Remembering Dennis Davis, 1949-2016. David Bowie: 'Right’ (Young Americans, RCA, 1975)/ ‘Sound and Vision’ (Low, RCA, 1977)/ ‘Look back in anger’/’DJ’ (Lodger, RCA, 1979)

Drumming as an expression of freedom; without wanting to sound too out there, you can see it in the fluid movement of the wrists of the best musicians, the way the bones dissolve almost as they capture and expand the beat, allowing it to have space full of air, while remaining certain, so complete.

Remembering Dennis Davis then, who passed away in April last year. Best-known as the master drummer on Bowie's finest recordings: Young Americans (1975), Station to Station  (1976) Low (1977), Heroes (1977), Stage (1978), Lodger (1979) and Scary Monsters (1980).  

Not sure about Stage, but all those others are like a soundtrack to an era and expression of essential musical genius, collaboration, risk-taking. Producer Tony Visconti remembered Davis's contribution and gift in a statement:

(Davis) was one of the most creative drummers I have ever worked with. He came into David Bowie’s life when we recorded some extra tracks for Young Americans and stayed with us through Scary Monsters and beyond. He was a disciplined jazz drummer who tore into Rock with a Jazz sensibility. Listen to the drum breaks on Black Out from the Heroes album. He had a conga drum as part of his set up and he made it sound like two musicians were playing drums and congas. By Scary Monsters he was playing parts that were unthinkable but they fit in so perfectly. His sense of humour was wonderful. As an ex member of the US Air Force he told us stories of seeing a crashed UFO first hand by accidentally walking through an unauthorized hanger. There will never be another drummer, human being and friend like Dennis, a magical man.

In a 1999 interview with Uncut magazine, Bowie said that Davis was 'a powerfully emotive drummer… The tempo not only 'moved' but also was expressed in more than 'human' fashion' (cited in the Rolling Stone tribute).

Writing about Bowie is a challenge for me. His records are imprinted on my spirit, I know every lyric, every shift, but tend to go into adolescent-mode when writing/talking about them, in awe that Young Americans could be followed by Station to Station and then by Low … (such a giddy fan-stance is not that helpful). And yet, much of Bowie’s achievement in this period, as he acknowledged freely, depends on the contribution of the musicians who provided the foundations, the so-called ‘D.A.M trio’, Bowie’s most effective and distinctive rhythm section: Dennis Davis on drums; Carlos Alomar on guitar and George Murray on bass  

Dennis Davis started his professional career with Roy Ayers, this is where he met Alomar (he also played with Stevie Wonder on Hotter than July … and on Iggy Pop’s The Idiot). He was first hired by Bowie to Young Americans – that lush, idiosyncratic exploration of Soul, a kind of love letter to the United States and its music.

Listen to the way the bass is foregrounded, along with the vocals of course, with the drumming little more than an occasional interruption, a kind of tap here and there; Davis’s understated, albeit central, style continues on Bowie’s record, Low where Davis, it is said, developed a particular snare sound that was/is considered to be revolutionary.

About that time, Bowie asked whether I’d mind making an album with Brian Eno in France, and we commenced to make Low. I unveiled my secret weapon, patching the snare mics directly into the Harmonizer and recording the effect on track 24. When drummer Dennis Davis heard the sound, he begged to have it routed into his headphones. We soon discovered that the rate of the Harmonizer’s drop off was controlled by an envelope at its input. So now that Dennis could hear the effect as he played, he was able to control the sound by how hard he hit his snare. This is why hardly anyone has duplicated that snare sound—we didn’t do it in the mix, we did it live!

Visconti again, for more detail on this development have a read of this

There is a wonderful kind of containment and control here; something that would be reversed in the wild-eccentric exuberance of Bowie’s Lodger two years later. This record is a masterpiece on so many levels, you see I’m slipping here …  but really, it is a representative work refusing easy categorisation, while having such a firm sense of its self (and so full of joy and musical experimentation).

For me the song, ‘Look back in anger’ is the quintessential expression of musical freedom and energy, such energy (and this is largely thanks to the extraordinary contribution of Dennis Davis that blows my mind each time I hear it) :

Elegant and expressive: nothing better, ever.


I am a D.J., I am what I play
Can't turn around no, can't turn around no
I am a D.J., I am what I say
Can't turn around no, can't turn around,
I am a D.J., I am what I play
I've got believers (kiss-kiss)
Believing me

I am a D.J., I am what I play
Can turn around no, can't turn around
I am a D.J., I am what I play
Can turn around no, can't turn around
I am a D.J., I am what I play
Can turn around no (kiss-kiss)

Time flies when you're having fun
Break his heart, break her heart
He used to be my boss and now he is a puppet dancer
I am a D.J., and I've got believers

I've got believers
I've got believers
I've got believers in me
I've got believers
I am a D.J., I am what I play
I am a D.J.

