The Next Day album coverWritten by: David Bowie, Jerry Lordan
Recorded: 3 May 2011; 16 January 2012
Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti
Engineers: Mario McNulty, Tony Visconti

Released: 8 March 2013

Available on:
The Next Day

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals, keyboards
Gerry Leonard, David Torn: guitar
Gail Ann Dorsey: bass guitar, vocals
Zachary Alford: drums

‘How Does The Grass Grow?’ is the eleventh song on The Next Day, David Bowie’s 24th and penultimate studio album.

Several songs on The Next Day focused on war and conflict, either directly or by allusion. ‘How Does The Grass Grow?’ was described by producer Tony Visconti as “a companion song to ‘I’d Rather Be High’ and is about the First World War: how British soldiers were trained as a metaphor for a lot of things. Sheer poetry.”

There’s a few songs about world wars, about soldiers. One is ‘How Does The Grass Grow?’ and it’s about the way that soldiers are trained to kill other soldiers, how they have to do it so heartlessly. ‘How Does The Grass Grow?’ is part of a chant that they’re taught as they plunge their bayonets into a dummy.
Tony Visconti
Rolling Stone, 15 January 2013

The title and chorus were adapted from Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 war drama Full Metal Jacket.

HARTMAN: What makes the grass grow?

RECRUITS: Blood, blood, blood!

PYLE stares. Does not join in the shouting.

HARTMAN: What do we do for a living, ladies?

RECRUITS: Kill, kill, kill!

PYLE remains silent.

HARTMAN: I can’t hear you!

RECRUITS: Kill, kill, kill!

HARTMAN: Bullshit! I still can’t hear you!

RECRUITS: Kill, kill, kill!

Full Metal Jacket screenplay
Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford

The ‘ya ya ya ya’ mid-section, meanwhile, was appropriated by Bowie from ‘Apache’, the Jerry Lordan instrumental popularised by the Shadows in 1960. The interpolation afforded Lordan, who died in 1995, a co-writing credit on ‘How Does The Grass Grow?’. The refrain gave the song its working title, ‘Ya Ya’.

Bowie sent novelist Rick Moody a list of 42 songs to help explain the themes of The Next Day. Those for ‘How Does The Grass Grow?’ were: Balkan, Burial, Reverse.

The mention of the Balkans, and lyrical references to Hungary and Latvian Riga-1 mopeds suggest an Eastern European setting. Bowie may have been thinking of the Bosnian War, which took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995.

Bowie’s lines “There’s a graveyard by the station/Where the girls wear nylon skirts and sandals from Hungary” appears to be taken from Twenty Letters to a Friend, the memoir of Joseph Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva. In her introduction she wrote (her words translated by Priscilla Johnson McMillan): “Yet television antennas stick up from the gray, tumbledown roofs, and the girls wear nylon blouses and sandals from Hungary… And when I die, let them bury me in the ground here in Romashkovo, in the graveyard by the station, on the little hill.”

In the studio

‘How Does The Grass Grow?’ was one of the earliest songs recorded for The Next Day. Sessions began at New York’s Magic Shop studio on 2 May 2011, and the following day the band laid down ‘How Does The Grass Grow?’ and ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’.

The song was then set aside for eight months, until Bowie recorded his lead vocals on 16 January 2012.

Previous song: ‘Dancing Out In Space’
Next song: ‘(You Will) Set the World On Fire’