David Bowie has died, and the Internet is awash with praise for the man and his music, and rightfully so. Bowie cast a shadow over late 20th century music and pop culture so large, that’s hard to put it properly in perspective. Of course, there are one or two wingnuts and sourpusses that want to transgressively call the man’s status into question or say his music wasn’t that good anyway.
Since arguing with trolls is a surefire waste of time, I won’t bother to make some laundry list of the man’s accomplishments. Instead I’ll just use one small example as a way to show the extent of his influence on 20th century music.
For fans of Jamaican music, the song “Under Mi Sleng Teng” by Wayne Smith, which came out in 1985, was a line in the sand: the end of the roots reggae era and the beginning of the primarily digital-based music known as dancehall reggae.
The song was based on a rhythm track preset on the Casiotone MT-40 keyboard called “rock.” Essentially keyboardist Noel Davey just hit play on the rhythm preset and then comped some chords on top of it.
The song was an immediate smash and prompted a flurry of songs with either a new vocalist on the same rhythm track (phonetically known as a “riddim”) or on a recut version of the riddim by other musicians. There are hundreds and hundreds of versions of songs on the Sleng Teng riddim, and as a whole they make up some of the more beloved songs in the last 30 years of Jamaican music history.
In addition, the song changed the entire course of the Jamaican music industry, with one or two keyboard savvy musicians building riddims from scratch replacing entire bands. Live musicians would never be phased out of reggae completely, they would just no longer be the primary component (it’s worth watching live footage from the early 90’s, like Bounty Killer and Beenie Man at Sting in 1993, after the digital era has been firmly established, and watch how the live bands function is now to mimic these digital keyboard riddims).
Ok ok, you say, but what does this have to do with David Bowie?
Well, in the last few years, there has been a reexamination of that era of reggae and specifically the Sleng Teng riddim, notably starting with Wayne Smith’s death in 2014. Last month, there was a very good article on Sleng Teng that featured quotes from the creator of the Castiotone MT-40 “rock” preset, Casio’s Product Development and Music Engineer Hiroko Okuda.
In the article, Okuda disabuses the myth that the track was based on “Something Else” by 50s rocker Eddie Cochran (a rumor that has been repeated so many times it has become canonical) or on “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols:
Despite revealing to Engadget that the Eddie Cochran and Sex Pistol rumors are false, she did admit the preset was based on a rock track. A British rock record from the 70s is all she would confirm. “You would immediately notice it once you hear the song.”
I don’t have contact information for Hiroko Okuda, but I am positive that the track she is referring to is “Hang Onto Yourself” by David Bowie.
If there’s another “British rock record from the 70s” that sounds more like Sleng Teng, I’d like to hear it.
So, the history of the song that started a new era in Jamaican music can be traced back to David Bowie. I’m not saying this is anything more than an accident of circumstance, but I have a feeling that the more one examine’s Bowie’s career, the more such accidents one will find.
I have no doubt that Bowie intended that riff to be a 50s homage and most likely DID lift it from Eddie Cochran. At the time, Bowie was developing his Ziggy Stardust character, which was essentially a 50s rock and roller transported into a sci-fi milieu, and one of his main reference points was 50s rocker Vince Taylor. Perhaps not coincidentally, the first demo Bowie recorded of the song was done the night he met rocker Gene Vincent in Los Angeles.
Interested parties can get at me on twitter @pgunnNYC.