We Shall Go to Town

December 3, 2013

tokyo99

We Shall Go to Town.

In spirit (or actually?) a relic from the Outside sessions, the intriguing “We Shall Go to Town” was left off ‘Hours,’ perhaps because its somnolent eeriness didn’t fit the record’s thematic arc (dimness to brightness, like the settings of an oven lamp). Its consignment to B-side status is a shame, particularly as Bowie gave another B-side on the same CD single (“We All Go Through”) a similar title, so that “We Shall Go to Town” can get jumbled up in recollection.*

Built of crablike movements between B-flat major and E-flat minor chords (established via a wavering-sounding keyboard bed), the song overlays sets of competing rhythmic lines: Mark Plati’s fretless bass, singing the same rising eight-note line throughout; Sterling Campbell’s agitated shuffle, like a heart murmur conveyed via snare, low toms and hi-hat; the brittle guitar figure played by Reeves Gabrels that appears in the latter halves of verses and in refrains (panned right to left) as if Gabrels is gently interrogating the song. Bowie’s vocal has a physicality in it: he breaks each verse and refrain down to sets of four or five stressed syllables, the last of which he’ll often drag across a bar like a strand of taffy (“deliiiight,” “forgehhhht,” “the foooooool”); for further gravity, he applies phasing to some phrases, giving the sense that he’s singing in slow motion, and double-tracks a few lines at the octave. One starting point for the song could be Bowie’s old sparring partner Iggy Pop, whose “Mass Production” rattles in its bones.

Lyrically “We Shall Go to Town” suggests a reflection on old campaigns in the pop music world (“follow the lights/stay on the outside”); its title line, and a few other scattered phrases, offers that “going to town,” i.e., engaging a wider public, remains a worthy battle, even if it’s with demons. The alternative is stagnation, nostalgia, death: “only the fool turns around.” But the lyric’s vagueness makes any attempt at analysis a rum game. The track’s as much concerned with the flavor of Bowie’s low register, the sonic texture of his alliterations and consonant rhymes (delight/forget, bring your things), how his voice works as a member of a murmuring ensemble.

Then there’s Gabrels. His 16-bar solo, one of the few high-skronk moments he was allotted in his last round of Bowie co-compositions, begins with a crunching bend of strings, then he seems to stall out. Again there’s a tortured-sounding chord, again silence. A wail trails off, then another. You realize the solo is becoming a series of perpetual starts. Once you do, Gabrels finally offers some linking phrases, three consecutive down-shifting chords and a shriek of strings that simulates a machine in the act of pulping itself. Satisfied, he hounds Bowie through the last verse and refrain.

Their interplay in the song’s last minute, Bowie precisely droning his lines, Gabrels sounding as if he’s boring through metal (his old favorite “boiling teakettle” noise returns), is the sound of two men who know each other’s next dream; it’s not a dialogue as much as it’s an acceptance of roles, an interchange of moods. Call it maturity, for lack of a better word; they broke up soon afterward.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs (Plati’s bass) at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Released 20 September 1999 on the “Thursday’s Child” CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96265 2 0) and later included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours.’

* Among those confused appear to have been Bowie’s label (or perhaps even the man himself), which listed the track as “We Shall All Go to Town” on the CD single.

Top: Junpei Yoshimura, “Tokyo, 1999.”