This is where I post about music: concert reviews, album reviews, and anything where I feel I have something to say.
There are a few things worth noting. One is that I embarked on a project to write about this history and music of Mott the Hoople and Ian Hunter. You can find an index to this work on a separate page here; it is also referenced in a post below.
You will also find a fair amount of content on David Bowie and Bob Dylan, two other enthusiasms of mine
David Bowie’s Welcome the Blackout, originally a Record Store Day vinyl exclusive, has now been released on CD and streaming services.
The album is excellent, a live performance taken from Earls Court London on June 30th and July 1st 1978. The tour is the same one from which the earlier release Stage was taken, but on this one both the performance and the recording is superior in my opinion. I have reviewed it based on the vinyl release here.
Now the CD is here, packaged in a tri-fold sleeve even though there are only 2 CDs. Two of the inner panels are blank black, which I guess is a design reference to the title.
You also get a fold-out with sleeve notes and a small poster, which was not included in the vinyl release. There is a a review of one of the concerts by David Hancock (first published 30th June 1978 which must mean it is of the 29th June performance NOT featured here, but it matters little). The front of the fold-out is the cover of the tour programme/magazine, called ISOLAR 2.
Apparently these extras are a limited release (though I would guess a large number has been produced). There is also an unlimited release in a standard jewel case without the booklet (as I understand it).
The sound of the CD is fine and similar to the vinyl. This is not something to take for granted, as CDs are often mastered for a louder sound at the expense of dynamics.
Recommended if you don’t have the vinyl and want a physical release.
The Cure has released a 3-CD deluxe edition of Mixed Up, originally released as a double album or single CD in November 1990.
Parts of this release have already appeared on vinyl in two limited Records Store Day 2018 releases: Mixed Up, and Torn Down.
A few words about the CD. Why would anyone buy a CD in this streaming era? It is a waste of money if you just want to listen to the music, but you do get some nice packaging, weird squirly, blocky artwork, photos of the band and of memorabilia from the day, and a 32-page booklet with notes and credits. When physical media has disappeared completely I will miss these things, even though the wretched small size of CD artwork means you have to squint to read the credits.
The idea for Mixed Up came to Robert Smith when he was wondering what came next after the Prayer Tour, the 76 shows which followed the release of the epic album Disintegration in 1989. There were “increased tensions in the band”, according to a quote from Smith in the booklet. “I had to think of something else in the meantime.”
The original thought was to compile the extended mixes made for 12″ singles into an album, since some of these releases were out of print and sought-after by fans.
As he worked on the album though, he moved beyond that initial concept. The early 12″ mixes of songs like Primary, Lovecats and Inbetween Days seemed to him inferior to the more recent releases, so he moved from compiling to reworking existing mixes of earlier songs. In fact, neither Lovecats nor Primary appeared at all on the original Mixed Up. In addition, two tracks on the original Mixed Up (A Forest and The Walk) were re-recorded from scratch as the multi-tracks were missing.
Here is how the original Mixed Up (November 1990) breaks down:
Lullaby (Extended Mix): same as 12″ Fiction FICX 29 (1989)
Close To Me (Closer Mix): Same as 12″ FICSX 36 (1990), different from earlier extended mix on 12″ Fiction FICSX 23 (1985)
Fascination Street (Extended Mix): same as 12″ Elektra 0-66704 (1989, US/Canada only)
The Walk (Everything Mix): new recording for Mixed Up.
Lovesong (Extended Mix): Same as 12″ Fiction FICSX 30 (1989)
A Forest (Tree Mix): New recording for Mixed Up.
Pictures Of You (Extended Dub Mix): same as Fiction Records FICXB 34 where it is called Strange Mix (1990), but different from FICXA 34
Hot Hot Hot!!! (Extended Mix): same as 12″ Fiction FICSX 28 (1988)
Why Can’t I Be You? (Extended Mix):(LP only; omitted from the CD for space reasons): Same as 12″ Fiction Ficsx 25 (1987)
The Caterpillar (Flicker Mix): New extended mix for Mixed Up
In Between Days (Shiver Mix): New extended mix for Mixed Up; different from earlier 12″ Fiction FICSX 22 (1985)
Never Enough (Big Mix): New song recorded for Mixed Up
This made it a curious release, essential for Cure fans thanks to new material included but poor in terms of collecting previously released extended mixes.
