As everyone knows, these were the years when it all took off for David Bowie. For many, myself included, this was the classic Bowie era. Writing about it is a labour of love.
Changes/Oh! You Pretty Things/Eight Line Poem/Life On Mars?/Kooks/Quicksand/Fill Your Heart/Andy Warhol/Song For Bob Dylan/Queen Bitch/The Bewlay Brothers
"I mean, people actually coming up to me and saying, 'Good album, good songs'" - David Bowie
Personally, I got into Hunky Dory in the early summer of 1973, after having bought Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane previously. At fourteen, I was now retrospectively starting to explore Bowie's music. After the "heavy" vibe of 1970's comparatively unsuccessful The Man Who Sold The World, David Bowie returned to his often-favoured acoustic poppy approach used in his early sixties recordings for 1971's breakthrough Hunky Dory album. This time, however, he married folky acoustic sounds with a streetwise rock edge, provided mainly by Mick Ronson's searing lead guitar. Producer Tony Visconti had left (somewhat frustrated by the Man Who Sold The World experience, apparently and replaced by Ken Scott) to concentrate on his other project - Marc Bolan and T. Rex. On to bass duties came the gloriously side-burned Trevor Bolder and, unnoticed at the time, the now legendary Spiders From Mars line-up of Bowie, Ronson, Bolder and Mick Woodmansey was born.
Bowie described himself on the rear cover as "the actor" ("produced by Ken Scott - "assisted by the actor"), and this gives a hint as to the theatrical, bohemian approach this deceptively light album would take. It is full of poetry, kitsch, mannerisms, indistinct sexuality and a few tributes to Bowie's musical/cultural influences in The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol.
Bowie said of the album in an interview with "Uncut"'s Chris Roberts in 1999 -
“….Hunky Dory gave me a fabulous groundswell. I guess it provided me, for the first time in my life, with an actual audience – I mean, people actually coming up to me and saying, 'Good album, good songs.' That hadn't happened to me before. It was like, 'Ah, I'm getting it, I'm finding my feet. I'm starting to communicate what I want to do. Now - what is it I want to do?' There was always a double whammy there….”.
What happened subsequently was really quite a change from this album, particularly in the stylistic creation of the "Ziggy Stardust" character. Ironically, the album achieved its first success in 1972-73 on the back of Ziggy's rise to glory, so, for many, myself included, it brings back lots of nostalgic memories of the Ziggy era.
The album starts with Changes, this now-iconic number on which guest pianist Rick Wakeman leads things off, augmented by Bowie's slightly tongue-in-cheek lyrics and an absolute killer hook of a chorus. All the dense, heavy intensity of the previous album was thrown off as Bowie developed an appealing light, airy pop sensibility. Lyrically, it deals with some quite philosophical themes about "turning to face the strange" amidst "impermanence" and berating of the previous generation in "where's your shame you've left us up to our necks in it..". So what's new - the same accusation is made by every generation. Of course, the song's title has proved to be an apt one to apply to Bowie himself when talking of his constantly re-invented image over the years.
Surprisingly, it was a complete flop as a single yet subsequently is a song that everyone knows and is an obvious choice in any "best of Bowie" lists.
The piano and pop feel is continued on Oh! You Pretty Things, (covered, strangely, as a single by Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits fame). I remember at the time, when I first heard the track thinking "oh that's that Peter Noone song"!. Noone took it to number 12 in the charts. It is a lively, singalong song that hides a dark set of quasi-philosophical lyrics. This was not really obvious on Noone's poppy version of it and only slightly more on Bowie's version. The generation gap thing from Changes is also expressed on this song too - "you're driving your mommas and poppas insane..."
"You gotta make way for the homo superior..." was a giggle-worthy line for me and many of my early secondary school friends.
Eight Line Poem was an oddly addictive short track that has Bowie almost narrating the poem's (surprising) nine lines over a sparse guitar and piano backing. My favourite line was always "Clara puts her head between her paws..". The lines are all rather perplexing, however, their meaning unclear. It actually doesn't really matter as their different images link together well anyway, as so many Bowie lyrics do.
The poem leads into one of the album's cornerstones, the magnificent, truly iconic, fully orchestrated Life On Mars?, quoted by many these days in everyday conversations. "See the mice in their million hordes, from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads". Bizarre lyrical imagery doesn't get much better, does it? Quite what it is about has been the subject of analysis ever since its release - who was "the girl with the mousy hair"? Or the "sailors fighting in the dancehall" as seen on the screen by the said girl? What film was Bowie thinking of, I wonder? It has always been South Pacific, for me.
As well as the lyrics the song has some beautiful, dramatic piano on it and a real sense of melodrama. I love the way the song rises and falls between its cacophonous chorus and the gentle build up of its superbly expressive verses.
Regarding the sound of the song - on the latest remaster, the contrast between the bass (which is strong) and the piano and orchestra is just right. Not too bassy not too trebly. Just what it needs. There is so much in there, so mastering it correctly is one hell of a task. This is the best so far. Even now, that one piano note at the outset sends shivers up the spine.
As for Kooks, I have never been a fan of this jaunty, whimsical ditty. Others, indeed many, love it but I have always found it rather twee, preferring to hurry up and get to the next track. It is rescued slightly by its jolly brass backing and its appealing line about throwing the homework on the fire if it brings you down. I remember thinking at the time - "if only I had parents who took that attitude". Bowie wrote it for his newly-born son, Duncan (called Zowie at the time).
I have to say, also, that the remastered Kooks does sound great too with a lovely rich bass underpinning it. Great strings and crystal clear trumpet and acoustic guitar. Bassist Trevor Bolder displays considerable proficiency on the trumpet too.
Quicksand was a brooding, poetic masterpiece chock full of the said weird images. Quiet, acoustic guitar and subtle organ and Bowie's plaintive lyrics about "dream reality" and "Garbo's eyes". Check out the acoustic guitar chops - so clear, so sharp. It is this album's Cygnet Committee, with its multiple images and surrealism that sees Bowie referencing Winston Churchill, Heinrich Himmler, Aleister Crowley and Greta Garbo. It is another un-analysable song, notable mainly for its myriad of wordscapes. It is a little-mentioned Bowie classic, highlighting a really developing poetic songwriting talent. He also marries beguiling lyrics here with a similarly mysterious but evocative melody.
It is the sort of song that is put into "best of" lists by the Bowie cognoscenti, as opposed to the "greatest hits" crowd. A song for the truly discerning Bowiephile. It is an odd thing about Hunky Dory, though, that a beguiling, mysterious song like this and an image-packed classic like Life On Mars? bookend a lighthearted piece of fluff like Kooks. For many, that is the album's appeal, but for me it is its only weakness.
I feel somewhat similarly about the cover of Biff Rose's (who was he?) Fill Your Heart as I do about Kooks. It is a piece of breezy whimsy that has always irritated me slightly, despite its obvious singalong melody. Bowie contributes a nice saxophone and it is pleasant enough, but has too much post-hippy airiness about it for me. Apparently Rose didn't like Bowie's arrangement of his song at all. It sticks out most incongruously from the other tracks, even back then I thought that Bowie was capable of much better than half-assed, tongue-in-cheek covers like this. Unfortunately he continued the trend by covering Ron Davies' It Ain't Easy on Ziggy Stardust and then putting the clearly dated The Prettiest Star on Aladdin Sane. All three tracks do not merit their place amongst such exalted company.
