This Is Not America singleWritten by: David Bowie, Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays
Recorded: 1984
Producers: David Bowie, Pat Metheny

Released: February 1985

Available on:
Nothing Has Changed
Loving The Alien (1983–1988)

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals
Pat Metheny: guitar, synthesizer
Lyle Mays: piano, keyboards, synthesizer
Steve Rodby: bass guitar
Paul Wertico: drums

‘This Is Not America’ was a collaboration between David Bowie and the Pat Metheny Group, released as a single in February 1985.

The song featured in the US spy drama The Falcon and the Snowman. Director John Schlesinger contacted Metheny to score the film; the soundtrack was composed and produced by Metheny and Lyle Mays, and performed by the Pat Metheny Group.

Around that time, it was becoming quite popular for films to have a ‘song’ that would play somewhere in the film, or at least for the end credits. John and the film company expressed interest in having something like that happen. John had the idea of trying to get David Bowie.

This next part of this story is not meant to be any comment on anything other than my own particular state in relation to the music world of that era, but I wasn’t exactly sure who David Bowie was. I could have told you who played drums on any Wes Montgomery or Ornette Coleman or Miles Davis record, but I just wasn’t that interested in or even aware of most English pop music around that time. So, I went to a record store and got some records of his that were recommended and recognised that I did know some of the hits from the radio, but mostly; that he would be the perfect person to sing that piece.

Pat Metheny
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

“That piece” was ‘Chris’, a main theme written by Metheny “in less than 15 minutes”, named after Tim Hutton’s character Christopher Boyce. The theme, including Metheny’s original demo, appeared in several sections of the film.

Bowie and Metheny met to discuss the soundtrack, and together watched an early edit of The Falcon and the Snowman.

By the time we had a meeting, I had brought myself up to speed at least a bit and realised what an honour it was to get this chance to get to possibly work with someone at his level. When we met, I sat next to him as he was shown a screening of the rough-cut of the film. I noticed the entire time he was watching, he was writing things down on a yellow legal pad. When the movie ended, he had a list of song titles, each one better than the next. One of them was a line that came from the film, “This is not America,” shouted by a Mexican guard around a scene with Sean Penn.
Pat Metheny
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

In the studio

Metheny gave Bowie a copy of the ‘Chris’ demo, which the singer took back to his home in Montreux, Switzerland. In the meantime, Metheny and his band finished recording, mixing and editing the score to fit the final cut of the film.

The final task was the completion of the theme song. Metheny flew to Switzerland’s Mountain Studios, Bowie’s preferred studio in the mid-Eighties. Upon his arrival Metheny had been awake for 72 hours finishing the score in London.

We went directly from Geneva airport to the studio in Montreux. David was there waiting, and he had taken my demo, written lyrics, added a Linn drum machine to it, and had recorded a vocal demo over [Metheny’s original demo] ‘Chris’.

Of course, it was great. There wasn’t much to say other than to jump right in and get going making a track. It is almost funny to think about it now, but the main ‘engine’ of that track was this weird Roland drum machine thing I had – the same one I had used on the then somewhat recent Wichita record. These were the early days of the Synclavier – the keyboard-based system I was using at that time that I had made the original demo on – and figuring out the technical details of how to sync everything up probably took as much time as actually playing anything.

We did the basic track, which was essentially Steve Rodby playing that super-cool acoustic bass part he came up with and replacing the various elements of the demo with performances that fit with the arrangement we developed with David, including the half-step modulation in the middle.

Things took so much longer then. There is a 12-string harmonic chord that I put in the Synclavier that I wanted to reverse so it played backward. These days that would take about two seconds. Back then it took three hours! And the system would be unavailable to do anything else while it was rendering it. So stuff like that was a part of the process. And we only had two days to do everything. David left us to it in the mid-afternoon, and we stayed working. By six in the morning, we had the basics of the track. David came in the second day to do his vocal.

He was just unbelievable. He had the idea of there being some background vocals on the ‘Sha-la-la-la-la’ parts and asked if any of us could sing; none of us could. He then appeared to transform into three distinctly different people singing three distinct parts, first takes all.

Pat Metheny
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

‘This Is Not America’ was mixed by Bob Clearmountain at New York’s Power Station studio shortly after the Montreux session.

David trusted Bob to come up with a mix, and it was fascinating to watch Bob address the track from a perspective that was totally unlike anything I had ever been a part of. At about 6pm, Bob called Bowie to come over (he was in NYC also by that time for something else, I think).

Bob and Bowie had worked together a lot by then, and I don’t remember there being much discussion about changes. I remember David being excited about the track, saying he had never really had anything quite like it before. But for me, the best thing about the track are the lyrics he wrote. It is one of the great protest songs of all time, in my opinion. And what he wrote is maybe more true right now than ever before.

Pat Metheny
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)