11. “Heroes”

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

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

Life was indeed finally beginning to pick up.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

12. David Bowie (aka Space Oddity)

space oddity album cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bowie was back in business.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Space oddity single cover

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

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

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

space oddity us single cover

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

space oddity 1975 single cover

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

alabama song single cover

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

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

Now onto the rest of the album…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

memory of a free festival cover

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

Space Oddity album back cover

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

Man of words Man of Music cover

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

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

space oddity second cover

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

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

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

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

prettiest star

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

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

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

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

Spying through a keyhole

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

Clareville Grove Demos

The Mercury Demos Vinyl

Mercury demos

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

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

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

But that’s a story for another day.

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

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”

16. Heathen

heathen

Heathen” is David Bowie’s 25th studio album and was originally released on 11th June 2002.

Soon after the release of the “Hours” album, Bowie separated from his long time collaborator Reeves Gabrels, so the follow-up was always going to sound somewhat different to those of the recent past. The follow-up album was originally going to be the “Toy” project, an album of re-recorded versions of songs he had (mainly) written in the 60’s/early 70s prior to becoming the well-known rock icon. Remarkably (this is David Bowie remember), he couldn’t find a record label willing to release the album and the project was eventually shelved (it was “unofficially” released on the internet in 2011).

Although “Toy” was produced by Mark Plati, during the recording sessions, he became re-acquainted again with Tony Visconti, the producer responsible for many of his classic 70’s albums. They had last worked together way back in 1982 during the recording of the “Baal” EP and both thought why not get together and see if they can maybe produce the same magic in the studio again.

Visconti provided some of the string arrangements for the “Toy” project and some of the recordings became the catalyst for the new album to come. Some became reworked tracks on the album proper, while a number became B-Sides for the various singles from the album.

Recorded during an extended period from late 2000 through to early 2002, the “Heathen” recording period included the horrors of what happened on that fateful day on 11 September 2001. Although Bowie has said that none of the tracks directly related to the terrorist attack that occurred in his then home town of New York, I have always felt that much of the mood and atmosphere of the album (in tracks such as “Sunday” and “Slow Burn”) were influenced by those terrible events.

That said, the album is simply gorgeous and full to the brim with beautiful songs and wonderful vocal performances by Bowie. The Visconti influence is there, but his skill has always been to capture the “current” Bowie at his best and the production on this album is superb. The melancholy of David Bowie circa 2002 is captured perfectly, with a highly talented bunch of musicians (lead ably by Visconti on bass, Matt Chamberlain on drums and David Torn on guitar, with Bowie playing a number of instruments, usually a good sign) adding to what truly is a wonderful album.

It begins with “Sunday“, a quiet, atmospheric piece with a stunningly beautiful vocal by Bowie. If it’s not specifically about 11 September 2001, it’s certainly about someone who has survived a catastrophic, harrowing event in which nothing has changed, but everything has changed. The intro sets the scene:

Nothing remains
We could run when the rain slows
Look for the cars or signs of life
Where the heat goes

with a chant like quality to the whole thing.

It builds slowly from there, with touches of new instruments and voices coming in here and there, until the climatic finale with Bowie’s despairing “Everything has chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanged” and Matt Chamberlain’s wonderful drum work taking us out.

Next comes “Cactus“, a cover of the Pixies track from their album “Surfer Rosa”. Bowie was a huge fan of the Pixies and he does this song justice with a nice performance. Typical of the album, the softer/quieter tracks are often interspersed with harder/louder tracks throughout.

The next track “Slip Away” was one of those originating from the “Toy” sessions, under the original title “Uncle Floyd“. Although some at the time thought the song was a nod to Pink Floyd, whom Bowie loved particularly during the Syd Barrett era, it actually references “The Uncle Floyd Show” which was a children’s puppet show during the 70’s and beyond. Another slow, melancholic, atmospheric piece, it has a certain yearning for a bygone era which would have been perfect on “Toy” but also works rather well here on “Heathen”.

