B | The Songs From A to Z | B

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H| I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | WY | Z

BAAL'S HYMN (Brecht/Muldowney)

  • A-Side: February 1982

  • Compilation: Sound + Vision (2003)

  • Download: January 2007

The first track on the Baal EP cobbles together Brecht's "Hymn Of Baal The Great", which appears in the play as a series of disconnected verses between the vignetted scenes of Baal's life. It's an unsentimental account of Brecht's hard-hearted romantic and his amoral philosophies, peppered with images of the overarching sky that inspires, nourishes and oppresses him.

BABY (Pop/Bowie)

Produced and co-written by Bowie for Iggy Pop's The Idiot, "Baby" appeared on the B-side of Iggy's unsuccessful singles "Sister Midnight" and "China Girl" in 1977. A cover version by Joan As Police Woman was included on her 2009 CD Cover. The title "Baby" has also appeared on bootlegs, incorrectly, to describe Bowie's unrelated 1965 demo "Baby That's A Promise".

BABY CAN DANCE

Album: Tin Machine

B-Side: October 1989

Download: May 2007

Live: Best Of Grunge Rock

"Baby Can Dance" partially redeems the tiresome second half of Tin Machine with some excellent lead guitar and one of the best tunes on the whole record. Bowie seems to be calling the shots here; he wrote the track alone and it recalls older compositions, with a guitar intro building on the 1988 version of "Look Back In Anger" and a rhythmic verse structure reminiscent of "Modern Love". There's even a reminder of an obscure 1971 out-take as he declares "I'm the shadow-man, the jumping jack, the man who can and don't look back." Even the title, for once, is pure Bowie. Unfortunately, as with so many Tin Machine recordings, "Baby Can Dance" over-eggs its pudding with, to mix one's muso-culinary metaphors, an excessive jam session. Reeves Gabrels and Hunt Sales slip their moorings and the album grinds to a halt with yet another overdose of pointless feedback and prattling drums.

     "Baby Can Dance" featured on both Tin Machine tours. A 1989 live version recorded in Paris appeared on the B-side of the "Prisoner Of Love" single and was later reissued as a download; another live recording, from Hamburg in 1991, was released exclusively on the US compilation Best Of Grunge Rock.

BABY, IT CAN'T FALL (Pop/Bowie)

Co-written and co-produced by Bowie for Iggy Pop's Blah-Blah-Blah, "Baby, It Can't Fall" was released as the B-side of the "Shades" single.

BABY LOVES THAT WAY

  • B-Side: August 1965

  • Compilation: Early On (1964-1966)

  • B-Side: September 2002

  • Download: January 20007

The B-side of David's first single with The Lower Third was, he admitted, a homage of sorts to Herman's Hermits, whose singer Peter Noone would later enjoy success with the cover of "Oh! You Pretty Things". The lyric, about a girl who "treats me good each and every night" but "fools around" with other men "who treat her like a worn-out toy", hints at the sleazy sexuality of his later work. The backing vocals were apparently meant to suggest monastic chanting, perhaps the earliest intimation of a Buddhist motif in David's music. The group was joined in the chanting by two studio engineers, producer Shel Talmy and manager Les Conn who, according to drummer Phil Lancaster, was "really out of tune".

     An excellent new version of "Baby Loves That Way" was recorded during the Toy Sessions in 2000, eventually seeing release two years later as a B-side of the Japanese "Slow Burn" CD and the European single "Everyone Says 'Hi". An unreleased mix of the Toy version leaked online in 2011 is marginally different, lacking the opening drum roll and featuring some studio banter scattered through the song. The original 1965 version can be found on Early On and the EP Bowie 1965!.

BABY THAT'S A PROMISE

This Bowie composition was demoed with The Lower Third at R G Jones Studios in October 1965, and a scratchy copy of the 2'19" recording has appeared on bootlegs (often under the incorrect titles "Baby" and "That's A Promise"). An inessential sample of Kinks-flavoured R&B, its most notable feature is a brief and unexpected preview of David's full-blown Young Americans falsetto. "Baby That's A Promise" was among the songs played by The Lower Third at their unsuccessful BBC audition on November 2nd 1965; the talent selection group's report noted curtly that the song was "very weird".

BABY UNIVERSAL (Bowie/Gabrels)

  • Album: Tin Machine II

  • A-Side: September 1991

  • Live Video: Oy Vey, Baby - Tin Machine Live At The Docks

Driven by Tin Machine's rock 'n' roll fundamentalism but packed with retroactive gestures towards Bowie's early 1970s music, the opening track of Tin Machine II is one of the band's finest achievements. The previous album's deliberately grotty production style is swept away by a sophisticated multi-track mix, blending a trademark Bowie double-octave vocal with a lead guitar reminiscent not only of Tin Machine favourites Pixies, but also of Mick Ronson's work on the Ziggy Stardust version of "Holy Holy". The lyric, too, tips a wink at the visionary sci-fi apocalypse of "Starman" or "Oh! You Pretty Things": "Hallo humans, can you feel me thinking / I assume you're seeing everything I'm thinking / Hallo humans, nothing starts tomorrow..." The track provides a template for later solo projects; the lyric ("chaos", "dust", "hallo humans") would be heavily recycled for "Hallo Spaceboy", while the underscoring vocal mantra is revisited in "Looking For Satellites".

