1. The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars

 

The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” is David Bowie’s 5th studio album, originally released on 16th June 1972.

In the end, No. 1 had to be Ziggy. It’s not only my favourite David Bowie album, but my favourite album of all time. Which is actually quite remarkable as it was the very first album I ever bought on record (I initially bought all my music on cassette tape as I only had a cheap tape deck in the early days). So when I close my eyes and listen to this remarkable album, I’m instantly transported to my little semi-attached house in Manchester and playing this for the first time on my parents new record player and Castle speakers. It sounded sooooooo good and yes, it’s still sounds so fresh and vibrant and exciting and thrilling and ALIVE today.

But it’s not just that this album has oodles of nostalgia for me. It really is for me musically the perfect album…

Back in late 1971, early 1972, David Bowie was still relatively unknown. Despite being in the music business for an endless 7-8 years with four albums under his belt, Bowie had just the one hit to his name, the “Space Oddity” single back in 1969. But that was all about to change for ever…

All the pieces for his success were now finally in place. In Tony Defries, Bowie had a manager who was now singularly focused on ensuring Bowie got the media attention he needed and cleverly used hype and marketing to give the perception that Bowie was a star whilst still almost penniless. In RCA, he had a record label who were committed to the necessary marketing and promotion needed for success, especially in the US. In Ken Scott, Bowie had a producer who knew how to get the very best out of Bowie and his remarkable songs in the studio. In Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder and Mick “Woody” Woodmansey, he had the perfect musical foil who could both in the studio and live in concert make Bowie’s music truly shine. But perhaps most importantly, Bowie’s song writing had reached a golden period, where he had really clicked and was writing song after song of an incredibly high calibre. His previous album “Hunky Dory” was a tour de force of amazing song craftsmanship. Unbelievably, even before his previous masterpiece had even been officially released, Bowie was already in the studio excitedly recording his next album with another set of brilliant new songs.

However, rather than just a collection of great songs, Bowie had a half formalised idea for a concept album, one which told the story of Ziggy Stardust, an alien who would arrive on earth as a cosmic savior as the world was nearing a nightmarish end due to some unspecified apocalypse and through music would bring hope to a desperate population. However success and the inevitable, unavoidable end would all be too much for Ziggy, who ultimately perish at the hands of his devoted fans.

The Ziggy Stardust character would be based on various influences, including Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan, Jimi Hendrix, The Stardust Cowboy, Syd Barrett and perhaps most pivotal of all, Vince Taylor, a 1960’s rocker who would suffer from a mental breakdown at the height of his (mainly European-based) success. Although Bowie had developed quite a detailed story-line, at least in his head, the final album had a very loose concept with Ziggy no more than a vague thread than runs through the album, rather than any real coherent narrative. Side One of the album can be seen as setting the scene and describing somewhat Ziggy’s environment and arrival, where Side Two more specifically tells Ziggy’s tragic tale, although most of the narrative is actually condensed within the title track itself.

The album opens with Woody’s iconic slowly fading-in drum beat that is the introduction to “Five Years“. The band joins in with a mainly piano and guitar based riff as Bowie opens with the unsettling “Pushing through the market square, So many mothers sighing, News had just come over, We had five years left to cry in“. Bowie then details the reaction of various people at the awful, apocalyptic news that mankind only has 5 short years remaining. The music slowly builds as Bowie observes events around him such as “A girl my age went off her head, Hit some tiny children” and later “A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest, And a queer threw up at the sight of that“. Ronson’s lovely string arrangements are then introduced as Bowie sees his girlfriend, oblivious to their doomed future and has the heartbreaking task of telling her the nightmarish news “Smiling and waving and looking so fine, Don’t think you knew you were in this song“. It’s just all too much and as the music reaches it glorious crescendo and the strings explode out, Bowie sadly recants “We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot, Five years, that’s all we’ve got” before finally literally screaming “FIVE YEARS !!!” in sheer terror and anguish. Woody’s awesome drum performance then ends as it began, as it slowly fades away. It’s an extraordinary vocal performance, one Bowie could never quite replicate live as it would quickly destroy his voice and shred his vocal cords.

If this isn’t the best opening to any album, then I haven’t heard it. It’s one of Bowie’s very finest moments on record and we’re only up to the first track. Bowie would perform the song on and off throughout his career, in some of the early Ziggy Stardust shows, during the “Station To Station Isolar I” tour and “Stage Isolar II” tours and then finally on his last “Reality” outings.

Bowie introduced Ziggy Stardust to the world way back in February 1972 a few months before the album’s release when he performed “Five Years” on the “Old Grey Whistle Test”. Watch this iconic performance here.

The “Five Years” outro drum beat merges seamlessly to the intro drum beat to “Soul Love“, a song that describes the contradictions and failings of love within the Ziggy universe, from the perspectives of a grieving mother, young lovers and a lonely priest. It has a rather lovely, catchy melody played predominantly on Bowie’s acoustic guitar, with Ronson’s guitar at perhaps its most restrained on the album. Although the music has an uplifting feel, especially when Bowie plays his rather cute saxophone solo, there’s a sadness in each of the three vignettes; the grieving mother “Stone love, she kneels before the grave, A brave son, who gave his life“, the two young lovers “New words, a love so strong it tears their hearts” and the priest “All love, though reaching up my loneliness evolves, By the blindness that surrounds him“. In the chorus, Bowie reminds us how love encompasses all “Love is careless in its choosing, Sweeping over cross and baby” but in a doomed world, love might not be enough “All I have is my love of love, And love is not loving“. These are all people in desperate need of a saviour…

Other than the 1978 Isolar II tour where is was a fixture of the Ziggy Stardust resurrection within the setlist, it’s a track that Bowie very rarely performed live.

The saviour arrives in the next track, the cosmic experience that is “Moonage Daydream” and perhaps the centrepiece of the album. Following Ronson’s power chords, Bowie introduces us to Ziggy with the immortal lines “I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for you, I’m the space invader, I’ll be a rock ‘n’ rollin’ bitch for you“. Things only take off from here on in, with The Spiders at their absolute best studio form, creating hard rock stereophonics that truly takes you to another place. The first verse though is relatively subtle, with mainly Bowie’s acoustic guitar and Bolder on bass covering most of the melody lines. Things expand out in the chorus, with the piano joining in the fun and the “dooooo” backing vocals as Ziggy pleads “Keep your ‘lectric eye on me babe, Put your ray gun to my head“. Ronson’s superb guitar is more prominent in the second verse, as Ziggy ties things back to love themes from the previous “Soul Love“, “Don’t fake it baby, lay the real thing on me, The church of man, love, is such a holy place to be” before diving into the chorus again “Press your space face close to mine, love, Freak out in a moonage daydream oh yeah“. We then arrive at the first musical break, where Bowie’s baritone saxophone and what sounds like a tin whistle dominate before literally soaring into the choruses again, the music building and building in intensity with Ronson’s amazing string arrangements kicking in. Ziggy’s voice expands out as he cries out the lyrics, echoing now as if resounding out into the cosmos. Ronson’s epic guitar solo bellows out as Ziggy commands us all to “Freak out, far out, in out“. The final minute plus of this track is undoubtedly Ronson’s finest moment on record, a soaring masterpiece of distorted guitar heroics that combined with his swirling strings creates a space-opera soundscape that always takes me to a special place. It’s a truly amazing song and when played at maximum volume (as suggested on the back of the record sleeve), it just sounds superb. Ziggy has most definitely arrived !!

An early version of Moonage Daydream was recorded for Bowie’s aborted Arnold Corns project (more on this later).

During the subsequent Ziggy Stardust tours, this track would be one of the highlights, with Ronson’s guitar solo expanded out to give time for Bowie to nick out for a quick costume change. It would also feature on a number of other tours, including the “Diamond Dogs” and “Outside” tours.