Andy Warhol has never really been my can of beans either, despite us all quoting "it's "hol" as in "hols"" in the school corridors ad nauseum. That acoustic intro though - wow. Sharp as a knife, as indeed is Ronson's closing solo. Warhol himself didn't like the song, however, and found it embarrassing. He and Bowie didn't really get on in the way they are presumed to have done, it is said.
Song For Bob Dylan sees 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.
The final, odd chanted vocal part at the end - "please come away, hey..." is a totally incongruous addition to the song, but is disturbingly haunting, meaning that this most bright and breezy of Bowie's albums ended on a most sonorous, sombre, disconcerting note.
Bowie says he had no lasting memory of recording the song and was unable to enlighten as to what it was about. It was, surely, deliberately obscure, or simply just the product of some powerful drugs. What is certain is that it is up there as one of Bowie's finest compositions. Incidentally, Bewlay Bros were a chain of tobacconists in London at the time.
** There are also a couple of tracks recorded for this album that didn't make the cut:-
Lightning Frightening is a quirky outtake from 1971 which features Herbie Flowers on bass and Bowie on saxophone. It is an odd slice of hippy-ish blues with some strange lyrics saying "I'll give you back my farmland, I'll give you back my house..." in some sort of bucolic protest. It features some appealing bluesy harmonica and lively saxophone that make it quite a catchy number. I can't imagine it fitting either Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust however.
The song fades in at the beginning, giving it a real "demo" feel, despite subsequent good sound quality. A guitarist called Mark Pritchard contributes a convincing solo near the end. The song is said to seriously resemble Crazy Horse's Dirty, Dirty, which was released in the same year and listening to them both one after the other, you can definitely hear the similarities, more in the music than the vocal. Bowie was going through a Neil Young phase in 1971 so it is probably no coincidence.
Bombers was a song from the Hunky Dory sessions that is full of lyrics about nuclear bombs, sirens and wastelands and the like. It has a liveliness and a post-apocalyptic lyric that suited Ziggy Stardust, musically, but its vocal is hauntingly plaintive, in that typically sixties Bowie style. There was plenty of that vaudeville, music-hall hamminess that Bowie had ditched by the time Ziggy was recorded.
The track was apparently going to open "side two" of Hunky Dory instead of Fill Your Heart. In many ways, I would have preferred it, but there is something of the sixties whimsicality to it that irritates me a little, so maybe not.
Another interesting song from the Hunky Dory sessions is Shadow Man, a this plaintive ballad which was originally recorded in the Hunky Dory sessions but the original recording was never released. It was re-recorded in 2000 for the abortive Toy sessions, given a torch song-style piano and deep strings backing. The song, lyrically, is very much in the Bowie of 1968 vein and it is hard to see it fitting in on Hunky Dory.
** Regarding the various remasters around - the EMI/RYKO has the bonus tracks, Lightning Frightening and Bombers but it has a lo-fi, muffled sound, in my opinion
The 1999 remaster is clear, sharp and loud, as Hunky Dory should be, probably the equal of the 2015, maybe even a little fuller. This has always been my favourite of the 1999 remasters.The 2015 is probably the most nuanced, rounded remaster. The slightly harsh edges of the 1999 master have given way to a slighter quieter, subtler remaster. Hunky will always be a somewhat trebly album, due to the piano, acoustic guitar, horns and strings but this manages to bring the bass further up in the mix a little and highlights the bassier part of the orchestration, cello etc. I find when listening to it that my enjoyment of my lesser-favoured tracks like Kooks and Fill Your Heart is heightened. Bits are emphasised that I hadn't really realised were there to make a more fulfilling experience.
So, overall, it is probably the 2015 remaster for me.
Five Years/Soul Love/Moonage Daydream/Starman/It Ain't Easy/Lady Stardust/Star/Hang On To Yourself/Ziggy Stardust/Suffragette City/Rock 'n' Roll Suicide
"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" - David Bowie
This was, undisputedly, the album that broke it big, real big, for David Bowie. It was also the first “serious” album I ever bought. Therefore, I have an incredible emotional attachment to it, and know it back to front. Every last note. Every lyric. For that reason it makes it strangely difficult to write as much about it as I would other albums that I don't know so well.
Like so many supposed “concept albums”, the “concept” is a somewhat vague one - about a “glam” rock star, Ziggy Stardust, who is maybe from another solar system, suddenly appearing on the scene, forming and leading a band an subsequently falling victim to the pitfalls of fame and “when the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band” and it all came to an end, as quickly as it had began. Bowie himself, of course, followed the same path with his real-life Spiders From Mars.
Bowie himself said of its "concept", looking back on it -
“….What you have there on that album when it does finally come out, is a story which doesn’t really take place, it’s just a few little scenes from the life of a band called Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, who could feasibly be the last band on Earth—it could be within the last five years of Earth. I’m not at all sure. Because I wrote it in such a way that I just dropped the numbers into the album in any order that they cropped up. It depends in which state you listen to it in….”.
Bowie is pretty much saying that the album isn't as conceptualised as many have viewed it. It is a series of randomly connected, great rock songs with no real continuity. I have always viewed it as such, even right back then, when I first bought it, aged thirteen.
The old “side two”, the final six songs of the album, are the ones that fit the concept, along with Starman from “side one”, to a certain extent. In that respect, it is far more of a concept album than say, Sgt Pepper or The Jam’s Setting Sons. However, Soul Love and It Ain't Easy certainly don't fit in to any such idea. Certainly, though, Bowie “bigged up” the Ziggy image for all it was worth - bright orange coxcomb hairdo, one legged tights and full make up. We had not really seen anything like it, to be fair, Bowie’s appearance on Top Of The Pops in July 1972 performing Starman had us all talking in the school playground the next morning, and it had the country’s parents recoiling with horror, despite the previous decade’s excesses.
On to the songs in more detail...
On the first line of Five Years - “pushing through the Market Square” was (apparently) inspired by the town I grew up in, Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. Indeed, the world’s first statue of David Bowie is now sited there (pictured above). The song “fades in” with Mick Woodmansey’s slow drum beat, the a crystal clear acoustic guitar kicks in and we are into a rather disturbing song about the forthcoming end of the world. It is jam packed with characterisation and imagery and Bowie’s great lyrics and delivery build up to a truly tumultuous climax with finally fades back out again with the same sombre drum beat. "A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest, and a queer threw up at the sight of that...". What an evocative line.
The song doesn’t quite fit the album’s narrative, although maybe it could be argued that an apocalyptic world such as is described needs a Ziggy-like figure to arrive to lead it to the promised land before it is too late.
Even more so than Five Years, though, as I said earlier, Soul Love is one of the songs that doesn't fit the 'concept'. It is a semi-funky, saxophone-driven soully song. Back to the song itself, it has a very appealing, melodic vibe that again doesn't really sit easily with the harsh, edgy, glamminess of much of the rest of the album. It actually could be more than comfortable on Young Americans. Yes, it had great rhythm and was undoubtedly very catchy, but it was totally irrelevant to the rest of the album. I still really like it, however.
