Tuesday, 1 September 2020

David Bowie



"I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human. I felt very puny as a human. I thought, 'Fuck that. I want to be a superhuman'" David Bowie

Where do I begin with David Bowie? On the 6th of July in 1972 when I saw him on Top Of The Pops doing Starman. I was thirteen years old. He was completely new to me. funnily enough, I had no memory of Space Oddity from 1969, despite knowing a lot of chart songs from back to the mid-late sixties. That one had strangely passed me by. Now, in 1972, though, I was like many, fascinated by what I saw on the TV. Contrary to many people's experience, who found their parents despising him and his glam/androgynous appearance, my Mother loved him. A few months later I was really into the John, I'm Only Dancing single and my relationship with David Bowie was taking its first baby steps.

In December 1972, I have this memory (included in my Aladdin Sane review). The Jean Genie single, with its killer riff, had crashed into our collective consciousnesses back in those dark winter weeks. I distinctly remember one evening at my youth club in Aylesbury, Bucks and one of the other boys came running up to me, beside himself with excitement - "what do you think of David Bowie?" he breathlessly enquired. The boy was Pete Trewavas, later to achieve fame as the bass player in Marillion. Sorry about that anecdote but it is true and I always remember it. I went out and bought The Jean Genie the next day with my paper round money.

For more information on David Bowie's history at my local music club when growing up, Friars, Aylesbury, check out the excellent 

https://www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk.

Two other excellent blogs that discuss Bowie in detail are and may well be of interest are:-

https://davidbowiewordpresscom.wordpress.com

https://bowiesongs.wordpress.com

  

Do I really need to say any more about this remarkable artist who I stuck with, through his various changes of appearance and musical style for over forty more years until his tragic death on 10 January 2016. Several artists have provided a soundtrack to my life, not just David Bowie, but none so varied, so creative. He truly was one of the greatest artists of his time, or indeed of any time.

This is where it all began for David Bowie, initially with a seemingly endless supply of frankly bizarre, often child-like songs that did their best to hide his latent genius. A couple of perplexing years were followed by two excellent albums, however, which are now recognised as the truly beguiling pieces of work they were. Here we go, then - the great David Bowie, from the beginning.

Here I am then (sitting in my tin can) covering the first "proper" and admittedly rather odd offering from David Bowie, followed by the increasingly different Space Oddity and Man Who Sold The World albums. The notion of Bowie as a changeling artist began here....

David Bowie (1967)

Before we continue, I have to state that this review is just a matter of personal taste. As the owner of everything David Bowie has released in various formats, obviously, I felt the "completist" need to own this amalgamation of David Bowie's first album and several other previously released and unreleased songs from his "pre-fame", pre-Space Oddity era, mainly 1966-1969. Firstly, I have to say that the sound is absolutely FANTASTIC. excellent remastering throughout. Clear, sharp and certainly bassy enough to keep a bass addict like me happy. Secondly. The songs. Therein lies the problem. I simply cannot get into these odd, slightly childish, whimsical "lovable Cockney" ditties. I just find them silly and irritating. Uncle Arthur is at times unnerving and disturbing.

The jaunty, breezy, "da-da-da-dum" sixties pop of Love You Till Tuesday is passable, as is the sweeping sixties strings-backed When I Live My Dream, I suppose, but not much else. You have to dig deeper, and I have attempted to do that as the review progresses. As I have done so, When I Live My Dream actually (and surprisingly) gets better and better, proving itself to be a really good song.

Incidentally, for many, myself included, their first experience of most of these songs was on the Decca compilation entitled The World Of David Bowie. 

Anyway, back to the David Bowie version. In the interests of fairness, I must attempt to re-assess the album. While it is easy to routinely dismiss this admittedly bizarre collection of songs as “vaudeville”“music hall” and “Anthony Newley-inspired”, I guess they are worth a little more attention than that. They are very much the product of their era - the wry lyrics about various characters on the margins of accepted society are very Kinks-esque and also carry echoes of Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd. Some of the songs are a bit See Emily Play and Arnold Layne in their feel, particularly There Is A Happy Land and the slightly psychedelic romp of Join The Gang
There is also a very 1967 vibe to Maid Of Bond Street, which is one of the album's better numbers. Then, of course, there is the massive shadow of The Beatles. How many people know that this album was released on the same day as Sgt. Pepper? Indeed, Nicholas Pegg in his biography of Bowie, The Complete David Bowie, opines, probably correctly, that those who dismiss this album’s songs as twee or vaudeville are the same that hail When I’m Sixty-Four and Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite as works of inspired genius. Similarly those that condemned the oompah brass and references to bandstand brass bands of Rubber Band lapped up the same concept The Beatles used a few months later. Could this song actually have inspired the Sgt. Pepper concept? It is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.

The Rolling Stones were also doing circus-inspired stuff on Satanic Majesties, along with silly voices like those that appeared on We Are Hungry Men. Their Between The Buttons album had its share of that sort of thing too. I’m thinking of Something Happened To Me YesterdayOn With The Show and the jauntiness of Yesterday’s Papers. I can easily envisage the latter song being on this album.

The album also contains quite a few military references dotted around - bombardier, medals, bombs, serving in the army, coming out of the army, the Nazi in We Are Hungry Men and the like - and this is not surprising, as the Second World War was only just over twenty years previous. As a child in the sixties, all our games were war ones - the war was something often talked about, by everyone.

So, oddball character-driven songs and music hall whimsical fun was very much the order of the day, so maybe Bowie doesn’t deserve quite the level of opprobrium that has been thrown his way over this album. That said, I still can’t bring myself to really like the songs, and neither, it seems could Bowie himself, calling it “cringey” and “musically bizarre”. He admitted he didn’t really know what he was trying to achieve. I can see some pointers to the near future in the acoustic, folky feel of many of the songs and, lyrically, We Are Hungry Men has plenty of signposts to the future in its many dystopian, disturbing references. Indeed, under those twee melodies lie some dark lyrics on disturbed nostalgia ones like There Is A Happy Land and Silly Boy Blue, the post-war social comment of the surprisingly Brechtian Little Bombardier, the bleak Sell Me A Coat and the seemingly wistful, guitar-picking folk of Come And Buy My Toys.

By the way, properly check out the utterly bizarre We Are Hungry Men, a Revolver-era Beatles-esque song detailing Bowie's very tongue in cheek theories on how to solve the problem of global over-population. It is definitely one of his all-time weirdest songs. Rock it up a bit with a more powerful production, though, and you could envisage it on The Man Who Sold The World, funnily enough. The song is full of eyebrow-raising, perplexing moments - "We will turn a blind eye to infanticide" has to be one of Bowie's most intriguing lines. 
Another odd song is the rocky She's Got Medals, about a butch lesbian in the army. Most fascinating. 

The vocal-only Please Mr. Gravedigger, complete with thunder and rain sound effects, is also quite, shall we say, eccentric. The photo here, from 1967, shows not a boy-next-door sixties popster but an innovative, developing artist-performer. One thing that Bowie thankfully jettisoned was his witty approach, exemplified in the wise-cracking of the non-album single The Laughing Gnome and the quip at the end of Love You Till Tuesday. Throwaway wit did not really suit Bowie and he clearly soon recognised this, going the other way, towards seriousness and, dare I say, at times an arch pretension.

Nicholas Pegg says that the album has stood up to its detractors with a dignified sweetness and, while I can sort of accept that, I still don’t have much time for it. Although I have been trying hard to alter my point of view periodically, since I bought it as a fourteen year-old in 1973, there are, for me at least, many, many more odd and occasionally embarrassing moments than there are portentous, promising ones. I am sure that Bowie himself, if his quotes are to be respected, would concur with that view.


** Some of the subsequent songs, from 68-69, are better, however - particularly the appealing, interesting and extremely catchy London Bye Ta Ta (apparently titled after hearing a West Indian bid someone goodbye while in London one day), which has two versions - a sweeping, atmospheric strings-backed one dating from 1968 and a rockier one from 1970 that utilised Marc Bolan on guitar and Rick Wakeman on piano. As a rock fan I prefer the latter, but the former is beguilingly lovely in its jauntily upbeat way. The song was penned in as a single, before being replaced, possibly unfairly, by The Prettiest Star. The song was not that far removed in atmosphere from Conversation Piece, which heralded the Space Oddity era. It was in a song like this that a maturing David Bowie was emerging.

The (comparatively) far more punchy and rocky Let Me Sleep Beside You, the psychedelic romance of In The Heat Of Morning, The London Boys (thematically plagiarised several years later by old mate Marc Bolan) and the trippy Karma Man are also acceptable songs and give a slight hint as to the glories that lay ahead, but not too much. 
The "ironic" hit The Laughing Gnome is included among the non-album songs, of course, and I have to admit to a weakness for the single's "B" Side, the mildly psychedelic slow, insistent groove of The Gospel According To Tony Day. I remember as a teenage Bowie fan in 1973 buying The Laughing Gnome, though, and trying to accept that it was "ironic" in a sort of Pythonesque way when deep down I just thought "what the hell". Overall, though, listening to this material, it is almost incomprehensible to wonder upon just how David Bowie became, well, David Bowie. Looking for little hints of potential future greatness here and there is all very well but it is a bit of a futile exercise as Bowie has stated himself - "picking through the peppercorns of my manure pile..". Probably the most reasonable approach to have towards the album is that it is a work-in-progress from an artist-in-progress.

More interesting and far more credible are a few tracks that have been unearthed from the pre-1967 days, when Bowie was in the group David Jones And The Lower Third and also Davie Jones And The King Bees - the bluesy rock of Liza Jane and Louie Louie Go Back Home, the Who-influenced, excellent You've Got A Habit Of Leaving and the solid mid-sixties pop/rock of Can't Help Thinking About Me. All these tracks are, as far as I am concerned, superior to the 1967 material.

Space Oddity (1969)

David Bowie released this album in the wake of the unexpected number one hit Space Oddity,
 with its space travel narrative that perfectly dovetailed with the moon landings that summer. The album didn't achieve any comparative lift-off, however, as the single was totally unique and Bowie's often dense, rambling excursions into folk, vague psychedelia and nostalgic hippiness just didn't catch on with the mainstream music-buying public. Despite the kudos of having a number one single, Bowie's journey to possible stardom was beset by pitfalls. This was another in (at the time) a seemingly long list of them. It was almost as if he was fighting within himself as to what he wanted to become. Was he staying back in 1966-67 or was he futuristically looking to 1972-73? The album fully reflects that schizophrenia and artistic turmoil. 


Many people bought this, however, as I did, in 1973, upon its re-packaging (with the Ziggy-like hair cover) in the slipstream of the success of Hunky DoryZiggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. To be honest, many of us teenagers didn't quite know what to make of it. Originally released in 1969, though, it was more than just a vehicle for the chart-topping, now legendary, and totally unique title track as it was an album that had much more to it than that, it showed a lot of unrealised potential, albeit surrounded by some patchiness.
                               
Space Oddity was a track that now needs no introduction. as mentioned earlier, it tapped into the whole moon landing thing and was a huge success. 

It was also notable for the first major recorded use of the stylophone - a gimmicky musical instrument that provided the slightly electronic, morse-code sound in the backing. It is simply massively atmospheric, haunting and actually heartbreakingly sad if you think of old Major Tom floating around for eternity up in space. What was strange, though, was that although it was a massive number one hit Bowie virtually disappeared into outer space, so to speak, for nearly three years before returning in 1972 as a new artist in many people's minds.

Even though the album is, to a certain extent, a patchy one, there is some surprisingly good other stuff on it, particularly on this impressive new remastering. Just check out the psychedelic-influenced rock of Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed. I have found that I now listen to this through new ears, so to speak. The more I have listened to it the more I have grown to like it.

I always thought that the searing guitar solo was Mick Ronson's first contribution to Bowie's work but it was in fact played by Tim Renwick. The bluesy harmonica throughout the track was played by Benny MarshallThe way the song starts with its gentle "spy, spy pretty girl" line sung over a floaty acoustic guitar backing makes you think that it is another dreamy song like those Bowie recorded in 1967-68, but within a few minutes a huge clunking, bluesy rock rhythm had kicked in, making it Bowie's heaviest song to date. It has thoroughly bizarre lyrics though - "I'm a phallus in pigtails...". Hmmm. The lyrics also mention a "credit card" - unusual for 1969. As I said, it is also pretty much Bowie's first true rock track. It is a good one, no doubt about that. Incidentally, the brief Don't Sit Down improvised vocal fun at the very end is sometimes credited as being a track in its own right, which is probably a bit pointless. 

Letter To Hermione was a genuine love song from Bowie to one of his first loves, one Hermione Farthingale, whom he eventually split up with due to his self-confessed promiscuity. It is a gentle, tender, very loving acoustic number that sees the composer-singer laying his soul bare. "I'm not quite sure what you're supposed to say.." sees a singer in emotional confusion. He mentions Hermione's new lover, slightly jealously, but eventually settles for the sensitive compromise of "I'll just write some love to you..." he plaintively declares over a deliciously played acoustic guitar backing. In all his career, you never get Bowie being so sincere and disarming. It is a very beautiful song.

The lengthy, weird narrative that seems to signal the end of "hippydom" of Cygnet Committee sounds completely revitalised on remasters such as the 2009 one (the 2015 messes up the introductory bass line). It is a remarkable track - acoustic yet aggressive in its multifarious lyrical mysteries. It never lets up in its insistent verbal attack and its backing is solid and resounding as opposed to airy and "hippy". It is a true early Bowie classic and a little-mentioned one. I feel it would have fitted in well on The Man Who Sold The World, but it certainly raises the quality here. At nine minutes long, it never gets tiring. It is up there with The Bewlay Brothers and Quicksand as one of Bowie's most haunting, mysterious and perplexing songs. Also sounding great are the winsome, folky strains of Janine. Check out that crystal clear, razor-sharp acoustic guitar. What exactly is/was a "Polish wanderer", I wonder? This song harks back to some of Bowie's 1967-68 material, in many ways. An Occasional Dream also fits the acoustic late sixties folkiness of parts of the album. It is similar to Letter To Hermione in that is a peaceful, Cat Stevens-ish acoustic number that finds Bowie singing of "a Swedish room of hessian and wood". It is appealingly melodic with a nice gently rhythmic backing to Bowie's soft, airy voice. Tony Visconti contributes a fetching flute solo. It is another quiet but very appealing song, one I have always liked.

The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud was an extremely strange, folk tale of the imprisoned wild eyed boy, rotting away in jail. It is melodramatic and overwrought. There was an operatic grandeur about it - packed to the brim with instrumentation - brass, cello, flute and harp are all in there. Producer and musician Tony Visconti loved it, considering it one of his finest achievements and indeed many fans love it too. While I have always loved the narrative tale and story of it, I have also found it just a little overdone. Even stranger was God Knows I'm Good, once again a folky, acoustic song concerning a sad old lady who steals a tin of stewing steak from a grocery store. It is just not the sort of song you would expect from David Bowie - he didn't do many "real life", "kitchen sink drama" type songs after all. For that reason it sits very incongruously amongst his post-1968 output. It doesn't really fit on this album either.
Finally, there is the magnificently trippy Memory Of A Free Festival where "Peter talked with tall Venusians..". Far out, man. "Bliss" all around. This song has Bowie telling of a festival he helped organise, or probably singing of how he fantasised it would have been, (but of course never was, apparently he spent most of it arguing about things that irked him). There is a mix of idealised memories and sci-fi-inspired fantasy. It is packed full of an atmosphere that the actual festival probably lacked and ends with the repeated chant of "the sun machine is coming down and we're gonna have a party". It is all cornily "hippy" but I can't help but love it. Was Bowie possibly being a bit tongue in cheek and cynically dismissive about the hippy counter culture as he saw it about to be replaced by other ones? Was it all a bit of a send-up? Maybe, for there is a disguised cynicism lying beneath the lyrics - "we claimed the very source of joy ran through - it didn't but it seemed that way...". The reference to the Venusians was a "spacey" one that pointed to the future, though. So, while it was a reflective song of possibly false nostalgia, it also carried a look to the future. Even then, and I know it is a dreadful cliché, Bowie always seemed to be one step ahead.

** There is an extended "remix" of the song on the 30th Anniversary edition that adds a strange echoey sound to Bowie's vocal on the introductory verses giving it an ethereal sound, and the other instrumentation is considerably "oomphed" and enhanced. The fade out chorus is far more powerful and the voices more distinct and vibrant. It is an enjoyable mix, but I probably prefer the sparser, more home-produced charm of the original, which sort of mirrored the same qualities that the festival had. There is also the "single mix" of the song, which considerably "rocks it up" with powerful, chunky riffs, with loads more guitar, solid drums, new keyboard sounds and a general level of punch not heard on the original. The song is divided in to two halves, Part 1 and Part 2, the latter being just the choral fade out. It is enhanced with some excellent electric guitar, though. Who is that on guitar? Yes, it's Mick Ronson, making his first appearance with Bowie. There is a fair case for these two rock versions being the best incarnations of the song.

** Conversation Piece was a rejected song from the 1969 Space Oddity sessions. It is a pleasant, melodic, wistful number with Bowie's voice sounding very much like it did on some of the plaintive 1966-68 recordings. It contains some beguiling lyrics - "I live above a grocer's store owned by an Austrian". It is largely acoustically driven with a fetching rhythmic beat to it. The drums were apparently played by a session drummer whose identity has been long forgotten. It was not Space Oddity drummer John Cambridge, but a jazz musician whose identity remains unknown, which may help to account for the unusually rhythmic groove. It underwent a remix in 2019 which has given it far more bass oomph and a general warmth of ambience that makes it a more attractive number. "My essays lying scattered on the floor..." sings Bowie. Was he recalling some past student days? The song was also re-recorded for the eventually discarded Toy sessions in 2000 and is much slower in pace, with none of the breezy joie de vivre of the original and a considerably more sonorous Bowie vocal.

Finally, I have always preferred the “Ziggy hair” cover shown at the start of this review that was used when it was re-released in 1973 (which was when I bought it), however - that was the cover I grew up with. 

The Man Who Sold The World (1970)

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.
                                       
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. What is not in doubt, however, is that this album found Bowie in a period of considerable transition, vacillating between ethereal folkie and macho rocker in a unique way that was never really repeated. It certainly makes for a most interesting set of songs, however and I find these days that I listen to it far more than Ziggy or Aladdin, really enjoying its appealing chunkiness. Looking at it now, in retrospect, it was a fine proto-Ziggy offering, whatever Bowie thought of it.

  
On to the music itself in more detail. 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 was 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 and it builds up slowly with some enticing bass and crystal clear acoustic guitar before some seriously heavy drums kick in, followed by Mick Ronson's marvellously cutting guitar, which is all over the track. It is most definitely Bowie's heaviest number thus far.

Lyrically, it is the usual encyclopaedia of references, pronouncements and images, including mystic philosopher Kahlil Gibran and Bowie telling us that "God's a young man too". It is a veritable cornucopia of all sorts of stuff and multiple changes of musical pace and ambience. (Bowie is shown here in 1970 with Swedish journalist Bosse Hansen). A memory of it, for me, as a young Bowie fan in the seventies, was seeing the documentary Cracked Actor, I think, advertised with a clip from Hammersmith in 1973 of Bowie singing the line "my knees were shaking, my cheeks aflame.." from this song.

Back to the album. Insanity is a theme that runs right through the heart of this album and it is central to the sad, haunting All The Madmen, initially backed by flute and acoustic guitar but breaking out with some solid drums, heavy rock guitar and that big, rumbling Visconti bass again. Bowie has said that it was written directly about, and for, his half-brother Terry. Themes of mental health run all through it. It was another heavy track that clearly showed Bowie's new direction. It also has an impressive synthesiser riff (Mick Ronson plays both lead guitar and synthesiser). There is something of The Beatles' late sixties work in the chants and noises in the final fade out. 
  
Black Country RockAnother heavy backing is to be found on this T. Rex-ish rock number. Bowie intentionally wanted to sound like Bolan. At the time he felt himself the inferior of his friend and wanted to musically and vocally emulate him. Several Bolan-esque vocal quirks occur throughout the song and Visconti contributes a rubbery bass line, especially near the end. The 2020 Tony Visconti remixed version of the song includes some previously hidden burbled vocal Bolanisms from Bowie during its final minute. On After All the subject of mental health is visited again, even more so, in this quirky, asylum-inspired acoustic number, with its oddball, haunting "oh by jingo" chanted refrain. The Space Oddity stylophone makes a re-appearance. There is a very Beatles-esque pipe organ (moog synthesiser?) part in the middle. It is a genuinely disturbing song in many ways, full of atmosphere, though, and seems to be another example of Bowie's post-hippy disillusion. 

Running Gun Bluesa slight hark back to the Space Oddity album's feel, although somewhat heavier, has Bowie starting in a plaintive voice similar to that he used in the 1966-67 period until it launches into a chugging piece of solid, heavy rock. In some ways it is not dissimilar to Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed. Ronson's strong guitar lines and some muscular drums kick it firmly along while lyrically it was inspired by the true story of a Vietnam veteran who went crazy and ran amok with a gun "plugging a few civilians". It marked one of the first times that the previously very English Bowie referenced events that happened in America as opposed to South London or the Home Counties. American references would soon become manifold in his songs.

