13. The Next Day

The Next Day

The Next Day” is David Bowie’s 27th and penultimate studio album, originally released on 8th March 2013.

I will never forget that magical moment back on 8th January 2013 while holidaying in Hawaii, when my son excitedly shouted out that Bowie had just released a new single and was going to release a new album in the coming weeks. I thought he was just joking, this surely couldn’t be true after so many years in hiatus. I had all but given up on Bowie ever again releasing any new material, with his last album “Reality” released way way back in 2003, but to my astonishment and glee, the joyous news breaking throughout the music world that day was indeed true.

The single released out of nowhere that day, “Where Are We Now?“, was a slow, moody piece that wasn’t quite my cup of tea, but seriously who cared, Bowie was finally back !! (As it turned out, the single was another clever piece of deception as it was nothing like the rest of the upcoming album).

During the 2003-04 “Reality” Tour, Bowie suffered a mild heart attack on stage on 25 June 2004 which resulted in the cancellation of the rest of the tour and emergency heart surgery. This frightening episode had a marked effect on Bowie, with his public appearances and performances becoming rarer and rarer, until in 2006 when he performed at the “Keep A Child Alive” charity event in New York, his last ever live public performance. He did subsequently perform “Chubby Little Loser” on the hilarious Ricky Gervais “Extras” TV sitcom and make other sporadic appearances on TV (such as the voice of Lord Royal Highness on “SpongeBob SquarePants”) and film (as Nikola Tesla in “The Prestige”) but in terms of new music, nothing.

The general consensus was that Bowie had unofficially retired from music, focusing now on his family and health. So it’s kinda remarkable that in total secret, with all musicians involved strictly sworn to NDAs, that Bowie began recording new material in 2011 in New York along with his long-time producer Tony Visconti. In the age of social media and 24 x 7 news cycles, that these sessions were successfully kept secret was indeed a marvel and totally unheard of (although such “surprises” have been used a number of times since, such as with Beyoncé).

The impressive musical ensemble consisted of many who played with Bowie on his previous few albums and tours, including Zachary Alford and Sterling Campell on drums, David Torn, Earl Slick and Gerry Leonard on guitars and Gail Ann Dorsey and Tony Visconti on bass, with Bowie himself playing some acoustic guitar and much of the keyboard pieces.

After periodic sessions spanning 2 years, the result was the highly impressive “The Next Day” double-album. The album was primarily a rock-art based affair, with lots of references to his past, both musically and personal. But importantly, it came out sounding fresh and energetic, with lots of interesting musical twists and turns, impressive from someone who had just turned 66 years when released.

The album opens with the brilliant, frantic, title track, “The Next Day“, about as different as you can get from the quaint, retrospective “Where Are We Now?“, the only prior taste of the album we had (and all part of a complex joke I’m sure). With images that reminds me of some grisly scene from “Game of Thrones”, this hard-rock track tells the nightmarish tale of suffering and torture due the hypocrisy of some religious order. Put in the perspective of Bowie illness with cancer, some of the images and messages here take on a new perspective. Released as the 3rd single off the album, the video directed by Florina Sigismondi and staring Bowie along with Gary Oldman and Marion Cotillard caused much controversy with Christian groups due to its graphic religious imagery. Check it out here.

The Next Day Single

Dirty Boys” is a quieter, slower affair, with its honky sax thanks to Steve Elson (who first worked with Bowie way back on the “Let’s Dance” album). It has a wonderful sleazy vibe that I’m sure Bowie was after. With its reference of stealing “cricket bats”, it also highlights that despite living in New York for many years, Bowie was still very much an Englishman at heart.

The next track, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” is one of the real highlights, a wonderful driving rocker, with a slight 60’s vibe thanks to Steve Elson’s sax and doo-wop backing vocals. Unusual for Bowie, it’s not actually about the stars in the skies but a somewhat cynical look at the stars on your TV screens. Bowie’s vocals are just spot on here, good enough to be nominated for a Grammy for “Best Rock Performance”. This was the 2nd single off the album, which would I think have made a stronger lead-off single and much more indicative of the rest of the material found within. The excellent video also directed by Florina Sigismondi and co-starring Tilda Swinton as Bowie’s wife features the current older Bowie meeting up with his younger Ziggy Stardust androgynous self. You can watch it here.

the stars are out tonight

Love Is Lost” slows things down just a tad, with another wonderful brooding track, with touches of the vibe from the “Scary Monsters” period. The guitar work by (likely) Gerry Leonard is especially good, as are Bowie’s vocals who again returns to the topic of lamenting lost love. The track was significantly extended and remixed by Steve Reich with lots of hand clapping and touches of the “Ashes To Ashes” classic baseline and released as yet another single (number 5 but I’m losing count here). It also featured a video rumoured to be the cheapest ever made (at the pricey sum of $12.99 US for a thumb drive) and recorded by Bowie himself in his home apartment with puppets of his past personas. Watch the video here.