What about the new 3CD set. The set breaks down as follows:
CD1: Mixed Up 2018 remaster
This is simply a remaster of the 1990 release. Track release as above, but Why Can’t I Be You still omitted (it is on the next CD in the set)
CD2: Mixed Up Extras
This CD includes (at last) most of the early extended remixes which were not on the original Mixed Up. Tracks:
Let’s Go to Bed (Extended Mix 1982)
Just One Kiss (Extended Mix 1982)
Close to Me (Extended Mix 1985)
Boys Don’t Cry (New Voice Club Mix 1986)
Why Can’t I Be You? (Extended Mix 1987)
A Japanese Dream (12″ Remix 1987)
Pictures of You (Extended Version 1990)
Let’s Go To Bed (Milk Mix 1990)
Just Like Heaven (Dizzy Mix 1990)
Primary (Red Mix 1990)
The Lovecats (TC & Benny Mix 1990)
Inevitably, there are still a few tracks missing. These are Primary (Extended Mix 1981); The Lovecats (Extended Version 1983); and In Between Days (Extended Version 1985). The notes refer to a digital release though I am not sure where or whether they have been released. Smith says of these versions that Primary was “basically a 7″ instrumental cut into the 7″ single mix”, that Lovecats was not really a remix, but rather the original single mix before it was edited down, and that In Between Days was “extended by person or persons unknown” and nothing to do with him.
Of these the only one I care about is Lovecats; I would like to have the full version here.
CD3: Torn Down
This is where Smith lets himself go and makes new mixes of favourites from the Cure’s back catalogue. “Compared to most of the Mixed Up remixes, my versions tend to work with the existing song structure; they’re pretty much the same length and tempo as the original … I found myself happier working within those structural restraints,” he says in the notes. That said, he found elements in the songs that had previously been buried, including the actual sound of heavy rain at the start and end of A Night Like This, which he brought out in the new mix.
Three Imaginary Boys (Help Me Mix)
M (Attack Mix)
The Drowning Man (Bright Birds Mix)
A Strange Day (Drowning Waves Mix)
Just One Kiss (Remember Mix)
Shake Dog Shake (New Blood Mix)
A Night Like This (Hello Goodbye Mix)
Like Cockatoos (Lonely in the Rain Mix)
Plainsong (Edge of the World Mix)
Never Enough (Time to Kill Mix)
From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea (Love in Vain Mix)
Want (Time Mix)
The Last Day of Summer (31st August Mix)
Cut Here (If Only Mix)
Lost (Found Mix)
It’s Over (Whisper Mix)
So how are the new mixes? An interesting way to hear them is to play the original followed by the remix, easy to do if you rip your CDs to a computer or streaming system. You can hear some themes, such as a more techno feel to the new mixes, and that Smith’s vocals are more forward. Three Imaginary Boys, for example, gives you a new perspective on an early song, with the “Can you help me” vocal from the end moved to the beginning of the song, hence the name “Help Me Mix”.
Shake Dog Shake benefits from the extra clarity of a modern mix and sounds more sinister and colourful than the original.
It tends to be lesser-known songs that benefit most. It is difficult to re-approach a magnificent song like Plainsong without making it worse, and in this case it is as expected.
Perhaps then it is better not to listen to them alongside the originals but to enjoy it as a whole. Cure fans will enjoy it even though it is not in any sense ground-breaking.
The complete package
This collections gets a warm welcome from me. I have always enjoyed Mixed Up, and I am delighted now to get treats like the earlier extended mixes of Close To Me. Just One Kiss, and the other extended mix of Pictures of You, which to me are the definitive versions.
The sound quality is excellent, and kudos to mastering engineer Tim Young for showing some restraint in mastering so that these songs are not wrecked by excessively LOUD mastering.
Ian Hunter is in the UK for a Mott the Hoople reunion gig and did an interview with long-time BBC DJ Johnnie Walker, on the nostalgia show Sounds of the Seventies. If you are in the UK you can listen to it here for a limited time. The show is two hours long but the actual interview only around fifteen minutes (excluding the music).
Hunter does a few interviews and I find them somewhat frustrating in general, because he always tends to get asked the same questions, and especially about the time when David Bowie gave Mott the Hoople a song (All the Young Dudes) to revive their career. Hunter is always patient but I wish he would be quizzed more often about the rest of his long career. Still, he is promoting a Mott the Hoople reunion so I guess it was not inappropriate on this occasion.
The Ian Hunter section opened with Wizzard’s See My Baby Jive, a hit single in May 1973 and chosen by Hunter. Why? “It was at a time when there wasn’t too much good stuff about,” he said. “I was getting disenchanted when all of a sudden that came out, it was brilliant, absolutely brilliant.” You can certainly hear the influence in songs like The Golden Age of Rock ‘n Roll on Mott the Hoople’s 1974 album.
Walker asked about Hunter’s early years, when he won a talent competition in Butlin’s holiday camp, which kicked off a spell in a band called the Apex Group in the fifties. Then Hunter mentions performing in Hamburg with Freddie Lee, who told him he might have a future as a songwriter but “don’t ever sing ‘em”. Ha ha.
