2. Hunky Dory

Hunky Dory” is David Bowie’s 4th studio album, originally released on 17 December 1971.

In 1971, David Bowie was still a relative unknown, who had that weird one-off hit a couple of years previously about a doomed astronaut called Major Tom. His previous three albums had all been commercial disappointments that had failed to chart. All that was soon to change with some key personnel entering the picture, although sadly not initially with this remarkable album.

The most significant new figure to enter the Bowie universe was Tony Defries, a solicitor who would help Bowie get out of his management contract with Ken Pitt and who would in turn become Bowie’s new manager. Defries provided Bowie with the aggressive management push his career needed, help with some shrewd commercial contracts and ultimately steer Bowie towards superstardom. That Defries would in the process line his own pockets with Bowie’s success via his new MainMan empire and leave Bowie resentful and almost broke was a consequence that wouldn’t become clear for a number of years to come. But Bowie was desperate for success and basically dived in somewhat naively with Defries to make it happen for him.

Defries signed Bowie to a then excellent publishing contract with GEM but more importantly signed him to a new record label in RCA who were desperate for a new “Elvis” to be added to their recording lineup. Defries saw lots of raw potential in his new prodigy and realised that ultimate success only really comes by cracking into the US market. RCA were willing to push Bowie in the US as much as in the UK and so were the perfect recording label. The future was finally looking bright at long long last.

Bowie went into Trident Studios, London in June 1971 to begin work on his first album with RCA.

Tony Visconti had enough of working with Bowie after the troublesome “The Man Who Sold The World” recording sessions and decided to concentrate his efforts with Marc Bolan’s blooming T. Rex. He was replaced by Ken Scott in the co-producer’s chair who would go on to help produce Bowie’s upcoming monster glam albums.

Visconti was replaced on bass guitar duties by the excellent Trevor Bolder, who had worked previously with both guitarist Mick Ronson and drummer Mick “Woody” Woodmansey in their native Hull in the group The Rats. The future legendary “The Spiders From Mars” were now in place…

However, the musician I think most contributes to the overall vibe on “Hunky Dory” was the legendary Rick Wakeman on piano. Bowie had began writing much of his new material on the piano, but didn’t feel confident enough to play some of the expansive chords sequences he was conjuring together. Wakeman had worked with Bowie previously on “David Bowie” (aka Space Oddity) but his work here on tracks such as “Oh! You Pretty Things” and  “Life On Mars?” are truly inspired. Bowie offered Wakeman a permanent gig as one one the “The Spiders From Mars” but the temptation of joining supergroup Yes finally won out.

Mick Ronson is also worth a very special mention for his contributions, not just with his admirable guitar work both also for his gorgeous arrangements, which help so many of the tracks here to soar.

The resultant sessions produced one of the truly great albums of all time. However, it still seems remarkable to me that this glorious masterpiece was a complete flop upon its initial release.

The album kicks off with Bowie’s second great iconic track “Changes” (behind Bowie’s first classic 1969’s  “Space Oddity“). In so many ways, this song previews Bowie’s career to come, both in terms of the many changes and musical manifestations that would mark Bowie’s catalogue but also in the lyrical content in which he refers to the current youth as a new future race. The song starts with a little piano flourish before Wakeman’s distinctive piano riff kicks in that dominates throughout as Bowie sings “Still don’t know what I was waiting for, And my time was running wild, a million dead-end streets” which rather nicely encapsulates Bowie’s faltering career thus far. The second verse contains the key lines “So I turned myself to face me, But I’ve never caught a glimpse, Of how the others must see the faker, I’m much too fast to take that test” in which he refers to himself in both the first and third person, a technique he used on the previous “The Man Who Sold The World” and would reuse with his many future characters. The band then kick in during the catchy chorus as Bowie takes a big slice out of The Who, a band he’s admired for many years as his multi-track vocals spits out “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes” in the same stuttering style used by The Who on their classic “My Generation”. Bowie pleads for us to “Turn and face the strange” on each chorus coupled with a different bitter proclamation to the current generation such as “Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it” and “Where’s your shame, you’ve left us up to our necks in it“.  The track ends beautifully with a final, sombre like sax solo by Bowie himself. Bowie’s clearly “English” vocal expressions, Wakeman’s wonderful piano prowess, Ronson’s sublime arrangements and lyrics referencing a future race are all key components that feature throughout much of the album.

“Changes” was released as the lead-off (and for a long time, only) single, which at the time failed to chart. This would be the last single of Bowie’s to flop in the UK for a long long time, although it did manage to reach No. 66 in the US billboard charts, his first single to make the list. Interestingly, the single finally made the UK charts in January 2016, where the picture disc release made No 49 following Bowie’s death.

The track is very often listed as one of Bowie’s very best, being for example one of four Bowie songs to be inducted into the “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll”.

It would also be a track that Bowie would often play live throughout his career and was in fact performed on 9 November 2006 at the Black Ball fundraiser in New York, his last ever live performance (unless you include his performance of “Chubby Little Loser” when he introduced Ricky Gervais at Madison Square Garden in 2007.

There was no official video made at the time, although his performance at his “retirement” concert on 3 July 1973 is often used, Watch it here.

Up next comes the truly fabulous “Oh! You Pretty Things“. Again featuring mainly Wakeman’s wonderful piano part, with the rest of the band only kicking in during the upbeat refrain/chorus, it’s light and catchy musical tones somewhat belies the dark, mystic lyrics. Describing a future when the youth in combination with arriving aliens take over and inherit the earth, it touches on many of the occult themes from his previous “The Man Who Sold The World” album, although here in a far more jolly musical setting. Describing a typical morning, things suddenly change forever “Look out my window, what do I see, A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me, All the nightmares came today, And it looks as though they’re here to stay“. Again, it’s a future in which only the youth survive “They’re the start of the coming race, The earth is a bitch, We’ve finished our news, Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use“. It’s classic Bowie a few years before the rest of the world would realise it.

The track gained some prominence when it was released earlier in the year as a tame single by Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits fame, who made it a No. 12 success in the UK charts. Trust me, Bowie’s version is infinitely (homo) superior…

This track would feature in one of Ziggy Stardust’s earliest TV appearances when Bowie performed it on the “The Old Grey Whistle Test” on 8 February 1972 (which also featured “Queen Bitch”). Sadly, the song wasn’t actually broadcast until many years later. Watch it here.

Eight Line Poem” is a curious piece, literally a beautiful little eight line poem sung to a lovely Ronson electric guitar part and Wakeman’s backing piano. At one level, it comes across as simple and off-handed, but it really is all rather gorgeous, with Bowie’s wonderful vocals constantly changing on each obscure line as Bowie describes a lazy day as he stares outside his window. I’ve always loved the closing lines “But the key to the city, Is in the sun that pins, The branches to the sky“. As far as I’m aware, this has only ever been played live once on a BBC broadcast as featured on the excellent “Bowie At The Beeb” album.

 

Life on Mars?” is without doubt, THE highlight. One of the questions I get asked a lot is what is my favourite Bowie song. And although it’s not an easy question to answer, I do feel the answer is this amazing track. I can still remember the first time I discovered this song when I first played the K-Tel “Best of Bowie” album. And it still sends a shiver down my spine with each hearing.

Starting slowly with Wakeman’s wonderful piano part, it describes the sad tale of a lonely girl who goes to the cinema to escape her life for a while, only to see it being played out in all its horror up on the silver screen. Bowie’s vocals are at their very best here as he sets the scene “It’s a God-awful small affair, To the girl with the mousy hair, But her mummy is yelling no, And her daddy has told her to go“. Things pick up pace musically as we enter the stupendous chorus section, where at first we hear the start of Ronson’s truly amazing string arrangement as the girl enters the cinema “But the film is a saddening bore, For she’s lived it ten times or more“, before the band kicks in with the full orchestra in the chorus section as she details the boring movie show on display “Sailors fighting in the dance hall, Oh man, look at those cavemen go, It’s the freakiest show, Take a look at the lawman, Beating up the wrong guy“. It finally reaches its musical climax as Bowie’s vocals so beautifully explodes as he cries out the key question “Is there life on Mars?“. The second verse has a delightful wood-pipe accompaniment throughout as the girl’s imagination starts to take off “See the mice in their million hordes, From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads, Rule Britannia is out of bounds, To my mother, my dog, and clowns” before we repeat the refrain and chorus but this time with the girl in control “But the film is a saddening bore, ‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more, It’s about to be writ again, As I ask you to focus on“. Ronson’s beautifully sedate solo and his string arrangements have a final burst, before it slowly trails off with booming drums. Then just as you think’s it’s over, the piano tinkers back into action before a phone goes off in the background (a studio mishap that drove Ronson crazy with frustration at the time and so was included as an in-joke, a number of such studio playfulness included in the mix).

Seriously, WOW, what an amazing song !!

On the album back cover, Bowie notes he was “Inspired by Frankie“, a nod towards the fact the track has a similar structure to “My Way”, a song for which Bowie had a set of lyrics rejected (his version was called “Even A Fool Learns To Love”). This is the best way possible to get revenge…

Although both album and song could have been criminally ignored by history had Bowie been hit by a bus in late 1971, Bowie’s success on his next album gave the song a rebirth when it was released as a single on 22 June 1973 during the height of the Ziggy Stardust period. The song fitted Bowie’s new interstellar image perfectly and in combination with a fabulous video by Mick Rock, helped the song reached No 3 in the UK charts. Watch Ziggy Stardust perform in the video here.

Bowie would play “Life On Mars?” on and off throughout his career, all the way until 2005 when he performed a beautiful version at his last “public” appearance at the “Fashion Rocks” show at Radio City Music Hall, NY. You can watch this final, emotional performance here. Sigh.

 

 

The album is a wonderful combination of light and dark with regard its themes. “Kooks” is lovely little ditty Bowie wrote for his son Zowie Bowie a few days after he was born on 30 May 1971. With a catchy, almost nursery rhyme arrangement and playful blasts of trumpet courtesy of Trevor Bolder, it’s a song that’s impossible to dislike. Bowie vocals are uniquely tender and loving and with lyrics such as “Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads, ‘Cause I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads, And if the homework brings you down, Then we’ll throw it on the fire and take the car downtown“, there’s a humour and playfulness that’s infectious here. It’s a track that Bowie rarely performed live, the most notable performance soon after it was written when he appeared on the John Peel radio show.

If “Kooks” was light, then “Quicksand” is definitely a return to the dark themes. A mainly acoustic arrangement, this is one of Bowie’s most heavy lyrics, touching again upon themes of the occult and Nietzsche’s writings of the coming Superman. With references to the “Golden Dawn“, the secretive occultist, magical order society and its controversial member Aleister Crowley (“I’m closer to the Golden Dawn, Immersed in Crowley’s uniform”), the evilness of Heinrich Himmler and with digs at Garbo and Churchill (“I’m the twisted name on Garbo’s eyes, Living proof of Churchill’s lies, I’m destiny“), Bowie takes us on a dark journey where the “death of Man” is its final destination. During the lovely chorus sequence, Bowie warns us to not “Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief, Knowledge comes with death’s release“. However, Bowie also warns us that he might not be the saviour, “I’m not a prophet or a stone-age man, Just a mortal with the potential of a superman” and that “I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought, And I ain’t got the power anymore“.

It’s powerful stuff that is somewhat undermined by the gentle guitar arrangements. It’s a song that would get very little live airplay until the mid-90’s when Bowie rediscovered the track and performed it frequently from then on in.

Side Two is basically devoted to a number of tribute pieces, the first to Biff Rose and Paul Williams as Bowie playfully covers their song “Fill Your Heart“. Almost the exact opposite vibe to the previous “Quicksand”, its lightheartedness, joyful arrangement and hilarious vocal delivery, especially when Bowie sings the final “Love will clean your mind and makes you freeeeeeeeeeeeeee“, it can’t but put a smile on your face. It was a last minute replacement for “Bombers” (discussed later) and the album overall is better for it. It’s a track that Bowie played live a few times at around this period, most noticeably at Aylesbury, but was doomed to disappear forever from the live set once Ziggy Stardust arrived.

Andy Warhol” is an affectionate dig at the famous artist and all-round multi-media odd ball, who Bowie admired for quite some time, especially with his ties to “The Velvet Underground“. Starting with some studio chat where the pronunciation of Bowie’s idol is under some humorous debate, it’s a great track featuring some wonderful acoustic guitar work by Ronson. You can see why Bowie was so enamoured with the whole Warhol scene with killer lines such as “Dress my friends up just for show, See them as they really are, Put a peephole in my brain, Two new Pence to have a go“, which predicts somewhat Bowie’s upcoming years. There’s a lot of humour here, with “He’ll think about paint and he’ll think about glue, What a jolly boring thing to do” as funny a line as Bowie has ever penned. (Warhol was slightly less impressed when Bowie played the song to him later in the year, although Warhol was taken by the shoes Bowie was wearing). The track ends with Ronson’s catchy multi-track flamenco style guitar and a round of studio applause. It really is one of the many treasures found within.

The track was originally written for Bowie’s friend Diana Gillespie and featured on her album “Weren’t Born A Man” and is well worth checking out as it also features Ronson on guitar. Bowie would perform the song live during this period and during an acoustic set within the early Ziggy Stardust shows, as featured on the excellent “Santa Monica ’72” live album. Bowie would resurrect the song again during the “Outside” tour in 1995.

Song for Bob Dylan” is another tribute song for which the man of honour was reported less than thrilled about. Incorporating an intro and style similar to Dylan’s own “Song To Woody” (“Oh, hear this Robert Zimmerman, I wrote a song for you“), the song is actually less a true tribute but more a plea from Bowie for the great Robert Zimmerman to get back to roots and start fighting for social issues again. “Tell him we’ve lost his poems, So we’re writing on the walls, Give us back our unity, Give us back our family” sums up Bowie’s frustrations. Bowie also nails down Dylan perfectly “With a voice like sand and glue” and cleverly “glues” together both Warhol and Dylan. Musically, the track has a Dylan-like vibe, with Ronson’s sublime electric guitar and Wakeman’s piano working perfectly together, although if I had to pick the weakest track on the album, this would get my vote. Bowie would perform this live a few times during this period before dropping it for good.

Queen Bitch” is yet another masterpiece contained within. The inspiration here and nod of affection is for Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, with their wonderful hard edgy soundscapes and sordid tales of New York. The original back sleeve notes refers to the track as “some vu, white light returned with thanks“. Bowie mimics them here perfectly, with a hard rock sound and sexually explicit lyrics that more than any other track encompasses and foreshadows the Ziggy Stardust scene to come. The future Spiders From Mars break free and simply shine as they rock things out. Bowie’s positively annoyed  and distraught as his male sexual partner succumbs to the allure of that Queen Bitch “He’s down on the street and he’s trying hard to pull sister Flo, Oh, my heart’s in the basement, my weekend’s at an all-time low“.  But her allure is too strong “She’s so swishy in her satin and tat, In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat, Oh God, I could do better than that” and Bowie is resigned to a lonely night in his hotel room “Yeah, I lay down a while and I look at my hotel wall, And he’s down on the street, so I throw both his bags down the hall“. It’s nothing short of an early Bowie classic.

“Queen Bitch” was performed during the early Ziggy Stardust tours and on several subsequent tours, but it’s appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test in one of Ziggy’s first ever TV appearances that is the most iconic. Watch it here.

The album ends with the legendary epic that is “The Bewlay Brothers“. It carries on the tribute theme of side 2, this one a more obscure and sinister tribute to Bowie’s half-brother Terry that rounds off the album perfectly. Starting with a gentle basic acoustic guitar arrangement (played by Bowie) coupled with Ronson’s subdued electric guitar, Bowie’s lyrics here are beautifully and masterfully cryptic, eerie, serene, dreamy, imaginative and dense, all in a manner that has intrigued and fascinated Bowie fans for decades. Broken up into three verse/refrain sequences, it begins “And so the story goes they wore the clothes, They said the things to make it seem improbable, Whale of a lie like they hope it was“. The references to Terry are many, such as “I was stone and he was wax so he could scream and still relax, Unbelievable, And we frightened the small children away” and “And my brother lays upon the rocks, He could be dead, he could be not, he could be you, He’s chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricatur” but there’s a lot more going on here than Bowie sadly reminiscing about a mentally ill brother he would soon basically abandon. The music expands out beautifully during the refrains where Bowie’s vocals become less dead-pan and become full of anguish and pain, especially in the last section “Oh, and we were gone, Kings of Oblivion, We were so turned on, In the night walk pavilion“. The piece completes with a chilling sequence of schizophrenia induced demonic voices as if a possessed laughing gnome has had enough of this world, where Bowie intones “Lay me place and bake me pie I’m starving for me gravy, Leave my shoes, and door unlocked I might just slip away” as the weird voices slowly fade while pleading “Just for the day, ay
Please come away, ay“… The song really is a Bowie tour de force and one of his finest recorded moments.

