This was the period that saw David Bowie "in a bad place", or maybe, to be more accurate, many bad places. Ironically, though, with the help of collaborators such as Tony Visconti and Brian Eno he produced some of his most innovative, challenging and ground-breaking music. The influence of his output from these years was immense and far-reaching. For many, this is the classic era of his long career.
The albums covered here are:-
The Gouster (1975)
Young Americans (1975)
Station To Station (1976)
Welcome To The Blackout (1978)
and Lodger (1979)
Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.
THE GOUSTER (1975)
1. John I'm Only Dancing (Again)
2. Somebody Up There Likes Me (Gouster mix)
3. It's Gonna Be Me (without strings)
4. Who Can I Be Now?
5. Can You Hear Me (Gouster mix)
6. Young Americans
7. Right (Gouster mix)
Intended for release in 1975, this is the album that eventually became Young Americans. The track listing here is how the album was envisaged initially, before different tracks were added and it morphed into Young Americans. It is only seven tracks long, three of those that subsequently appeared on Young Americans appear here as Gouster mixes and contain a few differences to their eventual versions. As you can see, it was even given its cover, so it was very close to being the actual release.
Having lived with the original album for so long, it was, after the 2016 release of this, (as part of the Who Can I Be Now? box set), somewhat difficult to get used to listening to it. It kicks off with the addictive dance/disco adaptation of John, I'm Only Dancing (Again), which renders the original glam rocky version totally unrecognisable. It is full of saxophone and disco grooves, but they are very effective, there is just no relation to the original song.
Somebody Up There Likes Me is a different mix to the one eventually used. It is the better one in my view - far more bassy, rhythmic, and the saxophone, although omnipresent as on the original, does not overwhelm the track.
The soulful It's Gonna Be Me and Who Can I Be Now? are undoubtedly two tracks that fitted the "soul" concept of the album, but both were left off the eventual Young Americans album, which was odd, because they are both excellent, particularly the latter. 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.
Then there is Young Americans which is the original version. I am glad, because it is total perfection and is one of my favourite David Bowie songs of all time. Right is the other Gouster mix. Again, it is on the more bongo-ish percussion and the (this time) more blatant backing vocals that there are noticeable differences. It also seems bassier to my ears.
There is no place on here for Win, Fascination, the Beatles cover Across The Universe and Fame. Fans will no doubt discuss with one is the better for years. Personally I would add all the other tracks but keep the three Gouster mixes over the others.
Photos by Michael Ochs and Eric Stephen Jacobs.
YOUNG AMERICANS (1975)
1. Young Americans
5. Somebody Up There Likes Me
6. Across The Universe
7. Can You Hear Me
In 1975, David Bowie supposedly “got soul” and “reinvented himself” for the third time in as many years. I was never really convinced by the soul thing. Yes, the glam rock guitars had gone and the outlandish costumes too. In came double breasted suits, like something The Four Tops would wear on stage. Musically it was backing singers, funky guitars, muffled drums, congas and a throbbing bass. Whatever it was, though, it was certainly not pure soul, in my opinion. It was a kind of slowed down soully rock, sung with a higher pitched white man’s voice too. Quite what the Soul Train TV show aficionados made of this coked-up white dude is anybody's guess. It was not The O’Jays, Billy Paul or The Meters.
What it gave us, though, was one of Bowie’s finest ever tracks in the lyrically, musically and atmospherically remarkable title track, Young Americans. Five minutes of pure magic. Still my favourite ever Bowie track. I never tire of hearing it, even after all these years. Just hearing that drum intro gets me every time. Then the sax comes in - magical. It is also jam-packed full of great, perplexing lines like this - "well, well, well would you carry a razor, in a case, just in case of depression..." or - "we live for just these twenty years, do we have to die for the fifty more?". Great stuff indeed. I could just carry on quoting from this song, there are so many great lines.
The sound is now clearly different to anything Bowie had ever done before. His band had main members who were largely white (apart from bassist Willie Weeks) and a background in rock and jazz, so they certainly weren't a bona fide soul band. They did seem to get the soul vibe, though, particularly saxophonist David Sanborn and Puerto Rican guitarist Carlos Alomar and there were soul musicians on congas and backing vocals, including a young Luther Vandross.
It is not genuine soul. however, but it is a fine approximation and simply a damn fine record. "Ain't there one damn song that can make me break down and cry...". Indeed. This is up there as possibly my favourite ever David Bowie song.
Win was a sumptuous song, full of deep, warm bass, delicious saxophone and a real laid-back soulful vibe. Bowie really got the hang of the soul thing with this, although it is still enhanced by some seriously searing electric guitar from Earl Slick."All you got to do is win..." exclaims Bowie in one of his positive pronouncements - he was getting ever more keen on these.
The backing vocals are really good but never intrusive. This is one of my favourite tracks from the album.
Similarly impressive is the copper-bottomed funk of Fascination, which introduced Luther Vandross to the world. The wah-wah that underpins the song is intoxicating and Bowie's improvised soul vocal keeps pace perfectly with the backing singers. It is one of his most accomplished vocal performances to date. This is probably the most credible funk/soul cut on the album. There are two mixes of it, the original and the one that appeared on the 1991 RYKO remaster. There are slight differences, but I often struggle to really discern them.
