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David Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging at 40 + the first time Tony Visconti heard I Pray, Olé & those Rykodisc bonus tracks

“They have everything for young men to enjoy. You can hang out with all the boys.”

Unluckily for him, David Bowie’s 13th album, Lodger is one of the most tragically underrated and overlooked albums in the artist’s long and illustrious catalogue. It’s difficult to comprehend exactly why, because it’s both the ending chapter of the groundbreaking ‘Berlin’ trilogy with Brian Eno, and Bowie’s last album of the seventies – a decade which earned him a reputation as an endlessly innovative musical shapeshifter. 

Perhaps why it tends to get overlooked lies in the fact that Lodger sits in the unenviable position of being sandwiched between two arguably superior sets (Heroes and Scary Monsters); or the fact that it doesn’t feature any hits as brashly anthemic as “Heroes”. Whatever the case, it’s a shame, because, dull flat mix aside, Lodger is an interesting if erratic album, and a real grower – unfolding and improving over time, rewarding those who pay careful attention to its ten tracks — over half co-written by former Roxy Music member turned ambient maestro Eno —with a rich and intriguing experience.

Take the second single, DJ, for instance.

Try imagining Lodger in a parallel world where a certain New York new wave band hadn’t just released their Brian Eno-produced sophomore set More Songs About Buildings and Food and, well, you can’t really. But despite the endearing Talking Heads-influenced art rock, on the face of it the record appears a more commercial outing than the ambient soundscapes of its austere Berlin siblings; the structures are more familiar and less alien, and none more so than on its first single, the brilliant Boys Keep Swinging.

Despite his later attestations to the contrary (which, of course, coincided with a slump in sales), prime Bowie was always a dab hand at picking the perfect first single for his latest album. And the five year run of lead 45s from 1974’s Rebel Rebel to 1979’s BKS include some of his greatest ever singles: Young Americans, Golden Years, Sound And Vision and of course, “Heroes”.

Boys Keep Swinging, the single that comes closest to Bowie’s glam-era pinnacle, was released 40 years ago, though unlike much of Bowie’s oeuvre it doesn’t sound too of its time. Initiated under a purported working title of Lewis Reed, its basic backing tracks had been laid down in the summer of ’78, engineered by David Richards at Montreux’s Mountain Studios in Switzerland, the central European country Bowie had recently made his official home – ostensibly for tax purposes – and from where I’m writing this very article.

As restless as ever, by March 1979, the itinerant had shifted his focus to New York City, swapping his rented apartment in Berlin for a ‘Chelsea loft’ in the same West 26th Street brownstone building as his band lynchpin Carlos Alomar, where he renewed his love of cocaine and often struggled to pay the rent.

Bowie was a regular at CBGBs, Hurrah and the Mudd Club, paid a royal visit to Studio 54, and hung out with city slickers like Blondie’s Jimmy Destri, and, naturally, Talking Heads maninman, David Byrne.

With Eno calling time on the project in Montreux, Bowie and Visconti booked time at NYC’s Record Plant to finish off the album in March of 1979. One of the last songs completed for Lodger, Lewis Reed morphed, in suitably Byronic fashion, into Boys Keep Swinging. You can almost hear the chorus, can’t you? Lewis Ree-eed! Lou always works it out!”

Lewis Reed, was, of course, the birth name of former Velvet Underground mainman Lou Reed.

Suddenly, in the closing hours of the Bowieno triptych, Bowie returned to the spirit of glitter rock, revisiting themes of fluid sexuality albeit laced with a heavier irony, and at a time which neatly coincided with Reed no longer identifying as gay or bisexual. As for the Dame, according to various sources, including social academic Camille Paglia in her essay for the book of the David Bowie Is exhibition, the thin white one would lead a life of bi until at least 1984.

Visconti, Bowie, Eno and engineer David Richards at Mountain Studios, September 1978

In Switzerland Boys Keep Swinging had a hard birth, though after numerous attempts, they settled on Bowie and Eno’s well documented studio experiment of having band members swap instruments to give the song a reckless garage-rock looseness. The results rocked with a sawing background drone, led by Simon House’s electric violin, and an incendiary climactic guitar solo by the ever brilliant Adrian Belew.

