Black Tie, White Noise: A Guide To David Bowie, Part Two

Standard

The Story So Far:

Having begun his career bumming around the early London rock ‘n’ roll scene and putting out a regrettable album of Edwardian dancehall cheese, David Bowie came into the public consciousness as a folk singer of sorts and rapidly mutated into the Big Thing of the early 1970s:  the glam rocker.  Having developed a ridiculous cocaine habit and, seeing the writing on the wall for glam as a musical form, Bowie fled artistically to America where he absorbed black American music and reinvented himself as the funkiest near-albino to ever grace the world.  While this brought him success, it was his move to Berlin and his reinvention into proto-ambient music and Krautrock that brought him to the high point of his artistic career.  Now one of the biggest stars in the rock world, Bowie skewed hard towards the world of more general pop and decided to take on the musical world…

 

81fJsB4gbIL._SL1300_

Let’s Dance

Released April 14th, 1983 on EMI Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #4 US

Singles:

Let’s Dance” (#1 UK, #1 US)

China Girl” (#2 UK, #10 US)

Modern Love” (#2 UK, #14 US)

Without You” (#73 US)

When the time came to record tracks for David Bowie’s 15th studio album, longtime producer Tony Visconti (who had produced every Bowie album since Low) set time aside in his calendar for the production, assuming he’d be on call again.  When he called Bowie’s people, however, he received a rude awakening:  Bowie was already in the studio with someone else, and Visconti’s services would not be necessary.  Visconti, incensed, would refuse to work with Bowie again for the rest of the 20th Century.

That “someone else” turned out to be Nile Rodgers, former Sesame Street touring guitarist and, more notably, the driving force behind Chic, one of the most successful bands of the disco era.  The reason Rodgers had been tapped to produce dates back to the outcome of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).  With the delivery of that album, Bowie’s contract with RCA Records was fulfilled and he was a free agent.  After negotiations, he was eventually signed by EMI Records for a then-staggering $17.5 million.  This was a cause for major celebration, of course, until the inevitable thought process occurred:  He would have to deliver music capable of paying back at least the amount EMI had spent on him, which meant that he needed guaranteed hits.  Nile Rodgers, with Chic, had been responsible for some of the biggest singles of the late 1970s, and so he was tapped to come in and work his magic.

Bowie left the instruments alone, relegating himself to the role of being merely the singer on the album.  He brought songwriting demos to the studio and Rodgers rearranged them to his own particular vision (which was typically not how Bowie had originally envisioned them).  Much of the guitar work was handled by then-relatively unknown Texas bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan, who was approached after Bowie caught his mind-bending performance at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival.  Vaughan’s presence on the album makes for an oddly schizophrenic album, partly a dance-pop album of floor-fillers, and partly a cutting album of slippery blues guitar.  It was, for 1983, a weird sort of combination (unless you were ZZ Top, of course) but it worked exceedingly well.  The album sold scads, which did several things.  First, it launched the mainstream part of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s career; second, it got Nile Rodgers a great deal more production gigs; and third, it locked Bowie into a certain sound that he would maintain for the bulk of the Eighties, with diminishing returns.

Let’s Dance, taken on its own, is the bulls-eye of Bowie’s mercenary pop style.  The first half is wall-to-wall brilliance:  “Modern Love” has the sort of swing that pervaded Lodger, amped up and driven through the stratosphere; “China Girl” is slinky and exotic, with Bowie’s admonishment to “just you shut your mouth” being oddly exciting; “Let’s Dance” has found a home on every great alternative club-night playlist; “Without You” bounces along with an odd gait all it’s own.  The back half loses steam but remains deeply competent, bopping along with some of the best blues-dance tracks ever conceived.  It’s hard to consider it a Bowie album, per se, since a lot of the sound and strength of the album comes from other people, but vocally it’s not as though it weakens the man’s legend at all.  Far from it, in fact; his alien voice was at odds with what was considered commercially viable in the greater mainstream at the time, and it opened up the possibility of the weird becoming saleable.

davidbowietonight

Tonight

Released September 1st, 1984 on EMI Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #11 US

Singles:

Blue Jean” (#6 UK, #8 US)

Tonight” (#53 UK, #53 US)

Loving The Alien” (#19 UK)

Immediately following the wrap of the tour behind Let’s Dance, Bowie hit the studio and began the recording process for the next album, hoping to maintain his new mainstream audience and keep himself relevant in the pop world.  Tonight, as the album came to be called, was the second album in a row where Bowie played no instruments.  Eight of the nine songs were again brought into the studio as demos and mutated into the songs as they are presented in final form.  Hugh Padgham (who would produce Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, The Human League, and Sting) was brought into produce, although Iggy Pop would end up helping extensively in the studio as well.

Tonight is an album that has received some very scattered reviews over the years.  It’s not anywhere near as bad as contemporary critics would have you believe, and it’s an album that brings to mind some lines critics have used about him in the past.  Robert Christgau once called him “a habitue of prematurely abandoned modernist spaces” and “post-middlebrow”.  Reviews of Let’s Dance referred to it in places as being “post-disco”.  All of these are true of Tonight, only with regards to the sounds that Padgham used on it, it can be said that it was Bowie that prematurely abandoned them; the gated-reverb effect on the drums would go on to be a staple of AOR hits, especially by Phil Collins (whose “In The Air Tonight” would use it as the primary musical delivery system).  It’s post-disco nature is more easily discernible from a contemporary standpoint; the drums and bass remain in the pocket, while the arrangements go beyond the nightclub shuffle and cobble together a sort of ramshackle reggae tone.  “Don’t Look Down” is the best example of this tendency towards reggae, but its jagged rhythms show up to a greater or lesser extent on many of the tracks here.

The key difference between Let’s Dance and Tonight is the return of Carlos Alomar to playing guitar; the lack of Stevie Ray Vaughan means that the strangely appealing dance-blues combination of the former is missing in the latter.  Tonight papers over the top-notch guitar work with plastic pop synthesizer work and dollops of soul; while it works, on the whole, it doesn’t work anywhere near as well as Let’s Dance did.  In the end it comes across a fairly standard pop album for the mid-Eighties, albeit one where Bowie brings his own personality in to bring it up above the cut.

tumblr_mj2y15Xnlr1rrg6kro1_1280

Never Let Me Down

Released April 27th, 1987 on EMI Records

Peaked at #6 UK, #34 US

Singles:

Day-In Day-Out” (#17 UK, #21 US)

Time Will Crawl” (#33 UK)

Never Let Me Down” (#34 UK, #27 US)

After the middling commercial response and abysmal critical response to Tonight, Bowie returned the studio two years later to “return to the basics of rock ‘n’ roll” – small band, tight arrangements, and a more Scary Monsters set of experimentation.  He returned to playing instruments, laying down keyboards, rhythm guitar, and lead guitar as well as singing on everything.  He went in with songs that he felt strongly about, and a heady sense of experimentation that he’d really been lacking for seven years.

The result was incoherent and lackluster.  The songs did not come out the way they had been originally conceived in Bowie’s head.  By his own admission they were good songs that he “abused” in the studio.  Never Let Me Down tries to fire in every direction at once and misses the mark most of the time, allowing what are admittedly really good songs drown in indifferent production.  By 1993 Bowie admitted that this particular problem with Never Let Me Down was his fault; he’d tuned out of the recording process early on and left the production up to his assembled band, lending the affair a “session player” sort of vibe.  Thus, everything feels far more overproduced than is necessary.  The social justice cry of “Day In Day Out” and the topical intensity of “Time Will Crawl” are lost in the scars of dated Eighties instrumentation.  The epic nature of “Glass Spider” is muted due to the overdone drums, the sugary synths, and the ill-timed and oddly brief guitar solo.  A lot of the time, while listening to these songs, you can’t help but wonder what they’d sound like if the Bowie of Low or even Scary Monsters had recorded them.  The easiest way you can tell that Never Let Me Down is the nadir of his career, however, is that he let Mickey Rourke rap on it.

The (relatively) poor commercial showing of Never Let Me Down and the subsequent critical panning of the theatrical Glass Spider Tour nearly caused Bowie to give up on music for good.  By the end of 1987 he just wasn’t feeling it anymore.  It would take a return to loud, basic guitar rock dynamics (as he’d intended for Never Let Me Down) to bring him back into the artistic fold.

tmlp1

Tin Machine

Released May 22nd, 1989 on EMI Records

Peaked at #3 UK, #28 US

Singles:

Under The God” (#51 UK, #4 US Alternative)

Heaven’s In Here” (#12 US Alternative)

Tin Machine” (#48 UK)

Prisoner Of Love

Following the Glass Spider tour (a critical bust), Bowie was at the low point of his career.  Lower than the first David Bowie, even.  Trying to find his way to his own vision again, he fell in with guitarist Reeves Gabrels after hearing a tape of Gabrels’ playing.  At a wrap party for the Glass Spider tour, Bowie ran into Tony Sales, whom he had played with in the 1970s, along with Tony’s brother Hunt and Iggy Pop.  Tony and Hunt – the sons of comedy legend Soupy Sales – were roped into a new musical project along with Reeves Gabrels, the intent being to help all of them (but especially Bowie) find a new way forward in music.

