Released in April 1971
Recorded at Trident Studios, London
Running time 41:13
Perhaps even more overlooked than its predecessor, "Space Oddity", this was by far Bowie's "heaviest" album. Led Zeppelin and Free were strutting all around in 1970-71 so I guess Bowie felt the need to go heavy too. Pity that his reedy voice couldn’t really match the heavy backing in the way that Robert Plant’s or Paul Rodgers’ could, though. Nevertheless, this is still a little-mentioned gem. Musically it is excellent, Tony Visconti's production similarly so. Mick Ronson and Mick Woodmansey from the future Spiders From Mars are in place now, with Visconti on bass. This was, to all intents and purposes, despite the album's lack of hit singles, the start of Bowie's classic seventies period that would lead to super-stardom in a matter of years.
1. The Width Of A Circle
2. All The Madmen
3. Black Country Rock
4. After All
5. Running Gun Blues
6. Saviour Machine
7. She Shook Me Cold
8. The Man Who Sold The World
9. The Supermen
The album's music is a pretty relentless attack of blues rock mixed with a bit of slightly psychedelic folk rock. Mick Ronson's guitar leads the way with some excellent riffing and yes, Bowie's voice is affected and the lyrics often bizarre, psychological and futuristic but there is still a lot of appeal to the album's unsettling feeling. Apparently, according to Tony Visconti -
"the songs were written by all four of us. We'd jam in a basement, and Bowie would just say whether he liked them or not."
The impression was that Bowie would swan around, tired actor-like, coming and going and occasionally putting some idiosyncratic lyrics to the music. Bowie himself has disputed this, getting annoyed at the suggestion that he didn't write all the songs in their entirety, musically and lyrically. That said, however, he also said that the "Young Americans" album was created in a fashion similar to the one Visconti described, albeit with a probably more committed Bowie. Either way, I guess it doesn't really matter, because the finished product is actually highly cohesive and credible.
On to the music itself. The new 2015 remastering is top notch. It has a great bass sound on the wonderful, drawn-out intro to the truly magnificent, eight minute "The Width Of A Circle". This one of Bowie's first true drawn-out beguiling classics. The drums and Tony Visconti’s impressive bass are to the fore on this track. The powerful "Running Gun Blues", the metally "Saviour Machine”, with its odd “fade-in”, and the equally heavy "She Shook Me Cold" are slabs of powerful rock and the more recently iconic title track has never sounded better. Sharp as a knife, with that distinctive "cheese grater" percussion backing. The “pet subject” around this time, for Bowie, of mental health was covered in “All The Madmen” and the evocative “After All”.
"Black Country Rock" is frenetic and, six years ahead of its time, almost punky in its riffs. "The Supermen" is a mysterious, brooding, atmospheric track to end the album on. Bowie would return to acoustic, folky rock for the next album, “Hunky Dory”, and we would never hear him play material like this again.
Incidentally, I much prefer the black and white “high kick” cover that we had in the UK when this was re-released in 1972 to the “man in a dress” one now used. That was the one I grew up with, like the 1973 cover of "Space Oddity". Yes I know the picture is from the "Ziggy" era, but for me the album is always that black cover with the circle of vinyl wear showing through. That is how I remember is when I retrospectively got into it in the summer of 1973. The US cartoon-ish cover artwork featured opposite is, quite frankly, bizarre. Apparently, Bowie had used this image before, in his "Beckenham Arts Lab" days. The black and white cover seems to suit the album's ambience much better, I feel.