David Bowie & The Snowman

bowieDavid Bowie’s 1977-1985 period was one of his most fascinating and contradictory. On the one hand, there were the ‘adult’ themes embedded in Heroes, Lodger, Scary Monsters, ‘The Elephant Man’, ‘Christiane F’, ‘Cat People’, ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’, ‘Baal’ and ‘The Hunger’.

But then there were the projects that were, on the face of it, more typical of a well-respected, part-of-the-furniture ‘family entertainer’; the 1977 Bing Crosby TV duet, the 1978 recording of Prokofiev’s children’s classic ‘Peter And The Wolf’, the ‘unthreatening’ pure pop of Let’s Dance and Tonight, the ‘Labyrinth’ movie and soundtrack, the huge investment of time and effort in various Band Aid/Live Aid ventures.

Were these karmic ‘atonements’ for those bleak Los Angeles and Berlin periods of the mid-’70s? Possibly, though his work had always touched on childhood themes, and he was apparently also very keen, whenever possible, to take on projects that his young son could enjoy.

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So, in early December 1983, when Bowie was – albeit briefly – probably the biggest ‘rock’ star on the planet, he found time to contribute a touching, heartfelt introduction to Dianne Jackson’s film of Raymond Briggs’ ‘The Snowman’.

First shown on British TV 33 years ago today (I can remember how much of an event it was in my house), it’s yet another fascinating piece of early-’80s Bowie ephemera, and his involvement was surely quite a coup for the film-makers. Though ‘The Snowman’ has become a perennial Christmas favourite, it is often transmitted without the introduction. So here it is in all its glory. Merry Christmas.

Story Of A Song: Rolling Stones’ Undercover Of The Night

Rolling+Stones+Undercover+Of+The+Night+-+Stoc+141290bSo here it is: The Stones’ last great single. ‘Undercover’ is essentially a one-chord groove with powerful lyrics, stinging guitar licks, a memorable hook and notable video. 

Though Mick and Keef share a writing credit, the song was apparently largely a Jagger composition, with Richards later saying: ‘Mick had this one all mapped out. I just played on it. There was a lot more separation in the way we were recording at that time. Mick and I were starting to come to loggerheads…’ Guitarist Ronnie Wood concurred but also had reservations: ‘There was a great acoustic version which is the kind of song it should be. The final, polished version may have been Mick’s vision of the song…’

Reading between the lines, Jagger was clearly keen to bring outside players into an increasingly dysfunctional band situation. Recording took place during the summer of 1983 at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, giving Jagger the opportunity of using some great local players, many of whom light up ‘Undercover Of The Night’.

A raft of percussionists including Sly Dunbar, Martin Ditcham, Moustapha Cisse and Brahms Coundoul accompany drummer Charlie Watts on various instruments including bongos, Simmons drum and even a timpani (there are rumours that a complete different version of the song exists featuring a rhythm section of Sly and Robbie). Producer Chris Kimsey also enters into the spirit of things with an ingenious ‘dub’-style arrangement (or is that the work of Brian McGee, credited as ‘editor’ on the vinyl label?).

Jagger claimed that his lyric was heavily influenced by William Burroughs’ 1981 novel ‘Cities Of The Red Night’. The song is a disturbing vision of Latin America’s dirty war. This was, after all, an era in which thousands of ‘political prisoners’ were tortured and killed in the ESMA detention camp in Buenos Aires, less than a mile from the stadium where the 1978 football World Cup Final was taking place (according to many reports, the cheers of the fans obscured the screams of suffering prisoners).

Excellent documentary ‘The Shock Doctrine’ claims that many torture techniques used by the Chilean and Argentinian junta (including rape and genital mutilation) may have been ‘learned’ in the US-run School Of The Americas. Jagger manages to crystallise many of these disturbing aspects in a powerful lyric:

Hear the screams of Centre 42
Loud enough to bust your brains out
The opposition’s tongue is cut in two
Keep off the street cos you’re in danger
One hundred thousand disparos
Lost in the jails in South America

Cuddle up baby, cuddle up tight
Cuddle up baby, keep it all out of sight
Undercover of the night

The sex police are out there on the streets
Make sure the pass laws are not broken
The race militia has got itchy fingers
All the way from New York back to Africa

All the young men, they’ve been rounded up
And sent to camps back in the jungle
And people whisper, people double-talk
And once-proud fathers act so humble
All the young girls they have got the blues
They’re heading on back to Centre 42

Down in the bars, the girls are painted blue
Done up in lace, done up in rubber
The johns are jerky little GI Joes
On R&R from Cuba and Russia
The smell of sex, the smell of suicide
All these sweet things I can’t keep inside