Moonage Daydream was, to an extent, where the 'concept' started to kick in, with its "spacey/science fiction-esque" lyrics and druggy references to "freaking out...". It also contains a homoerotic line in "the church of man-love is such a holy place to be..." that totally passed my thirteen year-old mind by back then. It was, no doubt, referencing Ziggy's (and simultaneously Bowie's) bi-sexual experimentation. Even by 1972, though, the song's lyrics like "lay the real thing on me", "freak out", and "far out" were starting to sound more than a little dated - relics from the hippy era.
There is some marvellous, chunky, heavy guitar throughout as Mick Ronson came into his own, and an impossibly singalong instrumental refrain just after the “freak out in a moonage daydream” line. It ends with more impressive guitar. A proper rock song. Apparently Bowie used to try and "draw" the guitar solo, as he envisaged it, with crayons on paper. Ronson would look at it and play the solo as he interpreted it, which is pretty remarkable.
Funnily enough, though, the song's provenance dates from early 1971 and is the earliest-composed song to feature on this album, although not the first recorded. You would imagine it was from the late 1971/early 1972 sessions from its vibe and sound.
Starman was the one that saw Bowie’s iconic Top Of The Pops appearance, and what a great single it was too. Addictive, radio-friendly chorus, lots of contemporaneously-popular space imagery and that instantly recognisable morse code bit before the chorus kicks in, that was inexplicably lowered on many remasters over the years. It exists on the original single mix.
I always wondered, when listening to this song, how one could "lean back on my radio..". How could you lean on a radio??
It Ain't Easy was pretty much everyone’s least favourite. In my view, and those of many others, Sweet Head would have made a great replacement, but maybe not in 1972, with its risque lyrics. Maybe Velvet Goldmine then. Both of them clearly would have been better inclusions than this cover of US songwriter Ron Davies's song from the late sixties. It was actually the first song recorded for the album. having been rejected for Hunky Dory. The only way I could make it fit the album's theme at the time was in its "climb to the top of the mountain" struggle-based lyrics, which I tried to interpret as Ziggy's travails as he tried to make it big. It doesn't really do it for me, though and remains apart from most of the album's other material.
The piano-driven Lady Stardust, always my favourite, was about Bowie’s mate Marc Bolan, apparently. It contains some great lines, such as "...femme fatales emerged from shadows to watch this creature fair..." and another homo-erotic reference in the line "the love I could not obey...". Is the song about Ziggy, or is is about Ziggy's messianic hero-worship of another figure? Either way, it is a lovely, atmospheric song and Mick Ronson plays some great piano something I didn't know he did.
Star saw Bowie going all proto-punky four years early. It is a short, frantic and riffy number that briefly details in the first verse what happened to Ziggy's old friends as he left them as he pursued his journey to stardom. It is a mixture of glam and punk, although nobody knew what punk was in 1972. I have always wondered about the supposed "friends" named in the lyrics - Tony, Bevan and Rudi. Who were they? Odd names for Britain in 1972 as well, certainly the last two. Another odd thing was the bleakly contemporary reference telling us that "Tony went to fight in Belfast" ("Bloody Sunday" took place in January of the same year) - amongst all that other-world spaciness the line sat harshly detached from the album's overall mood. Interestingly, the track also, like Moonage Daydream, dates from early 1971 and was given away to a little-known band called Chameleon. Thankfully nothing came of their recording of it and Bowie resurrected it.
Hang On To Yourself was another in the punky vein, driven wonderfully by Mick Ronson's searing guitar, this was regularly used as a show opener during the autumn of 1972 and into 1973. It is an irresistible, rousing number. The Sex Pistols later said they based their God Save The Queen riff loosely around Mick Ronson's work on this track. It is right at the heart of the whole Ziggy thing, sitting as it does in the middle of "side two".
Ziggy Stardust. The iconic title track is most memorable as Ziggy “jams good with Weird and Gilly”. Oh, that riff too - acoustic and electric guitars in unison, something that Bowie had begun to specialise in. It is a timeless classic. Again it is packed full of wonderful lines, like "he came on so loaded man - well hung and snow-white tan...", "with God-given ass...". The sexual and drug references were lost on most of us teenagers back then, I can assure you. The song is full of all sorts of images - the "leper messiah", "cat from Japan", "he was the nazz", "jiving us that we were voodoo.." and is just a delight from beginning to end. Just who were the introductory characters of "Weird and Gilly" I wonder? Previous band members or existing ones? Was "Ziggy" a unique, original character, or an amalgam of Bolan, Jagger, Jim Morrison etc? Whatever the answer was, one thing we knew for sure was that "Ziggy played guitar..".
Suffragette City 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.
Amsterdam. Bowie always liked the whole Jacques Brel/Berlin in the 1930s decadent thing and this Brel song is perfect for that - a tale of drunken sailors and prostitutes. Bowie had been playing it live for a few years before he recorded it in the summer of 1971. It is a robust acoustic and evocative torch song and I first met it as the 'b' side of Sorrow in 1973. I found its images and atmosphere truly captivating. It was totally unlike anything I had ever heard from Bowie thus far. I always remember its abrupt ending too. Apparently it was going to be in the It Ain't Easy slot on Ziggy Stardust. I wish it had.
John I'm Only Dancing. I loved this single back in 1972 when it came out. I was far too young at thirteen to pick up on the homosexual references, as most were. It passed the BBC censorship (but not in the USA). It became a top twenty hit here. It is a nice mix of a catchy acoustic intro/ongoing riff and some vibrant Spiders rock. I remember being blown away by how great the sound was when my father allowed me to play the single on his stereo. I still love hearing it today.
The original single mix dates from July 1972 and is the best one. A subsequent one was re-recorded in January 1973 using saxophone in place of the acoustic guitar riff. It is ok, but not as good as the original, neither is the 1979 remix which seems to tone down the sharpness of the acoustic guitar. For me, the original single version will always be the best - that crystal clear strummed acoustic intro and then the consecutive drumbeats leading into Bowie telling us that "Annie's pretty neat, she always eats her meat...". Hmm. Incidentally, I always used to think it was "Eileen's pretty neat...".
** Regarding the sound, the 2012 remaster is, I believe, the best one. Possibly. It is always up for debate and re-assessment. The EMI/RYKO is tinny and dull. The 1999 one is acceptable, as is the 30th anniversary edition (although it has a bizarre stereo channel reverse from the original recording). This one is the least tinny and warmest.
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.
The black and white photo of Bowie and Ronson in the review is by the great Mick Rock.
Hang On To Yourself/Ziggy Stardust/Changes/The Supermen/Life On Mars?/Five Years/Space Oddity/Andy Warhol/My Death/The Width Of A Circle/Queen Bitch/Moonage Daydream/John, I'm Only Dancing/Waiting For The Man/The Jean Genie/Suffragette City/Rock 'n' Roll Suicide
This was an original US radio broadcast made available, eventually, for "official" release and exceptionally good it is too. Yes there is a rough and ready rawness to the sound quality, but that but adds to the appeal. It still sounds pretty good anyway - big, full and powerful, with well-highlighted bass and good stereo separation. Personally, I slightly prefer this recording from the Spiders era Bowie than the legendary "final gig" (see below), although I admittedly vacillate between the two.