Slow Burn” is my favourite track on Heathen, a wonderfully eerie rocker, with Pete Townsend providing some excellent guitar. Another song with 9/11 murmurings, it has all the elements of classic Bowie; a catchy, forceful rhythm, great lyrics, great vocals and that wonderfully unique instrumentation and arrangement quality that only Bowie can create. The lead off single from the album (but oddly not in the UK where it wasn’t released despite there being a number of different versions), it’s one of the classic Bowie songs that sadly most people would never have heard. A video of the song was recently released post his passing which is well worth watching. Watch video here.

slow burn

Afraid” is another “Toy” offshoot, although this time much of the backing tracks are essentially the same with the song remixed for “Heathen”. It’s perhaps one the weaker tracks here, although that’s always a relative term when it comes to Bowie. It has a nice guitar track throughout and again Bowie is in fine form, but it doesn’t have the distinctive quality of many of the other tracks here. It was a song often performed during the “Reality” tour and I think sounds much better live.

I’ve Been Waiting For You” is another cover, this time from Neil Young’s debut album. It works rather well here, with Visconti’s bass dominating and with again some excellent musical arrangements and guitar work (this time from a guest appearance by David Grohl). Bowie sings it with obvious affection and so passes the “does it deserve to be on the album” test. Released as a single in Canada only.

I Would Be Your Slave” has a catchy rhythm and string like arrangements, but it’s Bowie’s vulnerable vocal performance that lifts this song to a higher status. A plea to a potential loved one, that Bowie promises he would be dedicated to if they only opened up, you get the sense the relationship is ultimately doomed. It’s typical Bowie pulling the emotional heart-strings.

I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship” is an absolute riot. The third cover on the album, this is a song by “The Legendary Stardust Cowboy”, a key influence in the making of Ziggy Stardust. Bowie sings the song in his most camp voice and it really is quite hilarious. Although much of the album has a sad melancholy, this just lightens up the mood of the whole piece. There really is hope for mankind, it just requires us to leave the planet and take a ride on a spaceship. “Weeeelllllllll” indeed !!

5:15: The Angels Have Gone” is another highlight, just a truly beautiful song. About separation, both physically from a foreign town and emotionally from a failed relationship, it just has everything one can want from a great song. Musically, it’s simple but also has that sprinkle of Bowie magic in the touches here and there and in the slightly odd, drum based rhythm.

The next track “Everyone Says Hi” continues the high standard with a more uplifting accompaniment to the previous song. Here, the theme is again about leaving, but from the perspective that everyone misses you and that if you ever want to return, the old life is there waiting for you (all your friends, Mum, Dad, the dog…). Released as a single, it came out in a vast array of options, which made it really expensive for us Bowie fans.

Everyone says hi

A Better Future” is a little flat and plodding in comparison to what has come before. It has a nice enough rhythm and keyboard based hook, but Bowie’s deadpan vocal and the lack of any great emotion or change in musical structure makes it one of the weaker tracks here. Somewhat forgettable.

It all ends with the title track “Heathen (The Rays)“. With a brooding arrangement and basic drum backbeat, it rather nicely rounds off the album. It has a religous like quality, perhaps an older man’s “Word On A Wing”:

Steel on the skyline
Sky made of glass
Made for a real world
All things must pass
Waiting for something
Looking for someone
Is there no reason?
Have I stared too long?

Wow, what a great album and this from a then 55 year old who had already achieved so much.

Another tracks worth mentioning from around this period:

Conversation Piece“. This was released as a bonus track on a second CD that come with limited editions of the album when first released. From the “Toy” sessions, the song originally dates way back to being the B-Side of Bowie’s early single “The Prettiest Star” (featuring Marc Bolan) and is an early indication of the genius that is Bowie. It’s an early masterpiece and one of the most beautiful songs he’s ever written. This version is not quite as stunning as the original, but that wonderful sense of vulnerability is still there.

