Tuesday, 25 June 2013

David Bowie is (part 19): 'A real life adventure worth more than pieces of gold'

In February 1980, David Bowie went to The Power Station studio in New York to begin work on another album. In many ways this would be another transitional album for Bowie, neither part of the ground-breaking, avant garde, experimental work of the Berlin albums, nor part of the later, more commercially successful pop-style albums. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) was a fantastic balance of the original and the popular. It was also the last album to feature the band he had been with since Station to Station: Alomar/Davis/Murray. The core musicians were complemented by Chuck Hammer, Lou Reed's guitarist, Robert Fripp who had last played with Bowie on "Heroes", Roy Bittan on piano and Andy Clark on synthesiser. Pete Townshend from The Who also played on 'Because You're Young'.  This is an instrumental backing track that was completed but never used. It comes from a bootleg. It was either going to be a cover of 'I Feel Free', which Bowie eventually did on Black Tie... in 1993, or a remarkably similar song called 'Life After Marriage'. The most incredible thing about Scary Monsters... is that is hasn't dated. The song 'Ashes to Ashes', a follow-up to, or in his words a "ritualistic purification" of Bowie's 1969 'Space Oddity' about Major Tom, was released as a single complete with a striking video which has been cited by countless bands and filmakers as an influence. It undoubtedly helped to propel the single to number 1. The album also reached number 1 when it was released in September.


Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
All songs written by David Bowie, except where noted.

Side one 

  1. 'It's No Game (No. 1)' – 4:15
  2. 'Up the Hill Backwards' – 3:13
  3. 'Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)' – 5:10
  4. 'Ashes to Ashes' – 4:23
  5. 'Fashion' – 4:46

Side two

  1. 'Teenage Wildlife' – 6:51
  2. 'Scream Like a Baby' – 3:35
  3. 'Kingdom Come' (Tom Verlaine) – 3:42
  4. 'Because You're Young' – 4:51
  5. 'It's No Game (No. 2)' – 4:22

Once David Bowie had finished recording Scary Monsters... he started work on a play which would take him to San Francisco, Denver, Chicago and New York. Bowie was to play the part of John Merrick in The Elephant Man. One of the actors Bowie would play opposite was Ken Ruta, of the American Conservatory Theatre, a very well-regarded actor. Ruta says of Bowie, "He was incredible. Right on the money... He was absolutely not a show-off.. He hadn't acted on a stage, so the acting technique wasn't completely in his control [but], thank god, he had such an imagination, so the integrity was there. There was a basic honesty. And the best gift, to me, of any great actors is that thing about listening. That doesn't happen all the time." With a few weeks of the run remaining Bowie received the terrible news that his friend, with whom he had recently been re-aquainted, John Lennon had been shot dead by Mark Chapman. Bowie missed a few nights but completed the run. Two years later Bowie would say it was "awful, just awful. A whole piece of my life seemed to have been taken away; a whole reason for being a singer and songwriter seemed to be removed from me. It was almost like a warning." Bowie appeared on a TV programme called 'Friday Night... Saturday Morning' in which he was interviewed by Tim Rice about his performance in the Elephant Man as well as discussing Scary Monsters.... There are also clips of him performing on stage as the Elephant Man. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

After being chased by fans all over America during his time in the Elephant Man, David Bowie enjoyed the seclusion of his home in Switzerland during the first half of 1981 and spending time with his ten year old son, Zowie before he went to boarding school in September. His only musical venture during that summer was to collaborate with the Italian elctronic musician Giorgio Moroder on the theme tune for a film called 'Cat People'. 'Cat People (Putting Out Fires)' reached number 26 when it was released the following year. It was re-recorded for Bowie's next album and then largely forgotten about until it was used in Quentin Tarantino's film 'Inglorious Basterds' in 2009. Watch the video here.

