Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Photo of Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting
How The 'Trainspotting' Soundtrack Turned A Dispatch From The Fringes Into A Cult Classic
Twenty-five years after 'Trainspotting' first thrilled and scandalized moviegoers, the film's soundtrack remains an iconic collision of Britpop, rock and dance music
From its opening shot, Trainspotting is a movie in motion. As sneakers hit the sidewalk of Princes Street in Edinburgh, Scotland, we hear the raucous drumbeat of Iggy Pop's 1977 barnstormer "Lust For Life." Renton—played by Ewan McGregor—and Spud—by Ewen Bremner—sprint away from two security guards, their shoplifting spoils flying out of their pockets.
"Choose life," Renton's narration begins, introducing an instantly classic monologue about the emptiness of middle-class aspirations. The action then zips to a soccer match that introduces Renton's ragtag mates: Spud, Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and Tommy (Kevin McKidd). The scene is all propulsion and attitude, with Iggy Pop dropping the match on the trail of fuel. In just 60 exhilarating seconds, Trainspotting tells us precisely what it's going to be.
Trainspotting burst into U.K. cinemas in February 1996, followed immediately by a debate on whether its fizzing depiction of junkie life glorified drug use. Audiences staggered out, scandalized and delighted in equal measure by "The Worst Toilet In Scotland," Spud's soiled sheets and a ceiling-crawling baby. By the time it opened in the US in May, the movie was already a critical and box office hit at home. Its credentials were undeniable, including a compelling young cast led by newcomer McGregor, a visually daring director in Danny Boyle and a script adapted from Irvine Welsh's cult book of the same name.
In a year dominated by slick Hollywood blockbusters like Independence Day, Twister and Mission: Impossible, Trainspotting was the scrappy, no-kids-allowed outsider that could. One of the movie's most significant talking points, and a key reason for its enduring legacy, was its use of "needle drops" in lieu of a traditional composerly film score. The soundtrack reaches back to the '70s and '80s, while also showcasing of-the-moment Britpop and dance music. The music of Trainspotting endures because it's intrinsic to the movie, with each song meant to elevate a particular scene or moment.
Read: How 1995 Became The Year Dance Music Albums Came Of Age
Welsh's 1993 novel frames Renton's misadventures as a heroin addict against the dismal backdrop of Leith, just north of Edinburgh's city center. Trainspotting was first adapted as a stage play, with Ewen Bremner (perfectly cast as Spud in the movie) playing Renton. Before long, the movie offers rolled in. "There was loads of interest," Welsh told Vice in 2016. "Everybody seemed to want to make a film of Trainspotting."
Most directors wanted to ground the adaptation in social realism, but Welsh knew Trainspotting needed a wilder take. In 1994, a promising young director called Danny Boyle had made his feature debut with the pitch-black comedy Shallow Grave, starring Ewan McGregor. Impressed by the movie's visual flair, Welsh gave Boyle the keys to Trainspotting.
The making of the movie was a thrill for all involved. Fresh from writing Shallow Grave, screenwriter John Hodge relished the opportunity to adapt Welsh's book for the screen. (Hodge was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 1997 Academy Awards - the movie's only Oscar nod.) Before filming, Boyle sent his actors to spend time with Calton Athletic, a real-life recovery group for addicts. The shoot began in June 1995 and lasted 35 days (a step up from the 30 allocated for Shallow Grave), with Glasgow mostly standing in for Edinburgh.
Alongside cinematographer Brian Tufano, Boyle brought a bold, kinetic style to every shot. "We'd set out to make as pleasurable a film as possible about subject matter that is almost unwatchable," Boyle told HiBrow in 2018.
While Shallow Grave gave an early glimpse of Boyle's tastes, including his fondness for electronic duo Leftfield, the music in Trainspotting demanded a bigger role. Welsh's book is peppered with references to The Smiths, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and David Bowie, so the call went out to a select list of musical icons. Bowie was a no, but others who'd loved the novel happily offered up their music to the project.
Welsh and Boyle were both clued-in to acid house and rave culture (represented on the soundtrack by the likes of Underworld, Leftfield and John Digweed and Nick Muir's Bedrock project), but it was the director's idea to bring in the likes of Blur and Pulp. That decision was a "masterstroke", Welsh told Vice, because "Britpop was kind of the last strand of British youth culture, and it helped position the film as being the last movie of British youth culture."