Wood Jackson” featured as the B-Side to the “Slow Burn” single. Sounding really really sad, it’s a truly eerie piece about a clearly troubled musician who can’t quite get a grip on life. Believed by some to be based in part on the musician Daniel Johnston. For those occasions when you might feel a little lonely.

Shadow Man” is possibly my favourite piece from this whole period. Another early song of Bowie’s dating back to 1971 and beyond, recorded again during the “Toy” sessions, this is such a great song. Previously never officially released (although an early version recorded during the Ziggy Stardust sessions has been available on bootleg albums for some time), this is just brilliant and this version is possibly Bowie’s finest vocal performance in his whole post 1990’s era. This version is so damn good, that it was included in the “Nothing Has Changed” compilation released in 2014. Mainly piano based, with a quiet arrangement, Bowie’s voice is front and centre and is just stunning. Appeared on some B-Sides of the “Slow Burn” single and on the bonus disc of the re-released limited edition of the album.

Safe” is an outtake from the “Heathen” sessions, it’s another brooding song but with a much more expansive arrangement, with squealing guitars and louder, anguished vocals. It’s not as strong as much of what made it onto “Heathen”, so you can see why it was dropped. Again featured on the bonus disc with the re-released version of the album.

When The Boys Come Marching Home” is another “Heathen” outtake and perhaps the weakest track of the lot. With a nondescript arrangement and clear military musings (including the drum beat), Bowie would tackle this topic far more impressively on “The Next Day” album. For now, this track is nothing more than a curiosity.

You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving” dates all the way back to 1966 when Bowie was a total unknown and the lead singer of “Davy Jones & The Lower Third” when this song was released as a single (the last single before becoming David Bowie). It was a flop then and although this version from the “Toy” sessions can be viewed as an improvement, it’s still not the best song in the Bowie cannon. An interesting piece, but I actually prefer the original with the fresh sounding Bowie vocal of its time. Included as a B-Side on some versions of the “Heathen” singles and as a track on the bonus disk of the re-released album.

Baby Loves That Way”  was originally the B-Side to the single “You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving” by “Davy Jones & The Lower Third” and was also re-recorded for “Toy”. Here, the original is much the better version, with this having all the life and energy of the original drained away. One can see why the “Toy” concept was rejected by record companies based on this track. Again, included as a B-Side on some versions of the “Heathen” singles and as a track on the bonus disk of the re-released album.

The album cover (which I’ve used as the background to my computers ever since) is certainly up there as one of Bowie’s most distinctive covers, featuring Bowie’s “out of this world” eyes.

Overall, “Heathen” was received positively by both the music critics and by the public at large. It reached No 5 in the UK charts, No 14 in the US and even made it to No 9 here in Australia. Not bad from someone releasing their 25th studio album and who couldn’t be bothered recording any videos to help promote the thing.

Bowie did tour the album on a somewhat limited basis between June and October 2002 in both Europe and the US (but again not in Australia goddammit). The first couple of dates included playing both the “Heathen” and “Low” albums in their entirety before the tour proper started (how cool would that have been !!). Many of the “Heathen” songs were also covered during his final “Reality” world tour.

Listening to the album now, it really has aged rather well and is typical of much of Bowie’s output. A little ahead of its day, with a lot of brilliance and with very much a timeless quality that one can forever fondly listen to.

It was certainly a cause of some excitement at the time that Bowie and Tony Visconti were back working together again after so many years. In the end, Tony Visconti would turn out to produce all of Bowie’s future albums. Sadly, there were only three more to come, “Reality” released in 2003 and after a 10 year hiatus, the superb “The Next Day” and “Blackstar” albums.

Both the latter albums have yet to appear in my list, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Best Tracks: “Sunday”, “Slow Burn”, “5:15 The Angels Have Gone”, “Shadow Man”

17. Earthling

Earthling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

little wonder

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

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

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

seven years in tibet

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

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

telling lies

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

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

Im afraid of americans

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

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

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

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

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

18. Hours

hours

Hours” is David Bowie’s 24th studio album and was originally released on 21st September 1999.

