Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Bite-sized Bowie




Here I have listed David Bowie's studio albums chronologically, together with small snippets from my more detailed full reviews (which can be found here) :-

https://psb.psbmusicreviewsblogspot.com/2018/08/david-bowie.html

David Bowie (1967)

While it is easy to routinely dismiss this admittedly bizarre collection of songs as “vaudeville”, “music hall” and “Anthony Newley-inspired”, I guess they are worth a little more attention than that. They are very much the product of their era - the wry lyrics about various characters on the margins of accepted society are very Kinks-esque and also carry echoes of Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd. Then, of course, there is the massive shadow of The Beatles. How many people know that this album was released on the same day as Sgt. Pepper? Indeed, Nicholas Pegg in his biography of Bowie, The Complete David Bowie, opines, probably correctly, that those who dismiss this album’s songs as twee or vaudeville are the same that hail When I’m Sixty-Four and Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite as works of inspired genius. Overall, though, listening to this material, it is almost incomprehensible to wonder upon just how David Bowie became, well, David Bowie. Looking for little hints of potential future greatness here and there is all very well but it is a bit of a futile exercise as Bowie has stated himself - "picking through the peppercorns of my manure pile..". Probably the most reasonable approach to have towards the album is that it is a work-in-progress from an artist-in-progress.


Space Oddity (1969)

David Bowie released this album in the wake of the unexpected number one hit Space Oddity, with its space travel narrative that perfectly dovetailed with the moon landings that summer. The album didn't achieve any comparative lift-off, however, as the single was totally unique and Bowie's often dense, rambling excursions into folk, vague psychedelia and nostalgic hippiness just didn't catch on with the mainstream music-buying public. Despite the kudos of having a number one single, Bowie's journey to possible stardom was beset by pitfalls. This was another in (at the time) a seemingly long list of them. It was almost as if he was fighting within himself as to what he wanted to become. Was he staying back in 1966-67 or was he futuristically looking to 1972-73? The album fully reflects that schizophrenia and artistic turmoil. Many people bought this, however, as I did, in 1973, upon its re-packaging (with the Ziggy-like hair cover) in the slipstream of the success of Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. To be honest, many of us teenagers didn't quite know what to make of it. Originally released in 1969, though, it was more than just a vehicle for the chart-topping, now legendary, and totally unique title track as it was an album that had much more to it than that, it showed a lot of unrealised potential, albeit surrounded by some patchiness.


The Man Who Sold The World (1970)

Perhaps even more overlooked than its predecessor, Space Oddity, this was by far Bowie's "heaviest" album. Led Zeppelin and Free were strutting all around in 1970-71 so I guess Bowie felt the need to go heavy too. Pity that his reedy voice couldn’t really match the heavy backing in the way that Robert Plant’s or Paul Rodgers’ could, though. Nevertheless, this is still a little-mentioned gem. Musically it is excellent, Tony Visconti's production similarly so. Mick Ronson and Mick Woodmansey from the future Spiders From Mars are in place now, with Visconti on bass. This was, to all intents and purposes, despite the album's lack of hit singles, the start of Bowie's classic seventies period that would lead to super-stardom in a matter of years.



Hunky Dory (1971)

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

 


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

This was, undisputedly, the album that broke it big, real big, for David Bowie. It was also the first “serious” album I ever bought. Therefore, I have an incredible emotional attachment to it, and know it back to front. Every last note. Every lyric. For that reason it makes it strangely difficult to write as much about it as I would other albums that I don't know so well. Like so many supposed “concept albums”, the “concept” is a somewhat vague one - about a “glam” rock star, Ziggy Stardust, who is maybe from another solar system, suddenly appearing on the scene, forming and leading a band an subsequently falling victim to the pitfalls of fame and “when the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band” and it all came to an end, as quickly as it had began. Bowie himself, of course, followed the same path with his real-life Spiders From Mars.



Aladdin Sane (1973)

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



Pin Ups (1973)

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. 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. 



Diamond Dogs (1974)

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. 



Young Americans (1975)

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



Station To Station (1976)

