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David Bowie and televisions: cut from review of Luke Kennard’s Cain

My piece on Luke Kennard’s Cain included a digression into televisions in David Bowie’s music, in particular on the song ‘Sound and Vision’. Although it explored some of the ideas relevant for the review, it was distracting so I cut it. Maybe one day I’ll spend more time writing about David Bowie.

David Bowie has two songs about televisions in his ‘golden years’ of the late 1970s: ‘TVC 15’ and ‘Sound and Vision’. The first, from Station to Station (1976), reenacts Iggy Pop’s dream of his girlfriend being eaten by one, lamenting that “baby’s in there someplace” and contemplating climbing in after her. The second is on Low (1977), the first of his avant-garde Berlin Trilogy, after Bowie’s return from a “miserable time” in Los Angeles, and his greatest and saddest album.  In ‘Sound and Vision’, Bowie begins by asking, languorously, if we “wonder sometimes about sound and vision”:

Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the colour of my room
Where I will live
Blue, blue.

Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to read, nothing to say
Blue, blue.

I will sit right down
Waiting for the gift of sound and vision.

It is an ultimately static song, an oblivious machine. The full pattern of chords, engaged in its own self-assembly, runs through once — half the track, a minute and a half — before David Bowie even begins singing. As Chris O’Leary notes, when he joins in “it’s as though he’s been listening along and just started singing, carried away by what he set in motion.” The music doesn’t accompany the vocals so much as the vocals find a place amongst the music. In this clockwork construction, the pattern begins with a unit of four measures, first moving up a step from G major to A minor, then up again to the dominant (D major), then back to G at the last: I – II – V – I. The move from D back to G gives an obviously satisfying resolution. But this unit is then truncated to three measures thereafter, going once again from G major to A minor but then retreating straight to G. Where we expect to progress through the perfect cadence we find ourselves instead still where we started. The first time this happens with a self-satisfied “aaa-aaaah”, sliding home from A down to G as if sighing with relief.

Repetition is, of course, another strategy against despair, of imposing meaning on chaos. On Young Americans (1975), an earlier, twitchier album – where, especially in the title track, Bowie expresses a sort of hollow, cocaine paranoia – Bowie has the song ‘Right’, which is, I read somewhere, best interpreted as responding to his lifelong fear of flying:

Flying in just a sweet place
Coming inside and safe
Flying in just a sweet place
Never been known to fail
Never been, no
Never been known to fail

Besides its complex call-and-response section, ‘Right’ is memorable for its mesmeric repetitiveness. As Bowie remarked at the time:

‘Right’ is putting a positive drone over. People forget what the sound of Man’s instinct is—it’s a drone, a mantra. And people, say: ‘Why are so many things popular that just drone on and on’. But that’s the point really.

Repetitiveness in ‘Right’, as in ‘Sound and Vision’ and the rest of Low, is comforting and soothing; sitting right down and putting on the television is a ritual. The song, as long as it continues, is safety; everything outside the song, outside the blinds, hurts.

In the manic, rootless despair of Low — driving at suicidal speeds around a “hotel garage”; asking insistently for you to “be my wife”; drawing “something awful” on the carpet — ‘Sound and Vision’ is, perversely, its happiest song, describing a relative safety and calm. Before the strange, haunting and ultimately hopeful landscapes of sound on the instrumental B-side of the album, ‘Sound and Vision’ is the first offer of a solution to feeling “blue”: withdrawing from the world to immerse in the television’s “electric blue”, to receive the “gift of sound and vision”, to ask for its benediction.