Undercover, all out of sight
Undercover of the night

Julien Temple directed the controversial video, shot in Mexico City. As he relayed in ‘I Want My MTV’, his dealings with Jagger and Richards gave him a pretty stark insight into the state of their relationship:

‘I wrote an extreme treatment about being in the middle of an urban revolution, and dramatised the notion of Keith and Mick really not liking each other by having Keith kill Mick in the video. I never thought they would do it. Of course they loved it. I went to Paris to meet with the band. Keith was looking particularly unhappy. He was glowering with menace and eventually said, “Come downstairs with me.” My producer and I went down to the men’s room. Keith had a walking stick and suddenly he pulled it apart. The next thing I know he’s holding a swordstick to my throat. He said, “I want to be in the video more than I am.” So we wrote up his part a bit more. That was Keith’s idea of collaboration!’

The video was initially considered too violent for MTV (though they did eventually air an edited version after 9pm) and it was heavily censored when shown on British television, leading to a fractious interview on ‘The Tube‘ during which presenter Muriel Gray questioned Jagger and Temple about the extreme content and their motives for making the video.

‘Undercover Of The Night’ was released as the first single from the accompanying Undercover album on 1st November 1983. It got to number 9 in the US singles chart and 11 in the UK – not bad. No Stones single has gone higher since.

Marvellous Marvin Gaye: Five From 1983

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Marvin entered 1983 with mixed emotions. His comeback album Midnight Love, released in October 1982, was a certified hit, with decent sales, good PR and an attendant single ‘Sexual Healing’ that was building up quite a Grammy buzz.

But there were plenty of other problems brewing: in his rather paranoid state, Marvin believed that pretenders to his throne like Teddy Pendergrass, Frankie Beverly (whom Marvin had mentored early in his career) and Michael Jackson were cashing in on his style and sound. The latter had even taken to wearing aviator shades and ‘military’ garb.

Elsewhere, Marvin’s relationship with his father had hit a new low. Bitter and resentful, he considered physically ejecting Father from the family home but decided instead to stay away completely.

The other problem was cashflow. Marvin was spending so much money on ‘extras’ that he had been forced to give up his houses in Bel Air and Palm Springs.

Despite all this, in the first few months of 1983, Marvin reminded the music world of his luminous genius and, against all the odds, provided a few career high-points.

Broke and entering an introspective period, he found himself spending quite a lot of time at his sister Sweetsie’s pad. It was there, on Saturday 12th February 1983, that he got together with chief musical collaborator Gordon Banks to cook up a version of the national anthem that he would sing the next day before the National Basketball Association’s All-Star Game. Despite the last-minute planning, there was no margin for error: Marvin’s performance would be broadcast live on national TV.

He not only pulled it off – he smashed it out of the park. Only Marvin could have come up something so singular. His huge respect for the athletes ensured that he raised his game accordingly. Funky, spiritual, heartfelt and yet controversial, it was a triumphant reading of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, and one of the highlights of his career. It still makes the hairs stand on end.

Less than two weeks later, on February 23rd, there was another personal milestone for Marvin when he was awarded his first Grammy awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. That the Best Male Vocal and Best Instrumental Performance awards were ‘only’ in the R’n’B category scarcely mattered. He had moved out from behind his Grammy nemesis Lou Rawls’ shadow and finally gained the acceptance of his peers, something that was extremely important to him. His speeches were heartfelt and touching.

His performance of ‘Sexual Healing’ was not an unqualified success (it was 10 or 15 BPMs too slow and Marvin seemed slightly uncomfortable), but it’s still essential and moving stuff.

Another very happy moment happened a few months later when Marvin appeared with Gladys Knight and the Pips on another TV special. According to David Ritz’s classic book ‘Divided Soul‘, Marvin and Gladys argued backstage about whose version of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ to do. He finally deferred to her, but still turned in another joyous and brilliant performance.

Then, on 25th March 1983, the Pasadena Civic Auditorium hosted the ‘Motown 25’ anniversary concert, most famous for Michael Jackson’s spellbinding reading of ‘Billie Jean’. Marvin once again defied expectations and provided one of the highlights of the evening.

Though looking somewhat haggard, his blues/gospel piano playing and philosophical pronouncements on the value and history of black music were nothing less than captivating. His subsequent performance of ‘What’s Going On’ was perhaps perfunctory in comparison, but still essential viewing.

Tougher, tragic times were to come over the next year, but for a few months in early 1983, Marvin was seeing a lot of his professional dreams come true. No one could take that away from him.