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.

 

 

Seismic Grooves: Ronald Shannon Jackson’s ‘Behind Plastic Faces’

ronald_shannon_jackson_06n5970

Shannon Jackson in 2012

Musicians and writers have long puzzled over a definition of Harmolodics, the musical system invented by Ornette Coleman. The man himself was famously coy on the subject, his brief liner note on the back of the Dancing In Your Head LP possibly the nearest he ever got to an outright definition: ‘Rhythms, harmonics and tempos are all equal in relationship’. 

Of all the Ornette collaborators who developed their own take on Harmolodics, Ronald Shannon Jackson, who died in October 2013, probably came up with the most accessible version. He had played with avant-garde pioneers Albert Ayler, Ornette, James Blood Ulmer and Cecil Taylor in the 1970s, but developed into a fine bandleader/composer in the ’80s, fronting a red-hot band featuring guitarist Vernon Reid (Living Colour), bassist Melvin Gibbs (Rollins Band), trombonist Robin Eubanks and saxophonist Zane Massey, amongst many others. (Shannon’s version of Harmolodics was so successful it possibly even influenced Ornette’s sunny late-’80s minor classic, Virgin Beauty.)

r-1084782-1190894488-jpeg

My dad used to get sent a lot of music in his capacity as a programme consultant for Channel 4 TV’s music arm back in the mid-1980s. A surprising amount of it would come in home-compiled cassette format. One such tape was simply called ‘Dance Music’ – I’ve still got it somewhere.

Most of the music on it was fairly standard Brazilian and Blue Note stuff but one track stood out a mile and became somewhat of an obsession for my brother and I: Shannon’s ‘Behind Plastic Faces’, from the 1985 album Decode Yourself. It was the beginning of my love affair with his music and drumming.

He lays down one of his patented military grooves on Simmons drums underneath slithering fretless bass, chattering Reid guitar and Onaje Allan Gumbs’ summery keyboards. But then the track suddenly changes gear halfway through and turns into a Afro-Funk/No-Wave rave-up, with Shannon moving over to the acoustic drums and Eric Person rhapsodising on alto sax.

The track and attendant album were recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York and produced by Bill Laswell. Decode Yourself seems very difficult to find these days, like many of Shannon’s numerous other ’80s albums.

Shannon Jackson was born and brought up in Forth Worth, Texas, just like Ornette. His father’s jukebox introduced him to BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck, but there were many other influences in the mix too, as he told writer Gary Giddins in 1985: ‘You’d wake up and hear hillbilly music on the radio. In school, we’d play (Wagner’s) “Lohengin”, at night we’d hear Bo Diddley or Bobby “Blue” Bland. On Sunday, we’d hear gospel. It was a total black community, and music wasn’t categorised as jazz or pop – nobody told you you weren’t supposed to like something.’

Much more Shannon soon.

Getz Meets Grover: Sadao Watanabe’s Maisha

sadaoElektra Records, released 25th May 1985

7/10

Ah, the joy of tape-to-tape machines. One day, when I was about 16, my parents’ cool music-biz friend Steve brought me round a pile of cassettes, all tape-to-tape recordings, two albums per tape. That was an important little selection right there: Little Feat’s Last Record Album, Steely Dan‘s Katy Lied, Talking Heads ’77 and a few others that have skipped my mind.

Sadao_Watanabe_jazz_musician

Sadao Watanabe’s Maisha was also amongst them. I’d never heard of Sadao. He’s a highly-regarded Japanese sax player who has performed in many different idioms from straight ahead to bossa nova, but is probably best known for his late-’70s jazz/funk material when he borrowed Grover Washington Jr‘s band (Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, Eric Gale, Ralph McDonald and Anthony Jackson) for some huge home-country gigs and a few fairly popular albums on CBS.

Maisha is a fairly light jazz-funk album of a mid-’80s vintage, but on reflection it’s got more in common with MJ’s Thriller than anything by Spyro Gyra or Shakatak. This is due to a really phenomenal rhythm section and very subdued production with no blaring synths, drum machines or digital reverb.

