A-Side: November 2015
David Bowie's final album opens with one of the supreme achievements of his recording career. In writing, performance and production, Blackstar's ten-minute title track is among the most accomplished, adventurous and exquisitely beautiful pieces of music he created. It towers over his legacy, at once illuminating and casting dark new shadows across past and future.
Like a symphony in miniature, "Blackstar" shifts from a stately and funereal opening movement into the bright major key of the central passage, before resolving into a busier, more ornate variant of the opening section. The journey takes place on an ever-changing sea of rhythm, melody and harmony, as complex runs of percussion and time-warping electronic pulses underpin weeping guitars, strings and saxophone, an instrument on which Donny McCaslin plays as magnificent a solo as ever graced a Bowie recording. In and out of this monumental edifice, David's voice swoops and soars, at times fragile and plaintive, at times arch and mocking, at times clear, full-throated and beautiful. The central segment ("Something happened on the day he died...") boasts one of the loveliest melodies that Bowie ever wrote, and he sings it with the same disarming, unadorned clarity that he long ago brought to "Life On Mars?" or "Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud"; elsewhere his voice acquires a playful Ziggy Stardust impishness, and at other times it darkens into the tenebrous multi-tracked tones of Heathen or 1.Outside. From beginning to end, it is an immaculately judged marvel of care, commitment and control.
Like every great Bowie song, "Blackstar" is open to bottomless interpretation. The "solitary candle" which appears in both the lyric and the video is an accessible enough metaphor, echoing back via Elton John and Edna St Vincent Millay to the "brief candle" evoked by Shakespeare's Macbeth, in the same "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech to which Bowie had alluded in "The Next Day". But what of the portentous "Villa Of Ormen"? What are we to make of the moment of quasi-spiritual transformation which occurs at the heart of the song ("Somebody else took his place and bravely cried, 'I'm a blackstar!'")? What, indeed, is a blackstar? Theories will doubtless abound for as long as people listen to David Bowie's music, and there is certainly no shortage of fuel. "Ormen" is a Scandinavian word for "serpent", opening a window onto any number of Biblical, Buddhist or Crowleyan echoes. Perhaps Bowie had in mind the Ormen Lange ("Long Serpent"), a tenth-century Viking longship which features in a grisly tale of religious oppression and death: sagas relate that the Norwegian King Olaf Tryggvason embarked on a mission to convert his fellow countrymen to Christianity, but when a local ruler called Raud the Strong refused and cursed the name of Jesus, King Olaf forced down his throat a serpent, which ate its way out of Raud's torso and killed him. The booty which Olaf confiscated included Raud's ship, which he renamed the Ormen and used as the model for a new vessel, the Ormen Lange, which became one of the most famed and feared of the Viking longships. Perhaps, during the voracious reading of medieval European history which became a passion in his later years, Bowie came across this lurid tale. Or perhaps he did not. We will never know.
Bearing in mind David's previous form, the Aleister Crowley connection can't be dismissed either. In the quasi-Gregorian chant which opens and closes "Blackstar", the repeated mantra "At the centre of it all" strikes a familiar note: it's a line that David had already sung in "Slow Burn", while "Sweet Thing" offers an enticingly close "I'll run to the centre of things". So perhaps it's no coincidence that Crowley's "magick ritual" The Star Sapphire, from his 1913 Book Of Lies, includes the instruction: "Let him then return to the Centre, and so to the Centre of All."
As for "blackstar" itself, there seems no end to the array of suggestive meanings. An archaic term for the planet Saturn; a 2013 science-fiction novel by Josh Viola; an anarchist group active in Greece at the turn of the millennium; a 1981 animated fantasy series about an astronaut stranded on an alien planet; the means by which the starship Enterprise travels through time in the 1967 Star Trek episode Tomorrow Is Yesterday (young David was certainly a fan); a remote canyon in Orange County, California; a 1990s British rock band; a spaceship in the series Babylon 5; the rap duo Mos Def and Talib Kweli; a symbol of Africa that appears on the Ghanaian flag; a sinister military operation in the 1972 George Mackay Brown novel Greenvoe; and that's before we even get to the host of earlier songs called "Blackstar" or "Black Star" - a dozen of them at least - taking in artists from Avril Lavigne to Radiohead. Another potential source was identified by Paul Kinder, curator of the BowieWonderworld site: in the first series of the BBC's period drama Peaky Blinders, first transmitted in 2013, Cillian Murphy's character Thomas Shelby is seen to scribble a black star in his diary. "Black star - what does that mean?" he is asked. "Black star is the day we take out Billy Kimber and his men," comes the reply. Bowie was a devotee of Peaky Blinders and a friend of Cillian Murphy, who presented him with the cap he wore in the first series.
In the light of all this, it behoves the would-be interpreter to keep an open mind and to approach any close readings with caution. That said, three further possibilities present themselves which can't help but resonate. The term "black star" is used by radiologists to describe a particular type of cancer legion, albeit one normally associated with the breast. A black star is also a theoretical construct in the field of semi-classical gravity, an alternative to a black hole and a transitional phase between a collapsing star and a singularity: its predicted interior is a realm in which space and time are subject to strange new laws. The existence of such black stars was not postulated until after the death of the eminent astrophysicist Carl Sagan, but it's certainly no coincidence that the distorted grid illustration in the Blackstar booklet is identical to that used by Sagan to demonstrate the warping of space by black holes in his 1980 series Cosmos; clinching the connection is the NASA Pioneer Plaque included in the Blackstar booklet, which was also conceived and designed by Sagan, a tireless advocate of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. And finally, "Black Star" is an obscure song recorded by Elvis Presley for one of his movies, a 1960 Western which was shot under the same title; but when the film's name was changed to Flaming Star, the song was dropped and it remained unreleased until the 1990s. Belying its jaunty Western beat, Presley's "Black Star" is a grim little number about a man who wishes he could outrun death: "Every man has a black star, a black star over his shoulder / And when a man sees his black star, he knows his time, his time has come." Was Bowie thinking of Elvis? Or of cancer lesions? Or was he back in the universe of 2001: A Space Odyssey, gazing into the metaphysical skies while archly cracking a macabre quantum-physics pun, conflating one kind of collapsing star with another? Quite possibly all of the above. As we contemplate "Blackstar", we must also remember that Bowie had plenty of previous form in this sort of thing. In 1987, discussing the song "Glass Spider", he spoke openly of "fabricating a mock mythology". From the Zi Duang Province to the Villa of Ormen, from Sam Therapy to King Dice, and from Jung the Foreman to the Laugh Hotel, Bowie was no stranger to such mysterious constructions, purposely forged in intangible obscurity.