Then Bob Dylan came along, says Walker. “Bob was like the character singer,” said Hunter, “if it hadn’t been for him a lot of people like myself would never have got a shot. It was like a personality way of singing.”
We move on to the beginnings of Mott the Hoople and how Guy Stevens chose Ian Hunter as the singer of a band he was signing to Island Records, in place of Stan Tippins who became tour manager. “Guy was amazing. He was frustrated because he couldn’t do it himself, but he had the taste.”
Skipping a few years, we move on to Bowie and how Mott turned down Suffragette City, then went to hear All the Young Dudes. “David sat on the floor and he played All the Young Dudes on acoustic guitar”. Why did Bowie give away such a great song? Apparently he had been tinkering with it and it was not quite working. “He kinda got fed up with it,” said Hunter, “it needed new blood.”
A chat about the new reunion with Ariel Bender and Morgan Fisher follows. “We got together twice before but it was the original band. This is the second part of the band and they never got a shot to play on those two reunions. I always felt it was a shame, so now they get their moment in the sun,” said Hunter.
The 21st April 2018 was Record Store Day, when the industry comes up with hundreds of special edition vinyl records which are offered for sale only through independent record shops. A helping hand for the independents, or a an attempt to con us into buying overpriced product via the old trick of artificial scarcity? Take your pick; but there’s no doubting that it gets thousands of people into record shops for at least one day in the year.
For me, the highlight this year was a 3LP David Bowie live release, called Welcome to the Blackout. Not least because it was recorded at Earls Court London on the evenings of 30 June and 1 July 1978, and well, I was there, at least on one of the nights (I am not sure which). I remember it was an amazing experience, and that the the set visuals including the vertical bars backdrop were stunning – apologies for the poor quality of the picture below, which is taken from here.
The Earls Court concerts were filmed by David Hemmings but the film was never released. However this might explain why the concerts were recorded by Tony Visconti and selected songs from the last two concerts were mixed by David Bowie and David Richards at Mountain Studios, Montreux between 17th and 23rd January 1979 (according to the sleevenotes). Two additional songs on Welcome to the Blackout, Sound and Vision and TVC 15, do not use Bowie/Richards mixes, perhaps because they were not selected at the time.
In 1978 David Bowie embarked on the ISOLAR II world tour, building on the release of Low and Heroes. The tour began in San Diego, March 1978, and ended in Tokyo, December 1978. Performances in Philadelphia in late April, and in Boston in early May, were recorded and formed the basis of the album Stage, first released in November 1978. Stage was originally just 17 songs, presented in a different order from that of the performance. In 2005 this was expanded to 20 songs, and the performance running order was restored, so that the opening track is the moody instrumental Warszawa. There was also a surround mix released on DVD Audio for a short time. Then in 2017 Stage was again reissued, now with 22 songs.
Since we already have Stage in so many guises, do we need Welcome to the Blackout? Having enjoyed this release for a couple of days, my answer is an emphatic yes. The Earls Court dates were at the end of the European leg of the tour, which did not resume until November in Australia. Bowie seems to be energised by this being in some sense the last concert of the tour and refers to this several times. He also performs two songs not on any version of Stage: Sound and Vision, and Rebel Rebel.
More important, the character of both the performance and the sound is different. There is simply more energy, and although the crowd noise is still mixed fairly low, it comes over as more of a live performance than the rather bland sound of Stage. We also get a longer Station to Station, under 9 minutes on Stage, and over 11 minutes here.
The band, the same one as for Stage, is outstanding:
Carlos Alomar: Rhythm guitar
Adrian Belew: Lead guitar
Dennis Davis: Drums and percussion
Simon House: Electric violin
Sean Mayes: Piano, string ensemble
George Murray: Bass guitar
Roger Powell: Keyboards, Synthesizer
I’ve compared several songs on Stage and Welcome to the Blackout. For example, the song Blackout itself, which is decently performed on Stage, is introduced here by Bowie saying hoarsely “Welcome to the Blackout”; the instrumentation at the beginning of the song is more menacing and engaging on the new release; the vocal is more frenetic and desperate.
In TVC 15, the opening loony voiceovers is louder and more distinct on Welcome to the Blackout; it sounds like the band is having a great time and the song is more fun to listen to.
Jean Genie is stunning on this album; the guitar growls and grinds, Bowie’s vocal is full of drama; it makes the Stage performance (only on the 2017 edition) sound tame.
Despite the occasional flub, I can’t find any instances where I prefer the Stage recording.
Of course the album is meant to be heard as a piece, and seems to me to be an excellent capture of one of Bowie’s best performances.
