Friday, February 27, 2004

A crash course for the ravers: that long-promised David Bowie post!

I've been trying to remember when it was exactly I first heard of David Bowie. I started reading Creem in late 1974, and it and all the other music publications of the time had something about him every day in them, so it could have been then. I also seem to remember seeing the Nineteen Eighty Floor Show in late '73, aired as part of ABC's In Concert Friday late night music show so that was probably the first time I actually laid eyes and ears on the man. I was immediately taken with his presentation and cover of the Pinups song "Sorrow". I honestly don't remember what my first Bowie album was either, whether it was the aforementioned Pinups or his earlier-that-same-year Aladdin Sane, but I do recall buying the latter in a Woolco store in Bowling Green. Not long after, I purchased an 8-track of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and my fate was sealed.

So, prompted by receiving the 2002 Best of Bowie as a gift around Christmas, (thanks again, Mark Anthony) and also having been in the mood to spin some of my old Bowie albums, I will now proceed to list my Ten Favorite Bowie Albums, with those that didn't make the cut listed below. First, a disclaimer: As many DB albums as I own, there are several more that I don't. And to be honest, the man's recent output has left me cold. The last DB album I purchased in the same year in which it was released was 1995's Outside, and oddly enough I consider it his strongest 90's effort. So don't look for Space Oddity, which I've heard once or twice but not in the last 20 or so years- so there's no way I can properly evaluate it- Tonight, The Buddha of Suburbia, "hours...", The Christiana F. and Labyrinth Soundtracks, All Saints, Peter & The Wolf, Heathen, and his latest, Reality.

It's kinda difficult, sometimes, to pin down exactly what it is about Bowie that compels me to listen to his music as often as I do. As an artist, he's all surfaces and masks and personas; he rarely inhabits what he sings, nor does he often draw you into another point of view except as a voyeur rather than a participant. He's not an especially gifted songwriter, despite the fact that he's written many memorable songs with some brilliant lines- it's just that more often as not we get the likes of " lies dumb on its heroes" (from 1975's Young Americans or "...all I have is my love of love, and love is not loving" ("Soul Love", Ziggy) which just kinda lie there on the page and stand out simply because you go "Wha...?". While DB's lyrics are often leaden and clumsy-sounding, they do create the impression that they are more profound than they actually are, which while not exactly making him a legitimate intellectual at least puts him in the second division and tends to impress the easily impressed. It seems that Bowie is at his most interesting when he has a collaborator with real spark and talent- it's no accident that his most compelling music was made with the Ronsons, Enos and Fripps, and when circumstances have led him to work with lesser lights, we get mediocrity. He's not an especially remarkable singer; when he rocks out he tends to get whiny and nasal, and when he tries to croon he lapses into Anthony Newley impersonations. It seems to me that his theatrical instincts have been the one factor which has worked to his benefit, and have enabled him to make a lot of smart musical decisions. Maybe that explains somewhat why I find his current output lacking- he's been working so hard at being "normal" for so long now that I think he's simply lost the plot...but you gotta give him credit for trying anyway. OK, enough of this- here's my favorite DB albums, excluding best-ofs.

1. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980) A sort of summing-up of where he had been to that date, and as far as I'm concerned this is like his Master's thesis dissertation, as everything that he's tried to do for the previous ten years came to full fruition on this album. There are moments of real wit and ferocity in the words, music and performances on this album, ranging from the harsh, clipped Japanese girl's rant, playing duck and hide with Fripp's guitar at the beginning of opener "It's No Game (Pt.1)", through his odd Cockney accent while singing the title cut, the harrowing "Scream Like a Baby", and the humorous "Fashion", with one of Robert Fripp's best freak-out buzzsaw solos in the middle and end. There's not a bad track on this album, and it's not only my favorite DB album, but one of my top 25 as well. Too bad that this was, apparently, where he shot his creative wad.

2. Aladdin Sane (1973) I've read where Bowie downplays this one; I think it's because Mick Ronson stole his thunder. This album is a showcase for the arrangement and guitar skills of the late Mr. Ronson, and as a result he takes Bowie's mostly glum songs, which are mostly his reflections on his newish rockstar life and impressions of touring, written during the Ziggy tour. Ronson adds wonderful sonic textures to every cut, and really the only misstep is a labored and somewhat unintentionally funny cover of the Stones' "Let's Spend The Night Together", which might have fit in better on the subsequent covers album but just doesn't seem to mesh very well here. Still it does rock out and is as fun as it means to be, for the most part. Great tracks abound, but one of my favorites is the title cut, which features the jazz piano talents of another of Bowie's most fecund collaborators, Mike Garson, who graced many subsequent albums with his nimble fingers. On "Sane", he plays a completely gonzo solo over the last two or three minutes of the song, and it's amazing.

3. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) This little song cycle is pretty much the apex of the Glam Rock era (although I could, and would, argue for T.Rex's Electric Warrior), but its charms go way beyond that. I'm sure most of us know that the string which ties it all together is the story of Ziggy Stardust, strange visitor from another planet, promising salvation from some unnamed disaster set to occur in five years through rock 'n roll, who goes about this by becoming a rock star and getting torn apart by his adoring fans for the trouble, which may speak of Bowie's increasing feelings of alienation but more likely speaks to Bowie's ability to spot a great, resonant story idea and run with it. There's not a weak track on this record, which features unusually restrained arrangements by Mick Ronson and antiseptic production by Ken Scott. My personal favorites are the chugging rocker "Hang On To Yourself", the dramatic title track, surging rocker "Suffragette City", catchy "Starman", with it's la-la-la chorus, the wistful "Lady Stardust", about Marc Bolan and punctuated with a staggering piano riff, and of course the bleak album opener "Five Years", which sports some of Bowie's best lyrics, especially in its final verses. Can't not mention "Moonage Daydream", in which Ronson gets to wail away on guitar for several minutes, and "Rock 'n Roll Suicide", with its sharp dramatic flourishes. I don't think it's DB's best album, mind you, but it's very much a classic of its time and still sounds pretty fresh today. I just wish the resolution had been a bit more upbeat- instead of a catharsis, we get cynicism and negativity despite "Suicide" 's would-be reassurance that we're "not alone".

4. Pinups (1973) In which Bowie indulges himself in an entire album of cover songs, familiar to him from his early-mid 60s years. We get Bowieized versions of Syd Barrett, Yardbirds, Kinks, Who, Pretty Things, Easybeats, and many others, and it worked extremely well, thanks in large part once again to the musical gifts of Mick Ronson. This was kind of a fad back about this time, as we also got covers albums from several other artists including Bryan Ferry and John Lennon- but Bowie's source material was unique to the trend, as many of the other musicians pursuing this path tended towards 50s rock n' roll and 60's pop obscurities, and Pinups still stands up today as one of the, well, tougher tributes. Best of show, in my opinion anyway: "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere"; "I Can't Explain" (great, lazy fuzzed-out Ronson guitar solo on that one); of course, the shoulda-been-a-hit "Sorrow"; "See Emily Play", something of an obscurity from Barrett's Pink Floyd; and a nicely done "Where Have All The Good Times Gone", a Kinks tune which probably intentionally served as an epitaph for not only the Ziggy/Spiders years, but perhaps Glam Rock as well.

5. The Man Who Sold The World (1970) The sound of DB throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Nothing really did for him until Ziggy, but I listen to this record a lot. The overall vibe of this record is as dark and fuzzy as RCA's American release cover, which featured a black & white photo of DB standing on one leg, which replaced the British cover of our boy in one of his notorious dresses, reclining on a sofa. Guess RCA got cold feet on that one. Anyway, Ronson's 'eavy 'umble droning blues guitar riffs pretty much dominate the overall sound, but Bowie the BolanDonovanesque hippie poet sticks his head out occasionally as well. Highlights include "Width of a Circle", in which DB namechecks Kahlil Gibran and Ronson plays a looonnng solo; the kinda ominous and downbeat title cut, made popular to a whole generation thanks to Kurt Cobain; "Black Country Rock", a rollicking blues in which B & R take the piss from Marc Bolan, and the Yardbirds-ish "She Shook Me Cold". By far the oddest thing on the album is "The Supermen", which features massed choruses ooohing and aaahing as Bowie sings in a cockney accent about mountain magic and super men, accompanied by kettle drums and acoustic guitar. It's catchy, but weird. If you've not heard this record, it's definitely worth a shot if you run across it sometime.

6. Low (1977) Nobody, I mean nobody was expecting this from Bowie, especially on the heels of the three preceding records, with their disco-soul touches. Of course, those familiar with the solo work of Brian Eno, DB's principal collaborator, might have guessed...chilly, concise, and minimal, and very, very influential on a host of followers, these are, at their core, pretty darn good pop songs, just minus frills. "Sound & Vision", with backing vocals by Mary Hopkin Visconti, the then-wife of this album's producer Tony Visconti (this album was the first he had done with DB since 1970s Man Who Sold The World, and Visconti's first album after splitting with Marc Bolan in 1975), is my favorite but "What In The World" 's deadpan percolating groove is great, as are the side one instrumentals "Speed of Life" and "A New Career in a New Town". "Be My Wife" is a crashing rocker, or as close to rock as this record gets, and is especially memorable in its opening verses. Side one flows so well that it's a shame that the side two instrumentals mostly leave me cold- "Warszawa" is the only one that has any sort of melody that stays with me after I've listened.

