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"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Record Collector JANUARY 2017 - by George Cole
A LONG TIME LOST IN SPACE
David Bowie's unused The Man Who Fell To Earth soundtrack has gathered dust for forty years - even the 2016 release didn't feature his music. George Cole unravels the mysteries of a missing masterpiece.
Los Angeles, late 1975. David Bowie is in a studio working on music for the soundtrack of a film in which he plays the main role. The movie is director Nic Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth and Bowie is on a tight deadline to get the music ready for the film's planned release in March 1976. After several months of feverish activity, the soundtrack is finished and sent to the film's producers. Some of those who hear the music describe it as "beautiful", "haunting" and "remarkable", but the work is rejected and (apart from one piece) remains unreleased. Why was it shunned, and how was the soundtrack produced?
The story begins in 1974. Nic Roeg - whose previous films included Walkabout, Don't Look Now and the jointly-directed Performance (starring Mick jagger) - had been gripped by a script by British writer Paul Mayersberg. Mayersberg had adapted the 1963 Walter Tevis novel, The Man Who Fell To Earth, a story about an alien, Thomas Jerome Newton, who travels to Earth in search of water for his dying planet. Newton's civilisation is advanced, and he patents a series of game-changing inventions - like a self-developing film camera and an audio system which stores music on tiny spherical objects. (Sound familiar?) Newton creates a giant corporation and amasses a fortune, but loses it all, ending up trapped on Earth, a broken man. The Man Who Fell To Earth isn't a science fiction film as such, but rather a tale of how money, sex, power and alcohol can corrupt and corrode the spirit.
Roeg showed the script to Hollywood producer Si Litvinoff, who liked it and agreed to become the film's executive producer. Two other producers, Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings, came on board, and soon, Roeg began making preparations. Several actors were hired for the film, including Candy Clark, Rip Torn and Buck Henry, but Roeg was struggling to find someone for the lead. Roeg didn't want an actor who simply saw the role as just another job. He sought someone with an unusual physical characteristic that would mark him as an outsider. Peter O'Toole (who Roeg thought had an interesting face) and Michael Crichton (who was six feet nine inches) were considered, but rejected. Roeg would find the actor he wanted from an unusual source.
In the summer of 1974, a young BBC lm director called Alan Yentob was filming a documentary about a rock star in Los Angeles. The artist was David Bowie, who was on his Diamond Dogs tour. The documentary, Cracked Actor, turned out to be a fascinating portrait of a man in crisis. At the time, Bowie had personal problems (his marriage was disintegrating), business issues (he was undergoing a fractious break-up with his manager) and a severe cocaine habit. His physical appearance was startling - luminous white, stick-thin, androgynous, with red hair. In one scene, Bowie is travelling in the back of a limousine, sipping milk from a carton. He looks down at it and comments about life in the US: "There's a fly floating around in my milk and he's a foreign body... and he's getting a lot of milk. That's kind of how I felt - a foreign body and I couldn't help but soak it up." Bowie not only felt like an alien - he looked like one.
Cracked Actor was broadcast by BBC TV on January 26, 1975. Folklore has it that Roeg happened to switch on the television that evening, stumble across the documentary and have his eureka moment, but the truth is more prosaic. Bowie's movie agent, Maggie Abbott, knew Litvinoff and Roeg (she had got Jagger his part in Performance) and thought that The Man Who Fell To Earth would make an ideal vehicle for Bowie. She somehow procured a video tape of Cracked Actor and sent it to Roeg and Litvinoff. In the DVD featurette, Watching The Alien, Litvinoff says, "We both saw the documentary, and we said 'My God - there's nobody else.'" In the same documentary, Candy Clark, who played the part of Newton's lover, says of Bowie: "He was cast perfectly. He just looked the part - he was the man who fell to Earth."
Abbott travelled to New York in February 1975 (Where Bowie was staying, having just completed the final sessions for his Young Americans album), showed Bowie the script and persuaded him to consider the role. Not long after, Roeg visited Bowie's home. The director was kept waiting for hours (Bowie had forgotten about the meeting), but when the two men finally met, Bowie agreed to take on the role within minutes.
Most of the shooting for The Man Who Fell To Earth took place in New Mexico during July and August 1975. As Bowie was one of rock's biggest artists, it seemed logical for him to also write the music for it - after all, numerous other '70s rock acts composed soundtracks. Details of how the decision was made and what was actually agreed are murky, but Litvinoff told Bowie biographer Kevin Cann: "I thought it would be fabulous to get the film score from him... to help promote the film." Litvinoff says the deal was that Bowie would be paid around $250,000 for the score, which, he added, was a "pittance" when you consider what Bowie could earn as a rock star.