Although Bowie wouldn’t perform the song live until almost the end of his live career when he debuted it in 2002, it obliviously meant a lot to Bowie as he used the title Bewlay Bros. Music for his music publishing company.

I really do find it remarkable that such an incredible musical experience could have been lost to history if Bowie had been run over by a bus in 1971. The album upon it’s initial release was yet another commercial disappointment and failed to chart, due in some large part to poor marketing and by Bowie himself who quickly lost interest in it and barely promoted it or performed it live at the time.

Thankfully, Bowie managed to dodge said London buses and would go on to make the big time with his next album. Hunky Dory then started to finally get the attention it so very much deserved and entered the UK charts in September 1972 where it peaked at No 3.

History has been very kind to the album and is widely regarded as one of Bowie’s finest achievements. It has reached many a top album ranking, including those of Rolling Stone, Q Magazine, Pitchfork and NME who ranked it the 3rd best album of all time in 2003. Hey, it’s even reached No 2 in Richard Foote’s Bowie list !!

As with most of Bowie’s back catalogue, the album has been re-released a number of times over the years. Most notiably, it was first released on CD by RCA back in 1981 and then again on CD in 1990 as part of the excellent Ryko/EMI series, which included a number of bonus tracks including:

Bombers” was going to be on the album, until it was (thankfully) replaced by “Fill Your Heart” at the last moment. Available for years on bootleg albums, it’s a pretty weak effort that belongs more in the era of Bowie’s first “David Bowie” album than here. Telling the tale of a poor old man who gets blown to bits by unscrupulous military types for  daring to live on a wasteland where they want to conduct a (nuclear) bombing exercise, the mainly piano musical arrangement is all just a little ploddy and unimaginative. Bowie’s high pitched vocals never quite sound right either and it was all a good idea to drop the thing entirely from the album.

Hunky Dory also featured in the excellent “Five Years (1969-1973)” box set released in 2015.

 

 

Finally as part of Record Store Day in 2017, the rather nice David Bowie Bowpromo RSD vinyl LP set was released, which featured a nice reproduction of the original (and highly sort after) promotional 1971 LP that had seven differently mixed tracks from Hunky Dory on one side and tracks from Dana Gillespie on the other (missing sadly here).

 

 

Hopefully next year, there might be a special 50th Anniversary Edition of the album. Fingers crossed.

I simply LOVE this album and can remember when I first bought and listened to it all those many years ago on a cold afternoon in Manchester.

Soon after the release of the album, Bowie had quickly lost interest in the project and was looking forward already to recording a new album. He didn’t think Ken Scott would approve as it was going to be much harder and rocker than this album and was going to be about a weird alien rockstar who was going to take over the world. The hair scissors were already on hand as was the orange hair dye. Bowie was absolutely convinced he had finally found the musical formula (and image and stage persona) that would at long long last bring him the success he had craved but evaded him for so long.

And of course, Bowie was absolutely correct. With Bowie’s next album, he was going to hit the big time and true superstardom. But that’s a story for another day…

 

Best Tracks: “Life On Mars?”, “Oh! You Pretty Things”, “Queen Bitch”, “The Bewlay Brothers”

3. Diamond Dogs

diamond dogs gatefold album

Diamond Dogs” is David Bowie’s 8th studio album, originally released on 24th May 1974.

Between 18-20 October 1973, Bowie recorded a TV special at the famous Marquee Club in London called “The 1980 Floor Show“, exclusively for US TV (it was televised by NBC on 16 November 1973 as part of their “The Midnight Special” series).  This would be the final performance by “Ziggy Stardust” and officially marked the end of an era. Bowie would never again perform with The Spiders From Mars, finalising the end of his wonderful collaboration with Mick Ronson (Ronson would go on to make a final cameo appearance on a Bowie studio album in 1993’s “Black Tie White Noise” on the track “I Feel Free“). You can watch the show here. There’s an unofficial album of the show that’s quite commonly available.

1980 Floor Show album

The set-list included the appearance of a couple of new songs “1984” and “Dodo” sung as a medley. These were songs Bowie had planned to include in a new project he was working on, a musical adaption of George Orwell’s brilliant depiction of a totalitarian nightmarish future, “1984“. Unfortunately, before things progressed too far, Orwell’s widow refused the unacceptably flamboyant Bowie any rights for the musical and so that was the end of any such West End show (Although I perfectly understand, I still haven’t fully forgiven her).

However, Bowie took much of what he had already written and instead adapted it to a new vision, a post apocalyptic future where the human race had been all but wiped out, replaced by humanoid tribes called the “Diamond Dogs” that patrol the ruins of Manhattan, now known as “Hunger City”. All rather bleak stuff instead.

But not quite as bleak as the challenge ahead of recording the resultant album. Bowie was keen for a fresh start and not only did he dispense with his backing band “The Spiders From Mars” but with producer Ken Scott as well, who had been sitting next to Bowie in the control room since “Hunky Dory“. Bowie would take on the sole duties of producer for the first time on one of his own albums, having already co-produced his last few albums and worked as producer on various other projects such as Lou Reed‘s masterpiece “Transformer” and Mott The Hoople‘s career defining “All The Young Dudes“.

The replacement of Ronson on lead guitar was solved by simply talking over those duties as well. Bowie was a useful multi-instrumentalist but to take on the huge responsibility of lead guitarist was a BIG call. But Bowie’s guitar work is actually one of the many highlights on this album, his raw somewhat unconventional style suiting perfectly much of the material. Bowie would also play saxophone and all the synthesizer parts as well.

The only remnants from his recent past were Mike Garson on piano, who played on the previous “Aladdin Sane” and “Pin-Ups” albums and Aynsley Dunbar on drums who had replaced Mick “Woody” Woodmansey on “Pin-Ups“. Renowned session drummer Tony Newman would also play on much of the album and on the subsequent tour.

Session supremo Herbie Flowers, who had worked previously in the studio with Bowie during the “David Bowie – aka Space Oddity” album and also on Lou Reed’s “Transformer” would take on bass duties and also play initially on the subsequent tour.

The final piece on the musical puzzle was Alan Parker, who would play the famous guitar riff on “Rebel Rebel” and the “wha wah” guitar sound that’s such a highlight on “1984“.

Recorded primarily at the Olympic Studios, London between January and February 1974, Bowie was obviously under a lot of stress with so much responsibility on his still relatively inexperienced shoulders. That Bowie would finish up with such an astonishing, ambitious, musically challenging, triumphant album while under such pressure really is an amazing achievement. This without any doubt is one of Bowie’s finest moments on record.

Beginning with an eerie howl, “Future Legend” starts things off rather ominously. With treated vocals, Bowie narrates the horrific existence that is Hunger City, “And in the death, As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy Thoroughfare” with Richard RogersBewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” lurking in the background. It doesn’t sound like a nice place “Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats, And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes, Coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers“. The short piece ends with Bowie crying out to a screaming crowd that “Any day now, The year of the Diamond Dogs. “This ain’t Rock’n’Roll, This is Genocide.

Dunbar’s drums then kick in as does Bowie’s distinctive guitar riff as we launch into the title track “Diamond Dogs“. Clearly heavily influenced by The Rolling Stones, Bowie does a pretty good job with his guitar playing, to the point many think it actually played by Ron Wood and/or Keith Richards (high praise indeed). Bowie’s vocals are sung with a certain swagger as he introduces us to the nightmarish near future existence that is Hunger City “Crawling down the alley on your hands and knee, I’m sure you’re not protected, for it’s plain to see, The diamond dogs are poachers and they hide behind trees, Hunt you to the ground they will, mannequins with kill appeal” and his latest character Halloween Jack who manages to survive by swinging around the skyscraper ruins ala Tarzan “The Halloween Jack is a real cool cat, And he lives on top of Manhattan Chase, The elevator’s broke, so he slides down a rope, Onto the street below, oh Tarzie, go man go“. If you like classic Stones, you’ll love this track with its blusey, basic rock vibe, but I regard this as the weakest moment of the album although it’s still an excellent track. It’s just a little two dimensional and over long compared to all the magic to come. Released as the second single off the album (but not in the US where 1984 was chosen instead), it reached a relatively disappointing No. 21 in the UK, Bowie’s weakest showing since making the big time.

diamond dogs single cover

We have a few moments of silence before we hear the ever so slow build up comprising of swirling, backward playing swishes that’s the intro to the heart of the album, the truly magnificent “Sweet Thing / Candidate / Sweet Thing (Reprise)” suite. (Note: playing this on an iPod while jogging is really annoying because if seems for a minute or so that the iPod has stopped working). The band then kick in, with Garson’s piano a key feature as Bowie sings his first lines in an impossibly deep tone “It’s safe in the city to love in a doorway, Wrangle some screams from the dawn” before going higher up in his register as the song progresses. Conceptually about two lovers roaming the doomed Hunger City, Bowie famously uses his cut-up technique to conjure up a random set of lyrics that are typically cryptic and yet fit together perfectly to create beautifully surreal imagines. The music initially has a wonderful moody, understated presence that underpins one of Bowie’s finest vocal performances. Bowie sounds more conversational as he later states “I’m glad that you’re older than me, Makes me feel important and free” while the chorus exclaims “Boys, boys, it’s a sweet thing, sweet thing, If you want it, boys, get it here, thing“.

We then move into the amazing middle section, “Candidate“, with Newman’s drumming initially sounding like some military procession during the French Revolution. The pace begins to pick up, Bowie starting with “I’ll make you a deal, like any other candidate, We’ll pretend, we’re walking home ’cause your future’s at stake” as Bowie’s snarling guitar part becomes more dominant and the pace getting faster and faster. This is also the moment where Herbie Flowers shines best with a wonderful belting bass-line. Bowie is almost throwing random images at us as he sings lines such as “But there’s a shop on the corner that’s selling papier mache, Making bullet-proof faces: Charlie Manson, Cassius Clay“. The chorus, now just a interspersed repeated phrase, is much more frantic “If you want it, boys, get it here, thing“. Finally the piece reaches it’s crescendo as the lovers finally decide “We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band, Then jump in the river holding hands“.

Suddenly we “jump” into the third section of the piece “Sweet Thing (Reprise)” with Bowie’s saxophone signaling a change in proceedings as things slow down again. Bowie now beautifully sings “If you want it, boys, get it here, thing, ‘Cause hope, boys, is a cheap thing, cheap thing” as if there’s indeed little hope. Sadly just the one verse, this superb reprise has Bowie now hitting his higher registers with his magical final “It’s got claws, it’s got me, it’s got you…“. But there’s still one more highlight to come as Garson’s piano introduces us to a minute of frantic guitars, synthesizers/mellotrons and pulsing rhythm  belting out a wall of sound that slowly hovers from speaker to speaker. Wow, I seriously mean wow indeed.

This suite is one of the finest moments of Bowie’s entire recorded career. It would be the centrepiece of the upcoming “Diamond Dogs” tour but sadly would not be performed live afterwards.

As the final guitar piece ends, it seamlessly joins up with the famous guitar riff that is  “Rebel Rebel“. This is just classic rock and what would ultimately be Bowie’s final glam-rock era anthem, a celebration of being attracted to the different and the outrageous, regardless of whether you’re actually a boy or girl. It’s the couple from “Sweet Thing” ultimately not giving a shit. The classic line here “You’ve got your mother in a whirl, She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl” is typical Bowie as he later declares his love “Rebel rebel, how could they know?, Hot tramp, I love you so!“. Musically it again has that Rolling Stones feel to it, but this time the riff and performance is so much more catchy than it was on the title track. Alan Parker plays the main guitar riff superbly and is one of THE great rock ‘n’ roll guitar riffs. “Rebel Rebel” was the lead off single from the album and another huge hit, reaching No 5 in the UK. For the US market (where it only reached a disappointing No 64), a different recorded version was used for the single, one which Bowie generally favoured when performing it live. And performed live it was, being one of the most performed songs in Bowie’s career (and one of his most covered). There was no official video made for this, Bowie also ending his relationship with Mick Rock, but his appearance as the eye patched Halloween Jack on the Dutch TV show ToPPoP serves as the unofficial video. Watch it here.

rebelrebel single cover

Side two starts with “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me“, the song here which best signposts the path Bowie would next travel with his plastic soul “Young Americans” period. Side two mainly focuses on his shelved 1984 musical, but oddly not here, with this track having a much more optimistic vibe than elsewhere and being somewhat out of place. That said, it’s a lovely song with Garson’s piano featuring in front of a lovely rhythm and musical arrangement. It also contains another beautiful vocal performance, including some weird cut-up lyrics “I always wanted new surroundings, A room to rent while the lizards lay crying in the heat” with Bowie ultimately lamenting “When you rock and roll with me, No one else I’d rather be“. It can be viewed as Winston wooing Julia but I’m stretching things a little. I’ve also felt the dropped “Dodo” (discussed later) would have fitted in so much better.

We Are the Dead” is simply a glorious, doom laden atmospheric masterpiece. Based on the pivotal line in George Orwell’s book when Winston after his affair with Julia confronts the realisation that “We are the dead. Our only true life is in the future. We shall take part in it as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone. But how far away that future may be, there is no knowing.” with the Thought Police certain to catch and dispose of them. As the Thought Police start to climb up the stairs to arrest the rebellious lovers, Bowie uses bizarre, surreal images to describe the sexual affair, doomed fantasies and the nightmare to come. Split into lyrical pairs, each of two verses that describes his current relationship followed by a longer verse comprising of his cut-up, doomed visions to come, the stunning vocals are either beautifully tender “One thing kind of touched me today, I looked at you and counted all the times we had laid” or depressingly chilling “We’re today’s scrambled creatures, locked in tomorrow’s double feature, Heaven’s on the pillow, its silence competes with hell“. At the end, it’s all too late “Oh dress yourself my urchin one, for I hear them on the stairs, Because of all we’ve seen, because of all we’ve said, We are the dead“. The music is just superb, a sound and feel that is almost uniquely Bowie, with a combination of parse keyboards, a basic, distorted drum beat, wonderful guitar squeals, synthesizers atmospherics and spooky backup vocals. Perhaps because of the studio wizardry involved in the recording and a vocal performance hard to replicate, this sadly was the only track on the album not to feature on the subsequent “Diamond Dogs” live shows and has never been played live as far as I know. A Bowie gem in every way.

Next comes “1984“, that had its first airing during “The 1980 Floor Show” and was planned to be the title track from the aborted 1984 musical. Featuring Alan Parker’s distinctive “Shaft”-like wah-wah guitar riff,  a wonderful drum beat by Newman and sweeping strings arranged by Tony Visconti, this comes across as a big Broadway type number. Compared to the sparse live version of “The 1980 Floor Show” and the slower tempo version recorded earlier with “The Spiders From Mars” (see later), this highlights what great production work can do to enhance a song. Bowie’s vocals are again excellent with grim lines such as “They’ll split your pretty cranium, and fill it full of air, And tell that you’re eighty, but brother, you won’t care“. The glorious chorus spells out the authoritarian existence under the spell of Big Brother “Come see, come see, remember me?, We played out an all-night movie role, You said it would last, but I guess we enrolled, In 1984“. Notch this down as another Bowie classic contained within.