"Blackstar" began life as two separate melodies, before David hit upon the notion of splicing them together. This was a decision made at the demo stage, before the album sessions began. "It wasn't that they were two separate songs," explained keyboardist Jason Lindner, who first heard the number in demo form when Bowie emailed it to him. "He actually said in the email that we would connect these two parts with a free-form middle bit. That was that. It was a two-part suite rather than two different songs."
The backing track for "Blackstar" was recorded on March 20th 2015 during the third and final tracking session at Magic Shop Studios. According to guitarist Ben Monder, much of the finished track derived from the first take. "There's definitely a fresh energy to it, and that's certainly got something to do with so much of it being a first take," Monder told Premier Guitar. "The song has its two distinct parts, and David basically said, 'Somehow dissolve this into the next section of the tune.' Somehow we did that dissolution perfectly on the first attempt, and that's what you're hearing on the album - no punching-in or anything. We did the middle section separately, but the way it all dissolves into it was totally improvised. There wasn't an effort made to over-polish or overproduce it."
Bassist Tim Lefebvre revealed that "the title track was demoed really well before we got there. That drum pattern was really specific - the first part of it, with all of the droning stuff, is sticking to David's plan. The middle part, where it sort of swings into the major key, that was more improvised. I got pretty loose on that."
The strings were overdubbed at a later stage, as were further guitar contributions by Ben Monder. "The repetitive melodic line in the title track was something I came up with on the overdub date," Monder told Premier Guitar, "and it turned into a recurring theme and an important part of that tune that led the rest of the melody in a lot of ways. So that's pretty thrilling for me." Also added at the overdub stage was Donny McCaslin's fluttering flute over the closing section. McCaslin considered "Blackstar" to be "just an unbelievable tune", and for Lefebvre it was "the peak" of the sessions. "Putting it out as a single - that's pretty ballsy."
Bowie recorded his vocals at Human Studios over three days: April 2nd-3rd and May 15th. It was during post-production that he decided that "Blackstar" was to be the album's first single. The original cut was over 11 minutes in length, but this was edited down to 9'57" when it was discovered that iTunes maintained a policy of not posting tracks for individual sale that exceeded ten minutes. "It's total bullshit," Tony Visconti laughed, "but David was adamant it be a single, and he didn't want both an album version and a single version, since that gets confusing."
In October 2015, six weeks ahead of the November 20th single release, a taste of "Blackstar" was unveiled as the theme music of Sky Atlantic's six-part crime series The Last Panthers, starring John Hurt and Samantha Morton. The show was co-created and directed by Johan Renck, a Swedish-born director whose previous credits included episodes of Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, as well as a string of music videos including Beyoncé's "Me, Myself And I", Madonna's "Hung Up", Kylie Minogue's "Love At First Sight", and The Streets' "Dry Your Eyes". During production of The Last Panthers Renck, a lifelong fan ("I had Bowie posters in my room when I was ten years old"), expressed the desire that David perform the theme music, not for a moment imagining that it might happen; but when his assistant contacted Bowie's office in New York, the response came back within a day or two that David was tentatively interested. "I think I started crying," Renck later admitted.
Not long afterwards Bowie contacted Renck, who was busy filming The Last Panthers. "I took the call when we were shooting in a prison in Suffolk," Renck told the NME, "and we had a very intelligent, sane conversation...I sent him rough cuts of the first two episodes and he really enjoyed those. He asked if there was anything else, so I sent him the mood board I did for the opening credits, featuring images from the show and chimeras and demons from the worlds of Bosch and Grunewald, to which he said, 'Everything fits, everything's right, we should do this'."
Bowie's collaboration with Renck began in late July 2015, two months after the completion of recording, and his observation that "everything fits" meant that he was now resculpting part of the track for Renck's opening titles. "Blackstar" was virtually finished, but not finally mixed, when The Last Panthers project began," Tony Visconti explained. "We assembled different parts of "Blackstar" and used them in different ways to restructure the separate themes the director needed. We recorded some extra guitar and keyboards to make this work. I mixed all the different versions. This was done over the course of three or four days, with constant back-and-forths on Skype with the director in Sweden."
The excerpt of "Blackstar" which accompanies the show's opening titles is a 45" variant of the "day of execution" passage from the early part of the song. (The closing titles play over an instrumental track by the Swedish group Roll The Dice.) "The piece of music he laid before us embodied every aspect of our characters and the series itself," Renck told The Guardian, describing the theme version as "dark, brooding, beautiful and sentimental, in the best possible incarnation of this word. All along, the man inspired and intrigued me and as the process passed, I was overwhelmed with his generosity. I still can't fathom what actually happened."
Bowie was swift to return the compliment: impressed by The Last Panthers, he now invited Johan Renck to direct the video of "Blackstar". Renck had not directed a music video for several years and had considered that part of his career over, but this was an offer he couldn't refuse. "I flew from London to New York and met with him at his office in Soho to listen to the full track," Renck later told The Guardian. "He put his hand on my shoulder and said with a grin, 'I must warn you, it's ten minutes long'. There was no way I could say no. He had this warmth and this infectious smile and I knew it would be an interesting journey." After, a detailed period of pre-production, what Renck described as "a big and complicated shoot...dense and messy", took place in Bucharest and New York in September 2015. David's sequences were completed in a single day at a Brooklyn studio. For the premiere of the film at Brooklyn's Nitehawk Cinema, Tony Visconti was enlisted to create a 5.1 audio mix.
