WHO CAN I BE NOW?
Bonus: Young Americans/Young Americans (2007)/The Gouster
Dropped to make way for the John Lennon collaborations, this is one of the most dramatic products of the Sigma Young Americans sessions, building from fragile beginnings to a majestic gospel-choir climax. The lyric is vintage Bowie, a meditation on self-identity and role-playing, and possibly a love song too: "If it's all a vast creation, putting on a face that's new / If someone has to see a role for him and me, someone might as well be you." The concluding refrain of "Now can I be real?" reflects Bowie's assertions in contemporary interviews about the unmasked authenticity of his Young Americans persona. "Who Can I Be Now?" was never performed live, and although the studio recording was bootlegged during the 1980s, it was denied an official release until the album's 1991 reissue.
THE WIDTH OF A CIRCLE
Album: The Man Who Sold The World
Live: David Live/Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture/Santa Monica '72/Bowie At The Beeb (Bonus Disc)
Live Video: Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
"The Width Of A Circle" was captured in its earliest form at Bowie's BBC concert session recorded on February 5th 1970. This recording, now available on Bowie At The Beeb, is a shorter four-minute affair, lacking the instrumental passages and raunchy second section familiar from the album version. Another BBC session from March 25th reveals the next stage in the song's development: although not yet the epic it would become, already Mick Ronson's guitar had staked its claim on the number.
During The Man Who Sold The World sessions at Trident in April, the song was augmented by the addition of what Tony Visconti called "the boogie beat part". He and Mick Ronson dramatically reworked the composition to include lashings of feedback and squealing rock'n'roll breaks, bringing Bowie's music closer to Deep Purple or Black Sabbath than at any time before or since. Even so David's familiar acoustic guitar, together with an ever shifting melodic landscape and a cryptic narrative meandering through German philosophy, Eastern spiritualism, hardcore sex and a paraphrase of "The Teddy Bear's Picnic" ("You'll never go down to the Gods again"), ensure that this is a true Bowie original.
"I very much doubt whether anyone could decipher that song correctly on my level," Bowie told Phonograph Record in 1971, adding that "I went to the depths of myself in that." In an unpublished interview for the US magazine Zygote the same year, he said that the song "covers a period from when I was about 17 to just before I recorded this album." A shade less cryptically, he told another American interviewer that the song was about his "experiences as a shaven-headed monk," and certainly there are sufficient echoes of his late 1960s Buddhist dabblings to support this remark. The title itself harks back to the Space Oddity album, on which "Width Of A Circle" was the official name of George Underwood's rear sleeve illustration, and the lyric begins on familiar ground. Opening with the same rejection of doctrinaires and gurus he had suggested in "Cygnet Committee" ("I would sit and blame the master first and last"), Bowie embarks on a series of allegorical encounters which confirm that Friedrich Nietzsche was at the top of his reading list in early 1970. First he meets "a monster who was sleeping by a tree" who, on closer inspection, "was me" - an encounter inspired by the same passage of Also Sprach Zarathustra referenced in "All The Madmen", and also a direct echo of Jenseits von Gut und Bose: "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he becomes a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you."
Bowie's next point of reference is Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese-born mystic whose 1926 treatise The Prophet had been much prized by the hippy movement. The book consists of the Prophet answering a series of questions posed by his disciples, but when Bowie and his doppelganger ask "a simple blackbird" to solve their identity crisis, their faith in his wisdom appears to be mocked: "he laughed insane and quipped Kahlil Gibran." His trust in moral leadership further cautioned by the realisation that "God's a young man too", Bowie next finds himself "laid by a young bordello...for which my reputation swept back home in drag". This leads into a final, darkly violent homoerotic tryst with God: "His nebulous body swayed above, his tongue swollen with devil's love".
