17. Earthling

Earthling

Earthing” is David Bowie’s 23rd studio album and was originally released on 3rd February 1997.

After releasing the epic “1. Outside” album in 1995, the original idea had been to release a new album each year up until the new millennium, continuing the concept of Nathan Adler and the “art crimes”, finally solving who the horrid murderer was with album number 5. But in typical Bowie fashion, Bowie (and Eno) soon tired of the idea and 1996 came and went without any sign of a follow-up album (that had been muted to be called “2. Contamination”).

Bowie spent much of the intervening time touring the “1. Outside” album (but never in Australia Goddammit !!). On the US leg of the tour, Nine Inch Nails opened for/with Bowie, with Trent Razor admitting a number of times of being heavily influenced by Bowie. The tour had a very hard and gritty sound (the Outside album was no light-pop record), with Bowie listening to much of the electronica and drum & bass type music that was breaking at the time (with acts such as The Prodigy, Goldie, Underworld).

Bowie on his next album wanted to capture both the sound he was creating while on tour and the drum & bass, Jungle influences that were just on the cusp of becoming mainstream. The result was the album, “Earthing“, featuring his touring band at the time (minus Carlos Alomar).

The internet was still relatively new at the time, with Bowie at the forefront with his presence on the web thanks to his pioneering website. Through the website, Bowie asked his internet fans which album title to go with, “Earthling” or “Earthlings” (I know I know, it was such a difficult and hugely vital decision). More revolutionary though was Bowie releasing the first single “Telling Lies” initially as a downloadable only single, the first prominent “mainstream” act to do so. Bowie at the time predicted that in the future, downloading music would be the norm, a predication that was generally ridiculed back in 1997.

At the time I felt a tad disappointed with the album, mainly because I loved the “1. Outside” album so so much and wanted Bowie to continue the Nathan Adler concept adventure with Eno, but also because I felt Bowie was trying here to catch up with what was currently trendy, rather than set the trends himself. My disappointments have since mellowed and I concede that “Earthling” is indeed one very fine album, with Bowie taking many of these influences and making a musical statement that was very much his own.

The band Bowie has on board here really is fantastic, led again by Reeves Gabrels and ably supported by Mike Garson, Gail Ann Dorsey, Zack Alford and Mark Plati. Well practised having toured together for months, they collectively really rock when required but also sounded positively fresh and contemporary in the overall sound they generated.

I first bought this album at a record store in Sydney with the bloke who served me saying that this new Bowie album sounded pretty darn good. He was about 18 years old and I distinctly remember thinking that Bowie could still connect with the young’uns. Not bad for someone who had gone past the 50 years of age mark.

The album cover was quite brilliant, Bowie with red hair in his striking Alexander McQueen burnt up Union Jack coat, his back towards us as he gazes across a super bright vista of the English countryside. It’s actually one of my all-time favourite album covers.

The musical contents inside were also rather good, starting with “Little Wonder“, the second single off the album. Perhaps the most direct and obvious example of the drum & bass sound associated with the album, the track has all the frantic power and energy necessary to pull it all off. As with much of the album, the lyrics are obscure with Bowie back using the “cut-up” technique to write lyrics, but this time time with a computer program rather than a newspaper and pair of scissors. With a nod to the seven dwarfs (they all get a mention) and with a number of self references, Bowie sings with an earnest “Englishness” style that makes the listener wonder whether he’s really being serious or just having a laugh. The video accompanying the single features a spooky looking Bowie with a number of alien looking beings, including a re-incarnated Ziggy Stardust like character jumping around dingy parts of New York. Music Video.

little wonder

With a backdrop of strange buzzing sounds, rhythmic “fairground” keyboards and a chugging drumbeat, “Looking For Satellites” is the clearest example of Bowie’s cut-up writing technique. With lyrics collected from apparently random satellite TV channels (“Nowhere, Shampoo, TV, Combat, Boy’s Own, Slim tie, Showdown, Can’t stop“), Bowie chants rather than sings the chorus, before the verses kick in and the blast of “SATELLITES” !! The thing is, as odd as the components might be here, it all works so perfectly together resulting in a brilliant, late-Bowie classic.

The quality continues with “Battle For Britain (The Letter)“, where we return to the album’s predominant drum ‘n’ bass sound. With obtuse, cut-up lyrics which always makes me think of Bowie reminiscing of his rainy homelands, Bowie sings the verses in an English deadpan manner while the choruses sound almost anguished in comparison. With excellent contributions of manic guitars and keyboards from Gabrels and Garson, this really is a great track. One of many undiscovered treasures in Bowie 90’s cannon of work.

Seven Years In Tibet” is a much more sombre affair, with the quiet opening  “Are you OK?, You’ve been shot in the head, And I’m holding your brains, The old woman said” as dark as anything Bowie has ever penned. The music however explodes out of the speakers with the crunching chorus line of “I praise to you, Nothing ever goes away“, making for a thoroughly thrilling, if somewhat uneasy ride. Bowie’s contempt for the plight of those in Tibet is re-enforced by the (surprisingly effective) version sung in Mandarin that Bowie released as a single in some regions. Bowie has a long history and keen interest in Buddhism, almost going for the shaven head look and lifestyle in the late 60’s. This track is yet another Bowie classic that many have never heard before.

seven years in tibet

The following track “Dead Man Walking” has a title that suggests the solemn mood continues, but the music is positively uplifting in comparison. It’s one of the more “conventional” tracks on the album, a catchy tune with the out there instrumentation more subdued. As a result, it’s not one one my favourites here, although it was selected as the album’s third single.  Watch the somewhat bizarre video here directed by Floria Sigismondi (who would work with Bowie again on videos from “The Next Day” album).

Telling Lies” has a place in history, being one of the very first downloadable tracks from a major artist. Indeed, it was the first downloaded song I ever purchased. The first single off the album, I’ve always considered this one Bowie’s best “lesser known” singles. The manner in which Bowie sings the agonised “Telling Lies” refrain is worth price of admission alone. In this post Trump world, it sadly has even more relevance today than it did back in 1997.

telling lies

The Last Thing You Should Do” is my pick of the least interesting track on the album, which if rumours were true only made it onto the album at the last minute. Again, featuring the drum ‘n’ bass / jungle sound, it’s a little pedestrian with a somewhat flat vocal performance. Bowie sounds a little bored here, which is not a usual singing style for Bowie at all.

I’m Afraid Of Americans” however is altogether different and a definite highlight here. Co-written with Brian Eno during the “Outside” sessions, it’s a somewhat cynical and paranoiac view of the typical white, gun loving American male. It’s a real rocker of a song and was great when performed live. This was predictably a top 20 hit in Canada !! Released as the fourth and last single off the album, the video is brilliant and features NIN’s Trent Reznor (who remixed this version of song) as Johnny, the crazed American. It’s well worth a watch. Music Video.

Im afraid of americans

The final track “Law (Earthlings On Fire)” is a bit of a weak affair. It features odd instrumentation and an odd vocal that reminds me in parts just a tad of “Ricochet” from “Let’s Dance”. The refrain with Bowie singing the song title is the best part here, but it only takes one so far.

Bowie would tour the album with basically the same band as recorded the album (minus Mark Plati) throughout much of the later half of 1997 (although yet again not in Australia Goddammit !!). Bowie would also perform a number of the songs during his fantastic 50th Birthday show at Madison Square Gardens.

The album was re-released in 2004 as a 2 disc version, featuring a second CD of remixed versions but sadly no new notable outtakes.  I though would recommend getting this as part of the excellent value for money “David Bowie” boxed set.

Although not reaching the highs of the previous superb “1. Outside” album, overall, “Earthing” really is an excellent album with lots of wonderful, quirky highlights. As with much of his 1990’s output, it’s a sadly underrated effort and one of the often forgotten gems in the Bowie cannon.

Bowie would go on to make several more brilliant, quirky, underrated albums and a few that indeed got all the credit they deserved, but that’s a story for another day.

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18. Hours

hours

Hours” is David Bowie’s 24th studio album and was originally released on 21st September 1999.