Then there’s the subject matter, which Belew recalled Bowie coming up with the final words and vocals in a week during overdub sessions at the Record Plant, telling Uncut magazine: “In New York, David was doing vocals for Boys Keep Swinging. He played me it and said: ‘This is written after you, in the spirit of you.’ I think he saw me as a naïve person who just enjoyed life. I was thrilled with that.”

Tongue inserted firmly in several cheeks, the narrator lists the advantages of being a boy in hilarious detail. Although the song makes a serious point, some of the things he waxes lyrical about are either so deliberately mundane (“You can buy a home of your own! Learn to drive and everything!”) or off-the-wall random (“They’ll never clone ya!”) that they become hysterical in context (or lack thereof). Bowie’s deliciously Large Ham delivery helps too.

By 1979, the Village People were, inexplicably, the kings and queens of disco, and had reached pole position in the UK and a solid No.2 in the US with that empowering slice of smegma beloved of corny karaokes the word over, YMCA.  

By the time BKS was completed, the archetypal stereotype dance group’s equally crass follow up, In The Navy, was in heavy rotation on transistor radios everywhere.

And in case you’ve been living under a rock (or something else that rhymes with rock) both YMCA and In The Navy reeled off a list of things a young boy could do.

“You can hang out with all the boys/You can get yourself cleaned/You can have a good meal/You can do whatever you feel.”

“You can sail the seven seas, in the navy/You can put your mind at ease, in the navy.”

Then there was Bowie’s take…

“You can wear a uniform, when you’re a boy

Other boys check you out, you get a girl.”

Created by Jacques Morali and Henri Bololo, who died earlier this month, the Village People were a silly but strongly symbolic group of American masculinity and uniform-driven gay-fantasy personas, one of which was the San Francisco Castro Clone, a porno ‘tache and capped leather-clad ‘macho man’ that loved nothing better than getting into chaps. Talking of which…

Inevitably, it would only be a matter of months before the frontman of Mountain Studios’ new owners, Queen’s equally unsubtle Freddie Mercury, adopted the very same look, after a chance meeting with the VP’s Glenn Hughes himself in the back room of a New York club.

Meeting Hughes, who died in 2001 aged 50, had a profound effect not just on Mercury’s appearance but on the appearance of his romantic interests: every boyfriend Freddie dated thereafter would have the regulation caterpillar moustache, dark hair and hirsute, beefy build.

The ‘tache came last, which made a change for Freddie

Unlike Mercury, Bowie thought disco belonged in the inferno — Donna Summer’s groundbreaking early collaborations with Giorgio Moroder excepted — and told friends the over the top stereotypes of the Village People were “utterly preposterous.” So, naturally, he set about parodying their very existence. 

The Dame had seldom sung in such a rich and deep baritone before Boys Keep Swinging, and his triple-tracked, overly alpha male vocals expertly contrasted with the song’s blithely camp chorus. And camp it certainly is, though it’s easy to forget just how camp.

When you’ve heard a song a zillion times you can lose sight of what was unique and impactful about it in the beginning, so in order to listen again with a fresh pair of ears — albeit by proxy – play it to someone who probably won’t be familiar with said extract.

Driving home with an acting friend of mine, Dan Westwood, on the way back from a late night film job, I put BKS on; chiefly because as a journalist I get a kick out of introducing and informing, but also because, having known his dad was one of the musicians on the Labyrinth soundtrack, I wanted to get his reaction to a Bowie he wasn’t familiar with: the one before the leggings and the Tina Turner frightwig.

I guess there was a subliminal reason for opting for Boys Keep Swinging, because it was released on 27 April 1979, the day after Dan was born. Though I’m guessing his 10-inch penis probably didn’t emerge fully formed until the Nineties.

Dan grooved along, seemingly quite enjoying it, and then it got to the “Boys!” of the chorus and he burst out laughing, repeatedly. 

“I had no idea Bowie could be funny. That’s hilarious!”

And Boys Keep Swinging is hilarious, a flippant ode to youth — you believe you can do anything when you’re a boy. Though each of his lines are, on some level, absolutely true, Bowie is mocking the idea that males are particularly special at all.