Starman” comes next, a hugely important track in the Bowie cannon as it was the introduction to Bowie for a generation when performed on Top Of The Pops on 5 July 1972. It’s Ziggy preaching via radiowaves to the doomed youth that there is still some hope of salvation. Starting with Bowie’s acoustic guitar, a young person is amazed at the starman’s message suddenly coming across on his radio “Came back like a slow voice on a wave of phase haze, That weren’t no D.J. that was hazy cosmic jive“. The Morse Code like bridge takes up into the soaring chorus, inspired (copied) from “Somewhere Over The Rainbow“, with a warning about our Ziggy “There’s a starman waiting in the sky, He’d like to come and meet us, But he thinks he’d blow our minds” as Ronson’s string arrangements adds to the overall atmosphere. Ronson is again wonderful on guitar here with the solos after the chorus combining beautifully with the strings. In the second verse, the story teller shares his story with a friend and is delighted to hear he too heard the starman “I had to phone someone so I picked on you, Hey, that’s far out so you heard him too” with his arrival strictly for the youth (with a throwback to “Oh You Pretty Things“), “Don’t tell your poppa or he’ll get us locked up in fright“. The final “la la la la” coda is very reminiscent of Marc Bolan’s sound with T. Rex who was at the time indeed dominating the airwaves. Overall, it’s the perfect single. Which kinda makes it remarkable that the track only just made it onto the album after RCA wanted something that was more “single-worthy” to be included to promote the album. It was written and recorded at the last moment and replaced the Chuck Berry cover “Round And Round” on the album and thank goodness because the album is most definitely the better for the replacement (more on “Round and Round” later).

Starman was released as the lead-off single on 28 April 1972 and reached No. 10 in the UK charts, making it Bowie’s second hit single, a long 3 years after the “Space Oddity” success in 1969. In fact, many considered it as being Bowie’s only single since his previous likewise outer-space themed track. Bowie first performed Starman on TV on “Lift-Off With Ayshea” but it’s Bowie’s iconic performance on Top Of The Pops that’s most fondly remembered. This rest as they say is history. Watch Bowie perform Starman on Top of The Pops here.

Starman would feature on many of the earlier Ziggy Stardust dates before being dropped, with it only returning to the live sets during Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” greatest hits tour in 1990. The fact it didn’t even make it on Bowie’s first greatest hits package “ChangesOneBowie” suggests that Bowie was not overly fussed with the song. For me, it will forever remain a true Bowie classic.

 

 

The first side ends with the oddity of the album, “It Ain’t Easy“. The only cover on the album, it’s an otherwise virtually unknown song by American songwriter Ron Davies. It’s a nice enough track, with a catchy sing-along chorus and nice guitar licks by Ronson, but it just doesn’t feel quite right on the album and lacks relevancy within the album’s overall concept (except that obviously life indeed ain’t easy when you know the world will soon end). I view it as Ziggy simply taking a break on the top of a mountain, taking in the views of Earth before the rush that is side two of the album. However, “Sweet Head” or even “Velvet Goldmine” (both discussed later) would have made a much more fitting end to side one.

It’s clearly the weakest track on the album and as far as I’m aware, has only been performed live once by Bowie, during a BBC John Peel radio show where the song ended the session with a different Bowie guest singing a verse (as can be found on the excellent “Bowie At The Beeb” album).

Side Two kicks off sedately enough with the lovely “Lady Stardust“. Sung from the perspective of an adoring Ziggy fan, frustrated and angered at the naive reactions of others at a concert, the mainly piano based arrangement throws us back to the vibe of the previous “Hunky Dory” album. The opening lines “People stared at the makeup on his face, Laughed at his long black hair, his animal grace” are clearly references to Bowie’s friend and contemporary inspiration Marc Bolan. Mick Ronson’s piano part is perfect melancholy as the fan watches his idol in action “And he was alright, the band was altogether, Yes he was alright, the song went on forever” and shows his love despite the sadness of the situation “I smiled sadly for a love, I could not obey, Lady stardust sang his songs, Of darkness and dismay“. He finally can’t hide his disdain for those ignorant around who don’t share his love for Ziggy “Oh how I sighed when they asked if I knew his name“. It’s really is a beautiful song.

That said, it’s a song that Bowie rarely performed live, except at some of the early Ziggy Stardust shows. At a concert at the Rainbow Theatre in August 1972, Bowie projected Marc Bolan’s image on a screen to make perfectly clear his inspiration for the song. It also features on the “Bowie At The Beeb” album.

Things really begin to rock out on “Star“, as Ziggy details his plans for rock ‘n’ roll stardom, while those around him falter and fail “Tony went to fight in Belfast, Rudi stayed at home to starve, I could make it all worthwhile as a rock & roll star“. The Spiders really rock it here, with a frantic bar-room type piano and the band unit thumping out a driving rhythm. Bowie sounds at his most fake american here, while the backing vocals are simultaneously delightful and hilarious. Ziggy doesn’t hide his true motivations; “I could do with the money, I’m so wiped out with things as they are” but is convinced he has what it takes to make it “I could make a transformation as a rock & roll star” and “I could play the wild mutation as a rock & roll star“. As the music calms down at the end, Ziggy makes his final proclamation “Just watch me now“. It’s a wonderful modernised example of an old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll song about the virtues of rock ‘n’ roll.

For some unknown reason, “Star” didn’t feature in the Ziggy era live shows, only making it’s live appearances during the 1978 Isolar II and the 1983 “Serious Moonlight” tours.

The same can’t be said for the wonderful “Hang On To Yourself“, which generally opened the Ziggy Stardust era live shows. Starting life as a slower paced piece with decidedly different lyrics as one of the songs recorded as “Arnold Corns” (more on this later), this version is infinitely superior, with lots more frantic energy and saucier lyrics. Ostensibly about the perils and temptations of groupies, it opens with the killer lines “Well, she’s a tongue twisting storm, She’ll come to the show tonight” while later “She’s a funky-thigh collector, Laying on electric dreams“. Again, the Spiders are all in fine form here with a driving, punchy riff that takes one on a joyous trip. Other than the title track, it’s the only other time when they get a mention in the lyrics “Well, the bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar, You’re the Blessed, we’re The Spiders From Mars“. Ronson’s guitar riff after the chorus and in the outro is just infectious as is Ziggy’s “Come on ha, Come on, ha“. It’s yet another example of Bowie at his best when he hits the groove.

Ziggy Stardust” comes next, where the entire Ziggy plot is essentially condensed down to this wonderful song. Starting with Ronson’s iconic guitar riff, it’s one of the most identifiable moments in rock history. Bowie as the narrator (who I have always thought to be one of The Spiders) introduces us to Ziggy “Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Weird and Gilly, And the Spiders from Mars“. Ziggy is an amalgamation of various persons, including part Iggy Pop, part Jimi HendrixHe played it left hand“, part The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, part Marc Bolan and in large part Vince Taylor. Our Ziggy is your archetypal rock star “He could leave ’em to hang, ‘Came on so loaded man, well hung and snow white tan” but the usual jealousies are coming into play at the end of each verse “Became the special man, then we were Ziggy’s band” and “So we bitched about his fans and should we crush his sweet hands?“. Musically, it’s not just Ronson who shines here, although his guitar flourishes throughout are just divine, but both Bolder and Woody also make a tight unit that drives the whole piece along, especially during the refrains. At the end, Bowie depicts Ziggy’s downward spiral “He took it all too far but boy could he play guitar” although it’s typically ambiguous exactly how it all ends “Making love with his ego Ziggy sucked up into his mind, Like a leper messiah, When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band“. The track ends with Bowie’s final cry, stated in the past tense of how “Ziggy played guitar“. This track is the very definition of classic rock ‘n’ roll.

Bowie would of course perform the song live during his Ziggy period and on/off throughout his career, perhaps most notably on 1978 Isolar II tour where much of the album was given a resurrection. Watch Bowie’s 1978 performance here.

The super-charged energy that is “Suffragette City” comes next. Bowie’s acoustic guitar is buried by the banging piano that is undoubtedly a nod to Little Richard, while Ronson’s power chords and the Spiders driving rhythm is pure Velvet Underground x 10. This is Glam Rock at its very best, with Bowie’s vocals nominally detailing Ziggy’s decline to the abyss, while being constantly hounded by “Henry” who could symbolise the press/groupies/his own insanity, with lines such as “Hey man, oh leave me alone you know“, “Hey man, my work’s down the drain“, “Hey man, oh Henry, don’t be unkind, go away“. The chorus builds up the musical intensity even further where an ARP synthesizer kicks in with a sax-like drone as Bowie cries out “Oh don’t lean on me man, ’cause you can’t afford the ticket, I’m back on Suffragette City“. The highlight of course is the false ending, with Bowie’s sexually charged “wham bam thank you ma’am” bringing things back to life. The back of the album cover had the classic instructions “To be played at maximum volume”. I suspect it applies most specifically to this amazing track.

The song entered the bedrooms of many a teenager prior to the album’s released via being the B-side to the “Starman” single. It’s one of Bowie most played live tracks, making the set-list of many a concert. I’ve used this word a number of time I know, but this really is yet another Bowie classic.