During the filming in New Mexico, Steve Shreyer and John Liftlander, two journalists from Creem magazine, managed to get onto the set and interview Bowie. When Shreyer asked Bowie if he was doing any music for the film, Bowie answered, "Yeah, all of it. That'll be the next album, the soundtrack. I'm working on it now, doing some writing. But we won't record until all the shooting's finished. I expect the film should be released around March, and we want the album out ahead of that, so I should say maybe, January or February."
With the shooting wrapped up in August, Bowie headed for Los Angeles, renting a house in Stone Canyon Road in Bel Air. His first objective was to record the follow-up to Young Americans, the album that would become Station To Station. Bowie assembled a band that included Carlos Alomar (guitar), George Murray (bass) and Dennis Davis (drums). In October, he asked producer Harry Maslin (who had worked with Bowie on the New York Young Americans sessions) to join him for sessions at Cherokee Studios in Hollywood. Bowie was consuming prodigious amounts of cocaine (he would later say that the only reason he knew that Station To Station was recorded in Los Angeles was "because I read it was") but the sessions were very productive; Station To Station ranks highly for Bowie aficionados.
The sessions for Station To Station lasted until November, and it was around this time that the singer began working on the soundtrack to The Man Who Fell To Earth. He asked British composer/arranger Paul Buckmaster to help him. Buckmaster had arranged Bowie's 1969 single Space Oddity and had worked with Miles Davis, Elton John and The Rolling Stones. "I was hired on David's recommendation by the production company," recalls Buckmaster. "They flew me to LA and put me up in the Sunset Marquis for around three months." Buckmaster's daily routine began with a taxi ride to Bowie's place. "It was a beautiful, large house, with a huge open-plan living room/dining area. He had set-up a [Fender] Rhodes [piano] and a couple of other keyboards. There were no drum machines, sequencers or computers, so everything had to be done in real time. We didn't have a multitrack [recorder] in his house."
The two musicians didn't attend any spotting sessions about synching film and music, nor did they have any conversations with Roeg about the music. "We had video tapes and we didn't go to any screenings. Nic Roeg Was back in England," recalls Buckmaster. Instead, the pair worked on the music together: "We had the Rhodes, an ARP Odyssey and an ARP Solina, which Was an early string synthesiser, and we basically jammed together, trying out ideas, until we were satisfied they would work against [with] the images".
However, it wasn't all Work, remembers Buckmaster: "We'd have discussions about the Arthurian Legends and David was interested in Kirlian photography [a technique developed by the Russian photographer Seymon Kirlian, which captures the electrical discharge around objects - a Kirlian photograph taken by Bowie of one of his forefingers before and after taking cocaine appears on the Earthling album] ." They were also listening to various pieces of music, including Krafwerk's Autobahn, though Buckmaster notes, "I don't know if it influenced us. There was no conscious influence, but we loved them." In an interview for the fortieth anniversary box set of The Man Who Fell To Earth, Buckmaster described the experience of composing with Bowie as, "Very enjoyable and much fun."
The The Man Who Fell To Earth soundtrack was recorded at Cherokee Studios, with Harry Maslin producing the sessions and David Hines engineering. "In 1987, I made the decision to emigrate to the US, and among the people I contacted was my old friend, producer Steve Tyrell," outlines Buckmaster. "He immediately invited me to LA to work for him as a film and TV composer. David Hines was Steve Tyrell's principal engineer, and it was a great pleasure that the collaborative friendship was re-established, twelve years after The Man Who Fell To Earth."
The musicians involved in the project Were Bowie (keyboards, guitar, percussion), Buckmaster (keyboards, cello, percussion), Alomar (guitar), Murray (bass) and Davis (drums). Also present was the British musician] Peter Robinson, who played Fender Rhodes and synthesiser. Robinson is a long-time friend of Buckmaster's (they met in London as students The Royal Academy Of Music in 1963), and his music career included playing piano in the original production of Jesus Christ Superstar, plus stints in various jazz-rock and prog-rock bands, including Quatermass, and with the Japanese percussionist keyboardist Stomu Yamashta. "I had not met Bowie before, though I had seen him in concert a few times," he says.