(This is the perfect Bowie song on every level: the poetic, elusive lyrics that are funny/sarcastic/bitter, at times, while carrying an aggressive charge of dislocated indifference, refusing reductive explanations; and then the music: take a deep breath, be quiet now). 

In praise of: 'Breathing' Kate Bush (Never for ever, EMI, 1980)

'I see myself on the piano as a melody,’ Kate Bush sang on Lionheart’s 'Symphony In Blue' quoted by Matt Lindsay ’30 years on: the Dreaming by Kate Bush’ The Quietus 2012

Gets inside
Through her skin
I've been out before
But this time it's much safer in

Last night in the sky
Such a bright light
My radar send me danger
But my instincts tell me to keep

(Out, in, out, in, out, in)

Backing Vocals – Roy Harper Bass [Fretless] – John Giblin Drums – Stuart Elliott Percussion – Morris Pert Synthesizer [Prophet] – Larry Fast

Genre: Art rock, baroque pop

That moment where Kate Bush hides almost, singing the word 'keep' so quietly, to the point we can hardly hear it at the beginning, just before the release when she sings the word breathing. The genius of Kate Bush has many, many facets but one aspect that I’ve been noticing recently is her imaginative phrasing, the way she emphasises or hides certain words when she sings (and this changes, depending on the performance). It’s a beautiful thing to observe and sense. As it is within such detail that we can see her gift, in its entirety.

 “To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.” 
― William BlakeAuguries of Innocence

There’s such a sweet fragility in that half-heard word. It captures that moment of doubt, softer perhaps than fear that is felt before a decision is made, ‘to nullify (your) life’ .. or to breathe. This is especially effective here as it contrasts with the building, declamatory ‘I’ve been out before/but this time it’s much safer in …’

‘Breathing’ - the song that Bush described as her ‘little symphony’ is all about the contrast in different kinds of movement in music forward and backward (out/in) that manifests expressions of confidence and uncertainty. All of this is then upended by the magically strange section at 3 minutes: the post-apocalyptic dream-scape, that evokes the world after a nuclear Holocaust. She moves from the intimate to the abstract.

Originally, I thought the song was an expression of the intense feeling of longing, all mixed up with desire that you might have for someone you love, perhaps your mother, your beloved and the grief that is felt when they are no longer with you. It is, in fact, written from the point of view of a foetus (in the video Bush dances in an enclosed space of diaphanous material to represent a womb).    

Bush has said that her inspiration for the song came from ‘a documentary she had seen about the effects of nuclear war, while the tone of the song was inspired by Pink Floyd's The Wall (side three in particular).’ The wonder of the song lies in the intimate detail and the personalised delivery – something as far removed from notions of anti-Nuclear campaigning, as could be imagined - and the way Bush represents the idea of breathing ‘your mother in, your beloved in/breathing her nicotine …’ 

‘Breathing’ closed Bush’s third solo album Never, for Ever that came out in 1980 (the album began with the over-the-top cleverness and theatrics of ‘Babooshka’ – and Kate in a revealing Clan of the Cave Bear outfit, strutting, her angular movements lodging themselves in the imaginations of curious teenage boys the world over …)

Never for Ever was the first album that Bush had full production control and is still impressive many decades on for its creative risk-taking that at no point feels forced: the personality of the artist is the unifying element, alongside her constant cultural referencing: 

Bush’s literary and cinematic influences were again to the fore. “The Infant Kiss”, the story of a governess who is frightened by the adult feelings she has for her young male charge (who is possessed by the spirit of a grown man), was inspired by the 1961 film The Innocents, which in turn had been inspired by The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. ”The Wedding List” drew from François Truffaut’s 1968 film The Bride Wore Black.”Delius (Song of Summer)” was inspired by the 1968 Ken Russell TV movie Song of Summer, which portrays the last six years of the life of English composer Frederick Delius, when Eric Fenby acted as his amanuensis. Fenby is mentioned in the lyrics (“in B, Fenby”).
— Wiks

‘Delius (Song of Summer)’ strikes me as particularly influential in terms of the light-electronic alternative acts that have emerged since the 2000s in its delicate swoon and the way it’s mixed together ...

The album also included the superb anti-war song, ‘Army Dreamers’ (that includes extremely sweet-gentle and ironic male backing vocals, again upending expectations).     