This unsettling and elusive composition has inspired endless speculation about Bowie's intentions. Certainly it establishes The Man Who Sold The World's running motif of travelling to the edge of a personal and emotional abyss, and as the tempo increases Bowie recklessly disregards the repeated cries of "turn around, go back!" Predictably, the Gillmans advance a detailed hypothesis relating to the schizophrenic visions of Terry Burns and what they term David's "dance with the spectre of mental illness", and while any such readings should be approached with caution, it's worth observing that in 1993 Bowie recalled one of Terry's seizures in terms precisely mirroring "The Width Of A Circle": "he collapsed on the ground and he said the ground was opening up and there was fire and stuff pouring out of the pavement, and I could almost see it for him, because he was explaining it so articulately." Compare and contrast with "he struck the ground, a cavern appeared, and I smelled the burning pit of fear".
The song played a pivotal role in the Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs tours. During the former, the mid-song instrumental break was expanded into a hard-rock workout during which David departed for a costume change while The Spiders moved into a shamanic cacophony of strobe lights, feedback and drums. Mick Ronson's extended guitar solo was adapted from one he had previously used in live performances of "I Feel Free". For the stout-hearted the full rendition is in the Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars film, where the number runs to a staggering fourteen minutes and also captures the celebrated mime sequence which became an integral part of the song's interpretation on the Ziggy tour and a significant element in Bowie's developing sense of rock theatre: following his return to the stage in his "Woodland Creature" costume, David finds himself separated from the audience by an invisible wall in which he discovers a gap and forces his way through before taking flight on slow-motion wings. For the audio medium, the same performance was mixed down to a more modest nine and a half minutes on the original 1983 Motion Picture album, but a brand new mix of the full-length version was reinstated for the 2003 reissue. Another live version by The Spiders From Mars, fronted by Joe Elliott, appears on the 1997 album of The Mick Ronson Memorial Concert. The slow-building intro of "Width Of A Circle" made a brief return during a few concerts on the Earthling tour, when it was used as an intro to "The Jean Genie".
WILD EYED BOY FROM FREECLOUD
B-Side: July 1969
US B-Side: July 1969
Album: Space Oddity/Space Oddity (2009)
Live: Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture/Bowie At The Beeb (Bonus Disc)
Compilation: Sound + Vision/Sound + Vision (2003)
Bonus: Re:Call 1
Live Video: Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
The predominantly acoustic original version of "Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud", recorded in little more than twenty minutes at Trident on June 20th 1969, gives little indication of the song's full potential. Released as the B-side of "Space Oddity", it remained a rarity until its appearance on Sound + Vision in 1989 (the 2003 reissue, and the 2009 edition of Space Oddity, include Bowie's spoken introduction to the number, as featured on the B-side in certain European territories; still rare is the American 7" edit, which omitted the first verse altogether). But it was the operatic grandeur of the subsequent album version, combining flutes, cello, harp and a soaring brass arrangement with Bowie's bravura performance of perhaps his finest lyric yet, which created an undisputed early masterpiece.
In her memoir Psychedelic Suburbia, David's sometime girlfriend Mary Finnigan claims that the song came into being in her garden at Foxgrove Road, inspired by the childish games of her young son Richard. If so, they must have been peculiar games. Not unlike "Space Oddity", the song is a mystical narrative embracing thoughts of isolation, persecution and the supernatural, all perennial Bowie themes finding a new prominence in his 1969 work. "This feeling of isolation I've had ever since I was a kid was really starting to manifest itself through songs like that," he recalled in 1993. The lyrical milieu of mountains, eagles and reincarnation reiterates Bowie's preoccupation with Buddhist iconography, while the obvious messianic/prophetic overtones are a template for what was to come later. A sense of anxiety about the authentic self is another burgeoning Bowie motif, here manifested in the cry of "really you and really me" - a lift from Biff Rose's 1968 track "The Man", a song which clearly made an impression on David (see "Shadow Man"). Another, more nebulous source of inspiration is the cult of the feral child which exerted a certain fascination on the imagination of late-sixties pop culture: from Disney's 1967 adaptation of The Jungle Book to a 1962 re-translation of The Wild Boy Of Aveyron (an account of a famous nineteenth-century case which would form the basis of Francois Truffaut's 1970 film L'Enfant Sauvage), the theme of a wild boy raised by nature was enjoying a certain currency.
