Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Lodger (1979)


1. Fantastic Voyage: A political commentary song about nuclear war, finally resurrected to brilliant effect for the 2004 Reality tour, still sounds relevant lyrically and a showcase for Bowie’s vocal talents and his ever-increasing baritone. This marvellous bass/drums/piano song has no less than three mandolins playing along, but they’re buried so deep in the mix you don’t notice. 9.0

2. African Night Flight: Machine gun expressionist delivery, quite unlike anything he’d done before (or since), and an interesting track full of loops and Eno’s ‘cricket menace’ which appears in the driving coda just before (what sounds like) Swahili chanting weaves it’s way into the piece. And this was even before world music had a name. In retrospect somewhat reminiscent of the Eno/Byrne collaboration ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’ masterpiece which was recorded around the same time. 7.0

3. Move On: Charming little first-person wanderlust themed song and a minor favourite. ‘All the Young Dudes’ backwards ends up sounding like a tribal chant, but the best thing about this song is the lyrics, voice and the delivery and the unerring drum shuffle underneath suggesting movement. 7.0

4. Yassassin (Turkish for Long Live): A somewhat awkward venture into eastern reggae saved by a mindblowing electric violin solo by ex-Hawkwind member Simon House and some nice guitar by the ever-inventive Adrian Belew. 6.0

5. Red Sails: Masterpiece #27. Belew’s guitar in all it’s unedited glory finally comes to the forefront here in this swashbuckling classic, the highest point of the album, and one of the great Bowie songs. Has the feel of a traditional Japanese influence in the verses, despite the buccaneer lyrics, Neu references and thunderous outro. The epitome of the late 70’s new wave synth sound, another genre that can be attributed to Bowie himself. 10.0

6. DJ: A mood shift from side one to a more focussed pop sound, although this lyrically complex track has a eclectic brew of electric violin, guitar solos and synth along with a classic Bowie lyric which makes for one of the great warped-rock Bowie singles (and videos) of all time. 8.5

7. Look Back in Anger: Impressive vocal performance Look Back in Anger possesses a terrific opening verse, fantasy-themed lyrics, with a blistering rhythm guitar ‘solo’ by Carlos Alomar, and that fine melodramatic chorus. 7.5

8. Boys Keep Swinging: Same chords as Fantastic Voyage, the musicians swapped instruments achieving a very post-punk primitive sound, which is somewhat jarring as well as Bowie’s deep-voiced oddball lyrics about boys. A very strange video shown on the Kenny Everitt Video Show in ’79, along with the Lennon-esque version of Space Oddity (9.5), did it’s hit-single potential no favours. 7.5

9. Repetition: A song of spousal abuse sung in a cold un-emotive fashion, without any showboating or histrionics, over an appropriately queasy and unrelenting George Murray bassline – this is another album highlight. 8.0

10. Red Money: An inferior reworking of Iggy’s classic Sister Midnight, this track has some interesting moments (eg: a nice little guitar lick, multi-tracked vocals) but generally an disappointing way to finish the album. 6.0


VERDICT: An experimental album of good materiel rather than a brilliant cohesive whole, Bowie was coming down off the artistic and commercial success of the 1978 world tour and lyrically was continuing on with the travel motif laid down by The Secret Life of Arabia. Lodger is the third and final instalment in the Berlin trilogy (although recorded in Switzerland), is equally experimental as the previous two albums (minus the wonderful instrumentals) but is easily the most underwhelming of the three and can almost come off as a transitional album between “Heroes” and Scary Monsters rather than part of the Berlin trilogy. Unfortunately there is not the same amount of creative grandeur or sheer brilliance as Low of “Heroes” and the mix is awfully muddy and hollow (and Belew had just excelled on tour, his guitar is surprisingly inconspicuous, and much of his work on the album was composited from multiple takes played against backing tracks of which he had no prior knowledge, not even the key), and some songs unfocussed and light-on. The input of Brian Eno had also noticeably decreased although featured in many co-write credits. That said, Lodger is a daring and original work without a single dud among it’s avant-pop, which rewards with repeated listens and is split into two clearly defined sides: side one a worldly travelogue, and side two dealing with existential decay which plays like an alt-world greatest hits album. Bowie produced several film clips (as they were called back then) for a number of singles to promote this album, however had the rug pulled from under him and was out-Bowied somewhat with the emergence of, at worst Bowie clones (Gary Numan), and at best intellectual cutting edge art-rockers (Talking Heads), and was far from a commercial and critical success. The cover is Bowie’s most unappealing, although the gatefold sleeve of deathbeds is strangely compelling.

NEXT: “Silhouettes and Shadows…”

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Heroes" (1977)


1. Beauty and the Beast: A lurching synth grind, with a menacing double-tracked lead vocal (with a late-arriving bridge that pre-dates the Ashes to Ashes self-examining lyric), Bowie’s new vocal style here is strikingly expressive (especially when compared to Low). Eno’s synthetic ‘flute’ solo a highlight as are the tongue-in-cheek lyrics. The intro to this song is a dead-ringer of Roxy Music’s ‘The Thrill of it All’. Listen to that. 8.0

2. Joe the Lion: Masterpiece #24. A bar-room epic, lyrically random and effortlessly brilliant. Robert Fripp legendarily recording his guitar overdub without even hearing the track beforehand, Bowie’s yelping vocals were recorded on-mike too as he wrote the lyrics (like much of “Heroes”). “It’s Monday” is an album highlight itself. This is as exhilarating as music gets. 10.0

3. “Heroes”: Masterpiece #25. Undoubtedly the finest song in the Bowie cannon, this is essentially an experimental piece of art-rock which sounds like no other song. “Heroes” possesses a hypnotic shudder (created by Eno’s synth playing) and producer Tony Visconti’s filter sweeps generating a superb oscillating effect that slowly builds and becomes more and more powerful towards the end as the vocals soar (there is also no kick-drum whatsoever). A pure lyric of individual connection in adverse times (he wrote the lyrics during a break in recording looking out the windows of Hansa Studios at a strolling Visconti and backing singer Antonia Maass indulging in some covert smooching), complemented by some majestic reverb-drenched “Bowie histrionics”, recorded using several gated microphones rigged-up down the corridor, capturing a great deal of natural reverb and in turn, a wall of sound. The chord changes are multi-layered and anthemic, the Fripp guitar loop spot-on, and the epic 6-minute album version definitive. Accept no imitations. 10.0

