Beck had originally attempted to record "Debra" with the Dust Brothers for Odelay
, but was either not happy with the recording, or felt it didn't fit on the album, or both. ("I thought it was too jokey," Beck once admitted.) But the song was a natural for the stage: "What happened is we started playing it live and it became the centerpiece of the whole set. It was the song that people would react to more than the songs that they'd heard on the radio. So we kept playing it and playing it." It took on a life of its own, and the energy that was breathed into the song was clearly noted. "I think its life began as being tongue-in-cheek and silly, but somewhere along the way, like the way we performed it every night, it acquired some other dimensions," Beck explained.
The album version does not compare to the excitement of live versions, which could and would go off on tangents on Beck and the band's whims. To many fans, having an "final" performance set on record is in a way a let down. Nonetheless, "Debra" still shows off many of those new dimensions, as well as some of Beck's greatests talents, including his "seventeen-octave vocal range," his humor, his natural ability with melody, his ease at absorbing influences. The song, as often thought, isn't a mockery either, but a tongue-in-cheek ode to the R&B phenomenon. Maybe it was borne as a bit of a joke, but it ended up more a tribute. Beck is a big fan of R. Kelly and the sexual R&B rappers. "It's fascinating to me, these guys singing R&B with a very sweet, smooth groove, but they're singing about how they want to get some girl's panties off and do them real good. Very explicit, but very sensitive at the same time. It's a really weird juxtaposition," Beck says. Musical juxtaposition is basically Beck's main theme in almost everything he does, so now it seems almost natural for him to dabble in this genre.
"Debra" has grown a lot over the years. One constant (besides the lyrics) is the skanky bass riff, which was lifted from a Ramsey Lewis track called "My Love For You" on his album Funky Serenity
. On record, Justin Meldal-Johnsen plays the lick on his upright. Other influences are numerous. I have a feeling that David Bowie's own Vultures
-soul record, Young Americans
, was a big influence on the sound here, especially the song "Win
." Beck has mentioned numerous times R. Kelly's song, "I Like The Crotch On You" being an inspiration, and lo and behold, one of the first lines of the song is "I wanna get with you." In the last few years, the "Lovely lady / Girl you drive me crazy" coda was lifted in from Kool Keith's "Lovely Lady." Beck of course uses these as launching points for his own tale of seduction.
Played live 271 times:
November 11, 1995June 5, 1996July 16, 1996July 21, 1996August 21, 1996August 27, 1996August 31, 1996September 2, 1996September 28, 1996October 11, 1996
...and 261 more
Earliest known live version: November 11, 1995
Latest known live version: September 15, 2016PRE-ODELAY STYLE
The live odyssey that is "Debra" began on November 11, 1995. Beck was playing a tiny 250-person club in his own backyard of Silverlake. "I'm a little bit uneasy about this," Beck announced, "but I'm gonna try something. It could be a disaster, so I'm just warning you! How many of you here are down with the slow jams? Who's got the get fresh flow
? This is straight-up soul for real. Jodeci. Men2Men." Beck then spent a few minutes getting his corny Casio beat pumping correctly, as well as applying an echo to his mike. "Alright, this is called 'I Want To Get With You And Your Sister, Debra'," he finally announced. With that, he began the first ever "Debra"! Instead of Zankou Chicken, he name checked Kentucky Fried Chicken, but otherwise, lyrically, the song was not far from how it is now. This version is pure energy and soul, the core of the song with no arrangement or work. PURE. Afterwards, Beck apologized to the audience. There's no way he could have imagined that this song would become a showstopping centerpiece of his concerts for years to come!
Beck does another early, Casio-based version on June 5, 1996. After a rowsing drum machine medley of "Diskobox
" and "High 5
," Beck busted out some soul, asking, "How many people in the house are down with R. Kelly?" This was one of the first real appearences of Beck's great falsetto, and it got much applause. He only did one verse (the first, and it's "cold chicken," still not yet Zankou) and chorus before deciding to cut it. He felt the need to excuse his indulgence, "I apologize if we freaked anybody out there. It was a nice pleasant gathering and I don't know what happened." He blamed it on his drum machine. At this point, Beck seemed quite eager to do "Debra," but he just needed to do some shows with a band before it could really take off!
ODELAY TOUR SHOW-STOPPER
Early on in the Odelay
tour, "Debra" was not a regular in the setlist, though it was rotated in and out. This did not last long.
