Monday, January 24, 2011

Black Tie White Noise (1993)


1. The Wedding: The albums opens with stately wedding bells, this track was written for his wife and their recent wedding. A nice instrumental, it’s essentially Bowie’s treated sax over housey piano and drums with some nice Eastern qualities. Bowie bookends this album with another version of the same track, but luckily that’s where the wedding concept starts and ends. 5.0

2. You’ve Been Around: Bowie often professes to have been deeply influenced by the icon of obscurity Scott Walker (The Walker Brothers), and likewise Walker influenced by Bowie and Eno’s work of the late 70s. This track was one left over from Tin Machine II and Bowie generates quite the Scott Walker self-harmonizing vocal effect almost predating Walker’s Tilt. Co-writer Reeves Gabrels’ guests on this track only and his guitar is mixed way down creating a nice warm sound. Jazz legend Lester Bowie (dotted all over this album) plays some nice trumpet too. Decent track. 7.0

3. I Feel Free: Cream cover with the late great Mick Ronson returning after many years, offering a nice guitar solo. This is a dance version of a song goes as far back as the Ziggy Stardust concerts and finally gets the (albeit OTT) studio treatment. Somewhat reminiscent of something off Let’s Dance, it’s fun in a sterile kind of way, and essentially forgettable. Bowie’s ultra-deep baritone plunges down to the earth’s core at one stage. 4.0

4. Black Tie White Noise: Post-LA Riots ebony and ivory duet with Al B Sure! or nonsensical ramblings of a middle aged man, either way it took them weeks to get this one right (longer than it took to record the entire Let’s Dance album), and not sure if it was entirely worth it. I still don’t know who Al B Sure! is! 4.5

5. Jump They Say: A looped horn section competes with Bowie’s strange sax sound (heard all over this album) on this energetic and edgy track. Possibly addressing the painful subject of suicide, it’s a strong track and his most successful single and innovative video for some time. 6.5

6. Nite Flights: Faithful cover of a brilliant Scott Walker song from the dark 1978 album of the same name. Bowie does it justice with a beautifully restrained performance and adds spacey drones and electronic treatments to excellent effect. The best song on the album by a long shot. 8.0

7. Pallas Athena: Anonymous dance floor muzak. People who were dancing to it had no idea it was Bowie. Listening to this track I wonder if I care. 3.0

8. Miracle Goodnight: Cute and cheery love song with some nice emotional lyrics from new husband and clearly besotted Mr Bowie. You can’t blame him for that. A wedding present for his wife? Lovely. Unfortunately the cornball ascending synth riff wears out it’s welcome as does the drum machine as usual. 4.5

9. Don’t Let Me Down and Down: Another more obscure cover this time, his voice is strong on this one and his performance strangely enjoyable, but the track grates with it’s cod-grandiose tempo and is way too maudlin. A setback for side two. 4.0

10. Looking for Lester: Lester Bowie plays a nice trumpet on this instrumental and goes head to head with Bowie’s own dissonant sax and Mike Garson’s piano tinkling. Bops along ok if you like that kind of thing. 5.0

11. I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday: Bowie covering Morrissey covering Bowie. A perplexing choice doing this one, particularly with a gospel feel. A bit out of place on the album and painfully over-schmaltzy. 3.0

12. The Wedding Song: Bowie reprises the opener, this time with a vocal and somewhat trite lyrics “I believe in magic..”. 4.0