4. Sons of the Silent Age: This track was written well before going into the studio, unlike everything else on this record. An operatic vocal performance and some strangled sax from Bowie, he sings of Sam Therapy and King Dice, whoever on earth they are. Unspeakable things happened to this perfectly fine song on the Glass Spider tour. Best not mentioned really. 7.5

5. Blackout: Masterpiece #26. The piece de resistance of the first side, written about Bowie’s own personal meltdown at the time (or more probable the NY blackout of ’77), Blackout veers spectacularly between a full on crescendo and a threatening tendency for low-key detachment (‘I’ll kiss you in the rain’). A fitting chaotic rush of freak-out synths and triple-tracked Frippatronic guitar treatments boil over in a wonderful spoken word climax: “While the streets block off, getting some skin exppposure to the blackout”. 10.0

6. V-2 Schneider: Obviously a tribute to Kraftwerk, the horn section was accidentally turned around to the offbeat in the recording process and they stuck with it. I’m not so sure. It’s when this track ends is when it starts to get interesting. 7.0

7. Sense of Doubt: This song represents fear - and it is genuinely scary. Based around a doom-y descending set of four piano notes, with a dramatic organ accompaniment, there's something creaking around in the background, that lovely windswept beginning and end add to the mystery and atmosphere of the piece. This is when Eno and Bowie were experimenting with the Oblique Strategies cards, a random aid to the creative process, which they used entirely for this track. 8.0

8. Moss Garden: Bowie’s koto (a traditional Japanese stringed instrument) plays over Eno’s gorgeously tranquil atmospherics which ebb and flow as little dogs bark off in the distance. Earlier in the album Bowie had exclaimed he is under Japanese influence and the exquisite Moss Garden is evidence of that. 9.5

9. Neuköln: Named after a district in Berlin, Neuköln recalls the sombre reflection of Low on one hand, but on the other is Bowie enthusiastically throttling his saxophone over a dramatic Eastern-European soundscape, painting a vivid image of a bleak post-war Germany. By the last spiralling sax wail Neuköln is gloriously beyond accessible. 8.0

10. The Secret Life of Arabia: Unlike Low, “Heroes” finishes on a positive note with a hint of things to come in the Eastern sounds of Lodger, the melodic and jubilant The Secret Life of Arabia a somewhat inconsequential number, returning to the funk sounds of old, and just a little bit out of place after the torment of Neuköln which would’ve made for a gutsy closer. I do like this track though – the album’s footnote and Bowie coming out the other end still intact. 8.0


VERDICT: A perfect 10.0 seems like an understatement for “Heroes”. This album for me is the pinnacle of all Bowie recordings and while stylistically similar in structure to Low, “Heroes” has a fuller and more chaotic sound and is significantly more muscular and expressive, both musically and vocally. Recorded in an old Gestapo Ballroom which had been used to record symphonies during World War II, “Heroes” is Part 2 in the Berlin trilogy (and the only one written and recorded entirely in Berlin). Bowie was studying art and immersing himself in Euro-expressionist, synth-based music in 1977, which was a busy year for him. He released Low in January, produced Iggy Pop's The Idiot and Lust For Life, toured as Iggy's keyboard player, starred in a (albeit horrendous) film alongside Marlene Dietrich Just A Gigolo, and narrated Peter And The Wolf for his son in his spare time. He was in career-best form as a vocalist too (most of this was first take recording) and the subsequent tour confirms this theory, listen to 1978’s underrated live outing Stage (9.5). This is also when Bowie still had an air of menace about him - before he turned all smiley and tanned in the 80s. Like Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, the awesome album cover is based on the painting Roquairol by German artist Erich Heckel.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Low (1977)


1. Speed of Life: Opening with a jarring fade-in, this marvellously layered instrumental piece sounds like the theme music to a long lost 50s sci-fi series - as our heroes race through the space-time continuum encountering all sorts of sticky interplanetary situations. Synthesizers are at the forefront and this new ultra cutting edge electronic based music that still sounds fresh via collaborator Brian Eno. Guitarist Ricky Gardiner is excellent all over this album as well with his sharp melody lines, this textured track is the perfect opener to introduce the new music night and day. 9.0

2. Breaking Glass: An instrumental with vocals, this track was cooked up in the studio by the band (Alomar, Murray and Davis) with vocals composed and recorded quickly upon his arrival in the studio. Pure art-funk with some very surreal and paranoid lyrics it’s quite an opaque song, the genesis of which can be heard in the foundations laid by the previous album Station to Station. Worked very well live particularly the extended outro found on Stage. 7.5

3. What in the World: Musically disjointed and lyrically random, Eno’s pulsating “Pac-man” soundeffects very complimentary, this track is memorable not least for its cavernous treated drum sound created by producer Visconti using an Eventide Harmonizer (a sound heard all over Low), or Iggy Pop on backing vocals for his only appearance here (although he was around a lot at the time, they had already recorded ‘The Idiot’ together), and the frantic yet soulful live renditions it received every single night on the subsequent tour. 7.5

4. Sound and Vision: As catchy a synth-pop song as you’re ever likely to hear, the vocals don’t come in on this one until after the halfway mark. The sonic experimentation is evident here within this eclectic, musical vignette and art-rock symphony. The great steam hiss is a heavily gated snare in case you were wondering. 9.5

5. Always Crashing in the Same Car: Masterpiece #22. This is the heart of the first side and a slightly undervalued track, either way it’s a masterpiece. The feel of this recount of a hotel garage car accident is one of resignation and futility sung in a disarmingly un-emotive manner. The closing guitar solo is an album highlight. 10.0

6. Be My Wife: A plea for human connection with some barnstorming honky-tonk piano. Another instance of super catchy, angular art-pop. This had a really weird video clip too. 8.5