Hang On To Yourself begins with a visceral, punky energy and a storming Ziggy Stardust continues in the same vein. Mick Ronson is on fire. Changes is clunkily rocking and vibrant, with Bowie on great vocal form. His voice is crystal clear at the beginning of The Supermen and when the "heavy" bit kicks in you can feel the power literally shaking your speakers, as if you were there.
Life On Mars? suffers a little from hiss in the quiet passages, but no real matter, it is still an evocative performance. There is something beautifully energetic and raw about this show. Five Years has never been done better. Trevor Bolder's bass sounds wonderful, rumbling yet melodic.
Space Oddity is, unfortunately, marred by Bowie's woeful attempts to recreate the "rocket taking off" part by letting out a sonorous low moan. There are other vocal attempts and sound effects thrown in towards the end. By the end of this tour he performed the song far more successfully, augmented by synthesisers. Andy Warhol is excellent, however, with another killer bass line and some clear acoustic guitar from Bowie. Some great electric guitar from Ronson at the end. My Death is hauntingly powerful. "Angel or devil, I don't care...". Bowie sings these emotive words so movingly, so clearly. Great stuff. This songs suits Bowie so well.
The Width Of A Circle is an absolute tour de force, with a truly massive rock sound. Bowie was still a rock singer, in a rock band, even though he at times denies it. This is hard as he ever rocked, although he himself may have left the stage for a costume change while Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Mick Woodmansey rocked out. Outrageously, thumpingly good. The Spiders briefly turned into Deep Purple. I have always loved the rocking, riffy Velvet Underground tribute Queen Bitch and it is played energetically here.
Moonage Daydream has all the chunky, piledriving sound you would expect. John, I'm Only Dancing, played in its original, rocking format, is a delight to hear. After the band introductions (I hadn't realised Mike Garson was already on board on piano), we get a slow burning, almost effortless Waiting For The Man, with Bowie doing his best Lou Reed. Again, this is Bowie rocking with the best of them. The "brownstone building" bit sees him in complete control.
It is great to hear The Jean Genie played properly i.e full on rock, as opposed to the slowed-down David Live era version. This is by far the best live person of Genie. Suffragette City is similarly definitive - frenetic and punky, just as it should be. The plaintive, emotional Rock 'n' Roll Suicide closes the show, as usual, once again, it is powerful and convincing, with some huge guitar chops. Great album.
Watch That Man/Aladdin Sane/Drive-In Saturday/Panic In Detroit/Cracked Actor/Time/The Prettiest Star/Let's Spend The Night Together/The Jean Genie/Lady Grinning Soul
"There was a point in '73 where I knew it was all over. I didn't want to be trapped in this Ziggy character all my life. And I guess what I was doing on Aladdin Sane, I was trying to move into the next area – but using a rather pale imitation of Ziggy as a secondary device. In my mind, it was Ziggy Goes to Washington - Ziggy under the influence of America" - David Bowie
In the spring of 1973, David Bowie was the name on everyone's lips. As a teenager, I waited with bated breath for that warm early April day when I held his latest album in my hands, took it home and my friends and I sniggered at every schoolboy's favourite line from Time. Heady days indeed. Aladdin Sane was the album where the character of Ziggy Stardust supposedly "went to America" (by Bowie's own admittance) to make himself an even bigger star. Bowie was simultaneously attracted and appalled by America and this comes over in the songs. It is like being on a tour bus taking in sights, experiences, good and bad, along the way. New York, Detroit, Los Angeles...what you get from this transatlantic trip, most importantly, though, is ten wonderful tracks that sees Bowie at the height of his "glam rock" phase. To this day it is my favourite Bowie album.
What a start to an album Watch That Man gave us. Yes, Bowie's voice is way further down in the mix than it should have been (intentionally but erroneously so, in retrospect) but do not let detract from what is a barnstormer of a track, with one of Mick Ronson's killer riffs taking centre stage. The guitar is truly magnificent on this, one of Bowie's glammiest cuts, and lyrically is is full to the brim with wonderful images, like "the Reverend Alabaster dancing on his knees..." and "there was an old-fashioned band of married men looking up to me for encouragement...". This was definitely a continuation of the messianic worship of the "Ziggy" character. Ziggy had come to the USA and people loved him at their druggy parties, that is how I interpreted it as a young teenager back in 1973.
The song was also recorded by Bowie, Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder, Aynsley Dunbar and Mike Garson with Lulu on vocals (see review of Pin Ups).
Aladdin Sane was one which was initially not so popular with us singles and glam-honed teenagers at the time but in later years I have come to love it dearly, particularly that great bass and piano instrumental passage in the middle. Mike Garson was Bowie's new pianist and his creative stamp is all over this album. He really makes this superbly evocative track that deals with the themes of insanity that were always close to Bowie in the early seventies due to his experiences with his half-brother, 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.
Drive-In Saturday was the album's big "new" single (The Jean Genie being released several months before the album) - full of doo-wop harmonies, parping sax and great hook lines it blew us all away. As with so many of the Bowie compositions on the album, the imagery is positively overflowing as contemporary culture and icons are mixed with nostalgic themes - "people stared in Jagger's eyes and scored", "she'd sigh like Twig the wonderkid..." were definite references and then there was "Jung the foreman...". Who was he? Jung the philosopher? The "foreman", though, what was that about? What was "crashing out with Sylvian"? Bowie explained that song was set in a post-apocalyptic world where people had to learn how to make love again by using books. All very futuristic and strange.
Whatever the meanings, it is a uplifting, almost anthemic sax-driven pastiche. It was originally offered to Mott The Hoople as a follow-up to the Bowie-penned All The Young Dudes but they turned it down, now confident enough to choose their own Honaloochie Boogie, which charted for them.
Panic In Detroit is one of my own favourites, this Latin percussion-influenced number with its "he looked a lot like Che Guevara" wonderful opening line. Once more, it is brimming with lyrical imagery. It has an intoxicating conga-driven rhythm, some bluesy Mick Ronson guitar and great backing vocals from Mac 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 NewYork 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.
The final track, Lady Grinning Soul, is a rarely acknowledged Bowie masterpiece of piano and strings torch song mystery. Simply beautiful and bubbling over with smoky atmosphere. It is arguably the album's finest song, certainly its most beguiling. It was also quite erotic in its "touch the fullness of her breast, feel the love of her caress..." line.
It was a unique song, quite unlike anything he had done before. Only Time and Aladdin Sane come close to its adventurousness. Surprisingly, though, even Bowie seemed to forget about it, as he never played it live.
Just look at this verse, full of images. What was "Americard", by the way? (update: I'm told it was a US credit card).
"...Cologne she'll wear...silver and Americard...she'll drive a beetle car... and beat you down at cool Canasta..."
** There is a song that was recorded in this era that was not on the album but has earned itself an honourable mention:-
All The Young Dudes was the legendary anthemic song that Bowie gave to ailing mates Mott The Hoople in the summer of 1972 (they were originally offered Suffragette City) and they took right up the charts, making the song their own. Bowie's version was recorded in December 1972 and suffers in comparison to the Mott classic. The saxophone dominates this version (the Mott one was driven by acoustic and electric guitars) and, dare I say it, Ian Hunter's vocal is the definitive one.