Never for Ever was Bush’s first album to reach the number one slot on the UK charts and the first solo record by a British female artist to reach this status; moreover, it is the first studio album of any woman to achieve this, rather than compilations. Bush said that the album title alluded to contradictory and conflicting emotions, which pass, as she said: ‘we must tell our hearts that it is 'never for ever', and be happy that it's like that’.

Reviews for the album have a kind of grudging tone, something you often see in appraisals of the work of artists who are women (the Allmusic review saying, for example: ‘Bush's dramatics and theatrical approach to singing begin to solidify on Never for Ever, and her style brandishes avid seriousness without sounding flighty or absurd’ ...  an 'appreciation' from Sputnikmusic is even worse, concluding that the record was ‘no masterpiece’ but that it showed Bush’s work was ‘improving in all the right ways.’ … ah, merci monsieur).   

The album is also important in terms of Bush's artistic development in the way it demonstrated her interest in new tech; this is taken from an article in the NME:

As soon as I met the Fairlight,” Bush admitted in 1985 about the digital sampling synthesiser, “I realised that it was something I really couldn’t do without because it was just so integral to what I wanted to do with my music.” The possibilities are obvious on ‘Never For Ever’, the most lush of her albums to that point, where dreamy Minnie Riperton soul (‘Blow Away’) meets berserk vamping rock (‘Babooshka’). Its finest moment is the haunting ‘Breathing’ with Bush facing up to the burgeoning nuclear crisis as weapons move into Greenham Common. “What are we going to do/We are all going to die” is as direct as she ever gets, and has all the more grim power for that.

Easily the best piece of writing I’ve come across on Kate Bush’s work, Never for ever comes from Matt Lindsay ’30 years on: the Dreaming by Kate BushThe Quietus 2012. It’s full of fantastic research and persuasively argues for the importance of this record, as a transition towards a more autonomous juncture in Kate Bush's career and the way it gestured to her musical future. Here is his comment on ‘Breathing’ …

Bush’s melodramatic ivory tinkling is woven into a throbbing musical backdrop. Gabriel’s trusty synth wizard Larry Fast on Prophet 5, the ‘atomic instrumentation’ of Pink Floyd’s The Wall (side 3 apparently, ‘Hey You’ in particular) and 10cc multi-tracked vocal wash are all subsumed into Bush’s striking originality: a uniquely female perspective sculpted from male sources. Breathing’s bold studio craft was a strong indication of things to come.

Again, from Matt Lindsay:

(Bush) was also enamoured with the colossal ‘gated reverb’ drum patterns, without cymbals, Gabriel was cultivating with engineer Hugh Padgham at London’s Townhouse Studios. As with the Fairlight, this would become a salient feature of 80’s rock, perhaps most associated with Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight (1981). Collins had learned the technique while working on Gabriel’s Melt album and had gone as far as recruiting the singer’s producer, Hugh Padgham. This suggests a kind of forward thinking MOR phalanx during this period. At the time only Tony Visconti’s pioneering work on Bowie’s Low (1977) was this drum sound’s only real precedent. (Visconti was briefly considered for production duties on The Dreaming before Bush assumed full responsibility).

Check out this extremely touching live performance from Kate Bush of ‘Breathing’ – her skill shows through her ability to be so heavily invested in the moment, it’s almost as if you can touch her soul, while she maintains distance (until that lovely smile at the end).

Alternate versions: ‘Happily divided’ Sebadoh (Bubble and Scrape, 1993)*

For me this song by Sebadoh – the ‘representative’ lo-fi, independent US group from the 1990s, perhaps – is the perfect example of a song that has a united front, but still makes space for subtlety and nuance, largely because of the ambiguous lyrics that move me each time I hear them.

In much recent music I hear a kind of faux-simplicity and conscious under-development, via an emphasis on highly sibilant sounds and absence of the lower registers (where is the bass-line, hidden there somewhere maybe) but too often the vocalist and/or lyrics undermine this impulse towards the essential; often becoming preachy, or didactic. Where is the space of the listener here? 

Music gains its power, like any non-representative art-from, via its ability to make us feel. I don’t look towards music as a potential teacher (though I know this is not the case for everyone, many say how they were ‘educated’ in the best possible sense by Public Enemy, so be it). 

Yesterday I listened to a record by a neo-soul artist with an abundance of talent and noticed how the producers seemed to be influenced by the philosophy of a kind of anti-production style, just like the lo-fi pioneers … The problem for me, though, lay in the way the under-stated music was weakened by the explicit nature of the lyrics and position of the singer.

Make some spaces, leave gaps, I kept thinking, cut it back to allow the darkness, and ambiguity in. Not all human experience benefits from a harsh light, make space for the shadows. I want to hear your uncertainty, all those things you don’t know, but feel or sense.

