B-Side: September 1977
B-Side: August 1997
Bonus: Earthling (2004)
The opening track on side two of "Heroes" is whipped into life by some superb drumming from Dennis Davis and one of Bowie's most accomplished saxophone performances. During recording he accidentally began playing his sax off the beat, but duly submitted to a prior instruction on one of Brian Eno's "Oblique Strategies" cards to "Honour thy errors for their hidden intentions". The vocoder-style phasing of the vocal line was achieved on what Tony Visconti described as "a cheap little synthesizer in the studio" which provided the vowel sounds only ("ee-oo-i-er"), while David's voice was recorded through an electronic filter to isolate the consonants ("v-t-schn-d"). According to Visconti, "it kind of worked, although one reviewer at the time sussed that this was the way we really did it!"
The title refers to Kraftwerk founder member Florian Schneider, whose impact on Bowie's work is jokingly compared with that of a V-2 rocket. "We just put the two words together," said Visconti later, insisting that the title was meaningless. The Schneider connection is nonetheless apt: Kraftwerk were no strangers to vocoder-treated vocals, and another likely influence is Neu!'s 1975 track "E-Musik", with its similarly treated percussion and phased guitars.
"V-2 Schneider" received its first live performance twenty years later during the Earthling tour, becoming the object of much stylistic experimentation as the dates progressed. A limited edition 12" vinyl release credited to "Tao Jones Index" (the name under which the Earthling band advertised secret gigs) featured an excellent live version recorded in Amsterdam on June 10th 1997, later included as a bonus track on the two-disc reissue of Earthling. Also in 1997 Philip Glass adapted "V-2 Schneider" as the final movement of his "Heroes" Symphony.
Album: The Next Day
A-Side: August 2013
Video: The Next Day Extra
One of the last songs to be recorded for The Next Day (backing track on July 24th 2012, lead vocal on September 18th), this instant Bowie classic is one of the album's prettiest and most melodically direct numbers: a bright, beautiful jangle of hooky glam guitars and "sha-la-la-la" backing vocals. But upon closer inspection, "Valentine's Day" nonchalantly opens up like a sinkhole to disclose cavernous depths, its very title a convoluted multiple bluff. The song's relationship with February 14th has less to do with roses and chocolates than with Chicago's 1929 gangster atrocity, but this isn't a period piece: it's a contemporary portrait of an American teenager called Valentine, and the day in question is the day on which, for the most terrible of reasons, he will become famous.
"Valentine's Day" isn't the first or last pop song about a high school massacre - dozens of artists from Alice Cooper and Eminem to Marilyn Manson and Nicki Minaj have addressed the subject in song - but Bowie takes the unusually bold step of attempting to empathise with his protagonist, and to confront the question once answered with such notorious banality by Brenda Ann Spencer, the 16-year-old San Diego student whose flippant four-word explanation of her 1979 school shooting spree inspired The Boomtown Rats' biggest hit. But "I Don't Like Mondays" is a song predicated on the notion that "there are no reasons", and that such a terrible deed is, by definition, inexplicable ("It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it," observed Bob Geldof in 1979, adding "So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it"). That's not enough for Bowie, who ransacks the psyche of his disturbed teenager in search of answers. In an imagined dialogue, the boy tells Bowie of the "feelings he's treasured most of all", of targeting "the teachers and the football star", and of "how he'd feel if all the world were under his heels" - while the refrain insists repeatedly, plaintively, pathetically, that "he's got something to say".
"I Don't Like Mondays" was inspired by a specific incident, but Bowie's schoolboy is a fictional construct, a character pieced together from the roll-call of campus shooters whose stories had been unfolding with increasing frequency, the majority of them in the United States. In December 2012, by which time "Valentine's Day" was already in the can, the killing of 20 first-grade children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut dragged the terrible subject back into the world's headlines, but there had been no shortage of other school massacres during the making of The Next Day. "In the past two years there have been so many shootings," Tony Visconti told The Times in 2013, "and the next day we'd come into the studio and say, 'What the fuck? Why is this happening?' We were shocked like everyone else, and I don't think it's going to end anytime soon. We have kids and we can't imagine the horror."
Of all the mass shootings that have blighted American history over recent decades, the longest shadow continues to be cast by the Columbine High School massacre of April 20th 1999, in which students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered twelve of their classmates and one teacher before committing suicide. Subsequent shootings have claimed greater tolls, but Columbine has continued to exert a particular and enduring horror on the American imagination, prompting Michael Moore's 2002 polemic Bowling For Columbine, and entering popular culture through such fictionalised investigations as Gus van Sant's 2003 film Elephant, DBC Pierre's novel of the same year Vernon God Little, and Lionel Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin (also 2003, and later adapted into a 2011 film starring Tilda Swinton). When promoting her 2016 memoir A Mother's Reckoning, Sue Klebold, a parent of one of the Columbine killers, told The Guardian that such fictional works ran the risk of "perpetuating the myths" of the incident: "I had the distorted belief that Dylan belonged to me. He was mine. And when I see movies, or plays, or songs, I have a sense that someone is taking him away from me, that they're claiming ownership of something they know nothing about." Whether David Bowie was among the artists she had in mind is hard to tell, but there can be little doubt that Columbine was among the tragedies that inspired "Valentine's Day". In Bowie's meticulous scheme of things, the metrical and assonant similarity between "Columbine" and "Valentine" can hardly be coincidental, and it's with a heavy heart that one remembers that "Columbine" is, in any case, a word with its own place in David's songwriting history.