A most interesting rarity is the version of that has Mott's original instrumental backing but Bowie's vocal that he recorded as a guide for Hunter to follow. I must say it has a certain appeal. It includes Hunter's spoken "outro" but Bowie sings the verses. It has a certain nostalgic fragility about it, especially in Bowie's ever so slightly tentative vocal.
By the way, I'm sure the "boogaloo dudes" line was inspired by Bowie's mate Marc 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.
** With regard to the various remasters - Aladdin Sane has always been a bit tinny and there is the perennial voice mixing problems - the 1990 EMI/RYKO is somewhat low-fi and muffled, in my opinion. The 1999 is good, but maybe a bit clear and loud for the tastes of some; the 30th anniversary rarity remaster is excellent as is the latest 2013 one, which is probably as good as it is going to get - a nice mix between the essential glam rock loudness and a bit of subtlety too. You can never lose that loudness on Aladdin. To do so would be a crime. It should hurt your eardrums.
Anyone wanting to know what Bowie was all about in the mid 1970s - start here.
Art work by Brian Duffy.
Live At Hammersmith Odeon (1973)
Hang On To Yourself/Ziggy Stardust/Watch That Man/The Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud/All The Young Dudes/Oh! You Pretty Things/Moonage Daydream/Changes/Space Oddity/My Death/Cracked Actor/Time/The Width Of A Circle/Let's Spend The Night Together/Suffragette City/White Light/White Heat/Rock 'n' Roll Suicide
This was the one where David Bowie the rock’n’roll star, Ziggy Stardust, left it all behind, to begin a chameleon-like journey through many styles of image and music.
There is a slightly less raw, hissy sound on this in comparison to Santa Monica. It would appear to have been remastered considerably more successfully, but that previous show from September 1972 had such a huge, punky energetic appeal that it was difficult to top, to be honest. The band just seemed on better form that night. This is ten months’ hard touring later, and it shows a bit. It is the legendary “last ever show” (until the next one with a new band!). The Spiders, of course, do not know this, so when Bowie announces it at the end it really is one of those rock moments of genuine shock. However, this includes material from Aladdin Sane so there are added benefits, and yes, the sound is much better. I keep changing my opinion between the two. Maybe the best thing to do is treat them both separately and stop comparing them against each other.
The album kicks off with the usual rocking Hang On To Yourself. Then we get Ziggy Stardust, which is nice and bassy here - less tinny than Santa Monica, it is a powerful, dominant version of the iconic song. Bowie and The Spiders are all on top form - with "God-given ass..." indeed. This is one of the versions that I prefer to Santa Monica, I think.
It is a treat to hear a fully rocking Watch That Man (with Bowie's voice high in the mix, unlike on the studio version). Mike Garson makes his presence on piano known far more than at Santa Monica.
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud is played far more rockingly than on Space Oddity, Ronson’s electric lead guitar enhancing it considerably. There is a slight volume drop while the track merges into All The Young Dudes, but by the time Bowie launches into a snatch of Oh! You Pretty Things all is fine again. I am not a fan of these live medleys, though, preferring full versions of the songs. Queen used to do it too, irritatingly. Thankfully, Moonage Daydream is back to full-on, extended rock. It is just so god to hear Bowie rock with and band like this. I know he did with Tin Machine, but this was his rock persona at its very best. Changes is just so floor-shakingly powerful, it blows you away.
Space Oddity, thankfully, now uses keyboards to replicate the spaceship noise, unlike on Santa Monica and the results are much better. Bowie has to tell the raucous crowd to “be quiet” at the beginning of the moving My Death. Funnily enough, you had an “interval” with some piped classical music before the band come back with an absolutely stonking Cracked Actor, with madcap harmonica and wailing guitars. It is good to hear this, and the three other tracks from Aladdin Sane being played here by their original band, and so enthusiastically too.
Time is incredible - atmospheric piano and backing vocals and one hell of a huge thumping bass from Trevor Bolder. Ronson’s guitar is excellent too. Now, we enter Led Zeppelin territory with fifteen-minute The Width Of A Circle. As much as I love the Santa Monica one, I think I love this one even more, with its rhythmic percussion (bongos in there somewhere, played by I am not sure). The guitar on it is simply outstanding.
After the band introductions come a barnstorming Let's Spend The Night Together and straight into a similar Suffragette City. It is sad to think that the band are playing this for the last time, yet they don’t know it. White Light/White Heat chugs and rocks, pulsatingly. Then comes the gobsmacking speech, the crowd suddenly goes quiet and a no doubt bemused band ploughing their way through Rock 'n' Roll Suicide. Bizarrely, Elgar’s Land Of Hope And Glory plays over the p.a. Goodbye, Ziggy. Thanks and all that. He’ll be back, sooner than expected.
In many more guises.
(original artists shown in brackets)/Rosalyn (by The Pretty Things)/Here Comes The Night (by Them)/I Wish You Would (by The Yardbirds)/See Emily Play (by Pink Floyd)/Everything's Alright (by The Mojos)/I Can't Explain (by The Who)/Friday On My Mind (by The Easybeats)/Sorrow (by The Merseys)/Don't Bring Me Down (by The Pretty Things)/Shapes Of Things (by The Yardbirds)/Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere (by The Who)/Where Have All The Good Times Gone (by The Kinks)
"These songs are among my favourites from the '64–67' period of London" - David Bowie
In late 1973, when this album came out, many of us, bathing in the glorious light of Hunky, Ziggy and Aladdin were, to be honest, a bit bemused by this seemingly throwaway collection of covers of (comparatively) obscure sixties rhythm and blues tracks. We made out we loved it, but we didn’t really. However, as time progressed, I personally grew to love this 30 minute slice of seventies nostalgia for the sixties. It seemed to be de rigeur to put out a retrospective covers album as Bryan Ferry released These Foolish Things at the same time. Bowie went back to the British r'n'b boom of 1964-67 to source his material. Some of it was well-known, but certainly not all of it.
These were the rear cover hand-written notes supplied by Bowie (referring to himself as "Bowie" for the first time) -
"...These songs are among my favourites from the '64–67' period of London. Most of the groups were playing the Ricky-Tick (was it a 'y' or an 'i'?) -Scene club circuit (Marquee, eel pie island la-la). Some are still with us - Pretty Things, Them, Yardbirds, Syd's Pink Floyd, Mojos, Who, Easybeats, Merseys, The Kinks. Love-on ya! Bowie....".
The album was hurriedly put out due to contractual obligations to Mick Ronson and Trevor Bolder, the remaining Spiders From Mars who Bowie had legendarily dumped on stage at Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, I believe. For all that, Ronson still shines brightly throughout. Aynsley Dunbar’s drumming isn’t half bad either. Indeed, it is one of the standout points of the album. The music is played with a vibrancy and enthusiasm that certainly doesn't suggest going through the motions. It all sounds great and is an enjoyable forty minutes and also very nostalgic for me.
