Life On Mars
This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. 'Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.' An anomic (not a 'gnomic') heroine. Middle-class ecstasy.
I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn't get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.
Starman: David Bowieon stage at the Isle of Wight festival, 2004
Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise longue; a bargain-price art nouveau screen ('William Morris,' so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else.
I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.
Rick Wakeman came over a couple of weeks later and embellished the piano part and guitarist Mick Ronson created one of his first and best string parts for this song which now has become something of a fixture in my live shows.
Sweet Thing/ Candidate/ Sweet Thing
I'd failed to obtain the theatrical rights from George Orwell's widow for the book 1984 and having written three or more songs for it already, I did a fast about-face and recobbled the idea into Diamond Dogs: teen punks on rusty skates living on the roofs of the dystopian Hunger City; a post-apocalyptic landscape.
A centrepiece for this would-be stage production was to be Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing, which I wrote using William Burroughs's cut-up method.
You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects creating a kind of story ingredients-list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix 'em up and reconnect them.
You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this. You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.
Chameleon: David Bowie in the Sixties in a military-style jacket he'd made and, right, in far more flamboyant form as the iconic Ziggy StardustI was looking to create a profligate world that could have been inhabited by characters from Kurt Weill or John Rechy - that sort of atmosphere. A bridge between Enid Blyton's Beckenham and The Velvet Underground's New York. Without Noddy, though.
I thought it evocative to wander between the melodramatic Sweet Thing croon into the dirty sound of Candidate and back again. For no clear reason (what's new?) I stopped singing this song around the mid-Seventies.
Though I've never had the patience or discipline to get down to finishing a musical theatre idea other than the rock shows I'm known for, I know what I'd try to produce if I did.
I've never been keen on traditional musicals. I find it awfully hard to suspend my disbelief when dialogue is suddenly song. I suppose one of the few people who can make this work is Stephen Sondheim with works such as Assassins.
I much prefer through-sung pieces where there is little if any dialogue at all. Sweeney Todd is a good example, of course. Peter Grimes and The Turn Of The Screw, both operas by Benjamin Britten, and The Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny by Weill. How fantastic to be able to create something like that.
The only pipe I have ever smoked was a cheap Bewlay. It was a common item in the late Sixties and for this song I used Bewlay as a cognomen - in place of my own. This wasn't just a song about brotherhood so I didn't want to misrepresent it by using my true name.
The Bewlay Brothers
The Bewlay Brothers
Having said that, I wouldn't know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It's a palimpsest, then.
The circumstances of the recording barely exist in my memory. It was late, I know that. I was on my own with my producer Ken Scott; the other musicians having gone for the night.
Changes: Incarnations from the early Seventies and the EightiesUnlike the rest of the Hunky Dory album, which I had written before the studio had been booked, this song was an unwritten piece that I felt had to be recorded instantaneously.
I had a whole wad of words that I had been writing all day. I had felt distanced and unsteady all evening, something settling in my mind. It's possible that I may have smoked something in my Bewlay pipe. I distinctly remember a sense of emotional invasion.
I do believe that we finished the whole thing on that one night. It's likely that I ended up drinking at the Sombrero in Kensington High Street or possibly Wardour Street's crumbling La Chasse. Cool.
Mike Garson's piano opens with the most ridiculous and spot-on re-creation of a 19th Century music hall 'exotic' number. I can see now the 'poses plastiques' as if through a smoke-filled bar. Fans, castanets and lots of Spanish black lace and little else. Sexy, mmm? And for you, Madam?
Lady Grinning Soul
Lady Grinning Soul
This was written for a wonderful young girl whom I've not seen for more than 30 years. When I hear this song she's still in her 20s, of course.
A song will put you tantalisingly close to the past, so close that you can almost reach out and touch it. The sound of ghosts again.
David with wife Iman in 1992 and, right, looking tousled in an earlier phase
WinThis is not, you may be speechless to learn, an ode to Winifred Atwell, though I almost wish it were for she was a real winner. In the Fifties in England it was virtually impossible for a ten-year-old to hear boogiewoogies and rags unless our Winifred was playing them on her 'other' piano.
At home in Trinidad she'd been brought up with blues and R&B and had played it for the American GIs who were based at what is now the main airport. Winnie was the first black artist in Britain to sell one million records. She was tops.
No, this song is about, er, winning. David Sanborn is on sax. He was experimenting with sound effects at the time and I'd rather hoped he would push further into that area, but he chose to become rich and famous instead. So he did win really, didn't he?
A quiet little piece Brian Eno and I wrote in the Seventies. The cries of wolves in the background are sounds that you might not pick up on immediately. Unless you're a wolf. They're almost human, both beautiful and creepy.
Images of the failed Napoleonic force stumbling back through Smolensk. Finding the unburied corpses of their comrades left from their original advance on Moscow. Or possibly a snowman with a carrot for a nose; a crumpled Crystal Palace Football Club admission ticket at his feet. A Weltschmerz [world weariness] indeed. Send in your own images, children, and we'll show the best of them next week.
