November 22, 2010

Fame (single edit).
Fame (Soul Train, 1975).
Fame (Cher, 1975).
James Brown, Hot (I Need to Be Loved Loved Loved), 1976.
Fame (live, 1976).
Fame (live, 1978).
Fame (live, 1983).
Fame (live, 1990).
Fame (live, 1997).
Fame (Howard Stern’s Birthday Bash, 1998).
Fame (Live at the BBC, 2000).
Fame (TOTP2, 2002).
Fame (Live By Request, 2002).
Fame (live, 2004).

“Fame,” one of David Bowie’s two US chart-toppers, is a freak and a fluke. It’s more in line with experimental Bowie works like Low than it is with the “soul” album to which it was appended. Its groove, so compelling that James Brown stole it, and its back story (the John Lennon connection likely spurred airplay) made it a smash, but “Fame” just as easily could’ve been consigned to Bowie’s pile of studio outtakes.

Because Bowie wasn’t sure what he had with it: a minimalist funk improvisation, a mutant hybrid of “Foot Stompin’,” the odd result of a few hours of studio jamming. He later called “Fame” his least favorite track on Young Americans, a sentiment that some of his players shared—Andy Newmark, who drummed on most of Young Americans (but not “Fame”), dismissed “Fame” as “just a vamp, a groove. It’s not the essence of what [Bowie] represents in my mind. “Young Americans” is more of the persona I associate with him.”

“Fame” is as dry as it is cynical, the opposite of what Bowie had been attempting when he started Young Americans in Philadelphia, with the dense gospel- and soul-inspired tracks cut at Sigma Sound. Now here was a track clarified to vocals, guitars, bass and drums; it was funk seemingly arrived at via a William Burroughs cut-up. Its sonic landscape, using the wide stereo separation typical of contemporary funk tracks (like Lyn Collins’ “Rock Me Again & Again & Again & Again & Again”) is broad and clear.

The track is nothing but a set of muscles and ligaments. There are no horns, no backing chorus singers (just Lennon’s squeaked-out “fame” and the varispeed vocals at the end), no keyboards save for a backwards piano track that appears in the intro and briefly shows up later. Primarily built on one chord (F7), the song’s either one long chorus or an extended, repeating verse, the only contrast being the two-bar move to B-flat: “It’s not your brain/it’s just the flame”, etc.). The rhythm, apart from two bars of 3/4 that open the track, is straight 4/4, hammered down by Emir Ksasan’s bass and Dennis Davis’ drums hitting on alternating beats.

The lyric came out of Lennon’s cynical take on the star-maker-machine process, with Bowie contributing his own paranoid thoughts on the business, particularly his gripes with his manager, Tony Defries. (Bowie, having discovered that the massive expenses incurred by Defries’ company Mainman were coming out of his own pocket, formally severed ties with Defries about ten days after recording “Fame,” kicking off a legal war.)

Two rock stars complaining about being famous are a potentially awful set of parents, but Lennon and Bowie’s lines are harsh enough, and lurid enough (“lets [a man] loose and hard to swallow”), to be compelling. There’s no self-pity in “Fame,” as there is in something like Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” where playing the star is a weary business, one Seger shoulders like a burden. In “Fame,” the lyric is a series of dry observations that culminate in the key line of the last verse—is it any wonder I reject you first? In the first verse, “fame” is an active force, a possession (it “makes,” “puts,” “lets”), while in the second verse, Bowie pits “what you like” against “what you get” and “what you need”—fame may satisfy the first, but it puts you on the hook for the rest. (There’s a dying Sixties echo in these lines, a play on the Stones’ you can’t always get what you want (but sometimes you get what you need) (which already suggested that sometimes you get nothing at all), or on Dylan’s line from “Memphis Blues Again”: your debutante knows what you need/but I know what you want.)

The song’s poison can be distilled down to how Bowie and Lennon sing the title word. They elongate the “ay” sound while pulling the word down (it sinks a half-step between syllables), so that it’s not an affirmation, an exclamation—it’s a hook that initially sounds like a phasing mistake. It sags, it withers, it blights the rest of the verse. Bowie spends much of each verse trying to scrabble back up to the initial high note (& only doing so on each phrase’s last syllable (for instance “take things ov-ER“)).


“Fame” was officially credited to Bowie, Lennon and Carlos Alomar, and in the 35 years since its creation, there’ve been about as many claims as to who contributed what to “Fame,” and especially who ripped off who.*

Lennon’s primary contributions seem to be a) playing an acoustic guitar only audible in the intro bars, b) supervising the backwards piano track and c) allegedly coming up with the line “fame” and sometimes singing it. Still, some writers have made Lennon (who was in the studio on a whim, having come in to hear “Across the Universe”) more of the creative mastermind. For example, here’s Philip Norman, from his 2008 Lennon biography, who claims: John attended the session at Electric Lady studio and improvised a three-note riff around the single word “fame.” Compare Lennon himself, who, interviewed soon after “Fame” was released in 1975, gave credit for the riff to Alomar: “This guitarist had a lick, so we sort of wrote this song, no big deal. Oh-boom-boom-boom. We made this lick into a song is what happened.”