VERDICT: Black Tie White Noise marks the beginning of Bowie’s modern era and presents us with his latest persona that of a relevant solo working artist. A transitional album between the disappointing Tin Machine albums and the semi-firm creative footing of The Buddha of Suburbia, it’s also a dance album sitting insignificantly in the Bowie cannon, once again relying on Let’s Dance mastermind Nile Rogers as producer although Bowie maintained his artistic vision and turned down a lot of his suggestions to make this a more chart-friendly album ie: Let’s Dance II (maybe he shouldn’t have been involved at all?). Unfortunately they only succeeded in making an album dominated by upright ultra-funk bass, mediocre dance-club pop crossed with large amounts of smooth jazz stylings, and limiting his creative potential by working within strict mechanical drum patterns, jarring hiphop samples and programmed loops on nearly every track to reach the completely arbitrary four minute length. The album does herald the welcome return of Mike Garson and Mick Ronson to the fold, and while it was welcomed with open arms upon it’s release (what wouldn’t after Tin Machine?), it flopped in the States, bankrupted it’s record label (Savage), was then unavailable for many years, and has not aged well in sound or packaging (the album cover is Bowie’s career worst). It’s ultra-slick and humourless, and forever cemented as a piece of indistinct 90s dance pop. I can’t rate this one higher than Tonight but it’s definitely better than Tin Machine II. It’s Bowie’s least interesting album (even Tonight had it’s quirky charms), it’s stylistically narrow and there was no tour, only an hour long extremely dull video package of interviews, (mimed) performances and studio footage that’s best left alone.

NEXT: “Sometimes I fear that the whole world is queer”

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tin Machine

Tin Machine (1989)

Studs: Baby Can Dance, Amazing
Duds: Video Crime, Crack City


Tin Machine II (1991)

Studs: You Belong in Rock N’ Roll, If There is Something
Duds: Schtateside, Sorry


VERDICT: I’m not a Tin Machine fan. Let’s be loud and clear about that right now, and apologies in advance to those who do enjoy it on the level it was intended. Within my layers of cynicism and bitterness I don’t even consider this outfit to be components of the real Bowie catalogue. They are not David Bowie albums (much to the dismay of Reeves Gabrels) and considering we were smashed about the head at the time: this is a band effort/a collaborative affair/I’m with the boys, or as Bowie’s accompanying surly personality declared “Fuck you I’m in Tin Machine”, it is enough of a Bowie album(s) to at least mention in this albeit abridged Discography roundup. So, for all it’s faults Tin Machine was a much needed artistic enema in 1989 as Bowie’s rock-star career had come to a shuddering halt after Never Let Me Down and the ridiculous Spinal Tap-sized laughing stock that was the Glass Spider fiasco. To call it mostly awful is a trifle harsh (there are some decent rocking moments), although it has not aged well. Just listen to the first track off their first album and you’ll see what I mean. This track encapsulates just about everything Tin Machine were about in it’s 6 gruelling minutes. What starts out as quite an interesting track disintegrates into a loud, pointless “rock out” with some of the most embarrassingly awful lead guitar you’re ever likely to hear. The drums, like Hunt Sales’ personality, are horribly loud and obnoxious and when listening to this (the first album particularly) I can’t help but think here are four suited-up gents getting all rather rowdy in the basement before going back upstairs to their sandstone mansions, sipping their kool-aid and watering pot plants. Bowie had wrested back control by the somewhat more polished second (and final) album, but they were trying so hard to prove the point the band was democratic they even included a couple of unlistenable Hunt Sales tunes on the second side. For a career that was built on violently changing direction, Tin Machine was no different. Bowie needed to get this out of his system and to clear his mind (and his record company) before another stab at a commercial albeit artier sound.

NEXT: “Putting on the Black Tie (Again)…”

Monday, January 17, 2011

Never Let Me Down (1987)


1. Day-In Day-Out: A great opening line “She was born in a handbag…”, and a few others along the way, can’t save this tuneless plodder as it's all downhill from there. One of the few occasions where the opening track on a Bowie album isn’t a jaw-dropper. Also included a wholly unpleasant video. 3.5

2. Time Will Crawl: The lyrics reflect on the aftermath of nuclear war and life in a postnuclear society and environment, specifically Chernobyl. Well chosen track to remix for 2009’s iSelect. This is a good Bowie track and the best track here. 6.5

3. Beat of Your Drum: This is pretty lousy stuff, and at just over 5 minutes Bowie sounds as bored as I do. Plays like a half-finished left-over from the Labyrinth soundtrack. The first in some rather lyrically unpleasant irony-free borderline misogyny tracks. 2.0