Where Are We Now?” is possibly the most well known track off the album, thanks to its status as lead-off single when released on Bowie’s birthday in 2013 during the big reveal. It’s by far the slowest, most brooding track on the album, with Bowie reminiscing about his time in Berlin during the 1970’s. Perhaps because I’ve heard this so often now, I actually regard this as one of the weakest tracks found here, despite its often late classic status by many music critics. Watch the video here.

love is lost

Valentine’s Day” is another classic Bowie rocker and yet another highlight on the album. One of the darker tracks despite its classic rock feel, it depicts a USA school massacre by a demented student and rarely for Bowie, makes a political point by showing his disdain for the guns laws in his country of residence. Tragically, such a massacre would indeed later occur on Valentine’s Day in 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Released as the 4th single off the album, the simple video features a demented looking Bowie playing his guitar as one would a gun. Simple but effective. Watch the video here.

Valentine's Day

If You Can See Me” takes me back somewhat to the demented computer of the “Saviour Machine” from the “The Man Who Sold The World” album (from which much of this album seems inspired), but converted now to human form. Starting off with a high pitched wail from Gail Ann Dorsey, the lyrics spells out a demonic, chilling vision from thee who is “the spirit of greed, a lord of theft”. With thumping drums and bass line prominent, it’s actually Bowie’s treated, at times hysterical vocals that dominate this impressive track.

I’d Rather Be High” is one of two “protest” war songs on the album, with the protagonist showing clear disdain for the military hierarchy forcing him to train guns on subjects in the sands (the reference to Egypt suggests this could be more a reference to WWI or WW II rather than more current middle-east conflicts). He would much rather be high smoking drugs and having sex (then again, who wouldn’t). With a catchy refrain and military style drum beat, it’s another great track and another that got the remix treatment and released as yet another single (I think I’m up to 6, but losing track now) Watch the video here.

Boss Of Me” is possibly the low point on the album. Featuring again Steve Elson on sax, it’s a little ploddy musically, with the middle-eight section the clear highlight. Bowie’s vocals are excellent as they are throughout the album,  the song detailing how a “small town girl” becomes such a dominant person (his wife perhaps).

Dancing Out In Space” is an altogether different affair, a truly fun, catchy piece that sounds light and bouncy but has a slight edginess hidden within the lyrics. With the common Bowie theme of “space”, this however is more to do with “inner” rather than “outer” space, with water referenced a number of times suggesting perhaps an escape via drowning. I just love this track.

As indeed I do “How Does The Grass Grow?“, the second anti-war track on the album and one of the album highlights. With a clear musical nod to the classic “Apache” during the chorus, the dark lyrics suggests a soldiers regret at killing innocent women in a war zone. Bowie’s vocals are again somewhat distorted, suggesting he’s playing another character here, except in the middle-eight section when he’s back being the narrator. It’s just a powerful, moving piece with lots of musical twists and turns that is Bowie at his best.

All that said, “(You Will) Set The World On Fire” is yet another brilliant track and possibly THE highlight on the album. The music is that wonderful combination of being catchy, powerful and full of little Bowie highlights. The most native “New York” of all the tracks, it takes you back to the 60’s Greenwich Village folk scene, full of old reminisces set to a current rock setting. Bowie at his absolute best.

You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” slows the pace down a tad, a quieter more tender piece, with a beautiful arrangement and stunning Bowie vocal performance. I’ve always felt this was a piece where Bowie is lamenting with some assassin or criminal on past sins and how could he possibly live with himself. It’s another wonderful moment on the album, with the fading back-beat a clear reprise of the magical drum piece from “Five Years” off the “Ziggy Stardust” album.

The album officially closes with “Heat“, an atmospheric, brooding piece with Bowie again looking into his past and lamenting that despite his age, still doesn’t really know who he is. The track is typical Bowie, full of obscure imagery and with a sad quality that hits a nerve. Bowie’s vocal is just beautiful, as indeed it is on most of the album. After the frantic nature of so much of the album, a quieter piece to end it all.

