Album: David Bowie
The opening track of David Bowie was recorded at the inaugural album session on November 14th 1966. It's an eccentric tragicomedy about a socially inadequate thirty-something who "still reads comics" and "follows Batman", repents getting married and returns to his mother's bosom. Interestingly, the precise circumstances of our hero's domestic tribulations ("Round and round goes Arthur's head, hasn't eaten well for days / Little Sally may be lovely, but cooking leaves her in a maze") would be revisited with a little less of the storybook charm in 1979's "Repetition".
Dek Fearnley, David's bass player and co-arranger on the Deram album, later told Paul Trynka that he suspected he might have partially inspired the song: when he first met the teenage singer in early 1966 Fearnley had lied about his age, saying that he was 20, and when he later confessed that he was in fact 27 and an uncle to boot, David was flabbergasted. However, the song's primary source is The Disgrace Of Jim Scarfedale, a short story in Alan Sillitoe's 1959 collection The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, which tells much the same tale of a stay-at-home who marries to the consternation of his domineering mother, but returns to her bosom six months later when the marriage falls apart. The title may also take a cue from Uncle Ernest, another story in the same Sillitoe collection which is the basis of "Little Bombardier".
The mono version of the David Bowie album uses a marginally different mix, omitting the hand-claps from the intro and outro. In 1967 Bowie's American publisher offered "Uncle Arthur" without success to Peter, Paul and Mary.
UNCLE FLOYD see SLIP AWAY
UNDER PRESSURE (Bowie/Mercury/Taylor/Deacon/May)
A-Side: November 1981
A-Side: November 1988
Compilation: The Singles Collection (UK Version)/The Singles 1969 to 1993 (US Version)/Best Of Bowie/The Best Of David Bowie 1980/1987/Nothing Has Changed
Bonus: Let's Dance
B-Side: February 1996
A-Side: December 1999
Live: A Reality Tour
Video: The Best Of David Bowie 1980/1987/Box Of Flix (Queen)/Greatest Video Hits 2 (Queen)
Live Video: The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert/A Reality Tour
1981 was a quiet year for David Bowie - the first since 1970 in which no new album was released in Britain. But while both RCA and Decca went into reissue overdrive, David successfully maintained the momentum of recent hit singles with his sole new release of the year, a one-off collaboration which was to take him once again to the top of the charts.
In July 1981 he was at Mountain Studios in Montreux, recording "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" with Giorgio Moroder, a single that would not be released until the following year. In the adjacent studio Queen were recording their album Hot Space. Although there were broad parallels between David Bowie and Freddie Mercury - both projected flamboyantly theatrical, sexually ambiguous personae and were justly feted for their brilliant live acts - the two had seldom crossed paths during the 1970s. In retrospect a collaboration was both appropriate and overdue, but it came about quite spontaneously; so rapid was the process that only one song was written and recorded, initially under the title "People On Streets". Queen's producer David Richards, who had co-engineered "Heroes" and would go on to work with Bowie on many subsequent albums, recalled the impromptu recording as "a complete jam-session and madness in the studio." According to guitarist Brian May, "When the backing track was done, David said, "Okay, let's each of us go in the vocal booth and sing how we think the melody should go - just off the top of our heads - and we'll compile a vocal out of that." And that's what we did."
The speed with which "Under Pressure" was created lends the recording its vital edginess; it's not unlike Lennon and McCartney's "A Day In The Life" in that you can tell a mile off who wrote which bits. Freddie Mercury's scat-singing intro is pure Queen, the "insanity laughs" break is unadulterated Bowie, the "give love one more chance" chorus is Queen in full stadium-anthem mode, and the final "This is out last dance" refrain pulls us back to Bowie, stealing a melodic phrase straight from his early single "You've Got A Habit Of Leaving" ("Sometimes I cry, sometimes I'm so sad"). Throughout, the pendulum repeatedly swings between Bowie's preening art-rock and Queen's pumped-up glam. This is the track's strength: it sounds like both a duet and a duel. "To have his ego mixed with ours was a very volatile mixture," said Brian May later, recalling that Bowie was "very aloof" during the session; "It made for a very hot time in the studio." An interesting qualification of that memory was provided by Bowie's particular friend in the group, Roger Taylor, who said in 1999 that "We'd never actually collaborated with anybody before, so certain egos were slightly bruised along the way." Brian May later conceded that "David took over the song lyrically. It's a significant song because of David and its lyrical content. I would have found that hard to admit in the old days, but I can admit it now."