The final cry of “SUFFRAGETTE!!” leads us directly to the quiet slowly strummed acoustic guitar introduction of the album’s finale “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide“. With “Five Years” as one of the best ever openings to an album, this is undoubtedly one of the greatest songs ever to close an album. The song starts slowly as it details Ziggy’s sad demise, the tragic washed-up figure for whom “Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth” and slowly builds and builds. The second verse introduces Ronson’s initially subdued electric guitar before the band kicks in as the song’s narrator describes the dis-shrivelled Ziggy “Chev brakes are snarling as you stumble across the road, But the day breaks instead, so you hurry home“. The narrator loves Ziggy (the same fan perhaps from “Lady Stardust”, now his last fan) and is desperate to save him, but it’s all too late. The music continues to build as he cries in desperation “Oh no, love, you’re not alone“. Ronson’s wonderful strings arrangements now break in, creating a wall of sound as it all becomes more desperate “You got your head all tangled up, but if I could only make you care” before Bowie literally screams “You’re not alone” in a manner similar to how it all started in “Five Years”. The final section is just a crescendo of sound and emotion as Bowie pleads for Ziggy to “Gimme your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful, Oh, gimme your hands” before Ziggy ends it all and jumps into oblivion…

Wow. I mean seriously wow, what a way to end the show.

It’s important to note that many of the vocal performances on the album were basically first takes, with future takes often regarded as inferior to the original. Recordings were done at a super fast pace, this track basically recorded near the end of the sessions in just one day (4 February 1972)…

Bowie would of course indeed end all the Ziggy shows with this amazing track, most notably on 3 July 1973 when Bowie indeed killed Ziggy on stage as he announced he would never tour again to screams of utter disbelief (not least from Bolder and Woodmansey who were both clueless it was all about to end). Watch this icon final performance here.

On 11 July 1974 during a (very) brief lull in new material, RCA decided somewhat oddly to release “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” as a single. Considering it had been over 2 years since the album’s release and most fans already had the album (and “Quicksand” on the B-Side), it’s a sign of Bowie’s popularity that it reached as high as No. 22 on the UK charts.

 

 

Of course, as remarkable an album “The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” is, there was a lot more to the Ziggy Stardust phenomenon than just a record. Bowie literally BECAME Ziggy, first with the image that initially started with his short cropped spiky hair, dyed a bright “martian” orange before transforming into a bright luminous red and the famous mullet that became the iconic hairdo of the Glam period. Then came all the costumes that became more and more outrageous as things progressed, many inspired by Japanese kabuki theatre. Bowie wore the outlandish clothing both on and off the stage, with Bowie staying in the Ziggy character during interviews and blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. Bowie’s famous “I’m gay and always have been” interview with Melody Maker and his androgynous alien looks just added more fuel to the fire of a more “colourful” existence, than the boring, dreary gloom that was the reality of millions of youths in 1972. The influence and importance of Bowie’s wife Angie can not be over-estimated here in helping to create the Ziggy image and persona. She helped push her initially reluctant hubby to push the envelope of what could be achieved image wise outside the safety of the recording studio. While Marc Bolan could make the quite legitimate claim to being the birth a “Glam Rock”, Bowie with Ziggy made Glam grow up and mature to full adolescence…

Bowie first started touring Ziggy soon after the recording sessions ended in early 1972, months before the album’s release, with at first small venues and audiences that just slowly grew and grew as the Ziggy hype started to build up momentum. By the time of the album’s release and Bowie appearance on “Top of the Pops”, Bowie’s appeal exploded until even the US market was starting to take notice, with a US tour and shows that likewise started to become sellouts in increasing parts of the country. The Ziggy Stardust shows were more than just mere rock concerts, with more theatre elements introduced that made them must-see spectacular events, both visually and musically, thanks to the super tight band The Spider From Mars had become.

Bowie started Ziggy as a relative unknown. Bowie finished with Ziggy Stardust a short period of 18 months later at the Hammersmith Odeon on 3 July 1973 as a superstar. Bowie was smart enough to know that such successes were but a current trend. Bowie needed to kill Ziggy and move on creatively if he wasn’t to also share in Ziggy’s ultimate fate himself…

There are a number of official live albums that beautifully document the Bowie/Ziggy era. These include:

 

Bowie At The Beeb“,  a wonderful 2 disc set that included most of the live performances Bowie ever recorded with the BBC during his career. The second disc especially captures live performances of every Ziggy Stardust track except “Soul Love” and “Star”. It really is a superb insight into the live talent that was early, pre-fame David Bowie and is one of my favourite albums. The original release of the album came with a 3rd disc that captured a live BBC studio concert recorded on 27 June 2000 that is also wonderful.

 

 

Santa Monica Live ’72” is one of my all-time favourite live albums and captures Bowie/Ziggy performing live at the Santa Monica arena, LA on Bowie’s first US tour on 20 October 1972. It’s a raw, superb, early insight into a young Bowie that was just beginning to successfully take on the world. Some of the tracks lack the tightness that would come, but it’s all the more poignant for it’s embryonic energy and nervous showmanship. It includes a rare outing of the Velvet Underground’sWaiting For The Man” and one of THE iconic, beautiful performances of Jacques Brel’s My Death“. This was many a Bowie fan’s favourite bootleg album before it was semi-officially released 30 June 2008.

 

Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture” is the soundtrack album of Ziggy Stardust’s final 3 July 1973 concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, London that was captured for posterity on film by the noted film maker D. A. Pennebaker. While I always found the film to be a little too grainy and unfocused on too may occasions for my liking, it’s still a wonderful if sad document on such an important event in rock history. While Bowie’s final farewell speech always leaves a lump in the throat, there’s no mistaking the amazing performance and sheer energy that Bowie gave on his final official Ziggy outing. The 30th Anniversary 2 CD Special Edition of the album is definitely the version to try and get as it includes much of the show that was cut in earlier versions, although it’s still sadly missing the section where Jeff Beck played on a couple of songs (“Love Me Do/Jean Genie” and  “Round And Round”). The highlights are the Velvet Undergound’s “White Light/White Heat” (which was released as a single), “My Death” and the final emotional “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide“, although the whole album is brilliant if truth be told.

 

 

As Bowie’s most cherished album, its had many re-releases over the years and had the special anniversary treatment more than any other Bowie album. RCA released it on CD format for the first time in 1984 but it first received the special treatment as part of the excellent Ryko/EMI re-issue series in 1990 when it came out in a box format that included a lovely glossy booklet and 5 bonus tracks:

John, I’m Only Dancing” was the classic follow-up single to “Starman”, released on 1 September 1972. It’s one of Bowie’s finest singles, a glam-rock anthem with The Spiders in inspired form with a driving rock tour de force performance. Ronson’s guitar echoing snarls at the end is perfection. A perhaps ambiguous tale in which the narrator is reassuring John that he is only dancing with the girl “John, I’m only dancing, She turns me on, but I’m only dancing“, where John could be interrupted as being either the girl’s or the narrator’s boyfriend. Considering the recent gay comments, most people interpret as being the latter scenario, which actually makes it quite a hilarious song and shows a rare humorous side to Bowie on record. The single continued Bowie’s momentum and reached No. 12 in the UK charts. There was another version of the single recorded during the later Aladdin Sane sessions (known as the “Sax” version) that was confusingly also released as the single with the same catalogue number. The single was featured the first in a number of excellent videos made with the famous photographer Mick Rock (who was also Bowie’s “official” photographer during the Ziggy period), which featured Bowie and The Spiders From Mars in a studio and in live performance with Lindsay Kemp and his dance troupe during a highly acclaimed concert at The Rainbow Theatre. Watch the video here.

 

Velvet Goldmine” recorded during the early Ziggy sessions made its first commercial debut as part of the B-Side to the “Space Oddity” single re-release that finally topped the charts in 1975. It’s a fantastic risqué little gem from this period that fits into the Ziggy narrative from the perspective of a groupie “You got crazy legs, you got amazing head, You got rings on your fingers and your hair’s hot red“. The music is typical Spider’s hard rock, but with a catchy piano based vibe and hooky chorus “I’ll be your king volcano right for you again and again, My velvet goldmine“. The outro with its “Seven Dwarfs” hum-along and whistling makes me smile with each listen. It’s a great song that like so many during this period, deserves more accolades.

Sweet Head” was the real gem and surprise from this re-issue, as it was a practically unknown track from the Ziggy archives at the time. Believed to considered for the ending of Side One, it was replaced almost certainly due to the sexually charged language that would have made any conservative record executive feel a tad uncomfortable.  A bluesy rocker that features Ronson’s fluid guitar playing, it’s perhaps a tad more “conventional” musically than much of Bowie’s output from this period. The lyrics, which features “Ziggy” explicitly (the only other such song being the title track), has content that shall we say is particularly sexually charged, with lines such as “I’m your rubber peacock angelic whore” and “Sweet head, give you sweet head, while ya down there“. There’s no prizes for what this song is ultimately about. I would have loved this track to have replaced “It Ain’t Easy”, but no surprises why is was left out and forgotten until this release.