Alomar recalled that “Fame” came about after Bowie finally decided that “Foot Stompin’,” which he’d been trying to cut in the studio for months, wasn’t going to work. “Foot Stompin'” “sounded like a plain, stupid, old rock & roll song,” Alomar told David Buckley in 2005. “David didn’t even like it. So what he did was to cut it up into blues changes, which is one-four-five-four, which is what “Fame” is. It cut it up so he just had drums, bass and that one guitar line.” Alomar also said Lennon, playing acoustic guitar, inadvertently inspired the lyric. Lennon “put his chin on the acoustic guitar when he played and just the breathing he did produced that funny noise. David thought he was saying “Fame”: “he’s saying Fame! I’m telling you!”

There are three primary guitar tracks on “Fame”: the Alomar “Foot Stompin'” riff that repeats through the verses (mainly confined to the left channel), Bowie’s central electric guitar, which, in Bowie’s words, “makes the long Wah and the echoed Bomp! sound,” and which serves as the track’s brass section (there’s also a “telephoning ringing” guitar fill mixed in the center), and a third electric guitar, mainly confined to the right channel, that keeps to the high end. There are secondary guitar tracks as well—Lennon’s barely-there acoustic, and what Alomar has claimed (and Bowie has disputed) as a series of guitar overdubs that Alomar did after Bowie left the studio.

Bowie added dabs of color (the backwards piano and rattlesnake percussion that drop in after the third verse) to help the track avoid monotony, and he ended “Fame” with a new varispeed vocal experiment (see “The Bewlay Brothers,”The Laughing Gnome,” “After All”). Here a repeated “fame” (Lennon and Bowie’s vocals) descends stepwise from the air to the earth over six bars. So the vocal, initially sped up to Gnome level, starts up in the stratosphere on a high E flat, falls an octave over two bars, then falls another octave in the next two (going from D to D), until finally the vocal, now at molasses speed, ends in the depths, stopping on a low D (tweaked a beat later by a Lennon “fame!” interjection). The idea’s an old Bowie trick, as the same melodic fall appears in “Gnome’s” opening bassoon line and it will soon crop up again in “Speed of Life.”


Released in August 1975, “Fame” hit #1 in the US a month later. It was his long-desired passport. “Fame” landed him on Soul Train, where Bowie was so wrecked that he required multiple takes to lip-sync it and “Golden Years,” and an even more prestigious/egregious tribute was James Brown’s outright theft of much of the song—Alomar’s riff, the “telephone” guitar fills—for his 1976 single “Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved).” (Some stories have claimed Brown actually put on the Bowie record for his band, and said “play this.”) For Alomar, who had played with Brown in the late ’60s, it must have seemed a particularly strange turning of the circle. Alomar once said Bowie told him “if it charts, we’ll sue [Brown],” a spectacle avoided by “Hot”‘s weak performance (#31 R&B).

Fame 90 (remake).
Fame 90 (Arthur Baker, house mix).
Fame 90 (‘hip hop’ mix).
Fame 90 (with Queen Latifah).

Bowie had played “Fame” for most of his tours between 1976 and 1990, and, needing bait for Ryko’s CD reissue campaign, he reworked “Fame” at the end of the ’80s. While attempting to maintain the original’s minimalism, Bowie larded his new mix with gewgaws and glitter, put the rhythm on steroids, mercilessly included a vocal “stutter,” and then turned his own sins over for other parties to amplify. While “Fame” would seem to be ideal raw material for a hip-hop update, Bowie wound up with a Queen Latifah performance that achieves mediocrity in its better moments. The best of the new lot is probably the Baker house mix, which uses Bowie’s vocal as just another piece of percussion.

“Fame” was recorded ca. 12-15 January 1975. Released in August 1975 as RCA 2479 c/w “Win.” (While hitting #1 in the US, it only reached #17 in the UK. The British, in a nostalgic contrarian mood, instead sent a re-release of “Space Oddity” to the top in the same period.) “Fame 90″ came out in its various incarnations in March 1990 (a 7″ single, a 7″ picture disc and a 12” single/CD all featured different mixes), and served as the traditional crap “remake” cuckoo egg track on the hits collection ChangesBowie (there’s usually one on every greatest hits compilation, cf. the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me ’86”.)

Top: Bowie’s choreographer, Toni Basil, on the cover of the Sept. 1974 issue of After Dark, the apparent inspiration for Eric Stephen Jacobs’ Young Americans cover photograph. Bowie allegedly had wanted to commission a Norman Rockwell painting for the cover, but balked when he was told Rockwell needed at least six months to do the job.