"Under Pressure" was mixed at Power Station in New York, where once again passions ran high. According to Queen's engineer Reinhold Mack, quoted in Mark Blake's book Is This The Real Life?, "It didn't go too well. We spent all day and Bowie was like, "Do this, do that." In the end, I called Freddie and said, "I need help here," so Fred came in as a mediator." Opinions differed as to the final result. Roger Taylor loved the collaboration and, despite opining that "we never actually finished the record to my satisfaction," considered "Under Pressure" one of the very best things Queen have ever done...an incredibly original and unusual song." David himself later admitted that "it stands up better as a demo. It was done so quickly that some of it makes me cringe a bit."
Neither party was initially convinced that "Under Pressure" should even be released, but the recording was immediately embraced by Queen's label EMI, who were convinced it was a sure-fire hit. It wouldn't have taken a genius to deduce that a single featuring both Bowie and Queen, each boasting a constituency of loyal followers, would guarantee massive combined sales. As no other viable collaborative tracks had been recorded during the session (save Bowie's abandoned backing vocals for "Cool Cat"), Queen's "Soul Brother" was selected as the B-side, and as a result Queen were given first billing on the single a s a whole.
Neither Queen nor Bowie felt inclined to promote the single, and instead Bowie's favoured director David Mallet was given free rein to create a video in which neither party would appear. Mallet concocted a tumbling bricolage of images culled from newsreel footage and silent movies: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert and Max Schreck's Nosferatu intercut with images of mass unemployment, tower-blocks collapsing, poverty-stricken slums and the Wall Street Crash. Mallet's use of silent movie footage prefigured the superb Metropolis-based "Radio Ga Ga" promo he made with Queen three years later, by which time he had become, on Bowie's recommendation, their director of choice.
The BBC promptly banned the "Under Pressure" video because it included scenes of IRA bombings in Belfast, but in Britain at least there was little need for a video to ensure the single's success. Released in November, "Under Pressure" entered the chart at number 8 and knocked The Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" off the top spot the following week, remaining at number 1 for a fortnight. In America the single reached a more modest 29, nonetheless Bowie's best US placing since "Golden Years" six years earlier. Queen's immense popularity in South America led to chart dominance in several countries including Argentina, where "Under Pressure" remained at number 1 throughout the Falklands War in the spring of 1982. The Argentine leader General Galtieri, whose grasp of the time-scale involved was evidently less vivid than his imagination, publicly denounced "Under Pressure" as a piece of British propaganda cooked up for the occasion.
The recording of "Under Pressure" gave Bowie the opportunity to discuss his career with Freddie Mercury, whose artistic and financial freedoms with EMI entranced him. An engineer at the Montreux session tells Christopher Sandford that "David was all over him for details...David had reached the end of his rope with his label." Although Bowie's next few singles would fall under RCA's jurisdiction, the writing was on the wall. He was more than happy for "Under Pressure" to be released by Queen's label (and later on Hot Space, released in May 1982), and in 1983 he would sign to EMI himself.
Queen performed "Under Pressure" live throughout the remainder of their career, but Bowie would not return to the song until ten years later, when he performed it as a duet with Annie Lennox at the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert on April 20th 1992. "Under Pressure" was revived for the Outside, Earthling, summer 2000 and A Reality tours, with bassist Gail Ann Dorsey brilliantly taking over the Mercury/Lennox part. "Queen is my favourite band of all time," she revealed in 1998, "and I remember being so overwhelmed at David's suggestion that I cried. To sing a part originally sung by Freddie Mercury so far has been the greatest honour of my life." A live version recorded on December 13th 1995 (and mixed, appropriately enough, at Mountain Studios), was included on the "Hallo Spaceboy" CD single. Another, recorded in Dublin in November 2003, appears on A Reality Tour.
Lest we forget, the distinctive bass and piano lines of "Under Pressure" were viciously sampled by Vanilla Ice for his chart-busting masterpiece "Ice Ice Baby", which spent four weeks at number 1 in 1990. Eight years later, Roger Taylor raised the spectre of the song once again with his solo single "Pressure On", which featured a B-side called "People On Streets". Also in 1998, the original cut featured in the movie soundtracks Stepmom and Grosse Pointe Blank, later going on to appear in 40 Days And 40 Nights (2002), The Girl Next Door (2004), Cheaper By The Dozen 2 (2005), The Heartbreak Kid (2007), I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry (2007), and television commercials for Propel Fitness Water (2007) and Google (2011), the latter featuring the Muppets miming to the number. "Under Pressure" has also cropped up in episodes of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (2006), E.R. (2007) and Ashes To Ashes (2009), and featured prominently in the Queen-based stage musical We Will Rock You, which opened at London's Dominion Theatre in May 2002. In April 1999 "Under Pressure" was one of two Bowie recordings (the other was "Life On Mars?") selected by the jockey Richard Dunwoody on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, and in January 2016 the businessman and philanthropist Bill Gates followed suit.
