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Thursday, 22 June 2006

The Idiot...

I was trolling around on the other side of the world, keeping an eye on the smart, witty and intelligent types who congregate over at Tim's Cultural Snow gaffe, when for some reason, the discussion veered from plagiarism to Lloyd Cole & the Commotions (well, it does doesn't it?) All of which started me thinking of how Lloyd Cole was a bit rubbish really, and only had two songs, one of which was 'Lost weekend', which was a direct steal from Iggy Pop's song 'The Passenger', which then got me thinking about how brilliant the album Lust for Life is, which in turn made think about how much I also love The Idiot, which further (stop me if this starts getting boring, won't you...) made me ponder which is the better album of the two - Lust or its predecesor? (You see the way my mind works? And you thought you had attention deficiency issues....) This is by no means meant to imply that I think The Idiot is the better of the two, but it just made me want to write some thoughts about it from memory, in the unlikely event that any of my readers hadn't already got the LP and love it to bits, in which case, those poor souls will see their life immeasurably improved by rushing straight round to Amazon and whipping a copy of their (virtual) shelves.

It's staggering to thnk that in the space of a little over a year David Bowie was involved in the recording of the following albums: Low, The Idiot, Heroes, Lust for Life (I think 'Little Drummer Boy' fits into this sequence somewhere too, so you can see how the guy really was on a roll.) I'll probably piss off a whole legion of my fellow beer-gutted former hollowcheeked, Factor Maxed Bowiephiles here by suggesting that you could make a convincing case for the two records he made with the Igster actually pipping the Thin, Dukified one's own releases. But without going quite that far, I think we're on safe ground to say that you'd have to look long and hard for an annus of similar mirabilis-ness elsewhere in the pop canon - European or otherwise.

First up is 'Calling Sister Midnight', which takes Jim Morrison's experimentation with funk on 'The Changeling' and his Freudian ruminations on 'The End', crashes them together and jigs about among the wreckage. Bowie later reprised the backing track as 'Red Money', the closer on his own Lodger LP a couple of years later but it lacks the claustrophobic intensity of the Ig cut. Ricky Gardiner's jagged guitar shards pierce like the reading on an insomniac's ECG. Bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis bubble and sizzle reespectively behind Carlos Alomar's (surely this was the best rhythm section he ever had....?) laconic guitar doodles. Over this landscape Mr. Pop drawls his primal somniloquoy:

...You know I had a dream last night
Mother was in my bed
And I made love to her
Father he gunned for me
Hunted me with his six-gun
Calling Sister Midnight

What can I do about my dreams?

In rock terms, it's an archetype that goes right back to the Doors. What's fresh (and freshly disturbing about it) is the numbness of Pop's delivery. We're reminded not only of Pop's closeness to the Doors in cultural time (the Stooges were signed by Elektra in the hope that they were to be the new Doors) but how far Pop (and, by extension, the culture) has come since. Pop took the trying to set the night on fire bit even further than Morrison (apart from the dying in the bath bit, obviously), ending upon in an insane asylum with no money and (seemingly) no friends until Bowie rescued him and, like a patient psycho-analyst who knows an intersting case when he sees one, eeked these nightmares out of him. "Well, I'm an idiot for you", confirms Iggy. An idiot for Bowie? Or all for all of us? Not bad for starters.

'Nightclubbing' (or the even more appropriate 'Nachtslieben', as it is on the TV Eye live take from the legendary tour on which Bowie supplied treated piano as part of Pop's live band) is up next. Like Bowie's 'Sound and Vision', it still sounds incredible - icy, cooly prescient, but still with just enough of the raw and sexy blood of the blues to give those pale, strung-out veins a ghostly glimmer of life. The adrenalised heartbeat of Dennis Davis' metallic, throbbing kick drum is the song's life blood, pumping the icy clouds of synth strings, a gallumping bellows over which George Young (himself a veteran of German decadence as a Hamburg era Beatles contemporary with Cliff Bennett & the Rebel Rousers) tinkles ivories pitched somewhere between Pinetop Perkins and Sally Bowles. "We're an ice machine", intones a wide-eyed Pop. "We learn dances, brand new dances, like the nuclear bomb", he double track duets himself, planting the seed of a whole new romanticism-in-the-wreckage philosophy (and, unfortunately, a whole new one of pointless posturing) in clotheshorse dandies from Sheffield to Islington to Brum.

'Funtime' surges along like a time lapse hangover. "Baby, baby we like your lips. Baby baby we like your pants", only Pop doesn't sound too convinced. The just-out-of-tune-enough-to-be-brilliant guitar slashes (my money's on Bowie providing them...) and the hurrying VU discord of the instrumental (for want of a better word) break further the idea that this 'funtime' is closer to one of the "heavy trips" that Pop declares he's trying to avoid. Before we've really had a chance to check out "Dracula and his crew", we're afloat on the ice sheet that is 'Baby'. "Baby there's nothing to see - I've already been down the street of chance", The Ig soothes his baby over a synthed update of Little Walter's 'I'm Walking', with more than a hint of Kraftwerk's 'Spacelab' in the melody of his "lullaby".

Anyone who's only heard the comparatively tame and overwrought version of 'China Girl' with which Bowie sought to disguise the paucity of material he'd brought to the Let's Dance sessions, really ought to listen to this right off. Pop's astonishing meditation on how we personalise imperialism ("I'd stumble into town...visions of swastikas in my head, plans for everyone")is far better served by the incisive and piercing guitar-heavy arrangement here (a demo, apparently - if so, one of the best first drafts of a song ever?) The crucial moment of drama in the song, the narrator's realisation of the cultural baggage he brings to this particular mixed-race relationship, comes with the line "it's in the white of my eyes", Here, it's yelled out, hoarse, and angry by Pop where Bowie crooned his multiple platinum way into the hearts of many millions more China girls. The redemption of the narrator (and of the past itself, perhaps?) comes in the song's closing lyrics, and is more affecting for the trauma of the earlier recognition of culpability. Pop goes all Elvis ventriloquising "and when I get excited, my little China Girl says 'Oh Jimmy, just you shut your mouth'" before being wafted off in an intoxicating haze of synth strings and riffing. In its understated way, this song is arguably as much a masterpiece of personal transcendence, a triumphant restatement of his core humanity for Pop as Heroes was for Bowie.

Side two tomorrow.

© 2006 Swipe Enterprises

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