From the beginning the band was a band – democratic input, everyone writing songs, no one letting David Bowie overshadow the proceedings.  Tin Machine, the first album from the new band, is unlike anything Bowie had done before.  There are elements of the past on it – inspirations from the likes of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton’s work with Cream, and Jimi Hendrix – but there is also more than a whiff of the present of 1989 in the sense that college rock (especially the legendary Pixies) were a big inspiration on the music.  The low-key, desert-night guitar notes in the chorus of “Prisoner Of Love” are a great example of a line that seems lifted wholesale from the brain of Joey Santiago.  The raw stomp of “Crack City” was inspired by the band’s recording sessions in Nassau, a city which was apparently awash in poverty and crack.

The real problem with Tin Machine is that it tries too hard to present a vision of “back-to-basics hard rock and roll”.  Part of this is the fact that it was made in 1989 and as such it suffers primarily from the overproduction of the time.  The guitars take up too much space in the mix, there’s too much time given to Bowie’s voice when it’s unnecessary, and the drums have that peculiar contemporary sound where they sound very loud and very flat at the same time.  The guitar solos that pop up are blues-riffs-by-number, like Gabrels decided to sketch out a regurgitated idea of what Stevie Ray Vaughan had been doing.  All of these problems come to a head on the ill-advised cover of “Working Class Hero”, which drags down the rest of the album sharply.  Still, “Bus Stop” and “Video Crimes” bring life back, saving the album from being a regrettable artifact of an earlier age.  Tin Machine is pretty hit-and-miss, but the important thing is that the band sounds like it’s having a lot of fun, and it put Bowie back on the right path as his career entered the 1990s.

dbowietinmachineii

Tin Machine II

Released September 2nd, 1991 on Victory Music

Peaked at #23 UK, #126 US

Singles:

You Belong In Rock ‘n’ Roll” (#33 UK)

Baby Universal” (#21 US Modern Rock)

One Shot” (#3 US Modern Rock)

Immediately better than Tin MachineTin Machine II dials back on the blare and the clatter and focuses on the good parts of the Bowie-Sales-Gabrels combination.  Take “Baby Universal” as the indicator for the entire album:  those quick-wrist drum fills would have been overbearing in 1989; by 1991, they had been set back into the mix so that their impact is felt rather than avoided.  Gabrels had spent the time between albums getting into Nine Inch Nails’ debut Pretty Hate Machine, and the influence is felt in subtle ways throughout.  There is less rote-blues riffing going on, and more creativity with how the guitar is presented as an instrument.  While the album outdid its predecessor in an artistic sense, it was in a more important sense a commercial failure, barely cracking the US charts (although “One Shot” was a minor hit on modern rock radio).  Tin Machine II would be the last album by the band after contemporary critics unfairly savaged the album and the public reaction never rose above tepid.  Still, the band did it’s job; two years later Bowie would resume his solo career in much better form than when he’d put it on hiatus.

bowieblacktiewhitenoise

 

Black Tie White Noise

Released April 5th, 1993 on Savage Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #39 US

Singles:

Jump They Say” (#9 UK)

Black Tie White Noise” (#36 UK)

Miracle Goodnight” (#40 UK)

David Bowie in 1987 was an artist who was spent.  Having released three albums that were wired to what he perceived the mainstream wanted, his artistic vision had taken a backseat to sales with increasingly poor results.  David Bowie in 1993 was a completely different animal.  Having spent some time bashing out hard rock basics with Tin Machine, and “retiring” his old hits on the 1990 Sound And Vision Tour, he was a clean slate ready to get back to what it meant to be “David Bowie”.  Black Tie White Noise is the first entry in that neo-Bowie canon, and its beginnings go back to 1991, when Bowie ran into Nile Rodgers after a Tin Machine show in New York.  Rodgers would be brought in to produce, but explicitly not to rehash Let’s Dance.  The idea they hatched was to take the ideas of house and R&B and reinject the melodicism of the 1960s into them.

This idea is more or less translated into reality.  “The Wedding”, kicking off the album, gives a mutated take on the machine-like relentlessness of the house beat, filtered through a wah-soaked saxophone-fueled Seventies haze.  “Black Tie White Noise” appropriates the syncopated beat and some of the instrumentation of New Jack Swing.  “Jump They Say” and “Nite Flights” have the clatter of classic rave drums, with squelching synthesizers and more of that saxophone.  Saxophone was actually the instrument Bowie chose to concentrate on for the album; despite the fact that he is not a “saxophonist” per se, his take on the instrument is interesting and fits well into the arrangements.  The jazz-fever bursts he spits out on “Jump They Say” is evidence of this:  it works very well in the context of the song despite the fact that he is untrained.  The sax is used as colour and texture, more so than as a display of technical virtuosity.  Also of note is the presence on guitar of Mick Ronson, who had been the guitarist for the Spiders From Mars; it would be the last album he would appear on, as he would die of cancer 19 days after the release of the album.

Much of the album is coloured by the fact that he had just been married; he and his wife (Somali supermodel Iman) were shopping for houses in Los Angeles on the day of the Rodney King verdict.  The experience of the subsequent riots gave rise to the title track, an examination of the difficulty in healing the wounds of the racial divides of America (a divide Bowie himself had noted as far back as Aladdin Sane).  Also like Aladdin Sane is the spiritual presence of his stepbrother Terry, who had been hospitalized for schizophrenia in the 1980s and had recently committed suicide.  The “divided nature of the mind” that had been Bowie’s philosophical impetus for Aladdin Sane had been inspired by Terry, and on Black Tie White Noise the songs “Jump They Say” and the cover of Cream’s “I Feel Free” were inspired by him as well.  “Jump They Say” was semi-biographical; “I Feel Free” stems back to a Cream show that Bowie had taken Terry to where his stepbrother had suffered a freakout during the song.  The bookend tracks – “The Wedding” and “The Wedding Song” – as well as the sax-blasted English rave of “Pallas Athena” were written as part of the wedding music he’d penned for his marriage to Iman.  The latter became a club hit in America after an anonymous remix was released.

Black Tie White Noise was the first to get the tag of “His best since Scary Monsters!” although it would not be the last.  Oddly, however, Bowie chose to release the album on Savage Records, a startup label that went bankrupt almost immediately; consequently, the album would be quickly out of print despite its #1 peak in the UK, and would remain so until reissues in the late 1990s.

5099950046454_600

 

 

The Buddha Of Suburbia

Released November 8th, 1993 on EMI Records

The Buddha Of Suburbia is a bit of a lost record in Bowie’s discography.  The problem is one of confusion.  In 1993 Bowie did the soundtrack to a four-episode BBC2 adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia.  After making the soundtrack, he decided to further explore the ideas he’d gotten into on the soundtrack on an album, which he decided he’d also call The Buddha Of Suburbia.  Despite the fact that the soundtrack and the album only share the title track in common, the album was categorized as a soundtrack and thus got no marketing or exposure.  Making matters even more confusing is the essentially soundtrack-like nature of the album.  There’s quite a few ambient moments that harken back to Bowie’s work with Brian Eno in the late 1970s.  Elsewhere there is a great deal of jazzy piano, electro-influenced drums, and strange, repetitive vocal filters (as on the excellent “Sex And The Church” or the rather dated “Bleed Like A Craze, Dad”).  “Strangers When We Meet” and “Dead Against It” are more pop-oriented tracks, the latter being an electronic-oriented dream pop song that would point the way towards where he would be heading for the rest of the decade.  Buddha isn’t an essential album by any means, but it is a neat bit of back catalog record-making, and it makes for a nice find when mining Bowie’s discography.

cover_40471919112009

 

Outside

Released September 26th, 1995 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #8 UK, #21 US

Singles:

The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” (#35 UK, #92 US)

Strangers When We Meet” (#39 UK)

Hallo Spaceboy” (#12 UK)

Outside marks the return of David Bowie to bizarre conceptual art-rock, as well as his return to working with Brian Eno.  Eno and Bowie reconnected at Bowie’s wedding when the two took turns playing their own music on the dancefloor.  After deciding to collaborate on an experimental album, they visited a mental institute in Austria and did some research on outsider art.  Using this as an inspiration, they dove into their own heads, utilized cut-up techniques a la what Bowie was doing in the late 1970s, and crafted a story about a dystopian 1999 where the latest fashionable craze in art was carefully arranged murder.  Nathan Adler, the protagonist of Outside, investigates the art-murder of 14 year old Baby Grace and delves into madness.

