s “China Girl” brought in hundreds of thousands in royalties to Pop, who was even starting to get money from the Sex Pistols’ cover of “No Fun,” and Bowie’s excessive covering of Pop songs on Tonight (five out of nine tracks have a Pop credit), is Bowie generously extending a line of credit with no desire to be paid back.

“Tumble and Twirl” came out of a trip to Bali and Java that Pop and Bowie had taken (with Coco Schwab and Pop’s future wife, Suchi Asano) in Christmas 1983. It was a celebration of a commercial jubilee year for Bowie, a luxurious recuperation for Pop.

Described as a 50-50 composition between Bowie and Pop, “Tumble and Twirl”‘s lyric owes far more to Pop (only Iggy would’ve rhymed “dusky mulatto” and “nylons and tattoos“), while the chords suggest a typical Bowie swerve—while “Tumble” starts firmly in E minor (the only chord in the verse besides D major), the bridge unsettles things with the appearance of a G# minor (swapped in from the parallel major), and the tumbling/twirling chorus is a constant churn of D-Em-C-G.

It could have worked. The idea of pampered Westerners in a corrupted paradise, a genial visit to a Club Med in Hell, was an inspired idea for a song and had a host of worthy ancestors, from Graham Greene to the Clash’s “Safe European Home.” And a few sharp details remain in the final lyric—the locals in their Playboy and Bob Marley t-shirts, the magnate’s mansion on a Borneo hill that pipes raw sewage down to the beach, the sense that the singer, safe in his first-class seat flying home, really has seen nothing at all: “Let me rise through the cloudy above with a book on Borneo.”

You could argue “Tumble,” as a track, is a broad, exuberant parody, the producers and players bouncing off the Jimmy Buffett trademarked “island” sound, swathing the lyric in self-conscious gloss and cheer. But as “Tumble” goes on and on, it feels that few people involved in the record are really in on the joke, and that there may not be a joke at all, with the track becoming a chamber of minor horrors: the “Bor-ne-oooh” vocal tag, the badgering horns, the supper-club singing on the bridge, with Bowie showing up eight bars in, as if he’d been visiting the john. Only Alomar’s tugging, nagging rhythm guitar lines and Mark King’s bass come through with any dignity.

Recorded May 1984 at Le Studio, Morin-Heights, Quebec.3 Released in November 1984 as the B-side of “Tonight.” The “extended dance mix,” released on the 12″ single, is a more endurable version, as some of the backing vocals are wiped.

1 In the UK and in some of Europe, “Loving the Alien” was released as Tonight‘s third single; it charted passably (#19, UK).

2 Even by the standards of Seventies rock bands, Heatwave had a lurid, violent history. Their first rhythm guitarist was stabbed to death, their original bassist was also stabbed (by a girlfriend) and left temporarily blinded and paralyzed, and the lead singer was paralyzed from the neck down after an auto accident.

3 “Le Studio” was an “environmental” studio opened in 1974 with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall (Rush cut most of their records there—footage of Rush doing “Limelight” at Le Studio was used in the promo video). Today it stands abandoned and empty, a near-forgotten casualty of indifferent time, as is much of the record industry.

Top: Brendan Haley, “Me and Dad in the Mirror, Salamanca, Spain. Summer 1984.”