An array of instruments were used in the recording sessions including piano, bass, drums, guitar, Fender Rhodes, ARP Odyssey, Solina, wind chimes, cello and mbira (African thumb piano). Carlos Alomar says it is difficult to determine when the Station To Station sessions ended and the soundtrack recordings began, and at one stage, they may even have occurred in parallel. "We were used to that, because when we did Young Americans, Diamond Dogs had not been finished - there was this grey area where the two of them were actually together. We had this strange overlap with Station To Station and the movie. It was pretty seamless." Buckmaster concurs: "Station To Station was in mid-recording, but I attended none of those dates. His rhythm section played on a couple of sessions for the film."
J Peter Robinson recalls the collective nature of the project: "It was a big collaboration between Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis, George Murray, Bowie, Paul and me. It evolved out of a few scraps Paul had written down and then we made it our own - things started from the printed page and became a collaboration between musicians. I remember David liked the ring modulator on my electric piano."
Carlos Alomar adds: "We hammered out some little rocky bits, just loose material, to see if David felt anything. He kept asking for more melody-driven stuff as opposed to rhythm section stuff. There was no real direction; it was more of a patchwork situation. It felt more like an instrumental session than a rock session."
"It was great working with David and Paul," opines Robinson. "You'd say, 'Let's try this, I've got an idea,' and David or Paul would go to the piano. Some of the tracks would emerge this way. There was a lot of laughter and many philosophical discussions.
Carlos Alomar describes how the tracks were laid: "David always called on the bass, rhythm guitar and drums first, and then called a synthesiser player or a guitarist as an invited guest. Even when Slicky [guitarist Earl Slick, who played on Station To Station] came in, we had already established the rhythm band."
But there was also a darker side to some of the sessions: "We used to call it The Man Who Fell To Bits. It was the days of blurred reality," notes Robinson, referring to the high intake of narcotics during some sessions. "Associates of David would walk into the studio in their very expensive shirts, open to the chest, with big paunches and with plenty of gold around their necks, and go, 'Hey David, how you doin'?'" recalls Buckmaster. "They would put down a mirror and take out a glass bottle of Merck pharmaceutical cocaine and empty it onto the mirror - who could resist?" At the time, LA was knee-high in the drug.
"You'd go to your bank manager and he'd say, 'Excuse me, I have to go to the rest room,' and he'd come back wiping white powder off his nose," asserts Buckmaster. "Judges, cops, department heads - they were all taking it. David and I smoked a lot of joints together and consumed a lot of coke, but I don't blame what happened [to the soundtrack] on the use of drugs. I bitterly regret the drug-taking, because it doesn't make you a better person or a better musician, and it's so destructive."
The process of putting together the soundtrack involved a lot of musical exploration; developing an idea or sketch, creating some music and then seeing how well it fitted with a scene. "It must be remembered that at that time, SMPTE-driven [lm time code] computer sequencing simply did not exist, and none of what we recorded at the time was done while watching the picture," says Buckmaster. "We just recorded at Cherokee what we'd come up with - more or less - at David's place, and then ran it against the picture [on video tapes]. Both David and I liked how it fitted." However, the fact that the music was not synced to the pictures would mean it would have to be re-recorded if it was to be used in the movie.
A number of tracks were fully produced. Buckmaster describes the music as consisting of mid-tempo rock instrumental pieces; spacey cues With synth and percussion; Wheels, a ballad featuring Bowie on vocals (the cue was for the scene in the film where Newton boards a vehicle and leaves his family behind in the desert), and a slow piece, later named Subterraneans. "I did one or two sessions where it was just me and David Hines," adds Buckmaster. "I recorded several mbira tracks, using three sizes: bass, tenor, soprano, and added a cello. It was a sweet ballad." On November 4, 1975, Bowie appeared on the TV show Soul Train, singing Golden Years. A member of the audience asked if he planned on making any movie soundtracks, to which Bowie replied, "I'm doing the soundtrack for The Man Who Fell To Earth with a friend of mine, Paul Buckmaster."
In early 1976, the journalist Mike Flood Page got to hear some of the soundtrack when he interviewed Roeg. "He has before him a miniature Sony cassette machine and offers an exclusive preview of the Bowie soundtrack just in from LA," said Page. "It's a simple melodic instrumental based around organ, bass and drums, with atmosphere courtesy of studio wizardry, all put together and performed by Bowie himself. Bowie's deadline for completion of the soundtrack music is February."
The sessions ended in January I976 and the completed soundtrack was sent to the producers. But the work was rejected. There are many theories as to why the music wasn't used. Paul Buckmaster affirms: "I don't think we delivered a professional product - it was below par. It didn't fit well with the movie and it was not what Nic Roeg was looking for. I take as much responsibility as I am responsible for. I was hired to collaborate with David and bring it all together, so I think I had the greater responsibility for the failure. I still feel sad about it."