“You’re always first on the line” references the fact that men are usually the first to die in violent conflicts and wars, while the sheer overblown-ness of statements such as “Heaven loves ya, the clouds part for ya, nothing stands in your way, when you’re a boy!” are a gentle dig at the idea that those things could be true. “When you’re a boy, you can buy a home of your own, learn to drive and everything!” — these are things anyone can do, they’re not particularly special and you don’t need a medal for achieving them.

© The David Bowie Archive

By literally going hell for sweaty leather, the Dame was also making a mockery of the Village People’s (and indirectly, the gay community’s) obsession with masculinity, which could be construed as a form of internalised homophobia (theirs, not Bowie’s).

Viewed in the context of a more aggressive and assertive gay culture, where the answer to life’s ills was that “you can hang out with all the boys,” BKS is a pointed and uncomfortably accurate critique of male privilege, sending up boyhood as a prestigious but very exclusive club, which imparts tremendous benefits on those lucky enough to be allowed in. Sow your wild oats, make your fortune, get a girl! Remember them?

“You’ll get your share, when you’re a boy!”

In retrospect you could view Boys Keep Swinging as a sharply feminist song. I’m not entirely sure how much David was interested in or knew about feminism at the time, but 1979 was a peak year for the second wave.

America’s much debated Equal Rights Amendment was all over the news and on its way to being passed (Congress had originally set a ratification deadline of March 22), so it’s very likely that Bowie, being the sponge that he was, would have picked up on it. 

Though in this BBC Tonight interview from 12 February 1979 (my parents’ 10th wedding anniversary, apropos of nothing) he’s evasive and a little shy.

Two long decades after the song’s release, David was interviewed by his wife Iman for the Fall 2000 edition of Bust, selecting questions submitted by the women’s lifestyle magazine. Although he shied away from being labelled a feminist, Bowie did stress his absolute belief in gender equality, and also downplayed any triumphalism in Boys Keep Swinging:

What does the word ‘feminism’ mean to you?

Not too much anymore, I’m afraid. I’ve always had immense problems with “movements” or indeed, anything that can be put in quotes. Whatever the current manifesto, the personal definition is always subjective, which is, at the core, the greater reality. In general, I suppose, I find it intensely offensive to see women treated as chattel or appendages. I cannot think of a situation where a woman could not do an equal if not better job than a man. Possibly, a situation requiring only brute strength may be the exception, but here again, a woman would be smart enough to organise the right person for the job. In that singular case, probably a man.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

No. I’m stubbornly a nothing-ist. Ists and isms irk me. It’s a British trait, I fear. We have a traditionally ambivalent outlook on social movements of any kind. But as with all ambivalence it has produced a kind of schizoid overview. A generous acceptance of eccentricity and, at times, an overbearing need to not stand out as being different. A complete understanding of the individual to command his or her own freedom yet a crushing failure to produce a jolly good revolution, even with Tom Paine at the helm.

In When You’re a Boy (sic) you sang about the glory of being young and male. Do you think there is a similar glory to being young and female?

The glory in that song was ironic. I do not feel that there is anything remotely glorious about being either male or female. I was merely playing on the idea of the colonisation of a gender.

Is it better to be one or the other?

That is, in my opinion, an absurd question.

Even more absurdist in a theatrical spectacle kind of way, the infamous David Mallet directed video for Boys Keep Swinging works on a number of levels too, and you can see why the ironic, heroic dismantling of tropes of masculinity and matters of gender would have inspired the late lamented bisexual Billy Mackenzie of the Associates to dash off a cheeky quick-fire cover version almost immediately.

Having nabbed Mallet and the Thames Television set from an earlier performance of the song (actually its telly debut, above) on the Kenny Everett Video Show, Bowie decided to butch it up in suitably swaggering fashion, like a cartoon Elvis on steroids; emphasising ‘boys will be boys’ bravado of the lyrics… which worked brilliantly when the piece de resistance was unveiled.

The oh-so camp qualities of the chorus are acted out in exotic fashion by the Dame in drag: cross-dressing into three distinct female actress personas masquerading as his backing singers.