Oppression, sadness and all kinds of suffering work on a bodily level, as sensations and are felt as humiliation and the shame associated with being weak, it can’t be explained via maxims and slogans (and can’t be named using the words of the academy, we need to find new tools to dismantle the master’s house ….)

Here are the lyrics to this song that come close to poetry for me:

Of these times, it’s well we make the most
Boredom fabricated as you’re going down each other’s throats
And I’m so excited, happily divided
Smashing all my windows
Rocks falling in the yard
Pretending that you’re bigger than you really are
Pretending you’re bigger than you really are
Happily divided
Yeah, you’re big, only when your numbers grow
All dressed up with nowhere to go
So excited
Happily divided

On the studio version, the sway of the understated beat and the low vocals are perfectly in-synch in terms of mood, but what I love – among other things – is the constant feeling of no-release, the music appears to build, but doesn’t (no room of show-off guitar solos here). This frustration is perfectly in keeping  with the sarcastic tone of the lyrics, ‘I’m so excited …’

The section just under a minute in touches me, and could be my favourite lyrics of all time: ‘Smashing all my windows
Rocks falling in the yard
Pretending that you're bigger than you really are …’

That moment when the backing vocals come in offering a surprising warmth – as if the vocalist is not alone, even if it sounds like his voice (he is echoing himself) - and the crinkly sounds of the guitar in the background provide a wonderful contrast, in keeping with the atmosphere of the song before and after.

‘Pretending … that … you’re bigger … than you really are …’

Not so long ago I found this recording of ‘Happily divided’ from a radio session in Holland, which is beautiful for the guitar track and the way the vocalist plays around with the delivery. Be careful, if listening on headphones, as the added musical excursions (those seconds of experimental piano) gave me a bit of a shock when they came in.

*In praise of shadows – Tanizaki; In praise of darkness – Borges …

After Berlin, December 2016 (& Marianne Faithfull)

Coming back home from Montparnasse today, the large hall with the long walk-ways leading to line 4 and 12 was closed down, with police guarding the barrier: four soldiers in camouflage, rifles across their chests were doing that fast walk, not quite running, as they made their way through the empty tunnels, in the far distance to whatever the threat was.

‘Is line 4 closed?’

‘For the moment, yes,’the SNCF attendant said, in his understated French way.

At Liège I got off, one stop before my destination, as a rangy man with slicked-down black hair and a tracksuit jerkily looked around, reached down for something in his pockets, looked around the carriage once more. He started talking to another man sitting down, a man whose eyes were red; he then quickly left the carriage to go to the next.

The newspaper headline, following the Berlin attack in another passenger's newspaper: ‘Terrorism knows no borders.’

Could have come through anytime
Cold lonely, puritan
What are you fighting for?
It’s not my security …

Paris is empty now, one week before Christmas. Now this may mean very little - ‘French people’ often leave the capital en masse, most notably in August where the boulevards are so wide, and so hot and dry, swept free of a human presence, you can walk and walk and walk and feel like you are the only person alive in this barren metropolis, with all these fine, well-preserved buildings looking down on you.

Perhaps it is simply that the Parisians have left to spend time with their families in the countryside. (As my little one told me: ‘Christmas is important for French people’).

Or maybe they have left to avoid the tense atmosphere of a city bracing itself for the possibility of further terrorist violence during the holiday period. In November, police disrupted a Daesh-affiliated group that was planning an attack at Disneyland and the Christmas markets on the Champs-Élysées. The police said that they had stopped 17 planned terrorist attacks this year in France, with Paris as the preferred target.

(Now after what has happened in Berlin, should we cancel his train journey – with Junior & Cie - I can go with him to Tours like last year … I think it will be okay, after November they have increased security. Try not to worry).

Trauma upsets notions of distance, in that after being hurt, or experiencing violence you feel like you can become a victim at any time, you have no protection and since potential danger is everywhere; you need to be alert, all the time. But being constantly alert damages you, makes you tired from the diffuse nature of the threat that is ever-present, but at the same time not real, or immediate. Sometimes I feel like my skin is similar to a wafer, or parchment. 

Living in a city that is coming to terms with terrorism, there is a further point of tension, as we are ‘taught’ via posters found everywhere, in libraries, in doctor’s offices, in schools what to do in the event of an attack. We hear repeated advisories about levels of risk put out by foreign governments, by the French state and an ongoing State of Emergency, but what is confusing is that amidst all of this we continue to lead ordinary lives, as if nothing has happened. 

