Released: 19 April 1973
Mick Ronson: guitar
Trevor Bolder: bass guitar
Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey: drums
Mike Garson: piano
Ken Fordham: saxophone
Brian ‘Bux’ Wilshaw: tenor saxophone, flute
Juanita ‘Honey’ Franklin, Linda Lewis, Geoff MacCormack: backing vocals
In 1973 Bowie revealed that the lyrics were his attempt to “pinpoint and exaggerate the incident” of a party thrown after a sold-out show at New York’s Carnegie Hall on 28 September 1972. On the face of it, Bowie’s song took the listener back to the roaring Twenties: a party with high spirits and flowing alcohol, soundtracked by the jazz standard Tiger Rag, and a roll-call cast of guests including Lorraine (Cyrinda Foxe) who “shimmied and she strolled like a Chicago moll”, the Reverend Alabaster who “danced on his knees”, a “Benny Goodman fan” with painted stigmata, an “old fashioned band of married men”, and assorted others.
There were, however, hints of Bowie’s rock peers in the lyrics. The “Man” of the title recalled the Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’, while the New York Dolls and Andy Warhol’s Factory entourage gave the song its sleazier fringes. In September 1972 Bowie saw two New York Dolls shows in New York, and was struck by their proto-punk sound and their androgynous and eccentric image.
Bowie also paraphrased a line from John Lennon’s 1970 song ‘I Found Out’. “The freaks on the phone won’t leave me alone” was respun as “The girl on the phone wouldn’t leave me alone/A throwback from someone’s LP”.
The LP in question, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, was a key influence on Bowie. He recorded two of its songs: ‘Working Class Hero’ on the first Tin Machine album; and ‘Mother’ in 1997-8. Furthermore, in a 1979 BBC radio show, Star Special, Bowie selected some of his favourite songs, including Lennon’s ‘Remember’. Bowie even sang “I believe in Beatles” during the Heathen song ‘Afraid’, an echo of Lennon’s famous couplet “I don’t believe in Beatles/I just believe in me”.
The verses of ‘Watch That Man’ pit Bowie as the observer, while in the choruses he becomes the prey. With his international stardom now confirmed, Bowie had moved beyond the wishful beginnings of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, with a new confidence and flamboyance that embraced being the centre of attention.
The music, meanwhile, showed Bowie’s latest direction – a move away from the glam rock leanings of Ziggy Stardust, to embrace a heavier Rolling Stones-inspired rock style.
Initially I was a bit of a snobby classical musician with jazz training looking down on simple rock like this to my detriment and quickly realized / embraced the community joy of playing with other musicians. I've loved playing this kind of music since. #TimsTwitterListeningParty
— Mike Garson (@mikegarson) June 28, 2020
Scottish singer Lulu covered ‘Watch That Man’ in 1973, with Bowie on backing vocals and Mick Ronson on guitar.
Lulu’s version it was released as the b-side of her version of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. The single was released in January 1974, reaching number three in the UK charts.
‘Watch That Man’ entered David Bowie’s live set in 1973, towards the end of the Ziggy Stardust Tour. A live recording from the farewell Ziggy show in July 1973 can be heard on Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture and the accompanying feature film.
The song was also performed during the Diamond Dogs Tour in the latter half of 1974. A version from this time is available on David Live.
In the studio
Although written in New York, ‘Watch That Man’ was recorded at Trident Studios in London in January 1973.
Aladdin Sane, Track 1 – Watch that Man
This was an unusual piece for me to play on. My training was in classical and this is just straight up rock n roll with me banging away on 8th notes on the upper register of the piano. It was a lot of fun for me. #TimsTwitterListeningParty
— Mike Garson (@mikegarson) June 28, 2020
Ken Scott produced and mixed the song, choosing to mix the vocals lower in the mix. This was inspired by the Rolling Stones, particularly the sonic soup heard on their most recent album Exile On Main St.
‘Watch That Man’ and ‘Cracked Actor’ both reminded me of Stones songs. Kind of a heavier version of some of the songs on Exile On Main Street, just good, straight-ahead rock tunes with a honky-tonk piano and wailing backing vocals supplied by Linda Lewis. The lyrics were very Bowie, though, ‘Watch That Man’ suggesting to me a decadent, anything-goes-type party, and ‘Cracked Actor’, about an over-the-hill Hollywood star who had managed to pull some young chick who mistakenly thought he was a drug connection. So I had a no-nonsense approach to both these songs: no frills, just a good rock beat that sounded exciting.
Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie
Shortly after submitting the Aladdin Sane mixes, Scott received complaints from manager Tony Defries via his company MainMan, asking that the vocal levels be raised. It was followed by a similar request from Bowie’s label RCA. Interestingly, after comparing the results all parties decided that the original mixes were superior, although Scott later regretted the decision.
This track I describe as my biggest mistake. When it came to mixing, the whole thing felt more powerful if David’s vocal was mixed back in the track, more like one of the instruments. Well his management saw it differently and asked me to remix it with David higher, which I did. A couple of days later I get the word back that they preferred the first mix. Move on a couple more days and I get a call from RCA with the same request, so in I go again. Please remember, this was before any form of automated mixing and so each mix was starting from scratch. Once again, after a few days the word came back from RCA that the original was best. Vindicated back then, but now I HATE the mix, David should be louder.
Five Years (1969-1973) book