Despite all the previous quality, Bowie has a habit of ending an album on a high (think “The Bewlay Brothers”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, “Lady Grinning Soul”). “Big Brother” is just a wonderful track, one of Bowie’s finest, that describes Winston’s final, horrifying submission. Starting with a synthesized trumpet sound and a mellotron choir effect, it builds slowly before the drum beat kicks and the mainly keyboard instrumentation drives the music along, while in the background an acoustic guitar hangs in there to add some underlying structure. Bowie’s vocals are at their very best here, coming in with the cut-up lines “Don’t talk of dust and roses, Or should we powder our noses?“. The bridge is sublime as Bowie cries out “Please savior, savior, show us, Hear me, I’m graphically yours” before the soaring chorus details how Winston finally proclaims his love for Big Brother “Someone to claim us, someone to follow, Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo, Someone to fool us, someone like you, We want you Big Brother“. Following a second cryptic verse where the goal for Winston’s torture is briefly outlined  “We’ll be living from sin, then we can really begin“, we hit the killer middle-eight where the music is temporarily reduced down to the basic acoustic guitar track “I know you think you’re awful square, But you made everyone and you’ve been every where, Lord, I think you’d overdose if you knew what’s going down” before heading to the final chorus sequences where each repeat of the chorus is more grandiose than the previous. Winston’s rebelliousness is finally and utterly defeated with the last line “We want you Big Brother…“. This is just classic Bowie encapsulated in 3:21 of brilliance. A feature of the “Diamond Dogs” tour, this made a surprise and delightful live resurrection during the “Glass Spider” tour in 1987.

The final “We want you Big Brother” then merges seamlessly into the thrilling final “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family“, as Winston’s brainwashing is finally complete as he numbly chants his love for Big Brother “Brother, Ooh-ooh, Shake it up, shake it up, Move it up, move it up” from the “Chestnut Tree Cafe” as he awaits his inevitable execution. Musically, it’s a grinding rhythm that circles around and around, each time with more percussion elements introduced, building and building until after 2 minutes it reaches its climatic “Bro bro bro bro bro bro bro bro bro bro…” as it echoes endlessly as it slowly fades away (or until the needles reaches the end of the groove). Conversely, this track could also represent the end of Side 1 as the inhabitants of Hunger City have a ritual dance around a campfire of burning mink coats. I swap my thinking with each play of the album…

Although “Diamond Dogs” is ultimately two incomplete projects, glued together on alternate sides of the same record, collectively it stands out as a Bowie masterpiece featuring some of his most brilliant work. It’s unconventional musical soundscapes combined with rock ‘n’ roll swagger is pure Bowie genius and his use of cut-up lyrics adds a layer of surrealism that nicely complements the whole piece. To say I love and adore this album would be an understatement.

After the album was finally recorded, Bowie got nervous during the mixing stage and asked old friend Tony Visconti if he would help with the mixing process. After the labours of recording “The Man Who Sold The World“, Visconti had spent much of the intervening years working with Marc Bolan’s T. Rex. who were massively successful at the time. Visconti gave the album the overall polish it deserved in the mixing studio which no doubt helped the quality of the overall final product. This would mark the start of Visconti’s second period of working with Bowie, which would end with the “Baal” EP in 1981.

Although the album was another commercial success for Bowie, reaching No. 1 in the UK and No. 5 in the US, it received some mixed reviews at the time. While “Sounds” magazine described it as his most impressive work since Ziggy, “Rolling Stone” described it as his worst album in 6 years. That’s mixed indeed. History however has been kind and is now more widely regarded as a highly influential forerunner for the upcoming punk movement and with NME voting it in as 447 in its list of top 500 albums all time. I would place it comfortably somewhere in the middle of my 50 all-time albums.

The album cover is one of Bowie’s most distinctive, featuring a gate-fold of a half Ziggy Stardust like-Bowie and half dog, although the original artwork had to be slightly censored with the dog’s genitals deemed a bit too risqué by RCA (some albums were initially released before they got the airbrush treatment and are very collectable today). The artwork was by renowned Belgian artist Guy Peellaert who would also go on to produce the artwork for The Rolling Stones album “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll“. Bowie actually got the idea to use Peellaert after talking to Mick Jagger, but because Bowie records so fast (and The Stones so slow), was able to release “Diamond Dogs” first. This led Jagger to famously suggest to never wear a new pair of shoes in front of David Bowie. The album inner artwork featured a “Turner-like” landscape painting of the ruins of Hunger City.

diamond dogs inner sleeve

There have been a number of notable re-releases of the album over the years. In 1985, RCA released the album for the first time in CD format. Although the quality was not great, it’s reasonably collectable today. A much better release was the Rykodisc/EMI release in 1990, with much better audio quality, packaging and containing the following bonus tracks.

Dodo“, sometimes known as “You Didn’t Hear It From Me” is the song first heard on the above mentioned “The 1980 Floor Show”. Describing the arrest of Winston’s neighbour Parsons, who was dobbed in my his brainwashed children, members of the “Juniors Spies”, the lyrics are the least obscure and the most comprehensible from the 1984 project. In this version recorded in September 1973, one of his last with the remaining Spiders From Mars, Bowie’s vocals here are a little weak compared to his vocal performances on the album tracks, using his “Ziggy” voice here more so than his somewhat deeper “Halloween Jack” voice. The music also has a more “conventional” rock arrangement (drums/bass/guitar/sax) with less use of keyboards/synthesizers. All that said, Dodo has real potential and a more updated recording would have fitted in perfectly as a replacement for the out of place “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me”.

Candidate” (Demo version) is a real treat. It’s totally different to the album version, both musically and lyrically. Again sounding like a track that belongs more on Ziggy Stardust than on Diamond Dogs, it has a really catchy rock based rhythm with Garson’s piano most prominent and an entertaining, often sexually explicit lyric that has little in common with the themes on either side of the Dogs album. Singing again with his higher pitched “Ziggy” voice, lines such as “Inside every teenage girl there’s a fountain
Inside every young pair of pants there’s a mountain” and “A matter of fact, That a cock ain’t a cock on a twelve inch screen” reminds of much of the sexual hilarity of “Sweet Head” and the line “I’ll make you a deal, I’ll say I came from from Earth and my tongue is taped” is pure Ziggy. This is one of my favourite Bowie rejects, which I enjoyed on many a bootleg before this official release.

Perhaps the best re-release was in 2014 when the album got a special 30th Anniversary treatment. It featured both a nice colour booklet on the recording of the album and a bonus disc that contained a number of edits and remixes, including the above mentioned two bonus tracks and the following previously unreleased tracks:

1984/Dodo” is how Bowie initially envisaged these songs to be interlinked as originally performed on “The 1980 Floor Show”. This is an early recorded version from around September 1973 that is rather good. The music is sharp with the drum work particularly prominent although the mix is perhaps a little thin. With an effective use of strings and some nice backup vocals, it’s an interesting early view of how Bowie saw these tracks playing out in his planned musical. Bowie also sings with lots of inflection in his voice as one would in a musical format. A track that’s well worth checking out.

Growin’ Up”  is a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s song from his debut album “Greetings From Asbury Park N.J.. Recorded during very early  “Diamond Dogs” sessions, it features Ron Wood on guitar (where maybe Bowie got some guitar playing tips). Bowie was a big fan of early Springsteen and recorded a couple of Springsteen tracks. This one sounds a little like a demo and doesn’t have the polish of a completed track. Bowie does an OK US impersonation here but perfects this vocal style by the time he gets to “Young Americans“. There was always talk of a Pin Ups II album that would feature American songs, but sadly never materialised. This was previously released on the RykoDisc/EMI CD release of “Pin-Ups“.

diamond dogs 30 aniv

A remastered version of “Diamond Dogs” also featured in the “Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976)” box set released in 2016.

who can i be now boxset

Finally for record collectors, a limited edition of “Diamond Dogs” was released on a red vinyl pressing in 2019 to celebrate its 45th anniversary.

Bowie would tour the album on one of the most ambitions theatrical tours in rock history, the “Diamond Dogs” tour. Featuring a massive on-stage set (designed by Mark Ravitz) of the ruin skyscrapers of Hunger City, each song was carefully choreographed (by Toni Basil) and featured different props and effects. One moment Bowie would be on a moving catwalk cascading down from the heights of Hunger City, then dancing around as if in a boxing ring, then in an actual glass asylum before emerging inside a giant hand before singing to a skull as if a Shakespearean scene before floating in the air in a cherry picker singing “Space Oddity” into a red phone and on and on when the theatrics. It was one of the most visually stunning rock shows of all time, this being 1974 way before such massive rock ventures became more common.

But having effectively a full Broadway show experience on the road come at a huge cost and risk of things going wrong. Things would often break down and cause Bowie no end of stress (once he was famously left stuck up in the air when the cherry picker broke down, forcing Bowie to sing a number of additional songs whilst suspended 100 feet in the air). After a few months and a break in the tour, Bowie decided to strip it all back and basically threw the set away, transforming the show into what was renamed “The Soul/Philly Dogs” tour. Sadly because of the stress of it all and huge expense, the tour would only include North America dates and never made it elsewhere, not even the UK.

The band changed throughout the tour but was notable in that it included for the first time a very young Earl Slick on guitar and later on Carlos Alomar as well, who would both work extensively with Bowie in the future. Other notable members of the band (who were forced to play practically out of sight on stage left) include David Sanborn on saxophone and Luther Vandross on backing vocals, both to have huge musical careers.

The “Diamond Dogs” tour was immortalised on the somewhat bizarre live album “David Live“. Recorded with the band upset by a pay dispute regarding royalties, the music comes across as stale, lethargic and lacking any sense of energy, whilst Bowie’s vocals sound strained and tired as he struggles to hit anything above his middle register. The recording is also just terrible, with the very thin sound coming across as if there’s only the one instrument playing at a time. Even Tony Visconti’s attempts to rescue things at the mixing stage comes too late to address things adequately. When I first got this album for Christmas many many moons ago (it was a double-album, how exciting), I was initially extremely disappointed by it all. But I’ve grown to really like it now, appreciating it as a document on an extraordinary time in Bowie’s career that showcases some of his very best songs in a uniquely different light. That said, I highly recommend later superior remixes of this album, especially the 5.1 surround sound version of the album that was released in 2005 in which the sparse recording is perfectly suited to the 5.1 experience.

David Live Album

For Record Store Day in 2017, a new live album from this period was released called “Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles ’74)” that was recorded 5 September 1974 on the LA leg of the tour. Overall, I think it a better listening experience with much better performances overall and features then two news songs in “It’s Gonna Be Me” and “John, I’m Only Dancing(Again)“, neither of which managed to make it on the upcoming “Young Americans” album. This new live album was released later in 2017 in CD format. Well worth checking out.

cracked actor lp

It’s been announced there will be yet another live album from this period, due out for Record Store Day 2020 (sadly postponed due to the Coronavirus epidemic) called “I’m Only Dancing (The Soul Tour 74)“, recorded at the Soul/Philly shows in Nashville and Detroit. Something to look forward to…

It’s also well worth checking out a brilliantly insightful BBC documentary from this period also called “Cracked Actor“. Recorded in LA during the “Diamond Dogs” tour, it offers a rare behind the scenes look at an extremely thin, paranoid Bowie as he discusses his career and writing processes. Featuring various clips of his live performances during the tour, it’s one of the very few glimpses we have of these extraordinary live shows.

“Diamond Dogs” is David Bowie at his very finest, a remarkable album that has aged extremely well considering it’s fast approaching 50 years old. I instantly loved it when I first heard it and I love it still to this day. It’s an album that is best listened to from start to finish (hearing say just “Candidate” on shuffle is so very annoying). Marking the official end of Bowie’s “glam-rock” period, he would moved on next to his Plastic Soul period and then onto numerous other musical genres and styles in the decades to come.

However, as much as I adore this album, Bowie had already recorded two other albums that I think just pip this one as being his very very best. But that’s a story for another day…

Best Tracks: “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)“, “Big Brother“, “Chant Of The Ever Circling Skeletal Family

5. 1. Outside

Outside album

1. Outside (The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper-cycle) is David Bowie’s 22nd studio album, originally released on 25th September 1995.

By 1994, Bowie was in a good place. He was happily married to Iman and got his musical mojo back following the commercial success of  “Black Tie White Noise” and the artistic satisfaction that was his “The Buddha of Suburbia” explorations, both from 1993.

After meeting up again with old friend Brian Eno, they decided it was time for them to collaborate again, it having been 16 years since they last worked together on 1979’s “Lodger” album. Bowie was in the mood to record something a little radical again and of course, Brian Eno was always in that frame of mind.

To research the new project, they both visited the Gugging psychiatric hospital near Vienna, Austria and interviewed a number of the patients who were involved in the “Outsider” art movement. Bowie then wrote a short story, based on a pretend diary he was keeping called “The diary of Nathan Adler or the art-ritual murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle.” It tells the sordid story of a dystopian vision of upcoming 1999 in which a new series of crimes were taking place called “Art Crimes”. People were being kidnapped, murdered and their dismembered bodies displayed as bizarre, horrific works of art. The main character on whom the diary was based was Nathan Adler, an art-crime detective on the trail of a serial murder who’s latest victim was a poor 14 year old girl called Baby Grace Blue. With a list of possible suspects, including the probably framed but still main suspect Leon Blank, we are taken on a confused exploration of this nightmarish, futuristic who done it.

The locations have English names such as London and Oxford, but the short story refers to their North American counterparts in Ontario, Canada and New Jersey USA, giving an overall blurred sense of reality.

Without having any real songs developed, Bowie and Eno gathered a team of exceptionally talented musicians to start jamming and bring together musically these various themes. These included the wonderfully eccentric Reeves Gabrels on lead guitar (from his Tin Machine period), the ever reliable Carlos Alomar on rhythm guitar (only survivor from Bowie’s 70’s period when Bowie previously worked with Eno), Erdal Kızılçay on bass and keyboards (who worked with Bowie on both the “Never Let Me Down” and “Black Tie White Noise” albums), Mike Garson on piano (who worked with Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust through to Plastic Soul periods before rejoining the fray again on the previous “The Buddha of Suburbia” album) and who gives the whole album a wonderful vibe and the rather excellent Sterling Campell on drums (who first featured on the “Black Tie White Noise” album and would feature throughout much of Bowie’s remaining years).

In charge of production was Bowie, Eno (for the first time while working with Bowie) and David Richards who first worked with Bowie on Iggy Pop’s wonderful “Blah Blah Blah” album and then co-produced both the “Never Let Me Down” and “The Buddha of Suburbia” albums.

The sessions (initially anyways) consisted mostly of jam sessions, where Eno and Bowie encouraged improvisations through the use of Eno’s famous Oblique Strategy cards where musicians were asked to play as if certain characters or with specific emotions. Lyrically, Bowie would also improvise and return to his well known “cut-up” writing method, but instead of randomising bits of newspaper, magazine or diaries would use a new computer program called the “Verbasizer” to generate random words and phrases for inspiration.

The initial sessions at the Mountain Studios, Montreux were incredible productive, with something like 40 odd tracks developed to various stages of completion. Subsequent recording sessions at the Hit Factory Studios in New York helped to redefine the album with a few more of the accessible tracks (such as “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town“). There has never been an album in which Bowie had so much recorded material available from which to choose.

As with most of Bowie’s so-called “concept albums” (such as Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs), although there’s a thread that ties many of the songs together, there is no clear narrative here, but a collection of indeed non-linear songs and spoken narrative pieces that come from the same surreal universe. Each piece is sung or spoken from the perspective of the characters from the story but it’s a real stretch to say there’s any coherent story as such. “The Phantom of the Opera” or “The Sound of Music” this most definitely is not…

The album opens with “Leon Takes Us Outside“, a short atmospheric piece, with Leon Blank, the prime art-murder suspect, going through a diary and reading out various dates and public holidays as if trying to work out where he was during the following sequence of events.

The music really kicks in with the catchy “Outside“, a track listed as being the album’s “prologue”. Co-written with Kevin Armstrong (a guitarist who’s worked with Bowie on/off since the 1985 Live Aid concert, including as an unofficial 5th member of Tin Machine), it indeed originally dates back as a Tin Machine reject called “Now”. Kevin doesn’t play on this track but he does make a guest appearance on “Thru’ These Architects Eyes“. Campbell on drums is especially good here and with Gabrels screechy guitar and Eno’s electronic soundscapes, sets the mood for what’s to come. Bowie’s vocals are as excellent as always, this time sounding slightly unattached as he laments “The crazed in the hot-zone, The mental and diva’s hands, The fisting of life, To the music outside“. A bright start indeed.