Several of the best scenes in Trainspotting are soundtracked by songs made before 1990. Following "Lust For Life", the sleazy strut of Iggy Pop's 1977 track "Nightclubbing" lurks behind a sequence of Renton's relapse into heroin. (Both songs were co-written by David Bowie, giving him an honorary spot on the soundtrack.) New Order's 1981 song "Temptation" is a motif for Renton's taboo relationship with high schooler Diane (Kelly Macdonald in her first film role), while Heaven 17's 1983 pop hit "Temptation" plays at the club where they first meet.
Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" lands the hardest punch. In a dazzling sequence, Renton visits his dealer Mother Superior (Peter Mullan) for a hit of heroin. As Renton's body sinks almost romantically into the floor, we hear Lou Reed softly singing about a perfect day drinking sangria in the park. The romance ends there. Knowing an overdose on sight, Mother Superior drags his sort-of friend to the street, then heaves him into a taxi, tucking the fare in his shirt pocket. (In a brilliant small detail, we see an ambulance rush past, headed for someone else.)
"Perfect Day" keeps on at its languid pace as Renton is ejected at the hospital, hauled onto a stretcher and revived by a nurse with a needle to his arm. "You're going to reap just what you sow," Lou Reed sings as Renton gasps wildly for air.
Boyle pushed for Britpop on the soundtrack, but he didn't want obvious hits. Britpop, a genre coined in the '90s to describe a new wave of British bands influenced by everything from the Beatles to the late '80s "Madchester" scene, was at its peak during the Trainspotting shoot in the summer of 1995. Pulp had just released the Britpop anthem "Common People," Elastica and Supergrass were flying high from their debut albums, and genre superstars Oasis and Blur were locked in a media-fueled battle for chart supremacy.
In the heat of all that hype, Boyle reached back to 1991 and took "Sing" from Blur's debut album, Leisure. The song's stirring piano melody picks up after the "Nightclubbing" sequence, as Renton and his fellow addicts hit a harrowing rock bottom. Later, when Begbie busts in on Renton's new life in London, Pulp's "Mile End" underlines the mood of big city ennui. Along with contributions from Elastica and Blur frontman Damon Albarn, Trainspotting draws on just enough Britpop to keep its cool.
If Trainspotting has a signature song, it's Underworld's "Born Slippy .NUXX". The duo of Rick Smith and Karl Hyde already had three albums behind them when Boyle reached out to use their 1995 B-side in his movie's climax. The duo was wary—as Smith later put it to Noisey, their music was often sought out to accompany "a scene of mayhem"—but Boyle convinced them with a snippet of the film. Underworld also contributed the propulsive "Dark & Long" to the indelible scene of Renton detoxing inside his childhood bedroom. After Trainspotting, "Born Slippy .NUXX" became the defining song of Underworld's career and a constant euphoric peak in their live sets.
Just as Trainspotting caught the Britpop zeitgeist, it also immortalized a high point for dance music. A rush of trailblazing dance albums came out in 1995, including Leftfield's Leftism, The Chemical Brothers' Exit Planet Dust and Goldie's Timeless. In a time of rave culture colliding with chart hits, the movie finds room for both the dark electronics of Leftfield's "A Final Hit" and the goofy Eurodance of Ice MC's "Think About The Way".
In one scene, Renton sits grinning between the speakers at a London nightclub that's going off to Bedrock and KYO's 1993 classic "For What You Dream Of." "Diane was right," he narrates, recalling a conversation from before he left Edinburgh. "The world is changing, music is changing, drugs are changing, even men and women are changing." For the briefest moment, we see the thrill of '90s dance music as it really was.
The Trainspotting soundtrack album hit shelves in July of 1996. The cover played on the movie's iconic poster design, framing the characters in vivid orange. The soundtrack sold so well that a second volume followed in 1997, featuring other songs from the movie and a few that missed the cut. (The same year, the hugely popular Romeo + Juliet soundtrack also inspired a "Vol. 2.")
Boyle continued to use music as a key character in his movies, following up Trainspotting with the madcap Americana of A Life Less Ordinary and the pop-meets-electronica of The Beach. After 20 years, Boyle got the gang back together for 2017's T2 Trainspotting. In contrast to the original's wall-to-wall needle drops, the sequel weaved a score by Underworld's Rick Smith around songs by High Contrast, Wolf Alice and Young Fathers.
Many impressive, star-studded soundtracks followed in the wake of Trainspotting. What makes this one rare, though, is how deeply its unholy union of rock, Britpop and dance music belongs to the movie. Remove any needle drop from a scene in Trainspotting, however fleeting, and it'd lose something vital—that's how you know it's built to last.