Having said that, this concert lacks the intensity of Bowie in 1974 or 1976. Bowie is more at ease here.
I was fortunate to catch Bowie in performance in 1978. His next tour was not until 1983, when we got a different kind of performance to support the more mainstream Let’s Dance album; and after that in 1987 with the unsatisfactory Glass Spider tour.
Full track listing:
What in the World
Be my Wife
The Jean Genie
Sense of Doubt
Speed of Life
Sound and Vision
Beauty and the Beast
Hang on to yourself
Station to Station
Finally a shout out to Ray Staff who mastered the album. On first listen he did a great job. I love the dynamics and the overall balance of the sound.
Recommended; and if you find the album hard to find at a sensible price, or don’t have a record player, there is no need to panic as it will probably be out on CD and download/streaming in a few months.
Update: Welcome to the Blackout is released on CD on 29 June 2018.
These last days of the CD have delivered some amazing bargains for those who still like CDs – and I count myself as one, even if they are more often played through a music server than in an actual CD player.
One such is the 5 Classic Albums collection of Sandy Denny (6 January 1947 – 21 April 1978), a singer with an amazing voice who was a member of the band Fairport Convention in the sixties.
In 1969 Denny left Fairport to form her own short-lived band, Fotheringay. After just one album, the band folded and Denny embarked on a solo career.
This set covers those solo years, during which she released four albums. The fifth album is a recording of her last concert, released in 1998.
The North Star Grassman and the Ravens (1971) opens with Late November, a song originally written for Fotheringay. It’s a fine album, firmly in the folk tradition but also highly individual, almost jazz-like at times with its interesting rhythms and tonalities. The band includes the amazing Richard Thompson (also ex-Fairport) on guitar and several other instruments.
Sandy (1972) is perhaps her most celebrated album. The haunting It’s take a long time, The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood, which starts a cappella, the gorgeous Listen Listen, and more.
Like an old fashioned Waltz (1974) is a more lush album thanks to strings, brass and piano accompaniments and would be better without them, though it is still very enjoyable. The opening song Solo is great and features the immortal words “I’ve always kept a unicorn and I never sing out of tune”.
Rendezvous (1977) is again over-produced and poignant to hear now, knowing it was her last album. It opens with Richard Thompson’s I Wish I Was a Fool For You (For Shame of Doing Wrong) which almost sounds like a rock song, as Denny seeks a new audience. The cover of Candle in the Wind is not Denny’s finest hour but still seems prophetic: “your candle burned out long before your legend ever did”. Her voice is huskier thanks to smoking but she remains a strong singer. I’m a Dreamer is a lovely song, as is the closing number, No More Sad Refrains.
Gold Dust (Live at the Royalty) (1998) is Denny’s last concert and well worth hearing. The concert was recorded and always intended for release as a live album, but there were some problems with the tapes, and some guitar and backing vocals were overdubbed for the eventual production in 1998. The song Solo is a highlight.
Overall, although it is wrong to describe all these albums as “classic”, what you do get is immersion into the music of a very fine singer and songwriter. Recommended.
I’ve been a fan of first Mott the Hoople and then Ian Hunter solo since way back when. I decided to embark on an album-by-album discussion of the band and of Hunter’s solo career over on the Steve Hoffman Music Forum. I started in October 2016 and have not finished yet, but I will.
There are a couple of reasons why I have decided to repost the content here – my own content, not the entire discussion. One is that I cannot edit any old posts there so errors, additions, fixing broken links etc cannot be fixed, other than by emailing moderators. Another is that it is hard to navigate a long thread, for example if you are looking for a review of a specific album.
Therefore I’ve posted the key posts on this site. You can find an index in the first post and continue from there.
Comments are welcome, especially if you have your own recollections of seeing the band (or one of Ian Hunter’s bands).
Bob Dylan did not attend the Nobel Banquet where his prize for Literature was celebrated on 10th December 2016 – but he did provide a speech which was read by the US Ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji:
“I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming. From an early age, I’ve been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: Kipling, Shaw, Thomas Mann, Pearl Buck, Albert Camus, Hemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.
I don’t know if these men and women ever thought of the Nobel honor for themselves, but I suppose that anyone writing a book, or a poem, or a play anywhere in the world might harbor that secret dream deep down inside. It’s probably buried so deep that they don’t even know it’s there.
If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I’d have about the same odds as standing on the moon. In fact, during the year I was born and for a few years after, there wasn’t anyone in the world who was considered good enough to win this Nobel Prize. So, I recognize that I am in very rare company, to say the least.
I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”
When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.