The other two tracks are demo versions of “Ziggy Stardust” and “Lady Stardust” of interest to hard core fans only who didn’t already have them on bootlegs.

 

The 30th Anniversary Edition of the album released in 2002 included another lovely little booklet and a bonus disc of additional material that featured the above 3 tracks and the following:

Moonage Daydream” (Arnold Corns version). One of the many little side projects Bowie had going on during this formative 1971/72 period was a band he put together called Arnold Corns, which was designed (maybe) to highlight the singing talents of one of Bowie’s friends, Freddie Burretti. As it turned out, dear Freddie was much much better at designing clothes than singing and although a number of tracks were recorded, Bowie handled most of the singing (while The Spiders played much of the music). As a practice run for what would become the Ziggy Stardust project, Bowie recorded 2 early versions of tracks that would feature on the Ziggy album. Released as a single on 7 May 1971, one was this version of “Moonage Daydream”, a much slower version with somewhat different lyrics. Featuring a mainly percussion and piano arrangement, it’s an interesting insight on how a song can develop (and drastically improve) over time and with much better production values. The guitar riff here is good, whereas the guitar work on the final album version is extraordinary. The single sadly flopped without a trace, although not all was lost for Burretti who would go on to design much of the Ziggy’s clothing and stage costumes.

Hang On To Yourself” (Arnold Corns version). The B-side to the above Arnold Corns “Moonage Daydream” single was a very early version of this iconic Ziggy track, again in drastically different form and with different lyrics during the verses. Comparing this to the energised Ziggy classic, this version comes across as a little ploddy and tame. Again, the transformation of a song from average to brilliant is fascinating to witness.

Round And Round” is a cover of the famous Chuck Berry classic. If you’ve ever wondered what the futuristic Spiders From Mars would sound like playing classic covers at some small English pub, the answer is “fantastic” !! They all sound as if they’re having a blast and it really is a riot. This track was destined to be included on the album until replaced at the last minute with “Starman” to satisfy RCA’s need for a single worthy track be included. As good as this performance is, the Ziggy Stardust album is just unimaginable with Starman. It was first originally released as the B-side to the “Drive-In Saturday” single in 1973.

Holy Holy” is yet another little gem from the Ziggy era. This is a Spiders From Mars rework of the song originally released as a single that flopped back in 1970. Whereas the original version was a clear nod to Marc Bolan with its almost folky arrangement (and a stark contrast to most of the material from “The Man Who Sold The World” album he had released at the time), this version gest an injection of energy that makes it infinitely superior. Bowie’s vocals are just great here as he wickedly sings “I don’t want to be an angel, just a little bit evil, Feel the devil in me“, but it really is the whole band that shines throughout. Again, originally planned to be included on the Ziggy Stardust album before being shelved, it finally made its first commercial appearance as the B-side to the “Diamond Dogs” single released in 1974. You can still find the original version on the Re:Call 1 disc of the “Five Years” box set and is certainly worth checking out for contrast purposes.

Amsterdam (Port of Amsterdam)” is a track that has been a little derided by critics over the years. A cover of the 1964 song by Jacques Brel, Bowie gives it here his full histrionics treatment, with a soaring (some say overly pretentious and melodramatic) vocal performance. But I’ve also loved it, especially the way it builds up slowly with the addition of acoustic guitars with each new verse until to reaches its final climax “Throws his nose to the sky, Aims it up above, And he pisses like I cry, On the unfaithful love, In the port of Amsterdam“. Again, at one stage planned to be part of the Ziggy Stardust album, it was dropped and not officially released until it made it on the B-side to the “Sorrow” single. Although I do love this performance, it does pale to the way Bowie usually performs “My Death“, the Jacques Brel song for which Bowie is much more well known to perform live, especially during his Ziggy era.

The Supermen” is a Ziggy sessions reworking of the track that originally closed his earlier “The Man Who Sold The World” album. As the earlier album had failed to make any impression on the charts and as Bowie initially felt the song could work within the Ziggy framework, it was briefly considered for the Ziggy Stardust album, before being dropped and ultimately forgotten. Unlike most tracks from these sessions, I actually prefer the original version to this one, that ultimately adds little. The song was performed live during many of the earlier Ziggy Stardust shows.

The 40th Anniversary Edition of the album received the full re-mix treatment, which although interesting, is ultimately not a good as the original mix which really is impossible to beat. What though was indeed a super treat was the 5.1 surround sound re-mix that was also included as a DVD with the vinyl edition. This gives the whole album an added dimension and “space” that make for a fabulous listening experience. It’s the same 5.1 mix that was released previously on the SACD format. If you can get your hands on either of these versions and have a surround sound setup, you won’t be disappointed.

I’m already looking forward to what must surely be a very special re-issue come its 50th anniversary in 2022…

 

The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” really is an exceptional album, a classic in every definition of the word and an album that truly still sounds fresh and new and “futurist” to this very day. Although one could easily argue that Bowie would go on to record even more cutting edge, musically advanced and technically better albums, I personally regard this as his finest musical achievement.

Just remember whenever you’re lucky enough to play it, it’s: To be played at maximum volume.

Best Tracks: “Five Years“, “Moonage Daydream“, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide

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“.

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

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

24. David Bowie

david bowie 1st album

David Bowie” is David Bowie’s self-titled debut that was originally released on 1 June 1967.

By 1967, David Bowie had already been in the music industry for some 3 long, almost entirely unsuccessful years. He had released quite a number of mainly R ‘n’ B style singles, both with various bands (The King Bees, The Manish Boys, The Lower Third) and as a solo artist. And all had flopped dismally (which is great for us collectors as many are now quite valuable rarities).

Bowie then met Kennith Pitt, who would be his manager during his formative 1967-1970 years and managed somehow to secure Bowie an album contract with the Deram label, who were after someone a tad different to the norm. Pitt was of the belief that R ‘n’ B and rock music in general was not a long term career path and that if Bowie was interested in a future in the music industry, he needed to be an “all-round entertainer” and look at moving towards a more pop, cabaret, “music hall” oriented musical direction.

With his then backing band “The Buzz”, Bowie recorded his first ever album, the self-titled “David Bowie” probably his most bizarre, unBowie-like album of his entire career. If you only know Bowie from his greatest hits, you simply wouldn’t believe this to be a Bowie album. Heavily influenced by the likes of Tommy Steele and especially Anthony Newley (huge at the time and most well-known for his many hits in the late 50’s, early 60’s, starring in films such as “Oliver Twist” and musicals such as “Stop The World, I Want to Get Off”), the album is full of tragic little tales sung in that Anthony Newley London accent. It’s also the most “London” album the Bromley-based budding artist has ever made, with various references to his home town.

The music is pure pop, with weird little musical arrangements and big hall orchestrations, that is as far from conventional rock music as Bowie has ever been. That said, it does sometimes have a hint of the psychedelic child-like writings of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, but without the original out-there spaced-out music that made the first Pink Floyd album such a classic. The rough theme of the album is a collection of quaint little tales, sometimes with a child-like yearning and more often than not, with a tragic element. Many of the songs come and go after a couple of minutes, no 10 minute odyssey here.

I remember where I first bought this album (the sea-side town of Skegness of all places) and after initially being somewhat surprised (shocked) by what I heard, soon grew to love it. And I love it still to this day, this is such a wonderful album that brings back lots of fond memories for me. It’s an album which although has always been critically maligned and which I readily admit is not up there with Bowie’s best, is an album which is very well worth a listen, and who knows, you might grow to like it as well. If I ranked albums more with my heart, then this album would probably be ranked much higher.

The album kicks-off with “Uncle Arthur“, the tale of a mommy’s boy 32 year old adult who finally finds a lovely girl Sally, only to return back to mum because his poor Sally’s cooking isn’t up to scratch. It’s a fun little song that’s typical of the album, but one which is hard to imagine say The Thin White Duke ever singing in 1976.

Sell Me A Coat” is nice, folk ballad that tells of the sadness of a love that is no more. Sadness is a key theme throughout the album, with sweet songs that often convey how things are no longer what they were. If I had to pick the weakest track on the album, this would be it.