In the fortieth anniversary interview, Buckmaster elaborated on why the work was rejected - Bowie had delivered a work in progress, rather than a finished product. "It was unfinished," says Buckmaster, "there had yet to be orchestrations to be done, which I was going to do. I was going to transcribe some of the stuff and expand it for orchestral cues, but it never got to that stage. It was incomplete."
Harry Maslin told Bowie biographer Jerry Hopkins, "David was so burned out by the end of Station To Station, he had a hard time doing the movie cues... he was in bad shape. He had no concentration on the music." Maslin painted a picture of a man wrecked by a severe coke habit, unable to focus on the process of music-making (producing a mere nine music cues, when sixty were needed), and collapsing and hallucinating in the studio.
But Litvinoff thinks that a dispute between Bowie and producer Michael Deeley may have been the problem: "As I was told it, Michael tried to renegotiate with Bowie and Bowie said 'Up yours.'" Litvinoff is correct in that there was a dispute between Bowie and the producers, but the disagreement was over creative control rather than money.
Bowie did not realise that other music was also going to be used in the soundtrack (he'd told Creem journalists he was writing all the music) or that he might have to audition his work before getting approval. There certainly seems to be some confusion about what was agreed, because in the The Man Who Fell To Earth DVD commentary track, Bowie states, "I don't know why - probably because I was arrogant enough to think it so, therefore I acted upon it - that I had been asked to write the music for this film. And I spent two or three months putting bits and pieces of material together. I had no idea that nobody wanted to write the music for this film. In fact, it had been an idea that was bandied about."
Bowie explained the issue to writer Angus Mackinnon: "I really can't remember the details, but there was a great row... [with] a couple of unusual people who were putting the thing together. I was under the impression I was going to be writing the music for the film but when I'd finished five or six pieces, I was then told that if I would care to submit my music along with other people's... and I just said, 'Shit, you're not getting any of it.' I was so furious: I'd put so much work into it." Bowie's decision to walk away may also have been prompted by the fact that he was in a weak negotiating position: he'd dismissed his agent Maggie Abbott before signing any contract to write the film music.
Bowie added that the dispute had one benefit: "It did prompt me in another area - to consider my own instrumental capabilities, which I hadn't really done very seriously before. The area was one that was suddenly exciting me, one that I never really considered would. And that's when I got the first inklings of trying to work with Eno at some point."
Buckmaster's assertion that the music was not good enough isn't shared by everyone involved. J Peter Robinson avers: "I really enjoyed the music and was very depressed that it wasn't in the film. I think it worked really well." Litvinoff states: "When I heard the soundtrack, I thought it was remarkable." John Phillips, formerly of The Mamas & The Papas, was brought in to complete the soundtrack. He described Bowie's soundtrack as: "Haunting and beautiful, with chimes, Japanese bells, and what sounded like electronic winds and waves." Buckmaster admits he can be hard on himself: "I'm my own severest critic; very often putting down what in fact is excellent work."
Chris Campion, Phillips' biographer, says Roeg's brief to Phillips was clear: "We want a real American score, with banjos and folk music and rock - a mixture of Americana."
Phillips duly delivered his brief, with an eclectic soundtrack that included jazz, rock, blues and bluegrass, as well as music from other artists.
While Phillips was assembling music for the film, Graeme Clifford was editing the footage. "For the first rough cut I temp-scored the movie entirely with Pink Floyd music, mostly The Dark Side Of The Moon," he says. "It worked really well... it complemented the picture enormously and gave it this enormous time spread that felt like eternity." Clifford thinks it would have been too expensive to license Pink Floyd's music, which is why Phillips was hired to complete the job. Phillips used a variety of sources for the score, including some self-composed pieces and half-a-dozen tracks by Stomu Yamashta.
The tracks by Yamashta were not composed for the film, and most were recorded around 1972, when Robinson was in the band. This means that J Peter Robinson holds the unique position of being the only person to play on the lost Bowie soundtrack and perform on the film's final soundtrack. He says: "I am in the film. When you hear Stomu's music, you can hear me pounding away." Other artists on the soundtrack include Jim Reeves, Artie Shaw, Holst, Louis Armstrong and Roy Orbison.
Many fans of The Man Who Fell To Earth had hoped to get their hands on the film's soundtrack, but it would be forty years until it received its official release, when UMC released a 2CD set in mid-2016. The soundtrack album features a large picture of Bowie, though none of the music he composed for the film is on it. Though many cues are on the album, movie enthusiasts have pointed out some differences between the original film soundtrack and the CD release.