Since its original release "Under Pressure" has reappeared in a baffling variety of remixes, although most are practically identical and will be of interest only to the most rabid collector. The original 4'09" single/Hot Space version was reissued on a 3" CD single in 1988, and thereafter didn't appear on a Bowie compilation until The Platinum Collection, Best Of 1980/1987 and Nothing Has Changed. The version that appears on Bowie's UK Singles Collection, Best Of Bowie and Queen Greatest Hits 2 is a marginally shorter 3'58" edit. Meanwhile Classic Queen, the 1995 reissue of Let's Dance, and the US compilation The Singles 1969-1993 all feature a 4'01" remix. December 1999 saw the release of the superfluous "Rah Mix" single from the "Queen +" album Greatest Hits III, taking "Under Pressure" back into the top 20. The video, by Queen favourites the Torpedo Twins, was of greater interest than the remix, blending footage of Freddie Mercury at Wembley in 1986 with shots of Bowie's performance at the tribute concert to create the illusion that they are performing together. The second CD single's enhanced material included the video and behind-the-scenes footage of its creation.
"Under Pressure" has spawned several covers, including Moonlife's electronic interpretation and Andy Pratt's unusual dub reggae version, while artists who have performed it live include Kate Nash and Jessica Lee Morgan. A 2007 recording by Keane, uncannily faithful to the Queen/Bowie original, appeared on the fortieth anniversary covers compilation Radio 1 Established 1967. The animated stars of Happy Feet Two tackle the song in the 2011 movie. In November 2009 a wholly indescribable live version, incorporating elements of "Ice Ice Baby", was performed on ITV's The X Factor by the bequiffed Irish twins John and Edward Grimes - then midway through the process of being rebranded 'Jedward' - and a studio recording entitled "Under Pressure (Ice Ice Baby)", featuring guest vocalist Vanilla Ice, was released as Jedward's debut single in February 2010, reaching number 2 in the UK chart and number 1 in Ireland. We live in dark times.
UNDER THE GOD
Album: Tin Machine
A-Side: June 1989
Download: May 2007
Video Download: May 2007
Live: Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby
Live Video: Oy Vey, Baby - Tin Machine Live At The Docks
Tin Machine's first single is one of the more conventional tracks from their debut album. Driven by pelting drums and furious garage guitars flagrantly cannibalising the sub-Stones riff of Bowie's Pin Ups cover "I Wish You Would", it's an efficient but unsophisticated return to the basics of Americanised rock. The lyric is Tin Machine in a nutshell: an unambiguous all-out offensive on the international rise of neo-fascist politics during the late 1980s. Just as "Crack City" overthrows the drug subtext of Bowie's 1970s work, so "Under The God" can be read as a final exorcism of the Thin White Duke's flirtation with the far right (fascist flare is fashion cool"). In 1989 Bowie told Melody Maker that the intention was the same as that of "Crack City": "I wanted something that had the same simplistic, naive, radical, laying it down about the emergence of a new Nazi so that people could not mistake what the song was about."
Although propelled by Julien Temple's ferocious "performance" video, featuring Tin Machine surrounded by a caged mob of rioters, "Under The God" failed to crack the UK top 50. In America, like every Tin Machine single, it failed to chart at all. The poor showing can partly be attributed to the fact that, despite being the debut single and identical to the album edit, it was foolishly released after the album and with no exclusive tracks - save for a 12-minute interview on the extended formats, originally broadcast on New York's DIR radio show The World Of Rock, and later reissued as a download in 2007 alongside Julien Temple's video. As well as the CD, 12" and shaped picture disc singles, a 10" version appeared in the United Kingdom. "Under The God" was performed live on both Tin Machine tours.
A-Side: June 1986
Compilation: Best Of Bowie (New Zealand)
Download: May 2007
Video: The Video Collection/Best Of Bowie
Following the 1950s synthesis of "Absolute Beginners", Bowie's theme song for Labyrinth was an unexpected foray into gospel music: "The film essentially deals with a girl's emotions and what she's going through, discovering about herself and her parents and her relationship to her family," he explained at the time, "so I wanted something very emotional, and for me the most emotional music I can think of is gospel."