First, a brassy, brunette Bet Lynch, the common-as-muck Rovers Return barmaid in the UK’s long-running English soap opera Coronation Street; a composite of American actresses Raquel Welch and Lauren Bacall (the latter a nice nod to his Veronica Lake-styled glamour puss of the Hunky Dory era) in a figure-and-everything-else-hugging Thierry Mugler dress that anticipated Joan Collins’ Dynasty character, Alexis)… and, as for the third turn, a rather severe old biddy.

So who better than Camille Paglia to discuss that final character. It’s Marlene on the wall:

“The third drag impersonation is of Marlene Dietrich herself, with whom Bowie had recently starred in Just a Gigolo (1978), directed by David Hemmings. Bizarrely, they never met: Bowie’s dialogue with Dietrich was spliced together in post-production. In Boys Keep Swinging, he got his revenge: the aged Dietrich, dressed in an understated Chanel tweed suit (very Patsy Stone in AbFab), walks haltingly with a cane down the fashion catwalk, from which old women are normally banned. Pausing at the edge, she feebly yet contemptuously blows a kiss at the viewer with her cigarette, the fading superstar still hungry for dominance.”

During the first two turns, a particularly enduring gestural act is performed, one David nicked from a Dutch transexual performer he’d dated in Berlin called Romy Haag. In the midst of his drag of Hollywood starlets and Weatherfield harlots, Bowie, with startling flair, aggressively pulls his wig off and throws it off stage. Then with the back of his hand, defiantly smears his lipstick across his face. Reappearing moments later as another drag persona, he repeats those gestures, as if to reinforce the gender subversion. Rock ’n’ roll with lipstick indeed.

Bowie was, of course, no stranger to androgyny and playing with notions of sexual identity. Indeed, his early notoriety was built upon not just his music, but also the inclusivity that often anti-hero subject matter and imagery gave to society’s outsiders. Five years earlier, Ziggy Stardust and, in particular, the celebrated performance of Starman on Top of the Pops, essentially brought gender fluidity to prime-time pop culture for the first time. With BKS the auteur laced it with a harsher irony than before, and sort of invented the New Romantics in the process.

Incidentally, much has been made over the years of how an airing of Boys Keep Swinging’s cross-dressing antics on the BBC’s weekly music programme was received so badly that it sent the single plummeting down the charts the following week.

That story is kind of true, but also kind of not.

A quick rummage through Aunty Beeb’s drawers reveal that, following a diet of swingorilliant hits that included Roxy Music’s Dance Away, Amii Stewart’s discofied Knock On Wood (an old soul song from the Sixties Bowie had taken into the Top Ten himself five years earlier) and the “No.1 sound” of Art Garfunkel’s Bright Eyes, the BKS clip closed out the episode of TOTP broadcast on Thursday 10 May 1979.

Bowie’s single was the highest climber on the chart that week, flying from its entry point of 31 to land at 15. Following Top of the Pops, Boys Keep Swinging did indeed suffer an inglorious reversal of fortune, suddenly slipping down unceremoniously to 19th position.

However, the following week the single performed a miraculous U-turn to regain ten places, rising to No.9. 

Perhaps the British viewing public had got used to the sight of Bowie as Bet Lynch, because this time the screening resulted in BKS managing to ‘swing it back’ another couple of rungs to nestle in at what would be its No.7 peak on the chart dated 2 June 1979. 

Have a word.

“Hey, Bet, have you ‘eard there’s some cheeky young pop singer taking the mickey out of you on telly?”

Finally, there was also a typically cryptic reference attached to Boys Keep Swinging, at least in vinyl form: a book that Bowie was reading at the time entitled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Authored by the psychologist Julian Jaynes in 1976, the work examined how cognitive functions were divided between two separate hemispheres of the brain in prehistoric times.

“Have you ever read a book called The Origins Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind? It sounds an awful title but it’s really a very easy book to read. In fact it’s an extraordinary book written by a guy called Julian Jaynes, which suggests that at one point the mind was definitely of a schizoid – no, a dual nature and that the right hand passed messages through to the left side of the brain, and vice versa. It’s highly interesting.