Instead, it’s a lesson in groove construction. Drummers John Robinson/Harvey Mason and bassists Nathan East (fresh from Anita Baker’s The Songstress, Randy Newman’s Trouble In Paradise and Lionel’s Can’t Slow Down) and Jimmy Johnson have seldom played better. Yellowjacket Russell Ferrante’s keys are typically tasteful and considered, sticking to a Rhodes and acoustic piano rather than synths, while Jerry Hey adds brilliant horn arrangements to various tracks. Paulinho Da Costa is his usual effervescent self on all manner of percussion. And finally, guitarists Carlos Rios and David Williams play beautifully, the latter of course a mainstay of Thriller.

sadao 2

In general, the musicianship is loose and spontaneous, a world away from the studied session-head sounds usually associated with the ’80s LA studio scene. John Robinson marshals the band through ‘Paysages’ with a fantastically loose interpretation of the famous Bernard Purdie shuffle. Herbie Hancock pops in to contribute a ridiculously great synth solo to ‘What’s Now’ (which is surely due a big-band cover version) while Brenda Russell’s attractively-artless vocals feature on the Calypso-tinged ‘Tip Away’ and infectious ‘Men And Women’. And not even Stanley Clarke could have bettered Nathan East’s bass-and-scat solo on ‘Good News’.

Unfortunately Sadao’s sax chops get a bit swamped by all this classy playing, but he does have a lovely tone, like an alto-playing Stan Getz, and writes several memorable themes on the album.

So, thanks for this one, Steve, and for the Steely, Little Feat and Heads. Oh, and the China Crisis. I knew I’d remember eventually.

In a movingtheriver.com first, I’m afraid I can’t bring you any excerpts from Maisha because I can’t find any decent ones. So let’s instead enjoy a bit of Harvey Mason from 1985, stadium-funk style. Why not.

Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog: 30 Years Old Today

joni_mitchell-dog_eat_dog(2)Geffen Records, released 30th October 1985

Bought: Christmas present, 1985

9/10

Most music fans of a certain age probably had their favourite ‘Walkman albums’, those cassettes that worked perfectly on headphones, revealing intricacies (weird panning effects, funky little motifs, stereo drum kits) rarely noticed when played on normal speakers.

As much as I had loved Joni Mitchell‘s music ever since my dad played me ‘Chinese Cafe (Unchained Melody)’ in 1983, I’d never have predicted that Dog Eat Dog would turn into one of my top headphone albums. A clue, of course, was the presence of Thomas Dolby as co-producer and keyboard player, master of quirky soundscapes and synth textures.

joni

Though initially he might seem a weird choice of collaborator, with hindsight it’s not that much of a surprise that Joni and co-producer/bassist/hubbie Larry Klein should enlist his services. Joni admitted in contemporary interviews that she ‘could use a hit’ and Dolby was still pretty hot in early ’85. But, according to Karen O’Brien’s biography ‘Shadows And Light’, they didn’t get along particularly well in the studio, Dolby not enamouring himself to her by blithely calling her ‘Joan’ between takes.

One of the key aspects of Dog Eat Dog is Joni’s palpable anger, both lyrically and vocally. Her cover pose says it all – throwing her hands up in the air with indignation and/or helplessness. As she puts it, the album is a portrait of ‘a culture in decline’. She takes aim at TV evangelists, consumerism, lawyers, yuppies and Reaganites with equal candour, letting fly with an F-bomb on the superb ‘Tax Free‘ which also features some spirited spoken-word work from Rod Steiger.

The album also features some of Joni’s strongest singing on record. Her melodies are sometimes resplendent too, particularly on the title track and ‘Lucky Girl’. It’s also interesting to hear her trying out a slightly more minimalist lyric-writing approach on ‘Fiction’ and ‘Tax Free’, marrying her short, sharp lines to Klein’s music.

‘Good Friends’, initially a brooding piano ballad in demo form, kicks the album off in fine style, an AOR classic with more interesting chord changes than the usual and a typically distinctive guest spot from Michael McDonald. It was a bold though unsuccessful attempt at a hit, far too good for the charts. Joni even sung it live on ‘Wogan’ with a McDonald impersonator!

The elegant, stately ‘Impossible Dreamer’ is described by Joni as ‘a tribute to Martin Luther King, John Lennon, and Robert Kennedy – all those who gave us hope and were killed for it.’ It also features some sparkling soprano sax from Wayne Shorter.

Master drummer Vinnie Colaiuta is mainly reduced to providing drum samples for Dolby, though plays some lovely stuff on ‘Shiny Toys’, the second single from the album and subject to a great 12″ mix by Francis Kevorkian

The ’80s weren’t particularly easy on Joni and her contemporaries Don Henley, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt and Robbie Robertson. As she put it, ‘I made four albums for Geffen (David Geffen’s label). For one reason or another, they were viewed as being out of sync with the ’80s. But I was out of sync with the ’80s. Thank God! To be in sync with these times, in my opinion, was to be degenerating both morally and artistically. Materialism became a virtue; greed was hip.’

A lot of people would probably have liked her to carry on making Blue for the rest of the ’70s and ’80s, but she was moving on. Every album was different and this may be the one most in need of critical reassessment. Some tracks would definitely benefit from acoustic reinvention, but hey… It’s Joni.