Right is another highly commendable one. It possesses an infectious conga/bass backing and more clever vocal call-and-response interplay between Bowie and his backing singers as David Sanborn's saxophone wails away along with a funky, Stevie Wonder-esque clavinet. I thought Fascination was the funkiest thing on the album, but maybe I was wrong and this is. The 1991 mix is slightly slower than the original (which appears on all the other remasters).
Somebody Up There Likes Me is driven along by some superb David Sanborn saxophone. He made a similar contribution to Ian Hunter's All American Alien Boy that was released the following year. It is a bright, backing vocal-dominated soulful number that carries a darker message underneath the soul polish about political corruption and the cult of celebrity. Once again, Bowie is dishing out a warning, something this unfortunately by now increasingly coke-addled paranoid semi-recluse was beginning to specialise in.
It is the saxophone you think of with this song, though, and the backing vocals. Never mind the message.
Across The Universe was a John Lennon cover and has been roundly disparaged by seemingly everyone (apart from Bowie encyclopaediac Nicholas Pegg who loves it). I have to say that I agree with Pegg. I too have always loved it. Lennon joins Bowie on guitar and vocals, they drop the "jai guru deva om" vocal refrain and set about producing and entrancing, vibrant cover of the original that seems to suit Bowie's soul incarnation perfectly. I really don't see what the problem is/was. Maybe it is just a "don't you dare touch anything by The Beatles" thing. All that said, as I say later on below, the two tracks that were left off the album were definitely better than this, so there you go. I still don't think it is that bad, though.
Can You Hear Me - this excellent sweetly soulful track began life as Take It In Right and was, apparently written for Lulu. Thankfully, Bowie recorded it himself and made a very impressive job of it too. This is one of the smoothest-sounding albums on the album and was certainly a convincing stab at soul. Once more, the saxophone sound is sublime.
Fame was an absolute Bowie classic and became the second big hit from the album. It is a supremely funky Bowie/Lennon workout containing cutting lyrics about the fame game - "fame - what you want is in the limo - fame - what you get is no tomorrow...". Bowie seemed to be telling his own indulgent story right here, right now.
The funk riff is magnificent on this and, impressively one of Bowie's idols, James Brown, paid him the compliment of using the very riff on his 1976 track Hot (I Need To Be Loved). Bowie was delighted by this, I am sure.
Another impressive thing is the backing vocal "high voice to deep voice" descending scale that comes off to great effect both here and in subsequent live performances.
This album sort of washed smoothly over you and it sure washed the red dye out of all those Ziggy fans’ hair. Ziggy seemed thirty years ago as opposed to just three. That's how quickly things were changing. The difference between this and even Diamond Dogs is seismic. This is undoubtedly now an adult album. Although I loved this album's two singles upon release, I got to appreciate the remainder of the album more and more as the years progressed.
Young Americans is often not mentioned in people’s Bowie favourites lists, but I find myself returning to it again and again. Whether or not it IS soul is debatable but it certainly HAS soul. I am sure that Bowie modelled his "soul voice" on that of Harold Melvin (as distinct from Teddy Pendergrass). Check out All Because Of A Woman, it has real hints of It's Gonna Be Me about it in places.
Interestingly, guitarist Carlos Alomar (who had not heard of Bowie before he was invited to work on the album) said of Bowie's working process for the album, when interviewed about it subsequently -
“….David always does the music first. He'll listen for a while then if he gets a little idea the session stops and he writes something down and we continue. But later on, when the music is established, he'll go home and the next day the lyrics are written. I'd finish the sessions and be sent home and I never heard words and overdubs until the record was released….”
It is fascinating to try and imagine Young Americans being written in that fashion. That was one hell of a lot of lyrics to come up with overnight! It is also strange to think that the musicians like Alomar had heard no words when they played the songs' backing tracks. Whatever their genesis, the songs certainly came out well and those who produced them have left us with something vibrant and memorable.
** These are the tracks available from the sessions that didn't make the album, they are certainly worthy of comment:-
After Today. This appealing piece of disco/soul dates from the August 1974 "Young Americans" sessions. It is a lively number with a falsetto vocal from Bowie at times and lots of funky saxophone. It would actually have made a nice addition to the album it was rejected from, its upbeat sound providing a contrast with some of the slower-paced deep soul numbers that were eventually chosen. At the end, Bowie laughs and exclaims "I was getting into that...". Indeed he was, he should have stuck with it.
Who Can I Be Now? dates from the 1974 Young Americans sessions and is a truly outstanding song. It was inexplicably jettisoned in favour of Across The Universe. It was one of the tracks selected to be on The Gouster album, which was never released. It features a great saxophone intro from David Sanborn and one of those smoky/interjection with falsetto vocals from Bowie supported by multiple backing vocals. The verses are evocative and soulful, while the chorus is big and brash, with the vocals loud and the saxophone wailing. as with all the Young Americans material, though, there is a slightly muffled muddiness to the drum sound, for me, anyway, although the 30th anniversary remaster suffers less so than the others. The title was chosen as the title for the second of the box sets covering Bowie's career, presumably as a reference to his many identity/image changes in the period.