“I related to that tremendously because I’ve often had that feeling very strongly with myself that … well, it’s like what Dylan said about the tunes are just in the air. I still believe in that kind of naive approach to writing. I leave the cerebral stuff to the Enos and Fripps of this world. Because I’m far more tactile in my approach to what I do. I think it’s probably why we work together so well.”

David Bowie, New Musical Express, 13 September 1980

Etched into Boys Keep Swinging’s run-off groove was “Your bicameral mind” is on the A-side, and “Mind your bicameral” on the flip. Incidentally, last month BKS was re-pressed as a 7” single, one of those slightly tacky 40th anniversary picture disc inessentials. Not this one, this is actually a Spanish promo that RCA issued in ’79.

With sales of recorded music in freefall, record labels are in some kind of wild mutation, becoming de facto memorabilia and ‘luxury’ goods companies in order to survive. Hence Parlophone’s outrageously overpriced Bowie albums like the recent rip off ‘Mercury’ Demos, or the cunning insanity of putting rare mixes and scarcities on picture discs that sound awful but are intended purely for decoration. 

Do you remember when record releases used to be about the music? Before the elephant entered the room, obviously.

This is the bluff blurb from the always anodyne

“The AA side features I Pray, Ole (sic) which was apparently recorded during the Lodger sessions, but remained unreleased until mixed by David and David Richards for inclusion as an extra track on the 1991 reissue of the Lodger album. The track has been commercially unavailable since then.”

Notice that all-important word ‘apparently’. Even Bowie’s own website don’t know anything about it.

The provenance of I Pray, Olé is indeed a dubious one. This is a track that has intrigued me and baffled me for almost thirty years, ever since Bowie presented it to Rykodisc for inclusion on their Lodger re-release, fully mixed on a DAT along with the other bonus tracks for the trilogy.

Since its debut in the summer of ’91, there has been endless debate about how authentic I Pray, Olé is. By his own admission, one thing Bowie never never aspired to be was authentic. Take this quote from the press room of the infamous 1996 Brit Awards, for instance…

“I’m not sure that we should pay homage to the past. I prefer to keep reinventing it.”

There’s a through line that permeates his career, which is that it was always about fabricating the past. A compulsive liar and eternal maker of myth and mischief, he revelled in his role as the ‘faker’ he introduced on Changes, presenting old as new… and in the case of certain bonus tracks, new as old. The lyrics to the pertinent Dollar Days, on his 2016 swansong, Blackstar, tell you everything you need to know.

“I’m dying to push their backs against the grain/And fool them all again and again/I’m trying to.”

Rykodisc’s repackaging of his back catalogue in the early Nineties gave Bowie the perfect opportunity to present some old things in brand new drag. For instance, in the same batch of reissues, the track Some Are, which was appended to Low, featured a vocal that Bowie recorded not 1976 but in 1991. More outfake than outtake then.

For the record, while many aficionados — and even producer Tony Visconti himself, desperately scratching around for an answer — want to believe its a sample of his massively over-mythologised soundtrack for The Man Who Fell To Earth, that project’s main collaborator Paul Buckmaster informed me in no uncertain terms that “we were both out of our minds on coke and nothing productive was recorded. Certainly nothing releasable.”

With regards to I Pray, Olé, Dean Balaam, editor of the fan magazine Zi Duang Provence, was straight off the starting blocks, writing at the time he thought it had the hallmarks of a contemporaneous track Bowie had cooked up with his then guitarist Reeves Gabrels, probably dashed off in Montreux as they were revving up for a second dose of the Tin Machine.

I’ve discussed it with Gabrels, I’ve discussed it with Belew, I’ve discussed it with Visconti. I’ve even discussed it with Bowie’s go to sessioneer in Switzerland for much of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Erdal Kizilcay.

In 1995, Erdal was living in Paris. He didn’t know it at the time but the Turkish multi-instrumentalist had just completed his final recording sessions with Bowie, for what became the Outside album. Having become occasional phone buddies with him, I used the opportunity to play the song down the blower across the Channel.

“It’s not me. I don’t know this song.”