The Hearts Filthy Lesson” is an absolute killer track that dampens the mood considerably. Kızılçay powerful bass dominates with again Gabrels guitar a highlight, as are all the wonderful piano flourishes by Garson. It has a brilliant, industrial style groove that drives the whole track and Bowie (as the Detective Nathan Adler character) introduces us to a number of characters in Paddy (his off-sider) and the somewhat sinister and scary Ramona A. Stone. Bowie sings with a mixture of sorrowfulness and tight anguish (“Heart’s filthy lesson, Falls upon deaf ears” and “I’m already five years older, I’m already in my grave“) as he ponders the case in front of him. One of many many highlights. This was selected as the lead off single, although it’s dark themes made it a less than commercial choice, reaching only No. 35 in the UK charts and just making the US charts at No. 92. The song would have a wider audience when it closed the fantastic movie “Seven” in which it’s dark themes perfectly matches those of both this song and album. Watch the visually disturbing but brilliant video here.

the hearts filthy lesson single

A Small Plot of Land” is another wonderful treasure. Starting with a hypnotic drum pattern and Garson’s dancing piano, it just slowly builds and builds with Bowie’s eerie vocals (sung from the perspective of the residents of Oxford, New Jersey) lamenting the latest art murder victim (“Poor soul, He never knew what hit him and it hit him so“). Gabrel’s guitar solo is another highlight, taking us back to the sounds from the “Lodger” period. It’s just a fabulous track that Bowie would only play live during the following “Outside” tour.

Next comes the first of the spoken segue passages in “Baby Grace (A Horrid Cassette)” that many found irritating but I’ve always thought added another interesting element to the whole album. As eerie soundscapes play in the background, we hear Bowie play the part of the terrified 14 year old Baby Grace Blue via a recording of her last moments before being so viciously murdered. It’s all gruesome stuff but Bowie’s altered vocals gives it a mildly comedic touch.

Things fade before bouncing back again with another of the album’s highlights, the superb “Hallo Spaceboy“. With Sterling pounding drums, Gabrels driving guitar and little Eno flourishes, Bowie sings from the perspective of Paddy as he’s forced to release his suspect. The line “Do you like girls or boys, It’s confusing these days” is of course classic Bowie. Bowie once described the track as Jim Morrison/The Doors playing industrial, heavy metal and that kinda describes things perfectly. It’s really is all rather brilliant. Now I don’t usually go for remixed versions which were the rage at the time (every track seems to have something like 5 different remixed versions), but when released as the third single, Bowie got The Pet Shop Boys to basically re-record and remix the track and I have to say they did a brilliant job, with it being quite different but every bit as good as the original. They also added some additional lyrics “Ground to Major, bye bye Tom, Dead the circuit, countdown’s wrong, Planet Earth, is control on?” which brings the whole piece back to Space Oddity. A latter day Bowie classic, see the excellent video here.

Hallo Spaceboy

The high standard continues with the moody, atmospheric masterpiece that is the “The Motel“. As with many of Bowie’s best tracks, it starts slowly and gently builds up until it reaches it’s thrilling crescendo. Garson is particularly good here, but Eno deserves much credit for the eeriness he manages to achieve. Sung from the perspective of the lamenting luckless suspect Leon Blank (“It’s a kind of living which recognizes, The death of the odorless man, When nothing is vanity nothing’s too slow, It’s not Eden but it’s no sham“) things really takeoff as Blank screams “And there’s no more of me exploding you, Re-exposing you, Like everybody do, Re-exploding you“, while Gabrel’s guitar goes off the scale. Yes, Blank has done some silly things previously, but he’s not guilty of this particularly nasty crime. The tracks then goes all quieter again as it slowly fades away. This would be a key highlight of many a live Bowie concert.

Next comes perhaps the most “poppy”, catchy track off the album “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town“. With a wonderfully contagious bass-line, Alomar’s rhythm guitar and it’s beautifully half-spoken bridges, this is yet another of those Bowie gems that’s worth price of admission alone. Again from the perspective of Leon Blank, he sets the scene (“Baby Grace is the victim, She was 14 years of age, And the wheels are turning, turning, For the finger points at me“), while wrongfully imprisoned in that he hasn’t even been to the scene of the hideous crime (“But I have not been to Oxford Town“). This I think would have made a much stronger lead-off single, but who am I to know any better…

No Control” again leads with a catchy rhythm and weird little keyboard soundscapes as Detective Nathan Adler laments how everything is beyond his control (“Don’t tell God your plans, It’s all deranged, No control“) as he struggles with the case. Bowie’s vocals are again wonderful here and the overall vibe is one in which pop meets a much harder industrial-rock feel.

We next have another segue in which we meet the old, solitary, sad, pathetic “Algeria Touchshriek“, the shop keeper of underground goods and substances. Bowie is at his most hysterical here with a distorted older man’s voice that’s hard to take too seriously, although it’s clear this pervert is a possible suspect in all the wrong doings (“I’m thinking of leasing the room above my shop, To a Mr. Walloff Domburg, A reject from the world wide Internet, He’s a broken man, I’m also a broken man“).

The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (as Beauty)” is yet another highlight (yes, there are a lot of them in this album). With another catchy, driving, pulsing rhythm and brilliant vocal performance by Bowie, we’re introduced to the menacing, mysterious Artist/Minotaur character who did the evil deed (“The screw, Is a tightening Atrocity, I shake, For the reeking flesh, Is as romantic as hell“). The outro is just wonderful as the music builds up and Bowie’s distorted vocals wail “Call it a day, today… t t“.

We next finally meet the sinister Ramona A. Stone who has been previously mentioned a number of times in the “Ramona A. Stone/I Am with Name” segue. Bowie’s spoken vocals are wonderfully spooky here merging seamlessly with the “I Am with Name” portion being an actual “song” with a thumping drum and all sorts of weird musical flourishes in the background.

Wishful Beginnings” is certainly uncomfortable listening and the most spookiest track on the album. With a repeating loop of drums and evil cackle laugh, it’s musically the least interesting contained within. Bowie’s sad, apologetic vocal as the Artist/Minotaur commits the murder (“The pain must feel like snow, I’m no longer your golden boy, Sorry little girl“) makes it an even harder listen. For me, this is the weakest moment on the album and it’s interesting that it’s been left out on a number of the subsequent re-releases. As far as I know, it has never been played live and is definitely NOT a dance floor filler…

We Prick You” picks things up nicely again, with this marvelously contagious track thanks to it’s fast paced rhythms and Eno inspired soundscapes. This is one of my favourite Bowie vocals on the album, with some lovely little touches throughout such as when the backup vocals chime in with “I wish you’d tell, I wish you’d tell“. Sung from the perspective of the Members of the Court of Justice, they’re basically giving Leon Blank a hard time during his trial and demand the truth or else (“Tell the truth, We prick you we prick you we prick you“). Put this one down on the Bowie/Eno list of gems.

Nathan Adler” (segue 1) is a short little spoken piece with Bowie doing his best Humphrey Bogart impression as Detective Nathan Adler as he ponders who might be the murderer. With a basic little rhythm in the background, it’s perhaps the most dispensable moment on the album.

I’m Deranged” is the Artist/Minotaur character admitting all this nastiness is happening basically because they’re a deranged monster (“And the rain sets in, It’s the angel-man, I’m deranged“). As with previous Bowie’s musings, the subject of insanity and derangement often reoccurs. Musically, the backdrop is again another fast rhythm piece with Eno’s soundscapes and Garson’s tinkering piano piecing the whole thing together. Bowie’s lamenting vocals are as beautiful and chilling as ever on the album.

Thru’ These Architects Eyes” right near the end of the album is for me THE highlight. Musically, it has every possible ingredient for a Bowie classic, a wonderfully powerful rhythm, a catchy chorus, some magical musical soundscapes thanks to Eno and Garson’s piano, some great guitar work and a cryptic, thought provoking lyric. And of course a superb Bowie vocal performance. Sung nominally as Leon Blank, it doesn’t quite play I think into the album narrative but with lines such as “Cold winter bleeds, On the girders of Babel, This stone boy watching the crawling land, Rings of flesh and the towers of iron, The steaming caves and the rocks and the sand“, who cares really. I’m not entirely sure what my Top 20 Bowie tracks are but I would be mightily surprised if this isn’t one of them.

The second short “Nathan Adler” segue has the detective lamenting the relationship between Ramona and Leon. OK, perhaps this might be the most dispensable moment on the album,

Strangers When We Meet” finishes the album and comes as a bit of a surprise as it’s simply a re-recording of the track found on the previous “The Buddha of Suburbia” album. Although I think it’s a vastly improved version, it comes across as a little unnecessary and again doesn’t really fit into the album narrative. Although supposedly from the perspective of Leon Blank, I’ve always viewed this as simply Leon doing a Bowie cover while trapped in prison. I can only think Bowie must have really have liked this track and found it frustrating that not many would have listened to it and was keen for it to be more widely heard. Even more so as it was chosen as the second single off the album, an odd choice as either “I’ve Not Been To Oxford Town” or “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” would have been stronger choices. It only managed to reach No. 39 on the UK charts, watch the video here.

strangers when we meet single

The album cover features a recent self-portrait called “The DHead – Outside” painted in 1995. Bowie was starting to get quite serious about his paintings and this was one of a series of 6 self-portraits he made at around this time. The CD packaging came with a series of bizarre images of Bowie (often barely recognisable) as the various characters from the album, along with liner-notes detailing the short-story written by Bowie of the “non-linear” plot.

This album is beyond doubt a latter day Bowie masterpiece and the album which really does deserve the distinction of being his best since the “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps” album (often considered by many as his last true great album).

The final result was an album simply jam packed full of ideas, both musically and lyrically, even though at nearly 75 minutes long it was Bowie’s longest studio album by far. At the time, it was only released on CD format, had it been released on vinyl it would easily have been a double-album. Bowie was at his very best, creating music that stretched the boundaries artistically but had enough commercial appeal to be more than just niche value.

The music critics at the time had a hard job making sense of it all and gave the album mixed reviews. Many saw it as a return to form by Bowie but generally considered it all a little long, with many of the segue pieces in particular as unnecessary or overly pretentious. While I understand that narrative, I in the main disagree. I see this as somewhat like The Beatles “White” album, in that yes there are bits better than others but it just works as a wide collection of different, often unusual musical pieces. As not unusual with Bowie, more people have come on board since it’s original release and is now more often given the recognition it so richly deserves.

Bowie toured the album between September 1995 through to February 1996, but only included dates in North America and Europe (sadly it never came to Australia, I’m still not entirely over the disappointment). In North America, Bowie toured with NIN, Trent Neznor being a huge Bowie fan. It was a perfect fit, with the Outside album having a very NIN, industrial rock vibe to it all. NIN opened the show with a set, then shared the stage with Bowie where they played a number of songs together (often “Subterraneans”, “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”, “Reptile”, “Hallo Spaceboy” and “Hurt”), before Bowie performed his solo set. Seriously how good would that have been !! Although sadly there was no official releases of these shows, there were a number of excellent “unofficial” releases from this period.

Bowie NIN live album

Over the years, there have been a number of versions and re-releases of the album. The Japanese release included a bonus track that was subsequently included in other re-releases:

Get Real” is a decent enough track, with a much more pop vibe than found on most of the album. With a hooky chorus (“I’m scared to touch, too tense to be undone, I walk the streets not expecting morning sun“), it belongs more I think on previous albums such as “Black Tie White Noise” than on here. It’s hard to imagine where it would fit within the construct of the final Outside album.

The following year (1996), “1. Outside Version 2” was released, with the track “Wishful Beginnings” replaced at the end with the Pet Shop Boys version of “Hallo Spaceboy”. It also contained a second CD of bonus tracks consisting of mainly various live versions.

I would recommend trying to get hold of the excellent if unimaginatively titled “David Bowie” box set released originally in 2007 which contains expanded versions of all the Bowie albums released by Sony (Outside, Earthling, Hours, Heathen and Reality). The Outside set includes an extra CD full of various remixed track versions as well as “Get Real” and another unreleased track from the Outside sessions:

Nothing to Be Desired” is more of a chant than a song, with a driving rhythm plugging away as Bowie’s vari-speed vocals chants away in the main with “Mind changing“.  This very much has a feel with the rest of album, with Leon struggling with the effects of drugs in his system (or so I’ve always felt).

David Bowie Box

 

Bowie had originally planned for Outside to be the first of a series of albums he was to release with Eno up to the new millennium (hence the title “1. Outside“). The follow-up album was rumoured to be called “2. Contamination“, with enough spare material already recorded to further expand and explore the Nathan Alder universe. However, 1996 came and went and it eventually became obvious that Bowie (and Eno) had sadly abandoned the project when in 1997 Bowie released his new album “Earthling” that contained no Eno and no art-ritual murders. It was a big ask for Bowie, who is notorious for getting bored quickly, to commit to a 5 year project.

I know I’ve said this a number of times in my album reviews, but I do consider “1. Outside” to be Bowie’s genuinely most under-rated album, perhaps buried under the weight of the story and overall concepts. Although the album sold respectably, especially considering its somewhat dark and bizarre content (reaching No. 8 in the UK and No. 21 in the US), I’ve always felt it’s never received the true recognition it deserves. That being a true Bowie masterpiece that contains so many ideas and so many incredible pieces of music, that the overall concepts become almost irrelevant. It’s a magical, wild 75 minute ride that is among the best work Bowie has ever produced. It’s an album which I have never tired of listening from start to finish.

Bowie has always been interested in writing albums that are more than just a collection of songs. Some of Bowie’s very best works are those where there’s a strong thread or concept or surreal story-line that ties the whole piece together. I’ll mention some of these albums later, but that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: “Thru’ These Architects Eyes“, “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town“, “Hallo Spaceboy“.

6. The Man Who Sold The World

man who sold the world orig cover

The Man Who Sold The World is David Bowie’s 3rd studio album, originally released on 4th November 1970.

By 1970, things were beginning to finally look promising for the 23 year old Bowie. After 5 years of struggle with flop after commercial flop, Bowie finally had the hit he was so desperate to achieve with the “Space Oddity” single the previous year. Although the parent “David Bowie” album had disappointing sales and failed to chart, Bowie had one more album to deliver in his contract with the Mercury label.

Only Tony Visconti in the producer’s chair (and bass guitar) remained from the previous album. The recording sessions which took place predominantly at Trident Studios between April-May 1970 introduced two new session musicians who would prove to be incredibly important in the coming years.

On drums, Bowie recruited the brilliant Mick “Woody” Woodmansey who would become one of the future “Spiders From Mars“. From Hull in Yorkshire, Woody would provide Bowie with a drummer who was both technically excellent and had the energy and drive in really rock it both in the studio and in live performances.

But the big recruit was Woody’s friend from Hull and soon to be fellow “Spider From Mars“, Mick “Ronno” Ronson on guitar who would prove to be Bowie’s right-hand man during the up-coming Ziggy Stardust years. Not only was Ronson a brilliant guitarist and live performer (who Bowie would later describe as his Jeff Beck), but also importantly a wonderful arranger, who would help transform some of Bowie’s songs into something truly magical (think “Life on Mars” as a perfect example). Ronson would turn out to be a perfect foil for Bowie and this album marks the start of their amazing collaboration.

Adding another layer to the overall sound was Ralph Mace on the Moog Synthesizer, the 40 year old head of the classic music department at Mercury Records. His work on tracks such as “All The Madmen” gave them a extra, futuristic dimension that would become a trademark on Bowie’s future work. Ralph would only ever work with Bowie on this album, but just image the stories he could tell his grandchildren…

Having recently got married to Angie Bowie (nee Barnett), Bowie was a little distracted by his new love and to the frustration of those involved in the project, would spend more time smooching on the studio couch than work on recording the album and writing the damn lyrics. That said, what an amazing set of lyrics he came up with in the end.

With dark themes that include the occult, demonic monsters, deranged madmen, possessed children, snipers taking pot shots at civilians, super computers gone wrong and the end of humanity, the accompanying music is just as dark and “heavy”. The album features possibly Bowie hardest rock sound (verging on “heavy metal”) on any album (including the “Tin Machines” albums), with Ronson, Woody and Visconti on bass sounding collectively like a freaked out version of Led Zeppelin, with a sound and vibe just as heavy as anything found on their first 3 albums.

