3. Diamond Dogs

diamond dogs gatefold album

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

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

1980 Floor Show album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

diamond dogs single cover

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

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

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

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

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

rebelrebel single cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

diamond dogs inner sleeve

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

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

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

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

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

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

diamond dogs 30 aniv

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

who can i be now boxset

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

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

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

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

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

David Live Album

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

cracked actor lp

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

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

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

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

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

5. 1. Outside

Outside album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the hearts filthy lesson single

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

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

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

Hallo Spaceboy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

strangers when we meet single

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

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

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

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

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

Bowie NIN live album

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

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

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

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

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

David Bowie Box

 

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

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

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

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

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“.

 

 

8. Station To Station

station to station album

Station To Station is David Bowie’s 10th studio album, originally released on 23rd January 1976.

In 1975, David Bowie was in a very very dark place. Located in the decadent, pressure-cooker metropolis that was Los Angeles, Bowie was desperately struggling to cope with the fame and stardom he had spent so many years striving to achieve. With access to precious few true friends, a marriage that was rapidly disintegrating, a deteriorating relationship with his manger Tony Defries who was ripping him off, Bowie had little positive influences when the wicked temptations that LA had in abundance came calling.

Living on a diet supposedly consisting only of milk, peppers and vast amounts of cocaine (which doesn’t quite cover all the necessary food groups), Bowie became sickly thin and gaunt.

Bowie’s isolation, loneliness and rising paranoia had a frightening impact on his mental health, with bizarre tales of his dabbling with the occult quickly becoming an obsession. It’s one thing to write about the “Golden Dawn” and Aleister Crowley but quite another to store your urine in a fridge for fear it being stolen by evil beings and use for wicked spells.

In this fragile, broken state, Bowie decided to record a new album as a follow-up to his hugely successful (especially in the US) “Young Americans” album and No. 1 US hit “Fame“. Bowie’s record company RCA were keen to reproduce the commercial success of the previous album, so in you go my boy and record another hit please. That he managed to record anything listenable in his current state is an achievement in itself. That he managed to record a masterpiece is nothing short of astonishing.

His producer of choice Tony Visconti wasn’t available, so he knocked on the door again of famed producer Harry Maslin, who had worked with Bowie on the final recordings that made it onto the “Young Americans” album, including the classic song “Fame”.

As his rhythm section, he chose again those primarily from these final “Young American” sessions, Dennis Davis on drums, Carlos Alomar on rhythm guitar and Bowie newbie George Murray on bass. These three known collectively as the D.A.M. Trio would go on to work together with Bowie all the way through the rest of the 70s to the “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps” album.

On lead guitar, he also retained the young Earl Slick, who would feature again during the “Serious Moonlight” tour in 1983 and through much of the later period of Bowie’s career.

Bowie had been an enthusiastic Bruce Springsteen fan for much of his career, even recording a number of Springsteen covers in previous years. The final additional to the session musicians was the rather excellent Roy Bittan from the E-Street Band on keyboards.

Recorded at the Cherokee Studios in LA during some frantic sessions between Sept-Nov 1975, Bowie was later to state he had absolutely no recollection of the recording sessions at all. In fact Bowie found most of 1975 and much of 1976 all a little vague…

The album opens with the epic title track “Station To Station“. Starting with the ever faster chugging of a train moving between speakers, each instrument makes an appearance before the catchy opening rhythm breaks in, with Slicks guitar snarling away in the background. Finally after a few minutes, Bowie’s vocals makes its appearance, introducing us to his new character, the cold, menacing “Thin White Duke” who is “Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes“. Bowie described him as someone living in the US desperate to return back to Europe (no clue then who that could be).

Despite the train sound effects, lyrically “Station To Station” refers more to the stations of the cross, with the key line “Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth” referring to the Jewish Sephirots in the Tree of Life (Crown to Kingdom). It’s all heavy stuff for a rock song…

The song then effortlessly jumps into its second, faster tempo, soaring middle section where Bowie sings about his frantic need to search, for fortune, for answers and above all for love. To say Bowie sounds absolutely magnificent here would be an understatement.