     "Baby Universal" became Tin Machine's final single in October 1991. Like its predecessor the CD came in a round tin, while the 12" included a pull-out reproduction of the censored US album sleeve. Both formats featured tracks from Tin Machine's BBC session - including a new version of "Baby Universal" - recorded on August 13th. The video mingled archive shots with live footage from Tin Machine's Los Angeles Airport gig on August 25th. The single barely scraped the top 50, despite a live preview on BBC1's Paramount City on August 3rd and a memorable appearance on Top Of The Pops, which was then going through a much-publicised phase of compulsory live performance. If nothing else this allowed Tin Machine to demonstrate their live credentials at a time when many chart bands were making fools of themselves; it also allowed a clueless presenter to introduce the song as "Baby Unusual".

     In 1992 the song appeared in the soundtrack of Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth. That Bowie regarded "Baby Universal" as worthy of greater exposure was confirmed in 1996 when it featured on the Summer Festivals tour, becoming one of the few Tin Machine numbers to earn itself a place in his solo repertoire. In the same year a new studio version was taped during the Earthling sessions. "I thought "Baby Universal" was a really good song and I don't think it got heard," said David before the album's release. "I didn't really want that to happen to it, so I put it on this album...I think this version is very good." Plans changed, however, and the Earthling version remains unreleased. In 2008, four previously unheard mixes of the original Tin Machine recording were leaked online, including one featuring a fake baby's cry reminiscent of "Magic Dance", but any other differences are very minor and will be of interest only to the most devoted collector.

BACK TO WHERE YOU'VE NEVER BEEN (Hill)

Composed by Bowie's erstwhile Turquoise colleague Tony Hill, and recorded at Trident on October 24th 1968, this number was initially intended to be the B-side of the proposed Turquoise single "Ching-A-Ling", taped the same day. Lead vocal was sung by Hill himself, while Bowie and Hermione Farthingale provided backing vocals. However, following Hill's replacement by John Hutchinson and the renaming of the group as Feathers, the track was relegated to the vaults and was believed lost for many years, until a reel tape together with an acetate dated October 31st 1968 were discovered in the archives of Onward Music.

BACKED A LOSER

Co-produced and arranged by Bowie for Dana Gillespie's 1974 album Weren't Born A Man, the unremarkable "Backed A Loser" is often listed as a Bowie composition despite some uncertainty surrounding its authorship. The track was later included on the 2006 compilation Oh! You Pretty Things.

THE BALLAD OF IRA HAYES (LaFarge) see ARE YOU COMING? ARE YOU COMING?

BALLAD OF THE ADVENTURERS (Brecht/Muldowney)

  • B-Side: February 1982

  • Download: January 2007

The third track on the Baal EP is a bitterly aggressive song sung by Baal in a public bar just before he stabs his friend Eckart to death. "Another bucket of sentiment for the coal merchant" is the script's cruelly Brechtian opinion of the number. Infused with Baal's customary sky-imagery, it is in part a meditation on his dead mother, doubtless fuelled by the fact that Brecht's own mother died while he was writing the play.

BANG BANG (Pop/Kral)

  • Album: Never Let Me Down

  • US Promo: 1987

  • Live: Glass Spider (2007 CD/DVD Release)

  • Video: Glass Spider

Never Let Me Down closes with the last in Bowie's long line of 1980s Iggy Pop covers. "Bang Bang" was written with former Patti Smith collaborator Ivan Kral for inclusion on Iggy's 1981 album Party, from which it was culled as a single in the same year. Bowie's version isn't a patch on the original, substituting a dull AOR arrangement in place of Iggy's energetic rock-out, but it's fun to hear David's full-on vocal impersonation of his friend ("Y'all ought to be in pictures!"). If nothing else, "Bang Bang" meshes successfully with Never Let Me Down: "angels" have already turned up on "Day-In Day-Out" and there's a reprise of the synthesized sitar from "Zeroes", while the arch adolescent symbolism matches the album's prevailing style of dumb rock 'n' roll ("Rockets shooting up into space / Buildings they rise to the skies"). Ultimately, though, this is a drab cover which ends the album not with a bang but a whimper.

     "Bang Bang" was performed throughout the Glass Spider tour. A live version recorded in Montreal on August 30th 1987 was released as a US promo CD, before reappearing alongside the rest of the Montreal gig on 2007's Glass Spider live album.

BARS OF THE COUNTY JAIL

  • Compilation: Early On (1964-1966)

Despite verging on the whimsical, this mid-1965 acoustic demo offers a significant early instance of a Bowie lyric that jettisons R&B's standard boy-meets-girl subject matter. It's a serio-comic tale of a man wrongly accused of murder who will face the gallows at dawn, and although it's hardly "Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud" it suggests an awakening interest in the idea that a song could be rooted elsewhere than in the mundanity of suburban romance. The demo itself is unimpressive, with ragged backing vocals and mistimed hand-claps aplenty, but the combination of a folksy sound with an almost vaudevillian sensibility is another signal that Davey Jones was already growing impatient with the derivative nature of his released recordings to date.