The album opens with the truly epic “The Width Of A Circle“. The song begins with Bowie’s acoustic and Ronson’s electric guitars starting the catchy main riff before the rhythm sections kicks in and kicks in hard. The first half touches on themes of schizophrenia and madness as Bowie meets a second self who in turn considers himself a god-like figure. With further references to “Kahlil Gibran” (famous for his books “The Madmen” and “The Prophet“) and homosexual erotic encounters, Bowie sings with a new found strut and naked, high pitched “Englishness” that would become is vocal style throughout his glam rock years. The quieter, slower tempo middle section features a wonderful Ronson solo before the last section rocks it back up again, this time with disturbing imagery of a sexual encounter with a devil-like figure who takes his body, mind and soul into the pits of hell. It’s one of the most powerful of tracks in the entire Bowie cannon and an early Bowie classic. Performed live throughout his entire glam period, including the “Diamond Dogs” tour, the track would often be substantially extended past it original 8 minute length to give the band the opportunity to rock it out and more importantly, time for Bowie to change costumes.

Two special versions of this track are worth noting. The first is found on the superb “Bowie At The Beeb” album, which features a very early version of the song with the first ever performance by Bowie with Ronson (who Bowie had only just met a few days previously) on The Sunday Show with John Peel. The second is fantastic live version from the equally superb “Live Santa Monica ’72” album. Both are well worth checking out.

bowie at the beeb

We have a couple of seconds to catch our breath before the acoustic guitar intro to the remarkable “All The Madmen” moves from speaker to speaker. Based in large part on his half-brother Terry Burns who was currently housed at the Cane Hill mental hospital and who had been suffering from schizophrenia for quite some time, the song tells of a horrifying alternate reality where the madmen run around freely while it’s the sane who are kept imprisoned. The first verse starts slowly with mainly acoustic guitars before Woody’s cymbals and recorders enters the fray and then it’s all in for the chorus, with Visconti’s bass predominant in the mix. A short Ronson solo preludes the eerie middle section where softly spoken vari-speed vocals denote all is far from well (the laughing gnome this is not). The second half is just a musical triumph, with the pace ramping up still more and while Bowie begs for a lobotomy, Mace’s moog fills up all the remaining atmospheric space for the piece to reach its musical crescendo.  The band are simply fabulous as the ending “Zane, zane, zane, Ouvre le chien” chant draws out slowly to silence to finish the piece. This is one my all time favourite tracks, I can’t rave about it enough. A+++, with Visconti deserving much credit for his superb production work. Bowie never performed this live until it was surprisingly included as part of the set for the “Glass Spiders” tour in 1987 where it was one of the highlights. To see it performed live on 8 glorious nights in Sydney remains one of my highlights in life. Bowie returns again to the end refrain in 1993 on “Buddha of Suburbia“.

Black Country Rock” comes as almost comic relief. A decent enough standard rocker, it’s the weakest track here, although Bowie’s rather impressive impersonation of his friend Marc Bolan never ceases to put a smile on my face. He would later dedicate another song to his chum and musical rival Marc Bolan with “Lady Stardust“.

After All” is yet another wonderful Bowie gem contained within. A much slower, waltz-timed piece, it’s no less powerful with its nightmarish vision of possessed children. The middle section reminds me of The Beatles with its circus like music but the chilling final lines “Live til your rebirth and do what you will, Forget all I’ve said, please bear me no ill” has little to do with the summer of love but more so Aleister Crowley and the occult. The backing vocals “oh by jingo” does little to lighten the mood and is an early example of Bowie/Visconti’s wonderful use of backup vocals to give tracks an extra dimension. Add this to the ever increasing list of Bowie masterpieces that few folks are likely to have ever heard.

Side two begins with “Running Gun Blues” and the opening lines “I count the corpses on my left, I find I’m not so tidy, So I better get away, better make it today, I’ve cut twenty-three down since Friday” suggests things are only getting grimmer. Telling the tale of a crazed Vietnam veteran, come serial killer who hasn’t lost the taste for killing and starts plugging a few civilians, this is Bowie at his darkest. The music here is classic hard rock but with slight flourishes that gives it that Bowie signature such as the moog piping in the background. Another song that I don’t think Bowie was ever brave enough to perform live. Bowie returns to the topic of a mass killer, with its anti-gun undertones on “Valentine’s Day” from the 2013 album “The Next Day“.

Saviour Machine” slowly builds up as Bowie introduces us to President Joe, who creates a super computer, the “Saviour Machine” called “The Prayer” that’s able to cure mankind from all its ills and problems such as war and famine. However, once mission is completed, it gets bored with little now to do and decides to then destroy mankind for some amusement. Basically, the Oracle Autonomous Database meets the Terminator. The musicians are again on top form here, with the music having a very strange quality to it,  in structure (with just one verse, followed by two bridge/chorus combos), in tempo which is all over the place and with the overall musical atmospherics. Bowie vocals here are excellent, menacing and powerful and a highlight of the track. Yet again, a track that I don’t believe Bowie has ever performed live.

Bowie hasn’t ever performed “She Shook Me Cold” live either, basically the heaviest, hardest rock track of those contain within, giving Ronson the chance to play out his Jeff Beck come Cream guitar fantasies. Detailing a particular sordid sexual encounter, Bowie seems to revel in all the naughtiness. It’s a theme he would return back to with the rather hilarious Ziggy era “Sweet Head“.

The Man Who Sold the World“, the spell-blinding title track comes next. This along with “Space Oddity” is possibly his best know song from Bowie’s Mercury period, although this wasn’t the case for many years despite it being arguably one of Bowie’s very best songs. With a wonderful guitar riff by Ronson, a divine guiro percussion sound by Woody, Vistonti’s bouncing bass and Bowie’s hauntingly beautiful vocals, it really is a magical track. The outro with its slowly building vocals is just a fabulous sonic treat. As with much of Bowie’s lyrics to come, they’re wonderfully cryptic and evasive here, although the familiar theme of schizophrenia returns, with a good touch of H. P. Lovecraft thrown in. My pick for the best track, but it’s a close call.

Bowie would all but forget this masterpiece until he re-recorded it again for Lulu in 1974 for what became a No. 3 hit in the UK. But it wasn’t until Nirvana (huge Bowie fans) recorded a wonderful version as part of their live MTV Unplugged appearance and subsequent album/single in 1995 that the song became widely known. Obviously thrilled and flattered by all the attention the song received, Bowie started to add the song to his own live sets (albeit in quite an altered form in his 1995 “Outside” tour). Bowie though was just a little miffed at all the “younger” folks who thought it cool he was performing a Nirvana cover…

The album closes with “The Supermen” which further explores the “Lovecraftian” Elder Gods theme from the title track, a mystical race who sadly bemoan and wish for the only thing they can’t have, mortality. Another key influence in the apocalyptic nature of things here is clearly Nietzsche who’s writings Bowie was consuming passionately at the time.  With a great performance by the band, especially by Woody on his thunderous drums and another brilliant vocal by Bowie, this track perhaps best illustrates much of the themes to come in Bowie’s upcoming albums. The Supermen would be one of the very few tracks Bowie would perform live for a while, most notably on the Ziggy Stardust concerts throughout 1972.

This album in many ways marks the real start of Bowie’s musical progression to stardom as it finally starts to mold the sound and themes he would create in his subsequent hit albums. However, at the time of its initial release, although generally critically well received, the album was a massive commercial disappointment with it not troubling the charts anywhere. But really, it had almost no chance of being successful commercially.

To start, Mercury just didn’t promote the album, with not even a single being released to give the album a little push. There was no tour and Bowie himself seemed to have little interest in promoting the album. He was at a crossroads and was looking at moving on from his current manager Ken Pitt, who didn’t believe in the album and thought it the wrong direction for Bowie to take. Remarkably, there was very little enthusiasm for the album after its release from anyone involved in the project.

Then there’s the album cover. If you wanted the “mainstream” to get into buying the album and taking it home to play, perhaps having a man in a dress (albeit a “man” dress) reclining on a chaise lounge was a touch too provocative for your average Joe and Sally. The folks in the US simply refused to release the album with the standard cover and came up with a rather tame cartoonist cover (which Bowie quite rightly hated). It didn’t help the US sales much, as didn’t Bowie’s promotional only tour of the US in February 1971 where he insisted on being interviewed whilst wearing his Mr Fish man-dress.

 

man who sold the world us cover

The Dutch (being different) released the album with yet another cover, this time a cartoon like image of Bowie as some kind of weird looking angel. The fact that it didn’t sell in this market either makes the album a much sort after Bowie collectable.

 

man who sold the world dutch cover

 

There have been a few notable re-releases over the years. The most significant was in 1972 when his new record company RCA after the commercial success that was the Ziggy Stardust album bought the rights off Mercury (as they did the second David Bowie album) and re-released it with a new Ziggy era black and white cover. With the market finally craving anything to do with Bowie, the album some two years after its initial release achieved moderate commercial success, reaching a respectable No. 24 in the UK and No. 105 in the US.

 

man who sold the world ziggy cover

 

The less said about the dreadful (but collectable) RCA CD release the better, but in 1990 Rykodisc released it with original UK cover restored and included a number of bonus tracks including:

Lightning Frightening” had been available on various bootlegs for years, but it was nice getting a clean sounding version of the song. That said however, it’s basically a forgettable, ploddy jam with Bowie and a few mates in tow. Recorded during the “Arnold Corns” sessions in 1971, a side-project that never went anywhere other than to rehearse some early versions of what would subsequently be Ziggy Stardust classics.

Holy Holy” was the only single released by Bowie during this period, viewed as being more single worthy than anything found on the album. However, unlike what the sleeve notes mentioned on this re-release CD, the version here is actually not the original single but the vastly superior re-recorded version Bowie laid down as part of the Ziggy Stardust sessions. The original version (which you can find on the “Five Years” box set released in 2015 that covers Bowie’s 1969-1973 period) has a decidedly T-Rex vibe, more so with the Bolan-like “Black Country Rock” on the B-side. Basically Bowie trying to convert angelic person to be just a little more devilish (“I don’t want to be an angel, just a little bit evil, Feel the devil in me“) it’s a quaint enough track, but no surprise it tanked without a trace. The Ziggy Stardust version found here is vastly superior, with the Spiders From Mars providing much more energy and sense of fun to the whole thing.

holy holy single

The album was notably re-mastered again in 1999 as part of the EMI re-release series and again in 2015 for its inclusion in the above mentioned “5 Years” box set.

5 years box set

Finally, in 2016 as part of Record Store Day, 5000 copies of the Dutch Cover were produced as a limited picture-disc (yes, I’ve got my copy but will likely never get played).

man who sold the world record store cover

 

Another version of the album worth exploring is a live version recorded by “Holly Holly“, a “super” band including both Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey from the original sessions. A project put together in 2014 by the two originals to give the album a live experience for the first time, they are all rather good. Yes, the main vocalist Glenn Gregory (from Heaven 17) isn’t quite David Bowie (but let’s be honest, no one is), the whole experience is a lot of fun and worth checking out. They also perform a bunch of other Bowie classics from Bowie’s glam era that are also all rather excellent and worth a listen as well. Remarkably, “The Man Who Sold The World” is the only Bowie album on which Visconti and Woodmansey both feature.

holy holy man who sold the world album

 

The Man Who Who Sold The World” is a Bowie masterpiece, one which has never quite got the accolades it deserves. Full of wonderful, complex, cryptic musical experiences, it truly highlighted what lay ahead for Bowie. Although yet another huge commercial failure, Bowie was getting more than used to disappointment and quickly moved on. Tony Visconti, frustrated and more than a little annoyed by Bowie’s apparent disinterest during the recording sessions would leave the scene for a number of years, concentrating on his work with Marc Bolan’s T-Rex that had just started to really take-off (Visconti would finally get back with Bowie when mixing the “Diamond Dogs” album in 1974).

However, with this album the seeds of success had been planted with both Ronson and Woodmansey now on board. It would be another 18 months before Bowie would finally taste success on a permanent basis with the monster album that was Ziggy Stardust. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: “The Man Who Sold The World“, “All The Madmen“, “Saviour Machine

7. Lodger

lodger album

Lodger is David Bowie’s 13th studio album, originally released on 18th May 1979.

For me, the “Lodger” album will always have a special place in my heart, for this is where my personal David Bowie journey began all those many years ago.

On 23 April 1979, I was sitting in front of the TV watching one of my favourite shows at the time, “The Kenny Everett Video Show”, when this guy came on and sang a song I instantly loved called “Boys Keep Swinging“. It was then followed by a hilarious little skit with Everett in which his character Angry of Mayfair said “I fought for people like you, and I never got one” !! Watch the performance here.

I then chased up who this David Bowie person was and so my exhilarating, joyous David Bowie journey began…

By 1979, David Bowie was in a good place, artistically, commercially and personally. He had recently released two killer albums in both “Low” and “Heroes” that were artistic triumphs and for which Bowie was rightly very proud. He had also spent much of 1978 completing a hugely successful and critically acclaimed “Isolar II” world tour promoting both albums. He was also getting on top of several personal issues, from his multiple managerial problems, getting his divorce from Angie Bowie mostly sorted and finally dealing in the main with his drug and alcohol abuse issues.

So it was with some confidence and sense of positiveness that Bowie decided to record a new album in September 1978. Recorded mainly at Mountain Studios, Montreux Switzerland near his new home residence (and later finished at Record Plant Studios, New York), he gathered together most of his live band to complete what is commonly referred to as the “Berlin Trilogy”. Berlin ? But this was recorded in Montreux.  Yes I know, don’t ask…

Two key collaborators from the previous two albums returned, Tony Visconti as producer and Brian Eno as artistic sounding board and fellow experimental pioneer. The musicians were primarily those from the world tour, Carlos Alomar on rhythm guitar, Dennis Davis on drums, George Murray on bass guitar, the rather excellent Adrian Belew on lead guitar (from King Crimson and recently nicked from Frank Zappa’s band), Sean Mayes on piano (from Ziggy Stardust era support band Fumble), Simon House on violin (from Hawkwind) and Roger Powell on synthesizers (from Utopia) although only on the tracks “Repetition” and “Red Money” as Eno played most of the electronic keyboard parts.

Although in many ways just as experimental as the previous two albums, not having a predominantly instrumental second side gave the album a less cutting edge vibe than its predecessors. It made it in some ways a less “challenging” listening experience, but in no way a less rewarding one.

The album can vaguely be described as a concept project with the overall theme on side 1 being of travel (especially within the third world), with side 2 focusing on various wrongs and ills with western society. It’s not a perfect description, but one that fits in the main.

However, the main theme is really still one of playful experimentation and musical adventurism. Eno in particularly was keen to explore and stretch boundaries with his Oblique Strategy cards pushing the musicians past their comfort zone (in some cases, way way past to the point almost of outright revolt). However, Bowie was also keen to make an album with some commercial appeal and in the main, the collaboration worked to make music that satisfied both requirements. Eno would later push the “World Music” theme of side 1 further in his future output and collaborations with David Byrne of Talking Heads.

The album opens with the majestic but somewhat sombre “Fantastic Voyage“. While a travel theme, here the journey is life itself and wouldn’t it be a shame if it were shorten prematurely by nuclear war due to some depressed world leader. Heavy stuff perhaps but the music has an uplifting feel with Dennis Davies gentle drums and various mandolins featuring predominantly in the mix. Bowie’s vocals carry on from where they left off on the “Heroes” album, soaring and magnificent, leaving us with hope that things will end up OK. The B-side to the “Boys Keep Swinging” single, I remember being absolutely thrilled when Bowie performed this live on the Sydney dates of the “Reality” world tour in 2004.

African Night Flight” is an absolute blast. Inspired in part after meeting up in a bar with ex-Luftwaffe German pilots when on holidays in Kenya, Bowie sings this track in super fast tempo. The music is chaotic with a thumping piano/bass and a wonderful “cricket menace” effect by Eno, it really is unlike anything Bowie has ever recorded. The backing vocals “asanti habari habari” add a nice touch. I’m pretty sure this has never been performed live, it’s no wonder really.

Next comes the wonderful “Move On“, a song which celebrates travel and Bowie’s struggle to ever stay in one place for very long. With an almost postcard view of various places Bowie has visited, it generates a truly romantic sense of the joys of travelling. The music is lush yet unsettled, in part no doubt as it’s basically “All The Young Dudes” played backwards. Again, the backing vocals (sung mainly by Tony Visconti) and superb throughout the whole album, are another highlight with this track (sounding indeed like something sung backwards). Again, another song that I don’t think has ever been played live and in this case, all the pity. The track snuck into many people’s record collections when it (rather oddly) became the B-side to Bowie’s monster No. 1 UK hit “Ashes To Ashes“.