7. A New Career in a New Town: Closing side two with a tuneful pop instrumental reminiscent of Kraftwerk’s ‘Radio Activity’, it has a fragmented, processed feel and displays Eno’s fine synth, and Bowie’s limited harmonica, abilities. 7.0

8. Warszawa: Masterpiece #23. The only Eno/Bowie co-write on the album, this track is heavy on the melancholy and seemingly conveying some serious emotional wreckage. Consisting of funereal processional synth steps from Eno (composed while Bowie was attending a divorce court hearing) and a shrieking Eastern European boys choir-sounding vocal from Bowie, the slow and graceful Warszawa is the single finest instrumental in Bowie’s career. 10.0

9. Art Decade: Written, recorded, then discarded by Bowie, then resurrected by Eno some time later, Art Decade lopes along beautifully, sounding futuristic and emitting an ethereal feeling of warmth throughout. 8.5

10. Weeping Wall: Continuing to discard traditional structures of pop music, Bowie plays all this instruments on this one dealing thematically, and evoking a mood, of life in Germany scarred by the Berlin Wall. 8.5

11. Subterraneans: Written as part of the unrealised soundtrack for The Man Who Fell to Earth, this ghostly atmospheric instrumental is similar to Warszawa in tone and possesses some wonderful jazz inflected sax from Bowie towards the end. 8.5


VERDICT: After finding a comfortable niche with hit singles Young Americans, Fame and Golden Years, and displaying some unusually extrovert behaviour during this time, Bowie got off drugs and the treadmill of fame (at least for the foreseeable future) and started recording a wilful departure without any firm plans to make an album. The result was Low - part one of the ‘Berlin Trilogy’. Ironically it was mostly recorded in France (same studio where Pin Ups was recorded), this music at the time was unprecedented for a pop star of Bowie stature, not only the ahead-of-it’s-time art-pop of the first side but particularly the four dense instrumental sonicscapes on side two which baffled both critics and fans alike upon it’s release. This is when Bowie started making the weirdest and arguably the best music of his career. His songwriting on Low tended to deal with difficult issues, as many of the songs concern lethargy, depression, estrangement, or self-destructive behaviour, mostly delivered in an atypical monotone vocal. Low has been acclaimed for it’s originality and now with the benefit of hindsight, it’s is truly one of the most groundbreaking and influential albums of all time. The excellent low-profile pun album cover is another still taken from The Man Who Fell to Earth.

NEXT: “There’s old wave, there’s new wave, and there’s David Bowie.”

Station to Station (1976)


1. Station to Station: Masterpiece #20. This colossal and genuinely thrilling title track opens with a train chugging from speaker to speaker before moving into a sound rooted in the motorik rhythms of Neu! and Kraftwerk combined with a funk groove. Bowie introduces his icy new character the Thin White Duke with a deadening paranoia and a veiled plea to return to Europe via semi-mystical invocations. One of the few 4-part 10 minute songs I wish were longer. This track is simply a tour-de-force and one of Bowie’s greatest ever moments on record. 10.0

2. Golden Years: A logical follow up to the funk of Fame, the snappy Golden Years finds Bowie in career-best form as a vocalist and tunesmith. Some lovely falsetto with the band sounding tight riding a faultless groove and a soaring chorus, it’s the album’s only conventional rock song and an irresistible one at that. 9.0

3. Word on a Wing: Masterpiece #21. One of Bowie’s most underrated songs. An elegiac ballad with a hint of desperation in the delivery and the lyrics. Free of any cynicism or sarcasm it’s quite a complex song sung in such a genuine way giving it both dignity and beauty. Some outstanding work from E-Street pianist Roy Bitten who excels all over this album, none more so than here. 10.0

4. TVC15: A silly story about his TV eating Iggy Pop’s girlfriend, this song is mostly the repeated chorus outro refrain of “oh my TVC15, oh oh, TVC15”. It’s a fun, bizarre song and a little avant-garde that works musically, however it’s overlong and the weakest track here. 7.5

5. Stay: Built around a one of the best post-Ronson guitar riffs, this track finds the magnificent rhythm section that is Alomar, Murray and Davis in funk fusion art rock overdrive while Bowie croons quite a beautifully melodic chorus that sounds alarmingly like ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’. Towards the end this really cooks, particularly live with Adrian Belew on guitar circa '78. 9.0

6. Wild is the Wind: The now legendary Wild is the Wind opened his triumphant Glastonbury return in 2000, and what a song! Musically subtle, the acoustic and electric guitars on this song are superb, but the fearless, melodramatic vocal performance confirms it as one of the most stunning covers of all time. 9.5


VERDICT: A transitional album and lyrically, an impenetrable one. Station to Station was recorded in Hollywood in a blizzard of cocaine use and was a milestone for Bowie’s career to date, effectively dividing the '70's introducing us to the first taste of the new music that was to follow, while closing the glam and plastic soul era. This is the album where The Thin White Duke displays his ability to bring his profoundly European sense of pop drama to rhythms and grooves played by a multi-racial blend of musicians, and pushing his great art into a challenging new direction, even if he can’t remember making it. The original stately black and white album cover has finally been reinstated after various flirtations with the coloured impostor.

NEXT: “Isn't it great to be on your own, let's just pull down the blinds and fuck ‘em all.”

Young Americans (1975)


1. Young Americans: Masterpiece #18. The latter part of the 1974 tour (Philly Dogs) hinted at what was to come, but this major change in direction was where Bowie’s transformation from androgynous glam-rock superstar to blue-eyed soul boy was complete. His breathless vocal performance touching on all sorts of American references, urgent groove (teamed with David Sanborne’s sax and Luther Vandross’ backing singers), and the addition of rhythm guitarist and Bowie mainstay Carlos Alomar, the title track has a timeless quality about it even though it’s obviously mid-70s whiteboy soul (much like other artists were doing around the same time eg: Elton John, Hall & Oates, the Bee Gees). Has always reminded me of the (albeit tougher) sound and feel of Springsteen’s band on ‘The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle’ of whom Bowie was quite the fan (he and had already covered Growin’ Up (6.5) and about to tackle It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City (7.5)). 10.0

2. Win: With it’s vapid subject matter and lounge-y suaveness, this track, complete with a lush 5/4 chorus, is relatively pleasing in the context of the album. Surprisingly resurfaced on the Bowie-compiled iSelect recently. 7.5

