Story of the Song: ‘Jump They Say’ by David Bowie

From The Independent archive: Robert Webb on ‘Jump They Say’ by David Bowie

Friday 29 October 2021 21:30

David Bowie's half-brother, Terry Burns, was nine years his senior. Despite Terry's schizophrenia, or perhaps partly because of it, he was an early hero for the singer. In 1970, Bowie wrote a song for his brother, who had been admitted to Coulsdon’s Cane Hill Hospital. “All the Madmen” is as drowsy as a dose of Librium and helped launch Bowie's first album of the Seventies, The Man Who Sold the World.

Terry had strolled out of Cane Hill on 16 January 1985. At Coulsdon South station, he lay his head on the freezing track, facing away from an oncoming train. Bowie, determined not to let his brother's suicide be reduced to a few tabloid column inches, stayed away from the funeral.

Eight years on, he was able to confront the death. “Jump They Say”, the lead single from his Nile Rodgers-produced album, Black Tie White Noise, crackles with a restless energy. Amid a squall of guitars and bleating saxophone, it's as unsettling as “All the Madmen”. The lyrics describe a man climbing a spire: “They say, he has no brain / They say, he has no mood / They say, look at him climb / They say, jump.” It was, said Bowie, “semi-based” on Terry “and probably for the first time trying to write about how I felt”.

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