Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Two). “I Always Flirt With Death, I Look Ill But I Don’t Care About It”.

As I talked about yesterday, in songs such as David Bowie’s Space Oddity (David Bowie, 1969), whether space is a metaphor for the effects of heroin, or others drugs, is something that is often debated.  However, on other songs such as The Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet, their best known single and the second track on their debut album, The Only Ones (1978), the references, whilst still being the subject of debate, are much more blatant.  Though the song is often considered something of a rock standard and various publications have named the song the greatest rock single ever recorded, Another Girl, Another Planet was not a hit when first released.  In fact, the song’s highest chart position was number 44 on the New Zealand chart in July 1981.  The song was re-released in the UK in January 1992, backed with Pretty in Pink by The Psychedelic Furs to promote the compilation album, Sound of the Suburbs.  On this release, the song reached number 57 on the UK singles chart, its highest position to date.  Another Girl, Another Planet was placed at number 18 in John Peel’s all time Festive Fifty millennium edition and when playing it as part of 1980’s Festive Fifty, in which it reached number 28, he introduced it as an “artful little caprice”.

Although this song, with its soaring guitars, perfect three minute pop format and front-man Peter Perrett’s elliptical lyrics could simply be read as a song about the excitement and perils of space travel and having a girl on every planet the narrator passes, something which gives the song some of its huge appeal, dig deeper into the song and the heroin references are plain for all to see.

Another Girl, Another Planet starts with the killer opening lines, “I always flirt with death, I look ill but I don’t care about it”.  To “flirt with death” is an expression normally used when talking about doing something dangerous and life-threatening for personal enjoyment.   Here, to “flirt with death” is about the dangers associated with injecting heroin. “I look ill, but I don’t don’t care about it” straightforwardly refers to the sick look which heroin users are prone to inheriting due to regular usage.  This look has in recent years, thanks to the fashion world, become known as ‘heroin chic’ and is characterised by pale skin, dark circles and angular bone structure due to weight loss.  Interestingly, in Blink 182’s cover version of Another Girl, Another Planet (Greatest Hits, 2005), they change the line to “I could kill, but I don’t care about it”, which could refer to the fact that in the process of ‘cooking’ a batch of black tar, bacterial spores can enter the drug solution.   Once the drug is injected, these spores can damage and even kill the body’s muscle, skin and organ tissues.  Alternatively, or perhaps simultaneously, perhaps the singer is telling of how he would kill to receive the drug and its hit.

In the following lines, “I can face your threats, Stand up tall and scream and shout about it”, the facing of “threats” may refer to side effects and risks associated with taking the drug.  The second of these lines, “Stand up tall and scream and shout about it”, finds the singer defiant, telling of how he does not care who knows about his heroin use because of the euphoria he receives from the drug.

The chorus of the song, “I think I’m on another world with you, I’m on another planet with you” finds the singer metaphorically on another planet following the hit of the drug.  Heroin often leads people to hallucinate, so perhaps in this context, Perrett is speaking of how heroin takes him to places that he cannot reach when not under the influence and perhaps hallucinating about women.  It is said that this is a common hallucination when taking heroin.   Alternatively, the “girl” of which Perrett speaks could be a personification of the needle used to inject the drug, with the use of the word “another” being telling of Perrett’s repeated drug use.  Perrett was often compared to Lou Reed, so much so that when listening to an Only Ones recording, the NME’s Nick Kent once believed he was listening to a new Lou Reed recording.  If we were to see the “girl” as a personification of the needle, then we could compare this line to the line, “It’s my wife and it’s my life” in the Velvet Underground’s Heroin (The Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967).

As the song’s second verse opens, we find the line, “You always get under my skin, I don’t find it irritating”, possibly the clearest heroin reference in the whole song.  Usually, if somebody gets under your skin, they are annoying you.  However, here, Perrett states “I don’t find it irritating”, meaning that he enjoys literally having the needle beneath his skin because he knows that what will follow will be a pleasurable experience.  The following line, “You always play to win” refers to heroin playing to win, i.e. claiming lives and being a very difficult addiction to beat.  The following line, “I don’t need rehabilitating” implies that he does not wish to try to kick the habit and would rather “flirt with death” and allow the drug to win.

The song’s final verse starts with the lines, “Space travel’s in my blood, And there ain’t nothing I can do about it”, Perrett’s declaration that he can’t get clean from heroin and that he doesn’t want to try to.  In the following lines, “Long journeys wear me out, Oh God we won’t live without it”, the ‘long journey’ refers to being under the influence of heroin for an extended period of time.  After coming down from his high, he is worn out.  Note the pluralisation of ‘journey’, which is telling of the repetition of injecting the drug.  The line, “Oh God we won’t live without it” is further evidence of the singer’s defiant stance against stopping taking the drug.  In the song’s coda, the line “Another planet, forever holding you down” is, once again, testament to the grip that the drug has on him.  Additionally, heroin is a downer or depressant:  hence, the repetition of injecting the drug is forever holding the singer down.