How 1995 Became A Blockbuster Year For Movie Soundtracks
Photo: Graeme Hunter
5 Key Music Moments From "Succession": From The Viral Theme Song To Kendall's Cringey Rapping
As "Succession" comes to a close tonight with the fourth and final season, GRAMMY.com is taking a look back at the Emmy-winning HBO series' top music moments.
After four seasons of betrayal, power plays, and intense sibling rivalries, the prestige HBO drama "Succession" will finally make good on its premise when the Waystar board (potentially) crowns the next CEO of the company.
Throughout the show's run, music has played a pivotal role in the story of the Roy family's fight to take over their patriarch's media empire — whether through building tension, foreshadowing or meta-commentary. The rich storytelling, pitch-perfect performances, masterful cinematography, and direction are bound together by emotional, gripping and, at times, haunting music from the show's composer Nicholas Britell, who received his first-ever GRAMMY nomination for Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media (Includes Film And Television) for his score for season three of "Succession" at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Britell's unique musical voice helps amplify the narrative, as seen in moments like Shiv's betrayal by Tom at the end of season three. To score the revelatory moment, the composer deployed the show's first-ever use of choral arrangements.
Just before the choir begins, there's a brief pause — a moment that elevates the tension, helping viewers to feel the full weight of Tom's betrayal. It's this type of precision that "Succession" fans have come to admire and expect from the critically acclaimed series.
As Shivy Shiv and the Roy boys prepare to wage their final battle in the war to gain control of Waystar Royco, GRAMMY.com revisits five of the show's standout musical moments.
Read More: Nicholas Britell On Scoring 'Succession' And 'The King' & Learning From Steve McQueen
The “Succession” Theme Song Goes Viral
The main title theme is easily the most popular piece of music from the show thanks to its creative blend of classical and hip-hop. The theme is compelling but slightly unnerving — and that's by design. Dissonant chords played on an out-of-tune piano, stabby strings and a chugging drumbeat combine to create an emotional response that befits the intensity of the prestige drama.
"The score for 'Succession' has a similar duality that I think the show has, which is this combination of elements of absurdity and also a deep gravitas under the surface," Britell told Vanity Fair in 2019.
After kick-starting the opening credits of the award-winning drama's pilot episode, the title theme became an instant hit among viewers. The infectious tune spawned several memes and parodies, including twerking Kermit, a Joker parody, a Mario Paint rendition, and a hilarious remix from writer Demi Adejuyigbe, which asks two pertinent questions: "Who will Daddy kiss?" and "Does he love his kids?"
Kendall's Hip-Hop Hype Music
Many of the show's key music moments revolve around Logan's No. 1 boy, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), who kicks off the pilot episode in the backseat of a Mercedes Benz rapping — and shadow boxing — to "An Open Letter to NYC" by the Beastie Boys to psych himself up for a big meeting.
This backseat rap moment came full circle in the middle of the final season, when Kendall is vibing out to Jay-Z's "Takedown" as his chauffeur drops him off at Waystar Royco HQ for his first day as co-CEO. This time around, there's no rapping along to Hov — this Ken is calm, focused and ready to protect his birthright from GoJo's Lukas Matsson.
But Ken is no stranger to a grim moment or theme. Season 3's "Chiantishire" ends with an intoxicated Kendall lying prone on a floating raft, his face seemingly submerged in the pool as Britell's chilling "Impromptu No. 1 for Strings" signals impending doom — leaving many viewers to presume the worst. The composer earned an Emmy nod for his work on the episode.
"L to the OG"
In season two's "Dundee," Kendall made the cringe-worthy decision to mark his father's 50th work anniversary by serenading the head of Waystar with his very own tribute song: "L to the OG."
After removing his suit coat to reveal a custom Logan Roy baseball jersey, the Notorious KEN thanked his boy Squiggle for "cookin' up the beat" then launched into his Logan-praising bars as his siblings, colleagues and associates watched in disbelief. Fans immediately fell in love with the song and rallied for HBO to release an official version — and they obliged.
While Britell created the beat for the song — which was not a part of the original script — he lauds Strong's contributions and performance for taking it to the next level.
"What was amazing was how Jeremy took this and made it his own. It's one thing to act, but it's another to pull off a true rap performance," he told Variety. "That's a whole other skill set. Jeremy wrote the melody that you hear when Kendall is singing that sung line, 'L to the OG,' it was him who came up with that part of it."
