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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
Released December 17th, 1971 on RCA Records
Peaked at #3 UK (1972), #93 US (1975)
“Changes” (#66 US, 1972)
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.
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
“Starman” (#10 UK, #65 US)
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.
Released April 13th, 1973 on RCA Records
Peaked at #1 UK, #17 U.S.
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.
Released October 19th, 1973 on RCA Records
Peaked at #1 UK, #23 US
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.
Released May 24th, 1974 on RCA Records
Peaked at #1 UK, #5 US
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.
Released October 29th, 1974 on RCA Records
Peaked at #2 UK, #5 US
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.
Released March 7th, 1975 on EMI Records
Peaked at #2 UK, #9 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.
Station To Station
Released January 23rd, 1976 on RCA Records
Peaked at #5 UK, #3 US
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.
Released January 14th, 1977 on RCA Records
Peaked at #2 UK, #11 US
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.
Released October 14th, 1977 on RCA Records
Peaked at #3 UK, #35 US
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.
Released September 8th, 1978 on RCA Records
Peaked at #5 UK, #44 US
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.
Released May 18th, 1979 on RCA Records
Peaked at #4 UK, #20 US
“DJ” (#29 UK)
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.
Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)
Released September 12th, 1980 on RCA Records
Peaked at #1 UK, #12 US
“Fashion” (#5 UK, #70 US)
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 Heroes, Scary 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.