Rubber Band” continues this theme, this time the tale of someone in love who goes off to war only to return to find his loved one is now in a relationship with the leader of the local park band. The jealousy and anger of the poor chap can’t but bring a tear to the eye. A version of this song was released as a single in late 1966 and sold about as few copies as all Bowie’s other singles to date. Music Video.

rubber band

Love You Till Tuesday” is a much more “up” song, a simple, quaint love song, in Bowie’s best Newley voice, on how upon meeting a girl promises to stay in love until at least Tuesday. Now that’s commitment , especially for the swinging 60’s. A version with a different vocal track was released as a single shortly after the album release. It was a flop like all his other previous singles.

love you till tuesday single

There Is A Happy Land” is a rather beautiful little song on the joys and pleasures of being a child. But there is a dark undertone regarding how adults can so easily wreak the happy land of childhood. It’s a theme that Bowie touches on a few times, perhaps more eerily and successfully on “After All” from the “The Man Who Sold The World” album.

Bowie goes a little political with “We Are Hungry Men“, how mankind is over populating the planet and unless we do something about it (free contraception pills, mass abortions, infanticide) we’re all doomed. Bowie’s audience (likely in a Bromley pub) have little interest in such measures and decide to eat the boring fear-monger. Gulp, Burp ends the track.

When I Live My Dream” is another lovely love song, this a dreamy romantic overture to a girl who unfortunately has an interest in all too many other boys. He desperately wants the girl but knows the beautiful dream he describes will never come true.

Little Bombardier” is yet another all too sad tale about poor, lonely Frankie Mear, a bombardier scared by war who finally finds friendship and companionship in the form of two children. Just when things are finally going well for the poor chap, the mean arm of authority forces him to leave the town (an adult hanging out with 2 young children, that can’t be healthy), his reputation in shatters, never to return again.

At around this time, Bowie had a keen interest in Buddhism (he even seriously considered moving to a monastery). “Silly Boy Blue” is song about spiritual escapism that evokes imagery of Tibet and butter statues that has a killer bass line throughout.

Come And Buy My Toys” is a nice acoustic number that again evokes imagery of the joys of being a young child and how in the near future one will eventually grow up to the tiredsome responsibilities of adulthood. But for now, you’re still young enough to enjoy the toys on offer.

Join The Gang” is a fun song espousing all the joys of joining a trendy gang, hanging out in pubs and clubs while paying for overpriced crisps and coke drinks. If only a coke was still just 15 bob.

She’s Got Medals” tells the cautionary tale of Mary, a somewhat butch woman who enjoys hanging out with the blokes, joins the army during the war but before they all get wiped out by a bomb,  deserts and decides that the feminine life isn’t so bad after all.

Maid Of Bond Street” is short ditty about a beautiful London based model that has every luxury that life has to offer. Everything that is except the man she really wants, he’s too jealous of her fortunate lifestyle. The arrangements here are just a pure joy.

The final track “Please Mr. Gravedigger“, isn’t really a song at all but a short theatrical piece featuring rain, thunderclaps and the sounds of soil being dug as a serial killer (with a nasty cold) describes why he’s digging the grave of his soon to be latest victim. It’s as hilarious as it’s downright bizarre.

All in all, it really is a fun, lighthearted album that has many surprises and highlights. But alas, a hit it wasn’t meant to be (reaching only 125 on the UK charts), although another album released on the same day did enjoy some commercial and critical success. The other album was “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” by a group called The Beatles !! So some stiff competition there.

That said, this album would have to be one of the most re-released and re-packaged albums of all time and over the 50+ years since it’s original release would have sold quite a number. Deram were to drop Bowie after this album failed in the charts but always retained rights to the album. As such, they’ve milked this album for all it’s worth again and again and again. If you were to buy it now, I would recommend the excellent 2CD Deluxe Edition, that includes both original mono and stereo mixes and a CD worth of other tracks from the same period. This years Record Store Day will also release a limited coloured vinyl version of the album, so the milking continues.

It’s worth noting some of the tracks from this period that didn’t make the original track list as there are a number of “classic” Bowie songs among them.

Did You Ever Have A Dream” featured on the B-side of the “Love You Till Tuesday” single and is a joyous ride on the wonder of dreams and how they enable you to go wherever you want to go and be with whoever you want to be with. It’s a return to the theme of dreams and a method of escape from Bowie’s then dreary south London suburbia reality.

When I’m Five” is a truly charming song, beautifully sung with the innocence and wonder of a soon to be 5 year old. It’s one of my favourites from this time period and featured on the “Love You Till Tuesday” film and soundtrack (discussed below).

The London Boys” is arguably the first truly great David Bowie song. Featured only on the B-Side of the “Rubber Band” single, Bowie was a little afraid that the drug references of a Mod trying to survive on the London streets didn’t fit the mood of the album. But it’s a fantastic song, with a performance that really does highlight what a talent Bowie would eventually blossom to be.

The Laughing Gnome” was released as a single just prior to the album and in those days, many singles didn’t make it onto the album. This is probably Bowie’s best known piece during this period, especially so as those cheeky buggers at Deram decided to re-release the single in 1973 at the height of Bowie-mania during the Ziggy Stardust period. To the undoubted embarrassment of the then glam, rock God Bowie, it was a hit and reached No. 6 on the UK charts. Featuring lots of terrible gnome jokes and sped up gnome voices,  it’s one of those songs that’s so bad that it’s almost good. It’s hard not to listen to this without the occasional smile and groan escaping. Bowie would return to the use of multi-speed vocals throughout his career, notably on classic tracks such as “The Bewlay Brothers”, “Fame” and “Scream Like A Baby”. During the 1990 “Sound+Vision” tour where fans were asked to vote for their favourite Bowie song, this got the most votes. Bowie respectfully decided against the wishes of the masses and was never fully performed.

the laughing gnome

The Gospel According To Tony Day” was the B-Side to “The Laughing Gnome” and is a song about a bunch of wankers who pretend to be friends, but really aren’t. We’ve all had some in our lives.

In The Heat Of The Morning” is a slightly more “rock” oriented song than much from this period, although strings are still predominant in the arrangement. A rather charming love song, it’s perhaps most notable as the first song ever produced by Tony Visconti, who would be such a key figure throughout much of Bowie’s subsequent career.

Let Me Sleep Next To You“, is an even rocker track, one which Bowie’s mum didn’t approve of at all as she thought is was a bit “dirty”. Always a good sign me thinks, Bowie is trying to convince a younger girl that she’s now old enough for the “pleasures” of adulthood. Hmmm, maybe Bowie’s mum had a point.

After the commercial failure of the album, Kennith Pitt decided to make a film showcasing much of the album for prospective record labels. The resultant “Love You Till Tuesday” film is a wonderful reminder of the times and is well worth watching. Bowie felt it needed a new song to highlight how he could write a hit and wrote a new song all about Major Tom, an astronaut who get’s lost in space… Trailer Here.

love you till tuesday movie

Once Bowie recorded his next album in 1969 (strangely also self-title “David Bowie”), he very rarely referred to his first album again. Around the year 2000, Bowie recorded the (never officially released) “Toys” album, where he returned to some of these tracks (including Silly Boy Blue, The London Boys, Let Me Sleep Next To You and In The Heat Of The Morning), so he didn’t entirely dismiss this period.

Although I do love this album, it’s fortunate indeed the album was a commercial flop and Kennith Pitt’s plan to mold Bowie into an all-round entertainer failed. It would have been a tragic loss to the rock world if Bowie’s career was destined to be appearances at Christmas pantomimes each year. Phew, we dodged a bullet here.

Unfortunately for Bowie, it would be another 2 years yet until “Space Oddity” would finally give Bowie the hit he had been craving and 5 years until he finally “made” the big time and become an international superstar. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: When I Live My Dream, Join The Gang, Maid Of Bond Street

26. The Buddha of Suburbia

The buddha of suburbia

The Buddha of Suburbia” is David Bowie’s 21st studio album (although it’s officially classed as a soundtrack) and was originally released on 8 November 1993.

When I finished the really difficult task of ranking all of Bowie’s studio albums, I was a little surprised (astonished even) that this album ended up being ranked so low. I really do like this album but in the end, the ranking is what it is. As I felt with “Let’s Dance“,  it’s more a question of the other albums just being that little bit better rather than this necessarily being a particularly bad album.

“The Buddha of Suburbia” has a rather odd story in that in many ways it’s the album that fell through the cracks and many people didn’t even know existed until sometime later. Initially it was to be the soundtrack to the BBC2 4 part series “The Buddha of Suburbia”, adapted from the book by Hanif Kureishi. It tells the story of a somewhat mixed up, mixed-race 17 year old, growing up in South London during the 70s, searching for some spiritual meaning and purpose in his life. Weren’t we all !!

