The Rhythm Section
Bowie's Dennis Davis and George Murray | George Murray, Dennis Davis
Dennis Davis and George Murray chat to Ralph Denyer on their rhythmic station in the Bowie band.
Taking a retrospective look back over Bowie's career I find I have a great deal of respect for the man. He's frequently been way ahead of his critics and audiences; I certainly must admit to taking a long time in getting round to appreciating his early work. During the time in which he recorded his first three or so albums I just was not willing to accept anything related to theatrical rock — as far as I was concerned any moves in that direction were a cop-out. My attitude changed around 1972 when I went to a concert given by my favourite relaxed, spontaneous, natural musician. I had such a good time I went straight to the booking office after the show and bought a ticket for the following night. To my horror the singer/guitarist put on exactly the same show as the night before, the same throwaway gags, homespun philosophical monologues, songs, everything note for note and word for word.
Suddenly Bowie's blatant but honest employment of just about any device to project himself and his music took on a new validity for me. He has always skilfully crafted musical back-drops for his songs, and has worked with a variety of musicians at different times. His current band consists of players of a high calibre drawn from greatly diverse musical backgrounds. They are totally capable of providing the various settings for songs from Bowie's dozen or so albums that contain anything from soul to contemporary experimental electronic music influences.
This time around David has put a band together that is so good it's almost frightening. The whole atmosphere one senses when talking to people close to 'The Thin White Duke' indicates the possibility of a new musical peak for the man — a live album recorded during this last tour will be released soon and should prove to be a fine record judging by the excellent concerts at Earls Court recently. Also in September the band will be recording a studio album with Bowie in Switzerland. The line-up of the band is: Roger Powell (synthesisers) on leave from Utopia (see SI August '78 p19), former member of Hawkwind Simon House (violin), sometime Zappa sideman Adrian Belew (lead guitar), Sean Mayes of Fumble (keyboards), Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitar and musical director), George Murray (bass guitar) and Dennis Davis (drums and percussion).
The rhythm section, along with Alomar, are Bowie stalwarts of some three years standing, in fact since the Station To Station tour and album. All three also played on the subsequent Low and Heroes albums. In the course of the afternoon during which I spoke to Dennis and George I also interviewed Roger Powell and asked him how he found playing with the duo. As a relatively new boy in the band, he had to assimilate a mass of songs new to him. Did Dennis and George's ability to hold things together help?
'I have particularly enjoyed working with Dennis because he and I are fusion freaks, we like that style of music,' explained Roger. 'I would say that I find myself looking at him more than anyone else when I'm playing rhythm parts. He releases in me some sort of harmonic freedom that I really can't get in Utopia, which is a four-piece more or less committed to a different style of music. With Dennis and George laying down the sort of lines that they do I feel that my little frilly harmonic parts fit right in. George isn't into jazz as much as R&B which is ideal, as otherwise I think the music would tend to get a little too complex. So he lays down perfect bass lines, as far as I am concerned, right in the pocket. They work together very well. I also have to give a great deal of credit to Carlos because his great variety of rhythmic guitar sounds (using an Alembic) contribute a great deal. I would say that the three of them make up the rhythm section which is dynamite. Dennis has so much energy which finds it's way down through the drum sticks in an organised fashion. He's the kind of drummer I've always wanted to play with, someone who has jazz chops and yet a rock sensibility. I'm sure he'll admit also that David has helped him develop his style.'
George Murray attended New York University studying music and upright bass. He then went on to study with Jimmy Garretson who gave him private lessons for around two years, progressing from there, to study with another New York City bass player by the name of Ed Lord.
'He teaches bass guitar as a unique instrument, not as a poor relation of the double bass. He's the only person in New York that I know who uses that approach. The colleges seem to regard bass guitar in relation to upright bass.'
George's three, years with Bowie represent the major part of his life as a pro bassist. Previously he worked 'in and around the City', doing the occasional recording session or club and theatre work.
'I've not been on the road as much as Dennis. Just prior to joining David I did around nine months touring with George McCrae.'
George Murray is the quiet one, not prone to using two words where one will do, much of the time happily nodding in agreement with Dennis as he relates their joint experiences.
Dennis Davis' main interests in life are drums, drummers and drumming. With him in London was his delectable lady, Candy Hamilton. They are expecting a child, and if percussion skills are in any way hereditary, look out. Candy is daughter to Chico Hamilton, the brilliant and tasteful veteran jazz drummer (who can be seen weekly in an acting capacity on TV handing an assignment to Starsky and Hutch.) Dennis also finds time to give drumming lessons to David's son, Zowie.
'Cats have track records in the studio; well I have a road record. My road record is just about the same as Billy Cobham's recording track record. I've been on the road with so many people, I like it better because I can just stretch out and play. So that's why I'm rarely in the studio apart from with David. I do record with other people on occasions, like George Benson and Roy Ayers, a few others, but I like the road better. The only reason that most of the guys I know do studio work is because they want to stay in the city.'