A postscript on “Shame” and plagiarism:

Shirley & Company’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” has been called a key influence on “Fame,” and some Bowie biographers claim that “Fame” actually rips “Shame” off, e.g. Christopher Sandford: [Fame] evolved, via Carlos Alomar and a riff lifted from Shirley and Company (my emphasis) through a half-dozen makeovers and a last-minute name change from “Footstompin’.” (“Footstompin’ was another song, but never mind that.)

Sandford’s source appears to be Tony Zanetta and Henry Edwards’ bio Stardust, from 1986. In this account, Lennon “while David was out of the room” starts playing the “Shame, Shame, Shame” riff, and is soon joined by Alomar, who “picks up the riff, and the two men played together.” Bowie allegedly comes in, asks what they’re playing, is told it’s “Shame, Shame, Shame,” then leaves the room and comes back a half-hour later with the complete lyrics for “Fame.”

If true, this scenario would have the wily Alomar riffing with Lennon on a song that he’s already ripped off. Because Alomar had been playing his “Foot Stompin'” riff, the direct ancestor of the “Fame” riff, since late October ’74. The timing doesn’t really work. “Shame, Shame, Shame”‘s first reference in Billboard is the issue of 21 December ’74, where it’s reviewed as a new-release single, and “Shame” didn’t chart nationally until 18 January 1975, days after the “Fame” recording session. Sure, pro musicians often get new releases ahead of the public, and “Shame” was likely getting NYC airplay in December ’74, but, really, the 35-year-old John Lennon was that up on new disco records? And wouldn’t Alomar, instead of “picking up” the riff, maybe have said something like, “yeah, I love this song—in fact, I’ve been jamming it for months on tour already.”

My guess: “Shame, Shame, Shame” has really nothing to do with “Fame.”[CO, 2014: I was wrong: see Trynka in comments.] I expect the confusion began when people first heard “Fame” in summer ’75 (when it was released as a single) and thought it was a nick on “Shame,” a hit song from the previous winter. Now James Brown, on the other hand—the Godfather committed robbery in broad daylight, no denying it.

Across The Universe

November 17, 2010

Across the Universe.

Bowie’s cover of John Lennon’s “Across the Universe” was a blatant, and successful, attempt to lure Lennon into the studio. Bowie and Lennon had first met in late 1974 at a small party in Bowie’s New York hotel suite. The two didn’t converse for hours until, cocaine- and Cognac-fueled, they began sketching caricatures of each other on notepads. Tony Visconti (who met his future wife, Lennon’s then-girlfriend May Pang, that night) recalled that the party ended with everyone in the room getting into “a dismally dark conversation about ‘what does it all mean,’ ‘it’ being life, which left us all staring dejectedly at the floor.”

About a week into New Year ’75, Bowie called up Lennon and said he was in Electric Lady Studios doing a cover of “Across the Universe” (the whole thing seems like a set-up, as there was no need for another track on Young Americans; Visconti, oblivious to these developments, was in London doing string arrangements for a record he thought was completed). So Lennon went down, played acoustic guitar on “Universe,” then stuck around to jam on another attempted take of “Foot Stompin'” and wound up co-writing a #1 hit, “Fame.”

Bowie still kept “Across the Universe” on Young Americans after it had served its purpose. It was likely a matter of Bowie being star-struck: how could he deny the temptation to include his very own Beatle collaboration? He told the NME later that year that he was proud of his performance on the track despite the fact that “not many people like it.”

The only problem was, John wasn’t entirely sure how to capture on tape the sounds he was hearing in his head.

Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles Recording Sessions, on “Across the Universe.”

“Across the Universe,” like a vivid dream, had never quite translated to reality. Originally slated as the Beatles’ spring 1968 single, “Across the Universe,” after two days of studio work, emerged as a ramshackle performance with chirping backing vocals by two teenage Beatles fans recruited off the street. Lennon second-guessed himself at every turn, erasing vocals, wiping instruments (he scrapped a backwards bass guitar track, as well as George Martin’s contributions on organ and his own mellotron work). As the Beatles were about to get on a plane to India, “Across the Universe” was shelved (“Lady Madonna” was the single choice). Upon his return, Lennon seemed indifferent to “Across the Universe”—he didn’t attempt to rerecord it during the White Album sessions, or even on Abbey Road, where he used scraps he’d had around for years. The inclusion of a run-through of “Across the Universe” in the Let It Be film led to the track’s official release on the subsequent soundtrack record.

“Across the Universe” had first appeared on a World Wildlife Fund record in late 1969, where the ’68 recording (in D) was moved up to E flat and layered with wildlife noises. A few months later, Phil Spector took the same ’68 recording, brought it down to D flat, and globbed on a choir and strings. This version, also included on the “Blue Album” Beatles hits compilation in 1973, became, by default, the canonical version of the song, and the model for Bowie’s cover.