Bowie was attracted to the project in part that it’s based in the same location as where he grew up and featured a character called Charlie that is very loosely based on David Bowie’s glam-period persona. Knowing Bowie, he also probably really liked the book as well. So he agreed to do the soundtrack for the TV series.

In an incredible brief period of activity, he basically spent the best part of a week writing and recording the tracks along with his mate Erdal Kizilcay, who had worked on both Iggy Pop’s “Blah Blah Blah” and the “Never Let Me Down” albums. Both of them played the majority of the instruments, with special appearances here and there from the likes of Mike Garson and Lenny Kravitz. Note he also wrote all the tracks (no covers here) which is a rarity for a Bowie album, especially post “Lodger”.

However in the end, very little of what he recorded was actually used in the TV series (from memory, I think the title track was about it) although the TV series did feature some of Bowie’s back catalog. Most of the final tracks on the album were actually reworked versions from what he had originally intended or were more influenced by the book, rather than written specifically for the TV series. As such, it’s one of the most nostalgic albums he’s ever made, full of references to his past. In the album notes, Bowie wrote a piece on what his inspirations were and listed a whole bunch of “residue from the 1970’s” he wanted to capture. These included things as varied as Pink Floyd, Costume, Blues Clubs, Kraftwerk, Loneliness, Drugs, Prostitutes & Soho, Die Mauer and Bromley (my birthplace, yeah) to name a few.

But one thing it isn’t is a “soundtrack” album, not in the conventional sense of the word anyways. Even though it actually said “Original Soundtrack Album” on the cover, with the words “David Bowie” somewhat hidden away at the bottom.

But that was part of the problem, many considered this to be “just” a soundtrack, not even too sure how much of it was actually David Bowie, how much just some weird background music. To add to the confusion, the title track was released as a single and many thought that the single was it and that there wasn’t an accompanying album.

The record label then experienced financial issues and wasn’t able to promote it at all and it wasn’t even released in the US until a couple of years later due also to contractual issues. Having only recently released his “come back” solo album “Black Tie White Noise” earlier in the year, how could this really be another substantive David Bowie album?

So to Bowie’s undoubted frustration, the album barely got a murmur in the music press and become the new David Bowie album that nobody was looking for in the music shops. It was probably filed away in the soundtracks section and so impossible to find anyways. And if you did find it, you probably missed is was by David Bowie as his name is barely noticeably on the cover.

Which is all a shame really because despite my low ranking, “The Buddha of Suburbia” is actually a fine album with some great tracks that deserves much more recognition that it’s ever really received.

The album opens with the title track “Buddha of Suburbia“. It’s a great song that manages that wonderful mix of sounding both nostalgic and fresh at the same time. Bowie sounds great with lots of references to London and his past, especially with the “zane zane zane, ouvre le chien” refrain from “All The Madmen”. A great way to start the album.

The next track “Sex And The Church” has a repetitive, thumping, catchy groove with a distorted vocal, followed by the “sex and the church” refrain throughout. I think Bowie just liked saying “sex” a lot, but the track once it starts going doesn’t really go anywhere special. The little sax solo and sax background touches adds quite a nice touch.

South Horizon” was Bowie’s favourite track on the album, but it’s actually my least. It has that piano jazz feel that I think Bowie has always quite liked but isn’t to my taste. It does though meet the mood of the album nicely, taking you to some little London jazz club with Bowie’s step-brother Terry in toe. The track is important in that it re-introduced Mike Garson on piano to his line-up, a key figure during the Ziggy period and up to Young Americans. Mike was to become an integral part of his band and sound from here on in.

The next piece “The Mysteries” is another moody instrumental, but this one takes you back to his Berlin-era, Eno inspired ambient sound. You wouldn’t play this on a dance floor, but with headphones on, it sounds soft and smooth and Zzzzzzzzzzzz…

Bleed Like a Craze, Dad” wakes us up a bit with another catchy groove of a song, with Mike Garson again on piano, but this time much more in the background with the funky drums, bass and guitar of 3D Echo dominant. It’s a great little song.

Strangers When We Meet” is a truly great song, but the version here is not quite as tight as the excellent version that closes the “1. Outside” album. The rhythm guitar sounds fantastic as do Bowie’s yearning vocals but it’s the lyrics that grab me here. Wonderful imagery of maybe an older Bowie grappling with meeting a younger, naive person, but you get the distinct impression that his favourite cut-up technique was used here.

Dead Against It” has a keyboard driven riff that chugs along quite nicely. It fits the mood of the album, changing the musical pace but with Bowie’s vocals remaining soft and gentle.

Untitled No. 1” is the undoubted highlight of the album. It’s a fabulous track, well worthy of any Top 50 Bowie song list. It’s beautifully atmospheric but with a wonderful melody and vocals that just take you to another place. At times he sings with lyrics that you can discern but not quiet understand, at other times they sound like something you think is there but not quite. There’s so much going on that you just want to hit the repeat to see if you can hear something new. I love this track !!

Ian Fish U.K. Heir” is an ambient soundscape. There’s almost nothing going on but a slight wash of sound and a slow melodic “do do, do do”. You get the distinct feeling that Bowie is itching to work with Brian Eno again…

Finally, we end where we began, with another version of “Buddha of Suburbia“. It feels so long since we started that we need reminding again of how this journey all started. This is the only track that was released as a single, notably different from the other version by a guitar track by Lenny Kravitiz. I love the music video as well with Bowie wandering through the suburbia that is South London. I always wonder how close I lived  as a child from where it was shot. Music Video.

BuddhaOfSuburbiaSingle

The fact that he was back to experimenting musically again and wasn’t afraid to record and release something new super fast boded well for the future. If he could record something like this in a matter of days, imagine what he could achieve if he really put his time and energy into it.

His next album indeed featured much experimentation, Brian Eno and a much more focused and full hearted attempt to produce something special. And oh boy, did he succeed, but that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: Untitled No. 1, Strangers When We Meet, Buddha of Suburbia

27. Let’s Dance

lets dance album

Let’s Dance” is David Bowie’s 15th studio album and was originally released on 14 April 1983.

Let me just start by saying that this is a significantly better album than “Never Let Me Down”. Way better. I know a few friends though who will likely never talk to me again, how on earth can I place the massive hit that was “Let’s Dance” so bloody low in my rankings !!

The relatively low ranking of “Let’s Dance” is due just as much to the outstanding quality of his other albums, than by any dire weakness in this. This is a fine album don’t get me wrong, I just prefer most of his other stuff.

Let me explain.

In 1983, David Bowie was in an interesting place. He had just left his long term label RCA and signed a HUGE deal with EMI. By HUGE, I mean HUGE, no more butter and bread for dinner. He had also escaped the financial clutches of previous manager, Tony Defries, who basically received much of the revenues Bowie made from record sales. This explained why he hadn’t made an album since 1980’s “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps”, determined to hang on until his legal contract with Tony Defries ended.

So he had lots of money and he had the opportunity to make lots more. He also would have felt somewhat obligated to produce a few hit albums and singles to help EMI justify their considerable investment in him. Bowie therefore wasn’t interested so much in artistic freedom and experimentation. He was now primarily interested in simply making a hit album.

After a chance meeting at a night club, Bowie met up with Nile Rodgers, famed for producing lots of hit records both for his band Chic and other artists such as Sister Sledge and Dianna Ross. Bowie felt he met just the guy to help him produce the hit record he was after, so out went his long time producer Tony Visconti and in came Rodgers.

Gone also were his long term rhythm section of Dennis Davis, George Murray and Carlos Alomar (although Alomar was retained for the subsequent “Serious Moonlight” world tour) replaced with musicians Rodgers was used to working with. In also was the acclaimed guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, who would add a touch of real class to the whole album (although I feel he’s criminally under-utilised throughout). Finally, Bowie and Rodgers brought in a horn section to give the album that jazzy, bouncy vibe that runs throughout the whole album.

So Bowie had his new team and together they succeeded, indeed exceeded, in producing the most commercially successful album of Bowie’s entire career. “Let’s Dance” was an absolutely smash, selling records globally by the literal truck load. It was even nominated for a Grammy (for the first time ever in his career). Only Michael Jackson’s Thriller stop the album being THE album of 1983. It also spawned 3 massive hit singles and perhaps most impressive of all, the spectacularly successful “Serious Moonlight” tour that sold out massive stadiums throughout the world. As Bowie himself mentioned at the time, finally the masses who were previously buying Phil Collins albums were now buying his.