With the story as an anchor of sorts, it’s up to the music to keep things interesting, and in that Outside is sort of a mixed bag.  On one hand, Bowie melds his particular pop vision – something he’d been refining since the early 1980s – with the Berlin Trilogy ambient work and also with flourishes of electronic and industrial influences.  It’s no wonder that Trent Reznor remixed “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson”, as it seems tailor-made for him to do so.  The same could be said of the corrosive “Hallo Spaceboy”, but Pet Shop Boys beat him to it and remade it into a driven house epic.  The direction Bowie was heading in on Outside was one that seemed like a perfect fit for him; his odd nature, alien voice, and art-damaged sensibility made him a natural candidate for the acidic nature of industrial rock and the darker aspects of electronic dance music.  On the other hand, Outside is, at 75 minutes, far too long to be effective.  Bowie knew it at the time, stating after its release that he really should have made it two albums.  The segues and story-driving interludes become a slog after a while, and tracks like “The Motel” seem to be dragged out for too long in the ambient portions before the harder-hitting bits kick in.  So while it works as an interesting concept, and it contains a number of great songs that point to Bowie’s continuing comeback into critical good graces, it’s too long to be considered a truly great album.

bf87ec51c6e5df18c321086b38d07076.944x947x1

 

Earthling

Released February 3rd, 1997 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #6 UK, #39 US

Singles:

Telling Lies

Little Wonder” (#14 UK)

Dead Man Walking” (#32 UK)

Seven Years In Tibet

I’m Afraid Of Americans” (#66 US)

After Outside, Bowie had plans to make an album per year until the year 2000, talking about the unprecedented opportunity to document the end of the millennium.  Despite his initial enthusiasm for the idea, nothing of the sort ever emerged; the reality of having to carry the storyline of Outside for another five years perhaps relegated this idea to the bin of “Good, But Impractical”.  Instead, following a 1995 tour with Nine Inch Nails, Bowie followed it up with Earthling, a galvanizing record that found him ditching the contrived concepts and embracing both the industrial noise-pop he’d been interested in and the jungle and drum n bass sounds that were permeating the English dance scene by the latter half of the Nineties.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Earthling is that Bowie produced it himself, his first such effort since Diamond Dogs.  Unlike Diamond DogsEarthling is really quite good.  Bowie gets the textural possibilities behind clattering breakbeats in the same way that Black Tie White Noise showed he got the idea behind the saxophone, if not the technical virtuosity.  His adherence to the styles he was mining went beyond mere sampling, as well; drummer Zac Alford worked out all of the loops heard on the record, and his drum tracks were then sped up to DnB speeds and chopped.  His obvious fascination with the musical forms that he plays with here also led him to pen some of the strongest melodies he’d had in years (tellingly, Rolling Stone would refer to the album as “his best since Scary Monsters).  Unlike the atmospheric drudgery of OutsideEarthling is full of songs that sound like David Bowie, in a way that he hadn’t in nearly two decades.  Every song hits hard and sticks like the first half of Let’s Dance, but unlike that album the second half doesn’t flag.  Instead, “I’m Afraid Of Americans” waits near the end of the album to trip up the unwary listener who thinks they’ve got the album figured out.

As a fifteen year old in 1997 with more than a passing interest in Nine Inch Nails and groups like the Prodigy, the Lost Highway soundtrack was something that was in my collection.  The entry point was, of course, Trent Reznor’s “The Perfect Drug”, but the highlight was this stomping industrial number called “I’m Afraid Of Americans” by a guy we’d really only been aware of as a presence on the classic rock channels our parents glued the radio to in the car.  It was my first impression of Bowie as an artist, rather than as the guy who sang “Suffragette City”.

Also of note on Earthlings is Bowie’s embrace of the art of the remix; the extended version collects all of the disparate remixes of the singles, among them Junior Vasquez, Moby, and Trent Reznor.  The single “Telling Lies” was originally released to be remixed before the album came out; it was made available on Bowie’s website, a move that made history.  “Telling Lies” was the first single by a major mainstream artist that was made available for download on the internet, and Bowie would continue this pioneering spirit into his next album.

bowie-hours

‘hours…’

Released September 21st, 1999 on Virgin Records

Peaked at #5 UK, #47 US

Singles:

Thursday’s Child” (#16 UK)

The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell

Survive

Seven

‘hours…’ is the exact opposite of Earthling.  It suffers from the same problems that a lot of contemporary albums had:  the soggy, saccharine strings, the rote drum-machine patterns that everyone used, the sub-Matchbox 20 guitar work (seriously, check out the beginning of “If I’m Dreaming My Life” and tell me you don’t think Rob Thomas is going to come busting out of it).  Bowie sounds tired on it, his voice lagging and stretching out unnecessarily over a series of samey, adult-contemporary arrangements.  While it’s not “embarrassing”, as Ryan Schreiber put it (Ryan Schreiber, for whom anything that’s not hip in Brooklyn is embarrassing), it is distressingly boring, something that Bowie has never really been throughout the course of his career.

There are some highlights, of course.  “Seven” is a good ballad in the vein of early pre-Spiders Bowie – it would likely have fit comfortably on Hunky Dory.  It also smartly avoids the contemporary Robbie Williams pop tropes that mar a great deal of the record.  “What’s Really Happening” features a melodic tease and a throwback to something like what might have been a solid track on The Man Who Sold The World.  “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” almost reclaims the energy and excitement of Earthling, but Bowie’s voice comes across as too obscured and the squealing guitar lines seem more of an anachronism, something more Tin Machine than David Bowie at the end of the 20th Century.

In the end ‘hours…’ is really only notable for being the first album by a major artist available for purchase and download online.  It was released digitally on the date noted above, two weeks before the physical CD was available.

mzi.fruuucdj.600x600-75

Heathen

Released June 11th, 2002 on ISO/Columbia Records

Peaked at #5 UK, #14 US

Singles:

Slow Burn

Everyone Says Hi” (#20 UK)

I’ve Been Waiting For You

David Bowie’s first foray into the 21st Century found him accepting the process of aging and focusing more on the degradation of the human race than on the degradation of himself.  If ‘hours…’ interminable Millenium-scarred slog was an examination of the exhaustion that Bowie felt by the end of the Nineties, Heathen finds him waking up in the evening, somewhat refreshed but feeling a little spacey despite it.  “Sunday” and “Slip Away” deal with the fear of aging; “Slow Burn” and “A Better Future” draw inspiration from the events of 9/11.  Heathen, at the time of its release, was talked up as “Bowie’s response to 9/11”, but this is inaccurate in that most of the album was recorded before September of 2001.  “Afraid”, “I Would Be Your Slave”, “5.15 The Angels Have Gone”, and “Everyone Says Hi” are more about trying to find the threads of the past in the muddle of the present than they are about dealing with the aftermath of a terrorist attack on America.  The three covers are rather interesting:  “Cactus”, a Pixies song about obsession, “I’ve Been Waiting For You”, a Neil Young song from his self-titled debut that Bowie recorded with Dave Grohl playing guitar; and “I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship”, originally by The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, an outsider-art musician that had been a direct influence on the Ziggy Stardust character.

Musically, Heathen marks the return of Tony Visconti to producing, which he hadn’t done for Bowie since Scary Monsters.  As such, the backing tracks are elegant, subtle, and well-constructed, allowing the focus to be on Bowie’s songs rather than on any particular musical style.  AllMusic, naturally, called it “his best since Scary Monsters“.  It doesn’t sound like any particular Bowie album but it contains fragments of his older music.  The problem here is that the originals start to sound similar after a while:  strings, subtle guitar, understated drum work, and Bowie lingering over each line like a regretful European chanteuse (which is almost assuredly what he was going for).  Individually that makes for a fine listening experience; taken as a total it gets to be a bit much.

