“Look Back in Anger” is an underrated Bowie song on an underrated Bowie album (Lodger) but it’s always been a favorite because of the fury and thunder of the backing band. And the MVP of that six person group is drummer Dennis Davis. A member of Roy Ayers’ jazz-funk group at first, he joined Bowie’s session/touring band during the Young Americans sessions and stayed through Scary Monsters. He’s that most perfect of drummers too: endlessly inventive, yet never gets in the way of the funk.
But this track might be one of his crowning achievements. A nervous, propulsive rhythm on the drums carries the song, doubled on congas/percussion, but producer Tony Visconti buries it in the mix a bit so it doesn’t overwhelm the operatic arc of the song.
Recently, Davis’ young son Hikaru has been making a video exploring his father’s legacy, after Dennis passed away in 2016. Which means that this adorable elementary school student has been sitting down with the likes of Bowie sidemen Sterling Campbell, Carlos Alomar, Jan Michael Alejandro, Emir Ksasan, and George Murray, along with Roy Ayers and the members of his band.
In the above video, Hikaru interviews Tony Visconti about the aforementioned track (the producer’s favorite) and we get to hear for the first time ever Davis’ isolated drum and conga tracks.
“He’s playing so many things at once…and yet it never sounds busy,” Visconti says.
Davis incorporated a lot of Latin influences and loved triplets wherever he could drop them in.
Visconti doesn’t really add much more. They, like most of you will probably do, just sit there and listen, jaws hanging open.
Because Davis is on pretty much every post-Spiders Bowie album of the ‘70s he really should be mentioned in the same breath as the Bonhams and Keith Moons of the world, but in the meantime here’s a few more classic Davis moments:
Although slathered with Brian Eno’s noise-gate treatments, Davis’ beat is solid and prominent on “Sound and Vision”
This live version of “Station to Station” from 1978 showcases what an unstoppable force Davis was live. Adrian Belew (King Crimson, Talking Heads) provides searing guitar work. Transcendent.
A classic track from Roy Ayers Ubiquity, heavy in the Afro-Cuban groove, and Davis is front and center.
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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.
Davis was also the drummer on Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”, and “Do I Do”, as well as on Jermaine Jackson’s one big hit, “Let’s Get Serious”. Davis is so sorely underrated and deserves his due, because he’s right up there with the Steve Gadds and Pat Mastelottos of the world. It’s wonderful that Hikaru and Nacho have been able to work together on this series.
I was in a Jazz 4tet with a ex Basie guy and whenever he was in town Minneapolis ,He would come out I’d let him sit in and Dennis played serious Jazz drums. Alot of guys sound stiff crossing over but he had a nice loose thing going. Sounded great and a great person.I’m sorry to hear he passed on so young.