3. Fascination: Some fine wah-wah guitar from Earl Slick (for his first appearance on a Bowie album), along with Carlos Alomar’s deep funky rhythms opens this track of sexual obsession and it funks along well enough with the backing singers (Ava Cherry et al, Bowie’s girlfriend at the time). 6.0

4. Right: Nice track and straightforward reading of a slight soul ditty. Bowie gets swamped by the backing singers halfway through never to be seen (or heard from) again. 6.5

5. Somebody Up There Likes Me: This track has some lyrical merit and an interesting vocal delivery but overlong. Sadly the sax is relentless the whole way through. 6.0

6. Across the Universe: It’s worth noting that a particular track was left off this album (for the inclusion of this) which would’ve given this album some much needed backbone - and that song is Who Can I Be Now (8.0), a great great song well worth tracking down. This is not a great. A coked-up afterthought that should’ve been deleted the following morning. 2.0

7. Can You Hear Me: Well written, string-laden track sung for Ava Cherry but is unfortunately pummelled by backing singers and saxophone solos. 7.0

8. Fame: Masterpiece #19. Twitchy, inventive, and totally brilliant, the album’s most successful foray into funk. John Lennon provides the high-pitched call and response ‘Fame’ and just about makes this song. Nasty lyrics, funky as all hell guitar refrain, whipped up in one all nighter studio session and included on the album at the last minute, this is among Bowie’s very best work. 10.0


VERDICT: It’s not that I dislike the album (I actually quite like it) but if it wasn’t for the bookend tracks, I’m not sure where this album would sit in the Bowie cannon. Bowie said “It's the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey”, and he was not far wrong. Even if he had a pretty low opinion of this album calling it the definitive plastic soul record (which it is), it’s not a bad record entirely, in fact his detached singing is quite awesome throughout. Young Americans is just a stylistic checkpoint where Bowie 100% immersed himself in one of his first loves: R&B. The album can’t entirely be dismissed, there is too much ingrained love for it, however the pudding is over-egged on most occasions with Sanborne’s lite-jazz sax becoming tiresome throughout as do the backing singers shouting at you constantly. For the album cover, the wedge haircut, backlit shining soul boy look was a good one - a big improvement on David Live.

NEXT: The European Cannon is Here!

Diamond Dogs (1974)


1. Future Legend: Opening with an American-Werewolf-in-London-sized howl and hosting an orgy of post-apocalyptic imagery of urban decay that is the Hunger City, Future Legend (and a lovely synthesized take of ‘Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered’ underneath) introduces the latest of Bowie’s big theatrical projects: George Orwell’s 1984 (although, thankfully, it was abandoned due to necessity for the more oblique vision of Diamond Dogs). 7.0

2. Diamond Dogs: “This ain’t rock and roll, this is genocide!!!”. It’s his last great chugging “It’s Only Rock and Roll But I Like It” stomp and some great garage riffing from Bowie (his guitar work all over this album is a revelation) and backing vocals. When it starts it’s like a fake live show although and it certainly has a big live band feel throughout it’s 6 rocking minutes. 8.0

3. Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise): Masterpiece #16. This majestic three-track suite is the most brilliant moment in Bowie’s career to date, both musically (Bowie’s amazing guitar sound, like he’s using a razor blade for a pick), vocally (one of his most astonishing vocal performances), arrangements (Garson throughout gives his best performance on any Bowie record) and lyrically (disturbing throughout, continuing the theme of the apocalypse and clearly employing Burrough’s cut-up technique), this is the Bowie aficionado’s Bowie classic and one of the greatest moments in all of rock. 10.0

4. Rebel Rebel: Now time for some stripped down no-frills rock & roll which serves as the perfect backdrop for focusing on Bowie's brilliantly corny lyrics which essentially revolve around a bunch of clichés about sexuality and rebellion all put to a cool 4/4 stomp and a compulsive riff that a “guitarist” could never have come up with. Musically, nothing much happens however that’s exactly what makes "Rebel Rebel" so durable. 8.0

5. Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me: Bowie’s first co-written song (of which there would be plenty more to come), this charming ballad is not a bad song, but is the worst this album has to offer. It has it’s positives (guitar sound, vocals) but it’s emotive piano and operatic sheen are all way too Meat Loaf-y for my liking. 6.5

6. We Are the Dead: Masterpiece #17. This is much more like it. Kicking off side two’s Orwellian theme, this track is concentrated genius and one of the most underrated in the Bowie catalogue. The provocative lyrics evoke themes explored on ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ among other things, and the nightmarish soundscapes created using a multi-tracked vocal, chilly moog patterns and guitar treatments create an other-worldly atmosphere right at the nucleus of Diamond Dogs. 10.0

7. 1984: Alan Parker’s ‘Shaft’-like guitar and Visconti’s gold-plated strings dominate this disco track, well before disco had actually been invented. Actually this track hints at what was to come with the ‘Young Americans’ project (or even, shudder, ‘Station to Station’) with it’s funky wah-wah rhythms, however the foreboding lyrics hindered it’s US hit single chances. 7.0

8. Big Brother: This track continues the eerie and bleak themes of the album with some tremendous moog work from Bowie, particularly the ‘Thames’ theme music in the bridge. Big Brother is compelling and undeniably brilliant, it’s shuffling verse complemented by a powerful chorus. 8.0

9. Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family: More an outro to Big Brother, the album’s closer takes a metronomic shuffle and combines it with a brainwashed zombie dance echoing for all eternity. 6.5


VERDICT: Without ‘The Spiders’, Bowie himself was responsible for most of the music found on this album: the guitars, the saxophones, the Moog, the Mellotron (with Herbie Flowers on bass, and string arrangements and mixing by Tony Visconti, who would become a fixture on Bowie’s records for the rest of the decade), and with Ziggy gone too Bowie introduces us to his new “character”, the somewhat ill-defined Halloween Jack (a real cool cat, and he lives on top of Manhattan Chase, but he’s never home) without actually sticking to a storyline. This complex album isn’t a great starting point for Bowie fans, more recommended after you’ve already begun to build Bowie collection. For mega fans it’s one of Bowie’s great full length gap-records that manages to cohesively bridge Bowie’s conceptual surrealism (some of Bowie’s best ever lyrics, both libidinous and direct) with his expanding neo-soul phase. The half-canine album cover by Guy Peeelart (who also painted ‘It’s Only Rock and Roll’ around the same time) is one of Bowie’s finest, enjoyed best in full gatefold, pre-airbrushed format.

