Blog 25: Young Visions and Sound Americans

So, this blog entry is mainly centred around two songs, Sound and Vision and Young Americans, that we haven’t previously mentioned in blogs because they are both new to our set this year. Apart from them being new to us, there isn’t that much of an obvious link between them. However, they do provide a very interesting contrast, when looking at songs from the particular perspective of the lead singer’s relationship with them. So, from having these two songs to write about, the idea behind this blog entry has expanded from there…it got me thinking about how I feel when interpreting certain songs, and how songs change when taken out of the realm of you being a passive listener and into the realms of you actually singing and performing them.

Let’s start with Sound and Vision. It’s one of his better-known songs, the flagship song from the Low album, and we knew it would prove popular with live audiences. It doesn’t hold much technical difficulty for us to perform; it isn’t one of those songs that “needed” sax, but it did take us a while to get round to doing it, mainly because some of us in the group (mostly Mel and I) didn’t rate it as particularly interesting. At one point, it kind of became a running joke in rehearsal because the lads would break out into Sound and Vision as if to hint we should do it, and for a long time we resisted. It became a bit of a no brainer though. As the lads had kind of played it loads in rehearsal, it wouldn’t take us long get it up to speed.

One of my main worries was knowing what to do with myself for the long instrumental parts and the lack of feeling about the lyrics. I have a multitude of Bowie songs that mean a lot to me but this one wasn’t one of them. However, when we started properly rehearsing it, I grew to love singing it very quickly, a bit like I did with Modern Love. There aren’t many words so it isn’t challenging in that way to learn, and what lines there are have some of the best and most singable melodies in any of Bowie’s music. All in all, I think the band play it very well and it really works as a set starter, either for the first set or, as we have tended to use it recently, as a second set starter. It is one of those songs that has a killer base line and also very different drums rhythms, so I fully understand why it is super fun for Allan and Phil to play in particular and when they enjoy themselves playing it, it really shows.

Young Americans provides a contrast to this in that, as a passive listener, it is one of my favourite Bowie songs of all time. The Young Americans album is one that definitely divides opinions for Bowie fans. I often see many discussions on it in the fabulous Bowie fan Facebook groups that bring fans together online. I am very much team Young Americans. I like Bowie’s departure into soul (what he described as “plastic soul”), and I like what it represented for him as his big American breakthrough. It was a brave thing to do and is an album brimming with legendary input from Lennon, Luther Vandross, and the like. The title track paints such a vivid picture, full of references to particular American issues of the time, and a cynical edge that makes it an interpreter’s dream. It would have been on my first choice list for initial songs to do when we started the group, but, in another contrast, it is also firmly in the group of songs that absolutely NEED sax. So, we could only really do it once we had Alex.

In another contrast, since we started rehearsing it, it quickly became apparent that it is an absolute bitch of a song to learn! Not so much for the music, especially with Alex’s skill, but even on a musical front, it takes a lot to get the flow and pace of the song right, with its obvious departure from the classic rock and roll we are used to performing as a band.

It is lyrically and vocally, however, that most of the challenge comes. The sheer amount of words makes it difficult, the pace at which they are delivered is also a factor, and the vocal style, which is not technically Bowie’s best work, but absolutely fits the song, is definitely not the easiest thing for me! As such, we had rehearsed it a lot before I felt ready to perform it live. I have pulled many a face in rehearsals, especially when the syllables get all muddled up, and I have had to really drill down on certain parts to try and get the delivery right. I think I knew it was ready, when I would wake up in the middle of the night (usually due to one cat or the other waking me with paw and claw of doom to face shenanigans) and the whole song would then run through my head on continuous loop at least three times before I could get back to sleep. A song I loved became bloody annoying 🤣🙈

We first did it live in our 50th gig at the Latch Lifter and it went really well. Hopefully now I can learn to love it again as it will get better and better as we continue to play it live.

This journey through the learning of these two songs got me thinking a lot about just how different it is performing a song to listening to it. I feel so fortunate to be able to go through this journey, of rediscovery almost, every time we start learning a new song. It got me thinking also about how other lead vocalists feel about this same journey, how their relationship with certain songs evolve. So, I thought, why not ask them?

I have been incredibly lucky and honoured to be able to exchange with other Bowie lead vocalists that have all invariably been doing it a lot longer than me and who are all insanely talented. I saw some of these Bowie bands before I even contemplated being in one myself, and some I have seen since. Two bands particularly stick out for me: Ed Blaney and his Ultimate Bowie and Charlie Fowler and David Live (who were the first Bowie tribute I ever saw) I have also enjoyed seeing Jason Richford and The Bowie Contingent on a few occasions. What strikes me about these Bowie tributes is how different they are but also how invariably passionate they are about what they do. They have all been very kind to me too and I feel like a giddy little fan girl whenever I get the chance to talk to them. On the subject in hand, Ed and Charlie have been very kind to take the time to answer some questions about the subject.