“Across the Universe” is the product of Lennon in a weakened state of lysergic bliss, its lyric a child’s perspective. My friend has a three-year-old daughter who’s started waking up in the morning yelling “No! No! No!” When he asked her what was wrong, she said that she didn’t want to be asleep anymore. “Across the Universe” is in this spirit, Lennon’s POV being of someone whose self-absorption is so deep that he achieves satori in contemplating himself, delighting in how his mind interprets the world: it’s a rejection of the material world by someone entranced by the world’s colors and sounds.

It was maybe too personal a song for Lennon, who later said he’d never been happy with any recording of it (he didn’t think much of Bowie’s version either, as it turned out). Bowie’s interpretation seems to be a bungled attempt to mine the song’s thin vein of defiance. Calling the Beatles original “watery” (no foul there), he decided instead to “hammer the hell out of it.” So he discarded Lennon’s “jai guru deva” mantra as being too flower-power and yelled out the lyric, trodding over the intricate syllabic rhythms of Lennon’s three verses. Bowie’s appalling vocal is a series of consecutive abuses, with Bowie hollering lines, putting his weight on seemingly random phrases. The appearance of a second vocal track creates new dimensions of misery, and Bowie finishes the track off with an extended tantrum.

This is the first appearance on a Bowie record of Dennis Davis, a brilliant drummer who would back Bowie for the rest of the ’70s: Davis does what he can to resuscitate things here, offering fill after fill while the song wobbles to its finish. One of Bowie’s low points of the decade, just excruciatingly bad.

Recorded in New York, ca. 10-15 January 1975. On Young Americans.

Top: Songwriter, singer at the Grammys, March 1975.


November 15, 2010

Win (live, 1974).
Win (live, tantalizing fragment, 2004).

The best of Young Americans‘ tortured soul ballads, “Win,” an abstracted dissection of a relationship, is Bowie’s most successful attempt to use the sound of contemporary R&B to flesh out his favorite concerns: obsession, power, betrayal, control.

With some of Bowie’s most inspired lines on the record (“someone like you should not be allowed to start any fires,” “life lies dumb on its heroes,” the opener “Me, I hope that I’m crazy”), “Win” also has a gorgeous, intricate production: the entire track seems swathed in cotton. Motifs (saxophone, strings (pizzicato towards the fadeout), arpeggiated guitar) occur throughout, often matched to Bowie’s every vocal pause. David Sanborn’s saxophone, garrulous and inescapable on earlier tracks like “Young Americans,” is now set back from center stage; Sanborn’s opening line is a gorgeous roller-coaster swirl of notes.

“Win” marks a move away from the loose, jam-inspired material of the Sigma sessions towards a colder, luxurious sound—it’s the track that most seems like a blueprint for Station to Station. It also suggests an end to Bowie’s American soul project. “Things like ‘Win’–the chord structures are much more of a European thing than an American thing,” Bowie said in 1993 (“Win”‘s verses are built mainly on sixth chords–G6, F6, A6).

Bowie’s vocal is more restrained and less would-be-soul boy than on earlier Young Americans tracks: where something like “Fascination” is full of short, rhythmic vocal phrases, “Win” has an extended, meandering vocal melody in the verse, Bowie keeping mainly to his lower register. Where Bowie once was matched and sometimes drowned out by his backing singers, here he keeps them in check. In later chorus repeats he undermines them, growling out his lines in a low, threatening voice.

The verses find the singer and his lover passively vying for control, with a masochistic feel to the proceedings; the chorus, a set of precisely-aimed knife blows, finds the singer rigging his zero-sum game, yet not really caring how it plays out. He sings “all…you’ve got…to do…is…win like a piece of extortion; there’s a marvelous sense of contempt in it, yet Bowie dreamily lingers on the last word, savoring it. Just before the end, Bowie sings “it ain’t over” with a different melody than he’s used in the rest of the song. He’s not nearly exhausted his reserves, and the fadeout comes as a small mercy.

Recorded early-mid December 1974. On Young Americans. Debuted on 1 December 1974 at the Omni in Atlanta, on what would be the last night of the Philly Dogs tour, and its only live performance.

Top: Tammy Hackney, “Death,” ca. 1974-75. Death’s newly unearthed recordings reveal a remarkable missing link between Detroit bands like the Stooges and MC5 from the late 1960s and early ’70s and the high-velocity assault of punk.


November 10, 2010

Funky Music (Is a Part of Me), Mike Garson Band with Luther Vandross (live, 1974).
Funky Music, Luther Vandross, 1976.

The Sigma Sound sessions of August 1974 didn’t produce enough for an album. While there were some obvious winners, like “Young Americans,” other songs hadn’t evolved out of the jam stage, and the sessions, over time, had tended toward the slow and brooding. An album consisting mainly of seven-minute-long soul torch ballads would have been a hard sell, especially for someone still considered a glam rock star by most of the public. So in early December ’74, Bowie and Tony Visconti reconvened most of the original cast (with a new rhythm section) at the Record Plant in New York.