Connor's Karaoke Moment
When his ever-reluctant bride-to-be gets cold feet the day before their wedding, Connor convinces the Roy sibs to hit a karaoke joint after their work talk sours his impromptu bachelor party at a local bar. While there, Connor discovers that Willa has gone off-grid then reveals that he's invited their father to the bachelor bash so they can all clear the air — to the disdain of his plotting siblings.
Connor's vibe-killing rendition of Leonard Cohen's ultra-sad "Famous Blue Raincoat" — a song about a twisted love triangle — gets interrupted by Logan's entrance. And the Roys' final family meeting with their patriarch commences, only to be cut short after Logan fails to seal the deal, and then hurls one last searing insult at his brood: "I love you, but you are not serious people."
The Rise of Dark Kendall
In the penultimate episode of season four, Kendall finally completed his prophesied Anakin Skywalker-esque transition to the dark side in order to stake his claim to the recently vacated Waystar throne. As the church service concluded, Kendall — with the collar of his $9,000 cashmere overcoat flipped for maximum villainy — immediately resumed his quest to become the chosen Roy.
"There's been a profound transformation from the way I walked into that church to the way I leave that church," Strong said on the second-to-last episode of the official "Succession" podcast.
To mark the moment where Ken fully embraces his dark side, Britell crafted the CE-Bro his own villainous theme. The nefarious score was deployed after Ken sells one of his dad's Waystar allies, Hugo, on joining his team, as he schemes to tank the deal with Matsson — paving the way for his solo CEO era.
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Photo: Andy Kropa/WireImage for Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
Remembering Andy Rourke With 11 Amazing Smiths Basslines, From "You’ve Got Everything Now" To "I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish"
Here’s a rundown of 11 superb Smiths basslines by Andy Rourke, who died May 19 at age 58.
Arguably, in the rock pantheon, the Smiths sit most snugly next to the Byrds and R.E.M.with jangling guitars, a downcast vocalist, profound mystery, thick melancholy. But there's another key element: Despite being overshadowed in public by their bandmates, all three had bassists that were crucial to their operations.
Enter Andy Rourke, the only bassist the Smiths ever had in their five-year, three-album run. (Like both the Byrds and R.E.M., they never reunited.) Yes, feuding singer Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr have sucked up the majority of the oxygen.
But a Smiths without Rourke's supple, tensile playing — where he acts as the central pillar between Marr and drummer Mike Joyce, and still manages to play with Morrissey — would be no Smiths at all. Perhaps Morrissey said it best: "Nothing that he played had been played by someone else."
That Morrissey message arrived today due to heartbreaking news: Rourke died on May 19 in New York after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 59.
"Watching him play those dazzling baselines [sic] was an absolute privilege and genuinely something to behold," Marr wrote on social media. Stated Joyce: "Not only the most talented bass player I've ever had the privilege to play with but the sweetest, funniest lad I've ever met."
"I suppose, at the end of it all, we hope to feel that we were valued," Morrissey continued in his heartfelt note. "Andy need not worry about that." That sentiment has been echoed by Smiths fans, and the music community, the world over — whose loss of Rourke comes as a blow.
Read on for a lightning round of 11 great basslines by Rourke — a tough list to narrow down, as every track Rourke ever laid down for the band benefited from his touch.
"You've Got Everything Now" (The Smiths, 1984)
On this cut from their now-classic self-titled debut, Rourke demonstrates how he can both anchor the groove and percolate along with Marr — all while studiously avoiding bass clichés.
"What Difference Does It Make?" (The Smiths, 1984)
In this key Smiths track, hear Rourke walk the bass while animating the music with a dark, roiling energy. (The Peel Session version of "What Difference Does It Make?" from that year's Hatful of Hollow compilation is essential too.)
"Hand in Glove" (The Smiths, 1984)
Few bassists can play four strings as a lead instrument and pull it off. Rourke was one of them, and on "Hand in Glove," he inhabits the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic spheres with equal facility.
"This Charming Man" (Hatful of Hollow, 1984)
Few Smiths songs commensurately occupy the sunshine and shadows like "This Charming Man" — and there's certainly competition by the dozens.
Dig Rourke on "This Charming Man," right in the pocket, laying down that bum-bum-bum, bum-bum-ba-bum rhythm also heard in Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life."