Dennis and George worked together on a few sessions and had a trio before becoming involved with Bowie. They'd jam and rehearse together every day they had free. By late 1975 David was already incorporating various elements drawn from American black music into his musical jigsaw puzzles. Theatre was becoming less evident in his work. He had heard Carlos Alomar playing with the Main Ingredients, a vocal soul/R&B band who had enjoyed several hits Stateside. Dennis takes up the story.
'David heard Carlos with the Main and liked his rhythm and stuff so he hired him. David had a two-up bass and drummer but wasn't happy with the results they were getting, so Carlos asked me if I wanted to go on the road with David. At the time I must admit that I didn't even know who Bowie was. I was playing with Roy Ayers man, I was just a stoned fusions jazz musician. So I said: Yeah, rock'n'roll, I never did it before but I'll give it a try. So I went on the road with them but the bass player just didn't have it in the pocket. (Current Bowie band expression.) At the time the trio with George was still operating when we had time. What happened was that David had booked me for Station To Station. I was getting ready to leave that morning when David called me again and asked if I knew a bass player. I told him: Yeah, I know a guy, George Murray. I called George who was getting ready to go out on the road with McCrae.'
Imagine the situation:
Dennis: Hey George, what you doing?
George: I'm getting ready to go on the road man, I can't talk to you now.
Dennis: Wait a minute man, I got this other gig for you.
George: I gotta' go, the guys are outside sittin' in the car waitin' for me.
Dennis: Listen man, we're going on the road with David Bowie!
George: Hold it, what did you say?
A few hours later they were both on their way to join Bowie in Jamaica. George takes up the tale.
'It was hard at first because I didn't get any kind of direction from David. The first record I did with him, Station To Station, really freaked me out. I'd never worked with him at all before so I didn't know what the cat wanted to hear, or if I was going to find my return ticket in my mail box the next day. That was until this cat (Dennis) told me it was cool. I didn't have an audition, I was just accepted because of David's respect for Dennis and Carlos as musicians, I came in on their recommendation. David is more concerned with people and the way they work together. People into sound as such, not guys who just want to stretch out on their instruments.'
One of the areas in which Bowie is particularly adroit is drawing ideas from totally incongruous sources, and then putting them together as if they were made for each other.
DD: That's David Bowie for you. Somethin' from over here, add it in there. I saw him write a song one day. He wrote out a paragraph of words. He cut them all up, put'm in a paper bag, shook'm up. He tipped them out of the bag on to the table, stuck all the words back together in the order that they came out of the bag and there was a song! Really freaked me out, but it worked.
RD: Perhaps a classic example of Bowie's eclecticism is Sound And Vision from the Low album, a kind of Mantovani's 101 Strings meet Bo Diddley courtesy of the electronic chameleon.
DD: My opinion of the rhythm section part of that tune is I heard a Crusaders tune with that rhythm. When David started to play me the basic idea I thought it sounded like the Crusaders track so I started playing with that type of feel on drums. George caught on to the foot part, adding his thing and that is how that came together.
GM: What Dennis was doing didn't remind me of the Crusaders. It reminded me of the Bo Diddley records I'd heard in High School, that simple rhythm was in all his music. Dennis started playing along with David and I immediately flashed on 1968 and thought: Wow, Bo Diddley, here it is! As far as the rest of it is concerned, the synth string sound and the special effects, that was all done after we had left. We recorded the backing track, just guitar, bass and drums.
RD: And the amazing snare sound?
DD: The snare was put through a Harmonizer, taken down two octaves so it sounded like a floor tom tom with snares on the bottom! That's a really fine thing to do if you are playing some really hard backbeat rock'n'roll. Cats go out and buy a big snare drum to try and get that sound but if you just put it through a Harmonizer you get a sound as big as a house. I didn't realise all that until David turned me on to it. He's into electronics as well as being a musician... he's the John Coltrane of rock'n'roll.
RD: The drumming on the three albums featuring you, Dennis, is as original and interesting as any in the rock field.
DD: It's me. Like say I'm a Rolls Royce and David is driving. I can take him anywhere he wants to go. I'll be playing in the studio and he'll say: Keep that, and add this to it. My drumming is me but it's David too because he adds all that stuff electronically. He takes our regular sound and makes it his sound.
Surprisingly, Dennis has never had a drum lesson of any kind. He cites Elvin Jones and Norman Roberts (first live drummer with the Temptations) as influences.
Apart from the Harmonizer, Dennis has at times used a Mutron on the snare and various phase shifting on cymbals. Similar effects are also used on stage. When the backing tracks are recorded the kit is played straight, no effects, processing added on during mixing. The bass in general is left as George actually recorded it.
When I asked how they got on with Robert Fripp, who played on Heroes, they told me they had never met him, he tracked on long after their work was complete on the album. Brian Eno, who collaborated with David on Low and Heroes, they had met, however.
