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

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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