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

6. The Man Who Sold The World

man who sold the world orig cover

The Man Who Sold The World is David Bowie’s 3rd studio album, originally released on 4th November 1970.

By 1970, things were beginning to finally look promising for the 23 year old Bowie. After 5 years of struggle with flop after commercial flop, Bowie finally had the hit he was so desperate to achieve with the “Space Oddity” single the previous year. Although the parent “David Bowie” album had disappointing sales and failed to chart, Bowie had one more album to deliver in his contract with the Mercury label.

Only Tony Visconti in the producer’s chair (and bass guitar) remained from the previous album. The recording sessions which took place predominantly at Trident Studios between April-May 1970 introduced two new session musicians who would prove to be incredibly important in the coming years.

On drums, Bowie recruited the brilliant Mick “Woody” Woodmansey who would become one of the future “Spiders From Mars“. From Hull in Yorkshire, Woody would provide Bowie with a drummer who was both technically excellent and had the energy and drive in really rock it both in the studio and in live performances.

But the big recruit was Woody’s friend from Hull and soon to be fellow “Spider From Mars“, Mick “Ronno” Ronson on guitar who would prove to be Bowie’s right-hand man during the up-coming Ziggy Stardust years. Not only was Ronson a brilliant guitarist and live performer (who Bowie would later describe as his Jeff Beck), but also importantly a wonderful arranger, who would help transform some of Bowie’s songs into something truly magical (think “Life on Mars” as a perfect example). Ronson would turn out to be a perfect foil for Bowie and this album marks the start of their amazing collaboration.

Adding another layer to the overall sound was Ralph Mace on the Moog Synthesizer, the 40 year old head of the classic music department at Mercury Records. His work on tracks such as “All The Madmen” gave them a extra, futuristic dimension that would become a trademark on Bowie’s future work. Ralph would only ever work with Bowie on this album, but just image the stories he could tell his grandchildren…

Having recently got married to Angie Bowie (nee Barnett), Bowie was a little distracted by his new love and to the frustration of those involved in the project, would spend more time smooching on the studio couch than work on recording the album and writing the damn lyrics. That said, what an amazing set of lyrics he came up with in the end.

With dark themes that include the occult, demonic monsters, deranged madmen, possessed children, snipers taking pot shots at civilians, super computers gone wrong and the end of humanity, the accompanying music is just as dark and “heavy”. The album features possibly Bowie hardest rock sound (verging on “heavy metal”) on any album (including the “Tin Machines” albums), with Ronson, Woody and Visconti on bass sounding collectively like a freaked out version of Led Zeppelin, with a sound and vibe just as heavy as anything found on their first 3 albums.

The album opens with the truly epic “The Width Of A Circle“. The song begins with Bowie’s acoustic and Ronson’s electric guitars starting the catchy main riff before the rhythm sections kicks in and kicks in hard. The first half touches on themes of schizophrenia and madness as Bowie meets a second self who in turn considers himself a god-like figure. With further references to “Kahlil Gibran” (famous for his books “The Madmen” and “The Prophet“) and homosexual erotic encounters, Bowie sings with a new found strut and naked, high pitched “Englishness” that would become is vocal style throughout his glam rock years. The quieter, slower tempo middle section features a wonderful Ronson solo before the last section rocks it back up again, this time with disturbing imagery of a sexual encounter with a devil-like figure who takes his body, mind and soul into the pits of hell. It’s one of the most powerful of tracks in the entire Bowie cannon and an early Bowie classic. Performed live throughout his entire glam period, including the “Diamond Dogs” tour, the track would often be substantially extended past it original 8 minute length to give the band the opportunity to rock it out and more importantly, time for Bowie to change costumes.

Two special versions of this track are worth noting. The first is found on the superb “Bowie At The Beeb” album, which features a very early version of the song with the first ever performance by Bowie with Ronson (who Bowie had only just met a few days previously) on The Sunday Show with John Peel. The second is fantastic live version from the equally superb “Live Santa Monica ’72” album. Both are well worth checking out.

