You Belong In Rock n’ Roll

August 9, 2012

You Belong In Rock n’ Roll.
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (single mix, video).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Paramount City, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Wogan, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Top of the Pops, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Sacrée Soirée, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Eleva2ren, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (live, Oy Vey Baby, 1991).

Are there any new ideas left to be discovered in rock and roll?

Bowie: In rock and roll, no. But in what you can give rock and roll, yes. I think the whole idea of talking about the feelings that you have between your mid-30s and mid-40s…there are endless experiences there. The whole weight of having gone through the apocalyptic vision of the Seventies, the greed and vanity of the Eighties: these are things that none of the younger bands knew about or experienced. So they’re just a result of it. With a band like Guns ‘n’ Roses, lyrically there’s a kind of abandon there. But abandon from what?

Alan di Perna, “Ballad of the Tin Men,” Creem, 1991.

The lead-off single of Tin Machine II, “You Belong in Rock n’ Roll” was Bowie’s most overt attempt at pop since “Never Let Me Down,” and it tanked, charting only (and poorly) in the UK, ignored by the rest of the world. Possibly inspired by U2’s “With or Without You,” it shared with the latter a bass-driven, deep-crooned verse, a sudden dynamic shift in the chorus (triggered by the title phrase) and a simple, repeating chord progression—“Rock n’ Roll” just uses the first two chords, C and G, of “With or Without You”‘s cycling C-G-Am-F. But compared to U2’s brooding religious erotica, “Rock n’ Roll” is camp trash, with Reeves Gabrels playing his guitar solos with a vibrator.*

The title suggested some kind of reckoning with the past: after the bridge-burning of Tin Machine, it seemed to be Bowie trying to align himself for a fresh decade. An old friend once said that it was never a good sign when an aging band wrote a song with “rock and roll” in the title (he was thinking of Kiss, who had just put out “God Gave Rock and Roll to You”), as it usually was a cue for gross nostalgia or base pandering. Thankfully that’s not the case here—Bowie’s “Rock n’ Roll” is too slight, too moody, too crass, although he is chasing after ghosts in it.

The guiding spirit is Marc Bolan in his prime, comparing girls to cars and mountain kings: I love the velvet hat–you know the one that caused a revolution…you got the blues in your shoes and your stockings…I’ll call you Jaguar if I may be so bold. Bowie’s come-ons in “Rock n’ Roll” are shopworn and banal by comparison: the girl (or rock itself) reminds him of “cheap streets,” she says “cheap things,” she’s got a “bad look.” It’s third-rate seduction. Bolan had known he was the prize—the come-ons were just for show, he was just peacocking for his own delight, as he’d already closed the deal. Bowie in “Rock n’ Roll” has to really work the sale, and seems to vaguely despise himself for it.

The big hook, triggered to the song’s one chord change, is “you belong in rock n’ roll…well, so do I,” a weakly Bolanesque line. Bowie’s phrasing of the last words, a slight aspiring push upward, suggests that he knows it’s a dubious claim. But what was “rock n’ roll” here? In 1990 it meant Guns ‘n’ Roses and Warrant—it was no place for some crackpot dandy like Bolan, let alone Bowie entering his high Dorian Gray period. Bowie had never been reverent about rock music; he’d always questioned whatever transcendence it offered. In his Ziggy Stardust days, he referred to rock as an aging tart. Twenty years on, he felt the same, although now he was in a serious hard “rock n’ roll” band whose players sometimes acted as if they were the music’s last hope—it’s tempting to call “Rock n’ Roll” Bowie’s subconscious rejection of Tin Machine. In the video for “Rock n’ Roll,” Bowie preened into the mirror, wriggling out of his garish lime-green jacket while he sang “so do I”; on stage, he sometimes mimed slapping on foundation.

But the track’s not mere parody, either. As with Bolan’s influence, you can hear Bowie trying to recall an old language, trying to ground himself again in a music that had once worked for him. There’s a trace of Buddy Holly in how Bowie toys with his phrases, hollowing out vowels, stretching a small word to fill the space of three: luh-uh-huh-hove, say-uh-hay-hay. (On the Paradise City performance, Bowie sings the second verse in a quasi-American accent). So it’s fitting that it ends back at the mirror. When Bowie builds up to the climax, he finally imitates “Bowie,” the imperious, archangel-voiced Bowie of pop memory: on fire! on FIRE! on FIRE! on FIIIHAH!

Though its rhythm track—a rumbling Tony Sales bassline, flourishes of acoustic guitar, a tight Hunt Sales playing a swinging kick drum pattern—was nailed down in the Sydney sessions, “Rock n’ Roll” was one of the tracks that Gabrels wouldn’t leave alone. He cut guitar overdub after overdub while Bowie was on his world tour in 1990. By the time Tin Machine II was mixed in spring 1991, “Rock n’ Roll” had ballooned to a 56-track recording, the majority of which was taken up with Gabrels’ bleats, buzzes and whines.

Gabrels had been obsessed with Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, and as “Rock n’ Roll” was “basically a bass song, I wanted to lay in some industrial stuff against it,” he said. Gabrels started by vibrating an electric razor against his guitar strings but found he wanted something with variable speeds, so that he could better tune it. So Gabrels and his guitar tech went out to a few Sydney sex shops and came back with a selection of vibrators. Gabrels became a fan—“You can use [a vibrator] as a sound source and also as a string driver by laying it against the bridge,” he said—as did Bowie, who said he expected to soon go into a music store and find rows of vibrators with effects pedals and slides: an inspired vision of commerce that sadly never came to be.

That said, Gabrels’ main solo, the eight-bar fill between refrain and verse, is Gabrels at his most restrained, offering just a series of steadily-rising chords, while his various vibrator-guitar dubs work as mood colors in the mix rather than overwhelming the track. The final mix of “Rock n’ Roll” sounded good—Tony Sales’ backing vocals giving tension to Bowie’s murmurings, the handclaps, the low-mixed saxophone—but in the fall of 1991, no one wanted to hear it. Perhaps it was a minor cultural exhaustion with Bowie: it was the first single after the Sound + Vision tour/retrospective. The Bowie of the past was far too strong a presence, the Bowie of the present seemed compromised and empty. “Rock n’ Roll” was a pretender, soon sent packing.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, Studios 301, Sydney, with overdubs in 1990 and March 1991. Released as a single in August 1991 (LONCD 305, c/w “Amlapura (Indonesian version), #33 UK). There was also a limited edition single in a metal box. To produce it, according to Pegg, the label had to purchase used tins from the US Navy. The band played or lip-synched “Rock n’ Roll” on Denmark’s Eleva2ren, France’s Sacree Soiree and the UK’s Wogan, TOTP and Paramount City, generating weak sales and minor controversy because of Gabrels’ vibrators. (Weirdly, the Machine apparently didn’t play “Rock n’ Roll” in their big US TV promotion, ABC In Concert.) Played throughout the 1991-92 tour, with a version from Chicago, 7 December 1991, used as the closing track on Oy Vey Baby.

* Gabrels told Musician that his touring vibrators were “a 4″ Ladyfinger and an 8″ variable speed, with a Panasonic electric razor as backup.”

Top: Michel Piccoli and Emmanuelle Béart, La Belle Noiseuse (Rivette, 1991).