As quickly as it arrived, the middle section ends and we enter the third section of the track, where things speed up even more and we hit the killer lines “It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love, It’s too late to be grateful“. The vocal now becomes almost frantic while the music simply pulses with energy as Bowie proclaims “The European cannon is here“. A wonderful guitar solo by Slick gives Bowie a break before coming back to repeat things again as if to say he really means it all. The track then slowly fades with the band chugging away as if on the back of a train as it disappears into the distance.

It’s one of the most exhilarating, extraordinary 10 minutes Bowie has ever put down on tape.

Before you can catch your breath, the incredibly catchy funky riff of “Golden Years” kicks in. One of Bowie’s great singles, it perfectly spans the plastic soul disco of “Young Americans” with the more calculating funk rock of the new album. Apparently a song written for Bowie’s wife Angie Bowie, it’s just a perfect pop song that can fill a dance floor today as it did 40+ years ago. The whistling section near the end is just divine, although the much longer album version keeps the riff going and going and going. The song was slated as being offered to Elvis who (thankfully) rejected it. The lead-off single, it kept Bowie up in the charts reaching a respectable No. 10 on the US singles chart. There was no official video made of the single, although Bowie’s somewhat imperfect lip-sync performance of the song on the US “Soul Train” TV show serves as the unofficial visual document. Watch it here.

Golden Years Single

 

We then reach the end of side one with the beautiful, angelic “Word On A Wing“. More desperate prayer than song, this comes across as Bowie pleading with God for help and answers to life “Lord, I kneel and offer you, My word on a wing, And I’m trying hard to fit among, Your scheme of things“. The music is still catchy but more gentle and subdued than the rest of the album, with Bittan’s piano more predominant in the mix. Bowie’s vocals are just stunning, as they are throughout the album. But I’m not sure he has sounded quite as vulnerable as he does here, which gives the track an added edge.

Side two starts with the bizarre joy that is “TVC 15“. Basically about a TV that physically consumes his girlfriend, it’s based on a drug-fuelled hallucination that Bowie friend and fellow drug-troubled Iggy Pop had one evening. It’s a fabulous catchy track, with the band in fine form, especially Bittan who’s piano again dominates. The “Transition, Transmission” section is a delight before the wondrous chorus with the TVC 15 chant. The full length album version has a final chorus that goes on and on which is fine as I never really want this to finish. Released as the second single off the album, the strange subject matter was possibly not for everyone and didn’t fare anywhere near as well as the last few singles, only managing a disappointing No. 64 in the US (and just No. 34 in the UK). Not sure having the “Diamond Dogs” track “We Are The Dead” was the best of B-Side selections. Anyways, I don’t really care as I simply love this song.

TVC 15 Single

 

Stay” is a slab of classic 70’s era funk, with Earl Slick and his wonderful guitar riff in particular shining out here. Bowie’s vocal is as desperate and moving as ever, this time pleading for a loved one to just please stay. If I had to pick the weakest track, this would be it, but it’s all relative as this can get my feet tapping as any classic Bowie track can.  Released in the US only as a single, it failed to chart.

stay single

The album ends with the stunning “Wild Is The Wind“, a cover of the Johnny Mathis song from the 1957 movie “Wild Is The Wind“, although the 1966 version by Nina Simone was the better known. Bowie often includes a cover on his albums, but I figure this to be the best cover version Bowie has ever recorded. I also rate this probably Bowie’s finest vocal performance. So high praise indeed, but what a magical way to end the album. The arrangements here are just gorgeous, with Bowie on acoustic guitar a highlight. But the way he hits that final note, just wow. An edited version was released as a single way later in 1981 to promote the non-essential “Changestwobowie” compilation album. It reached a respectable No. 24 on the UK charts considering it’s a song from 5 years ago. Watch the video here, filmed at the same time as the videos for the Baal EP.

wild is the wind single

The album was critically acclaimed at the time and a top 10 commercial success throughout the world, reaching No. 5 in the UK and No. 3 in the US. My main complaint with the album has always been that it’s too short, with just the 6 (albeit lengthy) tracks. At a touch under 38 minutes, it’s the shortest studio album that Bowie recorded. I know, I’m just greedy…

