David Bowie’s “Something in the Air”

is not the same as Thunderclap Newman’s:

But apparently there is some kind of relationship between the two.1(There are no coincidences in Bowie World, just planned accidents.) The latter was written by Speedy Keen, Pete Townshend’s former flatmate. Keen had previously composed “Armenia City in the Sky,” which Wikipedia says “was the only song The Who ever performed that was specifically written for the group by a non-member.”

In 1969 Townshend, keen (as it were) to help his friend’s career, assembled a band that included a pianist named Andy “Thunderclap” Newman. For whatever reason — probably just because it sounded cool — that became the name of the band. “Something in the Air” (which had originally been called “Revolution” but was retitled to avoid confusion with the Beatles song) was a massive hit, reaching #1 in the UK. All their other records tanked.

The funny thing about T. Newman’s “Something” is that if you listen to it superficially — as I did for many years — it appears to be very flower-power. “We have got to get it together,” goes the lilting refrain; yeah right man, groovy. Only once you listen closely (or Google the lyrics) do you realize that what they’re trying to “get together” is violent overthrow of the state:

Hand out the arms and ammo
We’re gonna blast our way through here

This dissonance — on the one hand, peace and love; on the other, up against the wall, motherfuckers! — makes it extremely 1969. That was the year the Sixties curdled, the year of Manson and Altamont, the year the Boomers realized they had failed to paint it black. And this sense of disappointment is about the only connection I can find to Bowie’s song, written 30 years later. Where Thunderclap was political, David is personal; his song chronicles the end of a relationship, one that has long since lost its luster but keeps hanging on.

Some online commenters interpret this song as about Bowie’s partnership with Reeves Gabrels, which would come to an end after hours…. I’m attracted to this idea, but with Bowie you always have to be careful about thinking you know what he’s talking about. Chances are you don’t.

The funny thing about Bowie’s “Something” is that until the vocals come in, it could be a Barry White song. Musically it is a very sexy number; I can imagine having this instrumental version on in the background as you, um, get busy or whatever they’re calling it these days:

In fact I think I prefer the instrumental; David’s vocals are not my favorite part of the song. Listening to it I am reminded of a story a friend once told me (I won’t name him; if so inclined he can identify himself when he reads this) about first hearing “Somebody Up There Likes Me” in an adult movie theater. Maybe you’d like to listen to that song while thinking sexy thoughts; I can think of worse ways to spend six and a half minutes.