BATTLE FOR BRITAIN (THE LETTER) (Bowie/Gabrels/Plati)

Album: Earthling

Live: liveandwell.com/A Reality Tour

Live Video: A Reality Tour

 

Bowie's traditional songwriting sensibilities here lock horns with the strident drum'n'bass habitat of "Little Wonder", scattering drum-loops and bursts of guitars over an otherwise old-fashioned Bowie melody - stripped of the ultra-modern production it would be easy to imagine this as one of his late 1960s compositions. In Strange Fascination co-producer Mark Plati reveals that the germ of the song was his "attempt to do a jazz-tinged jungle track" which Bowie radically rewrote, changing the chord structure into what Plati considered "our first real 'Bowie' song." There are some quirky piano syncopations from Mike Garson (Bowie had asked him to adopt the style of a Stravinsky octet) and, at one point, a simulation of the sound of a jumping CD - a digital-age variation on the stuck-needle playout of Diamond Dogs.

     While the lyric defies scrutiny, it appears to confront Bowie's ambiguous feelings about his national identity. "It's another cut-up," he explained, "But it probably comes from a sense of 'Am I or am I  not British?', an inner war that rages in most expatriates. I've not lived in Britain since 1974, but I love the place and I keep going back." Earthling marks an upswing in Bowie's apparent sense of his own Britishness, and here as on "Little Wonder" he dusts down his best Anthony Newley for the occassion. "Battle For Britain" was performed at the fiftieth birthday concert and throughout the Earthling tour (a version recorded in New York on October 15th 1997 later appeared on liveandwell.com), and was revived six years later for A Reality Tour. On stage Bowie would often favour the song's subtitle, introducing it simply as "The Letter".

 

THE BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC (Steffe/Howe)

Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, Bowie's psychotic gunslinger Jack Sikora delivers a menacing rendition of the "Glory, glory, hallelujah" chorus from the famous American Civil War anthem while taunting Harvey Keitel's character in the 1998 film Il Mio West. (To be pedantic, as he doesn't sing any verses it's impossible to tell whether he's performing Julia Ward Howe's 1861 "Battle Hymn" or the earlier marching song "John Brown's Body", which shares the same melody and chorus, but let's not lose sleep over that.)

 

BE MY WIFE

  • Album: Low

  • A-Side: June 1977

  • Bonus: Stage (2005)

  • Live: RarestOneBowie/A Reality Tour

  • Video: The Video Collection/Best Of Bowie

  • Live Video: A Reality Tour

 

Cranked up by Roy Young's barrelling bar-room piano, "Be My Wife" is a cry for help among the suicidal indulgence's of Low's first side. Bowie reflects on his occupational rootlessness and inability to settle down ("I've lived all over the world, I've left every place"), in a frighteningly candid confession of loneliness - although who exactly is addressed by the title is open to debate. "It was genuinely anguished," David later said, "but I think it could have been about anybody." Some have claimed that he was still attempting to resuscitate his ailing marriage during the Low sessions, while Tony Visconti later recalled having to break up a fight between Bowie and Angie's new boyfriend in the Chateau d'Herouville's dining room.

     Despite its predecessor's success, "Be My Wife" failed to chart as Low's second single, becoming Bowie's first new-release flop since the pre-Ziggy days. The video, Bowie's first since Mick Rock's Ziggy-era clips, was shot in Paris by Stanley Dorfman and featured David ghoulishly made up like Joel Grey's Emcee in Cabaret, strenuously hamming away at his guitar against a white backdrop. Alternative edits of the video circulate among collectors.

     "Be My Wife" was performed throughout the Stage tour, from which a fine recording made at Earls Court later appeared on RarestOneBowie, while a previously unreleased performance was included on the 2005 reissue of Stage. The song was later revived for the Sound + Vision, Heathen and A Reality Tour.

BEAT OF YOUR DRUM

  • Album: Never Let Me Down

  • Live: Glass Spider (2007 CD/DVD Release)

One of the better Never Let Me Down tracks. "Beat Of Your Drum" attempts a mainstream, rootsy sound along the lines of "Blue Jean". Unfortunately, like so much of the album, it collapses under superfluous layers of guitar and saxophones. There are signs of imagination in the lyric, in which Bowie juxtaposes a Warholian photographic motif with images of transience ("fashions may change...colours may fade...seasons may change...negative fades"), comically over-reacts to his own ageing by casting himself as Dracula ("Sweet is the night, bright light destroys me"), and then forgets that he's growing long in the tooth and plumps instead for a trusty metaphor of rock 'n' roll as sex: "I'd like to blow on your horn, I'd like to beat on your drum."

     In 1987 David explained rather disconcertingly that "It's a Lolita number! Reflection on young girls - Christ, she's only fourteen years old, but jail's worth it!" A more wholesome claim to fame, if not the greatest boast a song could hope to make, is that both musically and lyrically ("I like the smell of your flesh, I like the dirt that you dish") it's the direct ancestor of Tin Machine's "You Belong In Rock N'Roll".

     "Beat Of Your Drum" was performed live during the Glass Spider tour.