Well, I’ve been doing what I set out to do for a long time, now. I’ve made dozens of records and played thousands of concerts all around the world. But it’s my songs that are at the vital center of almost everything I do. They seemed to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures and I’m grateful for that.
But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried. The fact that the Nobel committee is so small is not lost on me.
But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.
Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”
So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.”
It’s a fine speech. I love the way he celebrates the working artist, the real-world artist who is not concerned only with artistic creation, but also with the practicalities of both life and art.
I was fortunate to get a late ticket to this mainly solo Elvis Costello concert, on the campus of Warwick University near Coventry.
Why Warwick? Costello remarked that he had played there before in the early 70s, at the Student Union, under the name Rusty (probably a duo with Alan Mayes).
I have seen Costello perform on a few occasions but not for several years. I was re-enthused after reading his book, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, which I loved. (If you follow the Amazon link above you will find my review, or you can read it on this blog).
What follows are a few jumbled impressions the morning after.
The venue is delightful, small enough that everyone gets a good view, though the sound was not great from where we were sitting; it was a bit echoey making the lyrics indistinct at times, though it improved as the evening went on (or I might have adjusted to it).
There was a short opening act from Larkin Poe – two sisters from Atlanta, Georgia, Rebecca and Megan Lovell, with guitars and harmonies. I enjoyed the set, though they said they found the audience a bit too British and restrained.
After a short break Costello came on. Apologies for blurry picture! He was wearing a suit with an open neck and looked his age, but in a good way: affable, not pretending it was forty years ago, slightly hunched a lot of the time, but in very good voice as he kicked off with a fast and powerful rendition of Lipstick Vogue.
He talked a lot between songs and sounds just like his book – even to the extent that I wondered if the book had been dictated. I actually enjoyed his patter as much as the songs, but then I loved the book too: stories from the road, reflections on his father and later his grandfather, sharp remarks about politics and our failure to learn the lessons of history. There are reasons for his anti-war stance.
There was a lot of talk; but a lot of songs too. I’ve copied the set list below, and there were 30 songs, with plenty of hits and plenty of less usual numbers as well. Had I been nearer the front I might have shouted for Indoor Fireworks; but I think most fans will have heard what they wanted to hear.
The set was dominated by a huge “television” on which we saw video to accompany the songs, a trick which worked pretty well. I’m pretty sure we also saw Costello’s father Ross MacManus performing, as well as some stills of his grandfather Pat MacManus.
Some of the highlights for me were Shipbuilding, performed from the piano; an energetic Watching the Detectives and an impassioned She.
After 17 songs we thought the concert was nearly over but not so. The first encore was six songs with Larkin Poe, including Pads Paws and Claws, Clown Strike, and a song called Burn the paper down to ash sung by Rebecca Lovell which I think is about the perils of tobacco.
After that we again thought it was all over, but no, Costello returned in his TV and sang Alison followed by Pump it Up.
Then it was back to the piano for Side by Side and I Can’t Stand up for Falling Down, followed by a reminiscence about his granddad, injured in the first world war by someone who did not know him, said Costello, and later reduced to busking in the economic depression of the 1930s.
By this time there really seemed to be some rapport with the crowd and I got the impression that Costello enjoyed the atmosphere.
An emotional Good year for the Roses followed by (What’s so funny ‘bout) Peace Love and Understanding, and it really was over.
I am a fan of course but this was a great concert for me. Costello is to my mind one of the great songwriters as well as being an unashamed entertainer. Last night we got a wonderfully varied performance with everything from journeys back to the punk era (Pump it Up) to the more reflective songs of a man looking back on a long career of watching the world.
Lipstick Vogue I Can’t Turn It Off Mystery Dance Accidents Will Happen Ascension Day Church Underground 45 Oliver’s Army Shipbuilding – on piano A Face In The Crowd – on piano Walkin’ My Baby Back Home Ghost Train She The Woman Makes The Man Watching The Detectives It’s Not My Time To Go You’re Wondering Now
Encore 1 Pads, Paws And Claws – with Larkin Poe Love Field – with Larkin Poe Clown Strike – with Larkin Poe Burn The Paper Down To Ash – with Larkin Poe, sung by Rebecca Lovell Vitajex – with Larkin Poe, EC on ukulele That’s Not The Part Of Him You’re Leaving – with Larkin Poe
Encore 2 Alison – inside the TV Pump It Up – inside the TV Side By Side – on piano I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down – on piano Jimmie Standing In The Rain – including Brother, Can You Spare A Dime? Good Year For The Roses (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding? – with Larkin Poe
“Life on Mars?” has always been a favourite among David Bowie’s songs, and even more so since his death in January. Many have performed it as a tribute, not least by Lorde at the Brits Bowie tribute, Rick Wakeman (the pianist on the original) and Sarah Blasko.