NEXT: Plastic Soul!

Pin Ups (1973)


1. Rosalyn: Mick Ronson’s pulsating guitar (his sensational playing on this album is a given throughout) introduces an energetic performance from Bowie and his band (another constant throughout the album) and this take on The Pretty Things’ Rosalyn is one of the most enjoyable tracks on the whole set. 7.0

2. Here Comes the Night: Van Morrison penned track and just a little bit ridiculous. Bowie’s tongue-in-cheek crooning is way over the top here (and not for the first time on this album) as is the arrangement, displaying a lack of sympathy for the original. 4.0

3. I Wish You Would: A Yardbirds “cover” this is one of the least awesome moments on the album, although showcasing Ronson’s terrific guitar sound. However (and this is just a personal opinion - gulp), this was around the same time that it, worryingly, became the Dave and Mick show (see the 1980 Floor Show), with Mick inching his way centre stage to join his “partner”. Now I love Mick Ronson to bits (just read some of this shit), but the best thing Bowie could do for his career was axe him and pick up the guitar himself, which he did thank the rock gods! 4.5

4. See Emily Play: Cover of a Syd Barrett tune at a time when the Floyd had just released their magnum opus Dark Side of the Moon. A great song any way you look at it, Bowie emphasising the rocking rather than the psychedelic qualities of the song, although a deliberately screwy version, almost a piss-take. 5.0

5. Everything’s Alright: The band is in fine feather throughout this song (particularly Mike Garson) as is Bowie for his sax (which is all over this album) and his histrionic vocal delivery (which for better or for worse is also all over this album). A hit for the Mojos (whoever they were) in the 60s. Not horrible. 5.5

6. I Can’t Explain: Not only because it’s sung in a relatively straight way, but he gets inside the skin of this great song and exquisitely shapes a piano and horn driven make-over of an early hit single by The Who, into slowed down and subtle rendition resulting in the best song on the album. 7.5

7. Friday on My Mind: And this is the worst. An Easybeats cover and very silly indeed, falls flat. Bowie’s vocals are unflattering and only enjoyable from a novelty perspective. There was a good song in there somewhere I’m sure of it. 3.0

8. Sorrow: Originally a hit for the Merseys however an even bigger hit by Bowie and an obvious choice for single. One of the highlights of the album and a great Bowie sax solo, both edgy and elegant. 7.0

9. Don’t Bring Me Down: Another Pretty Things cover (they’ve got to be happy with that). Like most of the songs here, there’s a lot of style and an element of sneer, and a masterful display of his grasp of phrasing and nuance. 6.0

10. Shapes of Things: Yardbirds again, and later by the Jeff Beck Group (with rockin’ Rod Stewart on vocals on 1968’s masterpiece 'Truth'). A demolition job when compared with the original unfortunately. 4.0

11. Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere: Another Who song. Not as good as I Can’t Explain. Bowie’s mannerisms are misdirected and too exaggerated. 5.0

12. Where Have All the Good Times Gone: Kinks B-side and great circular riff ideal for Ronson’s style. A high point of the album and nice finish. 6.5


VERDICT: Pin Ups was Bowie’s last album to feature the Spiders from Mars (actually Woody Woodmansey had already been axed) and the last album he did with producer Ken Scott. It’s a lightweight and a relatively enjoyable history lesson of British hits of the 60s that Bowie happened to be a fan. Also a strange and confusing album to make at this stage of his career (a covers album), particularly after the landmark albums which had established his originality, however it’s not a tossed-off pastiche it has been mistaken for. Pin Ups is better than that and it does not take itself too seriously (unlike perhaps Bryan Ferry’s ‘These Foolish Things’ of the same year), and good to see him role-playing on this somewhat trifling affair. In retrospect it’s an appropriate stepping stone into his next phenomenal and risk-taking artistic phase. The album cover with Twiggy was originally planned for a magazine but ended up as one of Bowie’s most famous.

NEXT: Apocalypse Now!

Aladdin Sane (1973)


1. Watch That Man: Half ‘Brown Sugar’ and half Lou Reed’s ‘Wild Child’ (...no one took their eyes off Lorraine), everything’s up front on this track except Bowie’s vocal which ends up buried deep in the mix, ‘Exile’ vintage. I love that about it though. Written on the road in the USA, it shows. This one is New York, very suitable. 7.5

2. Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?): Masterpiece #13. Garson’s discordant solo is a highlight of the album and this the title track with it’s European decadence (written aboard the RHMS Ellinis) is an enormous leap forward from Bowie in the experimental realm, more so than anything that came before it. Amazing stuff. 10.0

3. Drive-In Saturday: Another Mott the Hoople rejection (which led to the shaving of his eyebrows), this sci-fi doo-wop single was a hit but rarely made it onto any Bowie 'greatest hits' compilations. Written on the way down to Phoenix from Seattle, it’s a wonderfully atmospheric song deserving it’s place in Bowie’s ‘underrated classic’ canon. 8.0

4. Panic in Detroit: Ronson outdoes himself yet again, in fact this album would be his second-last with Bowie, but his peak and a guitarist and arranger. Salsa meets hard blues in this recount of the 1967 Detroit riots, although never really sounded great live. 7.5

5. Cracked Actor: Continuing the theme of hard rocking Stonesy numbers, the glam stomp of Cracked Actor throws trashy Hollywood imagery our way via Ronson’s crunching guitar and some best ever drumming from Woody. 7.0

6. Time: Masterpiece #14. Echoes of European cabaret, this soaring masterpiece was written in New Orleans and is simply the highpoint of the album. Bowie’s vocals are some of the best of his career so far, a theatrical performance of heroic levels (including his heavy-breathing solo). Influence of Brel and Brecht clearly heard here and Ronson’s multi-tracked guitar shines. 10.0

