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

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

15. Black Tie White Noise

black tie white noise

Black Tie White Noise” is David Bowie’s 20th studio album and was originally released on 5th April 1993.

After Bowie’s (mis)adventures with Tin Machine, this album was seen by many as a return to form and a return to being the solo artist many fans craved. It was the first album that I remember that came with the initial label of being “his best album since 1980’s Scary Monsters and Super Creeps”, a label that many of his subsequent albums would also share.

The early 90’s was a period of some change for Bowie, not only did he decide to retire the Tin Machine project, but much more importantly, he met the woman of his dreams in Iman Abdulmajid who he would marry and remain happily so for the rest of his life. The album as such reflects much of this married bliss and is bookend with music that he wrote specifically for his wedding.

The album also marks a couple of key musical reunions. Firstly, after the relative commercial and critical disappointments that were his Tin Machine albums (and indeed some albums beforehand), Bowie was keen to get back to some form. Who better to turn to than Nile Rodgers who produced the killer commercial monster that was “Let’s Dance“.  Although Rodgers’s influence is not as strong here as on “Let’s Dance”, the album has a certain “vibe”, a “catchy” quality that makes the album such a joy to listen to. The main difference here is that so many of the songs are of a better quality than those on “Let’s Dance”.

For me though, this album will always be remembered as the album where Bowie finally reunited after 20 long years with the great Mick Ronson (albeit on just one track), his “Spiders From Mars” sidekick who would so tragically pass away before the album was released. The resultant track “I Feel Free“, a cover of the Cream classic that Ziggy and the Spiders would play in their heyday is worth price of admission alone methinks.

The main musical influence on the album though is someone new to the Bowie universe, Lester Bowie (obviously no relation), who’s trumpet playing would provide the major musical theme throughout the album and gives the album a wonderful distinct dimension.

The album opens with the majestic instrumental “The Wedding“, written by Bowie to be played at his wedding. Starting with church bells, it quickly hits a groove that’s both incredible catchy but also romantic in nature. It really is quite a beautiful piece of music.

The next track “You’ve Been Around” is co-written with Reeves Gabrels, his Tin Machine cohort and features Gabrels on lead guitar (although barely in the mix to Bowie’s amusement and Gabrels annoyance), this being the only link between this album and Tin Machine. It has a killer bass line and features Lester Bowie at his best during the trumpet solo. Bowie’s vocal is somewhat distorted, which gives the song a certain eeriness that I’ve always liked. The ch-ch-ch-ch-changes line certainly brings back memories. Rodgers with his production work here has totally transformed a Tin Machine number into a funky, jiving piece that works rather well.

I Feel Free” comes up next and has always been a bit of an emotional number for me as it reunited Bowie with Mick Ronson for the last time in the studio. I have a number of poor quality bootleg versions of this song dating back to 1972 when Bowie performed it with the Spiders From Mars, so it’s kinda nice that he revisited it again on this album. Again, it has that Rodgers inspired groove, but with Ronson’s guitar solo giving it that edginess in the later stages. Bowie’s vocals are much deeper than usual but absolutely divine. A nice way to musically say goodbye to each other.

Up next is the title track “Black Tie White Noise“, a duet with Al B. Sure! where they jointly lament the injustices on blacks living in the US. Bowie was horrified by the 1992 LA race riots that followed appalling attack on Rodney King and was motivated enough to write this tough appraisal of the white/black relationship in the US (sadly, little has changed in all these years). Bowie doesn’t usually tackle political issues with his song writing, but when he does he certainly does so with some bite. This is a truly great song with the joint vocals working perfectly together. The tough lyrics are a little at odds with the catchy, bass lead backing track which slightly disarms what is a powerful protest song. Again, Lester Bowie’s trumpet contribution works beautifully. This was the second single off the album and probably deserved to do better than it did (although it did reach the lofty heights of 76 in in Australian singles chart !!). See music video.

black tie white noise single

 

Jump They Say” is one of the most brilliant of all Bowie songs, an all time top 20 entry and in my opinion perhaps the most under-rated single in his entire catalogue. Based in large part on the recent tragic suicide of his half-brother Terry, it’s a powerful piece where the driving rhythm, the catchy musical phrases, Lester Bowie’s trumpet and the astonishing vocal performance by Bowie all combine to make this epic Bowie masterpiece. Yes, I love this !! This was the lead-off single for the album and came with one of Bowie’s very best music videos, a wonderfully complex view of a corporate executive being driven to madness and eventual suicide by corporate greed and jealousy. If you have never this song before or seen the video, do yourself a favour by watching it here: music video. The video became the basis of a PC video game at the time, where you can edit the video yourself and listen to some Bowie interviews.

jump they say

The brilliance continue on the next track “Nite Flights“, a cover of the Scott Walker classic who was a big influence on Bowie. I would rate this as perhaps the best cover Bowie has recorded, with the exception of the sublime “Wild Is The Wind” from “Station To Station”. It’s that good. Featuring a wonderful backing track, amazing synthesizers and atmospheric touches during the chorus and vocal breaks and again a brilliant vocal performance by Bowie, this is a true highlight of what Bowie could achieve in his criminally under-rated 90’s period. Nile Rodgers deserves much credit for putting all these components together so superbly.