The goal appears to have been to cut some uptempo tracks to leaven the record, especially as “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again),” a track once slated to start off the LP, wasn’t panning out. Bowie struggled to cut a studio version of crowd-pleaser “Footstompin’,” while another inspiration, rewriting a song performed on tour by his backing singer Luther Vandross, proved easier to execute.

Vandross had sung his “Funky Music (Is a Part of Me)” during the opening set of Bowie’s Philly Dogs tour, as part of “the Mike Garson Band” (basically, Bowie’s touring band minus Bowie). Bowie had first heard Vandross’ song during the Sigma sessions, as Vandross sometimes ran his fellow backing singers through it during studio downtime. When Bowie asked Vandross his permission to record “Funky Music,” the latter was incredulous. “What do you mean, ‘let’ you record it. I’m living in the Bronx in a building with an elevator that barely works and you’re asking me to ‘let’ you record one of my songs.” (From Craig Seymour’s Luther: the Life and Longing of Luther Vandross.)

Bowie had picked up on an incongruity between Vandross’ music, with its snaky bass hook, its volleying choruses and the way it teeters on the ominous, and its simple, goofy lyric. “Funky Music” was one of Vandross’ first compositions, and it reflects that: the writer (and singer’s) love of music lets him escape his everyday life; he indulges in a daydream that ultimately would get him out of the Bronx. “Funky Music” is a sales pitch for himself, a classic New York hustle. The line I do the singing, just give me a beat! is pure George M. Cohan.

Bowie’s thoughts on performing music were, by contrast, a bit jaundiced. He also worried he would seem ridiculous singing something called “Funky Music” (“He said he didn’t want to be so presumptuous as to say “funky music” since he was a rock artist,” Vandross said in an early ’80s interview.) So he rewrote “Funky Music” as “Fascination,” turning Vandross’ infatuation into an obsession: the singer consumed by a passion, as much about cocaine (“I’ve got to use her”) as it is sex.

Bowie’s lyrical edits were a light touch, as Bowie kept much of Vandross’ framework (many of the verse lines are Vandross’ originals). He turned the image of the singer walking down the street, dancing and drawing attention to himself whenever he hears a good song, into a darker scenario in which the singer seems to be prowling around looking for a fix. In the chorus, Bowie replaced Vandross’ sales pitch with the telling “How can a heartbeat/live in a fever?”

The arrangement seems roughly the same as how “Funky Music” was performed on stage, with Carlos Alomar (presumably) coming up with another sharp rhythm guitar riff to spar against the opening descending bass hook. An inspired move was to replace David Sanborn’s saxophone with a clavinet, giving the track a harsher, more synthetic sound. It’s in keeping with the song’s overall transformation: dreams coarsened into ambition, then desperation.

Recorded early-mid December 1974. On Young Americans. Vandross recorded “Funky Music” for his first record, 1976’s Luther.

Top: Harry Caul on sax (Coppola’s The Conversation, 1974).

John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)

November 1, 2010

John, I’m Only Dancing (Again).
John, I’m Only Dancing (Again) (live, 1974).

Disco, omnivore of music genres, ingested anything given it. So there were disco records based on Beethoven symphonies, ’40s swing tunes, country stomps, Italian police thriller themes, cartoon noises, and, Bowie’s contribution, glam rock songs.

“John, I’m Only Dancing,” a UK #12 in 1972, hadn’t been released in the US, so Bowie considered it a potential breakthrough single there. It was just a matter of resuiting “John” for the times, the sexual ambiguity of the original making it ideal for a disco revision. Bowie even slotted “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)” as a potential lead-off track for his new record, which at one point was going to be called Dancin‘. As the sessions went on, though, and after Bowie had played “John (Again)” on tour in September-October ’74, his enthusiasm for the remake seemed to cool. The happy appearance of “Fame” at the eleventh hour made “John (Again)” seem a bit redundant, and the latter was left off Young Americans and shelved. In 1979, just as disco was peaking, Bowie issued “John (Again)” as a stand-alone single, and it charted the same as the original.

For “John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)” Bowie fit a new set of verses to the original track’s chorus. While both “Johns” are in the same key, the rhythm, naturally, radically changed in the remake. The original “John” was built on a chassis of chugging acoustic guitar and sharp Mick Ronson interjections, where “John (Again)” is four-on-the-floor classic disco, with Ronson’s signature riff converted to a keyboard line. The original’s constantly moving bassline (which provided the melodic hook in the chorus) was replaced by a repeated four-beat line wedded to the bass drum.

