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.

 

 

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.

snowman

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.

Iggy Pop’s Blah-Blah-Blah: 30 Years Old Today

iggy

A&M Records, released 1st October 1986

Produced and mixed by David Bowie and David Richards

8/10

While David Bowie was turning in one of his finest live performances of the 1980s at Live Aid, his good friend Jim Osterberg AKA Iggy Pop was ensconced in LA, writing songs with ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones. Bowie’s use of six Iggy lyrics on the Let’s Dance and Tonight albums had given Osterberg enough royalties to buy some much-needed thinking time after a disastrous run of early ’80s solo albums and the termination of his Arista record contract.

Iggy and Jones came up with nine new songs, three of which – ‘Fire Girl’, ‘Winners And Losers’ and ‘Cry For Love’ – would make it onto Blah-Blah-Blah (though they were clearly inferior to the Bowie/Iggy material). The latter lyric especially had opened up a new vulnerability in Iggy’s writing. He later said: ‘Just expressing that openness frightened me. I didn’t want to admit I was in need of basic affection.’ Yes, Iggy was now singing boy/girl songs – love songs.

Bowie hooked up with Iggy in late 1985 to hear some of the new stuff. He was impressed. He suggested they co-write some more uptempo material and also offered to produce, apparently telling Iggy: ‘I can make this as commercial as hell.’ They disappeared off to David’s holiday home in Mustique with their respective girlfriends, then undertook a lengthy skiing holiday in Gstaad, taking a four-track tape machine with them. Mountain Studios, owned by Queen and scene of the ‘Under Pressure’ recording, was booked for April 1986, and co-producer/tech guru David Richards came onboard for the sessions too.

iggy-and-bowie-1986

Bowie recruited a crack band for Blah-Blah-Blah – Kevin Armstrong played guitar (joined by Steve Jones on one track), fresh from being David’s musical director at Live Aid and doing sessions for Prefab Sprout, Propaganda and Alien Sex Fiend! Gifted Swiss multi-instrumentalist Erdil Kizilcay, who had worked on the Let’s Dance demos and also epic soundtrack single ‘When The Wind Blows’, played (excellent) bass and shared live drums with the Linn machine borrowed from Queen’s Roger Taylor. Bowie played most of the keyboards.

David was apparently workmanlike and professional in the studio, ticking off daily tasks on a notepad with lots of nervous energy. He was focused on helping his friend to the very best of his ability. ‘He’d be chucking down the coffee and fags, and it would be pretty neurotic and manic around him’, said Armstrong. But Bowie was also a typically shrewd people-watcher – he apparently wrote the first verse of ‘Shades’ after watching Iggy give his girlfriend Suchi a gift, turning it around to make the guy the grateful, humble recipient.

Blah-Blah-Blah features Iggy’s best singing on record. He has developed a gloriously dark croon and finally has the right material to showcase it. ‘Winners And Losers’ particularly shows off his improved vocal range. It’s also a very funny album. Bowie and Iggy clearly had a great laugh writing these songs, with some preposterous couplets thrown in, especially on ‘Isolation’ (‘I need some lovin’ like a body needs a soul/I need some lovin’ like a fastball needs control, here I am!’). ‘Baby It Can’t Fail’ features some of the best opening lines in 1980s rock: ‘You have loved me with energy/Backed up hard work and guts!’ Iggy’s committed delivery always prompts a smile.

There’s some excellent, genuinely uplifting material in the shape of ‘Shades’, ‘Isolation’ (with gorgeous Bowie backing vocals) and ‘Hideaway’. The title track is a sample-heavy curio in the style of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s ‘Love Missile F1-11‘ (which Bowie later covered) with amusing ‘geeky’ vocal stylings by Iggy and some wilfully-gormless lyrics (‘Shimon Peres, whatcha gonna do?/I’m from Detroit’ etc etc).

‘Little Miss Emperor’ tellingly quotes Allen Ginsberg and features a classic Bowie piano flourish in the ‘Absolute Beginners’/’Life On Mars’ style. Blah-Blah-Blah even spawned Iggy’s first UK singles chart showing (number 10) with ‘Real Wild Child’, a cover of Australian rock’n’roller Johnny O’Keefe’s only hit. Promotional duties led to a very memorable appearance on the regional British kids’ TV show ‘Number 73’ wherein Iggy decided to simulate sexual relations with an oversized teddy bear:

Apparently Richard Branson heard an early pressing of Blah-Blah-Blah and phoned Iggy personally to invite him to Virgin Records. But he eventually went with A&M and delivered a reasonable hit for the company; the album went gold in Canada and made a decent dent in both the UK and US charts.

So is Blah-Blah-Blah the best Bowie-related album of the ’80s? It’s certainly up there. Older Iggy fans may have been shocked by the ‘poppy’ nature of some of the material, but there’s always an edge. The album was also arguably an influence on bands like The Mission, Sisters Of Mercy and Miss World with its monolithic drum programming, deep vocals and anthemic songcraft.

To a certain extent, Bowie tried to repeat the formula on his own decidedly patchy Never Let Me Down album, but the news was better for Iggy; he embarked on a ten-month world tour, laying off the booze and drugs for the entirety. For the band, however, it was a different story – apparently Kevin Armstrong and drummer Gavin Harrison were in a pretty terrible state by the time they got home to London in summer 1987.