This was most certainly the best side one of music Bowie has recorded since “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps”. It’s that good. Although the second half doesn’t quite match up to the same standard, there’s still much to enjoy.

The second half begins with “Pallas Athena“, another mainly instrumental heavily influenced I suspect by his recent marriage. It’s got that now familiar catchy Rodgers groove, with a bass line and drum beat that drives on and on and with perhaps a nod to the sounds he would explore further with the drum ‘n’ bass on the “Earthling” album. “God is on top of it all, that’s all” is the only repeated foreground lyric, delivered by what sounds like a black American preacher (but perhaps that’s just me). It was actually released as a 12″ dance single in some regions.

Pallas_Athena Single

Up next comes “Miracle Goodnight“, clearly a love song to Iman. It’s a lovely little ditty, that is more keyboard based than much of the other material on the album. Bowie sings the song in a higher register than normal, which gives it that vulnerable vibe. It reminds me a little of his work during the Labyrinth soundtrack period. Released as the third single off the album, it featured a clever video of Bowie (looking a little like The Thin White Duke) at times surrounded by a hoard of women to which he shows no interest and at other times in a weird, jesters type outfit surrounded by mirrors. Oh, and there’s a cowgirl too. Yes, I don’t quite get it either. Watch music video.

miracle goodnight

We now reach the less interesting section of the album. “Don’t Let Me Down & Down” is a cover of a song by Tahra Mint Hembara (who?), a friend of Iman who liked a album of hers and suggested her new hubby should cover it. It’s a nice enough song, but it’s a little sedate and not up to the quality of the previous tracks on the album. There’s is an alternative version that contains an Indonesian vocal which strangely enough is actually an improvement on the album version.

Looking For Lester” is another instrumental, a bouncy fun piece, written I can only assume to highlight the trumpet playing of Lester Bowie. It’s the closest Bowie has really gotten to that jazz feel, with Mike Garson no doubt another influence here, returning again on this track after nearly 20 years. His piano playing features more prominently near the end of the track. Garson would go on to feature heavily in future Bowie albums until near the very end.

I Know It’s Gonna Happen Some Day” is the album low point for me, a cover of a song by Morrissey that featured on his recent “Your Arsenal” album (that was produced incidentally by Mick Ronson, hence the connection here). I’m no Smiths/Morrissey fan (sacrilege I know for someone who grew up in Manchester), but I just find his voice annoyingly whiny and here we have Bowie doing Morrissey doing Bowie. I much prefer Bowie doing Bowie. I even prefer Bowie’s cover of “God Only Knows” from “Tonight“. Enough said.

Happily, the album ends on a high with “The Wedding Song“, a reprise of the excellent opening instrumental, but this time with some yearning lyrics and a heartfelt vocal performance by Bowie (not too dissimilar to his vocals on the excellent “Untitled No 1” on his next “Buddha of Suburbia” album). Bowie produced some of his best work during his dark days, but this song and the album as a whole shows that Bowie is more than capable of producing some excellent material when life is chirpy and kind.

The album was seen as a returned to form by most fans and critics and debuted at No. 1 in the UK charts, his last No. 1 until “The Next Day” album in 2013. I have always loved this album and has a soft spot for me, in part because of the quality within and in part because of the various guest appearances.

The album has come out in various formats over the years, including a special 10th anniversary 2CD+DVD version that contains an extra CD of mainly remixes but includes two additional tracks worth a mention:

Lucy Can’t Dance” is a bouncy, catchy, little ditty that I’ve always quite liked and would have rated as one of the better tracks had it appeared on either the “Tonight” or “Never Let Me Down” albums. It doesn’t quite fit in this album and one can see why it was shelved.

Real Cool World” was recorded during these Nile Rodgers sessions, but was released prior to the album as a single and as part of the soundtrack to the movie “Cool World” (yes, I missed the movie as well). It’s all a bit ploddy with a basic drum beat and electronic flourishes but with little melody or anything to really make it particularly memorable. Bowie even sounds a little bored as he sings away. The fact it was Bowie’s first solo single for quite some years and that it only reach No. 53 on the UK charts suggests not many were taken with it.

real cool world

Bowie didn’t tour the album (and wouldn’t tour again until the brilliant 1995 “Outside” tour), but he did release a somewhat bizarre 1 hour video (included in the 10th anniversary edition) where he discussed the album and mined 6 tracks from the album in a warehouse somewhere with some brights lights and a few hand held cameras. The six tracks selected were “You’ve Been Around”, “Nite Flights”, “Miracle Goodnight”, “Black Tie White Noise”, “I Feel Free” and “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday”. The interview/discussion sections are quite interesting and give some insights into the making of the album.

The album proved many of his critics wrong and highlighted that Bowie was far from a spent force and still had it in him to make some amazing new music. He would achieve even greater artistic success with some of his future albums, including the next album on my countdown. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: “Jump They Say”, “Nite Flights”, “Black Tie White Noise”

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