Story Of A Song: David Bowie’s ‘Loving The Alien’

The lead-off track and third single (UK #19 in May 1985, not released in the US) from 1984’s Tonight album, ‘Loving The Alien’ was arguably Bowie’s most committed piece of writing since Scary Monsters‘ ‘Teenage Wildlife’ four years earlier. Recorded at Quebec’s Le Studio in May 1984, the song was musically rich with a striking set of lyrics and a superb, soaring vocal performance.

Like a good Kubrick movie, it distills down weeks of research to just the crucial components. Bowie was apparently doing a lot of reading about Christianity and the Catholic Church, influenced particularly by Donovan Joyce’s notorious ‘The Jesus Scroll’ which posited that Jesus died in Masada at the age of 80 and wrote a scroll that is currently in Russian hands.

The wider implications of this led Bowie into further thoughts on organised religion in general and Christianity in particular. He told writer Charles Shaar Murray: ‘It was always more of a power tool than anything else, which was not very apparent to the majority of us. My father encouraged me to become interested in other religions. It’s extraordinary considering all the mistranslations in the Bible that our lives are being navigated by this misinformation, and that so many people have died because of it. That’s how the song started out: for some reason, I was very angry…’

Using the bloodshed of The Crusades as its central image, the lyric uses various effective ploys, one of which is an almost Pinteresque juxtaposition of the banal and portentous. While Bowie blithely stated ‘It’s just a song of images’ in the above interview, each line is ripe for analysis.

Watching them come and go
The Templars and the Saracens
They’re travelling the holy land
Opening telegrams

Torture comes and torture goes
Knights who’d give you anything
They bear the cross of Coeur de Leon
Salvation for the mirror-blind

But if you pray
All your sins are hooked upon the sky
Pray and the heathen lie will disappear

Prayers, they hide the saddest view
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

And your prayers they break the sky in two
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

You pray til the break of dawn
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

And you’ll believe you’re loving the alien
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

Thinking of a different time
Palestine a modern problem
Bounty and your wealth in land
Terror in a best-laid plan

Watching them come and go
Tomorrows and the yesterdays
Christians and the unbelievers
Hanging by the cross and nail

Bananarama it ain’t. Both lyrically and musically, the song stands out a mile on Tonight. But unfortunately these days it’s a difficult listen – despite Bowie’s fantastic vocal, it’s let down by an immense production with huge, gated drums (Omar Hakim’s entrée into rock drumming that arguably got him the gigs with Dire Straits and Sting), muddy bass, an overwrought Arif Mardin string arrangement and ponderous Carlos Alomar guitar solo. More successful are Guy St Onge’s marimba and the sampled Bowie vocals at the top (apparently more influenced by Philip Glass’s ‘Einstein On The Beach‘ than Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ – the kind of detail that was very important to Bowie!).

Regular collaborator David Mallet directed the video, storyboarded – as usual – by Bowie. Though seemingly a fairly disparate series of arresting images, the clip was fairly successful as a surreal assault on religion’s materialistic symbols and commodification of women. It also makes a fascinating companion piece to his ‘Blackstar’ video. Bowie’s cheery grin that accompanies the ‘Opening telegrams/Whoa-oh’ line is a thrillingly weird moment.

Bowie performed ‘Loving The Alien’ throughout the ‘Glass Spider’ tour. Then, in 2002, DJ Scumfrog remixed the track to create a single called ‘The Scumfrog vs Bowie’, a top 10 hit in the UK Dance Chart. A year later Bowie himself resurrected the song, cooking up a stripped-down version in duet with guitarist Gerry Leonard. They dropped the key from E-minor down to C-minor and dispensed with many of the original’s passing chords, arguably dissolving some of its power, but it’s certainly a unique reading.

According to Bowie, the best version of ‘Loving The Alien’ is his original home demo of the song, yet to see the light of day. Let’s hope we get to hear it sometime.

 

 

Square Records in Fripp Country

squareI’m not much one for rock’n’roll pilgrimages (living in London, the whole place can sometimes feel like a music heritage site), but, during a recent trip down to Dorset, I couldn’t resist visiting one of my favourite muso backwaters: Square Records in Wimborne, a great shop with a deceptively rich history.