"Handsome Devil" (Hatful of Hollow, 1984)
Another great one from the aforementioned Peel Sessiont features a bass-walking Rourke pushing the rhythm forward with authority while never stepping on any of his bandmates' toes.
"Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" (Hatful of Hollow, 1984)
Another Smiths desert-island cut, with Rourke at his most effervescent and pointillistic; his bassline not only adds rhythmic and melodic shape, but texture.
"Well I Wonder" (Meat is Murder, 1985)
The Smiths' second album, Meat is Murder, boils over with indignation. On "Well I Wonder," Rourke plays roiling chords on the bass and provides a great deal of the song's emotional tension.
"Frankly, Mr. Shankly" (The Queen is Dead, 1986)
Arguably the Smiths' zenith, The Queen is Dead captures the band at their most majestic and downcast, as well as lighthearted and satirical. Rourke's stuffed-shirt bassline to the finger-wagging "Frankly, Mr. Shankly" recalls the Kinks, but also slouches toward reggae.
"Cemetry Gates" (The Queen is Dead, 1986)
It's difficult to imagine "Cemetry Gates" without Rourke's burbling bassline; his part practically captures the song in totality, and certainly helps define it.
"There is a Light That Never Goes Out" (The Queen is Dead, 1986)
Everything great about Rourke as a bassist is on full display on drop-dead Smiths classic "There is a Light That Never Goes Out." He supplies a massive part of the song's emotional architecture, and his fills on the verse practically put him in question-and-answer dialogue with Morrissey.
"I Started Something I Couldn't Finish" (Strangeways, Here We Come, 1987)
By keeping it simple when he needed to, Rourke also elevated the Smiths. The hard-rocking "I Started Something I Couldn't Finish" benefits from his wit and terseness on the bass.
While Strangeways, Here We Come ended up being the last-ever Smiths album, the title of this song belies that the album was, indeed, the most logical and satisfying finish anyone could hope for. And Rourke played a crucial role in taking their sound and vision to the finish line.
As Marr put it in his goodbye note to Rourke: "Well done Andy."
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Photo: Derek Blanks
Living Legends: Smokey Robinson On New Album 'Gasms,' Meeting The Beatles & Staying Competitive
Fresh off the MusiCares 2023 Persons Of The Year gala that honored him and Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson is out with his first album of new material in 14 years. 'Gasms' is about everything that lights up your brain.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com presents an interview with GRAMMY winner and lead Miracle Smokey Robinson, whose contributions to the American musical canon — chiefly via Motown — cannot be overstated. In 2023, he was honored alongside Motown founder Berry Gordy at the MusiCares Persons Of The Year Event. Robinson's new album, Gasms, is available now.
Smokey Robinson listens to everyone. If you're on the radio, he claims, he's heard you. It doesn't matter your age, or your genre — as the 83-year-old is still in the ring, he intends to keep his gloves up. "I'm not a prejudiced musical listener," he tells GRAMMY.com. "I've got to compete with them. I've got to know what they're doing."
In the middle of a question about who, specifically, he's enjoying from the new guard, his rep's drive through a tunnel abruptly ends the call. But the Miracles and Motown star's assertion checks out — partly on the strength of his new album, Gasms, his first album of new original material since 2009.
On hot-and-bothered highlights like "I Wanna Know Your Body," "Roll Around" and "Beside You," God's gift to green eyes — to borrow a phrase — proves his writing, vocal and performance abilities remain undimmed.
"My thoughts on it is that you can put it on and be with the person that you want to be with and just kick back and enjoy each other," Robinson told the AP. "It's more of the idea of love."
There's a lot of chatter about Gasms. Of course, that's by design, and Robinson's OK with the album title subsuming the conversation. (When asked about the central thesis of the record during its conception, he responds with one word: "Controversy.")
But by Robinson's assertion, Gasms refers to anything that makes you feel good, and the high-thread-count music signifies far more than horny man is horny. It's a treat to hear that the GRAMMY winner responsible for innumerable culture-shifting classics — who has been around long enough to have met the Beatles when they were playing basements — is still a force.
With the 2023 MusiCares Person Of The Year gala, which jointly honored Robinson and Motown founder Berry Gordy, in the rearview, GRAMMY.com sat down with the man himself about his past, present and future. The results might give you a… well, you know.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did it feel to be honored along with your best friend, Berry Gordy, at the MusiCares Persons Of The Year 2023 gala?
That was a wonderful experience. They had never honored two people at the same time, and for me to get honored with my best friend like that — it was an extraordinary night.