Incidentally, the "promote oblivion" line, and its diction, is very much Hunky Dory.

Saviour Machine "fades in" and is another heavily-backed rock song but with some more of the feel of the Space Oddity material about it, together with a vague hint of Big Brother from Diamond Dogs, particularly in the synthesiser (?) break in the middle and the lyrical reference to a Major Tom-Halloween Jack type character called "President Joe". There are aspects of futurism in the computer takeover of the lyrics that would be explored much more fully on Diamond Dogs and beyond. The concept of a flawed saviour or leader is also one that Bowie was fond of. 
Ronson's guitar solo is very early seventies in its style. Again, the track is full of excellent guitar, bass and drums. Bowie's voice, despite its high pitch, is also getting stronger and stronger and able to cope with this heavier rock sound, although at times it still sounds a little muffled. 

She Shook Me Cold was definitely album's heaviest track. It is influenced by Jeff BeckBlack Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix, while there are blatant hints of Led Zeppelin in there, in more than just the title (Zeppelin had You Shook Me on their 1969 debut album). Apparently Bowie recorded it as a concession to Ronson and drummer Mick Woodmansey, who were into this sort of heavy jamming thing. The guitar and drum interplay at the end is excellent and by far the heaviest passage of any Bowie track. The lines "She sucked my dormant will" and "broke the hearts of many young virgins" serve as examples of the slightly misogynistic nature of the song, with Bowie in a more aggressive masculine persona than was usual. This was also done for Ronson and Woodmansey's benefit, according to Bowie. They duly loved the song, he said. I'm not sure Bowie himself did, though.

The Man Who Sold The World was a change in pace and style from the rest of the album, being a catchy melodic rock number with a hoarse-sounding, echoey vocal from Bowie, some infectious "cheese-grater" percussion, stunning deep bass lines and an addictive refrain. What was it all about? There are many theories. My late mother, who was a Bowie fan in her late forties at the time, insisted it was about Jesus Christ. I have not seen that interpretation anywhere, but I kind of like my Mum's take on it, and could see what she meant - "you must have died alone, a long long time ago...". Hmm. Maybe. The Supermen is a mysterious, brooding, atmospheric and at times bombastic (percussion wise) track to end the album on. Lyrically, it once again visited other world and futuristic concepts. Musically, Bowie would return to acoustic, folky rock for the next album, Hunky Dory, and we would never hear him play material like this again.

** There was also a re-recorded version of The Supermen that was laid down in 1971It doesn't have the big, rolling, tympani-style drums of the original nor the sonorous backing vocals. Neither is Bowie's vocal anywhere near so mannered or theatrically high-pitched. This alternate version is pretty Ziggy in many ways, featuring gentle acoustic verses and a far more melodic, tender vocal from Bowie before a big Mick Ronson guitar interjection leads into a robust, solid, riffy chorus. It is very Spiders in its instrumentation and indeed, this is the version Bowie would subsequently play live. Which do I prefer? Both have good points, but if I had to make a choice at gun-point, it would always be this rocky alternate version. 
Holy Holy was originally recorded in 1970 and in this form it is a very sixties-sounding, early T. Rex-influenced number, driven along mainly by Herbie Flowers' inventive bass, drums and backing vocals with the lead guitar considerably down in the mix and featuring a very typically late sixties Bowie vocal. it sounds in this form a lot like the final, superior material from the stuff that appeared on the Deluxe Edition of David Bowie, once Bowie had started to record some credible songs. It was actually released as a single and duly disappeared without trace. It was re-recorded for the Ziggy Stardust sessions (see that album's review for comments on that version).

Incidentally, I much prefer the black and white “high kick” cover (shown at the beginning of this review) 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, as I said for 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 below 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. The various covers are shown below, plus the rear cover of the black and white one.
As everyone knows, these were the years when it all took off for David Bowie. For many, myself included, this was the classic Bowie era. Writing about it is an absolute labour of love....

Hunky Dory (1971)

Personally, I got into Hunky Dory in the early summer of 1973, after having bought Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane previously. At fourteen, I was now retrospectively starting to explore Bowie's music. After the "heavy" vibe of 1970's comparatively unsuccessful The Man Who Sold The World, David Bowie returned to his often-favoured acoustic poppy approach used in his early sixties recordings for 1971's breakthrough Hunky Dory album. This time, however, he married folky acoustic sounds with a streetwise rock edge, provided mainly by Mick Ronson's searing lead guitar. Producer Tony Visconti had left (somewhat frustrated by the Man Who Sold The World experience, apparently and replaced by Ken Scott) to concentrate on his other project - Marc Bolan and T. Rex. On to bass duties came the gloriously side-burned Trevor Bolder and, unnoticed at the time, the now legendary Spiders From Mars line-up of Bowie, Ronson, Bolder and Mick Woodmansey was born. 

Bowie described himself on the rear cover as "the actor" ("produced by Ken Scott - "assisted by the actor"), and this gives a hint as to the theatrical, bohemian approach this deceptively light album would take. It is full of poetry, kitsch, mannerisms, indistinct sexuality and a few tributes to Bowie's musical/cultural influences in The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol. Bowie said of the album in an interview with "Uncut"'s Chris Roberts in 1999 -

“….Hunky Dory gave me a fabulous groundswell. I guess it provided me, for the first time in my life, with an actual audience – I mean, people actually coming up to me and saying, 'Good album, good songs.' That hadn't happened to me before. It was like, 'Ah, I'm getting it, I'm finding my feet. I'm starting to communicate what I want to do. Now - what is it I want to do?' There was always a double whammy there….”.

What happened subsequently was really quite a change from this album, particularly in the stylistic creation of the "Ziggy Stardust" character. Ironically, the album achieved its first success in 1972-73 on the back of Ziggy's rise to glory, so, for many, myself included, it brings back lots of nostalgic memories of the Ziggy era.

The album starts with Changes, this now-iconic number on which guest pianist Rick Wakeman leads things off, augmented by Bowie's slightly tongue-in-cheek lyrics and an absolute killer hook of a chorus. All the dense, heavy intensity of the previous album was thrown off as Bowie developed an appealing light, airy pop sensibility. Lyrically, it deals with some quite philosophical themes about "turning to face the strange" amidst "impermanence" and berating of the previous generation in "where's your shame you've left us up to our necks in it..". So what's new - the same accusation is made by every generation. Of course, the song's title has proved to be an apt one to apply to Bowie himself when talking of his constantly re-invented image over the years. Surprisingly, it was a complete flop as a single yet subsequently is a song that everyone knows and is an obvious choice in any "best of Bowie" lists. The piano and pop feel is continued on Oh! You Pretty Things, (covered, strangely, as a single by Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits fame). I remember at the time, when I first heard the track thinking "oh that's that Peter Noone song"!. Noone took it to number 12 in the charts. It is a lively, singalong song that hides a dark set of quasi-philosophical lyrics. This was not really obvious on Noone's poppy version of it  and only slightly more on Bowie's version. The generation gap thing from Changes is also expressed on this song too - "you're driving your mommas and poppas insane..."."You gotta make way for the homo superior..." was a giggle-worthy line for me and many of my early secondary school friends. 


Eight Line Poem was an oddly addictive short track that has Bowie almost narrating the poem's (surprising) nine lines over a sparse guitar and piano backing. My favourite line was always "Clara puts her head between her paws..". The lines are all rather perplexing, however, their meaning unclear. It actually doesn't really matter as their different images link together well anyway, as so many Bowie lyrics do.

The poem leads into one of the album's cornerstones, the magnificent, truly iconic, fully orchestrated Life On Mars?, quoted by many these days in everyday conversations. "See the mice in their million hordes, from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads". Bizarre lyrical imagery doesn't get much better, does it? Quite what it is about has been the subject of analysis ever since its release - who was "the girl with the mousy hair"? Or the "sailors fighting in the dancehall" as seen on the screen by the said girl? What film was Bowie thinking of, I wonder? It has always been South Pacific, for me. As well as the lyrics the song has some beautiful, dramatic piano on it and a real sense of melodrama. I love the way the song rises and falls between its cacophonous chorus and the gentle build up of its superbly expressive verses. Regarding the sound of the song - on the latest remaster, the contrast between the bass (which is strong) and the piano and orchestra is just right. Not too bassy not too trebly. Just what it needs. There is so much in there, so mastering it correctly is one hell of a task. This is the best so far. Even now, that one piano note at the outset sends shivers up the spine.

As for
 Kooks
I have never been a fan of this jaunty, whimsical ditty. Others, indeed many, love it but I have always found it rather twee, preferring to hurry up and get to the next track. It is rescued slightly by its jolly brass backing and its appealing line about throwing the homework on the fire if it brings you down. I remember thinking at the time - "if only I had parents who took that attitude". Bowie wrote it for his newly-born son, Duncan (called Zowie at the time). I have to say, also, that the remastered Kooks does sound great too with a lovely rich bass underpinning it. Great strings and crystal clear trumpet and acoustic guitar. Bassist Trevor Bolder displays considerable proficiency on the trumpet too. 

Quicksand was a brooding, poetic masterpiece chock full of the said weird images. Quiet, acoustic guitar and subtle organ and Bowie's plaintive lyrics about "dream reality" and "Garbo's eyes". Check out the acoustic guitar chops - so clear, so sharp. It is this album's Cygnet Committee, with its multiple images and surrealism that sees Bowie referencing Winston Churchill, Heinrich Himmler, Aleister Crowley and Greta Garbo. It is another un-analysable song, notable mainly for its myriad of wordscapes. It is a little-mentioned Bowie classic, highlighting a really developing poetic songwriting talent. He also marries beguiling lyrics here with a similarly mysterious but evocative melody. It is the sort of song that is put into "best of" lists by the Bowie cognoscenti, as opposed to the "greatest hits" crowd. A song for the truly discerning Bowiephile. It is an odd thing about Hunky Dory, though, that a beguiling, mysterious song like this and an image-packed classic like Life On Mars? bookend a lighthearted piece of fluff like Kooks. For many, that is the album's appeal, but for me it is its only weakness.
I feel somewhat similarly about the cover of Biff Rose's (who was he?) Fill Your Heart as I do about Kooks. It is a piece of breezy whimsy that has always irritated me slightly, despite its obvious singalong melody. Bowie contributes a nice saxophone and it is pleasant enough, but has too much post-hippy airiness about it for me. Apparently Rose didn't like Bowie's arrangement of his song at all. It sticks out most incongruously from the other tracks, even back then I thought that Bowie was capable of much better than half-assed, tongue-in-cheek covers like this. Unfortunately he continued the trend by covering Ron Davies' It Ain't Easy on Ziggy Stardust and then putting the clearly dated The Prettiest Star on Aladdin Sane. All three tracks do not merit their place amongst such exalted company. Andy Warhol has never really been my can of beans either, despite us all quoting "it's "hol" as in "hols"" in the school corridors ad nauseum. That acoustic intro though - wow. Sharp as a knife, as indeed is Ronson's closing solo. Warhol himself didn't like the song, however, and found it embarrassing. He and Bowie didn't really get on in the way they are presumed to have done, it is said.

Song For Bob Dylan
 
sees t
he quality up again, for me, from here on - the last three tracks on the album really do it, however. I have always loved the folk rock-y tribute to Robert Zimmerman. It has some excellent guitar on it, wry lyrics and a comparatively raspy delivery from Bowie. It is a Bowie track that receives little or no mention when his output is discussed - granted, it is pretty different to most of the material on the album, it wouldn't fit on any of the other albums either, and it sort of stands on its own, but, personally, I like it. It is my sort of thing. 
Queen Bitch was by far the album's rockiest track, indeed its only rocky track, this Velvet Underground "tribute" is by far my favourite on the album as acoustic and electric guitars marry to total perfection, something that would be continued on both Starman and Ziggy StardustThis is three minutes of proto-Ziggy Bowie Heaven. The semi-spoken Lou Reed-esque vocal is a clear attempt to imitate the American, you have to say, and the lyrics are all very Greenwich Village/New York sub-culture - "I'm up on the eleventh floor and I'm watching the cruisers below..." However, much of it was also very camp British as well - "she's so swishy in her satin and tat..." and the line "bipperty-bopperty hat" was so very Marc Bolan. Indeed, the song merges Bolan's pop/rock vitality with Lou Reed's streetwise edginess, providing a signpost to the rockier, glammy material of the Ziggy/Aladdin Sane era. Mick Ronson's guitar is outstanding on here as well, he was really coming into his own as Bowie's vital sidekick. His riffs on the song are very Sweet Jane.

The Bewlay Brothers. Well, then there is the tour de force that is this mighty, magnificent creation. The mysterious majesty of Quicksand is bettered here, unbelievably. It has a marvellous nonsensical stream of consciousness lyrics, a sadness behind it all and a quite heartbreaking melody. It remains one of Bowie's most moving compositions. Images of his half-brother abound, quoted by many a reviewer - if I start quoting the lyrics I will be here all day. There are so many worthy candidates. Unbelievable, as Bowie says in the song. Oh ok, I can't resist quoting "chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature...". Bowie's best ever line? It's definitely up there as a contender. The final, odd chanted vocal part at the end - "please come away, hey..." is a totally incongruous addition to the song, but is disturbingly haunting, meaning that this most bright and breezy of Bowie's albums ended on a most sonorous, sombre, disconcerting note. Bowie says he had no lasting memory of recording the song and was unable to enlighten as to what it was about. It was, surely, deliberately obscure, or simply just the product of some powerful drugs. What is certain is that it is up there as one of Bowie's finest compositions. Incidentally, Bewlay Bros were a chain of tobacconists in London at the time. 

** There are also a couple of tracks recorded for this album that didn't make the cut:-

Lightning Frightening is a quirky outtake from 1971 which features Herbie Flowers on bass and Bowie on saxophone. It is an odd slice of hippy-ish blues with some strange lyrics saying "I'll give you back my farmland, I'll give you back my house..." in some sort of bucolic protest. It features some appealing bluesy harmonica and lively saxophone that make it quite a catchy number. I can't imagine it fitting either Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust however. The song fades in at the beginning, giving it a real "demo" feel, despite subsequent good sound quality. A guitarist called Mark Pritchard contributes a convincing solo near the end. The song is said to seriously resemble Crazy Horse's Dirty, Dirty, which was released in the same year and listening to them both one after the other, you can definitely hear the similarities, more in the music than the vocal. Bowie was going through a Neil Young phase in 1971 so it is probably no coincidence.

Bombers was a song from the Hunky Dory sessions that is full of lyrics about nuclear bombs, sirens and wastelands and the like. It has a liveliness and a post-apocalyptic lyric that suited Ziggy Stardust, musically, but its vocal is hauntingly plaintive, in that typically sixties Bowie style. There was plenty of that vaudeville, music-hall hamminess that Bowie had ditched by the time Ziggy was recorded. The track was apparently going to open "side two" of Hunky Dory instead of Fill Your Heart. In many ways, I would have preferred it, but there is something of the sixties whimsicality to it that irritates me a little, so maybe not. Another interesting song from the Hunky Dory sessions is Shadow Man, a this plaintive ballad which was originally recorded in the Hunky Dory sessions but the original recording was never released. It was re-recorded in 2000 for the abortive Toy sessions, given a torch song-style piano and deep strings backing. The song, lyrically, is very much in the Bowie of 1968 vein and it is hard to see it fitting in on Hunky Dory.

The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972)

This was, undisputedly, the album that broke it big, real big, for David Bowie. It was also the first “serious” album I ever bought. Therefore, I have an incredible emotional attachment to it, and know it back to front. Every last note. Every lyric. For that reason it makes it strangely difficult to write as much about it as I would other albums that I don't know so well. 

Like so many supposed “concept albums”, the “concept” is a somewhat vague one - about a “glam” rock star, Ziggy Stardust, who is maybe from another solar system, suddenly appearing on the scene, forming and leading a band an subsequently falling victim to the pitfalls of fame and “when the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band” and it all came to an end, as quickly as it had began. Bowie himself, of course, followed the same path with his real-life Spiders From MarsBowie himself said of its "concept", looking back on it -

“….What you have there on that album when it does finally come out, is a story which doesn’t really take place, it’s just a few little scenes from the life of a band called Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, who could feasibly be the last band on Earth—it could be within the last five years of Earth. I’m not at all sure. Because I wrote it in such a way that I just dropped the numbers into the album in any order that they cropped up. It depends in which state you listen to it in….”.

Bowie is pretty much saying that the album isn't as conceptualised as many have viewed it. It is a series of randomly connected, great rock songs with no real continuity. I have always viewed it as such, even right back then, when I first bought it, aged thirteen.

The old “side two”, the final six songs of the album, are the ones that fit the concept, along with Starman from “side one”, to a certain extent. In that respect, it is far more of a concept album than say, Sgt Pepper or The Jam’s Setting Sons. However, Soul Love and It Ain't Easy certainly don't fit in to any such idea. Certainly, though,  Bowie “bigged up” the Ziggy image for all it was worth - bright orange coxcomb hairdo, one legged tights and full make up. We had not really seen anything like it, to be fair, Bowie’s appearance on Top Of The Pops in July 1972 performing Starman had us all talking in the school playground the next morning, and it had the country’s parents recoiling with horror, despite the previous decade’s excesses.


The first line of 
Five Years “pushing through the Market Square” was (apparently) inspired by the town I grew up in - Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. Indeed, the world’s first statue of David Bowie is now sited there (pictured here). The song “fades in” with Mick Woodmansey’s slow drum beat, the a crystal clear acoustic guitar kicks in and we are into a rather disturbing song about the forthcoming end of the world. It is jam packed with characterisation and imagery and Bowie’s great lyrics and delivery build up to a truly tumultuous climax with finally fades back out again with the same sombre drum beat. "A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest, and a queer threw up at the sight of that...". What an evocative line. The song doesn’t quite fit the album’s narrative, although maybe it could be argued that an apocalyptic world such as is described needs a Ziggy-like figure to arrive to lead it to the promised land before it is too late. Even more so than Five Years, though, as I said earlier, Soul Love is one of the songs that doesn't fit the 'concept'. It is a semi-funky, saxophone-driven soully song. Back to the song itself, it has a very appealing, melodic vibe that again doesn't really sit easily with the harsh, edgy, glamminess of much of the rest of the album. It actually could be more than comfortable on Young Americans. Yes, it had great rhythm and was undoubtedly very catchy, but it was totally irrelevant to the rest of the album. I still really like it, however.

Moonage Daydream
 was, to an extent, where the 'concept' started to kick in, with its "spacey-science fiction-esque" lyrics  and druggy references to "freaking out...".  It also contains a homoerotic line in "the church of man-love is such a holy place to be..." that totally passed my thirteen year-old mind by back then. It was, no doubt, referencing Ziggy's (and simultaneously Bowie's) bi-sexual experimentation. Even by 1972, though, the song's lyrics like "lay the real thing on me""freak out", and "far out" were starting to sound more than a little dated - relics from the hippy era. There is some marvellous, chunky, heavy guitar throughout as Mick Ronson came into his own, and an impossibly singalong instrumental refrain just after the “freak out in a moonage daydream” line. It ends with more impressive guitar. A proper rock song. Apparently Bowie used to try and "draw" the guitar solo, as he envisaged it, with crayons on paper. Ronson would look at it and play the solo as he interpreted it, which is pretty remarkable. Funnily enough, though, the song's provenance dates from early 1971 and is the earliest-composed song to feature on this album, although not the first recorded. You would imagine it was from the late 1971/early 1972 sessions from its vibe and sound.

Starman was the one that saw Bowie’s iconic Top Of The Pops appearance, and what a great single it was too. Addictive, radio-friendly chorus, lots of contemporaneously-popular space imagery and that instantly recognisable morse code bit before the chorus kicks in, that was inexplicably lowered on many remasters over the years. It exists on the original single mix. 
The song is built around an acoustic guitar riff more in tune with the lighter, breezier feel of Hunky Dory than the electric riffs of this album. As Bowie's only successful single to date apart from 1969's seemingly one-off Space Oddity it would have seemed to many that Bowie was obsessed with singles about space and the galaxy, which was of course not the case if you knew more of his songs. As with Moonage Daydream there are lots of hippy-style lyrics in the song - "hazy cosmic jive"..."hey that's far out"..."let all the children boogie..."..."some cat was layin' down some rock 'n' roll..." that owed more than a passing debt to Bowie's friend Marc Bolan. Incidentally, on the live performance, Bowie sang "get it on rock 'n' roll.." as a nod to his mate Bolan, no doubt. I always wondered, when listening to this song, how one could "lean back on my radio..". How could you lean on a radio??
   