Next, for a recent revision of his Complete David Bowie book, Nicholas Pegg contacted Tony Visconti and sent him an MP3 of IPO. Visconti’s response was that he had never heard the thing before. Alas, although I gladly described Nick’s heavyweight tome as an “Encyclopedia Bowiettica” when I reviewed the first pressing in 2000 for MOJO magazine, I have to point out that Tony’s story is not actually true at all.

I conducted a lengthy and wide-ranging interview with Tony Visconti in Chiswick in October of 1996. You could say I got him at an opportune time, as the “buddies” (TV’s words) hadn’t spoken for over 13 years, ever since Visconti, by his own admission an “expensive” record producer of some repute, quite rightly refused to drop everything to be a mere sound mixer on Bowie’s Serious Moonlight tour of 1983, after its early shows had been criticised for its muddy sound.

TV and DB: Daily Mirror Rock & Pop Awards, London 1980

We touched on a huge number of topics over the course of three hours plus: I’d only taken two trusty C90 cassettes (remember those?) but when the tapes ran out, Tony, fuelled by a particularly decent bottle of red, was even more than happy to talk, and was even more fantastically candid when the interview went off the record.

He didn’t know it at the time, but it would turn out that 1996 would in fact be the last year of the Bowie-Visconti cold war, so Tony was able to speak unencumbered by protocol and officialdom.  Just in the nick of time then.

Subjects included (are you sitting comfortably?) Marc Bolan, Hermione, Eno, Bowie’s tax dodges, Bruce Springsteen, It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City, Roy Bittan, Ron Wood, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, early working titles, outtakes, Tony Defries, Angie Bowie, Haddon Hall, group sex, Cyclops, Ava Cherry, the Astronettes, Mike Garson, the Spiders from Mars, Weird and Gilly, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, James Brown, cocaine, cognac, Coco Schwab, heart attacks, Mary Hopkin, Antonia Maass, Nicholas Roeg, Los Angeles, Toni Basil, Bing Crosby, Nile Rodgers, Glass Spider, John Lennon, May Pang, Crystal Japan, Isolar, Iggy, Iman, all the albums they worked together on (naturally), and of course, those Ryko bonus tracks that have been the subject of so much conjecture and counter theories.

TV and DB: Trident Studios, London, 1970

For the latter, I made sure to take a few slabs of silver disc along with me to leafy W4, where on a cold autumn evening in London, Visconti was recording a Scandinavian band at Eden Studios. He was in particularly chipper form, as, just the day before, he’d been asked to produce the debut album by former Stone Roses guitarist John Squire’s new band, the Seahorses. As the magazine (Crankin Out) for which the interview was conducted folded, the majority of the interview hasnt been published, save for a couple of quotes in the BowieStyle book I authored with Mark Paytress. Heres a taster.

“When I first saw the Sound + Vision package come out, I noticed a lot of… I was credited with some tracks I never produced, and then I wasn’t credited with some tracks I did produce. And I remember when the Rykodisc compilation was being made, when it was conceived about a year or two earlier, I was asked to contribute to it. But for some reason or another it didn’t seem important to me, and I could’ve put a lot of those questions right, right then and there.”

“So, I know Bowie has a very, like all of us, tenuous memory. I think some things he’ll probably remember if it was worth remembering, but some things just weren’t important to him at the time, to remember who sang what backing vocal or exactly what studio we did what in. I mean, I don’t remember details like that, but if I do I’ll certainly volunteer the information.”

We went through It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City, Some Are, All Saints, Abdulmajid, so and and so forth.

Then I asked him specifically about that bonus track.

“I Pray, Olé? Do I remember that? No, let’s have a listen then.”

“That’s what it is, it’s Repetition. It’s another version of Repetition. I guarantee that kick drum will line up with thew other kick drum perfectly.

Just different lyrics?

“Yeah, different key too. It’s a different part of the song, too. It doesn’t start where our version starts. I don’t know who did that, I didn’t do it. But I know he does… with his own tapes he’ll hear, like, for instance, Red Money is Sister Midnight, by Iggy (Pop). It’s the same exact track. So it’s no secret that he scavenges his own material. At least he steals from himself. I would say that’s Repetition in another form.”