All this might also reflect my current work: I have been reading, endlessly (and writing) about the perpetrators of the terrorist violence in Paris in November and elsewhere, for the book I’m developing. And reading the same story over and over again of ordinary men, leading banal lives that revolved around petty crime (drug-dealing, trafficking false documents, with some more serious charges, such as armed robbery) PlayStation, ‘beer,-hash-girls’ with the call to jihad as part of the mix.

There is nothing heroic here, and no logic behind it, even though this is something that victims and the perpetrators crave more than anything else; an argument, a cause, a logic behind the violence. We and they want it to have meant something.

But as Marianne Faithfull perceptively understood in ‘Broken English’ from 1979 – just listen to the way the bass-line overwhelms her vocals - terrorism, and perhaps all violence, is not about the brain, it operates on the level of the gut.

It is all about the machinery and currency of fear. And no matter what people like to believe (the victim, or the perpetrator) terrorist violence reflects the desire to dominate others, the pleasure of sadistic control that comes from slitting somebody’s throat as he cowers beneath you, no more than an animal.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this research has been discovering how shallow the nature of the men’s commitment is. They are not highly politicised intellectuals, or angry men avenging some profound slight, or feeling of humiliation. Of course they speak of their motivation, often using the same words or same ideas, they speak of their desire to inflict pain and suffering – and indeed ‘terror’ - on the crusaders, those living in the lands of the unbelievers, but more often than not it sounds like they are reading from a script. There is no depth there.

I'm writing this because I know many want terrorist violence to mean something to operate as an extension of racialised injustice, the shame some might feel growing up Black or North African in France, or Belgium, even if vast numbers of recruits to the jihadist cause are white converts; or that they are fighting old wars ...

This is background noise, providing a context and justification. One of the first things you notice is how international the contemporary terrorist violence is, operating across borders with multi-national perpetrators (the 'masterminds' of the November 13 atrocity in Paris were Belgian, as were many of the assailants, alongside Iraqis).

Despite the rhetoric and staged videos, these men act like gang members,  or ‘soldiers for hire’ inflicting cruelty in the same way as thugs brutalising populations after a vote in some half-forgotten country; or suicide bombers exploding in a market, at a wedding, a school, or religious service do. Only this time they are speaking in French …

It’ just an old war
Not even a cold war
Don’t say it in Russian
Don’t say it in German
Say it in broken English
Say it in broken English

Lose your father, your husband
Your mother, your children
What are you dying for?
It’s not my reality

To change the mood: I liked this extract from a 2011 interview from AV Club - AVC -  with Faithfull where she talks about Broken English, the record that marked an extraordinary return and reinvention of her career and musical style.

(The album includes the phenomenal 'Why'd ya do it?' - lyrics by Heathcote Williams, who had originally hoped that Tina Turner might record it. An amazing song that, as others have noticed, Grace Jones must have been inspired by, as it provides the template for her signature style; the soft reggae-inflected lilt and snarl).        

AVC: Speaking of your more atmospheric, Broken English was a huge break from what you’d done before.

MF: It was a wonderful record.

AVC: It’s hard to imagine the impact that sound would have had at the time.

MF: Straight from the streets. Straight from being a drug addict. It was pretty radical. And it was true. That’s always interesting. It couldn’t go on like that. I didn’t want to be angry, twisted and bitter all my life, so I had to change. And I did. Maybe it wasn’t quite as exciting and knife-edge.

AVC: What drew you to writing about the Red Army Faction’s Ulrike Meinhof on the title track?

MF: I read a book about it, so that interested me. Before Broken English, even, I was touring with that band, and we’d gone to look at the [Berlin] Wall, me and Barry [Reynolds], and it made a deep impression on me. I think I understood it, actually, the repressed Protestant thing, and very cold, and very lonely. So I read this book about the Baader-Meinhof gang, and then I was watching something on the television. I don’t remember really what it was about, but it had subtitles, and they came on and they said, “Broken English, spoken English.” I immediately wrote that down, and then I wrote the song. 

AVC: There’s a degree of empathy in the song, but you’re also addressing her: “What are you fighting for?”

MF: Yeah, it was like that in the beginning. Of course now, “Broken English,” the whole thing has widened, and it’s different. I even say, “What are we fighting for?” now. I take it more personally. 

AVC: The title could almost have referred to you at the time: broken, English.

MF: What I’m really doing, I can tell you exactly—what I recognized is that there are a certain kind of neurosis that could express itself in terrorism, and anger out. One thing is sure, to be a drug addict, the anger is all going in. You’re hurting yourself. But with a terrorist like Ulrike Meinhof, she’s hurting other people, and that interested me. I could feel “There but for the grace of God….” I was very glad I wasn’t a terrorist. I wasn’t that happy to be a drug addict, but anyway, I got over it.