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

5. 1. Outside

Outside album

1. Outside (The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper-cycle) is David Bowie’s 22nd studio album, originally released on 25th September 1995.

By 1994, Bowie was in a good place. He was happily married to Iman and got his musical mojo back following the commercial success of  “Black Tie White Noise” and the artistic satisfaction that was his “The Buddha of Suburbia” explorations, both from 1993.

After meeting up again with old friend Brian Eno, they decided it was time for them to collaborate again, it having been 16 years since they last worked together on 1979’s “Lodger” album. Bowie was in the mood to record something a little radical again and of course, Brian Eno was always in that frame of mind.

To research the new project, they both visited the Gugging psychiatric hospital near Vienna, Austria and interviewed a number of the patients who were involved in the “Outsider” art movement. Bowie then wrote a short story, based on a pretend diary he was keeping called “The diary of Nathan Adler or the art-ritual murder of Baby Grace Blue: A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-cycle.” It tells the sordid story of a dystopian vision of upcoming 1999 in which a new series of crimes were taking place called “Art Crimes”. People were being kidnapped, murdered and their dismembered bodies displayed as bizarre, horrific works of art. The main character on whom the diary was based was Nathan Adler, an art-crime detective on the trail of a serial murder who’s latest victim was a poor 14 year old girl called Baby Grace Blue. With a list of possible suspects, including the probably framed but still main suspect Leon Blank, we are taken on a confused exploration of this nightmarish, futuristic who done it.

The locations have English names such as London and Oxford, but the short story refers to their North American counterparts in Ontario, Canada and New Jersey USA, giving an overall blurred sense of reality.

Without having any real songs developed, Bowie and Eno gathered a team of exceptionally talented musicians to start jamming and bring together musically these various themes. These included the wonderfully eccentric Reeves Gabrels on lead guitar (from his Tin Machine period), the ever reliable Carlos Alomar on rhythm guitar (only survivor from Bowie’s 70’s period when Bowie previously worked with Eno), Erdal Kızılçay on bass and keyboards (who worked with Bowie on both the “Never Let Me Down” and “Black Tie White Noise” albums), Mike Garson on piano (who worked with Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust through to Plastic Soul periods before rejoining the fray again on the previous “The Buddha of Suburbia” album) and who gives the whole album a wonderful vibe and the rather excellent Sterling Campell on drums (who first featured on the “Black Tie White Noise” album and would feature throughout much of Bowie’s remaining years).

In charge of production was Bowie, Eno (for the first time while working with Bowie) and David Richards who first worked with Bowie on Iggy Pop’s wonderful “Blah Blah Blah” album and then co-produced both the “Never Let Me Down” and “The Buddha of Suburbia” albums.

The sessions (initially anyways) consisted mostly of jam sessions, where Eno and Bowie encouraged improvisations through the use of Eno’s famous Oblique Strategy cards where musicians were asked to play as if certain characters or with specific emotions. Lyrically, Bowie would also improvise and return to his well known “cut-up” writing method, but instead of randomising bits of newspaper, magazine or diaries would use a new computer program called the “Verbasizer” to generate random words and phrases for inspiration.

The initial sessions at the Mountain Studios, Montreux were incredible productive, with something like 40 odd tracks developed to various stages of completion. Subsequent recording sessions at the Hit Factory Studios in New York helped to redefine the album with a few more of the accessible tracks (such as “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town“). There has never been an album in which Bowie had so much recorded material available from which to choose.

As with most of Bowie’s so-called “concept albums” (such as Ziggy Stardust and Diamond Dogs), although there’s a thread that ties many of the songs together, there is no clear narrative here, but a collection of indeed non-linear songs and spoken narrative pieces that come from the same surreal universe. Each piece is sung or spoken from the perspective of the characters from the story but it’s a real stretch to say there’s any coherent story as such. “The Phantom of the Opera” or “The Sound of Music” this most definitely is not…

The album opens with “Leon Takes Us Outside“, a short atmospheric piece, with Leon Blank, the prime art-murder suspect, going through a diary and reading out various dates and public holidays as if trying to work out where he was during the following sequence of events.