 

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

  • Album: "Heroes"

  • A-Side: January 1978

  • Live: Stage

  • US Promo: December 1977

 

"Beauty And The Beast" opens with sporadic blips of percussion and synthesizer, building rapidly via a thumping piano, insistent drumming and Bowie's crescendo howl to kick the "Heroes" album into life. The intro bears a resemblance to that of Neu!'s 1975 track "Hero", whose title is obviously not unfamiliar either, but otherwise this is very much a Bowie song. With its woozy bassline, discordant wailings and melodramatic vocal its a tremendously sinewy performance of a strong composition.

     Although Bowie never discussed the lyric at any length, it seems likely that "Beauty And The Beast" operates in part as a recantation of the ugly underside of his Thin White Duke phase, and an exploration of the undesirable inner character unleashed during his drink and drug binges: "There's slaughter in the air, protest in the wind, someone else inside me, someone could get skinned...I wanted to believe me, I wanted to be good". In the light of his later remark that Berlin "brought me back in touch with people" and "got me back on the streets", the song might also be interpreted as an expression of gratitude and relief at his escape from Los Angeles: "Nothing will corrupt us, nothing will compete / Thank God heaven left us standing on our feet." However, the song offers a salutary lesson in the danger of over-analysing Bowie lyrics. The line "someone fetch a priest", which it would be tempting to interpret as a confessional impulse or a testimony of spiritual rebirth, actually derives from "someone fuck a priest", Tony Visconti's favourite expletive during the "Heroes" sessions.

     "Beauty And The Beast" proved a little too outré for the singles chart, managing a modest number 39. In America and Spain a five-minute edit appeared on a 12" promo; although labelled the "Disco Version", it was merely an early instance of that forthcoming bane of the late 1980s, the extended edit, using a simple splice to repeat the bridge and chorus. "Beauty And The Beast" was performed throughout the Stage tour, and later featured in the soundtrack of BBC2's 2010 Boy George biopic Worried About The Boy, accompanying a sequence in which a fleetingly-glimpsed Bowie arrives at the Blitz Club to the astonishment of the assembled throng.

BECAUSE YOU'RE YOUNG

  • Album: Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)

  • B-Side: January 1981

In contemporary interviews Bowie dedicated "Because You're Young" to his nine-year-old son, and like much of Scary Monsters, the song finds David seemingly preoccupied by his impending mid-thirties and assessing his role as guru to a new generation. But this is no catalogue of wisdom dispensed Polonius-like from father to son. Bowie's anguished portrait of "love back to front and no sides" makes no bones about the potential for unhappiness in affairs of the heart. "Hope I'm wrong, but I know", he ponders morosely, telling the young addressee that "you'll meet a stranger some night" and "a million dreams" will become "a million scars". An autobiographical element seems unavoidable: "She took back everything she said, left him nearly out of his mind" is a painfully stark observation from a man whose divorce has only just come through.

     "Because You're Young" is also notable for a guest appearance by Pete Townshend on guitar. It was a collaboration that had long been on the cards; Bowie, who had covered The Who's first two hits on Pin Ups and supported them in concert with The Lower Third in 1965, was a long-standing admirer. While recording his guitar overdubs at Good Earth Studios, Townshend apparently behaved in the style of his famous stage act, jumping into the air and performing his trademark windmill. Tony Visconti remembered it as "a very bizarre session. Pete's from the old school of breaking the guitar against the amplifier, playing loud chords and getting extremely drunk on a session. Now, he didn't do that. He wasn't rowdy or anything, he was extremely polite...But he couldn't quite understand what we were about, because we're not, David and I are not rock and rollers...Pete was very surprised to see us two sober, little old men sitting in the studio. He was ready for a right rave-up and he felt like playing guitar all day and night."

     Visconti's immaculate production marries Townshend's guitar with some dramatic rhythm-synth from Roy Clark, conspicuously indebted to the style of Blondie's Jimmy Destri, who had accompanied Bowie on keyboards on Saturday Night Live shortly before the Scary Monsters sessions. A markedly different 4'52" demo has appeared on bootlegs: "Because I'm Young", as it was at this stage, features a significantly different lyric (the opening "Look in my eyes, nobody home" was clearly too close to the first verse of "Scary Monsters" to pass muster) together with a simpler backing arrangement prior to the addition of various overdubs.

     Peter Doggett suggests a possible debt to Duane Eddy's 1960 hit "Because They're Young", and proposes that the title of Pete Townshend's 1993 album Psychoderelict might be indebted to the "psychodelicate girl" in Bowie's lyric. David rehearsed "Because You're Young" for the Glass Spider tour but dropped it from the set-list before the show opened, making it one of several songs from Scary Monsters that he never performed live.

BELIEVE TO MY SOUL (King)

Albert King's number was played live by The Manish Boys.

