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.

 

 

XTC’s English Settlement: 35 Years Old Today

r-1455277-1313625163-jpegVirgin Records, released 12th February 1982

Produced by Hugh Padgham and XTC

Recorded at The Manor, Oxfordshire, October/November 1981

Working titles: Rogue Soup, Motorcyle Landscape, World Colour Banner, Explosion Of Flowers, Knights On Fire

Album Chart position: #5 (UK), #48 (US)

Singles released: ‘Senses Working Overtime’ (UK #10)
‘Ball And Chain’ (UK #58)
‘No Thugs In Our House’ (did not chart)

Andy Partridge (vocals, guitar, keyboards, percussion, co-composer): ‘We spent the summer of 1981 rehearsing at Terry “Fatty” Alderton’s Tudor Rehearsal Studio and it was very sweaty. All the Swindon heavy rock bands would rehearse there, drink cider and piss in the corner. Terry (Chambers) had forgotten how to drum. He had spent the early summer working on a building site and when he set up his drum kit it was more like scaffolding. He was just useless (but apparently improved pretty quickly… Ed.). I forced him to buy a new snare drum and timbale. I bought a Yamaha acoustic. It opened up possibilities for new sounds where the live arrangements mattered less. I’d become unhinged a couple of times on tour and wanted a break. The album cover (by Ken Ansell)? I think it was just that we were fascinated with the Uffington Horse. The Americans thought it was a duck…’

Dave Gregory (guitar, keyboards, backing vocals): ‘I’d always dreamed about owning a 12-string Rickenbacker but it had seemed like a frivolous folly until now. I fell totally in love with the sound. English Settlement was a watershed record for us. We’d made a couple of guitar records and then the acoustic side came out. It was definitely a progression. There weren’t too many songs, just not enough time…’

Colin Moulding: (vocals, bass, keyboards, percussion, co-composer): ‘I bought a fretless bass. I thought it would fit in with the acoustic stuff we were doing but it was impossible on tour. You have to have a flair for playing something without frets and I haven’t. As soon as the lights went out…the rest is history…’

For much more info on English Settlement, check out Neville Farmer’s book ‘XTC Song Stories’.

English Snapshot: Peter Gabriel III

peter gabriel

Virgin Records, released 23rd May 1980

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987?

10/10

I wasn’t a Genesis fan as a teenager (I came to them later) but was definitely a Robert Fripp man. At my local Our Price, I came across a cassette of Peter Gabriel III and saw Fripp’s name on the credits, so I bought it. A few years later, I thrust it at Fripp during a signing session in the Oxford Street Virgin Megastore after a League of Crafty Guitarists gig – he signed it ‘Peter Gabriel’. What a wag…

But I loved So, as did all my musician mates at school. So I went back and checked out some other albums by this Gabriel fellow. In truth, as a 15-year-old, I really didn’t get Melt. The deceptively dry, claustrophobic mix, extensive use of processing, Gabriel’s animalistic yelps and the barmy Fairlight sound effects seemed so forbidding compared to So. It all seemed…well, pretty scary. I’d heard and laughed at Peter Hammill’s berserk singing with Fripp on the Exposure album but this was different.

The opening ‘Intruder’, with its liberal use of flatted-fifth chords and Gabriel’s schizophrenic vocal, was exceptionally unsettling to a teenage lad in leafy south-west London… Forget Black Sabbath, this sounded genuinely dangerous, in a particularly English way. And we haven’t even mentioned the cover yet.

The question is, of course, what an ostensibly happy, settled, middle-class young man such as Gabriel was doing digging around in the dirt in such spectacular fashion. But thank goodness he did. He extended ‘character’ songwriting – also used to memorable effect by the likes of Randy Newman, Sting, Steely Dan and The Beatles – far beyond the range of the characters he utilised with Genesis, conjuring up a memorable parade of the bungled and botched operating on the edges of society.

Musically, Gabriel apparently instructed producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham that nothing ‘normal’ was acceptable. Hence the famous banning of drummers Phil Collins and Jerry Marotta’s cymbals, the layering of Kate Bush’s ethereal backing vocals and seemingly out-of-control processing and phasing.

kate bush peter gabriel

Kate Bush and PG recording at The Townhouse, London

The album’s themes seem to be the moral trapdoors of late-20th century urban life (mental illness, sexual violence, political assassinations, terrorism, the dehumanisation of war, social isolation). You could argue that at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper, Bristol riots and IRA bombings, this was the perfect soundtrack.

‘Intruder’ subtly probes the sexual connotations of ‘breaking and entering’, equating a petty criminal’s intrusion with other kinds of violation, suggesting – controversially – some kind of tacit consent or ‘understanding’ by the victim.

On the epic, affecting ‘Family Snapshot’, Gabriel somehow manages to make us feel empathy for a fame-obsessed political assassin, especially in the beautiful, closing ‘All turned quiet, I’ve been here before…’ section (which It Bites ‘paid homage to’ on their fine 1988 B-side ‘Staring At The Whitewash’).

I used to think the protagonist of ‘Lead a Normal Life’ (‘eating with a spoon, they don’t give you knives’) was stuck in a borstal, but now I’m sure it’s far worse than that. And is the narrator of ‘I Don’t Remember’ an imprisoned political dissident or someone in an abusive relationship? It’s certainly not going to end well judging from Gabriel’s indecipherable whispers over the mechanized hum of the Fairlight in the outro, suggesting meek (drugged?) capitulation or even death.

It took me ten years or so to fully appreciate the album. But now it’s by far my favourite work by PG. Some fantastic UK session players play as if their lives depended on it, especially Dick Morrissey on sax and bassist John Giblin. Tony Levin delivers one of the greatest and most influential basslines in rock on ‘I Don’t Remember’ and single-handedly invigorates interest in the Chapman stick.

And Padgham and Lillywhite have never done better work. Check out their stunning sound design on ‘And Through The Wire’; the mix subtly develops the drums with a little more room reverb in each successive chorus until the explosive last one when Marotta’s snare and Paul Weller’s brutal guitar threaten to destroy your speakers.

And the gradual building of ‘Biko’ and ‘No Self Control’, the latter with some distinctly Steve Reich-inspired marimbas played by Morris Pert, remains an aural treat. This fantastic album still challenges and surprises after all these years.