This was the last Bowie album of the 1990’s and continued his trend of releasing throughout the decade a number of truly excellent, generally under-rated works. “Hours” is another hidden gem in the Bowie cannon which is full of wonderful, thought-provoking material, well worth a visit if you haven’t had the pleasure yet of listening to it.

Co-written with Reeves Gabrels, his ex-Tin Machine comrade and collaborator throughout much of the 1990’s, the album started life as the soundtrack to the computer game “Omikron: The Nomad Soul“. For a computing geek, I never really got much into computer games but I remember at the time getting a copy of Omikron and trying to get it to run on my then Windows NT laptop. It was a really fun game where you interact in a complex world while taking over various characters, fun that is until I got stuck trying to get past a heap of guards near the end before finally giving up. The game featured much of the music from what would eventually be the “Hours” album, including a few “live” performances by “The Dreamers” (a band based on Bowie, Gabrels and his then live bass player, Gail Ann Dorsey), playing in various dodgy bars throughout Omikron.

Omikron

A computer game soundtrack by the great David Bowie sounds pretty remarkable, that is until you realise just how much interest Bowie had in computing, the internet and with all the possibilities that the web had to offer. It’s easy to forget that Bowie was one of the internet pioneers, being one of the first to fully realise how downloading music would be the future, one of the first to have a full blown, interactive internet site and ISP services, one of the first of offer a commercial song “Telling Lies” as a download and one of the first to offer an entire album as a downloadable option here with the “Hours” album. David Bowie was awarded The Webby Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 for his pioneering contributions to music within the internet.

With the end of yet another decade fast approaching and with Bowie now in his 50’s, “Hours” is one of the most nostalgic, backwards yearning albums of his career. I distinctly remember at the time thinking that Bowie was actually getting “older”, really for the first time. He looked a little older, especially in this videos from the album, sounded a little older and indeed touched on his past in a way that an older person would reminisce of days gone by. This is all the more enhanced by the album cover, that has a (possibly dying) Bowie being comforted by a younger looking “angelic” Bowie.

The music touches on various previous parts of Bowie’s career, although in typical Bowie style it still sounded fresh and new. At the time, some critics mentioned it being a relative to the “Hunky Dory” album, but it’s not really a view I share. I’ve always thought there are references here to his glam period, his Berlin trilogy and indeed to his more recent material. But it most certainly didn’t sound too much like his previous drum ‘n’ bass frantic “Earthling” album, this generally being much mellower and quieter in scope.

The album kicks off with “Thursday’s Child” which was also the lead off single from the album (in most territories). It’s one of those quieter, dreamy songs so typical of the album, which has a rather lovely melodic feel. Bowie sings in his best “fragile” voice with a gorgeous chorus that just takes you away. A truly beautiful song. The video features Bowie staring at himself in the mirror and thinking when he was with a younger version of his partner. Music Video.  As with many releases at the time, there were a number of different versions of the CD single, which in turn featured different B-Sides to collect. It’s an expensive business being a Bowie fan, I’ll cover the B-Sides later on.

thursdays child

Something In The Air” is another cracking song, this time featuring a much more “electronic” sound, full of weird little noises and with a somewhat distorted Bowie lead vocal. As with much of the album, Bowie seems to feel that things are no longer what they once were and there’s a certain unease with what’s going on here. This song is probably the closest on this album to what he had previously recorded on the “1. Outside” and “Earthing” albums. Gabrel’s lead guitar and the strange sounds he can get out of it is on display the most here.

Survive” is another lovely song, with another sad, vulnerable vocal on which Bowie says he’ll survive but sounding as if he’ll do anything but now that a love is lost. Gabrel’s guitar line here really is excellent and the overall track is just sublime. For me, it makes me think just a little of the “Station To Station” album. This was the seond single off the album and featured a clever video of Bowie floating around the kitchen table. Music Video.

survive

If I’m dreaming My Life” is perhaps my favourite track on the album, although there are several possible candidates. A long brooding piece, it starts typically slow before spending up before each catchy, rhythmic alternate verse, with Bowie wondering if his life and that girl of his was all just one long dream. Gabrels features predominantly throughout with various guitar flourishes, including during the long coda section at the end. At 7 plus minutes, it’s one of the longer pieces Bowie has recorded and although no “Station To Station”, it’s still an excellent track. Bowie performed a nice version of this on his appearance on “VH1 Storytellers” (more on this later).

