Single Stories: David Bowie, “Beauty and the Beast”
39 years ago today, David Bowie released a single which – despite being a fantastic track – seemed designed not to charm listeners but to sonically assault them.
Taken from the 1977 album HEROES, “Beauty and the Beast” was composed by Bowie, who also co-produced the track with longtime collaborator Tony Visconti. Robert Fripp of King Crimson serves as the song’s lead guitarist, and he’s joined by Brian Eno on synthesizer, along with Bowie’s regular rhythm section: George Murray (bass), Dennis Davis (drums), and Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitar).
During a 1978 television appearance in Germany, Bowie introduced “Beauty and the Beast” with the words, “This song is somewhat schizophrenic in nature,” thereby setting off a flurry of theories about the meaning of its lyrics.
The Bowie blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame has this to say about the song’s words and music:
Bowie’s songs from 1966 to 1975 are filled with intricate, at times bizarre structures: a trifle like “Join the Gang” has five key changes; the dippy blues “The Gospel According to Tony Day” has a thirteenth in it; “Changes” is a tumble of altering time signatures; the Space Oddity LP has so many augmented and inverted chords it seems to have been designed as a guitarist’s advanced training module. By the time he wrote “Beast,” Bowie had discarded this type of songwriting (whether because he couldn’t do it anymore, or was just bored with it) to concentrate on establishing a groove and directing a series of actions to play out over it, whether an odd vocal or one of Fripp’s Eno-fied guitar solos. Bowie’s lyrics had changed as well: no more characters or fractured stories, just a series of non-sequiturs and cryptic jokes that sang well together (Tony Visconti’s regular curse of exasperation during the LP sessions—“someone fuck a priest!”—inspired one of the best lines).
Although “Beauty and the Beast” was hardly the harshest single to be released in 1978 – it was the waning days of punk, after all – it still wasn’t what you’d call a radio-friendly pop hit. Although it did manage to crack the UK Top 40, it only just did, stalling at #39. Still, the song continues to pop up on the odd Bowie best-of compilation now and then, and if nothing else, it’s admirable that Bowie released “Beauty and the Beast” as a single at all.