This was the last Bowie album of the 1990’s and continued his trend of releasing throughout the decade a number of truly excellent, generally under-rated works. “Hours” is another hidden gem in the Bowie cannon which is full of wonderful, thought-provoking material, well worth a visit if you haven’t had the pleasure yet of listening to it.

Co-written with Reeves Gabrels, his ex-Tin Machine comrade and collaborator throughout much of the 1990’s, the album started life as the soundtrack to the computer game “Omikron: The Nomad Soul“. For a computing geek, I never really got much into computer games but I remember at the time getting a copy of Omikron and trying to get it to run on my then Windows NT laptop. It was a really fun game where you interact in a complex world while taking over various characters, fun that is until I got stuck trying to get past a heap of guards near the end before finally giving up. The game featured much of the music from what would eventually be the “Hours” album, including a few “live” performances by “The Dreamers” (a band based on Bowie, Gabrels and his then live bass player, Gail Ann Dorsey), playing in various dodgy bars throughout Omikron.

Omikron

A computer game soundtrack by the great David Bowie sounds pretty remarkable, that is until you realise just how much interest Bowie had in computing, the internet and with all the possibilities that the web had to offer. It’s easy to forget that Bowie was one of the internet pioneers, being one of the first to fully realise how downloading music would be the future, one of the first to have a full blown, interactive internet site and ISP services, one of the first of offer a commercial song “Telling Lies” as a download and one of the first to offer an entire album as a downloadable option here with the “Hours” album. David Bowie was awarded The Webby Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 for his pioneering contributions to music within the internet.

With the end of yet another decade fast approaching and with Bowie now in his 50’s, “Hours” is one of the most nostalgic, backwards yearning albums of his career. I distinctly remember at the time thinking that Bowie was actually getting “older”, really for the first time. He looked a little older, especially in this videos from the album, sounded a little older and indeed touched on his past in a way that an older person would reminisce of days gone by. This is all the more enhanced by the album cover, that has a (possibly dying) Bowie being comforted by a younger looking “angelic” Bowie.

The music touches on various previous parts of Bowie’s career, although in typical Bowie style it still sounded fresh and new. At the time, some critics mentioned it being a relative to the “Hunky Dory” album, but it’s not really a view I share. I’ve always thought there are references here to his glam period, his Berlin trilogy and indeed to his more recent material. But it most certainly didn’t sound too much like his previous drum ‘n’ bass frantic “Earthling” album, this generally being much mellower and quieter in scope.

The album kicks off with “Thursday’s Child” which was also the lead off single from the album (in most territories). It’s one of those quieter, dreamy songs so typical of the album, which has a rather lovely melodic feel. Bowie sings in his best “fragile” voice with a gorgeous chorus that just takes you away. A truly beautiful song. The video features Bowie staring at himself in the mirror and thinking when he was with a younger version of his partner. Music Video.  As with many releases at the time, there were a number of different versions of the CD single, which in turn featured different B-Sides to collect. It’s an expensive business being a Bowie fan, I’ll cover the B-Sides later on.

thursdays child

Something In The Air” is another cracking song, this time featuring a much more “electronic” sound, full of weird little noises and with a somewhat distorted Bowie lead vocal. As with much of the album, Bowie seems to feel that things are no longer what they once were and there’s a certain unease with what’s going on here. This song is probably the closest on this album to what he had previously recorded on the “1. Outside” and “Earthing” albums. Gabrel’s lead guitar and the strange sounds he can get out of it is on display the most here.

Survive” is another lovely song, with another sad, vulnerable vocal on which Bowie says he’ll survive but sounding as if he’ll do anything but now that a love is lost. Gabrel’s guitar line here really is excellent and the overall track is just sublime. For me, it makes me think just a little of the “Station To Station” album. This was the seond single off the album and featured a clever video of Bowie floating around the kitchen table. Music Video.

survive

If I’m dreaming My Life” is perhaps my favourite track on the album, although there are several possible candidates. A long brooding piece, it starts typically slow before spending up before each catchy, rhythmic alternate verse, with Bowie wondering if his life and that girl of his was all just one long dream. Gabrels features predominantly throughout with various guitar flourishes, including during the long coda section at the end. At 7 plus minutes, it’s one of the longer pieces Bowie has recorded and although no “Station To Station”, it’s still an excellent track. Bowie performed a nice version of this on his appearance on “VH1 Storytellers” (more on this later).

Seven” on the other hand is one of the weaker moments on the album. Released as the third and last single off the album (with again with so many different versions I almost lost count), it’s a rather basic acoustic track with a slide guitar line that’s all very nice but just doesn’t do it for me. “Seven” was also performed as part of Bowie’s “VH1 Storytellers” appearance. Video link to Seven on Storytellers.

Seven BlueSeven Purpleseven green

What’s Really Happening?” has an interesting story. As a promotion on “BowieNet”, Bowie’s internet fan club,  a competition was run for some lucky bugger to write lyrics for a new song that would appear on this album. Out of 20,000+ entrants, the winner was Alex Grant and the result was this track. As some consolation for all those who missed out, the recording of the track was webcast “live” on the internet for BowieNet members. The lyrics although not “Lennon-esque” (or Bowie level quality for that matter) do suit the tone of the album and I’ve always enjoyed the track with its fuzzy guitars and electronic rumblings.

The rocker of the album is definitely “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” and is a definite highlight. With little glimpses back to his Glam-Rock era and with Gabrels sounding not unlike Mick Ronson, Bowie is in vintage form here and the track has a rare swagger not found elsewhere on the album. Although Grabels guitar is most predominant, the excellent bass- line by Mark Plati deserves credit and helps to drive the track along. The lead-off single here in Australia, a remixed version of the song featured on the “Stigmata” film soundtrack. Video Performance.

pretty things are going to hell

New Angels Of Promise” is the song I most associate with the Omikron computer game and it’s the song featured at the very start. I’ve always loved this song as it has much of the ingredients of a classic Bowie track, with a wonderful mix of weird electronic instrumentation, a thumping rhythm and that somewhat distorted Bowie vocal delivery. With a hint towards the first side of the “Heroes” album, if you enjoy 70’s Bowie you’ll very likely enjoy this.

Brilliant Adventure” is even more of a hint towards the “Heroes” album, this time the B-side with this being the only instrumental on the album. With a strong Japanese vibe thanks to the featured koto, it echoes back to both “Moss Garden” and “Crystal Japan” from his past. Considering the strong influence and background of the “Omikron” soundtrack, it’s perhaps a little surprising that there weren’t more instrumentals featured on the album. Personally I find this track a little ho-hum and not as interesting as the aforementioned influences.

The album proper closes with the excellent “The Dreamers“, an atmospheric piece and one of my favourite Bowie vocals on the album. “The Dreamers” is the name of the fantasy Bowie band in the Omikron computer game, although the song itself is a somewhat obscure piece detailing dark dreams and shadows. Bowie’s vocals are again slightly distorted but he still hits the big notes impressively. A very satisfactory end to an overall highly satisfactory album.

Although the album was a typical hit in the UK, reaching No. 5 in the charts, it was however the first non-Tin Machine (or “Buddha of Suburbia” soundtrack album) not to make the Top 40 in the US since way back to the Ziggy album, only reaching a disappointing 47. Which is a pity, because this really is a wonderful album, that had a very modern feel for 1999 and I think would actually appeal to many in the US market.

At the time of release, as well as the standard packaging, a limited edition version featuring a lenticular cover kept us Bowie collectors happy. I would though recommend trying to get hold of the “David Bowie” box set which featured all the albums released between “1. Outside” and “Heathen”, each with a 2 CD package featuring various re-mixes, B-Sides and bonus tracks from each album. With regard “Hours”, this included the other four original tracks that were released as B-sides on various versions of the “Thursday’s Child” singles:

We All Go Through” has a Tin Machine feel during one of their quieter moments, but overall the track is kinda bland and forgettable. In other words, a perfect B-Side track.

1917” on the other hand is brilliant, one of those hidden Bowie gems and my favourite piece from the whole “Hours” sessions. A thoroughly weird little electronic-based instrumental, it reminds me just a little of the A-Side of the “Low” album, especially with that half finished feeling in how the track comes and then quickly disappears again.