When you met all those years ago, was there any inkling your relationship would stretch so far into the future — and impact the planet on this scale?
You can't tell about people and relationships, man. We just struck up a relationship. And we were good in the very beginning, and it just lasted. I couldn't be with him then — or he with me — and say, "Oh, well, this is gonna last forever," like it has, because you just never know. Fortunately, for us, it has, and we're still best friends.
How do you keep a relationship like that going on such a grand scale for decades and decades?
You know, people have asked me that many times. Sometimes, it's six months and I don't even talk to Berry. But when I do, he's my best friend, and I'm his best friend. It's never "Let me get to know you again, or feel you out," or any of that. There's none of that happening.
As you've stated, the title of Gasms isn't expressly sexual. Rather, it refers to any number of mindblowing experiences. What was the last big experience in your life or career that gave you a "gasm," as it were?
I've had so many of those. You know, gasms are what makes you happy, and makes you feel good. Recently, I had one when I did "American Idol," because I hadn't been in a long time. I was on the second panel for judges when Simon Cowell was there. I got a chance to see [judges] Lionel [Richie] and Katy [Perry] and Luke [Bryan], and it was a wonderful night.
I've been a mentor; I've been a judge. "American Idol" is one of the main state talent programs in the world, so it's a great thing for the kids. Because before they even made a record or anything like that, from the very first auditions, being seen by millions of people is a great thing for them.
Let's get to the ground floor of Gasms, when you first picked up a pen and made some calls and put together these songs. What was the central idea you wanted to put forth, musically and creatively?
That was it, huh?
To raise curiosity, and have people wondering what it was before they even heard it.
It seems you succeeded.
It worked. So I'm very happy about that, man.
How did you curate the accompanists and producers on Gasms?
Most of the guys are guys I've worked with all the time in the studio. I've been working with them for years, so I didn't have to get to know them. The main guy — my arranger, David Garfield — is a well-known jazz pianist who makes his own albums and stuff like that. We just got together and did the arrangements at the studio.
I'm sure you were raring to get back to original material, as wonderful as the old Miracles songs and your Christmas stuff is, and flex your songwriting muscles.
I write all the time, Morgan. It's something that I just do. It's not a conscious effort where I set aside some time to write or anything like that. It doesn't happen like that. For me, it just happens.
What are you working on lately?
Well, at the same time we were working on the Gasms album, we were working on one in Spanish. I've got two more songs I've gotta re-record for that. That's what I'm up to musically.
Is it a learning curve to record in another language, or are your Spanish chops sharp?
I've been learning Spanish for probably about a year. My housekeeper is a Spanish lady. She's from Guatemala, and she speaks four different languages, so she's been really helping me with it.
I'm not fluent in it where I understand everything. I watch the soap operas and news shows on Telemundo and stuff like that, trying to get better, but they're talking so fast. I try to get a word in every now and then and then try to pick out what they meant by the rest of the stuff.
But it's a great language, and I enjoy it very much, so I've been trying to write some songs in Spanish also.
Your voice is so pristine on Gasms. At times, it's like you haven't aged a day. How do you keep your instrument — your voice — sharp as the years and decades go by?
Well, first of all, I appreciate you saying that, man. Thank you very much.
Your voice is like your instrument, and if you take care of yourself, you have a better chance of it lasting and doing well for a long time. I don't think there's any secret formula — Lipton's tea with lemon and all that stuff like that. I've never done anything like that.
I just try to take care of myself. Occasionally, of course, your body will wear down and get hoarse, because you don't know how to play your instrument. I don't do any special stuff.
What are your habits, or what's your regimen, to keep your physical vessel in shape?
I think that the main one is yoga. I've been doing yoga for about 40 years, and I do it almost every day of my life. Then, I have workout programs I do. I have a half-hour workout program and then an hour one. At home, I do the full monte, because I can do everything; I have weights in the basement and so on and so forth.
When I'm on the road, I have a 45-minute regiment that I do most mornings, and it starts with stretching.
I really enjoy how you didn't feel the need to reinvent the wheel with Gasms. The songs could have been written 60 years ago or yesterday. What is it about the timelessness of songs about love, romance and sensuality?
Well, yeah, they all have a connotation; you can use your own ideas of what they mean. For instance, "gasms." That can mean whatever you want it to mean. I try to put that connotation in all of them, so whatever the person means, or who is the listener, it can be that for them.