For "Underground" Bowie was joined by a 14-strong troupe of backing vocalists who not only reunited him with his Young Americans collaborator Luther Vandross, but also included Chaka Khan, Chic's Fonzi Thornton (later to reappear on Black Tie White Noise) and the Radio Choir of the New Hope Baptist Church. Lead guitar was taken by veteran bluesman Albert Collins. "I really wanted a guitar player who wasn't used to a studio approach," said David, "and Albert works mainly live gigs, but he's got a history of nearly fifty years of blues playing." Collins's contribution was described by David as "a very savage, rough, aggressive sound which goes against some of the maybe superficial slickness of the synthesizers."
With Collins providing a gutsy top layer to a barrage of programmed keyboards and Hammond organs, "Underground" is a blast of exuberant fun, making it the second in a trio of really excellent 1986 film themes which stole the march on Bowie's album-based work of the period. Despite being written for a Muppet movie, the lyric can quite feasibly be interpreted as one of Bowie's withdrawal-and-alienation classics in the tradition of "All The Madmen" or "Sound And Vision". There's an emotive depth to the "lost and lonely" scenario ("no-one can blame you for walking away..."), and Bowie's theatrical yell of "Daddy, daddy, get me out of here!" resonates back across his early songwriting.
The soundtrack album features two versions: the full closing theme and the re-scored opening title on which Bowie also sings. The remixed single failed to repeat the success of "Absolute Beginners", heralding a long run of disappointing UK chart performances - Bowie wouldn't go top ten again until "Jump They Say" in 1993. It's interesting to note, however, that three years later an almost actionable facsimile of the gunshot percussion, synthesized basslines and gospel vocals of "Underground" would provide Madonna with her number 1 hit "Like A Prayer". The single mix made its CD debut on the New Zealand edition of 2002's Best Of Bowie, while an EP including further remixes (but not the original 7" instrumental B-side, which remains unreleased in digital form) was issued as a download in 2007.
The video was an interesting creation directed by Bowie newcomer Steve Barron, the man behind some of the most technically brilliant clips of the period including Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" and A-ha's "Take On Me". Barron's videos for "Underground" and "As The World Falls Down" so impressed Jim Henson, who cooperated on the sequences involving the Muppet characters, that he was recruited to direct Henson's major television project The Storyteller. Opening as a routine performance video, "Underground" takes off at the first chorus as Bowie melts through the floor amid a fusillade of flash-frame images of his past selves: Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and Baal all put in appearances, as do shots from The Man Who Fell To Earth, Just A Gigolo, Into The Night, the sleeve artwork of Diamond Dogs and many others. As he is transformed into a cartoon figure, the lines in Bowie's animated forehead become the convolutions of Jareth's labyrinth, wherein we find him dancing with the Muppet characters while the film's "helping hands" mime to the gospel backing vocals. At the climax Bowie rips away his real face to become a cartoon for ever. Although he would later dismiss "Underground" as "just not my kind of video," it offers a satisfying continuity with the mask-wearing that runs through his work from its earliest days.
Album: The Buddha Of Suburbia
This brilliantly unusual number marries a shuffling dance beat with an Eastern melody, synthesized mandolins and obscure vocals. The result is suggestive of a disco-friendly "Subterraneans" and is clearly indebted to "No One Receiving" from Brian Eno's 1977 album Before And After Science (or, in the Bowie chronology, before Lodger and after "Heroes"). Bowie sings "It's clear that some things never change," and sure enough his phased vocals and closing "Ooohs" sound - no doubt deliberately - like Brett Anderson impersonating Marc Bolan. Like much of its parent album, this is a really fine Bowie song awaiting discovery.
UNWASHED AND SOMEWHAT SLIGHTLY DAZED
Album: Space Oddity
Live: Bowie At The Beeb (Bonus Disc)/Space Oddity (2009)
This long and ferocious track is one of several Space Oddity numbers smacking of a Dylanesque world of peaceniks, hippies and protest songs. It features some of Bowie's most striking early lyrics and a blistering harmonica solo from Benny Marshall, lead singer with Hull-based outfit The Rats. Tony Visconti invited Marshall to make his contribution when he was brought along to Trident one day by drummer John Cambridge, himself a former Rat. "I did it in one take," Marshall later recalled of the harmonica break. "They gave me a standing ovation in the control room when I finished." Over the next year Bowie's destiny would become inextricably entwined with other members of the band.