I started talking first about my struggles with Young Americans, Charlie said that he made sure he completely learned it word for word, using mnemonics to get into the start of each verse (very clever!).

I had a brief conversation with Jason about it who made an interesting point “I think despite it having a lot of words it is less repetitive lyrically so I find it less troublesome than those many would expect to be easier. Same with Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing too”. I can relate to this, as once you learn the words, the story becomes imbued. I have much more of a hard time remembering the slight variations on Absolute Beginners, for example.

Ed agreed that the challenge in this song comes from sheer amount of lyrics and the speed in which they are delivered. He made the other interesting point that Bowie very quick leaps into falsetto (“well, well, well, would you carry a razor” springs to mind) which also makes it a challenge to sing. As a woman this should be easier for me but I agree that it is the sudden leaps in and out that make it pretty hard!

I asked them what their favourite song was to sing and why?

Ed says “Sweet Thing is my current favourite. It starts with deep baritone and sweeps to tenor and the finishes in falsetto top D. Incredible. Not only a song to sing but also to act out.” You can see why he loves this one, with his voice and the band sounding incredible on this live version of it: https://youtu.be/V4VLAjZSRyQ

Charlie replied “I would say I like singing “Strangers When We Meet” or “I Would Be Your Slave”: I feel emotionally involved with the vocal and I particularly like Bowie’s voice in the latter part of his career (easier for my deep voice!)”. He also added “Strangely enough songs like Life on Mars? (in Bowie’s lower key) sound rather impressive when we do it with huge vibrato holds etc. And for me it’s an effortless one – almost feels like cheating! The top note is in my happy place!”

I then asked them, if like me, they have songs that they love but find difficult to do or vice versa, songs that they didn’t particularly like but find suits them to perform?

Charlie answered that he absolutely adores Width Of A Circle, mostly because of Ronson’s guitar, but “it’s a devil to sing. However, it didn’t surprise me much! Essentially Bowie is singing around high E for ages and ages which I could do without! As with most Bowie songs, I’ve tried singing them long before I had a tribute act!”. This last point took me back to singing Ziggy Stardust and Lady Stardust into my hairbrush as a teenager!

On the other side of that question, Charlie says “Without You from Let’s Dance sits perfectly on my bridge and we only threw it in the set as someone requested it. I expected it not to be easy/sound right but the vocal wavers between falsetto and mix voice and seems to sit just right in my range.” There’s no video of this I can find (Charlie can correct me if I am wrong 😊) but I do love this one for just showing his beautiful voice tone on a song we all know: https://youtu.be/NFkjU9rIIeU

For this question, Ed said that Lady Grinning Soul has always been one of his favourite songs: “I’ve always loved the beauty and mystique of the song. The use of vibrato is glorious and jumping to falsetto wonderful.” But that it is (unsurprisingly) a bit of a challenge to sing. I have personally seen Ed do this live and thoroughly enjoyed it. So glad he tackled it, which famously Bowie didn’t do! If Charlie feels he is cheating on Life On Mars?, I certainly feel this way on Lady Grinning Soul with an albeit deep woman’s voice 😊

Lastly, I asked them which song is the most challenging, either to learn originally or to perform repeatedly.

Ed replied that aside from (the now infamous) Young Americans as one of the hardest to learn lyrics for, “My Death is also a bit of a handful with lots of lyrics, playing the guitar, also doing the impersonation in the meantime. But we love doin’ it don’t we!”. We definitely do Ed!

Charlie added that TVC15 is ludicrously difficult (he’s a braver person than me!) with the repetition of melody through a sizeable amount of lyrics, where you have to pace yourself and manage breathing to get through the verses. “It’s never been a favourite of mine but the boys in the band adore it! I dread it!”. As one we have never yet attempted but have been asked for on more than one occasion, I may soon know exactly what he means!

Thank you again guys for providing such interesting perspectives! We’ll be back next month with another blog entry!

If you want to see me make my way through Young Americans next gigs at time of release:

Leicester 8th of October. The Shed: https://facebook.com/events/s/miss-bowie-the-shed-08102021/306704857609083/

Nottingham 23rd of October. The Lion at Basford: https://fb.me/e/2CYKuxCKY

Leeds 13th of November. The Fox and Newt (with Where’s Brian?): https://fb.me/e/4dkhtBK3j

Derby 27th of November. The Hairy Dog (with Ruse Springsteen): https://fb.me/e/1LmVAvKLP