bowie at the beeb

We have a couple of seconds to catch our breath before the acoustic guitar intro to the remarkable “All The Madmen” moves from speaker to speaker. Based in large part on his half-brother Terry Burns who was currently housed at the Cane Hill mental hospital and who had been suffering from schizophrenia for quite some time, the song tells of a horrifying alternate reality where the madmen run around freely while it’s the sane who are kept imprisoned. The first verse starts slowly with mainly acoustic guitars before Woody’s cymbals and recorders enters the fray and then it’s all in for the chorus, with Visconti’s bass predominant in the mix. A short Ronson solo preludes the eerie middle section where softly spoken vari-speed vocals denote all is far from well (the laughing gnome this is not). The second half is just a musical triumph, with the pace ramping up still more and while Bowie begs for a lobotomy, Mace’s moog fills up all the remaining atmospheric space for the piece to reach its musical crescendo.  The band are simply fabulous as the ending “Zane, zane, zane, Ouvre le chien” chant draws out slowly to silence to finish the piece. This is one my all time favourite tracks, I can’t rave about it enough. A+++, with Visconti deserving much credit for his superb production work. Bowie never performed this live until it was surprisingly included as part of the set for the “Glass Spiders” tour in 1987 where it was one of the highlights. To see it performed live on 8 glorious nights in Sydney remains one of my highlights in life. Bowie returns again to the end refrain in 1993 on “Buddha of Suburbia“.

Black Country Rock” comes as almost comic relief. A decent enough standard rocker, it’s the weakest track here, although Bowie’s rather impressive impersonation of his friend Marc Bolan never ceases to put a smile on my face. He would later dedicate another song to his chum and musical rival Marc Bolan with “Lady Stardust“.

After All” is yet another wonderful Bowie gem contained within. A much slower, waltz-timed piece, it’s no less powerful with its nightmarish vision of possessed children. The middle section reminds me of The Beatles with its circus like music but the chilling final lines “Live til your rebirth and do what you will, Forget all I’ve said, please bear me no ill” has little to do with the summer of love but more so Aleister Crowley and the occult. The backing vocals “oh by jingo” does little to lighten the mood and is an early example of Bowie/Visconti’s wonderful use of backup vocals to give tracks an extra dimension. Add this to the ever increasing list of Bowie masterpieces that few folks are likely to have ever heard.

Side two begins with “Running Gun Blues” and the opening lines “I count the corpses on my left, I find I’m not so tidy, So I better get away, better make it today, I’ve cut twenty-three down since Friday” suggests things are only getting grimmer. Telling the tale of a crazed Vietnam veteran, come serial killer who hasn’t lost the taste for killing and starts plugging a few civilians, this is Bowie at his darkest. The music here is classic hard rock but with slight flourishes that gives it that Bowie signature such as the moog piping in the background. Another song that I don’t think Bowie was ever brave enough to perform live. Bowie returns to the topic of a mass killer, with its anti-gun undertones on “Valentine’s Day” from the 2013 album “The Next Day“.

Saviour Machine” slowly builds up as Bowie introduces us to President Joe, who creates a super computer, the “Saviour Machine” called “The Prayer” that’s able to cure mankind from all its ills and problems such as war and famine. However, once mission is completed, it gets bored with little now to do and decides to then destroy mankind for some amusement. Basically, the Oracle Autonomous Database meets the Terminator. The musicians are again on top form here, with the music having a very strange quality to it,  in structure (with just one verse, followed by two bridge/chorus combos), in tempo which is all over the place and with the overall musical atmospherics. Bowie vocals here are excellent, menacing and powerful and a highlight of the track. Yet again, a track that I don’t believe Bowie has ever performed live.

Bowie hasn’t ever performed “She Shook Me Cold” live either, basically the heaviest, hardest rock track of those contain within, giving Ronson the chance to play out his Jeff Beck come Cream guitar fantasies. Detailing a particular sordid sexual encounter, Bowie seems to revel in all the naughtiness. It’s a theme he would return back to with the rather hilarious Ziggy era “Sweet Head“.

The Man Who Sold the World“, the spell-blinding title track comes next. This along with “Space Oddity” is possibly his best know song from Bowie’s Mercury period, although this wasn’t the case for many years despite it being arguably one of Bowie’s very best songs. With a wonderful guitar riff by Ronson, a divine guiro percussion sound by Woody, Vistonti’s bouncing bass and Bowie’s hauntingly beautiful vocals, it really is a magical track. The outro with its slowly building vocals is just a fabulous sonic treat. As with much of Bowie’s lyrics to come, they’re wonderfully cryptic and evasive here, although the familiar theme of schizophrenia returns, with a good touch of H. P. Lovecraft thrown in. My pick for the best track, but it’s a close call.

