Released: 12 September 1980
David Bowie: vocals, keyboards
Carlos Alomar, Robert Fripp: guitar
George Murray: bass guitar
Dennis Davis: drums, percussion
Andy Clark: synthesizer
The follow-up to David Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’, ‘Fashion’ was a late edition to the album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), and was nearly left off the album altogether.
When I first started going to discos in New York in the early Seventies there was sort of a very high powered enthusiasm and it had a natural course about it, which seems now to have been replaced by an insidious grim determination to be fashionable, as though it’s actually a vocation.
There’s some kind of strange aura about it, and I just wanted to sort of capture that feeling in the song ‘Fashion’. It’s about that grim determination more than anything else.
The David Bowie Interview
The song started life as ‘Jamaica’, and was based around a groove that Bowie and his band had worked on while on tour in Jamaica.
According to producer Tony Visconti: “For purposes of delineating choruses when the band was recording, David would sing, ‘Woo, oh, Ja-mai-ca’, over the funky beat.” However, Bowie struggled to settle upon a set of lyrics for the song.
David couldn’t get beyond the working title, ‘Jamaica’, for months. The day before he wrote the lyric he told me he’d probably drop the song. I implored him to write a lyric because this was probably the most modern and commercial-sounding track on the album. He returned to the studio early the next day announcing, ‘I’ve got it!’ This was the last vocal we recorded for the album and mixing commenced that evening.
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy
Bowie’s original lyrics draft shows several ideas which failed to make the final cut, including the top line “Stand by your station boys”. This may, however, have been an intended title, as it is followed by the words “OR we midgets and fools should learn not to dance on concrete poured for GIANTS”.
The early lyrics also show lines which was later dropped, but which hint at an early focus on violent uprising: “Hell up ahead, burn a flag/Shake a fist, start a fight/If you’re covered in blood/You’re doing it right”; and “We’ll break every bone/We’ll turn you upside down.”
Bowie’s final lyrics underplayed these sentiments, although the reference to the goon squad and the orders “turn to the left… right!” still hinted at the subject of fascism. Bowie, however, denied the link in an interview published in the week of Scary Monsters’ release.
It’s more to do with that dedication to fashion. I was trying to move on a little from that Ray Davies concept of determination and an unsureness about why one’s doing it. But one has to do it, rather like one goes to the dentist and has the tooth drilled. I mean, you have to have it done, putting up with the fear and the aggravation. It’s that kind of feeling about fashion, which seems to have in it now an element that’s all too depressing…
The American disco I went to in the early ’70s in New York when it was supposed to be the hot new thing that was sweeping the city – well, I never felt that grim determination that one feels now. There is that. Yes, I must say I did feel it when I was in London. I was taken to one extraordinary place by … Steve Strange? God, what was it called? Everybody was in Victorian clothes. I suppose they were part of the new new wave or the permanent wave or whatever… (enter Coco making throat-slitting gestures) … it’s the Valkyrie (laughs). We’ll have some more time but I’ll have to keep it to a minimum.
NME, 13 September 1980
Bowie also recycled two older song ideas. ‘People From Bad Homes’ was a song written by Bowie for the short-lived Astronettes project in 1973, and the “beep beep” hook had previously been in the lesser-known 1971 recording ‘Rupert The Riley’.