The Guitar Power Behind Bowie’s Thin White Throne
“YOU CAN’T find out anything about me,” Carlos Alomar says cheerfully. “In the last ten years, you will not find any pictures of me, you will not find any interviews, you will not find any press releases, you will not find any bit of information on me. Which is totally intentional on my part, because I don’t want that. I’ve seen all that do a number on David Bowie. I don’t want any of it.” Carlos Alomar?
If the name doesn’t ring any bells, perhaps the sound will. Remember the crisp, chunky guitar riff that Bowie’s ‘Fame’ was built upon? Carlos Alomar. The smooth, sinuous rhythm lick in ‘Golden Years’, the one that sounded like a James Brown groove encased in lucite? Alomar. As was the colder-than-ice chordal punctuation that made Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’ seem far more chilling than merely the notion of being “strung out in heaven’s high,” Or maybe you remember seeing him onstage with Bowie, tall, muscular and elegant in his Nehru-collared frock coat and domed hat. Maybe you chanced upon him a year ago, when he was touring with the Rumour-less Graham Parker, or the year before that, with Clem Burke behind Iggy Pop. Still, odds are that Alomar is just another name on a credits-list to you.
But Carlos Alomar is not publicity shy, he’s publicity smart. He hasn’t been hiding from the press, just biding his time; and now, with an armload of demos and plans to take Bowie’s road band into the studio for his own purposes, he’s ready to make his move.
For the moment, however, Alomar is more than happy to answer the $64 question: What’s it like working with David Bowie?
“It’s not like a regular session,” he says, “because at a regular session you have all the musicians there, you give ’em the charts, you know exactly what you want, and they do it. But David doesn’t have any idea of what it sounds like until you give it to him. Then when you give it to him, he knows that’s what he wanted.”
That sounds like an awfully vague way to go about recording, but in actual practice it’s not. “It’s all conceived and written and done in the studio,” Alomar explains. “We’d go in with three pieces — bass, drums and guitar — and David comes in, bangs a little on piano, puts a little something down on guitar, and that’s it. He just says, ‘I want something that sounds like this,'” — here Alomar hums a simple melody in straight quarter notes. “And we’d say okay, and do something like this,” he says, humming the same melody, but now heavily syncopated.
“We’d do different arrangements on it, see which one he liked. As long as we got the groove, the feeling of it, then we’d carry on with the balance of the song. So it’s a simple way of doing it, but it’s very strong, because at that point you can start developing the sound before everybody jumps in.”
Alomar is a firm believer in a lean sound for rhythm beds. “It makes it a lot easier, because when you’re working with just three pieces, you put down the basic parts and you have the whole song there,” he says. “Plus you have holes — you can hear them, as opposed to having everybody play at the same time, where it’s all cluttered up.” Of course, it has happened that when Bowie brings in the rest of the band to fill out the sound, some of Alomar’s parts are done over by another instrument, another player. “I do a lot of tracks that are being played by other people when I get the album,” he says. “See, we do a lot of tracks, and then we leave. Go home. Later, everybody else comes in and does what they have to do. So I’ve never met Robert Fripp, though we’ve both played on the same albums.”
Still, that’s not quite as distancing an experience as recording the “symphonic” material for Low and Heroes. Those tunes — ‘Warszawa’, ‘Art Decade’, ‘Sense Of Doubt’, ‘Neukolri’ — were recorded using scores, but not scores in the traditional “four bars after letter G” sense. “We put it down to a click track,” Alomar explains. “You start the tape, and all you have is, ‘One, two, three’ and they just count all the way up to one thousand if they want to. When part number fifty-five comes in, you play” — he hums a three-note phrase from ‘Neukoln’ — “and then wait until number one hundred sixty-nine comes in, where you play” — he hums a second phrase from ‘Neukoln’. “And that’s it — then you go home.”
He laughs, then adds, “When you finally hear it, you find this synthesizer part and all this other stuff there, and suddenly your part comes on and you say, ‘Was I playing that song? I don’t remember playing that.'”
Then there’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, where it looks as if somebody goofed up the credits listing. Alomar is listed on drums, drummer Dennis Davis is on bass, and bassist George Murray is gone altogether. “Well, what happened was, it’s a very off-the-wall type of song. When we started playing ‘Boys’, each of us were playing our appropriate instruments, and it really sounded nice, really smooth, really mellow. And David’s saying, ‘No, no, it’s not supposed to sound sweet, it’s not supposed to sound mellow, it’s not supposed to sound right. So Carlos, why don’t you not play guitar, which you play so well, and play drums, which you play terribly. And why doesn’t Dennis play bass, and….’ So he switched off all the instruments, and it sounded like a punk band, where it’s all out of tune and the drummer is falling around…and he says, ‘It’s perfect!'”