It's Gonna Be Me was another from the August 1974 sessions, this was also left off the eventual album, which was once again a questionable decision. It was also another of the tracks that was going to be on the aborted album, The Gouster. There are two versions of the song in existence. The original one and one that Tony Visconti added strings to, which was lost, but was subsequently remixed by Visconti from his original master tapes.
The original Gouster one is full of late night atmosphere and one of Bowie's finest vocals to date - so far removed from the late sixties/early seventies. It is quite sparse in its backing - mainly piano, jazzy guitar, drums, bass and backing vocals. A lot is spoken about Bowie's supposed "soul" phase but on this one I have to say that he is at his most credibly soulful. The improvised vocal around five minutes in is superb.
The Visconti strings version is from the 30th Anniversary edition and has wonderful sound quality and Tony has done a great job on the remixing. The sound is outstanding. Once more, there is a "which do I prefer?" quandary. It's a difficult one. I actually love both of them, for different reasons - the minimalist soulfulness of the original and the warmth of the strings one. It's a 1-1 draw.
John, I'm Only Dancing (Again) is totally unrecognisable from 1972's upbeat glammy single, this finds Bowie exhorting us to "boogie down with David now..." as he went all Studio 54 circa 1975 style disco. It is probably the only really obviously disco thing he ever did. It contains a light disco wah-wah guitar line and some melodious saxophone from David Sanborn. Bowie's vocal is sensually soulful and there are a few laid-back soul-influenced bits in the middle before the groove kicks backs in again.
Despite the fact that it is nothing like the original song, I have always quite liked it. It fits in with the Young Americans vibe and indeed was on the original, aborted Gouster album.
Regarding the various remasters around - the EMI/RYKO has the bonus tracks It’s Gonna Be Me, Who Can I Be Now, and the disco-ed up John, I’m Only Dancing (Again) but it has a bit if a lo-fi, muffled sound, in my opinion. Having said that, turn it up a bit louder than you would other recordings and a nice, subtle bass sound is revealed, together with a clarity to the guitar sounds.
The 1999 remaster is clear, sharp and loud.
The 30th anniversary remasters are excellent but hard to get hold of these days.
The 2017 box set Who Can I Be Now? remaster is excellent. It is in possession of a deep, rich bass. However, in comparison to the RYKO, for example, some of the guitar is a bit less clear.
STATION TO STATION (1976)
1. Station To Station
2. Golden Years
3. Word On A Wing
6. Wild Is The Wind
By 1976, the cocaine-addled David Bowie had start to leave behind his supposed "white soul" experiment that resulted in 1975's Young Americans album and, ditching the powder blue suits, reinvented himself as "The Thin White Duke" complete with accusations of giving Nazi salutes at London's Victoria Station and giving out various pretentious pronouncements about the state of global politics and so on. Bowie's persona was not a particularly pleasant one at this time, however, indulged by an adoring media (despite the goldmine that punk was about to give them) and still extremely drug-ravaged he managed to come up with this work of genius. Ever the enigma inside a riddle or whatever the saying is. The great chameleon changeling had done it again.
It was, though, a somewhat difficult album to analyse. It is simultaneously accessible yet darkly impenetrable, a merging of "krautrock", white funk, white soul and a bit of pop sensibility. Influences are clear, from Neu! and Kraftwerk especially, that chugging, electronic "motorik" metronomic beat that those groups utilised. In my view, and indeed that of many others, the supposed "Berlin Trilogy" began here, for sure. Station To Station really should be included alongside Low, "Heroes" and Lodger. Then again, however, those European influences are only really obvious on the title track. The other songs still carry quite a bit of the funk, rhythmic and soulful feel of the previous album. It is, despite its obviously dark, dense and intense opener, not quite as oppressive and sparse an album as popular opinion would have it. It is certainly no "Heroes". What it does provide, I guess, is the bridging point between the funk/soul of Young Americans and the sparse soundscapes of Low. It was recorded in sunny Los Angeles too, not dreary Berlin.
Lyrically, it is extremely sombre, with Bowie being influenced by occultism, philosophy and dark mythology, the works of Nietzsche and Aleister Crowley. Bowie said of the album, some twenty years later -
"....First, there's the content, which nobody's actually been terribly clear about. The "Station to Station" track itself is very much concerned with the stations of the cross. All the references within the piece are to do with the Kabbalah. It's the nearest album to a magick treatise that I've written. I've never read a review that really sussed it. It's an extremely dark album. Miserable time to live through, I must say...."
Maybe Bowie was still on the drugs when he said that....
I guess Bowie was right, none of us will ever really get it, possibly not being in tune with whatever "magick treatises" are. I almost feel that the lyrics could be anything on these songs, it is the overall ambience that takes over. The lyrics are unfathomable at times, but therein lies their intriguing appeal. Since when have Bowie's lyrics ever been straightforward, anyway?