Seven” on the other hand is one of the weaker moments on the album. Released as the third and last single off the album (with again with so many different versions I almost lost count), it’s a rather basic acoustic track with a slide guitar line that’s all very nice but just doesn’t do it for me. “Seven” was also performed as part of Bowie’s “VH1 Storytellers” appearance. Video link to Seven on Storytellers.

Seven BlueSeven Purpleseven green

What’s Really Happening?” has an interesting story. As a promotion on “BowieNet”, Bowie’s internet fan club,  a competition was run for some lucky bugger to write lyrics for a new song that would appear on this album. Out of 20,000+ entrants, the winner was Alex Grant and the result was this track. As some consolation for all those who missed out, the recording of the track was webcast “live” on the internet for BowieNet members. The lyrics although not “Lennon-esque” (or Bowie level quality for that matter) do suit the tone of the album and I’ve always enjoyed the track with its fuzzy guitars and electronic rumblings.

The rocker of the album is definitely “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” and is a definite highlight. With little glimpses back to his Glam-Rock era and with Gabrels sounding not unlike Mick Ronson, Bowie is in vintage form here and the track has a rare swagger not found elsewhere on the album. Although Grabels guitar is most predominant, the excellent bass- line by Mark Plati deserves credit and helps to drive the track along. The lead-off single here in Australia, a remixed version of the song featured on the “Stigmata” film soundtrack. Video Performance.

pretty things are going to hell

New Angels Of Promise” is the song I most associate with the Omikron computer game and it’s the song featured at the very start. I’ve always loved this song as it has much of the ingredients of a classic Bowie track, with a wonderful mix of weird electronic instrumentation, a thumping rhythm and that somewhat distorted Bowie vocal delivery. With a hint towards the first side of the “Heroes” album, if you enjoy 70’s Bowie you’ll very likely enjoy this.

Brilliant Adventure” is even more of a hint towards the “Heroes” album, this time the B-side with this being the only instrumental on the album. With a strong Japanese vibe thanks to the featured koto, it echoes back to both “Moss Garden” and “Crystal Japan” from his past. Considering the strong influence and background of the “Omikron” soundtrack, it’s perhaps a little surprising that there weren’t more instrumentals featured on the album. Personally I find this track a little ho-hum and not as interesting as the aforementioned influences.

The album proper closes with the excellent “The Dreamers“, an atmospheric piece and one of my favourite Bowie vocals on the album. “The Dreamers” is the name of the fantasy Bowie band in the Omikron computer game, although the song itself is a somewhat obscure piece detailing dark dreams and shadows. Bowie’s vocals are again slightly distorted but he still hits the big notes impressively. A very satisfactory end to an overall highly satisfactory album.

Although the album was a typical hit in the UK, reaching No. 5 in the charts, it was however the first non-Tin Machine (or “Buddha of Suburbia” soundtrack album) not to make the Top 40 in the US since way back to the Ziggy album, only reaching a disappointing 47. Which is a pity, because this really is a wonderful album, that had a very modern feel for 1999 and I think would actually appeal to many in the US market.

At the time of release, as well as the standard packaging, a limited edition version featuring a lenticular cover kept us Bowie collectors happy. I would though recommend trying to get hold of the “David Bowie” box set which featured all the albums released between “1. Outside” and “Heathen”, each with a 2 CD package featuring various re-mixes, B-Sides and bonus tracks from each album. With regard “Hours”, this included the other four original tracks that were released as B-sides on various versions of the “Thursday’s Child” singles:

We All Go Through” has a Tin Machine feel during one of their quieter moments, but overall the track is kinda bland and forgettable. In other words, a perfect B-Side track.

