What does it sound like?:
In 1970, you’d have thought David Bowie would be doing everything he could to impress his new employer, Mercury. He’d been in danger of becoming a one-hit wonder with Space Oddity. His follow up singles were flops. His audition for the label was whimsical and folky, in keeping with much of the other music on his 1969 album. He’d won the contract by the skin of his teeth but allowed himself to become embroiled in the complexities of changing his manager. Ken Pitt had stood by him when most others looked away but Bowie was smitten by fast-talking American, Tony Defries. The transfer was protracted and distracting and one he would rue for decades. He was smitten in another way, newly married to Angie, who was keen to spend most of her day in bed or in antique shops. Bowie enthusiastically indulged her. He had two trusted lieutenants to look after the music, one longer standing, Tony Visconti, and one new, Mick Ronson. If Visconti is to be believed, Bowie was either absent or spent most of the recording time lounging about. The album he delivered is an album of extremes with no singles and heavy both musically and lyrically, entirely different to the album that preceded it and the one before that. The record company executives were not pleased, especially when they looked at the sales figures towards the end of 1971.
Mick Ronson was a real find for Bowie, a gifted musician and arranger. As a child he learnt recorder, piano and violin. He settled on guitar because walking around Hull with a violin case attracted unwanted attention. From painting rugby pitches in the cold and damp of Yorkshire, he suddenly found himself in a state-of-the-art studio at Trident, free to indulge his fantasy of being in a power trio, specifically Cream, with his mate Woody Woodmansey on drums. He encouraged Visconti to play like Jack Bruce and whacked his bass up to eleven. Bowie was receptive, too. He had a couple of songs already but was content to throw his trio some chord changes, let them work up the instrumental parts and add his vocals later.
The result is unique in the Bowie canon musically but the lyrics, across just nine songs, tell us a great deal about what was on his mind at the time. In his head was lots of sex, some of it homoerotic, madness, self-harm, an imminent apocalypse, a wrestle with the devil, childhood nightmares, murderous ex military, controlling computers breaking down, death, the after-life, super beings and Marc Bolan. Always a voracious reader, there are direct references to Jack Kerouac – On The Road, R.D. Laing – The Politics of Experience, Friedrich Nietzsche – Thus Spake Zarathustra & Beyond Good And Evil, Aleister Crowley – The Book Of The Law, Hughes Mearns – Antigonish, Robert Heinlein – The Man Who Sold The Moon, Joseph Conrad – The Secret Sharer, Isaac Asimov – Foundation series,Theodore Sturgeon – More Than Human and H.P. Lovecraft – The Call Of Cthulhu. When finally called upon to sing, all this came pouring out, one set of lyrics seeping into another.
The musicians, including Phil Mace on keyboard, mellotron and moog, do well to keep up. They do so by pushing the music further to the extreme. The Width Of A Circle is a gargantuan struggle between good and evil, introducing Ronson in an incredible forty bar solo, with a coda, stretching the song to nearly nine minutes, powerful enough to uproot trees. The duelling recorders on All The Madmen, along with the disturbing middle eight, are a master stroke. The quotations from Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra tympani add portent to The Supermen, matching the Nietzschean lyric. Running Gun Blues is suitably unhinged and Saviour Machine is weird in both structure and delivery. The band also have some fun. She Shook Me Cold is an attempt to out-riff Cream and Ronson almost pulls it off with Visconti matching him. Bowie contributes a ridiculous sex lyric that deserves a cold shower. Black Country Rock, the lightest track on the album, a welcome respite after Width Of A Circle and All The Madmen, is a note perfect piss-take of Marc Bolan, Bowie imitating his vocal style with surprising accuracy and Visconti, Bolan’s then producer, tweaking it to make it even more precise. However, within all the heavy metal, it’s the two gentlest songs that endure. After All is delivered in a whisper but its doom-laden waltz and oh-by-jingo refrain chills to the bone. The mystery of The Man Who Sold The World remains unresolved, its gorgeous melody and Ronson’s simple guitar figure point to endless possibilities.
These working practices did produce nine radically different songs and performances that hang together as an album extraordinarily well. Mercury released it in America first with a cartoon cover by Michael Weller. A John Wayne figure is depicted in front of Cane Hill Hospital where Bowie’s brother Terry Burns spent a lot of time. The label changed the title from Metrobolist, a tribute Fritz Lang, and removed the text “Roll up your sleeves take a look at your arms” from the speech bubble. This 2020 remix restores the original packaging as it was intended, even though Bowie was sufficiently unhappy to reshoot the cover, wearing his infamous blue and cream dress, for the UK edition.
Visconti’s remix is lovingly crafted. He is clearly very fond of this album, probably regarding it as the one he contributed to most in his career. He’s been playing it live with a revived Hype for a number of years. He cleans everything up beautifully and rearranges the sound stage, creating a much better balance and more space for the instruments to be heard. He leaves After All as it was because he doesn’t think he can improve it. He resists the temptation to beef up his own bass and instead focusses on the details. It’s the acoustic guitars, the keyboards and the peculiar vocal sounds that benefit most. Mick Ronson absolutely shines here. The 2020 remix sometimes feels more of a homage to the guitarist than the vocalist. The original strangeness and musical exaggeration are actually enhanced but there is a clearer logic to thinking behind it.
Bowie and Ronson would soon move on to bigger and better things. Visconti was frozen out of Bowie world until Young Americans. Visconti blames his expressed dislike of Defries or Bowie’s habit of leaving his vocals until the very last minute. Ken Scott, Bowie’s next producer, cattily claimed that Visconti was too controlling in the studio and Bowie needed to be allowed to be himself. In the meantime, the album flopped, though it did pick up radio airplay and critical praise in the USA. One wonders why Mercury failed to spot the potential of the title track as a single.
What does it all *mean*?
Metrobolist lands perfectly in a world run by madmen where computer algorithms destroy young lives and a climate crisis threatens to burn us all to a crisp if we manage to survive a pandemic. The album’s eccentricities, wild extremities, anger and disgust fit snugly in 2020. If only we were all having as much sex as Bowie did fifty years ago.
Goes well with…
A dial that goes up to eleven.
Might suit people who like…
Outrageous, exciting, intriguing, intelligent Rock Music.