Station To Station - here we went then, getting on the trans-Europe train with the monochrome “Thin White Duke”. It all began with this, Bowie’s longest-ever track.
It is overflowing with Krautrock Kraftwerk influences, particularly in its slow building first half, where chugging train noises give way to industrial piano, drums and rhythm guitar. This is all very dense, sparse and stark. The second half of the song finds it going far more upbeat after five minutes with the “once there were mountains” part that eventually morphs into the concluding “the European canon is here” refrain. All the parts of the track are really atmospheric and, although minimalist in essence, it seems as if it is full of activity. From its initial throbbing bass, two note piano and then thumping drums it is a vibrant delight of inventive ingenuity.
Bowie has said that the title refers not so much to railway stations as to the Stations Of The Cross, while the line "From Kether to Malkuth" relates to mystical places in the Kabbalah, mixing Christian and Jewish allusions. I can't say I ever saw it that way. It was always just the simple train travel for me! That's the beauty of Bowie songs, though, isn't it? Whatever you thought it was about invariably it wasn't.
Bowie also addresses his drug habit head-on with the “it’s not the side effects of the cocaine” line.
Quite what the song was all about is unclear and, for me, no amount of analysis, and I have read lots, will change that. It remains a mystery. What is probably not in doubt is that Bowie wanted to escape his drug-addled US hell and start again in the fresh, rarified European air. It would be something that would serve him well over the next few years.
Golden Years was the album’s hit single and it was a soulful throwback to the Young Americans album with its infectious vocals and polished, light funky backing. Bowie famously sung (mimed) this on the famed US soul TV show Soul Train.
It is a great song that you can’t help singing along to and one that sticks in the brain. It is chock full of hooks and is so nostalgic for me of the autumn of 1975.
It remains a bit at odds with the album’s other material, however. It sort of acts as Bowie’s goodbye to his short-lived soul era, to an extent. It pre-dates the album’s other songs by several months.
It is a beautiful, soulful song that actually has some of the soul feel of Young Americans about it. It certainly is no bleak, industrial soundscape, far from it.
Bowie is at his most expressively pious too as he sings “Lord, Lord..” as if he is asking for help. Not thus far a man for traditional religion, this was unusual. He basically wanted a way out from his Hollywood excesses.
TVC15 is a very odd, vaguely funky song about people being consumed and eaten by their televisions. It has some irresistible hooks and, for me, is very Bowie, lyrically. That whole repeated, addictive "transmission/transition" thing. Check out that bass line for a lovely warm depth. The saxophone backing too, is sublime, from Bowie himself. It was one of the songs performed by Bowie at Live Aid in 1985.
For a song on a supposedly dark and bleak album, it is a remarkably jaunty, upbeat number, driven along by honky-tonk piano and doo-wop backing vocals.
In its latest (2016) remaster, the song sounds beautifully big, booming and bassy for maybe the first time.
On Stay maybe Young Americans hadn’t been left behind after all, because this is an incredibly funky track, with a marvellous wah-wah riff, rumbling bass and funky congas/drums backing a Bowie vocal that is sort of similar to the one that he used on John I’m Only Dancing (Again). Bassist George Murray is outstanding on this, as is drummer Dennis Davis. Earl Slick contributes some searing hard rock guitar too, making it a track that crossed over many styles.
The track's opening guitar riff and the way it interacts with the bass, the congas and the drums is scintillating, one of the best passages on the album. Listening to this again, this track is funky as hell.
Wild Is The Wind was a cover of a Johnny Mathis easy listening song from 1956. Bowie does it absolutely beautifully, singing incredibly well over a sumptuous bass, acoustic guitar and gently shuffling drum backing. It sort of sits alone from the rest of the album in a Lady Grinning Soul kind of way. It is lovely, truly lovely.
When Bowie hits that high note on “I hear the sound of mandolins” it is spine-tingling.
I cannot state it enough, for all its perplexing undertones, this album really is a remarkable piece of work. Despite all my nostalgia for Ziggy from my early teenage years, this puts Ziggy 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.....".
Whatever format, this is a highly recommended album. Incidentally, I will always prefer the "white cover" of the original release, feeling it it suits the monochrome, minimalist ambience of the music far better than the colour one that has appeared on later releases of it. Ironically, the latter was the original choice for the album, until Bowie changed it to black and white at the last minute.
Photo by Bob Gruen.
3. What In The World
4. Sound And Vision
5. Always Crashing In The Same Car
6. Be My Wife
7. A New Career In A New Town
9. Art Decade
10. Weeping Wall
Low, released in January 1977, has long divided opinion. At the time, many were perplexed by the original "side two" of dense, metallic, sombre ambient instrumentals conjured up by Bowie and Brian Eno. Also mystifying to many were the six "semi songs" contained on the original "side one", most around two to three minutes in length and having a somewhat "unfinished" feel to them. The semi-instrumental chart hit Sound And Vision with its "blue, blue electric blue" catchline, was the most accessible, along with the slightly poppy Be My Wife. I clearly remember the reaction at the time of a lot of fans was "what the...." and there were lots of moans about "wasted money" etc. Indeed, RCA executives wrote Bowie a letter upon hearing the album, requesting another Young Americans-style album. Bowie is said to have framed the letter and hung it on his wall.