We Shall Go To Town” is a somewhat sombre piece, with an almost tortured vocal by Bowie who sounds positively in pain throughout. Gabrel’s guitar solo sounds akin to him trying to throttle the thing, not unlike Bowie and his saxophone throttling Neukoln piece from “Heroes”. Although I might not have sold this too well, it’s actually a great track and a million miles from his 80’s stuff.

No-One Calls” is another down beat track with a somewhat hypnotic, repetitive, electronic/keyboard based arrangement, with Bowie singing in his best dour voice. Not a classic perhaps, but again perfect B-side fodder.

Soon after the release of “Hours”, Bowie and Gabrels went their separate ways, ending a 10 years working relationship and the end of a productive, generally underrated period of Bowie’s career. Their last performance together was on 23 August 1999 when Bowie performed live on VH1 Storytellers which featured “Thursday’s Child”, “Seven”, Survive” and “If I’m Dreaming My Life” from “Hours” among other classics from Bowie’s career. An album/DVD of the show was released some 10 years later on 6 July 2009.

storytellers

Bowie performed a very small low-key tour of just 8 live shows to promote the album. Gabrels was replaced on guitar by Page Hamilton with the tour setlist usually including “Thursday’s Child”, “Survive”, “Something In The Air”, “Seven” and “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” from the album.

With “Hours” we close off the 90’s and arguably Bowie’s most underrated period of his career. Bowie would move on into the new millennium and create two more high quality albums before his long 10 year break following his heart attack. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: Thursday’s Child, If I’m Dreaming My Life, 1917

19. Pin Ups

pin ups

Pin Ups” is David Bowie’s 7th studio album and was originally released on 19th October 1973.

On 3rd July 1973, David Bowie famously killed off Ziggy Stardust and declared he would never tour again. The following night he enjoyed a retirement party at Cafe Royal in London with a bunch of celebrities buddies and a few severely pissed off Spiders From Mars. And so that was that.

So with future tours put on hold and with it having been ages since he last released a new album (“Aladdin Sane” less than 3 months ago), what else was there for Bowie to do but record a new album and keep his successful momentum flowing.

The plan was to record an album of covers, featuring songs from bands that Bowie loved and would watch live during the late swinging 60’s in London. With an eye on the USA market, they would be songs which were less well known in the USA than they were in the UK.

Bowie’s own notes on the album show his intentions:

These songs are among my favourites from the ’64–67′ period of London. Most of the groups were playing the Ricky-Tick (was it a ‘y’ or an ‘i’?) Scene club circuit (Marquee, eel pie island la-la). Some are still with us. Pretty Things, Them, Yardbirds, Syd’s Pink Floyd, Mojos, Who, Easybeats, Merseys, The Kinks. Love-on ya!”

Bowie also planned to dump the “Spiders From Mars” rhythm section, replacing Mick Woodmansey on drums with Aynsley Dunbar and Trevor Bolder on bass with Jack Bruce. However while Dunbar jumped at the chance, Bruce turned the invite down and so Bolder was somewhat embarrassingly asked to participate in the recording sessions. So without “Woody” on board, this album kinda marks the start of the end of Bowie’s ever so successful and brilliant “glam-rock” era.

With the rest of the usual gang still on board (the dynamic Mick Ronson on guitar, Mike Garson on piano, Ken Fordham on baritone sax and Ken Scott as co-producer), they headed on down to the famous Chateau Herouville studios near Paris to record what would be yet another No. 1 hit in the UK and what really is a fabulous album. Interestingly, Bowie would in only 3 years or so record the “Low” album at the same studio, the difference in musical vibe could not have been any starker !!

Yes there are of course a few tracks better than others on “Pin Ups”, but Bowie really does appear to be enjoying himself here and the band are in fantastic form. Mick Ronson described this as his favourite recording experience with Bowie and it really does show. I’ve always imagined this album as Ziggy Stardust having a bit of fun doing a session at the Marquee Club before the Earth finally reaches the end of its Five Years.

It all starts off with “Rosalyn” originally by The Pretty Things and it’s a real rocker, with both Ronson and Dunbar in particularly fine form. Bowie sings many of the songs on the album with quirky vocal expressions and does so here. This is basically rock ‘n’ roll at its best.

Here Come The Night” made famous by Them comes next and is another great track. The problem I’ve always had with this is that Van Morrison’s performance on the Them version is so damn good, it’s always difficult to top such an iconic version (which Bowie does very successfully elsewhere).  I don’t think this song suits the band as much as many of the others but it’s still an enjoyable listening experience.

I Wish You Would” famously covered by The Yardbirds is another fine rocker, with Ronson I’m sure keen to show off his Eric Clapton like skills.  Again, they all sound like they’re having a fun time playing tunes they love and this especially comes across with this track.

Now “See Emily Play” really is special. I love Pink Floyd and the work of poor Syd Barrett and this is one of the very best early Floyd singles. Bowie here beautifully adapts all the strangeness that Syd encapsulates and then sprinkles Bowie magic all over it all for a fantastic tribute to his musical hero. The verses here are wonderful, especially the second verse with the multi-speed vocals, but the choruses are a joy as is the extended outro section. I love the original but I love this version just as much and no greater praise can I give.

Everything’s Alright” originally by The Mojos features here some fun backing vocals but isn’t one of the stronger tracks here. Again, just close your eyes and imagine Ziggy having a fun night out and it does kinda work.

I Can’t Explain” originally by The Who is OK but not great but then I think the same can be said for The Who original as well. It’s a bit of a plodder and although Bowie sings it well and the sax throughout is wonderful, the arrangement is a bit lame as is the little guitar solo. It’s notable in being one of the very few tracks on the album that Bowie would ever perform live.

Friday On My Mind” originally by The Easybeats is almost an Australian anthem and so has a special place in my heart (I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve hummed this in the middle of a boring week). Thankfully, Bowie again does this song total justice and is an absolute highlight here. The arrangement is wonderful, Ronson plays the famous guitar riff perfectly and Bowie sings the song with all the working class, glam-rock brilliance that Harry Vanda (Easybeats member and co-writer of the song) said was the only cover version of his song that he liked.

Up next is “Sorrow” recorded famously by The Merseys and the only track released as a single, where it was yet another big hit for Bowie reaching No 3 in the UK and yes, a No 1 smash in New Zealand. Now I’ve listened to this album 100’s of times over the years and I still think this track is by far the weakest point on the album. It’s just all a bit bland and mushy, especially compared to so many of the other tracks here. But like I said, the single was a huge hit and many think it an original Bowie classic, so what would I know. There was no official video made for the single although the performance recorded for the remarkable “1980 Floor Show” has become the unofficial version. Link Sorrow Video.

sorrow

Don’t Bring Me Down” originally by The Pretty Things is another example of a great rock ‘n’ roll song being performed with aplomb. Dunbar’s drums are great, Bowie’s quirky vocals are spot on, the instrumental middle section just rocks and Bowie’s harmonica throughout just lifts the whole thing. A joy.

Shapes Of Things” is yet another highlight. Bowie has often described Ronson as his “Jeff Beck”, so it’s only natural that Bowie/Ronson would nail this version of The Yardbirds classic. Again the whole band are in fine form, but it’s Ronson’s version of the classic Jeff Beck solo that steals the show. It would have been great to have seen this performed live, if only…

Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” is the second Who track to feature and if truth be told, is again a little disappointing. I’m not a huge Who fan so it obviously influences my judgement, but this track has always left me a little ho-hummed. It’s an OK performance but no more so than that.

Where Have All The Good Times Gone” originally by The Kinks closes the album and must have been a personal favourite of Bowie’s as it’s the only track to have its lyrics printed on the album. It’s a rather lovely version, with Mike Garson’s little piano flourishes a highlight for me as is Dunbar’s drumming. Actually, Dunbar’s drumming is a highlight throughout the album. Bowie sings this in a downbeat manner as he laments where have all the good times gone and does rather predict things to come for Bowie.

The end of the album, with the somewhat downbeat ending in terms of its vibe brings things back to the album cover, which has always been one of my favourites. A fantastic photo of a dreamy looking Twiggy (“the wonder kid”), the famous model who seems to be reminiscing of past glories maybe from the 1964-67 era the album covers, while “Ziggy” Bowie seems to be looking in dread to some horrific future to come. Where have all the good times gone indeed with his awful experiences of LA all soon to come.

