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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

2. Hunky Dory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Seriously, WOW, what an amazing song !!

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

3. Diamond Dogs

diamond dogs gatefold album

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

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

1980 Floor Show album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

diamond dogs single cover

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

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

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

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

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

rebelrebel single cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

diamond dogs inner sleeve

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

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

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

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

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

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

diamond dogs 30 aniv

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

who can i be now boxset

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

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

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

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

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

David Live Album

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

cracked actor lp

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

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

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

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

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

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“.

 

 

9. Aladdin Sane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

aladdin sane gatefold

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

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

10. Low

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16. Heathen

heathen

Heathen” is David Bowie’s 25th studio album and was originally released on 11th June 2002.

Soon after the release of the “Hours” album, Bowie separated from his long time collaborator Reeves Gabrels, so the follow-up was always going to sound somewhat different to those of the recent past. The follow-up album was originally going to be the “Toy” project, an album of re-recorded versions of songs he had (mainly) written in the 60’s/early 70s prior to becoming the well-known rock icon. Remarkably (this is David Bowie remember), he couldn’t find a record label willing to release the album and the project was eventually shelved (it was “unofficially” released on the internet in 2011).

Although “Toy” was produced by Mark Plati, during the recording sessions, he became re-acquainted again with Tony Visconti, the producer responsible for many of his classic 70’s albums. They had last worked together way back in 1982 during the recording of the “Baal” EP and both thought why not get together and see if they can maybe produce the same magic in the studio again.

Visconti provided some of the string arrangements for the “Toy” project and some of the recordings became the catalyst for the new album to come. Some became reworked tracks on the album proper, while a number became B-Sides for the various singles from the album.

Recorded during an extended period from late 2000 through to early 2002, the “Heathen” recording period included the horrors of what happened on that fateful day on 11 September 2001. Although Bowie has said that none of the tracks directly related to the terrorist attack that occurred in his then home town of New York, I have always felt that much of the mood and atmosphere of the album (in tracks such as “Sunday” and “Slow Burn”) were influenced by those terrible events.

That said, the album is simply gorgeous and full to the brim with beautiful songs and wonderful vocal performances by Bowie. The Visconti influence is there, but his skill has always been to capture the “current” Bowie at his best and the production on this album is superb. The melancholy of David Bowie circa 2002 is captured perfectly, with a highly talented bunch of musicians (lead ably by Visconti on bass, Matt Chamberlain on drums and David Torn on guitar, with Bowie playing a number of instruments, usually a good sign) adding to what truly is a wonderful album.

It begins with “Sunday“, a quiet, atmospheric piece with a stunningly beautiful vocal by Bowie. If it’s not specifically about 11 September 2001, it’s certainly about someone who has survived a catastrophic, harrowing event in which nothing has changed, but everything has changed. The intro sets the scene:

Nothing remains
We could run when the rain slows
Look for the cars or signs of life
Where the heat goes

with a chant like quality to the whole thing.

It builds slowly from there, with touches of new instruments and voices coming in here and there, until the climatic finale with Bowie’s despairing “Everything has chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanged” and Matt Chamberlain’s wonderful drum work taking us out.

Next comes “Cactus“, a cover of the Pixies track from their album “Surfer Rosa”. Bowie was a huge fan of the Pixies and he does this song justice with a nice performance. Typical of the album, the softer/quieter tracks are often interspersed with harder/louder tracks throughout.

The next track “Slip Away” was one of those originating from the “Toy” sessions, under the original title “Uncle Floyd“. Although some at the time thought the song was a nod to Pink Floyd, whom Bowie loved particularly during the Syd Barrett era, it actually references “The Uncle Floyd Show” which was a children’s puppet show during the 70’s and beyond. Another slow, melancholic, atmospheric piece, it has a certain yearning for a bygone era which would have been perfect on “Toy” but also works rather well here on “Heathen”.