2003_reality_cvr_fix_800sq

Reality

Released September 16th, 2003 on ISO/Columbia Records

Peaked at #3 UK, #29 US

Singles:

New Killer Star

Pablo Picasso

Never Get Old

Work on Reality began as production for Heathen was being wrapped up, as he was once again in one of those periods where the writing was coming fast and furious.  It’s also immediately more energetic than the lingering death-dream of Heathen; “New Killer Star” kicks off with a relentless, elastic guitar figure and a slinky nature that Bowie had been missing since the Eighties.  “Never Get Old” flips the script on the obsession with mortality that Bowie had been labouring under since the end of the Nineties; “Looking For Water” has a serious stomp to it; “Fall Dog Bombs The Moon” brings the calendar back to the late 1970s like something from Heroes.  To back up this newfound vigour, Bowie spins out themes of “post-philosophy”:  the recognition that the truths of the path are fading and that the new truths of the modern age have yet to be fully discovered and understood.  Politics is moving beyond rational grounding and knowledge is no longer the currency of the greater public discourse.  Reality manages to seem adventurous while being rooted deeply in Bowie’s past, and it makes the case that the Bowie/Visconti pairing was really the best of his many partnerships.

Predictably, the BBC referred to it as “his best since Scary Monsters“.

David Bowie's The Next Day

The Next Day

Released March 8th, 2013 on ISO/Columbia Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #2 US

Singles:

Where Are We Now?” (#6 UK)

The Stars (Are Out Tonight)

The Next Day

Valentine’s Day

Love Is Lost

For ten years there was nothing, and in general it was thought that Bowie had quietly retired.  After all, he’d suffered a heart attack on stage during the Reality Tour and had been forced to cancel the remaining 14 dates.  Since then he’d spent his time recording vocals as backing for other people, performing short one-off dates, and keeping on the whole fairly quiet.  Some time around 2010, however, Bowie and Tony Visconti got back into the studio.  It was kept ultra-secret, to the point of requiring anyone coming into the studio to work with him to sign non-disclosure agreements.  During one recording session at NYC’s The Magic Shop in 2011, Emily Haines of Metric apparently showed up unannounced wanting to check out the studio and very nearly got in; she was turned away with no explanation.

Here’s the thing about The Next Day, though:  Bowie has always had a flair for the theatrical, but there haven’t been that many moments since 1980 that have warranted that theatricality.  Let’s Dance was a better album than it perhaps had a right to be, Earthling was a near-perfect amalgam of Bowie and the electronic underground, and Reality was really quite good, but it’s not until The Next Day that Bowie’s later career brings an album that matches the sort of quality that the end of the first half of his career gave us.  The Next Day feels like Bowie leapt from Heroes  straight to 2013, skipping the intervening years – musically, at any rate.  While it lacks the deeply unsettling edge that 1977 had, it feels as comfortable and familiar as that year does from the remote perspective of the first quarter of the 21st Century.  Even the album art seems to indicate this leap:  it’s the cover of Heroes, with “Heroes” crossed out and a big white square labeled “The Next Day” slapped over top.  If there’s a clearer sign that Bowie was looking to get back into the mindset of where he’d been in the late 1970s, I fail to understand what it could be.

It doesn’t always work, of course.  “Boss Of Me” feels too cutesy for words, despite it’s swirling arrangement; “Dancing Out In Space” tries for the same dramatic abandon that colours “Boys Keep Swinging” and largely fails.  Still, at least half of the album is excellent and the other half is strong; there are no truly bad moments on The Next Day unlike nearly every album since Let’s Dance. There is the ghost of the drag that mired parts of Heathen, but it’s dressed up in such stellar retro clothing that it’s more ghostly than insipid.  It’s the strongest record of Bowie’s late-career renaissance – combining the fervor of his old self with the more refined sensibilities of his new self.  The man may have turned 66 the day he announced the album, and he may have spent the fifteen years previous dreading growing old, but when it comes to The Next Day, age is nothing but a number and David Bowie is forever.

 

David Bowie’s 26th album, Blackstar, will be released January 8th, 2016 on ISO/RCA/Columbia

 

A Lad Insane: A Guide To David Bowie, Part One

Standard

There is a song on Built To Spill’s debut album There’s Nothing Wrong With Love that contains the lines “My stepfather looks just like David Bowie / But he hates David Bowie / I think Bowie’s cool / I think Lodger rules, my stepdad’s a fool”.  It is this piece (from “Distopian Dream Girl”, for those keeping track at home) that drives a fundamental truth home about Bowie:  he’s always been a divisive figure, never more so than in the beginning of his career.  Of course a stepdad wouldn’t like Bowie.  Think about the connotations of “stepdad”.  This is a guy that comes along after your parents divorce or your dad dies/runs away and starts fucking your mom and telling you what to do.  He probably hates getting interrupted watching football and thinks that Lynyrd Skynyrd is the best example of rock ‘n’ roll he can name.  He votes for assholes because he strongly resembles them.  Meanwhile, you’ve got this alien, weird, gender-bending musician you think is the epitome of a rock star, and Stepdad thinks that rock stars should be just like him, drinking beer and chasing tail on a Saturday night.

When Bowie was getting big in the States, Southern rock and Zeppelin-inspired hard rock were what the football team was listening to; the mainstream wasn’t sure what to make of this costumed, theatrical artiste out of England.  Sure, the Beatles and the Who made rock ‘n’ roll safe for artistry and concept, but this was a step beyond.  This was a rock star who looked like a drama geek and shared a lot of similarities with them.  So while Joe Longhair might have thought that “Suffragette City” was a decent tune on the radio, it was up to the younger set – the post-hippies – to get fully into what Bowie was selling in the early 1970s.  Glam – eyeliner, stars painted on your face, stylish clothing, drama – was what set the kids of the early 1970s apart from the kids banging their heads to Sabbath and smoking joints in the bathroom at school.  Bowie brought theatrical glam to the rock ‘n’ roll world, presaging the 1980s by a comfortable margin.

Bowie’s musical tendencies were obvious from an early age.  In his childhood he showed above-average skill with the recorder and a grasp of movement that was well beyond his peers.  In his early teens he took up the ukulele and, like so many English teenagers of his generation, got into American rock ‘n’ roll bands and English skiffle music.  When the Beatles et al. popularized English versions of rock ‘n’ roll, he took up the cause, looking to provide a lean ‘n’ mean rock singer figure, much like Mick Jagger.  He bounced back and forth amongst a number of groups, growing disillusioned with the pedestrian ambitions and staid repertories of each.  He told his parents that he was going to be a rock musician; his parents told him that he was going to be an electrician.  How much of modern music would be completely different had his parents gotten their way?

As he bounced from band to band, looking for a leg up, he kept an eye out for someone to fulfill the manager role that Brian Epstein provided for The Beatles.  He finally found it in Leslie Conn, who managed him through three failed singles:  “Liza Jane” with the King Bees, “I Pity The Fool” with The Manish Boys (featuring Jimmy Page with a blistering guitar solo), and “You’ve Got A Habit Of Leaving” with the Lower Third.  Conn’s contract was over after the last single and Bowie soon found himself picked up by Ralph Horton, who oversaw Bowie’s move to The Buzz, whose single “Do Anything You Say” was also a flop.  After, Horton helped move Bowie to another band called The Riot Squad, who never released a single.  Ken Pitt, an associate of Horton’s, took over as Bowie’s manager just as he decided to take his act solo.

Up until 1967 Bowie had been going by the stage name of Davy Jones.  Since this was by and large a piss-poor stage name (as well as one shared by bona fide star Davy Jones of the Monkees) he decided to name himself after an American, the Texas frontiersman and knife enthusiast Jim Bowie.  New name in hand, he marched forward to record his first solo album.

1967 David Bowie CD1 (Deluxe Edition CD 2010)Front Case

David Bowie

Released June 1st, 1967 on Deram Records

Before there was the Thin White Duke, before the Man Who Sold The World, before Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, there was David Bowie, music hall fop.

Released on the same day as Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, David Bowie’s first album was a crushing flop.  Part of the problem with it was, at the orders of manager Ken Pitt, it offered a little something to everyone and substance to no one.  The influences heard on David Bowie range wildly, from vaudeville and music hall to the more childlike and whimsical moments of Ray Davies and Syd Barrett.  Worst of all is the strong streak of flammy nonsense running through it, the sort of English novelty-pop that informed such execrable singles as “Henry VIII” and the Beatles’ “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!”.  That it failed should surprise precisely no one.  “Uncle Arthur” is a direct rip-off of The Kinks, “The Laughing Gnome”, with its sped-up vocals and novelty vibe, was a horrible choice as a lead single (like every previous single Bowie had a hand in, it failed), “Rubber Band” showed some promise but the tuba arrangements were amateur at best.  “Love You Til Tuesday” – which features him comparing himself to the man in the moon – is probably the worst song on the album, but it’s a photo finish either way.  That said, “Join The Gang” is a decent enough tune, although the anti-drug message pales a bit when you consider the rest of the man’s career.

David Bowie would virtually kill his career for at least two years, and when he came back to the recording world it was a much different affair.