The "Blackstar" film is another of Bowie's masterpieces. The pioneer of rock video is once again at the top of his game, creating with Johan Renck a piece of work which is intriguing, elliptical, and crackling with intelligence, mystery and wit. As much as anything else, it's a work of breathtaking beauty. The painterly lighting, sumptuous art direction and fluid cinematography are, in part, indebted to Bowie's and Renck's shared interest in art-house film directors like Alejandro Jodorowsky, Aleksi German and Andrei Tarkovsky.
In the opening sequence, a spacesuited body lies lifeless in an alien landscape, the sky dominated by an eclipsed sun: a black star, we may assume. A girl approaches - an ordinary girl, but for the tail which protrudes from her dress - and lifts the spaceman's visor to reveal a bejewelled skull. Intercut with these shots, Bowie is unveiled in his new persona: a blind prophet with a bandaged head and buttons in the place of eyes, a shock of silver hair protruding from his dressings. He lurks in some kind of barn or hayloft, the gloom pierced by shafts of sunlight through the planking, and behind him three acolytes jitter and judder as if in some ritualistic trance. The girl carries the skull in a casket through a deserted town towards a sandy area where a circle of women awaits, performing the same trembling dance, while the spaceman's headless skeleton drifts away into space, drawn by the gravitational pull of the black star. As the music dissolves into the second section, we find Bowie in a new guise. Gone are the bandages and the nervous twitch, replaced by a priestly serenity as he holds aloft a tattered book with a black star on the cover. His three disciples gather behind him and together they gaze into the sky, striking a tableau like some latter-day Soviet propaganda poster. Now we find ourselves back in the barn, where Bowie presents a third persona, a grinning maverick striking cocky poses as he delivers the "blackstar, gangstar, filmstar, popstar" interlude. Elsewhere, in a field of lush grasses, three scarecrows writhe on crosses in a macabre parody of the crucifixion. As the music returns to the first movement and the girl delivers the skull to the waiting coven, Bowie reverts to the "Button Eyes" character. The women perform a votive ritual with the skull which appears to summon up a monster, who romps through the field towards the three scarecrows and begins to attack the central one - who now has Bowie's button eyes. Back in the barn Bowie himself falters, staggers and falls as his scarecrow counterpart is devoured. We return to the townscape, where the sky is now flashing with lightning, and we fade to black.
Some of the images in this extraordinary film are unlike anything seen before in a Bowie video; others strike an obvious chord with his past. We need not dwell on his longstanding penchant for spacemen, though we might pause to remark that the yellow "smiley" badge seen on the astronaut's spacesuit looks like a tip of the hat to his son Duncan's film Moon, whose computer GERTY has just such a yellow emoji as its user interface. We might wish to observe that Bowie had played the blind pilgrim more than once before, for example during the Glass Spider tour's "Loving The Alien" routine, and during live performances of "Heathen (The Rays)". The mystic cult and its opaque practices call to mind the ritualistic elements of the video for "The Hearts Filthy Lesson", while the trembling dancers have their forbears in the "Fashion" video. We might remember the "skull enshrined" in "Goodbye Mr. Ed", not to mention the "Cracked Actor" skull routine. We might even remark that the fairytale village bears a striking resemblance to the goblin castle in Labyrinth. The book held aloft by Bowie with the five-pointed star on its cover offers another echo of Aleister Crowley. Renck, himself "a huge Crowley fan", confirmed that he discussed Crowley with Bowie. "David is an extraordinarily well-read man, you know? He's truly brilliant. His depth of references is a chasm. He knows everything, he's stumbled upon everything. And after doing what he's been doing for such a long time, he's still enormously curious, enormously creative in the right sense. Meaning, let's explore, let's try stuff and see what happens."
The video began as a series of drawings by David who, during the pre-production process, broke the news of his illness to Renck. "Over Skype he said, 'I feel I have to tell you this. I'm very ill and I may not make it.' I had been in this playful mood, pitching ideas back and forth with him like giddy 12-year-olds, and I was absolutely shocked. He said, 'I don't even know if by the time we shoot this video you will have to have a replacement for me to perform in it.'"
One of Bowie's first sketches was of the "Button Eyes" character, which may have incorporated an allusion to Neil Gaiman's 2002 novel Coraline and its subsequent film adaptation, in which the characters have sinister button-eyed counterparts in a parallel world. However, as Renck explained, there was another and more grimly practical reason for the "Button Eyes" look: "Bowie didn't know if he would have hair left by the time of the shoot." In the event he did; had he not, the bandages might have covered his head.
"He had a drawing of Button Eyes, which was pretty amazing," Renck told CBC Music. "He had a drawing of a woman kneeling by a man in a spacesuit, and he had a few other drawings, so they're clearly represented in the video." Also clear to Renck was the differentiation of Bowie's characters: "There's Button Eyes, who's introverted, a sort of tormented blind guy. And then we have this other guy who's a flamboyant trickster in the middle of it, selling us the message in the other part of the song." The sinister scarecrows were another of David's ideas, while Renck suggested the mysterious occult rituals, hinting at a pagan rite: perhaps a wake, perhaps a celebration of renewal. As for the leading lady's unusual anatomical feature: "The tail was David's thing," Renck revealed. "All he said was, 'I want a tail on the woman.' And I said, 'Yeah, yeah, I like that.' And he said, 'Yeah, it's kind of surreal.' And that's it!"
The trance-like shuddering movement of the dancers was inspired by the unlikeliest of sources: "David had this idea. He sent me this old Popeye clip on YouTube and said, 'Look at these guys.' When a character is not active, when they're inactive in these cartoons, they're sort of created by these two or three frames that are loops so it looks like they're not just standing there, wobbling. It's typical in those days of animation and stop-motion. You would do that to create life in something that was inactive. So we wanted to see if we could do something like this in the form of dance."
It is entirely understandable that lovers of David Bowie's work should wish to construct a coherent "interpretation" of his videos, particularly when they are as pregnant with imagery as this one. Ever since the days of "Ashes To Ashes", the teasing out of visual references and the piecing together of theories has been a harmless parlour game for the enthusiast. However, to insist upon one reading to the exclusion of others is to do Bowie's art a disservice. As with his lyrics, it is folly to assume that the "Blackstar" video is something to be decoded, as if art were there to be dismantled piece by piece, reduced to its constituent parts and "explained". This absurd Dan Brown-style approach to art is the antithesis of everything that David Bowie ever placed before his audience. During the making of the video, Bowie spoke to Renck about how its imagery would inevitably be discussed and dissected in the media, on fan forums, and perhaps even in self-important books. According to Renck, Bowie said: "The one thing I think is important is to not go into any second-guessing or analysing what these images mean, because they're between you and me. People are going to go head over heels to try to break it down and figure it out across the spectrum, and there's no point in even engaging that."
