The Original vs The Cover – “China Girl”

As everyone is aware, David Bowie had what is called his Berlin Era which was the time period between 1976-1979 when he lived in Berlin and recorded several albums including ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’.  During that same period, Iggy Pop was living in Berlin as well and the two got together and wrote the song we covering this month on The Original vs. The Cover.  That song is “China Girl”.

The Original version of this song is actually by Iggy Pop.  It was released by Iggy in 1977 on his album ‘The Idiot’.  David Bowie’s version didn’t come out until 1983 on his album ‘Let’s Dance’.  I will tell you that at the time of Bowie’s release I was completely unaware that Iggy had done this song 6 years earlier so I thought this was the original.

There has been discussion over the meaning of the song over the years.  One group believes the song is about a Vietnamese woman that Iggy was completely infatuated with.  Her name is Kuelan Nguyen.  The song is about his desire to be with her, but at the same time warn her of the problems of Western Civilization and the damage it can do as you can see with the line…”Visions of swastikas in my head”.  The fact the were in Berlin probably added to that commentary.

The other camp thought the song was about Heroin since the term “China White” is a term used to describe heroin.  The girl in the song was considered the Heroin and all the problems it can cause.  I can believe either version, but the truth is it was actually about the woman that Iggy was crazy about.  I prefer the love story over the drugs.  Now, let’s get to the music.

IGGY POP

Iggy Pop’s “China Girl” was actually produced by David Bowie and David played on it as well.  He played Keyboards, saxophone and even a little Toy Piano that you hear throughout the song.  The song didn’t really have much success for Iggy, but that wasn’t what Iggy was ever concerned about.

Iggy’s version is so rough and raw.  It is a much more honest performance and comes across so much darker than what David does to it 6 years later.  You can feel Iggy’s emotional connection to the song when he belts out the phrase…”It’s in the white of my eyes”…it is one of the highlights.  He just tears it up from that point on.

For the last two minutes of the song, you get awesome playing by Iggy’s incredible band he has set up for the song.  The band just jams with Bowie’s sax and keyboards and then the guitar playing by Phil Palmer and Carlos Alomar and rhythm section of George Murray on bass and Dennis Davis on drums.

DAVID BOWIE

David Bowie’s version of “China Girl” doesn’t really sound anything like the original.  The production is much cleaner and they took this dark song and turned into a pure Pop love song in a way that only David could do it.  The biggest difference is the oriental riff in the opening of the song and throughout.  That little change was actually a huge difference in the two versions.  According to Nile Rodgers, who produced the song (songfacts.com),…

…they had finished recording the song “Let’s Dance,” and Bowie game him a recording of the original “China Girl,” explaining that it could be a hit if they could come up with a hook. Rodgers went literal, playing off the word “China” to come up with the riff, which he knew bordered on parody. Said Rodgers: “David was either going to hate this so much he would fire me, or he was going to get the comedic value of writing this silly little poppy thing.”

Since the song came out in the middle of the rise of MTV, the video for this song fit perfectly with the song and the video had controversy which helped boost it even more.  There is a nude scene of Bowie and the woman in the song lying on the beach naked (homage to ‘From Here to Eternity’).  Several countries banned the video, but MTV took it on.  The video depicted an interracial couple which was Bowie’s statement against racism.

Fun fact, the song had a new up and coming guitar hero on it.  The late, great Stevie Ray Vaughn whose first album would debut just shortly after the release of this song.

THE VERDICT

The verdict comes down to pure preference.  Do you prefer the rough and raw version or do you prefer the poppier love song?  No matter which version you choose, David still wins as he was the co-writer and producer of Iggy’s and he was the co-writer and singer of the his own version.  You can’t go wrong with either.  Prior to writing and researching this I would have easily said Bowie’s version.

However, after careful consideration and numerous listens. I think I actually like the Iggy Pop version best.  I like more darker toned songs and I liked Iggy’s vocal’s performance more.  I also loved the little toy piano sound that would pop up through out the song.  And let’s not forget the two minute instrumental ending of the song.  All those things combined to make Iggy’s version tops in my book. It had more feeling and depth to the whole production.

Let me know what you think.  Tell me if you agree or disagree and why.  Can’t wait to find out your thoughts.  Have a great day!!

“China Girl”

I couldn’t escape this feeling
With my China Girl
I’m just a wreck without
My little China Girl
I’d hear hearts beating
Loud as thunder
See the stars crashing

I’m a mess without
My China Girl
Wake up mornings, there’s
No China Girl
I’d hear hearts beating
Loud as thunder
I’d see stars crashing down

I’d feel tragic
Like I was Marlon Brando
When I’d look at my China Girl
I could pretend that nothing
Really meant too much
When I’d look at my China Girl

I’d stumble into town
Just like a sacred cow
Visions of swastikas in my head
And plans for everyone
It’s in the white of my eyes

My little China Girl
You shouldn’t mess with me
I’ll ruin everything you are
I’ll give you television
I’ll give you eyes of blue
I’ll give you men who want to rule the world

And when I get excited
My little China Girl says,
“Oh Jimmy, just shut your mouth.”
She says, “Shhhh…”

Written by David Bowie and Iggy Pop

20 thoughts on “The Original vs The Cover – “China Girl”

  1. Excellent! Two good versions, but Iggy’s was the first version I heard and it remains my favourite. Like you say, it’s darker… edges a bit ragged and Iggy sounds a bit dangerous (as always!).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They are both great. I have never really listened to Iggy before this post, but listened to his version extensively and I was drawn to it more than Bowie which surprised me as I am a bigger Bowie fan. I actually have Bowie albums.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I have never really listened to Iggy either. But when I spent time with this song, there was so much more there that I loved than Bowie’s version. Big surprise for me to pick the Iggy version. When I picked this song I already knew I was going to pick Bowie.

      Liked by 1 person

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