A great song then; but one characteristic it shares with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, another much-loved track, is that the lyrics are fantastically obscure, particularly in the second verse.
It’s a God awful small affair
To the girl with the mousey hair
But her mummy is yelling, “No!”
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is no where to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seats with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen
But the film is a sadd’ning bore
For she’s lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on
Sailors, Fighting in the dance hall
Oh man! Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?
It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns
But the film is a sadd’ning bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It’s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on
Still, while Queen’s effort may veer towards pomp and nonsense I have nothing but respect for Bowie’s lyrical craftsmanship. I think we will struggle to make perfect narrative sense of the song but nevertheless there may be some insights to be had.
What does Bowie himself have to say about it? The back cover of Hunky Dory, the album from which the song comes, states “Inspired by Frankie”, a reference to Frank Sinatra. The contemporary advertisement for the album adds more handwritten notes on the song, this time “A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media.”
Then there are the notes on the song for the 2008 iSelect compilation:
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.
Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; 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.
Another key reference is this interview from around 2002, specifically about the making of “Life on Mars?”
In this interview, Bowie tells the story of how he was asked to write an English lyric for a French song, called Comme D’Habitude (rough translation, “As Usual”).
The original song, entitled Pour Moi (“For Me”) was written by Gilles Thibaut (lyrics) and Jacques Revaux (music) and offered to singer Claude François. The lyrics and music were adapted by all three, renamed Comme D’Habitude (rough translation, “As Usual”), and the song became a break-up song related to the ending of the relationship between François and the young Eurovision winner France Gall.
Bowie translated the song as Even a Fool learns to Love, and you can hear a snippet of his version in the interview above, but François rejected his lyrics. (Bowie adds that it was “a godawful lyric. Dreadful”).
Comme D’Habitude describes a relationship near its end; he is still in love but they see little of one another as he goes to work before she gets up (“Quietly I leave the house. Everything is grey outside. As usual”) and is in bed before she returns. “All alone, I’ll go and lie down in this big cold bed, as usual”. They make love but he is “playing at pretending”.
Bowie translated the song as Even a Fool learns to Love. His version is also about a relationship gone sour, but tells the whole story, about a man who is the life and soul of the party (“a fool”), meets a girl, falls in love (“a clown and an angel so much in love”), but the joke “turns stale” and the time when even a fool learns to love becomes a “sour time”.
“The next time I heard it, it was My Way by Frank Sinatra,” says Bowie. François had rejected his lyrics, and Paul Anka had come up with My Way.
“I was really pissed off. It should have been my song. So I thought, OK I’ll write my own version. So it’s My Way on Mars,” says Bowie.
“Inspired? It was more revenge.”
“Life on Mars?”, while not exactly a relationship song shares with Comme D’Habitude a sense of discontent with life and reflection upon it.
Actually the opening lines do suggest a relationship “a godawful small affair”, one that is unacceptable to mum and dad. The girl goes out, like the man in Comme D’Habitude, into a grey and sad world. Her friend (boy or girl?) cannot be found.
Bowie’s song then departs from the script, exploding into a kaleidoscope of images as the mousy-haired girl stares at the cinema screen. Yet this does not rescue her: she sees clearly that the fantasy world of entertainment will do nothing to change the greyness of her world. Mickey Mouse is not a real friend; he grows up “a cow” and whatever that means it is not flattering.
The song becomes surreal as Bowie plays with reality.
The girl is watching the film. The girl is living the film. The girl’s life is a film. The girl, or the narrator, wrote the film. The film is being “writ again” as we are trapped in our humdrum lives. “A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media.”
Is there Life on Mars? Wait a moment, how did Mars get into this song? Bowie is playing with us of course. Let’s look at a few shades of meaning:
2001 A Space Odyssey, part inspiration for Space Oddity, “look at those cavemen go”, and note the little quote from Also Sprach Zarathustra as the song fades. The film’s central character goes to Jupiter not Mars, but hey, it’s all space; and like Space Oddity, inner space as much as outer space. Is there life there? Maybe, but it’s pretty desolate.
Life on Mars is a B movie too, cheap sci-fi. It’s escapism but not life, not real life.
Is there life on Mars? is a question of yearning, because there is no life on earth, or it seems that way in our most desolate moments.
Bowie tells us that this kind of interpretation is not too far off. In 1998 he was interviewed by Alan Yentob for the BBC, in a kind of follow-up to Yenton’s earlier documentary Cracked Actor.
David Bowie telling Alan Yentob about Life on Mars
“She may be an ordinary girl,” says Yentob, “but isn’t she as alienated as any of your other characters?”