The music really kicks in with the catchy “Outside“, a track listed as being the album’s “prologue”. Co-written with Kevin Armstrong (a guitarist who’s worked with Bowie on/off since the 1985 Live Aid concert, including as an unofficial 5th member of Tin Machine), it indeed originally dates back as a Tin Machine reject called “Now”. Kevin doesn’t play on this track but he does make a guest appearance on “Thru’ These Architects Eyes“. Campbell on drums is especially good here and with Gabrels screechy guitar and Eno’s electronic soundscapes, sets the mood for what’s to come. Bowie’s vocals are as excellent as always, this time sounding slightly unattached as he laments “The crazed in the hot-zone, The mental and diva’s hands, The fisting of life, To the music outside“. A bright start indeed.

The Hearts Filthy Lesson” is an absolute killer track that dampens the mood considerably. Kızılçay powerful bass dominates with again Gabrels guitar a highlight, as are all the wonderful piano flourishes by Garson. It has a brilliant, industrial style groove that drives the whole track and Bowie (as the Detective Nathan Adler character) introduces us to a number of characters in Paddy (his off-sider) and the somewhat sinister and scary Ramona A. Stone. Bowie sings with a mixture of sorrowfulness and tight anguish (“Heart’s filthy lesson, Falls upon deaf ears” and “I’m already five years older, I’m already in my grave“) as he ponders the case in front of him. One of many many highlights. This was selected as the lead off single, although it’s dark themes made it a less than commercial choice, reaching only No. 35 in the UK charts and just making the US charts at No. 92. The song would have a wider audience when it closed the fantastic movie “Seven” in which it’s dark themes perfectly matches those of both this song and album. Watch the visually disturbing but brilliant video here.

the hearts filthy lesson single

A Small Plot of Land” is another wonderful treasure. Starting with a hypnotic drum pattern and Garson’s dancing piano, it just slowly builds and builds with Bowie’s eerie vocals (sung from the perspective of the residents of Oxford, New Jersey) lamenting the latest art murder victim (“Poor soul, He never knew what hit him and it hit him so“). Gabrel’s guitar solo is another highlight, taking us back to the sounds from the “Lodger” period. It’s just a fabulous track that Bowie would only play live during the following “Outside” tour.

Next comes the first of the spoken segue passages in “Baby Grace (A Horrid Cassette)” that many found irritating but I’ve always thought added another interesting element to the whole album. As eerie soundscapes play in the background, we hear Bowie play the part of the terrified 14 year old Baby Grace Blue via a recording of her last moments before being so viciously murdered. It’s all gruesome stuff but Bowie’s altered vocals gives it a mildly comedic touch.

Things fade before bouncing back again with another of the album’s highlights, the superb “Hallo Spaceboy“. With Sterling pounding drums, Gabrels driving guitar and little Eno flourishes, Bowie sings from the perspective of Paddy as he’s forced to release his suspect. The line “Do you like girls or boys, It’s confusing these days” is of course classic Bowie. Bowie once described the track as Jim Morrison/The Doors playing industrial, heavy metal and that kinda describes things perfectly. It’s really is all rather brilliant. Now I don’t usually go for remixed versions which were the rage at the time (every track seems to have something like 5 different remixed versions), but when released as the third single, Bowie got The Pet Shop Boys to basically re-record and remix the track and I have to say they did a brilliant job, with it being quite different but every bit as good as the original. They also added some additional lyrics “Ground to Major, bye bye Tom, Dead the circuit, countdown’s wrong, Planet Earth, is control on?” which brings the whole piece back to Space Oddity. A latter day Bowie classic, see the excellent video here.