Some tracks (such as Jazz II and Window) are different from the film versions, while Hello Mary-Lou is an instrumental (the original vocal version - used in the movie - is on a special music CD, only available in the fortieth anniversary box set). Some cues are missing, including Phillips' reworked version of his track, Devil's On The Loose, a jazz-rock number used in the movie to introduce the character Bryce (incidentally, the fortieth anniversary music CD has an exclusive Phillips track, Bryce. However it is not the same tune).
But the story of the lost Bowie soundtrack doesn't end here. According to Bowie, "I constructed the thing which, in the death, never became the soundtrack to the movie, but became the album Low. Some of it went onto Station To Station, but another chunk went onto Low." Bowie's assertion that some of the soundtrack went onto Station To Station reinforces Alomar's view that the soundtrack and album sessions converged, but it also raises a question: what music on Station To Station is from the soundtrack recordings?
The most obvious candidate would seem to be TVC15, which brings to mind one of the film's most iconic images, where Newton sits in front of a huge bank of television screens. But it's also been suggested that TVC15 was inspired by a tale from Iggy Pop, who, during a drug-induced state, imagined his girlfriend was being eaten by a television. It's more probable that fragments of ideas or possibly motifs from Bowie's soundtrack work found their way onto Station To Station, rather than actual songs. When Angus Mackinnon suggested to Bowie that songs such as TVC15 and Word On A Wing were linked lyrically to The Man Who Fell To Earth, Bowie admitted that Word On A Wing was written as a response to the "psychological terror" he felt during the making of the movie.
On Low, there is much greater evidence of the soundtrack's influence. Low is often described as the first of Bowie's trilogy of Berlin albums recorded in collaboration with Brian Eno (though it was mostly recorded in France and then mixed at Hansa by the Wall in Berlin).
One of the musicians at the Low sessions was keyboardist Roy Young, who recalls Bowie playing the soundtrack to the studio band: "When we'd completed the A-side of the album, just before we were about to record the B-side, David took all the musicians into the booth to play the music that he wanted to put on the B-side. It was so far away from the music we had just finished recording, we all looked at each other in surprise that he wanted to pursue it. I think we all felt the same about it: it really wasn't a style that was going to work with us; hence he brought in Eno, which worked out better for that material."
The second side of Low consists of four (mainly) instrumentals, including the last track, Subterraneans, one of the slow-tempo pieces originally composed for The Man Who Fell To Earth. Subterraneans is many things: hauntingly beautiful, ambient, melancholy, with waves of synthesised sound, reverse tape effects, a slow ascending bass line, wailing saxophone, hushed guitar and eerie vocals by Bowie.
Buckmaster recollects the creation of the piece: "It's identical to what David, Peter and I recorded. I recall being there when the reel was turned over for the 'backwards' sounds and I believe I was there for each keyboard overdub, which was David, Peter and me, because I played one of the parts. I wasn't there for the vocal and tenor sax overdubs (both by David), and the volume-controlled electric guitar could be Carlos Alomar or David himself - I cannot recall."
According to some (including Wikipedia, before its entry on the song was updated), the suggestion that Subterraneans is from the lost soundtrack is false, with the assertion being that only the bass part is taken from the soundtrack. But when Bowie talked about the soundtrack music to Mackinnon, he stated that "only one piece survived and became Subterraneans on Low". And the fact that both Buckmaster and Robinson are credited on Low (called "Peter and Paul") as playing pianos and ARP synthesiser, raises further doubt about this assertion.
Despite his earlier misgivings about the soundtrack music, Buckmaster says of Subterraneans: "It's a great track, evocative and appropriate for the theme of the story, and the sax gives it a noir-ish mood. It most certainly would've worked very well in the film! I don't understand why Nic Roeg heard it and didn't think it was going to be in the film." After recording Low, Bowie sent Roeg a copy of the album, with a note that this was what he had wanted the soundtrack to be like.
Bowie was so taken by his experience on The Man Who Fell To Earth that stills from the film were used for the sleeve shots of both Low and Station To Station. It also signifies how the music from the lost soundtrack straddles both albums. Bootlegs claiming to be the lost soundtrack have occasionally emerged (they are usually titled The Visitor, after the name of an album Newton makes in the film), but they are fakes.
The death of David Bowie, and his collaboration on the musical Lazarus - based on The Man Who Fell To Earth - has rekindled interest in both the film and the lost soundtrack. Doubtless many music fans would love to finally hear this lost chapter in David Bowie's long, illustrious and unforgettable career.