By 1976, the cocaine-addled David Bowie had start to leave behind his supposed "white soul" experiment that resulted in 1975's Young Americans album and, ditching the powder blue suits, reinvented himself as "The Thin White Duke" complete with accusations of giving Nazi salutes at London's Victoria Station and giving out various pretentious pronouncements about the state of global politics and so on. Bowie's persona was not a particularly pleasant one at this time, however, indulged by an adoring media (despite the goldmine that punk was about to give them) and still extremely drug-ravaged he managed to come up with this work of genius. Ever the enigma inside a riddle or whatever the saying is. The great chameleon changeling had done it again. It was, though, a somewhat difficult album to analyse. It is simultaneously accessible yet darkly impenetrable, a merging of "krautrock", white funk, white soul and a bit of pop sensibility. Influences are clear, from Neu! and Kraftwerk especially, that chugging, electronic "motorik" metronomic beat that those groups utilised. In my view, and indeed that of many others, the supposed "Berlin Trilogy" began here, for sure. Station To Station really should be included alongside Low, "Heroes" and Lodger. Then again, however, those European influences are only really obvious on the title track. The other songs still carry quite a bit of the funk, rhythmic and soulful feel of the previous album. It is, despite its obviously dark, dense and intense opener, not quite as oppressive and sparse an album as popular opinion would have it. It is certainly no "Heroes". What it does provide, I guess, is the bridging point between the funk/soul of Young Americans and the sparse soundscapes of Low. It was recorded in sunny Los Angeles too, not dreary Berlin.



Low (1977)

Low, released in January 1977, has long divided opinion. At the time, many were perplexed by the original "side two" of dense, metallic, sombre ambient instrumentals conjured up by Bowie and Brian Eno. Let's be brutally honest, not many of us liked it at the time. Also mystifying to many were the six "semi songs" contained on the original "side one", most around two to three minutes in length and having a somewhat "unfinished" feel to them. The semi-instrumental chart hit Sound And Vision with its "blue, blue electric blue" catchline, was the most accessible, along with the slightly poppy Be My Wife. I clearly remember the reaction at the time of a lot of fans was "what the fuck..." and there were lots of moans about "wasted money" etc. Indeed, RCA executives wrote Bowie a letter upon hearing the album, requesting another Young Americans-style album. Bowie is said to have framed the letter and hung it on his wall. Bowie had visited Berlin in 1976, trying to get off the drugs (possibly unsuccessfully as his companion was Iggy Pop). He also was worried about his sanity due to his unpredictable, odd behaviour during 1975-76. It definitely provided a boost. Bowie's influence from krautrock groups like Tangerine Dream, Neu! and Kraftwerk grew even stronger as well as he met various German musicians while there. It certainly suited Bowie, and resulted in three inventive, ground-breaking albums that saw a complete re-invention of his career. For many, this period saw the artist at his innovative, creative peak.



"Heroes" (1977)

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



Lodger (1979)

Coming after the excellent, ground-breaking Low and Heroes albums, Lodger was always the poor relation of the so-called "Berlin Trilogy", both critically and in reality. This was, to a certain extent, the result of the album's muffled, lifeless sound. This tended to overshadow the fact that there were some hidden gems on here, if only they could be given a little polish. Thankfully, this has now been the case with an excellent new remaster. Overall, there was a definite lyrical pattern to the first five songs on the album - one of global travel, to Cyprus, Africa, Turkey, Russia, Japan and Germany and a cold war anti-nuclear uneasiness too whereas the latter half was more about hedonism and partying but with some dark undertones, lyrically and musically. There were also some signs as to future musical directions. The staccato Red Money provided a precursor to some of the material on the second half of Tonight and Repetition did the same for the second half of Let's Dance, for me, anyway. 



Scary Monsters (1980)

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



Let's Dance (1983)

After a few years in the comparative “wilderness”, David Bowie was back, all sun tanned, bleached-blond, besuited and healthy-looking with his most commercially successful album in a long time. Appealing to the masses with the three huge hits - the mannered, singalong dance rock of Let's Dance, the atmospheric China Girl and the powerful pop of Modern Love, Bowie himself referred to the period as his “Phil Collins” years. Produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers and featuring blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, the music is a mixture of rubber-band bass-driven disco funk, searing lead bluesy guitar and punchy horn backing. A fusion like that had not really been heard before. Despite its commercial old “side one” a good way of appreciating this album is to listen to the “other tracks”. Bowie plays no instruments on this album, for the first time in ages. This is another piece of evidence to support the case that this incarnation of Bowie considers himself a "pop star" vocalist first and foremost. He would come to question this, though.



Tonight (1984)

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



Never Let Me Down (1985)

I know, I know. I have put what is widely considered to be Bowie's worst album in my other list of "ten great Bowie albums". I have never quite understood the bad press this album gets. Yes, I accept that it is no Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane or Low, but I have to admit that I prefer listening to it to either of its two predecessors, Let’s Dance or Tonight. It brings back happy memories for me of 1987 and I guess that always helps, but I genuinely feel it is a more than acceptable album, given the paucity of classic material being produced at the time. So, we have an album that its composer sometimes disowns, and the listening public also do to a great extent. Is there anything good about it? Personally, I have always liked it and feel that there is plenty of good material on there.