It Ain't Easy was pretty much everyone’s least favourite. In my view, and those of many others, Sweet Head would have made a great replacement, but maybe not in 1972, with its risque lyrics. Maybe Velvet Goldmine then. Both of them clearly would have been better inclusions than this cover of US songwriter Ron Davies's song from the late sixties. It was actually the first song recorded for the album. having been rejected for Hunky Dory. The only way I could make it fit the album's theme at the time was in its "climb to the top of the mountain" struggle-based lyrics, which I tried to interpret as Ziggy's travails as he tried to make it big. It doesn't really do it for me, though and remains apart from most of the album's other material.
The piano-driven Lady Stardust, always my favourite, was about Bowie’s mate Marc Bolan, apparently. 
It contains some great lines, such as "...femme fatales emerged from shadows to watch this creature fair..." and another homo-erotic reference in the line "the love I could not obey...". Is the song about Ziggy, or is is about Ziggy's messianic hero-worship of another figure? Either way, it is a lovely, atmospheric song and Mick Ronson plays some great piano - something I didn't know he did. 

Star saw Bowie going all proto-punky four years early. It is a short, frantic and riffy number that briefly details in the first verse what happened to Ziggy's old friends as he left them as he pursued his journey to stardom. It is a mixture of glam and punk, although nobody knew what punk was in 1972. I have always wondered about the supposed "friends" named in the lyrics - Tony, Bevan and Rudi. Who were they? Odd names for Britain in 1972 as well, certainly the last two. Another odd thing was the bleakly contemporary reference telling us that "Tony went to fight in Belfast" ("Bloody Sunday" took place in January of the same year) - amongst all that other-world spaciness the line sat harshly detached from the album's overall mood. Interestingly, the track also, like Moonage Daydream, dates from early 1971 and was given away to a little-known band called Chameleon. Thankfully nothing came of their recording of it and Bowie resurrected it. Hang On To Yourself was another in the punky vein, driven wonderfully by Mick Ronson's searing guitar, this was regularly used as a show opener during the autumn of 1972 and into 1973. It is an irresistible, rousing number. The Sex Pistols later said they based their God Save The Queen riff loosely around Mick Ronson's work on this track. It is right at the heart of the whole Ziggy thing, sitting as it does in the middle of "side two".

Ziggy Stardust. The iconic title track is most memorable as Ziggy “jams good with Weird and Gilly”. Oh, that riff too - acoustic and electric guitars in unison, something that Bowie had begun to specialise in. It is a timeless classic. Again it is packed full of wonderful lines, like "he came on so loaded man - well hung and snow-white tan...", "with God-given ass...". The sexual and drug references were lost on most of us teenagers back then, I can assure you. The song is full of all sorts of images - the "leper messiah""cat from Japan""he was the nazz""jiving us that we were voodoo.." and is just a delight from beginning to end. Just who were the introductory characters of "Weird and Gilly" I wonder? Previous band members or existing ones? Was "Ziggy" a unique, original character, or an amalgam of BolanJaggerJim Morrison etc? Whatever the answer was, one thing we knew for sure was that "Ziggy played guitar..".

Suffragette Cit
y
 is another superb track, with an equally iconic and recognisable Mick Ronson riff, rocks even more than "Ziggy", being in possession of a fast-paced glam rock meets regular rock guitar-driven sound and one of Bowie's strongest rock vocals. His higher-pitched voice never made for a truly convincing rock delivery, but it suits him fine here. He also wanted a saxophone sound on the song, but this was created by a synthesiser in the end. It is also full of sexual imagery and an undercurrent of seediness runs through it. Bowie wants Henry, whoever he is, to leave him alone while he attends to his "mellow-thighed chick". Then when he is done, it is "wham bam thank you ma'am..". There is the same sort of Studio 54 vibe to it that was also on Hunky Dory's Queen BitchI always love hearing the guitar cut in to first one speaker then the other after the "wham bam thank you ma'am..." bit at the end. On the 30th Anniversary remaster of the album, the stereo channels are reversed, to the fury of countless "audiophiles", something that has amused me over the years.

Rock 'n' Roll Suicide was the cataclysmic, melodramatic, valedictory ending of the album, and, apparently, of Ziggy. Bowie brought the concept thing to a close in the most dramatic, theatrical style. From its first "time takes a cigarette..." line to "you're wonderful - gimme your hands..." the song is a perfect, evocative end to something very special that Bowie had created in this sub-forty minute album, that, while not wanting to go over the top about such a comparatively short piece of work, was quite artistically ground-breaking. We had not seen or heard the like.

** There were also several tracks recorded during the sessions for the album which didn't make it. They are all worthy of mention as part of the story of the "Ziggy era":-

Holy Holy was originally recorded in 1970 (see the review for The Man Who Sold The World) and in this form it is a very sixties-sounding, early T. Rex-influenced number, driven along mainly by Herbie Flowers' inventive bass, drums and backing vocals with the lead guitar considerably down in the mix and featuring a very typically late sixties Bowie vocal. it sounds in this form a lot like the final, superior material from the stuff that appeared on the Deluxe Edition of David Bowie, once Bowie had started to record some credible songs. It was actually released as a single and duly disappeared without trace. Then there is the summer of 1971 re-recorded Spiders version, which is so much better. It is faster -featuring lots of searing Mick Ronson guitar, pounding rock drums and a stronger vocal from Bowie. I say that, though, and it has me suddenly wondering whether it is the same vocal track. Maybe not. I cannot find any mention that it is, anywhere. In fact, I'm sure it is different. The vocal is slightly deeper, more resonant. Either way, the second recording turns it into a proper early seventies rock song that indeed was initially pencilled in for inclusion on Ziggy Stardust. It would have been better than It Ain't Easy, that was for sure!

Round And Round was a cover of Chuck Berry's Around And Around. It was recorded in late 1971 as part of the Ziggy Stardust sessions and was due to be track four on "side one", before Starman replaced it. It is given the full-on Spiders from Mars treatment and features some red-hot guitar from Mick Ronson. Bowie, whose voice was never the most convincing in a straight ahead rock 'n' roll format, copes pretty well with it. It rocks in a full, bassy and muscular fashion. Sweet Head was another one from the late 1971 Ziggy sessions this is a risqué rocker with a refrain that is almost punky in its intensity. Ronson's guitar again calls all the shots throughout this excellent track. It would have fitted in fine to the Ziggy album. It is actually the only song apart from Ziggy Stardust that mentions Bowie orange-haired creation by name. It is populated by salacious sexual references - "bob your sweet head..." and "give me sweet head..." as well as the cheeky "while you're down there....". No doubt had I heard this when I first got into Bowie, aged thirteen in 1972, I wouldn't have understood any of this. It is one of these rarities that I feel would really have done the business had it been included on the album it was intended for. It is a quality track that can consider itself unfortunate not to have made the final cut. 
Velvet Goldmine was also from those same sessions as Round And Round and Sweet Head and is another truly excellent number that really should have made the album. It is a solid-paced, chunky number with a strong Bowie vocal, quality Ronson guitar, a melodic rumbling bass from Trevor Bolder and a big, clunking Hunky Dory style piano. Its backing vocals are deep and sonorous in a sort of Volga Boatmen style, or maybe like some of those found on The Man Who Sold The World album. It ends with some jaunty whistling and madcap laughing vocals fading away in the background. Both these tracks would have fitted the 'Ziggy' narrative far better, certainly compared with Soul Love and It Ain't Easy.

Amsterdam. Bowie always liked the whole Jacques Brel/Berlin in the 1930s decadent thing and this Brel song is perfect for that - a tale of drunken sailors and prostitutes. Bowie had been playing it live for a few years before he recorded it in the summer of 1971. It is a robust acoustic and evocative torch song and I first met it as the 'b' side of Sorrow in 1973. I found its images and atmosphere truly captivating. It was totally unlike anything I had ever heard from Bowie thus far. I always remember its abrupt ending too. Apparently it was going to be in the It Ain't Easy slot on Ziggy Stardust. I wish it had. John I'm Only Dancing. I loved this single back in 1972 when it came out. I was far too young at thirteen to pick up on the homosexual references, as most were. It passed the BBC censorship (but not in the USA). It became a top twenty hit here. It is a nice mix of a catchy acoustic intro/ongoing riff and some vibrant Spiders rock. I remember being blown away by how great the sound was when my father allowed me to play the single on his stereo. I still love hearing it today. The original single mix dates from July 1972 and is the best one. A subsequent one was re-recorded in January 1973 using saxophone in place of the acoustic guitar riff. It is ok, but not as good as the original, neither is the 1979 remix which seems to tone down the sharpness of the acoustic guitar. For me, the original single version will always be the best - that crystal clear strummed acoustic intro and then the consecutive drumbeats leading into Bowie telling us that "Annie's pretty neat, she always eats her meat...". Hmm. Incidentally, I always used to think it was "Eileen's pretty neat...".

It was, culturally, a hugely influential album. Musically, it was, basically, around forty minutes of mostly fast-paced, lead guitar-driven somewhat tinny rock music. Nothing incredibly special, to be honest, when compared against many other albums, (including many by Bowie) yet, at the same time, it felt just incredibly special. If you know what I mean.

Now, on to what is probably my favourite David Bowie album, a difficult decision, I know, but the glam magnificence of this one probably comes out on top....
                     
Aladdin Sane (1973)

In the spring of 1973, David Bowie was the name on everyone's lips. As a teenager, I waited with bated breath for that warm early April day when I held his latest album in my hands, took it home and my friends and I sniggered at every schoolboy's favourite line from Time. Heady days indeed. Aladdin Sane was the album where the character of Ziggy Stardust supposedly "went to America" (by Bowie's own admittance) to make himself an even bigger star. Bowie was simultaneously attracted and appalled by America and this comes over in the songs. It is like being on a tour bus taking in sights, experiences, good and bad, along the way. New York, Detroit, Los Angeles...what you get from this transatlantic trip, most importantly, though, is ten wonderful tracks that sees Bowie at the height of his "glam rock" phase. To this day it is my favourite Bowie album.

What a start to an album Watch That Man gave us. Yes, Bowie's voice is way further down in the mix than it should have been (intentionally but erroneously so, in retrospect) but do not let detract from what is a barnstormer of a track, with one of Mick Ronson's killer riffs taking centre stage. The guitar is truly magnificent on this, one of Bowie's glammiest cuts, and lyrically is is full to the brim with wonderful images, like "the Reverend Alabaster dancing on his knees..." and "there was an old-fashioned band of married men looking up to me for encouragement...". This was definitely a continuation of the messianic worship of the "Ziggy" character. Ziggy had come to the USA and people loved him at their druggy parties, that is how I interpreted it as a young teenager back in 1973. The song was also recorded by Bowie, Mick Ronson, Trevor BolderAynsley Dunbar and Mike Garson with Lulu on vocals (see review of Pin Ups).

Aladdin Sane was one which was initially not so popular with us singles and glam-honed teenagers at the time but in later years I have come to love it dearly, particularly that great bass and piano instrumental passage in the middle. Mike Garson was Bowie's new pianist and his creative stamp is all over this album. He really makes this superbly evocative track that deals with the themes of insanity that were always close to Bowie in the early seventies due to his experiences with his half-brother, TerryThe track has a loose, almost jazzy feel to it that points towards Bowie's musical diversification. He had not previously done anything like this. The song had a parenthesis sub-title (1913-1938-197...) that Bowie explained as being the dates of the years before the last two wars, and an unknown forthcoming one, which the often doom-prophesying Bowie was predicting. The song depicts the carefree decadence before the cataclysm.
Drive-In Saturday was the album's big "new" single (The Jean Genie being released several months before the album) - full of doo-wop harmonies, parping sax and great hook lines it blew us all away. As with so many of the Bowie compositions on the album, the imagery is positively overflowing as contemporary culture and icons are mixed with nostalgic themes - "people stared in Jagger's eyes and scored""she'd sigh like Twig the wonderkid..." were definite references and then there was "Jung the foreman...". Who was he? Jung the philosopher? The "foreman", though, what was that about? What was "crashing out with Sylvian"? Bowie explained that song was set in a post-apocalyptic world where people had to learn how to make love again by using books. All very futuristic and strange. Whatever the meanings, it is a uplifting, almost anthemic sax-driven pastiche. It was originally offered to Mott The Hoople as a follow-up to the Bowie-penned All The Young Dudes but they turned it down, now confident enough to choose their own Honaloochie Boogie, which charted for them.
 

Panic In Detroit
 is one of my own favourites, this Latin percussion-influenced number with its "he looked a lot like Che Guevara" wonderful opening line. Once more, it is brimming with lyrical imagery. It has an intoxicating conga-driven rhythm, some bluesy Mick Ronson guitar and great backing vocals from Mac McCormackLinda Lewis and Juanita "Honey" Franklin. It gives off a lot of the same ambience as Watch That Man in its sound, although it is less glammy and the setting is decidedly more urban and decaying, as opposed to that of fashionable New York parties. 
On Cracked Actor that party decadence returns, however, with the riffy, glammy, slightly Stonesy rock of this upbeat number. Sexual references are to the fore, especially with the risqué "suck baby suck" lyric. "I'm stiff on my legend..." sings Bowie, almost as Ziggy personified. Has the character become the man? Actually, Bowie is definitely singing in character as he says "forget that I'm fifty 'cause you just got paid...", but there is still that feeling that the Ziggy myth was becoming self-perpetuating. This was one of Bowie's most seedy songs to date. Then there is Time. Talking of seedy, now we get one of the album's high points featuring every schoolboy's favourite line, of course - "time, she flexes like a whore, falls wanking to the floor.." and is packed full of melodramatic grandiosity. Garson's piano is simply supreme on this track. There are classical music influences all around the track, apparently. It is one of Bowie's most adventurous compositions thus far, again providing a sign as to his future directions in its smoky late night feel at times. It also references Billy Murcia of The New York Dolls -  "demanding Billy Dolls...", who had died only a few days before this song was written in late 1972.

I always felt that The Prettiest Star, that dated from 1970, is slightly incongruous on the album but it is given a 70s boost here. It still sounds out of place though. It is far too light and breezy to fit in with with the rest of the material. Bowie and the cultural zeitgeist had moved on from this sort of sub-hippy, folky stuff. It is redeemed. however, by Mick Ronson's very 1973 guitar solo and some lively fifties doo-wop backing vocals. Regarding Let's Spend The Night Together, a lot of people don't seem to like Bowie's energetic cover of this mid-sixties The Rolling Stones' song but I have always loved it. It rocks. Big time. Just check out that madcap, frantic piano opening. Bowie and the band really rip it and the pace doesn't up for a second. The guitar "thrusts" after the "let's make love" vocal bit was pretty daring for the time - Bowie had been quite pushing of the boundaries through this album, you have to say, with Time and Cracked Actor as well, plus the eroticism of Lady Grinning Soul.

The album's first big hit single,
 The Jean Genie had crashed into our consciousness back in December 1972 before the album was released. I remember one evening at youth club and one of the other boys came running up to me, beside himself with excitement. "What do you think of David Bowie...?" he breathlessly enquired. I shrugged in the way thirteen year old boys do but still went out and bought the single the next day with my paper round money. 49p it cost. The boy who asked the question was Pete Trewavas, later to achieve fame as the bass player in MarillionThe song contains absolutely killer bits of Ronson-Bowie guitar-harmonica interplay throughout and is one of Bowie's bluesiest piece of rock thus far in his career. The riff was approximated by The Sweet for their number one single Blockbuster in January 1973. It was, according to both parties, a complete coincidence and also, The Yardbirds had used it in the sixties in their live covers of I'm A Man. Another coincidence, stated Bowie, was the whole "Jean Genet" thing that supposed that the song's title was something to do with the French avant-garde author. The song and the accompanying Top Of The Pops appearance subsequently cemented Bowie's position in popular culture, even more than Starman did. By late 1972, many people were talking about David Bowie. The Ziggy Stardust audience had ballooned, hugely. He was a superstar now.


The final track, Lady Grinning Soul, is a rarely acknowledged Bowie masterpiece of piano and strings torch song mystery. Simply beautiful and bubbling over with smoky atmosphere. It is arguably the album's finest song, certainly its most beguiling. It was also quite erotic in its "touch the fullness of her breast, feel the love of her caress..." line. It was a unique song, quite unlike anything he had done before. Only Time and Aladdin Sane come close to its adventurousness. Surprisingly, though, even Bowie seemed to forget about it, as he never played it live. Just look at this verse, full of images. What was "Americard", by the way? (update: I'm told it was a US credit card).

"...Cologne she'll wear...silver and Americard...she'll drive a beetle car... and beat you down at cool Canasta..."

** There is a song that was recorded in this era that was not on the album but has earned itself an honourable mention:-

All The Young Dudes was the legendary anthemic song that Bowie gave to ailing mates Mott The Hoople in the summer of  1972 (they were originally offered Suffragette City) and they took right up the charts, making the song their own. Bowie's version was recorded in December 1972 and suffers in comparison to the Mott classic. The saxophone dominates this version (the Mott one was driven by acoustic and electric guitars) and, dare I say it, Ian Hunter's vocal is the definitive one. A most interesting rarity is the version of that has Mott's original instrumental backing but Bowie's vocal that he recorded as a guide for Hunter to follow. I must say it has a certain appeal. It includes Hunter's spoken "outro" but Bowie sings the verses. It has a certain nostalgic fragility about it, especially in Bowie's ever so slightly tentative vocal. By the way, I'm sure the "boogaloo dudes" line was inspired by Bowie's mate Marc BolanOh man, I need TV....Oh brother you guessed....I'm a dude, man.

Finally, there is the now iconic cover, described as the "Mona Lisa of album covers" by The Guardian's Mick McCann. That made up Ziggy face, complete with red and blue lightning flash against the pure white background. The semi-naked gatefold middle cover image. There have been all sorts of interpretations of its meaning, the lightning bolt representing a duality of mind and so on, later backed up by Bowie. Whatever, it has gone down in history as one of the most striking rock album covers.
 

Anyone wanting to know what Bowie was all about in the mid 1970s - start here.

Bowie would drop a huge bombshell in July 1973 when "he killed the man" and jettisoned the Ziggy character in his now legendary "last show we'll ever do" at the Hammersmith Odeon, so continuing a change of image of the like that he would perpetuate for the rest of his career.



   

Now, we got Bowie's only album of covers...a perplexing release at the time but time has served it well and much retrospective love has come its way....

Pin Ups (1973)

In late 1973, when this album came out, many of us,
 bathing in the glorious light of HunkyZiggy and Aladdin were, to be honest, a bit bemused by this seemingly throwaway collection of covers of (comparatively) obscure sixties rhythm and blues tracks. We made out we loved it, but we didn’t really. However, as time progressed, I personally grew to love this 30 minute slice of seventies nostalgia for the sixties. It seemed to be de rigeur to put out a retrospective covers album as Bryan Ferry released These Foolish Things at the same time. Bowie went back to the British r'n'b boom of 1964-67 to source his material. Some of the songs were well known, but certainly not all of them. 

These were the rear cover hand-written notes supplied by Bowie (referring to himself as "Bowie" for the first time) -

"...These songs are among my favourites from the '64–67' period of London.  Most of the groups were playing the Ricky-Tick (was it a 'y' or an 'i'?) -Scene club circuit (Marquee, eel pie island la-la).  Some are still with us - Pretty Things, Them, Yardbirds, Syd's Pink Floyd, Mojos, Who, Easybeats, Merseys, The Kinks.  Love-on ya! Bowie....".

The album was hurriedly put out due to contractual obligations to Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder, the remaining Spiders From Mars who Bowie had legendarily dumped on stage at Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, I believe. For all that, Ronson still shines brightly throughout. Aynsley Dunbar’s drumming isn’t half bad either. Indeed, it is one of the standout points of the album. The music is played with a vibrancy and enthusiasm that certainly doesn't suggest going through the motions. It all sounds great and is an enjoyable forty minutes and also very nostalgic for me. 

Stylistically, Bowie's hair is still "Ziggy", but he is now be-suited in a baggy-ish double breasted number that pointed towards the Young Americans/David Live clobber. Two of the images on the rear cover were also still very "Ziggy". The front cover, of course, showed a deathly pale Bowie alongside a suntanned "Twig The Wonderkid", Twiggy (sixties model Lesley Hornby). 

In comparison with original Bowie songs, there is not a huge amount one can say about these short, enjoyable cover versions, but here we go, come back baby - I wish you would....


Rosalyn was a frantic, fast-paced almost punky opener, featuring some riffy scratchy guitar and Aynsley Dunbar’s drums pounding away as they do impressively throughout the album. There was a real enthusiasm to the rendition that makes it very enjoyable. It was originally recorded by The Pretty Things. The were impressed with Bowie’s cover, feeling it stayed true to the original, which it did. Bowie’s saxophone introduces Them-Van Morrison’s pop-blues of Here Comes The NightTrevor Bolder’s bass is superb on here as are the drums, once again. Bowie’s vocal has a sort of Drive In Saturday tone to it. His saxophone solo is excellent too. I have always really liked this one, it was one of the songs that I actually knew already back in 1973. The whole rendition has a sort of soul-rock feel to it. I Wish You Would was originally done by The Yardbirds, this is a stonking rocker of a number with Bowie on blues harmonica and Dunbar giving us a wonderful round of drums. The quirky Mick Ronson guitar riff and its interplay with the keyboard riff are infectious, you find yourself singing the riff more than you do the lyrics.

Pink Floyd’s See Emily Play is given a really solid, muscular and bassy sound. It rocks superbly and the sonorous backing vocals give it a sort of “asylum” sounding feel. This was a song that was tailor-made for Bowie. Once again, the bass is big, rumbling and addictive. Mike Garson’s piano is great too, he even “samples” a bit of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” near the end, as Dunbar goes all Keith Moon. I love the sound on this. It is definitely a high point on the album.
Everything’s Alright is a killer rocker that I loved back in 1973 and still do. It was a song by The Mojos and Bowie rocks it up no end with an appealing rock ebullience. There is an energy to this performance that is thoroughly intoxicating. I find it impossible not to enjoy the sheer vitality of this rendition. An interesting bit of trivia is that Aynsley Dunbar played with The Mojos in the mid sixties, but after they had recorded this. He will have known the song, though, so no wonder he does it so well. On I Can’t Explain Pete Townshend’s guitar is replaced by Bowie’s parping sax on this slowed-down, bluesy cover of The Who’s song. I have always liked it, although I have to say I much prefer the original. 

Friday On My Mind was first done by Australian group The Easybeats and it is a lively number that was full of punky attitude. Is was another that suited Bowie so well. Bowie contributes an echoey, sonorous vocal that is most evocative. Sorrow was the big hit single from the album and a great track it is too. Bowie improves The Merseys’ original no end (one of the ones on the album that clearly out-does the original). The violin backing is sumptuous as are the harmonious backing vocals and, of course, Bowie’s excellent saxophone solo. The video clip below features "supermodel" of the time Amanda Lear (who also featured on the cover of Roxy Music's 1973 For Your Pleasure album). This was the song we all liked on the album at the time, probably due to its exposure as a single. The single, incidentally, was 'b' sided by a cover of Jacques Brel's Amsterdam, dating from the Ziggy Stardust sessions.

Don't Bring Me Down was the second Pretty Things song to be covered is this copper-bottomed piece of sixties blues rock. Bowie and the band do a great version with thumping drums and that blues harmonica again. It has that blues rock feel that was encapsulated on The Jean Genie. It is probably the most bluesy number on the album, exemplifying the British r'n'b boom of the mid-sixties perfectly. Shapes Of Things was another Yardbirds song, this psychedelic rock number again suited Bowie and his musicians. Ronson’s mid-song guitar is outstanding as it links with the drums and bass marvellously. It is another example of just how energetically and enthusiastically these songs were being performed. There is a vaguely futuristic feeling to this song that would have appealed to Bowie, but of course he had already explored those themes more than adequately in the intervening years between this song's origins and 1973. On Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere the sheer youthful attack of The Who’s original is not lost here. The trademark instrumental part is reproduced really well, a bit spacey, but with Dunbar keeping up with the great Keith Moon admirably, Ronson doing the Townshend interjections and Bowie adding blues harmonica most convincingly. It is absolutely brimming over with rock power, just as a Who song should. For Where Have All The Good Times Gone The Kinks’ song is given a riffy, powerful makeover. Ronson’s guitar chugs solidly in and out behind Bowie’s mannered vocal. The casual cynicism of the song suited Bowie and was a throwback to some of the material he recorded in the 1966-68 period. All in all, it is still an enjoyable listen every now and again. An interesting thing to do, also, is make a playlist of the originals. Does Bowie come off best? Debatable. Probably just, because of the better sound quality.

** There were also two tracks that have traditionally been thought to have possibly been part of the sessions for this album but actually were not. They are worthy of discussion, anyway :-

Growin' Up is an odd one. Thought to be a reject from the Pin Ups sessions, it was actually recorded in November 1973, a month after that album's release. It is a cover of a song from Bruce Springsteen's debut album from 1973, Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey. As a Springsteen aficionado as well as a Bowie one, I find it strange hearing Bowie doing Bruce. Listened to objectively, however, he does a pretty good job and if you listen to the vocal you can hear the first strains of that high-pitched soulful voice that he would utilise on the following year's Diamond Dogs and subsequently on Young Americans. In that respect it was a bit of a landmark in Bowie's development as a vocalist. It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City was another Springsteen cover that nobody categorically knows from whence it came. It is believed to hail from the late 1973 Diamond Dogs sessions that produced Growin' Up. For many years it was thought to come from the Young Americans sessions but the backing sounds nothing like that band and indeed members of that group have no memory of having played it. It is also far too rough-edged and rocky for the 1975 soul-influenced material. Whatever its source, though, it is a credible cover of a good song. Bowie again does it justice.

The Man Who Sold The World/Watch That Man (Lulu recordings) - two other interesting rarities are Lulu's two Bowie covers that were recorded originally during the 1973 Pin Ups sessions and finished off by Bowie at the time of the Diamond Dogs sessions in 1974, featuring Bowie on saxophone, Mick Ronson on guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass, Mike Garson on piano and Aynsley Dunbar on drums - basically the Pin Ups band. The Man Who Sold The World actually sounds really good and duly gave Lulu a top ten hit. Watch That Man, however, doesn't quite work for me, sounding somewhat clumsy, as if Lulu is a bit perplexed by the lyrics. Bowie's backing vocals at the end are jazzily quirky but a bit bizarre.

Diamond Dogs (1974)

Many felt that Diamond Dogs was Bowie's "return to form" after the underwhelmingly-received album of sixties covers that was Pin Ups. It had a lot of the guitar-driven glam rock essence Of Aladdin Sane and, notably too, tiny bits of wah-wah funky guitar were creeping in to the sound, which was which a pointer to the mid-seventies "soul" phase that Bowie went through. It was only a small one, though (for all the many commentators who labelled this album the one that saw Bowie start to discover soul). I have to say that it is very much a rock album and it is far more his last glam album than it is his first soul one.

It is one of those loosely-conceived albums with a supposed concept - that of a futuristic, run-down post-apocalyptic urban setting and the characters who inhabit it. To be fair, the theme runs pretty constantly through the album, but there is no continuing "story" as such. The character of "Hallowe'en Jack" was said by some to be the continuation of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, but I was never really convinced of that. Having said that, though, stylistically, Bowie still had a lot of Ziggy about him in the spiky, mullet-y red coxcomb hair-do and musically, glammy songs like Rebel Rebel and the title track certainly kept the spirit of Ziggy alive. 

This is no more a concept album than Ziggy though, just a collection of great “glammy” rock songs with a bit of a brooding, dark, futuristic theme. No more, no less. Interestingly, Bowie has subsequently described the album and its "concept" as being a pre-cursor for punk. Hmmm. read this and see if you can run with it. 
Bowie described the Diamond Dogs characters, from the title track, as -

"....all little Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses really. And, in my mind, there was no means of transport, so they were all rolling around on these roller-skates with huge wheels on them, and they squeaked because they hadn't been oiled properly. So there were these gangs of squeaking, roller-skating, vicious hoods, with Bowie knives and furs on, and they were all skinny because they hadn't eaten enough, and they all had funny-coloured hair. In a way it was a precursor to the punk thing...".

Sorry David, I don't really buy that, but, despite that, in retrospect, I guess I can see why you viewed it like that. Personally, I think Rotten and the like's appearance on the scene was just a coincidence that fitted the particularly train of thought Bowie was having. Not that it really matters, but Diamond Dogs inspiring punk, either consciously or subconsciously? No. Not having it. Looking at the cover, though, those two mutant figures do look a bit punky. Maybe he was right. We'll never really know. Anyway, enough of that and back to the songs...let's get pulled out of our oxygen tents and ask for the latest party....

The album started with the short, haunting spoken introduction, Future Legend,  which samples the old easy listening class Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered together with some nightmarish wolf-style howls. Bowie describes a gruesome, post-apocalytptic world called “Hunger City, where “the last few corpses lay rotting in the slimy thoroughfare…”. It was all very “Future Shock and “1984” in its unnerving, terrifying prophetic message. On Diamond Dogs the opening “This ain’t rock ’n’ roll - this is genocide…” line is the announcement at the end of Future Legend as some fake crowd noise lead one to initially think that this is a live recording - some stirring guitar licks are accompanied by a Rolling Stones-esque cowbell soon take centre stage as the background noises fade and we are launched into a very Stonesy, riffy six minute plus rock number. Incidentally, the crowd noise was taken from The Faces' live album from the time and if you listen very carefully as it fades out, you can hear Rod Stewart shout "hey". An interesting bit of trivia, that. The song introduces the afore-mentioned new Bowie persona in the character of “Hallowe’en Jack” - a seedy figure who “lives on top of Manhattan Chase”. As I said earlier, I was never quite convinced of this character as an ongoing entity, though, he was just someone who appeared in this song, certainly not a character with the strength of Ziggy. In this song he is seen as the leader of the pack of dogs that form his dystopian urban street gang roaming around below, doing his bidding. It was a hit single, although any attempts to edit it into “single” format do not win any acceptance from me - I loathe single edits. Thankfully in the UK I always remember it being played in its full version, which is how it should be. Bowie plays a reasonable lead guitar on the track too.

Sweet Thing-Candidate-Sweet Thing (reprise) is the album’s centrepoint - a long, atmospheric narrative full of images that really should be treated as one continuous track, as they fade seamlessly into each other. The track in full is nine minutes long and fits well into the album’s vague “concept” theme with its multiple scenes of urban decay and seedy decadence where couples “love in a doorway” and encounters become more sinister - “putting pain in a stranger”. all Bowie wants here is a “street with a deal” (which was probably close to the truth in 1974-75) and he puts a personal link into the song with the line “my set is amazing - it even smells like a street…”.

The Candidate part ends with the classic line “we’ll buy some drugs and watch a band, and jump in the river holding hands…”. All very evocative stuff. The final chugging, repetitive guitar riff at the track’s very end shows Bowie’s first “krautrock” influence - it is very similar to Negativland by German avant-garde band Neu!, dating from 1972. This is a genuine Bowie classic and carries so many unfortunate parallels within its lyrical imagery to Bowie’s own increasingly chaotic, drug-dependent life at the the time. 
Sweet Thing grinds to an abrupt halt and segues immediately into the instantly recognisable scratchy guitar riff that introduces the superb piece of Bowie rock that was Rebel Rebel. It was possibly the last truly “rock” song he ever did, and certainly the last “glam” one. It was a huge hit, everybody loved it at the time. After the (relatively) low key sixties cover in Sorrow, this was, as far as a lot of fans were concerned, Ziggy back with a bang. Compared with the dark, futuristic creativity of the rest of the album, in many respects this was Bowie revisting a previous sound, something he rarely did.  The song dates back to 1973 and you can tell. It would not have been out of place on Aladdin Sane at all. It has a gender-bending lyric in the “she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl…” which horrified some of the older generation back in 1974. After this, Bowie would do no more glam rock, neither would many others - Roxy MusicMott The HoopleT. RexAlice CooperElton John all either diversified or split up.

Rock And Roll With Me was the one that was my first favourite when I initially bought the album. It is soulful piano-driven rock ballad which hints at a future more soully musical direction and it also has a singalong chorus. It has no place at all in any “concept” present on the album - even Rebel Rebel had its seedy, gender-bending decadent side to it but this was just a harmless love song, although it did contain a Ziggy type line in the “tens of thousands found me in demand” bit. It was performed on the David Live album in a slowed-down style, almost as a smoky, late night soul ballad. 

We Are The Dead has always been the album’s hidden gem, for me. It contains some excellent guitar and keyboards and some very Sweet Thing-style paranoid lyrics. I have always liked the lines “it’s the theatre of financiers - count them, fifteen round the table, white and dressed to kill…”. It fits the album’s concept well and is a vastly underrated song. Bowie's vocal is excellent throughout. "We're today's scrambled creatures, locked in tomorrow's double feature...", is another great line. For some inexplicable reason, Bowie never performed it live, which was a real pity. I think it would have sounded great live. 1984 was the track that saw a funky wah-wah guitar rhythm used for the first time. Apparently Bowie wanted it to sound like Barry White. To me, and to many, it sounds more like Isaac Hayes’ Shaft theme. It is often referred to as the clear moment Bowie changed direction, as if the whole album was like it, but, as we know it isn't, it is just the backing of this song that shows a slight new direction. You could actually have said the same about Soul Love from Ziggy Stardust. Lyrically, it explores more disturbing themes - “they’ll split your pretty cranium and fill it full of air…” carries on the “dreadful future” sort of ambience that pervades most of the album. The reference to George Orwell’s novel in the title is no coincidence. The track was covered, surprisingly, by Tina Turner on her 1983 Private Dancer album. While the beat suited her, the lyrics sounded odd on a r 'n' b/soul album.
 
Big Brother finds the Orwellian thing continuing on this mysterious song that contains beguiling lines like 
“he’ll build a glass asylum, with just a hint of mayhem…”. Bowie is looking for a way out of this nightmare and searches for a leader, “some brave Apollo..”. This is a theme he would continue, with unfortunate consequences, a couple of years later when he made some unwise comments that appeared worryingly fascist. 
Musically it is quite soft and melodic, featuring some good saxophone from Bowie and some infectious handclaps. On The Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family - Big Brother morphs into this repeated tape loop vocal and industrial repetitive guitar riff. The tape stops and repeats “bro bro bro” endlessly. Bowie subsequently said that this was an accident but that he left it as it sounded great. The best thing about this is its title, which brings to mind images of a group of skeletons cavorting around as the only ones left on a charred, desolate earth.  

The cover is great and caused a real stir at the time with the Bowie-dog artwork showing the dog's crown jewels which were airbrushed out on later pressings. I was pleased at the time to have the original, balls and all. 
Overall, this was a fine album and served as fine valediction to the glam era. I still love this, Ziggy and Aladdin Sane more than any other Bowie albums. Bowie was right to diversify after this, however.

** There were a few tracks that didn't make it on to the album that are worthy of mention:-

Dodo was recorded in September 1973 in the sessions for Diamond Dogs. It is a lively, brassy song with the sort of dark, futuristic lyrics that would dominate that album. It has a smoky-sounding Bowie vocal and plenty of brass and saxophone in its backing. The chorus of "she's a dodo, oh no..." is somewhat clumsy, though. It was originally titled You Didn't Hear It From Me, which was the next line. It makes another appearance in a funked-up medley with 1984 that was included on the 30th Anniversary edition of Diamond Dogs. The song is altered quite a bit here and is far funkier. Had this medley been included on Diamond Dogs it would have contributed to a far funkier ambience on what was more of a glammy album.

Candidate is a different song to the Candidate that appears as the middle part of the Sweet Thing trilogy on Diamond Dogs. It was, however, recorded in the sessions for that album, on New Year's Day 1974. It is an impressive, soulful but upbeat song with a jaunty, swing-style drumbeat driving it on together with some breezy Mike Garson piano. It contains a sexually suggestive opening couple of lines and an odd reference from Bowie about his being "the Führerling", starting his unfortunate fascist fascination earlier than we thought. It is an appealing song, though, and showed the direction Bowie's music was beginning to take, despite it not making the album. If this and Dodo had been on Diamond Dogs it may have sounded quite a lot different.

Rebel Rebel (US Single Version)/Reality Tour Remix is quite a different take on the glammy hit single. It misses out the iconic introductory guitar riff and starts with the line "hot tramp I love you so.." before progressing into a rhythmic, conga-driven piece of soul-rock that once more provided a signpost as to Bowie's future musical direction. It was this version that Bowie played live on David Live and Cracked Actor and indeed for many years afterwards. In 2002, Bowie re-worked the song for the Reality Tour, using a quiet, atmospheric guitar opening before crashing into that recognisable riff. He opened the shows with this and recoded a studio version as well. I like both these versions but I will always prefer that scratchy, riffy glory of the original.

Coming up is the period that found David Bowie "in a bad place", or maybe, to be more accurate, many bad places. Ironically, though, with the help of collaborators such as Tony Visconti and Brian Eno he produced some of his most innovative, challenging and ground-breaking music. The influence of his output from these years was immense and far-reaching. For many, it is this, as opposed to the glam era, that is the classic era of his long career. He found his soul mojo, he explored his inner European, but, most importantly, he took a shed load of drugs....

Young Americans (1975)

In 1975, David Bowie supposedly “got soul”
 and “reinvented himself” for the third time in as many years. I was never really convinced by the soul thing. Yes, the glam rock guitars had gone and the outlandish costumes too. In came double breasted suits, like something The Four Tops would wear on stage. Musically it was backing singers, funky guitars, muffled drums, congas and a throbbing bass. Whatever it was, though, it was certainly not pure soul, in my opinion. It was a kind of slowed down soully rock, sung with a higher pitched white man’s voice too. Quite what the Soul Train TV show aficionados made of this coked-up white dude is anybody's guess. It was not The O’JaysBilly Paul or The Meters.

What it gave us, though, was one of Bowie’s finest ever tracks in the lyrically, musically and atmospherically remarkable title track, Young Americans. Five minutes of pure magic. Still my favourite ever Bowie track. I never tire of hearing it, even after all these years. Just hearing that drum intro gets me every time. Then the sax comes in - magical. It is also jam-packed full of great, perplexing lines like this - "well, well, well would you carry a razor, in a case, just in case of depression..." or - "we live for just these twenty years, do we have to die for the fifty more?". Great stuff indeed. I could just carry on quoting from this song, there are so many great lines. The sound is now clearly different to anything Bowie had ever done before. His band had main members who were largely white (apart from bassist Willie Weeks) and a background in rock and jazz, so they certainly weren't a bona fide soul band. They did seem to get the soul vibe, though, particularly saxophonist David Sanborn and Puerto Rican guitarist Carlos Alomar and there were soul musicians on congas and backing vocals, including a young Luther VandrossIt is not genuine soul. however, but it is a fine approximation and simply a damn fine record. "Ain't there one damn song that can make me break down and cry...". Indeed. This is up there as possibly my favourite ever David Bowie song.

Win was a sumptuous song, full of deep, warm bass, delicious saxophone and a real laid-back soulful vibe. Bowie really got the hang of the soul thing with this, although it is still enhanced by some seriously searing electric guitar from Earl Slick."All you got to do is win..." exclaims Bowie in one of his positive pronouncements - he was getting ever more keen on these. The backing vocals are really good but never intrusive. This is one of my favourite tracks from the album. Similarly impressive is the copper-bottomed funk of Fascination, which introduced Luther Vandross to the world. The wah-wah that underpins the song is intoxicating and Bowie's improvised soul vocal keeps pace perfectly with the backing singers. It is one of his most accomplished vocal performances to date. This is probably the most credible funk/soul cut on the album. There are two mixes of it, the original and the one that appeared on the 1991 RYKO remaster. There are slight differences, but I often struggle to really discern them. Right is another highly commendable one. It possesses an infectious conga-bass backing and more clever vocal call-and-response interplay between Bowie and his backing singers as David Sanborn's saxophone wails away along with a funky, Stevie Wonder-esque clavinet. I thought Fascination was the funkiest thing on the album, but maybe I was wrong and this is. The 1991 mix is slightly slower than the original (which appears on all the other remasters).

Somebody Up There Likes Me is driven along by some superb David Sanborn saxophone. He made a similar contribution to Ian Hunter's All American Alien Boy that was released the following year. It is a bright, backing vocal-dominated soulful number that carries a darker message underneath the soul polish about political corruption and the cult of celebrity. Once again, Bowie is dishing out a warning, something this unfortunately by now increasingly coke-addled paranoid semi-recluse was beginning to specialise in. It is the saxophone you think of with this song, though, and the backing vocals. Never mind the message.

Across The Universe
 
was a John Lennon cover and has been roundly disparaged by seemingly everyone (apart from Bowie encyclopaediac Nicholas Pegg who loves it). I have to say that I agree with Pegg. I too have always loved it. Lennon joins Bowie on guitar and vocals, they drop the "jai guru deva om" vocal refrain and set about producing and entrancing, vibrant cover of the original that seems to suit Bowie's soul incarnation perfectly. I really don't see what the problem is/was. Maybe it is just a "don't you dare touch anything by The Beatles" thing. All that said, as I say later on below, the two tracks that were left off the album were definitely better than this, so there you go. I still don't think it is that bad, though. As for Can You Hear Me - this excellent sweetly soulful track began life as Take It In Right and was, apparently written for Lulu. Thankfully, Bowie recorded it himself and made a very impressive job of it too. This is one of the smoothest-sounding albums on the album and was certainly a convincing stab at soul. Once more, the saxophone sound is sublime.

Fame was an absolute Bowie classic and became the second big hit from the album. It is a supremely funky Bowie/Lennon workout containing cutting lyrics about the fame game - "fame - what you want is in the limo - fame - what you get is no tomorrow...". Bowie seemed to be telling his own indulgent story right here, right now. The funk riff is magnificent on this and, impressively one of Bowie's idols, James Brown, paid him the compliment of using the very riff on his 1976 track Hot (I Need To Be Loved). Bowie was delighted by this, I am sure. 
Another impressive thing is the backing vocal "high voice to deep voice" descending scale that comes off to great effect both here and in subsequent live performances.

This album sort of washed smoothly over you and it sure washed the red dye out of all those Ziggy fans’ hair. Ziggy seemed thirty years ago as opposed to just three. That's how quickly things were changing. The difference between this and even Diamond Dogs is seismic. This is undoubtedly now an adult album. Although I loved this album's two singles upon release, I got to appreciate the remainder of the album more and more as the years progressed.

Young Americans is often not mentioned in people’s Bowie favourites lists, but I find myself returning to it again and again. Whether or not it IS soul is debatable but it certainly HAS soul. I am sure that Bowie modelled his "soul voice" on that of Harold Melvin (as distinct from Teddy Pendergrass). Check out All Because Of A Woman, it has real hints of It's Gonna Be Me about it in places. 

Interestingly, guitarist Carlos Alomar (who had not heard of Bowie before he was invited to work on the album) said of Bowie's working process for the album, when interviewed about it subsequently -
 

“….David always does the music first. He'll listen for a while then if he gets a little idea the session stops and he writes something down and we continue. But later on, when the music is established, he'll go home and the next day the lyrics are written. I'd finish the sessions and be sent home and I never heard words and overdubs until the record was released….”

It is fascinating to try and imagine Young Americans being written in that fashion. That was one hell of a lot of lyrics to come up with overnight! It is also strange to think that the musicians like Alomar had heard no words when they played the songs' backing tracks. Whatever their genesis, the songs certainly came out well and those who produced them have left us with something vibrant and memorable. 

** These are the tracks available from the sessions that didn't make the album, they are certainly worthy of comment:-

After Today. This appealing piece of disco-soul dates from the August 1974 "Young Americans" sessions. It is a lively number with a falsetto vocal from Bowie at times and lots of funky saxophone. It would actually have made a nice addition to the album it was rejected from, its upbeat sound providing a contrast with some of the slower-paced deep soul numbers that were eventually chosen. At the end, Bowie laughs and exclaims "I was getting into that...". Indeed he was, he should have stuck with it.

Who Can I Be Now? dates from the 1974 Young Americans sessions and is a truly outstanding song. It was inexplicably jettisoned in favour of Across The Universe. It was one of the tracks selected to be on The Gouster album, which was never released. It features a great saxophone intro from David Sanborn and one of those smoky/interjection with falsetto vocals from Bowie supported by multiple backing vocals. The verses are evocative and soulful, while the chorus is big and brash, with the vocals loud and the saxophone wailing. as with all the Young Americans material, though, there is a slightly muffled muddiness to the drum sound, for me, anyway, although the 30th anniversary remaster suffers less so than the others. The title was chosen as the title for the second of the box sets covering Bowie's career, presumably as a reference to his many identity-image changes in the period.

It's Gonna Be Me was another from the August 1974 sessions, this was also left off the eventual album, which was once again a questionable decision. It was also another of the tracks that was going to be on the aborted album, The Gouster. There are two versions of the song in existence. The original one and one that Tony Visconti added strings to, which was lost, but was subsequently remixed by Visconti from his original master tapes. The original Gouster one is full of late night atmosphere and one of Bowie's finest vocals to date - so far removed from the late sixties-early seventies. It is quite sparse in its backing - mainly piano, jazzy guitar, drums, bass and backing vocals. A lot is spoken about Bowie's supposed "soul" phase but on this one I have to say that he is at his most credibly soulful. The improvised vocal around five minutes in is superb. The Visconti strings version is from the 30th Anniversary edition and has wonderful sound quality and Tony has done a great job on the remixing. The sound is outstanding. Once more, there is a "which do I prefer?" quandary. It's a difficult one. I actually love both of them, for different reasons - the minimalist soulfulness of the original and the warmth of the strings one. It's a 1-1 draw.

John, I'm Only Dancing (Again) is totally unrecognisable from 1972's upbeat glammy single, this finds Bowie exhorting us to "boogie down with David now..." as he went all Studio 54 circa 1975 style disco. It is probably the only really obviously disco thing he ever did. It contains a light disco wah-wah guitar line and some melodious saxophone from David Sanborn. Bowie's vocal is sensually soulful and there are a few laid-back soul-influenced bits in the middle before the groove kicks backs in again. Despite the fact that it is nothing like the original song, I have always quite liked it. It fits in with the Young Americans vibe and indeed was on the original, aborted Gouster album.
 


Station To Station (1976) 

By 1976, the cocaine-addled David Bowie had start to leave behind his supposed "white soul" experiment that resulted in 1975's Young Americans album and, ditching the powder blue suits, reinvented himself as "The Thin White Duke" complete with accusations of giving Nazi salutes at London's Victoria Station and giving out various pretentious pronouncements about the state of global politics and so on. Bowie's persona was not a particularly pleasant one at this time, however, indulged by an adoring media (despite the goldmine that punk was about to give them) and still extremely drug-ravaged he managed to come up with this work of genius. Ever the enigma inside a riddle or whatever the saying is. The great chameleon changeling had done it again.

It was, though, a somewhat difficult album to analyse. It is simultaneously accessible yet darkly impenetrable, a merging of "krautrock", white funk, white soul and a bit of pop sensibility. Influences are clear, from Neu! and Kraftwerk especially, that chugging, electronic "motorik" metronomic beat that those groups utilised. In my view, and indeed that of many others, the supposed "Berlin Trilogy" began here, for sure. Station To Station really should be included alongside Low, "Heroes" and Lodger. Then again, however, those European influences are only really obvious on the title track. The other songs still carry quite a bit of the funk, rhythmic and soulful feel of the previous album. It is, despite its obviously dark, dense and intense opener, not quite as oppressive and sparse an album as popular opinion would have it. It is certainly no "Heroes". What it does provide, I guess, is the bridging point between the funk/soul of Young Americans and the sparse soundscapes of Low. It was recorded in sunny Los Angeles too, not dreary Berlin.

Lyrically, it is extremely sombre, with Bowie being influenced by occultism, philosophy and dark mythology, the works of Nietzsche and Aleister Crowley. Bowie said of the album, some twenty years later -

"....First, there's the content, which nobody's actually been terribly clear about. The "Station to Station" track itself is very much concerned with the stations of the cross. All the references within the piece are to do with the Kabbalah. It's the nearest album to a magick treatise that I've written. I've never read a review that really sussed it. It's an extremely dark album. Miserable time to live through, I must say....".

Maybe Bowie was still on the drugs when he said that....

I guess Bowie was right, none of us will ever really get it, possibly not being in tune with whatever "magick treatises" are. I almost feel that the lyrics could be anything on these songs, it is the overall ambience that takes over. The lyrics are unfathomable at times, but therein lies their intriguing appeal. Since when have Bowie's lyrics ever been straightforward, anyway?

Station To Station - here we went then, getting on the trans-Europe train with the monochrome “Thin White Duke”. It all began with this, Bowie’s longest-ever track. It is overflowing with Krautrock Kraftwerk influences, particularly in its slow building first half, where chugging train noises give way to industrial piano, drums and rhythm guitar. This is all very dense, sparse and stark. The second half of the song finds it going far more upbeat after five minutes with the “once there were mountains” part that eventually morphs into the concluding “the European canon is here” refrain. All the parts of the track are really atmospheric and, although minimalist in essence, it seems as if it is full of activity. From its initial throbbing bass, two note piano and then thumping drums it is a vibrant delight of inventive ingenuity.

Bowie has said that the title refers not so much to railway stations as to the Stations Of The Cross, while the line "From Kether to Malkuth" relates to mystical places in the Kabbalah, mixing Christian and Jewish allusions. I can't say I ever saw it that way. It was always just the simple train travel for me! That's the beauty of Bowie songs, though, isn't it? Whatever you thought it was about invariably it wasn't. Bowie also addresses his drug habit head-on with the “it’s not the side effects of the cocaine” line. Quite what the song was all about is unclear and, for me, no amount of analysis, and I have read lots, will change that. It remains a mystery. What is probably not in doubt is that Bowie wanted to escape his drug-addled US hell and start again in the fresh, rarified European air. It would be something that would serve him well over the next few years.

Golden Years was the album’s hit single and it was a soulful throwback to the Young Americans album with its infectious vocals and polished, light funky backing. Bowie famously sung (mimed) this on the famed US soul TV show Soul Train. 
It is a great song that you can’t help singing along to and one that sticks in the brain. It is chock full of hooks and is so nostalgic for me of the autumn of 1975. It remains a bit at odds with the album’s other material, however. It sort of acts as Bowie’s goodbye to his short-lived soul era, to an extent. It pre-dates the album’s other songs by several months.

Word On A Wing was apparently born out of Bowie’s cocaine-addled despair as he tried to make sense of the “scheme of things”. Pianist Roy (E St. Band) Bittan contributes a most attractive and melodic backing to the song, sounding quite different to his E St. work. A lovely deep bass underpins the song and Bowie’s vocal is deeply moving, far lower in tone than it often is, at times, in the song. It is a beautiful, soulful song that actually has some of the soul feel of Young Americans about it. It certainly is no bleak, industrial soundscape, far from it. Bowie is at his most expressively pious too as he sings “Lord, Lord..” as if he is asking for help. Not thus far a man for traditional religion, this was unusual. He basically wanted a way out from his Hollywood excesses.

TVC15 is a very odd, vaguely funky song about people being consumed and eaten by their televisions. It has some irresistible hooks and, for me, is very Bowie, lyrically. That whole repeated, addictive "transmission/transition" thing. Check out that bass line for a lovely warm depth. The saxophone backing too, is sublime, from Bowie himself. It was one of the songs performed by Bowie at Live Aid in 1985. For a song on a supposedly dark and bleak album, it is a remarkably jaunty, upbeat number, driven along by honky-tonk piano and doo-wop backing vocals. In its latest (2016) remaster, the song sounds beautifully big, booming and bassy for maybe the first time.

On Stay maybe Young Americans hadn’t been left behind after all, because this is an incredibly funky track, with a marvellous wah-wah riff, rumbling bass and funky congas/drums backing a Bowie vocal that is sort of similar to the one that he used on John I’m Only Dancing (Again). Bassist George Murray is outstanding on this, as is drummer Dennis Davis. Earl Slick contributes some searing hard rock guitar too, making it a track that crossed over many styles. The track's opening guitar riff and the way it interacts with the bass, the congas and the drums is scintillating, one of the best passages on the album. Listening to this again, this track is funky as hell.

Wild Is The Wind
 was a cover of a Johnny Mathis easy listening song from 1956. Bowie does it absolutely beautifully, singing incredibly well over a sumptuous bass, acoustic guitar and gently shuffling drum backing. It sort of sits alone from the rest of the album in a Lady Grinning Soul kind of way. It is lovely, truly lovely. When Bowie hits that high note on “I hear the sound of mandolins” it is spine-tingling.
             
I cannot state it enough, for all its perplexing undertones, this album really is a remarkable piece of work. Despite all my nostalgia for Ziggy from my early teenage years, this puts that album to the sword, quickly and efficiently, creatively. This was a far more diverse, challenging and innovative piece of work. It was also supremely influential, having an effect on the post punk genre in particular. An interesting comment on the recording comes from pianist Roy (E St. Band) Bittan, talking to "Rolling Stone"-

"....I was staying at the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles when we were on the Born To Run tour in 1975. David’s guitar player, Earl Slick, was a friend of mine. I bumped into him at the hotel and he said, ‘I can’t believe you’re here. We were just talking about you.’ David knew we were coming to town and he wanted a keyboard player.

When I arrived the next day at the studio David said to me, ‘Do you know who Professor Longhair is?’ I said, ‘Know him? I saw him play at a little roadhouse in Houston about three weeks ago!’ I wound up doing an imitation of Professor Longhair interpreting a David Bowie song. We began with ‘TVC 15’ and I wound up playing on every song besides “Wild Is The Wind”. It must have only been about three days. It’s one of my favorite projects I’ve ever worked on.....".


Incidentally, I will always prefer the "white cover" of the original release, feeling it it suits the monochrome, minimalist ambience of the music far better than the colour one that has appeared on later releases of it. Ironically, the latter was the original choice for the album, until Bowie changed it to black and white at the last minute.

Low (1977) 

Low, released in January 1977, has long divided opinion. At the time, many were perplexed by the original "side two" of dense, metallic, sombre ambient instrumentals conjured up by Bowie and Brian Eno. Let's be brutally honest, not many of us liked it at the time. Also mystifying to many were the six "semi songs" contained on the original "side one", most around two to three minutes in length and having a somewhat "unfinished" feel to them. The semi-instrumental chart hit Sound And Vision with its "blue, blue electric blue" catchline, was the most accessible, along with the slightly poppy Be My Wife. I clearly remember the reaction at the time of a lot of fans was "what the fuck..." and there were lots of moans about "wasted money" etc. Indeed, RCA executives wrote Bowie a letter upon hearing the album, requesting another Young Americans-style album. Bowie is said to have framed the letter and hung it on his wall.

Bowie had visited Berlin in 1976, trying to get off the drugs (possibly unsuccessfully as his companion was Iggy Pop). He also was worried about his sanity due to his unpredictable, odd behaviour during 1975-76. It definitely provided a boost. Bowie's influence from krautrock groups like Tangerine DreamNeu! and Kraftwerk grew even stronger as well as he met various German musicians while there. He had this to say about the city -

"....For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn't care. Well, not about an English rock singer, anyway...."

It certainly suited Bowie, and resulted in three inventive, ground-breaking albums that saw a complete re-invention of his career. For many, this period saw the artist at his innovative, creative peak.

The picture here shows the apartment in which Bowie stayed in Berlin's Schöneberg district in 1976-77.


As for the music, it was certainly a challenging, esoteric mixture, and it struggled to convince many fans. However, despite the contemporary befuddlement, the material on the old "side one" are all excellent songs. They are just short. That said, it sort of suits them. They all have excellent hooks and inventive, often addictive instrumentation. Lots of fuzzy guitar, powerful drums and deceptively strong Bowie vocals abound. All of them are mightily appealing.

The opener, the instrumental Speed Of Life, has a huge vitality to it and just feels enormously positive from the off. It has a big rumbling bass sound (particularly on the excellent 2016 remaster) and some most inventive, descending synthesiser runs. While "Heroes" was said to be very dark (and indeed it was in many places), I have always found the old "side one" of Low to be lively, open and vibrant, as befitting its bright orange cover (as opposed to "Heroes"' monochrome one). Incidentally, it "fades in" at the beginning, making it feel as if you have arrived late. Breaking Glass is accompanied by huge, thumping drums and some solid guitar interspersed with some high-pitched synthesiser breaks of the kind Gary Numan would utilise a lot a couple of years later. Although short it is a good track. I have to say it ends all too soon, though, it is the one that really seems just like a fragment of a song, somewhat unfinished. What In The World was an attractive, lively art-rocky love song from Bowie to a "little girl with grey eyes". As on all these tracks, the bass, drums and lead guitar are outstanding. The "for your love" refrain could be a reference from Bowie to his sixties favourites, The Yardbirds

Sound And Vision was the album's hit single had some absolutely killer synthesiser hooks and almost invented "synth pop". It was a semi-instrumental with just a few lyrics - the "blue, blue electric blue" refrain that really caught on and had people singing along with it. From its opening rat-a-tat drum beat through its addictive bass to its swirling, rising synthesisers, this is a pleasure from beginning to end. "Don't you wonder sometimes - 'bout sound and vision...", sung smokily and sonorously by Bowie was a great line. I have to reiterate about the bass - George Murray's contribution is superb. An interesting bit of trivia is that the "doo doo doo" backing vocals were sung by sixties folk singer Mary "Those Were The Days" Hopkin, wife of the album's producer Tony Visconti. 
Always Crashing In The Same Car is one of the slightly longer of the short tracks and is enhanced by some excellent lead guitar lines from Ricky Gardiner and a lyric inspired by Bowie actually crashing his own car. It features more great bass from George Murray and drums from fellow Station To Station bandmate Dennis DavisThe reference to a girl called "Jesamine" could have been inspired by the late sixties hit of the same name by The Casuals.

Be My Wife features some more impressive guitar and some clunky, bar-room piano back this enjoyable track. There is great bass and drum interplay beneath Bowie's vocal on the first "be my wife" chorus. "I've lived all over the world, I've lived in every place..." sings Bowie, always an inveterate traveller. The bass line the guitar interjections on this really make it. It is a bit of an overlooked gem from the period. A New Career In A New Town is a lively instrumental to end this side, nothing like the sombre, atmospheric material that we would be presented with on the other side, driven along by some catchy synthesiser, thumping regular drums, crashing percussion and some distant harmonica.

The instrumental side is a masterpiece of ambient, sombre instrumentation, full of synthesiser sounds, weird noises, bleak keyboards and an overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere. This is where the album turned from orange to dark. This is what perplexed fans at the time. In the ensuing years, of course, it has been hailed as work of genius. I'm not sure about that. I think Bowie and Eno just struck on something that they felt was right at the time and perversely stuck with it. Musically, it is not actually that adventurous, but the tracks all flow into each other with one heck of an evocative atmosphere. In that way, it is actually extremely adventurous, however. It is all about the overall effect. The effect of this album is certainly one that sticks with you. It begs repeated listens. Warszawa is full of deep, sonorous, almost funereal synthesiser lines and is punctuated by occasional incomprehensible lyrics. What language are they in? Who knows. They sound like Gregorian chant or even something made up like Esperanto. "Warszawa" is, of course, the proper Polish spelling of Warsaw. It therefore suits the whole Eastern European vibe of the album. I remember catching a Berlin-Warsaw train one dark November afternoon and feeling I was being really "Bowie".

Art Decade was lighter in feel and melody, only just though. Some vaguely "flushing toilet" sounds accompany the gloomy synthesiser passages. It is very much influenced by krautrock band Neu!, for me, and no doubt for many others too. Was the title a pun on "art decayed"? Weeping Wall was referring possibly/probably to the Berlin Wall, this track had a fetching xylophone backing, merged with some buzzy electric guitar. It is a slightly brighter track again, but the overall ambience is still one of dull oppression. Some more monk-like chanted vocals appear half way through. It is often wondered how this sort of stuff went down in 1977. I can assure you that it initially went down badly, very badly. As post punk appeared in late 1977 through to the end of the decade, the album gained more kudos by the week, however.

To fit in with its title, Subterraneans reverts to a brooding, overpoweringly dark synthesiser sound. According to Bowie, it was about those who got caught in East Berlin after the forced separation. I can get that, it is a very doom-laden piece, bringing to mind little but despair. Bowie's deep saxophone suits its ambience perfectly. I have never quite known what the few vocals meant or in what language they were sung/chanted. 

** There were a couple of tracks that possibly dated from the Low sessions and failed to make the final cut :-

Some Are found Bowie's music completely changing. This was an out-take from the Low sessions and is thought to date back as early as 1975 for some. Bowie himself disputed this, claiming it came from a bit later. Anyway, it was part of his collaboration with Brian Eno and is a sonorous keyboard piece with occasional mysterious, haunting vocals about "sleigh bells in snow". It included some wolf noises in the background and is full of atmosphere. It would have been fine on Low's second side. All Saints has been included on CD as part of the unreleased material from the Low sessions. However, Tony Visconti had no memory of working on the track and is adamant that the tape loop deep synthesiser sounds of the beguiling instrumental were not the sort of thing they used either on Low or "Heroes". He believes it dates from the eighties, therefore. Either way, it is an intriguing and interesting piece. It certainly fits the vibe of those two albums. For that reason, I will probably always feel that is where it dates from, even though I know I am probably wrong.

"Heroes" (1977

Remaining in Cold War oppressed Berlin after the recording of Low, David Bowie's "Heroes" was a ground-breaking, adventurous, genre-busting album. It was controversial upon its release due to its almost blatantly uncommercial, "anti-rock" ambience. Released at the height of punk, it inspired so many of the "post punk" bands that soon were everywhere. It clearly influenced bands like Magazine and Joy Division, but also had an effect on synthesiser-dominated groups like The Human League and later, New Order, and was one of the most influential albums of its time, without question. It is not an instant album, though. Not at all. Even its quirky vocal numbers have bleak, clunky, dense soundscapes that broke all existing moulds and the instrumental numbers are seriously dark. Although Bowie had set the trend with the previous year's Low, this was a far less accessible album even than that one, and that is saying something. It was marketed by RCA thus - "there's new wave, there's old wave, and there's David Bowie...". That hit the nail on the head. It was a special, genre-busting creation.

Some have said that this was a less sombre and melancholy album than Low had been. I have to disagree with that one, finding this by far the bleaker, denser album. As I said, this is not an instant album but it has a strange, growing appeal. I often return to it. An enjoyable thing to do is randomly shuffle the tracks with those from Talking Heads' Fear Of Music (also worked on by Brian Eno). You get quite an industrial soundscape. The previous Teutonic musical influences are all still there - Neu! (who had produced a track called Hero in 1975), Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, although no German musicians are involved apart from backing singer Antonia MaassKing Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp was flown in and laid down the guitar part for Beauty And The Beast while suffering from jet leg, apparently. The lyrics to Joe The Lion were improvisedly written in under an hour, according to producer Tony Visconti.

Beauty And The Beast kicks the album off positively with some thumping drums, fast-paced, deep keyboard riffs, high-pitched backing vocals and a menacing-sounding vocal from Bowie. It is far denser, deeper, more industrial in sound than the vocal material on Low. This track exemplifies that change. This a far more industrial in sound, providing that post punk inspiration. Joe The Lion continues in the same impenetrable, foggy vein of its predecessor, although the fog lifts on the "it's Monday" vocal bit where the murk disappears just slightly, briefly. Quite what "Joe the lion, made of iron.." referred to is unclear, to me, anyway.  Who was he? What was it about? As I mentioned earlier, the lyrics were written quickly, on the hoof, so nobody really knew. They just made it up at the time.

"Heroes" - Well, what more is there to be said about this cold war love song? It has become one of Bowie's most famous song, its lyric used many times by many people in search of some uplifting "believe in yourself" inspiration (largely because of the chorus, as opposed to the verses, which are comparatively uneasy and wishing for things that may not happen - "standing by the wall.... swimming like dolphins..." etc). "You can be mean and I'll drink all the time", however, is just one more of many of the song's lyrics that show that the song isn't just a simple "we can make it against all odds" anthem. There is a lot of underlying ambiguity, cynicism and paranoia lurking within its spray-painted concrete walls. 
Back to the song as a whole, everything about it is superb - that wonderful synthesiser leading riff, Bowie's soaring vocal and, of course, Robert Fripp's marvellous lead guitar bursts.

Sons Of The Silent Age
 has Bowie utilising that "mockney", mannered, hammy vocal for one of the first times since the late sixties. It is a haunting, quite depressing song in tune with much of the album. It is one of Bowie's most underrated reflective numbers. Musically, its bass line is sublime. Blackout. This bleak but sonically frantic number is also very central to the album's feel. The "I'll kiss you in the rain.." vocal bit is very Beatles-influenced and there are hints of Talking Heads in there too (or rather Talking Heads were influenced by this). Dennis Davis's madcap drumming is a highlight. "Get me off the streets" shrieks Bowie in a sort of post Diamond Dogs fashion.

Now for the instrumentals. I have always had a weakness for the early Roxy Music saxophone meets Kraftwerk vibe of V-2 Schneider. It is a marvellously upbeat piece of late seventies electronic instrumental music. It is the most fast paced of the instrumentals and has a real positive sound to it, despite its dense ambience. On to the real gloomy stuff. Sense Of Doubt is so deep and reverberating it makes the blinds at my window literally shake. Its synthesiser passages take you deep int the earth's core. A haunting wind sound links it to the tape loop noises of the introduction to Moss Garden. Some gentle but sharp Japanese strings cut through the thick air of the track's keyboards. It is vaguely more uplifting and ambient than its predecessor, although Neuköln gets right back to the almost troglodytic gloom. The Eastern-sounding saxophone bits are there because Neuköln was a deprived, run-down area of Berlin populated largely by Turkish immigrants. Despite its depressing sound, it is actually a most evocative piece.

This instrumental part of the album was as baffling to people at the time as the similar side of Low had been, but for most, the more you listened to it, the more oddly appealing it became. It set the foundations for so much subsequent ambient music. While Low came as something of a cultural shock, the first strains of post-punk were starting to make themselves heard and certainly this album didn't seem anything like as odd or unexpected as its predecessor had been.

The Secret Life Of Arabia. Unlike on Low, after the instrumentals we get one final vocal track - the comparatively jaunty strains of this percussive number lift our spirits again. Bowie's vocal is lively but very haughty and the song is backed by a nice bluesy harmonica lurking beneath the basic rhythm. There are also handclap and backing vocals to make this a most upbeat end to what had been a largely downbeat, introspective album.          

** There is only one recording from the sessions that didn't make it on to the album, possibly and this was Abdulmajid - Tony Visconti believes this Eastern-influenced instrumental was definitely worked on during the "Heroes" sessions, but the version that eventually surfaced had been re-mixed and added to during the nineties. He could tell, again, the with the Low material, from the type of instruments used. Who am I to disagree? Once more, it is an impressive track and would have suited the "Heroes" album.

Lodger (1979)

Coming after the excellent, ground-breaking Low and Heroes albums, Lodger was always the poor relation of the so-called "Berlin Trilogy", both critically and in reality. This was, to a certain extent, the result of the album's muffled, lifeless sound. This tended to overshadow the fact that there were some hidden gems on here, if only they could be given a little polish. Thankfully, this has now been the case with a new remaster arriving in 2017.

Regarding the songs themselves in more detail, there are some genuinely odd and intoxicating ones on here - the opener, 
Fantastic Voyage, is a musically attractive song featuring mandolin and some intriguing cold war-influenced lyrics. 
Of course, the bonkers, avant-garde fun of African Night Flight (inspired by ex-WWII German pilots still living in East Africa) is a strange song, but it has an oddly captivating appeal.

The beguiling middle-Eastern tones and slight reggae tinges of Yassassin make for a most interesting song, both of these things Bowie had not really experimented with before. I have come to really like these three. 
Then there are the Buddy Holly rolling drum stylings, dense guitars and eventual shambling atmosphere of Move On, Which is a really appealing and captivating number. We then get is the “new romantic” (before the term had been invented) chorus of the krautrock-ish and lively Red Sails, with its bizarre "hinterland, the hinterland, we're going to sail to the hinterland" lyric and the anthemic, rousing Look Back In Anger which is possibly the album's best song.

Repetition has unexpected lyrics about wife-beating. It is creepy, disturbing and edgy, I have to say. Bowie was rarely so obvious and blatant in his lyrics - he didn't stray into 'real life' descriptions very much, preferring to remain oblique. It is this odd diversion that makes this surprising song unnervingly different. 

The re-write of 
Iggy Pop's Sister Midnight Bowie collaboration, the quirky Red Money, has a brooding, sombre post-punk appeal about it. All of these songs have their moments, especially when remastered or remixed well. Apparently Bowie wanted the feel of German avant-garde band Neu! on Red Sails and explained this to guitarist Adrian Belew, who had never heard of Neu!, and he came up with exactly what Bowie wanted. Sometimes things just happen like that. 
The hit singles DJ and Boys Keep Swinging are both upbeat, commercially direct songs, if not quite the "Bowie classics" of some other hits. The 1977-78 Talking Heads-influenced DJ is a catchy, singalong number but I have to say that I always found Boys Keep Swinging a bit of a silly song, despite its often-acclaimed "camp" humour. That said, every time I hear it I find I enjoy it and it brings back nostalgic memories of 1979 for me. The first time I ever heard it was in a pizza restaurant in Canterbury called Sweeney Todd's and I was eating a sausage and jalapeño pizza that was so hot that they gave you a free pint of beer. Funny how you remember things. Maybe eating that mega-hot pizza was something I could do "when I was a boy (sic)". Both these singles carried evidence within them of the sort of electro-pop that Bowie would continue to produce in songs like Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) and Fashion - lots of pounding drums, keyboard riffs, swirling electronic noises and, of course, the Bowie knack for a great hook. All these tracks stand out on their respective albums as obvious choices for singles.

Overall, there was a definite lyrical pattern to the first five songs on the album - one of global travel, to Cyprus, Africa, Turkey, Russia, Japan and Germany and a cold war anti-nuclear uneasiness too whereas the latter half was more about hedonism and partying but with some dark undertones, lyrically and musically. There were also some signs as to future musical directions. The staccato Red Money provided a precursor to some of the material on the second half of Tonight and Repetition did the same for the second half of Let's Dance, for me, anyway. 

The album has always been the poor relation of the trilogy, however, and not just because of the afore-mentioned previously poor sound but also because there just seems to be slightly less ground-breaking "stardust" about it than the other two undoubtedly possessed. Indeed, guitarist Adrian Belew (replacement here for Robert Fripp) said of Bowie and Brian Eno, working together here for the final time until 1995's Outside - 


"They didn't quarrel or anything uncivilised like that; they just didn't seem to have the spark that I imagine they might have had during the "Heroes" album."

It was probably just a vibrant working creative seam getting mined out, to be honest. I agree with Belew though, you can sort of feel it. Just a bit. 

** Finally, an interesting Bowie rarity that some believe hails from this period is I Pray, Olé. Nobody quite knows the provenance of this track, which was included as a bonus track on the RYKO reissue of the Lodger album. It definitely has similarities to Lodger material - Red Sails and Repetition in particular - in its drum sound and keyboard riff. Tony Visconti has no knowledge of it and says it is definitely not from the Lodger sessions. He suspects it may be from around the Scary Monsters period, but updated by Bowie in the early nineties. With regard to the song itself, it is energetic and appealing enough, but is nothing special. Add it to a play of Lodger, however, and it doesn't sound out of place.

David Bowie had so many phases in his career, but this one coming up, for me, was the final one in the first half of many years of releasing albums. There has always been an invisible line, as far as I am concerned, that begins after the release of Never Let Me Down. After that, although I liked some of the material, I have never seen it as part of the pre-1987 output. Obviously, it isn't anyway, but I know what I mean. Bowie pre-1987 was a different artist to Bowie post 1993.

Anyway, on to this era. It was an odd one. The deathly-white, drug-ravaged figure of the late seventies suddenly became a walking advert for a healthy lifestyle, sporting a deep, golden sun tan, bleached blond hair and wearing tailored pastel shaded suits. Personally, I preferred him looking as if he were at death's door! No longer putting out edgy music, Bowie had become a purveyor of hit singles, playing to huge outdoor stadium audiences. The great leftfield innovator had become pop royalty, his music sitting alongside that of Phil Collins and Michael Jackson in the collections of those who owned less than twenty albums. It would be something Bowie would come to question himself.

This was, however, the peak of his unit-shifting popularity.


Scary Monsters (1980)

Bowie's 1980 release, coming after the so-called "Berlin Trilogy" was commercially more successful than its predecessor, Lodger. Brian Eno had gone by now. Bowie was on a bit of a new lease of life as a new decade began. After treading water somewhat in the (slightly) undercooked Lodger (although I like it), it seemed as if Bowie had rediscovered his mojo to an extent, however, with this one. He seemed happier, healthier and very creative. This album was a precursor to the huge commercial "comeback" that Let's Dance saw in 1983. Personally, I much prefer this album. Having said, that, for some reason, it is an album I never really got into, either back then or now, not nearly as much I did others. I am not quite sure that is because it is certainly a very good album. In a reference to all the new wave-post punk-new romantic acts influenced by Bowie's recent work, RCA marketed the album as "often copied, never equalled". For many, though, it has become the "go to" album when talking of Bowie's last great album. It has become something of a cliché to hear "this is Bowie's best album since Scary Monsters" trotted out, lazily. 

There is certainly a lot more verve and vibrancy about it, I have to say. Neither was it as quirky or oddball. It contained a massive number one single in the addictive, evocative and smoky-voiced Ashes To Ashes, where the spirit of Major Tom was evoked, and another big hit in the New Romantics' favourite, Fashion, with its infectious "ooh-wah" backing vocals and contemporary New York disco funk sound. That searing guitar on it was singularly impressive. Robert Fripp was back on duty, after having being replaced by Adrian Belew on Lodger. Pretty much everything about the sound on the song is top notch. Lyrically, however, the song is not quite the unbridled celebration of fashion culture that one may perceive it to have been. The line "It's loud and it's tasteless and I've heard it before..." betrays a Bowie becoming somewhat world-weary and cynical. The punters didn't detect that, though, and lapped it up like the very consumers Bowie was tiring of. One thing that has always irritated me mildly about it, I have to admit, is when Bowie sings "the-er-er dance floor...". First prize for nit picking for me there.

I have to say that the first six tracks take some beating, including the slightly bizarre ranting Japanese vocals from Michi Hirota duetting with Bowie on the frenetic sound of It's No Game (Part One). The "Heroes" album-esque and quirky Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (also featuring some great guitar runs and a pounding drum sound) and the catchy, build-up song Up The Hill Backwards were both instantly appealing tracks. They had that sort of commercially accessible, post punk vibrancy to them - the density of post punk combined with a pop/rock  catchiness.

There is also the "Heroes" (part two) feel of the impressive and grandiose Teenage Wildlife, which features one of Bowie's finest vocals. This sprawling, vacillating track has always felt a little jumbled and at times struggling to find a coherence, for me, I will reluctantly say, despite its anthemic potential. It remains an undervalued Bowie classic, albeit a flawed one.

The second half of the album veers away from the more commercially appealing numbers towards a denser, more rocky sound. It mustn't be underestimated or overlooked, however. Some of the album's most enigmatic and creative material is to be found here. Firstly, we have the dark, nihilistic future shock story of Scream Like A Baby, with its punk/new wave undertones, followed by the similarly post punk-ish, guitar-driven cover of a Tom Verlaine song in the solid rock of Kingdom Come. Its comparative lightness of melody and occasional poppiness casts it as the album's The Prettiest Star, in some ways.

Then comes 
The Who's Pete Townshend guesting on guitar for the excellent, underrated Because You're Young (to be honest, though, I can't pick out Pete much). The song tries to reach the rousing strains of Teenage Wildlife and almost makes it, but not quite. It is still a bit of a hidden gem though, with its singalong chorus and Jimmy Destri of Blondie-influenced Farfisa organ sound. Some feel it is the album's weakest track. Not me. 

Finally, It's No Game (Part Two) is the better of the two bookend numbers that use the same backing track, having far more lyrics and a fine, soaring Bowie vocal. The lyrics find Bowie saying "to be insulted by these fascists is so degrading...". After briefly flirting with fascism in 1976 (in occasional inference) during his coke-addled period, he is now taking a completely different stance. He is now very much the compassionate, caring, globally-aware socialist.

** The one session track that was not included on the album is:-

Crystal Japan. This (unsurprisingly) Japanese-influenced instrumental is from the 1980 sessions for Scary Monsters. It has a very "Heroes" feel about it, though, in its deep, reverberating and mournful synthesiser passages. It has a lot of the ambience of Moss Garden, for me. Also around from the same period was a stripped-down, acoustic version of Space Oddity which is ok, but pales against the original; an odd, re-recorded, trying to be contemporary version of Panic In Detroit, which definitely doesn't match the original and a cover of Bertholt Brecht's Alabama Song which has never appealed to me, despite its Teutonic, 1930s atmosphere.

Let's Dance (1983)

After a few years in the comparative “wilderness”, David Bowie was back, all sun tanned, bleached-blond, besuited and healthy-looking with his most commercially successful album in a long time. Appealing to the masses with the three huge hits - the mannered, singalong dance rock of Let's Dance, the atmospheric China Girl and the powerful pop of Modern Love, Bowie himself referred to the period as his “Phil Collins” years.
                                    
Produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers and featuring blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, the music is a mixture of rubber-band bass-driven disco funk, searing lead bluesy guitar and punchy horn backing. A fusion like that had not really been heard before. Despite its commercial old “side one” a good way of appreciating this album is to listen to the “other tracks”. Incidentally, before going on to the songs, it is worth hearing what Vaughan said of working with Bowie on the album - 

"....David Bowie is real easy to work with. He knows what he's doing in the studio and he doesn't mess around. He comes right in and goes to work. Most of the time, David did the vocals and then I played my parts. A lot of the time, he just wanted me to cut loose. He'd give his opinion on the stuff he liked and the stuff that needed work. Almost everything was cut in one or two takes. I think there was only one thing that needed three takes...."

Taking Vaughan's words into account leads one to appreciate the album more. If it was laid down in so ad hoc a fashion, it is pretty impressive. Out of interest, Bowie plays no instruments on this album, for the first time in ages. This is another piece of evidence to support the case that this incarnation of Bowie considers himself a "pop star" vocalist first and foremost. He would come to question this, though, as I detail later on. 
   
The beautiful, seductive Without You, with its initial smoky vocal and soaring falsetto chorus is a much-underrated Bowie classic. It has, somewhat unfairly, been overshadowed by the three biggies. There is a case for it being the album's best track. The more listens you give it, the more you may like it. 

Then there is the reggae-tinged funk and sumptuous horns of the staccato 
Ricochet
 and the wonderful guitar and white soul vocals of the lively Criminal World. Both of these tracks have an energetic appeal that has rarely been acknowledged. The latter was a cover of a track by little-known US group The Metros but its makeover makes it sound like a Bowie original. It features a nice throbby bass line too, something that was often comparatively lacking in these 1983 recordings. The former's brassy sound was a precursor to the sound that would feature on the following year's Tonight album. 
Cat People (Putting Out Fire) has a heavier, harder rock appeal about it, with Stevie Ray Vaughan contributing some searing guitar licks. Bowie's vocal on the build-up verses is haughtily sonorous in a Lodger sort of way. The production is typically eighties-tinny, however, which detracts from the song to an extent but it ends with a nice bit of rock funk to redeem things.   

The funky 
Shake It
 seems to recycle the Let’s Dance synth hook and chorus in many ways, and due to that seems to be a bit of a “treading water” throwaway. I still really like it, though, re-hash or not. Great bass line and a killer Bowie vocal on there along with some hints of Fame in places. It is the album's most 'dance' track and an upbeat note upon which to end. 
Bowie later said that the success of the album caused him to hit a creative low point in his career which lasted the next few years - 

".. I remember looking out over these waves of people (who were coming to hear this record played live) and think "I wonder how many Velvet Underground albums these people have in their record collections?". I suddenly felt very apart from my audience and it was depressing, because I didn't know what they wanted...".

This is a very telling quote indeed. I rarely listen to this album, particularly the first three tracks, maybe I, as part of his audience, felt apart from Bowie for the first time since 1972? I certainly didn’t want Bowie to be a slave to what the masses wanted. I was never really happy with the suit and tie, blonde haired, sun tanned look. Bowie looked like he had stepped out of the office of a Californian real estate company. Surely this was the worst of all his “images”?

After his follow-up albums - Tonight in 1984 and 1987’s Never Let Me Down - were critically dismissed (in some ways, unfairly, in my opinion), Bowie formed the grunge-precursor band Tin Machine in an effort to regain his artistic vision.

Tonight (1984)

After the commercial disco blues/funk of Let’s Dance, this rather hurriedly recorded follow up in the next year has always been a bit unfairly maligned. Yes, by Bowie’s own admittance, his muse had deserted him to an extent and he was struggling to come to a conclusion as to what his “new”, charts-influenced, stadium rock audience expected from him, however, there is still some good material on this album. Adding The Borneo Horns to the musicians, it is a summery, reggae and at times Latin-influenced sound that we get here, actually quite unique in the Bowie canon. Look, it is pretty fashionable to criticise this album. Not for me. I actually quite like it. Bowie had his own slightly negative feelings about it, though, which cannot be ignored -

“….It was rushed. The process wasn't rushed; we actually took our time recording the thing; Let's Dance was done in three weeks, Tonight took five weeks or something, which for me is a really long time. I like to work fast in the studio. There wasn't much of my writing on it 'cause I can't write on tour and I hadn't assembled anything to put out. But I thought it a kind of violent effort at a kind of “Pin Ups”…..”
                           
....as this quote shows, Bowie had some dissatisfactions with the album and this has certainly always been true of the opener - Bowie has never been happy with Loving The Alien. I am not sure why. It sounds excellent to me - brooding, soulful, atmospheric, evocative. Without doubt the best track on the album, for me, despite its composer's misgivings.

The reggae of Don't Look Down is actually more than convincing (unusual for non-Jamaican artists). I, as a long-time fan of authentic reggae, rate it as one of the better examples of a mainstream artists' efforts at reggae. Personally, the much-maligned cover of The Beach Boys God Only Knows is absolutely beautiful. Lovely orchestration and Bowie’s voice as good as it has ever been, paying great respect to an iconic song. The reggae and horns backing on the Iggy Pop songwriting collaboration Tonight (initially appearing on Pop's Lust For Life album) is more obviously commercial, but it is not a bad version, as Bowie duets lustily with Tina Turner. The song's initial darkness has been taken away, though, in an attempt to widen its appeal. Strangely, it failed to sell, despite this. Bowie was also not happy with Neighbourhood Threat, one of a few covers of old mate Iggy Pop’s material. Again, it is nowhere near as bad as popularly thought. Great bass sound, incisive guitar, pounding drums and a convincing vocal. 

The hit single, Blue Jean, is a keeper too, featuring a stonking great catchy riff and chorus. It was definitely one of Bowie’s better mid-career singles, often underrated. For some reason, Bowie later dismissed it as a "sexist piece of rock 'n' roll". Aren't all rock songs a bit like that? This doesn't seem particularly guilty, to me. Tumble And Twirl, another Iggy Pop co-write is also catchy, rhythmic and appealing as Bowie sings (perhaps surprisingly) about Borneo, and would not have sounded out of place on Lodger in some ways. I Keep Forgettin' is a very boppy, almost rock 'n' roll number with sixties influences (indeed it is a Chuck Jackson cover) and another impressive, punchy horns backing. These often-forgotten tracks deserve more listens than they usually inspire.

Dancing With The Big Boys
, the album's final Iggy writing pair-up, is an addition to DJ and Boys Keep Swinging in the list of Bowie’s upbeat “danceable” material. It is good too - the horns punchy and completing perfectly the energetic lead guitar riffs and the pace of the drum rhythm never lets up. Another underrated one. 
It was a shame that the infectious jazz rock non-album single, This Is Not America was not included. Had it been, opinions of the album may have been considerably more favourable because the collaboration with jazz/rocker Pat Metheney was a big hit.

As with the next album, Never Let Me Down, these are often referred to as being Bowie’s worst albums. Personally, I prefer them to any of the 1990s/early 2000s releases, by far. 


Never Let Me Down (1987)

I have never quite understood the bad press this album gets. Yes, I accept that it is no Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane or Low, but I have to admit that I prefer listening to it to either of its two predecessors, Let’s Dance or Tonight. It brings back happy memories for me of 1987 and I guess that always helps, but I genuinely feel it is a more than acceptable album, given the paucity of classic material being produced at the time. Bowie's own reaction to it has been changeable, to say the least. Upon its release, he had this to say -

"...I've made about 20 albums during my career, and so far this is my third biggest seller. So I can't be that disappointed, yet, it is a letdown that it hasn't been as buoyant as it should be. ... But I don’t really feel that negative about it. As far as I'm concerned it's one of the better albums I've made. As I've said. Never Let Me Down has been a pretty big seller for me. So I'm quite happy...."

By 1990, he had changed his mind a little -

"....Never Let Me Down had good songs that I mistreated. I didn't really apply myself. I wasn't quite sure what I was supposed to be doing. I wish there had been someone around who could have told me...."

and by 1995 he was full-on against it -

"....The great public esteem at that time meant absolutely nothing to me. It didn't make me feel good. I felt dissatisfied with everything I was doing, and eventually it started showing in my work. Let's Dance was an excellent album in a certain genre, but the next two albums after that Tonight and Never Let Me Down showed that my lack of interest in my own work was really becoming transparent. My nadir was Never Let Me Down. It was such an awful album. I've gotten to a place now where I'm not very judgmental about myself. I put out what I do, whether it's in visual arts or in music, because I know that everything I do is really heartfelt. Even if it's a failure artistically, it doesn't bother me in the same way that Never Let Me Down bothers me. I really shouldn't have even bothered going into the studio to record it. In fact, when I play it, I wonder if I did sometimes...."

So, we have an album that its composer sometimes disowns, and the listening public also do to a great extent. Is there anything good about it? Personally, I have always liked it and feel that there is plenty of good material on there. 
As mid to late 80s music was dominated by synthesisers and synth drums and so on, it is welcome on this album to hear Peter "Frampton Comes Alive” Frampton’s guitar ring out, especially on the three excellent opening tracks - the chunky rock of Day In Day Out, the memorable and very catchy Time Will Crawl and the rocking Bowie-pop of Beat Of Your Drum. These are all good ones. Incidentally, I read someone say that Time Will Crawl is one of those songs that sounds as if it means something really portentous - "until the 21st century lose" etc but, in true Bowie cut-and-paste songwriting style, means nothing. That is very true and something I have always thought about the song myself.
 
Now to the album's more criticised numbers. Granted, the slightly twee, frothy and lightweight Never Let Me Down is not quite as good as the opening three, but it is actually perfectly pleasant enough. It is certainly no more or no less pleasant than the highly-rated and popular Kooks on Hunky DoryThe punchy and enjoyable Zeroes is certainly as good as any other 1987 Bowie rocker too, or from anyone else at the time, for that matter. The lyrical reference to "my little red corvette has passed me by" is a reference to Prince, but I have never read too much into it, refusing to go down the appallingly clichéd 'handing over the baton of creativity' route that many have travelled.

Glass Spider
 
is in the territory of indulgence, I guess, but had it been put on Diamond Dogs it would have been labelled a work of genius. It is full of compelling, moving images. However, it is the spoken-word narration part that doesn't quite work (do such parts ever work?). When it finally breaks out, though, it is muscular, rocky and captivating. 
The breezy but over-tinny Shining Star and the rousing, riffy rock of '87 And Cry are, in my opinion, perfectly enjoyable songs of their upbeat, poppy type, particularly the latter. The late seventies-ish New York's In Love has real hints of The Velvet Underground's Rock And Roll about it, particularly the "everybody's waiting for the go-go boys" line. Bang Bang (another Iggy Pop song) sees the standard drop a bit but it is no worse than Too Dizzy, the song Bowie had removed from the original album (to be honest I always quite liked it!). I seem to be alone in that. This is a good late 80s album of upbeat pop songs. It serves its purpose. Just enjoy it for what it is, and don’t compare it to Bowie’s best work. It has to be said that Time Will Crawl is a great track, and would grace any Bowie album.

** There were a couple of songs that were recorded for this album and were not chosen. They were both pretty good and merit acknowledgement :-

Julie. From the sessions for Never Let Me Down, this is a poppy, beaty and enjoyable song that would have been suitable for the album. Its rhythm is quite infectious and the whole thing is strangely carefree for a Bowie song. Girls. Bowie wrote this for Tina Turner and it appeared on her Break Every Rule album. His own recording of it dated from the Never Let Me Down sessions and is not a bad track at all. It starts atmospherically, almost in a sort of Lady Grinning Soul mode - piano and vocal, before it breaks out into a big saxophone-driven eighties-style chorus. Some have expressed reservations about that part of the song. Not me. I have to say I really quite like it. It is a quality Bowie rarity and is more than the equal of much of the material on Never Let Me Down (which is also an album that I like a lot more than many do).

The nineties were where David Bowie changed quite considerably, musically, incorporating contemporary dance beats into his music and giving his sound a deeper, more dense production. Although it is not my favourite phase of his many phases, there is still plenty of material to enjoy. (It was strange how he looked like David Beckham for a while, though, wasn't it?).

For Bowie's work with Tin Machine, click here :-

https://psb.psbmusicreviewsblogspot.com/2019/06/tin-machine.html

Black Tie White Noise (1993)
  
For me, there are two parts of David Bowie's career, his Tin Machine work being the bridging point between the two. The first part is the part that really means the most to me, the second part begins here, in 1993, and heralds the start of far more use of dance rhythms and contemporary music, some of which I find less accessible than the sounds of the 1970s and 1980s. Bowie said this of recording the album -

"....I think this album comes from a very different emotional place than on previous albums. That's the passing of time, which has brought maturity and a willingness to relinquish full control over my emotions, let them go a bit, start relating to other people, which is something that's been happening to me slowly – and, my God, it's been uphill – over the last ten or twelve years. I feel a lot freer these days to be able to talk about myself and about what's happened to me, because I've been able to face it. For many years, everything was always blocked out. The day before was always blocked out. I never wanted to return to examine anything that I did particularly. But the stakes have changed. I feel alive, in a real sense....."
                            
What we were getting here was a newly-energised Bowie, fresh after his fun with Tin Machine, recovered after the travails of Never Let Me Down. 
We begin with an appealing instrumental, The Wedding, which combines some Low/"Heroes"- style sonorous keyboards with a lilting, melodic bass line, some swirling saxophone  and some funky guitar riffs. It is quite captivating in its own, meandering way. Chic's Nile Rodgers was on production duties again (he did Let's Dance) and old band mates Mick Ronson (who tragically died 24 days after the album's release), pianist Mike Garson and Tin Machine's Reeves GabrelsThe next track, You've Been Around, is a thumping piece of jazz rock and funk mixed in. Bowie briefly references 1971's Changes in the lyrics. The album was, I guess, intended to be a sort of Young Americans part two - this time updated to be a sophisticated urban soul meets dance club techno rhythms. That treatment was given to Cream's sixties blues rock classic I Feel Free, pretty much rendering it unrecognisable. It actually just sounds like a great new, state-of-the-art Bowie song. It has mesmeric, intoxicating rhythms sliced apart by a searing Mick Ronson solo. It has to remembered that, in many ways, grunge was the music of the era, yet Bowie came out with something like this. Very adventurous as usual.

Bowie plays a lot of saxophone on the album, and Rodgers interestingly said of the fact -


"....I think David would be the first to admit that he's not a saxophonist in the traditional sense. I mean, you wouldn't call him up to do gigs. He uses his playing as an artistic tool. He's a painter. He hears an idea, and he goes with it. But he absolutely knows where he's going, because he damn well plays the same thing over and over again until I say, 'Well, I guess he hears that.' It's what you might call accidentally deliberate....".

A wonderful trumpet from Lester Bowie (no relation) introduces the ebullient and stimulating Black Tie, White Noise with an instantly recognisable Bowie vocal. It has a laid-back, summery feel and a vibe similar to that which some of the tracks on Tonight were aspiring to. It reminds me of several other songs, but I can't bring them to mind, just snatches here and there. Despite the almost chilled out vibe at times the lyrics are typically portentous in places. Bowie certainly seems rejuvenated here, both as a lyricist and vocalist. 
Jump They Say has a frantic, dance-influenced rhythm, all repetitive drum beats per minute and swirling saxophone in places. Bowie's vocal is one of those deep, serious-sounding ones. Some excellent brass soloing in the middle. It is a very instrumentally adventurous track, despite the metronomic drum sound. Nite Flights (actually a Walker Brothers cover, although again it sounds like a Bowie original) has a deep, bassy and another vibrating, deep and haughty vocal. In many ways, these tracks are like some of the "Heroes" and Lodger material but without some of the industrial electronic vibes of that era. Some U2-style electric guitar punctuate the air. They started putting out material like this within months. I wonder why? Bowie leading the way again. It sounds cliched, but it is true.

The instrumental (save a few chanted vocals) Pallas Athena has some real "Heroes" saxophone blowing all around its pounding, clubby drum beat. 
Miracle Goodnight has a incredibly catchy instrumental hook and again, Bowie's vocals are a nostalgic reminder of earlier eras.  Don't Let Me Down And Down is a somewhat twee, romantic song that would have been slated had it appeared on Never Let Me Down or Tonight. It is/was so cliched and easy to criticise those albums yet praise this one. For me, I like them equally, There were good points on those albums, whatever the music media say. The song is perfectly acceptable though, but is certainly no work of genius. Looking For Lester is a strident instrumental featuring the talents of the afore-mentioned trumpeter once again. The presence of instrumentals on this album enhance the Low-"Heroes" comparisons in a tiny way, but of course the overall ambience is utterly different. Mike Garson has a trademark piano solo on the track too, which is always good to hear. I Know It's Gonna Happen Someday is a cover of a Morrissey song. I know nothing about Morrissey's work so have no knowledge of the song but it seems to suit Bowie in a Wild Is The Wind sort of mournful way. The Wedding Song reprises the opening track with more pumping beats and  wailing saxophone from Bowie, as well as a floaty, indistinct vocal. It is a relaxing end to an intriguing album. It is my favourite of this "second period" Bowie work until The Next Day.

1.Outside (1995)

David Bowie was back with old mate, producer Brian Eno, for this one. It was released two years after the vaguely experimental Black Tie White Noise and it ploughed several new furrows - dance music, spoken interludes, electronica, post grunge and even more avant garde, piano-driven jazz than had been dabbled with on the previous album.

It has, supposedly, a "concept" about a detective investigating the horrific murder and dismembering of a fourteen year-old girl. All rather unsettling and frankly a bit odd. It features several characters and, in between the songs, has several short, often spoken pieces. The one called Baby Grace I actually don't ever play, finding it decidedly creepy. So, I just stick to the songs, leaving out the spoken interludes and, playing them thus, the "concept" fades away. Did I really care about these characters anyway? No. The songs can all be taken separately, at face value. Yes, I know it is supposed to be listened to in its original incarnation, but well, there you go, I don't. Am I "cheating" the concept? Bowie purists would undoubtedly say yes. Bowie himself said that the album was intended to be post-apocalyptic in a slightly Diamond Dogs fashion as the end of the century approached, something about which Bowie seemed to have become increasingly afraid of.
                                
Outside is a solemn, intense but sonically addictive song, with a really strong Bowie vocal and a great sound to it. Lots of searing guitar, keyboards and a slow, industrial drum beat. I had forgotten what a good opener it was. 
Heart's Filthy Lesson introduces us to Bowie's dance beat experimentation that would continue into 1997's Earthling album. Beneath the thumping beat lies some madcap Mike Garson piano, some delicious rhythms, backing vocals and some haughty Bowie vocals coming in here and there. It is an innovatory and interesting track. Similarly so is the avant-garde jazz of A Small Plot Of Land, with old Ziggy-era pianist Mike Garson to the fore. It is a most unusual track with some beguiling rhythms, cutting Talking Heads-style guitar and oddly distant but sonorous vocals floating around from Bowie. It is one of his strangest songs. Quite how Hallo Spaceboy, a crazed dance beat song with spacey overtones, fits in with the concept  is unclear. It seems completely incongruous to me.
 
The Motel is a haunting, ethereal number with some more sumptuous Mike Garson piano, some absolutely killer Reeves Gabrels guitar and some echoes of the future in how some of the Blackstar album would sound in places. That whole futuristic jazz thing. I Have Not Been To Oxford Town has Bowie narrating part of the album's concept, semi-singing over an insistent but highly captivating guitar-driven industrial rhythm. No Control has a slow-burning, walking pace dance-ishbeat and a typically arch Bowie vocal. 

The Voyeur Of Utter Destruction has some Aladdin Sane-style piano over another thumping dance beat. I Am With Name is a bizarre, cacophonous piece of jazzy experimentation that doesn't lend itself to too many listens, to be honest. Wishful Beginnings has a sledgehammer single beat drum sound that goes right to one's centre. It is a slightly unnerving but infectious song. All very enigmatic. We Prick You has the frantic, synthesised dance beat back again, but it features some excellent keyboard and guitar sounds too and an energising vocal. I'm Deranged just washes over you in a swathe of dance beats and occasionally tinkling piano with a somewhat airy, distant vocal. 

Thru' These Architect's Eyes is one of the album's best tracks. It has a rumbling bass line, great guitar riffs, yet more wonderful piano and Bowie powerfully incanting out the perplexing lyrics. Finally, (and this has been Bowie's longest ever album), we get the most conventionally-played number, Strangers When We Meet. It has an introductory riff vaguely reminiscent of Spencer Davis's Gimme Some Lovin'. It is probably my favourite on the album. It has a great hook, catchy melody and thankfully, no dance rhythms! A "proper" Bowie song - at last. These last two songs have been good ones, but, I have to admit, although the album is somewhat stodgy, it does indeed merit many listens. There is much beneath the surface. That is the mark of a good David Bowie album, I guess.

Incidentally the extended double disc edition of the album contains endless remixes of some of the tracks - five versions of Hearts Filthy Lesson, for example. It is a labour of love trawling through them all, but some of them are pretty good and sometimes superior to the one used on the actual album. I particularly like the bassy Rubber Mix of Heart's Filthy Lesson.

Interestingly, Brian Eno spoke one week after Bowie's death thus -

"....About a year ago we started talking about Outside – the last album we worked on together. We both liked that album a lot and felt that it had fallen through the cracks. We talked about revisiting it, taking it somewhere new. I was looking forward to that...."

What a shame it never came to pass.


Earthling (1997)

This was David Bowie's "dance" album, influenced by contemporary electronica and "drum and bass" synthesised sounds. It is not a genre that has ever really appealed to me, so, for that reason, it is not one of my favourite Bowie albums.

However, unlike a lot of drum and bass material, Bowie didn't simply take snippets, loops and samples of bits of other songs and paste them over a dance beat, he did create actual songs to go with the beat. They are lyrically pretty minimalist, but they are actual songs and do have a certain appeal. In some ways, though, the songs sound as if they are regular Bowie songs and he has slapped a dance beat on them. One wonders what they may have been like given a maybe more conventional rock backing, a soul backing, or a Tin Machine grungy backing. As it was, he wanted to give them a dance backing, so that was that. Beneath the slightly overwhelming backing, though, lie a few hidden treasures here and there. Bowie was always the great innovator, and he certainly is here. It is one of his most experimental albums, if not the most. Bowie actually compared the album to Scary Monsters in its aural attack and I can sort of see what he meant. He said he wanted to be "dynamic and aggressive". It was certainly that, but, as I said, I would have preferred more guitar to programmed drums, but there you go.

Little Wonder does indeed have an intoxicating rhythm, a catchy chorus hook - "so far away..." and all sorts of electric noises coming in and out of the song, behind the metronomic, thumping dance beat. There are guitar bits, keyboard bits, strings bits. It is a veritable cornucopia of sounds, making it stand out a bit from the usual dance stuff.

Looking For Satellites is less frenetic, beat-wise and quite slow and industrial in its grinding beat and chanted vocal refrain about "shampoo, TV..." and so on. Battle For Britain (The Letter) actually sounds like a song from the Space Oddity era of the late sixties/early seventies until the huge drum machine rhythm kicks in. It has a great, sharp guitar interjection in places, which is quite exhilarating. The vocals just sound so evocative of that early era. Seven Years In Tibet has really a chilled-out, quiet introduction and some plaintive Bowie vocals before a seriously huge, heavy blast of a chorus kicks in, then it goes quiet again. It is actually an intriguing song, with many facets. Typical Bowie in fact. Dead Man Walking sees a return to the 160 beats per minute, (or whatever it is), club beat backing. It has, beneath the synthesised onslaught, some excellent Bowie vocals and lyrics. It also has some interesting keyboard and guitar parts that have a Talking Heads feel to them in places. Right at the end, some recognisable Mike Garson piano arrives, a bit too late though. Telling Lies is a sonorous, bassy thumper with another haunting and beguiling Bowie vocal. Again, one can't help but wonder what he song would have been like if given an alternative backing. 

The same applies to the mysterious The Last Thing You Should Do, which features some searing guitar from old Tin Machine mate Reeves Gabrels. By now, listening to this album, the monotonous beat is starting to grate a bit, I have to admit. I am saved, though, by the gloriously powerful, riffy and addictively catchy I'm Afraid Of Americans. This is, in my opinion, the best track on the album. It has some excellent lyrics, a great build up and a monster of a chorus. Law (Earthlings On Fire) has echoes of The Human League's Sound Of The Crowd in its vocal refrain. Otherwise it is pretty intransigent, clunky dance stodge. The album is not really my thing, but a dip into it every now and again can't harm.

Hours....(1999)

 
After the diversification into dance music experimentation that was Earthling, two years later, Bowie, thankfully, in my view, ditched the "beats per minute" and returned with this mainly melodic, ethereal, introspective album. He still employs programmed drums and bass guitar as opposed to a conventional band, but it often doesn't sound like it. Initially, they recorded it with a Diamond Dogs  guitar backing, which guitarist Reeves Gabrels much preferred, but in the end Bowie went for a more slick, contemporary sound. That was a shame, I would have liked to have head the original version.
                                
It kicks off with the airy, breathy Thursday's Child, which, although it appears to use programmed drums has a fetching melody and a killer bass line, which is also synthesised but actually sounds authentic. 
The same sound features on the relaxed and chilled-out intro to Something In The Air - a nonchalantly appealing and typically Bowie song. This album, far more than the previous two, sounds what I imagine a David Bowie album twenty-odd years on from the mid/late seventies should sound like. I much prefer it to either Earthling or 1.Outside, although there are many who would not agree with me. Survive is, according to Bowie himself, very much written using similar structures to those used on Hunky Dory in the early seventies. I am sure he is correct, but I can't detect it myself. It sounds very much of its time. A bit of Starman style morse code guitar creeps in, however. 

If I'm Dreaming My Life is sombre and introspective and probably a bit too long. It is considerably darker and bleaker than the material so far. Seven brings us back to a lighter mood, however, with a Hunky Dory style acoustic guitar intro, but that is as far as that tenuous link goes. For me, the material is not really reminiscent of any earlier era. It is Bowie as he was in 1999. It is music contemporary to its time. What's Really Happening is a powerful, industrial-sounding rock number with a big drum sound and some "Heroes"-style guitar. The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell is a strong, riffy guitar-driven rock number, probably my favourite on the album. Bowie's vocal is deep and confident on this one too. New Angels Of Promise starts with a Japanese-sounding intro and has lots of echoes of Sons Of The Silent Age in its deep, resonant vocals. Brilliant Adventure is an infectious, eastern-sounding instrumental which has always reminded me of the theme to Midnight Express. Again, it sounds a lot like the instrumental stuff from "Heroes", like Moss Garden. 

This relatively short album ends with the melancholy, sonorous The Dreamers, which is full of strong, powerful, scratchy guitar riffs and slightly distorted vocals. The album was quite harshly treated by critics at the time, which was somewhat unfair. It is not that bad at all.

Heathen (2002)

This is an album that included three cover versions of other artists' songs and an upbeat, lively ambience, utilising a lot of drum machine rhythms (far more than on Reality for example, which used more "proper" drums). Personally, I prefer the latter, but this is certainly not a bad album, containing some interesting material that demands several listens.
                       
The haunting Sunday is a low-key beginning with a percussion riff that sounds as if was taken from the title track of Station To Station (the train sounding bit). There are other addictively weird electronic noises and Bowie's voice is sonorously haughty. After about four minutes it suddenly develops a pounding rock beat and then finishes, just when it was getting interesting. The powerful drum beat is continued in Cactus, which has an insistent rock beat which is almost "dance" in its metronomic consistency of rhythm. An acoustic guitar leads the track, however and the lyrics are somewhat bizarre. Apparently it is a cover of a song by The Pixies, something of which I was not aware (or of the original song, which I have just listened to, and enjoyed, although I prefer Bowie's version).

Slip Away
 is a melodic, grandiose song delivered in a sort of Space Oddity anthem type of fashion. It has "space" references and mentions in the chorus of "Uncle Floyd" who was a US children's TV character (another thing of which I had, or indeed have, no knowledge). It is pretty much a consistently expressed opinion that the "Heroes"-esque Slow Burn is the favourite track on the album for most. It is mine too. It builds up magnificently, with a cutting lead guitar, great bass line and intoxicating rhythm that keeps your attention. It has hints, for me of Teenage Wildlife from Scary Monsters (that other notable "Heroes" re-write). I have read some commenters say that there are vague references to 9/11 (which took place during the recording sessions for this album) on this track and on other parts of the album. Personally, I don't pick up on them at all and indeed, Bowie has stated that none of the songs relate to that event. Maybe people are looking to hard for something that just isn't there. Either way, its a stunning track. Best on the album.

Afraid is pretty good too - lively, fast-paced track with some string orchestration in the backing and an energetic vocal from Bowie. I can see why it is often considered a bit of a throwaway after Slow Burn but I quite like it. The bass is superb too. It also has hints of "Heroes" in it, as well as a Lennon-esque "believe in Beatles" quote.

I've Been Waiting For You
 is another good one, a cover from Neil Young's debut album, with a powerful guitar sound (more so than Young's, even) and strong hook. 
The rhythmic opening to I Would Be Your Slave is extremely catchy and the vocal is a typical Bowie one - instantly recognisable in that sort of Absolute Beginners yearning style. I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship sounds like something from the dance-influenced Earthling album, with that frantic, synthesised drum machine sound. It is vibrant, however, and actually a lot of fun. Almost as if Bowie is parodying himself. It is, however,  a cover of something by The Legendary Stardust Cowboy who I have blissfully never heard of. (I checked it out, it's phenomenally awful!) 5.15: The Angels Have Gone is a beguiling song with a totally addictive drum rhythm and a plaintive vocal. It does eventually kick in to a massive, heavy chorus before quietening down again into its inventive rhythm.  It is probably the most experimental, adventurous track on the album. I find Everyone Says "Hi" to be somewhat twee, however. It has a good hook, though, with some "way-wah-wah-ooh" backing vocals straight off Absolute BeginnersI like the deep and resonant A Better Future a lot with its chant-like refrain of "I demand a better future..." - it is definitely one of the best cuts on here - and the album ends with the plaintive, haunting Heathen (The Rays). Overall, not as good as Reality is my opinion, but still an album worthy of repeated listens.

** PS - On the extended version of this album are some excellent bonus tracks - the rocking re-makes of  the sixties tracks You've Got A Habit Of Leaving (which I love) and Baby Loves That WaySafe;  Shadow ManWhen The Boys Come Marching Home, Wood Jackson and also re-recordings of Conversation Piece and Panic In Detroit. All these tracks are well worth checking out. Their inclusion would have considerably improved the album.


Reality (2003)
This is a keyboard, electronic sound-dominated album, 
taking some of the sonic ambience of "Heroes", Lodger and, particularly Scary Monsters to produce an album that while, looking back to those albums, still managed, as Bowie always did, to sound contemporary. There are all sorts of weird dance-ish sort of sounds all over the album. Bowie's distinct vocal soars confidently over it all. It is one of my favourites of the "later period" Bowie albums. There is considerable contemporary influence on it, but it also rocks, as much as any of his later albums, which is so good to hear. Earl Slick and Mike Garson are present from days gone by too. Bowie also showed he had lost none of his innate ability to produce a somewhat pretentious quote explaining the concept of the album, however -

"...I feel that reality has become an abstract for so many people over the last 20 years. Things that they regarded as truths seem to have just melted away, and it's almost as if we're thinking post-philosophically now. There's nothing to rely on any more. No knowledge, only interpretation of those facts that we seem to be inundated with on a daily basis. Knowledge seems to have been left behind and there's a sense that we are adrift at sea. There's nothing more to hold on to, and of course political circumstances just push that boat further out...."

....OK David, shall we get on with the music?
                  
The opener, New Killer Star features a really good Bowie vocal, a big thumping metronomic drum sound, some searing guitars and some swirling "Heroes"-style synthesiser riffs. The song has a catchy hook and something about it. "The great white scar over Battery Park" presumably refers, somewhat obliquely, to 9/11. It has an urban New York feel to it, anyway, or maybe I am subconsciously conditioned to thinking that. The punchy, upbeat Pablo Picasso has a sumptuous, intoxicating bass line underpinning it some addictive keyboard riffs, Spanish guitar and some decidedly odd lyrics from Bowie about Pablo Picasso never being called an asshole. There is something vaguely Velvet Underground about this one and it has a very psychedelic sixties mandolin(?) solo part at the end. It is an appealing, beguiling track. Never Get Old has a booming, strident hook about never getting old (obviously). Bowie delivers the message wonderfully and you believe him. Of course, tragically, he never did get old. One of the things that is so notable about this album, for me, is just how good Bowie's vocals are.

The Loneliest Guy is a plaintive, piano and keyboard backed sombre and sad number that brings the tempo of the album down, briefly, but it is soon back up again for the riffy, Looking For Water, which, for me, has hints of some of the Never Let Me Down material from 1987 about it. It also has that cutting, Robert Fripp-style guitar all over it and a haunting, sonorous Bowie vocal.

She'll Drive The Big Car
 is a rhythmic, bassy very American-influenced, grinding song with references to "up on Riverside", "The Hudson" and "by the dawn's early light..". Again, the vocal has real Never Let Me Down era nuances to it, in places. 
Days is not The Kinks song, but somehow it sounds like its older brother. Again, it has a really appealing bass rhythm and yet another towering, yet somehow sad and yearning vocal. Fall Dogs Bombs The Moon recycles that swirling, industrial sounding "Heroes" synthesiser riff in places, particularly half way through. It is a pounding, intense and bleakly rocking number. One of the best on the album. Proper drums on it too.  Try Some, Buy Some is a cover of a George Harrison song from 1971. For whatever reason this one just doesn't convince me and is probably this album's It Ain't Easy. I actually don't think it's a very good song, to be brutally honest. Harrison's own version isn't great, either. Funnily enough, the track has grown on me lately. Reality is next and a frenetic, electric rocker it is too, with airs of the material on Lodger about it for me, and some of Scary Monsters too. Something in that guitar sound.

I love the atmospheric, jazzy Mike Garson piano intro to Bring Me The Disco King and the brushy percussion. This song was apparently a reject from 1993's Black Tie White Noise. It did indeed feature some of the jazzy influences that were present on that album. In fact, it would have sounded better on that album than on this one, maybe. Here it sounds ever so slightly incongruous after the largely upbeat material that has been before. That is a really tiny gripe, though, because I love the track. Many at the time thought this would be Bowie's last album. If it had been, it would have been a good one, and Bring Me The Disco King such a beguiling final track.

** Bowie's cover of The KinksWaterloo Sunset is included on the deluxe edition and highly enjoyable it is too. Wouldn't it have been great on Pin Ups?

This is the last of my phase-by-phase batches of David Bowie album reviews and covers his last two albums, plus the posthumous EP, No Plan.

The Next Day (2013)

This was an album nobody expected. Most had accepted that Reality would be the final studio album from the now-reclusive, not too healthy David Bowie. Just when many seemed to feel he had retired, almost unheralded, he put out this remarkable album. It had been recorded, almost in secret, over the previous few months. Personally, it is by far my favourite of the post-1990 albums. No question. This is a special album. I am not sure about the cover though, slapping the title over the old "Heroes" cover. That doesn't work for me. I would rather just a plain white cover and the title in black. That is a minor point, however. Old mate and producer Tony Visconti tells an interesting story as to how the album was created -

"....Sterling Campbell was on drums, I was on bass, David was on keyboards, Gerry Leonard was on guitar. By the end of five days we had demoed up a dozen songs. Just structures. No lyrics, no melodies and all working titles. This is how everything begins with him. Then he took them home and we didn't hear another thing from him for four months...."
                                                                                      
Even all these years later, Bowie was still working in a similar style to how he was described as having done so on both The Man Who Sold The World and Young AmericansThis is what he eventually came up with - starting with the infectious, strident The Next Day which is instantly likeable. For me, it has echoes of 87 And Cry and Time Will Crawl from 1987's unpopular Never Let Me Down and also a vague feel of some of the short tracks from Low, if they had been extended.

A favourite of mine is the solemnly atmospheric and staccato Dirty Boys, with its lyrics that in many ways seem to hark back to the late sixties material - all about cricket bats and boys going to Finchley Fair then smashing some windows. It is quite a uniquely appealing latter-era Bowie song. 
The Stars (Are Out Tonight) is an energetic, upbeat, rhythmic number with hints of some of the Reality material about it, but the acoustic guitar underpinning it takes us way back to the early seventies. Love Is Lost is a huge track, with a thumping slow drum sound, menacing keyboards, industrial guitars and a sonorous Bowie vocal, together with portentous lyrics. It is a magnificently inscrutable yet stimulating song. Imagine this on "Heroes". A true latter-day Bowie classic.

The haunting, mysterious 
Where Are We Now evokes Berlin once more, speaking of Potsdamer Platz in a hugely atmospheric, slowly grandiose song. Let's be honest, Bowie hadn't put out stuff like this that made your spine tingle like this for years. Yes, there had been good material on the last thirty years of albums, of course there had, but anything like this? Maybe not. I remember listening to this and feeling a real excitement over a Bowie album for the first time since Scary Monsters. That is not to say I didn't like the others, I liked many of them, but this album seemed very much like a David Bowie we had not heard from for years returning.

Valentine's Day is another corker. Backed by some rock 'n' roll "la-la-la" backing vocals, some excellent rock guitar and featuring some perplexing lyrics about someone called Valentine, whose identity we never knew. The dance music rhythms experimented with on 1. Outside and Earthling return for the frantic, beats per minute groove of If You Can See Me. Lyrically, however, it is much stronger than some of that material, particularly that form Earthling. The remarkable thing about this album is that great tracks just keep coming. There isn't a duff track on it. 

The catchy 
I'd Rather Be High, with its dreamy sixties-influenced parts, is another one. It has a great melodic guitar riff too. "I stumbled to the graveyard and I lay down by my parents..." is a moving line from what is a largely autobiographical song. The addictive Boss Of Me has Bowie singing over a staccato, low saxophone-influenced tune about a female boss, oddly. At this point, it is worth noting that the sound is truly excellent throughout this album - clear, warm and bassy. This song provides a good example of that.

The jaunty Dancing Out In Space keeps the quality coming with another one with Reality echoes. It is also impossible catchy too. 
How Does The Grass Grow? has a searing "Heroes"-style guitar intro which continues throughout this pulsating, rocking track. It ends with some Low-style bass on the fade-out. (You Will) Set The World On Fire is an upbeat, singalong number that reminds one of the Diamond Dogs era, slightly. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die is beautifully anthemic and, considering the near future, extremely sad. Musically, it has a sumptuous bass line. It ends, again sadly, with the introductory drumbeat from 1972's Five Years. There are echoes of Rock 'n' Roll Suicide throughout the song too. The album ends with the somnolent Heat, with its evocative, beguiling lyric about "my father ran the prison". Was he referring to his own father, or merely writing an observational song? The latter, apparently.

** The bonus tracks feature the sixties guitar riffage of the energetic So She; an intoxicating instrumental in Plan and the effervescent guitar-driven rock of I'll Take You There. All these tracks are up there with those on the actual album. The pounding electronic rock of Atomica from the extended Next Day Extra EP is excellent too, as is The Informer. There are some entertaining remixes too, particularly I'd Rather Be High (Venetian Mix).


Blackstar (2016)

This, then, is David Bowie's deathbed valedictory release. For that reason, it is an extremely difficult album to review. It is just seven tracks of avant-garde jazz-influenced material. Bowie had, no doubt, wanted to do an album like this anyway, impending demise or not. Given its incredible genesis, planned meticulously by the dying Bowie, it gets lifted to a position way above the sum of its parts. It becomes a truly remarkable epitaph.
         
Blackstar is a wonderfully bleak and very atmospheric track, all full of portentous gravitas, strong drum beats, deep, sonorous saxophone parts and a typically haughty vocal from Bowie. There are also monk-like chanted backing vocals. The whole thing takes on a holy ambience. The bit where the pace suddenly changes half way through and he sings "something happened on the day he died" and the melody suddenly takes on a seventies feel is just so poignant.

'Tis A Pity She Was A Whore (taking its title, almost verbatim, from a seventeenth century John Ford drama "Tis A Pity She's A Whore"). Bowie's song bears no relation to the play and is a frantic piece of avant-garde jazz rock, with high-pitched saxophones swirling around all over the place and perplexing lyrics. It is highly enjoyable though, as too is the soulful, saxophone and guitar-driven Lazarus with its death-knell solemn drumbeat and its "look up here - I'm in Heaven.." now iconic opening line. "Everybody knows me now..." sings Bowie, plaintively, as the drums continue and the saxophone floats all around. It really is a heartbreaking listen. However, taking it out of context, and viewed objectively it is a damn good track. The end has a rubbery, intoxicating bass line and some cutting guitar breaks that enhance it even more.

Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) is another lyrically mystifying one. It was released considerably earlier than the rest of the album, in October 2014, and had many scratching their heads over the seven minutes of jazz meets dance rhythm meets haunting lyrics. Not expecting Bowie's demise at that point, reaction to it was definitely mixed. They should have known Bowie better than that, by then. Had they known what was coming up in a few years, it would have received a different reception. Girl Loves Me is a slow-paced, mournful lament sung over a huge, powerful slow drum beat with some echoey vocals. "Where the fuck did Monday go?" questions Bowie, several times, in oddly vulgar fashion. None of the material on this album has anything like the instant appeal of the previous album, it has to be said, but that has always been the case with Bowie albums. Rarely is one just like the previous one.

Dollar Days
 is an endearing song, with a lovely saxophone solo and, despite its lightness of touch (compared to the other material) still carries a considerable poignancy. "I'm dying to...." sings Bowie, continually, with a profound double meaning. It segues, via some shuffling drums, into I Can't Give Everything Away, a fetching, typically Bowie song with clear echoes, I feel, of the track Never Let Me Down, particularly in its harmonica part. Some jazzy saxophone adds to the experience too. This was the final track on the final album from David Bowie. Goodbye, then, you strange, ethereal, distant man who has been part of my life from that same distance since 1972, when I bought Ziggy Stardust as a fourteen year-old. I quite like the fact that David Bowie leaves us with some adventurous jazz sounds flying around over his repeated "I can't give everything away" line. He ended on a song that pushed the boundaries. As indeed he should.

This is a bold, experimental album that would have been given critical kudos anyway, despite its sad derivation. Many, at the time, despite the situation, found it dull or needlessly experimentational. If they thought that, then they didn't understand David Bowie. It was always that way. The same people threw up their hands and shook their heads upon the release of Low. Three years on, it can be listened to with fresh ears and it has a real appeal that begs more listens.


No Plan (2017)

This was the last release of "new" studio material from the great David Bowie. Three tracks that did not appear on Blackstar and one that did. To be honest, they probably could have been included on Blackstar and added to its atmosphere.

The EP begins with the atmospheric, haunting, valedictory Lazarus from Blackstar. Most people will be familiar with this wonderful and moving track. It is soulful, saxophone and guitar-driven, with its death-knell solemn drumbeat and its "look up here - I'm in Heaven.." now iconic opening line. "Everybody knows me now..." sings Bowie, plaintively, as the drums continue and the saxophone floats all around. It really is a heartbreaking listen. However, taking it out of context, and viewed objectively it is a damn good track. The end has a rubbery, intoxicating bass line and some cutting, stabbing guitar breaks that enhance it even more.

No Plan is a sombre, plaintive and sonorous song with that typical, slightly haughty and grandiose Bowie vocal. It is beautiful too. It also has a shuffling drumbeat and that "Heroes"-style deep saxophone sound that is so very evocative. The slightly angry, staccato Killing A Little Time is full of dense rhythms and a paranoid-sounding vocal from Bowie. It is full of tense instrumentation. It is a "grower" that needs listening to several times before it gets into your system, but it does get there and I now find that I really like its edginess. When I Met You is a more instantly appealing number that summons up the spirit of Scary Monsters and Lodger, for me, anyway. It also has a feel of some of the material on The Next Day.

I said goodbye to David Bowie at the end of my review of Blackstar, so no more farewells are needed here. Bowie aficionados need this EP, though, to add to that album and complete the story of this remarkable, life-affirming artist.

****

David Bowie "best of" compilations are probably best served by this lot:-


9 comments:

  1. I think I might be the only person who has pin-ups in his top 5 Bowie albums, or at least just below. To me it's like a companion to Aladdin sane because the band plays real rock and roll and also it goes with all the Retro style songs on Aladdin sane. Like the 50's style songs like Drive-In Saturday and prettiest star. And four or five of the songs are as great as any songs he ever came up with himself. And the three or four lousy tracks were just lousy songs to begin with. He really couldn't do much with them. But maybe I'm not a good judge because Diamond Dogs is my favorite Bowie album. Or close to it.

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  2. My classic period for Bowie was my initiation into his music aged thirteen-fourteen - 1972-1975 - so Ziggy, Aladdin, Pin Ups and Dogs are all going to figure high in my favourites.

    I agree about Pin Ups, it is a good, vibrant album, immaculately played. I particularly like Aynsley Dunbar's pounding drum sound. At the time, though, everyone found it a bit underwhelming and we all pretended to like it more than actually did, simply because it was Bowie.

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  3. Outside is the only Bowie album I like since Lodger. I don't really like any of those other supposed comeback albums. I think outside is the first time he had a bunch of interesting songs in years. It's way too long and they should have got rid of four or five of the songs. I actually like all the little interludes and segues and stuff. They're the most interesting bits. And about five or six of the long songs are good. Several of them suck though. I agree with what you said about his eighties albums not being totally bad. Each of them had at least one or two songs that I don't mind hearing. I think they're mostly bad but not totally bad. That goes for his 90s albums too. They're mostly rotten. The same goes for the 2000s. Even when the music on them was slightly interesting almost none of the songs themselves were. I agree also that Tin Machine wasn't as bad as people make out it was.

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  4. As a more of a rock man, I am on unsteady ground when artists start dabbling in 'dance' music and more contemporary sounds. This applies to Bowie's work in the nineties and onwards. To be honest, I rarely listen to that stuff, despite David Bowie being (arguably) my favourite artist of all time. I really like The Next Day, however, and the haunting bleakness of Blackstar.

    As you say, Tin Machine were actually quite good. They rocked. I will take their two albums over some of the Bowie nineties/early 2000s output.

    A problem with many CD age albums is that they are too long. I am a fan of the thirty minute sixties albums or the forty-odd minute seventies ones.

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  5. That's funny because I used to be a rock guy and I still am when it comes to old music, but starting in the late 90s I became an electronic guy and now the only new music I listen to is electronic or dance music basically. I rarely hear any new rock music that I like. But even electronic music has kind of taken a shit in the last 10 years or so compared to what it used to be before that. And I barely feel like keeping up with even that kind of music anymore. And I agree with you about Earthling. Even though drum and bass was at its peak right about then and I was into it, Earthling just sounded like a bunch of crappy Bowie songs grafted onto somebody's drum and bass tracks. But surprisingly I still listen to outside almost as much as I listen to Bowie's 70s albums. But that's the only one. And once in awhile Black Star but not very much anymore.

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  6. I just can’t really get into dance/club music, never having been to a club in my life! It is just not my thing, man. My time was many years earlier.

    It is good that you listen to some Bowie, though, whatever period it is from. One of his strengths is his sheer diversity.

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  7. Americard was a credit card. I don't think it's around anymore or else it's what they now call the American Express card.

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  8. I could never get into scary monsters either. But it really seems to be a favorite nowadays. The only track that's up to his seventies stuff is ashes to ashes. And the only other one I enjoy is the title song a little bit. I think the songs are just too slight. They're not even as good as Lodger. And the singing and guitars just sound like they're trying to be weird for the sake of being weird. Like maybe he was trying to impress the post-punk crowd or something. idk. I like it about as much as I like Let's Dance, and that is not much. The only great record he did during this period was the version of cat people on the movie soundtrack album. That's what I think anyway.

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  9. Thanks for the Americard info. I will amend the review accordingly.

    I agree about Scary Monsters and Let's Dance. Most fans seem to love the former in particular, and they hate Never Let Me Down which, perversely, I really like. Then again, I'm not most fans - I have no time for The Beach Boys' Smiley Smile and it wouldn't particularly worry me if I never heard Sgt. Pepper again! Oh, ok maybe once a year, but I'm sure you get my point.

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