After being away from the musical scene for such an extended period, “The Next Day” really was a stunning return by Bowie. It was both critically acclaimed and a commercial success, reaching the top of the charts in the UK and in much of the world and No.2 in the US and Australia.

The album when initially released on CD as a “Deluxe” version with a number of bonus tracks, that were also included on the double LP version of the album. These were:

So She” is yet another really catchy piece, with a beautiful Bowie vocal. The music is mellow, with acoustic guitars, soft keyboards and dreamy soundscapes featuring more than the roaring guitars more typical on the rest of the album. Put this down as a hidden Bowie gem.

Plan” is a slightly sinister instrumental, with a nice catchy back-beat and guitar loop. Unlike most of Bowie’s other instrumentals that usually feature keyboard synthesizers, this short piece is more rock oriented. You can hear “Plan” at the start of “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” video.

I’ll Take You There” is a fantastic track, that sounds not unlike “Born In A UFO” that appears on the Extra version of the album. It’s a great rocker, with a fabulous chorus line that indeed does take you there. Co-written with guitarist Gerry Leonard, another track that probably deserves more than being just a bonus track, but there’s just not enough room.

Later in 2013, another version of the album was released called “The Next Day Extra“, a 3 disc box-set version of the album which included the original album, a DVD of 4 of the promo videos and a CD of extra tracks from the recording sessions. These included the 3 bonus tracks listed above, the re-mixed versions of “Love Is Lost” and “I’d Rather Be High” and the following previously unreleased tracks:

Atomica” with its driving rhythm and strained vocals has an almost glam rock like quality, without ever reaching the point of self-parody. It fits the overall feel of “The Next Day”, being in part a backward retrospective of Bowie’s entire career.

The Informer” starts with swirling soundscapes, before moving into a powerful Bowie vocal, where he sounds the most like his previous couple of albums (think “Heathen“/”Reality“) than anything else off this album. Perhaps one of the weaker bonus tracks in that the musical element just seems to be lacking something.

Like A Rocket Man” comes across as part revenge for Elton John nicking his coloured hair and outer spaceness with “Rocket Man”. It’s a bouncy, poppy piece with a 60’s vibe but like much of Bowie, the musical gaiety hides a darker lyric which directly references drugs and cocaine specifically. So into the mid 70’s we go with Mr Bowie in this excellent piece.

Born In A UFO” is such a Bowie song title, but the music sounds more like a combination of Bruce Springsteen (think “Born in The USA”) and his own Tin Machine period. It sounds a little like “I’ll Take You There” found also on this bonus disk, although it’s not quite as good. Perhaps a song that in part covers the current part of his career?

God Bless The Girl” is my favourite of all the bonus tracks, a really nice piece that has an almost gospel vibe to it all. Bowie sounds “younger” here and it reminds me of his 80’s period, but in a good way. This was included in the Japanese pressings of the original Deluxe version of the album.

the next day extra cover

Put altogether, all this new material, with not a cover in sight, equates to a triple album worth of musical gems. Bowie clearly had some serious catching up to do.

One of the big controversies with the new album was the cover. Unlike almost every Bowie album which featured a current image of our hero, this took one of Bowie’s most well known previous album covers “Heroes”, covered all the album text (except “David Bowie”) with a thick black marker and splattered a big white square containing the text “The Next Day” over the artwork. I must admit to not being a fan and would have much preferred a nice new photo, but that said, I have grown to like it much more these days and appreciate the courage it must have taken to have put it together.

Sadly, despite much financial persuasion, Bowie refused to tour the album or even conduct a single interview with the press to promote it. Although he was finally producing new music, he remained a recluse and left the promotion of the album largely to producer Tony Visconti.

For Bowie to produce such an impressive, high quality offering after being away from the music scene for 10 years and at the grand age of 66, is nothing short of amazing. Bowie unfortunately only had the one album left in him, the majestic “Blackstar“, which artistically is arguably even better. However, whereas “Blackstar” takes me to a sad place, this album will forever remind me of that wonderful holiday in Hawaii where I first heard the big news, and so gets ranked (just) the better.

As wonderful as “The Next Day” is, I still rank a dozen other Bowie albums higher, an indication of just what a crazily brilliant body of work Bowie produced. But that’s a topic for another day…

Best Tracks: “The Next Day”, “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, “Valentine’s Day”, “(You Will) Set The World On Fire”.

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20. Young Americans

young americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

young americans single cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fame

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

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

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

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

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

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

john-im-only-dancing-again

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

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

who can i be now boxset

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

cracked actor lp

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

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

Best Tracks: Young Americans, Win, Fame