So it's late morning and I'm thinking: 'New song and a fresh approach. I know, I'm going to do a Ronnie Spector. Oh yes I am. Ersatz, just for one day.'
And I did and here it is. Bless. I'm still enamoured of this song and would give you two Modern Loves for it any time. It's also one that I find fulfilling to sing onstage. It has some nice interesting sections to it that can trip you up, always a good kind of obstacle to contend with live.
Ironically, the lyric is something about taking a short view of life, not looking too far ahead and not predicting the oncoming hard knocks. The lyric might have been a note to a younger brother or my own adolescent self.
The guitars on this track form a splintery little duel between the great Robert Fripp and my long-time friend Carlos Alomar.
By virtue of the instrument's classical baggage, Simon House's violin touches a vein of pure Goth on this recording. There's a numbness to the whole rhythm section that I try to duplicate with a deadpan vocal, as though I'm reading a report rather than witnessing the event. I used to find this quite easy to accomplish.
I decided to write something on the deeply disturbing subject of wife abuse in the manner of a short-form drama.
I had known more instances of this behaviour than I would have preferred to have been made aware of and could not for the life of me imagine how someone could hit a woman, not only once but many, many times.
It's almost quaint, this one. It has a strong feel of the Fifties variety show to it. A cavil in passing - if I'd been in the position of the mid-Sixties Rolling Stones, I definitely would have gone on the Sunday Night At The London Palladium show's revolving stage.
They had refused to stand on the roundabout with the other acts at the end of the show, as it didn't fit in with their rebellious image. I was surprised to read that the American entertainer Judy Garland also refused a whirl, as she was too emotionally upset. Who knew?
I would have been shyly clawing my way past Jimmy Tarbuck to get on. I remember my mother being excited about the first time this show appeared on television in 1955.
My father had bought our set for Princess Elizabeth's coronation in 1953 and it had opened up a new world for us. Guy Mitchell was apparently an exciting part of this world as my mother went all schoolgirl when he came on screen and sang She Wears Red Feathers (And A Hula Hula Skirt).
This song's chord structure (Fantastic Voyage, I mean, not She Wears Red Feathers) appeared on the album Lodger in two forms. First, as it appears here and then further in as Boys Keep Swinging (they were men's dresses, I tell you). Both the tempo and top-line melody are rewritten.
I did this again on the album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). It proved nothing. Thinking about it, Guy Mitchell would have done this song proud.
I'm trying to come up with a little-used word for each song entry. I've not got one for this song. And this song is not, it may surprise you to know, another ode to little green Martians. Oh, recidivism, that'll fit.
Loving The Alien
Loving The Alien
There are a host of songs that I've recorded over the years that for one reason or another (clenched teeth) I've often wanted to re-record some time in the future. This track from Never Let Me Down is one of those.
Time Will Crawl
Time Will Crawl
I've replaced the drum machine with true drums and added some crickety strings and remixed. I'm very fond of this new version with its Neil Young of Shortlands accents. Oh, to redo the rest of that album.
One Saturday afternoon in April 1986, along with some other musicians I was taking a break from recording at Montreux studios in Switzerland. It was a beautiful day and we were outside on a small piece of lawn facing the Alps and the lake.
Our engineer, who had been listening to the radio, shot out of the studio and shouted: 'There's a whole lot of s*** going on in Russia.'
The Swiss news had picked up a Norwegian radio station that was screaming - to anyone who would listen - that huge billowing clouds were moving over from the Motherland and they weren't rain clouds. This was the first news in Europe of the satanic Chernobyl.
I phoned a writer friend in London, but he hadn't heard anything about it. It wasn't for many more hours that the story started trickling out as major news.
For those first few moments it felt sort of claustrophobic to know you were one of only a few witnesses to something of this magnitude.
Over the next couple of months a complicated crucible of impressions collected in my head prompted by this insanity, any one of which could have become a song. I stuck them all in Time Will Crawl. That last sentence rhymes.
Hang On To Yourself (live)
Ziggy and the Spiders had played around 50 UK shows total, and this Santa Monica performance, from October 20, 1972, would be our 12th in America.
Although of only bootleg quality and despite the drums and bass being casually miked, I hope you can feel our real thrill here of presenting the band to a radio audience for the first time. I necessarily took the most centre-stage position as easily as an old ham from Bromley Repertory would, though in reality I was deadly nervous.
This was our first live American radio broadcast, so it was a big deal. We fluffed a lot of stuff that night, but the enthusiasm and pride stand 10ft tall.
One astounding thing about Mainman, my management at the time, is that for the 18 months of the Spiders' life-cycle (and after, actually) they never arranged for us to play anywhere in Europe where Ziggy was a proverbial monster. No tours, no shows, not even Paris.
I never understood that and was pretty miserable about it at the time, but now realise how naive and unprepared my management was for the serious job of actually managing.