So overall, a really enjoyable, fun album that did it’s job of being a perfect little filler to keep the fans amused before moving on to more series stuff.  I love it but doesn’t get ranked any higher on my list for the simple reason it doesn’t contain any Bowie originals. It’s an often forgotten album, in that its anniversary has come and gone over the years with no “special edition” as yet released although it’s been re-released and remaster a number of times. Most notable of these being the 1991 era Ryko/EMI Sound and Vision release that featured a couple of bonus tracks:

Growin’ Up“,  a cover of the Bruce Springsteen song is actually a track from very early  “Diamond Dogs” sessions and features Ron Wood on guitar. 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.

Port Of Amsterdam” is actually from the Ziggy Stardust sessions and is a cover of a Jacques Brel song. It features here as it was the B-Side of the “Sorrow” single. Although I much prefer his stunning live performances of Brel’s “My Death”, this really is an excellent cover and probably deserves more credit than its received. With its slow start and building acoustic guitars, Bowie’s vocals positively soar by the end of this rather sordid little ditty. It would have been hopelessly out of place on the Ziggy Stardust album, but is the perfect B-Side gem.

There was of course no live tour for this album, Bowie had just “retired”, but Bowie did perform “Sorrow”, “Everything’s Alright” and “I Can’t Explain” as part of the fantastic “The 1980 Floor Show Midnight Special” TV special he recorded on 19th October for NBC in the US. If you haven’t seen this (possible as it’s only been officially shown in the US), it’s a superb “must-see” experience and marks the end of Ziggy Stardust with it being the last time he performed with both Mick Ronson (for many years anyways) and Trevor Bolder. The costumes themselves are worth price of admission as is Bowie’s duet with Marianne Faithfull as they perform “I’ve Got You Babe”. 1980 Floor Show link.

Other than that, the Pin Ups songs were very rarely performed live. “Sorrow” did feature a few times, especially during the 1983 “Serious Moonlight” tour, as did “I Can’t Explain” for a few of the earlier 1983 shows.

With Pin Ups,  we mark the end of an era. No more Ken Scott, Bowie’s important co-producer since “Hunky Dory”, no more Trevor Bolder, the Spider on bass also with Bowie since “Hunky Dory” and perhaps most notable of all, no more Mick Ronson, his superb side-man since “The Man Who Sold The World” and who was such an important ingredient for all the amazing, formative albums since then. It would be some 20 years before Bowie would (sadly all too briefly) reunite with Ronson.

Bowie would of course move on after the demise of Ziggy Stardust and later in the year work on yet another masterpiece. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: See Emily Play, Friday On My Mind, Shapes Of Things

20. Young Americans

young americans

Young Americans” is David Bowie’s 9th studio album and was originally released on 7 March 1975.

Now we’re reached the Top 20, the quality of album is really starting to crank up.

By mid 1974, Bowie was creeping ever deeper into a rather dark place with massive international fame not being quite what he hoped it to be. With the gruelling “Diamond Dogs” tour and the pressures of outrageously complex theatrical nightly performances, with relationships with both his wife and his manager quickly deteriorating and on a famous diet consisting of just milk, peppers and cocaine, Bowie was both skeletal and barely coping. This was all so well documented in the brilliant “Cracked Actor” BBC documentary (watch it here).

In this environment, it’s extraordinary that Bowie decided to change his musical direction so radically from the “Glam Rock” genre that Bowie had mastered so well to the disco, black influenced “plastic soul” that was the “Young Americans” album. It was the first time while in a position of fame that Bowie decided to take such a dramatic change of musical direction and while this started his unique reputation of being the “Chameleon of Rock”, it’s easy to forgot how much professional courage such an undertaking  would have required. It could so very easily have backfired resulting in critical ridicule and the mass abandonment from his legion of fans. The fact Bowie succeeded in producing such a fine album that was a huge commercial success, especially in the tough American market where the album reached the Top 10 is a testament to the musical genius that is Bowie.

Recorded primarily during a break in the “Diamond Dogs” tour at the famous Sigma Sounds studio in Philadelphia, USA, Bowie himself described his new album somewhat derogatory as “Plastic Soul”. In truth it was anything but “plastic” or “fake” having garnered a group of highly talented (mainly) black musicians that injected a high degree of authenticity into the new album.

The only musician to survive from previous albums was pianist Mike Garson, although this would be his last album with Bowie for nearly 20 years. The album introduced a relatively unknown Puerto-Rico guitarist Carlos Alomar, who would work with Bowie for the majority Bowie’s future albums. On bass and drums were the very well respected session musicians Wellie Weeks and Tony Newmark respectively and on saxophone, the then almost unknown David Sanborn who would bring such a rich sound to the album. The impressive cast doesn’t end there. Backing vocalists included Ava Cherry, Robin Clark and a then almost unknown Luther Vandross.

Bowie would record two tracks later on in New York at the Electric Lady Studios when he got together with the one and only John Lennon, where two more highly important Bowie musicians were first introduced, Earl Slick on guitar and Dennis Davis on drums.

One other key ingredient to add into the mix was Tony Visconti, who after helping to mix the previous “Diamond Dogs” album, was reunited with Bowie for his second spell as album producer and in this case also studio engineer during the Stigma Sounds sessions.

With such an amazing cast of musicians and with the unique writing ability of David Bowie, a great album was almost guaranteed. Bowie loved “black” music that was dominating much of the US music scene at the time and wanted to create his own version of the Philly Sound, Motown, Soul Train, black styled music. He succeeded wonderfully and created one of the first white “disco” albums, before the likes of The Bee Gees, KC and the Sunshine Band,etc. made it hugely mainstream.

Don’t get me wrong, “Young Americans” is a wonderful album, but for a couple of key reasons I rate this as my least favourite album of Bowie’s unbelievable 70’s output. Music is a funny thing and much comes down to personal preferences and it’s just that disco/soul however you want to label it, is just not my favourite style of music, especially when it comes to Bowie. As much as I enjoy this album, I simply enjoy all the other Bowie albums to come in my rankings just that bit more. Additionally, there are a couple of tracks that brings down the album overall from what it could have been and that’s all it takes to be rated lower than the awesome competition.

The album kicks off with one of Bowie best known songs, the title track “Young Americans“. Describing the struggles of a young couple in post-Nixon USA, the joyous musical arrangement belies the hard hitting lyrics. Like much of the album, the track is basically recorded live in the studio and gives the song a wonderful vibe and feel that is perfectly captured by Visconti. The funky groove is fabulous as is Sanborn’s sax and with Bowie fast-flowing lyrics, this really is a classic track. The highlights for me though are the re-use of Lennon’s famous line “I heard the news today, oh boy” and the wonderful climax “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?“. This was released as the lead off single and became Bowie’s first top 20 US hit. No wonder really. There was no official video for this, although Bowie’s performance on the “Dick Cavett Show” is a good substitute. See it here.

young americans single cover

The next track “Win” is my favourite offering here. It’s a truly wonderful song, with Sanborn’s sax a particular highlight. It’s slower, more mellow and less wordy than much of the album and has a feel that reminds me somewhat of the “Station To Station” album to come. Bowie’s vocals move from tender to downright ominous as he sings “Someone like you should not be allowed to start any fires“.  This track along with the next (“Fascination”) were both recorded later in the year at the Record Plant studios in New York to in theory complete the album and so has a slightly different feel. I’ve always loved this track and as they say is worth price of admission alone.

Fascination” comes next with that funky groove in full swing and with Carlos Alomar’s rhythm guitar dominating throughout. Co-written with Luther Vandross and recorded in New York, the vocal arrangements with Bowie following the backup vocals during the chorus is particularly catchy.  “I know people think I’m a little crazy” does rather sum up Bowie’s experiences in the US. It’s a solid all-round track that is typical of the sound that Bowie was after with this album.

Right” is a mellow track with Bowie in fine form vocally but the unfortunate backing vocalists really struggled with the odd-ball time signatures and in-out timings (as documented on both the “Cracked Actor” and “Five Years” BBC documentaries). It’s one of my less preferred tracks although when it swings through the motions during the second half of the song, it does have a hypnotic feel. Perhaps because it was so difficult to record, this is one of those rare Bowie originals that has never been performed live.