In the closing minute of "Blackstar", as flute and saxophone jitter around one another like moths before dancing away into the darkness, the bassline falters and the drumbeat slows fitfully. In its dying seconds, the music breaks down to an atonal electronic whine, which continues for a few moments, and then abruptly stops.
Co-written and co-produced by Bowie for Iggy Pop's album of the same name, this excellent experiment in sonic montage is one of the few genuinely ground-breaking songs of Bowie's mid-1980s period. A live version, also co-produced by David, appeared on the B-side of 1987's "Fire Girl" single.
Slated for inclusion in the musical Lazarus but ultimately unused, "Blaze" began life as "Someday", under which title an initial backing track was recorded on February 4th 2015 during the Blackstar sessions. Tracking work continued on March 23rd, with Bowie cutting his lead vocals two months later on May 22nd and 25th, marking his final vocal recordings of the Blackstar sessions. He went out in style: from the opening round of tinkling percussion and distorted babble to the glorious multi-tracked vocal finale, "Blaze" is a pounding, energetic track, wedding the lush instrumentation and sonic idiosyncrasies of the Blackstar house style with the clipped rhythms and art-rock attack of songs like "The Next Day" or "Jump They Say". The lyric finds Bowie returning to his long-cherished motif of space travel as existential metaphor, but where once he offered the grimly resigned determinism of Major Tom's "I think my spaceship knows which way to go", he now carries us aloft on waves of optimism and aspiration: "Someday soon your ship will fly," choruses David, and a mid-song "lift-off" effect is followed by an exuberantly joyful saxophone solo from Donny McCaslin. The title is apt; the Blackstar sessions concluded in a blaze of glory.
BLEED LIKE A CRAZE, DAD
Album: The Buddha Of Suburbia
Ample evidence of Bowie's self-sampling can be found on this track, which sets a creditable Robert Fripp guitar impression against Lodger-style percussion and a bassline ripped straight from "Sister Midnight" via "Red Money". With Mike Garson freewheeling on piano and a lyric quoting Shirley And Company's 1975 hit "Shame Shame Shame" (often said, incorrectly, to have inspired "Fame"), it's a kaleidoscopic reshuffle of Bowie's past over which he delivers a quickfire rap, referring at one point to "where the dead man walks", reminding us that his habit of self-recycling is an ongoing process.
A-Side: September 1984
Download: May 2007
Live: Glass Spider (2007 CD/DVD Release)
Video: Jazzin' For Blue Jean/The Video Collection/Best Of Bowie
Live Video: Glass Spider
Tonight's uneasy fusion of R&B basics with trick-shot percussion, all-pervading saxophones and plonking marimba finally comes good on "Blue Jean", arguably the album's most successful number. It's a great throwaway single in the 1950s-throwback tradition of "The Jean Genie", a track recalled by the title. Based on the classic Eddie Cochran riff found on hits like "Somethin' Else" and "C'mon Everybody" (and thus a replay of Bowie's inspiration for "Hang On To Yourself"). it's also an obvious result of the R&B homework David undertook before the Let's Dance sessions eighteen months earlier. "It was inspired from that Eddie Cochran feeling," he said, "but that of course is very Troggs as well...it's quite eclectic, I suppose. What of mine isn't?" Elsewhere he described "Blue Jean" as "a piece of sexist rock 'n' roll about picking up birds - it's not very cerebral," pretty much summing up the lyric which is little more than a paean to a passing rock-chick.
As Tonight's lead-off single "Blue Jean" went top ten on both sides of the Atlantic - number 6 in Britain, 8 in America - propelled by the most elaborate video Bowie had yet made. A few days after shooting finished, Julien Temple filmed a second, less elaborate video at Soho's Wag Club for a one-off screening at New York's MTV Awards on September 14th 1984. Sporting an alarmingly naff print jacket from Culture Shock and clutching an acoustic guitar, Bowie introduced the song to camera as though it were a live performance (it wasn't; the same backing extras used in Jazzin' For Blue Jean were in attendance, although this time their live vocals were mixed in for the choruses). He introduced his band as "The Aliens" and dedicated the number to "all our friends in the American Empire". This version appeared as a concealed 'Easter Egg' on the Best Of Bowie DVD, as did the full-length Jazzin' For Blue Jean film.
"Blue Jean" was played throughout the Glass Spider and Sound + Vision tours, and made a few reappearances on A Reality Tour. The "Extended Dance Mix" from the 12" single was reissued as a download in 2007.
BLUE TUNES see IT'S TOUGH
Bonus: Hunky Dory
Live: Bowie At The Beeb (Bonus Disc)
Tight, Ziggy-style production and unlikely bassman backing vocals combine on this out-take from the Hunky Dory sessions. Not the finest song of its time, and certainly not up to the prevailing standards of the album, it's a frenetic piece of hippy-flavoured satire in which a nuclear bomb test accidentally leads to all-out war. Bowie called it "a kind of skit on Neil Young", and his querulous high-pitched vocal, not to mention the "old man" who takes centre stage in the lyric, may indeed derive from "Don't Let It Bring You Down", a track on After The Gold Rush, a favourite album of David's at the time. Furthermore, "Right Between The Eyes" is the title of a track on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's post-split live album Four-Way Street, released in April 1971, and David may also have borrowed from Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock" ("I dreamed I saw the bombers riding shotgun in the sky..."); but notwithstanding all the transatlantic echoes, "Bombers" is unmistakably a product both of Britain and of Bowie. Considering that this lyric is contemporaneous with some of his most multi-textured masterpieces it's hard not to smile at vaudeville lines like "the pilot felt quite big-time as the bomb sailed through the air", but then, the fact that David's music-hall streak never fully deserted him is one of the keys to his greatness. Even here there are echoes of Hunky Dory's more substantial concerns, including "a crack in the world" to mirror the "crack in the sky" found in "Oh! You Pretty Things" (it's worth pointing out, too, that Crack In The World was the title of a rather corny 1965 sci-fi movie, in which scientists drilling into the earth's crust nearly bring about the planet's destruction).