7. The Prettiest Star: Re-recorded and trying again to make this work, this track is somewhat out of place as it was written in Gloucester Road and recorded with Bolan around the time of Hunky Dory. Hasn’t improved a lot here and remains somewhat lightweight addition to this rocking album. 6.0

8. Let’s Spend the Night Together: Glammed up cover of Stones rocker, Bowie whoops it up here and a hilariously enthusiastic performance, and just a little bit tongue in cheek. Belongs here. Sounds right here. Was an integral part of the Ziggy set-list for the final leg of the tour and points towards (and would’ve just about been the best thing on) the forthcoming Pin-Ups album. 7.0

9. The Jean Genie: One of Bowie’s most famous songs, rarely missing a showing on the Bowie tours over the decades. Written in Detroit and New York, this song came out of a Bo Diddley jam session with Mick Ronson. Chugs along beautifully (including the false-start 1st chorus) and was already a hit well before Aladdin Sane hit the shelves. Lyrically associated with Iggy Pop, Jeff Beck supposedly plays on this (he certainly played at the final Ziggy Hammersmith show, although that was oddly left off the album and film). Falls just short of Masterpiece status only due to over-familiarisation. 9.5

10. Lady Grinning Soul: Masterpiece #15. Back in London now and a superb finish to this album. Always been a personal favourite with is expansive vocals, flamenco guitar and cascading piano, the otherwordly Lady Grinning Soul was inspired by a meeting with American soul singer Claudia Lannear (as is the Stones’ Brown Sugar). 10.0


VERDICT: A fine forty-five minutes of classic rock. A great party record. This album, according to some, was “written too fast, recorded too fast, and mixed too fast”. You can hear it, but you could say the same thing for a lot of great albums, like the Bowie produced ‘Raw Power’ (1973) - one of the greatest rock ‘n roll albums of time. Amazingly recorded and released less than 12 months after ‘The Rise and Fall..’, this album has exactly the same lineup of musicians (and producer) although this time with horns, backing vocals and Mike Garson’s extraordinary avant garde piano work, would’ve benefited further with the addition of All the Young Dudes (9.5). First album Bowie had released from a status of superstardom. The theatrical pieces work beautifully alongside the rockers, even if it all was thrown together too quickly. The album cover has now become one of the most iconic images in rock history, and one of Bowie’s best ever.

NEXT: These Foolish Things…no wait!

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)


1. Five Years: Perfect opener. Perfect (this has been scientifically proven boys and girls). It’s the simple format of guitar, bass, drums and piano that gets me going, not to mention the pummelling climax which really makes the spiky red hair stand up on end. Again with the Ken Scott partnership, a partnership that really works by the way - Hunky Dory and now this. A despairing tale of humanity enduring an apocalyptic countdown launches us into the loose “concept” that is the Ziggy album. 9.0

2. Soul Love: Drum fades out, drums fade into a gorgeously melodic song, with ‘the Spiders’ laying down their signature sound, Bowie’s enchanting sax ‘dubs underneath and subsequent solo. He’s quite suspicious of love in this one. No ‘I love you, you love me’ shit going down here. There is, but much more complex than that. And more interesting. Track down the amazing Tokyo ‘78 rendition. 8.0

3. Moonage Daydream: Masterpiece #8. The colossal side-one showpiece launches this album deep into glam rock outaspace. Ziggy’s sci-fi tour-de-force, with an arrangement by Mick Ronson that is simply a triumph. Piano, strings and thunderous guitar, before flying off in a face-melting solo. 10.0

4. Starman: A fine pop song, and Bowie’s first hit since 'Space Oddity'. This album could’ve been called ‘Round and Round’ had it not been for the late addition of this and some other key tracks (eg: Suffragette City) that pulled the Ziggy album together. They couldn’t miss with songwriting like this. The chorus and refrain melody is pop perfection and started a tremendous run of singles. 8.5

5. It Ain’t Easy: So far Brit-American nihilism, so good. Written by southern American songwriter Ron Davies 2 years earlier, ‘It Ain’t Easy’ had already been covered by numerous artists such as Three Dog Night and Long John Baldry. At what first seems a bizarre selection here (and marginalised somewhat by the little oogie community), this cover left over from the Hunky Dory sessions turns out to be a decent blues rocker. Correct me if I’m wrong but his version on the essential John Peel sessions teaming with Warren Peace is very listenable. At worst a singalong-able infectious addition to the Ziggy repertoire. 7.0

6. Lady Stardust: Masterpiece #9. Ziggy’s song to Marc Bolan. It doesn’t get much better than this. As strong a melody as Bowie has written and an absolute masterpiece that should be on any number of the diahreaticly released Bowie ‘best of’s of the years. A lovely song. The early demos of this are interesting too. 10.0

7. Star: The I’m-going-to-be-a-stratospheric-rock-star-just-watch-me number-one punch and begins the unstoppable gallop down Ziggy’s home straight, and the pinnacle of the 1978 Stage world tour set. 7.5

8. Hang Onto Yourself: The Bolan theme continues here with Bowie’s breathy vocals and frenzied riffage. They would go one step further into T.Rex terrain with a couple of tracks that never made it on here, eg: 'Velvet Goldmine' and 'Sweet Head'. A previously uninspiring version had flopped as a single, which brings me to the unfathomable exclusion of 'John I’m Only Dancing' (9.0), which would’ve made this album even better (!). 7.5

9. Ziggy Stardust: Masterpiece #10. Ronson as usual is exemplary, but the classic opening riff is all Bowie. There’s nothing I can say about this song other than it encapsulates the entire plot of the rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in it’s lyrics. The centrepiece of the album and one of the all time great rock songs. 10.0

10. Suffragette City: Masterpiece #11. Scorching dirty riffs, paranoid hostility and a blueprint for rock stardom all in the one blistering track. Unfathomably turned down when offered to Mott the Hoople so Bowie recorded it himself - and thank god he did. The purest of rock and roll songs. 10.0

11. Rock and Roll Suicide: Masterpiece #12. Bowie presents Ziggy’s downfall with a breathtaking theatricality and a thrilling climax to an album with not a note out of place. I love the icy, offbeat “…you’re a rock n roll suicide’. It’s the definitive anthem for glam rock decadence and tragedy, and a kiss-off to the album. “What if Ziggy had quit?”. There’s no better way to sign out. 10.0


VERDICT: “To be played at maximum volume”. The complete album and a landmark in the history of rock from the most important and influential artist of our generation announcing his greatness, and was Bowie’s ticket to superstardom. It has recording techniques that set the blueprint for many a band as well as an abject lesson in how to record and layer vocals, for starters. The timeless album cover has a tinted 50s sci-fi comic look that captures Ziggy just fallen to earth in a dark and empty Heddon Street. The release of this album followed an exhausting (non-stop and strangely non-European) year-long tour that would end with an onstage retirement at the Hammersmith Odeon in London 1973 - last captured in Ziggy Stardust the Motion Picture.