Whilst David Bowie was at Mountain Studio in Switzerland to record 'Cat People (Putting Out Fire) he met Queen recording their album 'Hot Space'. He was asked to sing some backing vocals on a song (which he did but they weren't used) but ended up working on a different song, 'Feel Like'. Mercury and Bowie came up with a different title and different lyrics and Bowie then worked with drummer Roger Taylor on the music. Bowie provided most of the lyrics, the melody, the middle eight ("the terror of knowing what this world is all about") and even the distinctive bassline, which he hummed to John Deacon. Bowie then gave the song away to Queen which he was sure would be a hit, happy for them to take all the royalties in preference to giving any to his former manager, Tony Defries, whose contract with him wouldn't expire until October 1982. The song was 'Under Pressure'. It was released as a single in October and reached number 1 in Britain. Watch the video here.

In July 1981 David Bowie began rehearsing a television play for the BBC. It was an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's first full-length play, 'Baal'. Alan Clarke of 'Scum' fame would direct, Louis Marks was the BBC producer and the writer was John Willett, the English-speaking world's foremost Brecht scholar and translator who had met Brecht in 1956. The three discussed Steven Berkoff and Barry Humpries (also known as Dame Edna Everage) for the lead role before settling on Bowie. He did need any persuading. At the early rehearsals they discussed the Brecht 'recitatif' singing style. "I think of it rather like plainsong", said Bowie. Willett was shocked, it made complete sense, but had never ocurred to him before. After that first discussion Willett turned to Marks and said, "he knows more about Germany as a whole - and Brecht in particular - than anyone we know!" During his cocaine phase, Bowie had spent hours in Berlin art galleries. Willett was impressed with the way Bowie made sense of the songs but also with his ability to take on the role of Baal immediately. He collaborated on the songs with Dominic Muldowney, a leading interpreter of Brecht's music. News that the reclusive Bowie was working on the play had reached the British press, creating headlines. Then they discovered the BBC had retitled the piece 'Bowie in Baal' and delayed its transmission until the following spring so they could cover it in the Radio Times. The play was shown on 2 March 1982 to mainly good press coverage.

Towards the end of his time working on the TV play 'Baal', David Bowie told Dominic Muldowney that he wanted to record an album of the music from the play in Berlin and asked him to oversee the arrangements. Muldowney jumped at the chance and the writer John Willett said he would come too. He told them that he wanted the record to serve as his last for RCA. Just a few weeks later Bowie, Muldowney, Willett and Tony Visconti met in Hansa studio 2 for Bowie's last recording there and his final goodbye to Berlin. Of the eight musicians assembled many were Brecht old-timers and one was 75 and had played in the first productions of Brecht's 'Threepenny Opera'. Bowie arrived late, which meant most of the backing tracks had already been completed. Bowie then laid down all his vocals in just three or four hours.

The lyrics to the songs were all translated by Ralph Manheim and John Willett. Dominic Muldowney provided all new musical settings, except for "The Drowned Girl", which was a setting by Kurt Weill done originally for Das Berliner Requiem. “Baal’s Hymn” is a combination of the vignettes spread throughout the play and establishes Baal’s amoral character. “Remembering Marie A” concerns Baal’s reminiscences of a past conquest, where he can remember a cloud drifting overhead but not the face of the girl he was with. “Ballad of the Adventurers” is Baal’s aggressive lament to the death of his mother. “The Drowned Girl” relates the suicide of one of Baal’s conquests – a video clip for this song was shot by David Mallet at the same time as the one for “Wild is the Wind”. “The Dirty Song” is a short number, with Baal humiliating his lover Sophie.

Muldowney said of Bowie's vocals: "The standout was 'The Drowned Girl', which is like an Ophelia song, where she dies in the river. He's singing about 'Her slow descent' below the water, right down in the bass baritone. Then halfway through he jumps up the octave. I play this song to composers at the Royal Opera House on courses. When he sings up to the word 'smoke' its got smoke all around it, it's cloudy. Then we get to the 'k' of smoke and you can see it again. It's an absolute tutorial in how to paint a text. The only other person I know can do that is Frank Sinatra". The 'Baal' EP was Bowie's last release for RCA. It reached number 29 when it was released in February 1982. Bowie would now wait out his contract with RCA.

Next time: vampires, war and dancing

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