As I crept around the corner and spied Square just across the way from the majestic Minster, I was honestly just relieved it had survived for another year. It first came to my attention when it featured in a beautifully-made mid-’80s BBC documentary (see below) about fascinating King Crimson mainman and key Bowie/Gabriel/Eno/Sylvian collaborator Robert Fripp. Fripp was born and raised in Wimborne (before the music bug hit, he almost joined his dad in the family’s estate management firm…), and he perpetually returns to visit relatives and sometimes even rehearse there.

The documentary captures a fascinating time in Fripp’s career – we see him with Andy Summers in what looks like a little studio space above Square Records learning the tunes that would make up the Bewitched album, and also duetting on a little Django Reinhardt. We eavesdrop on Fripp’s presentation/pitch meeting with Polydor Records to discuss the marketing for King Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair (‘we would like a new audience – this is what you can do for us’!), and see Fripp at a Square signing session, giving considered advice to some young Wimborne musos.

Fripp wanders around other fascinating local landmarks – Badbury Rings (probably my favourite spot), Knowlton Church, Horton Tower and the medieval hunting lodge where Crimson rehearsed Discipline – all the while discussing his career and spiritual beliefs (‘the top of my head blew off…I saw what it was to be a human being’). There’s even time for afternoon tea with Mother.

badbury rings

But back to Square in 2016. I found myself properly browsing CDs and vinyl for the first time in years, unsure what I’d find. I came across a rack titled something like ‘Local Bands’ but didn’t see any Fripp or Crimson in there, so grabbed In The Court Of The Crimson King from the K section and naughtily re-categorised it.

Taking my Siouxsie & The Banshees best-of (a steal at £4.99) to the counter, I admitted my crime to the friendly woman behind the counter. She ignored the transgression, cheerfully saying, ‘Oh, Robert used to live above the shop.’ Oh, right. Wow. I asked her about that BBC documentary. ‘Oh, I’m in that too. You can see me when Robert is doing the album signing.’

You can indeed. Long live Square. And Fripp.

No Mullet Required: Nik Kershaw’s The Riddle

the-riddle-54d854ab5fe83MCA Records, released November 1984

Bought: Our Price Richmond

8/10

Yes, yes, this might be a hard sell for some, though one wonders how many readers outside the UK will even have heard of Nik. After several years playing guitar in cover bands and fronting East Anglia blue-eyed-soulsters Fusion, Kershaw wrote a few poppy-sounding tracks and suddenly found himself thrust into the solo spotlight. He hit the ground running with the superb ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good‘ single, but some would never forgive him for the annoyingly-jaunty ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ (though it was originally a downbeat, acoustic protest song in demo form).

nik

But he didn’t fool anyone with the snood, fingerless gloves and mullet – it was obvious that Nik was a serious muso (what a horrible ‘80s word). This very talented and rather underrated artist had a voice a bit like Stevie Wonder (though my dad rightly identified something Numanoid too), played guitar a bit like Allan Holdsworth and wrote clever, catchy pop songs with prog, metal and funk undercurrents.

He also had some very famous fans in the US including Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. But his image, dreamed up by some wags in MCA’s marketing department, really didn’t do him any favours – Smash Hits summed it up perfectly, calling him ‘the thinking man’s Limahl’.

The Riddle is probably his best album. It was recorded pretty quickly to cash in on the unexpected success of his debut Human Racing, though featured a fair amount of post-production courtesy of the excellent Peter Collins who went on to produce Rush’s Power Windows.

The Riddle features a very solid but expressive rhythm section (Elton John sticksman Charlie Morgan and ex-Secret Affair bassist Dennis Smith plus a great guest appearance from Level 42’s Mark King on ‘Easy’). Kershaw’s use of synths was kind of revolutionary, with intriguing sequencer patterns and lots of subtle, almost subliminal pads (dare one posit a Gil Evans influence?).

Yes, The Riddle screams the mid-1980s, but, most importantly, every song on it is memorable and has a very distinct flavour. On a songwriting level, Kershaw always knows how to keep things interesting for the listener. ‘Know How’’s taut, white-funk groove always used to remind me a bit of Talking Heads, but the silly/funny spoken-word bit and weird prog sections approach the It Bites sound.

Miles apparently recorded a cover of the very pretty ‘Wild Horses’ which has never seen the light of day. Hollywood-baiting ‘City Of Angels’ and eco-themed ‘Roses’ have more than a hint of Steely Dan about them, partly due to the use of the famous Purdie Shuffle, nicely reformatted by Morgan.