Hallo Spaceboy

The high standard continues with the moody, atmospheric masterpiece that is the “The Motel“. As with many of Bowie’s best tracks, it starts slowly and gently builds up until it reaches it’s thrilling crescendo. Garson is particularly good here, but Eno deserves much credit for the eeriness he manages to achieve. Sung from the perspective of the lamenting luckless suspect Leon Blank (“It’s a kind of living which recognizes, The death of the odorless man, When nothing is vanity nothing’s too slow, It’s not Eden but it’s no sham“) things really takeoff as Blank screams “And there’s no more of me exploding you, Re-exposing you, Like everybody do, Re-exploding you“, while Gabrel’s guitar goes off the scale. Yes, Blank has done some silly things previously, but he’s not guilty of this particularly nasty crime. The tracks then goes all quieter again as it slowly fades away. This would be a key highlight of many a live Bowie concert.

Next comes perhaps the most “poppy”, catchy track off the album “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town“. With a wonderfully contagious bass-line, Alomar’s rhythm guitar and it’s beautifully half-spoken bridges, this is yet another of those Bowie gems that’s worth price of admission alone. Again from the perspective of Leon Blank, he sets the scene (“Baby Grace is the victim, She was 14 years of age, And the wheels are turning, turning, For the finger points at me“), while wrongfully imprisoned in that he hasn’t even been to the scene of the hideous crime (“But I have not been to Oxford Town“). This I think would have made a much stronger lead-off single, but who am I to know any better…

No Control” again leads with a catchy rhythm and weird little keyboard soundscapes as Detective Nathan Adler laments how everything is beyond his control (“Don’t tell God your plans, It’s all deranged, No control“) as he struggles with the case. Bowie’s vocals are again wonderful here and the overall vibe is one in which pop meets a much harder industrial-rock feel.

We next have another segue in which we meet the old, solitary, sad, pathetic “Algeria Touchshriek“, the shop keeper of underground goods and substances. Bowie is at his most hysterical here with a distorted older man’s voice that’s hard to take too seriously, although it’s clear this pervert is a possible suspect in all the wrong doings (“I’m thinking of leasing the room above my shop, To a Mr. Walloff Domburg, A reject from the world wide Internet, He’s a broken man, I’m also a broken man“).

The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (as Beauty)” is yet another highlight (yes, there are a lot of them in this album). With another catchy, driving, pulsing rhythm and brilliant vocal performance by Bowie, we’re introduced to the menacing, mysterious Artist/Minotaur character who did the evil deed (“The screw, Is a tightening Atrocity, I shake, For the reeking flesh, Is as romantic as hell“). The outro is just wonderful as the music builds up and Bowie’s distorted vocals wail “Call it a day, today… t t“.

We next finally meet the sinister Ramona A. Stone who has been previously mentioned a number of times in the “Ramona A. Stone/I Am with Name” segue. Bowie’s spoken vocals are wonderfully spooky here merging seamlessly with the “I Am with Name” portion being an actual “song” with a thumping drum and all sorts of weird musical flourishes in the background.

Wishful Beginnings” is certainly uncomfortable listening and the most spookiest track on the album. With a repeating loop of drums and evil cackle laugh, it’s musically the least interesting contained within. Bowie’s sad, apologetic vocal as the Artist/Minotaur commits the murder (“The pain must feel like snow, I’m no longer your golden boy, Sorry little girl“) makes it an even harder listen. For me, this is the weakest moment on the album and it’s interesting that it’s been left out on a number of the subsequent re-releases. As far as I know, it has never been played live and is definitely NOT a dance floor filler…

We Prick You” picks things up nicely again, with this marvelously contagious track thanks to it’s fast paced rhythms and Eno inspired soundscapes. This is one of my favourite Bowie vocals on the album, with some lovely little touches throughout such as when the backup vocals chime in with “I wish you’d tell, I wish you’d tell“. Sung from the perspective of the Members of the Court of Justice, they’re basically giving Leon Blank a hard time during his trial and demand the truth or else (“Tell the truth, We prick you we prick you we prick you“). Put this one down on the Bowie/Eno list of gems.