Bowie toured the album with the hugely successful “Isolar” World Tour, covering North America and Europe between February and May 1976. With swept back orange hair, dressed in white shirt and black waistcoat and with a packet of Gauloises cigarettes in pocket, Bowie played the part of the Thin White Duke with cool detachment. Bowie would later call the Thin White Duke as the least appealing and unlikable of all his characters. Rather than the usual big set and bright coloured lights, the stage was basic, minimalist with just white lights flooding the stage.  The live band was similar to those of the studio sessions, but with Stacy Heydon replacing Slick and Tony Kaye replacing Bittan.

There have been a number of re-releases of the album over the years, including the always excellent Rykodisc CD series released in 1997. This featured (I think) the superior coloured cover rather than the standard black and white still image from the 1975 movie “The Man Who Fell To Earth” that starred Bowie.

station to station colour

However the best re-release was the “Station To Station” Box Set released in 2010. Containing lots of goodies including an original analogue master, an 1985 RCA Master version, a CD of single-edits of tracks and physical record, the two big highlights were a wonderful DVD of a 5.1 surround sound re-mix of the album and a new stereo remix both by Harry Maslin and both CD/LP versions of the “Live Nassau Coliseum ’76” album, recorded in New York on 23 March 1976.

The new Harry Maslin stereo remix was also available on the excellent “Who Can I Be Now” box set released in September 2016, that covers Bowie’s output between 1974-1976. Although it’s always nice to hear a fresh interpretation of the album, I prefer the original mix, especially in relation to how Bowie’s vocals are captured, finding the new mix adds too much reverb and unnecessary effects.

who can i be now boxset

The 1976 tour is one of Bowie’s most critically acclaimed, with the “Live Nassau Coliseum ’76” album (for many years a much valued bootleg) a fantastic document of the tour. Bowie was in fine form, with the Station To Station tracks along with gems such as “Waiting For The Man”, “Panic In Detroit” and “Rebel Rebel” performance highlights.

The live album was eventually released separately in 2017.

The 5.1 remixes are also just brilliant and bring a totally new dimension to the whole album. Sitting in a living room, with Station To Station reverberating all around you is a wonderful experience. Highly recommended.

Nassau Coliseum 76 live album

 

“Station To Station” is a truly sensational album that serves as the perfect bridge between the disco oriented commercial monster that was “Young Americans” to the more experimental electronic adventurism of the upcoming Berlin Trilogy. Listening to the album today, it just doesn’t come across as music that was created over 40 years ago.

After the tour, Bowie decided to escape the excesses and temptations of LA and move permanently to Europe for a quieter, saner existence, to clean himself up and basically save his life. That he chose to eventually move to Berlin with Iggy Pop made the recovery process a touch more “complicated”.

With the same rhythm D.A.M Trio, Bowie moved on to complete the hugely influential Berlin Trilogy of albums before recording what some (not me) consider to be his last masterpiece, “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps“. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: “Station To Station“, “Golden Years“, “Wild Is The Wind

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”

13. The Next Day

The Next Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Next Day Single

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

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

the stars are out tonight

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

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

love is lost

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

Valentine's Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the next day extra cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Blackstar

blackstar album

Blackstar” is David Bowie’s 28th and final studio album, originally released on 8th January 2016.

This was always going to be a difficult album to both place within my list and to discuss, as it conjures up so many mixed emotions. Initially, I was simply thrilled at yet another new Bowie release, getting to the record store just on opening time on Bowie’s 69th birthday to pick up an early copy. But within just a couple of days of its release, I was plunged into despair when I heard the shocking news of Bowie’s death.

So every time I give the album a spin, it’s a difficult listen.  Still.

Which is a shame, tragedy even, as the album is simply filled with some brilliant, unique songs. But the songs have a different context now following the revelations of his illness and subsequently death that gives so many of these tracks an emotional pull that (for me anyways), makes for a somewhat uncomfortable experience. The album just makes me feel sad…

All that said, to say Bowie left us on an artistic high would be an understatement.