On August 19th 2013 "Valentine's Day" became the fourth single to be taken from The Next Day, with the release of a limited edition 7" vinyl picture disc carrying a close-up image of Bowie's hands from the "Heroes" album cover. The single was accompanied by an excellent video directed by Markus Klinko and Indrani, returning to the Bowie fold eleven years after their photographic work for Heathen. Shot in the disused Red Hook Grain Terminal building in Brooklyn, "Valentine's Day" repays close viewing as one of Bowie's most quietly subversive clips. The reaction may have been small beer by comparison with the controversy surrounding "The Next Day" three months earlier, but the video for "Valentine's Day" finds Bowie once again directing his barbs at America's conservative right, and in particular the obduracy of the National Rifle Association, whose implacable opposition to gun control in the USA appeared merely to strengthen with every fresh atrocity. The "Valentine's Day" video opens innocuously enough - the lighting plain and neutral, the star vamping to camera with a Hohner headless guitar - But little by little the lighting grows darker, and with it Bowie's demeanour, until he is delivering a performance of furious intensity, his eyes burning into the camera, his expressive features wringing every drop of menace, anger and pathos from the lyric. Along the way he brandishes his Hohner like a firearm, at one point taking imaginary aim at the viewer, while the shadow of the guitar on the wall is fleetingly replaced by that of an assault rifle. In a final flourish, Bowie ends the video by holding his guitar aloft and fixing the camera with a defiant glare in a gimlet-eyed parody of the NRA's poster-boy and sometime president Charlton Heston who, at the Association's 2000 convention, had notoriously hoisted a rifle above his head and declared to thunderous applause that the Democrats' presidential candidate Al Gore would have to wrest his Second Amendment rights "from my cold, dead hands". Heston's grandstanding moment was a direct response to the calls for tighter gun control which had followed the then recent Columbine massacre, and it went down so well with his fellow idiots that he went on to repeat both gesture and soundbite at each subsequent NRA convention until his retirement in 2003.
"We shot the video in two days in New York," Markus Klinko later explained, recalling of Bowie that "his spirits were very high and he was in a great mood." Among Klinko's own contributions to the video was a moment that eluded all but the keenest observer: "There's a close-up of the vibrating guitar strings, very close, and out of the coiled guitar string you see a flying bullet. It's almost subliminal because it's so fast. Most people won't realise it, but it's there." Klinko also revealed that Bowie's original concept for the video included an elaborate extra dimension. "He wanted to reverse age, like in that Brad Pitt movie (2008's The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button). He basically wanted to start out as an old man, like 80, and reverse in special effects and be like 19 at the end of the video." This idea, with its obvious antecedent in the video for "Thursday's Child", was not a hit with Klinko: "It was kind of tough to talk him out of it," the director told the Independent Ethos website in 2016. "He really wanted it that way. We cast a young version of him, a lookalike, a model that was really talented that was used for some of the shots, like the scene from the back, when he's looking through the window. That's actually his younger body double. We decided not to do that with him. I felt it was a little cheesy to do it." Klinko believed that Bowie was ultimately swayed by the idea of shooting a more straightforward video than "The Next Day": "He fell in love with the simplicity because "Valentine's Day" was shot right after this very crazy video that he did with being Jesus Christ, the priest," explained Klinko. "It was really a lot, very intense, very theatrical, so coming out with a video that was very simple, basically an animated portrait performance."
By way of a pleasing coincidence, later in 2013 the industrial backdrop of Brooklyn's Red Hook Grain Terminal became the location for a second music video, namely "Team" by Lorde, whose heartfelt tribute performance of "Life On Mars?" at the 2016 Brit Awards would be widely praised three years later. By that time, "Valentine's Day" had already been revived for inclusion in Bowie's musical Lazarus.
VARIOUS TIMES OF DAY see ERNIE JOHNSON
VELVET COUCH see PIANOLA
B-Side: September 1975
Bonus: Ziggy Stardust/Ziggy Stardust (2002)/Ziggy Stardust (2012)/Re:Call 1
This superb and undervalued Ziggy Stardust out-take was recorded at Trident on November 11th 1971. It's an interesting hybrid; the tight, electric Spiders sound and the quickfire lyric inhabit the same lip-smacking territory as "Sweet Head", but there's half an eye still on the piano-led clap-a-longs and exuberant backing vocals of Hunky Dory. The title bears further witness to Bowie's preoccupation with a certain Lou Reed-fronted group. Originally titled "He's A Goldmine", it was slated for side two of Ziggy Stardust as late as December 15th 1971. The following month Bowie mentioned its removal in a radio interview, describing it as "a lovely tune, but probably a little provocative."