7. Lodger (1979) The third of his "Eno Trilogy" is an underrated, clever record, especially lyrically, not usually a strength for our boy. Bowie sounds relaxed and happy to be through a difficult period in his life, and it comes through in the odd, daffy moments like his assertion, in "Yasassin", that "...he's not a moody guy", and the goofy "The Hinterlands! The Hinterlands" cry in "Red Sails"- very Eno-esque. The backing is first rate, sporting some nice Adrian Belew guitar textures, and some of the avant-pop songs like "DJ", "Boys Keep Swinging" and "Look Back In Anger" are among the best things he's ever done.

8. Station To Station (1976) I've always found it ironic that the album Bowie recorded and wrote during the height of his cocaine mania sported some of the longest tracks he ever committed to tape. This one found him in transition yet again, moving gradually away from the soul sounds of Young Americans and closer to the spare, futuristic pop music that we came to know on his next four albums. For me, this record revolves around its two best tracks: the odd "TVC-15", with its rollicking barrelhouse piano riff and Lou Reed-ish feel, and "Golden Years", the completely irresistable disco cut in which he perfected what he started on Americans. I remember seeing DB perform it on Soul Train, obviously chuffed to be there but looking pale and skeletal and all cocaine-shaky. The goosestepping title cut is a clever piece of work that sounds like two different songs stitched together, and "Stay" rocks out in a funky fashion. In fact, about the only weakness this record had was its lack of a sympathetic musical foil, a la Ronson or Eno. With some tougher arrangement and guitar work, Station To Station would have been a classic; as it is, it almost gets there anyway.

9. Young Americans (1975) "Bowie Blacks Out!" screamed the cover headline on Creem upon this album's 1975 release, and they didn't lie; this was DB's pet project and a vehicle to work out his obsession with Philly Soul, Marvin Gaye and especially James Brown, all of whom are quoted both directly and indirectly. Really, there's not a poor cut on this record, but some songs are stronger than others, and those just sound tentative and unsure. I'm sure if he had chosen to follow this up with another soul album, he would have gotten it right, as "Golden Years" bears out, but as we all know he didn' all we have is this one, which kinda stands out like a sore thumb in his catalogue. The title track is catchy and boogies along agreeably, and features some great lyrics. "Win" is a lovely, smooth ballad; "Right" is a laid-back soul workout, which would have made a great song for Gaye to cover, if he'd been inclined, with some nice sax from Dave Sanborn; "Fascination" seems to be the James Brown homage, with more great sax, backing vocals, and an everpresent cowbell in the background. Of course, most people know this from "Fame", Bowie's first US top ten hit and featuring John Lennon in the vocal's a great song with knowing lyrics and is easily one of his best songs ever. The only misstep is an overripe cover of Lennon's "Across The Universe", which featured John's guitar accompaniment. I play this one quite often, actually- a lot of these cuts get under your skin and pop into my head at odd times.

10. Hunky Dory (1971) Yet another transitional period, this time from the folky DonovanBolanisms to a more refined sort of folk-rock, with the first stirrings of the theatrical touches he'd come to perfect later in his career- heck, the next year, even! Of all Bowie's "classic" albums, this is the one I came to most recently, I actually didn't hear this until 1985 or so, except for the ever-present eventual hit single "Changes". Ronson doesn't get to stretch out much on this one, especially after the previous album's extended jams, but when he does get to cut loose on the transcendent "Queen Bitch" it's breathtaking, and his arrangement skills are showcased on such quintessential Bowiefare as "Oh You Pretty Things", a Glam manifesto; "Kooks", a sweet song written for then-wife Angie and young son Zowie, and on the mostly free-associated "Life on Mars", which was "inspired by Frankie (Sinatra)", according to the liner notes. Hm. Anyway, the lower-keyed vibe of this record allows the session piano of Rick Wakeman to dominate much of the proceedings, and gives much of this record a baroque, prissy feel. Many of the best cuts on Hunky are tributes to his heroes of the time, such as Andy Warhol, in the song of the same name, Neil Young (the overblown "Quicksand", a favorite of many but not really one of mine) and Bob Dylan, in the aptly titled "Song For Bob Dylan" ("...with a voice like 'sand and glue'").
There's always something interesting to return to on this record, which kinda got lost in the Ziggy shuffle.