4. Never Let Me Down: This slight title track is always talked up as being a terrific John Lennon-esque number (although it’s more an ode to his long-term faithful assistant Coco Schwab), in actual fact he sounds nothing like Lennon ever did. The song is far from a classic but holds up and a standout track on the album. 6.0

5. Zeroes: Opens with a really annoying fake crowd noise and even more annoying and incomprehensible announcer (Diamond Dogs it ain’t), Bowie’s winding vocal searches far and wide for a melody and almost finds one. Ambitious and not horrible. Some nice sitar, if you get that far. 5.0

6. Glass Spider: The pivotal track on the album Bowie begins by uneasily narrating a preposterous tale of (you guessed it) a, or indeed, the 'Glass Spider' which is embarrassingly bad and best not pondered over it’s near 2 minute intro. Once the song actually gets underway it becomes quite a spirited if melodramatic affair, but weighed down but a cluttered mix of backing vocals, clattering synths, over-affected guitar soloing and obnoxious drums. 3.5

7. Shining Star (Makin’ My Love): An innocuous one-dimensional shuffle with a pointless and incoherent rap by Mickey Rourke. "When I performed I was thinking, you all look like you should be seeing Phil Collins. Then I thought... hang on... I sound like Phil Collins." On this one that is true. Similar to the title track, I dislike Bowie’s fey voice in this. A complete flop. 2.0

8. New York’s in Love: This one isn’t much better. I think this is the track where Bowie plays lead guitar. The couple of dirty guitar solos after the choruses may well be the best sounding instrument on the whole album. Otherwise this song is completely pointless and melody-free and goes nowhere astonishingly quickly. 4.0

9. ’87 and Cry: Surprisingly this one does have a tune, and the rather nice refrain “And only you..” has it’s charms. Let down badly by those monotonous drums and a horrible middle eight. 4.0

10. Too Dizzy: This track has the unenviable honour of being a song Bowie thought so bad he had it deleted from some reissue of the album. Unfortunately my copy has it. 1.0

11. Bang Bang: At last an Iggy Pop cover. This is a relatively pleasing finish to an extremely disappointing side two. It’s always been a pretty good song (track down Iggy’s ‘non-hit single’ version off Party produced by Monkees songwriter Tommy Boyce), but Bowie’s unimaginative version doesn’t do it a lot of justice here. Some very dubious and altogether nasty American accents on display towards the end. 4.0


VERDICT: The 80s proved such a barren ground for so many major artists who had powered through the 60s and 70s, and Bowie was no exception with Never Let Me Down proving to be his creative nadir. After the commercial success but relative disappointment of his previous two dance-oriented albums, Bowie (in an unhappy and contractually obliged relationship with his then record company EMI) crafted a more arena-friendly guitar rock album to complement his forthcoming theatrical 'Glass Spider' world tour. Unfortunately the tour would go down in history as one of rock’s greatest follies. The hair was bemulleted, the drums loud and monotonous, the suits bright and the band (and dancers anyone?) dynamically impotent. The 'Glass Spider' theme and narrative was muddled, hammy and delivered with a horrible MTV gloss, free of any artistic credibility or conviction. The accompanying album, co-produced by David Richards (Iggy Pop’s Blah Blah Blah, Queen’s A Kind of Magic) and accompanied by one-man-backing-b(l)and Erdal Kizilcay, confirmed Bowie’s artistic insolvency, where any track with a hint of charm or appealing technique was buried in an avalanche of breathtaking overproduction and bombast. And that’s a shame because there is some merit and fine singing beneath the semi-melodic generic 80s pop sound. The busy album cover name-checks a number of items within the lyrics if you could be bothered, and also features the worst David Bowie ‘logo’ ever.