Bowie had finally absolutely and truly MADE IT !!

So how can such a successful album, THE biggest seller in the entire Bowie cannon, one that was even nominated for a Grammy (Bowie just doesn’t get nominated for a Grammy for God’s sake), be ranked so low?

Well, it’s just not as good as most of his other albums and despite the massive hits, the overall Bowie-level quality isn’t there. For a start, the album actually only contains 5 new Bowie  compositions, 2 of which are of pretty below-average standard. The album’s overall sound and vibe is of course dance and pop, perhaps with “Young Americans” being its closest musical relative. And to be honest, I simply prefer Bowie’s many other musical styles and genres, the lyrical simplicity and the catchy bass lines here are bettered elsewhere with better material in his amazing catalog.

But like I said before, this is still a fine album and has a number of classic Bowie tracks. But the tracks I prefer aren’t necessarily the big hits.

The album opens with “Modern Love“, the third single from the album and it’s a lovely, catchy track. It has a sense of fun and it’s hard not to dance along to the song. It was also a great closing number for the “Serious Moonlight” shows. It perfectly encapsulates the general sound of “Let’s Dance” with it’s catchy, bouncy hooks, horn section and singalong lyrics. It’s good, but it’s not anywhere near his best work. Music Video.

modern love

China Girl” is an interesting pick. Co-written and produced by Bowie for Iggy Pop’s brilliant 1977 “Idiot” album, if it sounded anything like the (far superior) original, this song would have been hopelessly out of place. But the song is totally transformed, first by adding that hooky bass line that just feels like it’s always belonged, by dropping the excellent lengthy guitar based outro (which would likely have sounded amazing at the hands of Steve Ray Vaughan, but his much shorter solo is sublime and an album highlight) and by taking the edge off the menacing vocal delivery. It transforms a song with lyrics that include “Visions of swastikas in my head” into a pop classic. The second single off the album, the excellent video filmed here in Australia didn’t hurt as this became a huge hit and the name Iggy Pop suddenly found itself in the homes of Phil Collins fans everywhere. Music Video.

china girl

The title track “Let’s Dance” comes next and (gulp) as I know this might offend, is one of the weakest offerings on the album. It’s a song that has never grabbed me and while I get it’s catchy and when it first came out as the leading single was fresh and new sounding from Bowie, there are soooooooooo many better songs and singles in the Bowie cannon. That this is THE biggest selling single of his career just highlights to me that just because something sells a lot, it doesn’t necessarily make it better. Just ask McDonald’s. The much longer album version just delays things from getting on to the rest of the album. The video that was also filmed in Australia is rather good, depicting the clash of cultures between aboriginals and Westernised Australia. Music Video.

LetsDance

Side one closes with the soft ballad “Without You“. Bowie is at his crooning best here and there are some nice guitar flourishes, but it’s again one of the weaker moments of the album. EMI pushed things somewhat by releasing this as a fourth single from the album. By then, everyone had it anyway having bought the album and so flopped.

withoutyou

Side two starts with “Ricochet” and is one of my favourite tracks on the album as it does remind me of a more adventurous Bowie. It seems a little out of place here and is Bowie just stretching the boundaries somewhat with a disjointed track with what is as close to “art-rock” as there is on the album. But he doesn’t have the personnel on board to make such a track quite work and suffers for it. Interestingly, this is the only track on the album to NOT have made it on a single somewhere and has never been performed live.

Criminal World” is the only cover on the album (except the co-written China Girl), a song originally recorded by a band called Metro (who?). It’s a great song and my favourite track on the album. The “Let’s Dance” formula works best here, with the band sounding great, especially Stevie Ray Vaughan and it really comes across as a “Bowie” song, especially with lyrics such as “The boys are like baby-faced girls”. Not sure if there’s another Bowie album where I would rate the cover as the best track (perhaps “Wild Is The Wind” where it’s on par with the rest of the glorious “Station to Station”).  One can only imagine the reaction of Metro when they got their first royalty check…

Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” is a bit of a lazy choice. Having only recently been released as a single in 1982,  the previous version produced by Giorgio Moroder for the movie “Cat People” is infinitely superior. This version lacks all the atmosphere and suspense that made the original so brilliant and is positively stale by comparison. It drags the overall album down as a result. Music Video Of Original Version.

As does the final track “Shake It“, which is as weak a closer as you’ll ever get on a Bowie album. It’s a nothing kind of a song, more a little keyboard jingle with somewhat annoying backup vocals, but it does tie up the overall mood that Bowie was trying to get from it all. As far as I know, it’s never been performed live, often a good indicator of a weak song. It leaves you thinking “hmmm, is that it, time for a cup of tea then”.

For me, the sum of the parts results in a disappointing album that has always left me unimpressed overall, especially when you compare it to say “Scary Monsters” its brilliant predecessor. I’m being tough I know, but I’m raking “Let’s Dance” within the standard of a typical Bowie album, which is an extraordinarily high standard.

I’m also saying this in the context of seeing Bowie live in concert for the very first time on the accompanying “Serious Moonlight” tour at the Sydney Showgrounds in late 1983. It was one of the BEST days on life, standing in the second row just metres away from the great man. I loved every second of the show and some of the “Let’s dance” tracks did sound better live. To re-live the tour, Bowie released the “Serious Moonlight” film and live album, filmed/recorded in Vancouver.

But if you’re like so many out there who have a Bowie collection that consists of just “Let’s Dance” and a greatest hits package, stay tuned. Bowie has made so many more albums better than this, but that’s a story for another day.

Best tracks: Criminal World, China Girl, Ricochet

bowie series moonlight

28. Never Let Me Down

Never Let Me Down

Never Let Me Down is David Bowie’s 17th studio album and was originally released on 20 April 1987.

It had been three relatively long years since his last album, “Tonight“, which while commercially successful and a No 1, left the critics generally unimpressed. In between, he had released a number of singles and contributed on a number of soundtracks, most notably “Absolute Beginners” (with the title song arguably his best work throughout the entire 1983-1987 period) and “Labyrinth“.

However by 1987, David Bowie was in a difficult place artistically. He’s last two albums “Let’s Dance” and “Tonight” were both commercially very successful and all the middle-aged Phil Collins fans with their bulging wallets were really getting into this version of David Bowie. EMI, his record label, were also loving the revenues coming from albums that were enjoying high chart positions on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, enjoying commercial success in almost (but not quite) equal measure to Michael Jackson was just not a position that David Bowie was used to or had really coveted previously. But in this post Tony Defries era where the majority of the money he earned actually went into his bank account, meant Bowie for the first time was torn between creating music he enjoyed and excited him creatively, versus writing music he felt his growing fan base would enjoy, would buy in huge quantities and would help to increase his ever impressive fortune.

This conflict resulted in an artistic “writers block” where Bowie struggled in self-doubt and concerns he would potentially fail both commercially and artistically. And in the end, his fears were kinda realised when the resultant album “Never Let Me Down” only reaching No. 6 in the UK charts, 34 on the US Billboard and enjoyed only mixed, generally lukewarm reviews by music critics.

Things had seemed so optimistic beforehand.  He had just produced and co-wrote the criminally underrated “Blah Blah Blah” album for Iggy Pop, his mate who had featured so predominately in his previous EMI albums.  An album if true be told, was superior to everything he had recorded since the Scary Monsters album.

His also featured heavily on the credits of “Never Let Me Down”, writing or co-writing all the material bar the obligatory Iggy Pop cover “Bang Bang“, a level of output he hadn’t managed in his previous two albums. He also played instruments on the new album in the form of “guitar, keyboards, Mellotron, Moog synthesizer, harmonica and tambourine”, something he had left to his impressive array of session musicians on the previous two albums. The collection of session musicians on this album is impressive, based mainly of those who worked on his previous EMI albums, with the notable inclusion of multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kizilcay and the famed Peter Frampton on guitar.

So it looked initially liked he really cared about this album and perhaps a new masterpiece was on its way.

But the end result was entirely mediocre with a collection of songs that were simply substandard to the Bowie we had come to expect and with an 80’s era production that has not aged particularly well. The music can be labelled “Soft Rock” or “Pop”, so if you like Phil Collins, Hall & Oakes, Huey Lewis and the News, etc. you might think this album positively rocks. But those with fond memories of Scary Monsters being recorded in the same decade, the comparison couldn’t be more stark or disappointing.

