David Bowie: Father Of The Sleng Teng Riddim

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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.

 

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About peter

musings about music, culture, food, and more... twittering, tumbling, and instagramming: @PgunnNYC http://axchem.tumblr.com/
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37 Responses to David Bowie: Father Of The Sleng Teng Riddim

  1. Russ says:

    Amazing. Thanks for that.

  2. guy says:

    Great journalism.

  3. true says:

    How is Bowie the father of the Sleng Teng riddim? This article assumes rather than states any fact…I think this needs to be cleared up….

    • peter says:

      True, until Hiroko says anything definite, it’s all speculation, but it sounds extremely close and fits the parameters she established as clues…

  4. catcorner13 says:

    Reblogged this on Cat Corner 13 and commented:
    excellent article, bien vu !!

    So come on, come on, we’ve really got a good thing going
    Well come on, well come on if you think we’re gonna make it
    You better hang on to yourself
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

  5. Interesting, yet there is a few other tracks that could fit the description of , one of them is “Exploitation” by Joy Division which came out 1979/1980. Somebody even remixed it with Sleng Teng to show the “possible” connection, check here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPY7REDVT7U

    • Singularity says:

      Deejay Detweiler´s the man!

      The song is called “Isolation”, not “Exploitation” btw:

    • “Isolation” sounds even less like Sleng Teng than their Joy Division’s own “Warsaw”. Which would be a British rock record from the 1970s (it was on their indie debut the An Ideal For Living EP released in 1978 and can be most easily found today as the opening track of the Substance collection). But the Bowie record would have been a much more well-known and is the closest sounding rock song to Sleng Teng I’ve heard yet. Good work.

  6. Reblogged this on Piglet and the Ogre and commented:
    I can hear Sleng Teng in there somewhere…
    #pigletandtheogre

  7. Yeah, Im going with ‘hang onto yourself’ until we hear a definitive no.

  8. Pingback: Party Radar: All the Bowie bashes | 48 hills

  9. Super intereesting!!! there is no evidence though…

  10. Pingback: Ist David Bowie der Vater des Sleng Teng Riddim?

  11. lovelylake says:

    Great story! I’m with you on this, pgunn, having just listened to the Deep Purple and Joy division tracks.

  12. Another strong contender from the engadget comment thread, though Im still hoping its Bowie. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_93kdv9rd4

    • peter says:

      one of my favorite Hawkwind tunes (ever since heard the Monster Magnet cover version when I was a wee lad), and the chord progression is very close, but it doesn’t have the rockabilly style natural 7 to root hammer-on that makes the riff sleng teng sounding…

  13. Eric Arnold says:

    hmm, assuming you are correct, wouldn’t that technically make Mick Ronson the slengfather? That would have been him playing that riff, not Bowie. i’m aware the song was originally released in ’71 with David playing acoustic guitar (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oi5R0ulokHE), but that version sounds less like sleng teng than the electric version on Ziggy Stardust.

    • peter says:

      most likely, yes, or perhaps it would make Spiders (and Arnold Corns) bass player Trevor Bolder the slengfather… But, as the person whose name goes on the record (and the “auteur” and presumed final arbitrator of sonic decisions), the credit would have to go to Bowie…

  14. tis song, “come on” proooooves taht tose buzzcocks were kopy katz

  15. michael says:

    This is a fantastic post. Thanks for the brain power. Seems like a very plausible theory.

  16. Timmah says:

    The other tracks cited as possible influences are interesting but wasn’t Bowie before them in the 70s? Therefore he could have influenced all other tunes mentioned. Seems obvious to me.

  17. Keith says:

    there’s also this Ramones riff (but of course bowie did it first): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maS68s9jpYo

    • peter says:

      very true, both Dee Dee Ramone and Sid Vicious put that bass line on many many songs… In Sid’s case on almost every song, if the live bootlegs from the ’78 US tour are anything to go on… 😉

  18. Adam says:

    I’m thinking Chickory Tip’s cover of Giorgio Moroder’s “Son Of My Father” might be the source, particularly given the strong keyboard connection with GM vs Bowie. Regardless, great story and interesting theory.

  19. Sleng Teng was inspired by Barrington Levi’s “Under Mi Sensi” which was produced by JAH Screw. And although the songs came out the same year 1985, Sensi was released first. Sleng Teng is just an electronic version of the “Under Mi Sensi” riddim…

  20. harrel says:

    Has anyone considered “I Just Want to Make Love to You” by Foghat?

    Check out the first 40 seconds… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziiDkT165zI

  21. Adam Chester says:

    Another contender: The Specials – Dawning of a New Era. Listen at 27.12

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