1917” on the other hand is brilliant, one of those hidden Bowie gems and my favourite piece from the whole “Hours” sessions. A thoroughly weird little electronic-based instrumental, it reminds me just a little of the A-Side of the “Low” album, especially with that half finished feeling in how the track comes and then quickly disappears again.

We Shall Go To Town” is a somewhat sombre piece, with an almost tortured vocal by Bowie who sounds positively in pain throughout. Gabrel’s guitar solo sounds akin to him trying to throttle the thing, not unlike Bowie and his saxophone throttling Neukoln piece from “Heroes”. Although I might not have sold this too well, it’s actually a great track and a million miles from his 80’s stuff.

No-One Calls” is another down beat track with a somewhat hypnotic, repetitive, electronic/keyboard based arrangement, with Bowie singing in his best dour voice. Not a classic perhaps, but again perfect B-side fodder.

Soon after the release of “Hours”, Bowie and Gabrels went their separate ways, ending a 10 years working relationship and the end of a productive, generally underrated period of Bowie’s career. Their last performance together was on 23 August 1999 when Bowie performed live on VH1 Storytellers which featured “Thursday’s Child”, “Seven”, Survive” and “If I’m Dreaming My Life” from “Hours” among other classics from Bowie’s career. An album/DVD of the show was released some 10 years later on 6 July 2009.

storytellers

Bowie performed a very small low-key tour of just 8 live shows to promote the album. Gabrels was replaced on guitar by Page Hamilton with the tour setlist usually including “Thursday’s Child”, “Survive”, “Something In The Air”, “Seven” and “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” from the album.

With “Hours” we close off the 90’s and arguably Bowie’s most underrated period of his career. Bowie would move on into the new millennium and create two more high quality albums before his long 10 year break following his heart attack. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: Thursday’s Child, If I’m Dreaming My Life, 1917

19. Pin Ups

pin ups

Pin Ups” is David Bowie’s 7th studio album and was originally released on 19th October 1973.

On 3rd July 1973, David Bowie famously killed off Ziggy Stardust and declared he would never tour again. The following night he enjoyed a retirement party at Cafe Royal in London with a bunch of celebrities buddies and a few severely pissed off Spiders From Mars. And so that was that.

So with future tours put on hold and with it having been ages since he last released a new album (“Aladdin Sane” less than 3 months ago), what else was there for Bowie to do but record a new album and keep his successful momentum flowing.

The plan was to record an album of covers, featuring songs from bands that Bowie loved and would watch live during the late swinging 60’s in London. With an eye on the USA market, they would be songs which were less well known in the USA than they were in the UK.

Bowie’s own notes on the album show his intentions:

These songs are among my favourites from the ’64–67′ period of London. Most of the groups were playing the Ricky-Tick (was it a ‘y’ or an ‘i’?) Scene club circuit (Marquee, eel pie island la-la). Some are still with us. Pretty Things, Them, Yardbirds, Syd’s Pink Floyd, Mojos, Who, Easybeats, Merseys, The Kinks. Love-on ya!”

Bowie also planned to dump the “Spiders From Mars” rhythm section, replacing Mick Woodmansey on drums with Aynsley Dunbar and Trevor Bolder on bass with Jack Bruce. However while Dunbar jumped at the chance, Bruce turned the invite down and so Bolder was somewhat embarrassingly asked to participate in the recording sessions. So without “Woody” on board, this album kinda marks the start of the end of Bowie’s ever so successful and brilliant “glam-rock” era.

With the rest of the usual gang still on board (the dynamic Mick Ronson on guitar, Mike Garson on piano, Ken Fordham on baritone sax and Ken Scott as co-producer), they headed on down to the famous Chateau Herouville studios near Paris to record what would be yet another No. 1 hit in the UK and what really is a fabulous album. Interestingly, Bowie would in only 3 years or so record the “Low” album at the same studio, the difference in musical vibe could not have been any starker !!