Bowie had visited Berlin in 1976, trying to get off the drugs (possibly unsuccessfully as his companion was Iggy Pop). He also was worried about his sanity due to his unpredictable, odd behaviour during 1975-76. It definitely provided a boost. Bowie's influence from krautrock groups like Tangerine 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...."
The picture above shows the apartment in which Bowie stayed in Berlin's Schöneberg district in 1976-77.
As for the music, it was certainly a challenging, esoteric mixture, and it struggled to convince many fans.
However, despite the contemporary befuddlement, the material on the old "side one" are all excellent songs. They are just short. That said, it sort of suits them. They all have excellent hooks and inventive, often addictive instrumentation. Lots of fuzzy guitar, powerful drums and deceptively strong Bowie vocals abound. All of them are mightily appealing.
The opener, the instrumental Speed Of Life has a huge vitality to it and just feels enormously positive from the off. It has a big rumbling bass sound (particularly on the excellent 2016 remaster) and some most inventive, descending synthesiser runs. While "Heroes" was said to be very dark (and indeed it was in many places), I have always found the old "side one" of Low to be lively, open and vibrant, as befitting its bright orange cover (as opposed to "Heroes"' monochrome one). Incidentally, it "fades in" at the beginning, making it feel as if you have arrived late.
Breaking Glass is accompanied by huge, thumping drums and some solid guitar interspersed with some high-pitched synthesiser breaks of the kind Gary Numan would utilise a lot a couple of years later. Although short it is a good track. I have to say it ends all too soon, though, it is the one that really seems just like a fragment of a song, somewhat unfinished.
What In The World was an attractive, lively art-rocky love song from Bowie to a "little girl with grey eyes". As on all these tracks, the bass, drums and lead guitar are outstanding. The "for your love" refrain could be a reference from Bowie to his sixties favourites, The Yardbirds. Once again, this sounds superb in its latest 2016 remaster.
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 wer 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.
Sound And Vision is a remix of the hit single from Low and it is notable for its "new" drum sound - a big, warm, pounding affair that adds more rhythm to the track. The saxophone near the end is considerably enhanced and there are less synthesiser breaks. I like it although I prefer the original. I enjoy quite a few re-mixes but invariably they never take the place of the originals.
Now, regarding the album's sound. In 2018, opinions are still divided, but it is about the quality of the latest Tony Visconti remastering. Many find it "compressed", "too loud", "too bassy" and so on. Personally, I totally and unequivocally disagree in the strongest possible terms. This is the big, loud, bassy reproduction of Low that I have waited forty years to hear. In my view, and it is only my view, the EMI/RYKO remaster was tinny and muffled and far too low in both volume and clarity and while I like many of the 1999 remasters, I found it didn't quite work so well on Low - again being a bit too trebly for my taste.
I like my music big and bass heavy. I like my walls to shake and this is what this remastering will do. At last. Speed Of Life, many people's bete noire on this remastering is for me, a triumph. Just listen to the big, throbbing bass on it. Thank you Tony Visconti, you would seem to share my taste and I'll take that. If I am out of kilter with several thousand "audiophiles" I'll take that too. Good.
1. Beauty And The Beast
2. Joe The Lion
4. Sons Of The Silent Age
6. V-2 Schneider
7. Sense Of Doubt
8. Moss Garden
10. The Secret Life Of Arabia
Remaining in Cold War oppressed Berlin after the recording of Low, David Bowie's "Heroes" was a ground-breaking, adventurous, genre-busting album. It was controversial upon its release due to its almost blatantly uncommercial, "anti-rock" ambience. Released at the height of punk, it influenced so many of the "post punk" bands that soon were everywhere. It influenced bands like Magazine and Joy Division, but also synthesiser-dominated groups like The Human League and, later, New Order. It was one of the most influential albums of its time, without question. It is not an instant album. Not at all. Even its vocal numbers have bleak, clunky, dense soundscapes that broke all existing moulds and the instrumental numbers are seriously dark. Although Bowie had set the trend with the previous year's Low, this was a far less accessible album even than that one, and that is saying something. It was marketed by RCA thus - "there's new wave, there's old wave, and there's David Bowie...". That hit the nail on the head. It was a special, genre-busting creation.
Some have said that this was a less sombre and melancholy album than Low had been. I have to disagree with that one, finding this by far the bleaker, denser album. As I said, this is not an instant album but it has a strange, growing appeal. I often return to it. An enjoyable thing to do is randomly shuffle the tracks with those from Talking Heads' Fear Of Music (also worked on by Brian Eno). You get quite an industrial soundscape.
The previous Teutonic musical influences are all still there - Neu! (who had produced a track called Hero in 1975), Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, although no German musicians are involved apart from backing singer Antonia 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. Everything about it is superb - that wonderful synthesiser leading riff, Bowie's soaring vocal and, of course, Robert Fripp's marvellous lead guitar bursts.
"You can be mean and I'll drink all the time", however is one 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.
