Last Tuesday around 7.30 am I heard Radio 4 talking about a new single from David Bowie and what a surprise this was. It was apparently making digital waves across social media. They played a snippet. Bowie has never been a central musical figure for me, though I like his glam period, so I haven’t followed his career for sometime. My first impression was how fragile Bowie sounded, and that it was a slow ballad with seemingly nothing out of the ordinary going on. But something about the fragility of the voice piqued my curiosity to hear the song in full and watch its video. A few hours later I found ‘Where Are We Now’ on the web. It was an unexpectedly moving experience.
I haven’t had the opportunity to fully analyse the chord progression, but a couple of listens have made it clear that the verse is in F major and the chorus in C, so there’s a key contrast. This is achieved in a smooth and seamless manner. It’s only when the chorus drops to Em (second chord) from F that you realise it must have changed. The chords of the verse are more complex than first hearing suggests. It is also clear that slash chords and inversions are also playing a part in the expressive effect. The song also makes a seamless transition to an emotional last section which is also a surprise climax. Bowie could easily have milked this, go on repeating it and added more and more to the production, but he shows great taste in just singing this section twice and then backing off. It’s under-stated.
It’s a song soaked with elegiac feeling, as Bowie recounts fragments of his life in Berlin 30 years ago, a Berlin which itself has changed greatly. The video is haunting too. It’s a song that feels like a generational milestone. For people who were teenagers when they discovered Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane it seems almost unbelievable that Bowie can be in his mid-60s. As he once sang, time is waiting in the wings …
Today I was looking at David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ and in particular the question of which shape to use for a C/G chord. This is a second inversion, the type of chord where the 5th is the lowest note rather than the root note or the 3rd. In traditional music harmony there are many rules about the use of second inversions; how they are approached and how quitted. Guitarists tend not to be much bothered about the special identity of second inversion chords. Instead, they tend to use them as a means to have more strings sounding.
Here’s an example. An open C chord in first position is usually played x32010. If it is turned into a second inversion – 332010 – the 6th string can be played. Bowie seems to have been fond of this way of playing a C in songs like ‘Queen Bitch’ and I think it was for the extra resonance. But it isn’t functioning as a second inversion, just a more resonant C chord.
For a C/G that sounds like a second inversion, especially in a sequence where the bass note was at A and is falling to F# or F, I recommend 3×2010. It’s a subtle difference, but the removal of the low root note makes the second inversion stand out with more of an identity.
Happy New Year everyone.
I was excited in December by the news that a copy of David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars performing ‘Jean Genie’ live on British chart music TV show Top of the Pops had been found. ‘Jean Genie’ had been released as a single and featured on Bowie’s 1973 album Aladdin Sane. It was thought that this clip – first broadcast on January 4 1973 – had been erased by the BBC many years ago. Many classic TV programmes met the same fate. It turned out that cameraman John Henshall had asked for a copy and kept it.
What was special about this performance was that it was genuinely live. Almost all Top of the Pops performances during its long history were either completely mimed to the original backing track, or part-mimed (i.e. lead vocal was live) to a backing track re-recorded by BBC TV musicians and the band. It has always irritated me the way the BBC have constantly devalued the meaning of the word ‘performance’ when describing old TOTP clips by applying it to entirely mimed or mostly mimed appearances – which of course were cheaper and safer for both the TV people and the singers / bands – but are not music-making.
In the case of Bowie’s January 3rd 1973 performance of ‘Jean Genie’ everything was live. If you look closely at the two half Marshall stacks the band are plugged into you can see their lights are on and there are tell-tale mikes in fromt of the speaker cabinets. The result is a glam-rock classic delivered deliciously raw and punchy, and conveys a thrill no mimed version could match. It departs from the studio version in various ways and has the odd mistake (Trevor Bolder on bass switches to the chorus too early toward the end), as well as a wilder Mick Ronson solo and more harmonica from Bowie – including what sounds like two blasts of the Beatles’ ‘Love Me Do’ harmonica riff toward the end.
You can see the clip on youtube.