So Visconti thinks (or thought at one point) that somewhere beneath it all is the backing track to Repetition. Well, they do indeed boast a very similar beat and tempo, albeit being sonically completely different. The drum sound doesn‘t match up at all, but I guess it could still be Dennis Davis playing, filtered through some very Eighties post-production.

When quizzed by Pegg about I Pray, Olé a decade and a half later, Visconti’s revised guess was that Pray, Olé was something Bowie cooked up in Switzerland in the early ‘80s and kept monkeying with throughout the decade.

Recently, fellow hack Chris O’Leary also pointed out the similarities between IPO and Pretty Pink Rose, the Adrian Belew duet from 1990. Indeed, if you married PPO’s more erudite lyrics with the wayward dissonance of IPO you have the makings of a great Bowie track neither of them could quite manage on their own.

Flash forward to 20 April 2012 and I was online, in general chit chat mode with Reeves Gabrels. In relation to IPO, two days earlier he’d told me in three short words:

“I’m not on it ;)”

Naturally, with wink in tow, I wasn’t entirely convinced. I shot back with “Surely after 20 years you can’t be still bound by the famous Bowie gagging order? If there was ever one in the first place?”

“I never signed a gag order. I’m not on it. I’m on the remake of Lodger. That is all.”

For Lodger obviously read Look Back In Anger, as the only other extra track on the same Ryko reissue was a 1988 remake of LBIA, the first recorded work featuring Bowie and Gabrels.

On 23 December 2013, I received a further communique from Reeves.

“I’m not on it. I believe the track was leftover from the original Lodger sessions in the ‘70s. Andy Clark, Simon House, Adrian (Belew), Carlos Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis.”

I shot back with “Except Visconti told me he’d never heard any of those outtakes before I played them to him. The drums sound nowt like Dennis Davis either. The mystery goes on.”

Reeves was pretty withering in his response. Seems there’s no love lost between him and the producer that effectively replaced him as Bowie’s right-hand man.

“That is odd… given that the drum sound and treatment is the Harmonizer effect that he claims Eno stole from him. But, ask Visconti the same question on two different days and you will get two different answers. And I disagree… I think it sounds like Dennis, Adrian and definitely Simon House. Might have been recorded around Stage tour.”

Now Gabrels has pointed it out, it‘s obvious that the squally, synth-sounding lead part that runs throughout the track is indeed Simon House on processed violin. So perhaps we do have something that started life in the Lodger period, however rudimentary until 1991.

For what it’s worth, Tim Palmer (Tin Machine* producer) is on record as having never heard it either. Back in 1994, I would occasionally call David Richards at Mountain Studios, which he’d just bought from the surviving members of Queen, but our conversations were mainly based around stuff like Under Pressure, on which Richards played the piano part. I decided not to raise the subject of faked bonus tracks as I was certain he’d repeat the official line, particularly as at the time he was involved in Bowie’s yet to be released album, Outside.

With both Davids now gone (Richards died in 2013, Bowie just over two years later), and Eno not one for remembering, considering how centre stage the blistering guitar is on I Pray, Olé is, there was really only one person left to ask. And I freely admit, it’s taken me a while to get round to it.

Just three days ago, Adrian Belew messaged me from Woodstock with this bombshell:

“No memory of I Pray, Olé.”

After sending him a memory jogger in the shape of a YouTube link, I did wonder aloud whether the track could have been constructed based on a discarded guitar part of his, which would be be a very Bowie thing to do.

Instagram will load in the frontend.

“I just played the link. It’s not me. 100% sure it’s not me. Sorry.”

So there you have it from several horse’s mouths. It ain’t me, babe.

Just who is on I Pray, Olé? None of the usual late Eightes suspects will admit to having anything to do with the song, and yet the guitar lines have a very ‘80s-rock, definitely non-vintage sound to it. Could it be Bowie himself?

I have the feeling this one could run and run, run, run…

Steve Pafford, Montreux

*The word on the main street is that a Tin Machine box set comprising all the short-lived quartet’s complete works is a “work in progress”, though according to drummer Hunt Sales, he’s not been involved due to a disagreement over the financial deal on offer from Bowie’s estate: “I’m working on [a power of veto]. They’re fucking crooks.”

Make of that what you will. 

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