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“Up the Hill Backwards” Demo

Although I listen to “Up the Hill Backwards” quite a bit as it is the second song on my favorite album, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), I kind of rediscovered it last month after reading Adam Steiner’s analysis in his book about the album, Silhouettes and Shadows. Steiner referenced an earlier version of the song that has popped up on a compilation of what I think can best be described as Scary Monsters demos, which collectively has been called Vampires of Human Flesh, which apparently was a working title for album.

I find this demo to be fascinating largely because Bowie’s voice is far more distinctive and his words are much clearer compared to the final version. The final version features Bowie singing amidst what sounds like a chorus, or perhaps it is some sort of voice alternation or special effect. In any event, if I had never heard the song before I’m not sure I’d recognized the voice as Bowie’s. That’s not the case in the demo.

Here, the lyrics are also much easier to understand. That is to say, it is easier to understand all the words that Bowie is singing. Nonetheless, they are largely still oblique in precise meaning. Perhaps there is no better example of a Bowie song that strings together weird maxims that invite interpretation on their own, but become tougher to contextualize linked together within the song.

As is often the case, Bowie chronicler Nicholas Pegg provides some insight in his book, The Complete David Bowie: “the opening lines of the lyric are lifted wholesale from Hans Richter’s 1964 book, Dada: Art and Anti-Art…” Pegg goes on the reproduce the quote as it appears in the book: “the vacuum created by a sudden arrival of freedom and the endless possibilities it seems to offer if one could grasp them firmly enough…” Not even Pegg apparently made the connection by the time he wrote the first edition of his book, and references the realization of where the words came from as a “discovery.” Well, I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that Bowie was subtly signaling that the song was intended to be Dadaist.

If you know the song, though, you will note that Bowie actually sliced up the Richter quote. In the context of the original quote, “if one could grasp them” makes perfect sense. But Bowie detached the phrase and grafts it on to a line in the refrain, “it’s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp it.” Does he say, “it?” Not in this demo, where he clearly says, “them.” “It’s got nothing to do with you, if one can grasp them.” That makes even less sense than the final version, but now knowing about the Richter book and Bowie’s apparent decision to swap out “them” for “it” gives us some insight into Bowie’s process and the evolution of his writing.

Both Steiner and Pegg also point out the other (perhaps more) obviously different lyric in the demo— Bowie sings that “Skylabs are falling,” rather than “Witnesses falling.” Skylab was the space station that fell to earth around the time Bowie was writing the song. That may have seemed too concrete an image, so Bowie opted for a term that leaves far more for interpretation. Actually, despite listening to the song over and over for years, it wasn’t until I read Steiner’s chapter on the song that I even recognized the words, “witnesses falling.” The line goes, “Earth keeps in rolling, witnesses falling.” Witnesses falling? What can it possibly mean? I doubt Bowie intended for the term to carry any intrinsic meaning at all. But who knows, maybe he was borrowing from another obscure book…

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