‘Wide Boy’ and ‘Don Quixote’ have lots of interesting melodic modulations under their pop sheen. ‘Easy’ is a brilliant band performance and crafty composition with a nutty middle eight, while the closing ballad ‘Save The Whale’ is also musically rich and lyrically well-intentioned if naive. And though the title track divides opinion, to say the least, check out its two-chords-per-bar middle-eight for a great example of Kershaw’s craft.

The cover photo was taken at Chesil Beach in Dorset. The Riddle peaked at #8 on the UK Album Chart and went multi-platinum. The lead single was the title track which reached #3 in the UK. ‘Wide Boy’ peaked at #9, whilst the third and final single release ‘Don Quixote’ got to #10. Three top 10 hits from a sophomore album – pretty damn good.

Nik was massive for approximately 18 months. He played Live Aid in July 1985 (famously nearly taking an embarrassing tumble, see below) but then waited until autumn 1986 to follow up The Riddle – possibly a mistake. The screaming girls were growing up fast or moving on to a-ha. He was developing as a musician and songwriter but gaining a much more ‘selective’ appeal, in the words of Ian Faith. Watch this space for Nik’s next move.

Jazz, Clicks And Synths: Steps Ahead’s Modern Times

Steps-Ahead-Modern-TimesElektra/Asylum, released July 1984

7/10

Michael Brecker

Michael Brecker

Any budding sax player of the ’80s was learning Michael Brecker’s licks. Jazz people loved his post-Coltrane superchops and forensic exploration of every chord. Funk and pop people loved him because he could play brilliantly-tight horn arrangements with his trumpet-playing brother Randy and solo superbly over vamps, finding endless melodic ideas in the simplest two-chord changes. He was surely the only sax player who could play comfortably with Kenny Wheeler, Parliament and Everything But The Girl (though it has to be said that most hardcore jazz purists were intrinsically suspicious of this, but who cares what they think…).

Brecker formed Steps Ahead (originally Steps) with fellow New York masters vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and bassist Eddie Gomez, put together initially for the Japanese market. Steve Gadd was their original drummer, replaced in the early ’80s by Weather Report man Peter Erskine.

Steps Ahead’s self-titled debut album showcased a mostly-acoustic fusion sound, but the follow-up Modern Times embraced all sorts of ’80s technology to intriguing effect. Of course such tinkering opens it up to sounding somewhat dated these days, but at least the album has ambition, quality compositions and the kind of attention to detail that makes it an interesting companion piece to key mid-’80s pop albums like The Flat Earth, Hounds Of Love, Boys And Girls and So.

Opener ‘Safari’ kicks off with a vaguely Caribbean/reggae groove featuring a multitude of synths and sequencers and a tribal, almost Zawinulesque melody. With repeated listens there are many pleasures to be found; Brecker’s typically incisive tenor solo, Erskine’s subtly-building groove work, the slinky bass line which rumbles on throughout.

Equally arresting is pianist Warren Bernhardt’s title track, a modal piece built over another serpentine, sequenced line, developing into a series of lovely vignettes featuring Brecker’s solos and some very Steely Dan-ish chord progressions. Mainieri’s composition ‘Old Town’ features King Crimson/Peter Gabriel sideman Tony Levin playing some menacing Stick over the sort of exotic, ambient groove Bryan Ferry would utilise on Boys And Girls a year later. And ‘Radio-Active’ taps into some of the World vibes Peter Gabriel investigated throughout the ’80s.

Unfortunately a few tunes let the side down, drifting uncomfortably into smooth jazz territory. Mainieri’s composition ‘Self Portrait’ is almost saved by a lyrical Brecker solo but far too saccharine for my tastes, while Erskine’s ‘Now You Know’ features a melody line (Brecker on soprano) which, though memorable, veers scarily towards Kenny G. And it has to be said that Eddie Gomez’s role in the band would seem to be diminishing very fast, so anonymous is his contribution. He would be gone by the next album Magnetic, replaced by ex-Weather Report man Victor Bailey.

In Modern Times‘ liner notes, Peter Erskine thanks someone for their help with click tracks, and that concept in itself would probably turn off a big section of the ‘jazz’ audience. But some arresting compositions, tribal grooves and typically tasty Brecker solos ensure that one’s attention never strays for long. Modern Times is a key jazz album of the ’80s, albeit one that would probably have given most of the Young Lions nightmares…