A BETTER FUTURE

  • Album: Heathen

  • Bonus: Heathen

 

This terrific track is one of Heathen's catchiest numbers, marrying a deceptively simple melody with richly textured production, hypnotic rhythms and an arrangement which recalls both the electronic minimalism of the Berlin period and the catchy synthesizer pop of The Buddha Of Suburbia's "Dead Against It". Bowie's multi-tracked vocal has a sing-song nursey-rhyme quality which, accompanied by a descending synth phrase borrowed from the Bacharach/David standard "Do You Know The Way To San José?", conspires to give the song a playful edge belying the stark spiritual demands of the lyric. "A Better Future" was really for my daughter," David explained. "It's a very simple song that says 'God, if you don't change things, I'm not gonna love you anymore.' There's no skirting around the issue - it's like, 'What are you doing to us? Why have you allowed my daughter to come into a world of such chaos and despair? I demand a better future or I'm not gonna like you anymore.' It's a threat to God! There are a few threats to God on this album, actually, but a lot of them sound like they could just be love songs."

     A remix by Air was included on the bonus disc issued with initial pressings of Heathen, while the 5.1 mix on the SACD release was some 15 seconds shorter than the standard album version. "A Better Future" was performed live on just the first two dates of the Heathen tour.

BETTY WRONG (Bowie/Gabrels)

  • Soundtrack: The Crossing

  • Album: Tin Machine II

  • Live Video: Oy Vey, Baby - Tin Machine Live At The Docks

 

Recorded in Australia in late 1989, "Betty Wrong" first surfaced on the soundtrack of the 1990 Australian film The Crossing. This version was superseded by the superior mix of the same recording featured on Tin Machine II. Although blessed with an excellent melody and a chunky bassline borrowing heavily from "Changes", it's effectively a return to the sound of the less inspiring space-fillers on the band's first album, recalling both "Run" and "Working Class Hero". Still, Bowie's lyric - an avowal of love in the face of mortality - displays a stark muscularity often absent from his work during this period. "I was carved from a hand nurtured on grime, good-will and screams" is a line that would sound more at home on Scary Monsters or 1.Outside, and there are some neat percussion effects anticipating the woodblock atmospherics of "Seven Years In Tibet". A reworked version, complete with languorous saxophone interludes from David, was performed during the It's My Life tour. In 2008 an instrumental version and a second alternative mix of the original studio recording were leaked online.

BEWITCHED, BOTHERED AND BEWILDERED (Rodgers)

A synthesized instrumental of the 1937 Richard Rodgers standard from Babes In Arms forms the backing of "Future Legend", the opening track on the Diamond Dogs album.

 

THE BEWLAY BROTHERS

  • Album: Hunky Dory

  • Bonus: Hunky Dory

 

Probably the most cryptic, mysterious, unfathomable and downright frightening Bowie recording in existence, "The Bewlay Brothers" has defied commentary since the day it appeared on Hunky Dory. Vocally it finds Bowie pushing the album's Dylan affectation to its logical extreme, pulling off a creditable cross between his own rapidly emerging vocal trademarks and Bob's "sand and glue" rasp. Instrumentally, the acoustic strum that forms the foundation-stone of many great Bowie compositions is augmented by a rising wall of sinister sound effects and chattering demons, recalling the multi-tracked vocals and synthesizer experiments of The Man Who Sold The World. Much of the song's impact lies in the grace with which it combines the best of both albums, matching the simplicity and melodic power of "Quicksand" with the shivering menace of "All The Madmen" to achieve an even more striking result than either. Intriguingly, "The Bewlay Brothers" was a last-minute addition to Hunky Dory and the only song not to be demoed. "The circumstances of the recording barely exist in my memory," David admitted in 2008. "It was late, I know that. I was on my own with my producer Ken Scott, the other musicians having gone for the night. Unlike the rest of the Hunky Dory album, which I had written before the studio had been booked, this song was an unwritten piece that I felt had to be recorded instantaneously...I do believe that we finished the whole thing on that one night." The night in question, July 30th 1971, fell towards the end of the Hunky Dory sessions, although it wasn't the final track to be recorded: "Life On Mars?" was not committed to tape until a week later.

     The wilfully obscure lyric, which Bowie once claimed was written with an American audience in mind so that they might "read whatever in hell they want to read into it", has provoked innumerable, intriguing, and often desperately shaky interpretations. As early as 1972, Bowie was gently fanning the flames of the song's mystique: "I like "The Bewlay Brothers" so much, only because it's so personal," he told an American radio interviewer. "I'm sure it doesn't mean a thing to anybody else, and I'm sorry if I inflicted myself upon people with that track." And so the game was afoot. Many have found a gay agenda in the song - notably Tom Robinson, who once remarked that "until then all pop music was boy meets girl. Suddenly, you heard "The Bewlay Brothers" and you felt, that's me!" Others have read it as an account of David's relationship with his schizophrenic half-brother Terry Burns, contending that it confronts the fear of congenital madness that Bowie openly admitted was a factor in his early work. Neither topic is particularly unusual among his early 1970s recordings, and in a rare moment of candour David confirmed in 1977 that the song was "very much based on myself and my brother." On Radio 2's Golden Years documentary in 2000 he described it as "another vaguely anecdotal piece about my feelings about myself and my brother, or my other doppelganger. I was never quite sure what real position Terry had in my life, whether Terry was a real person or whether I was actually referring to another part of me, and I think "Bewlay Brothers" was really about that."