81fEE9ZL2pL._SL1300_

David Bowie / Man of Words/ Man of Music / Space Oddity

Released November 4th, 1969 on Phillips Records (UK) and Mercury Records (US)

Peaked at #17 UK, (1972 rerelease) and #16 US (1973)

Singles:

Space Oddity” (#5 UK, #124 US)

Memory Of A Free Festival

After failing to cause a stir with his 1967 debut, Bowie left music to study dance and mime under Lindsay Kemp.  Kemp lived a theatrical, Bohemian type of existence and it proved to be a major influence on 20 year old David Bowie.  Studying the avant-garde, Bowie learned to develop who he was on the inside and project it on the outside – lessons that became very obviously ingrained.  Through Kemp he met another artistic youth named Hermione Farthingale; the two would shack up and form an acoustic folk trio that played in London between 1968 and 1969. During the interregnum between self-titled albums, Bowie filmed a commercial for Lyons Maid and found some backers to produce a film called Love You Til Tuesday, which would feature Bowie’s music.  He also had a brief “silly flirtation” with heroin in 1968, a period that would both haunt and inform the breakthrough that was around the corner.  Early in 1969 Bowie contacted the producers of Love You Til Tuesday and told them he’d written a new song they could feature in the film.  The song, which would be released as a single on July 11th, 1969 – five days before Apollo 11 would land on the moon – was “Space Oddity”, an eerie tune wherein astronaut Major Tom (alleged junkie) found himself confronting the bizarre in outer space.  It would shoot up to #5 on the UK charts and provide the impetus to record a second album, which would originally be released with the do-over title of David Bowie (released in the U.S. as Man of Words / Man of Music).

The rest of the album would be hit and miss for the most part, although it was much more coherent than David Bowie circa 1967.  “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” is a riot, a wild harmonica-driven tribute to Bob Dylan; “Cygnet Committee” was a prelude to the days of Ziggy Stardust, in that it was about a messianic character that broke down barriers for his followers only to have them turn on him (Bowie explained at the time that it was a put-down of the hippies); “Janine” showed Kemp’s influence in its obsession with character and persona.  The two songs written for Farthingale seem too restrained, on the other hand; both “Letter To Hermione” and “An Occasional Dream” are oddly uncomfortable, and only average psychedelic folk songs at that.  Bowie broke up with Farthingale in early 1969; by the time of the album’s release he would be dating Angela Barnett, who would later become his first wife.  The second half of the album is more miss, harkening back to his 1967 sound and tempering it with light psych-folk.  “Memory Of A Free Festival”, an homage to the arts festival put on by his Beckenham Art Lab, is the best of the lot but tends to meander quite a bit.  On the whole, however, the album did its job: it got people to notice David Bowie, and it would give him a leg up towards his next album – his first real classic.

81iq05C37SL._SL1300_

The Man Who Sold The World

Released November 4th, 1970 on Mercury Records

Peaked at #26 UK (1972 rerelease) and #105 US

Before the recording of The Man Who Sold The World Bowie married his girlfriend Angela Barnett.  He then took a good look at his status as a “solo” artist, realized that he hated working with session musicians (especially his session guitarist, T.Rex founder and future glam rival Marc Bolan), and set about putting together an actual band.  This band ended up being producer Tony Visconti playing bass, Mick Ronson on guitar, and (after some studio kerfuffles with one drummer) Mick Woodmansey as the drummer.  They tried calling themselves The Hype at first, but ditched it after one gig to just keep the name David Bowie.

The studio sessions for the album were mainly Visconti, Ronson, and Woodmansey jamming.  Bowie was preoccupied with being married and would merely give thumbs up or thumbs down to the jams as they began to coalesce into songs.  Once the songs were arranged, Bowie would get up from his position on the couch with his wife and rattle off a vocal with some lyrics he’d been working on during the sessions.  Bowie claims he had more input than that (especially on the chord structures) and given the next few albums he’s probably right, but his biographer says a different thing, so who knows?  Regardless of who did what, the album represented a break from the fey psychedelic folk troubadour he’d presented in 1969.  David Bowie circa 1970 was all about the burgeoning hard rock scene, seeming to take cues from the beginnings of heavy metal:  pounding drums, scorching guitar leads, and a decided lack of hippie trippiness.  “All The Madmen” seemed to be about Jimmy Page’s favourite English sorcerer, Alestair Crowley; “The Supermen” touched on Nietzsche; “Running Gun Blues” did Vietnam War disillusionment better than most American bands; “Saviour Machine” took its lead from HAL/prophecized Skynet, depending on who you ask.  The title track would end up being the most famous, having been covered by Lulu in 1974 and (more obviously) Nirvana in 1994.

It was cutting edge in 1970 and it got a lot of younger musicians thinking.  While other albums went on to become bigger draws in the Bowie catalogue, The Man Who Sold The World was paranoid, schizophrenic, and futuristic, leading it to be a major influence on the darkwave and goth movements ten years later.  It is the first Bowie album that sounds specifically like Bowie, and as such it can be considered the first “real” album in his career.

81cYxn16AkL._SL1300_

Hunky Dory

Released December 17th, 1971 on RCA Records

Peaked at #3 UK (1972), #93 US (1975)

Singles:

Changes” (#66 US, 1972)

Life On Mars?” (#3 UK, 1973)

On Hunky Dory Bowie lightened the hard rock but kept the chord changes.  Instead of the rather monolithic sound of The Man Who Sold The World, the proceedings here are characterized by a wide array of pop sounds:  the piano bounce of “Changes”, the multi-part odyssey of “Life On Mars?”, the slow dance of “Song For Bob Dylan”, and of course the hard-charging guitars of “Queen Bitch”.  It would be a further exploration of personas, with Bowie taking on the conceit that he was “the actor” playing a multitude of roles throughout; lyrically it would deal with the shifting nature of artistic reinvention (“Changes”), further his fascination with the predictions of Nietzsche (“Oh! You Pretty Things”) and pay homage to his newborn son Duncan “Zowie” Bowie (“Kooks”).  “Changes” would be the most famous track off of the album in the end, and would provide the famous pre-film quote for John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club (“And these children that you spit on…”).  Lines from “Life On Mars?” would be quoted on Bush’s “Everything Zen” (“Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow”).

Hunky Dory returns to the sort of fey pop sounds that he had originally put on David Bowie but tempered with the sort of hard rock and odd chordings that he experimented with on The Man Who Sold The World.  Like his other albums, it didn’t sell particularly well, but through each of them his audience continued to grow.  By the time Hunky Dory had been absorbed, it became obvious to Bowie that there was budding support for him, and that it would really just take one sort of knockout punch to deliver him to the widescreen masses.  As it would turn out, that knockout was already gestating in Bowie’s head.  During promotional tours for The Man Who Sold The World in the U.S., he had become obsessed with androgyny, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed, as well as the idea of creating a fictional rock star that would resemble someone who just arrived on Earth from Mars.  This character, talked about with friends and scrawled on napkins, would be called either Iggy or Ziggy.

04

The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars

Released June 6th, 1972 on RCA Records

Peaked at #5 UK, #75 US

Singles:

Starman” (#10 UK, #65 US)

Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” (#22 UK)

Suffragette City

The theatrical wig-wearing and pop kaleidoscope of Hunky Dory.  The rock ‘n’ roll sensibilities of The Man Who Sold The World.  The spacey acidity of David Bowie.  It all came together in 1972 for The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, widely considered one of the best albums ever made.

And why not?  It was pure Bowie at the height of his glam-rock powers, a flamboyant rock star of ambiguous sexuality that had all the kids in his pocket.  Let the dour stoners have their Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon.  The kids whose soul yearned for the stage had their very own cultural touchstone, a whirlwind of rock operatics, loud guitars, orchestrated arrangements, and Bowie’s keening, adenoidal voice.  It’s impossible to point to a song that’s even less than stellar, and combined with the cult of personality that developed around the character of ZIggy Stardust, it changed the perception of what constituted a “rock star” forever.

Yet, underneath, it’s David Bowie.  Ziggy was a cross-dressing bisexual space alien because, at the heart of it, so was Bowie in 1972.  Ziggy came to Earth bearing the message of the alien Infinites to spread a message of hope and love after it turned out that Earth had five years to live after the resources ran out.  Eventually his own venal sins catch up with him, and he’s destroyed by the very kids he came to save.  It’s good sci-fi fun, of course, but it’s also a very pointed examination of the nature of rock ‘n’ roll fame and the way it chews up and spits out its stars.  That Bowie himself very nearly ended up mired in this fate only five years later should not be overlooked.

The character himself had a number of inspirations.  Originally a vague amalgamation of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, Ziggy achieved greater solidity when Bowie met Vince Taylor of The Playboys.  Taylor, following a drug-fueled nervous breakdown, told Bowie that he believed himself to be a cross between a god and an alien – and thus, the kernel of the Ziggy Stardust story was born.  The costumes of Ziggy, however, were a cross between Japanese designer Kansai Yamamoto and Texas outsider-weirdo The Legendary Stardust Cowboy:  glitter, makeup, hair dye, and wild colours, or what every rock star would look like by the mid-1980s.

The album would prove to be a massive hit in the UK, hitting #5 and staying on the charts for two years.  While it wouldn’t chart quite as high in America, Bowie’s 1972 Stateside tour would win him legions of fans and inspire the next chapter in Bowie’s exploration of personas.

aladdin_sane

Aladdin Sane

Released April 13th, 1973 on RCA Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #17 U.S.

Singles:

The Jean Genie” (#2 UK, #71 US)

Drive-In Saturday” (#3 UK)

Time

Let’s Spend The Night Together

Aladdin Sane (“A Lad Insane”) is entirely about the duality of the mind, represented right from the beginning by the glittery red lightning bolt running down Bowie’s face on the cover.  The idea sprang from Bowie’s 1972 American tour, where he became alternately fascinated and repelled by the lifestyle he saw on display there.  On one had, the glittering opulence of American cities and the sheer variety of people to be found therein is, in itself, a shining light in the darkness of history; America is not just the City on the Hill, it’s a collection of brilliantly glittering Cities on one vast Hill.  On the other hand, the ugliness, racism, poverty, and constant drug use must have been fascinatingly disgusting.  Bowie himself said that it stemmed from a simultaneous desire to be on the stage performing and to be away from the weirdos he was forced to share a tour bus with.  He would also claim that the schizophrenia lurking behind the songs was because his brother Terry had recently been diagnosed as schizophrenic.

Still, the American influence is undeniable.  This is an album of hard, flashy riff-rock, with strong streaks of doo wop, early rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and the post-British Rolling Stones (whose seminal “Let’s Spend The Night Together” is covered in typically balls-out fashion).  The British press cried that he was selling out, with NME going so far as to call the album “oddly unsatisfying”.  There’s a little something to this, mind you; some of the songs feel rushed, with muddy mixes on “Panic In Detroit” and “The Prettiest Star” and, on “Drive-In Saturday”, an embrace of 1950s Americana that seemed a trifle too enthusiastic.  That said, when the blues riff of “The Jean Genie” drops in, it no longer matters; if Bowie was going to embrace America, he was going to do it with confidence and aplomb.

51IPyLxg6cL

Pin Ups

Released October 19th, 1973 on RCA Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #23 US

Singles:

Sorrow” (#3 UK)

Bowie’s last album with the Ziggy Stardust band would be a covers album, an homage to the 1960s English bands that he was a semi-contemporary of in the days when he was putting on a Kinks-lite music hall show.  While Bowie’s penchant for covers showed up here and there in his recordings (notably “Let’s Spend The Night Together” on Aladdin Sane) an entire album’s worth of them sticks out like a purple firetruck.  They’re all perfectly competent covers, but they’re either too slow or too inappropriately glam to have a long lasting impact.  They’re raucous, but Bowie and Co. don’t do much with them beyond playing them loud and loose.  That’s fine and all, don’t get me wrong, but his later career covers – covers of American bands, as opposed to the British Invasion bands represented here – put a unique spin on the songs that is largely missing on Pin Ups.  It’s good fun, but largely inessential.

Diamond Dogs front.tif

Diamond Dogs

Released May 24th, 1974 on RCA Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #5 US

Singles:

Rebel Rebel” (#5 UK, #64 US)

Diamond Dogs” (#21 UK)

1984

After a trip through celebrating America and covering a by-then long-gone Britain, Bowie returned to the trappings of the high-concept theatre album for his last glam outing.  “Glam”, even, is a bit of a misnomer, as much of the album presages the funk and soul influences that would pepper his next two efforts.  Diamond Dogs began life as an attempt at a theatrical production of George Orwell’s 1984; after the Orwell Estate denied Bowie the use of the novel for the production, Bowie merged the songs into his own post-apocalyptic extravaganza.  The main character of Diamond Dogs is Halloween Jack, who hangs around with a gang called the Diamond Dogs in the future wasteland of Hunger City.  The Diamond Dogs – a bunch of half-starved thugs with oddly coloured hair who bummed around scavenging food and dodging the nihilism of their decayed urban existence – came to shocking life three years later when the punk movement became a thing; Bowie would later describe them as a “bunch of Johnny Rottens and Sid Viciouses”.

While the concept is interesting and bleak, Bowie broke up the Spiders From Mars band before he got into recording the album, and it shows.  The arrangements are all over the place, the inclusion of theatrical pieces like “1984” with more straightforward glam tracks like “Rebel Rebel’ is more jarring than it had been on Aladdin Sane, and the story doesn’t really get fleshed out much.  “Sweet Thing” is a good example of this, as Bowie decided to use the Burroughs cut-up method with the lyrics, completely obscuring any meaning that might have been gleaned from it.  Bowie’s decision to replace the lead guitar lines of Mick Ronson with his own playing produces mixed results; the scratchy sound he creates is interesting, but on the whole it feels rather amateur, especially considering the level his career had achieved by 1974.  In the end, Diamond Dogs is notable only for two things:  “Rebel Rebel” and the original gatefold, where the mutant Bowie-dog showed off a really gigantic penis.

David_Bowie-David_Live-Frontal

David Live

Released October 29th, 1974 on RCA Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #5 US

Singles:

Knock On Wood” (#10 UK)

Like the album says, Bowie’s live album was recorded in a Philadelphia suburb in July of 1974.  It was a snapshot of the Diamond Dogs Tour, which would also be filmed and later released as the documentary Cracked Actor.  The film shows the whole story, but you can use the cover of David Live to get approximately the same effect.  The cover and film show David Bowie as being nearly a ghoul:  too thin, too pale, one step away from breaking in two.  Bowie himself has joked that the title of the album should have been David Bowie Is Alive And Well And Living Only In Theory.  Part of it was the exhaustion from doing six albums – and six tours – in six years.  Part of it was the fact that Bowie’s heavy recreational cocaine use had deepened into an addiction, one which would become legendary and not peak for another three years.  The strain is obvious on the recordings as well.  The band he assembled for the American tour in the last half of 1974 is obviously competent, but they’re hampered by Bowie’s over-enthusiastic rearrangements of his older material and by the apparent exhaustion and strain in his voice.  The juxtaposition of the Diamond Dogs material with his older songs also shows how mediocre they are by comparison; “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing – Reprise” is a big boring eight-and-a-half minute blob before a run of great (but somewhat shoddily performed) songs.  The serrated-vocal effect on “Diamond Dogs” sounds somehow even worse live, and “Rock and Roll With Me” just sounds uninspired.  As an effort to capture the live show of David Bowie, it’s a failure.  As a line use to demarcate the glam period from the plastic soul period that would come next, it’s a success.  The second half of the Diamond Dogs Tour, the half that comes after this recording, would see Bowie incorporating increasing amounts of soul music into his show, a move that would continue with his next album.

david-bowie-young-americans-600x-

 

Young Americans

Released March 7th, 1975 on EMI Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #9 US

Singles:

Young Americans” (#18 UK, #28 US)

Fame” (#17 UK, #1 US)

The break in the Diamond Dogs Tour was spent in Philadelphia working on new material.  While there, the drugged-out and exhausted Bowie found a new appreciation for black American music, particularly soul and funk.  This appreciation carried through on the second half of his tour, but it really came through in the recording sessions in Philadelphia, the bulk of which became Young Americans.

For Bowie, Young Americans was a massive step away from where he’d been for his career.  He dropped the glam-rock trappings and picked up lush string arrangements, horns that sounded like the nighttime streets, saxophones that cut sharply through the mix, hi-hats like the rustle of a woman’s dress in the night clubs, and rhythms that were like slow, soulful sex.  “Win” is a sex jam the likes of which one would never have expected out of Ziggy Stardust; “Fascination” struts with the sort of funk no translucent Englishman should have ever attempted, but it works oddly well; “Young Americans” is the sound of just such, the youth on the street shuffling by the bright neon lights of the Empire as it stood on the edge of decline; “Somebody Up There Likes Me” rides a solid groove into sax-drenched bliss and features Bowie really giving his voice a workout in the lower registers.  “Fame” was the big hit, though, giving Bowie his first #1 in America, and deservedly so: it’s a the ultimate in “plastic soul”, a term he stole from the 1960s to describe the phase he was in.