Nathan Adler” (segue 1) is a short little spoken piece with Bowie doing his best Humphrey Bogart impression as Detective Nathan Adler as he ponders who might be the murderer. With a basic little rhythm in the background, it’s perhaps the most dispensable moment on the album.

I’m Deranged” is the Artist/Minotaur character admitting all this nastiness is happening basically because they’re a deranged monster (“And the rain sets in, It’s the angel-man, I’m deranged“). As with previous Bowie’s musings, the subject of insanity and derangement often reoccurs. Musically, the backdrop is again another fast rhythm piece with Eno’s soundscapes and Garson’s tinkering piano piecing the whole thing together. Bowie’s lamenting vocals are as beautiful and chilling as ever on the album.

Thru’ These Architects Eyes” right near the end of the album is for me THE highlight. Musically, it has every possible ingredient for a Bowie classic, a wonderfully powerful rhythm, a catchy chorus, some magical musical soundscapes thanks to Eno and Garson’s piano, some great guitar work and a cryptic, thought provoking lyric. And of course a superb Bowie vocal performance. Sung nominally as Leon Blank, it doesn’t quite play I think into the album narrative but with lines such as “Cold winter bleeds, On the girders of Babel, This stone boy watching the crawling land, Rings of flesh and the towers of iron, The steaming caves and the rocks and the sand“, who cares really. I’m not entirely sure what my Top 20 Bowie tracks are but I would be mightily surprised if this isn’t one of them.

The second short “Nathan Adler” segue has the detective lamenting the relationship between Ramona and Leon. OK, perhaps this might be the most dispensable moment on the album,

Strangers When We Meet” finishes the album and comes as a bit of a surprise as it’s simply a re-recording of the track found on the previous “The Buddha of Suburbia” album. Although I think it’s a vastly improved version, it comes across as a little unnecessary and again doesn’t really fit into the album narrative. Although supposedly from the perspective of Leon Blank, I’ve always viewed this as simply Leon doing a Bowie cover while trapped in prison. I can only think Bowie must have really have liked this track and found it frustrating that not many would have listened to it and was keen for it to be more widely heard. Even more so as it was chosen as the second single off the album, an odd choice as either “I’ve Not Been To Oxford Town” or “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” would have been stronger choices. It only managed to reach No. 39 on the UK charts, watch the video here.

strangers when we meet single

The album cover features a recent self-portrait called “The DHead – Outside” painted in 1995. Bowie was starting to get quite serious about his paintings and this was one of a series of 6 self-portraits he made at around this time. The CD packaging came with a series of bizarre images of Bowie (often barely recognisable) as the various characters from the album, along with liner-notes detailing the short-story written by Bowie of the “non-linear” plot.

This album is beyond doubt a latter day Bowie masterpiece and the album which really does deserve the distinction of being his best since the “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps” album (often considered by many as his last true great album).

The final result was an album simply jam packed full of ideas, both musically and lyrically, even though at nearly 75 minutes long it was Bowie’s longest studio album by far. At the time, it was only released on CD format, had it been released on vinyl it would easily have been a double-album. Bowie was at his very best, creating music that stretched the boundaries artistically but had enough commercial appeal to be more than just niche value.

The music critics at the time had a hard job making sense of it all and gave the album mixed reviews. Many saw it as a return to form by Bowie but generally considered it all a little long, with many of the segue pieces in particular as unnecessary or overly pretentious. While I understand that narrative, I in the main disagree. I see this as somewhat like The Beatles “White” album, in that yes there are bits better than others but it just works as a wide collection of different, often unusual musical pieces. As not unusual with Bowie, more people have come on board since it’s original release and is now more often given the recognition it so richly deserves.