     With very few facts to impede the full flow of the imagination, various commentators have taken it upon themselves to provide ingenious but dodgy explanations of "The Bewlay Brothers". George Tremlett posits a fantastically flimsy theory that the song relates the disastrous outcome of a seance held by David and Terry "at a time when Terry's incipient insanity was only just becoming clear." Other writers have gone so far as to conflate Terry's misfortunes with the gay reading to suggest that "The Bewlay Brothers" is a fantasy of sexual consummation between David and his half-brother.

     There's certainly no difficulty in winkling a gay subtext out of the lyric, which deploys the coded slang of Greenwich Village and the palare of Freddie Burretti's Sombrero set after the fashion of the same album's "Queen Bitch". In this interpretation the emphasis is on the "real cool traders" who lurk "in the crutch-hungry dark", forced to maintain a closeted existence by day ("they wore the clothes, they said the things to make it seem improbable, the whale of a lie..."), hanging up their dresses while make-up is "woven on the edging of my pillow". By this reading the song's unforgettable image of the lifeless brother, otherwise believed to be a vision of Terry insensible after a schizophrenic seizure, might just as easily be post-coital. And it is undeniable that the line "I was stone and he was wax so he could scream and still relax" might well be, as the Gillmans rather primly propose in their book, "a precise description for successful homosexual intercourse" - albeit a description conveyed via the characteristically skewed image of the children's game of stone, scissors and paper.

     And yet, as with all Bowie's finest songs, the more one tries to grab at the lyric, the more elusive it proves. For all its enticing clues, the entire gay reading is dark and insubstantial, almost as though it might be a red herring. There are just as many images among the hallucinatory whole to suggest a drug-fixated subtext ("dust would flow through our veins...shooting up pie in the sky...we were so turned on in the Mind-Warp Pavilion"). Other images are familiar elsewhere on Hunky Dory - the observation that "the solid book we wrote cannot be found today" recalls the lost poems in "Song For Bob Dylan" and the "books...found by the golden ones" in "Oh! You Pretty Things", while the line about "fakers" takes us back to "Changes" at the start of the album. The mannequin-like image of the lifeless body, reduced to the status of "chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature", coincides with Bowie's decision at the end of Hunky Dory to efface his own artistic personality and create instead the tabula rasa onto which the face of Ziggy Stardust would be painted. If this reading holds water, then it's amusing to note that Bowie had called himself a "chameleon" long before rock journalists seized the word and turned it into the ultimate Bowie cliché.

     Even the song's title has been hotly debated. Charles Shaar Murray and Roy Carr suggest that the unexplained Bewlay Brothers may be a reference to the gods of classical mythology, while others have conjectured that "Bewlay" is a corruption of "Beulah" or even of "Newley", as in Anthony. Pursuing the gay interpretation, Tom Robinson once speculated that the word might be a contraction of "beautiful lay". The reality is more prosaic: "Bewlay Bros." was the name of a chain of tobacconist's shops, of which there were several branches in London at the time of the Hunky Dory sessions. "The only pipe I have ever smoked was a cheap Bewlay," Bowie recalled in 2008. "It was a common item in the late Sixties, and for this song I used "Bewlay" as a cognomen - in place of my own. This wasn't just a song about brotherhood so I didn't want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn't know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It's a palimpsest, then."

     On the few occasions when he discussed "The Bewlay Brothers" in any detail, Bowie generally succeeded in obfuscating it even further. "I can't imagine what the person who wrote that had on his mind at the time," he once remarked. In 1971 he described the song as "Another in the series of David Bowie confessions - Star Trek in a leather jacket," whatever that may mean. In 2008 he recalled that "I had a whole wad of words that I had been writing all day. I had felt distanced and unsteady all evening, something settling in my mind. It's possible that I may have smoked something in my Bewlay pipe, I distinctly remember a sense of emotional invasion." Ken Scott recalled that Bowie told him during recording that "the lyrics make absolutely no sense." And yet the song clearly meant enough to Bowie to provide the name, years later, for his music publishing company Bewlay Bros Music. Perhaps even this was a calculated move to add to the song's mystique. Perhaps it also explains the appearance of a rather pointless and almost identical "Alternate Mix" on the 1990 reissue of Hunky Dory. And perhaps it explains why, for over 30 years, Bowie declined to perform the song live. "The Bewlay Brothers" finally made its long-awaited concert debut at the BBC session recorded in London on September 18th  2002. "I have never, ever performed this in my life until this minute," David told the audience. "One of the reasons, probably," he added wryly as he unfurled a lyric sheet, "is that there are more words in this than there are in Tolstoy's War And Peace." The magnificent performance that followed didn't disappoint. "The Bewlay Brothers" made just two more appearances, at concerts in Hammersmith and Brooklyn the following month, before disappearing from the repertoire until May 2004, when it surfaced twice more in Buffalo and Atlantic City during the latter stages of A Reality Tour. Other artists have attempted the song too: it had been played live by Elbow and by Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, while John Howard's cover version was released as a single in 2007.