Stylistically, Bowie's hair is still "Ziggy", but he is now be-suited in a baggy-ish double breasted number that pointed towards the Young Americans/David Live clobber. Two of the images on the rear cover were also still very "Ziggy". The front cover, of course, showed a deathly pale Bowie alongside a suntanned "Twig The Wonderkid", Twiggy (sixties model Lesley Hornby).
In comparison with original Bowie songs, there is not a huge amount one can say about these short, enjoyable cover versions, but here we go.
Rosalyn was a frantic, fast-paced almost punky opener, featuring some riffy scratchy guitar and Aynsley Dunbar’s drums pounding away as they do impressively throughout the album. There was a real enthusiasm to the rendition that makes it very enjoyable. It was originally recorded by The Pretty Things. The were impressed with Bowie’s cover, feeling it stayed true to the original, which it did.
Bowie’s saxophone introduces Them/Van Morrison’s pop/blues of Here Comes The Night. Trevor Bolder’s bass is superb on here as are the drums, once again. Bowie’s vocal has a sort of Drive In Saturday tone to it. His saxophone solo is excellent too. I have always really liked this one, it was one of the songs that I actually knew already back in 1973. The whole rendition has a sort of soul/rock feel to it.
I Wish You Would was originally done by The Yardbirds, this is a stonking rocker of a number with Bowie on blues harmonica and Dunbar giving us a wonderful round of drums. The quirky Mick Ronson guitar riff and its interplay with the keyboard riff are infectious, you find yourself singing the riff more than you do the lyrics.
Pink Floyd’s See Emily Play is given a really solid, muscular and bassy sound. It rocks superbly and the sonorous backing vocals give it a sort of “asylum” sounding feel. This was a song that was tailor-made for Bowie. Once again, the bass is big, rumbling and addictive. Mike Garson’s piano is great too, he even “samples” a bit of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” near the end, as Dunbar goes all Keith Moon. I love the sound on this. It is definitely a high point on the album.
Everything’s Alright is a killer rocker that I loved back in 1973 and still do. It was a song by The Mojos and Bowie rocks it up no end with an appealing rock ebullience. There is an energy to this performance that is thoroughly intoxicating. I find it impossible not to enjoy the sheer vitality of this rendition.
An interesting bit of trivia is that Aynsley Dunbar played with The Mojos in the mid sixties, but after they had recorded this. He will have known the song, though, so no wonder he does it so well.
On I Can’t Explain Pete Townshend’s guitar is replaced by Bowie’s parping sax on this slowed-down, bluesy cover of The Who’s song. I have always liked it, although I have to say I much prefer the original.
Sorrow was the big hit single from the album and a great track it is too. Bowie improves The Merseys’ original no end (one of the ones on the album that clearly out-does the original). The violin backing is sumptuous as are the harmonious backing vocals and, of course, Bowie’s excellent saxophone solo. The video clip below features "supermodel" of the time Amanda Lear (who also featured on the cover of Roxy Music's 1973 For Your Pleasure album).
This was the song we all liked on the album at the time, probably due to its exposure as a single. The single, incidentally, was 'b' sided by a cover of Jacques Brel's Amsterdam, dating from the Ziggy Stardust sessions.
There is a vague 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.
Photos by Mick Rock.
** 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.
** Regarding the various remasters around - the EMI/RYKO has the bonus tracks, Springsteen’s Growin’ Up and Jacques Brel’s Amsterdam but it has a lo-fi, muffled sound, in my opinion.The 1999 remaster is clear, sharp and loud.
The 2015 is probably the most nuanced, rounded remaster. The harsh edges of the 1999 master have given way to a slighter quieter, subtler remaster.
Sorrow/Everything's Alright/Space Oddity/1984/Dodo/I Can't Explain/Time/The Jean Genie/I Got You Babe
Only three months after his supposed "last ever gig" at the Hammersmith Odeon, David Bowie was playing a US TV special, bringing along ex-Spider Mick Ronson on guitar and Trevor Bolder on bass. Pianist Mike Garson was in the band too. Drums were played by "Pin Ups" drummer Aynsley Dunbar. Apparently it was a joyless affair, with Bowie insisting on running through the songs sometimes up to forty times. Ronson was left distinctly underwhelmed by the occasion - "I turned up, put me make up on, played, put me guitar away, took me make up off and went home..."- is how he described the proceedings. Despite having "killed off" Ziggy Stardust, there were still lots of Ziggy-isms to be found in both Bowie's look and costumes for this event. All very strange, really.
Bowie played three songs from Pin Ups - a slapdash Everything's Alright, a riffy, clunky I Can't Explain and Sorrow, whose backing track sounds distinctly like the original single as opposed to being played live. Space Oddity, Time and The Jean Genie (thankfully played straight, not slowed down) are given run outs, plus the as yet unreleased 1984/Dodo, the former of which would end up on the following year's Diamond Dogs album. There is also a cover of Sonny & Cher's I Got You Babe with Marianne Faithfull (who dressed bizarrely as a nun for the song), which is thoroughly unremarkable. Faithfull seems to be trying to imitate German chanteuse Nico, badly.
The whole show was intended to break Bowie "big" in America, but the whole "cabaret"-style pretentiousness didn't succeed. It was a precursor to the lavish stage show of the Diamond Dogs tour, however. The latter was much better, though, and David Live and Cracked Actor are excellent live albums, whereas this is not. The musicianship is ok, if a little uninspiring, but the sound isn't too great. It is listenable, but hardly "audiophile".
I listen to it occasionally as a historical document, so to speak.
Diamond Dogs (1974)
Future Legend/Diamond Dogs/Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)/When You Rock And Roll With Me/We Are The Dead/1984/Big Brother/The Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family
"...and they all had funny-coloured hair. In a way it was a precursor to the punk thing" - David Bowie
Many felt that Diamond Dogs was Bowie’s “return to form” after the underwhelmingly-received Pin Ups album of sixties cover versions. It had a lot of the guitar-driven glam rock essence of Aladdin Sane. Notably, however, tiny bits of wah-wah funky guitar were creeping in to the sound. A pointer to the mid-seventies “soul” phase Bowie went through, only a small one though. For all the many commenters who have labelled this the album that saw Bowie start to discover soul, one has to say that it is very much a rock album and far more his last glam album than his first soul album.
It is one of those loosely-conceived albums with a supposed concept - that of a futuristic, run-down post-apocalyptic urban setting and the characters who inhabit it. To be fair, the theme runs pretty constantly through the album, but there is no continuing "story" as such. The character of "Hallowe'en Jack" was said by some to be the continuation of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, but I was never really convinced of that. Having said that, though, stylistically, Bowie still had a lot of Ziggy about him in the spiky, mullet-y red coxcomb hair-do and musically, glammy songs like Rebel Rebel and the title track certainly kept the spirit of Ziggy alive.
This is no more a concept album than Ziggy though, just a collection of great “glammy” rock songs with a bit of a brooding, dark, futuristic theme. No more, no less. Interestingly, Bowie has subsequently described the album and its "concept" as being a pre-cursor for punk. Hmmm. read this and see if you can run with it...
