New Angels of Promise

I’m not a video game guy, so I never played Omikron: The Nomad Soul, which David Bowie and Reeves Gabrels wrote the music for in 1999. I thought I might try playing it now — cause why not? — but 24 years later, it is still a PC-only game, so that’s not going to happen. It’s probably just as well. Part of the reason I’m not a video game guy is that I get obsessed; after losing a couple of nights to Sim City many years ago, I put a stop to the whole thing.

“New Angels of Promise” was originally written for Omikron, as the lyrics make clear enough:

You didn’t feel us coming in this lonely crowd

But when David repurposed it for hours…, he changed “Omikron” to “suspicious minds,” in an apparent nod to his role model and co-birthdayist Elvis Presley.

Of course, Elvis didn’t write “Suspicious Minds” — that was Mark James, also the author of “Always on My Mind” and “Hooked on a Feeling.” Truth be told, Elvis didn’t write much of anything; in one way of looking at it, he was a hollow person without a lot to say. (Honestly I think Elvis’s influence on David was less musical than in the a realm of presentation. Ziggy Stardust is really just Elvis the Pelvis turned up to 11.)


On the Road Again

Got to spend some time this week catching up with old friends. Here’s the report.

The Sisters of Mercy

In addition to being a great band, the Sisters (est. 1980) were always a very successful brand. The music aligned with the image and the graphic design to create a total package that a lot of us found very satisfying.

Here in 2023, I can tell you that the brand remains strong. When I arrived at McMenamin’s Crystal Palace in Portland around 7 P.M., my brethren and sistren were lined up around the block, having happily paid [redacted] for a chance to get inside — where the $40 t-shirts were selling like hotcakes.

As for the music… well, let me begin by saying what I liked. Doktor Avalanche — the Sisters’ drum machine, now in its umpteenth iteration — was on top form. The two young guitarists were solid players and looked the part. Many great songs were played and at the end, as I looked around at the black-clad masses singing “Hey now, hey now now, sing this corrosion to me,” I knew that I was among my people — which is why we go to concerts, isn’t it?


The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell

[Apologies in advance for the excessive length of this post. There is a lot of information to encode and limited time to do it in. If I had more time, I’d write a shorter one.]

Many Bowie albums have one song that doesn’t seem to belong there. (In particular I think of “Rock’n’Roll with Me” and “The Secret Life of Arabia.”) Whether this is an intentional strategy to keep listeners on their toes, or just a byproduct of David’s famously short attention span, I don’t know; I suspect there’s some of the former and much more of the latter.

On hours… it’s “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” a thundering, brain-dead rocker among the elegiac reflections. (It would sound much more at home on a Tin Machine album.) The title is a nod both to David’s own “Oh! You Pretty Things” and to a Stooges song from Raw Power (which Bowie mixed1) called “Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell”:

As it happens I got to see Iggy live recently. I was at my friend Bob’s house and someone offered him a ticket and a ride; I looked online to see of tickets were still available; next thing I knew I was at The Masonic Auditorium watching the opening act, a local neo-punk band called Spiritual Cramp. They were… not without their good qualities. As openers go I’ve seen far, far worse.

But there is no competing with Iggy. At 76 years old (!) he is still an energetic, charismatic performer with long, stringy hair who likes to show off his ever-more-marbled physique. Here he is doing “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and flirting with what, in a more genteel age, we would have called “indecent exposure”:

[Sorry this is so huge… I can’t figure out how to change the size…and anyway Iggy should be larger than life.]

The setlist was a good mix of new stuff, Stooges songs, and Bowie-era classics. Then, for the first encore, he pulled out a wildcard:

I stopped filming at that point because I wanted to, like, experience the moment; but here’s the full performance:

Not only is the spirit of Lou invoked there, also that of DB, who was the producer of the song… making this a brief reunion of the Holy Trinity:

OK… where were we?… ah, yes, “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell.” There’s also an implied nod to the band the Pretty Things, whose songs “Rosalyn” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” Bowie covered on Pinups. It’s a complex set of references for what is, in the end, a pretty silly song.