The raw, sex-jam sound he found on Young Americans is largely the result of playing everything live in the studio, with as few overdubs as he could get away with.  To help with this, he recruited a number of local Philadelphia soul musicians, including Luther Vandross, Sly Stone drummer Andy Newmark, and Carlos Alomar, whom he would spend another three decades working with.  It was a visceral and overall American sound, and while Bowie would go on to really perfect his take on black music on his next album, Young Americans is a fine album that rings loudly with the sound of a vibrant artist discovering a deep and abiding love for a musical form for the first time.

71AMEK3oV1L._SL1500_

Station To Station

Released January 23rd, 1976 on RCA Records

Peaked at #5 UK, #3 US

Singles:

Golden Years” (#8 UK, #10 US)

TVC-15” (#33 UK)

Stay

Station To Station is the introduction of the last of Bowie’s persona-glamours, the Thin White Duke.  A hollow, empty man who nonetheless sings with the passion of the sun, the Thin White Duke is a Nietzschian superman, an amoral European aristocrat with an interest in love songs and crypto-fascist symbolism.  He is, without a doubt, the direct result of what was by the middle of 1975 a crippling addiction to cocaine.

The album was recorded in Los Angeles amidst a blizzard of coke, during a time when Bowie had been reduced to a skeleton of his former physical self and his mind had been twisted to the point where he was largely incoherent.  Drug-induced paranoia kept him indoors, where he lived on peppers and milk and hid from semen-stealing witches, spirits summoned through black magic, and Jimmy Page.  He was at the time of the creation of the Thin White Duke engaged in filming The Man Who Fell To Earth, a movie he was starring in and ostensibly making the soundtrack for (although it would later turn out that he was not to make the soundtrack, and at Bowie’s request John Phillips would compose it instead).  The recording sessions for Station To Station were cut over the course of a quick ten days, so that Bowie could begin working on the soundtrack that wasn’t to be.  The nature of Bowie’s mental state during the recording was such that he has virtually no memory of the sessions, and has been quoted as saying that the only reason he knew it was done in L.A. was because someone had told him.  Later, during the promotional tour for the album, his coke-blasted mental state would become readily apparent not only from his emaciated appearance but also from an infamous 1976 BBC interview given as news broke about the death of Spanish fascist dictator General Franco wherein Bowie makes absolutely no coherent sense at all.

Yet, somehow despite the deluge of drugs and the paranoia and insanity they caused, Station To Station remains one of Bowie’s finest efforts, an album that was at once wildly experimental and effortlessly listenable.  On Young Americans Bowie presented a straight-on take on American black music.  Here, he tempered this love of soul and funk with a newfound fascination with German prog – motorik beats and Krautrock, the sounds of Can, Neu! and early Kraftwerk.  The recording sessions, according to Carlos Alomar, were less driven by coke than by inspiration, and the prodigious coke use was the result of needing to keep up with the inspiration.  “Station To Station” begins with a cold, nearly emotionless introduction to the character and ends up being one of the funkiest, most party-ready ten-minute tracks of the 1970s.  “Golden Years” is a rougher, more aggressive take on the wah-soaked funk jam that “Fame” had been.  “TVC-15”, rumoured to be about Iggy Pop’s girlfriend being eaten by a television, bounces along on a poppy groove  and manages to be as sunny as a song about drug-induced hallucinations can be.  “Stay” delves further into the dirty funk, and a pair of ballads round out the collection – “Word On A Wing” and the Nina Simone cover “Wild Is The WInd”.

Lyrically Station To Station is a mixture of Kabbalah mysticism (see the references to the stations of the cross on the title track), Order of the Eastern Dawn occultism, crypto-fascist Nazi mythology, and dollops of Nietzsche.  By Bowie’s own admission, the title track is “the closest to a magical treatise” he’d ever written, and that the remarkably dark nature of the lyrics reflects the misery he was mired in at the time.  It’s a fascinating mixture of where Bowie had been and where he was heading, caught halfway between his admiration of American music and the siren call of something new coming out of Europe.  Within the year he would decamp to the Continent, seeking both escape and reinvention.

1977-Low

Low

Released January 14th, 1977 on RCA Records

Peaked at #2 UK, #11 US

Singles:

Sound And Vision” (#3 UK)

Be My Wife

The Isolar-1976 tour behind Station To Station was very successful, and the remastered version of that album includes a 1976 concert at the Nassau Theatre that shows why: despite his deranged mental state, Bowie was on top of his game when it came to performance.  Nonetheless there was controversy aplenty throughout the tour; he gave a number of bizarre statements to the press, including one where he claimed that Britain could benefit from a fascist leader, and he was photographed at Victoria Station allegedly giving the Nazi salute (although the singer and several witnesses who were there claim that the photographer merely caught Bowie in the middle of a wave).  Luckily the singer avoided major controversy through the intervention of Eric Clapton, who spent the year saying even worse things.

At the end of the tour Bowie followed his Thin White Duke character to Europe.  He bought a chalet in Switzerland, cut down on the ridiculous amount of cocaine he’d been consuming, and began a regimen of consuming and creating fine art.  He got into postmodern painting, fine literature, and started working on an autobiography.  Still, he continued to be hooked on coke and fascinated by the Krautrock scene coming out of Germany, so in the autumn of 1976 he moved to West Berlin.  West Berlin had two major advantages:  one, there was a lot of highly interesting experimental music coming out of it; and two, it was not at all a major hub for cocaine.  In the late 1970s, Berlin was into heroin in a big way, and Bowie just didn’t care for opiates at all, so he could ironically get clean there better than nearly anywhere else.

Part of the sound on Low can be traced back to the soundtrack he’d presented for The Man Who Fell To Earth (like Station To Station, the cover of Low is a still from the film).  The director had ultimately rejected the haunting ambient sounds Bowie had created in favour of John Phillip’s folk-influenced work, and so Bowie intended to recycle the sounds for his next album.  A bigger part of the sound involves the collaboration with former Roxy Music keyboardist and ambient music enthusiast Brian Eno, who would become an important player in the so-called “Berlin Trilogy” of which Low would form the first part.  Together the two would tease out an exploration of ambient music, and make pioneering steps towards the establishment of a type of man/machine hybrid that would later be termed “New Wave”.

Low was released in 1977, the same year that the Sex Pistols and The Clash first started throwing fire in the UK, the same year that the CBGB establishment of NYC bands like the Ramones, the Talking Heads, Television, et al. became talked about outside their dank Manhattan circles.  Boredom with the rock ‘n’ roll establishment had become palpable; while the die-hards wanted to fight against other forms of music, forward-thinking rock artists were already looking towards both the cold machinery of nascent electronic music and the utterly human freedom and abandon of the exploding world of punk rock.  Despite his 1960s rock world bona fides, David Bowie was oddly enough on the cusp of the divide in popular music.  Take a group like Talking Heads.  Their debut, Talking Heads: 77, is a relentlessly moving mixture of stiff-armed funk, black American music filtered through more world-oriented Afro rhythms and Krautrock-influenced white boy awkwardness.  This is, in other words, pretty much exactly what Bowie was doing on Low.  The major difference is that while David Byrne learned to do it from David Bowie, David Bowie was David Bowie.

The first half of Low is the experimental Kraut-funk section, kicking off with the extended riff-mining of “Speed Of Life”.  The other tracks – especially “Always Crashing In The Same Car” and “Be My Wife” – all follow along, working that jerky dance-move line like the NYC scene was no big thing.  The fragmentary nature of the tracks adds to their disheveled punk-era mystique, as though Bowie had not only cast off the chains of staid 1970s rock formulas, but also the formulas of accepted hit songwriting as well.  The second half is a series of explorations of atmosphere and synthesizer work – here the collision of Eno and soundtrack is the most apparent.  If they sound fairly ho-hum by today’s standards, it’s only because the rest of the ambient world used it as a beacon to direct their work.  Critical response was at first divided, praising the front half while confused about the back half; as time has gone by, critics have rightfully come around on the album, especially given how many later post-punk and New Wave bands (Joy Division among them) have made the album a touchstone.  It remains a pillar of Bowie’s career, a daring experiment in music-making that correctly anticipated the direction of rock music as an art form, something most of his contemporaries could not do.

