Remembering Dennis Davis, 1949-2016. David Bowie: 'Right’ (Young Americans, RCA, 1975)/ ‘Sound and Vision’ (Low, RCA, 1977)/ ‘Look back in anger’/’DJ’ (Lodger, RCA, 1979)

Drumming as an expression of freedom; without wanting to sound too out there, you can see it in the fluid movement of the wrists of the best musicians, the way the bones dissolve almost as they capture and expand the beat, allowing it to have space full of air, while remaining certain, so complete.

Remembering Dennis Davis then, who passed away in April last year. Best-known as the master drummer on Bowie's finest recordings: Young Americans (1975), Station to Station  (1976) Low (1977), Heroes (1977), Stage (1978), Lodger (1979) and Scary Monsters (1980).  

Not sure about Stage, but all those others are like a soundtrack to an era and expression of essential musical genius, collaboration, risk-taking. Producer Tony Visconti remembered Davis's contribution and gift in a statement:

(Davis) was one of the most creative drummers I have ever worked with. He came into David Bowie’s life when we recorded some extra tracks for Young Americans and stayed with us through Scary Monsters and beyond. He was a disciplined jazz drummer who tore into Rock with a Jazz sensibility. Listen to the drum breaks on Black Out from the Heroes album. He had a conga drum as part of his set up and he made it sound like two musicians were playing drums and congas. By Scary Monsters he was playing parts that were unthinkable but they fit in so perfectly. His sense of humour was wonderful. As an ex member of the US Air Force he told us stories of seeing a crashed UFO first hand by accidentally walking through an unauthorized hanger. There will never be another drummer, human being and friend like Dennis, a magical man.

In a 1999 interview with Uncut magazine, Bowie said that Davis was 'a powerfully emotive drummer… The tempo not only 'moved' but also was expressed in more than 'human' fashion' (cited in the Rolling Stone tribute).

Writing about Bowie is a challenge for me. His records are imprinted on my spirit, I know every lyric, every shift, but tend to go into adolescent-mode when writing/talking about them, in awe that Young Americans could be followed by Station to Station and then by Low … (such a giddy fan-stance is not that helpful). And yet, much of Bowie’s achievement in this period, as he acknowledged freely, depends on the contribution of the musicians who provided the foundations, the so-called ‘D.A.M trio’, Bowie’s most effective and distinctive rhythm section: Dennis Davis on drums; Carlos Alomar on guitar and George Murray on bass  

Dennis Davis started his professional career with Roy Ayers, this is where he met Alomar (he also played with Stevie Wonder on Hotter than July … and on Iggy Pop’s The Idiot). He was first hired by Bowie to Young Americans – that lush, idiosyncratic exploration of Soul, a kind of love letter to the United States and its music.

Listen to the way the bass is foregrounded, along with the vocals of course, with the drumming little more than an occasional interruption, a kind of tap here and there; Davis’s understated, albeit central, style continues on Bowie’s record, Low where Davis, it is said, developed a particular snare sound that was/is considered to be revolutionary.

About that time, Bowie asked whether I’d mind making an album with Brian Eno in France, and we commenced to make Low. I unveiled my secret weapon, patching the snare mics directly into the Harmonizer and recording the effect on track 24. When drummer Dennis Davis heard the sound, he begged to have it routed into his headphones. We soon discovered that the rate of the Harmonizer’s drop off was controlled by an envelope at its input. So now that Dennis could hear the effect as he played, he was able to control the sound by how hard he hit his snare. This is why hardly anyone has duplicated that snare sound—we didn’t do it in the mix, we did it live!

Visconti again, for more detail on this development have a read of this

There is a wonderful kind of containment and control here; something that would be reversed in the wild-eccentric exuberance of Bowie’s Lodger two years later. This record is a masterpiece on so many levels, you see I’m slipping here …  but really, it is a representative work refusing easy categorisation, while having such a firm sense of its self (and so full of joy and musical experimentation).

For me the song, ‘Look back in anger’ is the quintessential expression of musical freedom and energy, such energy (and this is largely thanks to the extraordinary contribution of Dennis Davis that blows my mind each time I hear it) :

Elegant and expressive: nothing better, ever.

...

I am a D.J., I am what I play
Can't turn around no, can't turn around no
I am a D.J., I am what I say
Can't turn around no, can't turn around,
I am a D.J., I am what I play
I've got believers (kiss-kiss)
Believing me

I am a D.J., I am what I play
Can turn around no, can't turn around
I am a D.J., I am what I play
Can turn around no, can't turn around
I am a D.J., I am what I play
Can turn around no (kiss-kiss)

Time flies when you're having fun
Break his heart, break her heart
He used to be my boss and now he is a puppet dancer
I am a D.J., and I've got believers

I've got believers
I've got believers
I've got believers in me
I've got believers
I am a D.J., I am what I play
I am a D.J.

(This is the perfect Bowie song on every level: the poetic, elusive lyrics that are funny/sarcastic/bitter, at times, while carrying an aggressive charge of dislocated indifference, refusing reductive explanations; and then the music: take a deep breath, be quiet now).