We Are The Dead

September 3, 2010

We Are the Dead.

The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing. All around the world, in London and New York, in Africa and Brazil, and in the mysterious, forbidden lands beyond the frontiers…everywhere stood the same unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing. Out of those mighty loins a race of conscious beings must one day come. You were the dead; theirs was the future. But you could share in that future if you kept alive the mind as they kept alive the body, and passed on the secret doctrine that two plus two make four.

“We are the dead,” he said.

“We are the dead,” echoed Julia dutifully.

“You are the dead,” said an iron voice behind them.

George Orwell, Nineteen-Eighty Four.

Of Bowie’s Nineteen Eighty-Four songs, “We Are the Dead” seems to have been the most rewritten after the musical was scrapped, as much of its final lyric is a series of William Burroughs-inspired cut-up lines. This technique, which Bowie used for other Diamond Dogs tracks, entailed writing a lyric on paper, cutting the lines into strips, drawing the strips randomly (say, from a hat), then pasting the rearranged lines together to make a new lyric. The goal was to use blind chance as a midwife, to create bizarre juxtapositions that the conscious mind wouldn’t have considered. So you get lines like you’re dancing where the dogs decay/defecating ecstasy or I love you in your fuck-me pumps/and your nimble dress that trails or the legendary curtains/are drawn round Baby Bankrupt.

This was an outgrowth of a ’60s obsession with the spontaneous, the random prized over the deliberate—a belief summed up in an Allen Ginsberg quote: “first thought, best thought.” For Bowie, using cut-up was a way to get out of a creative hole, and it generally worked well for him. After all, Bowie had never been much of a traditional lyricist, and his lines often sounded better out of context. (It’s telling that Bowie’s cut-up lyrics don’t seem radically different from ones he wrote out start to finish.) The problem was that Bowie was still committed to these conceptual LP ideas, and so was stuck trying to make a narrative out of a set of, in some cases, deliberately nonsensical songs.

“We Are the Dead” is reminiscent of Bowie’s late 1960s rant-epics like “Cygnet Committee” in that it forgoes a verse-chorus-verse structure in favor of a rambling trellis of verses that, only twice in the song, culminate in a weak 4-bar refrain. The song, as all of Bowie’s Orwell pieces are, is a minor key (Gm): it opens with two eerie eight-bar verses, dominated by Mike Garson’s electric piano and sung in a stage whisper by Bowie—these first two verses move through nearly every pitch in the key, from Gm to B flat (III) to D (V) to E flat (VI), back to Gm until they end, unresolved, on F (VII).

Yet just when you assume Bowie will move to a bridge or chorus, he instead keeps going with a new 14-bar verse, spewing lines over a circular harmonic sequence, his vocal mainly accompanied by grating bursts of guitar while, every second bar, the title line sweeps by like a ghost on a stairwell. As if to counter the randomness of his lyrics, Bowie keeps to a fairly strict rhythm, singing a six-beat line for each bar (though as he goes on, his timing gets looser—he starts cramming in more words). A breath, and then the entire sequence repeats again, with the refrain dragged out a bit longer for the outro.

There are only traces left of the Orwell narrative—for instance, “I hear them on the stairs”—but in its way “We Are the Dead” is the truest of Bowie’s Orwell adaptations. Winston Smith, with the Thought Police closing in on him, hopes that revolution lies in the working-class proles, who keep alive the freedom of the body, while Smith’s class will somehow keep alive the freedom of the mind—a belief that Smith’s subsequent conversion shows to be a cruel folly. But as John Huntington wrote in The Logic of Fantasy, a study of the Orwell novel, “to transform a dystopia to a utopia requires discovering a different set of images.” Bowie’s bilious, chaotic lyric, formed by deliberate chance, could also be a passkey.

Recorded 16 January 1974, never performed live.

Top: Erik Van Straten, “London, Thames, 1974.”