In style and content "Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed" anticipates the studies in alienation and madness to be found on Bowie's next two albums, seething with the most violent imagery yet encountered in his songwriting. It's a splenetic diatribe in which "my tissue is rotting and the rats chew my bones" while "my head's full of murders". The targets of his bile seem to be the symbols of capitalism and privilege scattered through the song - bankers, credit cards, expensive Braque paintings and the porcelain toilet bowl in the many-floored "father's house". As with most of Bowie's songs of the period, the lyric has prompted specific readings. Some have interpreted it as an account of a bad trip, contrasting the sublimity of the potential heroin reading of "Space Oddity" with a hallucinatory "brainstorm" and a graphic vomiting scene.
At the time, however, Bowie offered some clues of his own. His father Haywood Jones had passed away during the Space Oddity sessions, and in November 1969 David told George Tremlett that ""Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed" describes how I felt in the weeks after my father died." Much of the lyric, though, seems more concerned with a boy racked by insecurity about how he is perceived by his upper-class girlfriend, which inevitably steers thoughts once again in the direction of Hermione Farthingale, the muse of two other Space Oddity compositions. Several witnesses have told biographers that class difference was a source of some friction in the relationship, and in October 1969 Bowie told Disc & Music Echo that "Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed" was "a rather weird little song I wrote because one day when I was very scruffy I got a lot of funny stares from people in the street. The lyrics are what you hear - about a boy whose girlfriend thinks he is socially inferior. I thought it was rather funny really." Although this explanation doesn't rule out the subject of his father's death, it's certainly at variance with what he told Tremlett only three weeks later, offering a salutary early instance of the hazards inherent in taking Bowie's analyses of his own songs at face value and to the exclusion of other readings.
Four minutes into the track comes an impersonation of Marc Bolan's famous vibrato bleat, a trick repeated on the next album's not dissimilar "Black Country Rock". Rumours that the original American album featured an extended version of "Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed" are unfounded, arising from the fact that the track was segued with "Don't Sit Down" on the sleeve notes. A new recording was included in the BBC session taped on October 20th 1969 and later appeared on the 2009 edition of Space Oddity, while a third, splendidly energetic and Ronson-enhanced, was a highlight of the concert set taped on February 5th 1970. This last version now appears on Bowie At The Beeb.
UP THE HILL BACKWARDS
Album: Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
A-Side: March 1981
Live: Glass Spider (2007 CD/DVD Release)
Live Video: Glass Spider
The superb "Up The Hill Backwards" is one of the more uncompromising Scary Monsters tracks, and when RCA chose to release it as an unlikely fourth single its combination of group singing, screeching guitar and tricksy Bo Diddley rhythms unsurprisingly failed to ignite the chart. It provided an interesting challenge for the resident Top Of The Pops dance troupe Legs & Co, who shook their stuff to the number in an edition transmitted on April 9th 1981.
The song was originally called "Cameras In Brooklyn" and boasted an entirely different set of lyrics. Previous editions of The Complete David Bowie have postulated that "Up The Hill Backwards" might in part find Bowie addressing the simultaneous emotions thrown up by private developments and intrusive press scrutiny in the aftermath of his messy and public divorce, which became absolute a week before the Scary Monsters sessions began: hence, perhaps, the repeated refrain of "it's got nothing to do with you", the bleak observation that "we're legally crippled, it's the death of love", and the notion that the participants are "more idols than realities". This would certainly make sense of the ironic misquotation of Thomas Harris's 1967 self-help book I'm OK - You're OK, a fashionable American bestseller which applied the "transactional analysis" theory to marriage relationships. However, as if to prove that it's always risky to over-interpret Bowie's writing, we must now add the discovery that the opening lines of the lyric are lifted wholesale from Hans Richter's 1964 book Dada: Art And Anti-Art. Richter, an avant-garde painter much admired by Bowie, writes: "...and finally the vacuum created by a sudden arrival of freedom and the endless possibilities it seemed to offer if one could grasp them firmly enough." Which sounds familiar.
A fascinating 3'21" demo has appeared on bootlegs, featuring a funky bass playout, a softer, close-to-the-mike lead vocal and slightly different lyrics (instead of "witnesses falling" we have "Skylabs are falling" - a reference to the NASA station Skylab, whose re-entry and fiery demise in July 1979 created an international media circus); it also lacks the discordant Robert Fripp guitar swoops which dominate the finished version. As with most of Scary Monsters, the final vocals were recorded at London's Good Earth Studios: "We asked a casual friend, Lynn Maitland, to join David and I singing a group vocal for this song," Tony Visconti later recalled, noting that this was "another big departure for David, since he doesn't sing solo on this."
Although the full song was never included in a live set, extracts were lip-synched by Bowie's dance troupe during the prolonged build-up to his big entrance at the beginning of the Glass Spider show.