In November 1969 David told George Tremlett that he considered the song "one of the best" on the album, while in Disc & Music Echo a month earlier he explained the storyline: "The Wild Eyed Boy lives on a mountain and has developed a beautiful way of life. He loves the mountain and the mountain loves him. I suppose in a way he's rather a prophet figure. The villagers disapprove of the things he has to say and they decide to hang him. He gives up to his fate, but the mountain tries to help him by killing the village. So in fact everything the boy says is taken the wrong way - both by those who fear him and those who love him, and try to assist."
Tony Visconti described the ambitious orchestral arrangement, which took him five days to write, as his "greatest pride" of the Space Oddity sessions. "I set up the studio of fifty musicians with David sitting right in the middle playing his 12-string. I was standing in front of him conducting the orchestra. We were both very nervous. What we didn't foresee was that Trident had only just received their new 16-track machine, the first one in England, and there was no test tape included! So the house engineer frantically tried to calibrate it whilst we were rehearsing the song over and over again." Unfortunately the results were flawed: "The playback was diabolical - there was more hiss than music on the tape. The fifty musicians were very expensive, and there was no way we could afford to go into overtime. Eventually, with five minutes to spare, we got a take on tape that had about equal amounts of music and hiss. It was hell to mix. The original vinyls and the re-released RCA CDs all had that terrible hiss on the track. But when Rykodisc remastered the Bowie albums, a new technology had been invented which removed hiss from old recordings, and "Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud" finally sounded as brilliant as it did on the day we recorded it."
An early and surprisingly rocked-up live version, firmly stamped with Mick Ronson trademarks, was included in the BBC session recorded on February 5th 1970; an excellent second BBC version, which followed on March 25th, is now available on Bowie At The Beeb. During a few UK dates of the 1973 Ziggy Stardust tour, including the famous final concert, a truncated version of the song was included in a medley with "All The Young Dudes" and "Oh! You Pretty Things". A previously unheard "Alternate Album Mix", marginally shorter than the original and chiefly distinguished by the lack of bass guitar and the incongruous addition of David repeatedly and rhythmically whispering "Sock it to me" over the opening bars, was included on the 2009 reissue of Space Oddity. Like the same edition's alternative mix of "Memory Of A Free Festival", this version was created in 1987 by PolyGram repertoire manager Tris Penna, while familiarising himself with the mixing desk at Chappell Studios.
WILD IS THE WIND (Tiomkin/Washington)
Album: Station To Station
A-Side: November 1981
Live: Bowie At The Beeb (Bonus Disc)
B-Side: April 2016
Video: The Video Collection/Best Of Bowie
"Wild Is The Wind" was originally recorded by Johnny Mathis as the Oscar-nominated theme for the 1956 Western of the same name. Written by Tin Pan Alley lyricist Ned Washington and High Noon composer Dimitri Tiomkin, "Wild Is The Wind" was later recorded by Nina Simone, an artist greatly admired by Bowie. The two met in Los Angeles during 1975, and although rumours of a studio collaboration remain only rumours, the encounter inspired David to record the number for Station To Station. "Her performance of this song really affected me," he recalled in 1993. "I thought it was just tremendous, so I recorded it as an homage to Nina." Bowie's rendition, with its lovely acoustic guitars and fabulously melodramatic vocal performance (after seven takes, David apparently opted to go with the passion and spontaneity of the first), is one of his greatest cover versions and provides perhaps the most torridly romantic finale to any of his albums.
In 1981 "Wild Is The Wind" was released as a single to promote ChangesTwoBowie, accompanied by David Mallet's handsomely shot monochrome video depicting Bowie and his musicians sitting in a circle against a black backdrop, faithful to the 1976 tour's expressionist aesthetic. "I think what we were trying to do when we were filming this was to keep in mind the style of the fifties jazz programmes that were on American television at the time," Bowie explained. Miming the roles of the musicians in the video are Tony Visconti on upright bass, Andy Hamilton on saxophone, Mel Gaynor (later of Simple Minds) on drums, and David's personal assistant Coco Schwab on guitar: this, and the almost identical promo for "The Drowned Girl" filmed on the same day, are the only Bowie videos to feature either Schwab or Visconti. While the single featured the full-length album version of the song, the video removed a verse, creating an otherwise unavailable 3'30" edit. (The so-called "Single Edit" on the B-side of 2016's Record Store Day "TVC15" single is a newly truncated version of the 2010 Harry Maslin remix.)