“I think she finds herself let down,” Bowie replies. “I think she finds herself disappointed by reality. I think she sees that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality she’s been told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it. It’s very hard to think back to one’s state of mind 25 years ago. I guess I would feel sorry for her now, I think I had empathy with her at the time. That’s probably the difference.”
When asked in the 2002 interview referenced above about whether the song is about alienation, he says:
“A lot of it is. One’s interior kind of isolation as well. It doesn’t just mean one’s social isolation, it can mean how you get in contact with your own feelings. It can be quite personal in that way.
“My subject matter hasn’t really changed over the years. I’m still in a way writing about life on Mars, all these years later. (Laughs). And the man who sold the world … the way that I present songs has changed a lot. And the style for each album has changed considerably. I’ll often try new rhythms and kinds of arrangements. It’s like, I want to keep writing about the same subject but my approach, it’s like I’m trying to get into it, like finding a different door each time I approach that same subject.”
Can we go further, and examine the lyrics with more precision? It is difficult because the song is deliberately surreal; yet there are intriguing connections which may or may not be intended. Is it Lennon (“Power to the People”) or Lenin who is on sale again? Bowie with his love of word play likely intended both meanings.
What about “The workers have struck for fame?” In 1941, there was a famous strike by Disney’s (“Mickey Mouse”) animators. One of their grievances was lack of credit for their work:
“To add insult to injury, the animators weren’t featured in the credits of the film, with all credit going to the owner of the studios himself, Walt Disney.”
Bowie however did not want to explain everything. Mick Rock, who worked with Bowie on a video for the song, says:
I would not be so presumptuous as to try and put any meaning on it. Certainly David Bowie never has as far as I know. I don’t know what it means. But it means a helluva lot to me, it’s like a poem by Rimbaud, say, what does it mean? Intellectually it is very hard to define. You can only say, I love it.
I would not go so far as Rock; Bowie has given plenty of clues about his intent in writing the song. At the same time, he enjoyed leaving room for the listener’s imagination and participation, referring to the French painter Marcel Duchamp and approving in this interview with Jeremy Paxman:
The idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle.
However you look at it though, it is a pretty gloomy lyric. Why do we like it? Well, it is witty, it is evocative, it is mysterious; and the music absolutely soars, complete with unexpected key changes and a near-octave leap from “on” to “Mars”. Like all the best music, it takes us out of ourselves to another place and makes our reality a little less grey than it was before.
Thanks to members of the Steve Hoffman Music Forum for assistance with puzzling out this song, and to author Nicholas Pegg for the source of the quote from the Yentob interview, which he also references in his book The Complete David Bowie.
I’ve always liked this song, which appears on Bowie’s 1972 album Hunky Dory, but never fully understood it. Recently I’ve given it some further thought and music forum discussion. Here are the lyrics:
Hear this Robert Zimmerman I wrote a song for you About a strange young man called Dylan With a voice like sand and glue His words in truthful vengeance Could pin us to the floor Brought a few more people on Put the fear in a whole lot more
Ah, Here she comes Here she comes Here she comes again The same old painted lady From the brow of a superbrain She’ll scratch this world to pieces As she comes on like a friend But a couple of songs From your old scrapbook Could send her home again
You gave your heart to every bedsit room At least a picture on my wall And you sat behind a million pair of eyes And told them why they saw Then we lost your train of thought The paintings are all your own While troubles are rising We’d rather be scared Together than alone
Ah, Here she comes …
Now hear this Robert Zimmerman Though I don’t suppose we’ll meet Ask your good friend Dylan If he’d gaze a while down the old street Tell him we’ve lost his poems So they’re writing on the walls Give us back our unity Give us back our family You’re every nation’s refugee Don’t leave us with their sanity
Ah, Here she comes …
In a full-page advertisement for Hunky Dory at the time, Bowie offered some handwritten notes on the songs, and for this one he wrote “This is how some see B.D.” – perhaps distancing himself a little from the song.
I am a big Dylan fan and for me the song represents a kind of interaction between two heroes, albeit one-sided. The phrase “a voice like sand and glue” seems to me a neat summary of how some hear B.D. and the ability to get past that into the beauty of his songs and performances is a kind of shared secret among Dylan fans.
I also like Bowie’s vocal performance which captures something of Dylan’s nasal, scratchy voice but without descending into full-blown parody.
That said, there have always been things that puzzled me. Who is the “painted lady” and why does she “come on like a friend?” Since this is the chorus, it is emphatic, but I didn’t have a clue what it was about. And why do we not want the “sanity” of “every nation’s refugee” in the last verse?
An aside on critiquing Bowie’s work
As an aside, its worth noting that although Bowie has attracted reams of prose about his work, very little of it examines such puzzles. In general, pop lyrics are not treated very seriously, and if a song does not quite make sense, most of us just shrug if we even think of it at all.