77-heroes-600b

“Heroes”

Released October 14th, 1977 on RCA Records

Peaked at #3 UK, #35 US

Singles:

Heroes” (#24 UK)

Beauty And The Beast” (#39 UK)

If Low was the sound of a man in a melancholy place expelling his melancholia through sheer experimentation, “Heroes is the sound of a man having expelled all of it, and expressing the sheer passion and joy that a new lease on life can give you.  “Heroes” is a further development of the sound of Low, except that the pop songs are fully developed and the ambient pieces are more chilling and complex.  “Beauty And The Beast” kicks the album off in riveting fashion; NME (who named the album their top pick of 1977) remarked that the single version was the “most menacing track of a menacing year” (1978).  Like the rest of the album, it can be taken in two ways:  it’s either about Bowie looking back on his life in 1975-1976 and expressing amazement that he was still alive, or it’s about the Cold War divide that was exemplified by the Berlin that he was living in at the time.

Either way, it was the sound of Low with a relentless groove behind it, a joyous collection of music that “reflected the zeitgeist of West Berlin and the Cold War” – especially given that the studio “Heroes was recorded in was a mere 500 yards from the Berlin Wall.  Also of note is Bowie’s choice of studio guitarist:  King Crimson mastermind Robert Fripp, who had declared his retirement three years previous after Red.  Fripp was surprised by Bowie’s request but flew out to Germany anyway and nailed his parts in a single day; his guitar lines on “Beauty and the Beast” were recorded immediately upon arrival at the studio, and done in one take.  Like Low, the second half of the album is largely ambient soundtrack-type work, but rather than the drawn-out proto-dungeon sounds of Low there is more texture, with colours of rainstorms and the neon scrawls that decorated the western side of the Wall.  Bookending the second side are “V-2 Schneider”, an homage to Kraftwerk, and the jaunty, upbeat “The Secret Life Of Arabia”, which closes the album out on a hopeful note.

Taken in conjunction, Low and “Heroes” are a two-part album of Bowie’s adventures in Berlin, soaking up Krautrock and ambient experimentation in equal measures, and leaving 1977 as the high point of his career.

711wunR9rzL._SL1300_

Stage

Released September 8th, 1978 on RCA Records

Peaked at #5 UK, #44 US

Singles:

Breaking Glass” (#54 UK)

For the Isolar II tour, Bowie took out a rather disparate group of musicians.  In addition to his regular Berlin recording group of Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis, and George Murphy, Bowie recruited Simon House of Hawkwind, Roger Powell from Utopia, and Adrian Belew, one of Frank Zappa’s players, who would later go on to work with King Crimson, Talking Heads, and Nine Inch Nails.  The stellar lineup (whom would go on to record Lodger with Bowie the next year) combined with Bowie’s sense of freedom in relative sobriety, made for a legendary set of performances.  The songs captured on Stage, recorded from concerts in Boston, Philadelphia, and Providence, do not entirely capture the full experience of the Isolar II tour but they come close.  Part of the problem is the way the album is structured, with fadeouts between tracks like a traditional studio album.  Another part is actually normally a blessing for live albums; the instruments and vocals are recorded direct from the mics, so that everything is clear and immediate.  This would normally be perfect, but since Bowie didn’t change the arrangements around much (unlike David Live), it comes off more like a more forcefully played version of the studio recordings.  The 2005 reissue of the album fixes this problem to a certain extent, since it reconfigures the track listing to be more like the actual concert setlists, and adds on parts the original left off:  a second disc that features a run through roughly half of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars as well as several tracks from Station To Station.  As live albums go, it’s better than most, certainly better than David Live, and a worthy document of the Bowie’s Berlin period.

228063b

Lodger

Released May 18th, 1979 on RCA Records

Peaked at #4 UK, #20 US

Singles:

Boys Keep Swinging” (#7 UK)

DJ” (#29 UK)

Yassassin

Look Back In Anger

Recorded in the middle of the 1978 Isolar II world tour, Lodger shares similarities to many other albums recorded in the midst of long-haul touring:  it’s open and expansive, befitting songs rehearsed and sometimes recorded at soundchecks; it’s obsessed with being in motion, with a relentless kinetic movement borne of touring; and it’s disjointed, both in the songs and in the album as a whole.  The front half is wildly uneven, with “Fantastic Voyage” and “Move On” being quality songs, and “African Night Flight” and “Yassassin” being ill-advised forays into a sort of shambling world-funk.  The back half is wall-to-wall brilliance, containing a powerful, emotive ballad in “Look Back In Anger” and, in “Boys Keep Swinging”, a song that is easily one of Bowie’s best.  The disjointed nature leaks through even here, however.  “Repetition” is a mutant slice of New Wave funk rendered sinister only through the inclusion of Bowie’s lyrics, which trace the path of domestic abuse in particularly chilling fashion.  “Fantastic Voyage” is a breezy bit of pop that nonetheless lays bare Bowie’s fear about the possibility of nuclear war.  The music seems almost too jaunty for the subject matter, although in a way that’s David Bowie in a nutshell.

The giddy sense of experimentation from both Low and Heroes continues onward on Lodger, although the ambient moments courtesy of Brian Eno are gone and there is a much more defined sense of guitar-pop music that harkens back to his work in the mid-1970s.  Despite Eno’s work on the album, he had more or less checked out by the end, feeling that the so-called “trilogy” had petered out by Lodger.  Still, there was enough oddity going on throughout the album to let it stand alongside the previous two albums:  instruments were swapped, old songs were played backwards, previous compositions were given new life with lyrics, and impressionist guitarist Adrian Belew played his lines against tracks he’d never heard before recording (which gives us the brilliant squealing solo on “Boys Keep Swinging”).

Lodger is a lot better than contemporary critics would have you believe.  While many at the time were negative on the album, with Rolling Stone going so far as to claim that it was his “weakest effort yet” (as though Diamond Dogs hadn’t existed).  It certainly sold less than his previous albums, despite two very strong lead-off singles.  As per usual it was the kids that would remember the album fondly:  Doug Martsch reminisced about the album in the line from “Distopian Dream Girl” I quoted at the top of this guide, and Moby got his first job in order to get the money to buy Lodger.  His turn towards pop at a time when many of those he’d influenced (David Byrne and Gary Numan among them) were mining the work he’d recorded in 1977 is perhaps the real reason behind the rather muted enthusiasm for the album, although pop would be the direction Bowie would be heading in for the remainder of the next decade.

f6f9a04e41a9b92f6e4c3fc056a7b434.937x937x1

Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)

Released September 12th, 1980 on RCA Records

Peaked at #1 UK, #12 US

Singles:

Ashes To Ashes” (#1 UK)

Fashion” (#5 UK, #70 US)

Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” (#20 UK)

Up The Hill Backwards

RCA marketed Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) with the tagline “Often Copied, Never Equaled”.  The reason for this was that by the second half of 1980 New Wave was ramping up towards its peak, and a number of artists were gunning for David Bowie using the sounds that he’d pioneered on Low and Heroes.   His previous album, Lodger, had failed to ignite the charts, and he had, throughout the end of 1979 and the beginning of 1980, begun the process of divorce with his wife Angela.  Despite the successes he’d minted three years before, he found himself at another career crossroads.

Scary Monsters seems like both a step forward and a retreat.  It’s a retreat in a sense that, even more so than Lodger, it does away with the ambient Eno-collaborator experimentation that characterized his 1977 work in favour of more commercial melodies and straightforward arrangements.  Unlike the futurist work of Low and HeroesScary Monsters is very much an album of 1980: spiky New Wave rhythms, smooth synth pads, and movement more at home on the dancefloor.  As a balance between commercialism and artistry it works extremely well, and it fittingly looks both backwards and forwards simultaneously.  The vocals on “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” revisit the serrated-vocal effect from “Diamond Dogs”, to greater effect; “Fashion” seems built as the template for edgier New Wave for the next five years after; “Ashes To Ashes”, catchy enough to hit #1 in Britain, brings back the character of Major Tom and playfully references the old adolescent theory that “Space Oddity” is about heroin.  The outlook on a lot of the songs seems angry and a little defensive about the future:  the opener, “It’s No Game, Part 1” is awash in semi-violent imagery – fingers broken, stones breaking on the road, gunshot suicide – and makes oblique reference to his own fascist controversy from four years before.  “Up The Hill Backwards” seems as though it’s made to address his divorce, and “Teenage Wildlife” – a dead ringer for “Heroes” – seems like a letter to the up-and-comers that were taking a page from his discography to forge their careers, Gary Numan chief among them.  “Scream Like A Baby” reads like a dispatch from a fascist societal crackdown, and “Because You’re Young”, a tale of hard and violent love, contrasts “a million dreams” with “a million scars”.

*Scary Monsters* is the clearest division point for Bowie’s career; three years later he would enter the world-straddling megastar phase of his career and every album he would release afterwards would be compared to it, for better or worse.  Any time Bowie achieved a certain level of critical success, the words “his best since Scary Monsters” would appear in the review.