Somebody Up There Likes Me” which opens side two in many ways is the centre-piece of the album and perfectly encapsulates the album, with it’s smooth yet funky guitar driven arrangements, catchy backing vocals, Bowie’s cool delivery and with Sanborn’s sax floating over everything. The blue-eyed soul boy at his best.

Across The Universe” is where things go very wrong. In early 1975, Bowie teamed up with John Lennon and decided to record a few tracks together at the Electric Lady studios in New York. This track is one of the results of their collaboration, a cover of Lennon’s/The Beatles classic and it just doesn’t work and it just doesn’t fit within the theme of the album. It’s bland and boring with the real tragedy being that much much better tracks were dropped to make room for this. I can only imagine Tony Visconti’s shock at hearing that this song (which would have made a perfect B-side to “Fame”) meant “Who Can I Be Now?” and “It’s Gonna Be Me” had to be dropped from the album. If not for this track, this album would likely have been rated a few notches higher, it’s that close.

Can You Hear Me” is one of the weaker tracks on the album, a ballad with a much more simplistic arrangement and featuring Bowie’s least impressive vocal performance. It’s just one of those tracks that I’ve never got into and adds weight for this to be Bowie’s least impressive 70’s era album.

Fame” is the second track to be included from the Lennon sessions and is altogether a different story. Here, Visconti can’t argue that this fully deserves it’s place on the album. Featuring a killer guitar line by Alomar (based in turn on “Foot Stompin” which Bowie had been unsuccessfully working on) and Lennon’s high pitched “Fame” backing vocal, this has become one of Bowie most loved treasures. Detailing Bowie’s disappointment having finally achieved fame, the use of multi-speed vocals is brilliant and classic Bowie. Released as the second single off the album, it achieved No 1 status in the US (Bowie’s first), one of the very few singles to chart higher in the US than in the UK where it only reached a relatively disappointing 17. Bowie no doubt thrilled to work with his hero Lennon would rank this as one of his favourite songs, with it being the song he would perform live the most throughout his career. Bowie also re-mixed “Fame” in 1990 for the movie “Pretty Woman” which had a rather excellent video. Again, there was no official video for the original “Fame”, although Bowie’s humorous, poorly lip-synced performance on Soul Train (the first white performer to feature) has become the unofficial video. Fame 90 Video.

fame

So an overall fine album, especially if you’re a fan of disco or black soul based music, but with one particular weaker moment.  And a brave album, when you consider the glam rock genre that had been Bowie’s ticket to stardom and success up to that point. But Bowie hadn’t really cracked the US as he had the UK, with glam rock just not something that appealed to enough of the market there. So a brave but also an astute move of Bowie’s by predicting the success of disco and creating an album that would ultimately appeal to a much wider audience in the market he most craved to break.

The album has been re-released a number of times, with some worth a mention.

In 1991, it was re-released and remastered on CD as part of the superb Ryko/EMI Sound and Vision series where most of the reissued albums featured bonus tracks. With the “Young Americans”, these were:

Who Can I Be Now” the first of the two tracks dropped from the original album listing to make room for the Lennon tracks. A rather nice ballad, featuring Mike Garson’s piano more predominately than elsewhere, Sanborn’s ever present sax and some wonderful backing vocal melodies, this is soooo much better than “Across The Universe”.

It’s Gonna Be Me” is another ballad with an upfront piano based arrangement, it features Bowie’s crooning, coke-cracked vocals at its best, but overall it doesn’t quite do it for me. The whole thing comes across as a little flat and is the most “plastic” of Bowie’s tracks recorded for “Young Americans”.

John, I’m Only Dancing Again” was recorded during these sessions and was originally planned to open the album before finally being dropped. A totally reworked version of Bowie’s glam classic “John, I’m Only Dancing”, only the chorus lyrics remain while the rest is transformed into a hip, disco driven funky jive 7 minute marathon. In the context of the album, it works rather well, but give me the original Ziggy versions anytime. This new version had previously seen the light of day when released as a single in 1979, the full version on 12” inch.

john-im-only-dancing-again

In 2007, a Special Release version of the album was re-issued again, this time including a DVD with a wonderful new 5.1 surround sound remix which gives the album a new lease of life.

In 2016, the album featured in the box set “Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976)“, which also included a version of “The Gouster“, the original name for the “Young Americans” album, with the original track listing from just the first Sigma Sound sessions. It’s a nice to have although there’s nothing here that hasn’t already been previously released.

who can i be now boxset

Bowie wouldn’t officially tour the album, although when he resumed the US only “Diamond Dogs” tour, it was totally revamped with all the complex sets discarded for a more intimate live experience re-badged as “The Soul/Philly Dogs” tour which did feature some of the new material. The LA performances from this part of the tour was released for the 2017 Record Store Day on the excellent triple LP “Cracked Actor (Live Los Angeles ’74)”  which included both “It’s Gonna Be Me” and “John, I’m Only Dancing Again”. It has since been released on CD.

cracked actor lp

As I mentioned earlier, two fantastic BBC documentaries capture Bowie superbly during this important period. The first “Cracked Actor“, filmed in 1974 during the recording of the album in-between the Diamond Dogs tour is a simply stunning insight into Bowie at the time, struggling to cope with fame, LA and drugs. Cracked Actor Link. The second one is “Five Years“, in which five formative years are discussed in detail, including the 1974-75 period and the recording process for “Young Americans”. “Five Years Link“.

Many regard this as one of Bowie’s very best albums but for me, there are many more albums that I prefer. While enduring a coked-out hellish existence in LA, Bowie would refine the “soul boy” sound on his next album but add a layer of European influenced electronica to create a truly special masterpiece. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: Young Americans, Win, Fame

21. Tin Machine

tin machine album

Tin Machine” is David Bowie’s 18th studio album and was originally released on 22 May 1989.

Although officially the first of two albums by the band “Tin Machine” of which Bowie was but one humbled member, for those of you who consider the whole Tin Machine period to be just another Bowie persona, this is for all intents and purposes another Bowie studio album.

By the end of the 80’s, Bowie was in a difficult place. His last album “Never Let Me Down” was universally panned by the critics (I rated it as his worst album and artistic nadir). His “Glass Spiders” world tour of 1987, although commercially successful, was likewise viewed a critical failure, often deemed just too over-bloated and over-the-top in its production (I personally loved the shows precisely because of its theatrical values). Bowie himself felt he was struggling artistically at the time, from 1983’s “Let’s Dance” onwards if truth be told. Bowie was even considering if he actually had a future left in music and whether he should focus on acting, directing or just putting his feet up living the high life with his now considerable wealth. In the end, Bowie took a different path entirely.

After being reacquainted with the Sales brother (Tony on bass and Hunt of drums), who he had worked with in 1977 during the making of Iggy Pop’s brilliant “Lust For Life” album (next time you watch “Trainspotting”, that brilliant rhythm during the song” Lust For Life” is the Sales brothers in action), they decided to work together again on the next Bowie project. Bowie also enlisted the services of Reeves Gabrels, suitably impressed when Bowie’s then publicist suggested he should check out her husbands guitar playing. Kevin Armstrong, who had worked with Bowie on a number of occasions previously (most notably on Iggy Pop’s excellent “Blah Blah Blah” album) plays rhythm guitar throughout, but was not “officially” a member of the band.

Together, they recorded one of the most controversial albums of Bowie’s career, not only because of it’s relative “rawness” and very hard rock content but also because Bowie wanted this released not as a solo project, but as a collective band effort. Bowie also insisted it be a democratic band, in that he was simply just one member of the gang, so the band photo on the cover had Bowie as the most distant member (and what the hell, was that facial hair on Bowie !!). Bowie wasn’t mentioned anywhere on the album cover, this was a Tin Machine album.

At the time, the music itself was actually quite well received, but the notion of Bowie being just a member of the band was generally ridiculed, which I can’t help thinking consequently impacted the overall reputation of the album itself.