As always, with lists like these, there are some good records that get left off like 1974's Diamond Dogs which is a botched and compromised-sounding affair, a wannabe Sci-Fi epic (DB had planned to adapt George Orwell's 1984, but the Orwell estate said "Uh, no.") which still is full of interesting ideas on its own terms and features and some surprisingly good guitar work by none other than our David himself. I wish Ronson could have stayed on board for one more album, I think his touch could have made a big difference because this just sounds so patched-together to me...but the MainMan retinue was steering him towards a solo career by then, and he was unavailable. I wonder if this album, in some ways, might not be more personal than many simply because it seems to reflect Bowie's growing unease with his future, which was hardly certain post-Spiders From Mars breakup and during the height of his decadent period. The whole record just has an aura of paranoia, dread and freakishness, in my ears anyway. 1977's "Heroes" has a couple of stellar tracks, like the title cut with more great Fripp guitar and the lurching opener "Beauty and the Beast", and another not-bad one, "Sons of the Silent Age"...but the other vocal tracks leave me cold, as do the by-then de rigeur Eno-influenced instrumentals. This album has its intense admirers, though, so what do I know. Even though it was recorded right in the middle of his most barren, creativity-wise, period, 1986's Never Let Me Down is an album which I keep coming back to, despite its thin and tinny 80s-style production sound, mostly because of three cuts: the title track, an appealing soulish ballad; "Day-In, Day-Out", which reminds me a little of Lodger or Scary Monsters with its harsh guitar riff; and "Shining Star (Making My Love)", which defies description somewhat as it has a soul-ish sound but is propelled by a triple-time lockstep beat which DB strains to croon over, but it has a wit kinda missing from many of his songs from that period (his pinched-sounding, trilled "...churr-no-beeel" cracks me up every time). It even features a spoken-word middle section with Mickey Rourke (!). Not a classic album by any stretch, and has several dull stretches, but it's a hundred times better than almost everything else he did four years before and after. 1981's Let's Dance, the Bowie album which most people own or have heard, was definitely a good news/bad news type scenario since it was nice to see Bowie getting some deserved mainstream success, but bad in that this lackluster set defined his sound for most of the decade. It should have been better, as it was produced by Chic's Nile Rodgers, who was just beginning to become a hot producer and was a year away from producing Madonna's Like A Virgin, and featured guitar work from, oddly enough, Stevie Ray Vaughn. The opener, "Modern Love", is probably the best song on the record (the most tuneful, anyway) and has more of those "sounds more profound than they really are" type lyrics. The title cut is catchy but slight, and the recycled-from-Iggy Pop "China Girl" is pretty good too. But everything else on the album is completely forgettable, and Vaughn's guitars solos sound phoned in. Both late 80's-early 90s Tin Machine albums had their moments ("Heaven in Here", flabby and padded but hard hitting; "Amlapura") and it certainly was nice to hear Bowie straining a little again, but almost every song starts out with an interesting riff or chord pattern, then devolves into sludge before it ends- sacrificed to the need for technically proficient but musically mediocre wannabe virtuoso guitarist Reeves Gabriels to freak out, extending tracks to about three minutes longer than they need to be. Other Bowie albums, like Tonight ("Blue Jean"), 1. Outside ("The Heart's Filthy Lesson", "Hallo Spaceboy"), and Earthling ("I'm Afraid of Americans"), have one or two excellent tracks, but are totally forgettable otherwise. Later albums, like these, and others, show him trying very hard to be as innovative and as deep as his rep would have it, but he apparently has lost the knack for good.

Three 80's singles also merit mention: the remarkable 1981 collaboration with Queen, "Under Pressure" which while sounding as if Freddie & Co. and DB weren't in the same area code on the day it was recorded, remains a dramatic, irresistable funk song; the title song from "Blue Jean" video director Julien Temple's quirky 1986 film Absolute Beginners (in which Bowie played a role, as well), which is melodically as strong as anything he did in this period but is somehow strangely unmemorable nonetheless; and the Godawful, prancing, mincing duet on the old Motown tune "Dancing in the Streets" which DB did with old pal Mick Jagger in 1985. It's inconsequential, and the video was an embarrassment. David also has released two live albums: 1974's David Live, recorded on the Diamond Dogs tour in which he was trying to shoehorn his growing infatuation with R & B into his music- but the performances are wan and lackluster and Bowie looks like a corpse on the cover, fitting somehow. 1978's Stage is better by comparison, but still much to polished and professional, despite this being recorded during one of his most creatively proficient periods. The band, with Adrian Belew on guitar and Utopia's Roger Powell on keybs, is very capable but are used to no great effect; most of the performances are rote, by-the-number run-throughs of several songs from 1971-1978.

And that's my David Bowie piece. Boy, am I glad that it's done. I don't mean to give the impression that I'm dismissive of Bowie, far from it- he's done some stellar work, always worthy of one's time and attention- and even at his most fallow and shallow he's been a definite influence on many, many worthwhile artists. And his real name is kinda neat, too.