NEXT: The Artistic Enema of Tin Machine.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Tonight (1984)


1. Loving the Alien: A lyrically striking cinematic album highlight, the overlong quasi-spiritual slog of Loving the Alien, like much of the album suffers from fussy, over-saturated 80s production values. There is good song in there somewhere confirmed by the emotive stripped back “demo” version rolled out on the 2004 Reality tour. 7.5

2. Don’t Look Down: Bowie started covering/collaborating with Iggy Pop in the late 70s and this trend would continue well into the 80s, none more so than on this album where Bowie and Iggy had re-established their friendship. This is the first of five co-writes on this album - some cover versions, like this one (the splendid original appearing on Iggy’s essential New Values album), and other new collaborations. While not a patch on the original, this works quite well even with the loping reggae treatment. Particularly good as incidental music in the guiltily pleasure-able ‘Jazzin for Blue Jean’ mini-film. 6.5

3. God Only Knows: A left over from the original Pin Ups album. To say covering this Beach Boys hit was ill-advised is a huge understatement (it's a song I have never been a huge fan of...sorry) . There’s a lot wrong with this train wreck: the strings are kitschy and Bowie’s undistinguished vocal performance is one of his all time worst, for starters. 1.0

4. Tonight: Covering this awesome track off Iggy’s seminal Lust for Life album as a duet with Tina Turner may have looked good on paper, unfortunately winds up a directionless adult-contemporary lite-reggae borefest. 3.0

5. Neighbourhood Threat: Side two crashes in extra-loud and compared to the title track, Neighbourhood Threat is an urgent, energetic and tense adaptation of the Lust for Life original with some vigorous singing from Bowie, if a little scattershot and texturally barren in it’s arrangement. 6.5

6. Blue Jean: This listless faux-‘50s faux-rocker is drenched in crunchy sax and ridiculous lyrics, and while enjoyably catchy, ultimately grates. 5.0

7. Tumble and Twirl: This fresh collaboration with Iggy includes some appealing imagery in the lyrics (“hot juice in coke bottles”) referring to their recent experiences holidaying in Borneo. The lengthy uptempo lounge funk of Tumble and Twirl is strangely enjoyable despite an arrangement clearly cooked up by the anonymous production team while Bowie was outside smoking a cigarette. 5.5

8. I Keep Forgettin’: This inconsequential Vegas throwaway (written by Leiber and Stoller of Jailhouse Rock fame) is thoroughly forgettable inoffensive filler. 3.0

9. Dancing with the Big Boys: This somewhat melody-free closer is still one of the more interesting tracks on the album and Bowie virtually takes a back seat to Iggy’s lead vocal and string of non-sequiturs (eg: “Your family is a football team”). Tonight also saw the welcome return of Carlos Alomar who provides co-write credits here. Bowie would go on to produce Iggy’s forthcoming Blah Blah Blah and would rework another collaboration called Shades (7.5), a fine song unfortunately left off this album. 5.5


VERDICT: This is where Bowie started trying to second-guess the musical tastes of his global following and rushed out Tonight to capitalise on the massive success of Let’s Dance and the subsequent Serious Moonlight tour. Unfortunately the sub-par material was left to faceless 80s producers Hugh Padgham and Derek Bramble (better known for their work with Phil Collins and Sting) to messily piece together an album full of generic horns, strings and marimbas while Bowie sat on the couch waiting to do his vocal take, with nothing more to prove. Far from Let’s Dance II (most of the same musicians were used), the stylized pop of Tonight is actually more varied and far more interesting as a whole, and never dull, even if the songwriting is virtually non-existent. Clearly a less-inspired album in the Bowie cannon (it was essentially disowned by Bowie upon it’s release), but apart from God Only Knows there isn’t anything truly awful on it, and can be a relatively enjoyable experience when listened to in the right context (ie: unconscious). The highly attractive album cover is a homage to eccentric British artists Gilbert & George.