Following the commercial and general critical success of his surprise “come-back” album “The Next Day” in 2013, Bowie got his musical mojo back again. But he now looked to explore a more jazz oriented sound, rather than the more conventional rock ‘n’ roll vibe of his previous album.

Bowie has played around with jazz on a number of occasions previously, remembering that the saxophone was Bowie’s first musical instrument and the influences of Terry his half-brother. I’ve always considered the “Aladdin Sane” album, with the amazing piano performances of Mike Garson to be very jazz influenced. Same with much of “The Buddha of Suburbia“, with perhaps the closing “Bring Me The Disco King” from the “Reality” album being his most recent attempt at a jazz based track.

After releasing a couple of jazzy based tracks in “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” and “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” in 2014 (the latter in collaboration with Maria Schneider and her orchestra), Bowie was again ready to record a secretive new album. However, he decided to team up with a totally new collection of musicians, based on the jazz sounds of fellow New Yorker Donny McCaslin and his backing band (introduced to Bowie by Maria Schneider). However, the ever reliable and impressive Tony Visconti was retained again on production duties to record the unique listening experience that is Blackstar.

Starting in January 2015, the recording process was complicated with Bowie being diagnosed with extremely serious liver cancer. Although he was still hopeful of a positive outcome, Bowie knew that this could very well be his last ever album. The resultant stress, fear and sense of mortality just oozes out of the completed album.

The album opens with the stunning title track “Blackstar“, an almost 10 minute musical odyssey. Part jazz, part sci-fi art rock, part Gregorian chant and part just plain avant-garde bizarre, it’s an extraordinary track that truly sounds like nothing Bowie (or anyone else really) has ever recorded. It’s both eerie and beautiful in equal measure, with the opening sequence referencing an execution in the “villa of Ormen” featuring a haunting Bowie vocal. It then slowly glides into the middle section, in which the music is a tad more conventional (as is Bowie’s beautiful vocal) as he sings about his experiences of being a “Blackstar” and not a long list of other alternatives. The track then slowly returns us back to the villa of Ormen and its solitary candle, with McCaslin’s sax rounding off this masterpiece. The first single off the album, at 9 minutes 57 seconds, it just qualified as an iTunes single and remains the longest track to ever make it into the Billboard Hot 100 charts. A wonderful video was made, featuring different Bowie personas, including the “button-eyed” character to also feature in the “Lazarus” video and the jewelled skull of (possibly) Major Tom. A must-see if you’ve never seen it. Blackstar video.

blackstar single

 

Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is a rework of the single that was released in 2014. With a driving beat underpinning a somewhat chaotic jazzy arrangement heavily featuring McCaslin’s sax, Bowie sings in his best creepy higher pitched register about his war-time adventures with a rather feisty women who unfortunately happens to be a whore. It really is as riotous as it sounds, although I slightly favour the original single version.

tis a pity cover

 

Lazarus” is another thing entirely. It was written specifically for the musical “Lazarus”, in which a modern-day Thomas Jerome Newton, the doomed alien character Bowie played in the movie “The Man Who Fell To Earth” laments his current existence in New York. Although it dates just prior to his awful cancer diagnosis, the lyrics (“Look up here, I’m in heaven, I’ve got scars that can’t be healed“) and somber haunting melody can’t but remind you on every listen that Bowie is indeed no longer with us. And the video, with the death-bed “button-eyed” Bowie being pushed to the next realm, well, it’s just painful viewing. But if you can take away all these emotional layers, the song really is quite beautiful and superb. The second single from the album, you can watch the video here.

lazarus single cover

 

Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” is the second track from the album that had been previously released as a single, although again re-recorded for the album. Featuring an even more chaotic jazzy arrangement, it really is a killer track. Bowie again sings “in character” as the possibly deranged killer of Sue or is he just fantasising and wishing he did the evil deed when he discovers her unfaithfulness. As with much of Bowie, who can really tell. Although jazz really isn’t my thing, the combination of jazz/rock/Bowie-weirdness just works so well here. The previous (slightly better) single version featuring the Maria Schneider Orchestra won her a Grammy for Best Arrangement, Instrumental and Vocals. You can watch the video of the single featuring some black/white images of Bowie displayed on buildings here.

sue single cover

 

Girl Loves Me” is Bowie at his oddest best. Featuring lyrics that in part consist of both Polari and Nadsat gibberish (bringing back memories of his “Clockwork Orange” Ziggy phase), the standout line though is “Where the fuck did Monday go?“, a question I’m sure we’ve all asked at some point (although I ask the question more often of Sundays). The music is comparatively slower in tempo and sparser to what has preceded it, but with a stabbing beat, catchy chorus and a slight sense of unease throughout, it’s a lovely track that again sounds unlike anything Bowie has done before.