Black Tie White Noise (1993)

For me, there are two parts of David Bowie's career, his Tin Machine work being the bridging point between the two. The first part is the part that really means the most to me, the second part begins here, in 1993, and heralds the start of far more use of dance rhythms and contemporary music, some of which I find less accessible than the sounds of the 1970s and 1980s. What we were getting here was a newly-energised Bowie, fresh after his fun with Tin Machine, recovered after the travails of Never Let Me Down. 



1.Outside (1995)

David Bowie was back with old mate, producer Brian Eno, for this one. It was released two years after the vaguely experimental Black Tie White Noise and it ploughed several new furrows - dance music, spoken interludes, electronica, post grunge and even more avant garde, piano-driven jazz than had been dabbled with on the previous album. It has, supposedly, a "concept" about a detective investigating the horrific murder and dismembering of a fourteen year-old girl. All rather unsettling and frankly a bit odd. It features several characters and, in between the songs, has several short, often spoken pieces. The one called Baby Grace I actually don't ever play, finding it decidedly creepy. So, I just stick to the songs, leaving out the spoken interludes and, playing them thus, the "concept" fades away. Did I really care about these characters anyway? No. The songs can all be taken separately, at face value. Yes, I know it is supposed to be listened to in its original incarnation, but well, there you go, I don't. Am I "cheating" the concept? Bowie purists would undoubtedly say yes. Bowie himself said that the album was intended to be post-apocalyptic in a slightly Diamond Dogs fashion as the end of the century approached, something about which Bowie seemed to have become increasingly afraid of.



Earthling (1997)

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



Hours....(1999)

After the diversification into dance music experimentation that was Earthling, two years later, Bowie, thankfully, in my view, ditched the "beats per minute" and returned with this mainly melodic, ethereal, introspective album. He still employs programmed drums and bass guitar as opposed to a conventional band, but it often doesn't sound like it. Initially, they recorded it with a Diamond Dogs  guitar backing, which guitarist Reeves Gabrels much preferred, but in the end Bowie went for a more slick, contemporary sound. That was a shame, I would have liked to have head the original version. The album was quite harshly treated by critics at the time, which was somewhat unfair. It is not that bad at all.



Heathen (2002)

This is an album that included three cover versions of other artists' songs and an upbeat, lively ambience, utilising a lot of drum machine rhythms (far more than on Reality for example, which used more "proper" drums). Personally, I prefer the latter, but this is certainly not a bad album, containing some interesting material that demands several listens. It has slipped under many people's radars, however, which is a bit of a shame.



Reality (2003)

This is an album that included three cover versions of other artists' songs and an upbeat, lively ambience, utilising a lot of drum machine rhythms (far more than on Reality for example, which used more "proper" drums). Personally, I prefer the latter, but this is certainly not a bad album, containing some interesting material that demands several listens. Many at the time thought this would be Bowie's last album. If it had been, it would have been a good one, and Bring Me The Disco King such a beguiling final track.



The Next Day (2013)

This was an album nobody expected. Most had accepted that Reality would be the final studio album from the now-reclusive, not too healthy David Bowie. Just when many seemed to feel he had retired, almost unheralded, he put out this remarkable album. It had been recorded, almost in secret, over the previous few months. Personally, it is by far my favourite of the post-1990 albums. No question. This is a special album. I am not sure about the cover though, slapping the title over the old "Heroes" cover. That doesn't work for me. I would rather just a plain white cover and the title in black. That is a minor point, however. Let's be honest, Bowie hadn't put out stuff like this that made your spine tingle like this for years. Yes, there had been good material on the last thirty years of albums, of course there had, but anything like this? Maybe not. I remember listening to this and feeling a real excitement over a Bowie album for the first time since Scary Monsters. That is not to say I didn't like the others, I liked many of them, but this album seemed very much like a David Bowie we had not heard from for years returning.



Blackstar (2016)

This, then, is David Bowie's deathbed valedictory release. For that reason, it is an extremely difficult album to review. It is just seven tracks of avant-garde jazz-influenced material. Bowie had, no doubt, wanted to do an album like this anyway, impending demise or not. Given its incredible genesis, planned meticulously by the dying Bowie, it gets lifted to a position way above the sum of its parts. It becomes a truly remarkable epitaph. This is a bold, experimental album that would have been given critical kudos anyway, despite its sad derivation. Many, at the time, despite the situation, found it dull or needlessly experimentational. If they thought that, then they didn't understand David Bowie. It was always that way. The same people threw up their hands and shook their heads upon the release of Low. Several years on, it can be listened to with fresh ears and it has a real appeal that begs more listens. Goodbye, then, you strange, ethereal, distant man who has been part of my life from that same distance since 1972, when I bought Ziggy Stardust as a fourteen year-old.




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