NEXT: “…I really shouldn't have even bothered going into the studio to record it. In fact, when I play it, I wonder if I did sometimes…”.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Let’s Dance (1983)


1. Modern Love: A loud, slamming album opener with a big fat chorus given the Nile Rogers treatment, like everything on this album. It’s also an intoxicatingly upbeat and irresistible catchy piece of 80s superficial pop fluff. 7.0

2. China Girl: Slick remake of a co-written Iggy track complete with updated stupid ‘Asian’ guitar lick from Rogers. Actually a very very good song (the grittier The Idiot version still towers above this) and the production, while a little crass, turns this disturbingly dark obsessive piece into a philosophical pop grind with substance. 7.0

3. Let’s Dance: The colossal title track while commercially humongous (topping every chart known to man) is also artistically successful. The whole "serious moonlight" imagery is superb and Bowie is in magnificent voice throughout this song. It’s sumptuous instrumentation adds to it’s inviting grandeur but hard to imagine anyone dancing to it. 8.5

4. Without You: A minimalist groove and bluesy licks from Vaughan cannot save this insipidly hookless track which, to its detriment, follows the opening three pop monsters. I’ve always thought Cat People would’ve rounded out side one nicely. This certainly doesn’t. 3.0

5. Ricochet: The most experimental number on the album and reasonably interesting but lazily written (check some of those lyrics). They were searching for a rhythm and settled on something overly-bombastic and awkward that simply doesn’t work. 4.5

6. Criminal World: A cover of a song by an obscure band called Metro dating back to 1977. This b-side fodder is relatively innocuous and enjoyable in the context of the album but squished beneath the track that follows. 5.0

7. Cat People (Putting Out Fire): Not quite as awesome as the original 1982 soundtrack version he did with Giorgio Moroder (which is one of Bowie’s finest 80s moments) however this is good stuff, with more blistering guitar work from Vaughan and a tremendous vocal performance, as is the whole production extravaganza. Fantastic stuff. 7.5

8. Shake It: An utterly throw away funk ditty and one of the most pointless songs in the Bowie cannon. Sounds like it belongs on Labyrinth. 2.0


VERDICT: Bowie fully committed himself to commercial popularity with the mega-selling Let’s Dance and it paid off in spades – commercially. Let’s Dance saw a complete overhaul of his working musicians (even no Carlos Alomar) and producer (goodbye Tony Visconti), as well as less artistic collaboration, rather passing over an idea or song to producer Nile Rogers and his team of musicians and allowing them total artistic freedom to mould, add, tweak and magnify, leaving the only thing left for Bowie to do was to turn up for vocal takes (which are very impressive) and the odd sax solo. However it was Bowie’s artistic vision that made this the screaming success it was and he seemed far less troubled and ready to have a good time. It’s certainly not a horrible album, and I do not dislike it, I just don’t play it as much as some others and it’s unfair to judge it against anything that came before it. There are some great things about it. The album saw the emergence of the late Texan blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan whose playing all over this album is undeniably wonderful. The accompanying tour proved that Bowie was the consummate professional performer and still theatrically vital and one hell of a singer. This album also turned a lot of people onto Bowie who would not have otherwise heard his 70s material - which I guess is a good thing. Unfortunately all rough edges have been smoothed out and the album now sounds dated and suffers from having that big quintessential 80s buff sound, as well as being horrifically slick and menace-free. Let’s Dance achieved exactly what it was intended to do, however this was also the beginning of a steep downward spiral in the quality of Bowie’s music as he quickly became indifferent to his own recorded output in every way.

NEXT: “Your family is a football team..”

