TVC 15

December 7, 2010

TVC 15.
TVC 15 (rehearsal, 1976).
TVC 15 (live, 1976).
TVC 15 (live (video fragment), 1976).
TVC 15 (live, 1978).

TVC 15 (Saturday Night Live, with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, 1979).
TVC 15 (Live Aid, 1985).

The strange thing about television is that it doesn’t tell you everything. It shows you everything about life on Earth, but the true mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s in the nature of television. Just waves in space.

Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), The Man Who Fell To Earth.

And, in her living room, her husband sat before the TV set, an enraptured child, listening to, following with devout attention, the nightly report from Whale’s Mouth. Watching the new, the next world.

Philip K. Dick, Lies, Inc.

“TVC 15” is an avant-garde novelty song, a joke delivered in a series of abrasions. Bowie’s mordant sense of humor hasn’t been this visible since Hunky Dory. Inspired by Iggy Pop’s dream of a TV devouring his girlfriend, “TVC 15” also likely came out of Bowie’s work on The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie’s extraterrestrial character fills rooms with televisions, sometimes a dozen, and sits watching them all, each on a different channel (an image lifted by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons for Watchmen a decade later).

Despite the references to quadraphonic sound and hologramic televisions, “TVC 15” is at heart a parody of the ’50s-’60s teenage death ballad, with the same scenario as “Teen Angel,” “Endless Sleep” or “Last Kiss”: the narrator recalls how his girl perished, usually in some horrible, inexplicable way, and now he’s all alone, wondering whether or not to join her in death.

So in “TVC 15” the singer brings his girlfriend over to watch his new TV set, which at first bores her, then transfixes her, then consumes her: she crawls in through the screen, and he’s left with the choice of mourning her forever or “jump[ing] down that rainbow way” himself. The teen death song usually offers some reassurance from the afterlife—the dead girlfriend calling the boy’s name, etc.—but here the TVC 15 “just stares back unblinking.”My baby’s in there someplace,” is the singer’s meager hope.

Bowie, playing the revivalist, outfits the track in early rock ‘n’ roll trappings, from the I-IV-V chord progression of its verses (with F minor swapped in for F in a bar, when Bowie first sings “TVC 15”) to Roy Bittan’s piano, seemingly airlifted from ’50s New Orleans (Robert Christgau once described “TVC 15” as Huey “Piano” Smith & the Clowns crossed with Lou Reed), to an opening “oh-OH-oh-OH-OH” line nicked from the Yardbirds’ “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.”

The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right…It grows you any shape it wishes. It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is the truth.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451.

Television as a malevolent artificial intelligence, offering a more compelling reality than the actual one, is nearly as common as UFOs in postwar science-fiction—take the four-wall TV “parlors” and their besotted viewers in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or the demagogic/theocratic TV talk show hosts who populate Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron and Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Dick’s work in particular is full of associations of TV with grotesque evil, such as the gruesome passage in Lies, Inc. where a politician on TV transforms into a monster who consumes a series of eyeballs.)

Sure, some of it was just SF novelists belittling the new competition, but these books generally predicted how the 20th Century would play out. Before few others, writers like Bradbury sensed that television, far from being a modest evolution from radio and film, was a radically new creation, one that would rewire the human brain (though TV seems, in retrospect, to have just been pre-op for the Internet’s more aggressive surgery), would erode the old verities and would remake society in its own circus-house image. This transformation is what the human race, apparently, had always wanted, like our age-old dreams of flying. For many years now, television has been fairly indistinguishable from the alleged “real” world. The leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 is campaigning by starring in her own reality TV show: this is completely unsurprising, and is likely setting a precedent.

Bowie, born in 1947, had seen television evolve from the genteel incarnation of his childhood, where TV was a glorified wireless set—a large wooden box with an 8″ black-and-white screen that showed only one government-run channel a few hours a day (there even was a “toddlers’ truce” of no programming aired during the hour that young children were typically put to bed)— to become, by 1975 and especially in the U.S., an omnipresent box in every home and hotel room, a unblinking electric eye, offering a visual compost heap, churning old Hollywood films, riots, images of man and animals in nature, kung-fu exhibitions and cereal ads into a ceaseless stream of images and noises. So “TVC 15” is just Bowie expanding the map—of course the TV of the future would be even more compelling, more intoxicating, have more channels, be more diabolical; its reality would be finer and purer.

(And in turn, Bowie’s scenario of someone who, by turning on the TV, lets inside his home forces that destroy his life, would inspire, perhaps subconsciously, two films of the following decade—David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (one notorious scene, when James Woods makes out with Debbie Harry via a pulsating TV screen, is pure “TVC 15”), and Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, where, coming full circle to Iggy Pop’s nightmare, a girl is claimed by a TV set.)

“TVC 15″‘ sets its hooks against its disturbances. Four sets of eight-bar verses* offer noise experiments in miniature, with each bar of each verse sounding as if it’s starting the song anew: it’s like a series of first takes spliced together in a run. Bowie starts each bar on the same note, while guitars grind and lurch upward but are set back in place four beats later, their efforts like an engine failing to get in second gear (Carlos Alomar later described it as a drone: “the music would stay in one place and just keep going”). Yet over this Bowie’s vocal is generally buoyant, even loopy, as if he’s telling you the best story he’s ever heard, and maybe it is. Finally breaking free of its verses’ orbit, the song moves into its earworm of a chorus, a mild disco “tran-sition!….trans-mission!” sequence over eight bars of F7 and A7 that, once it falls back home to C major, becomes a chanted “Oh my TVC 15! oh-oh! TVC 15!,” Bowie’s mantra/ad jingle, set against first a vicious guitar riff and then a cascading Bittan piano figure. The title line, hinting at the future “I want my MTV” slogan, is so enticing that all thoughts of the vanished girl disappear—this is a valentine for a television set, and a passionate one.

The mix, with the standard Station to Station layout of two guitars set in opposing channels, is murky and dense in places, suggesting radio signals eating into each other’s airspace. The backing vocal beneath Bowie’s lead sometimes echoes him a beat late, or hums a different tune, sometimes whispers a barely audible line; multiple saxophone overdubs (Bowie and producer Harry Maslin) bay through the chorus like foghorns. It all makes a happy chaos, suggesting that Bowie’s recounting his tale after having been swallowed up by his television; he ends his terrestrial life in a flux of sound.

Recorded September-November 1975. Released on Station to Station and also as a single c/w “We Are the Dead” in April 1976 (RCA 2682, #33 UK). Performed on the 1976, 1978 and 1990 tours, and an inspired choice to kick off Bowie’s Live Aid set in 1985. Bowie’s “TVC 15” with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias for Saturday Night Live in late 1979, with Bowie wearing a tight pencil skirt and high heels, and featuring a pink toy poodle with a television monitor in its mouth, remains one of the odder musical performances ever shown on American television.

* In most subsequent live performances, Bowie broke up this long run of verses, usually moving the chorus to after the second verse.