NEXT: Ziggy does USA!

Hunky Dory (1971)


1. Changes: Masterpiece #4. Bowie has an uncanny knack of picking the perfect songs to kick his albums off with. Just think of it, Space Oddity, Width of a Circle, Station to Station etc, and on this album particularly he has announced straight away, from the first song that this is what the album will be like, which is an extraordinary thing. This is why I love this guy, for songs like Changes. It may not be a masterpiece on the same level as “Heroes”, but when you think of this album, regardless of your overall opinion, you can't help but feel as though there's no other song that should be here. A perfect start to this album and incredibly only recorded a mere 6 months after ‘The Man Who Sold the Word’ wrapped up. It certainly wouldn’t have belonged on that. Nothing here would. A perfect pop tune and with a timeless quality and underlying humour (and some great sax). 10.0

2. Oh, You Pretty Things!: Masterpiece #5. No one's ever written songs like this. Apart from Bowie of course. It's almost like a glorified demo, but it doesn't need to be anything more than that to convince me of its greatness. Might I also mention that this song’s got the cleanest singing of Bowie’s career? It's effortless pure genius. 10.0

3. Eight Line Poem: A lovely little ditty between two timeless classics. Always loved Mick’s country-tinged lead, and that’s Bowie on piano. Beautiful live version appears on one of his ‘Live at the Beeb’ bootlegs worth tracking down. 8.0

4. Life on Mars: Masterpiece #6. They’re coming thick and fast now aren’t they? This song is just about the most beautiful thing he's ever written. There’s a live version online you can watch from 1980 on the Johnny Carson show that is one of the best performances of any song by any artist I have ever seen. So much talent. This is supposed to be a re-write of ‘My Way’, but ‘My Way’ is horrible and this is perfect. Just perfect. But really, this is Bowie’s song, and easily sits among his five greatest. 10.0

5. Kooks: Fun tune for ‘little z’. Good little song. Fits nicely on this album. 7.5

6. Quicksand: Masterpiece #7. “I’m closer to the golden dawn, emersed in Crowley’s uniform of imagery”. And BOOM, Bowie announces his greatness. What an introduction! There's so many things to get worked up about in this song. You can focus on the piano solos (an instrument that dominates this album - which is awesome), Bowie’s 12-string guitar shapes, or you can focus on the amazing lyrics. You can even focus on the delivery - which is among Bowie’s finest. I like to think of it on a whole, as one of the greatest triumphs in rock and roll. And if that seems like I'm overreacting then you really need to listen to this song again. 10.0

7. Fill Your Heart: A Biff Rose cover and a guilty pleasure. Guilty? Not sure why. Pleasure? Absolutely. Those rolling piano moves from Rick Wakeman keep me coming back, as does Bowie wry delivery. Not the best song on the album by a long shot, but a lot of fun and a great way to kick off side two. 6.5

8. Andy Warhol: Great strum-athon from Bowie and Mick. And was Andy pissed! A song about Andy Warhol when most of Britain had never heard of him. 7.5

9. Song for Bob Dylan: There’s nothing remotely bad on this album, but if I was to pick a least-favourite, Bowie-written, track this would be it. I love the sentiment and the Zimmerman voice but this track kinda falls apart around the chorus ‘Here she comes, here she comes, here she comes again’. That’s not to say I still think it’s great. 7.0

10. Queenbitch: Unrepresentative of the album, but points the way ahead. And how about those guitars! Buzzing like chainsaws throughout the song, perhaps taking your mind off the nonsensically brilliant (more) Dylanesque lyrics. Bring on the Spiders From Mars! 9.0

11. Bewley Brothers: Revisiting themes raised on ‘All the Madmen’ from his previous album, hard to make sense of some of the spikey imagery he’s throwing around but there is a method to the madness, quite literally. Damn, this album's perfect. Gotta listen to it again. 9.5


VERDICT: Recorded and released quickly, Hunky Dory captures Bowie in transition from the proto metal of ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ to the grand concept of ‘Ziggy Stardust’, and is simply a perfect album full of beautifully performed songs at a time when singer-songwriter’s were all the rage. It’s Bowie’s acoustic album, displaying his enormous potential, made up of songs about and for old friends, love, and a love of mysticism and rock n roll, all mixed up to create a gem of an album, one I've never been tired of hearing.

NEXT: Rock n Roll Star!

The Man Who Sold the World (1971)


1. Width of a Circle: Masterpiece #2. This is one of the great opening tracks on any album, let alone a Bowie album. Having said that, listening to this back to back with one of it’s hard rocking contemporaries (eg: Led Zeppelin IV or Black Sabbath’s Paranoid), the band (including producer Visconti on bass and Ronson on guitar) sounds razor thin and almost a little lightweight. Still, the lyrics slaughter anything Zep ever came up with. I don’t recall them singing about having sex with the Devil in Hell. 10.0

2. All the Madmen: It’s about his brother and he seems to be questioning the whole idea of ‘sanity’. A great song. The little spoken word interlude after the soaring chorus gives it a beautiful demented quality (“..they followed me home..”). Fared well when trotted out on the Glass Spider tour. 8.5

3. Black Country Rock: “Pack your packhorse up and rest up here…”. Cool Bolan-esque vocal effect and a decent guitar/bass rocking number without peeling the paint off the wall. Riff-heavy blues based rock. 7.0