Sons Of The Silent Age has Bowie utilising that "mockney", mannered, hammy vocal for one of the first times since the late sixties. It is a haunting, quite depressing song in tune with much of the album. It is one of Bowie's most underrated reflective numbers. Musically, its bass line is sublime.
Blackout. This bleak but sonically frantic number is also very central to the album's feel. The "I'll kiss you in the rain.." vocal bit is very Beatles-influenced and there are hints of Talking Heads in there too (or rather Talking Heads were influenced by this). Dennis Davis's madcap drumming is a highlight. "Get me off the streets" shrieks Bowie in a sort of post Diamond Dogs fashion.
Now for the instrumentals. I have always had a weakness for the early Roxy Music saxophone meets Kraftwerk vibe of "V-2 Schneider". It is a marvellously upbeat piece of late seventies electronic instrumental music. It is the most fast paced of the instrumentals and has a real positive sound to it, despite its dense ambience.
Now for the real gloomy stuff. Sense Of Doubt is so deep and reverberating it makes the blinds at my window literally shake. Its synthesiser passages take you deep int the earth's core. A haunting wind sound links it to the tape loop noises of the introduction to Moss Garden. Some gentle but sharp Japanese strings cut through the thick air of the track's keyboards. It is vaguely more uplifting and ambient than its predecessor, although Neuköln gets right back to the almost troglodytic gloom. The Eastern-sounding saxophone bits are there because Neuköln was a deprived, run-down area of Berlin populated largely by Turkish immigrants. Despite its depressing sound, it is actually a most evocative piece.
This instrumental part of the album was as baffling to people at the time as the similar side of Low had been, but for most, the more you listened to it, the more oddly appealing it became. It set the foundations for so much subsequent ambient music. While Low came as something of a cultural shock, the first strains of post-punk were starting to make themselves heard and certainly this album didn't seem anything like as odd or unexpected as its predecessor had been.
The Secret Life Of Arabia. Unlike on Low, after the instrumentals we get one final vocal track - the comparatively jaunty strains of this percussive number lift our spirits again. Bowie's vocal is lively but very haughty and the song is backed by a nice bluesy harmonica lurking beneath the basic rhythm. There are also handclap and backing vocals to make this a most upbeat end to what had been a largely downbeat, introspective album.
** There is only one recording from the sessions that didn't make it on to the album, possibly:-
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.
Regarding the new, quite controversial remastering of the album, contrary to what many others have felt about these latest batch of 2017 Tony Visconti remasters, I absolutely love them and feel they are the best ever remasters of what were always, for me, and I stress, for me, frustratingly tinny albums. Each to their own I suppose. I love my music to be "big" and very bass heavy, so these remasters do the job for me, and some. Before this edition, I did not listen to "Heroes" so much. Now I listen to it a lot more. I watched a brief video clip where Tony Visconti talked through the creation of the title track and it introduced me to sounds contained within it that I really had not realised were there.
I find all the EMI/RYKOs somewhat lo-hi, muffled and just not my sonic cup of tea. I own them all for the bonus material. The 1999s are an improvement but these 2015-2017 ones give me the most satisfaction, but as I said, that is just me. They suit me but don't seem to suit many others.
3. What In The World
4. Be My Wife
5. The Jean Genie
7. Sense Of Doubt
8. Speed Of Life
9. Breaking Glass
10. Beauty And The Beast
12. Five Years
13. Soul Love
15. Hang On To Yourself
16. Ziggy Stardust
17. Suffragette City
18. Art Decade
19. Alabama Song
20. Station To Station
I had always had a problem with the original release of Stage in that the tracks were not in the proper setlist order, the Ziggy tracks came at the beginning, not half way through the set, for example. Now the songs run in the correct setlist order and there are some additions, and, for me, the album is now all the better for it. With regard to Bowie's "chat" between songs that some people have said over the years that they want to hear, it really doesn't bother me so much. Indeed, to be perfectly honest, I would rather they are not there! I am remembering the "give me a man with a strong arm" bit that came into the Santa Monica recording.
With regard to the placing of The Jean Genie and Suffragette City in the setlist, I agree with some with reference to Genie, it doesn't sit particularly well after Be My Wife from Low and before Blackout from "Heroes". Suffragette coming after Ziggy is, however, perfectly acceptable - that's what it does on the original album, of course. Anyway, these are minor things. What order Bowie chose to play the songs was his choice, after all. Also, it is a great "proper" blues rock version of Genie in comparison to the irritating "slowed down verses" versions that appeared on David Live and Cracked Actor from the Diamond Dogs tour recordings. This is my favourite live version of Genie.
Regarding the remastered sound. For me, I think the remastered sound on this 2017 release is wonderful. Highlights being the drum and guitar sound and stereo separation on Be My Wife, the (possibly) electric violin sound that greatly enhances Warszawa, the synth and drum intro to Speed Of Life, the beautifully warm bass on "Heroes", the thumping bass on Breaking Glass, and the funky intro to Blackout which improves on the original, in my opinion. Indeed all the Low/"Heroes" tracks are played really well and offer differences to the originals. Particularly impressive is how good the instrumentals sound. Very atmospheric. I always wondered if they would come over convincingly, live, and, scattered around the set, they certainly do. You get the sombre feeling of Sense Of Doubt followed by the cheerfully upbeat Speed Of Life. Great positioning.
