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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Bombers

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This hysterical number was initially track-listed for Hunky Dory, but ended up as an outtake. Is it just a throwaway novelty piece, or does it fit with the philosophy of the album? Let`s find out…

All clear wail the sirens
Sunshine on the wasteland
Old man sitting in the white sand
Think we`re in for a big surprise,
right between the eyes

This is a real rarity in Bowie`s work: a record that begins with the chorus, not the verse. And the chorus seems innocuous at first: some old dude is sitting in the middle of the wasteland, apparently doing nothing. We get a hint that there`s some war action going on, but apart from that it seems like a picture of serenity.

Seemed a good idea
to drop a bomb on the wasteland here
Only one man could be seen,
and he was old and so serene
Captain sat in his deck chair,
and the red light flashed "beware"
Pilot felt quite big-time
as the bomb sailed through the air
Well, they danced and sang
when the bang went bang
When the lights popped out
and the smoke began to clear,
it was positively queer!

The first verse shows the human race in its lust for war. Apparently the "all clear" siren at the beginning marked the end of a war, which left some bombers up in the air before they could drop their load on the enemy. Just like the soldier in `Running Gun Blues`, they cannot handle it – they are lusting for something to bomb, and prevented from satisfying it by dropping a bomb on the enemy, they settle for bombing the wasteland. They know this will blow the lonely old man to bits, but he is insignificant, so they drop the bombs and feel the rush of power. But then the smoke clears, the chorus returns, and, guess what...

It is the same chorus. The old man is still sitting there, unharmed. The bombs could not change the initial picture.

This is why this record begins with the chorus. In Bowie`s other records from this period there is always some plot, some transformation that occurs from the beginning to the end, from first verse to last. Everything in human existence is always shown to be impermanent, and the most striking image of this impermanence in Hunky Dory is when he likens existence to `Quicksand`. But here, on top of the moving sands, sits something stable. The chorus represents something constant in our world, something that is stronger than the sands of time, something that remains persistent from the beginning of the record to its end.

"Die" said the General,
"cobblers" said the man
So the Pentagon sent a cable,
and the Queen a telegram
A-bombs, H-bombs, even very small ones
Ripped apart that sand
`Til the stench was just revolting,
and the sky a greenish tan
But the soldier said "Sir,
there`s a crack in the world"
And the figures went "squash",
and the bits flew far and wide
How the universe sighed!

The humans are unable to deal with the situation. They believe that they have the power to control reality and transform it as they wish, and the existence of this old man offends their vanity. They try every method and weapon in their arsenal to beat this constant nuisance into submission and end up destroying their own world in the process, but to no avail. The chorus returns, and we learn that the old man survived even the explosion of planet Earth, and keeps laughing at us. The man symbolizes a constant feature of our existence, something we cannot change. But there is something more about him, as we find at the end:

When the smoke had blown away,
there was nothing left to view
Except a man, dear Lord!, he looked like you
Floating high,
up in the sky

'Bombers' is a comical record, so we tend not to take it seriously. But we must remember that for Bowie, comedy is serious business. The clown in his work is someone who presents a mirror image to society, compelling us to look at ourselves. Here he does it by suddenly making the listener part of the story, telling us that the old man is actually the mirror image of every one of us. In other words, there is something in us that is stronger than the quicksand, stronger than all the transformations, something that can defeat and transcend everything. What is that thing? This is what Hunky Dory aims to find out.

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