Bowie would all but forget this masterpiece until he re-recorded it again for Lulu in 1974 for what became a No. 3 hit in the UK. But it wasn’t until Nirvana (huge Bowie fans) recorded a wonderful version as part of their live MTV Unplugged appearance and subsequent album/single in 1995 that the song became widely known. Obviously thrilled and flattered by all the attention the song received, Bowie started to add the song to his own live sets (albeit in quite an altered form in his 1995 “Outside” tour). Bowie though was just a little miffed at all the “younger” folks who thought it cool he was performing a Nirvana cover…

The album closes with “The Supermen” which further explores the “Lovecraftian” Elder Gods theme from the title track, a mystical race who sadly bemoan and wish for the only thing they can’t have, mortality. Another key influence in the apocalyptic nature of things here is clearly Nietzsche who’s writings Bowie was consuming passionately at the time.  With a great performance by the band, especially by Woody on his thunderous drums and another brilliant vocal by Bowie, this track perhaps best illustrates much of the themes to come in Bowie’s upcoming albums. The Supermen would be one of the very few tracks Bowie would perform live for a while, most notably on the Ziggy Stardust concerts throughout 1972.

This album in many ways marks the real start of Bowie’s musical progression to stardom as it finally starts to mold the sound and themes he would create in his subsequent hit albums. However, at the time of its initial release, although generally critically well received, the album was a massive commercial disappointment with it not troubling the charts anywhere. But really, it had almost no chance of being successful commercially.

To start, Mercury just didn’t promote the album, with not even a single being released to give the album a little push. There was no tour and Bowie himself seemed to have little interest in promoting the album. He was at a crossroads and was looking at moving on from his current manager Ken Pitt, who didn’t believe in the album and thought it the wrong direction for Bowie to take. Remarkably, there was very little enthusiasm for the album after its release from anyone involved in the project.

Then there’s the album cover. If you wanted the “mainstream” to get into buying the album and taking it home to play, perhaps having a man in a dress (albeit a “man” dress) reclining on a chaise lounge was a touch too provocative for your average Joe and Sally. The folks in the US simply refused to release the album with the standard cover and came up with a rather tame cartoonist cover (which Bowie quite rightly hated). It didn’t help the US sales much, as didn’t Bowie’s promotional only tour of the US in February 1971 where he insisted on being interviewed whilst wearing his Mr Fish man-dress.

 

man who sold the world us cover

The Dutch (being different) released the album with yet another cover, this time a cartoon like image of Bowie as some kind of weird looking angel. The fact that it didn’t sell in this market either makes the album a much sort after Bowie collectable.

 

man who sold the world dutch cover

 

There have been a few notable re-releases over the years. The most significant was in 1972 when his new record company RCA after the commercial success that was the Ziggy Stardust album bought the rights off Mercury (as they did the second David Bowie album) and re-released it with a new Ziggy era black and white cover. With the market finally craving anything to do with Bowie, the album some two years after its initial release achieved moderate commercial success, reaching a respectable No. 24 in the UK and No. 105 in the US.

 

man who sold the world ziggy cover

 

The less said about the dreadful (but collectable) RCA CD release the better, but in 1990 Rykodisc released it with original UK cover restored and included a number of bonus tracks including:

Lightning Frightening” had been available on various bootlegs for years, but it was nice getting a clean sounding version of the song. That said however, it’s basically a forgettable, ploddy jam with Bowie and a few mates in tow. Recorded during the “Arnold Corns” sessions in 1971, a side-project that never went anywhere other than to rehearse some early versions of what would subsequently be Ziggy Stardust classics.

Holy Holy” was the only single released by Bowie during this period, viewed as being more single worthy than anything found on the album. However, unlike what the sleeve notes mentioned on this re-release CD, the version here is actually not the original single but the vastly superior re-recorded version Bowie laid down as part of the Ziggy Stardust sessions. The original version (which you can find on the “Five Years” box set released in 2015 that covers Bowie’s 1969-1973 period) has a decidedly T-Rex vibe, more so with the Bolan-like “Black Country Rock” on the B-side. Basically Bowie trying to convert angelic person to be just a little more devilish (“I don’t want to be an angel, just a little bit evil, Feel the devil in me“) it’s a quaint enough track, but no surprise it tanked without a trace. The Ziggy Stardust version found here is vastly superior, with the Spiders From Mars providing much more energy and sense of fun to the whole thing.

holy holy single

The album was notably re-mastered again in 1999 as part of the EMI re-release series and again in 2015 for its inclusion in the above mentioned “5 Years” box set.