Bowie accompanied himself on piano for the rough demo of "Bombers" which has appeared on bootlegs, and again for a BBC session on June 3rd 1971; the latter recording, which now appears on Bowie At The Beeb, offers an alternative ending which presses home Hunky Dory's bookish preoccupation with religious texts and eschatological themes: "Except a man, dear Lord, who looked like you / Used to look / In my holy book". The same lyric was still in evidence at Glastonbury three weeks later. The full studio version (with the revised final couplet "Floating high / Up in the sky") came soon afterwards during the Hunky Dory sessions, and for a while "Bombers" was slated to open the album's second side; a marginally different mix, whose extended fade-out segues into an alternative version of the spoken "Andy Warhol" intro, was included on the rare August 1971 sampler LP. Even after it was dropped from Hunky Dory "Bombers" was being considered for future use, but Ziggy Stardust material it wasn't. On October 20th 1971 Tony Defries submitted the song as a potential single for Peter Noone, who had already recorded two of David's compositions earlier in the same year, but the offer was turned down by Noone's producer Mickie Most.
BORN IN A UFO
Bonus: The Next Day Extra
Delivered after an exceptionally long gestation period, "Born In A UFO" revives Bowie's longstanding sci-fi shtick, albeit through the prism of The Next Day's tendency towards the distractingly familiar: we are of course only a few letters away from the title of a very famous Bruce Springsteen number, a point reinforced by its phrasing within the song, by the "Born To Run" drum quotations, and by the structure of the verses, which recall Bowie's dexterously tumbling delivery in his cover of "It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City". Early in his career Springsteen was touted as the new Bob Dylan, so perhaps it's no coincidence that Bowie also drops a cheeky "no direction home" into the first verse. Sonically though, we're not in Springsteen's world, still less Dylan's. The feel is of late-seventies new wave in general (there are hints of early Elvis Costello and Talking Heads), and of Lodger in particular - and with good reason. "Born In A UFO" is developed from an unreleased track recorded in 1978 during the Lodger sessions. "The original is very wild, kind of unnerving," explained Tony Visconti, while conceding that it was "not up to our usual standard". None of the original Lodger track survives in "Born In A UFO", which is a complete re-recording, but Bowie played the piece to his musicians before the session. "My jaw dropped when he played it," said drummer Zachary Alford, "because I could hear Dennis Davis in there."
Alford and bassist Gail Ann Dorsey played on the initial backing track, which was cut on May 5th and 10th 2011 during the first block of sessions for The Next Day. Dissatisfied with this version, Bowie set the number aside until the following year, when it was re-recorded from scratch on July 23rd 2012, now with Sterling Campbell on drums and Tony Visconti on bass, while Earl Slick provided what Visconti described as a "very Andalusian" guitar solo. This is the version that was released on The Next Day Extra, David recording his lead vocal on September 26th 2012.
If the soundscape harks back to the seventies, the new-minted lyric plunges us headlong into a science-fiction B-movie of the 1950s: "I pulled into the glade and watched the saucer land / She glided through the mist in an A-line skirt." Bowie's alien visitor wears 'Perugia shoes' (the French shoe designer André Perugia postulated in his book From Eve To Rita Hayworth that a woman's inner nature could be revealed by studying her feet), and is "all Courréges, geometric face, electric skin, plastic and lace" (the French fashion designer André Courréges was noted for his cutting-edge futuristic designs during the 1960s). Before long our extraterrestrial visitor has the narrator "cornered...against the trees", apparently in the pursuit of a spot of interplanetary detente. "She was not like other girls," deadpans David at the start of each chorus.
Like all Bowie "alien" songs, there's metaphor at play here. "Born In A UFO" can be taken at face value as a night to remember with a lady from space, but it can also be read as a flying-saucer variant on the celebrated passage in Plato's Symposium in which Aristophanes defines love as the desire to reunite with our long-lost halves, split asunder by the gods during antiquity (the same story forms the basis of "The Origin Of Love", a song in the rock musical Hedwig And The Angry Inch, of which Bowie was a fan). "I was born under a stone / We were born with a single voice / She was born in a UFO," sings Bowie. Aristophanic philosophy with a space-age spin, or a particularly daft episode of The Outer Limits? The choice is yours.
BORN OF THE NIGHT
In May 1965 Davie Jones and The Lower Third recorded several demos at Denmark Street's Central Sound Studios, including covers of The Yardbirds' "I Wish You Would" and James Brown's "I Don't Mind", and David's own composition "Born Of The Night". The latter was touted as a single in a brazenly confident press release that Davie typed at home and sent to dozens of agents, bookers and promoters: "THE LOWER THIRD - THE group to watch this year. Gaze on, as their record, BORN OF THE NIGHT (released shortly), rushes up the charts. Stand astounded at their brilliant backings for Davie. TEA-CUP on lead. DEATH on bass. LES on drums." The press release went on to claim that Davie was about to reappear on BBC2's Gadzooks! It's All Happening. He wasn't; "Born Of The Night" was rejected by producer Shel Talmy, and went no further than the demo stage.
BOSS OF ME (Bowie/Leonard)
Album: The Next Day
One of the few tracks from The Next Day on which Bowie shares a songwriting credit, "Boss Of Me" was born at guitarist Gerry Leonard's house in the summer of 2011, some weeks after the completion of the first block of recordings. "That summer, he came up to visit me in Woodstock," Leonard told Rolling Stone. "He asked me if I had a drum machine. He said, 'Okay, I'll come over for coffee and maybe we'll do a little more writing." I didn't actually have a drum machine, so I ran over to my friend's house. He has a nice old Roland TR-808. I said, 'Ed, I'm borrowing your drum machine. I can't tell you what for, but I need to take it right now.' David came over and we wrote a couple of songs together."