Alomar shakes his head, laughing. “That was David — it went down on wax. I’ll never forget it.”
Odd as that may have been, it was typical of what Alomar has gained from working with Bowie. “Playing with David, I’ve learned that a mistake is not a mistake,” he says. “That was a very rude awakening for me, because being the type of musician I was, I would never throw in a certain note with something, like a C# with an F chord. Because it’s wrong. But then David would come up to me and say, ‘That’s marvelous, that’s the note I want.’ That’s why, with David, he brings out a certain amount of ‘dumb’ parts and weird parts that I would never play, like on ‘It’s No Game’. Those are all clashing chords.
“Sometimes, you don’t need perfection — you need expression.”
Expression was one of the reasons Alomar wound up working with Bowie in the first place. “I was working with the Main Ingredient at the same studio where he was recording Lulu,” Alomar recalls. “I was working for RCA, and the studio musicians were able to play both sessions. They needed a guitar player for the Lulu tracks, he said, ‘Hey man, sounds real good,’ and I said, ‘Thanks a lot. You want to come to my house for dinner?’ So we hung out, and he invited me to do the Diamond Dogs tour.”
It sounds amazingly ballsy in Alomar’s description, but even at twenty-one he had a lot of experience to back him up. At fifteen, he was playing in a band that grew out of workshops at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem; their first gig was opening at the Apollo for Sly & the Family Stone. After that, he went on the road with the first Sesame Street tour (he still does a mean Cookie Monster). By seventeen, he was “working after-hours joints, plus playing the Apollo Theater, plus playing Amateur Night, plus thinking about getting married, plus going to school.” He smiles blithely. “I was a real active kid.”
Because of his R&B roots, he was instrumental in assisting the stylistic change between Bowie’s Diamond Dogs and Young Americans albums. “I was one of the people who helped put his finger on it,” he says of Bowie’s shift from glitzy rock to a cool, R&B-inflected sound. “But he already had a rearing in that kind of music. He had an extensive record collection, which included Aretha, Sam & Dave, the Stax things, all that stuff.
“But the influences he was able to get to do the albums were definitely mine, because when we were in the studio, all the people he used to get that sound were from my clique: Robin Clark, Luther Vandross, Anthony Hinton. So yes, I influenced him to do it in that R&B flavor.
“Still, he already had that thought in mind,” Alomar allows. “That’s why he wanted that Philly sound.”
One thing that ought to be cleared up is the credit for ‘Fame’, the biggest hit from the Young Americans sessions, and the single that truly established Bowie in the American mainstream. Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray of the New Music Express, in their picture book-cum-record guide Bowie, An Illustrated Record, claim that ‘Fame’ was built from “a grinding riff nicked from James Brown’s ‘Hot (I Need To Be Loved, Loved, Loved)’ by Carlos Alomar.” Indeed, the James Brown single features the Godfather grunting over the self-same guitar figure, with a release date roughly co-incident with the release of Young Americans.
So was it nicked?
“Naw. ‘Fame’ definitely came first,” replies Alomar nonchalantly. “‘Cause I know the musicians James Brown hired to cut the tracks. The thing was, the way they do it in the music industry, you let something happen and then if it hits, if something goes on, then you bring your lawsuit and do what you’re going to do. But nothing came of it, so David didn’t feel it necessary to take any action. But ours was definitely first.
“See, what happened was, I was playing that line on ‘Footstomping’, and David always liked it. But when we went into the studio to cover the tune, it didn’t happen the way he wanted it to, so he just salvaged the line. From there, I added other guitar parts until there were about six or seven of them, and then John Lennon came into the studio to do the intro and the middle section, some of the words, and that was that.
“It came off real…lopsided — it was cut up, put together, and finally developed just the way it was.”
In other words, just another day in the studio with David Bowie. •
CARLOS ALOMAR’S criterion for his stage sound with David Bowie is fairly simple: “When I strum my guitar,” he says, “I want to hear it come out of the amplifier just like on the record.” To get that clean, well-manicured sound, he uses an Alembic stereo guitar, outfitted with Dean Markley strings (usually .009s), run through two Roland Stereo Chorus amps, with two Ibanez UE-300 effect units, a pair of Yamaha E-1010 delays, and twin Electro-Harmonix 203 guitar synthesizers. He also uses a Stratocaster, a couple of Yamaha guitars, and a prototype Steinberger guitar which he describes as “great, it’s really great.”
© J.D. Considine, Musician, March 1984