DD: He really isn't a musician as much as he is a technician and an ideas man. He hasn't got super chops, he's got a super concept of controlling and operating synthesisers.
When it comes to talking about influences, George says that, generally speaking, he hasn't listened to any specific bass players.
GM: I listen to the sound of a rhythm section. If they groove and I like it I go with it. If the rhythm section doesn't faze me then I pass, I don't listen to the rest of it. If it doesn't appeal I just leave it alone. That's how I grew up musically. The first two bands I really listened to were basically just rhythm sections, Cream and Hendrix. And the same with jazz, Miles Davis or whatever, I'd mainly listen to the bass and drums first and if I like it, get into the rest of the music. Even with bands like Kool and The Gang. The rhythm section is the foundation of a band. Anything built on a weak foundation will eventually fall down. That can work both ways. When I was with McCrae the musicians in his band were of a higher calibre than the music demanded. We were having such a good time during one McCrae number that we lifted it right up into Tighten Up. McCrae was mad when we came off, he came in the dressing room and said he was gonna fire the whole band for spoiling his show!
RD: Though uninvolved with the Station To Station album, producer Tony Visconti has worked with Bowie extensively. Just how much does he contribute, does he act as a go-between with the musicians? It had occurred to me that David's ideas could well be hard for Tony to relate in technical terms.
GM: He seems to be a heavy influence after we leave, then he and David work closely together. As far as Heroes was concerned, all the rhythm tracks used on the album are in fact rehearsal tracks, if you can get to that. Tony had the insight to see what was happening at rehearsals so he just switched on the tape machines and let them run, all through the rehearsals. We learned the tunes first, then David intended to record. When we did what was supposed to be the final recordings, they didn't come out so good. So if Tony hadn't had that insight Heroes wouldn't be the same as far as the rhythm sound is concerned.
DD: And you are right in as much as Tony interpreting things. Like David sometimes writes things out in a really abstract way. Tony will come over and explain what David has in mind. I've seen that go down a few times.
When we came round to talking about equipment Dennis in fact echoed some of the views expressed by Bill Bruford in an earlier Rhythm Section piece.
DD: It doesn't matter what kit you use, I can play on any kit. All it comes down to with drums is personal tonal preferences.
GM: In fact when we walked into the studio in Berlin to do Heroes our regular equipment hadn't made it. So we just had to see what we could find lying around the studio. They had this weird amp that I used, I don't know what it was.
'And I had the most abstract set of drums you could imagine,' says Dennis. 'For a regular kit I had two conga drums as floor tom toms, some tympani, a really improvised kit. Anyway, I'm coming up to a point where I don't think a drum kit should always be set up in a standard way. If I could suspend a tom tom in the air and play it like a cymbal, then I would get that effect rather than playing on the floor. I no longer share the average drummer's point of view, I try to think of drums in the way Coltrane might have if he had been a drummer.
'I want to get a new kit together, I have been using half Tama and half North drums. Those North bell drums are sad, man. It took me the whole Station To Station tour to realise they don't suit me. The response is too flat for me, no tone. It's the basic sound you tend to get with single head drums. I continued to use them for this last tour because they are loud. I'm positioned in front of the amplifiers and therefore need the volume. Also because I'm a small thin dude I want to get double head drums to give me recoil. Single head drums seem to have the volume but not the tonal qualities I'm after.
'I use Ambassador White heads which are much lighter than the heavy duty rock heads that most drummers play these days. I can get a good response from them in spite of being small. I use Regal Rock sticks with wooden tips when I can get them; by the time we got to Europe on this tour I was playing anything I could get my hands on.'
Dennis will in fact be playing a Pearl studio kit for the album in September, then a huge array of Pearl drums on stage, custom built to his own requirements for the Bowie Far East tour commencing in November.
George plays a Fender Precision bass with D'Addario flatwound strings and a Travis Bean bass with Carl Thompson wirewound strings. The Travis Bean is played through an MXR Flanger and a Mutron phaser. Both instruments go through a bi-amped stereo equaliser and two Ampeg SVT amplifiers and cabinets.
GM: I use the Travis Bean for the Ziggy Stardust material and the Fender on the Station To Station material. That is just a matter of personal preference because either bass could do either job, I just choose to break things up that way. The different strings suit the different instruments, the Travis has a rougher sound and the wirewound strings add a bit more bite.
So what about the future? We know there is an already recorded live album from the tour just completed which will soon be released, and perhaps early next year we'll see the studio album. Japanese readers can look forward to seeing the band later this year when they tour there.
DD: The next tour is going to blow the top off everything! I'm not going to get into what it is going to contain, although David is already putting some new ideas together. One song we've started recording already, David has purposely made the tempo fluctuate! He's a genius, man, out on his own. As far as the band is concerned I can say that I'm playing at around 30% of my potential at the moment. There is such a conglomeration of power on stage with the band that it's got to be held down, otherwise I think the whole thing would just blow up!
Interview by Ralph Denyer
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