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“.

7. Lodger

lodger album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DJ single

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

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

 

boys keep swinging single

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Career in a new town boxset

 

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

But that’s a story for another day…

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

 

 

8. Station To Station

station to station album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golden Years Single

 

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

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

TVC 15 Single

 

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

stay single

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

wild is the wind single

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

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

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

station to station colour

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

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

who can i be now boxset

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

The live album was eventually released separately in 2017.

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

Nassau Coliseum 76 live album

 

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

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

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

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

10. Low

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. “Heroes”

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

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

Life was indeed finally beginning to pick up.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

20. Young Americans

young americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

young americans single cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fame

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

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

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

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

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

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

john-im-only-dancing-again

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

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

who can i be now boxset

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

cracked actor lp

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

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

Best Tracks: Young Americans, Win, Fame