4. After All: This creepy little gothic nursery rhyme ballad fits into the general theme of the album quite nicely. Bowie’s voice is rather delicate and lovely, tackling some disturbing themes that would be revisited later on the following album’s Quicksand. 7.0

5. Running Gun Blues: Bowie’s strangled voice and demented, paranoid lyrics along with the off centre mix and bass-heavy blues rock make this track one hell of a tongue-in-cheek riot. Hit and miss stuff coming from Bowie at this early stage, but he was definitely on the right track. 6.5

6. Saviour Machine: Who has ever written a song like this? Heavy apocalyptic track and downright frightening as Bowie sings from the POV of the machine before it destroys humanity… or something. Thought provoking stuff and amazing vocals. 6.5

7. She Shook Me Cold: Masterpiece #3. This track kicks all kinds of ass. Ronson isn’t Clapton and Visconti isn’t Jack Bruce, yet this is as awesome as 70s hard rocking blues gets and the mind-blowing, tackle out, instrumental interplay suits Bowie’s twisted, sexed up lyrics. Never been played live. 10.0

8. The Man Who Sold the World: Ambiguous meaning again but contains my favourite ‘cheese grater’ moments ever. Not quite a certified Bowie classic and like Dylan, other artists seem to have had more success with his track. The definitive version remains his 1979 SNL Klaus Nomi performance. 8.5

9. The Supermen: Great finishing to the album but not my favourite song ever. Bowie pretending to understand Nietzsche. The whole “..so softly a supergod cries” with Mick Ronson harmonising (especially live) wears a bit thin and has become highly irritating. By no means a Bowie classic but a suitable closer to this album. 6.0


VERDICT: It’s a concept album about a shaven headed transvestite, as opposed to a concept album about a flame haired Martian rock star. It is a logical precursor to Ziggy Stardust but still a long long way off it’s brilliance. The whole production on this album is a bit of a let down and Visconti would soon relinquish bass and production duties and return several years later around Young Americans. I don’t think newly-wed Bowie was fully behind it, and was left a bit thin rather than a fully formed, fleshed out masterpiece. Having said that I still hold a special place for it (and it’s many albums covers – but none as good as the original) and consider it the start of the classic Bowie phase.

NEXT: Greatness!

Space Oddity (1969)

David Bowie album reviews - Reviewsonebowie. His output has been consistently brilliant over a long period of time with only a few missteps along the way. There's the 60s Ken Pitt inspired vaudeville beginnings resulting in his first self-titled album, then the solo career proper takes off (that’s where my reviews begin), the unfuckwithable 70s, the blow-wave superstar years of the early 80s, the years where it all went horribly wrong, the underrated 90s, and everything else since. I will not be de-coding Bowie’s songs for meaning or messages, more a look at the quality and enjoyment of each song on it’s own merits - and all in my humble opinion.

Let's begin where it all really started.

Space Oddity (1969)


1. Space Oddity: Masterpiece #1. Bowie's first stone cold classic and still sounds great today. Scared the hell out of me as a kid and still has an element of menace associated with it. Put Bowie on the map as his first hit single, and for a time seemed to be his only hit. Was to go on and re-record a stunning Lennon-esque stripped down version in 1979. 10.0

2. Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed: “Spy spy pretty girl..”. A fine song and really rocks along in the Dylan-esque country rock and heavy rhythm style Bowie was dabbling in at the time, including his embracing of all things hippy (which may unfortunately have resulted in less showering). Also includes some ripping Benny Marshall harmonica. Ditty ‘Don’t Sit Down’ (3.5) follows. 7.5

3. Letter to Hermione: Direct love song about former love Hermione Farthingale, and can be quite affecting when listened to in a dark room, alone. Quite a moving piece, but I don’t like Bowie’s voice in this one too much. Again with the Dylan angle. 7.0

4. Cygnet Committee: The definitive Bowie dystopian rant. I think you needed to be born in the 60s to fully appreciate his sentiments on this one. He seems to be describing the ironies of the hippy movement of peace and love and how even the hippy movement was forceful and controlling. It’s heavy going Cygnet Committee but it’s a stunningly passionate vocal performance. 8.0

5. Janine: Echos of Ziggy in the intro and light bouncy pop has never sounded so good. I like the reverb on the vocal. All in all a pretty unassuming song and somewhat reminiscent of Hey Jude towards the end. 6.5

6. An Occasional Dream: Another gentle love song about Hermione Farthingale again but not as effective as ‘Letter to…’. Time gently washes and erodes the past until the once heavily-passionate affair becomes the subconscious musing of an occasional dream. This piece was an early attempt by Bowie to convey, in direct terms, the effect that rejection in love had upon him. His later work becomes surreal and obscure so I am grateful that we are permitted to share his personal feelings towards a fellow human being in such an unadulterated manner. 6.5

7. Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud: A personal favourite and while there have been any number of versions recorded, this remains the best (except perhaps for the live medley version on ‘..the Motion Picture’ which is worth the price of admission alone). 8.0

8. God Knows I’m Good: Probably based on a story Bowie read in the newspaper. Using religion when it suits you, in this case an old lady. Not the strongest moment on the album, probably the weakest. 6.0

9. Memory of a Free Festival: Someone thought this would make a good single (although the single version, Part 1 and Part 2 is superior to what is here). That’s how much bliss was being passed among the crowd at the Arts Lab Beckingham Free Festival in 1969. With its Hey Jude-esque singalong outro, this track was last seen opening the Philly Dogs tours in 1974. 7.5


VERDICT: Within the individual songs there is not a truly weak moment, and such an unfocussed album it’s still strangely impressive as a whole. Would’ve been even stronger had some additional tracks recorded around the same time been included eg: Let Me Sleep Beside You (6.5), London Bye Ta Ta (6.0), Conversation Piece (7.5) or The Prettiest Star (6.5). A rag-bag collection of psychedelic folk rock from an artist still finding his true voice. Still prefer the 1972 “Ziggy” re-release album cover (and new title) rather than the 1969 perm and horrendous (Man of Words, Man of Music) title.

NEXT: Heavy Metal!