5 years box set

Finally, in 2016 as part of Record Store Day, 5000 copies of the Dutch Cover were produced as a limited picture-disc (yes, I’ve got my copy but will likely never get played).

man who sold the world record store cover

 

Another version of the album worth exploring is a live version recorded by “Holly Holly“, a “super” band including both Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey from the original sessions. A project put together in 2014 by the two originals to give the album a live experience for the first time, they are all rather good. Yes, the main vocalist Glenn Gregory (from Heaven 17) isn’t quite David Bowie (but let’s be honest, no one is), the whole experience is a lot of fun and worth checking out. They also perform a bunch of other Bowie classics from Bowie’s glam era that are also all rather excellent and worth a listen as well. Remarkably, “The Man Who Sold The World” is the only Bowie album on which Visconti and Woodmansey both feature.

holy holy man who sold the world album

 

The Man Who Who Sold The World” is a Bowie masterpiece, one which has never quite got the accolades it deserves. Full of wonderful, complex, cryptic musical experiences, it truly highlighted what lay ahead for Bowie. Although yet another huge commercial failure, Bowie was getting more than used to disappointment and quickly moved on. Tony Visconti, frustrated and more than a little annoyed by Bowie’s apparent disinterest during the recording sessions would leave the scene for a number of years, concentrating on his work with Marc Bolan’s T-Rex that had just started to really take-off (Visconti would finally get back with Bowie when mixing the “Diamond Dogs” album in 1974).

However, with this album the seeds of success had been planted with both Ronson and Woodmansey now on board. It would be another 18 months before Bowie would finally taste success on a permanent basis with the monster album that was Ziggy Stardust. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: “The Man Who Sold The World“, “All The Madmen“, “Saviour Machine

7. Lodger

lodger album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DJ single

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

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

 

boys keep swinging single

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Career in a new town boxset

 

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

But that’s a story for another day…

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

 

 

10. Low

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. “Heroes”

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

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

Life was indeed finally beginning to pick up.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

12. David Bowie (aka Space Oddity)

space oddity album cover

David Bowie” is David Bowie’s 2nd studio album, originally released on 14th November 1969.

In many ways, the David Bowie story almost starts here. Almost.

By 1969, David Bowie had already been in the musical industry for five, very long, long years. But despite releasing numerous singles both with a number a different bands (The King Bees, The Manish Boys, The Lower Third) and as a solo artist and also releasing his first album “David Bowie” in 1967, all these releases had been commercial flops. He would have had more hot dinners than the number of records Bowie had sold collectively by 1969.

1968 had been the worst year yet, with no official releases at all and with Bowie seriously wondering if a career in music was really for him. Perhaps he would make a more successful Buddhist monk?

His then manager Kenneth Pitt still had enough confidence in his boy to invest in the making of an extended music film/video (released many years later as “Love You Till Tuesday“) that would showcase the musical talents of Bowie and could be used to promote his struggling star to be. Featuring mainly material from his first album “David Bowie“, they decided it needed something new and modern to just spruce it all up a bit.

After watching and being inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece, “A Space Odyssey”, Bowie wrote a new song called “Space Oddity” about a doomed astronaut, Major Tom. The strength of this song along with other demos he recorded around this time was enough for Bowie to be offered a new recording contract with Mercury Records.

Bowie was back in business.

Recorded between June-September 1969, his first album with Mercury Records called somewhat unimaginatively “David Bowie” (as was his previous album) was a really interesting affair. Sounding nothing like his previous Mod, come English Musical Hall numbers, the new album was a bizarre collection of songs that included everything from quaint folk numbers, romantic ballads, hippy anthems, hard rockers to futurist sci-fi art pieces. This was both the strength and weakness of the overall album, in that it features so many different styles and influences, but lacks the focus and single artistic direction of many of Bowie’s very best albums.

Bowie clearly wasn’t too sure of his place or destiny within the musical world (a fault that can be attributed somewhat to his then manager Kenneth Pitt who thought any career in “rock music” would be limited), but Bowie at the time liked The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and Bob Dylan and so these influences feature heavily in the album.