Smokey Robinson performing in 1964. Photo: PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images
Speaking of timeless love songs, you play a huge role in the Beatles' rise. They worshiped you, and beamed you into millions of kids' heads via "You Really Got a Hold On Me" on With the Beatles. And you've covered them, too. Does it feel surreal to look back to your youth, and to these recordings, and say I wrote that?
You know, I don't think about that nowadays, man, unless somebody brings it up. It's not something I concentrate on, or anything like that, but it's a wonderful thing.
It was especially wonderful — back then, they were the number one group in the world — to pick one of my songs. They were great songwriters themselves. So, to pick one of my songs to record was especially flattering.
What are your memories of those guys?
Oh, they were cool dudes, man. I had met them before they became [Adds air of thunderous significance] the Beatles. We met them in Liverpool; they were singing in a little club down in the basement. They were good guys, and I especially got close to George while he was alive, you know? He was my closest friend in that group.
He sure loved you. He wouldn't have written "Pure Smokey" if he didn't. Can you offer more memories of George?
George was just a great guy, man. He was a nice man. He was one of those people that if you meet him, you like him.
With Gasms out in the world, what do you hope people take away from it?
Oh, take away some enjoyment. I hope they enjoy it with themselves, alone, and with others also. That's what I want them to take away from it. If I can accomplish that, then I feel that I've done what I set out to do.
What has been giving you "gasms" lately? What are you watching, reading or listening to that has been inspiring you?
I listen to everyone, man.
I'm a music lover, so I listen to all kinds of music. Especially when I'm in my car, and there's no telling what musical mood you're going to catch me in. Weeks happen where I don't listen to anything but classical — Chopin and Rachmaninoff and all that. Sometimes, I listen to hip-hop or jazz or alternative. I just love music, man.
What newer artists have you been checking out?
All of them, that are making music that I can hear on the radio. I listen to all of them, because I'm still making records, too. So, I've got to compete with them. I've got to know what they're doing. I'm not a prejudiced musical listener, whereas I think, OK, these are young people, so I'm not gonna listen to their music.
No, they're in the forefront of music right now. So I listen to everybody.
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'Let's Dance' At 40: How David Bowie's Biggest Album Became His Most Conflicted
On his 1983 album 'Let's Dance,' David Bowie wanted to create the decade's defining soundtrack. While incredibly commercially successful, the release left Bowie with mixed feelings. On its 40th anniversary, revisit the album's history and complexities.
"Fame puts you there where things are hollow," David Bowie sang on his 1975 first U.S. No. 1, a riposte to the superficial nature of celebrity he'd once so desperately craved. The phrase "careful what you wish for" could equally be applied to 1983's Let's Dance, which later thrust the 19-time GRAMMY nominee into his highest level of stardom.
The triumphant title track was a self-described "post-modern homage" to the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout" — its powerful vocal crescendo actually borrows from the Beatles' cover — and reached No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming Bowie's default floorfiller in the process. But for an artist always more interested in "nibbling at the periphery of the mainstream" than entering it wholeheartedly, this mainstream success presented a conflict.
Bowie's attempt to provide the mid-'80s' defining soundtrack arrived after a period of turbulence for the Thin White Duke. He'd left RCA after recording his 11th album for the label, 1980's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), suffered the tragic loss of his close friend John Lennon and began a feud with longtime producer Tony Visconti that would last a remarkable two decades.
You might have anticipated Let's Dance, therefore, to be something of a somber, soul-searching affair. Yet not for the first, or the last, time in his career, Bowie subverted all expectations. Instead, he delivered a pure party record specifically designed to take residence at the top of the charts.
Appointing Nile Rodgers — the GRAMMY-winning mastermind behind seminal albums by Sister Sledge and Diana Ross, as well as his own outfit, Chic — as producer was the clearest sign Bowie meant business. With the intention of creating a pure "singer's album," Bowie handed over all the instrumental duties to him, too.
Rodgers had been looking forward to venturing outside his Studio 54 comfort zone, and was taken aback to discover Bowie wanted more of the same. "I felt a little hurt, like after all of our conversations about music and freedom I was being ordered back to the hit-making plantation," he wrote in his 2011 memoir Le Freak. Rodgers soon came around to the idea, later telling the Guardian that an album cover in which a pompadour-sporting, red-suited Little Richard gets into a Cadillac was the starting point. The album was completed in just 17 days at New York City's Power Station studios.