And where the original “John, I’m Only Dancing”‘s two brief verses were miniature character sketches, evoking a world of seedy nightclubs and quick assignations (“I saw you watching from the stairs,” “Annie’s very sweet, always eats her meat”), the remake has five hectoring verses, in which Bowie, spurred by his backing singers, seems like a demented MC, calling back to T. Rex and Chuck Berry hits, getting off the occasional joke (the first line’s pretty good). Where the original “John” constantly moved and evaded, the remake is far more static, the only curveball being a bar of 3/4 that ends each verse.

There’s a feeling everyone is working a bit too hard on the remake—the groove ‘s impressive, but where the original “John” had a sense of space and depth, this track seems cluttered, the playing too agitated, with Bowie venturing into disco burlesque at times. Only the latter half of the track, when the chorus singers urge each other on, Bowie growls out some affirmations, and Carlos Alomar lets loose with some fine rhythm guitar, really seems fit for the dance floor.

Recorded 11-18 August, 20-24 November 1974. Released as RCA BOW 4 (#12) in December 1979 and later collected on ChangesTwoBowie and reissues of Young Americans.

Top: Patrick Davies, “Ric Briggs, a Fashionable High School Student,” 1975.


October 28, 2010

Right (“Never No Turnin’ Back,” early take).

Near the end of Alan Yentob’s documentary Cracked Actor, Bowie is filmed rehearsing a new song. Luther Vandross, Robin Clark and Ava Cherry are gathered in a semi-circle around him, everyone glancing at their lyric sheets as though they’re actors about to go off book. Bowie guides them through the rapids of his call-and-response vocal bridge, and seems delighted and slightly abashed by what he’s done.

“Right,” the song being rehearsed, is the first of Bowie’s Sigma Sound tracks to work primarily as a groove piece, and so marks the break between the early Sigma recordings, which were basically standard Bowie songs with an R&B tinge, and the more committed funk tracks cut later in the sessions (“Fascination,” “Fame”). Where the first batch of Sigma recordings, like “Young Americans” and “It’s Gonna Be Me,” feature Bowie’s usual time shifts and rapid harmonic rhythms, “Right” is only two chords, twined back-to-back, played relentlessly through the song—and structurally “Right” is basically just a repeated chorus (with two sets of lyrics) interrupted only by a 16-bar vocal “breakdown” section and a guitar solo.

‘Right’ is putting a positive drone over. People forget what the sound of Man’s instinct is—it’s a drone, a mantra. And people, say: ‘Why are so many things popular that just drone on and on’. But that’s the point really.

Bowie, 1975.

“Right”‘s relaxed, circular feel is owed mainly to Carlos Alomar’s guitar line, which spreads out over six bars and mirrors the vocal. Willie Weeks’ bass and David Sanborn’s saxophone, the latter thankfully mixed down, churn the rhythm and offer supplementary colors, while Mike Garson, on clavinet*, dedicates himself to the groove. The blissed-out confidence of Bowie’s lead vocal in the first chorus is shaken during the call-and-response section, the singers forcing Bowie out of his comfort zone, making him make his case. Bowie cedes the song to them for its last minute.

First recorded ca. 11-18 August 1974 (a take that got out on bootlegs has “Right” in near-final shape, though Bowie initially sang the opening chorus higher), then recut in November-December ’74. “Right” ended the A side of Young Americans and was never performed live.

Top: Joseph Beuys, “I Like America and America Likes Me,” 1974. (Beuys’ most famous Action took place in May 1974, when he spent three days in a room with a coyote. After flying into New York, he was swathed in felt and loaded into an ambulance, then driven to the gallery where the Action took place, without having once touched American soil. As Beuys later explained: ‘I wanted to isolate myself, insulate myself, see nothing of America other than the coyote.’)

* Is Garson playing a clavinet here? Really sounds like one, but could find no evidence.

Somebody Up There Likes Me

October 26, 2010

Somebody Up There Likes Me.
Somebody Up There Likes Me (live, 1974).

‘Somebody Up There Likes Me’ is a ‘Watch out mate, Hitler’s on his way back’… it’s your rock and roll sociological bit.

David Bowie, NME, August 1975.

Bowie had entered the Seventies fascinated by supermen, dictators and Big Brothers, and the times suited his obsessions. But by mid-decade the old bogeymen seemed to be all going away, as if written out en masse by an author wrapping up an overlong book. Nixon, the Estado Novo, the Greek Junta, Franco, Mao: all gone between 1974 and 1976.

Of course there would be new, grotesque tyrants to come (Idi Amin and Pol Pot were still in early innings), but there was perhaps a moment, around 1975, of exhausted reprieve. Time, a meager but dedicated prosecutor, was ridding the world of its shabby emperors: even those who had died in their palaces were dead all the same. Or, as Bowie sang, carrying the news,

Leaders come, they hate [that] all
the people know,
that given time
the leaders go.