Yes there are of course a few tracks better than others on “Pin Ups”, but Bowie really does appear to be enjoying himself here and the band are in fantastic form. Mick Ronson described this as his favourite recording experience with Bowie and it really does show. I’ve always imagined this album as Ziggy Stardust having a bit of fun doing a session at the Marquee Club before the Earth finally reaches the end of its Five Years.

It all starts off with “Rosalyn” originally by The Pretty Things and it’s a real rocker, with both Ronson and Dunbar in particularly fine form. Bowie sings many of the songs on the album with quirky vocal expressions and does so here. This is basically rock ‘n’ roll at its best.

Here Come The Night” made famous by Them comes next and is another great track. The problem I’ve always had with this is that Van Morrison’s performance on the Them version is so damn good, it’s always difficult to top such an iconic version (which Bowie does very successfully elsewhere).  I don’t think this song suits the band as much as many of the others but it’s still an enjoyable listening experience.

I Wish You Would” famously covered by The Yardbirds is another fine rocker, with Ronson I’m sure keen to show off his Eric Clapton like skills.  Again, they all sound like they’re having a fun time playing tunes they love and this especially comes across with this track.

Now “See Emily Play” really is special. I love Pink Floyd and the work of poor Syd Barrett and this is one of the very best early Floyd singles. Bowie here beautifully adapts all the strangeness that Syd encapsulates and then sprinkles Bowie magic all over it all for a fantastic tribute to his musical hero. The verses here are wonderful, especially the second verse with the multi-speed vocals, but the choruses are a joy as is the extended outro section. I love the original but I love this version just as much and no greater praise can I give.

Everything’s Alright” originally by The Mojos features here some fun backing vocals but isn’t one of the stronger tracks here. Again, just close your eyes and imagine Ziggy having a fun night out and it does kinda work.

I Can’t Explain” originally by The Who is OK but not great but then I think the same can be said for The Who original as well. It’s a bit of a plodder and although Bowie sings it well and the sax throughout is wonderful, the arrangement is a bit lame as is the little guitar solo. It’s notable in being one of the very few tracks on the album that Bowie would ever perform live.

Friday On My Mind” originally by The Easybeats is almost an Australian anthem and so has a special place in my heart (I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve hummed this in the middle of a boring week). Thankfully, Bowie again does this song total justice and is an absolute highlight here. The arrangement is wonderful, Ronson plays the famous guitar riff perfectly and Bowie sings the song with all the working class, glam-rock brilliance that Harry Vanda (Easybeats member and co-writer of the song) said was the only cover version of his song that he liked.

Up next is “Sorrow” recorded famously by The Merseys and the only track released as a single, where it was yet another big hit for Bowie reaching No 3 in the UK and yes, a No 1 smash in New Zealand. Now I’ve listened to this album 100’s of times over the years and I still think this track is by far the weakest point on the album. It’s just all a bit bland and mushy, especially compared to so many of the other tracks here. But like I said, the single was a huge hit and many think it an original Bowie classic, so what would I know. There was no official video made for the single although the performance recorded for the remarkable “1980 Floor Show” has become the unofficial version. Link Sorrow Video.

sorrow

Don’t Bring Me Down” originally by The Pretty Things is another example of a great rock ‘n’ roll song being performed with aplomb. Dunbar’s drums are great, Bowie’s quirky vocals are spot on, the instrumental middle section just rocks and Bowie’s harmonica throughout just lifts the whole thing. A joy.

Shapes Of Things” is yet another highlight. Bowie has often described Ronson as his “Jeff Beck”, so it’s only natural that Bowie/Ronson would nail this version of The Yardbirds classic. Again the whole band are in fine form, but it’s Ronson’s version of the classic Jeff Beck solo that steals the show. It would have been great to have seen this performed live, if only…

Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” is the second Who track to feature and if truth be told, is again a little disappointing. I’m not a huge Who fan so it obviously influences my judgement, but this track has always left me a little ho-hummed. It’s an OK performance but no more so than that.