Bowie toured the album between September 1995 through to February 1996, but only included dates in North America and Europe (sadly it never came to Australia, I’m still not entirely over the disappointment). In North America, Bowie toured with NIN, Trent Neznor being a huge Bowie fan. It was a perfect fit, with the Outside album having a very NIN, industrial rock vibe to it all. NIN opened the show with a set, then shared the stage with Bowie where they played a number of songs together (often “Subterraneans”, “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”, “Reptile”, “Hallo Spaceboy” and “Hurt”), before Bowie performed his solo set. Seriously how good would that have been !! Although sadly there was no official releases of these shows, there were a number of excellent “unofficial” releases from this period.

Bowie NIN live album

Over the years, there have been a number of versions and re-releases of the album. The Japanese release included a bonus track that was subsequently included in other re-releases:

Get Real” is a decent enough track, with a much more pop vibe than found on most of the album. With a hooky chorus (“I’m scared to touch, too tense to be undone, I walk the streets not expecting morning sun“), it belongs more I think on previous albums such as “Black Tie White Noise” than on here. It’s hard to imagine where it would fit within the construct of the final Outside album.

The following year (1996), “1. Outside Version 2” was released, with the track “Wishful Beginnings” replaced at the end with the Pet Shop Boys version of “Hallo Spaceboy”. It also contained a second CD of bonus tracks consisting of mainly various live versions.

I would recommend trying to get hold of the excellent if unimaginatively titled “David Bowie” box set released originally in 2007 which contains expanded versions of all the Bowie albums released by Sony (Outside, Earthling, Hours, Heathen and Reality). The Outside set includes an extra CD full of various remixed track versions as well as “Get Real” and another unreleased track from the Outside sessions:

Nothing to Be Desired” is more of a chant than a song, with a driving rhythm plugging away as Bowie’s vari-speed vocals chants away in the main with “Mind changing“.  This very much has a feel with the rest of album, with Leon struggling with the effects of drugs in his system (or so I’ve always felt).

David Bowie Box

 

Bowie had originally planned for Outside to be the first of a series of albums he was to release with Eno up to the new millennium (hence the title “1. Outside“). The follow-up album was rumoured to be called “2. Contamination“, with enough spare material already recorded to further expand and explore the Nathan Alder universe. However, 1996 came and went and it eventually became obvious that Bowie (and Eno) had sadly abandoned the project when in 1997 Bowie released his new album “Earthling” that contained no Eno and no art-ritual murders. It was a big ask for Bowie, who is notorious for getting bored quickly, to commit to a 5 year project.

I know I’ve said this a number of times in my album reviews, but I do consider “1. Outside” to be Bowie’s genuinely most under-rated album, perhaps buried under the weight of the story and overall concepts. Although the album sold respectably, especially considering its somewhat dark and bizarre content (reaching No. 8 in the UK and No. 21 in the US), I’ve always felt it’s never received the true recognition it deserves. That being a true Bowie masterpiece that contains so many ideas and so many incredible pieces of music, that the overall concepts become almost irrelevant. It’s a magical, wild 75 minute ride that is among the best work Bowie has ever produced. It’s an album which I have never tired of listening from start to finish.

Bowie has always been interested in writing albums that are more than just a collection of songs. Some of Bowie’s very best works are those where there’s a strong thread or concept or surreal story-line that ties the whole piece together. I’ll mention some of these albums later, but that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: “Thru’ These Architects Eyes“, “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town“, “Hallo Spaceboy“.

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”

17. Earthling

Earthling

Earthing” is David Bowie’s 23rd studio album and was originally released on 3rd February 1997.

After releasing the epic “1. Outside” album in 1995, the original idea had been to release a new album each year up until the new millennium, continuing the concept of Nathan Adler and the “art crimes”, finally solving who the horrid murderer was with album number 5. But in typical Bowie fashion, Bowie (and Eno) soon tired of the idea and 1996 came and went without any sign of a follow-up album (that had been muted to be called “2. Contamination”).