But Bowie had done it again – he’d helped kickstart Iggy’s career for the fourth time and delivered probably the commercial apex of his solo work. Blah-Blah-Blah is definitely due a critical reappraisal.

Further reading: ‘Open Up And Bleed’ by Paul Trynka

 ‘The Complete David Bowie’ by Nicholas Pegg

13 Memorable B-Sides Of The 1980s

princeThere was definitely a ‘thing’ about B-sides in the 1980s. You never quite knew what you would find on the reverse of your favourite 7” or 12″ single – maybe a new direction, bold experiment, glorious failure, engaging curio, self-produced shocker or even the drummer’s long-awaited-by-nobody songwriting debut. Sometimes a single track encapsulated all of the above…

I was certainly never the biggest singles collector in the world, but I had to try and hear everything by Prince, Level 42 and It Bites during their peak years. Some B-sides took on a kind of mythic stature and weren’t easy to access: you’d have to cadge from your mates, record things from the radio or trawl the Record & Tape Exchange.

Here’s a motley parade of ’80s backsides, some long-sought-after, some intriguing, some exciting, some fairly random but all inexplicably etched upon my memory. I gave myself three rules: no remixes, live tracks or album tracks allowed…

13. David Bowie: ‘Crystal Japan’ (1981)

Though originally released as an A-side for the Japanese market, this charming instrumental later turned up as the B-side to the ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ single of March 1981. I’m still waiting for Jeff Beck’s cover version.

12. Peter Gabriel: ‘Curtains’ (1987)

Almost every time this ‘Big Time’ B-side rolls around, it produces a slight chill and sense of wonder. One of PG’s most disquieting pieces, it has to be said, but with a lovely melody and ambience.

11. Danny Wilson: ‘Monkey’s Shiny Day’ (1987)

The Dundonians are at their most sublimely Steely-ish on this ‘Mary’s Prayer’ B-side. The track’s lo-fi production and slightly low-budget horn section/backing vocals hinder it not one jot.

10. Prince: ‘Alexa De Paris’ (1986)

Prince had always threatened a full-on guitar instrumental and this ‘Mountains’ B-side delivered it. And boy was it worth the wait. Sheila E plays some fantastically unhinged drums (check out how she reacts to Prince’s guitar throughout) and Clare Fischer weighs in with a widescreen orchestral arrangement. The composition is reimagined as a solo piano piece in the movie ‘Under The Cherry Moon’.

9. It Bites: ‘Vampires’ (1989)

The B-side of ‘Still Too Young To Remember’, this glam-prog classic is notable for its crunching riff, catchiness and Francis Dunnery’s most extreme It Bites guitar solo (muso alert: was it stitched together from multiple takes?). It’s also one of many fine IB B-sides, of which more to come soon. Pet Shop Boys were definitely listening – this is even in the same key.

8. David Sylvian: ‘A Brief Conversation Ending In Divorce’ (1989)

The accompanying track to one-off 12” single ‘Pop Song’, you get the feeling this micro-tonal, improvised miniature featuring late great pianist John Taylor was far more up Sylvian’s street than the hits requested by Virgin Records.

7. Donna Summer: ‘Sometimes Like Butterflies’ (1982)

This B-side to ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’ is a bit of a guilty pleasure. But Summer’s exceptional performance transcends the schmaltz, as does a superb drum performance by…someone (Steve Gadd? Rick Marotta? Ed). Intriguingly, Dusty Springfield covered it in 1985.

6. Level 42: ‘The Return Of The Handsome Rugged Man’ (1982)

This irresistible B-side from the ‘Are You Hearing What I’m Hear’ 12” shows the lads in full-on Weather-Report-meets-Jeff-Beck mode. Drummer Phil Gould even gives Harvey Mason and Billy Cobham a run for their money.

5. Roxy Music: ‘Always Unknowing’ (1982)

This shimmering, beguiling Avalon outtake from the US single version of ‘More Than This’ was surely in competition with ‘While My Heart Is Still Beating’ and ‘Tara’ for an album spot. Beautiful playing from guitarist Neil Hubbard.

4. Donald Fagen: ‘Shanghai Confidential’ (1988)

This ‘Century’s End’ B-side is an intriguing slice of fuzak with lovely chord changes, some tasty Marcus Miller bass and a fine Steve Khan guitar solo. You can even feel Donald smirking slightly when he plays his synth motif.

3. Scritti Politti: ‘World Come Back To Life’ (1988)

The B-side of the ‘Boom There She Was’ 12-inch showcases all the charms of the Provision sound: intricate arrangements, pristine production, bittersweet lyrics and punchy vocals. For many fans, it’s better than a lot of stuff on the album.

2. China Crisis: ‘Animalistic’ (1985)

The Liverpudlians detour into minimalist jazz/funk with some success on this ‘Black Man Ray’ B-side. Gary Daly’s vocals have never been so wryly Lloyd Cole-esque (before Cole… Ed) and drummer Kevin Wilkinson is really in his element. Gorgeous synth sounds too.

1. Willy Finlayson: ‘After The Fall’ (1984)

We’ll close with something in the ‘fairly random’ category. The A-side, ‘On The Air Tonight’, was recently covered by The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this B-side. Both tracks were written and produced by ex-Camel keyboardist Pete Bardens. Willy is still active on the (sadly ever-dwindling) West London gig scene.

Let me know your killer B’s below.