Where Have All The Good Times Gone” originally by The Kinks closes the album and must have been a personal favourite of Bowie’s as it’s the only track to have its lyrics printed on the album. It’s a rather lovely version, with Mike Garson’s little piano flourishes a highlight for me as is Dunbar’s drumming. Actually, Dunbar’s drumming is a highlight throughout the album. Bowie sings this in a downbeat manner as he laments where have all the good times gone and does rather predict things to come for Bowie.

The end of the album, with the somewhat downbeat ending in terms of its vibe brings things back to the album cover, which has always been one of my favourites. A fantastic photo of a dreamy looking Twiggy (“the wonder kid”), the famous model who seems to be reminiscing of past glories maybe from the 1964-67 era the album covers, while “Ziggy” Bowie seems to be looking in dread to some horrific future to come. Where have all the good times gone indeed with his awful experiences of LA all soon to come.

So overall, a really enjoyable, fun album that did it’s job of being a perfect little filler to keep the fans amused before moving on to more series stuff.  I love it but doesn’t get ranked any higher on my list for the simple reason it doesn’t contain any Bowie originals. It’s an often forgotten album, in that its anniversary has come and gone over the years with no “special edition” as yet released although it’s been re-released and remaster a number of times. Most notable of these being the 1991 era Ryko/EMI Sound and Vision release that featured a couple of bonus tracks:

Growin’ Up“,  a cover of the Bruce Springsteen song is actually a track from very early  “Diamond Dogs” sessions and features Ron Wood on guitar. Bowie was a big fan of early Springsteen and recorded a couple of Springsteen tracks. This one sounds a little like a demo and doesn’t have the polish of a completed track. Bowie does an OK US impersonation here but perfects this vocal style by the time he gets to “Young Americans“. There was always talk of a Pin Ups II album that would feature American songs, but sadly never materialised.

Port Of Amsterdam” is actually from the Ziggy Stardust sessions and is a cover of a Jacques Brel song. It features here as it was the B-Side of the “Sorrow” single. Although I much prefer his stunning live performances of Brel’s “My Death”, this really is an excellent cover and probably deserves more credit than its received. With its slow start and building acoustic guitars, Bowie’s vocals positively soar by the end of this rather sordid little ditty. It would have been hopelessly out of place on the Ziggy Stardust album, but is the perfect B-Side gem.

There was of course no live tour for this album, Bowie had just “retired”, but Bowie did perform “Sorrow”, “Everything’s Alright” and “I Can’t Explain” as part of the fantastic “The 1980 Floor Show Midnight Special” TV special he recorded on 19th October for NBC in the US. If you haven’t seen this (possible as it’s only been officially shown in the US), it’s a superb “must-see” experience and marks the end of Ziggy Stardust with it being the last time he performed with both Mick Ronson (for many years anyways) and Trevor Bolder. The costumes themselves are worth price of admission as is Bowie’s duet with Marianne Faithfull as they perform “I’ve Got You Babe”. 1980 Floor Show link.

Other than that, the Pin Ups songs were very rarely performed live. “Sorrow” did feature a few times, especially during the 1983 “Serious Moonlight” tour, as did “I Can’t Explain” for a few of the earlier 1983 shows.

With Pin Ups,  we mark the end of an era. No more Ken Scott, Bowie’s important co-producer since “Hunky Dory”, no more Trevor Bolder, the Spider on bass also with Bowie since “Hunky Dory” and perhaps most notable of all, no more Mick Ronson, his superb side-man since “The Man Who Sold The World” and who was such an important ingredient for all the amazing, formative albums since then. It would be some 20 years before Bowie would (sadly all too briefly) reunite with Ronson.

Bowie would of course move on after the demise of Ziggy Stardust and later in the year work on yet another masterpiece. But that’s a story for another day.

Best Tracks: See Emily Play, Friday On My Mind, Shapes Of Things

20. Young Americans

young americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

young americans single cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fame

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

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

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

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

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

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

john-im-only-dancing-again

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

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

who can i be now boxset

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

cracked actor lp

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

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

Best Tracks: Young Americans, Win, Fame