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.

 

 

Victor Bailey (1960-2016)

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Victor in 2008

I was really sad to hear today of Victor Bailey‘s passing.

Born in 1960, he was part of the illustrious Philly bass fraternity alongside such luminaries as Christian McBride, Alphonso Johnson and Stanley Clarke.

He replaced Jaco in Weather Report at the age of just 21, teaming up with Omar Hakim to make one of THE great bass/drums team in music history. They featured on the albums Procession, Domino Theory, Sporting Life and This Is This, and appeared regularly on each other’s solo projects. They also toured with Madonna together in the mid-1990s.

I’m pretty sure I saw Victor five times in concert – first in an outrageous Weather Report gig at the Dominion Theatre (26th June 1984), then in a very cool jazz/funk/groove unit with drummer Lenny White at the Subterania, twice at Ronnie Scott’s with an electrifying Zawinul Syndicate, and finally about ten years ago in a trio with Larry Coryell and White at the Jazz Cafe. At all times, Victor’s playing was tasty, expressive, exciting.

I was pleased when he was recently the subject of a long, excellent feature in JazzTimes magazine in which he talked frankly about music, bass playing and also his illness. I hoped the piece might be the start of a healthy, fruitful period for Victor. Sadly it wasn’t to be.

Victor Bailey (27th March 1960 – 11th November 2016)

Story Of A Song: Everything but the Girl’s ‘Driving’

drivingThe 1980s are littered with Brit pop bands going ‘across the pond’ to work with US producers and musicians – Aztec Camera, Scritti Politti, Love And Money, Wet Wet Wet and Simple Minds spring to mind, but the list goes on and on. It was almost a rite of passage, or – according to some music critics of the slightly more cynical persuasion – a desperate attempt at credibility.

You could hardly level that accusation at Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, AKA Everything but the Girl. They were headhunted by legendary producer Tommy LiPuma, who had just put the finishing touches to Miles Davis‘s Amandla, and their ‘Driving’ single (released in early 1990 but recorded spring 1989) seems a near-perfect marriage of US and UK sensibilities.

I confess I hardly knew anything about EBTG when my brother first played me ‘Driving’. I just heard something extremely classy, with intriguing chord changes, a great singer and strong jazz flavour. I didn’t know Tracey and Ben had spent much of the ’80s building up a considerable rep as ‘indie jazz/folk’ darlings of the music press and enjoying not inconsiderable commercial success too, but I was possibly vaguely familiar with Tracey’s gorgeous vocals on The Style Council’s ‘Paris Match‘, a favourite of my dad’s muso mates back in the mid-’80s.

Taken from The Language Of Life album, the song was recorded in LA at the famous Ocean Way and Sunset Sound studios with pretty much the finest session players money can buy (Omar Hakim on drums, John Patitucci on bass, Larry Williams on keys/arrangements, Michael Brecker on tenor). But, according to Tracey’s superb memoir ‘Bedsit Disco Queen‘, the American musicians were totally ignorant of the fiercely independent English scene from which Tracey and Ben had emerged. When Larry Williams found out that EBTG had recently recorded at Abbey Road, he blurted out: ‘Wow! Abbey Road! The home of the Beatles!’ Tracey’s reply? ‘God, I HATE the Beatles.’ There was a pregnant pause. Eventually Williams spluttered out: ‘You h-h-hate the Beatles?’ But you can imagine such ‘musical differences’ were all in a day’s work for EBTG.

‘Driving’ obviously sounds more like Anita Baker (I’d love to hear her cover it) than, say, The Smiths. It’s sophisticated but still has bite, with rich chords, an intriguing ABAA structure and glorious Brecker solo (inexplicably with a different, inferior take on my 7” vinyl version). Ostensibly a song about ‘cars and boys’ (though written solely by Ben Watt), maybe one could read it as a clear concession to the US marketplace. Or is it the un-ironic response to Prefab’s ‘Cars And Girls‘?

tracey thorn

‘Driving’ became somewhat of an airplay hit in the States (though surprisingly only reached #54 in the UK), and led to several high-profile US gigs which nevertheless unfortunately seemed to precipitate a crisis of confidence for Tracey. The live band, which included future smooth jazz star Kirk Whalum on sax, whipped the crowds into a frenzy night after night, but there wasn’t much space for her subtle, low-key vocals any more. Cue a few years of soul-searching and a distinct change of direction exemplified by 1994’s Amplified Heart.

But re-reading Tracey’s book and listening again to the sublime ‘Driving’ have given me a new admiration for her writing (and music), and a keenness to check out a lot more of Everything but the Girl’s ’80s work. Only took me 25 years.

Omar Hakim, Drummer Of The ’80s: Seven Of The Best

omarhakim3Of the all-time-great drummers who emerged in the ’80s – a list that would have to include Manu Katche, Dave Weckl, Dennis Chambers and Trilok Gurtu (any more? Suggestions in the comments section below) – you could argue that Omar Hakim was the main man. His hip, funky, vibrant style typified all that was good about the music of the era.

Effortlessly versatile, endlessly creative and always musical, Hakim emerged from the early ’80s New York jazz and fusion scene and quickly became the drummer of choice for David Sanborn, David Bowie, Dire Straits, John Scofield, Weather Report and Sting. He could play everything from straight jazz to heavy rock’n’roll with total ease, great feel and a beautifully light touch.

I first became aware of Omar when he demonstrated his ‘Children’s Crusade‘ beat on BBC TV’s ‘Rock School’. I was a major fan from that day on.

Here are seven great Omar performances from the ’80s:

7. Sting: ‘I Burn For You’ (1985)

Drum legend Jeff Porcaro waxed lyrical about this performance which appears in the 1985 film ‘Bring On The Night‘. One of Omar’s specialities is soloing over a static vamp, and he really takes it out about as far as it can go here.

6. Dire Straits: ‘So Far Away’ (1985)

Omar can do slick, clean, laidback rock too, as heard on this Brothers In Arms opener. Check out his lovely fills, layered in at the end of each chorus, bringing the playing of Motown star Benny Benjamin into the ’80s.

5. David Sanborn: ‘Rush Hour’ (1982)

Omar dusts off a much-imitated ghost-note-inflected groove for this track from the As We Speak album, possibly influenced by the late great Little Feat sticksman Richie Hayward. Only Hayward could have nailed this with as much panache, drive and subtlety.

4. Weather Report: ‘Db Waltz’ (1984)

Omar pulls out all the stops on this ingenious 3/4 (or is it 6/8?) groove, the centrepiece of the Domino Theory album, falling somewhere between a swing feel and straight feel just the way the old guys used to do it on the R’n’B hits of the ’50s. He also demonstrates some jaw-dropping chops towards the end.

3. Special EFX: ‘Sabariah’ (1988)

The music comes uncomfortably close to smooth jazz on this opening track from the Confidential album but Omar’s grooving is just sublime. The controlled energy explodes from his kit.

2. David Bowie: ‘Neighbourhood Threat’ (1984)

Omar could also play heavy rock with the best of them as demonstrated by this underrated track from Tonight. But as usual there’s a beautifully light touch to this playing. Not even Jeff Porcaro could have conceived of the floor-shaking fill at 2:14.

1. John Scofield: ‘Techno’ (1985)

The lead-off track from the classic Still Warm album, this perfectly illustrates Omar’s intricate hi-hat playing, as distinctive as Stewart Copeland’s almost a decade before. I dig the way he takes the tune out with some sick china cymbal/snare combinations.