The two songs in question were "I'll Take You There", destined to become a bonus track, and "Boss Of Me", which was subsequently tracked at Magic Shop on September 14th 2011, Bowie recording his lead vocal two months later on November 26th. Gerry Leonard's principal songwriting contribution to "Boss Of Me" was the central riff and distinctive chord structure, with its unusual use of a flattened fifth. With the Woodstock demo re-recorded at Magic Shop, Ed's drum machine was replaced by Zachary Alford, while Tony Levin contributes some superb bass work on the Chapman Stick, a change of instrument which was suggested by Alford: "I remember specifically thinking, oh, this one sounds kind of funky," Alford later told Rolling Stone. "Wouldn't it be great if he played the Stick? I suggested that, and Tony wasn't thrilled with that, because there were a lot of chord changes. He doesn't like to do songs with chord changes on the Stick, but everybody thought it sounded great. That sounded almost Peter Gabriel-like, like something from the "Big Time" era."
Also of note are Steve Elson's meaty contribution on baritone sax, and Tony Visconti's sing-song recorder during the bridge, softly evoking the sax-and-recorder section in "Moonage Daydream". All in all, it's as smart as any of The Next Day's backing tracks. Nonetheless, "Boss Of Me" is arguably one of the album's weaker moments; certainly it's one of the most bewildering. For one thing, it's guilty of a syndrome that raises its head more than once across the album: the title is irksomely unoriginal. Chris O'Leary advances an ingenious suggestion that it might have been inspired by a piece of Gerry Leonard's guitar kit - the Boss ME-80 effects processor - but there's no escaping the fact that "Boss Of Me" was already the title of a Grammy-winning hit by alt-rock darlings They Might Be Giants, familiar to millions as the theme song of the Fox sitcom Malcolm In The Middle. The slang usage "you're not the boss of me" has been traced as far back as the nineteenth century, but its currency in popular culture was boosted into the realm of cliché by Malcolm In The Middle. Bowie's redeployment of it in 2013 feels disappointingly behind the beat.
A more pressing issue is the lyric, which is by some distance the most bland and banal that The Next Day has to offer. Bowie sings it beautifully, but the words seem hackneyed and inconsequential - and, in the repetitious chorus, peculiarly sexist: "Who'd have ever thought it, who'd have ever dreamed / That a small town girl like you would be the boss of me?" Autobiographical readings of Bowie's lyrics are generally to be avoided, so we should resist assuming that David is addressing his wife - or, perhaps a trifle more charmingly, his daughter. Intriguingly, the three words assigned to this song in Bowie's "work flow diagram" for The Next Day are "displaced", "flight" and "resettlement", suggesting a subtext that isn't immediately obvious. If the small town girl is someone who has left the land of her birth far behind ("You look at me and you weep for the free blue sky / I look to the stars as they flicker and float in your eyes / And under these wings of steel the small town dies"), then the inanity of the chorus only seems more deflating. We're left with a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Or to put it more bluntly (and, for the post-Tin Machine Bowie, almost uniquely): nice song, shame about the lyrics.
BOTH GUNS ARE OUT THERE
This semi-instrumental funk out-take (the title is far from official) was recorded by Bowie with his former Space Oddity guitarist Keith Christmas, who tells Christopher Sandford that he was called to a session in Hampstead a year after he had pulled out of the Diamond Dogs tour. This seems unlikely, as Bowie was in America throughout 1975; perhaps it was in May 1976, during the UK leg of the Station To Station tour. According to Christmas, Bowie later 'nicked' the riff for Black Tie White Noise.
BOYS KEEP SWINGING (Bowie/Eno)
A-Side: April 1979
Video: The Video Collection/Best Of Bowie
Interpreted by some as a message of optimism for Bowie's seven-year old son Joe, by others as a tongue-in-cheek assault on male chauvinism, and by everyone as evidence of an enduring preoccupation with blurring the boundaries of gender (the line "When you're a boy, other boys check you out" is open to a variety of readings), "Boys Keep Swinging" was a particular favourite with the critics on its release. Smash Hits, which in April 1979 was only a few months old and still a serious-minded magazine specialising in new wave music, called it "his best in ages". Even so, the song's gleeful dismantling of gender stereotypes was lost on many: "The glory was ironic," Bowie remarked in 2000. "I don't think there's anything remotely glorious about being either male or female."
In an effort to suggest "young kids in the basement just discovering their instruments", Bowie made his musicians swap roles on the track: guitarist Carlos Alomar moved to percussion with deliciously garage-like results, while drummer Dennis Davis attempted to play the bass part, although his contribution was ultimately deemed a little too rough and ready, and was later replaced by an overdub from Tony Visconti: "I played an over-the-top bass part on the song," the producer later recalled, "in the spirit of The Man Who Sold The World." As for Bowie himself, "Boys Keep Swinging" offers the first significant showcase of a vocal style that would dominate his recordings well into the 1980s: the mockingly butch faux-Elvis baritone later deployed to such explosive effect on tracks like "Let's Dance" (and, when unwisely transmuted into an all-out croon, to much toe-curling embarrassment on the likes of "God Only Knows"). Guitarist Adrian Belew later recalled that after David had recorded his vocals for the song in New York, "He played it to me and said, 'This is written after you, in the spirit of you.' I think he saw me as a naive person who just enjoyed life. I was thrilled with that."
"Boys Keep Swinging" is remembered as much for its video as for the song itself. The first of Bowie's many collaborations with director David Mallet, it's the earliest substantial specimen of his espousal of rock video which, during the early 1980s, would become an inextricable part of his creative process. Mallet, a restless pioneer of cutting-edge video technology who had made his name on innovative American TV shows like Hullabaloo and Shindig, was directing Thames Television's The Kenny Everett Video Show when Bowie appeared to perform "Boys Keep Swinging" on the April 23rd 1979 edition. The show was renowned in industry circles for Everett's outrageous experiments with techniques like chromakey and Quantel, as well as for his anarchically disrespectful behaviour towards the big-name guests he invariably attracted. On this occasion Everett's "Angry of Mayfair" character (an apoplectic bowler-hatted city gent whose rear view revealed a penchant for woman's lingerie) chased the hapless Bowie around the studio yelling, "Look at you, you lily-livered mincer! I was in the war, but I didn't see you there. I fought for people like you - and I never got one!"