"Wild Is The Wind" was subsequently played on a few early dates of the Serious Moonlight tour, and revived magnificently as the opening number for the summer 2000 concerts. A performance was taped on June 23rd 2000 for Channel 4's TFI Friday, while an excellent recording from the BBC Radio Theatre concert on June 27th opens the Bowie At The Beeb bonus disc. A splendid unadorned version accompanied only by Mike Garson on piano was Bowie's opening number at his final gig, the Black Ball charity concert in New York on November 9th 2006. The original studio version was among the Bowie tracks heard in the 1993 BBC serial The Buddha Of Suburbia, and on BBC Radio 4 in February 2015, garden designer Dan Pearson chose "Wild Is The Wind" as one of his Desert Island Discs.
THE WILD THINGS see CHILLY DOWN
WILDERNESS see ARE YOU COMING? ARE YOU COMING?
Album: Young Americans
This stately ballad, awash with Philly saxophone breaks and soulful backing vocals, is often mentioned in dispatches even by those who don't much care for Young Americans. Despite its laid-back atmosphere it appears to be a veiled attack: in 1975 Bowie described it as "a 'get up off your backside' sort of song really - a mild, precautionary sort of morality song. It was written about an impression left on me by people who don't work very hard, or do anything much, or think very hard - like, don't blame me because I'm in the habit of working hard."
Composed on the road during the Soul tour and recorded at New York's Record Plant in December 1974, "Win" was among the later additions to Young Americans. As a result it wasn't performed until the end of the tour, the earliest known live version dating from the final show in Atlanta on December 1st. That the composition was nevertheless evolving during the earlier stages of the tour is suggested by the fact that David would often cry "All you gotta do is win!" during the climax of "Rock'n'Roll Suicide". A handwritten lyric sheet reveals the song in development: the line "You've never seen me hanging naked and wired" originally ended with a less provocative "naked and tired".
"Win" was later covered by other artists including Beck, Jeffrey Gaines and Hue And Cry, but it never again returned to David's live repertoire, to the disappointment of longstanding bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, who revealed in 1998 that "Win" was one of her all-time favourite Bowie tracks: "My favourite Bowie album is Young Americans and it was at this time that I really got into David the heaviest. We never perform this song. Maybe the next tour, I hope." In 2003 she nearly got her way: "Win" was among the numbers rehearsed for A Reality Tour, even appearing at the occasional soundcheck, but the nearest it came to being performed in concert was a brief snippet hummed by Bowie at the Wantagh gig on June 4th 2004.
The version of "Win" included on the 1991 reissue of Young Americans is a different mix featuring less elaborate stereo effects (notably, the saxophone stays put instead of travelling between speakers). Subsequent reissues have reverted to the original, although the 5.1 remix prepared by Tony Visconti for 2007's special edition of Young Americans has a new ending, lasting a couple of seconds longer and concluding on an echoing drumbeat rather than fading to silence.
"Win" is one of three Bowie songs heard in the soundtrack of the 2010 film The Kids Are All Right.
WINNERS AND LOSERS (Pop/Jones)
Co-produced by Bowie for Iggy Pop's Blah-Blah-Blah, this was the B-side for the album's initial flop single "Cry For Love".
WISH I COULD SHIMMY LIKE MY SISTER KATE (Piron) see FOOT STOMPING
WISHFUL BEGINNINGS (Bowie/Eno)
This is the second 1.Outside track "to be sung by the Artist/Minotaur" and even by comparison with "The Voyeur" it's a sinister affair, as Bowie breathes his vocal over a heartbeat of bass drum, tambourine and distorted voices. The lyric eavesdrops on the killer's ruminations as he slowly lays out his victim: "Breathing in, breathing out, breathing on only doubt, the pain must feel like snow...Sorry, little girl...There you go, there you go..." This lacks the reassuring absurdism that tempers much of the album, and is one of the more disturbing works in Bowie's later career. "Wishful Beginnings" didn't make the transition to the Outside tour, and further obscurity beckoned when it was cut from the reissued 1.Outside Version 2 in favour of the Pet Shop Boys remix of "Hallo Spaceboy".
WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS (Lennon/McCartney)
Bowie began singing The Beatles 1967 classic during the encores of his final Sydney concert on November 25th 1978.
Not to be confused with "Without You", this song accompanies Bowie's final showdown with Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth; he sings it on a gigantic optical-illusion set based on M C Escher's Relativity, moving impossibly through a series of gravity-defying planes to declare his passion. Reviving the Berlin albums' penchant for pounding synthesizer effects, it's an undervalued number which finds Bowie in splendidly declamatory form, and with its melodramatic lyric ("You starve and near exhaust me / Everything I've done I've done for you, I move the stars for no-one / Your eyes can be so cruel, just as I can be so cruel..."), it wouldn't be out of place on side two of "Heroes".
Album: Let's Dance
Even the least likely Bowie songs have their champions: in 2006, Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears described "Without You" as "My favourite Bowie song of all time. I'll never get sick of it." This, however, is an opinion that is likely to remain in the minority. Distinguished only by the guest appearance of Chic's Bernard Edwards on bass guitar, "Without You" is probably the low point of Let's Dance, a throwaway love song deploying Bowie's least inspiring croon and a lyric that half-heartedly clutches at the intriguing friction of the album's better songs. Backed by "Criminal World", it was released as a single in America, Holland, Japan and Spain in November 1983, but for some merciful reason Britain was spared.
WITHOUT YOU I'M NOTHING (Placebo)
A-Side: August 1999
Video: Once More With Feeling: Videos 1996-2004 (Placebo)
On March 29th 1999 Bowie recorded a vocal overdub for a remix of Placebo's album track "Without You I'm Nothing", released as a limited-edition CD single on August 16th. Of the four versions, the "Flexirol Mix" isolated David's vocal contribution. The CD's excessive running time disqualified it from the UK singles chart, although it topped the Budget Albums listing. The sleeve photographs featured Bowie posing with the band and even included a shot of Tony Visconti, who mixed the single. The CD's interactive material included shots of Bowie and Placebo performing at New York's Irving Plaza on the day of the recording, when David joined the band for encores of "Without You I'm Nothing" and "20th Century Boy". The seldom-seen video, marrying footage of this live performance with the studio track, was later included on Placebo's DVD compilation Once More With Feeling.
European B-Side: June 2002
B-Side: September 2002
Bonus: Heathen (SACD)
Released as a B-side on some formats of the "Slow Burn" and "Everyone Says 'Hi'" singles, "Wood Jackson" is a hypnotic and intriguing out-take from the Heathen sessions. The funereal Hammond organ, shuffling drums and split-octave vocal, delivered in David's most pronounced mockney, achieve a sinister atmosphere evocative of the cryptic spookiness of classic tracks like "All The Madmen" and in particular "The Bewlay Brothers", whose menacing conclusion is echoed in the "Just wants to play" fade-out. The lyric appears to relate the story of a singer-songwriter ("Jackson made twenty tapes in a day, to give away") whose work is scorned ("The tunes they'd call creative when they're running out of names...the names that hurt poor Jackson"), bringing about destruction to its listeners ("Jackson stole twenty souls in a day"); but whether Jackson actually murders his critics, or whether the song is a more elliptical examination of the predicament of the outsider artist, is left for us to ponder.
It's possible that Bowie took his protagonist's name from an obscure writer of 1930s science-fiction who was indeed called Wood Jackson (his work included the splendidly titled The Bat-Men Of Mars), or alternatively from a private detective character of the same name who appears in M Scott Michel's 1945 novel The X-Ray Murders. The inspiration for the character of the troubled songwriter himself may well be Daniel Johnston, the West Virginian cult artist plagued by mental illness and famed for his bedroom demo tapes (performed on a toy chord organ - hence, perhaps, the prominent Hammond organ on "Wood Jackson"), which showcased a strange lyrical world of Biblical apocalypse, comic-book superheroes and unrequited love. "He was in different institutions and hospitals all his life," Bowie said of Johnston, who performed at the Meltdown Festival In June 2002, "and would make funny little cassettes of all his songs, on an out-of-tune piano or guitar: beautiful, poignant, sad little pieces. And he'd take them into the local comic shop and swap the cassettes for comics." As one of the more cryptic and impenetrable lyrics from the Heathen sessions, "Wood Jackson" is likely to remain open to interpretation.
