Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Track 1: Sister Midnight

What a great intro to a song! In fact, this is my windows OS start up sound. I love how dead the drums sound and the oscillation speed on the synth adds a subtle off-tempo swagger. Listen to how the oscillation tempo changes between the 2 intro notes and then slows once the verse starts. Notice the perfectly placed guitar slide capping off the intro. Do you hear the similarity between this intro and Bowie's "Fame"? Some research finds that Dennis Davis is the drummer on both songs. Could the intro be his creation or Bowie's?

We're only 4 seconds into the song and already we've got this much to talk about...

Speaking of Bowie, he uses the Sister Midnight instrumental track slightly sped up for Red Money on Lodger. It seems a little bit lazy to just re-use the original tracks and not re-record it, but Bowie should have a free pass to do as he pleases as originator and producer. Originally, Sister Midnight was a song written by Bowie and Carlos Alomar (left) and they performed the song live before Iggy recorded it. The song was based on a Carlos Alomar riff.

Bowie wrote the lyrics to the first verse and Iggy wrote the second, Oedipal verse.

Here's a video of a soundcheck with Bowie doing "Sister Midnight" in 1976, the year "The Idiot" was recorded.

Sister Midnight Soundcheck

Apparently, Carlos played with "The Idiot"-drummer Dennis Davis in Roy Ayers' band before getting together with him working on Bowie projects.

Notice the distorted piano / keyboard sounds. This sound is all over this record, never in the foreground really, but very much present. I think its a key driver of the mood of this record. According to Laurent Thibault, this is an Yamaha Acoustic piano played by David Bowie. This piano was mic'ed and run through the Harrison desk at Musicland Studios to get that fuzz / distorted sound. The guitar is played by Phil Palmer (or Carlos Alomar) depending on who you ask. On the radical sounds on this track, Phil recollects, "I remember they got me plugging in to all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff. I’m sure there was a Leslie in there as well.. " Most of the guitar effects and amps were the stuff left in the studio by Thin Lizzy.

I noticed that all / some of the crash hits are muted (listen in the solo), I wonder if Dennis Davis grabbed it after each hit, or someone else did, or they seriously dampened the kit with towels and / or tape.

Update: Laurent Thibault said this about the piano sound and a curious sound embedded in this song:

"So as we were working on Sister Midnight. David was playing, and I was trying to tune the sound using a compressor to get a nice distortion. As I turned an equalization button on the desk, I got a sudden noise, like a 'bip'. I saw David, with the headphones on, startled in his chair. But he didn't stop playing. When he came back to the control room, he asked me 'What was that noise?' I told him that I made a mistake on the desk. We listened to the tape. The 'bip' was clearly distinct. 'It's nice ! We'll keep it. I love noises', said David. You can hear it in the song: it's on the record!"

This sound is located at 1:05 and a similar and much briefer sound is also at 1:40.

1 comment:

Young Curmudgeon said...

First of all, I just want to say that your blog is amazing! The Idiot is my favorite album of all time and this site is why God invented the way of the US military.

In fact, I talked about your blog on my radio show this week after playing Sixteen off of Lust For Life and then put up a link on my blog on the kxlu website:

Anyway, there was one sentence that I have taken issue with:

"It seems a little bit lazy to just re-use the original tracks and not re-record it"

This has actually always been one of my favorite things that Bowie ever did. Ignoring for a moment that Low was released before The Idiot, I think most people would agree that The Idiot was the first album of the Berlin Period. Sister Midnight is the first song of the first album of the Berlin Period. Lodger is the last album of the Berlin Period. Red Money is the last song of the last album of the period. Bowie (I believe quite intentionally) book-ended the Berlin Period with one single song. The intentionality of this move is up for debate, but I choose to believe it so, if for no other reason than it makes a great story and an even better piece of trivia to make your friends roll their eyes while you go on for another hour about the genius of Iggy, Bowie and Eno.