One of the finest examples of the early "Debra" was on July 21, 1996. The song's familiar characteristics were now in place: the Ramsey Lewis bass lick, Beck's soaring falsetto, and a full band arrangement. Zankou Chicken was finally mentioned. The coolest thing about this version was the way the rhythm does not change, it hung on one funky groove. It was also highlighted by a lot of entertaining backing vocals from Smokey and Justin. The band was still not sure how to end it, and Beck just sort of expanded on the theme through the end—"Nobody has to know / We'll keep it on the down low / Ain't no use in wastin' no time in gettin' to know each other."
The crazy show on January 12, 1997 had a similarly wild "Debra." The band jammed for a good minute before Beck started singing. And sing he does! He blows this one out. Seriously. WOW, what a version.
Another landmark "Debra" was played on the final show of the Odelay
tour, which was filmed for the PBS television show Sessions on September 6, 1997. "Oh yea, I need a cold beverage. This is a song about a lady I met in Glendale, California," Beck began. This version was very layered, with a lot of effects, horns, and background vocals. Beck's falsetto was never stronger. The song ended quietly, after the second verse. No long improvisations on a TV schedule, but that made the performance much tighter.
tour versions were what made the song famous. People taken with the the album went to the show, expecting alt-rock or maybe folk or even some hiphop. That Beck showcased a huge Prince-style soul-bearing epic of seduction that wasn't on record was tantalizing in of itself. A huge mirrorball would spin as the lights went out. Beck's falsetto was mind-blowing. Nobody knew what "that one song" was. A few bootlegs surfaced, calling it "Slo-Jam" or "I Wanna Get With You." What kind of chicken is he talking about? Who is Debra? The mystery behind the song was a big key to its success. People familiar with the song were part of the secret club: fans who had been rocked by Beck in concert.
HINTS AT MIDNITE VULTURES
After recording Mutations
in March 1998, Beck took some time, did a short tour, and then jumped into recording Vultures
in July 1998. That short tour does accurately display the full, sexy funk and soul sound Beck would take into the studio for his next album. Especially
on the "Debra." The song's Vultures
arrangement has been set at this point, as the "lovely lady / Girl you drive me crazy" choir was added on this tour.
The "Debra" on June 10, 1998, was quite an odyssey. He began by shouting "Rock and roll orgy!" before a little seduction: "But you know today has been a good day. Had a nice piece of salmon for dinner and some ribbon bow pasta. Played some basketball with some kids from around the way." He went on and on. The long intro of the song was new, and would of course become a regular concert highlight for the next few years. On this night, he goes off on a bit about getting the gentlemen to cry realistic tears, which of course is from "Hollywood Freaks
"Debra" really has become an epic.
THE GREATEST "DEBRA" EVER
On November 28, 1998, Beck stopped in for his annual KCRW appearence. It was right after Mutations
had come out, and he had already been working on Midnite Vultures
for a few months. I believe it was the first time in awhile that he was playing with his regular band, and their chemistry during the whole show was just incredible. At the end of the show, a spontaneous, unplanned "Debra" busted loose. There was still the familiar bass, horns, and falsetto, but Roger's piano really filled the song out, and Smokey's acoustic guitar was a gorgeous
touch. The whole thing seems to me to be the perfect mix of humor and sleaze, structure and feel, tight but loose. At various times in its life, the song has leaned towards one side of these dualities?but tonight, it really rode the fine lines between them. At the time, a lot in this version was a surprise, but it turned out to be a preview of the Midnite Vultures
arrangement. Unfortunately, the acoustic guitar and piano didn't last. "Is this the same song?" Beck remarked afterwards.
MIDNITE VULTURES DRAMATICS
Out of all the songs on Midnite Vultures
, I think "Debra" was the one played at EVERY concert on the long tour. The stage performances almost became like musical theater . . . Beck even occasionally had a gigantic bed descended from the ceiling from which he could seduce the audience. Ad-libs were frequent—and Beck's so good at it, he could tell different stories every night, improvising and being smooth (December 9, 1999, in Seattle was a great one for this). Inspiration would come and go, of course. Sometimes he would go to the extreme, crawling around the stage in mock-heartbreak. Other times, the band would play it straighter, much like the record.
One fun example of his improvisational story-telling skill was on February 1, 2000, in Columbus, OH. Beck crooned and whispered, all the while staying within the general frame of the song/lyric:
You got something that I just got to get with
That quality a man looks his whole life for
That quality that makes him break down and...
You know what I'm gonna do for you?
I'm gonna pick you up after work
I know you been working hard all week
But I got a little bit of sympathy for you, girl
You come walking up through the parking structure
You got a run up your stocking
And your high heels are hurtin' your feet
I said, "Lady, step inside my Hyundai!"
I just had the hydraulics hooked up last Tuesday
Flippin' switches, shit's goin up and down and up and down and down and up
Throwin' it back in reverse and it's goin' back and forth
Goin' up and down and all around
Mmm, you like Italian food?