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980)


1. It’s No Game (Pt 1): The album opens with the sound of a tape reel being mounted before launching into one of Bowie’s angriest vocals ever, roaring out the words with abandon, matching the twisted squalls of Robert Fripp’s guitar and a macho Japanese spoken-word aural assault. This is actually a rewrite of a very old (early 60s) and very beautiful song called ‘Tired of My Life’. 9.0

2. Up the Hill Backwards: This is very un-Bowie and lyrics suggesting it’s his post-divorce song “with the arrival of freedom”. Somewhat of a singalong shuffle with a reasonably catchy refrain but generally a trifling affair. Was pointlessly butchered on the Glass Spider tour. 6.0

3. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps): A showcase song for Robert Fripp’s wildly spluttering lead guitar, and sung in a mechanical ‘mockernee’ style, the semi-industrial title track about a girl’s descent into madness is jarringly discordant but rocks out forcefully. 8.0

4. Ashes to Ashes: Masterpiece #28. With Ashes to Ashes Bowie crafts one of his most popular and majestic songs, filled with innovative flourishes, sonic textures, plunking piano, spooky whisperings, and a George Murray’s golden moment slap bass. Haunting metaphorical lyrics, this is the sequel to Space Oddity and somewhat of a drug confessional. Featured an iconic David Mallet video that still looks amazing today. 10.0

5. Fashion: Irresistibly catchy with an infectiously funky bassline and killer beat, Fashion is classy neurotic dance song and a commentary on popular culture including another virtuoso performance from Fripp, the star musician of this album. 9.0

6. Teenage Wildlife: Masterpiece #29. Bowie’s bizarre vocal histrionics (Bowie’s imitation of Ronnie Spector) is a highlight of this monumental classic. Somewhat of a sister song to the great “Heroes” and featuring textural edgy guitar from Fripp and newcomer Chuck Hammer, Teenage Wildlife is defiant and wordy (Bowie famously takes aim at his post-punk artistic godchildren eg: Gary Numan), and one of his longest and best songs ever. 10.0

7. Scream Like a Baby: A brooding industrial experiment and an interesting rewrite of a song dating back to 1973 by Ava Cherry and the Astronetts called 'I Am A Lazer', which Bowie wrote and produced, with different lyrics. 6.5

8. Kingdom Come: This track is a cover version of a good song off ex-Television Tom Verlaine’s fine first solo self titled album released in 1979. An ironic lament about life imprisonment and a dissection of a relationship, Verlaine was actually pencilled in to be the guitarist on this album and along with Adrian Belew, was dropped for Fripp at the last minute. 7.0

9. Because You’re Young: Pete Townshend plays on this drab piece with cornball lyrics which sound out of place on this album unfortunately. Would’ve worked better on Let’s Dance. Track down the superior demo version. 5.0

10. It’s No Game (Pt 2): Surprisingly the first track to be written and recorded for the album (and the only one at New York Power Station before a Bowie-requested sojourn, then resuming in London) and makes for an effective album closer. Bowie now brings a calmer and certain world-weariness with him to this track and an air of resignation, and finally the sound of tape flapping as the album closes. 7.5


VERDICT: There’s a reason why every single Bowie album since 1987 has come with the tiresome caveat ‘the best album since Scary Monsters’. This nervy sweeping rock-opus is his last truly excellent album and an extremely well crafted and highly experimental one at that. The songs were written well before going into the studio, and possess one of the best first sides in the Bowie cannon. It’s his last with the Alomar/Murray/Davis lineup, and (for some time) producer Tony Visconti, but sees a triumphant return of Robert Fripp (“Heroes”) and Roy Bitton (Station to Station). This album was incredibly well received upon it’s release, and it’s easy to see why. Very much a song orientated album, it was a return to the more conventional song structure and pop sound, and it is absolutely amazing how impeccable the album sounds (for an album released 30 years ago) particularly when listened to alongside some of it’s contemporaries (eg: stinkers like Iggy Pop’s Soldier, Lou Reed’s Growing Up in Public or Roxy Music’s Flesh & Blood). This is the perfect album to close out the 70s and his brilliant career with RCA (then onto EMI) up to that point (even the superb backward-looking album sleeve suggests as such), also has some interesting outtakes from the sessions including a stripped bare Plastic Ono Band-esque Space Oddity (10.0), a remake of Panic In Detroit (6.5), the oblique synth experiment Crystal Japan (8.5), and a slightly irritating cover of Bertold Brecht’s baroque Alabama Song (5.0).

NEXT: “Put on your red shoes…”