     Ultimately, to try to unravel the enigma of "The Bewlay Brothers" is to miss the point entirely. The very proliferation of different readings should be evidence enough that the song doesn't need to be "about" homosexuality or schizophrenia or drugs or religion, when it can embrace them all among a multiplicity of possibilities. Hearing Bowie at the peak of his powers wailing darkly about "the Goodmen of Tomorrow", "the crust of the sun", "flashing teeth of brass" and "the grim face on the cathedral floor", it's hard not to impose one's own reading. We shouldn't really care whether it's a meticulously precise puzzle-box or a surreal nightmare conceived in the aftermath of some ghastly heroin experiment - or something in between. Regardless of all that, both musically and lyrically it's a strong contender for the accolade of Bowie's greatest song, and the slow fade of sinister cartoon voices chortling "Please come away" provides one of the finest and most unsettling endings to any album in rock history.

BIG BOSS MAN (Smith/Dixon)

Jimmy Reed's blues standard, probably brought to David's attention as the B-side of The Pretty Things' single "Rosalyn", was among The Manish Boys' live repertoire.

BIG BROTHER

  • Album: Diamond Dogs

  • Live: David Live/Glass Spider (2007 CD/DVD Release)

 

Although the title announces its origins in Bowie's abandoned Nineteen Eighty-Four adaptation, "Big Brother" is a logical continuation of concerns found throughout his early albums, stretching as far back as 1970's "Saviour Machine" or even 1967's "We Are Hungry Men". Once again the theme is the dangerous charisma of absolute power, and the facility with which societies succumb to totalitarianism's final solutions. Big Brother is "someone to claim us, someone to follow", but also "someone to fool us, someone like you": the glamour of dictatorship is balanced with the banality, reminding us that anyone with a mind to it could be a Hitler - as, raddled with cocaine and alcohol, Bowie would ill-advisedly begin to claim a year or two later.

     "Big Brother" was among the first Diamond Dogs tracks to be completed, the main recording taking place at Olympic Studios on January 14th-15th 1974. Given the portentous menace of the finished track, replete with space-age synthesizers and distorted saxophones, the song betrays a surprisingly mixed parentage. On the one hand the lyric recalls earlier Bowie tracts - the opening phrase about "dust and roses" echoes the "dead roses" of "Aladdin Sane", while the soft falsetto section and the "glass asylum with just a hint of mayhem" both revisit "All The Madmen" - but on the other hand the chording and lyrics of the chorus are inescapably reminiscent of the Bonzo Dog Band's burlesque 1969 entreaty to "follow Mr Apollo" (Diamond Dogs drummer Aynsley Dunbar had coincidentally played with the Bonzos in 1969). Similarly surprising, but there for all to hear two minutes into "Big Brother", is the similarity between Bowie's saxophone bridge and Johnny Hawksworth's famous Thames Television jingle "A Salute To Thames", which had accompanied the station's idents since 1968.

     "Big Brother" was performed during the Diamond Dogs tour and was revived in 1987 for the Glass Spider show. Interestingly the chorus melody is quoted note-for-note (and almost word-for-word: "Someone to pray for"), in the same year's Never Let Me Down track "Shining Star (Makin' My Love)"; perhaps it was this minor piece of self-plagiarism that prompted David to revive the original.

A BIG HURT

  • Album: Tin Machine II

  • B-Side: October 1991

 

With a title presumably borrowed from Scott Walker's 1967 album track "The Big Hurt", and an energetic punk riff indebted to the Sex Pistols/Buzzcocks legacy, Tin Machine II's only solo Bowie composition is a turgid thrash-up recalling the less imaginative portions of the band's debut album. Shouty vocals, squealing guitars, relentless drumming and a sexist lyric (including a bizarre reference to "a glass eye in a duck's ass") add up to very little. A re-recorded version from Tin Machine's 1991 BBC session appeared on the "Baby Universal" 12", and the song was performed throughout the It's My Life tour. An instrumental mix from the studio sessions was leaked online in 2008.

BLACK COUNTRY ROCK

  • B-Side: January 1971

  • Album: The Man Who Sold The World

 

This is a jaunty, tightly-played number with a similar chord sequence to the previous year's "Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed", and as on that track David drops into an almost actionable impersonation of Marc Bolan's trademark electro-warble. Tony Visconti later recalled that "David spontaneously did a Bolan vocal impression because he ran out of lyrics. He did it as a joke, but we all thought it was cool, so it stayed. In fact, we re-recorded it to get it right, and I thinned out David's voice with equalisation to get it to sound more like Bolan's."

     Although the melody was already written at the start of the album sessions and the backing track nicknamed "Black Country Rock" by the band, the words were apparently a last-minute job after a frustrated Tony Visconti demanded some input from the apathetic Bowie. Perhaps this explains the rather minimal lyric - a single repeated two-line verse and chorus - which nonetheless crystallises the travelling/climbing quest motif which recurs throughout the album.

     "Black Country Rock" featured in the soundtrack of the 2010 film The Kids Are All Right.

THE BLACK HOLE KIDS

Described by Bowie in 2000 as "fascinating", this unfinished song from the Ziggy period was among the half-dozen fragments then being reworked with a view to release in 2002 to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Ziggy Stardust album. The project was shelved and the song remains unheard. Judging by its title, it may originally have been written for the aborted 1973 stage show (see "Starman" for more on Bowie's interest in black holes).

