"First We Take Manhattan" is a song written by Leonard Cohen. It was originally recorded by Jennifer Warnes on her 1986 Cohen tribute album Famous Blue Raincoat, which consisted entirely of songs written or co-written by Cohen.
The song's oblique lyric is suggestive of religious and End Time themes with references to prayer, meaningful birthmarks and signs in the sky. Ben Hewitt writing for The Guardian in 2015 drew attention to the lyric's apocalyptic nature, imagining Cohen "greedily eyeing world domination like a Bond villain". Rolling Stone magazine's Mikal Gilmore similarly described the song as a threatening vision of "social collapse and a terrorist's revenge". The Daily Telegraph's Robert Sandall likewise observed the prophetic character of the song, but emphasized the song's political statement, placing it in the context of the last days of the Soviet Union.
Cohen explained himself in a backstage interview: "I think it means exactly what it says. It is a terrorist song. I think it's a response to terrorism. There's something about terrorism that I've always admired. The fact that there are no alibis or no compromises. That position is always very attractive. I don't like it when it's manifested on the physical plane – I don't really enjoy the terrorist activities – but Psychic Terrorism. I remember there was a great poem by Irving Layton that I once read, I'll give you a paraphrase of it. It was 'well, you guys blow up an occasional airline and kill a few children here and there', he says. 'But our terrorists, Jesus, Freud, Marx, Einstein. The whole world is still quaking.'"
The original recording is notable for the distinctive driving lead guitar played by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Producer Roscoe Beck was from Austin, Texas and friends with Vaughan. In late February 1986, at the annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Beck asked Vaughan to record the guitar for the song. In a 2007 interview, Beck recalls that Vaughan did not have his guitar or amp with him, and used one of Beck's old Strats instead. After working on a few technical problems, the finished recording was achieved after two or three takes. According to Jennifer Warnes' official site, Vaughan finished recording his takes at 4 AM.
The music video for Warnes' version of "First We Take Manhattan" was directed by Paula Walker. Filmed in New York City, the video features Stevie Ray Vaughan playing his weathered "Number One" guitar (with its distinctive "SRV" logo) on the Brooklyn Bridge. Cohen also appears with Warnes in the video.
The album version of the song is 3:47 in length, whereas the single is 3:32 long. A promotional 12-inch single version, entitled "Jennifer Warnes — First We Take Manhattan, Radio Remix — featuring Stevie Ray Vaughan", contained extended and edited versions.
Leonard Cohen's own quasi-synthpop version of "First We Take Manhattan" (with additional verses) was released in 1988 as the first track on his album I'm Your Man. Cohen's then-girlfriend, Dominique Issermann, shot a black and white promotional video for Cohen's version of the track.
On his 1988 tour, instead of the original, Euro-disco-influenced arrangement of both his and Warnes' studio versions, Cohen introduced the new, funk-influenced arrangement, suggested by his backing singers Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen. He continued to perform the song this way in 1993, 2008 and 2009 tours.
Cohen's studio recording plays over the closing credits of the 2009 film Watchmen.
The song has been covered dozens of times. Most notably, R.E.M. contributed a cover for the Cohen tribute album I'm Your Fan. Their presence on the compilation led to a re-arranging of the I'm Your Fan track list. In the US release of the tribute, R.E.M.'s cover appeared as the first track, rather than House of Love's "Who by Fire" which was the starting track in all other countries. The song also appeared as a B-side on some versions of the single "Drive".
The German martial group Von Thronstahl samples the song in their song "Babylon the Great has Fallen" off of their Return Your Revort Into Style album.
|Australia (Kent Music Report)||32|
|Canadian Hot 100||43|
|Canadian Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks||6|
|UK Singles Chart||74|
|US Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks||29|
|US Billboard Alternative Songs||11|