“Somebody Up There Likes Me” seems like Bowie’s recalibration, taking the image of a Futurist superman (which had become a bit shopworn by Diamond Dogs) and reincarnating it as a media figure, a TV “personality,” a handsome politician kissing babies and women, existing purely as an image, capturing the hearts of millions. He’s common (“[he] looked a lot like you and me,” much like how Bowie once described Bob Dylan’s voice), yet he’s also a star-chosen celebrity messiah, his song’s title taken from a Paul Newman boxing film of the ’50s, whose tagline was “a girl can lift a fellow to the skies!”

The ruler promises the same. He flatters his subjects, saying they’re the elect as well, that his celebrity is their doing, that the common people now choose their own deities. It culminates in the title line, which equally could be said by governor or governed; it’s a wedding vow, binding the people to their ruler in a way that makes the old tyrannies seem boorish.

For “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” Bowie reused some of “I Am Divine,” one of his Astronettes compositions. “I Am Divine” is a piece of swagger in which the cocksure singer tries to seduce a girl by telling her how great he is, as though he’s selling futures in himself. The perspective of “Somebody Up There” is third-person, the now-besotted singer making the case for his political messiah, though occasionally visited by doubts. By the chorus, he’s been joined by his backing singers, who pop in and out like advertisements (the piping “what they look like” sounds like a TV station ident).

Bowie’s song is a series of withheld pleasures. Bowie’s voice appears towards the end of an 8-bar intro, apparently signaling the onset of the verse, only to have the saxophone keep going. The chorus is a repeated descending chord progression that’s only broken by a move to F on the title line. And Bowie sings the full title phrase only twice in the six-minute track, while the backing singers often start the line but never quite finish it. When Bowie sings “somebody up there likes me” for the last time, savoring the high notes of “likes,” the song moves into a two-minute coda of exhortations and praise.

For Young Americans, Bowie had wanted to hire MFSB, the Sigma Sound house band, but couldn’t get them due to scheduling conflicts. So tracks like “Somebody Out There” seem like Bowie’s attempts to mimic the MFSB sound, with organ subbing for the string section and the chorus of (primarily) Luther Vandross, Ava Cherry and Robin Clark as the equivalent of the Three Degrees. (David Sanborn’s saxophone has to fill in for MFSB’s entire 10-plus horn section, which gets wearying, but Carlos Alomar on guitar, often hitting on downbeats, gives a needed kick to the track—he holds his own with mainstay MSFB guitarists like Norman Harris).

As with “Right,” another of his Sigma tracks, Bowie uses his vocal chorus in a pinpoint fashion, dropping in a single voice a beat before his lead, dotting his songs with varying interjections—sometimes Vandross or Bowie singing low, sometimes Cherry and Clark soaring up. The track’s sumptuous dedication to pleasure, its slick hedonism put to fascist ends, makes it one of Bowie’s more chilling songs of the period.

Recorded in Philadelphia ca. 11-18 August 1974, and it led off the B-side of Young Americans. Debuted on stage in early October ’74, and part of the setlist for roughly a month.

Top: Washington DC, 8 August 1974.

Who Can I Be Now?

October 21, 2010

Who Can I Be Now?

“Who Can I Be Now?” should have been dedicated to Bowie’s prospective biographers (though no one’s used it for a title yet). While “Changes,” Bowie’s quirky self-assessment from 1971, became the soundtrack of Bowie career clip montages, the outtake “Who Can I Be Now?” is an even more obvious fit, a song in which Bowie seems to assess his talent for fraud, and where he wonders, even as he’s donning his “soul boy” garb, what sort of role to play next.

The lyric also has some faint traces of Gnostic imagery—mankind in chains, being raised in blindness—that Bowie would develop much further in “Station to Station,” though it seems like stage dressing for a man who, unmasked by someone he’s in love with, fears that he might not be able to exist as himself. Unlike its fellow Young Americans outtake “It’s Gonna Be Me,” “Who Can I Be Now?” is fairly restrained in tone and tightly-constructed, with a confident, wide-ranging Bowie vocal and a chorus whose main vocal melody is so basic and sturdy it could support a highway. While there are some flaws (the mix on the chorus is a bit crowded, with David Sanborn’s saxophone apparently determined to fill every last bit of open space), discarding a track like this for the likes of “Across the Universe” was a minor injustice.

Recorded 11-18 August 1974, and cut from the final version of Young Americans; it first appeared on the 1991 Ryko reissue.

Top: Jim Brickett, “Washington Square Park, 1974.”

It’s Gonna Be Me

October 19, 2010

It’s Gonna Be Me.
It’s Gonna Be Me (live, 1974).

“It’s Gonna Be Me,” Bowie’s epic outtake from the Young Americans sessions, is in the same realm as “Can You Hear Me”: both are sung by a wayward man regretting his actions, wondering if he’s left the real thing behind, and slowly circling into obsession, with the chorus serving as reassurance, or possibly only voicing his delusions.