The lasting legacy of Bowie's appearance on the Everett show was his decision to hire Mallet for the "Boys Keep Swinging" promo, which was recorded back-to-back with the Everett performance. Both starred a fresh-faced schoolboy Bowie in a 1950s Mod-style suit, but it was the video that added the three glamorous lady backing singers who, through the magic of split-screen, each turn out to be David in drag. At the end of the clip the first two approach the camera in turn, remove their wigs and ferociously smear their make-up in the style David had observed at Romy Haag's Berlin nightclub. "That was a well-known drag act finale gesture which I appropriated," he said. "I really liked the idea of screwing up [the] make-up after all the meticulous work that had gone into it. It was a nice destructive thing to do - quite anarchistic." Variations on the lipstick-smearing motif appear in many later Bowie videos, including "China Girl" and "Jump They Say". The final figure, a dowdy and severe lady in tweeds (intended, Bowie confessed, to lampoon his Just A Gigolo co-star Marlene Dietrich), merely glares at the camera and blows a kiss. Incidentally, five years later David Mallet was responsible for rock's even more famous megastars-in-drag video, Queen's "I Want To Break Free".
The publicity drive, which also included a guest DJ spot an Radio 1's Star Special, pushed "Boys Keep Swinging" to number 7 after it had already begun falling, giving Bowie his biggest hit since "Sound And Vision". But the gender-bending video and ambiguous lyric proved too much for the poor souls at RCA America, who decided against a US release - an exact repeat of the "John, I'm Only Dancing" fiasco seven years earlier. Considering the transatlantic enormity of Village People's less than heterosexual smash "YMCA" only a few weeks earlier, it seems almost incredible.
"Boys Keep Swinging" was among the numbers performed in Bowie's famous 1979 Saturday Night Live appearance; surprisingly, its only other live outing was for 1995's Outside tour. Struggling Dundee hopefuls The Associates released an exuberant cover version in October 1979 in a deliberate attempt to infringe copyright and get themselves noticed; the ploy worked and led to the band's first contract. Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles included a cover on her 1991 solo album When You're A Boy; this version later appeared on David Bowie Songbook. Damon Albarn described Blur's heavily indebted 1997 single "M.O.R." as a tribute to "Boys Keep Swinging", and following legal rumblings, subsequent releases credited it to Blur/Bowie/Eno. In 2007 Bowie's original recording was included in the soundtrack of the coming-of-age drama 32A, while in 2009 Sarah Harding of Girls Aloud recorded a cover for the soundtrack of St Trinian's 2: The Legend Of Fritton's Gold. In the same year, A Camp performed the song live and released a studio version on their Covers EP, while in 2010 two further recordings were released as singles: the first was by Chicago band Mr Russia, and the second by Duran Duran, whose cover initially appeared on the same years's War Child album We Were So Turned On before becoming a limited-edition double A-side single with Carla Bruni's "Absolute Beginners".
This 1966 US hit for Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels was performed live by The Buzz.
BREAKING GLASS (Bowie/Davis/Murray)
Live: Stage/A Reality Tour
A-Side: November 1978
Australian A-Side: November 1978
Download: February 2006
Live Video: Serious Moonlight
Little more than a bizarre song-fragment, and in its original form one of the shortest Bowie tracks, "Breaking Glass" epitomises the experimental nature of the Low project. According to Tony Visconti, Bowie suffered from acute writer's block during the Low sessions. Encouraged by Brian Eno to turn every circumstance to good advantage, he ended up with songs like this, less than two minutes long and with only the sketchiest lyric. "The feeling around was that we'd edit it together," explained Eno, "and turn it into a more normal structure, and I said, 'No, don't - leave it abnormal, leave it strange, don't normalise it'." So "Breaking Glass" makes a virtue of its brevity, etching out a sharp, disturbing portrait of a half-demented lover before imploding in a blast of synthesizers. Of particular note is the simultaneous menace and absurdity of the line "Don't look at the carpet, I drew something awful on it" - initially farcical, the image twists nastily in the light of David's unwholesome preoccupation with Kabbalistic symbols like the Tree Of Life (which he was photographed drawing on the floor a few months earlier - see the rear sleeve of Rykodisc's Station To Station reissue). Asked about this interpretation, Bowie confirmed that "it is a contrived image, yes. It refers to both the Kabbalistic drawings of the Tree Of Life and the conjuring of spirits."
The song is among the Low tracks celebrated in "I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass", a top ten hit for Nick Lowe in 1978. Flagrantly borrowing the bassline of "Sound And Vision" and the tinkling piano of "Be My Wife", Lowe pays enjoyable homage to Bowie's new-wave pioneering but never goes quite so far as plagiarising it. Ever the wag, Lowe had reacted to the release of Low in 1977 by issuing an EP called Bowi.
A rare 2'47" version of the original studio track was released as a single in Australia and New Zealand in 1978; like the same year's 12" edit of "Beauty And The Beast", the extra length was created simply by splicing in a repeated verse. Bowie performed "Breaking Glass" on the Stage, Serious Moonlight, Outside, Heathen and A Reality tours; the excellent Stage version was released as an EP single, while an audio mix of the Serious Moonlight recording was released as a download in 2006 to promote the concert's DVD release. 2010's A Reality Tour CD includes a live performance recorded in Dublin on November 23rd 2003 which was omitted from the DVD release of the same name.
BRILLIANT ADVENTURE (Bowie/Gabrels)
The avant-rock numbers that close 'hours...' are punctuated by this frail instrumental which, like "New Angels Of Promise", is instantly evocative of "Heroes". In this case the models are the doomy melody of "Sense Of Doubt" and the fragile koto of "Moss Garden", forming the basis of a haunting Eastern melody of beguiling simplicity.