Bowie spent much of the intervening time touring the “1. Outside” album (but never in Australia Goddammit !!). On the US leg of the tour, Nine Inch Nails opened for/with Bowie, with Trent Razor admitting a number of times of being heavily influenced by Bowie. The tour had a very hard and gritty sound (the Outside album was no light-pop record), with Bowie listening to much of the electronica and drum & bass type music that was breaking at the time (with acts such as The Prodigy, Goldie, Underworld).

Bowie on his next album wanted to capture both the sound he was creating while on tour and the drum & bass, Jungle influences that were just on the cusp of becoming mainstream. The result was the album, “Earthing“, featuring his touring band at the time (minus Carlos Alomar).

The internet was still relatively new at the time, with Bowie at the forefront with his presence on the web thanks to his pioneering website. Through the website, Bowie asked his internet fans which album title to go with, “Earthling” or “Earthlings” (I know I know, it was such a difficult and hugely vital decision). More revolutionary though was Bowie releasing the first single “Telling Lies” initially as a downloadable only single, the first prominent “mainstream” act to do so. Bowie at the time predicted that in the future, downloading music would be the norm, a predication that was generally ridiculed back in 1997.

At the time I felt a tad disappointed with the album, mainly because I loved the “1. Outside” album so so much and wanted Bowie to continue the Nathan Adler concept adventure with Eno, but also because I felt Bowie was trying here to catch up with what was currently trendy, rather than set the trends himself. My disappointments have since mellowed and I concede that “Earthling” is indeed one very fine album, with Bowie taking many of these influences and making a musical statement that was very much his own.

The band Bowie has on board here really is fantastic, led again by Reeves Gabrels and ably supported by Mike Garson, Gail Ann Dorsey, Zack Alford and Mark Plati. Well practised having toured together for months, they collectively really rock when required but also sounded positively fresh and contemporary in the overall sound they generated.

I first bought this album at a record store in Sydney with the bloke who served me saying that this new Bowie album sounded pretty darn good. He was about 18 years old and I distinctly remember thinking that Bowie could still connect with the young’uns. Not bad for someone who had gone past the 50 years of age mark.

The album cover was quite brilliant, Bowie with red hair in his striking Alexander McQueen burnt up Union Jack coat, his back towards us as he gazes across a super bright vista of the English countryside. It’s actually one of my all-time favourite album covers.

The musical contents inside were also rather good, starting with “Little Wonder“, the second single off the album. Perhaps the most direct and obvious example of the drum & bass sound associated with the album, the track has all the frantic power and energy necessary to pull it all off. As with much of the album, the lyrics are obscure with Bowie back using the “cut-up” technique to write lyrics, but this time time with a computer program rather than a newspaper and pair of scissors. With a nod to the seven dwarfs (they all get a mention) and with a number of self references, Bowie sings with an earnest “Englishness” style that makes the listener wonder whether he’s really being serious or just having a laugh. The video accompanying the single features a spooky looking Bowie with a number of alien looking beings, including a re-incarnated Ziggy Stardust like character jumping around dingy parts of New York. Music Video.

little wonder

With a backdrop of strange buzzing sounds, rhythmic “fairground” keyboards and a chugging drumbeat, “Looking For Satellites” is the clearest example of Bowie’s cut-up writing technique. With lyrics collected from apparently random satellite TV channels (“Nowhere, Shampoo, TV, Combat, Boy’s Own, Slim tie, Showdown, Can’t stop“), Bowie chants rather than sings the chorus, before the verses kick in and the blast of “SATELLITES” !! The thing is, as odd as the components might be here, it all works so perfectly together resulting in a brilliant, late-Bowie classic.

The quality continues with “Battle For Britain (The Letter)“, where we return to the album’s predominant drum ‘n’ bass sound. With obtuse, cut-up lyrics which always makes me think of Bowie reminiscing of his rainy homelands, Bowie sings the verses in an English deadpan manner while the choruses sound almost anguished in comparison. With excellent contributions of manic guitars and keyboards from Gabrels and Garson, this really is a great track. One of many undiscovered treasures in Bowie 90’s cannon of work.

