Valentine's Day singleWritten by: David Bowie
Recorded: 24 July; 18 September 2012
Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti
Engineers: Mario McNulty, Tony Visconti

Released: 8 March 2013

Available on:
The Next Day

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals
Earl Slick: guitar
Tony Visconti: bass guitar
Sterling Campbell: drums

‘Valentine’s Day’ was the fourth single released from The Next Day, David Bowie’s 24th studio album.

Bowie wrote the song about a high school massacre, told from the perspective of the perpetrator.

It’s about mental health rather than gun control. It’s all young people doing these shootings. It goes inside the head of the shooter. David gives him the name Johnny, which I think is the name he’s given to about 12 people in his songs over the past 40 years… Maybe it rhymes well: a generic name which helps describe the common man.

The issue for him isn’t so much guns, but the mental health of the shooter. In the past two years there have been so many shootings and the next day we’d come into the studio and say ‘What the f***? Why is this happening?’ We were shocked like everyone else and don’t think it’s going to end anytime soon. We have kids and we can’t imagine the horror … the worst thing to happen to our kids would be them being shot in public.

Tony Visconti
The Times, 12 January 2013

Although Bowie gave no interviews to promote The Next Day, he did answer a written request from novelist Rick Moody for a list of words to help explain the album’s themes. The three that correspond with ‘Valentine’s Day’ were: Isolation, Revenge, Osmosis.

In Bowie’s 2015 musical Lazarus, Valentine was the name of a character who haunts Thomas Jerome Newton. The part was originally played by Michael Esper, who recorded ‘Valentine’s Day’ for the following year’s Original New York Cast Recording album.

In the studio

‘Valentine’s Day’ was recorded at Manhattan’s The Magic Shop during the third major set of sessions for The Next Day, towards the end of July 2012.

I think he took the time in between sessions because he wanted to have perspective, and the only real successful way to have perspective is to have these periods of intense creativity and then take it away for a while and listen to it again. You get this other sense of objectivity. I think that was his methodology this time.

I played on a lot of the record in those sessions, but he did another day or so in the studio and he had Earl Slick and Sterling come down because those guys had been kinda out-of-sync for the main sessions and he wanted to include them. He loved their playing and they have a very distinct thing. He’d earmarked a few songs, and I think he made a great choice. ‘Valentine’s Day’ is totally Slick; it’s Bowie, the Kinks and Slick all wrapped up. It’s a real good kicker.

Gerry Leonard
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

David Bowie’s long-term collaborators Earl Slick and Sterling Campbell were drafted in to play guitar and drums respectively, and producer Tony Visconti played bass guitar.

I heard about it directly from David last May. We were talking on the phone and he goes, “What’s your schedule like?” I said, “I’m around. What have you got in mind?” One conversation led to the other, and we scheduled to go into the studio in July.

He had already been working on [the album], unbeknownst to me. He had already cut some tracks. On my first day it was myself, David, Tony Visconti and drummer Sterling Campbell. We cut some new ones. When we finished those up David played me bits and bobs from the rest of the record. He said, “Oh, what do you think about this or that?” We then picked out some songs for me to play on.

The whole thing was very casual, and it’s all done as a group effort. We’ll sit down and he’ll play me a song and I’ll say if I have a part in mind. It’s a very give-and-take, very casual way of working. Sometimes he’ll play me a little rough sketch on the guitar and say, “That’s the idea. Now take it where you want it to go.”

I was only there for a week. I did all my work in a week. Last week of July, or something like that. All I know is that it was hot as hell outside.

Earl Slick
Rolling Stone, 25 January 2013

The backing track for ‘Valentine’s Day’ was laid down on 24 July. Bowie’s lead vocals were recorded on 18 September.

The video

On 15 July 2013 the promotional video for ‘Valentine’s Day’ was uploaded to David Bowie’s official YouTube channel.

The video was shot over two days at the Red Hook Grain Terminal in Brooklyn, New York. It was directed by Markus Klinko and Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri, whose photography had previously been used for the Heathen album.

Bowie’s original idea was a riff on the reverse-ageing tale The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, written by F Scott Fitzgerald and adapted for the silver screen in 2008 by David Fincher.

He wanted to reverse age, like in that Brad Pitt movie. He basically wanted to start out as an old man, like 80, and reverse in special effects and be like 19 at the end of the video.

It was kind of tough to talk him out of it. He really wanted it that way. We cast a young version of him, a lookalike, a model that was really talented that was used for some of the shots, like the scene from the back, when he’s looking through the window. That’s actually his younger body double. We decided not to do that with him. I felt it was a little cheesy to do it … It was the only time I ever really talked him out of something. Many of the other ideas for the record packaging and all that, a lot of it was his ideas.

In the end a more straightforward interpretation of the song was used, with Bowie singing the song and playing a red headless G2T Hohner guitar.

Bowie brandished the guitar like a firearm – the clip begins and ends with Bowie holding it aloft, in a parody of Charlton Heston’s National Rifle Association convention appearances – and, to leave no doubt in the viewer’s mind, for one brief moment the shadow cast on the wall was that of an assault rifle.

He fell in love with the simplicity [of the final concept] because the ‘Valentine’s Day’ was shot right after this very crazy thing that he did with being Jesus Christ, the priest … It was really a lot, very intense, very theatrical, so coming out with a video that was very simple, basically an animated portrait performance…

There’s a close up of the vibrating guitar strings, very close, and out of the coiled guitar string you see a flying bullet. It’s almost subliminal because it’s so fast. Most people won’t realize it, but it’s there.

With the tiny little hint of the gunshot, I’m happy you picked up on that because it was a very subtle thing that was very important for me to have in there … I wanted to do more gun references and shadows of guns and things like that. There’s a little bit of that, like a machine gun shadow at some point.

The release

‘Valentine’s Day’ was the sixth track on The Next Day, which was released on 8 March 2013.

It was issued as a single in the UK on 19 August 2013, and the following day in the rest of the world, with ‘Plan’ on the b-side.

The 7″ vinyl was a picture disc, with an image showing a close-up of Bowie’s hands from the “Heroes” album cover. It was housed in a plastic sleeve with lyrics from ‘Valentine’s Day’ on the front.

The Next Day Extra was released on 4 November 2013. The box set contained two CDs and a DVD, the latter containing the music videos for ‘Where Are We Now?’, ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’, ‘The Next Day’, and ‘Valentine’s Day’.

Previous song: ‘Where Are We Now?’
Next song: ‘If You Can See Me’