The opening track and lead-off single from the album “Day In Day Out” forebodes what’s to come. A plodding, drum overdose song that lacks any of the hooks associated with classic Bowie. Even Molly Meldrum gave the song and associated video (which featured the plight of homelessness in the US with some controversial “R” rated scenes) a negative review on Countdown, unheard of previously. Molly saying bad things about Bowie, WTF !! Music Video.

day in day out

The next track “Time Will Crawl” and second single is the clear highlight of the album. With imaginous lyrics around the theme of the recent Chernobyl nuclear disaster, it’s a great song that the heavy production doesn’t quite bury. Bowie also sounds great on this, with an eerie performance that captures the mood of the song perfectly. As a indication of how much this song stands out from the rest of the album, Bowie even selected a version of this track on his “iSelectBowie” compilation album. Music Video.

time will crawl

Next comes “Beat Of Your Drum“, a nice little song with catchy verse and chorus, with just a hint of uneasiness, but again spoilt somewhat by the overall ploddy production. The potential of this being a much better album is there, but that magical element so typical of Bowie’s better work is simply missing here.

About his long time personal assistant Coco Schwab, the title track and third single “Never Let Me Down” comes next and is again a rather nice song, with perhaps his best, tinder vocal performance on the album. But it’s not exciting, original, confronting, atmospheric or spine-tingling, which is what we usually expect from Bowie. Bowie doesn’t usually just do nice, you get the point. Music Video.

never let me down single

Zeroes” continues the trend of having some promise as a song and has that hint of nostalgia that Bowie was after but it just doesn’t get there. The tune has the usual plodding drum back beat, the guitar solo is uninspiring and the vocal mix just doesn’t do Bowie justice.

The last track on side one (yes, I originally got this as a record, my last Bowie record for many a year with CDs being the media of choice from here on in) is “Glass Spider” and is my second favourite track on the album, if only for the opening. The spoken opening sequence reminds me a tad of the start to the “Diamond Dogs” album and manages to take you to that other place. But yet again the final product doesn’t quite deliver and the mythological imaginary of spidery webs is broken by the unadventurous Frampton guitar and that damn thumping 80’s era drum sound.

Although the first side can only be best described as somewhat mediocre by Bowie standards, it’s unfortunately the better of the two sides. Things only go downhill once you flip the album over…

Shining Star (Makin’ My Love)” can be politely described as not being very good or more accurately, bloody awful. A crunchy, repetitive beat with annoyingly high pitched instrumentation and lame lyrics is broken by a so-called “rap” sequence by Mickey Rouke (yes, that Mickey Rouke). It doesn’t work.

New York’s In Love” is a forgettable track with a tune I couldn’t hum even if I was offered a large some of money. It’s about…, I have no idea and sadly with this album, I really have not interest in finding out. It’s a nothing song.

87 and Cry” has a heavy drum beat and squealing guitar that makes it sound just like other songs on the album. That’s not a complement by the way. It’s again a nothing sort of song that just doesn’t have much to hold your interest. It’s aged as much as the title of the song would suggest. But we haven’t got to the low point yet…

Too Dizzy” is so bad that Bowie himself insistent that the song be removed from all subsequent re-issues of the album. In that respect, it’s a bit of a rarity these days but I wouldn’t recommend spending too much time looking for it. It has all the key elements (boring drum beat, messy instrumentation and bland lyrics) that characterises this album. An instantly forgettable song.

Bang Bang” closes off the album and is the clear best track on this forgettable second side of the album. A cover of the Iggy Pop song from his equally forgettable “Party” album, it at least has a structure and vibe that will have you tapping your feet. But when you compare it to other closing tracks on Bowie albums such as “The Bewlay Brothers”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and “Lady Grinning Soul”, well you get my point. Things just don’t really compare here.

Over the years, I’ve really really tried to “get into” this album as it holds a lot of nostalgia for me. For a start, my parents bought me the limited “blue” coloured vinyl version of the album as a surprise present, which remains unplayed but treasured to this day.

I also enjoyed one of the best weeks of my life when I spent a week commuting from Canberra to Sydney to see all 8 of Bowie’s “Glass Spider” shows at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. I couldn’t get time off work as I didn’t have the leave, so left work at 4pm each day, drove to Sydney, watched the show and then drove back to be in bed by 3am to do it all again the next day. Although the “Glass Spider” tour was critically panned, I loved it. It was David Bowie live for crying out loud and he was amazing !! Best of all, some of the shows were recorded for the video release, so what a perfect souvenir of the time. Video of Sydney Glass Spider shows.

But alas, I have never enjoyed this album anything like most of his others and in my humble opinion, remains the nadir of his creative output. If you were to graph the quality of Bowie’s albums, you would plot “Never Let Me Down” humbly on Planet Earth and many of his masterpieces in the stratosphere or indeed in outer space and beyond.

Bowie himself has been quite disparaging of the album over the years and once stated “Never Let Me Down had good songs that I mistreated. I didn’t really apply myself. I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be doing. I wish there had been someone around who could have told me”.

Interestingly and perhaps most telling of all, I don’t believe Bowie ever performed any of the songs from the album again after the accompanying “Glass Spiders” tour.

After the tour and after spectacularly burning the whole Glass Spider live set following the last show in New Zealand, Bowie recognised the need for a drastic change in direction. If he was to keep his legacy and keep his artistic integrity, he had to say goodbye to his current commercial considerations, say goodbye to his Phil Collins fan base and start creating records that again said up yours to the music establishment.

And boy, did Tin Machine achieve all that and a lot more. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: Time Will Crawl.

 

glass spider tour

David Bowie Albums: My Reviews Ranked From Least to Most Favourite Album

db-albums

I’ve started a new blog where I’ll focus on the one and only David Bowie. I’ve been a massive fan for nearly 40 years, starting way back in 1979 when I first saw Bowie performing “Boys Keep Swinging” on the Kenny Everett Video Show. Since then, I’ve been hooked and what an amazing journey it has been. He may no longer be with us, but his music will always live on.

Each week or so, I’ll review and discuss a different David Bowie album ranked from my least favourite to my most favourite. So I’ll cover my least favourite album first and work my up to my all time favourite David Bowie album. No doubt the order will be a source of some annoyance to many (how can you possibly put Lodger in from of …), but that’s the beauty of music, everyone has there own tastes and favourites.

With each album, I’ll discuss what I like, what I don’t, some interesting things around the recording of the album and (hopefully) if you haven’t yet had the joy of listening to the particular album, maybe convince you to give it a listen or a re-listen if it’s been gathering dust in your record collection. Feel free to join in on any discussions.

I’ll only focus (initially) on David Bowie’s studio albums, I’ll review live, compilation, soundtrack, etc. albums later. I have included however “The Buddha of Suburbia” as it’s more studio album than soundtrack.

Picking these albums in some kinda order  of favouritism has been really really difficult, almost as difficult as picking your favourite child, but it’s been a fun exercise and I’m content enough with my selections. I would state that even a “poor” David Bowie album would be regarded as a near masterpiece if recorded by most other artists so everything is relative…

For those not fully acquainted with the vast workings of the great man, here is the full list of his studio albums in chronological order:

1. David Bowie (1967) – Ranked 24th.

2. David Bowie / aka Space Oddity (1969) – Ranked 12th.

3. The Man Who Sold The World (1970) – Ranked 6th.

4. Hunky Dory (1971) – Ranked 2nd.

5. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) – Ranked 1st.

6. Aladdin Sane (1973) – Ranked 9th.

7. Pin-Ups (1973) – Ranked 19th.

8. Diamond Dogs (1974) – Ranked 3rd.

9. Young Americans (1975) – Ranked 20th.

10. Station to Station (1976) – Ranked 8th.

11. Low (1977) – Ranked 10th.

12. “Heroes” (1977) – Ranked 11th.

13. Lodger (1979) – Ranked 7th.

14. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980) – Ranked 4th.

15. Let’s Dance (1983) – Ranked 27th.

16. Tonight (1984) – Ranked 23rd.

17. Never Let Me Down (1987) – Ranked 28th.

18. Tin Machine (1989) – Ranked 21st.

19. Tin Machine II (1991) – Ranked 25th.

20. Black Tie White Noise (1993) – Ranked 15th.

21. The Buddha of Suburbia (1993) – Ranked 26th.

22. Outside (1995) – Ranked 5th.

23. Earthling (1997) – Ranked 17th.

24. Hours (1999) – Ranked 18th.

25. Heathen (2002) Ranked 16th.

26. Reality (2003) – Ranked 22nd.

27. The Next Day (2013) – Ranked 13th.

28. Blackstar (2016) – Ranked 14th.

I’ll discuss the first album, my least favourite David Bowie album in the coming days. Stay tuned !!