Bowie was very enthusiastic about “TPTAGtH” at first, releasing it as the album’s first single in Australia and Japan. Later he seemed to back away from it, calling it “a song about standup” and complaining that no one got the joke. He performed it a lot in 1999/2000, then never again.

How does it sound now? It starts as a bracing blast of energy, but never really goes anywhere. I find that about two minutes in I’ve had enough — the album version, at almost five minutes, is waaaay too long; the single edit is more tolerable.

Wikipedia says a music video was made where “Bowie encounters four of his ‘past selves’ (The Man Who Sold the World, Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke and Pierrot) as played by life-sized, mannequin-like puppets.” But he wasn’t happy with how it came out and shelved it; today it is nowhere to be found online. (Two of the puppets did later appear in the “Love Is Lost” video.)

I did find a video where someone combined “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell” with footage from the TV show House. I have no idea why. Then again, why not?

Divine Symmetry Revisited (conclusion)

When last we left David Bowie, he had played six straight future classics from Hunky Dory to an audience that must have been fairly flabbergasted. Next up is a song that, to the best of my knowledge, he never made an official studio recording of: “Looking for a Friend” was played live and in radio sessions, but the only extant studio version is credited to Arnold Corns and sung by David’s short-lived protege Freddi Buretti.

I think Bowie suspected that “Looking for a Friend,” while not charmless, is a lesser composition that’s not really worth the effort. The idea, I guess, was to write a song that’s outwardly a laddish rocker and secretly a gay cruising song. The rousing chorus is designed to get you singing along before you know what you’re singing along to. But something about it never clicks; it’s simultaneously too clever and not clever enough. “Looking for a Friend” would soon be cut from the setlist and forgotten until people started poking around for Bowie rarities many years later. Some rarities are rare for a reason.


Divine Symmetry Revisited (continued)

As a band we had just finished making Hunky Dory and Friars was the first gig we did with him and we were all pretty nervous doing a show where all these new songs were being performed for the very first time to an audience. So we were all putting an effort in for that show and of course it went down a storm.
—Trevor Bolder

The Aylesbury Friars Club gig sticks in my mind as one of Bowie and the Spiders favourite gigs. I remember the first time we played we’d spent weeks working out the show and it was the first airing of a Bowie and Spiders concert that we then took around the world! The audience reception was the best.
—Woody Woodmansey

[Note: If you’d like something to look at while listening to the songs posted here, you could do worse than this series of photos from the Hunky Dory cover session.]

Having warmed up the audience and themselves, David and the band — who were not yet calling themselves the Spiders from Mars — launched into six straight Hunky Dory songs, beginning with “Oh! You Pretty Things.” It’s a rather ragged version, with a couple of real clunkers on the piano; by far my favorite part is the Eric Idle imitation in the intro.


Divine Symmetry Revisited

I’ve been listening more to the recent data dump of 1971 Bowie material, and what really strikes me is the live performance from September of that year. David had chosen the Friars Club in Aylesbury, about 50 miles northwest of London, for his first live performance after recording Hunky Dory. The show became fairly legendary, and was bootlegged for many years before finally being officially released on Divine Symmetry.

The surprising thing about it is how uncertain Bowie sounds. At the beginning of the show he is fairly stammering. After introducing “Michael Ronson,” he says, “I don’t do many gigs, and this is one of the few exceptions. So we’re gonna start slowly.” After some hemming and hawing, they launch into “Fill Your Heart,” which is different with just acoustic guitars but quite lovely.

Afterward David addresses the audience:

We didn’t know what kind of songs to do tonight, so we just decided to endeavor to sing the kind of songs that we hope you’ll enjoy. This is what we call “entertainment,” we want to entertain you… entertain you… it’s an old word. We want you to enjoy the songs and we want to make you happy because we want to be happy doing them.

I find this painful to hear. Not only does David sound like George Bush the Elder at his most mealy-mouthed, what he says amounts to a confession of pandering. He continues: