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
Two other excellent blogs that discuss Bowie in detail are and may well be of interest are:-
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.
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 Yesterday, On With The Show and the jauntiness of Yesterday’s Papers. I can easily envisage the latter song being on this album.
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.
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.
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 Dory, Ziggy 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.
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.
** 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.
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.
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 Rock. Another 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.
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 Beck, Black 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 1971. It 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.
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.
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.
sees the 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 Stardust. This 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.
** 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.
“….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.
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.
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.
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 Bolan, Jagger, Jim Morrison etc? Whatever the answer was, one thing we knew for sure was that "Ziggy played guitar..".
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 Bitch. I 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.
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.
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, Terry. The 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.
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 McCormack, Linda 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 Marillion. The 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.
"...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 Bolan. Oh 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.
"...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....".
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).
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.
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.
"....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....
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…”.
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.
** There were a few tracks that didn't make it on to the album that are worthy of mention:-
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.....".
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 Dream, Neu! 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.
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.
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 Davis. The 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.
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 Maass. King 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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
** 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.
"....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.
".. 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.
“….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”…..”
, 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.
"...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...."
"....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.
** 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).
For Bowie's work with Tin Machine, click here :-
"....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 Gabrels. The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
** 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 Way; Safe; Shadow Man; When 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.
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.
** Bowie's cover of The Kinks' Waterloo Sunset is included on the deluxe edition and highly enjoyable it is too. Wouldn't it have been great on Pin Ups?
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.
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.
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).
'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.
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.
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.