Slow Burn” is my favourite track on Heathen, a wonderfully eerie rocker, with Pete Townsend providing some excellent guitar. Another song with 9/11 murmurings, it has all the elements of classic Bowie; a catchy, forceful rhythm, great lyrics, great vocals and that wonderfully unique instrumentation and arrangement quality that only Bowie can create. The lead off single from the album (but oddly not in the UK where it wasn’t released despite there being a number of different versions), it’s one of the classic Bowie songs that sadly most people would never have heard. A video of the song was recently released post his passing which is well worth watching. Watch video here.

slow burn

Afraid” is another “Toy” offshoot, although this time much of the backing tracks are essentially the same with the song remixed for “Heathen”. It’s perhaps one the weaker tracks here, although that’s always a relative term when it comes to Bowie. It has a nice guitar track throughout and again Bowie is in fine form, but it doesn’t have the distinctive quality of many of the other tracks here. It was a song often performed during the “Reality” tour and I think sounds much better live.

I’ve Been Waiting For You” is another cover, this time from Neil Young’s debut album. It works rather well here, with Visconti’s bass dominating and with again some excellent musical arrangements and guitar work (this time from a guest appearance by David Grohl). Bowie sings it with obvious affection and so passes the “does it deserve to be on the album” test. Released as a single in Canada only.

I Would Be Your Slave” has a catchy rhythm and string like arrangements, but it’s Bowie’s vulnerable vocal performance that lifts this song to a higher status. A plea to a potential loved one, that Bowie promises he would be dedicated to if they only opened up, you get the sense the relationship is ultimately doomed. It’s typical Bowie pulling the emotional heart-strings.

I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship” is an absolute riot. The third cover on the album, this is a song by “The Legendary Stardust Cowboy”, a key influence in the making of Ziggy Stardust. Bowie sings the song in his most camp voice and it really is quite hilarious. Although much of the album has a sad melancholy, this just lightens up the mood of the whole piece. There really is hope for mankind, it just requires us to leave the planet and take a ride on a spaceship. “Weeeelllllllll” indeed !!

5:15: The Angels Have Gone” is another highlight, just a truly beautiful song. About separation, both physically from a foreign town and emotionally from a failed relationship, it just has everything one can want from a great song. Musically, it’s simple but also has that sprinkle of Bowie magic in the touches here and there and in the slightly odd, drum based rhythm.

The next track “Everyone Says Hi” continues the high standard with a more uplifting accompaniment to the previous song. Here, the theme is again about leaving, but from the perspective that everyone misses you and that if you ever want to return, the old life is there waiting for you (all your friends, Mum, Dad, the dog…). Released as a single, it came out in a vast array of options, which made it really expensive for us Bowie fans.

Everyone says hi

A Better Future” is a little flat and plodding in comparison to what has come before. It has a nice enough rhythm and keyboard based hook, but Bowie’s deadpan vocal and the lack of any great emotion or change in musical structure makes it one of the weaker tracks here. Somewhat forgettable.

It all ends with the title track “Heathen (The Rays)“. With a brooding arrangement and basic drum backbeat, it rather nicely rounds off the album. It has a religous like quality, perhaps an older man’s “Word On A Wing”:

Steel on the skyline
Sky made of glass
Made for a real world
All things must pass
Waiting for something
Looking for someone
Is there no reason?
Have I stared too long?

Wow, what a great album and this from a then 55 year old who had already achieved so much.

Another tracks worth mentioning from around this period:

Conversation Piece“. This was released as a bonus track on a second CD that come with limited editions of the album when first released. From the “Toy” sessions, the song originally dates way back to being the B-Side of Bowie’s early single “The Prettiest Star” (featuring Marc Bolan) and is an early indication of the genius that is Bowie. It’s an early masterpiece and one of the most beautiful songs he’s ever written. This version is not quite as stunning as the original, but that wonderful sense of vulnerability is still there.

Wood Jackson” featured as the B-Side to the “Slow Burn” single. Sounding really really sad, it’s a truly eerie piece about a clearly troubled musician who can’t quite get a grip on life. Believed by some to be based in part on the musician Daniel Johnston. For those occasions when you might feel a little lonely.