Overall the music is dark and can only be categorised as heavy/hard rock, the “hardest” album Bowie has recorded since 1970’s “The Man Who Sold The World”. The “Tin Machine” album though is much “trashier” in sound and much less compromising in its take no prisoners approach, with frequent swearing and direct, unambiguous lyrics. Considering his previous album was the soft rock/pop of “Never Let Me Down”, this couldn’t be more different and confrontational, especially for his then Phil Collins-type fan base he had accumulated during the 80’s. Although there is no Iggy Pop at all on the album (unlike the previous 3 albums), this sounds soooo much more like authentic Iggy Pop than anything Bowie had managed to record so far.

I remember vividly when I first bought this album in that I simply loved it at the time. Following the disappointment that was “Never Let Me Down”, I considered this a real return to form, a Bowie who didn’t appear to put commercial interests up front anymore. Although far from his very best work, it was at least different and unconventional and “brave” and I was just so glad to have that adventurous Bowie back again. This was the first Bowie album for many a long year not to be played on commercial radio, here in Australia anyways, with JJJ radio one of the few places where the singles could be heard on the airways.

Which is all a bit of a shame, as it really is an excellent album that has aged remarkably well. After a few listens with the volume nice and high, it sounds surprisingly current and suggests it was perhaps a little ahead of the times, especially considering the Grunge sound, a close artist neighbour, was still a few years away from really taking off.

The album opens with “Heaven’s In Here“, supposedly the first thing they wrote together, which rather sets the mood of the whole album. A catchy guitar riff, which quickly goes into all sorts of squealing areas and a constant driving rhythm propels this song along. Bowie’s vocals start quiet and brooding, but by songs end he is screaming frantically. With lots of Gabrels guitar solos, especially at the end, this is the Tin Machine model that’s so dominates the album.

The title track “Tin Machine” comes next and is one of my favourite tracks on the album. It has so much going on with a frantic sound and tempo where you can just imagine the band with their heads down just going for it.  I have no idea what the song is about, so it has that classic Bowie ambiguity that is so endearing (“Working horrors humping Tories, Spittle on their chin“). It does though touch on the subject of “Goons” and has an anti far right-wing political sentiment that runs throughout the album. The band must have been somewhat attracted by the song as they named themselves after it. This was also the second single from the album, backed with a somewhat mediocre live version of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm”.

tin machine single

Prisoner Of Love” is my favourite track here and is really is a fantastic song. It’s the closest to a love song on the album, although there is a dark undertone to the song which still gives it that Tin Machine edge. That said, it really is quite beautiful, with the music restrained and Bowie’s vocal performance nothing short of brilliant. The chorus with excellent backing vocals is the most “grandiose” Bowie has sounded for quite some time. This was released as the third single off the album and would have been a huge hit if it had been a Bowie “solo” effort (or indeed recorded by Iggy Pop). Music Video.

prisoner of love

Crack City” is one of those really “direct” moments on the album. Bowie’s scorn at the issue of drugs and the evilness of those “candymen” who peddle this type of death just hits one on the back of the head. Really heard. The music is hard and ferocious but nothing like the lyrics and Bowie’s scathing delivery, which are the most upfront and unambiguously savage in Bowie’s entire career. One gets the feeling after nearly succumbing to drugs and crack cocaine himself throughout the mid 70’s, Bowie and gang felt the need to tell it how it is. With lines such as:

May all your vilest nightmares
Consume your shrunken head
May the ho-ho-hounds of paranoia
Dance upon your stinking bed

Don’t look at me you fuckhead
This nation’s turning blue
Its stink it fouls the highways
Its filth, it sticks like glue”
Well this ain’t no frivolous “Modern Love” that will get you on the dance floor. Not even close.

I Can’t Read” lightens things up a little (relatively speaking anyways) and was Bowie’s favourite track on the album. Bowie laments the inability to read, while he aimlessly changes the channel on the TV in some lonesome existence. The mood and feel of this would have suited the “Low” sessions rather well, although the music is not quite as cutting edge or adventurous. I have to agree with Bowie with this being one of the best moments on the album. Bowie was so endeared with the song that he re-recorded it in 1997 for the film soundtrack to “The Ice Storm” and released that version as a single.

With “Under The God“, we return to the harder side of Tin Machine, with a manic, anti-fascist piece that derides the ugly far-right of UK politics, especially popular with skin-heads and racists at the time (Brexit anyone?). Hard to believe this was written by the same Thin White Duke who dangerously dabbled with far right musings a dozen years previously. “Washington heads in the toilet bowl, Don’t see supremacist hate, Right wing dicks in their boiler suits, Picking out who to annihilate” doesn’t really leave much doubt for their thoughts on the matter and accompanied with a raging rhythm section (not unlike “Lust For Life”) and with Gabrels manic guitar, this track is a real rocker. This was the lead-off single, promoted with a video featuring the band being mobbed onstage by uncontrollable thugs. Music Video.

under the god

Amazing” is one of the quieter moments, a lovely ballad on how amazing life is with someone special, although there’s that slight edge with the concern she might move on to someone else. The guitar work here by Grabrels is particularly exquisite, as are Bowie’s tender vocals and suggests perhaps Tin Machine should have recorded more tracks such as this.

Working Class Hero” is a cover of John Lennon’s classic and fits the anti-establishment feel of the album perfectly. I absolutely love the original Lennon version and is one of my favourite Lennon songs, so it was a thrill to hear Bowie and gang give it a go. Although nothing can beat the Lennon original, this isn’t a bad version with an appropriately sparse arrangement, Gabrels guitar to give it the Tin Machine signature and Bowie’s angry vocal delivery.

Bus Stop” is a fun little ditty about someones skepticism of a religious experience while waiting at the bus stop, which on reflection might just have been a result of last night’s curry. It’s about the only moment of humour on the album, so make the most of its 1 min 43 seconds. The band obviously had fun with this song when on tour, converting it into a bizarre country and western romp.

The next track “Pretty Thing” is a pretty standard rocker, with the rhythm section in charge here with the start/stop arrangement. The best part though is the weird little middle eight section where the track goes off into a different tangent before the long closing sequence, where I’ve always liked the texture Gabrels guitar provides on top of everything.

Video Crimes” is another rocker, with a somewhat stuttering feel that again fits the overall protesting theme of the album, this time lamenting the nasty videos that cause so many issues for society. Bowie plays the part of someone who obviously spends way too much time watching violent movies in his isolated existence and is contemplating “chopping” a few things up himself. It’s imagery on a level far more disturbing than on anything found on the likes of say “Diamond Dogs” or “Low”.

Run” features my favourite Gabrels (albeit brief) solo on the album, although it’s Armstrong’s guitar that features most predominantly on the track (I guess as he co-wrote the thing). I always viewed this as a recommendation on what to do if you ever met the creepy character from the previous song but is really about how Bowie would react if he doesn’t get the girl of his dreams. It’s typically dark and broody but Bowie sounds rather good here. Interestingly, “Run” and the next track “Sacrifice Yourself” didn’t appear on the LP version, no doubt due to space issues, but with most people now buying CDs, Bowie and gang were obviously keen that they be included. The fact the songs are simply not plonked at the end of the album and both have their lyrics in the album notes suggests they are legitimate members of the album proper.

Sacrifice Yourself” as I mentioned didn’t make it onto the LP version of the album and is another somewhat frantic number, with break-neck lyrics that again make references to a God (as in a number of the previous tracks). There’s nothing really that distinguishes this much from other tracks on the album and is one of my least favourite moments.

The album ends with “Baby Can Dance“, which reminds me the most of his previous 1983-1987 period material and could perhaps have fitted in on the “Never Let Me Down” album, where it would have been one of the better tracks. It does have the Tin Machine arrangement, which means upfront drums and lots of squealing guitars, but I’ve always liked this track and makes me wonder what some of the other earlier material would have sounded with Tin Machine playing or if some of the Tin Machine songs had a more commercial shine.