Bowie described the Diamond Dogs characters, from the title track, as -
"....all little Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses really. And, in my mind, there was no means of transport, so they were all rolling around on these roller-skates with huge wheels on them, and they squeaked because they hadn't been oiled properly. So there were these gangs of squeaking, roller-skating, vicious hoods, with Bowie knives and furs on, and they were all skinny because they hadn't eaten enough, and they all had funny-coloured hair. In a way it was a precursor to the punk thing...".
Sorry David, I don't really buy that, but, despite that, in retrospect, I guess I can see why you viewed it like that. Personally, I think Rotten and the like's appearance on the scene was just a coincidence that fitted the particularly train of thought Bowie was having. Not that it really matters, but Diamond Dogs inspiring punk, either consciously or subconsciously? No. Not having it. Looking at the cover, though, those two mutant figures do look a bit punky. Maybe he was right. We'll never really know. Anyway, enough of that and back to the songs...
On Diamond Dogs the opening “This ain’t rock ’n’ roll - this is genocide…” line is the announcement at the end of Future Legend as some fake crowd noise lead one to initially think that this is a live recording - some stirring guitar licks are accompanied by a Rolling Stones-esque cowbell soon take centre stage as the background noises fade and we are launched into a very Stonesy, riffy six minute plus rock number. Incidentally, the crowd noise was taken from The Faces' live album from the time and if you listen carefully as it fades out, you can hear Rod Stewart shout "hey". An interesting bit of trivia, that.
The song introduces the afore-mentioned new Bowie persona in the character of “Hallowe’en Jack” - a seedy figure who “lives on top of Manhattan Chase”. As I said earlier, I was never quite convinced of this character as an ongoing entity, though, he was just someone who appeared in this song, certainly not a character with the strength of Ziggy. In this song he is seen as the leader of the pack of dogs that form his dystopian urban street gang roaming around below, doing his bidding.
It was a hit single, although any attempts to edit it into “single” format do not win any acceptance from me - I loathe single edits. Thankfully in the UK I always remember it being played in its full version, which is how it should be. Bowie plays a reasonable lead guitar on the track too.
Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise) is the album’s centrepoint - a long, atmospheric narrative full of images that really should be treated as one continuous track, as they fade seamlessly into each other. The track in full is nine minutes long and fits well into the album’s vague “concept” theme with its multiple scenes of urban decay and seedy decadence where couples “love in a doorway” and encounters become more sinister - “putting pain in a stranger”. all Bowie wants here is a “street with a deal” (which was probably close to the truth in 1974-75) and he puts a personal link into the song with the line “my set is amazing - it even smells like street…”.
The Candidate part ends with the classic line “we’ll buy some drugs and watch a band, and jump in the river holding hands…”. All very evocative stuff. The final chugging, repetitive guitar riff at the track’s very end shows Bowie’s first “krautrock” influence - it is very similar to Negativland by German avant-garde band Neu!, dating from 1972.
This is a genuine Bowie classic and carries so many unfortunate parallels within its lyrical imagery to Bowie’s own increasingly chaotic, drug-dependent life at the the time.
Sweet Thing grinds to an abrupt halt and segues immediately into the instantly recognisable scratchy guitar riff that introduces the superb piece of Bowie rock that was Rebel Rebel. It was possibly the last truly “rock” song he ever did, and certainly the last “glam” one. It was a huge hit, everybody loved it at the time. After the (relatively) low key sixties cover in Sorrow, this was, as far as a lot of fans were concerned, Ziggy back with a bang. Compared with the dark, futuristic creativity of the rest of the album, in many respects this was Bowie revisting a previous sound, something he rarely did. The song dates back to 1973 and you can tell. It would not have been out of place on Aladdin Sane at all.
It has a gender-bending lyric in the “she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl…” which horrified some of the older generation back in 1974.
After this, Bowie would do no more glam rock, neither would many others - Roxy Music, Mott The Hoople, T. Rex, Alice Cooper, Elton John all either diversified or split up.
It was performed on the David Live album in a slowed-down style, almost as a smoky, late night soul ballad.
We Are The Dead has always been the album’s hidden gem, for me. It contains some excellent guitar and keyboards and some very Sweet Thing-style paranoid lyrics. I have always liked the lines “it’s the theatre of financiers - count them, fifteen round the table, white and dressed to kill…”. It fits the album’s concept well and is a vastly underrated song. Bowie's vocal is excellent throughout. "We're today's scrambled creatures, locked in tomorrow's double feature...", is another great line.
For some inexplicable reason, Bowie never performed it live, which was a real pity. I think it would have sounded great live.
1984 was the track that saw a funky wah-wah guitar rhythm used for the first time. Apparently Bowie wanted it to sound like Barry White. To me, and to many, it sounds more like Isaac Hayes’ Shaft theme. It is often referred to as the clear moment Bowie changed direction, as if the whole album was like it, but, as we know it isn't, it is just the backing of this song that shows a slight new direction. You could actually have said the same about Soul Love from Ziggy Stardust.
Lyrically, it explores more disturbing themes - “they’ll split your pretty cranium and fill it full of air…” carries on the “dreadful future” sort of ambience that pervades most of the album. The reference to George Orwell’s novel in the title is no coincidence.
The track was covered, surprisingly, by Tina Turner on her 1983 Private Dancer album. While the beat suited her, the lyrics sounded odd on a r 'n' b/soul album.
Big Brother finds the Orwellian thing continuing on this mysterious song that contains beguiling lines like “he’ll build a glass asylum, with just a hint of mayhem…”. Bowie is looking for a way out of this nightmare and searches for a leader, “some brave Apollo..”. This is a theme he would continue, with unfortunate consequences, a couple of years later when he made some unwise comments that appeared worryingly fascist.
Musically it is quite soft and melodic, featuring some good saxophone from Bowie and some infectious handclaps.
On The Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family - Big Brother morphs into this repeated tape loop vocal and industrial repetitive guitar riff. The tape stops and repeats “bro bro bro” endlessly. Bowie subsequently said that this was an accident but that he left it as it sounded great. The best thing about this is its title, which brings to mind images of a group of skeletons cavorting around as the only ones left on a charred, desolate earth.
The cover is great and caused a real stir at the time with the Bowie/dog artwork showing the dog's crown jewels which were airbrushed out on later pressings. I was pleased at the time to have the original, balls and all.
Overall, this was a fine album and served as fine valediction to the glam era. I still love this, Ziggy and Aladdin Sane more than any other Bowie albums. Bowie was right to diversify after this, however.
** There were a few tracks that didn't make it on to the album that are worthy of mention:-
It makes another appearance in a funked-up medley with 1984 that was included on the 30th Anniversary edition of Diamond Dogs. The song is altered quite a bit here and is far funkier. Had this medley been included on Diamond Dogs it would have contributed to a far funkier ambience on what was more of a glammy album.
Candidate is a different song to the Candidate that appears as the middle part of the Sweet Thing trilogy on Diamond Dogs. It was, however, recorded in the sessions for that album, on New Year's Day 1974. It is an impressive, soulful but upbeat song with a jaunty, swing-style drumbeat driving it on together with some breezy Mike Garson piano. It contains a sexually suggestive opening couple of lines and an odd reference from Bowie about his being "the Führerling", starting his unfortunate fascist fascination earlier than we thought. It is an appealing song, though, and showed the direction Bowie's music was beginning to take, despite it not making the album. If this and Dodo had been on Diamond Dogs it may have sounded quite a lot different.