When asked whether drugs were an aspiration for him in an interview with Classic Rock magazine in July 2014, Perret replied:

“No, it was just an accident.  I never, ever wanted to devote my life to drugs.  I’d starting smoking joints and they relaxed me.  Because I wanted the best hash, I started meeting people that had the best hash.  Gradually, over a couple of years, I met people, started doing it as a business.  I signed on at college and I used to go in at the beginning of each term, get my grant money and start up dealing, then I eventually met people, started importing it.  Then we went over to importing cocaine – it’s a fraction of the size, much easier to smuggle in, and you’re facing the same risks.  All of a sudden, I’m doing the cocaine that used to knock my head off.  That was about 1975, and after that I tried smack.  That was a big mistake because all of a sudden, that was the best feeling I’d ever felt in my life.  That’s why it’s so dangerous.  It’s silly telling people not to take it.  You’ve got to let them know that the reason it’s so dangerous is because it’s the best feeling you’ve had in your life, and it’s so hard not to want it all the time, and if you have it all the time, eventually it stops working and you need it just to be able to function”.

Song of the Day: Visual Artists in Music. Day One: “It’s Warhol, actually.”

Andy Warhol, David Bowie’s musical tribute to one of his biggest inspirations, from the album Hunky Dory (1971) is just one of the many Bowie songs influenced by the American counterculture of the 1960’s.  Bowie’s interest in Warhol was in no small part due to his love of The Velvet Underground, the band whom Andy Warhol managed and was, aesthetically, something of a svengali figure to.

Bowie was an avid Velvet Underground fan and the experimental art rock ethic of the music with its Lou Reed penned lyrical tales of New York’s dark underbelly was a key factor in influencing Bowie to ditch the whimsical pop style of his early years.  Bowie has performed the Velvet underground songs I’m Waiting For The Man (from their album Velvet Underground and Nico, 1967) and White Light / White Heat, (from the album White Light / White Heat, 1968),  at different points in his career, most notably in the early 70’s.

Bowie also produced and played on Lou Reed’s Transformer album in 1972. Transformer included Lou Reed’s own song for Andy Warhol, Andy’s Chest, a Dada inspired piece written for Andy following the artist’s attempted murder by Valerie Solanas in 1968.

Lou Reed would later go on to release a full length tribute album to Andy Warhol, Songs For Drella (1990), with Velvet Underground collaborator John Cale, following Warhol’s unexpected death in 1987.

As well as Bowie’s tribute to Andy Warhol, Hunky Dory also featured Queen Bitch, a self-proclaiming Velvet Underground pastiche (see the sleeve notes of Hunky Dory:  “Some V.U white light”) in tribute to the band and in particular, Lou Reed.   The sound of The Velvet Underground would provide a major template for the glam rock sound adopted by Bowie on Hunky Dory’s seminal follow up album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972).

Whilst The Velvet Underground were important to Bowie’s sound, Bowie’s image was greatly influenced by Andy Warhol.  Andy Warhol understood the media like no other and showed Bowie how to use it before it used you.  This was done by consciously adopting an image.  The success of Andy Warhol also made it more important to have an image.  Bowie was at the zenith of his success when he displayed complete invulnerability, much like Warhol’s, which hinged on the sense that he wasn’t quite human.  There was no fixed personality, more an ever changing array of personalities, a myriad of masks created by the singer.

Bowie played his tribute song to Andy Warhol when he met him in 1971.  Warhol reportedly didn’t like the song as he thought the lyrics made fun of his physical appearance.  Speaking about his meeting with Andy Warhol, in a BBC interview in 2002, Bowie said:

“The only touch point that we had was a pair of shoes that I was wearing from Anello and Davide, they were real strange little jobs.  I think they were yellow.  As far as I remember they were yellow with a half, no, a two inch heel on them and he really liked them.  And of course it occurred to me that the reason that he was getting quite fascinated with these was that he used to be a shoe designer, or at least he used to do a lot of pictures of shoes anyway because I remember seeing them.  So I thought, oh he liked them then, let’s talk about my shoes.  It became quite a disillusionment in its way.  But on the other hand, it supported everything that I wanted to believe about him, that I was with Andy Warhol for an hour and he said nothing, except he liked my shoes.  Wow, that’s a real anecdote.  Because I’d bought the whole pop art thing that he wasn’t a real person, he was just a creation.  15 years after that, I would be looking at myself and thinking, ‘Don’t people realise that I’m a real person’”.

In 1996, Bowie would have the honour of playing Andy Warhol in the film BasquiatBaquiat is a film based on the life of another influential artist on Bowie’s work, Brooklyn born postmodernist / neo expressionist, Jean-Michel Basquiat.  Speaking of Bowie’s portrayal of Warhol in Basquiat after the film’s release, Paul Morrissey, the director of many of the films which Warhol produced told People Magazine:

“Bowie was the best by far.  You came away from Basquiat thinking Andy was comical and amusing, not a pretentious, phony piece of shit, which is how others show him … At least Bowie knew Andy.  They went to the same parties”.