Bowie had done his research before going to Sigma Sound, listening to recent Philly Soul, Aretha Franklin and Al Green records, and tracks like “It’s Gonna Be Me” find Bowie playing with soul conventions, particularly with vocal choruses. In a typical Green track, the chorus is under Green’s complete control, keeping quiet until he gives his cue; so in “Let’s Get Married” it’s only after Green finally reaches his conclusion (“I wanna settle down”) that the chorus rushes in to sing the title phrase. They elaborate on his thought, but they’re only ratifying a decision he’s already made. And in many of Franklin’s classic songs, like “Respect” or “Don’t Play That Song,” the chorus serves as her confidant, backing her plays, urging her on, fueling her indignation.

In “It’s Gonna Be Me,” the backing singers are barely there in Bowie’s three long, tortured verses, cropping up only to softly underline a particular phrase (like “weep over the breakfast tray”). Then they emerge as a support system in the chorus, singing simple, upward-moving lines while Bowie scurries around them. Bowie can barely bring himself to sing the title line, which he nearly mutters in its first appearance, leaving the chorus singers to provide the melodic hook.

With the church-trained Luther Vandross helping to craft the vocal arrangements, it’s easy to argue that the vocal narrative casts Bowie’s lead as a wandering penitent, one eventually reconciled to community in the chorus. Yet there’s often a disunion between Bowie’s vocal and the chorus—they come together, they work together, but there’s still a feeling of estrangement. Bowie seems unable to accept his singers’ reassurances, his jittery phrasing undermines their solidarity. The last verse, in which all but Mike Garson’s piano abandon Bowie, is so brutal, the singer walling himself up in desperate fantasy, that when the singers finally reappear to help Bowie play out the final chorus, it seems like they’re only doing so out of pity.

“It’s Gonna Be Me” initially was considered a central track for Young Americans, and Tony Visconti wrote a typically understated, sumptuous string arrangement once he returned to London in late 1974. But it was cut to make room for Bowie’s collaborations with/homages to John Lennon (“Who Can I Be Now?” also got axed).

Recorded 11-18 August 1974 and performed in some of the late ’74 Philly Dogs shows (the performance linked above is from Los Angeles in Sept. ’74). The studio take wasn’t released until the Ryko CD issue of Young Americans in 1991.

Top: Neil Libbert, “New York,” 1974.

After Today

October 14, 2010

After Today (earlier studio take, fragment).
After Today.

Within days of Bowie starting work at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, a routine had developed. Bowie’s musicians, particularly Mike Garson, David Sanborn and Carlos Alomar, would show up in the late morning or early afternoon and would record overdubs, jam, try out arrangements. Bowie tended to arrive late, around 11 pm, and, fueled by cocaine, would usually work through the following morning. The grueling pace took its toll on many players (Garson recalled being one of the few who had the stamina to endure Bowie’s all-nighters) as well as on Tony Visconti, who had what he thought was a heart attack while driving home from the studio one morning.

Bowie went through the day’s takes upon his arrival, picked what he thought worked, then usually sang live in the studio with his band. The communal, spontaneous nature of the Sigma sessions, with songs often coming together out of jam sessions, played by a free-flowing group of musicians and singers, and with Bowie fans camped outside the studio (he eventually let them come in to hear rough mixes), was a contrast to the Diamond Dogs period, in which Bowie was often isolated, producing and playing much of that record himself.

“After Today” is typical of the freewheeling Sigma sessions, as it was tried out both as a slow, moody ballad and as an uptempo piece, with a take of the latter version eventually released on Bowie’s career retrospective Sound + Vision (the decision seemed to be Rykodisc’s, who preferred the faster take).

Bowie’s decision to sing much of “After Today” in falsetto turned out to be overly ambitious, and likely doomed the song to being an outtake, but “After Today” remains a showcase for Andy Newmark’s drumming. Newmark, who was a replacement behind the kit for both Sly and The Family Stone and Roxy Music, had started out in a ten-piece soul band. His playing was so dynamic that, at an impromptu audition, he got the wasted Sly Stone out of his bed and dancing. Newmark often played a stripped-down kit—a bass drum, snare, hi-hat and one cymbal doing double-duty as a ride and crash—and got a sharp, cracking sound via a tightened snare head and by constantly hitting rim-shots. He once described his sound as being “either super low or super high—super bottom or super top. Everything cuts through the band. The bass drum and the floor tom are like volcanos.” An earlier take of “After Today,” which turned up on the “Shilling the Rubes” tape, has a ferocious 4-bar intro by Newmark that could have kicked off a punk song.

Recorded 13-18 August 1974, though it’s possible the Ryko version was cut later that year. Released on the Sound + Vision boxed set in 1989, but oddly enough “After Today” has never been included on various Young Americans reissues.

Top: Pete Dexter, Philadelphia, 1974.