Recorded by a number of top British session musicians such as Tim Renwick, Rick Wakeman, Terry Cox and Herbie Flowers (and the odd Bowie mate such as Benny Marshall), it was also the first album to be produced by Tony Visconti, his to be long-time collaborator.

The album opens with the iconic “Space Oddity“. This is one of THE Bowie classics and an incredibly important song that features on/off for the rest of Bowie’s entire career. It’s a song that’s worthy of a book on its own, beginning life as mentioned earlier as the centrepiece of the “Love You Till Tuesday” promotional film. Starting with slowly building acoustic guitars and slow military style drum beat, it tells the tale of the doomed flight to the moon by Major Tom, who mysteriously loses contact with Ground Control. The production here is just fantastic, with weird electronic swells and soundscapes thanks to Bowie’s toy Stylophone and Rick Wakeman’s Mellotron, creating a musical atmosphere that still sounds fresh and futurist to this day. The taking off and finale sequences are just amazing, as are Bowie’s vocals as both Major Tom/Ground Control. It’s THE perfect pop song.

Remarkably, Tony Visconti wanted nothing to do with the song, thinking it a piece of commercial/popularist crap that was taking advantage of all the current interest in the upcoming Apollo moon landings. So it was actually Gus Dudgeon who would later make his name producing many of the Elton John classic albums who was drafted in to produce just the “Space Oddity” track. Gus, thank you, you did a superb job, sounding vastly superior to all the others versions and demos that were previously recorded.

“Space Oddity” was initially released as single way before the album on 11 July 1969 and it looked for a while that it would continue the run of commercial flops with minimal initial sales. But then the BBC decided to adopted it as the music for their coverage of the moon landing (clearly not listening too carefully to the lyrics) and it starting its journey up the UK charts, peaking at an impressive No. 5. Bowie, finally at long long last, had his first hit (although it only initially made No. 124 in the US).

Space oddity single cover

The story of “Space Oddity” however was far from over.

In 1970, Bowie won an Ivor Novello “Special Award For Originality” for “Space Oddity”, a notable achievement for the struggling Bowie.

After finally finding true fame and success with Ziggy Stardust, Bowie re-released “Space Oddity” in 1973 especially for the US market and recorded a new video at Trident Studios, directed by the legendary Mick Rock (Bowie’s “official” photographer during this period). “Space Oddity” finally became a US hit, reaching No. 15 on the charts. Watch the official Ziggy Stardust era video here.

space oddity us single cover

In 1975, “Space Oddity” was re-released as a single yet again, this time backed with “Changes” and a superb previously unreleased track from the Ziggy Stardust sessions “Velvet Goldmine“. It reached No. 1 in the UK, giving Bowie his first ever UK No. 1 single and at the time, a record of being the longest period for a single to reached No. 1, some 6 years after it was initially released.

space oddity 1975 single cover

In 1980, a stripped down new version of “Space Oddity” was released as the B-Side of the single “Alabama Song“. Finally, Tony Visconti got to produce a version of “Space Oddity”, some 10 years after rejecting the project. A video of this version was made for the hilarious Kenny Everett Show. Watch it here.

alabama song single cover

The Major Tom character would feature in a number of subsequent recordings by Bowie, most notably the majestic “Space Oddity” follow-up “Ashes To Ashes” in 1980 (which coincidently would become Bowie’s 2nd No. 1 UK single) and the Pet Shop Boys remixed version of “Hallo Spaceboy” in 1995. Major Tom would also finally feature (it is popularly believed) as the skeletal astronaut remains in the “Blackstar” video from 2015. Say goodbye to Major Tom here.

Bowie would perform “Space Oddity” live throughout his career and would rightly always remain a crowd favourite.

Now onto the rest of the album…

Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed” is an interesting affair. Said by Bowie at the time to be a reflection of his feelings following the death of his father, the song appears to be about a girl who is of a higher class and standing than Bowie and who’s stare reflects this difference in standing. Featuring for Bowie very upfront and some would say distasteful lyrics, “I’m a Phallus in pigtails, And there’s blood on my nose, And my tissue is rotting, Where the rats chew my bones” just isn’t going to help the protagonist get the girl. The music starts with basically an acoustic guitar, before a basic drum beat and electric guitar riff kicks in, followed by more guitars, harmonica and then the full Tony Visconti big production treatment takes over (with Visconti’s bass very high in the mix), then more horns, then the lot really. It ends up being a raunchy, over-the-top rock-based affair and quite unlike anything Bowie had done before (or since really). By far the “rockiest” track on the album.

