Watch That Man

June 8, 2010

Watch That Man.
Watch That Man (live, 1973).
Watch That Man (Lulu, 1973).
Watch That Man (live, 1974).

Lester Bangs, while calling Bowie “that chickenhearted straw man of suck rock you love to hate so much,” admitted in the same article (Creem, December ’73) that Bowie had outplayed the Rolling Stones with “Watch That Man,” Bowie’s annexation of their sound. The Stones settled matters by issuing their first utterly mediocre LP, Goats Head Soup, in response. (Things were catching up to the Stones—during the Soup sessions, producer Jimmy Miller was carving swastikas onto the recording console, while Keith Richards once tried to play a lead guitar solo on a bass and didn’t realize his mistake for 15 minutes.)

“Watch That Man”‘s mix is blatant Exile on Main St.-vintage murk, Bowie’s vocal submerged beneath Mick Ronson’s guitars: at times Bowie sounds like a trebly part of the horn section. Ken Scott, trying to get a wall of sound, pushed all the instruments up in the mix, drowning Bowie’s vocal in the process. MainMan, Bowie’s management company, balked and asked Scott to bring Bowie’s vocal up front. A few weeks later RCA (or Bowie) overruled them, finding the new mix lacked a punch, and so asked Scott to bring back the mud.

Written in the last days of September 1972, while Bowie was holding court in New York before resuming his American tour, “Watch That Man” reflects Bowie’s new A-list status while recounting his initial round of decadence when visiting New York the previous fall. It’s set at a celebrity party where most of the game is being seen by the right people (“No one took their eyes off Lorraine/she shimmered and she strolled like a Chicago moll,” Bowie sings, likely referring to Cyrinda Foxe (cf. “Jean Genie”).

It’s a typical rock & roll party song, as the music’s loud, the champagne bottles and cocaine mirrors are on the table and a gaggle of drunks are hanging together in a corner of the room, stealing glances at the imperious singer arranged on the couch (Bowie seems to be watching TV most of the time). With Bowie, though, it usually comes down to who has the best angle, and by the chorus you realize there’s someone hipper than him in the room. Whether it’s the party host, Shakey, or a drug dealer, or a record exec (maybe he’s all of the above), the “Man” of the title unsettles Bowie, takes him off his game. Finally, he flees the party, heading down to the street. As much swagger as “Watch That Man” has, it ends with Bowie losing face.

The song’s all forward motion—the verses move from A to F#m, while the chorus begins with a slap, three big steps up (“Watch! That! Man!”, over A/D/G). Ronson uses both speakers to dominate the room, Woodmansey gives one of his meatier performances, Bolder keeps the swampy tide of sound moving. Newcomers include pianist Mike Garson, who breaks into Ronson’s flow of conversation, and the backing singers—Linda Lewis and Juanita “Honey” Franklin. The latter head out the door with Bowie, but they sound as captivated by his rival as he is.

Recorded ca. 20-25 January 1973: it was the natural lead-off track for Aladdin Sane. Lulu recorded a version later that year, which became the B-side to her “Man Who Sold the World.” Bowie retired the song after his 1974 tour, with a Philadelphia concert recording collected on David Live.

Top: Garry Winogrand, “Untitled,” New York City, 1972.