"Velvet Goldmine" remained unreleased until 1975's reissue of the "Space Oddity" single, when it was mixed by RCA without consultation. "The whole thing came out without my having the chance to listen to the mix," Bowie remarked later. "Somebody else had mixed it - an extraordinary move." Subsequently the track turned up on Bowie Rare (complete with a hilariously inaccurate set of lyrics presumably scribbled down by someone at RCA after a couple of listens), before appearing on various Ziggy Stardust reissues and Re:Call 1. The DVD packaged with the vinyl edition of 2012's Ziggy reissue included a 5.1 remix. "Velvet Goldmine" also gave its name to Todd Haynes's 1998 film.
Unlike the rest of Lou Reed's Transformer, which was recorded at Trident in August 1972, the album's opening track was completed at RCA's Chicago studios on October 7th during the first American Ziggy tour. Like two other songs on the album, "Vicious" was originally drafted in 1968 for an aborted Broadway musical to be co-produced by Andy Warhol and Yves Saint Laurent. "Andy said, 'Why don't you write a song called "Vicious"?" recalled Reed. "I said, 'Well, Andy, what kind of vicious?' 'Oh, you know, like I hit you with a flower.' And I wrote it down, literally. Because I kept a notebook in those days."
VIDEO CRIME (Bowie/T.Sales/H.Sales)
Album: Tin Machine
This track is referred to as "Video Crimes" on the sleeve of Tin Machine, but remains in the singular on the disc and lyric sheet. It's a none-too-subtle broadside against the desensitising effect of video nasties, including the immortal line "Late-night cannibal, cripples decay / Just can't tear my eyes away." The rest of the lyric is equally rough-hewn, but does at least contain a passable pun ("I've got dollars, I've got sense"). Bowie's numbed Berlin-era vocal goes some way toward rescuing the unpromising material, and the relentless robotic march and pseudo-"Fame" rhythm guitar are not without potential, but as usual the whole thing is swamped by an unremitting onslaught of drums and guitars. An excerpt of "Video Crime" was included in Julien Temple's 1989 Tin Machine film, set to the unsightly spectacle of boxers slugging it out in a ring. It's the only track on the first Tin Machine album that was never performed live.
VOLARE (NEL BLU DIPINTO DI BLU) (Modugno/Migliacci)
Soundtrack: Absolute Beginners
Download: May 2007
The coffee-bar culture of 1958 London commemorated in Absolute Beginners was played out against a soundtrack not just of rock'n'roll but also of Italian pop. The star attraction was "Volare" ("to fly") which became a hit phenomenon, charting in no fewer than four different versions during the autumn. The original, by Domenico Modugno, had been Italy's entry in that year's Eurovision Song Contest, but the most successful of the chart versions was by Dean Martin, who took it to number 2.
"Volare" was among the memories of 1958 Bowie recalled during the Absolute Beginners shoot, and the re-recording was apparently his suggestion: his character hums along to the song as it plays on the car radio. It's an affectionate recreation, and therefore a piece of "easy listening" that will have many fans fleeing for the hills in terror and confusion. Once more Bowie proves himself something other than a conventional rocker: he's also a superb pasticheur.
The track marks Bowie's first credited collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay, who had worked on pre-production for Let's Dance and was soon to become a full-time sessioner and tour musician. During Tin Machine's It's My Life tour several years later, David occasionally sang a few lines from "Volare" during the extended rendition of "Heaven's In Here". Trivia buffs will be pleased to know that "Volare" has become the most played Italian song in history, with combined sales of its many cover versions exceeding 22 million units. It's also one of the "Reasons To Be Cheerful (Pt 3)" rattled off by the much-missed Ian Dury in his brilliant 1979 hit.
THE VOYEUR OF UTTER DESTRUCTION (AS BEAUTY) (Bowie/Eno/Gabrels)
As if its unashamedly preposterous title weren't enough, this track finds Bowie singing in the guise of "the Artist/Minotaur", the ghostly figure lurking behind 1.Outside's murder-for-art's-sake. But the context matters little, because "The Voyeur" is an accomplished piece of speeding ambient funk straight from the Lodger era ("Look Back In Anger" and "Red Sails" spring immediately to mind) overlaid by Mike Garson's dissonant piano. Carlos Alomar's insistent rhythm figure and Bowie's "Turn and turn again" underscoring stress the album's cyclical time-frame. The Minotaur appears to get a spiritual/sexual kick from his victims' plight, unleashing some of the most ghoulish images on the album: "The screw is a tightening atrocity / I shake, for the reeking flesh is as romantic as hell."
Plans to release a Tim Simenon remix single in 1995 were dropped, but the song became one of the most successful live recreations for the Outside and Earthling tours, also featuring at Bowie's fiftieth birthday concert. He described it as "fairly hard-nosed and not the most commercial of pieces," and delighted in being able to perform it for various television shows including Channel 4's The White Room in December 1995. A version recorded in Rio de Janeiro on November 2nd 1997 later appeared on liveandwell.com.