Yassassin” is a bit of an oddity for Bowie. With its Jamaican reggae vibe mixed in with Turkish sounding violins by Simon House, it’s a bizarre mixture of sounds and an unusual use of a musical form which Bowie had never really played around with before (he would take on the reggae sound again on the “Tonight” album in 1984.). It all sounds rather fabulous as Bowie sings about the dignity of being a working class man as he travels from destination to destination, again pleading with authority to just leave him alone. Yassassin is basically Turkish for “long life”, a phase Bowie came across whilst living in the heavily Turkish populated quarter of Berlin, Neuköln. A bit of a gem.

As is “Red Sails“, an absolutely hilarious, joyous tale of travelling the seas, with one of the absolute best Bowie vocals ever. The final “We’re gonna sail to the hinterland, And it’s far far, far far far, far far far away, Its a far far, far far far fa da da da-da da” is worth price of admission alone. The music here is also a highlight, with a thumping rhythm and all sorts of wonderful musical soundscapes swishing between speakers. The gang really are magnificent here and ends side on a literal high.

Side two starts with the rather catchy “DJ“, with Bowie detailing the perils of being a DJ and the horror that would ensue if ever there was a moment of silence. This is where Adrian Belew starts to really shine with some great guitar sounds throughout. The second single off the album, it was a surprising flop and (I think) assisted in damaging the overall reputation of the album. It did feature a brilliant video with Bowie playing around as a non-too serious DJ and scenes of him walking down a street in public, being accosted by an unbelieving crowd. Watch it here.

DJ single

Look Back in Anger” would perhaps have made a much better single. It features an absolutely amazing drumming performance by Dennis Davis and is one those Bowie classics that lurks in his catalog. Telling the tale of a disgruntled angel, the music is just teeming with energy and with bursts of Carlos Alomar guitar scrapes and fabulous backing vocals, really is 3 minutes of glorious fun.  It was going to be the 3rd single off the album, but after the failure of “DJ”, was released only in the US where it flopped. Another great video, it featured Bowie in a scene from Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” as we watch Bowie slowly disintegrate along with the painting he’s working on. Watch it here.

Boys Keep Swinging” is one of my all time favourite tracks, not only because it was the first time I “met” Bowie, but because it really is one of his all time great songs. Full of energy and bouncy fun, it’s terribly sexist but very much with tongue firmly in cheek. Musically it has the same chord changes as the previous “Fantastic Voyage” (there were plans to record the entire album with the same chords), but with a different tempo and melody. To make things interesting and add a certain “garage band” charm to the piece, they put Carlos Alomar on drums and Dennis Davis (assisted by Tony Visconti) on bass. With Eno adding his magic and a superb metal on metal screech by Adrian Belew, it’s the album’s highlight. Released as the leading single, it reached No. 7 in the charts before the video featured on “Top of the Pops”. With a cavalier Bowie aka Bowie in his Kenny Everett performance, 3 somewhat odd looking female backing singers appear during the chorus. During the closing musical sequence, the first back singer walks down a catwalk before pulling off wig and swiping lipstick dramatically across the face. It was Bowie in drag. As was the second backup singer who did the same thing. The 3rd one (OK, we know it’s Bowie now, looking a little like an unwell Marlene Dietrich this time) blows us a kiss as the film fades. Hilarious stuff, but perhaps a little too confronting for a UK about to vote in Margaret Thatcher. The single started to then head in the opposite direction. Watch this classic video here.

 

boys keep swinging single

Repetition” for me anyways gets voted the weakest track on the album. Telling the sobering tale of domestic violence, Johnny is a big man with family, who’s life if one full of regrets and who takes it out on his poor suffering wife. Sang by Bowie in an emotionless monotone, it makes for uncomfortable listening.

Red Money” is basically “Sister Midnight“, (the Iggy Pop track off the simply brilliant 1977 “The Idiot” album) with different lyrics. Musically, it’s almost identical to the Iggy Pop version, but with a cleaner, punchier sound. The “red box” from the lyrics is said by Bowie to refer to responsibility and how many don’t deal well with it. Which then takes up back to the first track and how important responsibility is for those in charge…

The album cover and packaging is one of Bowie’s most interesting/striking. Featuring a very unwell, battered and squished Bowie, I “think” it’s all a take on the 1976 Roman Polanski movie “The Tenant” (Lodger, get it) that featured a character who attempted suicide by throwing herself off a balcony and falling through a pane of glass. Looking I would assume just as Bowie does on the album cover. The inner sleeve features a number of macabre death scenes, including Che Guevara’s corpse, the body of Christ and Bowie being made up for the cover.

Commercially, the album did well, reaching a respectable No. 4 in the UK and No. 20 in the US. But critically, it received a somewhat cool reception, with many considering it the runt of the Berlin Trilogy. While it certainly lacks some of the originality of the soundscapes found on both “Low” and “Heroes”, it’s always made up for that by containing a collection of simply fantastic songs that sound fresh and exciting and containing something that is lacking in the previous two albums, humour. “Lodger” is musically brilliant, but it also contains a humour that I’ve always loved about the album. Songs such as “African Night Flight”, “Red Sails” and “Boys Keep Swinging” are a blast and give an insight into the humour that Bowie likes to hide away.

“Lodger” is perhaps THE most underrated of all Bowie’s albums, with one possible exception which I’ll get to later in this series.

After spending much of 1978 on the road, Bowie decided to not tour the album and this also perhaps added to history being less kind to the album that it deserved. Instead, he teamed up with David Mallet to produce the 3 wonderful ground breaking videos for “DJ”, “Look back In Anger” and “Boys Keep Swinging”.

As with all Bowie albums, there have been a number of notable re-releases over the years. In 1991, as part of the excellent Rykodisc series, it was released with two bonus tracks, a re-worked “Look Back In Anger” and:

I Pray, Olé” is actually rather good with a very catchy quality, especially the “Can you make, can you make it through?” chorus.  It would have fitted very well on Side 2 somewhere and was a bit of a gem when it came out. To my knowledge, I don’t think this has ever been re-released since, not even on the “A New Career In A New Town” box set so it’s a bit of a rarity in a physical format.

Speaking of which, in 2017, the box set “A New Career In A New Town” was released that featured Bowie’s output between 1977-1982. The BIG highlight of the package was a totally new re-mix of the album by original producer Tony Visconti. Although Bowie was said to consider the album one of his favourites, both he and Visconti were said to be unhappy with the final mix of the album, considering it a bit rushed and “muddy” in sound. This re-mix was positioned as how the album should have been mixed in the first place.

The results are mixed. In terms of the music and how it sounds sonically, it’s definitely an improvement, with the overall sound much more dynamic, vibrant and “cleaner”. BUT, it’s been ruined by the over-treatment on Bowie’s vocal. One of THE strengths of the album is Bowie’s vocal performance, which is among the best on any album. However, the re-mix has added way too much effects on the vocals track, with too much echo and the like which distracts from the album. When it comes to Bowie, the cleaner the vocal the better and I wish they left that part alone. Overall it’s certainly worth a listen but ultimately I prefer the original mix overall.

New Career in a new town boxset

 

This would be the last time Bowie would work with Brian Eno for nearly 20 years. Eno felt the “spark” had gone out of the musical collaboration during the making of “Lodger” and while amiable, they went their separate very successful ways. But in 1995, they decided to get together again and record an absolutely superb album, one which left many critics scratching their heads at the time but one which history I think has determined really is an artistic masterpiece that perhaps is THE most underrated Bowie album of them all.

But that’s a story for another day…

Best Tracks: “Boy’s Keep Swinging“, “African Night Flight“, “Look Back In Anger“.

 

 

8. Station To Station

station to station album

Station To Station is David Bowie’s 10th studio album, originally released on 23rd January 1976.

In 1975, David Bowie was in a very very dark place. Located in the decadent, pressure-cooker metropolis that was Los Angeles, Bowie was desperately struggling to cope with the fame and stardom he had spent so many years striving to achieve. With access to precious few true friends, a marriage that was rapidly disintegrating, a deteriorating relationship with his manger Tony Defries who was ripping him off, Bowie had little positive influences when the wicked temptations that LA had in abundance came calling.

Living on a diet supposedly consisting only of milk, peppers and vast amounts of cocaine (which doesn’t quite cover all the necessary food groups), Bowie became sickly thin and gaunt.

Bowie’s isolation, loneliness and rising paranoia had a frightening impact on his mental health, with bizarre tales of his dabbling with the occult quickly becoming an obsession. It’s one thing to write about the “Golden Dawn” and Aleister Crowley but quite another to store your urine in a fridge for fear it being stolen by evil beings and use for wicked spells.

In this fragile, broken state, Bowie decided to record a new album as a follow-up to his hugely successful (especially in the US) “Young Americans” album and No. 1 US hit “Fame“. Bowie’s record company RCA were keen to reproduce the commercial success of the previous album, so in you go my boy and record another hit please. That he managed to record anything listenable in his current state is an achievement in itself. That he managed to record a masterpiece is nothing short of astonishing.

His producer of choice Tony Visconti wasn’t available, so he knocked on the door again of famed producer Harry Maslin, who had worked with Bowie on the final recordings that made it onto the “Young Americans” album, including the classic song “Fame”.

As his rhythm section, he chose again those primarily from these final “Young American” sessions, Dennis Davis on drums, Carlos Alomar on rhythm guitar and Bowie newbie George Murray on bass. These three known collectively as the D.A.M. Trio would go on to work together with Bowie all the way through the rest of the 70s to the “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps” album.

On lead guitar, he also retained the young Earl Slick, who would feature again during the “Serious Moonlight” tour in 1983 and through much of the later period of Bowie’s career.

Bowie had been an enthusiastic Bruce Springsteen fan for much of his career, even recording a number of Springsteen covers in previous years. The final additional to the session musicians was the rather excellent Roy Bittan from the E-Street Band on keyboards.

Recorded at the Cherokee Studios in LA during some frantic sessions between Sept-Nov 1975, Bowie was later to state he had absolutely no recollection of the recording sessions at all. In fact Bowie found most of 1975 and much of 1976 all a little vague…

The album opens with the epic title track “Station To Station“. Starting with the ever faster chugging of a train moving between speakers, each instrument makes an appearance before the catchy opening rhythm breaks in, with Slicks guitar snarling away in the background. Finally after a few minutes, Bowie’s vocals makes its appearance, introducing us to his new character, the cold, menacing “Thin White Duke” who is “Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes“. Bowie described him as someone living in the US desperate to return back to Europe (no clue then who that could be).

Despite the train sound effects, lyrically “Station To Station” refers more to the stations of the cross, with the key line “Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth” referring to the Jewish Sephirots in the Tree of Life (Crown to Kingdom). It’s all heavy stuff for a rock song…

The song then effortlessly jumps into its second, faster tempo, soaring middle section where Bowie sings about his frantic need to search, for fortune, for answers and above all for love. To say Bowie sounds absolutely magnificent here would be an understatement.

As quickly as it arrived, the middle section ends and we enter the third section of the track, where things speed up even more and we hit the killer lines “It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love, It’s too late to be grateful“. The vocal now becomes almost frantic while the music simply pulses with energy as Bowie proclaims “The European cannon is here“. A wonderful guitar solo by Slick gives Bowie a break before coming back to repeat things again as if to say he really means it all. The track then slowly fades with the band chugging away as if on the back of a train as it disappears into the distance.

It’s one of the most exhilarating, extraordinary 10 minutes Bowie has ever put down on tape.

Before you can catch your breath, the incredibly catchy funky riff of “Golden Years” kicks in. One of Bowie’s great singles, it perfectly spans the plastic soul disco of “Young Americans” with the more calculating funk rock of the new album. Apparently a song written for Bowie’s wife Angie Bowie, it’s just a perfect pop song that can fill a dance floor today as it did 40+ years ago. The whistling section near the end is just divine, although the much longer album version keeps the riff going and going and going. The song was slated as being offered to Elvis who (thankfully) rejected it. The lead-off single, it kept Bowie up in the charts reaching a respectable No. 10 on the US singles chart. There was no official video made of the single, although Bowie’s somewhat imperfect lip-sync performance of the song on the US “Soul Train” TV show serves as the unofficial visual document. Watch it here.

Golden Years Single

 

We then reach the end of side one with the beautiful, angelic “Word On A Wing“. More desperate prayer than song, this comes across as Bowie pleading with God for help and answers to life “Lord, I kneel and offer you, My word on a wing, And I’m trying hard to fit among, Your scheme of things“. The music is still catchy but more gentle and subdued than the rest of the album, with Bittan’s piano more predominant in the mix. Bowie’s vocals are just stunning, as they are throughout the album. But I’m not sure he has sounded quite as vulnerable as he does here, which gives the track an added edge.

Side two starts with the bizarre joy that is “TVC 15“. Basically about a TV that physically consumes his girlfriend, it’s based on a drug-fuelled hallucination that Bowie friend and fellow drug-troubled Iggy Pop had one evening. It’s a fabulous catchy track, with the band in fine form, especially Bittan who’s piano again dominates. The “Transition, Transmission” section is a delight before the wondrous chorus with the TVC 15 chant. The full length album version has a final chorus that goes on and on which is fine as I never really want this to finish. Released as the second single off the album, the strange subject matter was possibly not for everyone and didn’t fare anywhere near as well as the last few singles, only managing a disappointing No. 64 in the US (and just No. 34 in the UK). Not sure having the “Diamond Dogs” track “We Are The Dead” was the best of B-Side selections. Anyways, I don’t really care as I simply love this song.

TVC 15 Single

 

Stay” is a slab of classic 70’s era funk, with Earl Slick and his wonderful guitar riff in particular shining out here. Bowie’s vocal is as desperate and moving as ever, this time pleading for a loved one to just please stay. If I had to pick the weakest track, this would be it, but it’s all relative as this can get my feet tapping as any classic Bowie track can.  Released in the US only as a single, it failed to chart.

stay single

The album ends with the stunning “Wild Is The Wind“, a cover of the Johnny Mathis song from the 1957 movie “Wild Is The Wind“, although the 1966 version by Nina Simone was the better known. Bowie often includes a cover on his albums, but I figure this to be the best cover version Bowie has ever recorded. I also rate this probably Bowie’s finest vocal performance. So high praise indeed, but what a magical way to end the album. The arrangements here are just gorgeous, with Bowie on acoustic guitar a highlight. But the way he hits that final note, just wow. An edited version was released as a single way later in 1981 to promote the non-essential “Changestwobowie” compilation album. It reached a respectable No. 24 on the UK charts considering it’s a song from 5 years ago. Watch the video here, filmed at the same time as the videos for the Baal EP.

wild is the wind single

The album was critically acclaimed at the time and a top 10 commercial success throughout the world, reaching No. 5 in the UK and No. 3 in the US. My main complaint with the album has always been that it’s too short, with just the 6 (albeit lengthy) tracks. At a touch under 38 minutes, it’s the shortest studio album that Bowie recorded. I know, I’m just greedy…

Bowie toured the album with the hugely successful “Isolar” World Tour, covering North America and Europe between February and May 1976. With swept back orange hair, dressed in white shirt and black waistcoat and with a packet of Gauloises cigarettes in pocket, Bowie played the part of the Thin White Duke with cool detachment. Bowie would later call the Thin White Duke as the least appealing and unlikable of all his characters. Rather than the usual big set and bright coloured lights, the stage was basic, minimalist with just white lights flooding the stage.  The live band was similar to those of the studio sessions, but with Stacy Heydon replacing Slick and Tony Kaye replacing Bittan.

There have been a number of re-releases of the album over the years, including the always excellent Rykodisc CD series released in 1997. This featured (I think) the superior coloured cover rather than the standard black and white still image from the 1975 movie “The Man Who Fell To Earth” that starred Bowie.

station to station colour

However the best re-release was the “Station To Station” Box Set released in 2010. Containing lots of goodies including an original analogue master, an 1985 RCA Master version, a CD of single-edits of tracks and physical record, the two big highlights were a wonderful DVD of a 5.1 surround sound re-mix of the album and a new stereo remix both by Harry Maslin and both CD/LP versions of the “Live Nassau Coliseum ’76” album, recorded in New York on 23 March 1976.