Too bad! I'll take you to the Burrito House
Yea, carne asada!
'Cause when our eyes did meet
Girl, you knew I was packin' heat...
This is the kind of thing Beck did throughout the Vultures
tour. Some days he spun elaborate tales with this framework, other times maybe he just did the "usual." Once he even went so far as to croon "I'm gonna take you to 2-for-1 Tuesdays to see Julia Roberts movies" (on March 11, 2000). He must really want to get with her!
AUGUST 2002 ABSURDITY
Throughout the tour of August 2002, people kept shouting out requests for "Debra." Beck kept admitting he "hated" the song, though in NYC he finally gave in and played it. It was alone on the keyboard, played slowly, and sounding very much like a sad dirge. Here's the August 18, 2002 version... it's quite absurd, really:
I wanna get with you, only you...I think her name was Debra
Sally had a sister named Debra living on the East Side
Living in a town on the East Side in a chateau, in a two-room shack
In an apartment building, mansion on the East Side
Living on the high side, riding on the low side, living on the other side, other side
Me and Debra, we got a thing goin' on... we got a thiiiing... and the midnight fire was burning!
Debra played football for the...Debra was a girl looked good in shoulder pads
Running with the big boys on the local team
She started by bringing water to the men on the field
Then she was running and playing tight end on the local team
People in the stadium cheering for the lady in the shoulder pads and the helmet
But Coach McKinley wouldn't give the girl a chance
"Give the girl a chance, take her off the bench. Let her show what she is made of."
It was steel mill town in the rain and the fall and the turbine engine
Standing in the frost of the heat wave, midnight fire! Ohhhhhhhhhhhh yea!
I wanna get with you ooh ooh ooh
Debra was running on the team...shit, you know the story
The best player = neck injury, send in Debra, two minutes left in the game, three downs
She's going wild, she's going wild, she's going wild
I said she's gonna go real wild, she's gonna go even wilder than that
Meanwhile Debra... she had a little dream to play football and she's playing for the local team
Needless to say, she won a big game, she caught a big pass
She made the big move, she made the touchdown
All the fans run around and the cameras and the flash bulbs flashing
What about me? Sitting in the bleachers wondering if she remembers me
And her sister, Jenny... don't forget about Jenny
Even though you got sidetracked into the game and the championship
And the trophies and the all big endorsements - Gatorade and Fila!
Don't forget about me and Jenny
I was standing in the parking lot waiting for her
Wind was going down, my shirt was sticking, ripped abs
Cut to a shot, she's coming back, she's still got the grease paint on her eyes
"Hey baby, I know you made it in the big time
Remember the steel mill town, remember the way we used to live
Don't you want to go fooling around in a big black pick-up truck?
And take it to the East Side 'cause this is how we do it..."
All the neighbors, we got much flavor
Doesn't need a driver, take the keys to my truck
I said "I wanna get with you, but do you want to get with me?"
Do you even know how to get with me? Let me spell it out to you
J-E-N-N-Y and Debra, take a little ride
I wanna get with you ooh ooh
I wanna get with you, only you and your sister
I think her name is Sally
A few nights later, he did a similar thing in Dallas. It wasn't as long or as focused as the "Big Game" one, but Beck takes her through Dallas, the pilates center, her late night flights to Cairo, 2-for-1 Thursdays, and Jenny being on the Dallas hockey team. Another surreal version was on March 31 2003, where Debra likes to arm wrestle, grows a mustache and changes her name to Byron. Beck then sings about the farm he works raising crops.
Beck toned the absurdity after that, in 2003.
DEBRA THE FOLK SONG
Then on June 23, 2003, Beck heard someone shout out "Debra" as a request during his acoustic set. So he did it. While some of the absurd ones were also solo, this one is performed straighter--as more a folk song. He wouldn't do this regularly until a few years later on the Guero/Info
In 2005/2006, Beck would take to playing the song acoustically fairly often.
IMPROVISED BAND JAMS 2009
After resting the song for most of the Modern Guilt tours, Beck played it a couple of times with his band right at the end of the tour (the Japanese leg of 2009). The first was at the request of fans, and was not on the setlist. The band hadn't even rehearsed the song, they just went for it anyway.
Beck performed "Debra" at most shows in 2014. Overall, it was pretty 'straight,' or as straight as 'Debra' can be, following the album version through, except with space for Beck to improvise and tell long stories at his whim. However, night to night, the song changed quite a bit. Sometimes Beck would skip sections, move sections around, forget to sing the chorus, etc. It was all quite mad, but super fun. This allowed the band to really show its chops too, following Beck's moods and tales.