(Don’t Sit Down)” is a 40 second piece of studio foolery, with Bowie singing to a basic rock track “Yeah, yeah, baby, yeah” a few times, followed by “Don’t sit down” a few times before Bowie bursts out in hysteric laughter. This track was dropped from all the subsequent RCA re-issues of the album. Is it in my Top 100 list of great songs? No.

Letter To Hermione” is the first to two tender love ballads on the album addressed to his ex-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale who had left him just before recording the album. It’s both incredibly beautiful and sad in equal measure and with lyrics such as “And when he’s strong, He’s strong for you, And when you kiss, It’s something new, But did you ever call my name. Just by mistake?“, you can’t but feel Bowie’s pain. This broken relationship had a huge impact on Bowie, later describing love as a “disease” and despite getting married the following year to Angie Barnett, one senses he didn’t find true love again for another 20+ years.

Cygnet Committee” is the centrepiece on the album, a 10 minute epic on the consequences of blind faith in the new, post hippy world. Bowie plays the weary leader of a cult for which he no longer has the belief or inclination to continue and his angry and frustrating annoyance at those who won’t listen to his rejections. It’s the first time that Bowie sings from the position of “outsider” and for which the lyrics appear intentionally obtuse, ambiguous and open to (much) interpretation. It certainly won’t be the last time fans puzzle on precisely Bowie’s meaning within a lyric. Although it’s a great track, it’s not at the same level of much of his future work, especially musically, which is a little ploddy and pedestrian, when it really should have been epic and climatic. It is however a clear sign of some rather special things to come.

Janine” is a fairly standard rock song, although a tad more up-lifting than some of the prior content.  It does however contain the lyric “Janine, Janine, you’d like to crash my walls, But if you take an axe to me, You’ll kill another man, Not me at all” which hints at schizophrenia, a topic Bowie would return to again and again in the future.

An Occasional Dream” returns us back to his woes with Hermione and is another beautiful love song that is more bitter than sweet. “In my madness, I see your face in mine, I keep a photograph, It burns my wall with time“. The 22 year old Bowie never sounded quite as vulnerable as he does at times on this album.

Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is one of the real gems off the album and along with “Space Oddity”, a real highlight and dare I say, early Bowie masterpiece. In reality a basic folky ballad (as evidenced by the “Space Oddity” B-side version, recorded earlier and featuring just acoustic guitar and Arco bass), the version on the album gets the full Visconti huge orchestra production treatment. Telling the story of a young, peaceful mystical boy awaiting execution by hanging from village folk who both fear and misunderstand him, he reluctantly gets rescued by the great mountain of Freecloud, who destroys the village before they can harm him. The imagery, the musical atmosphere, the emotion and vocal delivery is all pure vintage Bowie at his absolute best. This track is the only one other than Space Oddity that Bowie would perform live once he entered his Ziggy Stardust period, as a medley with “Oh You Pretty Things” and “All The Young Dudes“. A Bowie classic in every sense.

God Knows I’m Good” is a quaint tale set to chirpy acoustic guitars of a little old lady praying she doesn’t get caught shop-lifting a tin of food, only to then pray for forgiveness once she gets caught. Bowie would often touch on religious themes in future work, this being another sign of things to come.

The album closes with the marvellous “Memory Of A Free Festival“, a truly beautiful, somewhat romanticised account of the free musical festival Bowie helped to organise in his home suburb of Beckenham, South London earlier that year. By all accounts Bowie was stressed as hell and had a miserable time, but this song tells how he had hoped the event would had gone. Starting slowly with a simple organ, Bowie’s wonderful vocals recounts how “The children of the summer’s end, Gathered in the dampened grass, We played Our songs and felt the London sky, Resting on our hands, It was God’s land. It was ragged and naive. It was Heaven.” With beautiful imagery, including meetings with passing Venusians (yes, I suspect there was a lot of bliss passed around that day), the song then breaks out into the second half chant “The Sun Machine is coming down, and we’re gonna have a party.” where the band breaks out and backing vocals spreads out the joy of the free festival. It’s another early Bowie treasure. A reworked version was broken into two parts and released as a single the following year, but as with Bowie’s output at the time and like the sun machine itself, sadly sank without a trace.

memory of a free festival cover

The original album cover featured a permed, “Dylan-esque” image of Bowie on a background designed by Victor Varasely. The brilliant artwork on the back cover was created by Bowie’s friend George Underwood and features different images and characters from the album.