The new Harry Maslin stereo remix was also available on the excellent “Who Can I Be Now” box set released in September 2016, that covers Bowie’s output between 1974-1976. Although it’s always nice to hear a fresh interpretation of the album, I prefer the original mix, especially in relation to how Bowie’s vocals are captured, finding the new mix adds too much reverb and unnecessary effects.

who can i be now boxset

The 1976 tour is one of Bowie’s most critically acclaimed, with the “Live Nassau Coliseum ’76” album (for many years a much valued bootleg) a fantastic document of the tour. Bowie was in fine form, with the Station To Station tracks along with gems such as “Waiting For The Man”, “Panic In Detroit” and “Rebel Rebel” performance highlights.

The live album was eventually released separately in 2017.

The 5.1 remixes are also just brilliant and bring a totally new dimension to the whole album. Sitting in a living room, with Station To Station reverberating all around you is a wonderful experience. Highly recommended.

Nassau Coliseum 76 live album

 

“Station To Station” is a truly sensational album that serves as the perfect bridge between the disco oriented commercial monster that was “Young Americans” to the more experimental electronic adventurism of the upcoming Berlin Trilogy. Listening to the album today, it just doesn’t come across as music that was created over 40 years ago.

After the tour, Bowie decided to escape the excesses and temptations of LA and move permanently to Europe for a quieter, saner existence, to clean himself up and basically save his life. That he chose to eventually move to Berlin with Iggy Pop made the recovery process a touch more “complicated”.

With the same rhythm D.A.M Trio, Bowie moved on to complete the hugely influential Berlin Trilogy of albums before recording what some (not me) consider to be his last masterpiece, “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps“. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: “Station To Station“, “Golden Years“, “Wild Is The Wind

9. Aladdin Sane

Aladdin Sane is David Bowie’s 6th studio album, originally released on 13th April 1973.

At the start of January 1973, Bowie was facing a scenario for the first time ever in his career, having to complete an album from a position of fame. After the success of his break-through album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars“, Bowie had made the big time, with ever increasing crowd sizes and enthusiasm at his sold out concerts. With a short gap in his frantic live schedule, Bowie had a week in mid January in which to complete his follow-up album and try to replicate the success and acclaim he had with Ziggy Stardust. So no pressure then…

With his ever faithful Spiders From Mars (Mick Ronson on guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass and Mick Woodmansey on drums) and with Ken Scott again as producer, the main new musical ingredient here was Mike Garson on piano, who’s jazz styled tinkering would add a magical touch to many of the tracks. With Ken Fordham and Brian Wilshaw also from the touring band playing saxophone, the studio band was complete.

With most of the songs already written on the road whist touring in the US (and indeed with “The Jean Genie” already in the can and released as a single in November 1972), Bowie at the time described “Aladdin Sane” as Ziggy Stardust in America. Although often considered another concept album, it really isn’t, with the songs simply a collection of glam rock classics that have no real connection. The Aladdin Sane character is simply just David Bowie playing Ziggy Stardust playing Aladdin Sane.

With so little time available in which to record the album, Bowie was under tremendous pressure to record an album of similar quality and success to Ziggy Stardust. And in the main, Bowie succeeded, creating an album that will always be regarded as one of the all-time glam rock classics and indeed an all-time rock classic.

The album opens with the frantic “Watch That Man“, which is perhaps the weakest track on the album and a sign of how the album was somewhat rushed during the recording process. With a bluesy sound not unlike the current Rolling Stones (in fact exactly like the Rolling Stones), Bowie’s vocals are lost within the mix and suffers as a result. Telling the sordid tale of a crazy rock ‘n’ roll party, the band really cranks things up, but I’ve always thought this track works best live than here on record. An arguably superior version was recording by Lulu with David Bowie and the Spiders as the B-Side to  her “The Man Who Sold The World” single and is well worth a listen.

Things slow down with the title track, “Aladdin Sane”(1913-1938-197?)“, written on the ship RMHS Ellinis on his way back from the US to the UK the title suggesting a new world war is not far away. With a somewhat sad, dreamy vocal delivery, the track comes alive during Mike Garson’s extraordinary, frantic, avant-garde improvised piano solo. I’ve heard this track 100s of times and I’ve yet to tire of the rush of listening to Mike’s piano solo, I just love it (although many I’m sure would hate it). The title is a play on “A lad insane”, no doubt inspired by his mentally unstable half-brother Terry. That someone who is just getting used to fame would record such an amazingly un-commercial track is a clear sign of Bowie’s musical adventurism to come.

Drive-In Saturday” comes next and was the second single from the album, peaking at No 3. on the UK charts. With very a 50’s vibe that was Bowie’s influential introduction to rock, the song paradoxically is about a future post-apocalyptic society where the art of making love is forgotten and needs to be re-learnt via old porn films. So typical Bowie story telling then. Written on a train between Seattle and Phoenix, it was inspired when Bowie saw strange lights and domes in the barren landscapes. With its beautifully surreal verses and catchy do-wop arrangements and chorus, this is a real gem in the Bowie arsenal and possibly one of his lesser known “hits”. Sadly, no official video was made for the single although his wonderful appearance on the Russell Harty show serves as the unofficial video. Watch it here.

 

Panic In Detroit” is a real glam rocker, written obviously in Detroit and clearly inspired by Iggy Pop and the chaotic environment that created such a rock ‘n’ roll animal. Musically, it’s everywhere, with Ronson’s heavy guitar sound and Woody’s Latin style congas drums fighting to take dominance. An excellent live version from the 1974 Diamond Dogs US tour featured on the B-side of the “Knock on Wood” single. Add this to the essential glam-rock classics list.

Cracked Actor” closes side one of the album and is another superb, hard rocking glam track. Written in LA, it tells the sordid tale of an ex-Hollywood great sadly reminiscing of days gone by. With Ronson and the Spiders again in inspired form, this is a fabulous rocker which was one of Bowie’s live favourites, featuring in many of his tours. Both in the 1974 Diamond Dogs and 1983 Serious Moonlight tours, Bowie performed this song as a theatrical piece with Shakespearean cape and skull in hand. OK, add this also to the essential glam-rock classics list.

Side two starts with the somewhat confusing “Time“. Written in New Orleans, musically, it’s another grandiose, theatrical piece, with a wonderful arrangement that features heavily Mike Garson’s piano. However lyrically, it comes across as a little half-finished and gives the sense that things were indeed rushed in getting everything down on tape in time. Detailing the pits and perils of time fast escaping through our fingers, Bowie’s vocals begin quiet and brooding before bellowing out at his histrionic best. The couplet “Time, he flexes like a whore, Falls wanking to the floor” had many teenagers giggling naughtily and parents raging in disgust which is precisely what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to do.

Bowie goes searching in his past catalog to re-record “The Prettiest Star“, the flop single he released in 1970 that featured his friend Marc Bolan on lead guitar. Ronson does Bolan the honour of playing the guitar part almost note for note the same while Bowie does the piece justice with a beautiful, touching vocal performance. Yet another Bowie gem hidden away on this album.

I’m not much of a Rolling Stones fan, but I admit it’s hard to out rock the Rolling Stones. Yet this is precisely what Bowie does here with “Let’s Spend The Night Together” with an energetic performance of the Stones classic (which I also thought was always a little limp for a Stones track). Here Bowie and the Spiders really vamp it up, with the section where Bowie says “Do it. Let’s make love” outrageously sublime. To prove this wasn’t fluke, he would perform this throughout the upcoming Aladdin Sane tour with similar success.

The Jean Genie” is the best known of all the tracks here and is a true Bowie classic, reaching No.2 in the UK singles charts when released the previous November. Written in Detroit and New York, the title is based on influential french author Jean Genet. With its Bo Diddley R&B like riff and sleazy Iggy Pop inspired lyrics, over-familiarity can easily make one forget just what a brilliant song (and performance) this is. It’s a song that Bowie would play live very frequently throughout his career. The wonderful Mick Rock video featuring Andy Warhol’s Cyrinda Foxe at the Mars Hotels only helped the single success. Watch the video here.

 

The album closes with the killer “Lady Grinning Soul” which was written in London. This is my favourite track off the album and one of my all-time Bowie favourites. With Ronson’s wonderful acoustic and electric guitar parts and Garson’s marvellous piano, musically it’s just a stunningly beautiful ballad. Add then one of Bowie’s finest vocal performances and you have the makings of a true masterpiece. Inspired by his meeting with Claudia Lennear, this just oozes tenderness and romance. I’m not aware of this track having ever been performed live by Bowie, which is both a shame and perfectly understandable as it’s hard to imagine how to beat this performance. A simply gorgeous way to end the album.

The album was both an artistic and commercial triumph. Based on massive pre-sales alone, the album reached No. 1 on the UK charts, becoming Bowie’s first No. 1 success. It would help to further propel Bowie as the “next big thing”, especially in the UK but also in the important US market where the album reached a respectable No. 17. The album’s success would help give Bowie confidence (after so many years of failures and false starts) to later explore so many other musical territories.

Bowie would tour the album on the hugely successful “Aladdin Sane” tour which included the US, Japan and finally up and down the breadth of the UK, performing most tracks except never Lady Grinning Soul. On the 3rd July 1973, only a few months after the album’s release, Bowie would kill Ziggy Stardust on stage by famously stating he would never tour again. Although of course he would (within a year), things were never quite the same again.

The album marks a couple of notable departures. Firstly, this would be the last studio album to feature the brilliant and criminally under-rated Mick “Woody” Woodmansey on drums, who starred on Bowie’s 3 previous albums (and none of which have yet been discussed on my countdown list). After Bowie’s “retirement” on 3 July, he would not perform with Bowie again.

The album also marks the last album to be recorded at London’s Trident Studio’s where he had previously recorded much of his previous material.

Over the years, there have been a number of notable re-releases. In 1990, the album was re-released as part of the fabulous Rykodisc CD series although sadly, “Aladdin Sane” was the only album in the series to not feature any bonus tracks. A sign perhaps there was precious little left over after the recording sessions.

In 2003, the 30th Anniversary Edition version was released, with an additional CD featuring mainly single edits and live versions. However, two tracks are worth mentioning:

John, I’m Only Dancing“, the follow-up single to Bowie’s (second) break-through single “Starman” was re-recorded during the Aladdin Sane sessions. Said to depict an argument within a gay relationship, this version known as the “sax version”,  has a sax based arrangement (obviously) and a slightly livelier vibe to the original. It’s a great song but a somewhat risky choice so early in Bowie’s rise to stardom and indeed deemed too risque for the conservative US market. The Mick Rock video is one of Bowie’s best. Watch it here.

All The Young Dudes” was given by Bowie to “Mott The Hoople” who with Bowie’s help also as producer made it into a monster hit and resurrected the failing stocks of the band. Bowie recorded his own version of the classic track during the Aladdin Sane sessions and although it doesn’t contain the same energy and spark of the original, is charming and worth checking out nonetheless.

In 2013, a newly remaster version in celebration of the 40th Anniversary was released with packaging similar to the original album release.

The album cover features arguably Bowie’s most iconic image, the lightening bolt Aladdin Sane photo taken by Brian Duffy. I have never quite worked out though what the paint-brushed liquid balanced in Bowie’s collarbone is meant to represent? RCA splashed out with the original album packaging by featuring an open gate-fold image of the thin Aladdin Sane slowly fading into a shadowy, somewhat spooky, sexless gray form below the chest.

aladdin sane gatefold

The album is a masterpiece from the Glam-Rock, early to mid 70’s period, but its futuristic feel gives it a legitimacy and modernness that still lasts into the 2020s. Bowie had a big test to pass, that being can he show the success that was the Ziggy Stardust phenomenon be replicated and truly put him on-board the starship to stardom. Bowie passed the test spectacularly with “Aladdin Sane”. But Bowie knew if was to expand and grow creatively, he had to eventually move on from his glam rock God status. He had one more glam rock masterpiece left in him before he made the decision to indeed move on creatively, but that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: “Cracked Actor“, “The Jean Genie“, “Lady Grinning Soul

10. Low

Low is David Bowie’s 11th studio album, originally released on 14th January 1977.

By mid 1976, David Bowie was in a very dark place. Living in LA and all consumed with drugs and the unexpected pressure of fame, Bowie was struggling just to survive. With a management that Bowie had only recently discovered was ripping him off and with a marriage that was slowly disintegrating, Bowie was feeling lost, isolated, paranoid, depressed and physically unwell. Storing your urine in a fridge in order to stave off demons is not the sign of a healthy person…

In an attempt to clean himself up and to escape what Bowie saw as the high pressure, corrupt and decadent influence of life in LA, he along with fellow rock ‘n’ roll refuge Iggy Pop moved back to Europe and a more normal life in the (then) isolated world of Berlin, Germany. That it was considered one of the most decadent and drug influenced cities in Europe was perhaps a little unfortunate, but with its art and night-life culture, it was perfectly suited to a Bowie in desperate need of a positive change.

After being impressed with the recent works of ex Roxy Music member Brian Eno with albums such as the brilliant “Another Green World” and ambient pieces such as “Discreet Music“, Bowie was keen to team up and move in a new musical direction. Bowie had recently released the superb disco-funk that was the “Station to Station” album, where The Thin White Duke did indeed introduce a few European influenced electronic soundscapes. Bowie saw Eno as the perfect partner to help with making more European influenced electronic music as per German Krautrock bands such as Tangerine Dream, Neu! and Kraftwerk.

After getting Eno’s commitment, Bowie then contacted his previous producer Tony Visconti and asked what he could add to their musical exploration. Visconti mention he had just discovered a machine, the Eventide Harmonizer, that can make the drum sound fuck with the fabric of time. He was in.

Along with the same rhythm section from the “Station to Station” sessions (Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray), Bowie then recruited Ricky Gardiner (from Beggars Opera) on guitar and Roy Young on piano. The band was now complete.

Recorded mostly at the Château d’Hérouville studios near Paris (where he previously recorded “Pin-Ups”), Bowie and co would go on to record one of the most astonishing and influential albums of all time.

Side one would consist of slightly more rock oriented type tracks, but more instrumental in nature with those featuring any lyrics having a sense of being added more as an afterthought. Side two however would consist of purely electronic, instrumental, ambient pieces with Bowie’s vocals but another instrument rather than conveying “words” with any meaning. The overall effect was stunning, other worldly and totally unlike anything previously heard in the Bowie cannon.

The album opens  with “Speed of Life“, an instrumental that seems to start midway through, as if we missed the start and boarded part way through. Featuring the rhythm section and a weird, electronic pulsing melody, we heard the unique drum sound for the first time, with the pitch of the drum dropping sharply each time Dennis Davis hits the skins. It just sounds mesmerising but before we know it, the track fades away, again giving the sense we’ve only been allowed to witness a part of the track.

Breaking Glass” then kicks in, with the wonderful drum sound and treated guitar sound dominating, with electronic swashes of sound moving across the speakers. We hear Bowie for the first time, lamenting some awful things he’s doing to a room in which the owner is ignoring him. We hear Bowie’s anguish at his isolation, a theme he repeatedly comes back to throughout the album. Interestingly, this is the only track on Side one not written just by Bowie, with both Dennis Davis and George Murray listed as co-writers.

But again, before we know it, we’ve moved on to “What in the World“, a more up tempo number, in which the tempo increases as the track progresses. Again, sung in a mournful manner (with Iggy Pop on background vocals), it’s another song on the topic of human rejection.

We then hit the three song cycle which is at the heart of the album and among the best songs Bowie has ever recorded. Beginning with the wonderful “Sound and Vision“, with it’s catchy riff the rhythm section have never sounded quite as good as this. Add in Eno’s synthesizers and it sounds so damn good. Bowie’s deep intro vocals don’t make an appearance until about half-way through the song, the split harmonised vocal detailing the sadness of sitting in a bedroom alone. It’s both sad and beautiful at the same time and a Bowie classic. Released as the lead-off single, Bowie didn’t bother with making a video but this didn’t stop it being a No. 3 hit in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, although it flopped in the US as feared by RCA, reaching only No. 69.

 

 

Always Crashing in the Same Car” comes next with it’s theme of isolation and attempted suicide. The music here is more electronic in nature, with the keyboards and synthesizers dominating more, although the drum work of Dennis Davis is just superb. It’s again eerie, sad but ultimately one of the most beautiful tracks Bowie has ever recorded, The amazing guitar solo at the end (only of two on the album) just gives it that added magic and finish. A Bowie highlight.

