❉ Welcome artefact of Apocrypha in the Bowie canon, or barrel-scraping exercise?
You have to hand it to Cherry Red Records. An independent label in its truest sense it’s a byword for the unfashionable, uncategorizable and under-appreciated. In We Are Cult’s lifespan thus far, we’ve batted our eyelashes and coo’d appreciatively at their repackages of everything from folk-proggers Gryphon and pop-classical powerhouse Sky to fly-by-night pop sensations of yesteryear such as Mungo Jerry, Rick Derringer, Fox and Hello not to mention exhaustive box sets celebrating the esoteric and uncelebrated corners of glam rock, punk & new wave, European electronica, Manchester pop & rock, via camp pop icons such as Dusty Springfield, Bananarama, Haywoode and Martika. Always lovingly compiled, curated and packaged, with none of the overwhelming sense of “Will this do?” that major label’s honour-bound, reissue programmes often invoke.
As such Cherry Red’s releases have always enjoyed a welcoming home within the pages of We Are Cult; the label and its subsidiaries share with us an affection for the wayward, underrated and downright leftfield. Each month’s release schedule brings a fresh batch of curios that disregard genre boundaries and critical consensus alike.
This month sees an addition to the Cherry Red catalogue that I certainly never saw coming – the soundtrack to Just A Gigolo, David Bowie’s uncelebrated (least of all by the man himself) second feature film lead role, making its CD debut a little under 40 years since it sneaked out on vinyl to mass indifference.
As a die-hard Bowie collector and completist, a battered copy of the LP can indeed be found on my shelf, but I could count the number of times it’s graced my turntable on one hand with fingers to spare; as an increasingly cynical Bowie collector I confess that upon learning of this album’s re-release on shiny disc I was sure I could hear something that sounded distinctly like the sound of a barrel being scraped. In some ways, it’s a not entirely surprising choice for excavation: There’s currently not a single aspect of Bowie’s life and career that isn’t being reassessed or reappraised, like an extensive pop cultural autopsy, from essay-length blogs on Bowie’s bulge in Labyrinth and his dalliances with underage groupie Lori Mattix to a prime time BBC magazine programme devoting sizeable airtime to the years when he couldn’t even get arrested; while the onslaught of literary Bowieology (always a thriving cottage industry) continues apace, ranging from the essential (Will Brooker’s Forever Stardust, Chris O’Leary’s Ashes To Ashes and Susan Campo’s Earthbound being notable examples), to the fanciful and downright disposable.
Any misgivings I had about this release attempting to cash-in on another gap in the Bowie market – the album boasts an “exclusive contribution” from Bowie in the form of him warbling wordlessly on his Jack Fishman co-write, The Revolutionary Song, one for completists everywhere – were suitably allayed by the CD’s 24 page booklet (including notation from Fishman’s son and Charlie Bridgen), a tribute to Cherry Red’s characteristic labours of love, and the presence of seven – count ‘em – bonus tracks native to this CD.
If you’ve made it this far without countenancing the existence of Just A Gigolo, you’re not alone. Unlike schedule filler staples Ziggy Stardust The Motion Picture and Labyrinth, the film has rarely troubled TV screens, last surfaced on UK home video in the early days of the VHS boom and can only be found on DVD as a European import. This means that it’s something of an anomaly in the Bowie canon: We all know that it’s reputed to be a terrible film, because everyone says so – one of Bowie’s most quotable quips was that it was “my 32 Elvis movies contained in one” – but Bowie fans and cineastes have had very little opportunity to make their own judgement.
This reviewer is not about to buck the trend and claim that Just A Gigolo is a lost masterpiece, but it’s significant to note that Bowie was always prone to rewrite his history and double down by deploying the ol’ ‘reverse ferret’ for projects he’d invested personally in that had subsequently borne the brunt of widespread disparagement and commercial failure – from the daffy, guileless The Laughing Gnome through to the ambitious folly of The Glass Spider Tour, by way of the dated but not half bad (no, honestly) Never Let Me Down.
In the case of Just A Gigolo, Bowie entered into the production with his usual buccaneering spirit, intrigued by the film’s setting of his adopted home city of Berlin, the film’s exploration of his title character – the rootless, inscrutable Paul, a former Prussian soldier of the officer class, cast adrift on the bankrupted streets of Weimar-era Berlin – and seduced by the opportunity to share scenes with the legendary Marlene Dietrich, persuaded by actor turned director David Hemmings (Blow-Up, Profundo Rosso) to come out of retirement for this one role. In 1979, Bowie told Valerie Singleton on BBC’s Tonight that Dietrich was “dangled out in front of me” but was crestfallen to learn shortly before production began that Dietrich would film her scenes in Paris, thus the rock star and the silver screen icon would only appear together through the post-production magic of split-screen editing. When asked what it was like working with her, the Dame quipped “I wish I knew, I must ask somebody that did work with her!”
Ultimately, his co-star would be a piglet called Blossom, that “kept shitting on me ‘cause I had to carry it around for four weeks and it really smelled to high heaven.”
In downtime between takes during filming, Bowie composed with the film’s musical director Jack Fishman (1920-1997) the only song on the soundtrack album that was not a Weimar Republic-era tune or jazz standard, the aforementioned Revolutionary Song. Bowie’s vocal contribution is a repeated “la la la”, and it enjoyed a single release in Japan credited to ‘The Rebels featuring David Bowie’. Bowieologist par excellence Nicholas Pegg observes that, rather than being a full-blooded Bowie collaboration, “it seems probable that Fishman was simply permitted to expand on what was no more than a doodle in order that he might boast a Bowie contribution in his soundtrack album”, while conceding that “the overall result is decent enough, evoking the same German pit band atmosphere as Bowie’s later ‘Baal’ recordings.”
And that’s really all you need to know. Elsewhere, the soundtrack album conjures up something of the atmosphere of more esteemed 1970s cinematic reflections on Weimar-era Berlin decay and decadence, such as Jack Fosse’s Cabaret and Visconti’s The Damned, or if we’re being generous, the goose-stepping oompah of Fiorenzo Carpi’s debauched Nazisploitation classic Salon Kitty. There’s reinterpretations of jazz age staples like Johnny, Salome, Black Bottom and Charmaine from retro revivlists such as Parkinson regulars The Manhattan Transfer, Pasadena Rooftop Orchestra and the Ragtimers.
More poignantly, Lili Marlene herself sings the title song Just A Gigolo, her last recording of her career, and spellbinding it is too – the sleevenotes dutifully inform the listener that two distinct translations of the song exists, the 1929 Austrian original Schoner Gigolo, Armer Gigolo, and Irving Berlin’s loose American rewrite; furthermore Louis Prima’s 1956 coupling of Gigolo with 1915 standard Ain’t Got Nobody became the ‘de facto’ version, and it’s with a bathos that seems entirely fitting with the film that the soundtrack album closes off with a disco medley of the two tunes performed by the none-more-1979 act The Village People.
An odd little album for an odd little film, yet divorced from the parent movie, the soundtrack is an enjoyable, intriguing, retro-nostalgic exercise in Weimar chic, overseen by Fishman’s son Paul, and worth the entrance price for the expansive sleeve notes alone, plugging yet another gap in the Apocrypha of the Bowie Canon. And to be fair, The Revolutionary Song is an earworm. Altogether now: “la la la la, la la la LA, la la la la, la la la la LAAAH”
❉ Just A Gigolo – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (CDMRED746) was released by Cherry Red Records, 15 March 2019. CLICK HERE to order!
❉ James Gent has contributed to several acclaimed publications devoted to cult and popular television including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die and is the co-editor of Me and The Starman, coming soon in 2019.