Tin Machine would tour the album extensively, but alas never in Australia (other than a one off, unannounced engagement in Sydney). The shows were generally well received (if you were expecting a Tin Machine experience) and were played in much smaller, more intimate venues than Bowie had played for a very long time. The shows featured no solo Bowie numbers to emphasise this was a real band to be taken seriously, which disappointed many and explained the much smaller crowds. But how I wish I could have attended one of the shows. The somewhat mediocre live album “Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby” was some consolation although one got a better taste of things with the “Live at the Docks” concert video recorded on 24 October 1991.

oy vey baby

I don’t believe history has done this original “Tin Machine” album justice, often forgotten and ignored as being from that “silly” Tin Machine period. Overall, it’s an album that indeed has a very distinctive edge, with a hardness and rawness that’s kinda unique in the Bowie cannon. The follow-up “Tin Machine II” album has a lot more of a melodic feel than found here with much of the rawness polished away. But this really is an excellent album that rewards with repeat listening.

For many however, this was the point in time when they stopped buying Bowie albums. The older generation often stopped buying albums in general anyways, while the newer generation had new heroes to follow. Which is a shame, as this album provided Bowie the circuit-breaker he needed to ditch his 80’s commercial tendencies and rejuvenate himself into making some truly brilliant solo albums throughout the 90’s and beyond.

The next album in my review will be the first of my top 20 Bowie albums and the first album to come from his 1970’s period. It might be a tad controversial as the next album in my ranking is often regarded as a much loved album from what is widely considered to be Bowie’s best decade of output. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: Tin Machine, Prisoner Of Love, I Can’t Read

22. Reality

reality

Reality” is David Bowie’s 26th studio album and was originally released on 16 September 2003.

The quality of album is beginning to really jump up here with “Reality”, the album that looked for many a long year to be the last Bowie might ever record. Released just a year after his excellent 2002 effort “Heathen”, this was the second Tony Visconti come-back produced album. With a heavy “New York” influence and with some truly excellent tracks, Bowie was in a bit of a swing and producing some really nice new material. In fact, he had consistently been producing good albums throughout the 90’s and 2000’s, although I would rank this as being slightly below par for that period.

The album contained an interesting mix, from full blown rock, to jazzy numbers to some art-rock type pieces right through to basic pop, the album featured a chocolate box of influences and styles. Overall, it was a fine album and the subsequent live performances during the “Reality” world tour featuring much of the album highlighted how Bowie indeed still “had it”. I think Visconti was an overall good influence here, making much of the new material shine and sound as good as it possibly could.

Considering his age (he was 55 when he recorded this album), Bowie was still full of energy and still pushing the boundaries, with a unique world-wide cinema “live” release of the album and a full blown world tour to promote it (including at long long last Australia again !!). However, the overall thread that runs through the album is indeed old age, mortality and how life will eventually come to an end. Sadly.

The album opens with the fabulous “New Killer Star” (Nuclear Star, get it), my favourite track on the album. With imagery of post 2001 New York and a killer riff, this really is classic Bowie and worth price of admission alone. The first single from the album (which sadly and a little surprisingly didn’t chart), the video was a bit disappointing in that it didn’t actually feature Bowie but a series of lenticular images that appear to move as you view them from different angles, showing an astronaut in trouble within his spaceship on an otherwise beautiful day on Earth where it crashes. Music Video.

new killer star

Pablo Picasso“, a cover of a song by The Modern Lovers (who?), is a positive delight. Featuring some nice Spanish-like, distorted acoustic guitar and again the band in a groovy mood, Bowie’s vocals are fabulous here. With hilarious verses and a chorus as catchy as hell, this is one of Bowie’s best ever covers. I love it.

Never Get Old” continues the good form, although I must say since his passing, this song feels altogether different now. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek ditty about how Bowie indeed never looks old (probably all the drugs) and how he will likely just live forever, the music is alive with a great drum/bass/rhythm guitar foundation. Since Bowie indeed never did grow old (69 is way too young) and that he didn’t live forever, the song now has a sadness to it that makes it just a little uncomfortable to listen to now. This was the second single off the album.

never get old

The pace changes significantly with “The Loneliest Guy“, indeed we come to a screaming halt and start to go really slooooooooooooooow here. With Bowie at his most tender, this song feels a little out of place here and sounds more like a soundscape piece from the “1. Outside” album. Featuring an anguished, lonely indeed vocal, a very thin orchestration of sparse piano and weird little soundscapes, Bowie had a lot of fun playing this on his “Reality” tour to see how the crowd would react. Not one of my favourites.

The catchy drum beat and guitar riff reappears with “Looking for Water“, a desperate sounding, thirsty Bowie appears lost in some Middle-Eastern desert. It reminds me just a tiny tad of an old song by the Bowie inspired New Musik called “The World of Water”, if only for the watery theme and clever use of backup vocals. It’s a solid track that was occasionally performed live on the “Reality” tour.

She’ll Drive the Big Car” is about a disillusioned woman from New York who has probably listened to “Always Crashing In The Same Car” too many times (not possible I know, but…) and is contemplating driving her fancy big car into the Hudson River. Bowie’s vocals are a tad distorted here, giving him a slightly unattached feel as he narratives.  It really is a good song that I’ve always just enjoyed.

Days” has almost “country” twang to it, but despite this (I really dislike country music, aaarrrgggg), it’s another really nice, soft song. Bowie sounds wonderful here, as he searches for a friend.

Fall Dog Bombs the Moon” has a great bass line (very common with Visconti produced albums, especially when he’s playing) and is Bowie touching the subject of the Iraq War, a concern for many in 2003, which he does a few times more in the (distant) future.  The lyrics here are particularly good with cutting verses such as “There’s always a moron, Someone to hate, A corporate tie, A wig and a date, Just a dog“. Bowie comes back to this subject on “The Next Day” with tracks such as “I’d Rather Be High” and “How Does The Grass Grow“.

Try Some, Buy Some” written by George Harrison, is one of the weaker moments on the album. It just doesn’t do it for me, with a somewhat lacklustre production and a Bowie vocal that sounds forced and unconvincing. It just sounds dull, which is never a good thing.

The title track “Reality” comes next which lifts both mood and tempo with the “rockiest” track on the album. Bowie sounds both frustrated and sarcastic as he details how we must all face the reality of life. It also comes across as a little biographical as he explains his previous faults and failings “I built a wall of sound to separate us, And hid among the junk of wretched highs, I sped from Planet X to Planet Alpha, Struggling for reality“. This song in particular sounded great live.

The album closes with “Bring Me the Disco King“, a song Bowie has struggled to get right since he first looked at including it on an album way back on “Black Tie White Noise” in 1993. But it wasn’t until “Reality” with Mike Garson’s prominent tinkering jazz inspired piano that Bowie felt confident for it to be released. I’m no great lover of jazz and so for me, this finale just isn’t my cup of tea. However, the lyrics are rather beautiful and again focus on the past and how in the future death beckons. Considering that Bowie is no longer with us, it does have a poignancy that makes for an even more difficult listen now.

So overall, a rather good album and well worth a listen if you stopped listening to Bowie during the 80’s.

There were quite a number of different formats for the album around the general time of it’s initial release. On top of the general single CD release, there was a 2 disc version that included a second CD of extra tracks:

Fly“, a poppy kind of song, with a catchy enough chorus that always reminds me a little of the work of Devo. It’s notable for having Carlos Alomar on guitar, for what would be his last ever appearance on a Bowie album or on stage.

Queen of All the Tarts (Overture)” is actually my favourite piece from the whole “Reality” project. I simply love this song and although it’s clearly unfinished and has lyrics that only repeat the song title, it’s a fabulous Bowie experience. With music that is manic and catchy as all hell, I could quite happily spend a day listening to just these 3 minutes. The song was featured on the “Reality” tour by being played just before Bowie and band took the stage.

Rebel Rebel” (2002 re-recording). The re-worked version is OK, but the original is just so much better. This was the version/arrangement Bowie performed during the opening of  the “Reality” tour

There was also a version of the album that included a bonus DVD of the live performance of the album that was recorded at the Hammersmith Riverside and aired in cinemas all around the world prior to the album release. It also included a bonus track:

Waterloo Sunset“, a cover of the famous song by The Kinks. Of all the covers during the Reality sessions, this along with “Pablo Picasso” work best. Bowie gives a rather lovely, heartfelt performance here and the guitar riff is spot on. Well worth a listen.

Finally, there was yet another version of the album which featured a DualDisc CD/DVD, which included a 5.1 surround sound mix of the album. This mix does indeed sound rather marvellous.