BLACK TIE WHITE NOISE

  • Album: Black Tie White Noise

  • A-Side: June 1993

  • Bonus: Black Tie White Noise (2003)

  • Download: June 2010

  • Video: Black Tie White Noise/Best Of Bowie

 

On April 29th 1992, Bowie and his new wife Iman arrived in Los Angeles to begin house-hunting. On the same day the acquittal of four policemen in the Rodney King case triggered the city's worst ever race riots. A curfew was imposed, and from the safety of their hotel window the newlyweds watched shops being looted and buildings set alight. "It was an extraordinary feeling," David told Record Collector. "I think the one thing that sprang to our minds was that it felt like a prison riot more than anything else. It felt as if innocent inmates of some vast prison were trying to break out - break free from their bonds."

     Bowie's eyewitness experience of the Los Angeles riots would infuse much of Black Tie White Noise, most tangibly on the title track, an edgy plea for mutual respect of ethnic identity that tries very hard to avoid the banalities attendant on the genre. "I didn't want it to turn into an "Ebony And Ivory" for the nineties," he told Rolling Stone. To his credit, it doesn't. "Black Tie White Noise" sees Bowie ripping and re-wrapping in his best mid-1970s style, incorporating a quotation from Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" alongside a blatant reworking of the backing vocals from "Fame", a song whose savage, streetwise cynicism is here revisited: Bowie cocks a snook at the fatuity of corporate race-relations ("Getting my facts from a Benetton ad, looking through African eyes") and simplistic idealism ("Reach out over race and hold each other's hand, walk through the night thinking "We Are The World""). The reference to USA For Africa's mealy-mouthed charity hit suggests an altogether different Bowie from the all-round entertainer who had wowed the masses at Live Aid eight years earlier. "We're far too keen, as white liberals, to suggest to black people how they should improve their lot," he told the NME. "I don't think they actually wanna hear it any more. They've got their own ideas of how they can improve their lot, and they couldn't give a fuck what we think. They don't want our advice." In another interview he added that "If we can start recognising and appreciating the differences between ourselves, and not look for white sameness within everybody, then we have a much better chance of creating a real and meaningful integration. I wanted to get some of that in the song."

     On the subject of America's ongoing racial struggle Bowie was even more forthright. "It won't be gained easily," he opined in Record Collector. "And it won't be gained by singing "We Are The World" or "We Shall Overcome". Those elements of coming together should be foremost in our minds, but it's not going to be like that in actuality. There's going to be an awful lot of antagonism before there's any real move forward." The song reaffirms this belief, as the black and white voices of Bowie and guest vocalist Al B Sure! uneasily conclude that "There will be some blood, no doubt about it, but we should come through."

     Thankfully though, "Black Tie White Noise" isn't ponderously worthy. It's slick and funky, with wah-wah guitars and bursts of Lester Bowie's trumpet laid over an atmospheric gramophone crackle. David lets Al B Sure! take the first verse and the lion's share of the vocal duties. "I've never worked longer with any artist than with Al B," laughed Bowie later. "I had a particular thing that I wanted to do with this song, and he spent a long time working through it...It was often quite punishing for both of us. However, out of those kinds of punishments, jewels often appear." It is believed that Bowie's first choice for duettist was the unavailable Lenny Kravitz, who later guested on "Buddha Of Suburbia".

     "Black Tie White Noise" was released as the album's second single, credited to "David Bowie featuring Al B Sure!". It barely scraped the UK top 40, and in America, not even a mind-boggling barrage of club remixes could trigger any chart action. The excellent and undervalued video, directed by Mark Romanek, is a deft bricolage of images against the backdrop of an urban ghetto: Bowie and Al B appear alongside despondent black children roaming the rubble and alternately displaying toy guns and Bowie's saxophone ( a motif borrowed from Kate Bush's "Army Dreamers" video); a black child looks at a picture of a white Jesus; a black face retreats into a white hood. A mimed studio version appeared on the Black Tie White Noise video release, and Bowie also performed the song twice on US television, appearing with Al B on The Arsenio Hall Show and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in May 1993.

 

BLACKOUT

  • Album: "Heroes"

  • Live: Stage

 

Typical of the darkly exhilarating sonic schizophrenia of the "Heroes" album, "Blackout" would work perfectly well as a straightforward rock and roll song - the basic riff is not dissimilar to "Suffragette City" - but as it is, it's one of the more left-field noises even on "Heroes". Swathes of squealing synthesizers are punctuated by spliced loops of background noise and Dennis Davis's brilliantly crazed percussion breaks, topped of by the vocal "Bowie histrionics" for which the title track is so noted. The lyric is an elliptical cut-up of fractured images returning to the album's preoccupation with alcohol: "Too high a price to drink rotting wine from your hands...Get me to a doctor's, I've been told someone's back in town, The chips are down, I just cut and blackout, I'm under Japanese influence and my honour's at stake!" Contemporary reviewers assumed it was an account of Bowie's much-publicised collapse at the end of the Low sessions in November 1976 (according to this reading "get me to a doctor" speaks for itself, while "someone's back in town" might refer to Angela, who arrived from the airport just in time for the crisis) - but David denied this, claiming the song was about the great New York power blackout of July 1977, an event on which jazz musician Lionel Hampton did indeed base an album called Black Out. The song was performed on the 1978 tour, from which an excellent live version appears on Stage.