“Yassassin” is a motley of alleged Turkish music, reggae and funk. The funk is kept at a distance; it’s courtesy of George Murray, who plays a crafty bassline that front-loads each bar, leaving spaces for the chorus singers to fill. The song itself is simply a vamp between E7 and F7, similar to “Fame,” whose opening riff turns up in fragments here.
The reggae took more work, as Murray, Carlos Alomar and Dennis Davis weren’t familiar with it (no surprise, as reggae was far more popular in the ’70s with white British musicians than it was with black American musicians). So it’s actually Tony Visconti playing the standard “Jamaican ‘up-chop’ rhythm guitar” throughout the track. Visconti also said he and Bowie had to coach Davis in how to play reggae, putting the kick drum, rather than the typical snare, on the second and fourth beats.*
Bowie, inspired by the Turkish workers that he had seen in Neuköln (Bowie saw “yassassin,” a phrase meaning “long life,” scribbled on a wall), set his lyric from the point of view of a migrant worker from the provinces (he’s still got vitality, walking “proud and lustful” though his woman is “afeared”). The worker’s trying to keep his head down, avoiding confrontation. He’s quietly full of scorn for his adopted land of sun and steel, but he accepts that it’s his future, the only life he’s going to have. The main “Turkish” strands in “Yassassin” are Alomar’s game attempts at imitating a bouzouki, Simon House’s violin (House mainly does fills in the verses, bridges verses and choruses with a few bars, then gets the outro to play out) and the proud and lustful chorus refrain, sung by everyone in the studio, which opens with an octave jump (“Yas-SAS-in”) and then compresses, in its third and fourth repeats, to a seventh, then a fifth interval. It’s a deflating pride, a grudging compromise.
While Bowie’s vocal seems inspired by Arabic singers in places (he gamely tries to ululate on “resonant world” in the first verse), on the whole it’s as abstracted and stylized a vocal as “African Night Flight.” The rhythms are exacting and controlled, from Bowie’s staggered phrasing in the chorus (each phrase starting on one note (“I’m not a”) and then slightly expanding in range (“MOO-dy guy”)) to the undertow of his later verses (“if there’s someone in charrge, then listen to meeee“) that’s deepened by House’s violin. Still, any search for authenticity here is pointless, as “Yassassin” owes as much to Bowie’s Fiddler On the Roof-esque “Revolutionary Song” as it does any actual Turkish music. It’s a hothouse plant.
Recorded September 1978 in Mountain Studios, Montreux, Switzerland, and March 1979 at Record Plant Studios, NYC. An edited version was released as a single in July 1979 in Turkey and Holland (it’s not clear what the Turks made of it). While Bowie said he was considering reviving “Yassassin” for his Outside tour in 1995, it remains yet another Lodger song never performed live.
* A story to take with a grain of salt: Davis had been playing Bowie’s reggae version of “What In the World” throughout the 1978 tour without any apparent difficulty.
Top: The Thatchers prepare to move house. Soon Mrs. T. will introduce herself to the new neighborhood: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth…,” 4 May 1979.