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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Ricochet

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Beginning from the album Lodger, Bowie starts to take a more positive outlook on life. Life can be lived happily ever after, if you stick to the ch-ch-ch-changes ethics – that is, if you keep moving from place to place, both physically and mentally, and don't remain stuck in a routine. The track 'Repetition' shows what happens when you do get stuck in a routine, depicting a man who works a nine-to-five job that he hates and then comes home and unloads his frustration by beating his wife. The ch-ch-ch-changes lifestyle is supposed to ensure that such horrors will not happen, but in 'Modern Love', the opening track of Let's Dance, we see Bowie feeling that this lifestyle has now also become routine for him. The album provides a solution to the problem, finding how to turn repetition into joy as you learn to enjoy the rhythms of your body and your life. But this album too contains a track that shows what happens when you fail to do that. The track is 'Ricochet'.

'Ricochet' is still a rhythmic track, but the rhythm isn't funky and joyous but rather mechanic and oppressive. This is what rhythm becomes to the people who don't know how to dance to it and enjoy it. In the lyrics, Bowie returns to the heroes of 'Repetition': the hard working people stuck in routine jobs.

Like weeds on a rockface waiting for the scythe
Ricochet - ricochet
The world is on a corner waiting for jobs
Ricochet - ricochet
Turn the holy pictures so they face the wall

Bowie is describing the regular folks in one of their usual activities: seeking a job, waiting for an opportunity to find something they would be happy with. For most of us it is a self-evident part of life, but Bowie sees this as if we are just weeds waiting to be weeded out by a scythe. The people he is singing about are not living life the way it should be lived. As the music imitates the sound of a busy factory, those people become mere ricochets of our industrial world. They exist for it, instead of it being there for them. Bowie begs us to turn the holy pictures to face the wall, so they would not have to witness such a world. Meanwhile, a voice that sounds as if it is coming over a communication device recites "and who can bear to be forgotten", words that sound vaguely familiar to anyone versed in English poetry.

March of flowers, march of dimes
These are the prisons, these are the crimes

Bowie describes daily life as a march, where people are going into factories that are like prisons. Then, the mechanical voice returns, saying:

Men wait for news while thousands are still asleep
Dreaming of tramlines factories pieces of machinery
Mine shafts things like that

And now there is no doubt what this voice is meant to invoke. In a celebrated 1936 documentary film called Night Mail about the mail train from London to Scotland, the train is presented as a precious vehicle connecting between people (including those who live in distant farms), bringing them the letters of their loved ones and all sorts of other information about the world. The film ends with a poem written by W. H. Auden and set to music by Benjamin Britten (both commissioned especially for the documentary), in which the narrator assumes the rhythm of the train as he reads the words describing the train's activity. The train travels in the night while the people are sleeping, and the poem ends with the words "Thousands are still asleep / Dreaming of terrifying monsters, / Or of friendly tea beside the band at Cranston's or Crawford's: / Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh, / Asleep in granite Aberdeen, / They continue their dreams, / And shall wake soon and long for letters, / And none will hear the postman's knock / Without a quickening of the heart, / For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?" The voice on Bowie's record paraphrases this part, talking in a very similar intonation, strengthening its connection to the modern industrial world.

But it is an ironic paraphrasing. Auden's poem and the movie celebrate the modern world and its technology for its power to connect between all people, to ensure that no one feels forgotten. Bowie's song shows that it has the opposite effect, making people feel alienated and insignificant, and the voice (that probably comes from their radio sets) reciting poetry only seems to mock them. The industrial world takes over them so much that even their dreams are only about it, as if they have become soulless robots. Auden's poem describes them as dreaming of monsters, but then waking up to a better reality as the mail train brings them words from their fellow humans. In 'Ricochet' it is the train and all other machinery that are the monsters, and there's no escape from them even in dreams.

March of flowers, march of dimes
These are the prisons, these are the crimes
Sound of thunder, sound of gold
Sound of the devil breaking parole
Ricochet - it's not the end of the world

The modern world may have put the devil in chains for a while, brought freedom and autonomy to humans. But now it seems to enslave them again, and the devil is once again free to do his work. But it's not the end of the world. As Bowie shows elsewhere on the album, there are still ways to be free.

Sound of thunder, sound of gold
Sound of the devil breaking parole
These are the prisons these are the crimes
Teaching life in a violent new way
Ricochet - ricochet
Turn the holy pictures so they face the wall
And who can bear to be forgotten
And who can bear to be forgotten

Reshuffling the lines a bit, and adding one new line about the way this modern world is teaching as to live in a new way. This teaching is described as violent, not something that is natural to humans but something that is enforced on them. From here on, the record continues with the all-consuming march of flowers and dimes, while the mechanic voice adds a few more devastating lines about the condition of the regular folks:

Early, before the sun, they struggle off to the gates
In their secret fearful places they see their lives
Unravelling before them

That's how their day of works begins, and when it ends…

That's when they get home, damp eyed and weary
They smile and crush their children to their heaving chests
Making unfulfillable promises
For who can bear to be forgotten

The message of this record was already quite a cliché in 1983. It's hard not to think of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (released over half a century earlier) when you hear it. It isn't new to Bowie's work either. In 'All the Madmen' he was already mocking the "normal" people who are being sent away "to mansions cold and grey" and toil away their life. The difference is that in this time in his life Bowie believes that there is a way to live in this world and be happy. You don’t have to destroy this world as Metropolis shows, and you don't have to drop out of it like the hero of 'All the Madmen' does. You can stay in this world, and learn to turn its rhythms into joyful dance and play. That is what the Let's Dance album is trying to say.

The movie Night Mail, with Auden's poem (starting at 19:22):

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