Dollar Days” is simply beautiful and again with yearning lines such as “If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to” and “I’m dying to…” there’s a strong sense here that Bowie doesn’t deep down think he’ll be with us much longer. But the music is gorgeous and McCaslin’s sax here is I think at it’s very best. Bowie’s vocals are also just superb here, both fragile and soaring in equal measure. Just a wonderful track.

The album ends ever so quickly with the 7th track, “I Can’t Give Everything Away“. It’s perhaps the weakest track here, although in an album with so many highlights, this is not necessarily such a damning verdict. It fits the overall feel of the album with a moody piece that reflects time is fast passing away “I know something is very wrong, The post returns for prodigal songs, The black-eyed sharks with flowered muse, With skull designs upon my shoes“. The music has a somewhat “gentle” and melancholy vibe as Bowie slowly fades out for the very last time.

Overall, the album really is a fantastic finale to a fantastic body of work. If it wasn’t for the fact it makes me feel so damn sad listening to it, it would likely be rated a little higher in my list.

“Blackstar” was certainly highly critically acclaimed, with many rave reviews even before Bowie’s passing. It even received a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album (his only album to win such an accolade) and remarkably was Bowie’s only No. 1 studio album in the US (it was Bowie’s 10th No. 1 in the UK).

Interestingly, “Blackstar” is one of the very few Bowie albums not to feature an image of Bowie on the cover (the original US version of “The Man Who Sold The World” and the original version of “The Buddha of Suburbia” being other rare examples).

A year later, on what would have been Bowie’s 70th birthday, the “No Plan” EP was released, that featured all four original tracks from the “Lazarus” musical/play and which were all recorded during the “Blackstar” sessions. In addition to the already released “Lazarus” track, this little gem also included:

No Plan” is a rather slow, sombre number, that reminds me a little of “Where Are We Now” from the previous “The Next Day” album. Of all the tracks from this period, this is my least favourite, with a somewhat forgettable musical arrangement that gently floats around.

Killing a Little Time” is altogether different, with a much more “rock” feel, with guitars and drums more prominent than elsewhere. It’s a perfect fusion of the sounds he achieved on “The Next Day” and the more outlandish sounds from these sessions.

When I Met You” is other great track, with a very catchy rhythm based on a great bass line that takes you back to earlier Bowie periods that few others tracks here do. Sung as a dramatic duet during the Lazarus musical, it works rather well as a Bowie solo piece as Bowie laments meeting the girl who changed everything for him. It’s another of those little known Bowie gems that are littered throughout his entire career.

 

no plan cover

All these versions are much better than the versions found on the “Lazarus” cast soundtrack album. Although the soundtrack is an excellent recording on the songs and associated arrangements from the musical, these are what they were all meant to really sound like and what fantastic songs they are.

lazarus soundtrack

Listening to the EP makes you want to go and see the Lazarus play/musical (it’s coming to Melbourne latter in 2019, so fingers crossed). It also makes you think what else Bowie could have achieved if fate had been different…

Seriously, after such an amazing career, what a wonderful album in which to say goodbye. That said, I still prefer his previous “comeback” album, in that while I find this remarkable album a somewhat sad listening experience, his previous album is both brilliant and uplifting.

But that’s a story for another day.

Best tracks: “Blackstar”, “Lazarus” and “Dollar Days”

15. Black Tie White Noise

black tie white noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

black tie white noise single

 

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

jump they say

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

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

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

Pallas_Athena Single

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

miracle goodnight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

real cool world

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

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

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