Bowie himself used a cut-up technique for some of his work, in which words are rearranged to make new texts, and you might reasonably conclude that that the resulting output is unlikely to make sense in a conventional manner.
Despite the above, it seems to me that Bowie took great care over his lyrics and I am constantly finding new shades of meaning in his work. He also loved word play, as noted by his friend Brian Eno after Bowie’s death:
“I received an email from him seven days ago. It was as funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions and all the usual stuff we did. It ended with this sentence: ‘Thank you for our good times, brian. they will never rot’. And it was signed ‘Dawn’.
"I realise now he was saying goodbye."
I do believe therefore that the lyrics deserve more attention than they usually receive, even though it means digging into Bowie’s interests in the arcane and occult, for example, which can be both demanding and uncomfortable.
Two writers deserve a shout-out here for doing a lot of this spadework. One is Nicholas Pegg, author of a book called the Complete David Bowie (now being revised) which is full of excellent research.
The other is Chris O’Leary, whose song-by-song site Pushing Ahead of the Dame and associated books are also thoughtful and full of insight.
Song for Bob Dylan
Back on point: what is this song about? It is part tribute and part open letter to Dylan, the central thought being that the man who once effortlessly created “words of truthful vengeance” has gone off in a different direction – and we need him back.
Bowie I suspect knew this to be a rather narrow view, hence his note “this is how some see B.D.” allows for other perspectives.
Dylan began his career as a folk singer, with songs of “protest” that spoke out against injustice, racism and war. He went electric in 1965, escaping the “protest singer” box but not without backlash. Then in 1966 he had a motorcycle accident and went into a kind of retreat, emerging in 1967 with gentler-sounding albums like John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, more country than folk or rock. Dylan’s ill-received 1970 album Self Portrait used his own child-like painting of himself on the cover; “your paintings are all your own.”
In 1971 then, when Bowie was writing Hunky Dory, Dylan seemed to have lost all interest in reforming the world as well as settling for a less energetic style of performance, losing it seemed the incandescent power he achieved on albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.
The stage is set for Bowie’s song. The first verse is straightforward, setting the scene; but then we get the painted lady. Who is she?
A “painted lady” is slang for a prostitute; but as Pegg observes, this is also a reference to Athena, the goddess of war (among other things) in Greek mythology. The 5th century BC Greek poet Pindar writes:
"from the cleft summit of her father’s brow Athene sprang aloft, and pealed the broad sky her clarion cry of war"
There are also other references in Greek mythology to Athena being born from the forehead of Zeus and emerging fully-clothed.
Athena, in other words, was born from the brow of Zeus, god of thunder and ruler of the Olympian Gods, the “brow of the superbrain.”
In this context Athena seems to represent mankind’s sad tendency to be seduced (“painted lady”) by war and to “scratch this world to pieces”; Bowie appeals to Dylan to “send her home” by returning to his potent songs of protest.
Bowie is always inclined to the apocalyptic and the idea that “troubles are rising” and the world being “scratched to pieces” is nothing strange to him.
Bowie plays with identity in the last verse, addressing Robert Zimmerman, Dylan’s proper name, and asking him to bring back the Dylan persona. Bowie knew all about personae, “David Bowie” being in some ways a creation of David Robert Jones, his own proper name.
What about the final couplet:
You’re every nation’s refugee Don’t leave us with their sanity
Dylan may not be a refugee as such, but is on the side of the refugees, that much makes sense. But where does sanity come in?
Bowie’s view of sanity may not tally with our own. His family had a history of madness, his brother was in an asylum, and in his earlier song All the Madmen he explored the idea that society’s division between sane and insane may be arbitrary. “I’d rather stay here, with all the madmen, I’m quite content they’re just as sane as me”.
Sanity then is not necessarily better than insanity; but the couplet is still odd. One suggestion I’ve heard is that “their” could refer to the nations, not the refugees.
I’ve found three performances of Song for Bob Dylan, one on Hunky Dory, one a rehearsal for a John Peel session where it is sung by Bowie’s friend George Underwood, and one from a 1972 live performance. In all three cases the word “their” is not clearly articulated. It could be “our sanity” or even “insanity”. Printed lyrics are not always correct. If it is “our sanity” it might mean, don’t leave us with the sanity that drives us to war.
Song for Bob Dylan is a good song but not wholly satisfactory. Dylan stopped being a protest singer way back in 1964 or thereabouts and there is an uncomfortable sense that Bowie is inviting another artist to regress; perhaps this is what made him hesitant about the song in his notes.
I still like the song though. I can’t think of any better songs about Bob Dylan.