Despite its chart-unfriendly lyrics ("Visions of swastikas in my head"), the Oriental pop of "China Girl" — a polished reworking of Bowie's contribution to Iggy Pop's 1977 classic The Idiot — added to his Billboard tally. So did opener "Modern Love," a meditation on faith which impressively manages to sound both incredibly effervescent and resolutely nihilistic. "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)," a retooling of his theme to Paul Schrader's same-named erotic horror, abandons Giorgio Moroder's brooding synth-based atmospherics for arena rock guitar licks courtesy of a then-relatively unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan. Fans remain divided as to which version is the definitive.
But Let's Dance is a more multifaceted body of work than its singles would suggest. "Criminal World" is a spirited take on the transgressive debut single from new wave outfit Metro (perhaps surprisingly for someone so famously open-minded, Bowie removes the original's bisexual overtones); the 60s-tinged falsetto pop of "Without You" and contemporary art rock of "Ricochet" exemplifies his ability to bridge the gap between the past and the future. Only closer "Shake It," a blatant retread of the album's eponymous smash, foreshadows the creative rut that would follow.
Bowie's profile was further bolstered by his embracing of the burgeoning MTV (while promoting the record, he called out the network for its snubbing of Black artists). Designed to highlight the disparity between Australia's Caucasian and Aboriginal communities, the striking promo for "Let's Dance" found itself in constant rotation, its depiction of an Indigenous couple's daily hardships and clever red shoes metaphor providing both substance and style. The From Here to Eternity-referencing clip for "China Girl" even beat Michael Jackson's blockbuster "Thriller" for Best Male Video at the inaugural VMAs.
This wasn't the only awards recognition Let's Dance received, either. Earlier on in 1984, Bowie earned GRAMMY nominations for Album Of The Year and Best Rock Vocal Performance Male for "Cat People," losing to the King of Pop on both occasions.
And then there are the figures. Let's Dance reportedly became new label EMI's fastest-selling since the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 16 years earlier, sparking a renewed interest in Bowie's back catalog — at one point he had nine entries in the UK Top 100, suggesting the record was a vital entry point into the far more weird and wonderful treasures lurking within his discography. Its current sales tally stands at a career best 10.7 million, firmly eclipsing the 7.5 million of closest challenger, 1972's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie wanted a juggernaut and he sure got one.
Of course, the press reception wasn't always as enthusiastic, with Robert Christgau, one of America's most esteemed music journalists, describing it as "pleasantly pointless" and the New York Times' Debra Rae Cohen arguing it was Bowie's "most artless" record to date. Yet the biggest critic of Let's Dance proved to be the man who made it.
Bowie first started to distance himself from the record in 1987 when he claimed Let's Dance was more Rodgers' vision than his, which the producer has since refuted. A full decade later, Bowie revealed the album's accompanying tour confirmed one of his biggest fears: "I was something I never wanted to be. I was a well-accepted artist. I had started appealing to people who bought Phil Collins albums."
Even more worryingly, Bowie acknowledged he'd stopped caring about his audience — which perhaps explains the existence of 1984 follow-up Tonight, a surprisingly throwaway record which he'd eventually concede was the nadir of his career. "I really shouldn't have even bothered going into the studio to record it," he told Interview in 1995, also adding that he'd pandered to the success of Let's Dance and subsequently "put a box around" himself.
Reeves Gabrels, guitarist in the Tin Machine group Bowie put together to help restore his creative integrity, could vouch for such despondency, telling Uncut, "[David Bowie] felt he had lost his way after Let's Dance. He didn't like where he was going and wanted to change it, so Tin Machine fell on that grenade."
Bowie's attitude to his commercial heyday appeared to have softened since, however. He even defended Let's Dance in 1997, denying it was mainstream but instead a new hybrid which paired dance beats with blues-rock guitars ("It only seems commercial in hindsight because it sold so many," he said). Its big three singles were staples of his last major tour, A Reality, in 2004. And although he tried to shift the blame for its populist sound toward Rodgers, Bowie still asked the producer to oversee 1993's Black Tie White Noise, a much more experimental listen.
Perhaps buoyed by Rodgers' increased pop cultural cachet, Let's Dance has also received a critical reevaluation: in 2014, Rolling Stone hailed it as "the conclusion of arguably the greatest 14-year run in rock history" while four years later it graced Pitchfork's Best Albums of the 1980s poll.
Let's Dance could never be considered Bowie at his coolest. However, for a man who often thrived on contradiction, it’s perhaps fitting that the record he almost disowned was the one that connected the most.
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