The "Ziggy with synthesisers" material less so, I'm afraid. Hang On To Yourself and Star particularly suffer with synths dominating instead of solo searing guitar intros. Also the intro to Ziggy Stardust itself. Never mind. I listen to Stage to hear the Low, "Heroes" and Station To Station material played live. The Ziggy era songs can be found better elsewhere - Santa Monica and Hammersmith Odeon.
Apparently Station To Station is a recording made up from two different concert recordings, a cut and paste job. To be honest, you can't really tell, although once you know you sort of can ( I wish I hadn't read that in Nicholas Pegg's excellent book!).
In conclusion I find this a most rewarding release. I obtained it via the A New Career In A New Town box set. The original CD release with its strange running order is contained there too and has now been rendered irrelevant by this one.
WELCOME TO THE BLACKOUT (1978)
3. What In The World
4. Be My Wife
5. The Jean Genie
7. Sense Of Doubt
8. Speed Of Life
9. Sound And Vision
10. Breaking Glass
12. Beauty And The Beast
13. Five Years
14. Soul Love
16. Hang On To Yourself
17. Ziggy Stardust
18. Suffragette City
19. Art Decade
20. Alabama Song
21. Station To Station
24. Rebel Rebel
This is a fantastic addition to the David Bowie catalogue that many of us have collected over the years. While I aways loved David Live, particularly in its latest Tony Visconti remaster, I feel that the recently released Cracked Actor is the far superior concert recording from that era, with the tension within Bowie’s band dissipating and they reach top form. The same comparison can be made between the original live recording from this tour, Stage and this newly released recording. While Stage in its recent remaster, is sounding at its best ever, this recording blows it away - vibrant, vivacious and full of vitality. The band are just superb. Adrian Belew’s guitar absolutely owns the whole album. Bowie sounds as if he is having a ball, as indeed do the whole band. It dates from early July 1978 and was the last night of the tour, whereas Stage was from April and May of the same year. The band seem to have really “upped it” just as the band did back in 1974 between July’s David Live and September’s Cracked Actor.
The sonorous Warszawa is pretty much played as it was on Stage but a slowed-down, stately, magnificent "Heroes", with a slightly different opening synth line in places, backed by an insistent piano, sets the tone for one hell of a gig. It is just inspiring, uplifting, beautiful. Great rolling drums on there from the wonderful Dennis Davis. The best live recording of “Heroes” I have ever heard. My goodness, we are only at the start of the show.
What In The World is played at an absolute breakneck pace and almost sounds as if is going to fall off the edge of a cliff at one point, it is so frantic. Some far more noticeable backing vocals than on Stage and some stunning Adrian Belew guitar parts. Be My Wife has Bowie’s “mockney” hammy voice up to the max and some delicious electronic keyboard swirls together with some delicious bass. This is a musical revelation. Great stuff. Bowie’s voice has that soaring high-pitched bit at one point and, again the guitar is just superb, cutting through the air like a knife. The Jean Genie has a livewire, affected, almost bonkers vocal from Bowie and the guitar is just exhilarating. Blackout is powerful, full of attack and verve. It almost gives the track a new life.
Sense Of Doubt is suitably mysterious, full of clunking piano and weird creaking noises. Speed Of Life has all those sweeping synthesiser riffs that you would expect, and a big, rumbling bass, plus a few more additional noises not present on the original studio recording. Some great percussion on it too. Just a joy to listen to. Sound And Vision is in the set here (it wasn’t on Stage) and a stonking, captivating version it is too. The tracks from Low and "Heroes” just sound so damn good. They really do. Breaking Glass is next. Note perfect and a wired performance from Bowie. There is also an extended vocal/drum percussion bit at the end which gives the song even more appeal.
The funk of Fame is so suited to this set. It becomes a celebration of electric funk. I can’t stress enough how good the man’s vocals are in this concert. If he’s on something it certainly has added something. He is hyped up and on top of things from beginning to end. “Fiiime” he intones joyously before launching into a madcap Beauty And The Beast, with Belew slicing open the Earl’s Court air with some searing guitar.
So ends the Low/"Heroes” material section. Now for the Ziggy section. Dennis Davis’s drum sound out beneath the band intros and then we’re into Ziggy’s iconic opener, Five Years. A lovely guitar from Carlos Alomar (I think) underpins the verses. Bowie’s vocal delivery is peerless. I am listening to this for the first time as I write. My God. It almost has tears in my eyes. This is just the dog’s undercarriage. Just listen to that swirling synthesiser. Soul Love, an underrated track, is played just a tiny bit too fast (maybe), but otherwise its lovely, with some great lead guitar and bass. Star is raucously punchier than its Stage equivalent, with a rumbling bass and some more guitar but the main riff is still played on keyboards, which was always a shame, but that was just the sound of the tour. Not so much with the punky thrash of Hang On To Yourself which jolts the corpse of Ziggy to rise from the grave. Full of electric vigour. Great noises at the end. Then it’s time for Ziggy Stardust, the synthesiser riff augmented by guitar, thank goodness, some delicious slowed-down guitar-driven bits. Majestic. Bombastic and brimful of confidence. The kids hadn’t killed this man.
