SFF Song of the Week: James Lovegrove

My iPod has been set to Bowie all week, after this week’s choice from the remarkable, prolific, erudite and very talented Mr James Lovegrove, author of epics including The Age of Zeus and The Age of Ra,   Worldstorm, young adult novels, and much more. 

James Lovegrove writes:

“Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)” – David Bowie

Bowie is music’s presiding sci-fi genius. Every one of his albums is suffused to a greater or lesser degree with SF references and flourishes. Two of them even feature him on the sleeve in his best-known big screen role as Thomas Jerome Newton, the alien visitor from The Man Who Fell To Earth. His son makes SF movies, for heaven’s sake. The man has SF running through him like the wording on a stick of high-tech quantum seaside rock from the future.

Hence there’s an embarrassment of Bowie tracks one could cite for their science fictional content. But rather than select one of the obvious – “Space Oddity”, “The Supermen”, “Saviour Machine”, “Five Years”, “Starman”, “Life On Mars?”, “Ashes To Ashes”, “Hallo Spaceboy” – I’m opting for something a little more obscure.

“Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)” is to be found on Bowie’s most SF-ish album, Diamond Dogs, released in 1974. It forms the backbone to side one, a bridge between the head-rush of the title track and the foot stomp of “Rebel Rebel”. It’s a tale of love amid the ruins whose collage-like lyrical content – at times jaded and melancholy, at others a helter-skelter parade of Dadaist imagery – reflects its creator’s fascination at the time with William S. Burroughs’s “cut-up” technique of writing.

Diamond Dogs started life as a proposed musical based on Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the Orwell estate wouldn’t play ball. Their intransigence led to Bowie revising his initial concept, and it evolved into something stranger and richer: a post-apocalyptic song suite that’s like nothing so much as a trashy 70s sci-fi film in musical form – and I mean this as a compliment.

“Sweet Thing…” begins slow and sepulchral, Bowie crooning in his best baritone over a two-chord piano motif with pedal bass. It’s his finest vocal performance bar none. After a breathy saxophone break the song shifts into the rockier “Candidate” segment, which accelerates and escalates as its lyrics grow ever more bizarre and frantic. Then, just as everything seems in danger of slipping entirely out of control, we’re back to the original tune, now adorned with some of pianist Mike Garson’s extraordinary trills and runs. This swoons to a climax and is followed by a chaotic outro laced with fuzzed guitar.

In all, it’s nigh on nine minutes of juxtaposed bliss and bonkersness that makes the collapse of civilisation seem liberatingly sleazy and wonderfully desirable.

Part One: Sweet Thing

It’s safe in the city to love in a doorway
To strangle some screams from the dawn
And isn’t it me, putting pain in a stranger?
Like a portrait in flesh, who trails on a leash
Will you see that I’m scared and I’m lonely?
So I’ll break up my room, and yawn and I
Run to the centre of things
Where the knowing one says:

“Boys, boys, it’s a sweet thing
Boys, boys, it’s a sweet thing, sweet thing
If you want it, boys, get it here, then
For hope, boys, is a cheap thing, cheap thing”

I’m glad that you’re older than me
Makes me feel important and free
Does that make you smile, isn’t that me?
I’m in your way, and I’ll steal every moment
If this trade is a curse, then I’ll bless you
And turn to the crossroads, and hamburgers, and:

“Boys, boys, it’s a sweet thing
Boys, boys, it’s a sweet thing, sweet thing
If you want it, boys, get it here, then
For hope, boys, is a cheap thing, cheap thing”

Part Two: Candidate

I’ll make you a deal, like any other candidate
We’ll pretend we’re walking home for your future’s at stake
My set is amazing, it even smells like a street
There’s a bar at the end where I can meet you and your friend
Someone scrawled on the walls “I smell the blood of les tricoteuses”
Who wrote up scandals in other bars
I’m having so much fun with the poisonous people
Spreading rumours and lies and stories they made up
Some make you sing and some make you scream
One makes you wish that you’d never been seen
But there’s a shop on the corner that’s selling papier-mâché
Making bullet-proof faces; Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay
“If you want it, boys, get it here, then”

So you scream out of line:
“I want you! I need you! Anyone out there? Any time?”
Très butch little number whines “Hey dirty, I want you
When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad I go to pieces”
If you want it, boys, get it here, then

Well, on the street where you live I could not hold up my head
For I gave all I have in another bed
On another floor, in the back of a car
In the cellar of a church with the door ajar
Well, I guess we must be looking for a different kind
But we can’t stop trying ’til we break up our minds
’Til the sun drips blood on the seedy young knights
Who press you on the ground while shaking in fright
I guess we could cruise down one more time
With you by my side, it should be fine
We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band
Then jump in the river holding hands

Part Three: Sweet Thing (Reprise)

“If you want it, boys, get it here, then
For hope, boys, is a cheap thing, cheap thing”

Is it nice in your snow storm, freezing your brain?
Do you think that your face looks the same?
Then let it be, it’s all I ever wanted
It’s a street with a deal, it’s got taste
It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you…

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