Released: 15 February 1980
Carlos Alomar, Adrian Belew: guitar
George Murray: bass guitar
Sean Mayes: piano
Roger Powell: keyboards
Simon House: electric violin
Dennis Davis: drums
David Bowie performed ‘Alabama Song’ during the Isolar II Tour in 1978. A studio version from that year was issued as a single in 1980.
‘Alabama Song’ was written by Bertolt Brecht, and set to music by Kurt Weill for the 1927 play Little Mahagonny. The original German lyrics were translated by Brecht’s collaborator Elisabeth Hauptmann in 1925. The song also appeared in the 1930 Brecht/Weill opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
The song is sometimes known as ‘Whisky Bar’. ‘Moon Of Alabama’, and ‘Moon Over Alabama’. The Doors covered the song, as ‘Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)’, on their 1967 debut album, which helped popularise it with a new generation of music fans. Bowie’s version, meanwhile, owes much to German cabaret artist Lotte Lenya’s 1956 recording.
Bowie was a fan of Brecht’s music. In 1982 he took the title role in a BBC television adaptation of Baal, and his recordings of the play’s five songs were released that year on the David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal EP.
David Bowie began performing ‘Alabama Song’ during the Isolar II Tour. His band first rehearsed it in Canada in May 1978.
We rehearsed ‘Alabama Song’ which replaced ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ and became a compulsive hit of the tour.
Life on Tour with Bowie
Stage was recorded in April and May 1978, at concerts in Philadelphia, Providence and Boston. ‘Alabama Song’ was one of the songs recorded, but was not included on initial pressings of the album.
Bowie also performed ‘Alabama Song’ during 1990’s Sound + Vision Tour, and 2002’s Heathen Tour.
On 18 September 2002 Bowie performed it during a BBC radio session at London’s Maida Vale Studios. It was watched by an audience of fewer than 100 people.
‘Alabama Song’ was one of just two non-Bowie compositions performed, the other being ‘Cactus’ by Pixies. The other songs were ‘Sunday’, ‘Look Back In Anger’, ‘Survive’, ‘5:15 The Angels Have Gone’, ‘Everyone Says ‘Hi’’, ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘The Bewlay Brothers’, and ‘Heathen (The Rays)’.
In the studio
Immediately after the London dates of the Isolar II Tour in July 1978, Bowie and his live band recorded ‘Alabama Song’. The session took place on 2 July at Tony Visconti’s Good Earth Studios, at 59 Dean Street in London’s Soho.
There was one more thing to do before everyone flew out. Next day, Sunday, we went to Tony Visconti’s tiny studio in Dean Street to record ‘Alabama Song’. It had been such a hit on the tour that David wanted to do it as a single.
It was an interesting process. David had some new ideas for the drumming. He wanted Dennis to play very freely against the rhythm to give an unstable, insane atmosphere to the track. When we tried to do this it proved hilariously difficult so we finally laid the backing down without drums then Dennis overdubbed his demolishing attack when his efforts couldn’t disturb the beat.
David had us record several verses and choruses which he edited together later in the order he felt worked best.
I think the final result is interesting but not completely successful I prefer my two bootleg versions!
Life on Tour with Bowie
The July 1978 studio recording of ‘Alabama Song’ was released as a single in February 1980 in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom, and Yugoslavia, with the 1979 re-recording of ‘Space Oddity’ on the b-side. In the UK the single reached number 23 on the singles chart.
In July 1980 ‘Alabama Song’ was the b-side of the ‘Crystal Japan’ single in Japan.
‘Alabama Song’ was reissued as a single in 1982 in Germany, with ‘Amsterdam’ on the b-side.
The studio version was the final bonus track on the 1992 Rykodisc reissue of Scary Monsters… And Super Creeps. The other extra tracks were the 1979 re-recordings of ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Panic In Detroit’, and ‘Crystal Japan’.
Stage was reissued in 1991 by Rykodisc/EMI on CD, vinyl and cassette, with the bonus live track ‘Alabama Song’.
The album was digitally remastered by EMI in 2005. This version restored the original running order of the concerts, and removed the fades between the songs to give greater continuity. The 2005 version also contained three additional tracks: ‘Be My Wife’, ‘Alabama Song’, and ‘Stay’.
In 2004 I got to work with the tapes again to remix it in surround sound. Remixing David in his 1977 incarnation in 2004, I can barely perceive any evidence of aging in his voice. If a Dorian Gray-type portrait of his vocal cords exists, he keeps it well hidden. He is one of the most amazing performers of our time, and these performances seem timeless to me.
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy
In March 2018 an eight-song mini-album, Live In Berlin (1978), went on sale exclusively at the Brooklyn Museum version of the David Bowie Is exhibition. ‘Alabama Song’ was the penultimate song. It was recorded on 16 May 1978 at the Deutschlandhalle in West Berlin.
The April 2018 live album Welcome To The Blackout (Live London ’78) featured another performance of ‘Alabama Song’ from the Isolar II Tour.