Be My Wife” ends Bowie’s conventional vocals on the album, a song of despair and rejection as the plea to be his wife is ignored. Featuring an almost bar-room like piano by Roy Young, again the combination of the fantastic rock rhythm section, the shrieking guitar solo and electronic soundscapes creates a simply gorgeous sound and atmosphere. Released as the second single off the album, Bowie made one of his most bizarre videos ever, with a gaunt, lonely Bowie in a white studio miming (badly) along with the track on a guitar. Bowie’s facial expressions are both hilarious and somewhat frightening at the same time. It’s a must see here. Unsurprisingly, the single was a flop just as RCA had again feared, the first Bowie single not to chart in the UK since “Changes” in 1971.

 

 

Side one ends with “A New Career in a New Town“, another instrumental to bookend side one. It’s possibly the most “up” of all the tracks so far, conveying a feeling that Bowie is indeed looking at a new career in his new town of Berlin. Featuring Bowie’s harmonica and a rather nice keyboard hook, it has a bouncy feel, with the rhythm section making their last appearance on the album. It featured as the opening music on Bowie last “Reality” world tour and has always been a personal favourite of mine.

If Side one was a little “down”, with Bowie’s vocals only infrequently on display, wait until you hit Side two. Starting with the stately “Warszawa” (its title based on Warsaw, Poland), it’s a very slow, atmospheric piece invoking the dreariness and desolation of Warsaw. Only Bowie and Eno play on this piece, with it’s layered synthesizers and keyboard the only instruments. Except that is Bowie’s vocals, that appear near the end. But here, Bowie doesn’t sing “words”, but are purely phonetical and helps create the sense of quiet desperation of the piece. The influence here of Brian Eno is obvious, although it’s worth noting this is Eno’s only co-writing credit and despite popular opinion, Eno didn’t share the producer’s chair, with Bowie/Visconti the only co-producers.

Next comes “Art Decade“, another slow instrumental piece that has a rather lovely, melancholy keyboard melody, but within a backdrop of weird, electronic soundscapes. The attempt here is to convey the feeling of a street Bowie encountered in Berlin and the isolation he felt, the title a play on “Art Deco”.

Weeping Wall” with its obvious reference to the Berlin wall is based in part on the melody of “Scarborough Fair” by Paul Simon. A beautiful atmosphere piece, with all sorts of sounds present, including an upfront xylophone, it’s the only track on the album that is played exclusively by Bowie. The musicianship of Bowie is often understated but he could play numerous instruments and does so very effectively here. Again, Bowie’s vocals are present on this track, but only as another instrument is add another layer to the overall atmosphere.

The album closes with the sublime “Subterraneans“, another beautiful, sad piece that was initially destined to be part of the soundtrack to “The Man Who Fell To Earth” that starred Bowie, before Bowie’s involvement in the soundtrack was abandoned. Featuring lovely synthesizers flourishes, Bowie’s stunning saxophone and most effectively, Bowie’s amazing phonetic vocals, it’s the glorious musical highlight of the album. I LOVE this track.

Listening to “Low” for the first time is an amazing experience and I encourage anyone who hasn’t had the joy of listening to this album to give it a go. Yes, it’s all rather sad and melancholy in character but it really is an amazing musical experience.

That said, Bowie’s record company at the time (RCA) hated it and initially refused to release it. The lack of Bowie vocals and the avant-garde nature of the music had RCA worried that it would be a commercial disaster. Bowie’s management of the time, Mainman who had a big stake in the monies made also hated it and tried to stop the album from being released as well. This delayed the eventual release of the album until January 1977, which ironically hurt sales as it meant missing the Christmas shopping period. It did OK however, reaching No. 2 in the UK and a respectable No. 11 in the US, although this started a decline in the US album market until the commercial monster that was “Let’s Dance” in 1983.

Although there was some confusion and uncertainty over the album at the time, the music press were generally favourable, with critic acclaim over the album only increasing over time.

The iconic album cover was another still shot from the movie “The Man Who Fell To Earth” that Bowie starred in and which obviously had a big impact on Bowie, with another still from the movie previously used on the cover of “Station to Station”. The album “Low” with a profile shot of Bowie could be interpreted as “Low Profile”, get it !!

As part of the brilliant Ryko 1991 CD re-release, two new tracks from the Berlin period were included as bonus tracks:

Some Are“, a rather quiet piano based track with nice electronic soundscapes (not unlike Warszawa if truth be told), that features actual vocals, albeit obscure ones:

“Sailors in snow
Send a call out raising hands
Some are bound to fail
Some are winter sun, ah”

It’s a nice enough piece that came as a pleasant surprise when released.

All Saints” is an instrumental, that has an industrial edge to it with brooding, pulsing synthesizers and reminds me somewhat of some of the tracks Bowie did with Iggy Pop. Again, a nice new surprise at the time of the re-release but not exactly an essential track to add to the Bowie collection.

Bowie would tour “Low” (and “Heroes” and a good chunk of Ziggy Stardust) the following year as part of the Isolar II world tour, the largest Bowie tour to date that finally included Australia for the first time.

The resultant “Stage” live album was another way to enjoy several of the tracks off “Low”, although the album was criticised (somewhat unfairly) as sounding almost identical to the actual album versions with some background crowd noise due to the superb musicianship on display. The 5.1 remix released on DVD in 2005 is well worth a listen and adds another dimension to the tracks. Imagine starting a concert with “Warszawa”, only Bowie could get away with it.

In 2018, another live album from the Isolar II tour was released, “Welcome to the Blackout“. Recorded in London, it’s another fine album that captures Bowie at his classic best with “Warszawa”, “What In The World”, “Be My Wife”, “Speed Of Life”, “Sound and Vision”, “Breaking Glass” and “Art Decade” all sounding just perfect.

In many ways, “Low” was perhaps the most challenging and risky move of his career. But ultimately, it was also perhaps one of his most important albums as it became the blueprint for the post-punk period and music for the next 10 years and beyond. Bands such as Joy Division, Ultravox, Visage, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, ABC, Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, etc. etc. etc. and the whole New Romantics movement and then beyond with NIN, Radiohead, Muse, etc. etc. etc. all owing a huge debt to “Low”.

Bowie would go on to make two more albums with Eno to complete the so-called “Berlin Trilogy”, before working with Eno again in 1995 on the masterpiece that is “1. Outside“. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: “Sound and Vision”, “Always Crashing in the Same Car”, “Be My Wife”

11. “Heroes”

“Heroes is David Bowie’s 12th studio album, originally released on 14th October 1977.

By mid 1977, David Bowie was beginning to sort his life out. After his drug-induced nightmarish 1975-76 existence in Los Angeles, he managed to escape with his buddy-in-crime Iggy Pop to Europe, where he recorded his pioneering “Low” album. He then battled both his record company RCA and not one but two ex-managers to get the album actually released, after they all believed the album to be some weird, noncommercial joke designed to intentionally ruin his career. He was even starting to effectively manage his quickly disintegrating marriage with his then wife Angie Bowie.

Life was indeed finally beginning to pick up.

Having moved with Iggy Pop into a small apartment in the district of Schöneberg in West Berlin, he was ready to record a new album. “Low” released at the start of 1977 was a huge departure for Bowie, an experimental album featuring ambient like instrumental pieces, with few vocals and on side 2 in particular, very little in relation to conventional “rock ‘n’ roll music. Inspired by many of the current German Krautrock bands such as Tangerine Dream, Neu! and Kraftwerk, Bowie teamed up with Brian Eno to record one of the most influential albums of all time, a blueprint of music that would dominate the charts for the next 10 years.

Having recorded both “Low” and then “The Idiot” for Iggy Pop in the past few months, Bowie was ready to hit the studio again. But this time, rather than feeling “Low”, Bowie now felt like a “Hero” and the new music would certainly reflect this increase in optimism. Teaming up again with Tony Visconti as producer, Brian Eno as musical strategist and his rhythm section of Carlos Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis, Bowie added the guitar great Robert Fripp of King Crimson fame to bring an extra dimension to the overall sound.

Recorded at the Hansa Tonsudio in Berlin, it’s actually the only album from the so-called “Berlin Trilogy” to be fully recorded in Berlin. And what a truly wonderful album it is too.

Setting the mood for much of the album, the opener “Beauty and the Beast” has Bowie showing off his updated “histrionics” style of singing, not really heard since the “Ziggy Stardust” album.  With a slow building intro, Bowie enters the scene with a growl and kicks off this jumpy, catchy number with a powerful vocal performance. The music here is still very “electronic” in form, but with the rhythm section very prominent, it’s a return to a more rock ‘n’ roll sound (on side 1 at least). The meaning of the lyrics is typically obscure, with some suggesting it’s perhaps a reference to Bowie himself during his cocaine fuelled mood swings. Released as the second single off the album, it just made it into the UK top 40 but failed to chart completely in the US.

 

 

Joe the Lion” is based on the adventures of Chris Burden, who famously nailed himself to the roof of a Volkswagen during a piece of “performance art” (a theme that Bowie would explore further with Eno on the “Outside” album). With the music dominated by Robert Fripp’s guitar, Bowie is again in fine vocal form, with the line “It’s Monday” sung to utter perfection to describe most people’s feeling on returning to work on a Monday. You can put this track down as yet another of Bowie’s hidden gems.

The centrepiece of the album is undoubtedly the title track “Heroes”. Here in it’s full 6 minute length glory, it is one of THE best Bowie anthems, period. It’s one of those songs I have never, ever tired of hearing and sounds as fresh, modern and brilliant now as it did over 40 years ago. I can still recall the excitement when I first heard the full length version in my bedroom in Manchester all those many years ago. It’s hard to break this classic track down but the driving energy here is hypnotic, Robert Fripp’s various layered guitar parts are simply stunning, the build up in tempo is just gorgeous, while Bowie’s vocal performance is one of his very very best. It’s just a wonderful song on the triumph of love over adversity and how we can all indeed be heroes by just being ourselves.

Proving Bowie was serious about reconnecting himself with Europe, he recorded both an excellent German and (less convincing) French version of this song to be released as appropriate in the local European market.

Remarkably, the single was a relative flop at the time, only reaching 24 in the UK and not breaking the top 100 in the US. However, its reputation has only grown over time, having been covered by numerous artists over the years and often listed in the greatest songs lists. You can watch the video here.

In 1980, a special single was released in Australia that featured all 3 language versions of “Heroes” as well as the B-Side “V-2 Schneider”.

 

 

 

 

Sons of the Silent Age” is a wonderful piece, evoking images simultaneously of a by-gone Hollywood era but haunted by some of the other worldly demons from The Man Who Sold The World/Hunky Dory era. The sax work here is beautiful unlike some of the weirdness to come but the highlight is the wonderful chorus featuring some of Bowie’s best ever vocal work. A Bowie classic that got an unlikely resurrection when performed live during the “Glass Spiders” tour in 1987.

Blackout” which closes side 1 is another intense classic. In part documenting an actual blackout Bowie had when he was rushed to hospital earlier in the year in Berlin, it also references power “blackouts”, giving the track a double meaning. Dennis Davis’s drum work, superb throughout the album, is particularly good here and drives along the piece. The “kiss you in the rain” refrain is just great as are indeed the little bits of humour in how Bowie delivers some of the lines, such as when he sings “get me the Doctors, get off the streets, get me on my feet” which are brilliant. Another song I just adore from the album.

Side 2 opens with “V-2 Schneider“, the first of the (mainly) instrumentals that features on the second half of the album, copying the format from the “Low” album. This is the most “rock-like”, conventional instrumental piece on the album, with the rhythm section driving along a groovy beat, before the out of sync sax jumps in to create a jarring feel that sounds fantastic but not quite right all at the same time. An obvious nod to Florian Schneider from Kraftwerk and the infamous German V-2 rockets from WWII, the only lyrics on the track is “V-2 Schneider” sung in ever more clear fashion as the track progresses. This is perhaps my favourite instrumental piece from the whole Berlin era period. It featured on the B-side of the “Heroes” single.

Sense of Doubt” is another matter entirely, the first of the three really “out there” instrumentals” that is clearly heavily influenced by Brian Eno. Based a 4 note refrain, it’s the perfect soundtrack to anyone interested in slowly lifting up a recently dug up coffin lid. Full of bizarre soundscapes, it’s a truly eerie piece that does indeed make one have a severe sense of doubt. If this is rock ‘n’ roll, then it’s an entirely new, original brand. The B-side to the “Beauty and the Beast” single, I would doubt make DJs would have played this in a disco…

Moss Garden” then seamlessly joins the party, a Japanese influenced piece that features Bowie plucking on a Koto, with washes of sounds in the background. As Bowie sings on “Blackout”, he’s indeed very influenced by Japan and this track perfectly encapsulates the dreamy feeling of sitting quietly in a moss garden somewhere in rural Japan.

The third off-centre instrumental is “Neuköln“, the district in Berlin where Bowie and Iggy Pop lived during the making of the album. Featuring Bowie on sax, if you’ve ever wondered what a sax would sound like if you slowly strangled it, wonder no more and simply listen to this track. Again, one has an uneasy sense as you listen to the various soundscapes, but the whole piece ties in together so perfectly. That someone of Bowie’s statue would consider recording ambient music so clearly non-commercial and avant garde was a huge risk, but one that really paid off and established Bowie as a musical pioneer.

Just when you’re thinking what on earth could come next, Bowie surprises with “The Secret Life of Arabia“, an absolute gem of a track and a return to the Side 1 type material. Except this is more bouncy and catchy than anything on Side 1, with the possible exception of the title track. The rhythm section are just brilliant here. This time evoking images of Laurence of Arabia and hot sandy deserts, Bowie again sings with tongue firmly in cheek in another classic vocal performance. I simply LOVE this track and is perhaps the hidden gem in all his Berlin-era work. It’s the perfect way to end a perfect album that is also a rather nice segue to the next album, “Lodger” that features a number of romantic travel influenced tracks.

The album features one of the most iconic of Bowie’s album covers, a leather clad Bowie photographed by Masayoshi Sukita as he posed in the same manner as the character in the painting Roquairol by German artist Erich Heckel.

At the time of the album release, RCA marketing come up with the prefect slogan: “There’s old wave, there’s new wave and there’s David Bowie“. Which perfectly sums up the album (and the preceding “Low”), as being something that hadn’t really been commercially heard before, but would map out popular music for the next 10 years and beyond. It’s hard to overstate the incredible influence “Heroes” has had on so many future bands.

In short, “Heroes” was a triumph of an album, a true masterpiece which at the time had much critical acclaim. Both of the two main UK music papers (Melody Maker and NME) named the album as their album of the year, although commercially it had mixed success, reaching No. 3 in the UK charts, but only No. 35 in the US.

As part of the excellent Ryko 1991 CD re-release, it included the following previously unreleased track from the Berlin-era period:

Abdulmajid“, is a nice enough instrumental, featuring the rhythm section with a cool synthesizer based melody. But it certainly doesn’t have the wow factor of the album proper instrumentals and is a nice bonus rather a must have addition to the album. The title is clearly from the time of the release, being Bowie’s newly recent wife’s name.

Bowie would spend much of 1978 touring the Low/Heroes albums (with a good dose of Ziggy Stardust thrown in) as part of the Isolar II world tour, the largest Bowie tour to date that finally included Australia for the first time.

The resultant “Stage” live album was another way to enjoy several of the track off “Heroes”, although the album was criticised (somewhat unfairly) as sounding almost identical to the actual album versions with some background crowd noise due to the superb musicianship on display. The 5.1 remix released on DVD in 2005 is well worth a listen and adds another dimension to the tracks.

 

 

In 2018, another live album from the Isolar II tour was released, “Welcome to the Blackout“. Recorded in London, it’s another fine album that captures Bowie at his classic best with “Beauty and the Beast”, “Heroes”, “Blackout” and “Sense of Doubt” all sounding just perfect.

 

Although it didn’t sell as well as previous outputs, Bowie was on the crest of an artistic high with the release of “Heroes”. Bowie would go on to record one more album with Brian Eno to complete the so-called Berlin Trilogy, the superb and criminally under-rated “Lodger“. But that’s a story for another day…

 

Best Tracks: “Heroes”, V-2 Schneider, The Secret Life of Arabia