The other track worth a very quick mention is “Love Missile F1 Eleven“, a somewhat forgettable cover of the Sigue Sigue Sputnik hit that featured on the B-Side of the “New Killer Sun” single.

Bowie promoted this album with the excellent and extremely successful “Reality” world tour. It was excellent for a number of reasons, the band were truly fantastic, the set-list was extensive, changed on a daily basis and included some amazing and rarely performed songs (such as “The Bewlay Brothers”, “Fantastic Voyage” and a Ziggy Stardust based finale) and most important of all, because after 17 looooooong years, finally included Australia again. The tour was recorded both on video and as a live album and captures rather well the whole essence of the tour.

I was fortunate enough to get tickets to both Sydney shows and will of course always fondly remember them. But I distinctly remember after the second show thinking I will likely never get to see Bowie live again and although still incredibly pumped, had a sad feeling for many days afterwards.

Later during the European leg of the tour, Bowie suffered a minor heart attack and had to end the tour prematurely. He would never tour again. After the odd appearance here and there (most notably with David Gilmour on his tour in 2006), Bowie slowly disappeared from the public scene entirely. For many a long year, it therefore looked as if “Reality” would be his last ever album.

However, on 8 January 2013 we heard the wonderful news that Bowie had just out of nowhere released a new single and that a new album was on its way. So there were a couple yet of more excellent albums to come from the great man. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: New Killer Sun, Pablo Picasso, Queen Of All The Tarts (Overture)

a reality tour

23. Tonight

bowie tonight

Tonight” is David Bowie’s 16th studio album and was originally released on 1 September 1984.

After the incredible commercial success of both the “Let’s Dance” album and the “Serious Moonlight” world tour, Bowie was under some pressure to come up with a worthy follow-up album. Soon after the tour completion, Bowie hit the studio (Le Studio, Quebec) with much of the same band from the “Let’s Dance” sessions and recorded the oddity that is “Tonight”.

There were a few key changes to the “Let’s Dance” personnel. Nile Rodgers was replaced as producer by Derek Bramble who in turn was replaced during the sessions by Hugh Padgham (well known for his previous work with The Police). Rumour has it Bowie wasn’t happy with how the album was progressing under Bramble and grew tiresome of being asked to sing extra takes when the first one was perfectly OK.

Stevie Ray Vaughan was also gone (he left Bowie acrimoniously before the “Serious Moonlight” tour), replaced on guitar with Derek Bramble and the return of Carlos Alomar. In attendance also was Iggy Pop, who’s writing would feature so predominantly on the album, although he only officially sang co-vocals on the one track.

With most musicians the same, “Tonight” has a similar feel and sound to the monster album that was “Let’s Dance”, which of course was Bowie’s intent. Unfortunately, one gets the distinct feeling that Bowie was more concerned with simply getting something “out there” for the masses to consume, rather than working on an artistic masterpiece as was his norm. Remarkably, he only wrote four new songs for the whole album (the other five tracks were covers) with two of the new tracks co-written with Iggy Pop. In fact Iggy Pop with five writing credits has almost as many writing contributions as Bowie himself.

Of the three EMI 80’s solo albums, “Tonight” is my personal favourite for the simple reason it has a number of tracks that are so much better than found elsewhere in the trilogy, although this album certainly suffers from a few “weaker” moments.

The album opens with “Loving The Alien“, which is an absolutely beautiful, stunning track, one if his best moments of the whole 80’s period. On the subject of religious hypocrisy and conflict, it’s classic Bowie in that the orchestration is eerie, catchy, beautiful and mournful all at the same time. I distinctly remember when I put this album on the turntable for the very first time in my bedroom all those years ago thinking, wow this is going to be a totally amazing album. Sadly, this is the standout best song until we hit the last track. Which is a little frustrating because you can’t but help think what if Bowie only put in the same energies into every track on the album. This was released as the 3rd single off the album and featured one of the very best videos he’s made (and he’s made lots of good ones) full of religious and alien juxtaposition imagery. It’s a must watch. Music Video.

loving the alien

Next comes a cover of Iggy Pop’s “Don’t Look Down“, off his excellent “New Values” album. Bowie transforms the song into an almost reggae piece, likely a Hugh Padgham influence. There are worse covers on this album, but this version doesn’t quite work. The problem with Bowie doing Iggy is that what makes Iggy work is his raw energy and without that, one is often left with just the skin and bones of the song. I often wish Bowie had covered instead “The Endless Sea” off the same album, as it would have suited Bowie a lot more.

God Only Knows” is an iconic Beach Boys song, so to cover such a beast is thwart with danger. Bowie sings it well enough in his best lower register, but the overall arrangement here is dreadful and the song just sounds grand in that pretending, karaoke kinda of way. I don’t believe he’s ever performed this live, so maybe he thought once was probably enough.

Side 1 ends with the title track “Tonight“, a cover of his co-written song with Iggy Pop off the brilliant “Lust For Life” album. Remember what I said earlier about sucking the raw energy out of an Iggy song, well this version leaves behind nothing but a dried up old pip. The original is a wonderfully powerful piece, the last moments spent with a girl dying from a drug overdose, the opening spoken section critical to frame everything. Tina Turner, who sings a barely noticeably duet with Bowie here, refused to include the opening section and the remaining reggae plod of a song is just a shell of the brilliant original. This was the second single off the album and even with Tina Turner on board, couldn’t make the top 50 in the UK. Music Video Live With Tina Turner.

tonight single

So great start, not such a good finish to Side 1.

Side 2 starts with yet another Iggy Pop “Lust For Life” cover, “Neighborhood Threat“. Same rule applies here, with the original so much better but at least this version isn’t weighed down by a dodgy reggae based arrangement. Bowie himself said recording this with the band he had at the time was a mistake. Enough said.

Blue Jean” does pick things up considerably. The only other new track (along with “Loving The Alien”) written solely by Bowie for this album, it’s a fun, catchy and almost “glam-like” in its sound. It certainly isn’t a great song, but it does have that “something” which makes it sparkle upon listening. The opening single off the album, it had a fabulous 20 minute music video “Jazzin’ For Blue Jean” (directed by Julian Temple with whom Bowie would work on “Absolute Beginners”) which is absolutely hilarious. With Bowie playing the part of the nerdy guy trying to get the glamorous girl and also the part of the drugged out rock star Lord Byron, it really is worth watching.   Jazzin’ For Blue Jean Video.

blue jean single

The next track “Tumble and Twirl” is a new track co-written with Iggy Pop and is one of the album highlights. The band really works well here and the almost Latino vibe sounds great, suiting the song which depicts their experiences when visiting Indonesia. It actually has “energy” and a sense that everyone is enjoying themselves here.

The same can’t be said for yet another cover, the Leiber/Stoller standard “I Keep Forgettin’“, although on reflection it’s probably the best cover performance on the album. It’s just not particularly rememberable (pun of course fully intended).

Thankfully the album ends on a high, the truly excellent “Dancing With The Big Boys“, co-written for the album with Iggy Pop and Carlos Alomar. It again highlights just how much better this album could have been with more moments such as these. Featuring the band bashing out a big, loud rhythm and with Bowie and Pop co-singing their panicky concerns for society, Bowie once said this track was the sound he was after with the album and one he hoped to perfect on the next album (he unfortunately failed there). This would have been a far better single than the tragic “Tonight”, but what would I know.

Having just completed a huge world tour in 1983, Bowie wouldn’t tour this album. Instead he next focused on a number of film related projects such as “When The Wind Blows”, “Absolute Beginners” and “Labyrinth”. As such, many of the tracks have never been performed live by Bowie, although thankfully “Loving The Alien” is not among them.

So overall, the album was a mixed bag with some excellent tracks, some OK and some dreadful. It was a hit album though at the time, reaching No 1 in the UK and 11 in the US. But considering the amazing quality of Bowie’s albums to date, it was certainly a concerning dip in the overall quality with both “Let’s Dance” and now “Tonight” not up to the usual Bowie-Universe standard in terms of quality and originality.  Sadly, worse was to come until things picked up with the introduction of the Tin Machine experiment, but that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: Loving The Alien, Tumble and Twirl, Dancing With The Big Boys