WORD ON WING
Album: Station To Station/Station To Station (2010)
US B-Side: July 1976
Bonus: Station To Station
Live: VH1 Storytellers/Live Nassau Coliseum '76 (included on 2010 Reissue of Station To Station)
Live Video: VH1 Storytellers
This thoroughly beautiful and unusually religious Bowie composition was described by its creator as a "hymn". In 1980 he told the NME that it was born out of the coke-addled spiritual despair he had experienced during the filming of The Man Who Fell To Earth. "There were days of such psychological terror when making the Roeg film that I nearly started to approach my reborn, born again thing. It was the first time I'd really seriously thought about Christ and God in any depth, and "Word On A Wing" was a protection. It did come as a complete revolt against elements that I found in the film. The passion in the song was genuine...something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations that I felt were happening on the film set."
The result is one of the dramatic highlights of Station To Station, moving beyond the title track's conflict of belief systems with a shockingly vehement howl of desperation. Against Roy Bittan's beautifully histrionic piano Bowie repeats insistently that he is "trying hard to fit among your scheme of things", it was during the Station To Station period that he began carrying a silver crucifix which he continued to wear for decades, despite having little truck with conventional worship and no time at all for organised religion. "Word On A Wing" articulates his suspicion of the blind faith he had seemed to embrace in "Golden Years" ("I believe all the way" here becomes "Just because I believe don't mean I don't think as well") but, as he later admitted, "There was a point when I very nearly got suckered into that narrow sort of looking...finding the cross as the salvation of mankind around the Roeg period." In 1995 he added: "What was it somebody said? A wonderful analogy: 'Religion is for people who believe in hell; spirituality is for people who've been there.' That for me makes a lot of sense, you know."
The "choirboy" voice at the end of the track was created by the Chamberlin, a sophisticated variant of the Mellotron which would be pressed into service again on Low. A 3'14" edit appeared on the B-side of the "Stay" single released in America and some other territories; this was later included on 2010's Station To Station: Deluxe Edition. A superb live version recorded at Nassau Coliseum on March 23rd 1976 was included on 1991's Station To Station reissue and on 2010's full release of the Nassau concert. After regular appearances on the 1976 tour "Word On A Wing" remained under wraps for over twenty years. It was spectacularly revived in 1999, when David reaffirmed that it was a product of "the darkest days of my life...I'm sure that it was a call for help." The first of the 1999 performances was at the VH1 Storytellers concert, later released on DVD and CD.
WORKING CLASS HERO (Lennon)
Album: Tin Machine
Their cover of John Lennon's bilious classic (originally from 1970's Plastic Ono Band) sums up all that's good and bad about Tin Machine. At first glance it's a successfully rootsy piece of R&B, but the gimlet-eyed venom of Lennon's lyric is ill served by the adversarial, rackety style of delivery. Those familiar with the original will find little of value in this thumping version, save for the implicit acknowledgement that Tin Machine's socially conscious manifesto is grounded in the legacy of Bowie's one-time collaborator. "That's always been a really favourite song of mine," explained David. "I like that first John Lennon album a hell of a lot. I think all the songs are really beautifully written...very straight from the shoulder. There's an honesty in the lyrics there. And that particular song, I thought, would sound great as a rock song. It seemed very worth doing." Lennon's son Sean, then 13, was an occasional studio visitor during the recording of Tin Machine and apparently approved of "Working Class Hero". "I think he likes it a lot," said Bowie. "He's followed this album from almost the start, from the second week. He's a big Reeves fan."
An excerpt of "Working Class Hero" was included in Julien Temple's 1989 Tin Machine video, featuring the band dressed in dinner jackets before a plush red curtain. The song was played live on the first Tin Machine tour.
An unreleased track from the Lodger sessions, recorded in Montreux in September 1978.