Space Oddity album back cover

In the US, the album was re-titled to the much better “Man of Words/Man of Music” while using the same photo of Bowie but on a plain blue background.

Man of words Man of Music cover

The album really is quite excellent that features many Bowie treasures and gave many glimpses of Bowie treasures to come. Sadly and to Bowie’s frustration, despite the relative success of the “Space Oddity” single, the album did poorly and failed to initially chart. Bowie had to wait a further three long, long years before he finally achieved long lasting success with the “Starman” single and “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” album.

It’s at this point, that this album was given a new lease on life. Bowie’s record label at the time, RCA, bought the rights to the album (and the follow-up “The Man Who Sold The World“) and repackaged and re-released them in December 1972, just as Bowie’s fame was really taking off. The album was renamed “Space Oddity“, given a new cover featuring a close-up of our hero in early Ziggy Stardust guise, had some ludicrous notes printed on the back cover and finally achieved the success it deserved, reaching No. 17 in the UK charts. This would be the cover and title used for the next 30 odd years and the one I and many others grew up knowing the album by.

space oddity second cover

There have been various re-releases and remasterings of the album over the years. The most notable being in 1990 as part of the truly excellent Ryko CD re-release series that included a number of bonus tracks; the single version of “Memory of a Free Festival” Part I and Part II and:

Conversation Piece“, an absolute gem of a song originally released as the B-side of the single “The Prettiest Star“, the follow-up single to “Space Oddity”. It’s one of my favourite songs from this period, a brooding, quiet piece on the topic of loneliness and isolation. Bowie’s vocals are just exquisite here and you just want to give him a huge hug. Features Marc Bolan on guitar as an added bonus. A re-recorded version of this was done for the abandoned “Toys” project in the early 2000’s which was almost as good.

In 2009, a 40th Anniversary version of the album was released, that featured the original cover, plus a bonus disc that included a bunch of demos and live BBC recordings from this period, as well as “Conversation Piece” and the following notable tracks:

The Prettiest Star” was the follow-up single to “Space Oddity” and sadly, returned Bowie back to the long line of commercial failures. Which is a real petty because it really is a beautiful love song, that featured his good friend and musical adversary Marc Bolan on lead guitar. This single was the only time I believe they played together until right up to the very end when Bowie appeared on the “Marc Bolan Show” a few short weeks before Bolan’s tragic death. A much more widely known version was recorded and included for the “Aladdin Sane” album, with Mick Ronson playing the Bolan guitar part almost note for note. Both are wonderful, it’s just this version is more special.

prettiest star

A version of “London Bye, Ta Ta” was recorded around this time and kinda takes you back to the weirdness of Bowie’s debut album when it was first written. Based on the difficulties of the black community living in London, it’s a song Bowie has recorded a number of times but never to satisfaction of it being officially released.

Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola” is an odd affair, the exact backing track to “Space Oddity” but with lyrics changed completely to that a love song and sang entirely in Italian. Strangely, it kinda works but Bowie would sing in a foreign tongue much more effectively on tracks such as “Heroes” and “Seven Years In Tibet” in the years to come. It was first generally available on the 1982 compilation album “Bowie Rare“, his last release with RCA.

At the time of writing, it’s the 50th anniversary of the initial release of the album. To celebrate, a number of exciting new releases are planned (initially in vinyl format) to capture the various demos that were recorded at the time. These are currently:

Spying Through A Keyhole (Demos and Unreleased Songs) 7″ Singles Vinyl Box Set

Spying through a keyhole

David Bowie With John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson Clareville Grove Demos 3X7″ Vinyl Singles Box Set

Clareville Grove Demos

The Mercury Demos Vinyl

Mercury demos

I’ll update with more details on these once they’ve all been released.

A rather impressive remixed version of the album (remixed by Tony Visconti) was also released in 2019 as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, that brings new life to many of these excellent tracks.

The 1969 “David Bowie” album would prove to be a false start for Bowie, with the “Space Oddity” single doing well, but the album itself yet another commercial failure. For 3 more years, it would appear that Bowie might perhaps be destined to be yet another “one-hit” wonder. That would all finally change in 1972 when an orange-haired, rock ‘n’ roll alien would invade the earth and our TV screens.

But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: “Space Oddity”, “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”, “Memory Of A Free Festival”