Rebel Rebel (US Single Version)/Reality Tour Remix is quite a different take on the glammy hit single. It misses out the iconic introductory guitar riff and starts with the line "hot tramp I love you so.." before progressing into a rhythmic, conga-driven piece of soul/rock that once more provided a signpost as to Bowie's future musical direction. It was this version that Bowie played live on David Live and Cracked Actor and indeed for many years afterwards. In 2002, Bowie re-worked the song for the Reality Tour, using a quiet, atmospheric guitar opening before crashing into that recognisable riff. He opened the shows with this and recoded a studio version as well. I like both these versions but I will always prefer that scratchy, riffy glory of the original.
** Regarding the various remasters around - the EMI/RYKO has the bonus tracks, Dodo and the alternative, extended Candidate but it has a lo-fi, muffled sound, in my opinion. It is, however, less jarring than the others, and often I find myself returning to it. Played through a good system, it is pretty good.
The 1999 remaster is clear, sharp and loud. The remaster from 2015 for the Five Years box set is just about ok, but no amount of remasters can hide the album's intrinsic tinniness, however. It is actually by far the worst of those particular remasters.
David Live (1974)
1984/Rebel Rebel/Moonage Daydream/Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)/Changes/Suffragette City/Aladdin Sane/All The Young Dudes/Cracked Actor/Rock 'n' Roll With Me/Watch That Man/Knock On Wood/Here Today, Gone Tomorrow/Space Oddity/Diamond Dogs/Panic In Detroit/Big Brother/Time/The Width Of A Circle/The Jean Genie/Rock 'n' Roll Suicide
"That record should have been called 'David Bowie is alive and well and living only in theory'" - David Bowie
In 1973, “the kids had killed the man” and Bowie broke up the band and then after a short hiatus, reconvened Stateside with a new band, an elaborate new stage set, a powder blue suit and a foppy new hairdo. Some funky sounds were added to the larger new band’s repertoire, some wailing saxophone too, together with lots of backing vocals. Classic rock songs like The Jean Genie, Suffragette City and Watch That Man were either slowed down or “funked up” with layers of congas and wah-wah guitar. Many fans did not know what to make of it. Not quite used to the changeling Bowie as yet, some turned their back on him after hearing this album. Even now, there are still precious Bowie aficionados who condemn this album as “rubbish” and “unlistenable”. This is a shame. I actually loved it upon release and I still do. When 1984 starts the show, I still get excited hearing it, and the versions of Aladdin Sane and the extra-riffy Diamond Dogs are pretty definitive. Mike Garson is superb on piano and Earl Slick plays some seriously hot lead guitar throughout the album.
Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise) is performed superbly, virtually note-for-note to the studio original and is absolutely crammed full of atmosphere. Although one can't see Bowie's performance, it can definitely be felt as you listen to this - "...my set is amazing, it even smells like a street...". You really get that vibe.
It takes a bit of getting used to hearing the saxed-up grooves of Changes and Cracked Actor but I have always found them invigorating and enjoyable, right back to when I first listened to them in 1974. Bowie's gift to Mott The Hoople - All The Young Dudes, is given a slowed-down almost gospelly soulful makeover, while the hit single from the album, a cover of Eddie Floyd's Atlantic Soul classic Knock On Wood is chunkily powerful and nowhere near as bad as a few critics, including Mick Jagger, said it was at the time. Along with this song, The Ohio Players' Here Today, Gone Tomorrow is covered, providing two nods to late sixties soul and highlighting Bowie's change in musical direction.
This impressive Tony Visconti remaster brings what was an already impressive 2005 remastering to even more life. He remasters his original 2005 remaster! Check out 1984 and Moonage Daydream in particular. Almost like listening to a new album.
There are sounds in there I genuinely had not heard before (and I bought it upon release in 1974). The track listing is the full show as well. The definitive version. Time, Panic In Detroit and Space Oddity are particularly welcome additions from the original album's track listing. Bowie's gratuitous, lascivious enunciation of "wanking" on Time is a delight to listen to.
Funnily enough, though, I was still so used to the original track listing that it still sounds a bit odd when Panic And Detroit and Time come along.
Much as I have always loved this album, though, maybe the last word about it should be left to Bowie himself, he subsequently commented that -
"David Live" was the final death of Ziggy...and that photo on the cover - My God! It looks like I've just stepped out of the grave. That's actually how I felt. That record should have been called "David Bowie is alive and well and living only in theory"...".
So there you have it. It still means a lot to me, despite its perceived shortcomings.
1984/Rebel Rebel/Moonage Daydream/Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)/Changes/Suffragette City/Aladdin Sane/All The Young Dudes/Cracked Actor/Rock 'n' Roll With Me/Knock On Wood/It's Gonna Be Me
/Space Oddity/Diamond Dogs/Big Brother/Time/The Jean Genie/Rock 'n' Roll Suicide/John, I'm Only Dancing (Again)
Recorded a few months further into David Bowie's 1974 tour than the official David Live release, this now-kosher former bootleg provides quite a different experience to David Live. There is a totally different ambience to the playing and Bowie's delivery. Despite being from the same tour, they are two very distinct performances.
Suffragette City sounds closer to its original, with a heavier, riffier intro. As indeed does The Jean Genie, which rediscovers some of its original bluesiness. The cover of Eddie Floyd's Knock On Wood and Rock 'n' Roll With Me are looser, almost edgier. The latter is almost a bit sloppy in places, with Bowie putting on a strange voice early on in the song, however.
There is a bit of an "end of term" feeling about the album, with the band just doing their thing, man, as opposed to the tighter, slightly more nervous David Live offerings.
Bowie's vocal delivery seems more pronounced, more theatrical. Which is odd considering he had dropped much of the on-stage theatricality that had hampered the earlier part of the tour. Check out Sweet Thing. His personal performance on this and throughout the show seems more assured and at the same time more relaxed. More drugs or less I wonder? The backing to this track, again, just seems better - clearer and with the individual instruments given more space to breathe. Also, the idea was to turn to the whole thing more "soully". With that in mind, we see the first appearances of It's Gonna Be Me from the Young Americans sessions and a final encore track of the disco-influenced John, I'm Only Dancing (Again). Most welcome they are too. Other than that the set list is pretty much the same as David Live, with no Watch That Man, Panic In Detroit, Width Of A Circle or the Ohio Players cover Here Today, Gone Tomorrow.
Earl Slick, the lead guitarist, seems more confident in his solos on this recording than on David Live Saxophonist David Sanborn the same. Heck, they all sound more energised. Listen to the Latin-tinged piano/guitar/bass bit in the middle of Aladdin Sane. The instrumental bit in the middle of Big Brother too.
Contrary to many people, I have always loved David Live. Maybe because I grew up with it and it for a long time my only Bowie live recording. However, this really puts it somewhat in the shade in places. Highly recommended. Fantastic sound quality too. You know what, though, I still slightly prefer David Live, despite everything I've said, particularly the latest Tony Visconti remix of it, which is superb. The best thing is two own both of them and treat them as different entities. They both have their merits.