Being born in 1981, my experience with anything that happened before then can only be theoretical and historical. This includes the Vietnam War, and my only experiences with it were reading The Things They Carried in college and watching the movies Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Add to that the numerous protest songs written during the 60s, like “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Fortunate Son” and “Revolution.” But perhaps the strangest song about Vietnam I’ve ever heard is David Bowie’s “Running Gun Blues.”

Distinct from the more obvious tunes in this genre, “Running Gun Blues” takes a more cynical and disturbing tack. The narrator is a deranged Vietnam soldier who’s not in it for God or country or glory, but for killing. His childlike mirth at murder that you get paid to do and his utter disrespect for life may not do as good a job at generating action as the “stop the war!” anthems, but it definitely makes you squirm in your seat. Bowie’s voice lends happy madness to what is somewhat victorious music, not dark or foreboding like its predecessor “After All.” The song fits right in with Bowie’s motif of deconstructing our society till we see the simple, the ugly, what needs to change.

In “Saviour Machine,” things take a turn for the epic. There is a quick and nervous rhythm perforated by horns, and Bowie takes on a slightly more operatic quality to his voice. The lyrics tell of a dystopian future – there’s that phrase again; Bowie’s all about the dystopia – in which citizens are completely reliant on an intelligent, self-aware supercomputer. I’m picturing thousands of people in orderly rows and dressed in the same white smock, bowing down prostrate to a monolithic metal structure 80 stories high, with blinking lights and 50s bleeps and bloops, perhaps with a mondo antennae on top in the center sending out buzzing magnetic waves that look like Zs or lightning bolts.

In the song, the “savior machine” is programmed to do whatever it takes to serve the continuation of the human race, but people have become so dependent on the machine that it starts killing people to get them to start living again; essentially, it’s creating a common enemy by becoming it.

For some reason, “Saviour Machine” calls to my mind Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A supercomputer was constructed to calculate the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything; it came up with 42. Another supercomputer had to be constructed to figure out what the question was, and that was the planet Earth. Just before it was supposed to spit out its findings, the Vogons blew it up to make room for a hyperspatial express route and… You get the idea. Don’t panic.

Then comes “She Shook Me Cold,” a very metal and bombastic song. It goes for the extremely heavy and turns out too sludgy for its own good. It’s little more than an opportunity for Bowie’s guitarist of choice, Mick Ronson, to show off his shredding skills. The Bowie/Ronson combination was right up there with the pairing of chocolate and peanut butter, Oreos and milk, hydrogen and oxygen. Ronson was Bowie’s secret weapon, a juggernaut backing up a brilliant star. He’s one of the most underrated guitarists of the 70s, as well as one of the best. Ronson stayed by Bowie’s side for 5 albums, making his exit after Pin Ups and transitioning into a brief solo career.

David Bowie was the leader of a revolution, one complete with adherents like T. Rex, Roxy Music and Lou Reed. It’s called glam rock, a reaction to the hippie free love and social activism. It used the trappings of 1930s Hollywood glamour and spacey science fiction stuff and combined them with the sexual liberation of the hippie movement. But in 1970, it was still a little ways from happening. 1970 was a very interesting year, one between settings, a pause in the cycle of rock and roll. The hippies were either becoming businessmen or Jesus People, being disillusioned by Altamont. The guard was in the process of changing. David Bowie and his ilk were right there waiting when it did. And the whole stinking world would be theirs.

Advertisements