Seven Years In Tibet” is a much more sombre affair, with the quiet opening  “Are you OK?, You’ve been shot in the head, And I’m holding your brains, The old woman said” as dark as anything Bowie has ever penned. The music however explodes out of the speakers with the crunching chorus line of “I praise to you, Nothing ever goes away“, making for a thoroughly thrilling, if somewhat uneasy ride. Bowie’s contempt for the plight of those in Tibet is re-enforced by the (surprisingly effective) version sung in Mandarin that Bowie released as a single in some regions. Bowie has a long history and keen interest in Buddhism, almost going for the shaven head look and lifestyle in the late 60’s. This track is yet another Bowie classic that many have never heard before.

seven years in tibet

The following track “Dead Man Walking” has a title that suggests the solemn mood continues, but the music is positively uplifting in comparison. It’s one of the more “conventional” tracks on the album, a catchy tune with the out there instrumentation more subdued. As a result, it’s not one one my favourites here, although it was selected as the album’s third single.  Watch the somewhat bizarre video here directed by Floria Sigismondi (who would work with Bowie again on videos from “The Next Day” album).

Telling Lies” has a place in history, being one of the very first downloadable tracks from a major artist. Indeed, it was the first downloaded song I ever purchased. The first single off the album, I’ve always considered this one Bowie’s best “lesser known” singles. The manner in which Bowie sings the agonised “Telling Lies” refrain is worth price of admission alone. In this post Trump world, it sadly has even more relevance today than it did back in 1997.

telling lies

The Last Thing You Should Do” is my pick of the least interesting track on the album, which if rumours were true only made it onto the album at the last minute. Again, featuring the drum ‘n’ bass / jungle sound, it’s a little pedestrian with a somewhat flat vocal performance. Bowie sounds a little bored here, which is not a usual singing style for Bowie at all.

I’m Afraid Of Americans” however is altogether different and a definite highlight here. Co-written with Brian Eno during the “Outside” sessions, it’s a somewhat cynical and paranoiac view of the typical white, gun loving American male. It’s a real rocker of a song and was great when performed live. This was predictably a top 20 hit in Canada !! Released as the fourth and last single off the album, the video is brilliant and features NIN’s Trent Reznor (who remixed this version of song) as Johnny, the crazed American. It’s well worth a watch. Music Video.

Im afraid of americans

The final track “Law (Earthlings On Fire)” is a bit of a weak affair. It features odd instrumentation and an odd vocal that reminds me in parts just a tad of “Ricochet” from “Let’s Dance”. The refrain with Bowie singing the song title is the best part here, but it only takes one so far.

Bowie would tour the album with basically the same band as recorded the album (minus Mark Plati) throughout much of the later half of 1997 (although yet again not in Australia Goddammit !!). Bowie would also perform a number of the songs during his fantastic 50th Birthday show at Madison Square Gardens.

The album was re-released in 2004 as a 2 disc version, featuring a second CD of remixed versions but sadly no new notable outtakes.  I though would recommend getting this as part of the excellent value for money “David Bowie” boxed set.

Although not reaching the highs of the previous superb “1. Outside” album, overall, “Earthing” really is an excellent album with lots of wonderful, quirky highlights. As with much of his 1990’s output, it’s a sadly underrated effort and one of the often forgotten gems in the Bowie cannon.

Bowie would go on to make several more brilliant, quirky, underrated albums and a few that indeed got all the credit they deserved, but that’s a story for another day.

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

20. Young Americans

young americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

young americans single cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fame

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

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

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

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

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

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

john-im-only-dancing-again

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

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

who can i be now boxset

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

cracked actor lp

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

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

Best Tracks: Young Americans, Win, Fame