Shadow Man” is possibly my favourite piece from this whole period. Another early song of Bowie’s dating back to 1971 and beyond, recorded again during the “Toy” sessions, this is such a great song. Previously never officially released (although an early version recorded during the Ziggy Stardust sessions has been available on bootleg albums for some time), this is just brilliant and this version is possibly Bowie’s finest vocal performance in his whole post 1990’s era. This version is so damn good, that it was included in the “Nothing Has Changed” compilation released in 2014. Mainly piano based, with a quiet arrangement, Bowie’s voice is front and centre and is just stunning. Appeared on some B-Sides of the “Slow Burn” single and on the bonus disc of the re-released limited edition of the album.

Safe” is an outtake from the “Heathen” sessions, it’s another brooding song but with a much more expansive arrangement, with squealing guitars and louder, anguished vocals. It’s not as strong as much of what made it onto “Heathen”, so you can see why it was dropped. Again featured on the bonus disc with the re-released version of the album.

When The Boys Come Marching Home” is another “Heathen” outtake and perhaps the weakest track of the lot. With a nondescript arrangement and clear military musings (including the drum beat), Bowie would tackle this topic far more impressively on “The Next Day” album. For now, this track is nothing more than a curiosity.

You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving” dates all the way back to 1966 when Bowie was a total unknown and the lead singer of “Davy Jones & The Lower Third” when this song was released as a single (the last single before becoming David Bowie). It was a flop then and although this version from the “Toy” sessions can be viewed as an improvement, it’s still not the best song in the Bowie cannon. An interesting piece, but I actually prefer the original with the fresh sounding Bowie vocal of its time. Included as a B-Side on some versions of the “Heathen” singles and as a track on the bonus disk of the re-released album.

Baby Loves That Way”  was originally the B-Side to the single “You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving” by “Davy Jones & The Lower Third” and was also re-recorded for “Toy”. Here, the original is much the better version, with this having all the life and energy of the original drained away. One can see why the “Toy” concept was rejected by record companies based on this track. Again, included as a B-Side on some versions of the “Heathen” singles and as a track on the bonus disk of the re-released album.

The album cover (which I’ve used as the background to my computers ever since) is certainly up there as one of Bowie’s most distinctive covers, featuring Bowie’s “out of this world” eyes.

Overall, “Heathen” was received positively by both the music critics and by the public at large. It reached No 5 in the UK charts, No 14 in the US and even made it to No 9 here in Australia. Not bad from someone releasing their 25th studio album and who couldn’t be bothered recording any videos to help promote the thing.

Bowie did tour the album on a somewhat limited basis between June and October 2002 in both Europe and the US (but again not in Australia goddammit). The first couple of dates included playing both the “Heathen” and “Low” albums in their entirety before the tour proper started (how cool would that have been !!). Many of the “Heathen” songs were also covered during his final “Reality” world tour.

Listening to the album now, it really has aged rather well and is typical of much of Bowie’s output. A little ahead of its day, with a lot of brilliance and with very much a timeless quality that one can forever fondly listen to.

It was certainly a cause of some excitement at the time that Bowie and Tony Visconti were back working together again after so many years. In the end, Tony Visconti would turn out to produce all of Bowie’s future albums. Sadly, there were only three more to come, “Reality” released in 2003 and after a 10 year hiatus, the superb “The Next Day” and “Blackstar” albums.

Both the latter albums have yet to appear in my list, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Best Tracks: “Sunday”, “Slow Burn”, “5:15 The Angels Have Gone”, “Shadow Man”

19. Pin Ups

pin ups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growin’ Up“,  a cover of the Bruce Springsteen song is actually a track from very early  “Diamond Dogs” sessions and features Ron Wood on guitar. Bowie was a big fan of early Springsteen and recorded a couple of Springsteen tracks. This one sounds a little like a demo and doesn’t have the polish of a completed track. Bowie does an OK US impersonation here but perfects this vocal style by the time he gets to “Young Americans“. There was always talk of a Pin Ups II album that would feature American songs, but sadly never materialised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

22. Reality

reality

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

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

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

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

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

new killer star

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

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

never get old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a reality tour