Suffragette City just kicks posterior, big time. Big, chunky guitar, almost as if Ronno is back. Listen to that Ronson-esque solo in the middle. Bowie heaven. Calm down the pace somewhat now, back to Low for the melodically mournful Art Decade, played to the high standard of all the other instrumentals. It actually sounds more interesting and beguiling than on the studio version. More background noises and percussion. Now, I have never liked Alabama Song, so I’ll not say too much about it, except the backing vocals are screeching, histrionic and irritating! Some no doubt love it, though. Nice solid bass on it, however.
Some have found the Station To Station intro too bizarre, too many noises and so on. I love it. It is rowdy, clashing and loudly appealing. I would say that it goes on a little too long to the detriment of the song, though. When the familiar part kicks on it is powerful, thumping and dramatic. The same applies to an urgent, rocking TVC15, with some infectious wah-wah guitar and an addictive bass line. Stay is more rocking funk with another camped-up Bowie vocal. It morphs into a bluesy, laid-back, soulful Rebel Rebel.
Phew. What a show.
The cover has, I am sure, deliberately used Bowie in that controversial “salute” pose. Cheeky.
Overall, what a truly wonderful release. Yes, I love the new remaster of Stage, but I love this more.
1. Fantastic Voyage
2. African Night Flight
3. Move On
5. Red Sails
7. Look Back In Anger
8. Boys Keep Swinging
10. Red Money
Coming after the excellent, ground-breaking Low and Heroes albums, Lodger was always the poor relation of the so-called "Berlin Trilogy", both critically and in reality. This was, to a certain extent, the result of the album's muffled, lifeless sound. This tended to overshadow the fact that there were some hidden gems on here, if only they could be given a little polish. Thankfully, this has now been the case.
This is the remaster I have waited nearly forty years for. As I said, the album has always, in my opinion, suffered from appalling sound. The original RCA release was unlistenable and the 1990 EMI/RYKO not much better with a muffled sound that led one to think the album was just badly recorded in the first place, something that was substantiated with the 1999 release which offered little improvement. Others in that batch were more than acceptable, yet Lodger was always dreadful.
Some people have complained about various faults, a few seconds lost here and there etc. It those things matter to them then fair enough, they will not enjoy this release. If you want to experience this interesting album with a far fuller, bassier, richer sound and discover things in it that you didn't know were there - some of the odd sounds in African Night Flight for example, then this is for you. "Compression"? You know what - I don't even know what it is. Neither do I care. I just know this version of Lodger is the best I have ever heard it.
The guitar on Move On is vastly clearer, as is the intro to Yassassin. Red Sails has a whole lot more going on. The bass on Boys Keep Swinging and on Repetition is far more punchy. Great. I find myself enjoying listening to Lodger far more than I ever did. I used to always feel frustrated when listening to it - wanting to improve it. Now I don't need to feel that way.
Regarding the songs themselves, there are some genuinely odd and intoxicating songs on here - the opener, Fantastic Voyage is a musically attractive song featuring mandolin and some intriguing lyrics. Of course, African Night Flight is a strange song, but is has a captivating appeal and the middle-Eastern tones of Yassassin make for an a most interesting song, something Bowie had not really experimented with before.
Then there are the Buddy Holly stylings of Move On, the “new romantic” (before the term had been invented) chorus of Red Sails, with its bizarre "hinterland, the hinterland" lyric, the anthemic Look Back In Anger and the creepy, disturbing Repetition.
The hit singles DJ and Boys Keep Swinging are both upbeat, commercially direct songs, if not quite the "Bowie classics" of some other hits.
The album has always been the poor relation of the trilogy, however, and not just because of the afore-mentioned previously poor sound but also because there just seems to be slightly less ground-breaking "stardust" about it than the other two undoubtedly possessed. Indeed, guitarist Adrian Belew (replacement here for Robert Fripp) said of Bowie and Brian Eno, working together here for the final time until 1995's Outside -
"They didn't quarrel or anything uncivilised like that; they just didn't seem to have the spark that I imagine they might have had during the "Heroes" album."
It was probably just a vibrant working creative seam getting mined out, to be honest. I agree with Belew though, you can sort of feel it. Just a bit.
Finally, the Tony Visconti "remix" of the album to be found on the A New Career In A New Town box set is a thing of beauty. It gives yet another dimension to this often overlooked but always interesting album. It is warmer, bassier, at last. Check out African Night Flight, Move On or Red Sails as examples.
** Finally, an interesting Bowie rarity that some believe is from this period is:-
I Pray, Olé. Nobody quite knows the provenance of this track, which was included as a bonus track on a reissue of 1979's "Lodger" album. It definitely as similarities to Lodger material - Red Sails and Repetition in particular, in is 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.