BRING ME THE DISCO KING
Live: A Reality Tour
Video: Reality (Tour Edition DVD) DualDisc
Live Video: A Reality Tour/Reality (Tour Edition DVD)
Originally essayed during the Black Tie White Noise sessions, and re-recorded as a potential Earthling track four years later, "Bring Me The Disco King" was finally brought to fruition on Reality. "That was written in 1992 and it was going to be part of Black Tie White Noise," Bowie confirmed in 2003, "but I wanted it to sound cheesy and kitschy, and be a kind of real uptempo, disco-y kind of slam at late seventies disco. And the trouble is, it sounded cheesy and kitschy, ha ha! It just didn't work. It didn't have any weight to it. I tried it again in the mid-nineties, and it still didn't work. So I thought, 'Well, I know there's something good about this song, but I'm not quite sure what it is.' So Garson and I just stripped it down completely, with the intention of building the arrangement back up again when we'd gotten to the essential song itself. But once we'd put down the song against Garson tinkering away, it didn't need anymore. That was the song. It worked so much better just like that."
Following hard upon the raucous guitar-led assault of Reality's title track, "Bring Me The Disco King" initially seems incongruous, but its stately presence succeeds in binding the album together. It's one of the most idiosyncratic and strikingly dramatic numbers in the entire Bowie songbook, and it is not difficult to see why David bided his time with it. The earliest versions remain unreleased; re-recorded for Reality it finds its natural home, confidently taking its place among Bowie's classic album-closers.
Running to nearly eight minutes, it is also one of Bowie's longest studio tracks: a leisurely, confident excursion into a sophisticated New York jazz sound which allows pianist Mike Garson to take centre-stage in a dazzling display of what he does best, rivalling even "Aladdin Sane" as a masterclass in his particular talent. "It is pointless to talk about his ability as a pianist - he is exceptional," Bowie observed in 2003. "However, there are very, very few musicians, let alone pianists, who naturally understand the movement and free thinking necessary to hurl themselves into experimental or traditional areas of music, sometimes, ironically, at the same time. Mike does this with such enthusiasm that it makes my heart glad just to be in the same room with him." Garson's performance on "Bring Me The Disco King" is inspired, the audaciously sparse production allowing it to inhabit and define the song. The remaining instrumental backing consists merely of Matt Chamberlain's echoing snare drum and an ambient, rhythmic hiss, as if of a smoke-machine periodically exhaling in a deserted club.
The arrangement came together in the most roundabout of ways, beginning not with the piano but with the percussion, which was in fact recorded during the Heathen sessions: listen carefully and you'll hear that it is a looped version of the drum part from "When The Boys Come Marching Home". "That's the only track on the album where we utilise the drumming of Matt Chamberlain, even though he was playing to a completely different song," Tony Visconti explained. "The way that he played was so seductive, so melodic and so beautiful, that we just recorded "Disco King" over the loops that I'd made of his performance."
Only after recording his vocal over the drum loops did Bowie enlist Mike Garson to complete the track. "He called me in," explained Garson, "and all he played for me was a drum loop and his voice, and he said, 'Show me the chords and play the piano over that,' and I came up with this whole arrangement." As on "The Loneliest Guy", Garson then re-recorded the part in his home studio, although on this occasion Bowie elected to use the original Looking Glass recording: "I took the MIDI file home, recorded onto my piano, and ultimately he decided he liked the synth sound better - the Yamaha S-90 keyboard," explained Garson, "so that's what's on there."
"Bring Me The Disco King" blends perfectly with the themes that run throughout Reality, offering an elegiac twist on the album's now familiar meditations on creeping age, squandered opportunities, thwarted lives and impending dissolution. The fragmentary images conjure up a time of wasteful, superficial glamour: there's precious little rosy nostalgia in Bowie's chilly recollections of "killing time in the seventies" with "good-time girls", spending "cold nights under chrome and glass" and seeing "damp morning rays in the stiff bad clubs."
The opening line, "You promised me the ending would be clear / You'd let me know when the time was now", revives the title track's weary acceptance of life's chaotic disorder, and also it's morbid anticipation of mortality. Again like the title track, the lyric offers an immediate echo of "My Death": Jacques Brel's "But whatever lies behind the door / There is nothing much to do" here becomes Bowie's "Don't let me know when you're opening the door". There are other echoes too: the repeated refrain of "Don't let me know we're invisible" and the cry of "Soon there'll be nothing left of me" both revive the depressive anxiety of earlier songs like "Conversation Piece" ("I'm invisible and dumb, and no-one will recall me").
As if recognising its pivotal significance in the Bowie oeuvre, many press reviews of Reality singled out the track for particular praise. Rolling Stone hailed it as "another of Bowie's ambivalent farewells to the era in which he wreaked such havoc 'in the stiff bad clubs / Killing time in the seventies.' The difference is he now knows that time is killing him, and all of us, and that the Disco King, that master of revels who promised eternal life on the dance floor, is nowhere to be found."
Bowie's vocal is perhaps his finest on the album, delivering a polished, evocative lyric with depth and conviction. As he slides through the spine-tingling succession of images there's a palpable sense that this song means a great deal to him, and the result is a magnificently dramatic creation: luminous, sinister, intriguing and ultimately uplifting. From lyrics to production to performance, this is quintessential Bowie: the kind of recording that no other artist could ever come close to delivering.
"Bring Me The Disco King" became the first Reality song to be released, albeit in a radically different form. Two weeks ahead of the album, the so-called "Loner Mix" appeared on the soundtrack CD of the chic, Matrix-indebted horror movie Underworld. Heavily reworked under the auspices of the film's music supervisor, Nine Inch Nails guitarist Danny Lohner (hence, presumably, "Loner Mix"), the Underworld version discards Mike Garson's piano in favour of a lush arrangement for strings, guitar and keyboards. Lead guitar is played by John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, while keyboards are courtesy of erstwhile Bowie sessioner Lisa Germano. Most startlingly, and least successfully, some passages of Bowie's vocal are re-sung by Maynard James Keenan, who performs elsewhere on the film's soundtrack. Despite these unlikely blandishments the "Loner Mix", although lacking the purity and drama of the Reality version, is undeniably impressive, and it's a pity that its appearance in the movie itself is restricted to a few bars of the intro.
"Bring Me The Disco King" was a regular highlight of A Reality Tour, opening the encores on most of the initial European dates. A full-length and wonderfully sinister video clip, in which Bowie discovers his own body lying in an autumnal forest lit by a disco glitter-ball, was included in the Reality promotional film.
BRUSSELS see SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET